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What is BJJ? The Ultimate Guide

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, jiu jitsu, BJJ or the ‘gentle art’ as it’s commonly known is a grappling based martial art and combat sport that emphasizes ground control. Jiu Jitsu has really made a name for itself in the world of self-defense and mixed martial arts (MMA) in the past 3 decades.

What sets BJJ apart is its unique approach. It’s all about using leverage, grip, and strategic positioning to take control and outmaneuver opponents who might be bigger and stronger than you. But don’t think it’s all about brute force – BJJ is as much a mental game as it is physical. You need a solid understanding of how the human body works and its limitations.

BJJ is a complete self-defense system that covers everything from strikes and throws to stand-up techniques. It even includes strategies for dealing with weapon attacks or surprise assaults. You can practice it wearing a traditional uniform (known as a gi) or without one (no-gi). This holistic approach to self-defense is what makes BJJ such a popular choice for folks looking to learn martial arts.

History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

This martial art has come a long way and changed quite a bit over the years. It all started with traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu, taught to Carlos Gracie and his brothers by the master himself, Mitsuyo Maeda. The Gracie family, along with other key players like Luiz Franca and Mario Sperry, had a big hand in molding BJJ into what we know it as today. They shared their knowledge with family, students, and friends who then continued to grow and spread this unique art form.

How Master Mitsuyo Maeda Shaped BJJ

Master Mitsuyo Maeda was a famous judoka from Japan who moved to Brazil in the late 19th century. He played a huge part in kick-starting Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He started teaching and showing off jiu-jitsu and judo, which people didn’t see as separate disciplines back then. Among his first students were Carlos and Helio Gracie, and Luiz França – the very people who would go on to found BJJ. Maeda’s teachings had a profound impact on the evolution of BJJ, with his students enhancing existing techniques and inventing new ones.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu

Carlos, George, and Helio Gracie were key players in shaping BJJ. After their initial training with Master Mitsuyo Maeda, they set off on a journey to learn Kano Jiu-Jitsu (a style of judo) and catch wrestling under Orlando Americo “Dudú” da Silva’s watchful eye. Over time, the Gracie brothers laid the foundation for BJJ which was also known as Gracie Jiu Jitsu by perfecting their ground fighting skills and setting up martial arts academies. Notably, at just nineteen years old, Carlos moved to Rio de Janeiro and opened the first jiu-jitsu school.

How the Gracies Helped BJJ Flourish

The Gracie family played a huge part in both promoting and developing BJJ. Despite being physically frail, Carlos Gracie used jiu-jitsu not just as a fighting technique but also as a tool for personal growth. He taught classes, took part in fights, and demonstrated the effectiveness of this art by beating opponents who were physically stronger than him. His hard work paid off when he established the “Academia Gracie de Jiu-Jitsu” in 1925 – a significant event in BJJ history. The dedication of the Gracie family has been key in shaping BJJ into the respected martial art it is today.


Helio Gracie

The first Gracie Jiu-Jitsu academy was established in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 1940s by Helio Gracie and his brothers. The “Gracie Challenge,” an open invitation for fighters of any style to compete against them, generally in no-holds-barred contests, served as a means by which the Gracie family marketed their art.  Helio Gracie’s successes over bigger and more powerful opponents contributed to the reputation of BJJ as a powerful martial art.

1970s to 1980s

BJJ contests began to become more structured in the 1970s and 1980s.  With the emphasis on ground combat shifting in the regulations, winners were rewarded for securing dominating positions and submits.  Moreover, around this time, the first federations for planning and managing BJJ contests were established.  The Gracie family introduced BJJ to America and Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the middle of the 1980s.  One of Helio Gracie’s sons, Rorion, started instructing BJJ in his Southern California garage.


On a worldwide scale, the 1990s marked a turning moment for BJJ.  Rorion Gracie co-founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993 as a venue to demonstrate BJJ’s usefulness.  Three of the first four UFC competitions were won by his younger brother, Royce Gracie, solidifying BJJ’s standing across the world. The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), which was established in 1994, contributed to the promotion of the sport and the standardization of regulations.

2000s and Later

Jiu Jitsu’s popularity has increased steadily since 2000 all around the world.  It has grown in popularity as a stand-alone sport and has become an essential part of mixed martial arts training.  The World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Pan American Championship, and European Championship are just a few of the BJJ tournaments and events that have taken place all over the world. New methods, postures, and tactics have continued to be created as the art has evolved.  Modern BJJ positions like the berimbolo and worm guard become more prevalent in the 2010s.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Fighting Style

BJJ really stands out because of its focus on ground combat. Jiu Jitsu teaches you to control an opponent who’s resisting, and then guide them into submission. This control is often easier to achieve when you’re on the ground, which is why BJJ puts a lot of emphasis on takedowns and ground wrestling. But BJJ isn’t just about brute force; it’s about turning your opponent’s strength against them. It shows you how to use the right grip and positioning to outmaneuver opponents who might be bigger or stronger than you. This deep insight into how the human body works and its limitations is what sets BJJ apart from other martial arts. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners generally have two styles of BJJ to practice.

Training in a Jiu-Jitsu Gi

BJJ Gi and Belt

Gi jiu jitsu training plays a big role in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When you’re doing Gi training, you’ll wear a traditional uniform called, as you may have guessed, a gi. This uniform opens up a whole range of grips that you can use to control or submit your opponent. Gi training is often used in competitions, but it’s also effective in real-world street fighting scenarios. It’s worth mentioning that any good BJJ instructor should be well-versed in all aspects of the art, including Gi training.

Read More: Gi vs No Gi

BJJ rashguard

Training without a Jiu-Jitsu Gi (No-Gi)

No-Gi jiu jitsu training is another key part of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Unlike Gi training, No-Gi jiu jitsu doesn’t involve wearing the traditional uniform but instead a rashguard or some sort of athletic wear. This style of training puts more emphasis on controlling your opponent’s body, as there are fewer grips available without the gi. No-Gi training tends to be more dynamic and fast-paced than Gi training. It’s also seen as more relevant to real-life self-defense situations because it doesn’t depend on having a gi. Whether you decide to train in Gi or No-Gi, both styles will teach you valuable skills and techniques that will enrich your BJJ experience.

Getting to Know Basic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Positions

If you’re keen on stepping up your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) game, getting a solid grasp of the basic positions is a must. These positions are your secret weapon, giving you the upper hand to control your opponent and launch various attacks.

The Back Take

Let’s start with the back take position, or as some call it, “back mount” or “back control.” This is a power move in BJJ. It’s all about using the right grips and hooks to take charge of your opponent’s back. You can get into this position from several others, like the turtle and Dela Riva guard. Once you’ve got the back take position down, you’re in prime territory for a range of submissions and transitions, including chokes and arm-locks.

Royce Gracie demonstrates a back take

Full Mount

Next up is the full mount position, another cornerstone in BJJ. It’s considered second only to back control in terms of dominance. You can reach full mount from other positions such as side control and knee-on-belly. This position opens up a whole world of submissions and transitions for you, including chokes, armbar, and kimura lock. Plus, you can experiment with different mounting options like the high mount, S-mount, or low mount.

Closed Guard

Example of a closed guard in competition

Then there’s the closed guard or “full guard,” a fundamental guard position in BJJ. Here, you’ll be wrapping your legs around your opponent’s waist. From this spot, you can pull off a variety of submissions and sweeps. But if you’re on top, things get trickier. You’ll need to adjust your posture and work on breaking the closed guard to secure a better position.

Side Control

Another crucial position in BJJ is side control, commonly referred to as “side mount.” You are lying over your opponent’s chest in this posture, perpendicular to them, with your weight evenly distributed to keep them pinned. From this, a number of submissions, like the Americana, Kimura, or arm triangles, can be performed. Mount or the back are all possible transitions. The objective is to escape or regain guard if you are the one being controlled, on the other hand. To get back into a better position, you’ll need to make room, shield your arms, and intelligently use your hips.

Half Guard

The half guard is a go-to position for many BJJ fighters. It happens when the bottom player slips one leg between the top opponent’s legs. This position sets up various submissions or transitions but remember to set up proper frames to avoid getting squashed.

Butterfly Guard

Finally, we have the butterfly guard – an open guard type that’s among the toughest positions to nail in BJJ. It demands a high level of skill and understanding to pull off effectively. But once you’ve got it down pat, it can give you a significant edge in both gi and no-gi competitions.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belt System

In the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), your belt is more than just a piece of fabric. It’s a badge of honor, showcasing your progress, knowledge, and dedication to this martial art. If you’re an adult, there are eight belts you can earn:

  • white
  • blue
  • purple
  • brown
  • black
  • red/black
  • red/white
  • red

For the young ones between 4 and 15 years old, the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation has laid out a path of 13 belts: white, gray-white, gray, gray-black, yellow-white, yellow, yellow-black, orange-white, orange, orange-black, green-white, green, and green-black. These belts are like stepping stones that motivate our young learners to keep practicing.

Main BJJ belt system

White Belt

Now let’s break it down a bit. The white belt is where everyone starts in BJJ. It’s like being a freshman in high school or college – you’re new and eager to learn. You’ll usually wear this belt for about two years before moving up to the blue belt.

Blue Belt

The blue belt is like being a sophomore or junior. You’ve got some experience under your belt (pun intended) and have learned more about BJJ techniques and submissions. After about 2 to 3 years at this level, you’ll be ready for the purple belt.

Purple Belt

Earning a purple belt is like becoming a senior. You’ve been practicing BJJ for around four to five years now and have gained significant knowledge and skills. After another 2 to 3 years at this level, you’ll be eyeing the brown belt.

Brown Belt

The brown belt is like getting your bachelor’s degree. You’ve been studying BJJ for at least six years now and are ready for advanced levels. After about 1 to 2 years as a brown belt holder, you’ll be aiming for the black belt.

Black Belt

The black belt is like earning your Ph.D. It’s one of the highest ranks in BJJ with eleven levels and ten degrees. Getting here takes many years of practice and dedication. From here on out, you’ll be looking at coral belts (7th and 8th-degree black belts) and red belts (9th and 10th-degree black belts). But remember – every journey begins with a single step or in this case – a white belt!

Submissions in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is all about the art of submission. It’s the key to winning in this martial art, and it’s how you get your opponent to wave the white flag. Submissions are all about immobilizing your opponent and making them ‘tap’.

There’s a whole range of submissions you can use, from joint locks to chokeholds. But here’s the thing: they’re not just about brute strength. They’re about understanding how the body works and using leverage to your advantage. The real beauty of these techniques is that they can help you take down an opponent who’s bigger or stronger than you. It’s all about skill and strategy. As a BJJ practitioner, you’ll find yourself constantly adding new submissions to your arsenal, adapting to new styles found in both gi and nogi formats. But remember, not all submissions are created equal. Some carry more risk than others and could leave you open to counterattacks.

So mastering submissions in BJJ isn’t just about learning the moves. It’s about knowing when and how to use them effectively. It’s a delicate balance, but with practice, you’ll get the hang of it!

A Quick List of Common Jiu Jitsu Submissions

  1. Rear Naked Choke (RNC): A chokehold from behind the opponent, typically reached from the back control position.
  2. Guillotine Choke: A chokehold from the front, often executed when an opponent attempts a takedown.
  3. Triangle Choke: Executed from the guard, it’s a choke that involves trapping the opponent’s arm and neck between your legs.
  4. Armbar: A joint lock that hyperextends the elbow.
  5. Kimura: A shoulder lock that targets the opponent’s shoulder joint, named after the judoka Masahiko Kimura.
  6. Americana (Keylock): Another shoulder lock submission, typically performed from side control or mount.
  7. Omoplata: A shoulder lock using the legs, typically executed from the guard.
  8. Ezekiel Choke: A chokehold performed using the sleeve of the gi, can be applied from multiple positions.
  9. Straight Ankle Lock: A leg lock targeting the ankle.
  10. Kneebar: A leg lock that hyperextends the knee.
  11. Heel Hook: A dangerous and often forbidden leg lock in many competitions, targets the knee by twisting the heel.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Benefits

Diving into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) opens up a world of benefits that go way beyond just getting fit. It’s a total body workout that amps up your strength, flexibility, and heart health, while also helping you shed pounds and build muscle. The dynamic, high-energy moves mixed with pressure-based isometric exercises like pushing, pulling, and holding, boost your body awareness, balance, and quick response skills. But BJJ isn’t just about the physical perks.

This sport demands focus, discipline, and patience, which can do wonders for your mental health. It’s a great stress-buster and can enhance your overall sense of well-being. Plus, as you master new skills and push past your limits, you’ll see a big boost in self-confidence.

But let’s not forget the social side of BJJ. This sport is all about interaction – it’s a fantastic way to make new friends and feel part of a community, which can really lift your spirits. If you’re the competitive type, BJJ gives you the chance to pit your skills against others. The sparring or rolling sessions are especially thrilling as they offer chances to fine-tune your skills and strategies.

So whether you’re drawn to BJJ because of its rising fame in mixed martial arts or you’re just on the hunt for a fresh way to stay fit, the rewards of this sport are huge and well-proven.

BJJ for Self-Defense and Competition

When it comes to self-defense, BJJ really stands out. It focuses on controlling and submitting an attacker while keeping yourself safe – and it works incredibly well. You can see this in action in mixed martial arts (MMA) events and even real-life street fights. As someone who practices Muay Thai, and Jiu-Jitsu, I can vouch for how effective BJJ is in self-defense. Unlike striking arts that can be a bit unpredictable, BJJ gives you a sense of control that boosts your self-confidence. It empowers you to live life on your own terms. In the competitive world of MMA, the widespread use of BJJ techniques speaks volumes about their effectiveness.

For women especially, BJJ is empowering due to its emphasis on smaller opponents controlling larger opponents. While you won’t likely be able to defend yourself after your first few classes, dedicated and long term practice of Jiu Jitsu should greatly improve your chances of protecting yourself in a self defense situation like a street fight.

How to Find a BJJ School

BJJ schools have become increasingly common throughout the world, particularly in the United States. Jits and Hits has a directory of the very best jiu jitsu schools in the entire country. Finding the right school to meet your fitness goals is very important. Not all BJJ gyms are going to be the same or have the same type of BJJ practitioners. Some schools will put more emphasis on traditional BJJ with the gi while others may focus more on MMA and nogi. Other schools may focus on training students for competitions while others may just focus on the fitness and self defense aspect. Some schools may have professionals training there generally meaning the intensity of the gym will be higher than most. These are all things you should ask your potential professor when you take your first trial class at a gym.

Find a School: BJJ Schools Near You

BJJ vs Other Martial Arts


BJJ is a grappling martial art, while MMA is a combination of several martial arts, including BJJ. Key differences include MMA’s inclusion of striking and wrestling techniques, which are not common in traditional BJJ, and BJJ’s use of Gi chokes and guards, which are not used in MMA. The choice between MMA and BJJ depends on individual martial arts goals. MMA is more dynamic and involves learning multiple martial arts simultaneously, while BJJ is better for those who want to avoid striking and potential head injuries.

Learn More: MMA vs BJJ

BJJ vs Muay Thai

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and Muay Thai stand out as two distinct styles, each with its unique strengths and techniques. BJJ, emphasizes ground fighting and submission techniques. In contrast, Muay Thai, a combat sport rooted in Thailand, is renowned for its striking techniques, particularly kicks and punches.

While a BJJ practitioner will use grappling techniques, Muay Thai fighters strive to win by knockout or by scoring more points through successful strikes. Training regimes in these martial arts also differ significantly. Muay Thai training typically involves a blend of cardiovascular exercise, strength and conditioning work, technical drills, and sparring. On the other hand, BJJ training focuses on repetition of techniques, drilling, sparring, and strength and conditioning exercises. The attire for each martial art is also distinct, with Muay Thai fighters typically wearing shorts and a shirt or rashguard, while BJJ fighters don a uniform called a gi.

Both martial arts have rich histories, with Muay Thai originating in Thailand in the 16th century and BJJ emerging in Brazil in the early 20th century. Whether you choose BJJ or Muay Thai depends on your individual goals, preferences, and the availability of training facilities. Both are complex and require dedication to master, but each offers unique benefits, making them complementary for MMA fighters.

Learn More: BJJ vs Muay Thai

BJJ vs Japanese Jiu Jitsu

Both martial arts have their roots in traditional Japanese Jujutsu, but they have evolved into distinct disciplines. Jujutsu is a martial art developed for self-defense and tactical use in conflict, while BJJ is a modern combat sport with a significant focus on ground fighting and submission holds. The fighting styles, rules, competition opportunities, belt systems, and uniforms differ significantly between the two. Jujutsu techniques include a wide range of strikes, throws, joint locks, and chokeholds, while BJJ techniques focus mostly on ground fighting and submissions. The choice between Jujutsu and BJJ depends on individual objectives and preferences. While Jujutsu’s traditional elements may appeal to some, others may be drawn to BJJ’s sport and competitive elements. Both martial arts are effective in their own right, but their effectiveness in a street fight depends on the situation and the practitioner’s ability to apply the techniques appropriately.

Learn More: Japanese JuJutsu vs BJJ

BJJ vs Judo

Judo and BJJ are both grappling arts originating in Japan. Judo is all about throwing opponents from a standing position (with a minor component called newaza similar to BJJ). The two martial arts compliment each other very well with bjj practitioners benefiting immensely from being able to execute judo throws from the stand up portion of a jiu jitsu match.

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