Picking a BJJ gym: A step-by-step guide to choosing a new (or your first) BJJ school

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

(This is a long post! Feel free to use the contents below to navigate to the bits most relevant to you.)

Method
Step 1: Identify parameters and grading criteria
Steps 2 & 3: Attend class and Compare against ideal
Steps 4 & 5: Trial Period and Final Decision
Worksheet

Choosing a new BJJ gym is one of the most daunting tasks in a person’s BJJ career. Some are lucky to start BJJ with a gym that was either recommended to them or in their area, and basically never leave.  Others have to go through this song and dance multiple times, either because of things outside of the gym (ex. moving to another city) or unfortunate incidents at that gym (ex. scandal, drama).

In any case, this post is intended to help you choose a BJJ gym that’s right for you, whether it be your first one ever or switching to a new one.  Note that this is not intended to tell you which gym to choose – but rather, to share a framework that you can adapt to your own needs to make what can be a very stressful decision into a more logical process.

That said, I’ll be sharing my perspective throughout, so before we begin, let’s go back to the most recent time I had to undergo this process. Below I’ve listed some of the reasons why I was looking into changing gyms, which shaped the criteria I developed when I was evaluating new ones.  Note that this was a really hard thing to face – I’d been with this gym for several years, had really been happy. But when I sat down and wrote the below down, I realized that it was time for a change.

 

Reasons why I was looking for a new gym

 

  1. Injury.  The catalyst for this was an AC separation that occurred during a roll and took me out of commission for 4 months. While I’ve had injuries before, this one made me reflect on how the injury came about. I had to face the fact that the vibe of the gym had changed, so much so that injuries like this had become more common. I couldn’t stay at a gym where I didn’t feel safe.
  2. Attention.  At first, I had liked the hands-off attitude of the instructors. Students were free to do most anything due to the loose class structure. But then I started to feel stalled in my training, and I didn’t feel like I was getting the help I needed.  Plus, and I know this sounds petty, it’s hard when you realize that a) there’s a favored list and b) you’re not on it.
  3. Exodus. In the months leading up to my injury, many of the women and talented upper belts had left. I’m not sure whether this was a cause or an effect of the different vibe at the gym. But what that meant for me was that I found myself mostly with people who had a similar body type and style, which took away the fun of the unknown that happens during rolls.
  4. Restricted schedule.  Due to the location of the gym and the class schedule, I was only able to train twice a week. And that had been fine – when I was first starting out.  But when I started feeling stalled and when I had been considering returning to competition, it was a much bigger hassle to get to the gym than I had realized.

Reflection: Is what you’re doing now helping you get to where you want to go?

Recommendation (if you’re more experienced): Every couple of months, assess your training situation. Understand that things change, both in the gym and in your own life – change is natural and necessary in order to grow.

Recommendation (if you’re brand new): Be honest about why you want to train. Realize that you won’t know what you need at the start and that’s okay – everyone has to start somewhere.

 

Method:

  1. Identify parameters and grading criteria: Basically, I thought about the specific things I was looking for in my ideal gym (see Parameters section below)
  2. Find gyms and attend several classes at each: Don’t take just one class (see Vibe parameter below).  To be honest though, if/when I do this again, I’d try a full week of classes first.
  3. Compare each gym against the ideal grading criteria: Again, I wasn’t comparing gyms against each other but against the ideal I’d mapped out in step 1.  The first thing I looked for here was if I needed to try more gyms. Luckily, there were a couple that were hit most of the marks.
  4. Trial period: Before committing my heart and wallet, I signed up for a month at one gym.  If my experience went south, I’d go to the other gym.
  5. Final decision: For this change, I never had to go to the other gym and have wholeheartedly committed to my current gym.

Reflection: How can you make finding a new gym a logical, replicable process?

Recommendation: This post, of course :)   

 

Step 1: Identify parameters and grading criteria


As mentioned above, the thought process here was to create essentially a picture of what my ideal gym looks like.  I wanted to avoid comparing gyms against each other. The reason why is this – let’s say you look at three gyms and rank them against each other.  How did you know to stop at just three? At those three? Identifying your ideal pushes you to really look for a gym that fits your needs.

I’ve listed quite a bit of parameters – some of them might not be important to you, some of them might be important to you but you disagree with my criteria, etc. That’s great! That means you’re starting to or already have identified the things you’re looking for in your ideal gym.  

(Note: If you find these helpful, I’ve linked a quick, free worksheet at the end of the post.)

The parameters

  • Vibe
  • Instructors
  • Training partners
  • Class structure
  • Space
  • Location
  • Class offerings

Vibe

First and foremost, I wanted a place that was chill. I come from a strict background (military, karate), and though I started at a regimented Gracie gym, I’ve learned that I thrive more in gyms that are less pomp and more relaxed. That said, I also compete occasionally. So while BJJ is first and foremost and creative outlet, I wanted to have the option for competition as well.

To check for this, I attended a couple of different classes at each gym because sometimes certain classes have different vibes. I also looked at how involved the instructors were in maintaining that vibe.  I don’t believe that culture is something that’s “set it and forget it” – it’s something that every person needs to actively participate in maintaining. In other words, having structure or rules is less about restriction and more about being able to allow everyone to safely explore their potential.

Reflection: What kind of environment have you found most enjoyable when training BJJ?

Recommendation (if you’re more experienced): Think on the vibe of your past gyms and see if you can find any commonalities of things you liked – or even disliked.  

Recommendation (if you’re brand new to BJJ): Look for a place that matches your personality/where you feel you fit in.

Instructors

The biggest thing I was looking for was a gym that had instructors who were passionate about BJJ and teaching.  More specifically, I was looking for two things: quality and attention.

  • Quality: I’ve a teaching background and look for instructors who not only give context/the why behind what they’re teaching, but also take ownership on the “understandability” of their teaching.
  • Attention: As a blue belt, I quickly learned that in order to improve, I had to supplement my formal learning with my own research and experimentation.  However, with the plethora of material available, I needed someone who could both help me understand what wasn’t practical/lower percentage, and who could point out holes and opportunities that I wasn’t able to see in my own game.  

Reflection: What do you want out of a coach/instructor? How would you like them to relate to you in your BJJ learning?

Recommendation (if you’re more experienced): Think on where you want your BJJ to go in the next year or so and find instructors who you believe can help you get to that next level.

Recommendation (if you’re brand new to BJJ): Think on mentors, teachers, coaches, etc. you’ve gotten along with in the past and list out their traits – look for these in the gyms you attend.

Training partners

I stand at a mighty 5’0”, 118lbs, and I’ve learned to expect that there will rarely be anyone my size.  So when I look at the students at a gym, I’m less looking for people my size and more looking for a variety of body types.  

This variety tells me two things: 1) that there’ll be ample opportunity to work different parts of my game and 2) gives possible evidence of quality instruction (i.e. the instructors are able to build up a variety of people through their teaching) and a chill vibe (i.e. welcoming enough that people of various body types and backgrounds felt comfortable).  

Reflection: What kind of people do you want to train with? How would you like to be challenged while training?  

Recommendation: Look for a place that offers a variety of body types, skill levels, and commitment (hobbyists, competitors, etc.).  After all, BJJ is about adapting to the unexpected :)

Class structure

I’ve learned the hard way that not warming up before class is taking the fast track to injury.  So one of my requirements was that classes had some sort of warm up portion. It didn’t have to be super intense, but enough to warm things up (especially in the winter!).  

I’ve also learned that even if it’s the same instructor, the same class on a different day can have a completely different structure, even if it was for the same skill level. This was another reason why I tried out a couple different classes at each gym.

Reflection: What are 2-3 things you want to see in how a class is structured?

Recommendation: Think on where you are in training – and in life! – and what both your body and mind need to retain knowledge and train effectively.

Space

By “space,” I’m not just referring to the training space available for rolling and the like, but also the physical gym space.

  • Physical gym space: For me, general cleanliness is important. My ideal space, especially if it was further from my home, would have showers and laundry service since I hate commuting too long without washing and gi washing takes up a ton of time.
  • Training space: While I wasn’t looking for a huge space, I also was wary of super small places.  (Yes, Goldilocks, I know) A huge space would make me worry about getting the attention I wanted (see Instructors above), while a small space would make me worry about my safety.  My ideal would have a gym area for weight training and conditioning.

Just like the culture of a gym, maintaining safety and hygiene requires active participation of all instructors and students, so I also kept a close eye on how involved everyone was in maintaining both spaces outlined above.  

Reflection: What are would your ideal training space look like?

Recommendation: Be honest about what are must-haves and nice-to-haves for both the physical gym space and training space.

Location

The main thing with regards to location was how easy I could get to it.  This ruled out any gyms that were too far from my home or work area, or outside of my commute.  My thinking for evaluating location in this way was if I could get to the gym easily, I’d be able to train more.  And just like any other skill, training consistently is the biggest factor in getting better at BJJ.

Reflection: Where can you train that you can easily get to?  

Recommendation: Focus first on gyms that are closer to either your home or work area, though remember that location can affect the price and vibe of the gym.

Class offerings

In addition to being easy to get to, I looked for gyms that had classes that fit into my current schedule, which meant evening classes.  However, I also looked for day offerings as well, for those random times when I was off from work or have an evening appointment.

Note that many BJJ gyms nowadays aren’t BJJ only.  Many have kickboxing and/or MMA classes as well. I trained Muay Thai before BJJ and every now and then, I get a hankering to elbow and kick things.

Reflection: When does the gym offer classes? Are they during times when you’re available?

Recommendation (especially if you’re brand new to BJJ): It can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking that you’ll completely rearrange your life when you start BJJ, but that’s usually not the case.  The first thing to focus on is simply getting to class, and the easiest way to do that is simply to fit it into what you’re already doing.

Steps 2 & 3: Attend class and Compare against ideal


Over the course of about a month, I attended a handful of gyms and listed out what I noticed at each gym with regards to each of the parameters. I didn’t do a point system or anything like that, just took notes using the worksheet I’ve linked at the bottom of this post.

The bulk of the gyms I knocked out easily, and I was left with two very strong gyms. A funny thing is that Gym Y was one i would have passed over since it didn’t have a big name attached.  But because it met the location parameter, I ended up trying it out. Boy was I glad I did – here’s what my notes looked like:

Parameter Ideal criteria Gym X Gym Y
Vibe Overall chill, with an opportunity for serious competition training. Pretty chill, but with an undercurrent of seriousness. Somewhat clique-y and standoff-ish. Chill, certain classes are serious. Very welcoming!
Instructors Quality: Gives context/why and owns understandability of lessons.

Attention: Individualized.

Detailed instruction. Walking around the room but too many students for individual attention Great conceptual ideas with detailed instruction. Solid time spent with each pair during techniques.
Training partners More variety the better (body types, age, skill, commitment). Lot of people, lot of variety (even my size!), ton of upper belts. Small crowd, variety of people, couple upper, mostly white and blue.
Class structure Must have warm up time. Warm ups, standing technique, ground technique, sparring Warm ups, standing technique (certain classes only), ground technique, sparring
Space Physical: Clean; laundry, showers.

Training: Enough room to be safe.

Clean, wide training area, cramped bathroom/locker rooms. Showers, no laundry. Clean, small training area, 1 bathroom. No showers, no laundry.
Location Near home or work, or along commute. Couple blocks from work. 1 block from home.
Class offerings Evening and day classes for BJJ.  Stand-up/other disciplines as well. Ton of classes, both evening and day. Weekends too. BJJ only. Mostly classes in the evening. Weekends too. BJJ, Muay Thai, yoga.

As you can see, both overlapped in a number of places with the ideal, but both had some gaps and thus concerns for each:

  • For Gym X: While I could get to class easily and often from work, I worried about fitting in and getting attention.
  • For Gym Y: While I could get to class even more easily and often, since it was close to  my home, I worried about having training partners who could challenge me.

Note that I wasn’t comparing them against each other, but against the ideal criteria that I had outlined earlier.  This allowed me to look at each gym more objectively.

Reflection: Look at each gym and compare them as objectively as you can against your ideal gym. What concerns do you have?

Recommendation: Be honest! If you can have another person go with you to have a second opinion, that might help also, as long as you let them know what criteria you’re looking at.

Steps 4 & 5: Trial Period and Final Decision


Since neither wasn’t perfectly aligned with my ideal, I decided to do a trial period by signing up for a month contract first.  My plan had been to attend Gym Y for a month first, then do a month at Gym X.

However, over the course of the month, my concern about being challenged vanished due to how strong the gym was in all of the other parameters.  Because of the quality of instruction, the structure, the vibe, etc., the “mere” white belts that I had noted grew a ton in just the one month. Additionally, I received an incredible amount of personalized feedback about my own game.  

While I could have tried a month at Gym X, I felt so strongly about Gym Y that I decided to stay.  

Reflection: If you’re stuck deciding between two gyms, how can you “test run” each? After a month, ask yourself, have you made progress towards your BJJ goals?

Recommendation: Find out if the gyms do month contracts.  While a month-to-month price is usually more costly than a year contract, jumping into a year contract could not only set you back a whole year’s worth of tuition, but frustration, staleness, and god forbid, injury.

Worksheet


If you would like to use the parameters above in choosing your next (or first!) BJJ gym, feel free to make a copy of the below linked workbook in Google Sheets.  It contains:

  • Sheet 1: Outlines the parameters, reflections and recommendations mentioned in this post, along with a column for you to enter your own criteria.    A
  • Sheet 2: Space to fill in your observations as you visit different gyms.

And of course, feel free to amend things to your liking – change the parameters, the reflections, whatever you want! – and you can even export the workbook as a PDF to print out and take with you as you visit different gyms.

Link to Google Sheets (go to File > Make a copy): How to choose a gym (Google Sheets)

Thank you for reading!

If you read through this massive post, I’d be super grateful leave a comment below and shared this with others.  Thanks again!

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