Looking Out To Sea

BJJ Training Diary

A collection of notes and thoughts from learning jiujitsu at Cross Combat in Tollcross. I’m not going to concentrate too heavily on techniques because there’s no way I could hope describe even what I can remember. Just look at YouTube.

2014-12-30: Using space

Second last day of the year and I finally get around to writing down stuff we’ve been training. I’ve got a sore windpipe at the moment from a slapdash choke attempt — tilting my head to the left hurts the right-hand side of my windpipe. I guess it’s a pretty delicate piece of machinery.

Several weeks ago I was injured but attended a class to listen and watch from the sidelines. The class was mostly about movement, particularly creating space to move into. Today’s class was similar but with less focus on creating space, more on using the space that exists.

It’s hard to keep remembering, that’s certainly true. In the moment when someone’s grabbing your arm and you’ve a reasonable idea what they want to do with your arm — then it’s hard not to just push as hard as you can to oppose them. But I’ll say this, on the brief occasions where the initial instinct was stopped (because position/angle/weight meant that I couldn’t just push back) and I took a moment to think, and then remembered the advice, at that point it generally worked. Which is both gratifying (because nothing else seems to work) and infuriating (because it’s so hard to remember even though it’s simple and effective).

The flipside of the lesson was taking and maintaining control on top. Being close and heavy enough when you want to put pressure on the other person but also being light enough that you can maintain control of your own body as the other person shifts and rolls underneath. Letting them make a move and stay above them. Closing distance and being in contact was really hard. Being light and moving around the person maintain height on them was easier. I felt generally quite agile today when it came to moving and shifting to follow, though as I say not quick enough to always be in close contact when the moment demanded it.

2015-01-05: Top mount

First class of the new year; and absolutely jammed with people both old and new. The number of new people that come in the door once and never come back is amazing. It happened at capoeira too but it happened less often that it wasn’t so obvious. But with at least one beginner every single session at BJJ it’s relentless and slightly fascinating. What are people’s thoughts when they arrive? Do they really enjoy it — have they in fact decided they’ll not return by the time their first class finishes?

I sometimes wonder if the second session is harder to attend than the first. Even if the first one went really well there’s that niggling thought that a sample of one isn’t representative. Maybe the next one will be too hard? Maybe everyone was going easy on you because it was your first lesson? Now you’ve got precedent and have to live up to your first impressions.

Anyway, this class we did mount and mount escapes. Which I guess you could say is the logical extension from the previous class:

  • from moving into partner’s space, to pushing to create space
  • from staying on top, to pressing down and restricting partner’s movement

Obviously this is only apparent with hindsight.

I felt my lightness was a handicap today. Last week I felt agile and capable of rebalancing when necessary. But when trying to maintain pressure on top I just lost all of that agility and was very often pitched sideways into the mat. I guess there’s some halfway house, quickly transitioning between ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ as the moment requires it. Or to put it another way, learn to control in a more dynamic fashion — I felt quite static on top — “hold on for dear life”, riding a bucking bronco. That was clearly not what the previous lesson was trying to impart.

The mount escapes to half guard seemed more positive. I felt genuine progress there from a position where I had previously felt quite lost/incapable.

The sparring also went quite well, only being tapped out twice I think. I was managing lots of escapes that I hadn’t previously managed, especially from rear chokes and armlocks. My major failing at the moment is total inability to progress when I get to guard, which is quite exhausting on its own. I know we’ve done armbars and omoplatas from there but I have no idea how.

2015-01-08: Butterfly sweep

Today’s general focus was butterfly sweep which was at least as difficult as it looks. I could sometimes manage it while drilling but if the person was really trying to resist then I didn’t have a chance. This was quite apparent in sparring at the end — while we always started in “position of the week”* I was quickly broken and any attempt at performing the sweep was a total washout (hurray).

*Not too dissimilar to More! Magazine’s features, on reflection.

Otherwise I really think I need to spend more time breaking the habits of the less five years and being close. All my instinct from capoeira is telling me to be placed and stable on arms and legs but really I know I’m supposed to weigh down on my opponent if possible, surfing them to maintain balance. My inability to do this is the same problem I had doing “contact improvisation” — always wanting to be standing on hands or feet or both. I think this ultimately makes me more prone to being thrown aside.

And while it’s not really in the spirit of things, I want to take a small moment to commemorate my first submission. I’ve had several classes where I’m beginning to defend manoeuvres which once would have finished me. It’s great to last several minutes instead of several seconds. But this shows that I can also, under limited circumstances, go on the offensive. I’m not pretending it was an elegant or technically brilliant submission but the fact of its existence is a small victory.

2015-01-12: Upness

Did this class with a cycling-related injury in my left wrist so I wasn’t really on top form. The focus was upness, being above (if not on top) of your opponent. The intention was maintaining that constant-pressure-with-flexibility that we effectively cover in every class. There was no obvious technique as part of the drill — just moving from half-guard to being on top.

My biggest trouble while doing these exercises is that I start in position A and then hold on for dear life until I’m eventually swept. But the spirit of the exercise seems to be starting from A, transitioning through B, C, F, back to C then D and so on as the other person demands it. Learning to flow with their pushes and pulls but recover and re-assert dominance, rather than fall to the inevitable better opponent.

All that aside my wrist couldn’t really take any weight so I was doing a lot of pushing with my left elbow/forearm instead. At the end of the class I managed what felt like quite an effective escape from half guard but then my training partner dropped on my ankle at a funny angle and I had to call it a night. There was no way I was really up for the full sparring anyway. Limping home was hard enough at that point.

2015-01-22: Open Guard Pass

The usual story about upness through the medium of passing the open guard and closing distance on the opponent to gain some kind of side control or mount.

Not much technical again, just experimentation. Things to note was my habit (when defending) of being quite passive and waiting to see what the other person did. Being more active seems sensible: trying to predict their movements and trying to imbalance them so they have no stable starting point from which to move.

Being more aggressive while sparring seemed to help too though it just led to lots of stalling. Once the other person has turtled I need to really think “get onto them, turn around so I’ve got their head” to get out of this stalling.

When I’m trapped in mount I always forget to bridge which is really silly but there you go.

2015-02-02: Scissor sweep (?)

I sat this one out which is a shame because it looked pretty interesting. It was covering a sweep from guard that I think is called scissor sweep though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned. It matches fairly closely the descriptions found elsewhere and there was a bit of emphasis on “scissor action” with the legs at one point. I’ve definitely covered this once before in class but I’d like a chance to cover it again.

Details that seemed important from observation:

  • Holding the person’s upper body close puts them off balance. If they’ve managed to get upright they have much better self-control. Hold onto the arm on their falling side to keep them close and prevent them posting.
  • To lift the raised leg up point your own knee up!
  • If the sideways sweep is too hard then pushing it away is easier.

2015-02-19: High mount

Maintaining control with lots of pressure right up at the person’s head, or conversely trying to push the other person off from the high mount position. It’s easier to gain leverage from the bottom with elbows low at your sides, and harder with arms high and elbows pointing up. Which is interesting because instinctively you’d be inclined to keep your arms high over your head/face for protection.

From mount maintaining pressure is really important but I couldn’t achieve control from that position without sacrificing freedom to attempt submissions. I was clamped-on in high mount and not letting go — but not achieving much either. Eventually the timer would end or I would get tossed aside.

2015-02-26: Triangle

Mostly covering triangle escape, or triangle survival maybe. Either way I don’t think I really managed it in earnest.

Tried a scissor sweep in sparring, totally failed. Why? I realise in hindsight I didn’t have control of the person’s upper body. They were stable and upright but I should have had them stretched out and unbalanced. But it is interesting to spot my mistake. My total inability to do anything other than hold on for dear life once someone’s in my closed guard is a real problem. It becomes a danger to me; when I eventually end up there I have no escape. In fact I’m almost more confident escaping from bottom of mount. At least I have approaches to take.

2015-03-02: Armbar

Work getting comfortable in armbar from guard, and 3D rotations from the same configuration. The position holding the armbar while you’re “stacked” on your own head is not at all comfortable. And the escape we practised was to stack the person, stop them rotating around/away and lifting their head/neck off the mat.

The tricky point was managing any of the manoeuvre while keeping hold of the arm. Really holding the body down (eg by the calf on the neck) helps but getting fluidly into position without losing that grip is still really hard.

2015-03-5: Armbar, Triangle, Omoplata

Really good class today, focussing on slipping from one submission to another as the situation demands it, and spotting the situations as they appear too. The hardest out of all three is still definitely the arm bar: the spin on the back is still so difficult.

2015-03-12: Kimura, Guillotine, Sweep

Two submissions and a sweep whose name I can’t remember — was it mentioned? — involving climbing up the person in your guardand tipping to one side. As if you were trying for either of the two submissions but just driving through instead.

Important details, as ever, would be hips turning or moving somewhere else. The kimura was about lying on your side so you could really hold them down with one leg. The similarity to omoplata at this angle was quite apparent. I think if you let go of the arm and caught it in the fork of your legs you’d have an omoplata though I’d have to see it to be sure. The guillotine was based on moving hips away then falling sideways.

As before I’m feeling pretty slack and uninspired in sparring. I can’t think quickly and I don’t move quickly. And I do it all wrong anyway?

2015-03-16: Omoplata, Triangle

Working submissions from tight control in closed guard. As usual maintaining the chosen posture is very important — in this case by hooking an arm over theirs and underneath their arm pit. Holding this arm/shoulder tight allows you keep them spread out and unbalanced. Controlling the other arm with elbows, hands, knees and feet (in turn) keeps the person stretched out.

The arm which is controlled tight is the arm being attacked for both submissions but you don’t really get round to it first. Once the person is stretched out with your leg partly on their back you just bring it down over their head to trap their arm between your legs. Then you just spin round into omoplata.

Similarly with the triangle the arm that is in the overhook will be inside the choke. The arm that is stretched out will eventually be forced underneath your leg so you can concentrate on the remaining arm and head. From there you have to break their posture and bring the trapped arm across their body. Spin round in line with the trapped arm and lock on the triangle.

As usual the practise of locking on a nice triangle against a co-operating partner and against a resisting opponent is a world of difference. Generally the class felt good for me though I still have great issue when it comes to passing or not being passed in the guard.

2015-04-02: Guillotine

Off for a week — a whole week! — getting drunk and fat in France. So while it turns out that neither bjj or capoeira require much in the way of equipment to have fun, they’re still too damn obscure. I was pretty jealous of the people who went out running.

Hoss teaching guillotines from seated position. It was a full session on this one choke which has left my throat ragged and pretty sore a week later. As is typical there was emphasis on being in control of your own position — in this instance, if you fall onto your side to lock on the choke but it doesn’t work, you have to get back up from there without losing the control that you’ve got. Spinning right round, sprawling out to maintain pressure before creeping the legs back under you again.

Losing control is letting the person’s head slip through so you can see their hairline. While you’ve still got a shoulder/arm on top of their neck then their head should go nowhere.

Locking on the guillotine is binding the hands (by their ear/your sternum) and pushing the elbow of your non-headlocking-arm forward so the forearm lies down their spine. That’s a pretty satisfying mental image for some reason so I think I will be less likely to forget it than other “wee details”.


William back to teach us about staying on top by not falling over. I know, right?

One person attempting to invert their partner who is resting on hands and knees. The first time round we did this from the “outside”, like knocking over a coffee table. Next we did the same thing from the “inside”, because lo the same hands-and-knees position is used when someone is mounted on you. Knocking over the coffee table when you’re lying underneath it? Well you know what I mean.

So on reflection what did I do wrong here? I didn’t fully realise the transfer of information from one scenario to the other. The value of half-guard (from the bottom) becomes much more apparent in that light. When attempting the takedown from the side being able to remove the leg on the falling side was really important. In half-guard you have control of one leg in the same way.

Another alternative that worked to a lesser extent was turning the shoulders over. They’re a lot easier to manhandle than hips and while a flexible person can manage to leave their hips square to the mat while their shoulders are twisted it apparently still worked. Also it seems being at their head end is better than their feet end: can attempt side control and mount without fighting through guard and so on.

It strikes me now that turning the person by the shoulders like that also likely provides better control of their arms. You can bind up for an armlock (probably americana) before their shoulders are even on the mat.

Sparring-wise I was initially more balanced but soon tired and ended up on bottom getting nowhere fast. Not much more to say than, for all the day’s exercises, I was still doing the escape from mount all wrong.

2015-04-09: Hooks

I nearly didn’t attend because I’m pushing through the far end of a cold and I knew I would not have stamina to do a hardcore class — or the constitution to do more guillotine work, if it came to that.

But I am very glad I went in the end. It was quite a small, skill-oriented class focussing on hooking with the feet, as in butterfly guard or various open guard positions.

I didn’t spar anyone who was very hard or heavy at the end; cowardice or wisdom, you decide. But I felt either challenged, able to work technical details or think through the position methodically without being crushed or exhausted.

The value of the hooks really became apparent in the last round of sparring as we continually disconnected and my partner tried to pass my guard from standing. The details of hooking feet and hands to control as much as possible was really powerful.

2015-04-20: Passing Butterfly Guard

Passing the guard with knee slide (passing the far leg through) or with a flip (inverting by throwing the far leg round your back). Also using arms wrapped over and round the legs to grab the feet and pull them out of play.

Important details: pushing with the elbows/forearms and not the knees keeps your body tighter and leaves less handles to grip. Getting to the two-on-one-shin position is good because this is much easier to pass.

Only time for one sparring session at the end but it went well: I didn’t spend all the time being crushed on the bottom. In fact I was mostly in their guard, trying to pass. No submissions.

2015-04-23: Butterfly to X-Guard

Letting the person in your guard get one leg over yours so you can hook it up with your arm and re-insert the passed foot back in above the remaining hook — giving you two hooks on the farther leg and the near leg cradled on your shoulder.

The training was organised differently. Most of the session we worked with the same person. It was exhausting and there wasn’t any variety of style from each round to the next. I had no sense that I was progressing because the resistance was always at the same level of my ability as my ability increased. From the outside it seemed that I progressed a lot as both Hoss and William mentioned it independently. It seemed to have worked in my case but whether it worked universally is another question.

From a selfish/lazy level I always want to try against someone who is obviously not bigger and stronger and more skilled than me to feed my own ego (or conversely to see if there’s something grossly wrong).

Much later a defence against the transition to X-guard came to mind but now I’m not sure if I’ll ever get a chance to really test it. I wonder if it’s possible to pass the shin but get a hook in their thigh — so only half-attempting the pass. This will stop the person on bottom from hooking their arm under and pulling it up to their shoulder (because it’s trapped under their thigh) and will prevent them bringing the half-passed leg back into action. From here passing the other leg might be easier without threat of transition to X-guard.

2015-06-15 Bridging and Framing

Escaping from mount using bridging to establish a frame, followed by escape to half guard etc.

Key bridging details include (i) rolling on the shoulder/ear rather than top of head (ii) moving feet as close in to body as possible and keep lifting/driving.

We started from side control with head and arm control which was good because I’ve never been sure how that works properly. I mean I’m still at a loss when it comes to doing it properly but at least I’m aware of which arm (and which head) should be controlled.

2015-06-20 Playtime

First Saturday sparring session. In the end I realised, somehow, that I’d basically not eaten properly before I came out so no wonder I was getting a headache and not really controlling myself properly. Got some good practise at preventing guard passes.

2016-03-10 Submissions from Guard

This session brought together all the submissions from guard that I had done here and there over the last year and finally made some sense of them:

  • arm bar
  • triangle
  • omoplata
  • guillotine
  • kimura
  • hip bump sweep

I had done all these before and the class didn’t focus on any in detail. But seeing them all in their proper context really helped — when to attempt them, how to enter them (and how to defend them), how to counter the expected defences and so on.

The first three submissions need the person’s posture to be broken down in your guard. Starting with the triangle you need to get your lower leg over the back of their neck and they’ll be trying to sit up as tall as possible. If you manage to break down their posture they may try looping their trapped arm around the nearest leg to free space between their neck and shoulder. This opens up the omoplata. Alternatively they may try to work their outside arm through to create a frame. This invites switching to attack with the arm bar.

If the person manages to posture up at any point then you can attempt the next three moves. You can try popping up for the guillotine, dropping down to the side their head is on. If their head is not accessible you can use the backwards lean to lead into the hip bump sweep. If they post with an arm to the sweeping side then grab the kimura and break their posture while hipping out to control them.

The two sets of moves, from high and low posture, feed really nicely into each other which is great and makes them easier to remember and to switch tactics if things aren’t working well.

2016-06-13–17 Jiujitsu Jamboree

A week of learning to move and escape like a jiujitsu person. Truthfully it was a week of learning to bridge and spin onto your knees without using your hands on the ground. We didn’t do any work on submissions the whole week. This opened up the floor for exploring the positions in relative safety. When we finally had a chance to roll with submissions I didn’t feel pressured to leap on anything that presented itself because it just felt better to move and see what happened.

Key lessons from the week:

  • Bridge to frame. It’s pretty obvious but it bears repeating. (1) Bridge to get a frame in when under high mount. (2) Bridge to get a frame in when under side control.
  • Frame to defend. (1) If someone is in low mount, frame to keep them there. (2) If someone is in low side control, frame to keep them there.
  • Roll on the shoulder. (1) Pre-empt back mount by rolling to half guard (using frames!). (2) Pre-empt side control by rolling to turtle (using frames!).
  • Control the head. (1) Push the head to the passing side when playing guard. (1.1) Push the head up or down when playing seated guard. (2) Bridge into their head (think ear not neck) when escaping side control. (3) Push the head to the non-bridging side when on top (cross-face).

There are some subtler movements when it comes to playing guard:

  • Double-under pass. Get heavy by planking. Shoulder walk. Transition to butterfly guard.
  • Single leg pass. Lift elbow holding leg and butt-scoot (butt-leap?).
  • Leg-squeeze pass. Spin and extract while framing on their head.

2016-09-16 Omoplata

Defending the omoplata involves rotating in one of four directions. Sometimes these are escapes and sometimes these gain the dominant position.

  • Forward: roll. Bend the head to the opposite side that is being attacked and roll over the shoulder. You might have to strip their grip from your waist. It should be possible to hook on with the near leg as you roll to spin round and put the attacker in your guard.
  • Backward: posture up. Come upright. Try to place nearside knee on attacker’s hip to hold them down while you pull away.
  • Out: spin in place. Similar to a forward roll but staying tight with your attacker and turning. Hard to regain dominance from here.
  • In: under attacker. Push into attacker then pull them over you as you duck underneath. Must be done forcibly so that you don’t just insert yourself underneath your attacker.

Attack from the omoplata is best done before the attacker has postured up. Bring the nearside knee and elbow together, trapping their leg between your two limbs. That knee will be in a controlling position on their hip. Use this knee for a knee slide across their belly, or step over/walk around with the other leg while controlling. Multiple ways to end up in side control.

2016-12-01 OpenMat MMA, Toronto

Went to the No-Gi BJJ class in a basement in Canada. The warm-up was mostly the same, with a bit more rolling forwards and backwards than normal but generally pretty familiar.

I joined in with the other people new to the gym. Not really my level but it was probably the most interesting part of the process, seeing how other people teach beginners. Initially he showed everyone a sequence involving a guard break, a pass to side control, a mount and then a back take. I thought we’d do this in small steps, introduce breaking and passing the guard first or something. In fact the first practical thing we did was bridging, just all lying on our own on the ground, bridging. The sequence doesn’t even involve bridging at any point! Then we did bridging to one side, then bridging to the other side. I don’t know how much time we wasted on bridging but it was easily enough to bore the other beginners, who soon stopped to chat amongst themselves.

We finally moved onto the sequence, I partnered up with a fellow called David and we got down to passing guard to side control then mount. I tried to encourage David to be thinking about proper movement and defence even though we were asked not to resist. I expect David got better in that time than the beginners paired with other beginners! He was certainly feeling more confident, balanced and tighter than when we started out, after only a few iterations. We then added on the back take, a rear naked choke and (finally something for the bottom guy) a choke escape. I wasn’t such a good partner here I admit: David’s choke escape suffered because of my inability to make him keep his back to the mat. He would always roll sideways rather than slide sideways. I feel a bit like I let him down there, which is both true and not the point. The bigger let down was the class itself. Maybe I am very wrong but I don’t think the beginners will have got much out of it. What will they remember? What will they be able to do in sparring after that? Not even the bridging was done with any resistance.

I stayed on for some rolling after the class. I tried to get a sense of how experienced people were though there was lots of variation in aggressiveness too. One guy destroyed me quickly and repeatedly from standing passes while others played a more steady ground game, going to full guard or playing deep half — which I was more able to defend. (Ironically we’ve been doing a lot of half guard since I returned home.)

I suppose the answer to the question “what will the beginners remember or be able to do?” is somewhat academic because none stayed on to roll after the class had finished and it wasn’t made clear that they could or should. I think I’ve been spoiled and didn’t know it.