In the early days of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, the gi, or kimono, was a huge part of the martial art – reminiscent of other traditional martial arts like karate, taekwondo, and judo.
The gi is still used by the majority of practitioners today, however, there is another form of BJJ that found massive popularity: no gi.
While there are many traditionalists who see gi jiu jitsu as the only true form of BJJ, an unbiased viewpoint should see that no gi is a huge part of the game as well. Most people will train at least some of each form (though there are specialists in each).
This post will explain everything you need to know about gi vs no gi BJJ, and the differences between each.
Obviously the biggest difference is the uniform. One uses the traditional style of martial arts gi, made up of heavy cotton jacket and pants, while the other doesn’t.
Technically speaking, this is basically the only difference. All the differences in style, rules and techniques are down to the differences in uniform. Many things that are possible in gi are not in no gi, and some the other way around.
What to wear for No Gi BJJ
No Gi BJJ has developed its own unique, expressive style of uniform.
Generally one practices or fights no-gi in the same kind of clothes you would wear when swimming or surfing. This is commonly a rash guard, made up of a material like lycra or spandex, and a set of surfer-style board shorts. Back in the day, this would have been the exact type of clothing worn to the beach or the swimming pool, but nowadays you can get BJJ specific gear.
For training, mostly anything goes for no gi. You might just wear a tank top and some athletic shorts. Many also wear form-fitting lycra/spandex spats, either together with or in lieu of shorts.
However the competition-standard wear (rashguard and fighting shorts) is always preferred, to protect against things like ringworm/staph, as well as from you or your opponents’ getting caught up in loose-fitting material.
Belts & Belt Levels
Traditional jiu-jitsu uses the colored belt system to distinguish experience levels. But how about no gi, where no belt is used?
In most cases, your belt translates between gi and no gi BJJ. Most fighters train in both, and don’t show a significant difference in skill level by changing uniform.
Select schools (the 10th Planet family for example) only train no gi BJJ, and as a result have to be creative about how they deal with belts. Some award belts as a formality (not actually training or competing with a belt), some have their own type of belt or experience indicator, which may not be officially recognized by bodies such as the IBJJF.
Other fighters or schools will exclusively train no gi and not bother with a belt or distinguishing their experience level. Many professional MMA fighters fall under this category, where they may be able to compete at a high level, but never received a formal grade.
In competition, a lot of organizations require no gi participants to wear rash guards that show a significant amount of their belt color.
Style Differences Between Gi and No Gi
Most of the foundations are the same, but there are pretty significant differences between gi and no gi BJJ. At higher levels, this can be a game changer, if say a brown belt who usually only trains no gi competes in the gi against another brown belt.
Here are some of the key differences you’ll see between gi and no gi.
Generally, no gi is a lot faster than gi BJJ. There’s less material involved, meaning less material to slow things down. Plus there are much less grips to work with, which means it’s a lot harder to control your opponent’s position.
With less tools to control your opponent, there’s a bigger importance on being “first”. Meaning, as your opponent goes for a move (submission, sweep, escape etc), you need to be “first” with your counter.
This style results in a lot of position changes, and a much faster pace.
Easily the biggest specific difference – grips.
In gi jiu-jitsu, grips are an enormous part of the game. Lapel, sleeve, pants, belt… there are so many ways to get a hold on your opponent’s uniform to control him/her. In no gi, however, you aren’t allowed to grip your opponent’s uniform at all.
For a start, this renders several positions, such as spider guard and lasso guard, essentially impossible in no gi. It also alters how you execute a lot of moves, as you need to factor in that you may not have a reliable grip.
Many submissions are either not possible, or need to be altered to fit no gi. Most use a slightly different grip, gripping one’s own hands or arms, instead of the opponent’s uniform.
As well as not being allowed to grip the uniform, there are a few other rule differences in no gi, compared to gi.
Most rulesets allow heel hooks at high levels of no gi competition, whereas in gi jiu jitsu they are banned entirely. They may also allow submissions such as neck cranks, spine locks (like the twister), scissor takedowns and bicep/calf slicers (which are almost always banned in gi).
The lower level of control in no gi means there is less likelihood of a competitor getting caught up and injured by these techniques, hence the relaxed ruleset.
There is a long list of techniques which are more effective in gi than no gi, and vice-versa.
Most of these are related to grips. Lapel chokes, such as the loop choke, bow & arrow choke and cross-collar choke are common in gi, but generally not possible in no gi. Others, such as the ezekiel choke and baseball choke can be done without the gi, but are much harder.
On the flipside, some chokes are actually easier in no gi, since it is easier to slip arms in under your opponent’s chin. The classic rear-naked choke is a lot more common in no gi and MMA, compared to gi jiu-jitsu. Front chokes like the guillotine, d’arce choke and anaconda choke are also a lot easier to pull off.
One of the most famous no gi exclusive techniques is the rubber guard. Developed and popularized by Eddie Bravo and the 10th Planet system, it’s a way of controlling your opponent from full guard, by breaking down their posture and maintaining control with one arm and one leg.
Rubber guard can still be done in the gi, but it’s a lot more rare. It’s easier to defend against the rubber guard with the added options of the gi, plus the guard player has a lot more options to control posture, so going to rubber guard isn’t often necessary.
Gi vs No Gi: Which is Better?
This is probably the question you’ve been waiting to be answered all along. It’s a question that wars have been, and continue to be fought over.
The answer? It’s up to you.
Most people have their own preference between gi and no gi BJJ, and that’s just fine.
Each style has their own specific benefits. If you’re training for fitness purposes, no gi is probably a little better for cardiovascular fitness, while training in the gi will build more strength (particularly grip strength).
If you’re training for MMA as well, no gi jiu jitsu is more appropriate. However if you’re looking to specialize in BJJ, you probably want to spread some time over both.
If you’ve trained some other forms of grappling in the past, you might find it easier to pick up one form of BJJ than another. For example, wrestlers transition very well to no gi jiu jitsu, while judokas should find the gi a lot easier to start with.
For self-defense purposes, gi jiu jitsu is more relevant, as a lot of techniques with the gi can be replicated by an attacker’s clothing.