THINKING ABOUT TRYING JIU JITSU? READ THIS FIRST!

THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO STARTING YOUR JIU JITSU TRAINING

by Miha Perhavec

by Miha Perhavec

Miha is a judo and jiu jitsu black belt. He is also an avid traveler, who has visited over a hundred academies around the World. He has been teaching beginners since 2015.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Jiu jitsu, also know as BJJ or AJJ, sometimes submission grappling is a rapidly growing martial art with Japanese roots (ne-waza). It exploded in popularity after UFC 1 when Royce Gracie demonstrated that a skilled grappler can overcome a physically imposing striker by using leverage and technique.

Since then you can see the influence of jiu jitsu in mixed martial arts (MMA) as well as a stand-alone sport / martial art. There are now thousands of academies worldwide where one can learn the skill of controlling an opponent without striking, by using positional dominance, which leads to a submission (a joint-lock or stranglehold). The submission is achieved when your partner taps out (gives up).

This extensive guide on trying jiu jitsu is written by an academy owner, but it will give you an honest perspective on what to expect of your jiu jitsu beginnings. You will get answers to a variety of questions and expectations, starting with…

Why even consider trying jiu jitsu?

This answer could easily be the length of a book. This is because jiu jitsu has several benefits.

Just to rattle off a few: It will make you capable of defending yourself in self-defense by giving you skills to rely on.

It combines cardio & strength training for the entire body while stimulating the mind, so you barely know you’re getting tired.

Jiu jitsu is hard. The path to becoming a black belt is long and full of obstacles. We know, however, that overcoming challenges and staying in the fight is incredibly fulfilling. In 2021, we are as comfortable as ever and jiu jitsu is a great antidote.

Jiu jitsu is fun. Yes, jiu jitsu is hard, but it is also incredibly fun. It is hard to match the joy of having a good round at training or catching a new submission. Additionally, the people you train with make the mats a fun place to be.

Jiu jitsu can also be a tool on the path to weight loss, can build confidence, can build humility, it’s amazing for kids and for making friends.

Jiu jitsu is challenging, but also a whole lot of fun.

Is it easy to try jiu jitsu?

Yes, due to the rapid growth of our martial art it is easier and easier to find an academy nearby. Most offer some kind of free trial, sometimes a single class, sometimes a week. Normally you can sign up for such a trial on the website, or send an email or call the academy.

At Legion AJJ we offer a week trial, which includes amenities like our members-only gym area. After you gather information and schedule your class, you’re almost ready to go.

Gi Jiu Jitsu Nogi Jiu Jitsu

Do I need a uniform to start?

This depends on the style of jiu jitsu you are starting out with. With no-gi jiu jitsu, you only really need shorts (board shorts without pockets work best) and a compression t-shirt. A normal t-shirt would work too, but we encourage wearing a rashguard because polyester works better than cotton on the mats.

If you’re starting out in the gi, then you will need a 3-piece uniform (see below). It consists of pants, a heavy cotton jacket and a white belt. When putting on the pants, make sure to pull the strings from the side and tie them. You can find a tutorial on that and tying the belt right here.

At Legion, we strive to remove any monetary cost from trying out jiu jitsu, so we provide clean rental gis for every time you come to class during the trial.

uniform hotspot
Jacket

with reinforced collar.

Pants

with tricky drawstrings. 

Belt
The first technique you will learn is tying the belt.

belts in jiu jitsu (rankings)

Everyone in jiu jitsu starts off as a white belt. It represents a blank slate on which the understanding of our martial art can be built. For adults the next belt is blue, followed by purple, then brown and finally black belt. Kids have some additional belts before they are eligible for a blue belt at age 16.

Promotion criteria differ from academy to academy, some do belt tests, some do surprise promotions. The criteria also differ from person to person based on individual goals. At Legion we take into account that an older hobbyist for example needs just consistency and an improvement in technique understanding to be promoted. A hyper-competitive youngster may need to compete and get the best of higher belts to be promoted.

WATCH OUT! Academies that require payment for promotions are almost always suspect. If you're paying for training you should not need to pay to get promoted!

What should I bring with me on my first day?

It’s a good idea to bring a bottle of water and some flip-flops. If you want to take a shower at the academy, also bring a towel and a change of clothes. A plasticky bag to put sweaty clothes in before you leave is a pro-tip. Lastly, a mouthguard is a good idea for sparring but normally isn’t needed during technique practice. You can get several cheap boil-at-home ones from Amazon. If you get seriously into jiu jitsu, then a custom mouth guard made by a dentist is a good investment. They fit better.

What happens when I come to the academy for my first class?

This process differs slightly from academy to academy. At our establishment, you would be greeted by a receptionist and welcomed into our lobby area.

Next, you can expect to fill out a quick information form on an iPad and sign a waiver. Following that, you can expect to get your gi and a quick tour. This is also why arriving 15-20 minutes early is a good idea. We also have a virtual 360 tour of our main lobby area available right here.

The tour brings you to the locker rooms where you can change into your gi. This is the point where it sinks in, that you are putting on a Japanese fighting pajama and you’re about to learn how to control another human being, who doesn’t want to be controlled. How exciting!

What can I expect from the teachers?

The quality of jiu jitsu instructors varies wildly. Most of the time instructors are brown or black belts. However, belt rank alone sometimes doesn’t directly translate into being the best instructor.

That’s why it is a good idea to do some quick research into the achievements and reputation of the instructors. If you live in a smaller or remote town, your options may be limited, but in a place like San Diego… we have to make sure our teachers are exceptional.

During a beginner class at Legion you can expect to meet our White belt program director – Andris Brunovskis. If you arrived a little bit early to our flagship beginner class, you can also expect to watch the intermediate group finish up their sparring.

Your teacher should be professional, kind and willing to help if you’re struggling. Please refer to this article on: 10 Red Flags – Your Jiu Jitsu Academy May Be A Cult from our friends at Jiu Jitsu X which highlights unwanted behaviors that you’ll want to avoid.

andris teaching
Andris helping out a student with gripping for a guard pass.

Are there warmups?

Yes, you can expect some kind of warmup before a beginner class. There are many different ways to warm up, some academies will start off running in circles, with some movements thrown in. Practicing forward rolls, backward rolls, hip escapes is a staple at almost every academy.

If you’re coming off ‘an athletic layoff’ or you are a little bit older, you can expect to feel a little awkward during the warmups.

Practicing these movements translates well to doing them in a live situation later in the class. Keep in mind, no matter how awkward they feel, we’ve all felt it. The only way to avoid feeling this way is to start jiu jitsu as a kid, hehe.

At Legion, Andris and the assistant coaches divide the group into those that have been training for more than 8 classes and those that like you… are fresh in the game. Brand new people get an explanation of the basic movements and practice them across the width of our mats.

The slightly more experienced group starts out with partner jiu jitsu drills. The goal of those is to get the body moving, but also in a way that builds muscle memory for the techniques that you’ll be learning soon. That way we can make sure you’re getting the most out of your time on the mats. 

Will the techniques make sense to me?

Honestly, probably not. If you watch the UFC, you will find some positions you recognize. For example, mount, back control, certain submissions. Most of our natural instincts for fighting people without striking are very off and need to be re-calibrated. That’s what jiu jitsu does for you.

Any respectable jiu jitsu academy will have a curriculum for teaching beginners. If you notice that the instructor randomly shows techniques that don’t connect… that may be a sign of an unprofessional instructor.

At Legion, the instructors follow curriculum cycles that aim to give you a path to get good at jiu jitsu as fast as possible. If you select a professional academy then all you have to do is show up to get better rapidly.

Building a mental map

As a beginner, you are beginning to build a mental map of jiu jitsu. The picture will be incredibly blurry at the start, but you can quickly reveal the positions and their hierarchy, then start learning how they connect. It’s a beautiful process of discovery, but it takes a long time. The secrets are heavily guarded, not by people, but by our subconscious’ ability to imprint correct technique so that jiu jitsu becomes instinctual.

At white belt, recognizing the hierarchy of position, and 'surviving' is a good thing to focus on.
At black belt you can expect to start thinking several moves ahead of your opponent.

How does one actually practice jiu jitsu?

After the instructor explains and demonstrates a technique, you will partner up with someone from the class and take turns practicing. This normally means repeating what the instructor has just shown. If you run into trouble the teacher should be around to give you some tips or maybe demonstrate a key detail again.

Tip: During this part of the class, try to stay focused even when it’s your partner’s turn. While most of these techniques are practiced without resistance, you may need to offer your partner a reaction that helps him or her perform the technique of the day.

After everyone practices a few times the instructor will normally show a continuation of the previous technique or a similar technique. For example another submission option from a position like closed guard.

closed guard
Keenan demonstrating posture control from closed guard.

Full-disclosure there are some positions in jiu jitsu, like closed guard or mount or side control, that are as natural to jiu jitsu fighters as walking or breathing. While it may be slightly awkward to wrap your legs around another person or sit on their stomach, keep in mind that you are learning how to potentially save your life if forced into a fight.

How do I stay safe on the mats?

The number #1 rule for staying safe on the mats is to TAP. You can tap out (aka submit), whenever you are in danger or you feel pain. You do so by using your hand and tapping 2-4 times ON YOUR OPPONENT.

You should tap on your opponent to make sure they feel it and not just hear it. Tapping on the mat loudly also works, but the best practice is to tap on your partner/opponent. In some rare situations, your hands may be tied up, so it’s also okay to just say “TAP” or “STOP”. Respecting the tap is an unwritten law. It’s a sacred trust, because it keeps us safe, when someone taps it is your duty to let go.

Legion's own Jessica Penne forces her opponent to tap out with an armbar in the UFC.
Legion's own Jessica Penne forces her opponent to tap out with an armbar in the UFC.

Will I be fighting someone on my first day?

Jiu jitsu classes normally end with rounds of sparring. This is one of the beautiful things about jiu jitsu. Striking martial arts have a big limitation. You can’t spar (practice fight) at 100% in striking, because you’d risk knocking your partner out or breaking their face.

Some Brazilian jiu jitsu academies don’t allow new students to spar for a certain period. Some are all the way on the other side of the spectrum, where they don’t even have a separate beginner group. This means beginners sometimes spar experienced people too early.

 
At Legion, we try to combine the best of both worlds. Sparring is optional, safe and often limited to a specific position. This makes it safer because resistance is applied in the same positions that were practiced during the technique portions. We call this specific sparring. We include some sparring in the beginner classes because this is the FUN part. This is why most of our intermediate/advanced students come to training every day. We all love to lose ourselves in the game of human chess, sharpening our skills against a challenging opponent.

In this video, you can see some members with only a couple of weeks of training putting in good effort during sparring.

What will I feel like after my first class?

If you took part in the sparring, you can expect to be sweaty, confused and feeling weirdly good. This has to do with an endorphin rush and from being completely mindful during this new activity. 

After class at Legion, you can hang around and ask the instructor questions, stretch a little bit or go straight to the changing rooms. We recommend taking a shower ASAP after training. On your way out you can drop off your uniform and walk into the night, with a new journey started.

Fighting for your life? safely.

The beautiful thing about jiu jitsu is that it combines hard physical exercise and intense mental focus. You can barely notice how tired you are getting because you are so focused on your opponent and your next move. At the same time there’s no time to think about taxes, Twitter or any worries going on in your life. You’re fighting for your life! But safely, of course.

How often should I train jiu jitsu?

The day after your first class you can expect to be a little bit sore. Jiu jitsu is a full-body activity, so even if you’re pretty fit, you can expect to be sore in weird ways.

Just like learning any new skill, for example, surfing or archery, it helps to get very dedicated and put in the time to get better quickly. However, you can also go too hard too soon and burn out or even get injured.

Humble consistency beats heroic bursts of effort. We recommend getting the most out of your free trial and if you’re used to challenging yourself, you can do our beginner class every single day during your week-long trial. However, consistently coming to 2 or 3
classes per week is enough to consistently get better. Coming just once a week isn’t the best for progressing fast, but it’s a lot better than zero days a week!

Additional resources

This guide will be expanded over time until it becomes the ULTIMATE resource for converting “civilians” into jiu jitsu fighters. If this is not enough and you are thirsty for more knowledge then you should check out:

THE (ALMOST) COMPLETE JIU JITSU DICTIONARY

as well as this video from Legion founder Keenan Cornelius and the aforementioned beginner program director Andris Brunovskis. It has well over 200.000 views and counting. 

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