One of the major challenges to learning jiu-jitsu is understanding what it is in the first place. Often, I get an introductory student come in, try a class and during the specific training portion asks “Ok, so what is it I’m doing?”

My answer is usually something like “Ok, so now we’re training so basically, don’t get killed.” The blank expression on the trial student’s face and my seeming inability to adequately explain the purpose of jiu-jitsu in less than a minute should tell you all you need to know about how hard it is to explain.

My above explanation is a little tongue in cheek. If they don’t get the joke or seem confused, I’ll try to elaborate: “Ok, so we are going to start from the same position we just worked the techniques from. Your job on bottom is to get on top. Your job on top is to stay on top submit the person on bottom.” I’ll get the same blank expression.

Jiujitsu first and foremost is a self-defense. Jiujitsu encompasses the same principles as any other self-defense. As such, whoever has the high ground will always have a positional advantage. This is the easiest way I can explain the positional stuff to a beginner during his/her first class. Get on top, stay on top. Even that can be confusing so even simpler, for someone’s first class is “Don’t get killed.”


Because, as Danaher once quipped: “The entire goal of jiu-jitsu is to not get your ass kicked; the rest is just a bonus”. In other words, the biggest priority in a fight or self-defense situation is survival. Don’t get killed. Defend yourself at all costs. Everything else is a bonus and this simple idea is the starting point for your entire practice.

If you understand that Jiu-jitsu is a self-defense, then the number one thing you need to do is keep yourself protected at all times. Your safety is the main priority in all situations. This is why I laugh sometimes when someone asks me a dumb question like “well what if you’re in a dark alley and someone comes at you with a knife?”

In my head I’m immediately thinking “Why TF would be I in a dark alley in the first place?”

The truth is self-defense isn’t limited to an altercation or a sparring match. It extends broadly. If self-defense is my main goal, it makes sense for me not to put myself in situations where I would need to use it. The same goes for fighting. It makes sense that I should never want to be in a fight, where the chances of getting hurt are high even despite my skill-set. Fighting is detrimental to the survival of a species. Every fight we get into increases the chances of peril. So, our number one goal is to avoid fights or situations where we might fight as much as possible.

So if the answer is that simple, why train?

The purpose of training a self-defense is to know how to keep yourself safe in the event of worst-case scenario. In other words, I can only ever control my actions. I cannot control someone else’s. So, if I decide to go to a restaurant in broad daylight, there is still a chance that I might be attacked. And so long as there’s a chance, I must be prepared.

Remember that fighting is detrimental to a person’s survival. So, if our biological/evolutionary goal is to survive (preservation of the species), we need to make sure that we can defend ourselves in the event of a fight, however “unlikely” or “improbable”. The fact is that most people are not trained, largely due to the fact that most people don’t even think they need it. So, if you train, even twice a week, you are already way ahead of the average person.

So now we’ve established that Jiu-jitsu is a self-defense and embodies the principles to keep one protected and safe in most circumstances. What then distinguishes it from other martial arts?

The Art of Control that Leads to Submission

John Danaher is quoted as saying that jiu-jitsu is the “art of control that leads to submission”. I add that jiujitsu is the art of control that leads to submission by way of off-balancing and isolating. In other words, the main point of jiu-jitsu is to establish control over an opponent, then isolating a limb and attacking (breaking or strangulation).

So if you understand this concept, then you will understand that in order to successfully defend oneself, you will first need to keep yourself protected, then find a way to control an attacker and eventually submit them by isolating a limb. If, on the other hand, you are the person defending, you will first need to collect the isolated limb, rediscover your base (regain your structure or balance) and then, seek to regain control of your position and finally, defend yourself. Once you have successfully defended, you put your opponent back into the funnel: control, isolate, submit.

Why is Jiu-jitsu so effective?

The overarching principle is to move from a position of least mobility to most mobility when defending and to move your opponent from most mobility to least mobility when attacking.

Control is important to understand here because keep in mind, as you fix yourself to your opponent, you will also be immobilized. In other words, if you pin someone, you are also being pinned –the only difference here is WHO has control of the pin.

Therefore, you should never move forward without adequate control of a position (essay for another day).

Now we understand that Jiu-jitsu is all about moving across the mobility spectrum. If attacking, I want to take my opponent from most to least mobility. I do this by establishing control and eventually pinning my opponent so that I can off-balance and isolate a limb. If you’ve ever trained, you’ll notice this protocol is much harder to do on the feet. This gets us to the meat of why Jiu-jitsu works and why it is so effective.

Here we will talk about what truly distinguishes Jiujitsu from other disciplines and further, why it is so effective.

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