This week was used to review what we’ve covered so far and to ensure we understand what the key points are.

Key points:

  • The main objective for the bottom player is to gain dominant head position.
  • Control the centre of mass after obtaining head position.
  • The main objective of the top player is to prevent the bottom player from gaining head position.

The bottom player must counter the top player’s defenses and gain head position. The main defenses of the top player that we have looked at so far are:

  • using hand/arms to prevent the bottom player closing the gap to gain head position
  • smashing pressure on the far deltoid
  • sitting back on his heels to increase the gap the bottom player must cover.

It is important to understand that the top player will use these defenses in combination and will switch between them quickly. The bottom player must be able to quickly recognise how the top player is defending to be able to counter the defence and ultimately gain dominant head position.

In the fight for head position, the obvious thing for the top player to do is to use his hands and arms to push the bottom player and prevent her from closing the distance to gain head position (head to chest). Regardless of which hand is dominant, his outside (crossfacing) arm will be able to apply more strength in preventing the bottom player from sitting up as it is able to apply force higher on her body and hence exert more leverage. This outside hand is his power hand, and it is the hand that the bottom player will need to defeat before being able to gain head position.

The top player’s power arm is at it’s strongest when his elbow is close to his ribs. It is weaker when it is extended, or when it is drawn back so his hand is close to his chest.

The main problem for the bottom player is that as she starts to bring her head closer to the desired position, she is moving her head towards the top player’s power hand in its strongest position. She is effectively running into a wall.

It is advantageous for the bottom player when the power hand is either fully extended or fully drawn back. A good tactic for her is to have the top player extend his power hand. She can then restrain it in some fashion before moving her head into good positioning. When the bottom player has control of the top player’s power hand, he can no longer use it to defend against her gaining head position.

One way to entice the top player to extend his power hand:

  1. Move your head far away from the top player. Use z-guard (knee shield – outside shin in top player’s hip) to provide a foundation then arch your back to move your body away.
  2. With your body extended, the knee shield loses strength. Elevate the knee to block against the top player’s chest/shoulder instead of his hip. This provides a frame to help prevent him crushing you with his bodyweight.
  3. The top player now needs to use his power hand to remove this frame. Wait for him to bring his hand within range, then grab and extend it.
  4. Extend your top leg. This removes the frame and creates an easy path to sit up and gain head position.

Until now, our focus has been on what the bottom player is attempting to do. The top player as been providing resistance, but that resistance has been unskilled. We shall now begin dealing with a skilled opponent.

The first objective of a skilled top player who finds himself in half guard is to gain good posture. Specifically, he will bring his butt close to his heels. This gives him good base without needing his arms to support himself. Good base allows him to easily use his arms and move his torso to begin to attack.

This butt to heels posture is bad for the bottom player. Even if she manages to win the head control battle, it will be difficult for her to gain control of the top player’s centre of mass because the limb orientation makes this awkward.

The objective of the bottom player is for the top player to lift his butt away from his heels. We will look at a leverage based way of achieving this.

To begin, the bottom player will triangle her legs and place the outside foot on the floor. She triangles her legs so that the top player’s inside knee becomes pinned. A joint that is pinned can act as a fulcrum.

With gi jiu-jitsu, the simplest way to force the top player’s butt to lift is to grab the front of his belt and yank forwards.

No-gi needs a more technical approach. The bottom player will apply upwards (towards the sky) pressure with her inside leg. The force generated by the upwards pressure is not enough to lift the top player’s butt, but it has other purposes. Firstly it forces the top player to actively sit down harder to counteract this upwards pressure. Secondly it engages the muscles that the bottom player will use to sit up.

By actively sitting down, the top player is in-effect, trying to rotate his body backwards around his pinned knee. This is not ideal for him, as he wants to prepare for the bottom player fighting for head position. He wants the ability to quickly rotate forwards to use bodyweight to block the top player’s attempt to sit up. By rotating backwards, he has to first stop and then reverse direction before he can fully apply force in a forward direction.

By engaging her muscles, the bottom player will be able to sit up faster as her muscles are primed for use.

So the effect of the upwards pressure is to slow down the top player, and to speed up the bottom player. The bottom player will use this speed differential to sit up and hug the top player’s torso. With a tight hug, she can push off her outside foot (which is flat on the floor) and pull the top player forwards so his butt separates from his heels.

Now the battle for head position can proceed.

We are now well aware that the main battle that is occurring with half guard is that the bottom player is attempting to gain dominant head position and the top player is trying to prevent this from occurring.

A common way the top player does this is by squashing the bottom player with his bodyweight. But it’s a little more technically involved than this. The top player is specifically trying to squash the bottom player’s farside deltoid (shoulder). If he does this then the bottom player will find it difficult to turn on to her side and hence it becomes difficult for her to gain head position. If he only squashes her body, she will be able to raise her farside deltoid enough and keep wriggling until she can turn on her side enough to initiate the battle for head position.

The counter we are looking at this week is when the top player is applying pressure to the bottom player’s farside deltoid. He may have a crossface and underhook as well (or not). It is important to understand that we are looking at the position where his arms are hugging the bottom player’s body. The situation where both of his arms are on the same side of the bottom player’s body is a different situation that requires a different response.

With her deltoid pinned and body flat, there is little the bottom player can do. Her goal is to free this deltoid so she can turn on her side. The way she will do this is to move away from the top player until she is far enough away that his bodyweight is no longer able to pin her deltoid.

The top player has freedom of movement, so he will follow when she tries to move away. The bottom player’s solution is to build a frame to hold the top player in place, and then move away from this frame to free her deltoid.

Frame details:

  1. Create an initial frame on the top player’s outside knee with either an elbow or straight arm.
  2. Use this frame to insert the inside (bottom) knee to block at the top player’s outside hip and front of his thigh to create a stronger frame. The arm is no longer needed.
  3. The outside (top) knee now pinches the top player’s hips. This pinch creates a frame that controls the top player’s hips and reduces his movement.

Now that the frame has been created, the bottom player can push herself away with the power of her glutes and with the assistance of her arms. As soon as her shoulder is free she can return to the battle for head position.

Last week focussed on gaining good positioning. With good positioning, sweeping becomes easy. The aim of this week is to introduce the most common (and hence easy to apply) half guard sweeps. The next two months will be spent on dismantling our opponent’s counters so we can perform these sweeps.

A note for those interested in instructing. The details below are listed in sequential order for ease of reference, but you will remember that I did not introduced them in this order in class. Research backward chaining.

The sweeping game:

  • Once the bottom player has good head positioning, she needs to move her head down to the hips/belly of her opponent so she can control his centre of mass. She uses her arms and outside leg to simultaneously pull her opponent upwards towards her head as she shuffles herself down towards his feet. She can now hug his hips/belly to control his centre of mass.
  • Even with his centre of mass controlled, the top player can still move by pushing with his feet on the mat. The bottom player attempts to grab his far foot (at the toes) and pin it to his butt. This will greatly reduce his movement as he can no longer push off this foot. If the top player prevents the foot grab by extending his foot he has reduced his own movement which is exactly what the bottom player wants.
  • With the top player’s movement reduced, the bottom player will attempt to turn to her knees to build her base. To do this she needs to scissor her legs. Her outside leg steps over her opponent’s trapped leg and her heel hooks into his instep. She can now lift his foot off the mat so only his knee is in contact with the mat. It is easy for her to now straighten her bottom leg and pass it under her opponent’s trapped leg.
  • With her legs scissored and belly facing downwards, it is easy to come to her knees and drive her opponent to his back or side. She keeps the foot control until she has established a solid top control.
  • Sometimes the top player puts his body weight on the bottom player and she isn’t able to come to her knees. She uses this opportunity to grab his knee so she has one hand grabbing his foot and the other hand holding the knee of his same leg. Now the top player is trapped with his bodyweight balanced on the bottom player. The bottom player can now rotate her body away from him to tip him to the other side. If she can’t roll him completely over because he is basing with his hands or is just too heavy, she can reverse the direction of the roll and the top player’s weight will fall off her so she can go back to attempting to turn to her knees.

There were a lot of details in this sweeping game and these will be repeated in the coming weeks to ensure that everyone is comfortable with this game. The main takeaway is to understand that once you have controlled the centre of mass and the foot, you attempt to turn to your knees to come on top. If you have can’t turn to your knees it means your opponent is preventing it with his body weight. This gives you an opportunity to reverse direction and roll him over your body. If you have difficulty you go back to attempting to turn to your knees. You continue this back and forth game until you end up in the top position.

Last week we understood that a major battle in half guard is the battle for head positioning. If the bottom player wins this battle, she is in a more advantageous position than her opponent. This advantage reduces the amount of effort she needs to use to successfully sweep her opponent.

Winning the battle for head position means the bottom player has slightly more control than her opponent. Her goal is to increase this disparity and obtain the maximum amount of control possible. To do this, she will attempt to gain control of her opponent’s centre of mass.

Having her head positioned against her opponent’s chest means it is easy to gain a near side underhook on her opponent’s body. The bottom player uses this underhook to pull herself deeper underneath her opponent until her head is underneath her opponent’s belly. Now her arms can naturally wrap around her opponent’s belly/hips (his centre of mass).

Even with this control, the top player still has some freedom of movement. He can use his hands, and more importantly, feet to move himself around to find angles to create pressure. If the bottom player is able to snag his farside foot and pull it to his butt, his ability to move is severely restricted.

With control of his centre of mass, and with his movement restricted, the bottom player is in a good position to sweep and come on top.

Thursdays at 80/20 is the day in which we focus in detail on a single area for a period of about three month. We’ve just started a new cycle and our topic of study is half guard bottom. Each week, I’ll be posting my personal notes as we go. For this topic, I’ll consistently refer to the athlete playing half guard as female and the passer as male for convenience.

Most are familiar with the side control battle, the fight for the underhook. Half guard also has a battle, one of head positioning. The bottom player is trying to put her head against the chest/belly of the top player so she can easily achieve an underhook. The top player is trying to prevent this.

The mindset of the bottom player is defeating the defenses of the top player so she can put her head in this dominant area.

Bottom player is on her hip (not flat) so it is easier to raise her head in an arc to the desired position.

The top player’s defense has three components:

  • Moving his body outside of the plane of this arc (moving sideways).
  • Moving his body within the plane of this arc (forwards and backwards).
  • Using his hands and arms to prevent the bottom player from raising her head and shoulders.

This class focuses on this last component – the hand/arm battle.

The top players far arm (crossfacing arm) is the most dangerous so the bottom player begins by controlling this arm. Wrist or biceps grip. Now the bottom player only has to think about the near (underhooking side) arm.

If top player stiff arms (blocks with hand) then there will be an opening between his elbow and ribs. The bottom player swims her underhooking arm inside this opening and sit up for the underhook.

If top player blocks with bent arm (blocks with forearm) bottom player pops this arm upwards, forearm against tricep, and then gains the underhook.

It is important to keep in mind that the bottom player’s objective is to put her head in the dominant position. The underhook is a consequence of this head positioning, not the main objective.

BJJ Belts

BJJ Belts

What does a BJJ belt signify? Is it ability? Seniority? A reflection of one’s character? There is no set definition and opinion is definitely divided.

A BJJ belt is awarded by a practitioner of higher rank. A purple can award a blue, a brown can award a purple, and a black can award a brown. A black can only be awarded by another black of at least two stripes.

There is no fixed criteria in awarding a belt, it is up to the one doing the grading. This can result in confusion for those wondering what they have to do to get the next belt, if they don’t know what criteria is being used.

Here is my criteria for grading and my thoughts on what BJJ belts signify to me.

My criteria to grade is based on whether it is more beneficial or more harmful to an athlete’s BJJ journey. When grading someone, I ask myself this question:

If a BJJ athlete were to enter a competition in their age and weight division, at what belt rank should they compete in to best improve their jiu-jitsu?

If I feel an athlete would gain more beneficial experience by competing as a higher belt, then I award them that belt.

A belt is a tool to help you improve your BJJ. It has no other significance.


Q: What do you mean by beneficial or harmful? How can having a belt be harmful?
A: A belt comes with expectations of ability. If you are wearing a belt you don’t feel you can back up, you’re likely to avoid rolling with people that challenge you. If you don’t have challenging rolls, you don’t improve.

Q: Do I have to compete to get the next belt?
A: No. The belt is simply a reflection of who you would compete against if you do choose to compete.

Q: Do I have to know technique X to get the next belt?
A: No. BJJ is about learning to grapple effectively with your personal combination of strengths and limitations.

Q: I go to other gyms and smash higher belts. Why haven’t you graded me?
A: Gym training is not competition training. How do you perform when you’re stressed and tired? How is your mental resilience?

Q: I really want the next belt!
A: Do you want the belt or what it represents? If you just want the next belt go buy one, or better yet, skip some steps and buy a red one.

Q: What do need to do to improve my BJJ?
A: This is the only question you really need to ask. Come talk to me.

Valerie Worthington

Valerie Worthington

I recently read Valerie Worthington’s article on her initial experiences with BJJ. It’s a heart rending read of isolation and neglect.

When I was first starting out in Brazilian jiu jitsu, I experienced an internal struggle every day I went to train. On one hand, I was stupid crazy about training. I loved what I was learning and simply disappearing into the focus, the experience, and the challenges. But on the other hand, the anticipation of going into class, feeling intimidated and small because I was new and awful at it, and having to contend with a roomful of complete strangers, was sometimes almost too much to get past. I would sit in the parking lot before class every night, shoring up my confidence and psyching myself up to go inside.
Part of the challenge was the feeling of benign neglect I sensed from the group.
Everyone was cordial enough but would quickly extricate themselves from conversations with me and gravitate toward their friends at the first opportunity.
For months, I would go to class, do my thing with the person who was unfortunate enough to end up being my partner, and then be gently relegated back to wallflower status.

Valarie’s love of BJJ overcame the environment she was in, but how many others couldn’t overcome it?

Stories like this make me sad. BJJ is one of those things that really changes our lives for the better. The people that get turned away from BJJ by these unfortunate experiences miss out on the wonder of BJJ that we all know. This is a shame.

An instructor’s role is more than just teaching BJJ. It is to provide an environment for learning to occur. An instructor should realise that he doesn’t teach BJJ at all. He merely offers suggestions, ideas and concepts. A student’s real teachers are his training partners.

Here are some of the things that I have found to help build an environment for learning.

  • People’s names are a big deal. I try to remember everyone’s name. If I forget, I ask them. I expect everyone to do the same.
  • Everyone trains with everyone. No cliques. No dodging. We rotate training partners many times during a session.
  • Minimal instruction. My job is to help people become better grapplers, not show off what I can do. The best learning comes from your training partner.
  • When people are practising, I walk around and offer suggestions to the training partner rather that the person doing the drill. BJJ is mainly learnt physically by doing, not by watching a demonstration.
  • Train with progressive resistance and strive to become good training partners.

A healthy atmosphere is one where everyone in the group is interacting with each other with the goal of getting better.

As a member of a gym, what can you do help maintain this environment for learning?

  • You’re a member of the group. Your opinion is meaningful.
  • Speak up if see a problem. Don’t assume that everyone is as observant as you are.
  • Remember how everyone was welcoming to you when you started? Make newcomers just as welcome as you were. A friendly face in a room of strangers means a lot.
  • You learn from your training partners, not your coach. You want great training partners that help you improve. Build them.

When most of us think about good posture, we think of images like this:
Standing postureComputer posture

These images imply that posture is a fixed and static arrangement of the body. The above postures, while ideal for standing upright or sitting at a computer desk, don’t necessarily apply to the movements we make while doing BJJ. Todd Hargrove discusses the three essential elements of good posture. Let’s look at how they apply to BJJ.

Good posture is efficient

It is more energy efficient to use our skeletal system to maintain our posture than our muscular system. The more we use our muscular system, the faster we consume our energy. Compare the posture of the passers inside closed guard in the following two examples.
Relaxed posture inside closed guardTense posture inside closed guard

The first image illustrates good, relaxed posture. The spine is straight (but not vertical) and the head is well aligned with the spine.

The second images shows that the passer is markedly more tense. His spine is more vertical and his neck is bent forwards and upwards.

When inside the closed guard, load is applied to the lower back of the passer by the guard player’s calves. The first passer is not fighting against this load by allowing his spine to tilt forward. The second passer is attempting to maintain a vertical spine position and the obviously tense muscles show that he is wasting energy to achieve this (unnecessary) posture.

A vertical spine is efficient when the body is unloaded. However, this body is rarely unloaded while doing BJJ. Good spine angle is a compromise between minimising the effort of carrying a load and maintaining mobility.

Good posture allows ongoing movement

Posture does not mean being still. Mobility is vital in BJJ. A good posture is one that allows you to move. The more freedom you have to move, the better the posture. Examine the two passers below.

Poor posture inside reverse DLR guardGood posture inside the DLR guard

The right hand and right shin/foot of each passer has been immobilised by their respective opponents. Look at the mobility of the rest of their bodies.

The straight right arm and legs of the first passer limit his ability to move. This is a self imposed limitation as he has chosen the posture of high hips and straight legs.

Compare this with the posture of the second passer. The lowered hips result in bent limbs which allow a lot more movement.

A good posture is one that allows movement. A bent limb allows flexion and extension. This is better than a straight limb which will only allow flexion. The less your opponent can control your movement, the better your posture.

Good posture prepares for the next movement

In jiu-jitsu, you have the move you are prepared to make and you have the move you are forced to make in reaction to your opponent’s movement. Good posture allows you to easily make both of these moves.

Crouched posture

In the above image, the person on the left has a wider stance with feet firmly on the ground. This allows him the option of moving easily in all directions, to shoot or to pull guard. The person on the right has a narrower, more cramped stance. This restricts his ability to move and reduces his ability to move quickly. His likely action is restricted to pulling guard.

Good posture standing closed guardPoor posture - standing in guard

Examine the above images of standing in closed guard. The first image shows a good posture for opening the guard. Note the backward lean. This good base allows the passer to react to sudden movements from the opponent in guard.

The second image shows a vertical posture. While this imitates the ideal posture for unloaded standing, the centre of balance is in front of the passer and is he susceptible to being pulled forward off balance.

Combining the three elements

These three elements can conflict each other. The wrestling stance prepares for the next movement but is not energy efficient. Being flat on your back under side control is energy efficient but does not allow ongoing movement (you need frames to move).


Good posture is dynamic. The ideal posture for one position is often very different when compared to a different yet similiar position. Good posture is structurally strong, allows movement within the posture, and allow you to react to unexpected forces. These three elements can be at odds with each other, and the skill to having good posture is in combining these elements together.

Helio knee ride

Perfect posture