Shrimping Out in Life: Tips for Approaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

By: Carlos Soto
August 27, 2017

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If Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) teaches you anything, it’s how out-of-shape you are. After every class, I feel like a tub of butter poured on a bed of uncooked cookie dough. It’s supposedly part of the transformation efforts that takes place as you gain the endurance and prerequisite muscle needed to complete classes. After class, I used to make myself feel better by saying that BJJ class is helping me “peel back the layers.” But then it occurred to me that peeling denotes friction. Your body does not resist the effects from class. Instead after class you are left feeling like a viscus mass of fat, incapable of moving. And rather than peeling back the layers it feels like class “scoops” out the layers.

But then something remarkable happens. A couple of months later your body stops hurting. Clothes fit better and activities that used to make you exhale with fatigue, like taking-up the laundry to the second floor, or lifting your child over your head, no longer seem onerous. A lot of this has to do with the three phases of a well-run BJJ class:

Phase 1. The class starts with a decent warm-up, seemingly focused on your stomach and back. In phase three you understand why the focus is on core muscles.

Phase 2. After breaking a good sweat, the instructor teaches you a well-thought-out lesson constituting a scenario where someone is about to pass your staged position to seek a dominant position or achieve a submission. After picking a partner and practicing the exhausting moves, you realize that you are continuing to stress those core muscles, which by now are starting to burn beyond belief.

Phase 3. In the final phase, you roll. Rolling is a simulated grapple governed by three, six-minute sessions where combatants spar until time runs out or one of the students submits by tapping on the body of the victor. This is, by far, one of the most exhausting exercises in the world. And since you often find yourself in an awkward position for the duration of a roll, you quickly realize the importance of the intense core training in the first two phases.

It’s important to note that good programs should not allow new students to roll until they have completed at least 30 classes. At this point you usually get a white stripe on your belt and you can participate in this phase.

Why Wait to Roll?

For some reason, after each roll, I feel like the beleaguered protagonist of an action movie at the end of the film- content to still be alive and somehow better off for all the pain I went through. After rolling for the first time you also realize the importance of getting enough class time in before embarking on this activity:

1. You need time to get fit: From the wasted energy stemming from the exhilaration of knowing that the person you just bumped fists with is now about to try to break your limb or knock you out, to the need to focus on form and technique while resisting 200+ pounds of weight—rolling requires a calm and fit mind and body. Thirty classes won’t give you it, but it will give you enough to not get hurt…too badly.

2. You need to learn the basics: Jiu-Jitsu is complex. It’s more than a mind game, it’s a flowchart game. I know industrial engineers that would have a field day with this sport. There are over 12 positions that you can find yourself in at any given time with seemingly infinite combinations, attacks and defenses. These basic 12 positions are: Rear Mount, Mount, Knee on Belly, Side Control, Half Mount, Top Guard, Bottom Guard, Turtle Top, Turtle Bottom, Half Guard Bottom, Side-control Bottom, Knee on Belly Bottom, Mount Bottom and Rear Mount Bottom. You won’t understand and know all of them after 30 classes, but you will know enough to recognize them and identify warning signs that you’re about to get submitted.

Rolling is part exhilarating and part terrifying. But more importantly, when you start getting out of tricky situations, or start placing others in challenging situations, rolling becomes humbling and rewarding. And if taught and managed correctly by a good school, rolling teaches you a lot about your mental and physical limits, overcoming adversity and how to think calmly under insane pressure.

Shrimping Out in Life is a blog by Carlos A. Soto as he attempts to survive Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu while attending the Lepri BJJ premiere Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training center in the Charlotte metro area. Lepri BJJ is a member of one of the most dominant teams in the history of the sport, Alliance Association Jiu-Jitsu.