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Getting Started with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

November 10, 2023

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) has gained immense popularity over the past few decades, not just as a sport and a martial art but also as a way of life for many enthusiasts around the world. The benefits of BJJ are heralded by superstars and celebrities such as Tom Hardy, Zoltan Bathory, Ashton Kutcher, Joe Rogan, and many others. But go to any gym, and you will hear about these benefits from students from all walks of life. For those interested in learning how to get started in BJJ, this guide will provide you with the essentials on how to start.

Understanding Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Before delving into the specifics, it’s vital to comprehend what BJJ is all about. Originating from Japan and then evolving in Brazil, BJJ focuses on ground fighting and submissions, such as chokes and joint locks. BJJ is considered one of the most effective martial arts for self-defense because it emphasizes the principle that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant using technique and leverage.

Identify What You Want Out of BJJ

You can gain countless positive things from practicing jiu-jitsu; the physical benefits are just the beginning. Understanding what your goals are and why you want to pursue BJJ will help you stay focused and succeed. There is no single answer, whether it’s to get in better shape, become more mentally and physically disciplined, or learn to remain calm and patient in uncomfortable situations. Your journey is your own.

What to Expect When You Get Started

Starting to train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an exciting time, but it can also be overwhelming if you’re unsure how to begin. Don’t expect to be an expert right away. Stay humble, patient, and open-minded as you start your training. Martial arts are not easy to master, even if you have an athletic background or experience in another type of grappling discipline.

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BJJ is physically demanding, and you will burn many calories each training session, especially while sparring. As a newcomer, expect to be exhausted and sore after class, regardless of your fitness level. BJJ uses parts of the body that most other sports and workouts don’t, so you might have aches in places you’re not used to, such as your ribs. You will learn to use your energy more efficiently as you progress. If you’re out of shape, you should begin regular cardio workouts to prepare for your first class.

As you begin sparring, it’s good practice to tap early and often to avoid injury. If you can check your ego from the beginning, you (and your sparring partners) will have a much more enjoyable time. Finally, make sure to use proper hygiene. That means keeping your nails trimmed (no fake nails), training clothes clean, and your teeth brushed!

Day One: What Kind of Gear Should You Get

For your initial classes, you only need a little gear. Comfortable sportswear will suffice as you get started. However, as you continue, you’ll need:

  • Gi: A BJJ kimono, which is a thick, durable jacket, trousers, and a belt indicating rank.
  • No-Gi: Rash guards and grappling shorts are typically worn for no-gi classes, where traditional kimonos aren’t used. Rash guards wick sweat off your body while protecting you from mat burn.
  • Mouthguard and Protective Cup (optional but recommended): BJJ is a high-contact sport, and a mouthguard and cup protect against collisions. This gear is especially important if you decide to spar or compete.

Before going to a trial class, speak with the instructor to find out what clothing to wear.

How Frequently You Should Train and Why

How often you train depends on your schedule and interest level. Broadly speaking, you should train at least two days per week to maintain your stamina and strength. Training three days each week will help you make consistent progress, and four days a week will help you learn the BJJ technique faster. If you train too little, you can hamper your progress, make it tough to stay in shape, and cause you to lose interest. Too often, and you risk injuries or burning out physically and mentally. It would be best to let your personal BJJ goals dictate how frequently you train each week.

Advice From Someone in the Industry

Experienced BJJ practitioners were all beginners once upon a time. They know what it’s like to be inexperienced and can share valuable wisdom that will help you as you begin your journey. Here are four valuable pieces of advice from our experts at NAGA:

  • Embrace the White Belt Mentality

As a beginner, you will start with a white belt. This phase is fundamental to your development. Here’s what you should keep in mind:

Be Patient: Progress in BJJ can be slow. Embrace the journey, and don’t get disheartened if you feel you’re not advancing quickly. You are learning.

Ask Questions: Don’t hesitate to ask your instructors or training partners about techniques or anything you’re unsure about.

Stay Humble: Tap out when you’re caught in a submission. There’s no shame in it; every tap is a learning opportunity.

  • Build a Strong Foundation

Your early days in BJJ should focus on mastering the basics:

Warmups: Begin with warmup drills to improve mobility and familiarize yourself with fundamental movements. These warmups can sometimes be labeled as boring. Many warmups will help you build a foundation of necessary techniques, like shrimping. They also get your body warmed up and stretched out, which will help prevent injuries and get you in the mindset to have a great class.

Basic Techniques: BJJ is full of incredible, technical moves that can fill a highlight reel. When beginning, though, prioritize fundamental positions like the guard, mount, and side control. Understand the principles of leverage and weight distribution. Learn how to pass the guards, hold the mount, and hold side control. Throwing in learning a wild guard pass is fun but remember to always work on the fundamentals.

Defense: Learn to defend. Knowing how to escape bad positions and defend against submissions is paramount. You will not always be the one on the offensive. Your guard will get passed, and you will need to know how to recover it, avoid getting in worse positions, and sweeping to put you in an offensive position.

  • Rolling (Sparring)

Rolling is the heart of BJJ—it’s where you apply techniques against resisting partners.

Begin Slow: Initially, focus on positional sparring. This allows you to get comfortable with specific scenarios without the intensity of a full roll. A good partner who is more experienced than you will go at your speed and intensity.

Stay Relaxed: It’s easy to get tense and use brute strength. Instead, focus on using technique and conserving energy. This happens often when first starting out. It can be caused by panic, ego, and frustration. Remember that you are there to learn; you are not there to compete against your training partner. Academies typically have competition classes where the intensity is turned up to prepare you for what you will experience in a competition. 

Safety First: Always be aware of your and your partner’s safety. Avoid flailing and be controlled in your actions.

  • Consistency is Key

Like any skill, consistency in training is vital. Aim to train 2-4 times a week, giving your body adequate rest. Over time, as your body acclimates, you can increase the frequency.

How to Choose the Right Gym

Your experience in BJJ heavily depends on the gym or academy you choose. It can be tempting to join a gym because of its proximity to your work or home, but the most important thing is that the instructors are knowledgeable and friendly, and that the gym is welcoming.

Here are a few steps to guide your decision:

  • Research: Look for schools in your area and read reviews. Don’t be swayed just by accolades—ensure the gym has a nurturing environment for beginners.
  • Visit: You should visit a few academies before enrolling. Many offer a free trial class, which allows you to get a feel for the environment and the teaching style. Speak to the other students during your visit so you can get a good feel for the school.
  • Instructors: Ensure the instructors are qualified, experienced, and foster a culture of respect. In BJJ, you will not only learn the skills to defend yourself or participate in the physical activity to get (or keep) you in shape, you will be introduced to concepts that will better your life overall.

Of the top three schools most appealing to you, check if they offer free introductory classes for newcomers so you can try them out before committing.

Starting Jiu Jitsu at 40 or 50

Like any physical activity, beginning BJJ in your forties or fifties will be more physically challenging than at 18. The three most important things you will have to prioritize are flexibility, recovery, and diet. Young adults can train regularly, forget to stretch, and eat poorly without suffering significant setbacks (to those more youthful readers, do not take this as an endorsement).

Eating well, getting enough sleep, and stretching every day are more important the older you are. That means at least eight hours of sleep each night and consuming a diet high in protein and rich in fruits and vegetables. Stretching before training is essential to warm up and prepare your body for sparring. Neglecting flexibility training can increase your risk of injury. It’s just as important to cool down and stretch after a workout – this is the most common part of recovery for people to ignore. Even 10 minutes of stretching each day can increase your flexibility, promote muscle recovery, and reduce your chance of injury.

Remember: BJJ is hard for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. If you’re middle-aged or older and are interested in training in BJJ, we encourage you to go for it. Being disciplined is part of the journey for everyone.

Benefits of BJJ

Practicing jiu-jitsu has so many benefits it’s tough to list them all. The positive additions to your life are not limited to physical gains. You will find a community, train your mind, and have fun at classes (and tournaments, should you decide to compete). Here are some of the benefits you can expect from BJJ:

  • Better health and fitness: Above all else, BJJ is a physically demanding discipline. You have to work many muscle groups, and grappling engages your entire body. Taking down an opponent and escaping from submissions will help you build strength, shed extra pounds, and improve your cardiovascular system. Proper warmups and recovery will naturally improve your flexibility and overall mobility, resulting in a better range of motion.
  • Mental fortitude: Jiu-Jitsu will teach you to stay calm and patient in uncomfortable situations. It teaches you perseverance as you work hard to make progress, even if you feel like you’re not getting better. As you train, you will also develop confidence and humility as you learn what you are capable of and accomplish your goals.
  • A sense of belonging:  When you join a BJJ gym, you join a community and will bond with fellow students as you train together. As you and your teammates learn and improve, you will make great friends and memories extending beyond the gym. The world of BJJ includes people from all backgrounds, allowing you to make friends with those you may have never met.
  • The ability to defend yourself: Learning BJJ is not just about physical training and learning what to do when someone tries to choke you. While these are important skills you will gain, you will also learn critical thinking skills and how to avoid conflict when facing a potential attacker. Self-defense isn’t just about fighting back but also the ability to restrain and immobilize an opponent.
  • Have fun: BJJ is a great hobby, and despite the struggle to get better and aches and pains, it is extremely satisfying. As you learn new skills, meet new friends, and complete your goals, you will regularly find yourself smiling in the gym.

Taking Care of Your Body

Any one of the above benefits is a worthy reason to start BJJ. However, as BJJ can be physically demanding, caring for your mind and body is essential to reap the full rewards.

  • Stretch: Incorporate a routine before and after training. Remember those warmups at the beginning of class!
  • Diet: Eat a balanced diet to fuel your body for training.
  • Rest: Listen to your body. If you’re feeling fatigued or sore, take a day off.

Engaging with the Community

BJJ has a vast, global community, which means you can interact with and get to know people beyond your gym and local community. Engage by:

  • Tournaments: Even if you’re not competing, attending local competitions can be motivating.
  • Seminars: Many top BJJ athletes conduct seminars. It’s a great opportunity to learn and connect. Most schools welcome attendees from outside their academy at these seminars with open arms.
  • Online Forums: Websites like Reddit and BJJ-specific forums are great places to share experiences and learn.
  • Videos: YouTube has many channels you can subscribe to and videos you can watch to learn more about BJJ. It’s an excellent way to find technique instructions from prominent BJJ instructors and competitors.

When you’re first starting out, it’s best to listen to your instructors and learn the fundamentals. As you make progress and become more comfortable with the techniques and terminologies, getting involved in the global BJJ community will only add to your experience and deepen your connection to the sport. BJJ is a lifestyle that will suck you in and extend well beyond the mat.

Enjoying the Journey

Lastly, while it’s easy to become consumed with belts and promotions, it’s essential to remember that BJJ is a lifelong journey. Enjoy every roll, every tap, every moment. The introductory phase can be challenging as you find your footing, get in shape, and get used to the routine. If you can stick with it, there are many wonderful things jiu-jitsu can do for you.

In conclusion, starting in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu might feel daunting, but with the right mindset and guidance, it can be one of the most rewarding decisions of your life. As the old saying goes, “A black belt is a white belt who never quit.” So, tie that belt, step on the mats, and embark on your journey. Oss!