Training without a gym: How to study BJJ videos

The main way BJJ practitioners learn BJJ is through live training with an instructor leading the class.  Video can be a powerful supplement to live training if utilized effectively. Unlocking the potential of studying BJJ through video lies in how you go about choosing what, who, and when to study videos.  


Note: At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, causing many BJJ practitioners to completely halt their training.  While videos do have power, using videos to learn brand new positions are best when coupled with live training (see Choosing what to do after studying). 

Since we don’t yet have a way to download abilities a la The Matrix, a general recommendation during this time is to study videos to supplement positions you already know.  


Choosing what to study  

Video resources can be roughly separated into two types: Tutorials and rolling footage.  


Tutorials are videos where someone teaches a certain technique, position, etc. They can be one-off videos or a series/DVD, and can be anywhere from a minute long to hundreds of hours of footage, depending on the depth and detail of the person teaching.   

The teaching aspect is the key feature of this type of video resource.  In this way, choose a tutorial to study if you want …  

  • To learn about a general topic (ex. searching for an hour about a specific position like top side control can lead you to a dozen different perspectives and options. For advanced players, this can be a quick way to start adding new guards/positions since you’ll be able to surface the broad trends through the commonalities in the videos) 
  • Breakdowns of a certain technique performed by a specific person (ex. a well-known competitor hit a tricky submission, pass, etc. during a high-level event, and either they or another person details how they did it)   
  • To learn the fine details of a specific topic (i.e. a combination of the first two bullet points)
  • Want the experience of a regular BJJ class (i.e. having an instructor explain a technique, after which you drill the technique on your own)  

Rolling footage

Rolling footage are videos that focus on sparring. These videos can include people training at their home gym or competition.  

The key feature of this type of video resource is the ability to focus on one specific person – their style, their patterns, etc.  Especially if there is a lot of footage of this person available, even the progress of their game can be traced by studying rolling footage of that person in chronological order.   

In this way, choose rolling footage to study if you want …  

  • To see a specific person’s responses to specific situations (ex. looking up footage of them competing against a person with a certain style/game, skipping through footage until you spot them in a certain position, studying when they do one move over another) 
  • To infer the responses and try it out on your own (i.e. since rolling footage does not feature a teaching element, you have to piece together the answers/reasons why X was done instead of Y by yourself) 
  • To compare and contrast a specific person’s competition game to their in-house game (i.e. what are similarities and differences in how this person approaches a high-stakes environment vs a low-stakes environment?)


Choosing who to study  

The barrier to entry to creating video resources is a low one, meaning that anyone can make and share a video resource these days. There are famous names and certain video libraries that people will recommend time and again, but ultimately, you’re the one who has to choose which videos to study. 

While the criteria is ultimately subjective, do keep in mind that video resources are not all the same: 

Since the key feature of tutorials is the teaching aspect, try to choose tutorial videos with teachers who are able to clearly and concisely explain both the steps and the reasons behind those steps.  Additionally, they should be able to outline the specific situations where one movement, reaction, etc. is recommended over another. 

Since the key feature of rolling footage is the focus on a specific person, try to choose videos of rolling footage that show either people whose game fits the next level of your current game (i.e. a target for you to aim for), or people who specialize in specific techniques that you’re looking to improve (i.e. see the full range of reactions, chains, options, etc. with that technique). 


Choosing when to study 

Throughout this post, “study” has been the key verb used over “watching.”  That choice is deliberate. 

Watching video: A passive endeavor, where multiple, disconnected videos are viewed in random order, any time of day, week, etc. 

Studying video: An active endeavor, where specific videos are chosen to be viewed at a set time of day, week, etc. for a specific purpose (ex. reviewing before class, finding options to a trend unearthed through note taking)

In other words, watching video is something you can do any time, without much effort.  Studying video, however, is best when it is planned.  

To help you create a schedule that fits optimally with your training schedule, consider the following questions: 

  • What phase of the training cycle are you in?  Are you broadening your game (ex. Breaking a plateau by learning something new) or narrowing your game (ex. Preparing for competition)? 
  • How do you prepare for class/mat training? (ex. If selected before training, videos can serve as reminders on what to focus during the class; if selected after training, videos can serve as a way to answer the questions/problems that happened during class)
  • How much have you watched/studied thus far? (ex. Are you watching or are you studying? Is it now time to focus on doing?)


What to do while studying  

Playing a video and staring at the screen would count as “watching” video, a passive activity.  As mentioned above, “studying” video requires some activity from you, the learner. 

When studying tutorials, try the following as you’re viewing the video: 

  • What details have you heard before? What is the key concept that makes this detail so important?
  • What new details are being delivered through the tutorial that you haven’t seen/heard before? Why are they different? (ex. Grips? Guard structure? Situation?)
  • What details can you notice that the instructor is not verbalizing? 

When studying rolling footage, try the following during a study session: 

  • Watch several videos of the person and note their tendencies/patterns (ex. Takedowns, go-to guards).  Note also where those tendencies/patterns were broken and analyze why that may have happened.
  • After studying several videos of this person, select a new video and stop the video at random times to guess what the person you’re studying will do next or think about what you would do in that situation.  Then play the video – what made your answer right/wrong? (ex. The opponent reacted an unexpected way? Didn’t know a certain option was available at that position?) 


What to do after studying  

As a supplemental tool to BJJ, training after studying video is one of the best things to do.  To make sure you directly practice what you’ve learned, consider some of the following activities.

After studying a tutorial: 

  • Immediately after the first viewing, try to summarize (or use the Feynman technique) what you watched.  Rewatch the video and see what you missed. 
  • Dedicate a certain amount of time drilling the techniques that you learned
  • During live rolling, make it your goal to get to a position that will lead you to that technique.  Note how successful or unsuccessful you were in completing the technique. 

After studying rolling footage: 

  • Dedicate a certain amount of time for positional training to attempt the patterns/reactions that you’ve studied.  Note how successful or unsuccessful you were in executing the same game plan (ex. What reactions were you getting? How do they compare to the person you’ve been studying?) 
  • Find a different BJJ practitioner with a contrasting approach. Study how they shut down games/styles similar to the person you’ve been studying (even better: study matches where those two have fought against/trained with each other).

After either: 

  • Perform “mental” drilling through visualization (or even the 6 degrees exercise)
  • Create flowcharts/technique maps that outline different reactions and options


Keep studying!

This post covers only the tip of the iceberg of what all can be done through studying video. If you have additional ideas, feel free to share them in the comments below!

Training without a gym: 6 degrees

While the Feynman technique is helpful in testing the depth of your knowledge of a certain technique, position, etc., the below exercise can help find the connections between these seemingly disparate pieces.

6 degrees

From Wikipedia:

Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other.

We can apply this idea to BJJ by trying to find the connections within – and between –  these three broad categories:

  • Positions (different guards, positions of dominance)
  • Transitions (sweeps, passes)
  • Submissions

For example, if I’m just trying to wake up my BJJ brain, I’ll start with just the “Positions” category and choose two at random. Let’s say De la riva and mount. The exercise is then to connect these two positions together in 6 “degrees” – moves – or less.

Things can get even more interesting when the other categories are added. For example, if we use all three:

  • Position: De la riva
  • Transition: Torreando pass
  • Submission: Armbar

The exercise then becomes more like a game with dozens of possibilities. You could try to connect each one within 6 moves, or try to connect all three in 6 moves total. Or set a timer and try to brainstorm as many connections as you can within the 6 “degrees” you’ve defined.

Further, each category can be tweaked to your liking. For example, “Positions” could be narrowed down to only certain guards, “Transitions” limited to only passes, or “Submissions” limited to a certain limb.

Lastly, this is an exercise that can be done without any equipment at all, a more exploratory cousin to visualization that can be used to get the creative wheels turning, no matter if you’re on or off the mats.

Training without a gym: Feynman technique for BJJ

How you train off the mats can be just as important as how you train on the mats. In addition to my note taking routine, I also do the following exercise when doing a monthly review or just looking to add new things to my game.

The Feynman technique

Named after Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, this technique has four simple steps:

  1. Get a sheet of paper and write the concept you’re trying to understand at the top.
  2. Explain the concept as if you were trying to teach it to someone who has never heard it before.
  3. When you get stuck, or find that your answers are lacking detail, go back to your source material for the answer.

(Credit: Ultralearning by Scott Young)

I’ve found that this is particularly helpful when learning a new guard.  I’ll write the name of the guard at the top of a piece of paper and then answer the below questions:

  1. How does this position meet the “three controls” criteria? (Control of the body, distance, posture)
  2. As the guard player, what are the pros and cons to this position?
  3. What are some variations to this guard/combinations with other guards?
  4. What sweeps do you know from this position? From its variations?
  5. What passes do you know from this position? From its variations?

If you’re unable to answer any one of these completely or find that your answers are lacking in substance or detail, then that can help you identify where there may be a gap in your understanding and focus your study.

It’s a pretty quick exercise but I’ve found that it helps a ton because it can be applied to learning not only different guards, but also passes, escapes, high-level concepts etc.

For example, for learning an escape, I’ll have most of the same questions with some slight adjustments:

  1. How does this position meet the “three controls” criteria? (Control of the body, distance, posture)
  2. As the top player, what are the pros and cons to this position?
  3. What are some variations to this position?
  4. What escapes do you know from this position? From its variations?
  5. What submissions should you be wary of from this position? From its variations?

Note that here, you not only are reviewing the escape as the bottom player, but also the controls needed as the top player, rounding out your knowledge of the position.

Lastly, it can help to do this exercise on the same topic multiple times over the course of several days (or months!) so you can see how much you’ve internalized and deepened your knowledge over time.


Been a while!  I’m thinking of changing the format for this into shorter “thought posts,” hopefully to be published every week or so.  Feel free to give feedback in the comments!

Promotion is a curious word.  I wonder if it was a conscious choice to use the word in regards to going up in the ranks.

A quick Google search gives two definitions.  The second definition is the raising to a higher position, but it’s the first definition that makes me curious.

Google definitions

Google definitions “promotion”

BJJ is a community, and I’ve always been of the mindset that you can’t roll alone. So if we take this first definition of “promotion,” it’s not just for the sake of the person being promoted – it’s also for the sake of others not getting promoted (giving them encouragement and goals), for the community within the school (to bring people together in recognizing each other’s efforts), and the community outside the school as well (giving others a glimpse into life within the school and even encourage others to join).  

Regardless of whether or not “promotion” was a conscious or unconscious choice of words, I think its continued use speaks volumes about the intricacies of the art…

6 things to do when you can’t train BJJ

We all get pulled away from the mats at some point, sometimes through things like injury or sickness, other times by that all-too-demanding thing called life.  While it can be beneficial to take some time off every now and then, being forced not to train can be  aggravating.

For example, I fell seriously ill late last month and the whole ordeal has knocked off more than 3 weeks of training – and I have a competition scheduled next week.  As my energy started to come back, it was a real fight to keep myself from jumping prematurely into training and triggering a relapse.  I actually went to class earlier last week, but the next day I was hampered with lethargy and a runny nose – the equivalent of my body issuing a red flag warning.

Forced rest is boring at best, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve settled on 6 things to do when you can’t get on the mats – and I am willing to bet that you aren’t doing the last one. Continue reading