Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) has exploded in popularity over the last few decades. This grappling-based martial art has proven incredibly effective for self-defence and mixed martial arts competition. However, for the beginner, BJJ can seem endlessly complex and intimidating. The techniques are intricate, the terminology must be clarified, and it’s normal to feel utterly lost during your first few classes. But with the right mindset and approach, you can begin unravelling the art of BJJ in a systematic way that sets you up for long-term growth. This beginner’s guide will walk you through the key concepts, positions, and terms to know as you take your first steps on the BJJ mats.
The History and Lineage of BJJ
BJJ has its roots in pre–World War II era Brazil. A prominent judo practitioner named Mitsuyo Maeda immigrated to Brazil and taught the fundamentals of judo to Carlos and Hélio Gracie. The Gracie brothers adopted and adapted the techniques, forging what became Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. A key distinction arose from the fact that Hélio Gracie was smaller and weaker than most opponents he faced. Out of necessity, he emphasised leverage, timing, and technique over strength and athleticism. As BJJ evolved, these strategies were refined into a holistic self-defence system applicable to practitioners of any size. The art steadily grew in Brazil and gained worldwide recognition as BJJ black belt Royce Gracie won the first several UFC tournaments in the 1990s.
The Conceptual Core of BJJ: Leverage and Technique over Strength
Unlike some traditional martial arts, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu does not rely on strikes, kicks, or weapons. Instead, it’s a grappling art focusing on controlling opponents and submitting them using joint locks or chokeholds. Practitioners learn how to off-balance, trap, and manipulate larger, more athletic opponents by applying fundamental concepts of leverage, angles, timing, and superior technique. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaches you to systematically neutralise raw strength, athleticism, and size.
This fact makes it exceptionally well-suited for small-statured practitioners and women. Precise technique matters far more than brute strength when grappling on the mats. Students develop solid cores and learn to conserve energy while exhausting their opponents. The art forms a thinking practitioner with a creative mind, able to adapt strategies on the fly. Though known as the “gentle art”, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be intensely demanding, both mentally and physically. But the payoff is immense – improved fitness, self-defence skills, discipline, and self-confidence.
Common Positions: Guard, Mount, Back Control
There are countless intricacies to learn with BJJ positions, transitions, submissions, and terminology. However, a few fundamental positions provide an excellent entry point for the beginner. These include:
Guard: Typically, it is a defensive position where you are on your back, controlling the opponent from below using your legs. Examples include closed guard, open guard, half guard, butterfly guard, spider guard, and more. Each variation offers different control, submission, and transition possibilities. The closed guard, where you wrap your legs around the opponent’s torso or hips, is a fundamental building block in BJJ. It allows you to break down the posture of a standing opponent, pull them into your control, and attack with sweeps or submissions like armbars or triangles. The open guard involves using your legs to frame against the opponent while keeping space between you. This can create intricate sweeps and attacks but requires strong defensive framing skills. Half guard provides less control than full guard but allows you to disrupt your opponent’s balance and set up dogfight-style momentum battles. More advanced open guards like the spider or DLR guard use the feet and grips on sleeves or pants to keep opponents at bay and launch into exotic sweeps. Mastering both closed and open guards is critical for well-rounded jiu-jitsu. Even when put on your back, you can still dominate opponents from the guard if appropriately trained.
Mount: An advantageous position where you are sitting on top of your opponent’s torso. The focus is controlling your opponent’s arms and posture while seeking submissions or transitional advances. Achieving mount is considered a dominant attacking milestone for grapplers, as it allows you to control opponents with your weight and isolate limbs for submissions. However, more than simply attaining mount position is required – you must learn to establish control properly of your opponent’s defences. Key concepts include pinning hips and legs so they cannot roll or shrimp you off, stripping away their frames, crushing flexibility so they cannot simply bridge, and incrementally advancing to higher mounts that expose the neck for attacks. From complete and S mount variations, practitioners can attack with cross collars, head and arms chokes, armbars and more. The mount epitomises positional dominance in BJJ, allowing smaller grapplers to control larger foes. But it must be earned through proper setups and maintained through an almost obsessive, ever-evolving focus on control. Even the highest level belts can still lose the mount to skilled opponents if they do not continually adjust and dictate the micro-battles within the position.
Back Control: Also called taking the back, this exceptionally dominant position involves controlling your opponent from behind, often wrapping your legs around their midsection. From back control, practitioners can attack deep submission holds like rear naked chokes.
Don’t Get Discouraged: BJJ’s Steep Learning Curve
As a beginner stepping onto the BJJ mats for the first time, one fact needs to be emphasised: BJJ is incredibly complex with an extremely steep learning curve. You will unavoidably feel confused, clumsy, and mistake-prone. You’ll spend entire sparring rounds struggling to breathe or figure out which way is up.
This is all perfectly normal. BJJ is like learning a fluid, full-contact chess game in multiple dimensions. Be patient with yourself. Trust in the process. Little by little, puzzle pieces will come together as techniques click. You’ll have small wins and begin developing preferences for positions and submissions that work for your body type.
Over months and years, you will start unconsciously reacting, transitioning, and anticipating…all evidence that your mat time is paying dividends as you slowly immerse more deeply into the art.
So don’t get discouraged! Expect early struggles as part of the journey. Maintain self-compassion, and you’ll grow in ability exponentially faster than you now imagine possible.
Every seasoned black belt has been where you are today. They, too, took their lumps (quite literally) while uncovering the intoxicatingly complex art now known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Stick with it, and one day, you’ll pay forward the knowledge to the next generation of newcomers stepping out onto those same mats.