The gist of Jiu-Jitsu—what every white belt needs to know

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Don’t hurt me, I’m only a white belt. #friendnotfood

The first time I heard about jiu-jitsu, the thought of having strange sweaty blokes grinding up against and sitting on my face didn’t really appeal to me. This was back when I didn’t really have an understanding of the art.

In 2015, I went to Chiang Mai to train Muay Thai. It was there that I developed appreciation and understanding of martial arts grew. After a close blue belt friend of mine brought me in for a jiu-jitsu class, the rest, as they say, was history.

To those who’ve decided to take the plunge and start training jiu-jitsu as well, here are some essential tips to help you get started on your new journey. 

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Jiu-jitsu 101

Jiū in Japanese literally translates to ‘gentleness’, while jitsu means ‘art’ or ‘technique’. Hence the term, ‘gentle art’.

Samurai were taught this weaponless  self-defence as a form of takedown since strikes and punches were useless against the heavy armour their enemies wore.

Jiu-jitsu later made it’s way to Brazil, where the art was further developed and evolved into the discipline we see today.

What’s a class like?

Most classes start out in the same way, with a quick run around the gym, a few hip escapes, followed by some simple drills and rolling exercises.

If you’re new, your coach might pull you aside and give you a quick breakdown of the practice before diving into the techniques of the day—followed by more rolling after. 

Rolling for the first time

As a white belt, your only goal is to survive.

Forget about trying to submit your opponent (not that you even know how to…) and focus on these two things:

  1. Escaping the guard
  2. Not getting choked out

Master these two aspects and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a decent jiu-jitsu practitioner. Until then, set aside your ego, give your opponent a fist bump, and let the ass whooping commence!

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Picking a gym

Selecting your gym of choice bases a lot on personal preference. Everyone has their own set of criteria, but what’s important is finding an academy that best fits you. Aside from overall good vibes, here are some additional factors to consider before committing:

Gym cleanliness
Observe the hygiene practices (or lack thereof) of the gym. Are the toilets and changing rooms well maintained? Do the mats get mopped up after a class? Or is everything caked in sweat and dried blood?

Good hygiene is an essential practice every gym should adhere. Unless you’re looking to get a staph infection, it’s best to give dirty gyms a miss.

Mat space
Imagine having 30 people rolling around in an area the size of your living room. The lack of space can get pretty annoying when you’re constantly bumping into people every few seconds and breaking the momentum of your rolls. There’s also a chance you might get you kicked in the face by accident, which is mucho un-coolio. 

Location, location, location
Pick a gym that’s close to your job or home. Distance may not seem like an issue for you now, but trust me, if you’re training constantly, have a full-time job, and don’t have your own transport, travelling back and forth becomes a huge pain and kills your motivation to keep training. 

Friendliness of students
The jiu-jitsu community is a very close-knit circle. Training more than three times a week means you’ll be spending a lot of time in close physical contact with these people and trusting that they’re watching out for your safety. It helps to be chummy with people there and makes rolling that much more enjoyable. 

Overall teaching ability
Some instructors are more patient and nurturing, while others tend to be regimental and assertive. Though both methods are equally effective teaching styles, what’s imperative to your progression as a jiu-jitsu practitioner is finding the style which best suits you. 

Ask yourself this…

  • Does this instructor give everyone equal amounts of attention?
  • How well does he treat and teach beginners?
  • Can you be friends with this person?

Don’t be afraid to visit different gyms to get a feel of their culture and teaching styles. Most schools offer free trial classes and introductory lessons for free, so don’t feel the need to rush into anything.

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Getting a gi

How many gis should you get?
How often will you be training? If you’re a casual once-a-week roller, a single gi would be enough. If you’re thinking of hitting the mats 4-5 times a week, get at least two.

What about rash guards?
Your elbows and knees are going to get scuffed a lot during your rolling sessions. Unless you’re okay with a little friction burn, I’d recommend purchasing some rash guards to make things more comfortable.

The biggest issue most people have about wearing them in Singapore is how warm it’s going to feel. Thing is, most jiu-jitsu gyms are air-conditioned and I’d rather be sweaty than chaffed up, so it’s really up to you.

The art of finger taping
The first few times you start rolling, you’re going to be using a lot of strength, yanking and gripping and clinging onto your opponent’s gi like your life depended on it.

Here’s the thing… if you’re using a lot of strength, you’re probably doing something wrong. It’s all about technique when it comes to the ‘jits’. Until you learn that, do those digits a favour and wrap them up.

Regular medical tape from any pharmaceutical store does the trick. They’re about a dollar a pop and comes in a variety of sizes—the smallest being half an inch. (I like to slice a 1/2 inch down the middle to make it 1/4 inch, it makes taping easier.) Make it a habit to tape up before each class. Never wrap it too tightly till your fingers start throbbing, and don’t be afraid to use a lot of it.

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Nutrition and supplementation

The first few weeks of training are going to hurt. Your body is going to need time to condition itself after a long day of training. It’s important to maintain a healthy and clean diet, and consider taking these natural supplements to give yourself that extra boost for recovery.

Fish Oil
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil helps build muscle, keeps your bones and joints strong, and above all reduces inflammation, which is going to be the main cause for most of your injuries and prevents you from getting a bunch deadly diseases.

Definitely take it if want to live a long and healthy life.

Turmeric
Or rather, the active ingredient in turmeric: Curcumin. That’s right. That yellow stuff you use for cooking curry has got some awesome anti-inflammatory effects. You can purchase turmeric supplements from any organic supermarket, or do what I do and make them yourself with empty capsules and turmeric powder to save yourself a couple of dollars.

Vitamin C
A powerful antioxidant best known for maintaining a strong immune system and a healthy heart. A single effervescent tablet in the morning adds another layer of defence against the common cold and falling sick. 

Chia Seeds
I’m talking about those little tadpoles things that float around your mouth. Add them to any beverages to make drinking fun! They’re loaded with antioxidants, fibre, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are A-okay for consumption.

Coconut Oil
This superfood has one of the richest sources of natural saturated fats known to man. Drizzle a spoonful over your salad or add it to your morning brew to boosts your immune system and overall endurance. It also reduces inflammation, prevents cancer, and does wonders for your skin and hair. 

Other possible supplements you could try include:
Creatine, BCAA, and Whey Protein. I personally don’t use them as much, but as long as you eat your greens and limiting salt, sugar, and alcohol intake, that’s enough to keep you from feeling like shit after a long week of training.

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Important tips for beginners

Relax and breathe
If you haven’t realised by now, muscling your way to a submission isn’t going to work. Constantly going at 100% will gas you out within minutes. The solution? Stay cool. You don’t see chess players screaming and slamming their pieces onto the board do you? Jiu-jitsu is a game of wits, an art of flow. Just chill out and go slow, you’ll learn much better that way. Trust me. 

Tap early. Tap loudly. Tap often.
You’re going to get dominated during the first few months of training. Which means you’ll be tapping out a lot as well. It’s not worth breaking an arm and being out of training for six months just because you can’t tame your ego. So check yourself before you wreck yourself. 

Keep a jiu-jitsu journal
Jot down points, draw diagrams, use acronyms for certain moves (e.g. SG—Side guard, CG—Closed guard, etc.), or even create a flowchart. Basically just write down anything and everything you’ve learned during class in whichever way you’re most comfortable with so you can learn and refer to it later. Dating your entries helps make it easier to keep track of your progress as well.

Roll with someone more experienced
White belts are dangerous. Not because they’re skilled, but because half the time they don’t know what the hell they’re doing and end up using more strength to compensate for their lack of technique,  which could end up getting you hurt. 

Don’t be intimidated to roll with a blue belt or higher. Most experienced practitioners are more than happy to give you some pointers and highlight what you’re doing wrong. Just go up to one and ask if they’d like to roll. You’ll feel much safer in their hands as well cause you know they’re more aware of their moves.

Listen to the Joe Rogan podcast
Each podcast from The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) podcast, hosted by UFC commentator and stand-up comedian (and ex-host of Fear Factor) Joe Rogan, is about three hours long and features a variety of guests ranging from MMA fighters, BJJ masters, scientists, comedians, bow hunters… (basically anyone who’s a super cool person), to share their personal stories along with interesting and insightful ways to conduct our own lives. Even if you’re not into jiu-jitsu, I recommend listening to the podcast anyway.

And the final tip:

Never stop drilling
Mastering anything involves time, patience, and a lot of experimentation. Don’t worry about trying to submit your opponent just yet, focus on perfecting the fundamentals. Drill the basics till they become second nature, and then drill some more. You’ll be choking out your opponents in no time at all. 

That’s it!

Let me know if you have any useful rolling tips or practices worth sharing, I’ll be sure to include them in a future article. Till then, peace out.

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