A little backstory: I'm a relatively lightweight guy (126 lbs) and have been training BJJ for almost a year now. I tend to struggle in a few departments, and the second most terrible one is when I have my opponent in some form of control (usually closed guard or side control) and:

  1. They break right out of the closed guard, either by pushing down on my knees ferociously or stacking me

  2. They simply push me off or quickly shrimp out of side control.

I have been told that my technique for holding my opponents down isn't exactly the best; for side control I need to apply a lot more pressure with my chest and the closed guard requires the breaking of posture.

Now, I know that having a good posture means that you are strong even in a neutral/weak position i.e. keeping your spine in good orientation and your limbs close means that you still have tons of strength with which to break out of side control. My problem lies in not being able to correctly neutralize my opponent's strength through posture by breaking said posture. I have done some asking around and found a couple of ways to do so:

  1. In the closed guard, grab your opponent's gi/neck with one hand, pull it down aggressively and raise your legs higher towards his head.

  2. For positions like side control, the best bet is to flatten your opponent, using your chest to apply lots of pressure and shoulder driving into his chin.

Despite me doing my best to implement these techniques into my game, I still don't seem to be able to maintain any form of control on my opponent for too long. I try to focus more on technique without using too much strength, so I don't want to just go berserk and try to keep them in control.

  • I suggest asking this as two separate questions, one on breaking posture in the closed guard, and one on side control. I don't think of these positions as being significantly related. – mattm Sep 8 at 16:44
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think in what you have written there are fundamental errors and/or misconceptions. We cannot tell whether this is because of what you understood from what you have been told or what you actually have been told, but that is that.

Closed guard

The key to control and breaking the posture in a way you can profit from in closed/half guard is not necessarily about hips - and certainly not the neck - but about wrist control.

Think about it: How are you supposed to yank down an opponent by grabbing his neck - working against the biggest and strongest muscle in all the body (back) - with your arm and a bit of weight (the upper body is not that heavy, really)?

So if you want to get somebody close, you will have to get hold of their means to keep distance - the arms. As long as the opponent is able to push with their hands from the hips into your abdomen, you cannot possibly break posture.

Hence, the first step is to control the part of the arms that you can move the easiest - because it is the farthest away from the big muscles in the torso: the wrists. Fighting for wrist control is fighting for control in this case. If you do not fight for the opponents' wrists, they will use their back and their weight to retain posture and eventually get one of your knees to the ground to escape. Having the wrists (and hence arms) out of the way, you will see that the rest is fairly easy.

Whether you achieve that by actively meeting the grip fight before your opponent gets hold of you or e.g. by turning your hip/shrimping so that you can move the grabbed hand from your abdomen to the side of your hip/torso is situational. There are many situations and possibilities. But the fundamental is to clear the way first.

One last point: Fighting for the wrists is fighting for the centerline. That's where arms and grips are dangerous - holds true for standup game as well.

Side control

The key to control in any control/mount position is not actively producing pressure by tension, but passively by relaxation and restriction of movement through strategic positioning of limbs.

To clarify: The most common mistake is full body tension. If you do this, your weight - which is the one resource you do not have to use energy for - is distributed away from the opponent's torso by your effort, i.e. you effectively use energy to lose control.

Your hip should always have (slight) contact to the mat. Your active pressure does not come from above, but from the side (hey, side control?!), i.e. you keep your toes on the mat and push sidewards into the ribs of your opponent with your torso fairly relaxed - that way your weight works where it is: On the opponent's ribs.

Also, your arms should not be overly tensed. They are locked, yes (and this means hands locked, elbows close and turned inwards - ideally under the opponent's shoulder, i.e. close to your belly button), but the shoulder-into-neck magic should come from your body/feet, i.e. "forwards" pressure of all your body into the opponent's, so that as soon as you shift your shoulder forwards, there automatically is pressure where it ought to be.

The bridging/shrimping escapes then are countered with a) turning of hips (so that the weight is on your attacked side and it is impossible to slip under your body) and b) following the shrimping direction by pressure from your feet/legs. If the opponent moves, you have to move as well. It does not make any sense to try to retain the exact position by use of force since it only leads to the expenditure of energy you so desperately need in the ground game. But this is active interplay and cannot be grasped by words/explanations so much as by experience/feeling.

Ground game in general

Your main goal is control, i.e. shaping the situation so that the opponent has (a lot) fewer options than you for moving. Lying flat on your back in the closed guard is obviously not a good position with that in mind, closed guard has to be a transitional state with a lot of movement.

High-level grappling consists in shaping the options of your opponent so that whatever option is taken, it leads to even fewer options and eventually to submission. The main component of this is gradually getting hold of more parts of the opponent's body or at least to a stronger grip on the ones you have, i.e. usually starting with wrists and ankles/knees, aiming for one shoulder plus neck (the magic triangles from where you can do most submissions, regardless whether with leg- or arm-control).

Controlling the hip, in particular, is very hard as it is the centre of mass, the place where the biggest muscles come together, and hence the place where the most momentum can be generated.

  • I appreciate the immense detail in which you have covered the forms of control with which I struggle. Just to make sure I am not missing anything, the main point you are emphasizing in terms of a general ground game is that I must gradually obtain control of my opponent's limbs that enable the most movement and thus give him fewer options until a submission is unstoppable. Is that correct? – Mansoor Ahmad Sep 10 at 18:34
  • @MansoorAhmad: Quite, though not completely - it is not mere control of the opponent's limbs but the directions and opportunities in general. This obviously involves control of limbs, but can also be about weight distribution, breaking of balance, and distraction/simultaneous attack with a choke. Mind, the ground game is insanely complex and dependent on many factors not easily describable or otherwise demonstratable. – Philip Klöcking Sep 10 at 21:25

Taking a step back, the main issue you're facing is that your skill level is probably the same as everyone else who you started out with, but they're heavier and stronger than you are, so you're struggling to do things that they can do. This makes you understandably frustrated.

So you need to start realizing something important right now. Those guys in your class that are frustrating you are relying on their body weight and strength a lot more than you can. In the short-term, it's going to frustrate you a lot. But in the long-term, you're going to learn the right technique a lot more quickly than they will, because you have to. They don't.

I can tell based on your question and the way you emphasized learning correct technique over strength that you understand this. You're reaching out to others with questions on how to improve your technique, because you know that's what you need to do at this point.

My high school judo instructor was a 5th dan woman. She and I chatted from time to time, and she used to tell me that females learn judo much more quickly than males do. Whereas the males can compensate for a lack of skill by using their size and strength, females have to invest in their loss and learn the proper skill immediately if they want to get better.

So instead of thinking of your losses as a bad thing, think of them as getting you closer and closer each time to figuring it out. It's a positive thing. Don't let it frustrate you.

You're probably not going to get better by asking your classmates. I think this is something you need to work on in private lessons with your instructor, if possible. Or at least, pull him aside from time to time to work on it with you. Keep asking questions. And keep your focus on trying to learn the proper technique over size and strength.

And by the way, just to clarify: You must still use strength and whatever body weight you have. But you must use it with the proper technique. Don't just try to force things. That won't work for you.

My advice to you right now is that if something isn't working, rapidly switch to something else. Don't sit there trying to force it. Speed is something you can work on right now. But while you're working on speed, don't get sloppy. Your transitions have to be smooth and can't give your opponent an opening. That's something you'll need to work on.

I don't think I answered your question directly. I'll leave that up to someone who knows BJJ better than I do. And I kind of think you will only get some ideas from others here, but the best thing for you to do right now is to go to your instructor and explain your situation, asking him to take you aside and really work on improving your technique. We can't see what you're doing, so it's hard to judge from behind a computer screen.

Hope that helps.

This answer addresses strategy for side control only.

Resist the first move with structure

When your opponent makes their first move (for example, bridging or shrimping), your control needs to be both strong enough that you can resist without having to reposition your limbs. For example, if your opponent bridges away from you, you need to be able to defend this initial bridge without having to move an arm. Your control also needs to be balanced; it does no good to defend exclusively against the opponent turning/bridging into you if it leaves turning/bridging away open.

This constraint means that some side control variations may not be available to you as a smaller person. For example, a larger person can take a side control position with an arm through the legs to pull and bow the opponent's spine, but this will not work well for a smaller armspan against a larger torso.

As a smaller person, my personal preference for arm placement is one arm by the head, and the other arm with elbow on the far side of the opponent's body near the hip with hand extended away to brace for a bridge away. I find this maximizes resistance to the first escape attempt while maintaining adaptability for your own movements.

Move to improve your position

Side control is a dynamic position. Your objective should not be to maintain this position, but to gradually improve it. It does not matter if your opponent forces you out of side control, so long as you maintain control.

Let your opponent break their own posture; when you can defend the first move, it is much safer this way. When they bridge away from you, slip a knee to wedge underneath them. When they shrimp into you, step your leg over to transition to mount. Transitioning effectively is tricky and takes practice; you have to understand when your opponent has expended their strength to time your move. Excess movement on your part makes escape easier.

This kind of transition is the point of "around the world" pinning drills. You practice moving quickly and efficiently from one control position to another, first without resistance, and then with resistance (partner trying to escape). With resistance, you look to exploit vulnerabilities presented by the escape actions, either with a tighter hold or submission.

My preferred analogy is to be like a constrictor snake. The snake wraps up its prey, then waits for the prey to move or breathe. Every time the prey moves or breathes out, the snake shifts and constricts to take away space. The constrictor succeeds not by crushing its prey directly, but by removing empty space.

Never underestimate the power of pressure points. Knowing where the points are and how they are activated can give you an edge. They are usually activated by striking, rubbing, or pressing. You need not always use your hands to do this: fingers, knuckles, chin, forehead, elbow, and knee can be used to activate some points. You can also use your opponent's own body to activate them depending on the position you are in.

Also, there is a distinction between "pressure points" and "vital areas". Vital areas are probably verboten in sport - understandably so. They cover areas like the throat, solar plexus, groin, and eyes. However, that doesn't mean all are verboten. For example, you mention driving your opponent's chin upward. The chin is near the neck - a vital area - so I assume the chin is a legal target. In this case, you can drive the chin straight up and back as you mention - but a strong opponent might resist this. Instead, push up and to the side: this is much harder to control. And rather than pushing on the chin with the center of your palm, use the small bone in the lower outside of your wrist to push about 1/2 the way from the tip of the chin to the back, where there is a pressure point activated by the sharpest part of your palm (that would be the small bone in the wrist. Maybe you can use a fist's knuckles if allowed - but the idea is to know where the targets are (that part of the chin) and what you have to activate it (a sharp bone in your hand).

Such details take lots of study and practice, and do not always work. They generally require great knowledge of neuromechanics, muscle physiology, and even some osteology.

When you use pressure points, vital areas, and joint bending, you create a distraction - sometimes a shock - to the opponent which can give you enough time to anticipate and react to that shock and reverse his hold on you. This isn't a new technology in the martial arts world, we've known about this science for millennia. It's just that strength is easier to use, and requires a lot less discipline to know about.

  • 2
    With all due respect, but people who use pressure points from an inferior control position in ground game suffer. All grapplers I know let people who think pressure points would give them an edge even harder a time of being crushed. In other words: Either you don't need them or if you (think you) need them, you're doubly screwed. – Philip Klöcking Sep 9 at 15:14
  • 1
    I agree with Philip. Pressure points are not the answer. If you just happen to be on a sensitive point while using that point as the fulcrum during a leverage based technique, okay that's something. But spending any time fidgeting around for a point to press on that you think will cause enough pain for your opponent to release a grip or give you an opening is just naive. It's naive because everyone who tries this with an experienced grappler for the first time realizes it doesn't work. While you're fidgeting, you're not keeping focus on what you should be doing, and you get tapped. – Steve Weigand Sep 9 at 15:50
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    @SteveWeigand: Exactly. It hurts me, it annoys me, it makes me angry. Not a good combination. I overwhelmed opponents from even inferior positions simply because they enjoyed triggering pressure points to hurt me. Pressure points are completely useless in real-world applications. They hurt and annoy, but apart from making angry people angrier, there is not much of an effect. – Philip Klöcking Sep 9 at 16:41
  • Well then the solution is to tap out. I stand by my answer. Armbars, rear naked chokes, and many other techniques rely on PP and/or VA. Not all pressure points induce pain; they can be used to weaken a grip, offbalance, and distract. While they are not the end-all-be-all, they must absolutely be part of any martial artist's toolbox. – Wigwam Sep 9 at 18:01
  • I love it when pressure point guys stop in the gym. They worry about some dumb pressure point while I advance position, sweep, or work in a submission. The goal is not to hurt your opponent, it's to kill them. That's what a submission is. Not surprisingly, the pressure point guys never come back a second time. – coinbird Sep 12 at 14:17

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