Longevity in Jiu Jitsu (Surface Dwellers, Part 3)

We should all take an honest look at what we want from Jiu Jitsu. Why are we training?The reasons will vary from person to person.  Is one motivation for training better than another? Maybe.

For everyone that has stepped onto the mats there has been some pull or spark of interest in the art. For those who have stayed any length of time there has been something much more. Call it obsession, fascination, passion or love for the art.  There is some reason people stay.  If this is true, shouldn’t people want to stay for the long haul?

It is hard to imagine someone dedicating a significant amount of time and energy to develop themselves through Jiu Jitsu then suddenly stop.  Yes, it happens. someone might find a new passion or Way. So be it. But I think a significant amount of people that quit Jiu Jitsu after being so dedicated and passionate do so for other reasons.

Not progressing

Every practitioner goes through periods of plateaus. Times where they feel their improvement in the art has stopped. They feel stagnant.  This is a crappy feeling but it is completely normal.  We should accept this, if not like it. From my experience, Plateuas signify a “growth spurt” soon to come.  Plateaus, while they don’t feel good, signfy (to me at least) that conscious technique is in the process of digesting into subconcious instinct. (ie, developing muscle memory).  This process takes time.  Students are encouraged to wait it out.  This “Plateau Cycle” happens to all of us.

However, sometimes people stop progressing for other reasons. They are training with wrong motivations.  They are willfully being a Surface Dweller. They only want the  thrill of “victory” over another instead of a deeper understanding of Jiu Jitsu.  Surface Dwellers don’t have any interest in SELF DEVELOPMENT that can be gained through the Way of Jiu Jitsu. They’d really just rather have the “tap.”

To the Surface Dweller, a “tap is a tap.”  Everything is a means to that end. This method of training has its limits. Eventually, the practitioner hits a pretty big wall in their training.  Their technique has not evolved.  They can’t get away with forcing the submission any longer. Their training partners, who were not Surface Dwellers, have progressed and are more savvy now.  This frustrates the Surface Dweller.  Training then usually stops.  This wrong motivation or mindset, while perhaps yielding initial success, has fizzled out.

A few Surface Dwellers will stick around at this point however. Though they typically only seek out new practitioners whom they can easily dominate and crush.  This behavior is deplorable and must be checked!  It sets a toxic example.


Typically, the new practitioner is at more risk of injury than a seasoned veteran. The newbie’s lack of proper technique is overcompensated with physical attributes. Thus, they force.  And by forcing technique against resisting opponents / training partners injuries happen. The new practitioner is at the surface by no fault of his own.  Proper instruction is vital to the survival of the White Belt.  An environment that encourages efficiency and smooth technique helps develop the White Belt and points the way below the surface.

“Grinders,” who may or may not be full fledged Surface Dwellers, usually sustain significant injuries as well. The grinding, smashing and brute force method (in lieu of efficient technique) can get someone a lot of “taps.”  When you are athletic, young, quick, strong or super-flexible you may indeed see success against your opponents or training partners. At least in the short term. But, there is a cost to such grinding (ie, forcing technique or submissions). Injuries happen frequently in this mode. Or, if not significant injury, general wear and tear of the body.  Knee and shoulder surgeries at some point are common amongst the Grinders.  I have witnessed very athletic and youthful practitioners wear out there bodies after a few years.

Cost vs. Benefit

We must weigh everything we do in Jiu Jitsu by its cost.  We have to decide if want to sacrifice our energy and our bodies for a short-term shallow “success.”  Is it worth it?  The default Surface Dweller mindset, a “tap” is worth a high cost.  Depleting your energy to exhaustion or straining your body to the point of fatigue or injury to get a submission is completely short-sighted. This method leads one to burn out, making overall progression in the art stop.

A question I pose to my students frequently is this:  Would you rather get an armbar “tap” from a worthy opponent, or receive a fuller, deeper understanding of the armbar itself?  The former wants the one-time reward, the latter wants the everlasting principle.  I will take knowledge over a little “tap” any day.

The journey and the Big Picture, not the quick fix and worthless “taps.”

When we think about longevity and efficiency, Jiu Jitsu then becomes an art.  A very sophisticated Martial Art.  It becomes a matter of what we want from our training and what we are willing to pay for it.


The Ethics of Aikido and the Hierarchy of Submissions

Most of the traditional martial arts have a code of ethics intertwined within them, but Aikido’s ethics are very interesting. Specifically, how Aikido addresses the ethics of utilizing technique. The ultimate aim in Aikido is to adequately defend oneself and leave the attacker completely unharmed, even when they mean to kill you.

This may seem completely impractical, but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Upon closer examination into the art of Aikido everyone should see some practical value. Granted, the Aikido haters have made very valid arguments regarding the practicality of the art in a real self-defense situation. Generally, that the techniques only work against a very moronic, overly extended attack with some level of cooperation from the attacker. This is very true. Mostly, Aikido does not address even mildly skilled attacks or the issue of a resisting opponent. Given this legitimate criticism, Aikido has some pretty lofty ideals to leave an aggressive attacker completely unharmed. However, the whole art shouldn’t be thrown out because of some bad or unrealistic elements. It is better to take what is useful and leave what is not. Aside from any physical movements or techniques in Aikido, I want to focus on the ethics of doing no harm. Should practitioners of BJJ adopt that same mindset in their training? This question will certainly be divisive amongst the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community.

Why does Aikido espouse these ethics? It is most certainly because its founder Morehei Ueshiba’s religious leanings, which include a combination of Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. But, beyond that, there is an important element of technical development that must accompany anyone who adopts these ethics. The Aikidoka strives not only to leave their attacker unharmed because their affinity to fellow humans, but also because they themselves must have the highest technical ability in order to do so. In the case of Jiu Jitsu, having the “Highest Technical Ability” is the ultimate goal. Or at least it should be. The BJJ practitioner should have such skill and “Technical Gap” as to merely play with an aggressive attacker like a cat with a mouse. In this case, there is no need to harm the attacker. The attacker can be controlled in a calm and equanimous manner. A recent video was posted online of Matt Serra, who is Renzo Gracie’s first American black belt and unarguably a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu badass. The video shows Matt, who was at a restaurant with his family, get into a confrontation with an individual who was causing problems. The video (click HERE) shows Matt effortlessly control the individual. He wasn’t hurting him, choking him, or breaking his arms (which he most certainly could have), instead he just calmly mounted him and nonchalantly controlled him. The reason Matt Serra could do this is due to his high level of expertise in Jiu Jitsu. The “Technical Gap” here was extremely wide.

But this becomes an issue when the attacker has a skill set closer to our own. When the “Technical Gap” is smaller. In Aikido, the techniques more or less require a very un-technical attack. A lunging, over extended haymaker punch or over-hand chop. Timing, footwork and circular motions are then used to create dynamic off balancing and leverage. This is all very useful and good if the attacker is completely unskilled. The same techniques will fail horribly against any skilled martial artist. But, there are technical elements, we as BJJ practitioners, can adopt into our repertoire. Circular and blending motions just to name a couple. Technical aspects aside, we can also adopt the ethics of doing no harm. Maybe because we just want to be ethical human beings, or because in order to achieve such ideals we need a huge “Technical Gap.” This inspires the BJJ practitioner to work hard and gain mastery of the art. But to gain mastery of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu takes a very long time and is extremely difficult. This is because the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is quality checked and pressure tested against resistance every step of the way.

In BJJ, dealing with resisting opponents is standard practice. These opponents will have varying degrees of technical development. SKILL versus SKILL everyday. Not SKILL versus NO SKILL. The resistance training method in the BJJ keeps the sword sharp and readily usable. The saying “Iron Sharpens Iron,” is certainly apt for BJJ. When the “Technical Gap” is smaller between us and our opponent (which is commonplace in Jiu Jitsu) we don’t have the luxury of “playing” with them. We must employ multiple layers of strategy and technique to control our opponent. This is very difficult. And this difficulty (ie, resistance) hones our weapon (ie, technique) to a razor sharpness. And in this quest for control, we employ submissions. We must utilize these submissions because we have to gain the advantage. But not all submissions are equal.

There is a hierarchy to submissions based upon how capable the attacker will be to continue their aggression. The smaller the joint is, the more likely the attacker can keep fighting. The Hierarchy is as follows (from least to greatest):

  • Wrist (gooseneck, cowhand, Nikyo, Sankyo, KoteGaeshi)
  • Ankle (straight ankle lock, toe-hold, cross-body ankle lock)
  • Elbow (arm bar)
  • Knee (kneebar, heel hook)
  • Shoulder (Kimura, Americana, Omoplata)
  • Hip (Hip locks)
  • Neck & spine cranks (Twister, neck cranks)
  • Neck strangulations (Rear naked choke, Guillotine, circle chokes)

Wrist locks are the lowest of the hierarchy. Losing mobility of the wrist and hand is minor in the grand scheme of things. A tough opponent can keep fighting through this. As we progress up the hierarchy to bigger joints, the likelihood of our opponent continuing diminishes greatly. Then we come to the highest technical submission, the neck strangulation. Restricting blood flow to the brain by constricting the carotid arteries renders the attacker unconscious and completely incapable of continuing aggression. It is also the most humane submission, leaving the attacker uninjured (unless it is not released then it renders death.) So, technically speaking, the Jiu Jitsu practitioner should choose the highest order of submissions, the strangle. But life and combative situations are seldom ideal. We accept the reality of the situation and take the opportunities we can to affect our opponent. If the “Technical Gap” is tiny, then we may have no choice but to take the submission that presents itself. The weakest and mostly ignored joint, the wrist, is usually an easy target. So we may feel the need to snag a wrist lock in lieu of a higher order submission, such as an armlock or kimura. We can even use threats of submissions as a means to climb the ladder of submissions. We can put our opponent in a situation that he must defend his arm so that the pathway to his neck is clear. All things being equal, we should always choose the highest order of physical submissions, the neck strangulation.

So, we practice our skills and sharpen our techniques at every rung of the technical / submission hierarchical ladder. We do this day in and day out with our training partners/team mates in the dojo. Each training partner will have different levels of skill and experience that challenges (ie, sharpens) our skill. This method of training within the smaller “Technical Gaps” is a crucial and necessary step to widening that gap. To advancing our skill. So that we may be able to toy with an attacker like a cat with a mouse, just as Matt Serra did.

Could Matt Serra have annihilated that guy? For sure. So why didn’t he? Because he didn’t need to. His level of expertise is at such a high level through years of training that he could have controlled him in his sleep. If Matt were to harm that guy, it would have been purely due to a malevolent ego. It would have been unethical. Remember, Jiu Jitsu is “The Gentle Art.”

The adoption of an Aikido “leaving the attacker” unharmed philosophy is the GOAL, a skill set to aspire to. However, the only real way to get there is through pressure testing our techniques in realistic/resistive situation with other skilled opponents. To do this, submissions are necessary because the “Technical Gap” is small. They must be utilized to gain advantage that can quickly go to our opponent. If, as BJJ practitioners, we can hold our own with other skilled BJJ practitioners, then we can effortlessly control the unskilled attacker. In this case, outside the dojo in a real life self-defense situation, submissions may not be necessary. Calm and relaxed control is all that is needed, as in the case of Matt Serra. There then is no need to harm. So, it can be argued then that the ultimate submission is NO SUBMISSION. I often refer to this a Psychological Submission. If we agree with the ethical stance of Aikido, we view aggressors that mean us harm as being of a lower evolutionary order. They are just operating on a lower level. To harm them is an option, but at the cost of our own higher order. If we take these “attacks” as a direct insult to our ego rather than them just being unevolved, then we ourselves de-evolve.

That should be the ideal of every BJJ practitioner. To be so masterfully skilled that we can just play with our attacker, and choose to show mercy. But BJJ practitioners also understand that mercy may not be an option. We may have to break a limb or choke someone unconscious to protect ourselves or others. We understand that to truly “play” with an attacker we must first accept reality and prepare for it by utilizing the hierarchy of submissions on skilled and resisting training partners for several years.


An Analogy for Risk

Diving further into the concept of taking risks in our BJJ training and how important it is for technical development, I have come to compare it to that of a tightrope walker.  For our purposes here let us say that the purpose and goal of a tightrope walker is to be gracefully balanced and walk end to end with ease.  To remain supremely balanced on the thinnest of ropes. Likewise, our purpose and goal in BJJ is to have the highest technical accuracy that we can attain, and to flow effortlessly between these techniques.  So how can both the tightrope walker and the BJJ practitioner achieve these goals?

The Tightrope Walker

The tightrope walker must start off as everyone else, a novice.  He will start by attempting to walk a wider area where keeping balance is easier.  He may start by walking a plank maybe one-foot wide.

This will soon become too easy for the tightrope walker.  It is too safe and not challenging whatsoever.  To increase his skills (purpose & goals) he will then incrementally narrow the surface he crosses.  He may whittle it down inch by inch to get used to the narrowing surface. Baby-stepping (as it were) to increase his skill.  Or he may take bigger leaps and radically narrow the surface area.  He may then go onto something like a thick rope, with maybe a 2-inch width.

He will certainly lose his balance and fall several times. This “failure” carries with it gifts of knowledge/experience.  His body is learning each time he falls.  With each attempt his skill set increases.  Before too long he will be on the thinnest of wires.

The tightrope walker’s skill has evolved to a masterful level.  Had he remained content walking the wide plank he would never have achieved such heights.  He sought out the challenge and got out of his comfort zone. He did not play it safe.

The BJJ Practitioner

The Jiu Jitsu practitioner must also get out of his comfort zone if he is to increase his skill.  The novice has an incredibly small technical repertoire.  Generally,  he has two paths to choose from: stick with the small number of moves he has learned and may have some success at, or branch out and try new things even if they are done incorrectly.  The safe way (risk adverse) is to remain on the wide plank. To continue on the tried and true path. The growth way (risk accepting) is to challenge yourself with uncomfortable techniques and situations.  To narrow the surface area to the thinnest of wires.  One way leads to masterful skill, the other does not.

At a more skilled level, a proficient practitioner will have a different set of choices.  When he goes up against a person whose skill is equal or greater to his own he may have a tendency to be more conservative (i.e. risk adverse).  He has a choice:  Walk the wide plank (risk adverse) or the thin wire (risk accepting).

The “wide plank” people will only engage their opponent (i.e. training partner) when the path is safe and chance of failure is low.  They are too scared of being  bested.  They don’t want to look bad.  The “thin wire” people will engage their opponent knowing and accepting the risk.  They will walk the line.

Why are some practitioners “wide plank” people while others are “thin wire” people?  Here is my opinion:  WIDE PLANK people value image over substance.  They think of the immediate consequence of failure…looking bad.  Or, they just have an intrinsic hatred of failure.  They berate themselves at any slight mistake they make.  These are the folks who swear at themselves when they get caught in a submission or are swept. They have a fixed mindset.  Conversely, THIN WIRE people don’t think about image.  They think know deep down that mistakes are a part of learning. They keep the goal of progress in the art in clear view and they know that every so-called “failure” has with it an opportunity for improvement.  These people see getting swept or submitted by their training partner as a gift. When a THIN WIRE person gets caught in an armbar,  he smiles, looks to his partner and says, “that was nice armbar!”  They have a growth mindset.

To attain mastery in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (which I assume is the goal of every practitioner) we need to become acquainted with every aspect, position and situation.  We need to be exposed to it all.  Imagine if the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an elaborate house. A 10,000 square foot mansion.  To really know the house, we would have to explore it. Go into every room, closet , bathroom, pantry, etc.  We could never really know the house by spending the whole time in just one room! We should risk getting lost and explore.  Similarly, we cannot really learn BJJ by staying on the wide plank.  By only doing techniques we are comfortable with or by not engaging our opponent until the path is clear (because against a skilled opponent the path will NEVER be clear).  There is no growth in comfort.


This is a tightrope walker…

…and this is not (below).

Clearly, not engaging keeps you safe.

The safe way leads nowhere.  The dojo is one huge safety net.  Walk the tightrope, take risks and expose yourself to the hazards.  In that way we can explore every nook and cranny in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.









The casual observer of Jiu Jitsu will most likely be familiar with what an Armbar is.  However, like everything in Jiu Jistu, there is more to it than meets the eye.  Remember the 3 principles for submissions: Isolate, set-up, apply. The technique is fairly simple in its application, but a lot of students, mainly beginners, struggle with the technique’s set-up.  Like all submissions, if the set-up is off, then the application is choppy, ugly and forced. In a word, incorrect.  The following is a simple explanation to help the beginner better understand the standard armbar.


The armbar is a submission technique designed to attack the elbow joint.  Force is applied to the backside of the elbow making it bend in an unnatural way.  Basically hyper-extending it to the point of dislocation or breaking.


Imagine a stick the length of a human arm with the elbow joint being in the middle.  Since we are looking to attack that point (by applying force) we must first secure the 2 end points.  Without securing the endpoints the middle (elbow) cannot be attacked.  It is an easy concept to grasp, but often students forget to secure one  of the endpoints properly.

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Skeleton key techniques are esoteric, hidden techniques that hold great power.  They are the Holy Grail of techniques.  These are techniques that work in any situation with 100% success rate.  The Skeleton key Guard Pass, Skeleton Key Sweep, and the Skeleton Key Submission.  Many BJJ practitioners have explored the depths of YouTube to find such hidden gems in the hopes of employing them on their teammates.  They want to set themselves apart from the herd and be the special Jedi of the dojo.  They want the key that gives them victory with ease and they want to be revered for having special knowledge. 

I advise against seeking out Skeleton Key techniques.  Why?  First of all, they don’t exist. They are like Bigfoot.  A myth.  But, people still believe they are out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. Secondly, the need to beat everyone with a single move is egotistical and ignores the beauty and depth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Lastly, trying to find a hack or shortcut is just plain lazy. Continue reading →


The Ultimate Submission

The CHOKE in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the pinnacle of all submissions.  When properly applied it renders the opponent unconscious.  That’s it!  Game over.  Seem easy enough?  Well, I want to express my understanding and opinion of THE CHOKE so that my students (and hopefully the BJJ community as whole) apply this submission in all its various forms, with the highest level of sophistication.  If we aim for a high level of sophistication, we represent ‘The Gentle Art’ for what it is.  An effective, highly evolved, ethical, self-defense system.

But the term CHOKE is a misnomer.  We use the term only for simplicity.  But STRANGULATION has too many syllables I guess.  But, that’s what the submission really is…a strangulation.  Restricting the flow of blood to the brain, leading to unconsciousness. But for continuity and simplicity, I will keep referring to it as a CHOKE.

Levels of Sophistication

Not all chokes are equal.  There is an interconnectedness of target and application to Continue reading →



The foundation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is learning how to survive.  Key components to this are learning highly useful and highly simplistic techniques. These ‘beginner’ techniques are only simple in the big picture of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  The new student will still find these fundamentals challenging, but compared to the BJJ technical repertoire it is but a super-small fraction.  The new student will be so engrossed in learning the mechanics of a technique that the two other critical components to a technique will be ignored.  The brain can only process so much information at one time.  After the student gets a decent handle on the mechanics of a move they will have to pair it up with the proper cue (an indicator to do the move – a “green light” if you will).  Proper cue recognition is then linked to the proper mechanics of a move.  This ‘linking’ of proper mechanics and proper cue recognition is HUGE!  This usually marks the beginning of Blue Belt. However, learning new more complex mechanics and more subtle cues is a continual process throughout everyone’s BJJ journey.   Basic techniques will eventually lead to advanced techniques. Remember, all an advanced technique is, is a stacking or blending of fundamental techniques.  Like all complex recipes, they all have basic ingredients that are put together in sophisticated ways. Fundamental or basic techniques should NEVER be neglected.


After the student understands the mechanics and cue (or cues) of a technique, they will whittle down the technique or cut corners.  This isn’t to say that there is anything Continue reading →


It is natural and understandable that people feel they need certain physical attributes to be successful at Jiu Jitsu.  Many times I have heard comments like, “I need to be faster,”  “I wish I was more flexible,”  “I need to start lifting weights.”   Heck, once upon a time I thought this way.  And these wishes are good and it is okay to seek this. But lets get real…a 6′ 3″, 240 lbs. man is not going to move as quickly as 5′ 6″, 140 lbs. one!  Right?  Now there are things the larger man can do to be quicker…but there are limits.  There is no escaping physics.  Similarly, some people are just made with inherently flexible joints, and some are stiff as a board.  Genetics plays a role.  Simply put, there are various body-types and they all have pros and cons.  Stereotyping for simplicity here, but little guys are weak and big guys are slow…right?  Some people are flexible and some are not.  Rarely is there a Superman who possesses speed, power and flexibility.


Increasing your physical attributes can be a good thing, as long as it is secondary!  The danger is when students put it first.  Thinking success in Jiu Jitsu depends on how fast they are or how much weight they can lift.  Don’t get me wrong, there can be short term success by being steroided out…but only at the entry levels of Jiu Jitsu.  Against novices who don’t have much a technical repertoire.  Even if a power-lifter learns enough technique to reach purple belt, he will have a far less sophisticated game than he would have had otherwise.  Students who focus on the need to increase strength, speed or flexibility instead of increasing technique short change themselves and their Jiu Jitsu! Continue reading →


1,000 Reps

– An essential part in learning any skill is repetition. The more reps we do, the more our skill develops. The same concept goes for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We repeat a technique over and over getting used to the movements. Teaching our bodies. Muscle memory. Conscious brain into subconscious mind/body. Repetition is essential.

As we do our reps we must also hone the technique to its ultimate efficiency. Absorbing feedback from our coach, our partners, and ourselves. Making adjustments to the mechanics (moving parts) so it works better. With each rep there is an opportunity to improve the technique. Be mindful of what you are doing. A simple technique that we already know should be drilled with the same attention as a newer flashy technique or submission.

Continue reading →