Biomechanics of BJJ 7: Balance / Stability v. Mobility

BJJ matches are dynamic battles between stability and mobility for both the fighter on the bottom and top positions. Practitioners must be able to take advantage of both stability and mobility in order to advance and secure positions. Stability and mobility are two sides of a spectrum; the more stability one has the less mobility they will have and vice versa. Balance must be carefully controlled by being both stable and mobile.

A mechanical understanding of balance will enable you to convey the principles behind sweeps to your students and will in turn allow them to better understand sweeps conceptually and increase their performance. Practitioners must become intimately connected with their balance in order to become better at BJJ. Every sweep and technique requires the ability to manipulate both the student’s and the opponent’s balance. A body is balanced when its center of gravity is above its base of support. If the COG falls outside of the base of support, the body will fall until a new base is created; in order to sweep an opponent, their center of gravity must be moved outside their base of support.

Army combatives demonstration of the scissor sweep. The bottom player is pushing the top player’s center of gravity outside his base of support in order to obtain the sweep.

There are two factors that influence a person’s stability – the height of their center of gravity and the size of their base of support. A lower center of gravity will be more stable, and a higher center of gravity will be more likely to be perturbed by force due to greater torque. This can be demonstrated to students using a scissor sweep, when the opponent is kneeling tall they will be easily swept and when the opponent is low they will be much harder to sweep. The larger somebody’s base of support the more stability they will possess due to greater possibility of movement of the center of gravity.

In order to avoid being swept, you must either maximize stability in order to be kept from knocking off balance, or you must become mobile and create a new post in order to stop the sweep. Most practitioners in the early phases of learning will find it easier to maximize stability instead of creating new posts due to a lack of knowledge of how their bodies will land from a sweep. Students should be taught how to maximize stability by:

  1. Lowering their center of gravity
    By lowering their center of gravity, the practitioner will reduce the amount of torque the opponent can create. A lower center of gravity will make it much more difficult to be swept or moved by an outside force.
  2. Increasing their base of support toward the opposing force
    A large base of support will have more stability but only in the the direction of the force. When being pushed by a large force, a wide base of support will only be helpful if it is towards the direction of the force.
  3. Leaning toward intended opposing force
    By leaning towards the opposing force the center of gravity will be shifted towards the force, making it harder for the center of gravity to be pushed out of the base of support and easier to resist the force. Students should take care to be mindful of how much they are leaning towards the opposing force or their momentum may be taken advantage of.
If A had a much larger base of support than B, they will be knocked off balance due to their base being perpendicular to the incoming force. B will resist force with greater ease due to the direction of the base of support.

These general guidelines will not only help to prevent being swept but will also help students learn how to secure dominant positions. By keeping a low center of gravity, increasing their base and leaning towards an opposing force a student will also be able to keep from being bridged off mount. Stability is important when finishing submissions as well, most submissions require the attacking player to completely eliminate the defender’s mobility in order to prevent any escapes.

One aspect of stability that should be acknowledged is that having more mass contributes to more stability during a static position, a heavyweight will be much more stable than a featherweight due to inherent differences in mass and inertia. A lighter practitioner will have great difficulty sweeping a larger opponent, and will most likely have to resort to moving around a heavier opponent. In this case, mobility is more important than stability.

While maximizing stability is crucial for some aspects of BJJ, students must also be taught how to use dynamic balance while being mobile. Many techniques require control of balance while maximizing mobility. When an opponent is insistent on keeping their stability high, the student should focus on being mobile around their opponent. While stability requires a large base of support and a low center of gravity, mobility relies on a small base of support and higher center of gravity.

Biomechanics of BJJ 6: Base Of Support

How many times have you heard the term “base” on the mats? Have you been told to keep a strong base, or to destroy your opponent’s base? Throughout my time training I’ve heard coaches in every school talk about having strong base – but I’ve never been explain how to actually accomplish this – or even what it means.

Base is a crucial concept in BJJ, but most beginners are never taught what it is, or how to do it. When questioned, many coaches will have a vague idea of what a strong base is. What many coaches mean is that a student should be “strong” in a stance and be hard to move in a position. This definition is clumsy and does not provide enough conceptual knowledge for students to implement into their game. By explaining the concept in biomechanical terms, students will be able to intuitively understand how to use their base.

In biomechanical terms, a base of support for any structure is the area beneath the structure that includes every point of contact that the structure makes with the supporting surface. In simpler terms, base (or a base of support) is all the points on the ground (or your opponent) that is supporting your weight and the area in between. The wider your base is, the more stability you will have. While standing, your base of support are all the points of contact that your feet or shoes make with the ground and the area between; when you widen your stance you increase your base of support. In the push-up position the base of support would be the area under the hands making contact with the ground and the balls of the feet and the area between. While laying on your side, the base of support would include all points in which your body makes contact with the ground. These points of contact are commonly referred to as “posts” within the BJJ community.

Crucial ideas about your base

  • Your base is dynamic and will constantly change as you move
  • Always be aware of where your base of support is to prevent sweeps and to gain stability
  • Placing a post drastically changes your base
  • Posts are platforms that can both exert force (driving off your toes) and receive force (absorbing your opponent’s bridge)
  • The wider your base, the more stability you have
  • The more flexible you are, the large base you can recruit.

Motor Control for BJJ 4: The Learning Process

The difference between a novice BJJ player and a veteran BJJ player is how much cognitive activity is needed for certain tasks. A beginner will have to dedicate a huge amount of cognition into just simply moving their bodies around, and the left over cognitive energy will have to be used on just understanding what is going on in that moment (what’s the opponent doing? Are they trying to pass my guard? Which way are they going to pass?). A veteran player will be able to put minimal amount of cognitive energy into movement – and will be able to put most of their brain into tactics and strategy (or what they will eat for dinner after class.)

New practitioners will have to engage in cognitive activity in order to process information during each roll – the student must consciously think about what to do and how to do it. During this stage the student will make a lot of mistakes, which is natural and should be expected by both the instructor and the student.  The student will also not be able to identify or fix their mistakes, so the instructor will need to tell them what they’re doing wrong and how to do it right. During this stage of development of a student, instructors must give lots of attention and instruction in order to grow the student into a blue belt.

As the white belt transitions to a blue belt, they will understand the basic objectives of BJJ, and will know a handful of moves to attempt to complete their objectives. When a white belt is transitioning into a blue belt she will be able to associate specific cues (either seeing a familiar position, or feeling a specific motion) with movements required to achieve their goal, whether the goal is to pass guard, sweep, or submit. These specific cues will be instilled through many repetitions and classes.

The blue belt will be able to perform with fewer and smaller errors due to acquiring basic fundamentals and mechanics of a skill, although they will still have much to improve upon. As the student improves through purple, brown, and black they will be faster at associating cues with movements and able to perform automatically.  It will only be after years of training that a practitioner will be able to engage in autonomic execution of maneuvers.

When a beginner is learning how to attack with a triangle choke they might only be able to complete the motion of setting up the choke during drills against a non-resisting partner. The triangle set-up will be formulaic and robotic due to the student only able to consciously following instruction. The beginner will not be able to use the triangle choke during rolling sessions because they have not begun to associate the movement of the opponent with valid entries for the triangle. As the beginner drills and rolls more the beginner will be able to associate cues of the opponent, such as one arm in and one arm out, with entries to the triangle.  After many years of practice, the student will be able to non-consciously understand when they can use a triangle and non-consciously attack since the skill has become automatic.

In order to progress through these stages of development, a student requires many repetitions of movement to find best way of solving each positional motor problem given the infinite number of external conditions one might encounter due to the fact that movements are never reproduced exactly. The student must drill positions and techniques with as many different body types and levels of resistance as possible. These drills must be changed in ways in order to not present themselves the same way twice, as a large component of learning is “The student must also attempt to use the techniques and maneuvers drilled during live rolling sessions in order to experience as many modifications of the skills as possible.  

An instructor must take great care in order to take into consideration the behavior and thought process of a beginner student in order to tailor the instruction, feedback, and practice conditions to suit the student. The instruction portion of class should also be structured in a way to maximize the student’s learning in the shortest amount of time.

Strength and Conditioning for BJJ (theory)

The right strength and conditioning program must be tailored specifically around the individual practitioner. Many variables will influence the design of an athlete’s strength and conditioning program. A coach must consider how long has the athlete been training for, what’s the athlete’s history of training, and does the athlete want to compete? A competitor’s strength and conditioning program will greatly vary from a hobbyist. The level of competition in today’s BJJ scene is drastically different than in the nascent days of the sport. There is no longer debate over whether technique is more important than strength. A good BJJ competitor will possess both technique and strength. All top level competitors must have a strength and conditioning program. A hobbyist will not need an intensive strength and conditioning program as a competitor will, as their requirements are drastically lower. However, even hobbyists need a strength and conditioning program in order to resist injury and increase their BJJ longevity.

The strength and conditioning training athletes should be subjected to should directly improve their BJJ. Since many practitioners will be working full-time jobs time must be used as efficiently as possible. Because BJJ is a skill based sport, athletes must spend the majority of their time on the mats in order to accumulate hours in technical tactical training. Due to this, the strength and conditioning of a practitioner must be fast and efficient. The major parts of the practitioners physicality that should be addressed is strength, balance, power, endurance, and joint flexibility.

New practitioners should follow a periodization protocol with hypertrophy, strength, and power. To be the most time efficient, students should make compound multi-joint exercises as their fundamental base exercise. Isolative movements should be disregarded as they will lead to muscle imbalances and do not reflect the way muscles are used in a realistic way. It is important to note that our students are not looking to compete as weightlifters or bodybuilders, the strength and conditioning training is a means to an end – becoming better at BJJ. There should be a focus on function and movement over specific muscle groups Another consideration is that BJJ is a weight class sport, so hypertrophy can be detrimental to practitioners. Load intensity should be prioritized over total volume in order to decrease hypertrophy and increase strength.

Along with strength training, competitors must improve their energy systems, colloquially referred to as their “cardio”. While most coaches have a shallow understanding of energy systems, often suggesting to students to run long distances in order to increase their “cardio”, it is important to train all three energy systems, the ATP-Pcr, glycolytic, and oxidative phosphorylation system. Since a BJJ match can range from 5-10 minutes, athletes must have good anaerobic and aerobic endurance in order to perform well throughout a single match and on subsequent matches.

Another consideration is that the training paradigm a BJJ athlete will differ from the traditional annual planning template due to the lack of a competition season in BJJ. There are only a few large BJJ tournaments that occur throughout the year, with many smaller local tournaments occurring consistently throughout the year. The paradigm of training for a competition season does not work within the sport of BJJ. Athletes must maintain a base level of athleticism throughout the year.

Motor Control for BJJ 3: Stages of Learning

In order to teach a beginner BJJ, you must understand how a beginner learns. While some coaches will try to show a 5-10 techniques in a session thinking they are teaching their students, this only serves to overload most practitioners (personally, I have noticed that after 3 moves I start forgetting key details) . As an instructor, you must take into consideration the behavior and thought process of a beginner student in order to tailor the instruction, feedback, and practice conditions to suit the student.

The skill level of different belt colors varies dramatically, for examples competitive blue belts may be able to compete at a similar level as a hobbyist black belt. This is due to differences in starting abilities of practitioners and promotions based on mat time. However, in general there are clear distinctions between lower and higher belts. For our purposes, a lower belt is a white or blue belt and a higher belt is purple and up.

A higher belt is more consistent in their performance. While a lower belts’ performance can fluctuate dramatically day to day, a higher belt will have learned enough to perform similarly well every training session. A higher belt will have more stability in their game, with internal (thoughts, feelings, fatigue) and external factors (humidity, heat, cold) affecting him or her less. A higher belt has more persistent skills, being able to be away from training for months or years and still being able to perform relatively well during training. A higher belt will also have more adaptability, being able to adapt their maneuvers and movements against new opponents and new contexts, and able to improvise techniques. A higher belt will also need to pay less attention to their motor commands and will be able to assign more attention on strategy.

The transition from a lower belt to a higher belt is very slow, with vast improvements in skills and abilities during the early stages of training. The rate of improvement is logarithmic, with the greatest increase in skill occurring at the earlier years. A huge amount of learning occurs during the beginning few months of a person’s BJJ career.

In many gyms students are placed within the already occurring curriculum and are expected to learn along with students who are already learning. This is not optimal for new students as they lack a basis for understanding why techniques or movements are used. The new student will not understand what they are supposed to do or why they are supposed to do something when instructed to do so. In order to jump start a new student’s development, beginners should be informed of the following:
⦁ What the objectives are
⦁ What is allowed to meet the objective
⦁ How to move their bodies in order to meet the objective

Motor Control for BJJ 2: Skill Learning

BJJ beginners will often find it difficult to learn the motor skills in BJJ, such as sprawling, hip bumping, and break falls. Learning submissions and sweeps may seem incredibly difficult, and executing these moves during rolling may seem impossible. However, as training time increases executing skills during drilling will become easier, and executing these moves during sparring will become second nature.

A common belief among coaches is that the only way to improve is “mat time,” with many believing in the myth of expertise being obtained after 10,000 hours of mat time. While it is true that students will become better at BJJ as time spent drilling and rolling increases, the total amount of time poorly correlates with skill improvement.

As you train, you will find that there will be dedicated practitioners who will stay as a white belt for many years despite hundreds of hours of mat time accumulated. You will also find the rare individual who will start their BJJ career able to roll competitively with higher belts. This discrepancy between skill level and mat time exists due to the inherent abilities that are possessed by people. If someone has wrestled before they will have a lot of well-developed skills that overlap with BJJ. If someone decides to do BJJ after a lifetime of sedentary behavior, they will have to develop skills from the ground up.

Learning BJJ is hard for everyone, but it will be harder for some than others. However, approaching training and drilling sessions with a scientific approach will allow us to optimize skill learning. Many students are on a limited time schedule and must sacrifice time with their family or performing important job functions in order to attend BJJ classes. It is imperative that classes are structured in a way to optimize skill learning and increasing performance of a student. The goal of an instructor should be to maximize the student’s learning of BJJ. Every warm-up and drill should be structured in order to maximize the learning process of a student. Any part of class that is not catered in a way to help a student progress should be critically evaluated.

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Biomechanics of BJJ 5: Gravity / Center of Gravity


Gravity is one of the fundamental forces of the universe: gravity’s force pulls all objects with mass together. The Earth’s force pulls you onto the planet and pulls galaxies together. Gravity is always acting upon objects which have mass; since your body is made of mass, gravity is always acting upon you. This action of gravity is what gives you weight.

Gravity is one of the most important concepts in BJJ due to the nature of the sport. You need to know how to use gravity to your advantage, and that in most cases one person will benefit from the force of gravity while the other will be disadvantaged by gravity. In general, the force of gravity is the main component in making positions either favorable or unfavorable. The person in the top position can exert the force of their weight on the person on the bottom position without relying on muscular force. The person on the bottom position will be forced to endure the weight of their opponent and will be forced to exert muscular force in order to move the weight of their opponent. BJJ legend Demian Maia succinctly explains the proper way to use  gravity in the following quote – “Your opponent should be carrying your bodyweight while you are resting. When I rest, I should put him to work so I don’t work and he works and he gets tired!” Another way of thinking of this is that gravity is free energy, and students should be taught to exploit that free energy.

Center of Gravity

The center of gravity is an important concept that you should understand to make sense of many sweeps and positions that you will encounter during training. Gravity acts upon all objects in a way where the overall pull is concentrated on a singular point, where the average mass of the object lies – the center of gravity (COG). The force of gravity constantly pulls a body’s COG in a straight line towards the center of the earth.

The human body, with its almost unlimited postures and positions allows for a shifting center of gravity – even at times outside of the body itself. During a normal standing posture with arms hanging by the side, the body’s center of gravity is approximately around the navel, and it can be generally assumed that a person’s center of gravity will lie around the hips in most postures.

By configuring their own body, a person can change their COG in order to resist sweeps or prevent themselves from falling over. In general, a lower COG will allow for greater stability, squatting will lower the COG and provide more stability. Students should be taught to control their COG to prevent being swept, and to control their opponent’s COG in order to set them up to be swept.

Figure 3.3: The body’s center of gravity will change based on limb position and posture

            Gymnasts and divers can change their position in the air by changing the position of their COG by extending or flexing their limbs. The position of the COG can change substantially based on where each individual body segment is, and each individual body segment’s influence is proportional to its weight and distance from the COG. Due to this, an outstretched arm or leg can shift the COG further than one can expect. Students should be taught to use their COG dynamically, to become heavier and lighter in certain positions to prevent sweeps.

Another aspect regarding COG that should be taught is that by having a student get their COG close to their opponent’s COG, they will retain better control over them because they can treat their two masses as one.

Motor Control for BJJ 1: Intro to Motor Control / BJJ Complexity

Motor control is the process in which humans learn to coordinate their muscles and bodies in order to create a movement. Motor control lays the coordination foundations for movement. Motor learning is the process of learning the actual coordination of specific motor skills. 

The question is this: when do you consider a skill learned? You may have noticed that you can execute a technique during practice against varying degrees of resistance, but won’t be able to execute the same technique during live rolls. After hundreds of repetitions of a technique you still will not be able to execute a technique. Why? Is this a problem with drilling or a problem with learning? In this series I will present ways to improve skill learning and optimize performance. 


BJJ is one of the most difficult martial arts to learn due to the complexity of movements and strategies involved. During live rolling sessions, two practitioners must try to move and reach their movement goals while their opponent is actively trying to stifle their advancement and achieve their own movement goals. Each practitioner must try to time their movements to take advantage of their opponent’s balance, and to find stability as their opponent tries to destabilize them. Every roll is unique due to the varying anthropometrics of each practitioner (mass, height, limb length) and the near infinite strategies one may adopt for each roll. Each practitioner must understand how to control their opponent by gripping their gi or limbs, or taking advantage of lever points inherent in the human body. 

It is often difficult for new practitioners to become proficient in grappling because most people do not have much experience moving around on the floor after they learned to walk. Other martial arts are much easier to pick up since the basic posture is upright and standing, while the postures for BJJ mostly consists of lying on the ground with your back against the floor or with your front against your opponent. Moving from these positions and postures is extraordinarily difficult for most new practitioners, and you’ll find that many times a beginner will not be able to complete the warm-up section of class – particularly shrimping and crawling sequences. Learning these basic movements will enable a practitioner to quickly improve their BJJ. Once a new practitioner is comfortable with basic movements, they will quickly discover that those basic movements only provide a starting point for more complex movements and actions. The level of complexity in movements quickly increases from basic movements to such movements as inversions and basic gymnastics. 

The other reason BJJ is one of the more difficult martial arts is due to the complexity of the strategy involved in each roll. Every position has many different available movements and maneuvers, and each maneuver will chain off into different maneuvers. Every technique has a counter-technique, and every counter-technique has a counter-counter-technique. All of these strategic choices must be made in real-time while under pressure of an opponent who is actively trying to achieve their own goals. 

No sport consists of a singular skill, but many different skills that are put together to create a game. In team sports such as basketball or football each player is given a position in which they have to learn a set of skills to accomplish the goals of the position. In BJJ however, each player must learn the skillsets required for every position. Each student must learn the movements and techniques associated with every position of the sport and become a threat in as many positions as possible. 

Exercise Physiology: Energy Systems AKA “Cardio”

What’s cardio? No seriously, think about it. You may know people who can roll for thirty minutes straight but can’t run for ten minutes. Or you may know someone who can run ultra-marathons for twenty hours but will get exhausted after two hours of class. The answer is energy systems. By understanding what energy systems are you can train them specifically for BJJ, whether it’s to survive two hours of class, or to run at 100% for 4, 5, 6 . . . rounds at a tournament.

The three energy systems are phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative. All three systems do different things and all three run at the same time, however the dominant energy system used is based on the duration and intensity of the activity. Most importantly they can all be TRAINED to run better – releasing more energy for a longer amount of time.

  • The phosphagen system runs on creatine phosphate (PCr) and is the NOW energy system. It provides the fuel for short (~10 seconds) high intensity movements – such as an explosive double leg or an all out scramble. This fuel is stored in your muscles and is constantly refueled. However, the amount of stored PCr is small and takes a period of inactivity to refuel, hence the reason why you can’t sprint at full speed for longer than a few seconds. This system has a work rest period of 1:10, for every one second of use ten seconds are required for recovery.
  • The glycolytic energy system is a medium length energy system that runs on muscle glycogen – stored sugars. This system provides energy for anaerobic activity and can supply around 60 seconds of energy before the next energy system is required to provide the bulk of the energy.
  • The oxidative energy system is a long term energy system that provides energy for aerobic activities. This system is used during rest and low-intensity exercises and can be used almost indefinitely.

These energy systems should be carefully managed and trained in order to train for longer durations and to ensure energy supply is not a limiting factor during training and competition. Each energy supply can be trained to allow for bigger supplies and faster processing.

All sports will have their own unique needs of the different energy systems; a power lifter will rely almost solely on phosphagen and a marathoner will rely almost solely on oxidation. Brazilian Jiujitsu matches rely on a blend of all three energy systems.

What energy systems are used in BJJ?

Analysis of BJJ competition matches show that matches contain short periods of standing grappling with the majority of the round doing groundwork. Ranking dictates the length of match, ranging from 5-minutes for white belts to 10-minutes for black belts.

Matches have been shown to possess a 6-10:1 work to rest ratio. While the athlete will have to work almost continuously for most of the match, matches also possess “down-time” where an athlete may stall while in an advantageous position to strategize – thus matches are discontinuous in nature. Most movements are slow, methodical, and much time is spent in isometric contractions. Matches have few high-intensity explosive movements, but such movements occur at critical junctions during a match and such movements will often dictate the winner of the match.

Many maneuvers performed during matches last approximately 10-15 seconds; takedowns, escapes, sweeps, submissions, and reversals are achieved within that timespan. Some may take less or more time, but nearly all possess brief moments of rest before a second effort is taken. During training sessions, most rolls are 5-6 minutes in duration – meaning that while training in the gym, the anaerobic energy system is the most used. During competition, rest periods between matches are equal or shorter to match length, providing a 1:1 rest work ratio.

What does this mean for you?

This data shows that BJJ relies on all three energy systems, so all three must be trained. Since training time must be carefully managed, the protocol I use for my athletes is as follows

  1. Phosphagen system – This system must be trained using short bursts of high intensity exercise.
    Set 1: (10 seconds sprint, 20 seconds active rest) x 3
    60 seconds of standing rest time
    Set 2: (10 seconds sprint, 20 seconds active rest) x 3
    60 seconds of standing rest time
    Set 3: (10 seconds sprint, 20 seconds active rest) x 3
    60 seconds of standing rest time
  2. Glycolytic system – This system must be trained using a moderate-high intensity protocol
    One minute hard run (85% heart rate), followed by two minutes of moderate intensity (75% heart rate) jog – repeat for thirty minutes
  3. Oxidative system – This system is trained using long, slow, low intensity exercise
    By far the most boring protocol, 60 minutes of jogging at 75% heart rate