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Starting BJJ: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Everything you need to know before starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art and sport with a long history, stretching back to Brazil in the 1920s and before that to Japan. It’s a fun, intense and complex martial art with plenty of sparring and competition opportunities. But before you jump on the mats for the first time, you might be wondering what a typical class is like, how to find a good gym, what to wear, basic etiquette, and more. This guide is designed to answer your questions with good information to help get you on the mats sooner.

Table of contents

What is BJJ?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is a grappling martial art where two practitioners try to takedown and submit each other with joint locks, chokes and strangles. In competitions, points are also awarded for various dominant positions and techniques too.

BJJ is either practiced in a gi, which is a cotton jacket, pants and belt similar in style to what judo practitioners wear; or no gi, which is usually board shorts and a thin rashguard. There are some differences between gi and no gi jiu jitsu, but for the most part they’re almost identical. 

As the name suggests, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has a history stretching back to 1920s Brazil, where one of the first schools was started in Rio De Janeiro by the Gracie family. They reportedly learned and adapted the art from various Japanese judo practitioners who traveled the country and took part in public fights and demonstrations. 

Because of this judo heritage, BJJ includes many techniques from judo, as well as from other grappling arts like wrestling. 

How to find a good BJJ gym

The most important thing to achieve when starting jiu jitsu is to find a good school. You’ll want to make sure the instructor is knowledgeable, friendly and supportive, and that the gym culture is supportive and open rather than closed or cult like. 

To find a list of local gyms, search on Google. Look at customer reviews to see gyms with good reputations. Shortlist the top three that appeal to you and then see if they have free introductory classes so you can try it out. Once you’ve attended an introductory class at the different gyms you can compare gyms to see which you liked the most.

There are a few other telltale signs of a good gym including:

  • A large percentage of regular students are coloured belts
  • The instructor is friendly and supportive of students
  • There’s no cult-like behaviour
  • The gym is convenient for you in terms of location and timetable
  • The gym caters to your goal e.g self-defence, competition
  • The instructor is knowledgeable and is a brown or black belt with a clear and provable lineage back to the Gracie family (you might even be able to find them on BJJ Heroes)

What’s the average BJJ class like?

Jiu jitsu gyms around the world might organise classes differently, but the average BJJ class will be comprised of:

  • Warm ups (10 – 15 minutes). These can include a short jog around the mat, stretching, and individual or partner exercises like squats, forward and backward rolls, hip escapes and more.
  • Technique and drilling (30 – 40 minutes). The instructor will teach a technique or series of techniques, usually as part of a series over the course of a number of weeks or months. Students will learn the technique, practice with their partner, and then be taught extra details, set ups for the technique and/or finishes for the technique which they continue to practice with their partner. 
  • Sparring (15 – 30 minutes). Students start sparring or “rolling” regular rounds (usually five minutes per round) starting with their initial partner and then moving onto other partners in the gym. Sparring rounds are unscored, so submissions signal a reset until the time ends.
  • Cool down (5 – 10 minutes). Some gyms will also have a cool down after the sparring rounds.

Not every gym structures classes like this. Some gyms might separate technique and sparring into different classes, and some incorporate positional sparring into the technique sections to better teach students how to use a technique.

How fit do you need to be to start BJJ?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a physically demanding martial art which could burn many calories each session. Sparring can be tiring for many newcomers, regardless of fitness level. I myself was very fit when I did my first class and still found myself exhausted after my first round. This was because I was using my energy inefficiently. 

If you’re very unfit, consider gradually preparing yourself for your first class with some regular cardio workouts in the weeks or months leading up to it.

Etiquette: what you should know before training

There’s not a huge amount of etiquette in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as it’s a modern martial art. Here are a few things to consider before your first class:

  • Belt rank. There’s a belt system in BJJ based on traditional Japanese martial arts. Some etiquette is based on belt rank e.g higher belt ranks usually have right of way when rolling.
  • Ego. Losing is part of jiu jitsu, so when you get submitted or dominated in a sparring round, let go of your pride and accept the learnings that come from it. Don’t be a sore loser or let your ego get the better of you.
  • No shoes on the mat. For both hygiene and etiquette reasons, you must take your shoes off before walking on the mat.
  • Wear clean clothing. Always make sure your gi (including belt) and no gi clothing is freshly washed for each training session.
  • Know basic rules. Some techniques and attacks are illegal in a sports jiu jitsu setting, and as a result most gyms will also not allow them. These include attacking the fingers, and certain types of leg locks. 

What to know before starting BJJ: a crash course

Belts

There are eight belts for adults in BJJ:

  • White belt
  • Blue belt
  • Purple belt
  • Brown belt
  • Black belt
  • Red and black belt (7th degree black belt)
  • Red and white belt (8th degree black belt)
  • Red belt (9th and 10th degree black belt)

Each belt below black belt also has four stripes which can be earned. Different jiu jitsu schools treat belt progression differently, with some hosting formal gradings where students need to demonstrate techniques and movements, and others based solely on the instructor’s view of the student’s progress. 

Our complete guide to BJJ belt levels explains everything including what you are expected to know at each belt level, what the minimum ages and durations are, and the kids belt system.

Basic positions 

One of the most confusing things for me as a white belt was the different positions in jiu jitsu. In particular it can be confusing to know a position’s value compared to other positions, and where it fits in. There are six basic positions in jiu jitsu:

  • Guard
  • Side control
  • Knee on belly
  • Mount
  • Rear mount / back control
  • Turtle

Some positions have points assigned to them for competition, which demonstrate how advantageous a position is.

Mastering Jiu Jitsu, an excellent book by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher, even categorizes the positions in order of best to worst:

Diagram of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu positional hierarchy listed from best to worst
The jiu jitsu positional hierarchy according to Mastering Jujitsu, 2003.

Submissions

Submissions are also a key aspect of BJJ. They come in the form of joint locks like arm bars, hip locks, knee bars and kimuras; or chokes and strangles like the rear naked choke, the guillotine, arm triangle or one of many collar chokes.

When wearing a gi in jiu jitsu, the collar and lapel can be used to complete submissions, whereas in no gi clothing cannot be gripped.

There are over 40 submissions in jiu jitsu, with many being based on judo and wrestling submissions. Submissions can be attempted from most positions, although some are illegal in certain competition rulesets and/or for certain belt levels.

Competitions

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has a thriving worldwide competition scene. The largest organization which runs tournaments is the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), but there are also other organizations like Grappling Industries that run many competitions around the world each year.

Competitions are generally available for anyone aged four and above, with divisions for belt level, gender and weights. There are also masters divisions for those aged 30 and above in IBJJF competitions. 

Competitions use a point system which assigns points for advantageous positions and movements like sweeps and guard passes. 

Hygiene

BJJ is an indoor contact sport, so it’s important to practice good hygiene to avoid having to take time off due to a skin infection or condition like ringworm

Shower as soon as possible after finishing your class, and wash your dirty gear (including your belt) as soon as possible once you get home. 

Also make sure your training clothing is always clean and that you’ve used deodorant and showered before class if necessary. 

As mentioned above, shoes are not worn on the mat for both hygiene and etiquette reasons. 

Jargon

There are a staggering number of techniques, submissions, positions, movements and concepts in jiu jitsu which are great to learn as soon as possible. Some are Portuguese or Japanese terms based on BJJ’s heritage. Here are some of them below, but you can find explanations to over 125 terms in our BJJ glossary:

  • Rolling. The BJJ term for sparring.
  • Base. Your foundation when grappling. You always want to have a solid base.
  • Bridge. A movement where you push your hips off the ground while keeping weight on your shoulders, usually used to help you escape.
  • Hip escape/shrimp. A movement of the hips away from an opponent to help escape or prevent being put into a disadvantageous position. 
  • Upa/bridge and roll. An escape from mount where the practitioner traps the opponent’s arm and leg and then rolls them.
  • Oss. An abbreviation of the Japanese term “Onegai Shimassu” which is used in BJJ as a greeting, acknowledgement or show of respect.

How many days per week should I train?

The number of days you should train per week will vary depending on your schedule, but as a general rule of thumb you should train:

  • At least two days per week for maintenance.
  • Three days to make consistent but gradual progress.
  • Four or more days if you want to progress faster. 

You want to avoid training so little that you progress too slowly and get bored or demoralized. And you want to avoid training too much that you get injured or burned out and stop training. Ultimately you want to choose a frequency that makes sense for your goals and other priorities.

Equipment and gear needed for BJJ

You won’t need a lot of equipment for jiu jitsu. At minimum you’ll need a gi and/or no gi clothing, plus a mouthguard to protect your teeth. Below is a more comprehensive list of gear you may want or need to buy:

  • Gi. A jacket, pants and belt, usually made from strong cotton. A BJJ gi can range in price, weight and quality, so we’ve done the research for you and picked some great budget, premium and competition gis in our best BJJ gi guide.
  • No gi clothing. For no gi jiu jitsu you’ll need a rashguard and board shorts.
  • Mouthguard. Mouthguards are cheap but provide important protection, so it’s recommended to wear one whenever sparring. These can vary depending on the quality, but most sports shops will have cheaper models which can be moulded to your mouth using hot water.
  • Spats/compression tights. These tights can be worn under your boardshorts to give more protection from nicks and scratches when rolling in no gi.
  • Training bag. A good training bag will allow you to separate your dirty gi from your other gear after training, and will have multiple compartments to hold valuables, water bottles, finger tapes and your mouthguard. You can read our guide to the best BJJ training bags for some suggestions.
  • Soap. Some claim that soaps with tea tree oil in them can help protect against common skin conditions spread in contact sports like jiu jitsu. Many different products exist including Defense Soap, Arm Bar soap and Submission Soap.
  • Finger tape. Finger tape can be useful for healing finger injuries during training. There are many brands, so we’ve rounded up what we think are some great value tapes in our best finger tapes guide
  • Water bottle. You need to stay hydrated during class, especially during warmer months. A good insulated water bottle of a large enough size is always important to fill up and keep in your bag.

How much does BJJ cost?

To start jiu jitsu you’ll need to at least pay for classes, a gi and/or no gi clothing and a mouthguard. 

The best value when paying for classes is generally the unlimited monthly option, which most gyms offer. This allows you to train as many times you want per week. The more classes you do each week with this type of membership the less you end up paying per lesson. 

We’ve broken down the complete costs to BJJ in our price guide, but a quick breakdown of the costs of starting jiu jitsu are:

RegionClassesGiBasic mouthguard
USA$175 USD per month$80 – 160 USD$20 USD
UK£100 per month£50 – £100£15
Australia$160 AUD per month$125 – $200 AUD$30 AUD

What I wish I knew before starting BJJ

At the time of writing I’ve now been training consistently for five years. Here are some of the lessons I wish I knew before starting:

  • Learn the major positions and guards early. These can be confusing for beginners, and not knowing them can lead to your first few months being harder than they need to be. The great (and free) ebook A Roadmap for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by Stephen Kesting can help you with this.
  • Train consistently versus sporadically. The biggest positive differences in my own progress have come from consistently training the same days and nights per week and making them part of my schedule. This usually means training the same 3 – 4 days per week. Training five days one week and two days the next can lead to slower progress and increased chance of injuries on weeks where you train more. 
  • Prepare yourself for the troughs. For most, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is just a fun hobby and form of exercise, so it’s normal to experience periods where you might not be as keen to train. The thing that has gotten me through these periods is trying and specializing in different guards or game styles. This makes things more challenging and adds some novelty back to your training.
  • You don’t need to be great at everything. Focus on what works for you. When I first started jiu jitsu I tried hard to make closed guard work for me with limited success. It was only once I started experimenting with other guards that I decided I enjoyed playing z-guard more.
  • Rolling is difficult when starting no matter how physically fit you are. Some may be discouraged by how exhausting the first weeks or months of sparring is. This is generally caused by inefficient energy usage rather than solely being unfit. I know this because I was quite fit when starting BJJ, but still felt exhausted, and still do when I use my energy inefficiently. 

Good resources when starting BJJ

In your first weeks and months of training consider listening almost exclusively to your instructor rather than overloading yourself with techniques from YouTube or instructionals. 

In addition to YouTube technique channels, there are many other ways to embrace the jiu jitsu lifestyle off the mat through good documentaries, websites and books. Below are some quick suggestions, with links to our full guides for even more ideas:

Books

Documentaries

  • Jiu-Jitsu VS The World. This is a great documentary for those new to BJJ, and introduces you to many of the biggest names in the art, and explores the key characteristics of BJJ and the BJJ lifestyle.
  • Roll: Jiu Jitsu in SoCal. This documentary is a great introduction into the modern capital of BJJ in Southern California. 
  • Choke. Choke is an older documentary focusing on BJJ legend Rickson Gracie’s preparation for and experience competing in the 1995 Vale Tudo Japan tournament. It’s an entertaining watch and a glimpse into the champion’s mindset.

YouTube channels

  • Chewjitsu. Chewjitsu is a YouTube channel hosted by black belt and active competitor Nick “Chewy” Albin. It covers a wide variety of general BJJ topics, technique instructionals and interviews with other notable athletes and instructors.
  • Stephan Kesting. Stephan Kesting runs the Grapplearts website and is an experienced black belt with great videos covering many techniques. He also has a podcast which delves into many interesting topics.

Websites and blogs

  • BJJ Success. We’re slightly biased, but we think our own blog BJJ Success has many great articles for those beginning their BJJ journey.
  • BJJ Eastern Europe. This excellent website has plenty of interviews, news and other helpful articles for BJJ practitioners.
  • BJJ World. BJJ World has plenty of great articles covering a wide-variety of news, techniques and more.
  • BJJ Fanatics. BJJ Fanatics is one of the largest marketplaces that sells instructional videos from some of the best athletes and instructors in the art.

Did we miss out on any tips or topics that might be useful for those starting out BJJ? Let us know below.

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