This is one of the most common questions I hear at URSA Academy. Honestly, I’ve been hearing this question years before I opened our school. The canned answer here is 7-10 years. But if it were that simple, I wouldn’t have wasted my time writing a blog post about it. And I have enough experience answering it that I’m actually changing the question. It’s not “How long does it take to get a black belt?” It’s “How long does it take YOU to get a black belt?” That question is much more relevant, more accurate, and it will give you a ton of insight about yourself & what to expect throughout your journey in jiu jitsu.
First, let’s talk about the factors that can swing that 7 - 10 year estimate one way or another. Your skill level, natural talent, outside influences, family, etc. can ALL change how long it takes you to get a black belt. If you are a young phenom & an athletic specimen with a Division 1 wrestling background, a judo black belt, & an understanding of how to best leverage that background in jiu jitsu, AND you enter the sport humble, willing to learn, & willing to work hard, then you’re going to get your black belt faster than most.
If you are a father of 3 who trains 2-3 times per week as a way to stay healthy, have fun, be part of a team, & do something good for himself, you can also earn a black belt, it will just take a little longer.
All of those variables impact the amount of time it will take you to earn a black belt in jiu jitsu. BUT, the ONE factor that is consistent amongst all of my students, and in my opinion, the Most important factor that influences this promotion is consistency in your training.
Please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not recommending that all my students train 6 times per week. (Unless you’re trying to be a high level competitor.) For 95% of my students, who are hobbyists or hobby competitors, I’m looking for a long term sustainable training schedule. Two - three times per week is enough.
I have a buddy that I trained with as a white belt who never trained more than 2-3 times per week. But the key to his success, is that he never trained less than that either. Today, he is a black belt professor of a successful academy down in Toledo.
For me, I had much bigger swings in my training. I can look back and see exactly how the frequency of my training and the consistency of my schedule directly impacted my promotions. I was a FOUR YEAR blue belt. At the time, I was working a ton of different jobs, sometimes making money, sometimes I was too broke to pay my training bill, I went to school, sometimes part time, others full time. Ultimately training was not my main focus, so I earned roughly a stripe per year.
Then came purple belt and a switch flipped for me. I started training hard. I was having a tough time finding real work, so I focused my energy on the only thing I could control. I poured all of my frustration into my training. I trained 6 days a week, sometimes 2x per day. In my first promotion as a purple belt, I earned 2 stripes. I was promoted to brown belt in a year and a half and jumped over an entire class of purple belts who had gotten their purple belts ahead of me.
I didn’t all of the sudden get more talented, I just outworked them.
As a brown belt, I started competing in IBJJF tournaments. My instructor, Saulo Ribeiro also asked me to open my own academy under him. My skills were there, but I had to get my head straight about what I was going to try to do with jiu jitsu. The biggest area of growth as a brown belt wasn’t in the guard or the mount position, it was in the 6 inches between my ears. I had to mature into a black belt.
Now that I’ve trained and promoted hundreds of students, I believe that you have to mature in every belt. This has nothing to do with age either. We work with people of all ages at URSA Academy, but if you’ve ever been promoted in the sport before, you understand that the feeling is different on the first day in your new belt, from the feeling wearing it 6 months, 1 year, 2 years later.
The elimination of the “belt chaser” mentality is one of the first signs of ‘maturation’ in jiu jitsu. Nobody asks me about promotions more than new white belts.. Followed closely by blue belts. By purple and brown, people rarely ask about promotions. At URSA Academy, we have monthly test & promotion weeks. My purple and brown belts train consistently during those weeks. It’s no different than any other week of training. White belts and blue belts always show up more that week than any other week.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t care what it is that brings you into class, as long as you come on the mats & train. If test & promotion week bumps up your attendance, good. Hopefully watching everyone working hard, seeing other people get promoted, & supporting your teammates will help motivate you train more. But showing up on test & promotion week only won’t increase the frequency of your promotion. Promotions may be awarded on test week, but they are earned on the weeks in between.
I love working with white and blue belts. As a coach, it’s the part of your journey where I can help my students the most. White and blue is tough road. You’re still learning the mental side as well as the physical game of jiu jitsu. The temptation to quit still creeps up every once in awhile when you hit a rough patch.
They often have to fight that feeling of ‘not getting better’ or actually ‘getting worse.’ White & blue belts can go through long stretches where they don’t SEE their progress. They don’t yet understand the long term up & down journey of jiu jitsu. They don’t understand that everything they are experiencing on the mat, all of these setbacks are actually piling up under the surface, stacking on top of eachother, building up pressure, until they burst forward with a huge breakthrough that catapults them to the next level.
Through the maturation process, you begin to understand what you know, & what you don’t. What you have to learn, & how to learn it. How you can grow your own game & how you can help others. Why are you doing this? What is your motivation? When you begin to answer these questions, the answers add up to tip the scales over from the extrinsic motivation that comes from belt promotions or physical medals to your own intrinsic motivation to train. We talk about this shift all the time in our sport, but you usually hear it called by the phrase, “getting bit by the jiu jitsu bug..”
Once you ‘get the bug,’ everything changes. Purple and brown belt are actually easier in some ways than white and blue, at least mentally, because you are no longer fighting the desire to quit. There are plenty of physical challenges & breakthroughs, training milestones, mindset challenges. But the ‘quit’ is gone.
When you hit black belt, you have to have answered all of these questions, experienced & overcome all of these obstacles. These are the obstacles that cause most people to quit along the way. You have to have maturity. And you have to understand that you’ve got more work to do on the other side of the black belt than all of the work you did to get there. And there are never anymore promotions to mark your progress. If you don’t have intrinsic motivation, the drive within yourself to improve with no desire for outward recognition, you’ll quit the day after you get your black belt.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is unique. In traditional martial arts, a lot of people who aren’t running a school really do quit training right after they earn their black belt. I hear it all the time from my students who have earned black belts in other martial arts. Brazilian jiu jitsu is such a long road, it requires a total transformation, & it becomes such an ingrained habit over a decade, that BJJ black belts tend to keep training long after they get that last major promotion.
Throughout my journey to black belt I kept hearing a line that I always thought was a cliche’. “The journey BEGINS at black belt.” I didn’t understand how that was possible because it took me 9.5 years to get my black belt. But I finally got it after one of my first tournaments as a black belt. I competed against Comprido. He was a reigning black belt world champion when I first started training. I can remember sitting on the mats with my friends as a white belt talking about how great he was. Fast forward 12 years.. Standing across from him on the mat, wearing the same color belt was surreal.
I lost that match, but I didn’t make HIS highlight reel. ;) That match gave me so much clarity to understand that my journey is, at most, half over. I have so much to learn as a black belt.
On MY journey, this stage of my development comes through helping my students achieve every level of success in their own games, a level of success they can’t necessarily picture on their own.
For anyone training with me at URSA Academy or through the BJJ Teaching Pro Online Academy, that’s my job as your professor; to guide your journey & help you not to fall or give up when you stumble along the path, coach you to train through the end of every round. Train every round until you can’t train any more, no skipping matches when everyone else is training. Train until you’re done. Push yourself to train more matches per day and make each day count. Try to increase the number of matches you do per day. 30-35 matches per week. Then work hard to make it your goal to be the last one training on the mat.
Maximize each training day & make it count. Then make every week consistent. Because consistent weeks turn into consistent months, which turn into consistent years… The challenge of getting your black belt is, in a lot of ways, more fun than ‘having’ your black belt. Every promotion is a different test & a different challenge. Enjoy every belt. You only wear it once.
The first time I started teaching jiu jitsu, I covered for someone else. I asked him what I should teach. He said, “Anything you want.” I wanted to do a good job so I picked 3 or 4 techniques that I really liked at the time and taught them all that day. Learning 3 techniques in one class was pretty standard where I trained. So, in order to do a really good job, I thought I would teach 4. I believed that more was better.
Years later, after I opened URSA Academy, I had to miss a class so I had a purple belt teach for me. I called him and asked what he taught. He told me that he taught his FIVE favorite arm bars or submissions that can come from an arm bar. FIVE TECHNIQUES in one class. He wanted to do a great job and blow people away with awesome stuff, so he packed as much as he could into a 90 minute class as possible.
There are two ways to be BETTER. Quantity.. or Quality. When you don’t understand how to improve ‘Quality,’ you err on the side of ‘quantity.’
I didn’t understand ‘quality’ when I first started teaching & neither did my guest instructor. In an average week, I did what I had always seen & heard. I threw a ton of techniques at people, roughly 3 per day, or 18 per week! If you’re training right now in an academy that teaches 3+ techniques per class, this scenario is probably pretty common. Warm up, learn a technique, break off into pairs, rep 2-3 times then sit & talk about it. Get back into the group, learn a new technique.. Then break off into pairs, ask your partner if they know the technique because neither of you were paying attention. Maybe rep 2-3 times, sit & talk, and wish you were rolling.. And then repeat the whole thing one more time for technique #3.. After that. You roll and NOBODY does ANY the techniques you just learned.
That’s the quantity approach. And it’s the most common BY FAR. Almost everyone does this. But in jiu jitsu, (and in most things,) knowing a little bit about everything will leave you coming up short really quickly. The phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind here.
The QUALITY approach is the best way to be successful. Period. There are examples of this at the highest level of any sport. Miguel Cabrera is a hitter. Steve Nash was a shooter, Dennis Rodman was a rebounder. We see the same thing in jiu jitsu. Roger Gracie takes people’s backs & chokes them out. Saulo Ribeiro takes mount & x chokes everyone. Rafa & Gui Mendes have their unique guard games. Of course, they know all styles, but they have perfected their own. That decision to focus one element and become the best at that thing has led all of them to the top of their respective sports.
When I began to understand the Quality Approach, I completely changed my teaching style. Over time, I went from teaching 18-20 technique to 2. In my most advanced class, which is offered 6 times per week, I teach 2 techniques per week. My goal is to set my students on the path to becoming experts on the techniques I teach. In private lessons, we niche this down even more. I work with each individual student to help them develop their own unique game. For example, if I’m working on more of a ‘smash’/power technique in our advanced class, and I’m giving a private lesson to a woman who is 103 pounds, our lesson is going to be about how to avoid getting smashed and getting back to positions that are more in her wheelhouse.
In our kids classes, I want them to be experts on self defense. I want them to be able to defend themselves in any position on the mat, or off. After that, one technique we like to work on is the simple arm bar. I want them to understand arm bars forwards, backwards, and upside down. We call them our little “arm bar hunters.” They should be so good at arm bars that they can spot them from everywhere, from the mount, the guard, the back, razors, etc. They may not know the latest Youtube submission, but they will be experts on a highly effective submission that they can apply from almost anywhere.
I always say that Saulo could teach a tutorial on his x choke and how to defend it. He could show it to his opponents, and still hit it on them in a tournament. He wins with simple techniques, not because it’s tricky, sneaky, or because people don’t know what’s coming. He wins because he’s the best in the world at what he does. How many hours do you think he’s practiced that top game in his life? I have no idea.. But from my personal experience training with him for years, I can tell you he’s practiced that game a lot.. I can’t count the number of times he’s x choked me.. But I can say it’s a heck of lot more than he ever trained inverted guard. QUALITY over Quantity.
At URSA Academy, and in my online curriculum The BJJ Teaching Pro, I developed a mind map that outlines the core techniques that jiu jitsu students need to be successful. People are often shocked when they see it because the number of techniques is pretty small. It seems like it couldn’t possibly be enough. When I first designed it, I wanted to outline the journey from white belt to blue belt. But by looking at the specialties of the greats like Roger Gracie and Saulo Ribeiro, I changed my mind. They used WHITE to BLUE belt techniques at the highest level and they won.
When you recognize the Quality Approach’s superiority over the Quantity Approach, you’ll understand that this mind map isn’t a beginner’s tool to be discarded when you get promoted to purple belt. Its the nucleus of your game that you’ll use for the entire length of your jiu jitsu career. And it’s the foundation for all of our curriculum for every program at URSA Academy.
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu landscape is roughly 85%-90% men. (An ‘official’ stat may exist somewhere, but this percentage is my observation based on our numbers at URSA Academy, tournaments, and my experiences with the sport for over a decade.) Our academy actually has more women than most jiu jitsu academies, but more on that later.
Not only CAN women train, but I believe they SHOULD train. Men get so many benefits from their jujitsu training: physical fitness, weight loss, muscle tone, social interaction, friendships, emotional balance, stress relief, healthy hobby, etc. NOT ONE of those benefits is gender specific. Not only these, but I personally believe that there is no better form of practical self defense for women than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The main Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) positions, closed guard, mount, back, side, etc. all take place on the ground with one person dominating the other. When you picture some of the worst case scenarios, or attacks that can happen to women, many of these attacks involve positions that look very similar to jiu jitsu positions, most obviously ‘closed guard.’
I think that is one of the most common reasons I’ve heard from women about why they don’t want to train. While some of them enjoyed the technique, many women don’t like the close contact involved in live rolling. Knowing that the close contact and the realistic situations are what makes the training both ‘real-world’ practical and essential, how do we help women to overcome these barriers?
First, choosing the right jiu-jitsu academy is crucial to your success. It really is the make or break element to a woman’s future in the sport. As with most things, this part of the culture is led by the Black Belt Professor of the Academy. If he or she is respectful, encouraging, and inclusive of women, most likely, the entire academy will be as well. If the Professor makes you feel like the exception, or awkward, or too fragile, then it’s going to be very difficult to get the most out of your training experience at that academy.
Women’s Only classes are not essential… In fact, in my opinion, women’s only classes can limit the growth of female BJJ practitioners. This may be a little controversial, but I stand by my opinion. Our academy has one of the largest single academy women’s teams in the state of Michigan. Many of the women who train at URSA Academy have expressed that while they genuinely enjoy rolling with other women in class & their camaraderie off the mats, they would not want a separate class just for them. We actually had a women’s only class in the early days of our academy, but it wasn’t until after we dropped that class that our enrollment grew! It seemed that many women who self select into male dominated sports are looking for an inclusive environment, not a separate ‘club within a club.’ While I initially eliminated the class because our clients were not interested, I am now a firm believer in having everyone train together. In my experience, separate training has never produced equal results.
Both male and female BJJ practitioners benefit from rolling with a wide variety of training partners. Women, especially those learning for self defense purposes, need to practice technique on men. Men and women, even those who learn and practice in the same academy, roll very differently. It’s important for women to roll with men to understand how their physicality changes the game. For men, it’s important to roll with women because women rely much more heavily on technique, especially at the beginner levels. At the white and blue belt level, women are far more likely to push their ego out of the way, experiment, and try out new styles or the technique of the day in the end of class matches. Everyone has something they can learn from a training partner who approaches the sport from a completely different angle and the only way that learning can happen is when everyone is training together.
Although she’s not currently training since she gave birth to our second child, my wife, Amy, is a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. While we were dating, she came to my tournaments but mostly stayed out of the academy because jiu jitsu was “my thing.” It wasn’t until after we got married and opened URSA Academy that she decided she wanted to start training. She said to me, “You teach people self defense for a living and I know nothing. If something ever happened to me, I would feel so stupid to have had jiu jitsu at my fingertips the whole time and never learned anything.” So, she put on one of my old gis, and jumped in a class.
Amy told me that her interest in BJJ started with purely self-defense in mind, but she quickly realized that there was a lot more to it. She started toning up, losing weight, & getting in great shape. She loved feeling strong. Her confidence increased & she walked on to the mats excited for the next class and for the next challenge. She was a high school/college athlete & decided that she wanted to jump in and compete almost right away. Since she had competed so much in the past and I knew that win or lose, tournament nerves or results wouldn’t shake her, we both entered a tournament together in London, Ontario, Canada. We also competed alongside my Professor, Saulo Ribeiro. It was a great experience & something fun that we did together.
In a very short amount of time, Amy got to see every side of jiu jitsu. She continued to train for her own benefit in our classes and at one of our affiliate academies, she learned ground self defense, she competed, & then she started helping me teach the kids classes & writing our BJJ kids curriculum. So, from the beginning, she has been part of our Academy. When I was on the mats, she was in the front helping clients. Our students always saw our academy as a husband and wife team or a “mom & pop” shop. I never liked testosterone driven ‘meat head’ gyms anyway. So, when we started ours, I wanted everyone to feel welcome. Throughout the years, my wife and I have continued to work together to create a culture at URSA Academy that is comfortable for our whole family, and for both men and women to train & socialize together.
For any women looking to train, I highly recommend that you try out as many academies as you can to see where you feel comfortable. If you walk in and it feels like a ‘boys club,’ it probably is. You have to decide if that’s a place where you are going to feel comfortable, or if you think that environment will inhibit your own training and development. Then choose the academy where your professor & your team will support & encourage you, and you can comfortably train, learn, & grow as a BJJ practitioner.
Over my years of training, I’ve seen a LOT of trends come and go with BJJ protective gear. I’ve found that like most things, there aren’t many hard and fast rules. Most choices are more personal preference than necessity.
The most important ‘safety measure’ is usually the most overlooked. The number one thing you can wear to make sure that both you and your jiu jitsu training partners stay as safe as possible is a gi that is free of rips, tears, and holes. If a gi has holes or tears, fingers and toes can get caught inside the material and lead to dislocations and small joint injuries. Back when I wasn’t able to replace my gis as often as I do now, I used to throw a new patch on any spot that started ripping. There are International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) rules for patch placements, but if it’s just a gi for training at home, it’s more important that it’s not going to catch on anything than having the patches in the proper places.
Likewise, all patches should be sewn on securely and double stitched. If one of your patches starts to fall off, sew it back on or rip it off. The in between could catch on something leading to twists, cuts, or similar small joint injuries to the ones I mentioned with ripped gis.
When you’re training no-gi jiu jitsu, keep these same guidelines in mind. It’s not mandatory that you wear a rashguard and spats. A t-shirt and gym shorts or even gi pants all work. As long as there are no rips, tears, loops, or anything that can trap a finger or toe, it’s going to be safe for you to train. In time, you’ll start to develop your own preferences for what you like to wear. But as long as it’s safe for both you and your training partners, I consider it acceptable training gear.
Moving away from the absolute necessities, the piece of safety gear that I really highly recommend is a mouthguard. It’s not technically mandatory, but honestly, I see no reason not to use one. I personally wear one every single time I roll. I started out using the ‘boil and bite’ mouthguards that you can get from the sporting goods stores. When my wife and I got together, I started wearing a custom mouthguard. My father in law is a dentist so he took impressions of my jaw and to this day, he makes all of my mouthguards.
The difference between boil and bite mouthguards and custom mouthguards is night and day. Boil and bites can be a little tough to roll with, I think that’s why a lot of people quit wearing them. Boil and bites are designed to be used with ANY sport. They are pushed up on the upper teeth and when you hold your mouth closed they will naturally stay in place. Unfortunately, in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you’re on your back, upside down, moving quickly from one position to another and you might have your mouth open, they tend to move around. You’re not in the same positions in jiu jitsu as you are in other sports. So, the boil and bites tend to get jostled around and can feel like you’re going to swallow them or you have to concentrate too hard to keep biting them to keep them in place. It’s distracting, so jiu jitsu players tend to spit them out.
Custom mouthguards or mouthguards that stay in place that don’t require you to bite down and hold them in are great for jiu jitsu. I highly recommend them because even though our sport doesn’t have striking, bumps can happen by accident. Basic mouthguards can help protect you against a lot of the minor dental injuries that happen from those occasional bumps.
After mouthguards, the next most common piece of safety or protective gear that jiu jitsu players tend to wear is wrestling headgear to protect against cauliflower ear. I used to wear headgear from about 6 months into my training through my years at blue belt. I started wearing it initially because I had a couple of spots of cauliflower ear developing. Not everyone is susceptible to cauliflower ear, that bloated & puffy looking ear that is a characteristic of wrestlers, but I am. I’ve never liked the look of it, and I didn’t want to deal with any hearing issues that can come from it.
One strange part of jiu jitsu culture is that cauliflower ear can be a badge of honor in BJJ, wrestling, and grappling. While I never ‘wanted it,’ when I was in my early 20’s, I didn’t really care too much about preventing it either. For that reason, during that time, I was hit or miss about wearing my headgear. When I was about a year into my blue belt, on a day I had skipped wearing it, I had a pretty bad ear injury that required stitches. It was a weird accident where someone’s ankle bone pulled my ear forward & disconnect it. I needed stitches behind my ear to reattach the cartilage. After that, I wore headgear every day to keep that protected.
After I got my purple belt, I stopped wearing my headgear and I haven’t had any more problems. I was at a point in my game where my ear didn’t get aggravated in the same way that it used to. I’ve talked with a few of my other friends who are black belt academy owners and we all agree that around purple or brown belt, if you haven’t gotten cauliflower ear, you’re probably in the clear. By that time, you tend to not have your head wrapped as much as you did at the beginning. When you aren’t constantly defending and you get to play your offensive style, that’s usually a sign that you might be in the clear. Hard takedowns or a lot of pressure on your head can also cause ear injuries. Most people in jiu jitsu don’t wear it unless it’s absolutely necessary because it can be hot or a little uncomfortable, but headgear is an simple and effective way to avoid these types of minor ear injuries.
The only other piece of protective gear that I’ve ever worn is knee braces. In Ann Arbor, we are fortunate to be located across the street from the world headquarters of a wrestling gear company. They make great compression wraps that have no metal pieces but still provide good support against lateral joint movement. I had a minor issue with bursitis in my knee a few years ago. When that happened, I wore braces on both knees for about a year.
People come to jiu jitsu with a lot of previous injuries from other sports and activities. The best part about Brazilian jujitsu is that we can develop any game to suit your strengths and diminish your physical weaknesses or prior injuries. But, even when we develop a game that minimizes those issues, many people feel more comfortable wearing basic compression wraps on those joints that are a little weaker than the others. Again, as long as there is no metal in the brace that can hurt yourself, your training partners, or rip the mats, you’re free to wear any brace that makes you feel more comfortable and protected.
Speaking of protection, I haven’t mentioned the use of cups. A lot of people assume that all male jiu jitsu players wear them based on the nature of our sport. Despite the physical contact that we have when we roll, cups are actually highly discouraged in the academy and they are not allowed at all in tournaments. As I said before, for the safety of your training partners, any brace has to be soft sided and not have any hard pieces. The entire cup is made out of hard plastic. They were outlawed in competition because people were taking top positions on their partners and pressuring the cups into people causing injury, even breaking noses.
If you watch competitors get ready for tournaments or even get ready to roll in the academy, you’ll see a lot of people taping their fingers, toes, wrists, ankles, etc. Some people go through a TON of athletic tape to wrap up just about everything. I know a lot of people who swear by this taping method to protect against small joint injuries. I don’t personally do it, but there is nothing wrong with the practice and it can’t hurt anyone else, therefore it’s fair game.
I hate to use this cliche’ but the best protection is prevention. If you find that your fingers are getting hurt, that’s a sign that you’re relying too much on your grips. Don’t overcommit at the expense of your fingers. You can always let go and grip again.
If you find that you or YOUR training partners are constantly getting bumped and bruised and no one else is having that problem, slow down. Focus on rolling smoother with more fluidity.
If your jaw is getting hurt because you’re tucking your chin to defend when someone is applying a choke, that’s YOU putting yourself in a bad position. At that point, you are too late, you lost, and you need to tap to protect your jaw and to tell your partner that they completed the technique. THAT’S ALL A TAP REALLY IS, a signal that the move is completed correctly.
If you’re rolling with me, I would personally never pressure your jaw for a tap, but, it is not your training partner’s responsibility to make sure that you’re comfortable during the choke and in a tournament, your opponent will pressure down on it all day long if you’re applying this ‘bandaid defense’ of a choke. Like we always say, at that point, you didn’t lose because of the tap. You lost because you allowed yourself to get into a bad position probably 2 minutes before the submission happened. If you’re finding that submissions are hurting or uncomfortable, there is a simple fix, tap sooner. Don’t let your ego cause physical pain or injury.
If you have any questions about any of the protective gear that I mentioned in this post, please contact us at URSA Academy. We would be happy to help point you in the right direction & hook you up with the appropriate gear that will allow you to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as safely as possible for many years to come.
With summer approaching, it’s important to have a 'refresher' on proper gi cleaning and the procedures we have in place to maintain high standards of cleanliness at the Academy. The truth is, this is important all year round, but for some reason, this issue always comes up more in the summer.
First, to answer the question directly, you should be washing your gi every time you wear it. Its also important to wash your gi immediately after training. I remember a student years ago who complained that he could never get his gi smelling fresh even though he washed it before every class. I thought "before every class" sounded strange, so I asked him to go through his exact steps after each class and describe how he washed his uniform. He told me that he changed back into his street clothes after training, threw his gi in his trunk, then on the day of his next class, he would take out his gi and wash it. He thought that washing it closer to class time would make it smell more like detergent, but he didn't realize that letting the gi sit wet in his hot trunk for two days was the exact opposite way to make his gi smell better.
Our coaches at URSA Academy go through proper cleaning methods with every new client, but I wanted to go through them again just so everyone knows exactly how and why we do what we do. First, even before you put on your gi, it's important that YOU are clean. If you come from work at your office job, there is most likely no need for you to shower before training. However, if you're working outside in a labor job, you're visibly dirty, or you go to the gym or for a run before training, please be courteous to your training partners and shower before class.
When you arrive at the academy, please change from your street shoes into your academy sandals or flip flops. The only place we allow bare feet is on the mat. Shoe racks are available next to each mat. Please wear your academy sandals every time you step off the mat to make sure that the mats stay as clean as possible.
We clean and disinfect the mats every day, sometimes more than once depending on the classes that happen during the day. We do our part to keep them clean. We appreciate that everyone does their best to keep the dirt, rocks, and bacteria from the outside world off the mats to make for a cleaner and safe training space.
Under the gi, I personally like to wear a rashguard and spats to create an additional barrier between myself and the gi. I've found that it keeps my gis smelling better and helps them to last longer. I highly recommend that all students wear some sort of compression clothing under their gi to absorb sweat and add that additional layer between your skin and your partner. Although we all know that jiu jitsu is a close contact sport, your partners also appreciate that extra layer of sweat absorption when you're rolling.
During class, if you're a person who sweats a lot, feel free to bring a small training towel to wipe your hands, head, & neck between training partners or whenever it’s needed. This will help you to keep the grips & have a little more control.
After class, I recommend washing your gi as quickly as possible. I personally have a washer and dryer at the academy. But, before that, I used to walk in my house carrying my gi and put it immediately in the washer without ever setting it down. Carry your gi home in a bag that you can throw in the washer as well. If you're washing the gi every day but you throw it in a gross bag before and after class, you're taking one step forward and two steps back. So stay consistent and clean it all.
This brings us to the 'big controversy' about whether or not to wash your belt. Basic cleanliness standards say, wash your belt. Because even though it’s not directly touching your skin, its absorbing sweat from the gi and growing its own farm of bacteria and funk. Traditional martial arts culture says that you should never wash your belt because it will 'wash away the experience.' (The tradition is a little more complicated than that,) but it’s a strong enough belief and superstition in our sport that most people do not wash their belts after every class. The truth is, that you should. We all should. But I would be lying if I said that I did. I do however air out my belts. I have multiple belts that I wear on rotation. After every class and let my belt dry completely before storing it. When the weather is warm, I leave my belt outside to sit in the sun which kills a lot of the germs, up to 99% depending on the source of the research. I wash my belt occasionally, when my wife throws it in the washer, after a particularly tough training session, or whenever I feel like it's needed.
Lastly, the question I hear all the time is HOW should I wash my stuff so I get everything clean but I don't shrink it to doll clothes. In my experience with gis, I think they all shrink. Some brands keep shrinking for life, others stop shrinking eventually. Sometimes I notice that blue or black gis shrink a little less, but the color can fade. Ultimately washing your gi can feel like a bit of a minefield.
Personally, after the first few washes in cold water, I wash everything on warm and I dry them on low heat in about 20 minute intervals until they are about 90% dry. I like to check them every 20 minutes or so, so that I don't have any surprises. You don't want to over-dry them or overheat them. After trying everything, simply washing and drying immediately after training is the best way to get them clean. I'm not afraid of gis shrinking a little bit in exchange for making sure my stuff gets clean. Cold water sets the color and holds the sizes a little better, but my gis smelled after a while. For me, the cold water just didn't clean my gi as well as I wanted. So, I think the reward of a clean, good smelling gi, outweighs the risk of a little shrinking and fading.
A lot of people use special detergent, borax, scented drop in crystals, white vinegar, and just about any kind of laundry booster you can think of. After years of trying everything, I finally landed on using just regular laundry detergent. It works fine. When I first get a new blue or black gi, I add white vinegar to the first few cold water washes just to set the color, then I switch to warm water. But for me, I've found that the key to gi longevity is just having multiple gis and rotating them out. If you have one gi, it’s going to need to be replaced faster if you wash and wear it every day. Either it will smell over time, even with proper washing, or it will start to fall apart because of the washing.
If you've committed to training jiu jitsu a lot, it’s important to have multiple gis. If you are training in more than one class per day, bring multiple gis to the academy. I teach more than one class per day and I typically wear 2-3 different gis per day depending on the intensity of the class. Again, it’s all about making sure that I'm keeping the mats as clean as possible and being courteous to my students and training partners.
A little bit of effort goes a long way to make sure that the academy stays as clean as possible and we limit the possible exposure to standard contact skin issues. This is an issue that we take very seriously at URSA Academy. If you have any questions about our standards for cleanliness or the cleaning and disinfecting procedures that both our staff and our professional cleaning crew follow, please contact any member of the URSA Team.
As a brand new beginner watching your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, it's easy to look at a room full of students and feel like you've got some conditioning work to do before you step on the mats. It's important to know that when you see the students in any given class, you're watching people who are 90 days in, 7 months in, 4 years, even 8 years deep into their jiu jitsu journey. What you're not seeing, is what they looked like on their first day. The truth is that they probably looked a lot like you.
People find jiu jitsu for a lot of reasons: self defense, competition, team camaraderie, the desire to find a healthy hobby, and the love of the art itself. But the number one reason that most people begin Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to get in shape. Many students are trying to lose weight, some are trying to build muscle. But overall, even those who are actively working out in a gym are looking to improve their level of physical fitness.
I took my first Brazilian Jujitsu class in 2001. The desire to become a black belt academy owner someday was not what made me step on the mat the first time. I started because I was a golfer, and it was getting too cold to play. I also wanted to lose some weight. In the first four to six months of my training, I lost around 35 pounds. My desire to want to fuel my training and better at the sport led me to finally change my diet. (I always tell my students, you'll only ever eat Taco Bell before training one time.)
Between the consistent training and the diet changes, I started seeing results that I hadn't been able to achieve running and going to the gym on my own. That's the truth. If going to the gym on your own, running, and holding yourself accountable to getting in shape were easy, we would all be in perfect shape. But the truth is, that doing it on your own is hard. It doesn't work for everyone and most of us need some help.
When I first started URSA Academy, we only had one level of class, our brand new beginners were in classes with the advanced guys. We only had one level. It was tough, because that tough old school method of training was all I knew. What I started to realize was that there were a lot of people who would really benefit from training and truly NEEDED jiu jitsu, but the initial conditioning was scaring them away or making them quit. I honestly believe that jiu jitsu is for everyone. And I quickly realized that if I wanted to make jujitsu accessible to anyone, I needed to create a system that addressed the conditioning component that was holding so many people back.
At URSA Academy, we have two levels of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes. Both of them teach real BJJ techniques, they just approach things from a different angle. In our first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, we focus on flow drilling, positional grappling, movement, survival, self-defense, and conditioning through BJJ specific training. All of our new students begin in this program to understand the 'Pillars of Jiu Jitsu,' the techniques & the mentality that will be the support for your game from white to black belt.
We also drill in short, intense rounds, never more than 3 minutes at a time. Across the world, the majority of BJJ students are men, although at URSA Academy, we have a statistically larger amount of women training than most academies. But this format of small bursts of intense activity works very well for men. (Women naturally better than men at endurance training, but interval training works well for everyone.) Playing into the natural strengths of our students helps them to increase their conditioning in a way that's challenging & empowering, but it's not going to crush people.
In order to introduce as many people as possible to the sport, help them experience the benefits of jiu jitsu, and set them up for a long successful jiu jitsu journey, BJJ Professors need to build people up, not weed them out in the 'old school way.' Conditioning is the first step of that building process and it's the responsibility of any jiu jitsu professor who truly cares about the long term success of his or her students.
So, no matter what shape you're in right now, whether you're working out in the gym once a week, once a month, or you haven't been off the couch in ten years, we've got a spot for you on the mat and we'll give you all the tools you need to succeed.
Last week I explained that you’re never too old to start training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This week, I want to give you some behind the scenes details about the exact game that I recommend to a lot of my students 30 and up who are working with my in private lessons and in my Masters Class.
Jiu jitsu players 30 & up have to develop a game that that maximizes their strengths and minimizes weakness. I love doing this evaluation through a private lesson. There is no better way to dedicate time and create a truly custom plan for each person like a consistent schedule of private lessons coupled with group classes to work on the things we learn with your training partners who don’t know what’s coming! In the first private lesson, I like to roll with my students first and talk with them & find out exactly what type of athlete I’m working with, what type of pre-existing injuries do they have coming in? Etc. If I'm rolling with him and there's a lot of hesitation in his movement, I like to figure out why. Is it conditioning, fear of aggravating a prior injury, what’s going on? That will give me all of the info that I need to develop their ideal game and plan their training.
One position that I love for Masters/ 30+ people it’s the deep half guard position. I have a few older former wrestlers who train with us, one guy is in his fifties and I explained the position this way to him. “A deep half guard position is a single-leg takedown turned upside down.” Like all of my students, especially the 30+ clients, or anyone with a day job, this guy is concerned about staying healthy and making sure that he doesn’t aggravate any old injuries. In his particular situation, he has quite a few injuries that he sustained from his days as a division one college big-time wrestler. So, he needs to be careful, but he still wants to train, and he knows that ANY physical activity has calculated risk. He knows what physical contact is, he’s not afraid of that, but he’s 50 years old now & he’s got to be a little more deliberate and a little more careful.
In the private lesson, I get them in the deep half position and talk about how you don't have to rely on any athleticism. (Even when you have it!) You don't have to rely on flexibility. You don't deal with any fast exchanges with somebody who's a lot younger, stronger and faster than you. You're really developing a strategy and a plan that works best for you at your age and your physical ability. The first private lesson is the most critical one I teach, because hits closest to home because we are stripping away the stuff that won’t work and teaching them how to “play within themselves.”
Next, I like to put people in what I call the power positions, where they are at a disadvantage. I’ll take mount, side, and back on them, just from a flow rolling pace. What I'm trying to do from there is get them to learn how to get to the deep half position from all three of my power positions. After they get comfortable in the ‘disadvantage,’ and learn to unlock the patience and survival that the young players don’t always have, they learn a sweep or two and turn the disadvantage into an advantage. When we get to this point, I see them develop a sense of ‘getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.’
It usually takes me less than a half hour to actually do this. As soon as we do this, the light switch is flipped on and the responses I get from my students on this is that it's a finally a platform that allows them to be comfortable with who they are and how they want to play their game. They start to realize that even at their age, they can play a style that's very, very difficult for their opponent to deal with, no matter who the other person is. It's a strategy. It's a game. It makes it fun and now we’ve got a focus and direction for their much longer journey in jiu jitsu.
The Psychology Behind the Strategy…
I find that this is very successful for people who are really at a physical disadvantage against other people. The whole point of this deep half game is that it's the opposite way of thinking of every other guard. You need everyone to smash and mount you for you to play this guard. If they don't smash and mount you, you can't play this guard. Well, what does every younger, faster guy want to do against somebody who is physically weaker or slower? They mount you, try to smash, and play their game on top of you. They're not running away from you. So, the deep half guard plays and baits the younger BJJ player and feeds them into the game every time.
It’s using the most common reactions and instincts in jiu jitsu, the desire to tap someone from mount, back, or side, and flipping them against your opponent. It also plays into the psychology of the people. Younger players are going to pounce on these power positions, because it feels like the right thing to do right now. The older player who is comfortable at a disadvantage and understands that they need the other person to think that mounting him is a good idea. They need the other person to think, the attacker to think, that being in side control is a good idea for them. They need the other person to think that being on their back is a good thing for them. It's not that we're letting them, but what we're doing is we're accepting the fact that this is a set up, and a strategy. It feels wrong, but that’s what makes it right and effective.. And so tough to deal with!
My 30+ jiu-jitsu players get to play chess and bait the younger strength players into giving away a pawn to get your knight in position. With a unique strategy, Jiu Jitsu players can be very competitive against younger stronger opponents.
The key to success here is working with your body type and your skillset and taking advantage of the fact that you've got life experience. Your brain is working better than it did when you were 18 years old, that’s your greatest asset, and we’re going to use it. My most successful Masters students have learned this strategy. They have learned to play ‘within themselves.’ That’s why it’s never too late to start training, to find your style, and to become a successful jiu jitsu player at any age.
If you are over the age of 30 and you’ve never done any athletic activity in your life, if you have physical limitations, injuries, or if you're overweight, you can still train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Its an incredible workout, a mentally challenging sport, it’s great self defense, and it’s a lot of fun. But, the best part is, with a few customizations, jiu-jitsu can work for anyone. Unlike basketball where everyone is expected to do a lot of the same physical things, in jiu jitsu, there's elements that you can trim in the game to make it work for your body, how you move, your ability level, and your age.
At 38 years old, I experience first hand a lot of the same challenges that our 30+/Masters level jiu jitsu players face. The number 1 challenge I see with my 30+ students, that we all deal with from time to time, is that we all still think we’re 20. At 40 & up, people still think they are 30. Keep going up in age & you’ll see the same thing. People in jiu jitsu, and in so many other activities push themselves to do things the exact same way that they used to do them 10-20 years ago.
If you’re really looking to be successful, training like a 20 year old when you’re 35 doesn’t make any sense. The physicality isn’t there the same way that it used to be. But, the main problem with trying to do things at 35 the same way you did when you were 20, is that you completely skip over the best thing you have going for you, something the 20 year olds don’t have.
20 year olds train with muscle, successful Masters level BJJ players 30 & up train with their brain. And guess what, brains can win. 30+ players, your brain is your biggest muscle in jiu jitsu. If you’re being too physical, you're either going to hurt yourself or hurt someone else. You have to outsmart and out-strategize your opponent. You may not have the same physical strength that you had when you were 25, but you're smarter than you used to be.
When you begin to understand that as an older BJJ player that your brain has to work first, before the strength, you can start understanding and mapping out a different style of game. Then you practice the techniques through repping, and then you practice those reps through training.
I give private lessons to people from all over the country. One of my private lesson clients from Arizona is a black belt who loves to compete, loves jiu-jitsu, and he has a great understanding of the sport overall and his role in it. He understands his age. He understands the limitations in his body and he ‘plays within himself.’ Because of that awareness & his willingness to work with what he has, he’s had great success in jiu jitsu with that strategy. He recently won the Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships at black belt. If every student can learn to ‘play within themselves,’ and develop THEIR best game, not the game that is best for the person next to you, you will reach levels of success in the sport that you didn’t realize you were capable of, especially when you get started later in life.
I like to say that if you could carve a brain out of a 40-year-old or a 50-year-old then put it inside of a 20-year-old with the physical ability and the mental ability, you would have yourself the perfect machine, a perfect athlete. But unfortunately, it takes experience and years to learn some lessons on what works & what doesn't, what got you injured & what didn't. At any age, you can physically get stronger. You can get more flexible, but when you're rolling in that moment, in that match, you are what you are. You have to understand your body and understand what you’re working with right now, and how to use it to the best of your ability.
One of the most important factors in your success as an older BJJ practitioner is your academy. You have to have the right environment and the right group to train with. If you go to a gym full of professional fighters and you're 37 you're looking to do jiu-jitsu as a hobby, that's not going to be a good fit. You have to find the right academy that has that same kind of vision that suits your needs as a practitioner. Your academy and your professor are the number one influence that will shape your game through the course of your training journey. So, when you’re interviewing academies during your trials, as yourself, "Do I see myself being able to be successful here?,” “Do they work with other people like me?” “Will I have a team of training partners that make sense for me to train with?” “Is this the right fit?,” “Will they understand how to work with me based on my age, my body, and my background?”
Not only will these questions keep you safe, influence your style, and help you to be successful, but they will almost guarantee that you have the fun camaraderie that you might have had in sports back in the day. If you find people in your academy that are like you, that are facing your same challenges, and coming back every week on the jiu jitsu journey with you, you’re much more likely to keep training and make this part of a healthy lifestyle for years to come.
When you're bitten by the 'jiu jitsu bug,' it’s easy to feel like you want & need to train as much as possible to improve as fast as you can.
But, is training as much as possible really the best way to improve? And if not, how often should you train?
The truth is, it depends on your goals, needs, and your limitations. But here are some guidelines..
I recommend that all new students train two times per week for the first 30 - 60 days. During this time, his or her body and mind are getting acclimated to jiu jitsu. Even those students who come into jiu jitsu in decent shape from running or weights have to get used to the demands of jiu jitsu. Its simply a "different" type of in shape.
Two times per week will also help a student's mind to get used to the terminology, the flow of the drills, the structure and pacing classes, and the physical contact with his or her training partners.
In the early years at URSA Academy, before I had this 2x per week recommendation, I had some students who would capitalize on the new student excitement and train 5-6 days per week at the beginning to try to fast track their progress and maximize their results. I even had a guy we called, "2 a day Sam" because he trained 2x per day, 6 days per week. But unfortunately, I started to see a pattern that every single person who trained 6 days a week either took really long breaks at about the 3rd or 4th month, or quit altogether.
What's the use of 'fast tracking' your progress in the beginning if you're just going to quit after you get in the swing of things?! The truth is that everyone has a life outside of jiu jitsu. Even me. Jiu jitsu is my passion, my stress relief, my workout, and I'm lucky enough to say, it’s also my job. But that doesn't mean that I can spend all day, every day training and expect to get the best out of myself every session or every roll.
After the first 30-60 days, I typically recommend training 2, 3, or 4 times per week in our advanced classes for our average students who have chosen to make jiu jitsu a healthy hobby, stress reliever, and workout. That allows enough time throughout the week for rest, healing, and downtime, while still getting enough mat time. The key here is training hard on your consistent training days.
At URSA Academy, I encourage my students not to take breaks between rolls. I tell everyone to 'roll until they are done.' If thats 2 matches, great. That's good for the day. If it’s 8 matches, do it. But, do 8 in a row. Don't roll 2 matches, then sit for 3, then roll another one. Roll until you are satisfied with your training and done for the day. That's the best way that I've found to get the most out of every session.
I've found that my students who train using this method 3 days per week progress at a faster rate than those who train 5 days a week but don't push themselves through to the end. So, it’s not always about number of days on the mat, it’s about the quality of the reps, drills, and rolls when you're on it.
For students looking to compete, I recommend upping that schedule to 4-6 days per week 6-8 weeks before the tournament. After the tournament, drop back to your long term sustainable schedule, whatever that may be for you.
Long term sustainability is really the name of the game in jiu jitsu. Anyone can train like a beast for a couple of months. (I did it at a few different points in my jiu jitsu journey when I was working towards a specific goal, like right after I got my purple belt, and at times when I was dealing with a lot of stress in school.) But on the whole, training should be PART of a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle, NOT your entire life.
To see the most results as fast as possible, work with your Professor to create the ideal schedule for you, based on your goals, and your other responsibilities and stick to it. Be consistent. Be realistic with your time, your body, and your expectations. And most importantly, realize that nothing about jiu jitsu success is fast. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the ultimate 'marathon.' The road to black belt is long, but it’s worth it.