Jeff F.
January 6, 2022

Why We Never Start from the Knees

Do you train at a bjj gym where you'll start sparring sessions on your knees? Do you ever question this decision? Have you wondered if there is a better way to start each sparring round rather than on your knees? We discuss these questions, provide answers and more in this article.

Paddy Pimblett starting bjj sparring session from the knees

Sparring Sessions

Sparring sessions are among the most fun times had in a Jiu Jitsu gym. The culture of a gym can be felt during those times. What do the head instructors of a training gym value? What do the students of a given school want from their gym? Watch the sparring session and you can tell an incredible amount about this.

What is Sparring?

We have visitors coming to Gracie Jiu Jitsu Aurora and they're intrigued as to why we always start our sparring sessions from standing or from a standard Brazilian Jiu Jitsu position. We have fundamental reasoning behind this decision and we'd like to share it with you so you can improve your Jiu Jitsu training. To do that let's first look at a basic question: what is sparring meant to accomplish?

Sparring Definition

Wikipedia defines sparring as a form of training common to many combat sports. That answer is a little vague. In Gracie Jiu Jitsu, sparring comes in two forms: with gloves and without gloves. In other words, with striking and without striking, also referred to as street and sport. Each type of sparring is intended to hone two different sides to Gracie Jiu Jitsu: the street-ready self defense, and the sportive jiu jitsu side.

When sparring without gloves at Gracie Jiu Jitsu, you can expect a challenging technical battle in which you and your training partner employ all of the knowledge you've respectively acquired during your GJJ tenure. That idea gets at the heart of what 'sparring' means: sparring is to put your knowledge into practice with a resisting opponent. Sparring is used to see where you are sharp and where you are weak. Sparring is tool to actively improve your Jiu Jitsu technique against a non-compliant opponent.

Though it often can, sparring without gloves does not need to mean each person is going at 100%. Sparring is rather effective when one or both players are attempting to restrain the impulse to spar at 100%. It is possible to fully resist an attack while using minimal energy and limiting the tempo at which one moves.

Among other aspects, Gracie Jiu Jitsu is about energy efficiency, positioning, technique and leverage. Moving at full speed and using full strength all the time is antithetical to the art form. Sparring is about honing your ability to utilize technique over strength and speed.

Sparring with the gloves on is effectively a whole new game. As Mike Tyson so famously stated, "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." When we spar with gloves on our intention is to use our strikes only to advance our position. A well timed strike can elicit a reaction that can be capitalized on, especially against an unskilled opponent.

Sparring with gloves on creates a time and space to hone your defensive chops as well as to better understand how to use striking to efficiently progress towards a submission.

Jiu Jitsu Sparring

Jiu Jitsu sparring in most schools comes from a place of sportive competition. It is far more unusual for a school to have street-ready sparring as described in the last section. In other words, Jiu Jitsu sparring refers to sparring without gloves or strikes and focuses on two Jiu Jitsu practitioners using their Jiu Jitsu skills and knowledge to fight for position, be it through escapes or controls, then work towards a submission or defend against submission attempts.

There are countless MMA gym story of sparring wars that lead to bruises, broken bones, and concussions. Jiu Jitsu sparring can get incredibly intense but rarely does it lead to the dramatic injury outcomes of other forms of martial arts, namely the striking arts. After all, jiu jitsu is a game of hugs.

Jiu Jitsu Rolling

If you're wondering whether there's a difference between rolling and sparring, there isn't, unless you are referring to flow rolling.

Flow Rolling

Flow rolling means that both practitioners are using considerably less strength and resistance while allowing their training partner to flow through offensive position, and conversely, defensive moves.

Flow rolling looks and feels different than sparring and also provides different benefits. More advanced Jiu Jitsu practitioners can flow more smoothly than novices. It's been said that a white belt with good intentions will do more damage than a black belt with bad intentions. This concept is exemplified in a white belt's struggle to flow roll.

The challenge for novices is simply calming down and the tendency to escalate their energy and resistance through the flow — the result is just a transition into a regular sparring session. Restraint, control, positional understanding and awareness are all elements that emerge and sharpen with experience. Training flow rolling is an excellent way to improve these traits while reducing the need to escalate energy and resistance.

BJJ Sparring

BJJ or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sparring is the same as rolling, or the no glove sparring described above. Adding the element of gloves and striking is one of the key differentiators with Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

Professor Tony Debelak sparring with gloves on
Professor Tony Debelak, in the top of side control, sparring with gloves on

How to Spar

When we have visitors come to our advanced class sparring sessions they are always intrigued as to why we always start standing or from a position. The visitor is always ready to start from the knees as most sport BJJ schools everywhere else do. It is a very traditional thing to do.

However, at GJJA our instructors truly believe it is doing students a disservice by starting them on their knees. You are giving them a false sense of security while setting them up to build bad habits.

Fights always start standing in the street, and in the grappling and combat sportive arena. Would you ever start from the knees in a street fight, the cage or the mat? Then why would you train that way?

Professor Tony Debalak, head instructor at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Aurora, tells his students: “Train as you fight; fight as you train.” If you always spar from the knees you are not training for a real scenario against a real opponent. Rener Gracie summarizes the point in Gracie University online curriculum BBS2 Lesson 59, stating, “There is a 90% chance the fight will end up on the ground, but there is a 100% chance that it will start standing.”

Why So Many BJJ Gyms Start Sparring from Their Knees

The answer is not 100% clear. Perhaps it's about mat space. If a gym is crowded, you can't have everyone starting from standing. The mat real estate wouldn't handle it.

Maybe it's a bad habit handed down from trainer to student and passed along. It can led to unnecessary knee and ankle injuries and it's completely avoidable.

Sparring at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Aurora

At our training center we conduct our advanced class “Master Cycle” for 1 hour. This hour includes a warmup, technical drilling, learning technique and drilling multiple variations of it. This 1-hour training session is followed by 30 minutes of sparring. We do six 5 min rounds with 30 seconds rest in between. We either start standing or from a position.

If you are a higher belt or more experienced you will start in the negative position at a disadvantage. If you are the same belt the bigger person starts in the negative position. If you are bigger or more experienced there may be a chance in the round you are never at a disadvantage so we start there with the worst-case scenario.

Conversely, the smaller or less experienced person gets the chance to do work from the disadvantage as well to build skill and confidence. If you don’t practice from a disadvantage you may not be successful when you get dragged to deep water against a bigger, stronger more experienced opponent.

Additionally, we want you to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations so that the discomfort ceases to exist in your mind. Fear is a choice that exists in your mind. Danger is always a real, legit concern. But to be able to identify danger and solve the issue at hand, now that builds comfort.

Choosing Top or Bottom Within a Given Position

Not everyone is equal in size, shape, skill set or ability. We all have a wide variety of training partners. Inevitably there will be big variations in size and skill level among them. So, this is why you can’t treat them all the same. When you are more experienced or bigger, don’t start neutral as you would for someone your own size or skill level. Start with some form of disadvantage so you get more out of the session and work skills you might not otherwise get to work on. This will make the session more fun and more competitive so that both partners benefit.

After Each Submission While Sparring

Switch positions if a submission happens during the round. This helps the higher belt or the bigger person work on their defense and escape as it is unlikely they will get put in those positions. Conversely it allows the smaller or less experienced person to work their controls, positions and attack strategies.

Sparring as a Black Belt

When asked, "can a black belt learn from sparring with a lower belt" Professor Tony responded, "If you are a black belt in a room full of white belts you can still get a lot out of the training session by focusing on skillsets from negative positions. You should be able to get the most out of every training session and maximize all time spent on the mat by having a focus. If you create a culture where everyone is working to get better and reach their goals neither age, size, nor skill level should be part of the conversation."

Black Belt Tony Debelak Sparring with a Purple Belt
Black Belt, Prof. Tony Debelak, sparring with gloves on with a Purple Belt

BJJ Starting Positions

The list of positions in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is long. Below, we have listed out a some of most common starting positions and provided a brief description of each one.

Side Control BJJ

Side control has a top and a bottom position. The bottom position is inferior. In side control the person on the bottom has their back to the ground while the person on top has their chest pressed to the bottom person's chest. The two are positioned at a roughly 90 degree angle, perpendicular to each other. The top of side control offers positional control, the opportunity to attack submissions and utilize strikes or advance to full mount.

side control

Mount BJJ

Also known as full mount, this is one of the most dominant positions in Jiu Jitsu. The person on bottom is flat on their back. The person on top has their hips and legs controlling the the inferior positions lower body. The two opponents are facing each other.

The person on bottom of the mount can not strike with any real consequence, nor can they apply any significant Jiu Jitsu attacks without first escaping. The person on top can posture up and inflict severe strikes including punches, open palms, and elbows. They also have access to a wide variety of submissions including americanas, head and arm triangles, armbars, and kimuras. The mount often provides quick access to the back.

full mount bjj

Back Mount BJJ

This is arguably the most dominate position of them all. The practitioner with control of the back has an asymmetric advantage over the opponent who's back is taken. The person controlling the back has their hips positioned above the hips of the person in front. The legs of the person on the back are wrapped around the in person in front — these are known as hooks.

The hooks are used to control the hips of the person in the inferior position. The person with back control can use their hands and arms in a variety of ways to manipulate the person in the inferior position. From the back, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner can employ chokes, armlocks, strikes, and a variety of other submissions. The rear naked choke is the most common submission, or finish, from the back.

rear naked choke is accomplished from the back mount

Closed Guard

Brought into the collective consciousness by Royce Gracie during the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on November 12, 1993, here in Denver, this position is perhaps one of the most widely recognized positions within Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The person on the bottom has their hips and legs above the person on top's hips. In closed guard the leg's on the person on the bottom are wrapped around the torso of the person on top. The person on top is "inside the guard."

This gives an incredible amount of control to the person on the bottom. From here the bottom position can control the top person's posture while setting up submission attacks and sweeps from the bottom. The bottom practitioner has access to armbars, triangle chokes, pendulum sweeps, transitions to the back, and opportunity to disengage and stand up.

closed guard bjj

Half Guard BJJ

Half guard is a common Brazilian Jiu Jitsu position in which one player is lying on top of the other while the bottom opponent wraps their leg around the leg of the top player — this wrap is called a figure four.

In MMA the top player can strike while in bjj the top player will often try to free the entangled leg then advance to side control or mount. The position name 'half guard' typically refer to the bottom player's position, while the top player is said to be in the top of half guard or sometimes also referred to as half mount.

For the half guard player, there is a path to the back with an underhook on the same side as the entangled leg. There are also a variety of sweeps from the bottom.

X Guard BJJ

X guard is a sportive Jiu Jitsu position and not a wise position in a striking situation. In X guard one person is standing while the person applying the X guard is on their back, partially underneath the standing person. The practitioner applying the X guard has their legs scissored on the thigh of the standing party. The player using the X guard typically has an underhook around the standing persons other leg, while also uses their head and should to apply addition pressure and control to that same underhooked leg.

Z Guard BJJ

Z guard is close to half guard but instead of the person on the bottom having a figure four on the top player's leg, the bottom player has the inside leg laced through like in half guard and their outside leg is retracted and pressed onto the hip and chest of the opponent, creating a frame. The hand are used to make connections with and in order to control the opponents upper body.

z guard bjj

Open Guard BJJ

The are many varieties to open guard. In short, one Jiu Jitsu player is standing, while the other is seated. The objective of the seating player is to sweep the standing player, or to gain entry to the legs or back.

The objective of the standing player is to either pass the guard, getting to side control or mount, or attack the legs of the seated opponent. Open guard is extremely dynamic regardless of which position you're in. It is arguable that this is a neutral position.

50 50 BJJ

50 50, simply pronounced fifty fifty, is a neutral leg entanglement position. Each player is seated and has a figure four around the other players leg. Because of this configuration, each player has equal access to attack the other's legs. While attacking, you are also vulnerable to being attacked. Heel hooks, straight ankle locks and knee bars are all readily available from 50 50.

Start Each Jiu Jitsu Sparring Round from a Different Position

Each round of sparring is an opportunity to improve your Jiu Jitsu skills. Develop good habits revolving around the ideas of defending, escaping, controlling, and submitting. Work towards using minimal energy when achieving each of these ideas. Even if you train in a small gym that is crowded, you can always start each round in one of the standard Jiu Jitsu positions — always avoid starting with both players on their knees. This in not a Jiu Jitsu position and will lead to bad habits. When the sparring session is over, feel free to rest on your knees.

Come spar with us at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Aurora during our open mats every Saturday. New to Jiu Jitsu? Sign up for a 7-day free trial.

the mats dont lie
The mats don't lie
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram