What should you focus on to progress faster? BJJ Concepts or Techniques

Most of us have seen that person or persons at their academy that suddenly just jumped in level. You know what I’m talking about; three months ago you were matching them move for move in rolling, but now it’s all you can do from being submitted. They didn’t get any stronger, they weren’t training more but they were suddenly BETTER.

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What happened? How did they improve so quickly? The answer is most likely that they internalized one or more CONCEPTS.

The Importance of Jiu-Jitsu Concepts vs. BJJ Techniques

First, let’s make things clear: what is a concept and how does it differ from a technique?

Here’s my definition. A concept is the fundamental principle that makes a technique or set of techniques work. A technique is just a series of moves ending up with a certain outcome.

Let me explain using a non-BJJ analogy. Take simple physics. An underlying principle (concept) would be something like Newton’s Laws of Motions. Just three simple laws yet its applications (techniques) are endless, from launching rockets to shaking a bottle of ketchup.


Hence, concepts are the overarching principles which make techniques work. In general, if a technique doesn’t work, it probably violates some concept.

So why is learning concepts so important?

Think back to your math classes back in school. Do you remember which students excelled at math? Were they the ones who only memorized the formulas and equations or the ones who took the time to understand why the formulas and equations worked?

The answer is obviously the second group. If you were from the ‘memorizer’ group, you probably had issued with math problems that changed the structure of the problem.

That is because now your preset memorized equations no longer fit the modified structure. To solve the problem, you had to be able to understand WHY and HOW the equations worked and modify them to fit the problem.

The same applies to Jiu-jitsu. When you understand and internalize underlying concepts you are better able to:

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    Improvise on the fly: You will be able to create your own series of techniques based on that concept. This is why so many high level practitioners have their own ‘flavor’ to a similar technique.
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    Evaluate new BJJ techniques: When someone shows you a new technique, you can tell whether it is ‘good’ or not based on whether it violates some underlying concept.
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    Easily incorporate technique variations: Because you recognize the concept that the technique is based upon, you understand how it works and can integrate it into your game easier.
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    Defend against techniques you’ve never seen before: At the rate BJJ is evolving, it is a guarantee you will be forced to deal with never before seen techniques. However, just as long as you recognize what are the underlying concepts that the technique is based upon, you will understand at least the basics of its defense.
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The 8 Most Important Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Concepts

Here is a list of some of the most important Jiu-Jitsu concepts. By no means should this list be considered exhaustive or definitive, however I believe that this is, at the very least, a good starting point.

#1 Use Your Opponent’s Power against Themselves

“Jiu-Jitsu is always about action and reaction”  ~ Cobrinha

This is one of those clichés you hear so often in non-resistive traditional martial arts such as (modern) Aikido. It’s been said so often that it may elicit an involuntary eye-rolling reaction in some people who read this. While it is a cliché, it doesn’t make it any less important and this concept is widely used throughout BJJ.

A good way to view it is thinking of using your opponent’s momentum, instead of power, against themselves. Skilled grapplers will make use of this concept countless times in an average training session. Take a look at this quick list of examples of this concept expressed through these BJJ techniques and you will instantly see what I mean.

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    Bridging into your opponent when under side control and using his subsequent momentum to reverse the position entirely.
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    Driving your opponent’s knees to his chest when passing guard and when he pushes back you redirect the legs into a toreando or leg drag pass.
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    Pushing your opponent’s hips with your feet and when he pushes back lifting him up for an overhead sweep.

How to Apply This Concept

The best way to apply this concept is to think of it as Push/Pull or Action/Reaction. If you want to pull your opponent toward you, set it up with a push first. When he pushes back against your push, then you pull. Your pull will then be more powerful as it has the added benefit of his own forward momentum. This applies the other way too of course, if you want to push, try pulling first.

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#2 Control before Submission

“Instead of focusing on getting the submission, I am focused on trying to win positions during the match. I believe that if you win the positions, you will get closer to the submission. Little by little your opponent will leave you openings that you can take advantage of.”     ~ Bernardo Faria

Every single person who trains BJJ has heard of position before submission. In ‘classical’ BJJ, this concept meant obtaining dominant position before going for the submission. Think of the choke or armbar from the mount or back position; considered the pinnacle of classical jiu-jitsu.

However that paradigm has evolved, together with BJJ itself. Now, it is more accurate to call it control before submission.

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The difference in terminology seems trivial, but it is important to differentiate it from the classical positional hierarchy. This new paradigm includes the concept of limb control. These are positions that fall outside the traditional hierarchy but still afford a high level of control over the opponent.

Classic Hierarchy of Dominant Positions:

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    Side control and its variations.
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    Knee on belly.
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    Full Mount.
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    Back Control.

Modern Conception of Positional Control Examples:

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    Kimura control.
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    Hip and leg control.
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    Head control.
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    All the classical positions.

For further reading, Bloody Elbow has an excellent write-up titled Limb Control: Rethinking 'Position before Submission'.

How to Apply This Concept

In addition to the traditional positional hierarchy, you should explore the concepts of limb control discussed above. A good way to start is through the use of the kimura, a basic move that everyone has learned. Yet, this simple grip is a powerful control tool that can be used to advance position and obtain submissions beyond the kimura itself.

#3 Focused Weight Distribution

“Precision Pressure; Takes years to develop, but once you got it, you got it forever!!!”  ~ Rafael Lovato Jr.

Everyone has that story about the advanced guy who weighs 150lbs but feels like 250lbs. Conversely, they’ve also probably rolled with a beginner who weighed 250lbs but felt much lighter. The ability to generate crushing yet precise pressure from the top position is a key ability in jiu-jitsu. It’s what you need to pass guards, to maintain dominant position, and to create openings.

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The concept here is focused weight distribution. Pressure is the amount of force applied per square area, whereas weight is technically a unit of force. And so, to generate the greatest amount of pressure, you need to distribute it over the smallest surface area possible.

That being said, this concept is not only about pressure. More pressure may not necessarily be the best tool for the situation. Instead you should always think about what objective you are trying to achieve.

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    Stacking your opponent to pass the guard is a form of pressure.
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    Holding your opponent down in side control is a form of pressure.
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    Applying a crushing knee on belly to open up submission opportunities is a form of pressure.

How to Apply This Concept

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First think of the objective of the pressure as per the above. Second, think about which part of your body you will use to apply the pressure and which part of your opponent’s body you will apply the pressure on. Because this is such a broad concept, each situation is different. That said here are some general tips to keep in mind while rolling which are sure to be of help.

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    Push off the ground with your toes to generate more pressure when in side control.
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    Stay on the balls of your feet and lean your weight into your hands when doing toreando style guard passes.
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    Focus on their weak points: Driving your head into their chin or jaw or your knee into their sternum is a great way to generate highly uncomfortable pressure from the top.
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    Use specific pressure to counter specific actions. For example, if they are trying to turn into you from under side control, focus your pressure on their top shoulder.

#4 Posture Exists in Every Position

“Anytime I am able to dominate my opponent’s head, he is in a lot of trouble. I am able to take his spine from alignment…. It is absolutely critical that we do not bend our spine” ~ Ryan Hall

When most beginners think about posture, they think about only one situation; posture from inside the closed guard. After all, that is the main situation where your opponent has the most tools at his disposal to break down your posture. But that’s a very narrow way of looking at it, because posture exists in every position.

In this context, posture refers to the alignment of your spine. Straight and neutral spine equals good posture while a bent spine, particularly at the neck, is bad posture. You can generate maximal power with a good posture. Conversely a weak posture will severely limit your capability to generate force.

Here’s an analogy, imagine that you are doing a barbell squat with 135lbs; warm up weight for most people. Now imagine squatting that same weight with your chin touching your chest or one of your ears touching your shoulder. What do you think would happen?

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Here are a couple examples of posture disruption that you might already be doing without realizing:

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    When passing the guard, you place your head on the ground next to your opponent’s head and use it to bend his ear toward his shoulder.
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    When in mount, place one of your hands on the ground by his temple and use it to bend his ear towards his shoulder.
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    In the smash pass to mount, you are disrupting his posture by forcing his hips one way and his head the other way.
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    To successfully finish a guillotine, your opponent’s posture must be broken.
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    Good posture is the number one defense to all upper body attacks from the bottom.

How to Apply This Concept

No matter what position you are in, always be mindful of your posture and your opponent’s attempts to disrupt them. Here’s a good tip on maintaining posture, particularly from the top position. Think about the torso position you would be using when squatting or deadlifting heavy weights: chest out, hips in, tense core, and squeezing the shoulder blades back. Now mimic that.

Conversely, you should be on the constant lookout for opportunities to disrupt your opponent’s posture.

#5 An Open Elbow is a Weak Elbow

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“Under any circumstance with the open elbow, you are in so much risk, it’s not even funny” ~ Ryan Hall

You may have heard your BJJ coach telling you to keep your hands by your side like a T-Rex. The idea behind that advice is of course to keep your elbows close to yourself, in a biomechanically strong position. The opposite to this is that an open elbow is a biomechanically weak situation.

By open elbow, we mean how far your elbow strays from the sides of your torso. The more your elbows flare, the more danger you are in. Think of the kimura and omoplata, two common attacks that require the open elbow to execute. An open elbow can also function as a lever for the entire body. This is what makes the kimura such a versatile control position.

The most common ways that BJJ practitioners try to create the open elbow are:

  • Using a sleeve grip to pull the elbow away from the body, as in attacking the omoplata from collar and sleeve guard.
  • Stretching out the opponent with the foot in the biceps, such as through spider guard.
  • Using a lasso to ensure the opponent can never truly touch his elbows to his ribs.

  • Forcing the opponent to post his hands on the mat, as in the most basic example of attacking the kimura from the closed guard.

How to Apply This Concept

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Realize that many attacking opportunities, particularly from the guard, rely on creating an open elbow situation. Hence, think about opening your opponent’s elbows when structuring your techniques.

Once have created an open elbow situation, there are various BJJ techniques you can use to take advantage of it. On the flip side, every time your own elbows are straying from your sides, alarm bells should be ringing in your head.

#6 Build Frames

“Framing, in my opinion the most overlooked yet most important aspect of Jiu-Jitsu.”~ Tom DeBlass

Framing refers to the way you align your limbs to create a biomechanically sound structure that can resist pressure without collapsing. Understanding how to create sound frames is a necessary skill in BJJ. Frames come in various shapes and forms, a few examples are:

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    A knee shield half guard with a forearm in the throat is a frame.
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    Putting two feet on the hips of the opponent or the knees in your opponent’s chest is a frame.
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    Stiff-arming your opponent’s shoulder and hips as he is trying to pass your guard is a frame.
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How to Apply This Concept

Remember that the guard is first and foremost a defensive position. When you are in any guard position, or any bottom position really, look to use your limbs as a whole to create frames that can resist the pressure of even much larger and stronger opponents.

Here are some keys that make for a strong frame. Note that it is not necessary for a frame to follow all these simultaneously to be effective.

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    Your Limbs Support Each Other. Consider the knee shield half guard example. In a high knee shield variation where your knee is at your opponent’s chest level, you can support that knee by placing the elbow of your top hand (the one framing his throat) on the inside of your knee. In the low knee shield variation, you can use your free hand to support the arm framing your opponent’s throat.
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    You Frame With Your Bones. A locked out joint can support much more weight than a bent one as it uses your body’s skeletal structure as opposed to muscular strength. This is particularly important when framing with the arms.
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    You Are Connected To The Ground. The ground is the only immovable object when grappling. Consider the sit up escape from side control; the only way you would be able to sit up would be by posting a hand (locked out) on the ground. That way all the pressure of your opponent is ultimately supported by the ground through your frame.

#7 Control the Hips

“Move your hips, porra!” ~ Every single Brazilian instructor ever.

If I had the dollar for every time I’ve heard the above phrase in training and competition, I could probably have bought myself a new car. BJJ is all about the hips; the hips can generate tremendous amounts of power (just think of how much weight you can lift in a glute bridge). It’s also what enables us to create many advantageous angles of attack.

Therefore in order to control your opponent, it is imperative that you control his hips or take it out of the equation. Consider the following scenarios.

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    In mount, you are controlling his hips with your legs or taking them out of the equation by sitting high on his chest in high mount.
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    When passing the guard, you should box in your opponent’s hips before trying to progress to full side control. Hence the popularity of the leg drag and hip rewind style movements.
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    In back control, your legs are controlling your opponent’s hips.
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    In north-south, his hips are taken out of the equation.
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    Closed guard is such a powerful position because your legs are wrapped around his hips.

Here is a great essay (with videos) on hip control by Atos black belt, Tim Sledd.

How to Apply This Concept

During rolling, always keep in mind where your hips are in relation to your opponent’s hips. Ask yourself the following questions:

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    Are his hips completely free to move?
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    What am I doing right now to control his hips?
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    Where are his hips placed in relation to mine; what angles is he trying to cut with his hip movement?
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    What can I do right now to limit his hip mobility?

#8 Focus On Your Core Techniques

“I will stress the importance of drilling technique over and over.  I think this is one of the most common errors people make in training.  Everyone wants to learn a whole bunch of moves, but no one wants to spend the time drilling and practicing each one in order for it to become automatic for them. All the time, I see blue belts who are aware of so many moves but are unable to execute more than a handful in sparring or competition. They are just aware of the move – they often really don’t understand the details of the position, and they do not drill it enough to be able to execute it without thinking. If they would dedicate time to drilling a few positions, rather than trying to learn a hundred, it would help their game a lot.”
~ Cobrinha

This concept has not so much to do with physics and the body’s biomechanical structure, but rather the ideal way to improve and learn BJJ. Cobrinha references blue belts above specifically because based on personal experience as well, blue belts have a tendency of becoming ‘technique collectors’; all breadth and no depth.

What gives a technique depth is the understanding of the underlying concepts, such as the ones we’ve been discussing here, that make the techniques work. Without this understanding, you will only know the ‘how’ while missing the ‘why’. And without the ‘why’ you will not be able to improvise the techniques on the fly in a live situation.

How to Apply This Concept

Quality over quantity. Based on your body type and what has been successful for you during training, choose a certain set of core techniques. This will be the trunk of your skill tree. Drill them over and over and seek to understand not just how, but why these techniques are successful for you. When you wish to expand into new techniques, a  good way is move into ‘related’ techniques; branches on from your main trunk.

A good example is let’s say you have a good butterfly guard game. A natural related technique progression would be to start learning to attack leg locks from the bottom position.


The Verdict - What’s the 80/20?

Instead of repeating what I’ve said before, I’ll let the mad scientist of jiu-jitsu, John Danaher, close out this article in his own words.

“Very often students struggle with the process of learning jiu-jitsu due to a failure to adequately understand and differentiate between the relatively few underlying principles of the sport and the numerous individual techniques that enable us to manifest those principles. Most of our daily training is done in the form of learning and drilling techniques or moves... However, as you progress you must go further and start identifying the broad principles that underlie the sport and which give unity and direction to the innumerable individual moves in ways that can be used profitably in hard combat and which allow a student to improvise and adapt… The underlying principles of jiu-jitsu (and indeed, all combat sports) are as fixed and unyielding as the night sky, rooted as they are, in the unchanging strengths and weaknesses of the mind and physical body of man….Techniques without the guidance of general principles are merely a grab bag of tricks - principles without concrete techniques to enact them are worthless theories that will accomplish nothing. Find the balance between the two”

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