What if There is No Guard?

Think of it as a thought experiment. What if there is no guard? What if the objectives from the bottom were the same no matter what the position? What if guard was the same as cross sides bottom? How could that be? These are some questions that I’ve been asking myself lately. I have a natural instinct to simplify things when it comes to Jiu Jitsu. I think it’s partly due to my limited time on the mat. I don’t have enough matt time to have a complicated game. If I can make something work in multiple scenarios I’m all over it. That’s part of the context that I bring to this idea.

The other context comes from coaching Jiu Jitsu for more than a decade. If you’ve taught Jiu Jitsu at all you’ve probably seen this scenario over and over: A student is working hard to keep his/her guard and doing well. It’s a tough fight. At some point the top guy gets a good angle and turns the corner. The bottom guy realizes that the guard has been passed and settles into cross sides bottom. It’s this shift that’s beguiled me as a coach for years. You can watch it over and over. A student seems to lose all steam once the top guy turns the guard pass corner. There is a transition there to a defensive hold down the fort type of posture instead of continuing the fight. It’s like the game completely changes at the corner turn.

My original attempt to solve this has been to focus on guard recovery. I really worked teaching students to recognize when they are in guard and when they are in guard recovery. I’d have them immediately shift tools when they hit guard recovery. To me this was the missing link between guard bottom and cross sides bottom. Between guard and cross sides there was guard recovery. Depending on how well that went you’d either be back in guard or fighting from cross sides bottom. This required the student to determine which of the 3 different scenarios were in effect at any given time in a roll. I figured that with enough practice  a student would get better and better at transitioning.

This was very troublesome though. I found that making that transition was and continues to be a tough spot for white and blue belts. More often than not they were late. That being late is much of the cause of the issues from bottom.

That’s the context for my thought experiment. I wonder if I can remove the problem of being late by making all 3 (guard, guard recover, and cross sides bottom) the same? This way the student wouldn’t have to much worry about whether or not they were in guard or guard recovery etc. They’d just keep applying the same principles regardless. Let’s take a look at some of those principles and see if we can find some that would work for us.

Barrier Principle

This is a simple but powerful idea. Your goal in bottom position is to use barriers (sometimes  called frames) to keep the top guy out. According to this principle a foot is better than a knee. A knee is better than a hand. A hand is better than an elbow, And an elbow is better than nothing. If we use this from guard, guard recovery, and cross sides bottom we find that it makes us constantly look to improve our barriers. If I have a  knee in I’m always trying to replace it with a foot. If I have elbow frames I want to improve them by moving out to long frames. This is a good concept because it works equally well from cross sides, half guard,  and guard. If you play bottom with this in mind and only work to improve your barriers you will see both your guard and guard retention improve.

Another feature of the barrier principle is that if you apply it you will always be working to move the top guy lower and lower on your body. For example, if the top guy is in cross sides top with a tight cross face and I manage to get elbow frames and upa I might get my long frames in. This will cause him to move from my upper body to lower on my torso. If I manage to get my knee in he is lower still. If I manage to go from my knee to my foot I can place him far below my hips. If you think of your body as a ladder with your head at the top you are trying to get the top guy as far down the ladder as possible. The barrier principle makes this happen.

So, we should always be focused on moving the top guy down our body to the bottom of the ladder. Our barriers help to achieve this. The foot is best followed by the knee, hand, and elbow in that order.


Hip Mobility

Hip mobility is key from everywhere in Jiu Jitsu. In boxing the power of a punch comes from the hips. Power in Jiu Jitsu is similar. Hip mobility is the key to both escape and control. I always tell students that the person who is controlling the hips is winning regardless of position. The hip mobility principle means that we prioritize hip mobility when on bottom. When in guard, guard recovery, or cross sides bottom students should be asking themselves ” Can I move my hips?” If the answer is no then that becomes the primary objective over everything else. There are only 2 things to do:

1. Create the conditions necessary to make the hips mobile. Then move the hips.
Can I use an upa, a shrimp, a head shove, an arm drag, an underhook, a pull, a push, a lift to make my hips mobile?

2. Wait for the conditions necessary to materialize. Then move the hips.
When you find your hips locked and you can’t seem to free them you can do the following:
Use your frames and grips to stop the pass from progressing. Settle down the position. Now wait for the top guy to release your hips as he works for upper body control. The moment you find your hips free you move them with an upa or shrimp depending on which will give you the best ability to improve your position.

Space Management

Space management is about setting up the range necessary to use the first two principles. You don’t want too much or too little space. You want enough space that you can move your hips. If you hips are mobile you have good ability to take your body where you want. You also need enough space to work the barrier principle. Can you get your knees between you and the other guy? You might need more space.

Of course too much space is a problem. When you are on your back with no contact with the top guy you have gravity working against you. The top guy is more mobile and has every advantage in determining how and when contact will occur. From the bottom you want the top guy close enough that you can touch him with your hands and feet. This gives you every opportunity to use all your weapons as needed.

Making space is usually a function of frames and pressure. We use upa and shrimp to create space. We use frames to hold the space we create. Upa and shrimp require you to have hip mobility. Frames require space management. So, on the bottom we use hip movement and frames (elbow frame, long stiff-arm frame, knee shield, feet) to create opportunities.

So, on the bottom I’m trying to create and hold the perfect amount of space. The perfect amount is defined as enough to move my hips, enough to maintain or improve my barriers, enough to use my arms and legs for attack. I don’t want more space than I need for these conditions and I don’t want less. I want just the right amount.


How does this all relate to posture? Posture is position specific. The above principles are not. In a specific position there is a correct way to hold my arms, spine, hips, and legs to give me the best use of my hip movement and frames (barriers) in controlling the space needed to work. Posture has to be learned from a positional standpoint. You need to understand posture from half guard, cross sides bottom, open guard etc. individually. There are many things that will be the same from these positions for sure but there is also enough that is different that learning postures as they relate to positions is necessary.

The Good News

The good news is that if you are focussed on the principles the postures will often take care of themselves. They will become self evident. I know for example, that a C shaped back creates space and a U shaped back takes space. I know that if I keep my knees close to my chest that I’m already applying the barrier principle effectively. The principles will inform posture. Posture will make the principles easier to apply.

How do I Teach This?

There’s the crux of the problem isn’t it? The principles seem just fine but how do you teach them in a way that students can effectively use them? That’s the next part of the challenge for me. I plan to work to develop some classes and lessons based on the principles to see how I can shift my coaching from being position centric to principle centric. I plan to develop series of drills and coaching methods that work to this end. I’ll do my best to share them here on the blog when I do. In the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone else who has had similar thinking. Can you teach bottom from a principle standpoint instead of a positional one? Does this really eliminate the idea of discrete positions? Will this way of teaching Jiu Jitsu even work? Are there any other basic principles that I’m leaving out that would be fundamental?



  1. I am really looking forward to seeing the drills you come up with :-).

    In my very humble opinion, I think teaching bottom from a principle standpoint vs a positional one is a fantastic idea!

    While I do think that learning the distinctions of different positions is helpful because it allows us a convenient way to remember what postures and techniques to try to apply in those positions, I find that too often (at least for me), thinking of so many distinct positions causes me to focus more on the specific techniques I have in my arsenal for those positions and what steps I need to take to apply one of those techniques vs simply focusing on basic principles and using my body, and the muscle memory developed in drills and time on the mat, to apply those principles in order to achieve my ulterior objective.

    More often than not, whenever I get too caught up in thinking about what position I’m in, while I’m mentally trying to figure out the right technique for a specific position, my opponent is getting comfy and cozy on top.

    For me, the times when things flow most smoothly are the times when I feel almost “lost”, and I can’t even think about what position I’m in or what techniques exist for me in that position, but only know that I want to make space and get away, and my muscle memory kicks in with something that will (or has the potential to) ultimately achieve that objective.

    So, personally, I think teaching from a principle standpoint would be awesome!

  2. I love this idea of principles! I think for too long it has eluded me as a practitioner, especially in open guard/guard passing. Many times people just throw drills/moves at open guard and hope for the best, and I always wanted principles to go off of, that way no matter what crazy position or transition happens I can always think “where am I and where is he and what do i need to accomplish this task” This is easy in mount, back mount, and even side control to some extent, but once you get into that blurry line of open guard where you go from A+B=C to a land of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP are all options, it can be overwhelming. I know one principle that helped my guard passing was, trap a foot, then a knee, then the hips, and work your way up, I never though to flip that in my guard retention, which has suffered. I will definitely try these concepts.

    One thing I think as far as a practicing and teaching thing goes is to lay out the principles before teaching a guard retention move, then as you walk through the drill/move you can hit each principle, hammering the idea home even more. A lot of times we are just taught moves, and then told to train. I feel like that’s like teaching someone 2+2=4, and 4+3=7 but in jiujitsu you have to do 2+2+3=7. It feels like the “glue” is missing, and by teaching the principles of why you trap the foot/knees/hips could help open the doors

  3. I’m a white belt and I really like where you’re going with this. It’s not that I’ve lost my fight when my guard is passed so much as I’m going straight to the next position in the hierarchy I’ve drilled into my head. Sometimes I wonder if reading about the positional hierarchy has done more damage to my game than good. Thinking of principles is definitely going to help me be more proactive during transitions.

    PS – Thanks for sharing. I’ve really enjoyed your analytical approach!

    • Thanks for your perspective Donovan. I’m hoping that it’s true that if we leave the positional thing alone for a bit and focus on some general principles that we’ll better transition when our guards get passed. Time will tell.

  4. Very good article! A lot of the ideas are are also brought forth by Ryan Hall in his Defensive Guard DVD……there is an extensive Trailer on Youtube. What you call barriers, he labeled as walls……what is exceptional, is his teaching on guard recovery which basically your last series on escape from side control…..basically a stiff arm + vertical shrimp. Unfortunately he is not showing a lot of drills in the sbgi sense. Although he is showing principles how the guard works in his understanding, this is followed more or less by techniques…..the glue between principle and actual fighting/rolling is missing.

    I am looking forward to your ideas for drilling this. Right now I practice a reverse guard surfing drill to train these position (guard, guard recovery and side control).

    Thanks for the great blog!!

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