Inverted Gear Blog
Want to try BJJ but don’t know where to start? New at a BJJ school and struggling to survive the first 6 months? I’m going to lay out a quick and dirty, no frills survival guide for you.
Let’s start by assuming you’re not training yet. You probably like watching MMA and have the idea that training BJJ could be cool. Google BJJ gyms in your area and ask on BJJ forums online for good schools to try out. Fill out whatever “take a free trial class” form the school has on their website or call them to schedule a time to go in.
Stop making excuses like "I want to get in shape first." Nothing gets you ready for BJJ except doing BJJ. (Watching Youtube videos and trying them on your annoyed girlfriend doesn't count.)
Should you do gi or no-gi? This is irrelevant at this point. Find the best gym in your area and do whatever they offer. Eventually you should train whichever one you like more (or the best option: doing both) but don't act like you can't train under a gi-only instructor when your dream is to be a "em em ay" fighter.
Time to take your first class. Wear athletic shorts with a strong drawstring (and no pockets) and a t-shirt you don't mind getting stretched out and ruined. You may be given a loaner gi to wear.
You should also bring a change of clothes and a gym towel unless you want to drive home all sweaty. Bring a bottle of water too.
Bring flipflops to wear into the bathroom. Don’t walk barefoot to the toilet. And don’t wear shoes on the mats.
Show up a little early to meet the instructor, sign a waiver, and check out the space.
When class starts, pay attention, follow instructions and just try to do whatever everyone else is doing. You will likely be barely able to follow along and this is normal.
The class will probably go like this:
- Warm-ups like running laps and basic BJJ movements
- Learn and drill 2-3 techniques (you may get your own special first lesson at this point)
- Maybe “live” drilling and sparring (not all gyms let people spar on day one)
If you get paired up with a student you don’t know, don't worry about "wasting their time" because you're a clueless white belt. Everyone has to help everyone, and if you're eager to practice and learn, no matter how awful you are, then you aren't wasting their time.
Sparring time. Watching MMA might make you feel like you've got half a clue but there is an ocean of difference between watching and doing. If you ever saw someone tap to a "lucky" choke or armbar in MMA and thought "Why did he tap!? I wouldn't have tapped!", now is your time to find out why yes, he really did need to tap to that.
If you "almost get" a colored belt with a move, they let you and they are just being nice to the new white belt.
How to not make enemies on your first day:
- Don't pick anyone up and slam them down.
- Don't try to break anyone’s legs or feet.
- Don't just squeeze heads and crank on necks.
- Try not to spaz too hard.
- Don't brag about anything.
You are allowed to spaz a little because you are a white belt and no one expects any better out of you. But you should work to replace spazzing with real technique as you train more.
This class will be a blur and you will likely forget everything you learned. That's normal. It takes seeing and practicing techniques many times over many years to really get them.
As you roll out of bed the following morning you will likely be aware of muscles that you never knew existed before as they scream at you. That means you did it right.
Repeat this “first class” process for all the good gyms in your area then sign up at your favorite place.
The best way to deal with issues like anxiety, feeling stupid, being out of shape, etc. is to realize that everyone (except genetic freaks) went through this too, so you’re not unique and alone in this, so stop worrying about it. You don't know this stuff yet and that's why you are here to learn.
Claustrophobic? Prepare to take confront your fears head on. This phobia will go away as you get exposed to it and learn what to do.
If you smoke, quit now. It's bad for you, it's bad for your BJJ, and you smell awful to your training partners who can't avoid breathing in your musk.
Getting nasty mat burn on your feet? You can try a product called Nu Skin to help out, it's like a clear nail polish for abrasions, but be warned it stings like a red hot poker. Ultimately, your best answer will be calluses (same goes for playing guitar.)
Finishing your first month. Most people don't even take a second class, so you're doing better than most people. But most people also don't finish 6 months or a year, so you're not better than them by much.
Time to get into a steady rhythm. Keep coming to classes. Be eager to learn and drill and don't be afraid to ask questions.
How many times a week should you train? Work up to at least 3 times per week as soon as your body can handle it. Here's a rough guide to classes per week:
Finishing the first 6 months. Your body is probably getting into much better shape than when you started. You should take a look at your diet and sleep habits and try to improve them. This is good for your health and your BJJ and will even help prevent overtraining injuries.
Ready for your first tournament? Of course not. But do one anyway. Everyone should try it at least once. You will probably be very nervous. That is normal. The only way to overcome this anxiety is to compete so much you get over it. Unfortunately that's not a possible solution for your first competition.
Competing as a white belt is good too because the pressure to perform and "prove your belt" is much worse once your belt has a color. No one expects anything impressive out of a white belt so you are free suck and no one will hold it against you (except Youtube comments on your tournament video.)
I would tell you to not focus too much about getting your blue belt and you will likely say you don't really care about your belt. But I also know you're probably secretly coveting it anyway.
What you should be working on as a white belt:
- Regular attendance. This is the most important skill you can have because I could leave the rest of this list empty and you'd still get better by going to the gym.
- Getting in shape. You need to be able to handle a whole class from start to finish and never quit sparring because you're tired.
- Remembering techniques. Drill a lot and maybe keep a written journal.
- Defense and escapes. As a beginner you will spend most of your time in bad spots so naturally this is the main area to improve your technical performance.
Keep that up and you'll get better and eventually earn your blue belt.
One last piece of advice: Don't teach anyone anything as a white belt. Don't try to coach other white belts.
This is harsh and it will make you sad when you are sure you really know the technique, but as an instructor I have seen too many white belts eagerly teach the wrong thing without knowing it. Just ask the instructor to come and check things out. It is not a problem. That is our job.
Looking for more advice? Check out Advice for Newbie White Belts and Anxious Blue Belts. I've also written for blue to purple belts and browns belt on their way to black.
My friend Reilly Bodycomb won the Sambo US Nationals a few weeks ago. One of the perks for winning was securing a spot on the US team at the Panamerican and World tournaments.
The Panamerican was held in Paraguay this year. Since Reilly doesn't speak much Spanish besides asking for a cold Coca-cola, he asked me to come along to be his translator and guide. I've always been intrigued by the idea of going to a large sambo tournament, and I had never visited Paraguay, so after some planning, I booked two flights out of JFK and we were off in an adventure.
After nearly missing our flight (since we were too busy playing Magic: The Gathering to hear that our gate had change), we made it to Sao Paulo for a short layover, then we were on our way to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.
Asuncion was an interesting place. Their currency is the guarani, and it took a bit to get used to local prices because $1 USD equals 5580 guarani. Thankfully, most places accept dollars, but the locals are strangely obsessed with any imperfections on the bills. Any rips, stamps, or writing on the bills were deemed unacceptable. This made the line for arrival visas pretty long as custom agents shared this same dollar bill obsession.
After clearing customs, we met representatives from the Chilean and Mexican sambo federations at the airport. We shared a bus that had been arranged by FIAS and made our way to the hotel, where we were greeted by a giant sambo banner in the hotel lobby.
After checking in, we did a bit of exploring around town. We quickly learned that Paraguayan drivers don't slow down for anything, so crossing the street became an exercise in survival.
One of the first things we noticed was the popularity of terere, the herbal drink (not the BJJ black belt.) Downtown had a vendor at just about every corner who would prepare the mate tea with some extra local herbs.
Bundles of medicinals herbs, or yuyos as the locals called them, are added to cold water and put in thermos to cool, then this ice cold concoction is poured into a container with mate tea with a straw that's used to sift the solids. It seemed that 3 out of 5 people were drinking this at any time of day.
As the rest of the US team arrived, something became clear: I was the only Spanish speaker traveling with them. Since most hotel staff do not speak English, Spanish became my superpower and my burden as I became the unofficial team translator.
Friday night I was able to escape from my translating duties and sneak out to Checkmat Paraguay. Profe Guillermo Hansen has an awesome set up on top of a lifting gym. On Fridays the various Checkmat affiliates in the area get together for an open mat. I was greeted by a mixed group, and was surprised by the high level of the room. A few of the lower belts and many of the upper belts had an impressive understanding of the bearimbolo/crab ride game. After defending my back for about an hour, we took a picture and I was given a ride back to my hotel by a local purple belt, but not before enjoying some post-training terere.
The sambo tournament began on Saturday morning. Team USA had some hard fought wins and few team members made it to the finals. For some strange reason, the finals weren't until after the opening ceremonies, which were held in the middle of the tournament. During the ceremonies you got to see the 22 countries that sent delegations to the tournament, which was very impressive. Reilly and the rest of the athletes weighed in around this time, then we headed home for the day.
On Sunday, Reilly competed and put on an impressive display of groundwork, winning with three submissions in three matches: armbar, ankle lock, and armbar. It was great to see my friend fulfill one of his goals. It was also amazing meeting the rest of the team and cheering them on as they won their respective divisions. Team USA won the team title for the men and took third in the female divisions. There were some amazing matches, and I highly recommend you check out the feed from FIAS once it becomes available. Reilly is working on a Team USA highlight as well.
After the tournament ended, we walked to beautiful steak house to celebrate. Since none of the waiters spoke English, my superpower was called upon yet again as I was tasked with ordering for 20 people. I was able to manage it and many a steak were had.
Monday morning we traveled home. On the plane ride I got to thinking about how amazing it would be to see a similar set up for a jiu-jitsu tournament: all the Panamerican countries represented by one athlete in each division, at a tournament held in a different country each year. This would be great for the development of BJJ in South America. Contrary to common belief, BJJ in South America is still in its infancy outside of Brazil. Most countries only have a handful of black belts, and many academies are run by lower belts. Maybe one day we will see a tournament set up this way. I'll be the first one on the plane to it if we do.
Training was going great. You finally crushed the plateau in your progress and the three or four techniques that you had been working on were finally coming together. You felt sharp and strong. You were anticipating counters and slipping out of attacks with a whole new level of style and efficiency.
And then you got hurt.
Jiu-jitsu injuries come in all shapes and varieties, from bumps and bruises to broken bones and torn ligaments. As far as big injuries go, knee, shoulder, and back injuries seem to be the most common. If you suffer a setback to one of those areas, you’re probably in for a good bit of time on the bench, ranging from two months to a year. For a passionate jiu-jiteiro, prescribed downtime like this sounds like a death sentence. Things were going so well, and now you have to sit out. Worse yet, all of your training partners will make progress while you’re gone, so not only are you not improving, you feel as though you are falling behind at a rapid clip.
I’ve had a lot of practice with sitting out for injuries, and I’ve come up with a few ways to pass the downtime productively. Here are my suggestions:
Recovery must be your top priority. This should go without saying, but for as intellectually challenging jiu-jitsu can be, it can also make us really dumb when it comes to our own health. No matter how badly you want to train or how much you think you can come back a few weeks early and just “go easy” (yeah, right), you have to give your body the healing time it needs. Listen to your doctor. An extra month of sitting still now is better than a re-injury and six months of starting over later.
Visit the gym, or don’t. I have training partners that are dedicated students of the sport. If they get hurt, their training schedule doesn’t change. They come to the gym and watch. They take notes. They ask questions. Even if their bodies keep them off the mat, their minds are still present. I am not one of those people. If I can’t train, being in the gym is a special kind of torture. At the same time, it starts to give me crazy ideas like “maybe just a little bit of drilling…” I don’t like to leave me training partners behind for long periods of time, but going cold turkey is the only way to keep me sane and healthy. Have a hard conversation with yourself and figure out where you fall on this particular challenge.
Mental exercise still counts. Matt Kirtley just wrote a great article on purely mental training that you can do away from the mat, and all of those tips apply to injury downtime as well. For me, I use downtime to dig into a new instructional topic or position that wasn’t a good fit for my on-the-mat training. I might never use it in my game, but the education of how the position works is still useful. I also map my game out with an instructor’s mindset. I ask myself “If I had to teach someone my game, how would I go about that?” This is good for keeping techniques fresh in my mind, but it also helps me identify holes to work on when I get back while giving me a map for what to drill in what order to shake off the rust.
Find a new hobby. Dwelling on your injury is not mentally healthy, and it could lead to you making some poor training decisions. If you know you have a big chunk of time away from the mat, do something that’s not jiu-jitsu. Read a new book series. Pick up a new skill like drawing or painting or playing an instrument. For me, a big part of my passion for jiu-jitsu comes from the mental challenge of learning and training, so it’s important that I find another place to get that sort of stimulation if I’m not able to train. It also keeps me from just being outright bored out of my skull.
- Use the buddy system. An injured jiu-jiteiro is historically not a very bright person. While you are in a place of mental clarity and are thinking like your adult self (as much of an adult as you can be; your results may vary), ask your most responsible training partner to hold you accountable for your recovery. That means doing the exercises that your doctor suggested and also taking your time easing back into training. I have a go-to training partner that has been with me through almost every major surgery in my life, and I respect him enough that I listen when he says, “Take it easy, dumb ass.” Having a person like that in your life can save you a lot of pain.
There’s no way around it: being injured sucks. If you follow my suggestions here—all of which are based on me making hard mistakes in my own training—your downtime should be less painful and perhaps even productive. Feel better soon, and we’ll see each other on the mats when you’re well.
We all want to spend more time on the mats, but inconvenient distractions like our jobs and families and so-called social lives get in the way. These 10 tips will give you ways to improve your BJJ even when you can’t get on the tatami.
1. Practice visualization.
Your mind is your most powerful asset. Harness the power of visualization to “practice” even when you can’t get to practice. You can do this in your free moments, like when you’re standing in the shower, laying in bed before you go to sleep, or when you’re doing that thing people call a job where you sit in front of a computer and look at Reddit 8 hours a day.
Try these guided visualizations:
- Try to recall the details of your last particularly tough round of sparring -- how it started, how it progressed, what problems you encountered, etc.
- What techniques did you learn last class? Pull up a mental image of the instructor. What did they say and how did they demonstrate it? Recall it word for word. How well did you perform it in drilling? What could you improve next time?
- Pick a technique you want to work on. Close your eyes and mentally put yourself into the situation to perform it. How do you move your limbs, where do you put your hands, when do you change grips? Imagine this from a first-person perspective. Do it again from third person.
Many competitors in and outside of BJJ make visualization part of their mental game for calming their nerves and focusing on positive outcomes. I’m no sports psychologist, but you can find many books on the subject if you want to go into the technique in more depth. Check Amazon or your local library.
2. Keep a training journal.
If you struggle with retention, my first piece of advice for that is to keep a training journal. After you train -- perhaps later that night or the next day -- write down or type up what you did in class. Use the same visualization cues I gave in the last tip, then write down what you “see.” The active recall it demands of you is more important than whatever ends up on the page. In fact, I can’t make much sense of my old notes, but they still helped me solidify the lessons in my mind at the time.
You may want to try taking notes during class too. Read “6 Tips for Taking Notes in Jiu-Jitsu” by Ayanthi Gunawardana for good advice on writing in a BJJ notebook.
3. Flowchart your gameplan.
Developing your grappling gameplan can take make a huge difference, especially if you’ve never done it before. This is practically a must for anyone at blue belt level (or soon to be) -- and doubly so for competitors.
I break gameplanning down into two main steps: 1) taking inventory and 2) mapping it out.
Here’s how you take inventory. For each position listed below, write down your best 1-3 techniques for when you’re on top. Then go back through and list 1-3 techniques for when you’re on the bottom
- Standing (takedowns)
- Rear mount
- Side control
- Half guard
- Open guard
- Closed guard
Did you have a solid technique or two for each position? If not, you know what to work on next.
Now that you’ve got your techniques “preloaded” into your mind, let’s map them out. Draw this out with bubbles and arrows.
Your match starts standing. What stance do you take? What grips do you seek? What takedowns do you initiate with? Where does that land you? What do you do there? And so on…
Run through the sequence again, but this time work on the what if’s -- what if your move gets countered this way, what if they escape that way, what if you get your guard passed, etc.
Cycle through that process until you’ve built out a comprehensive gameplan. You don’t need to plan for every possibility, but you want to know your “A game” and how to recover to it when things go wrong.
4. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses.
While you’ve got that journal open, why not go introspective. Honestly appraise yourself and look at your strengths and weaknesses. Rate yourself in these categories:
- Escapes and defenses
- Takedowns and takedown defense
- Guard (closed, open, half, sweeps, pass prevention)
- Pass passing (opening the guard, passing specific open guards)
- Top game
- Back attacks
- Learning speed and knowledge retention
- Strategic thinking
- Determination, heart, grit
- Composure (overcoming nervousness and performance anxiety)
Your ego may sting after a harsh look at yourself, but it’s all in the name of self-growth. The insights you gain here will help you steer your training and study in the future.
5. Set goals.
Sometimes it can feel like you’re just spinning your wheels but not going anywhere in BJJ. What’s this all leading up to? Just another boring class, just another day showing up and not knowing what you’re really heading towards.
Goal setting can set you on a path where you feel you’re making real progress. Plateaus are easier to break through when you see how each day is getting you closer to your big picture goals.
Write down your answers to this:
- What big goals do you want to accomplish in the next 10 years?
- 5 years?
- 1 year?
- 6 months?
- 3 months?
- 1 month?
You can limit that list to just BJJ goals if you want, but if you’ve got big goals outside of BJJ too (like becoming a doctor, moving to a new country, etc.) you’ll probably want them all laid out together for the sake of logistics.
Once you have your big picture goals, work backwards to the medium level goals that will help you get there. Then down to the short term goals. Do they all support each other?
The idea here is to have long term goals that you feel very passionate about, then aligning your lower level goals so they point you in that direction. Achieving your lifetime goals will be the result of doing mundane things again and again over many days until those days add up into years, and those years into decades.
Nelson wrote a good article about his goal setting practice called “Your Jiu-Jitsu Report Card” and gives examples of realistic goals in “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu goals that do not involve becoming a world champion.” You can read my thoughts on how to reach your goals in “What Drives Success in BJJ.”
6. Study instructionals.
At no time in history has it been easier to learn from the world’s best BJJ teachers. You’ve got your pick of DVDs, membership sites, apps, streaming services, and ol’ faithful YouTube. The trouble is finding the right place to put your attention.
My advice is to narrow your focus. Pick a certain position or technique and research how the top competitors do it. You could also pick a specific competitor and examine their game. (More on this in the next tip.)
Thankfully there has been a trend in the BJJ instructional marketing to focus on specific guards or techniques, so you can focus your research into your particular interests. This is my favorite type of instructional. I just about fall asleep trying to watch “101 moves, BJJ from A-Z” DVDs these days. To shamelessly plug my instructional, Mastering the Crucifix, it is dedicated to a single topic -- that’s right, you guessed it -- the crucifix. (A birdie told me that Nelson may be releasing an instructional soon too…)
7. Analyze competition footage.
As with instructionals, you can find more competition footage than ever before. Rather than explain it all again, check out Marshal D. Carper’s article “Supplement Your Training with Competition Footage.” Pick your favorite competitors and channel your inner BJJ Scout!
8. Improve your health and strengthen your body.
Until VR gaming makes significant advances, you’re stuck doing BJJ with your flesh and bones body. That’s unfortunate because BJJ will wreck your joints over enough years of training and injuries. The best way to counter-act this is with a smart strength and conditioning routine.
The exact form it takes is up to you and your desired results. Perhaps refer to your physical weaknesses from the earlier self-analysis. You can’t go wrong sticking to the basics though. My main advice is to keep it simple and go for general health and strength to balance out the stresses BJJ puts on your joints.
9. Find fun complementary activities and sports.
This may be blasphemous to admit publicly, but it’s OK to do things other than BJJ. In fact, they can even help.
Many outdoor activities have crossovers to BJJ. They may develop grip strength, balance, coordination, breath control, and what people like to call “functional strength” (AKA being good at doing stuff with your body.) Examples: swimming, surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, trail running, bike riding, and more.
And God forbid you just do something besides BJJ because it’s fun.
10. Plug in to the hivemind.
Thanks to the internet, you can connect with grapplers from all over the world. If you have a problem or question, it’s likely someone else already did too, and you’re only a Google search away from the answer. If not, there are many good forums to ask your questions. For online BJJ discussion and news, the Inverted Gear team spends most of our time on Reddit’s /r/bjj, but many older BJJ/MMA message boards have built up communities.
Every week, /r/bjj runs a White Belt Wednesdays thread where no question is too stupid or basic, which is a good way to get dumb questions out of your system. You can write “/u/Aesopian” in anything you post over there to get my attention and I’ll come by to reply if I can help.
Those are my 10 best tips for improving your BJJ when you can’t do BJJ. Nothing replaces plain old mat time, but this gives you plenty to do when that’s not available.
Comment below with your tips if you've got ones to add!
I have been riding a bike everywhere in Copenhagen. I grew up riding a bike, rode around some in college, but I have probably ridden a bike twice in the last 6 years. When I jumped on my bike at the rental store, it was a bit rough at the beginning—figuring out my balance, where to put my weight, finding the exact right spot to sit on that weird seat. After a few minutes, though, I was cruising.
Copenhagen bike infrastructure is amazing. They have wide bike lanes and even dedicated street lights and turning lanes solely to bikers. Being back on the pedals got me thinking about bike riding and that classic analogy: X is like riding a bike.
Haven’t played your guitar in a while? Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bike.
Haven’t entered a Magic: The Gathering tournament in a while? Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bike.
Everything is like riding a bike, apparently, and I’ve heard people say the same about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
I have never taken a training lay off longer than two weeks—knock on wood—so I can’t speak to the part of the analogy about coming back to BJJ after being away for a while, but I think the idea of training wheels in jiu-jitsu could be a powerful training framework.
Training wheels simplify the balancing act of riding a bicycle so that you can work on other important tasks like generating forward momentum and steering. In jiu-jitsu, placing an emphasis on beginner’s learning closed guard is like handing them a set of training wheels. Your opponent mostly stays in place, you probably won’t get submitted, and you get to learn basic attacks that won’t get you completely destroyed (necessarily) if you fail.
Opening guard becomes that movie-magic milestone where you take the training wheels off and start coasting down the hill all by yourself. You might fall a few times, and it will take a lot of practice before you have the awareness to zip around town or hit a jump or mountain bike up a rocky trail, but the training wheels are off either way.
We build in restrictions in other aspects of jiu-jitsu for the sake of safety and learning. Under the traditional ruleset, the justification behind limiting leg attacks and other submissions is very much in line with installing training wheels. Even despite the growth in popularity of leg locks and new formats where leg locks are allowed for all levels, many schools to still frown on them. It's hard to disagree with the fact that leg locks add another layer of complexity to the ground game, but some would argue that just as we have “helicopter parents”—get your helmet, your knee pads, and your wrist guards, and don’t leave the driveway!—perhaps we have helicopter instructors that are doing more harm than good with this particular set of training wheels.
Takedowns, like leg locks, are often restricted with the thinking that it’s better for the student’s safety if they learn them later. So we avoid them by teaching students to simply sit down, and years later, some purple belts still avoid training takedowns because of how dangerous they can be, sometimes going as far as to suggest that pulling guard is a tactical decision on their part.
Well, of course your guard is stronger than your takedowns at that point.
Yes, takedowns add another layer of complexity to the game. You could learn Judo throws, Greco takedowns, or freestyle takedowns. That’s a lot to pick from.
We may be at a point in our sport where we rethink training wheels. Closed guard as a form of training wheels still means that you’re in guard, and your guard will eventually open regardless. You might not be pedaling down the street entirely on your own, but you’re still learning. Completely eliminating leg locks and takedowns doesn’t align with that philosophy. That, to me, is like learning to ride a bike by not touching the pedals. You’ll never make any progress because you aren’t actually doing anything.
Training wheels are useful tools, but we’ll never get to a fully evolved grappling infrastructure if our training wheels are so restrictive that less people end up riding bikes.