Article 3 – What is Jiu-Jitsu?

By synergymma | In News | on March 1, 2007

What is Jiu-Jitsu?

“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art and combat sport that focuses on grappling and especially ground fighting with the goal of gaining a dominant position from which to force an attacker to submit. The system developed from a modified version of pre-World War II Judo including some techniques from Japanese Jujutsu and with a focus on ne-waza (ground technique). It promotes the principle that a smaller, weaker person using leverage and proper technique can successfully defend themselves against a bigger, stronger assailant. BJJ can be trained for self defense, sport grappling tournaments (gi and no-gi) and mixed martial arts (MMA) competition. Sparring and live drilling play a major role in training, and a premium is placed on performance, especially in competition.” (

More often an introduction to Jiu Jitsu comes via the techniques of Jiu Jitsu, and the essence of Jiu Jitsu is left unsaid and unknown by initiates for quite some time and often they are left to discover things on their own. The process of discovery of the context of what Jiu Jitsu is, as opposed to merely the learning of techniques of Jiu Jitsu, is the true path to enlightenment.

A game of “Human Chess”

For my favorite explanation of Jiu Jitsu, I have to give credit to my friend Henry Akins, a black belt under Rickson Gracie (so I’m unsure if this is his words or Rickson’s, but I think I’m covering my bases as far as credit goes): Jiu Jitsu is akin to a physical game of chess, in the sense both opponents begin with the same amount of options. During the course of the match, opponents will progress by taking away options from their opponent until there are no options left (aka a checkmate).

On one hand the description is vague enough that while we can certainly apply it equally well to chess and Jiu Jitsu; there isn’t a lot in the metaphor to distinguish the two. There are of course many differences. Having followed chess to some degree there are many players who will tell you that chess is as much a physical game as a mental game. I’m not going to comment too much on that statement, I will say that I believe that Jiu Jitsu is much a mental game as it is a physical game. As a matter of fact, I think there are few if any activities that actively present a challenge mentally AND physically that Jiu Jitsu does. Both have to be in sync in order to succeed.

Now, I like this description because it is very demonstrative of a proper mindset for Jiu Jitsu and in a way describes any encounter. We start off with the same positions and same tools. What that situation is isn’t defined yet, for purposes of Jiu Jitsu it could be free sparring, it could be a competition, or a MMA fight, or it might even be a street fight. Immediately I’m going to assesses the situation and gain as many advantages as possible. I am then going to press those advantages until I get the final outcome I want, that is the end of the encounter with myself as the victor.

The Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

As an encounter develops, a combatant versed in a Jiu Jitsu context will keep the following things in mind in sequential order.

  1. Safety
  2. Position
  3. Submission

Safety- By safety I mean the ability to keep yourself from being finished in the fight. The importance of safety is constantly emphasized by no less an authority than one of the founders of Jiu Jitsu, Helio Gracie who often states something to the effect that as long as you haven’t lost the fight, you still have a chance to win.

Position- Jiu Jitsu emphasizes the importance of position during the match and the ability to gain and improve upon the superior positions. By superior position in a Jiu Jitsu context, what we’re really saying is a position that emphasizes our safety and sets up the submission. The position emphasis is among the most basic and important concepts in Jiu Jitsu, and really is the differentiation between Jiu Jitsu and other grappling arts.

Submission- Having ensured our own safety through the advancement of superior position, we can now concentrate on getting the submission. By submission, I am talking about the “checkmate”, and technique that will cause your opponents to surrender. This can be as elegant as a joint lock or a strange hold or it might be as brutal as a knock out (although most in Jiu Jitsu would tend to prefer the former in most situations.

Every situation or change that a Jiu Jitsu practitioner would go through, they should find themselves going through this mental check list: “Am I safe?” “Am I in an optimal position?” “Can I finish the fight from here?”

Techniques in Jiu-Jitsu

Having established a mindset and context for Jiu Jitsu, we can now look over the techniques involved. Without explaining individual techniques at this time, there are some underlying principles within all of the techniques in Jiu Jitsu you should be aware of:

A. Placing my body in the best position possible.
B. Placing my opponent so his body is in the worst position possible.
C. Taking the path of least resistance.
D. Utilizing as much of my body against the weakest parts of my opponents body.

In other words, every technique utilized within Jiu Jitsu uses one of the above concepts to a certain degree, and if one wishes to improve their technique in Jiu Jitsu, or understand any technique within the context of Jiu Jitsu, those are the principles they must understand. To explain further:

Placing my body in the best position possible: When performing a technique, what is my optimal body position? Am I doing everything in my power and utilizing every part of my body to perform the technique to optimal effect? For example, if you’ve ever been underneath the side control of an exceptionally talented Jiu Jitsu athlete, you will find that they often feel much, much heavier than they actually are. This can be attributed to the fact they are controlling their body weight in such a way that every part of them is contributing to the feeling of weight on top of you. Head forward, chest down, hips low and feet planted and driving forward on you. The particulars don’t matter in this case as much of the fact as your opponent is utilizing all of his body weight and every tool at his disposal to keep you down. When executing a technique, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner must be aware and make the necessary adjustments to perform with 100% efficiency.

Placing my opponent so his body is in the worst position possible: Along with utilizing their body in the most efficient way possible, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner will seek to force their opponent to use their body in the most inefficient manner possible. Going back to the above example of an effective side control, part of the technique also resides in making the opponent on the bottom as uncomfortable as possible. Forcing the head to turn away, tying up the arms, and rendering the legs ineffective is also part of the recipe for a successful side control. Your opponent will try to defend, but you want them to start as far below 100% from using their body as possible.

Taking the path of least resistance: An important concept in Jiu Jitsu is the idea that there are usually many options that present themselves in the course of an encounter. Some of those options will have you working at a higher level of efficiency, and some of those options will have your opponent working at a higher level of efficiency. When faced with those options, the art of Jiu Jitsu is being able to select the option where your efficiency is at its highest and your opponents is at their lowest. For example, in the case of the standard double attack in Jiu Jitsu, a set up is made for either a choke or an armbar. It is very difficult to defend against both attacks, so the game is the defender has to anticipate which maneuver is coming, the choke or the armbar and the attacker has to anticipate this and go for whichever maneuver is not anticipated immediately.

Utilizing as much of my body against the weakest parts of my opponents body: Often times a Jiu Jitsu practitioner will utilize techniques that isolate target areas of their opponents body, most often in the form of a submission. In an example I often use, an armbar is a technique which is actually trying to attack (through hyper extension) the elbow joint, and is effective because it is not just one arm versus one arm, or even two arms versus one arm, rather it is effective because when done properly it is the force of one’s entire body against one’s lone joint. Unless you happen to fighting Superman, your entire body should win the tug of war against one limb.

Written by Gumby

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