When we learn a new move in jiu-jitsu, we want to learn it correctly. We want to perform it the right way.

A move is a collection of concepts and tradeoffs. There is no right way to always perform a move in the general sense. The specific way to perform a move will depend on the environment it is performed in.

We’ll use the knee-slide pass as as example. The knee-slide (alternatively knee-slice, knee-cut or esgrima) pass is a way of passing the half guard. It is conceptually simple – start in half guard, pin your opponent’s upper body and then pull your leg free to end up in side control.

Below are multiple demonstrations of this pass. Note the way that different instructors emphasise different aspects of the pass. Some are so different that it is easy to consider them different passes.

Here is Saulo Ribeiro teaching the pass. Saulo emphasises heavy pressure and preventing your opponent from regaining the closed guard.

Now consider Rafael Mendes. He is much lighter than Saulo. It is easier to sweep a lighter opponent than a heavier one. Rafael emphasises keeping his weight off his opponent to avoid the sweep.

Steve Campbell takes a more conceptual approach. He notes that by twisting your opponent’s spine, it will be easier to extract your trapped leg. Steve’s gi focused approach twists the spine by pinning the hips first and turning the shoulders second.

Marcelo Garcia also shows the spine twisting approach to this pass. Marcelo pins the shoulders first and then turns the hips. This approach works both gi and no-gi while Steve’s hips-first approach favours the gi.

There is no right way to perform a move. If the move works, then you did it the right way. The environment dictates what is correct. You may trade pressure for mobilitity or vice-versa. Gi grips allow you to sacrifice positional stability for positional advancement. Consolidating your gi and no-gi game trades possibilities for reduced cognitive load.

Being good at jiu-jitsu means being able to make the correct tradoffs to be successful against your opponent.

The top player’s power hand is his most important tool in the half guard top position. Even if he is not attacking with it directly, he is using it for balance and defence. Removing the use of his power hand leaves him at a serious disadvantage. We examined fighting the power hand in week 6. We continue this topic here.

The frame that we established last week will be our staging platform for attacking. The top player has limited options for what he does with his power hand. He can:

  1. Grab the bottom player’s nearside hand, head or collar
  2. Grab or push the bottom player’s nearside knee
  3. Post on the ground or otherwise hide the power hand

These limited options make it much easier for the bottom player to prepare a response.

  1. The bottom player must stretch back to create distance and not leave her nearside hand within reach of the top player’s power hand. If the top player reaches for her head or collar, his arm will become extended and it is easier for her to grab his power hand.
  2. If the top player pushes the bottom player’s nearside knee, she can firmly cover his power hand with her hand. This will gain her a second or so before he can free his hand.
  3. If the top player is hiding is power hand, there is nothing the bottom player needs to do as the power hand is no longer a threat.

In all cases, the bottom player has neutralised the top player’s power hand, and is then able to sit up and gain head position.

Until now, the bottom player has been reacting defensively to the top player’s counters. Even though her goal is an offensive one (gain head position), she has been going about it with a defensive mindset. Her thoughts have been on countering the obstacles that the top player is putting in her path. The top player is the aggressor as he is deciding which obstacles to present to the bottom player.

The top player has the advantage because there are many possible obstacles that he can use (sitting back, pressuring the far deltoid etc). The more possibilities he has, the more options the bottom player must mentally process and the slower her reaction time will become. To regain an advantage and to switch to a more aggressive mindset, the bottom player must reduce the options available to the top player.

The bottom player can create a frame (structure) with her limbs that restricts the options available to the top player. The structure we are using is similar to Robson Moura’s 93 guard but with the inside knee blocking the top player’s far hip instead of her far hand grabbing the pants (no-gi compatible). The key points of this structure are:

  • Near-side knee/shin blocks the top player’s far hip as we covered in week 4.
  • Far-side knee/shin block the top player’s chest or near-side shoulder/biceps.
  • Hands are holding the top player’s upper body and pulling him towards her shins (pull-push like in spider guard).

The knee/shins create a shield that prevents the top player from being able to effectively crush. It may be difficult to transition from a half guard to this structure, so the bottom player may need to use stiff arm (locked elbow) frames to hold her opponent away as she positions her knees.

Faced with this structure, the top player’s immediate concern is not in preventing the bottom player from gaining head position. His attention must first be on dismantling her frames. There are only a small number of ways that he can do this. If the bottom player is aware of the likely behaviour of the top player, she has the advantage.

A strong frame gives the bottom player an advantage is it gives her respite from being crushed, time to think, and a staging platform to launch prepared attacks.

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.