Starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be one of the best decisions you ever make. Whether you’re looking at it as a sport, as a form of self defense, or a way to keep fit, you wouldn’t be the first person to give BJJ a try, and fall in love with it.
The process of starting BJJ can be daunting, though. I’ll forgive you if you’re a little scared or apprehensive, or if you don’t know where to start. But that’s where this post will help.
From someone who has been through the first steps of the BJJ journey, to beginning to teach and guide new students myself, I’m going to give you everything you need to know to start a journey of your own.
What You Need to Know Before You Start Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Here are a few basic things to know before you step foot in a dojo and start your first BJJ class.
The first thing you need to know is “tapping”. This is when a person gives up, indicating that they can no longer defend a submission. As soon as someone taps, their partner must release their submission.
When you’re starting BJJ, it’s important to:
- Tap when you feel pain (or ideally before you feel pain).
- Stop when your opponent taps.
There are several different types of submission, or tap:
- Physical submission (tapping on your opponent, or on the ground).
- Verbal submission (this is usually by saying the word “tap”. The person may also say something like “stop”. A yell or cry in pain is also considered a verbal submission).
- Technical submission (when someone passes out or goes unconscious).
If your partner submits, or taps, in any of these ways, you should immediately stop and release any submission you’re applying.
When you tap, make sure it’s clear to your partner. Tap three times, tap on your partner’s body (not your own – they won’t feel this!), and say the word “tap” as well if it’s urgent. If your hand is stuck, and you can’t verbally tap, use your feet.
Don’t take it as a negative when you tap. Tapping is a part of training. Everyone who does BJJ will end up tapping millions of times. Don’t be afraid to tap early, and ALWAYS respect your training partner’s tap.
In every class, there’s a “smelly Gi guy”. If you don’t know who this is in your class, it’s you.
Okay, this might not always be true. But regardless, don’t be this guy (or girl). Everyone gets really close and personal in BJJ, so poor hygiene is really easy to notice.
You need to wash your training gear after every single training session. Wash yourself every day too (you should be doing this anyway!). Cover up and open wounds or cuts, and stay away from class if you’re unwell. Also, cut your fingernails and toenails short, so you don’t cause cuts and scratches for your training partners.
Equipment & Uniforms
Generally, you shouldn’t worry too much about what you wear to your first class. Some schools may be uptight about uniforms, but most will be laid back on your first couple of days.
You can usually start with regular workout gear, such as shorts and a t-shirt. However, try to wear shorts with no zippers or pockets, as these can get caught up when training, causing injuries and/or scratches for you or your training partners.
Eventually, you’ll want to get proper clothing for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. There are two different kinds of BJJ, which have different uniforms:
- Gi – you wear a “Gi”, or kimono, which you may recognize from traditional martial arts like Karate and Judo.
- No-Gi – this is done without the Gi. Instead you’ll usually wear board shorts and a rash guard (similar to if you were going swimming/surfing).
Proper BJJ gear helps you avoid injuries and perform better. Clothing for BJJ is usually tight-fitting, to avoid getting in the way when you’re training. The exception is the Gi, although this still shouldn’t be too loose.
Illegal Moves: What Not to Do
It’s not important to know the rules of BJJ right from your first class. However, there are some illegal moves and actions that are not allowed:
- Striking – BJJ is grappling only. No strikes allowed.
- Reaping – put simply, this essentially means attacking the knee of your opponent. Some knee attacks are legal at higher belt levels, but when you’re starting out, this must be avoided. Learn more about what reaping is.
- Small joint manipulation – you’re not allowed to attack small joints, like the fingers or toes.
- Slamming – you can’t slam your opponent against the ground (picking them up and dropping them).
- Neck cranks – you’re not allowed to “crank” or twist your opponent’s neck.
- No eye gouging, hair pulling, fish hooks (finger in the mouth) or oil checks (finger in the… see here).
Try to relax and take it easy when you first start drilling or sparring (known as “rolling” in BJJ). That way, if you accidentally break any rules, your partner will be able to let you know, and no damage will be done.
How to Start BJJ
There’s nothing special you need to do before you start BJJ. Don’t overthink it. Everyone was a beginner at some point. Even for black belts, the biggest step they ever made was picking themselves up and going to their first class.
The most important part of starting BJJ is just to say f* it, and go.
Finding a Class
These days, there are BJJ classes all over the place, in almost every part of the world.
To find a BJJ class, just search “BJJ near me”, or “BJJ [insert your city here]”. Unless you’re in a very remote location, you’ll probably find quite a few results.
From here, you can narrow down to a few choices, based on proximity and convenience for you. See if you can gather some info online, from the gym’s website or Facebook page, such as pricing and schedule.
While you can do some research on your own, eventually you’ll need to head down to the club itself and talk to the owner/coach.
Ideally, you’ll find a gym with a black belt teaching. However, this shouldn’t necessarily be the be all and end all. Not all black belts are good coaches too. If you’re in a smaller area, or a country where BJJ is not super popular just yet, you might end up at a gym with a brown belt (or even purple belt) as the head teacher, and that’s ok.
For picking the right class for you, unfortunately there is no universal criteria. Just try to find somewhere with an atmosphere that feels comfortable for you. Most BJJ gyms should be friendly and welcoming to newcomers. If they don’t treat you with respect, or you don’t feel comfortable, feel free to try out other gyms.
What to Expect From Your First Class
In your first class, you will feel lost and confused.
When this feeling comes around, don’t worry about it! It’s the same for everyone.
Learning BJJ is not like learning to tie your shoe. It takes a long time to get good at it, and it can often feel like you’re not making any progress (but I assure you, as long as you’re showing up to class, you are!).
If this is what your BJJ journey is like, it gives you some idea about what your first class will feel like too.
If you’re not already active and in good shape, you may even feel like you’re drowning just from the warm up. Again, don’t worry about it, and do your best.
In your first class, just try to listen and take on board everything you’re taught. Remember you don’t need to be able to do it perfectly right away. Don’t rush yourself.
How to Approach BJJ as a Beginner
We’ve covered a little of how to approach your first class. Here’s some more advice for progressing through the “beginner” stage of BJJ.
First, don’t think of it as a fight. I see a lot of people new to BJJ who look like they’re in a fight to the death when they first start rolling. I even see people like this in drilling.
We’re in class to learn, not to kill each other. If you get tapped, so be it. Even if you get tapped over and over, this is not the end of the world. Try and learn something from it, and go again.
Each class you go to, have a goal to learn one thing. Just one. This can be as small as a single detail of a submission. If you can achieve this, you’ll progress nicely. If you stress about not doing everything perfect right away, you’re more likely to stall.
Similarly, be careful of going all in on BJJ as a beginner. A lot of people (I’ve done this too) start training BJJ, love it, and straight away move to doing 5-6 classes a week. Even multiple classes per day.
It’s a good idea to ease into it. Training every single day is a good way to get burnt out, physically and mentally. You need adequate rest and time away from the mats, at least until you’re more conditioned to it.
Finally, one of the most common sayings in BJJ is “leave ego at the door”. People who carry ego into Jiu Jitsu don’t tend to last long.
Don’t get upset because you got submitted in rolling. Don’t get upset because someone else is progressing faster than you, or they got promoted before you.
Focus on yourself, and your progress. Just try to improve your skills and your fitness. Don’t start measuring yourself against everyone else, because that’s when unhealthy habits start to form.
BJJ Class Rules and Customs
Be aware that there may be rules and customs specific to each BJJ class.
In any class, you should be sure to pay attention to the teacher and upper belts, and pay respect to those who have a higher rank than you.
Also, follow basic cleanliness rules, such as wearing shoes or flip flops when off the mats, and no shoes when on the mat.
Along with this, some clubs have their own rules. They may require you to wear one of their own Gis. In many gyms, you should not ask higher belts (e.g. a colored belt, when you’re still a white belt) to roll – they have to ask you.
Whatever the rule, respect and follow them. If it’s something you really don’t want to do, just look for a different club, with different attitudes.
Am I too big/small/old/young to start BJJ?
Finally, let’s address a group of objections that have delayed the BJJ journey of a lot of people in the past.
“I’m too small to train.”
“I’m too overweight/not fit enough.”
“I’m too old.”
“I’m too… [fill in your own reason]”.
BJJ is a martial art for everyone. Man or woman, whether you’re 15 or 50, whether you’re 100 pounds or 300, there’s room for you.
I’ve trained with all different kinds of people – different sizes, different ages, backgrounds, etc. The beauty of Jiu Jitsu is how it brings people together.
If anything like this is holding you back, throw it to the side. If you really want to start training BJJ, just go ahead and do it. Don’t let anything or anyone hold you back.