It’s a common way that BJJ is taught. You show up to class, do a warm up, perform unresisted repetitions of several different techniques and then you roll. The warm up and rolling are beneficial, but the technique portion in the middle is ineffective.

Ineffective? Observe the experienced students in gyms that structure their sessions this way. Experienced students spend much of the technique portion talking amongst themselves or don’t bother showing up till it’s time to roll. They’re experienced enough to recognise that this type of training doesn’t improve their BJJ.

K. Anders Ericsson et al., in The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (1993) write on the conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance.

[…]the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

The above describes the technique section of a typical BJJ class, with a single exception. Anders Ericsson et al. further clarify.

In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance.

Adequate feedback. This is the necessary component that is missed by the common approach to BJJ. An instructor walking around telling students to “move your hand one inch to the left”, or “don’t use your thumb to grab” is not adequate feedback. Adequate (and immediate) feedback comes from the resistance your partner gives you as you practise the technique.

I’ve previously detailed how to use progressive resistance and be a good training partner.

If you’re not using progressive resistance in your drilling then your BJJ progress will remain slow and inefficient.

Vulcan nerve pinch

Vulcan nerve pinch – We all know it’s fiction, right?

A teacher of mine had a saying he was fond of. “If you believe everything I say then you’re a fool. Either prove me right or prove me wrong”. This is great advice for life in general, but it’s very relevant to the martial arts. Pressure point knock outs, kiai masters, wrist throws, chi balls. There’s lots of fraudulent nonsense out there. It’s great that BJJ doesn’t suffer from this, right?

As BJJ practitioners, we like to believe that we’re above all that nonsense. Our art is real, MMA proves it. Would that it were so.

Many BJJ instructors have a background in traditional martial arts. Their prior experiences colour the way they run their gyms. Lineages, the belt system, gradings, bowing etc all reinforce the idea of authority through seniority rather than ability. Many instructors teach as they were taught rather than teaching what they know. They use compliant training. These practices aren’t anywhere near kiai knockouts, but they provide a fertile ground for this sort of nonsense to grow.

Not all gyms follow this path. A friend retells a Marcus Soares story of how Marcus developed a new choke. For this choke to be legitimised by his instructor, Marcus had to perform it on everyone in the room, including Carlson Gracie. This was not just applying the choke on a compliant partner, but against a room full of fully resisting ones. There’s no way that BS moves would be accepted in that environment.

One of our members was recently very excited about a move he’d learned while visiting another gym. After trying it when he got back, he was crestfallen after being shown that the move didn’t work against a resisting partner. When he was initially shown the move, they had drilled it with complete compliance so there was no way to determine whether it worked or not.

Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated incident. Browsing youtube will show lots of videos demonstrating dodgy moves. They’re not malicious, just ignorant. What’s the solution? Question everything. Don’t just accept what your instructor says on faith. Test it.

If you believe everything I say then you’re a fool. Either prove me right or prove me wrong.

Tom Brown Jr.

The most important skill in BJJ is not a physical skill, but a mental one. It’s the ability to predict how your opponent is about to move. Once you know how your opponent is about to move, you can plan your response and implement it with good timing.

In expert level competition, everyone is moving the same way and performing the same moves. The competitors that consistently perform well do not have secret moves, better coordination or better strength and conditioning. What they have is the ability to perform the right movement at the right time.

It is easier to have correct timing when you have predicted your opponent’s movement, and more difficult if you’re trying to react to his movement as it happens.

Here’s Marcelo Garcia discussing predicting your opponent’s movement and taking advantage of it by having a plan.

Clip from Budo Jake’s Rolled Up Episode 36.

It makes sense to start developing this most important skill as soon as possible. The traditional approach is to avoid the issue and allow it to develop by itself during rolling. Rolling will develop it automatically, albiet slowly.

We take a more proactive approach to develop this ability to predict. When we learn skills, movements and techniques during class, the partner is always adding and varying the resistance they provide to the athlete. The athlete is not just learning the subject being drilled, but rather the different ways their partner can move which will allow them to perform this subject.

More instruction is usually given to the partner providing the resistance when drilling, than to the athlete learning the skill. To those with a traditional background, this seems paradoxical. But when you realize that the priority is for the athlete to refine their ability to predict, you realize it is a more logical approach to training.

Last Sunday we were proud to host the regular West Australian Women’s BJJ sessions run by Josephine Masiello. Jo (WA’s first female BJJ black belt) has been organising regular sessions for all female BJJ practitioners since last year. This is a fantastic initiative by Jo to provide support and specialised training to women in our often male dominated sport. Thank you Jo for helping to share the passion we have for our sport.

Sessions are usually run on a Sunday starting at 10am. For more information contact Jo on facebook, or contact me and I’ll get you in touch with her.

HomeI was recently pointed to a blog post about applying the Pareto (80/20) principle to BJJ. Seeing as my gym is named for this principle, a response seems appropriate.

The idea behind the Pareto principle is asymmetry. Obviously, not everything is the same. There are a small number of good things, a large number of mediocre things and a small number of bad things.

In the martial arts world, the theory is that 20% of all techniques account for 80% of success

The above quote from that blog post illustrates the mistake that many people make when trying to apply the 80/20 principle to BJJ.

There are fewer good techniques than there are mediocre and bad techniques. And good techniques, by definition, are those that give success. So the quote is correct but it’s not the whole story.

The missing piece of the puzzle is that techniques only account for about 10% (90% of statistics are made up on the spot) of the total movement in a roll. Think about that for a second.

Using the most effective (or highest percentage) techniques will only improve your jiu-jitsu up to a maximum of 10% if we use my made up number from before.

Most people are taught BJJ purely as a collection of techniques, which leads them to think that BJJ is only a collection of techniques. Ironically, this is why BJJ is so successful. A mediocre instructor who teaches bad techniques can only harm an athelete’s performance by 10%. As there are obviously fewer good instructors, most good athletes are skilled despite their instructor not because of him.

So what is the 90% of BJJ that isn’t techniques? It’s:

  • predicting the way your opponent is likely to move
  • timing
  • positioning
  • posture
  • grips
  • pressure

These skills are difficult to teach, which is why most instructors don’t/can’t attempt it. The good news is that these skills will automatically develop during rolling.

Getting back to Pareto. To get good at BJJ, you focus your time developing the skills that will have the biggest benefit. This means alive training with progressive resistance.

The best way to develop these necessary skills is with a partner who gives you appropriate resistance. Your partner should try to make you feel challenged, not bored or frustrated.

Your partner will vary the type / level of resistance as you drill.

e.g. If drilling a takedown, your partner will give different resistance each time. Sometimes moving back, sometimes turning left, sometimes right. Sometimes pushing your head, othertimes wrapping the body. Sometimes doing nothing at all.

The secret to applying the Pareto principle to BJJ is not what you train. It’s how you train.

I recently received an email from a beginner enquirying about how to take a better approach to learning BJJ. The email illustrates the common idea that many beginners have, that BJJ is a collection of techniques. Unfortunately, many BJJ coaches and instructors encourage this idea by running a class composed entirely of techniques.

Techniques are useful in BJJ in highly constrained circumstances—namely when your oppponent has limited ability to move. But the majority of rolling is unconstrained because your opponent usually has a lot of freedom to move.

Beginners need conceptual understanding of what they are trying to achieve, not a recipe of steps. I’ve included the curriculum I use for beginners in my reply below. Note that it is conceptual, rather than technique based.

Hi Stu,

> I live very  far away from your dojo in the U.S. I am new to
> BJJ and looking to apply the 80/20 principle to learning it.

If you are near a Straight Blast gym or affiliate then check them out. Getting good at BJJ is more about HOW to train rather than WHAT to train. Attending a SBGi gym will give you a feel for the how.

> I am wondering if you have come up with a list of
> techniques, escapes, sweeps and et cetera that you could
> recommend.

In my opinion, learning BJJ as a list of techniques is a very slow way to gain competance. It leads to frustration and most people quit before they get to a decent level. Unfortunately, BJJ is taught this way in most gyms.

Learning a technique (a series of steps) leads to confusion because you don’t know which steps are important and which ones you can skip. In the frenzy of a live roll, you can’t perform a technique exactly so you need to modify how you do it on the fly. Technique based learning doesn’t give you the skills needed to do this.

> DO you have a curriculum that you have mapped out for a
> beginner? If so, you would be kind enough to share it, would
> you not?

Here’s the list of skills I think all beginners should have. You will note that there are not a lot of techniques in the curriculum.


  • Work your neck mobility for injury prevention.
  • Shoulder and hip alignment to achieve a strong spine.
  • Improve your hip range of motion (deep squat).
  • Keep elbows close to your ribs when you require strong arms.


  • Training is training. It’s not competition.
  • If you’re not getting passed, swept or submitted it’s not because you’re good, it’s because you’re stagnant.
  • Slow down and use less strength. Non-attribute based training.


  • Single leg takedowns.
  • Guard pulling.

Guard bottom:

  • Learn how to get back to your feet.
  • Learn how to get underneath your opponents to off-balance them.
  • Avoid trying to submit until you feel confident with the above two points.
  • Avoid closed guard till you have a few years of experience.

Guard passing:

  • Don’t get swept or submitted – requires good grips and correct posture.
  • You need to know how to pass over, under and around the legs.
  • Passing is about flowing like water, always taking the easiest path. This mean you change your passing style according to how your opponent resists.

Defending game:

  • Don’t let your opponent control your head.
  • Learn elbow-knee escape.

Attacking game:

  • Establish dominant control and be able to transition to other positions of control without letting your opponent escape.
  • Now is the time for techniques. When you have good control, there is much less that your opponent can do to stop you, so a step by step approach works here.
    • Arm triangles
    • Armbars
    • Shoulder locks
    • Other chokes (guillotines, RNC, north-south choke)

> I think have a blue print of high percentage techniques
> would be very helpful to me. Thank you for your time and
> effort in helping me on my journey into BJJ

The most important technique is the elbow-knee escape. You will use this a lot throughout your BJJ career.

Next you’ll want to develop a guard that keeps you safe. Avoid closed guard. Just because you’re not getting passed, doesn’t mean you have a good guard. It means you’re stalling. A good guard is one that prevents your opponent from passing AND lets you get on top of your opponent. Think seated, butterfly, x and de-la riva guards.

That’s it for the moment. As a beginner, you’ll spend a lot of time on the bottom so learn to be comfortable there.

For more technical information, I’ve got a list of online resources that I’ve found to be useful.

All the best for your BJJ journey.



Roberto Cyborg Abreu applying a lapel choke at the 2009 Pan Ams

Roberto Cyborg Abreu applying a lapel choke at the 2009 Pan Ams

… said one of our members during Sunday morning training. This made me laugh because I’ve said the same thing many times over the years. But it got me thinking. Those times when I said I hated gi, I didn’t hate it all the time. When I was choking someone with a collar choke, gi was awesome. I mainly hated gi when I was in side control bottom and couldn’t escape.

Strange. I didn’t hate gi when I was under knee ride and couldn’t escape. Or when I couldn’t pass someone’s spider guard.

My introduction to BJJ was very traditional (here’s three random techniques, now let’s roll). The techniques were always shown in intricrate detail. This was great when I could successfully apply the techniques, but not so good when I couldn’t. The more detail I had on a technique, the worse I felt when I couldn’t apply it.

To escape knee ride, insert frames then move your hips away. That’s pretty simple. If I couldn’t escape it’s because either my frames weren’t working or I wasn’t moving my hips. I could troubleshoot on the fly.

I was never shown any effective ways to deal with the spider guard, so it was always an interesting puzzle when I found myself there.

But side control bottom. I knew so much about the technique to escape that position. My hands had to be placed in a precise position. My feet needed to be angled just right. I needed to bridge on a perfect angle. My shoulders needed to be rounded. I needed to move my hips in a precise way after the bridge. I needed to insert my knee to the exact depth… I drilled (back then I though dead repetitions were drilling) that technique until it looked like Aikido.

But it rarely worked in a roll. Which is why I hated the gi. I knew so much detail about the technique that of course I was doing it correctly. My opponents were grabbing onto my gi and preventing my escape, and so the gi was to blame. (Yep, ego problems aplenty there).

I now understand that the problem was an excess of theoretical knowledge and a lack of experiential knowledge. My experience as a coach and instructor has taught me that showing less detail on a technique (and even avoiding techniques altogether) paradoxically produces athletes that are much more competent and technically proficient. When I limit myself to only sharing the one or two concepts of a position that have the biggest effect on success, the athletes will fill in the minor details themselves as they experiment during drilling. The knowledge they gain is all experiential, which means it is retained easier and internalised faster.

So how do I teach side control escapes now? Simple, “Don’t let your opponent control your head. Then either get your guard or turn to your knees and attack”. I’ll add details such as posture and movement as they drill, but the important points have already been made. This method limits frustration as the athlete is now thinking “How do I achieve this goal”, rather than “But I’m doing all the moves right, why isn’t it working”.

The first thing a beginner needs to learn is not technical skill itself, but rather how to train to gain that technical skill. This is an important yet subtle point. Technical instruction alone, no matter how detailed, is not enough to ensure someone progresses quickly. The previous post described the methods I use to get a beginner to the point where they can train effectively.

Beginners only needs a few weeks to learn how to train. Once they understand this they move into the intermediate stage of training and are ready to start perfecting their technical skill. The main technique I use to train someone at this intermediate level is shaping.

Before discussing shaping, let’s understand the difference between drilling and rolling for an intermediate student. Drilling allows a student to learn a particular technique or skill in isolation. Good drilling always involves progressive resistance. When rolling, a student must integrate these new skills into their game. The challenge for someone at the intermediate level is how to transfer the skills that they successfully demonstrated while drilling, into the chaos and stress of a live roll.

Shaping is a conceptually simple training technique from behavioural psychology. The core idea of shaping is that it takes time to learn something new, and it is unrealistic to expect someone to get everything perfect immediately. The solution is to start by accepting a vague approximation of the desired behaviour as successful. The next time you are a little more strict in what you accept as successful. You become more and more strict with each iteration until the behaviour is perfect.

In a typical roll with an intermediate student, my goal is for them to technically improve one or two of the skills or techniques they are currently using. The mechanism is simple. The student will successfully apply a technique several times during the roll. Each time they attempt the move, it needs to be more technically correct than last time to be successful. I am not teaching them a new move. They are learning to apply something they have already drilled successfully, in a live roll. With enough iterations, the move becomes a technically sound part of their game and it is time for me to work on a different area of their game.

Shaping has long been a mainstay of teaching animals complicated behaviour. The last few years have seen a surge in interest in applying shaping techniques to humans, in particular in the fields of dance and athletics. There is lots of accessible research about shaping, and it is a tool that all trainers should be proficient with.

A typical BJJ session involves warmup, some sort of isolation training/drilling followed by rolling (integration). My previous post talked about drilling and there is lots of good detail in Matt Thornton’s Notes on Drilling. The next three posts will focus on rolling and my approach to rolling with the people I help train.

For these posts I will speak in generalities and categorise students as either beginners, intermediate or advanced. The way I behave with each group is different, and is more involved than simply going light with the beginners and heavy with those who are advanced. Each group has different needs and I have to roll in a way that helps them to meet those needs.

There are three concepts that I want a beginner to learn. Safety, ego control and understanding the bigger picture. These three concepts are intertwined, as is the way I teach them.

Safety. When someone is new to grappling they are enthusiastic yet uncoordinated on the ground. The more pressure they are under, the more intense they will become and accidental elbow strikes and the like start to happen. The way to deal with this is to keep the intensity down until their coordination improves. I keep my own intensity and strength at a low level when rolling beginners. This is often enough as they usually mimic my intensity.

Occasionally a beginner is too excited to notice that I am using low intensity. I react to this by simply controlling and immobilising (but not pressuring) him. Once he realises he is stuck, his intensity drops and he is able to focus again. A few words on how to technically escape are enough to continue the roll, usually at a reduced intensity level.

Ego Control. I’ve talked about ego previously. The best way to manage ego problems is early prevention. It is important to understand that tapping when rolling is just part of training. Feeling that it is a personal loss is a major contributor to ego problems. When rolling with a beginner, I tap often, I get swept often and I get put in inferior positions often. But my attitude never changes and my intensity never changes. It’s not a big deal. As one of our members said recently “Tapping is the easy part as it means you get to start again. It’s getting crushed under side control that really sucks”.

Ego control is closely related to safety. If tapping isn’t a big deal, you won’t resist a submission and hurt yourself and you won’t fight for a submission that isn’t there and hurt your training partner.

Understanding the bigger picture. I want a beginner to understand the importance of dominant position. I want them to pass the guard rather than trying to submit while inside it. I want them to have an active guard that gets them to a dominant position. Isolation training is good at breaking the game into small easy to understand chunks, but doing so misses the bigger picture. A beginner needs context to make sense of the moves and positions they are learning.

The best tool I’ve found to teach the big picture is operant conditioning. When I roll with a beginner and they attempt the right strategy, I’ll let them succeed with it regardless of whether it is technically correct or not. If they attempt a poor strategy it has no effect. If they’re under mount, a bridge and roll attempt has no effect but an elbow knee escape succeeds. A cross lapel choke from under guard won’t work, but a sweep will. Turning away to escape side control doesn’t work, but turning in allows them to regain guard.

I get swept, rolled, passed, submitted often when training this way. Note that this isn’t just “going light”. Only good strategy by the beginner is successful. If they attempt a bad strategy it is important that they don’t get punished for it. Punishing someone for bad choices just teaches them to stop making choices, it doesn’t help them learn what the correct choice is. If a beginner attempts an armbar from closed guard I don’t pass. Doing so would punish their attempt at doing something and result in them developing a stagnant guard. The armbar simply doesn’t work and they keep attempting things until they are eventually successful with a sweep.

As a coach, my time rolling with beginners is spent ensuring they learn to be safe, manage their ego and understand the big picture. At this stage, they’ll learn the technical details from the other people they roll with. When I train people who started at another gym, their problems are not usually technical but rather related to ego and not having an understanding of the bigger picture. Learning these areas early saves much frustration later.

“Here are three random techniques. Let’s drill them with no resistance and then roll.” If you’ve had the misfortune to train this way you’ll understand how terrible it is. The naturally gifted will improve while everyone else flounders. It leads to frustration and ego problems. Let’s move beyond this.

The goal in BJJ is to be able to roll against a fully resisting opponent. The logical approach is to start with an unresisting opponent and progressively increase the level of resistance until you have a fully resisting opponent. But it’s not as simple as just starting with light resistance then progressing to heavy resistance. In every training session, people of different weight and skill will be partnered together. How is it possible for a 50kg person to provide sufficient resistance so a 100kg person can improve their skills? Or a white belt to a purple belt?

The key is to understand what is progressing in progressive resistance. It’s not so much a physical resistance as it is a technical resistance.

When strength training, you start with a lighter weight and progressively increase to a heavier weight. With BJJ you are not training strength but skill, so the resistance should reflect that. As a coach, merely instructing your students to “use 20% resistance” is inadequate. Partners of unequal weight or skill become confused “You’re a purple belt and I’m a white belt so I should use more than 20%, right?”. Partners of the same weight and skill argue “That’s 30%, not 20%. Stop cheating”.

To lessen the effect of a strength imbalance, both training partners should use as little strength and explosiveness as necessary. But more importantly, the coach should dictate the specific, unambiguous technical resistance to use.

Rolles Gracie defeats Lee Mein via arm triangle.

We’ll use a concrete example: practising the arm-triangle choke from mount. This submission has a simple sequence.

  1. Raise one of your opponent’s arms.
  2. Position yourself so that your bicep is against one side of his neck and his own shoulder is against the other.
  3. Remove any slack by lowering your chest and circling your body before squeezing your arms to finish the choke.

Assuming that the students have basic familiarity with the choke, here is one1 sequence using progressive resistance to improve their skill in applying it. All the following instructions are for the opponent (bottom player).

After a few repetitions with no resistance, the first resistance is to try to prevent your arm from being raised. That is the only objective. Don’t fight the rest of the choke and don’t try to escape the mount. The method is to use as little muscular strength and movement as possible. You might hold your hands together, bridge your hips, push your opponent or anything else. Don’t just do the one form of resistance, change if you feel your arm is about to be raised. Be creative and find what is most effective at stopping the top player from raising your arm.

Once the arm is raised, all resistance stops and the top player finishes the choke. The resistance is isolated to this one area of raising the arm. A coach would expect to see the top player using a range of techniques to try to raise the arm; threatening ezekiel chokes, pushing with elbows for greater leverage, switching to side control and back to change the angle etc.

After the top player starts having regular success, we up the ante. The bottom player is now instructed to attempt to escape the mount as a means of preventing their arm from being raised. If the students are new to this type of training, it is extremely important that the coach emphasis that this a drill and not a roll. The reason we are doing it is so the top player can practise the choke. It is not an opportunity for the bottom player to practise their mount escape. Students from gyms that don’t practise progressive resistance often have trouble at this stage.

When your arm becomes raised, try to prevent the top player pinning your shoulder against your neck. You can buck, turn on your side, grab your inner thigh or any improvisation that keeps your shoulder away from your neck. You’re still resisting your arm being raised and you’re still using the smallest amount of muscular strength and movement as possible. When your shoulder gets pinned to your neck then the resistance stops and the top player finishes the choke.

Here the top player learns all the important details of having a tight hold in this position. Their elbow will be on the ground. Their head will be pressed tightly against their opponent’s head. Their hands will be gripped correctly. If the coach sees that the top player is missing technical details, he should suggest resistance that the bottom player should provide that gives the top player an opportunity to develop the correct technical response.

e.g. If the elbow of the choking arm is not on the ground, the coach might suggest that the bottom player “turn into your opponent and push his head with your free hand”. This brings the space to the attention of the top player. Resisting the head push by driving into it will bring the elbow back down to the ground.

e.g. If the top player’s hands are gripped incorrectly, the coach might suggest the bottom player “bring your feet to your butt and wiggle backwards”. This movement of the bottom player applies external rotatation the top player’s choking arm, signaling him to regrip.

Now you’ll be resisting all of the choke. If your opponent positions your shoulder against your neck, don’t let him tighten the choke. Follow him as he circles and try to create space between your shoulder and your neck. If your opponent is off balance, feel free to reverse him.

Here we are drilling the final step of technical resistance. The top player will learn to maintain tight head pressure, have a low base to prevent being reversed, and use his knee to maintain space as he circles.

Finally the coach will add strength and explosiveness to the resistance. If there is a consistent weakness in a particular area, then a new drill is created to emphasize the weak area. Perhaps strength and explosiveness are only allowed in the weak area, or perhaps they are disallowed in the weak area but allowed everywhere else.

The take home message from this example is that the progression of the resistance should be technical (movement based), rather than attribute (strength, flexibility, power) based. This provides the student with an environment where they feel comfortable to experiment and fail, which is necessary for them to learn to succeed. Only once a technical ability is developed should attributes be emphasized.

1 It is often more effective to teach submissions by applying the resistance backwards. This way the learning becomes easier as you progress because you are moving into a familiar behaviour, rather than away from one. Search for backchaining behaviour training to see how it is used in other training areas.