A Better Way to Think About Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Belts

At our little club in Iowa Park, TX, we’ve been talking a lot about standards and think it’s important for everyone to have a good idea about where they stand as far as skill goes and what you should be working on at each belt level. BJJ is hard and it can feel like you’re not getting any better for long stretches of time. But that’s the main reason it’s so good for you and so good for teaching you how to fight and for self defense. You test yourself daily against a resisting opponent who does not want you to do what you want to do. And that opponent is also getting better everyday. This is powerful stuff.

So with all that said, here are my thoughts on what you should be working on at each belt level. Thanks very much to John Valentine for his input and for helping me refine some of my ideas on this. If you ever get a chance to train with John, you should jump on the opportunity.

You’ll notice that there are no specific techniques listed (arm bar, triangle, kimura, etc). As you get better and master the components of grappling, you can learn and apply any technique you see. The submissions are actually the least important part of learning BJJ. Position, posture, and control of your opponent are far more important and will determine whether or not you can actually make a submission happen. 

Foundational Components of Grappling – Base, Defense, Attack, Pressure, Connection 

Base – posture, balance, position

Defense – survival, escape, reverses

Attack – sweeps, control of opponents, setups

Connection – purposeful use of limbs, attachments, and grips

Pressure – active control of an opponent using movement, position, and head control

Proficiencies at each belt to be considered for the next belt. 

White Belt

  • Base 
    • Stable 
    • Maintaining/regaining posture, balance and re-establishing base
  • Defense 
    • Survival position
    • Re-establishing neutral
  • Attack
    • Effectively threatens guard pass
    • Holding dominant position
  • Connection
    • Foundational understanding of using frames and attachments to hold space or position. 
  • Pressure
    • Foundational understanding of creating push/pull energies, head control, and leverage

White belts are ready for promotion to blue belt when they: 

  1. Are able to consistently create and maintain a stable base. When their base is disrupted, they are able to re-establish their base. Higher belts have to set up sweeps and intentionally disrupt posture to advance position. 
  2. Consistently set up a structurally strong survival position when passed, taken down, or otherwise in a compromised position. They exhibit an understanding of how to create space off the survival position and consistently work toward re-establishing a neutral position. Higher belts have to set up submissions, attempt to break down their survival position to get submissions, and have to work to maintain dominant positioning. 
  3. Are able to threaten guard passing effectively on higher belts and pose a reasonable risk of being able to successfully pass. 
  4. Are able to hold dominant positions once established. 

This is relatively simple, but getting these concepts down and natural in live rolling takes LOTS of hours on the mats. You’ll be a white belt for about two years with consistent training.

Blue Belt

  • Base 
    • Mobile base 
    • Re-establish lost position/posture
    • Grips
  • Defense 
    • Create space
    • Hold space
    • Escapes and reverses
  • Attack
    • Uses grips effectively
    • Flows between dominant positions
    • Effectively threatens sweeps
  • Connection
    • Grips, frames, attachments to the opponent transition smoothly
    • Feet and hands are used effectively and consistently in all positions 
  • Pressure
    • Uses weight, movement, and head control to disrupt an opponent’s posture and position
    • Maintains active use of hip position, chest, and head pressure

Blue belts are ready for promotion to purple belt when they: 

  1. Are able to maintain a structurally strong base in any position while maintaining mobility. They use grips effectively to maintain and improve posture and position. Their base is mobile and reacts naturally to attempts at disruption. 
  2. Are able to consistently create space using hip and shoulder movement, proper positioning, and the use of structurally strong frames. They are able to create and recognize opportunities for escape from bad positions and reversing to dominant positions. They understand which grips are dominant in any given position and prioritize the most dangerous aspect of a given position. 
  3. Use grips in combination with dominant positioning to threaten submissions and sweeps. 
  4. Are able to flow between dominant positions. 

Purple Belt

  • Base 
    • Manipulation of opponent’s posture/position
    • De-base opponents
    • Building a base off single attachments
  • Defense 
    • Strong structural defense in any position
    • Consistently reverses to dominant positions
  • Attack
    • Effectively attacks from all positions (dominant and neutral)
    • Forces mistakes and creates opportunities through positioning, movement, and combinations of attacks
  • Connection
    • Constant, effective connection to opponent using frames, attachments, and grips
    • Maintains active use of all limbs in all position as a fundamental aspect of manipulating opponent’s posture and position, and to build effective attacks and defense
  • Pressure
    • Uses pressure to control an opponent and create opportunities to advance position or attack.
    • Pressure in all positions, using movement, limbs, and head to create push or pull at every point of connection

Purple belts are ready for promotion to brown belt when they: 

  1. Are able to consistently manipulate an opponent’s posture and position using good timing and movement. They can effectively take an opponent’s base using position and leverage. They understand the progressive nature of building a base and can do so off of a single attachment to the opponent. 
  2. Are able to flow between defense and offense. The threat of reversing an opponent is always present. 
  3. Can threaten submissions and sweeps from any position. They are able to create opportunities for submissions, sweeps, and reversals using posture, positioning, movement, and leverage. They force mistakes from their opponents consistently.

My opinion on what’s going on at the brown belt and black belt level is probably largely irrelevant, but I think most will agree that the foundations of Jiu Jitsu are learned and refined from white to purple belt. The journey beyond purple belt entails further integrating the foundational components of grappling and developing your own style of Jiu Jitsu.

These concepts are ones I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and they are things I would have liked to have understood much earlier in my time as a practitioner and coach. I hope you find them useful.

Learn to Fight – The Clinch for Beginners

One of the best things you can do if you’re just starting out training or if you’re looking for a way to integrate your martial arts with self defense is to learn or improve your clinch. There are some distinct advantages to learning the clinch first, before sparring with strikes or when first learning grappling.

Training the clinch teaches you about balance, space, and pressure. It teaches you to use leverage, timing, and precision. And most important of all, working on the clinch gets you comfortable with working at a very uncomfortable range. If a smaller person can use position and leverage to make himself “heavier” or harder to deal with, that person can use his strikes, weapons, or make decisions during a fight about what to do next while operating confidently in a range that most people ignore. Most fight training consists of either striking or grappling with the idea that you can only devote significant attention to one or the other. Starting with the clinch forces you to learn range and position that allows you to expand outward into effective striking and grappling easier than if you were to start with either one individually. If you’re serious about learning to fight, you’ll have to learn all ranges and the best place to start is in the clinch. A guy with a good clinch can learn to strike fairly easily and a guy with a good clinch can be taught takedowns and groundfighting much easier since the context is already ingrained.

For self defense purposes, fights are won and lost in the clinch. If you are attacked and you successfully defend the ambush, you will be in a clinch situation. Nobody attacks another individual and then runs away after a single successful defense by the person being attacked. A clinch fight should be assumed and prepared for. This is especially important if you carry weapons since attempting to access a weapon at the wrong time could lead to it being used on you. You will also recognize your opponent accessing a weapon earlier and you may be able to prevent your opponent’s access.

In this series of videos, I take you through a progression to get you started with some fundamental Greco-Roman wrestling techniques that should form the basis of your clinch. They can be learned and then used as a warmup for training session, as a starting point for stand-up sparring or for practicing entangled weapons access, or as a base for learning takedowns. Grab a partner and give these a shot.

Balancing BJJ and Starting Strength

We’ve spent a bunch of time and typed many words talking about why getting stronger is important for grapplers. I won’t rehash the arguments much here, but BJJ is no different than any other sport. Unless your sport is strictly endurance based (and BJJ is not, I promise), then dedicating time throughout the year to getting stronger should always be part of your life. After achieving even a base level of skill and experience, there is nothing you can do during a given period of time that will improve your performance more than getting stronger during that same time period. 

According to the Two Factor Model of Sports Performance, the skill curve goes to the “intermediate” level much quicker than the strength curve does, especially if you’ve never gone through the process of getting strong. Since strength affects all of the relevant performance characteristics positively, even if skill remains the same, strength training has the potential to increase performance faster than more mat time. A stronger you is better able to hold positions, more efficiently move yourself and move others, and get less tired doing it. A less tired you is a more technical you. And a more technical you is a better BJJ player than a less technical you. 

Brazilian JiuJitsu has gotten very popular over the last five years and we’ve got a handful of BJJ folks at every seminar now. One of the more common questions, and the point of this article, is “How do you balance BJJ and strength training?” Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, folks, but the answer is that you don’t. People are always looking for a way to optimize a suboptimal situation and that is the underlying gist of every programming question, and most of the Q&A questions that we get. You want to know how to not do The Program and still do The Program. It’s very simple. If you’re doing BJJ and The Starting Strength Linear Progression at the same time, You are Not Doing The Program. And that may be okay for you. It’s cool with me. Maybe even Rippetoe’s okay with it. 

To clarify, If we were to take the argument to its logical conclusion: you could spend all of your training time getting strong and you would be optimizing your strength. Alternatively, you can spend all of your training time on the mats, doing two-a-days and gaining as much BJJ skill as you can. The fact that you’re doing both at the same time creates a suboptimal situation for both activities and there are always tradeoffs to take into account. These are extremes, though, and not realistic since there are other factors to consider including recovery, work, kids, sleep, and other life stuff. 

So let’s talk about the tradeoffs for a moment. Since we already agree that strength improves your grappling, makes you more resistant to injury, and makes things easier, you already agree that the tradeoff of giving up some time that could have been spent on the mat rolling and instead getting under a bar is worthwhile. But there is no way to run The Program optimally while you’re spending 2,3, or 5 days rolling. You cannot balance the two because they’re not parts of the same equation, they are separate equations that compliment each other. Two Factors, not one. So it’s a matter of priority. Just like in any other sport, there will be times during the year in which you are going to be focused on getting strong as your priority and there will be times during the year in which you will be focused on your skill as your priority. The two things become more and more delineated the longer you’ve been doing them, mostly when you start competing in either a strength sport or in BJJ tournaments. 

So, how about some practical advice that takes my argument into account? If you’re a novice lifter and new at BJJ, do both. You need to be in the weight room 3 days per week and you need to make sure you’re recovering adequately by eating and sleeping enough to support your training and your BJJ practice. You will make programming changes sooner than you would if you were only lifting, but remember that you’ve already decided that this tradeoff is worthwhile. Keep the focus on adding weight to the bar in an appropriate timeframe and recovering while getting better and less spazzy at Jiu Jitsu. 

If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter getting into BJJ for the first time, modify your training to account for the added stress. Usually less sets and higher intensities are the first changes to make. Lift heavy, for lower volume. Squat twice a week, one heavy, one light, pull heavy once a week, and generally follow your pressing programming without much modification. Starting Jiu Jitsu will make you sore and tired in a different way than lifting, so frequency may be reduced at first. Once you’re no longer sore, get back into training normally. As your skill improves, you will periodize your training, planning backwards from competition, PRs, or whatever else you have going on. 

If you’re an experienced grappler starting strength training for the first time, you will just start doing The Program. You are already adapted to the stresses inherent to grappling, and are able to adjust the “intensity” of your roles on the mat to account for the extra stress you’re exposed to from lifting. As a novice lifter who’s trying to get stronger, doing the program and adequate food and sleep are your priorities. The experienced grappler will notice the most gain on the mat from strength training since he’s already developed the skill and he can appreciate the obvious and inevitable performance improvement in day to day rolling. 

If you’re going to do athletic things, you need to consider the Two Factor Model of Sports Performance. Athletes train for strength and practice their sport and things will always be unbalanced in one direction or the other. Get through the novice phase of your strength training and figure out when you should be prioritizing training and when you should be prioritizing practice. You’ll always do both for the rest of your life, so your job is to figure out what and when you should be training and when you should be practicing and adjust accordingly.