Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Advice for Beginners in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Stiff Arming, Holding and Muscling

Sometimes, Jiu-jitsu seems to require us to move in exactly the opposite way than what seems logical. We have to work against what many of our instincts tell us and train our bodies to move in more effective ways.

One example of an instinctive habit that has to be broken in order to do bjj well is stiff-arming. A good example of what I mean when I say stiff-arming is what most people instinctively do when someone gets into mount and puts all their weight on you. For most people just starting out, their reaction to all that weight is to push the person off of them and try to keep them off with stiffened arms. Another time when I really notice it is when a person's guard has being passed and they are trying to keep the person from getting into side control by pushing them away with their arms, using all their strength.

There are a number of reasons why this is not the best method to get out from under someone. I'll outline the ones I can think of. If you have any to add, feel free to post them:

1. When your arms are completely outstretched, they are vulnerable to attack. This is especially true when you are under someone mounted on you, but it is also true if you are under someone's side control. Stretching out your arms to try to push someone off is like handing them an armbar on a silver platter.

2. The stiff-arm will wear you out. If you are pushing someone off of you, or holding them at bay with all your strength, you are losing energy that you could be using much more effectively. You can tell if this is happening by the feeling of having "jello arms" or "heavy arms" after you just spent thirty seconds trying to push some heavy dude--or dudette--off of you. Those feelings of muscle exhaustion happen after you've put them through a sustained contraction. Simply put, you deplete your muscles of their energy.

3. Stiff-arming is ineffective. After all that energy exertion, most of the time you will find that you either were not able to push that heavier person off of you or that you ended up having your guard passed and are caught in side control. The reason why is that your arms vs someone's entrie body weight is not really a fair match up.

Another common instinct that has to be overcome is holding. Holding happens usually when a person doesn't know what to do and is worried about either losing control of the other person or are scared of what the other person might be trying to do to them. So, for example, when starting out, you might be worried about what the other person has planned, so you grab onto their wrists and hold on for dear life, using your strength to keep the other person from moving their arms. Or, if you happen to get into a bad position, like bottom mount, you might respond by latching onto the persons arms or neck, using muscle to hold them so they can't try to submit you. It can even happen when you get into a dominant position, like side control. You hold onto them as tight as you can because you don't want them to escape.

The same general downfalls that apply to stiff arming, also apply to holding.

1. Whenever you are holding onto someone with all of your strength, you have committed to that position and other people can use it against you. While you are expending all your energy trying to hold him, he is working underneath you--getting underhooks, slipping a knee in, setting up a sweep.

2. Again, you are depleting your muscles and tiring yourself out.

3. Holding only works if you are stronger than the other person. If a person--bigger or smaller than you--knows more technique, they will be able to use your holding against you, like in the video I posted. So you will have wasted your energy.

Stiff arming and holding are both examples of what people who pracitce jiu-jitsu call "muscling". If you are wondering whether something you are doing falls under that category, here are some tell tale signs you can check to see:

1. If you are doing something with so much force that you are using all your strength and you can't breathe easily, then chances are whatever technique you are trying to do has gone awry somewhere and you are now trying to make it work out of sheer strength and will power. That might get you somewhere with smaller people. But people your size or people who out rank you will overcome that.

2. If you don't know what to do and so you are using all of your strength to try to keep a person off of you, that's using your muscle instead of technique.

3. If someone is trying to submit you and your only way to escape is to try to rip your arm out of their grasp like the hulk, that is muscling. Again, you might be able to pull your arm out if the person is smaller, but if it is someone your size or someone who ranks higher, chances are that your arm will end up barred.

If you are a stiff armer or a holder, don't worry. Everyone who does bjj starts out doing these things. We don't know what else to do. As you start to learn more and the number of techniques and concepts you understand increases, the less muscling you will do. You will replace your instincts with new, more effective ways to move out from under heavy people. You will learn how to do escapes that don't rely on brute strength and how to do submissions that don't drain every ounce of life out of you while you're applying them.

Like so many things, it just takes time. As a beginner, the best thing you can do is to try to not rely on your strength. Focus on figuring out what the problem is (ex: that you are under mount) and ask your instructor what techniques you need to learn to get out from under mount (ex: hip out or an upa roll).

At first, you will feel like you are getting squashed and submitted all the time. You might think the techniques aren't working and be tempted to fall back on strength. But keep working on the little details, and through trial and error find out how to make those techniques work for you. As you add more and more tools to your toolbox, you will start to find out that you know what to do when someone gets into mount and you won't have to rely on the instinctive urge to try to push them off of you. You will re-train your brain until your instincts line up with the techniques you are learning in class.


Okke said...

Thanks for the post, good advice! I think there are pros and cons to `stiff arming`, depending on which position you're in. In the Science of Jiu Jitsu videos by Demian Maia, he talks about certain concepts that work well in Jiu Jitsu. A straight arm is stronger than a bent arm. (Try holding yourself in a push-up position with straight arms vs bent arms). If you're in someones guard and you want to keep the bottom guy from sitting up into you, you DO want to stiff-arm him. By stiff-arming you depend on your frame (bones) to keep the person away, and thus uses *less* effort than muscling. There are other situations where stiff-arming can be a good thing. Like stiff-arming a same-side sleeve grip to prevent a bull pass, or to take the back from guard after a 2 on 1 grip break.
However if you try to escape from mount or side control, stiff-arming the opponent does leave you open for attacks. Moreover, as Saulo (for example) explains in some of his videos and book, you actually ground yourself to the mat. If you stiff-arm your opponent from the bottom, you lock yourself to the mat and won't be able to escape. To escape, instead it's best to rely on your hips and move yourself away.

Liam H Wandi said...

Thank you for such an awesome and detailed post. You took a lot of time to put a lot of detail into something fundamental and non-flashy. This a sure sign your progress in BJJ will be a solid and fast one :)

I too think that stiff arming is a great tool, however. It's a tool that is often misused.

When you stiff arm, you do so to create a small window of mutual opportunity. I say mutual because your opponent can use it against you too. The idea is to frame, create space by moving your hips then use this space by recovering guard...etc. If you stiff arm and chill, they will occupy the space and pass, armbar you...etc.

Keep these posts coming!

Aaron Bair said...

Great post! I catch myself doing this quite often. It is something a newbie like myself, will do and get out in an arm bar. I have been using my T-rex arms and only trying to do the stiff arm to block a hip to shrimp out or just creating space.

Anonymous said...

@Okke and Liam: Those are good points. I guess I should be careful when making generalized statements. lol

I can see where the stiff arm would be good in trying to keep the person from sitting up in your guard, but even there you have to be careful, from what I have experienced. Unless you keep the arms contoured to the hips and legs, the person can swivel their hips around and armbar you from their guard. I have tried to use it to stop the bull pass before and, for me at least, it is ineffective. The guys can swivel their hips around my straightened arm, or break their hip over it. That might be because I am either (a) exceptionally weak (b) doing it wrong. lol What do you guys think?

@Aaron: I used to do it ALL the time and tired myself out in any grapple with a bigger stronger guy. I still catch myself doing it when I forget what to do and panic.

slideyfoot said...

Yeah, it depends on context. Stiff-arming can be a good thing, for several reasons. The main one is that it means you can utilise your skeletal structure instead of muscle power: stronger and expends less energy.

For example (and this pops up in the aforementioned Maia DVD), stiff-arming is indeed useful for preventing a guard pass. As they start to come around, stiff-arm into their shoulder and bicep. I do that all the time to recover guard.

Similarly, if you're passing the guard by clamping their legs to the floor (as in a bullfighter pass), you again want to stiff-arm while gripping inside their knees, focusing all your weight through your arms, so they can't bring their feet off the ground or move their hips.

Definitely not something to do under mount though. The other place where it's a big no-no is when training stand-up, as you'll never learn anything if you just stiff-arm (which is one of the many reasons I'm still crap at takedowns ;p).

Megan said...

Love this. Great to see all this information in one place.