Training Outline for BJJ White Belts

In the last article I discussed a few ways to be a good BJJ training partner.  In this edition, I will offer a few suggestions on how to get the most out of your own training, in particular if you are in your first couple years.

Since training time is limited for most people, it is important to prioritize what you practice, since there just isn’t time to do it all.  In my opinion, most beginners (let’s say two years or less experience) should spend most of their time repping out fundamental escapes, takedowns, sweeps and passes.  The tough part with this is that it takes a fair bit of discipline to stay focused on the basics while knowing there is lots of “shiny new stuff” you haven’t learned yet.  The reality, however, is that you will NEVER know it all, and it is incredibly unrealistic to ever expect to.  To me, a more productive perspective is to value how far the fundamentals will take you, or, as many coaches will say, “be brilliant at the basics.”

Let’s look at some examples from other sports for comparison.  If you are a pitcher in baseball, you won’t make it very far by trying to learn every type of pitch out there.  Most high-level pitchers have at most three pitches (fastball, change up, curveball), some only two (fastball, slider).  The difference is they have spent countless hours mastering those two or three pitches that they do use.

Another example is boxing, which may seem more relevant to Jiu Jitsu since it is also a combat sport.  In boxing you basically throw straights, hooks and uppercuts, and that is about it.  In theory, someone could walk into a boxing gym for the first time, take a lesson for a couple hours with the coach, and walk away “knowing” all the same punches as Mike Tyson.  Obviously they are nowhere near Tyson’s level, and it would take years and years of refining those three punches (and their combinations) to get anywhere close.  So, it’s not necessarily what you know, but more importantly it is how proficient are you at executing what you do know under high stress that really counts.

So, how does that all relate to Jiu Jitsu?  Well, with BJJ there are so many different techniques it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to learn all of them.  Over the course of many years, of course, you want to accrue many of them.  However, in your first couple years, I believe you’ll be best served to get as good as possible at a much smaller array of basics – escapes, takedowns, passes and sweeps.  Obviously you’ll need to learn a few submissions to go along with it, but they don’t need to be fancy of sneaky, nor do you need very many of them.  You still see armbars, triangles and bow-and-arrow chokes at the World Championships … if they’re good enough for those on the podium, they are good enough for all of us. 

Rather than feeling like you need to learn a submission option from every position imaginable, I challenge you to take a different approach.  I challenge you to prioritize your positional advancement over all else.  What does that entail?  You need to really understand A) where are you, B) where do you want to be, and C) how do you get from A to B?  If you ask me, if you are trying to apply a submission lock, then A and B are the same – meaning you ARE where you want to be, and there would be minimal benefit to improving your position.  On the flip side, if there were a position that would be more dominant/beneficial to you, then your priority should be to GET THERE. 

Let’s look at a couple specific examples of that.  Let’s say you are in half guard, top position.  Could you submit your opponent from there?  Possibly.  You may be able to do a D’Arce choke, a kimura, or something else.  However, in my opinion, and I think most coaches will agree, you have many more options at your disposal, all with better risk:reward ratios, if you pass their guard first, and get to side control, mount, or the back, and THEN try to go for a submission lock. 

Here is another example: let’s imagine you ONLY know two submissions: an armbar from mount and a bow-and-arrow choke from the back.  While it could be easy for someone to get discouraged and feel like they don’t know enough submissions to win, I would wholeheartedly disagree.  If the grappler in our example is able to GET TO those two positions (mount or the back), then he/she has ample opportunity to apply a lock and win.  The real issue, then, is not how many submissions you know, it is knowing (and being able to) GET TO the positions where you DO know submissions and can apply them.  To bring the discussion full circle, what our grappler really needs to work on then, is his/her ability to takedown and pass, or to sweep from guard in order to wind up in the top, dominant position.

So, then where do you start?  Obviously that is quite a big question to tackle, but here is starting point for you to consider, and something of a checklist.  Before I share it, I can’t emphasize enough, just “knowing” (ie being exposed to and drilling for 5 reps x 2 sets) is NOT enough to make these useful against a resisting opponent.  You need LOTS of practice at varying levels of resistance (none, moderate, full) on all these to actually make them useful.   With that said, I strongly encourage you grapplers in your first couple years to prioritize your free training time on the following items: 

·      Escapes.  Odds are that you’ll be in more bad positions than good ones when you start, so you need to improve your ability to get out.  Make sure you have at least one, if not two options to get out of the following:

o   Side control bottom

o   Mount bottom

o   Back control

·      Takedowns.  Matches start on the feet, and you need to know how to improve your position from there.  I suggest you get good enough at two takedowns to feel confident doing both of them against a resisting opponent.  Many great wrestlers and judokas even have just one “go to” technique that they use over and over again.

·      Breaking closed guard.  This can be one of the most frustrating parts of Jiu Jitsu, especially if your opponent has a good closed guard.  Take the time to get skilled at opening the legs, otherwise you’ll never even be able to start a pass.  Considering how important this is, I believe it is underemphasized in training, and most new grapplers would really stand to benefit from improving this area.

·      Once you have the guard open, solidify one or two passes you feel good with.  Personally, I have one “standing” pass I use, and one “low” pass, and that is about it.  I have just developed both of those to the point where they work for me the majority of the time.  You can make passing the guard as complicated as you want it to be, but at the end of the day it is competence in one or two passes that will get the job done.

·      Develop a series of sweeps/submissions from guard bottom.  These need not be fancy, but a simple array of an armbar, triangle choke, flower sweep and scissor sweep with take you a long, long way.

So, there you go.  Twelve items (3 escapes + 2 takedowns + 1 guard break + 2 guard passes + 2 sweeps + 2 submissions from guard = 12) to get as good at as possible in your first few years of BJJ.  Obviously you’ll throw in some “fun” or “fancy” stuff from time to time, but make sure that is the side dish and not the main course.  Unfortunately getting good at most things is not a fancy or glamorous process, it is simply a matter of focus, consistency, and hard work to improve the fundamentals.  So, stay diligent, train with purpose, and watch your game grow immensely!

- Tony Gracia, Head Coach