Are You Willing to Go Back to White Belt?

Most people training in the martial arts have a goal to achieve the mythical black belt.

“When I finally wrap that black belt around my waist”, the narrative goes, “THEN life will be good, my wife, kids and dog will all love me, and I’ll never look stupid on the mats again.”

Ummmm, back up just a second…

A good black belt frequently has to go back to being a white belt, and deliberately put himself into situations where he’s going to look stupid for sure.

What do I mean by this?

In order to keep growing in the art at any level you need to learn new things.

And almost every time you add something big to your game then things are going to get worse before they get better.

Let’s say there’s this cool guard pass that your instructor has been telling you to do. You’re agree and think it would be a great fit with your game.

So you drill the move a few times and then try it out in sparring.

Things don’t go so well… You don’t pass the guard of your training partners… And you get swept and submitted multiple times.

Is it a stupid guard pass?  No, it’s just much more likely that you weren’t doing it 100% correctly.

Or let’s say that you start using a new submission from mount that you saw a world champion win the Mundials with. But when you try it out at the open mat suddenly you can’t finish even the brand new beginners with it.

These failures are happening because you haven’t yet learned the timing, the adjustments, and the fine details that make the technique work against any kind of resistance.

You might have a blue belt around your waist because you are blue belt level at doing a certain set of techniques. Those are your most reliable techniques, the core of your game.

By definition, a new technique is not one of your core techniques. So even though you’re an official blue belt you’re still a white belt when it comes to your new guard pass or submission.

And that’s OK. This is exactly how Jiu-jitsu is supposed to work.

In fact it’s an absolutely necessary part of getting as good as you can get.

There is a saying they get printed on coffee mugs that I completely agree with: » Continue Reading.

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Keep It Simple Stupid When Learning New Techniques

Have you heard of the acronym K.I.S.S?

It stands for “Keep It Simple Stupid.”  (It was later made politically correct by changing it to “Keep It Short and Simple” but that never really caught on, especially me.)

Anyway, K.I.S.S. is a good rule to live by when fighting, sparring and training.  You want to simplify as much as possible and not try to keep track of too many things at once.

There’s good science behind this: the more factors you have to consider the slower you make your decisions.  So keeping things simple actually makes you move faster.

But lets focus on how the K.I.S.S. principle applies when it comes to learning new moves.

Here’s my opinion: if you’re a teacher then you don’t want to load a student down with every last detail all at once.

And if you’re the student then you want to just focus on the next few things that’ll give you the best results fastest.

For example, if I’m teaching a complete beginner to throw a right cross I might tell them: “start with your fist glued to your jaw, then throw your fist in a straight line towards the target while you twist your body to generate the power.”

That’s it!  The subtleties of weight shifts, hand twists, foot pushes, non-telegraphic movement and so on will all come later, because first they’ve got to get in some experiental learning – learning by doing – before anything else makes sense.

Sometimes it’s more important for the student to get a quick result with a technique than it is to get it absolutely perfect on the first go.

If you have some initial success then it’ll boost your confidence in that technique and make you eager to learn the additional details to make it work even better.

Similarly if I’m teaching a triangle choke to someone for the first time I might tell them “triangle your legs around your opponent’s head and arm, then squeeze your knees, pull his head down and lift your hips.”

Now is that the most effective way of doing the triangle choke?


Are there many adjustments and tweaks that you can make to the triangle choke that make it much more effective?


For example, in the Youtube clip below Elliott Bayev does an absolutely brilliant job of breaking down some of these finer triangle choke adjustments.

So why not show » Continue Reading.

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On Starting Sparring from the Knees…

A reader writes: Hi Stephan, I’ve been doing BJJ for about 6 months and am wondering if you have any advice about what to do when you’re starting on the knees?

I find that most wrestling-style takedowns are very difficult to do from the knees, especially because my opponents are really good at sprawling.

And if I get my grips then inevitably my opponent also gets his grips and the whole thing turns into a big pushing and pulling match, which doesn’t seem very technical to me.

Anyway, I currently feel really lost and have no idea how to initiate the action from the knees – can you help?

Sincerely Bohdan


Hi Bohdan,

Most BJJ classes start their sparring from the knees. This is because staying on the knees reduces the amount of space you need for each sparring pair, and that allows more people to be on the mat at the same time.

Starting on the knees also reduces the risk of injury associated with throws and takedowns.   Less throws and takedowns equals less injuries (I love Judo as a sport but don’t fool yourself – it has an incredibly high injury rate).

However starting with both people on their knees isn’t the most realistic position from which to initiate sparring.

First of all, starting on the knees has no application to modern self defense.

This might not always have been true.  In medieval Japan, after all, people spent a lot of time on their knees, and I’m sure that people did get attacked while kneeling.  That’s why many traditional Japanese jujutsu systems include armed and empty handed techniques for when both people are kneeling. But this kind of scenario – two people kneeling in front of each other – in today’s day and age is exceedingly rare!

Furthermore starting on the knees has very limited application in tournament competition.

I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of BJJ matches, and I can only think of one or two cases where both contestants both ended up on their knees facing each other for more than a brief moment (inevitably one person either pulls guard or stands up).

So spending most of the match on the knees, pushing and pulling against your sparring partner, is a waste of sparring time.

But what are your alternatives?

Well, often you can ask your opponent to start in a specific position. Tell him something » Continue Reading.

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Don’t Be Afraid of Admitting that You Don’t Know Everything

This is rant was brewing inside me for a long time, and I’m sure it’ll upset some people and ruffle some feathers.  Oh well, can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs, so I’ll get over it…

I did the rant in video form, and the full name of that video is “Don’t Bullshit Your Students About Knowing Everything!” which pretty much sums it up!

The humility to admit that you don’t know everything is admirable.

And bullshitting students about a position or a technique you know nothing about is deplorable.

Your ego isn’t more important than their development.

Here’s the video…

Now, some shout-outs…

In the video I start out by saying that one of the coolest things I ever heard a martial arts instructor say was “Ask me any question you have.  If I know the answer then I’ll tell you.  If I don’t know the answer then we’ll find out together.

That instructor was Makoto Kabayama (formerly going by ‘Nip) of the Kabayam Bushidokan in Toronto.

And the other instructor I reference in the video – the guy who was OK with my bringing in other teachers to learn Capoeira – was Philip Gelinas of the GAMMA school in Montreal.

If you’re reading then thanks to both of you – you’ve been way more influential than you give yourselves credit for.

If you admit that you don’t know everything then it implies that you yourself still have some learning and growing to do, which is the case for everyone from this year’s Mundial champion to Rickson Gracie himself.

If you’re done with learning you should be in the grave.

Stephan Kesting


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MMA Weight Cutting with UFC Fighter Alan Belcher (And More)


I just released a new interview with UFC star Alan Belcher who has had some of the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat fights in the UFC.

In our chat Alan shares lessons learned from 26 MMA fights including…

The details of cutting major amounts of weight before an MMA fight His mindset while fighting Rousimar Palhares, one of the dirtiest and scariest fighter in MMA Lifting weights as physical therapy to hold his body together Exactly how he structured his UFC training camps and when you should be doing your heaviest training before a competition Tricks to use and mistakes to avoid when cutting weight Preventing overtraining by modulating the intensity and volume of your training sessions How dieting and cardio prevented him from actually training correctly How he prepared specifically to face a leglock expert in the UFC The crazy treatments he did to repair his detached retina And really quite a  bit more!

To listen to or watch this interview you have a couple of different options!  You can either

Click here to subscribe to the Grapplearts Podcast in iTunes (or Google Play, or Stitcher) – the Alan Belcher episode is number 63! Or you can click play on the Youtube video below

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Tips for Recovering from a BJJ Injury and Getting Back to Training

Unfortunately injuries are just part of the game. Now hopefully they’ll be minor injuries and you’ll recover from them quickly, but regardless, getting back to training after recuperating from an injury is always a tricky business.

In the video below I give some of my best tips about exactly how your return to the mats should be structured.  This is advice I’ve learned the hard way – for the longest time I didn’t use it myself and I wish I had.


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BJJ and Combat Sports Conditioning with Pshemek Drabcynski

I’m thrilled to bring you guys my interview with Pshemek Drabczynski. Pshemek was my very first ‘official’ BJJ teacher and I learned a ton from him.

He’s a BJJ black belt, a WKA North American kickboxing champion, and a physical conditioning guru.

In this episode we talk about martial arts specific fitness, getting stronger, improving endurance, eating properly preventing injuries, fasting and much more.

You can check out the interview one of three ways…

BEST OPTION: Click here to subscribe to the Grapplearts Podcast in iTunes (or Google Play, or Stitcher).  Today’s interview is Episode 058. Directly download the episode as an mp3 file here Or click play on the Youtube video below

If you’re in the Orange County area and are looking for a personal trainer make sure to check out Pshemek at BestHomeTrainer.com

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A Musician’s Perspective on Studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

By Jeff Marder

I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember, and have been playing professionally for over thirty years. My primary focus is playing keyboards, conducting, and doing electronic music design for Broadway productions, although along the way I’ve also played a lot of jazz, classical, and spent three years in Las Vegas playing keyboards on a Cirque du Soleil production.

Throughout my entire life, I always had a desire to learn a martial art. Aside from doing some wrestling in junior high school, I never pursued this interest as my schedule often interfered or I was on tour with a production. About three years ago, my schedule allowed me to begin taking some classes, so I began my journey at a local Krav Maga school.

While there, I signed up for a No-Gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class that was being offered. I was instantly hooked and immediately left Krav Maga to sign up at Vitor Shaolin’s academy in midtown Manhattan. I’ve now been training BJJ for about two years.

So many things about BJJ speak to me on an incredibly deep level; the camaraderie, the physical and emotional benefits, the competition, and the community. However, something that struck me about the learning process is just how similar it is to learning music. I’ve discussed this observation with several other colleagues in the music industry who are also martial artists and I find that we’re all in agreement. The purpose of this article is to share these thoughts with the hope that they might offer a fresh perspective.


Both BJJ and music each have their own respective vocabularies specific to their practice.

In music, we practice scales, arpeggios, and repertoire to learn the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic syntax. Those specializing in western classical music must learn Bach Preludes and Fugues, Mozart Sonatas, and Chopin Etudes, jazz musicians must learn solos that were improvised by the masters note for note from recordings, and pop musicians need to have the experience of playing in a cover band to learn the building blocks of song structure, production, and arranging.

The BJJ equivalent would be the moves and positions that form the building blocks of the art such as the guard, shrimping, bridging, various guard passes, sweeps, and submissions. Trying to roll after just one or two classes feels a lot like being that guy who hangs out at » Continue Reading.

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Is Really Position vs Submission? Sometimes You Can Have Both…

One of the fundamental rules of BJJ is that you should value ‘Position over Submission.’

This means is that you shouldn’t abandon a good position – like the mount for example –  to go for a dubious submission and lose the position.

This is even more important in MMA and self defense: imagine going for an armbar from mount, your opponent escaping it, and you now ending up on the bottom getting punched in the teeth repeatedly.

Now you definitely should go for submissions; the trick is to do them while maintaining control through the entire process.

Essentially you want to  move from a dominant position to a submission without giving your opponent any chance to escape by keeping his base, posture and structure out of alignment the entire time (click here for a different article on Grapplearts that breaks down base, posture and structure).

This is good theory, but how do you accomplish it in real life?

In the video below my friend Rob Biernacki uses the examples of an armbar from S Mount and the 411 leglock position from the knee cut to illustrate exactly how you might disrupt your opponent’s alignment during a submission attack.

By the way, about 12 hours before we shot this video Rob had an absolutely ghastly dislocation of his big toe while sparring after a seminar.  Seriously: his big toe was rotated more than 90 degrees to the side, and he ended up being in the hospital until about 2 in the morning.

It’s a sign of his toughness and dedication to jiu-jitsu that he literally limped into the dojo to film this for you guys!

Related Links The BJJ Formula on DVD and as a series of 4 smartphone and tablet apps, the highly reviewed instructional by Rob Biernacki and Stephan Kesting The Three Most Important Concepts in BJJ: Base, Posture and Structure

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2 Easy Guard Passing Strategies


Here’s a brand new video I just shot…

It covers two quick tweaks that’ll make your guard passing game a LOT more powerful, both when you’re sparring in class, and also when you’re fighting in competition.

Passing the guard of a good player is one of the hardest things to do in BJJ. But here are two strategies to help you…

Guard Passing Strategy 1: Stand When Everyone is Kneeling, Kneel When Everyone Is Standing

The first strategy involves doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

If most people at your club pass the guard on their knees then it’s also true that most people are going to best a shutting down kneeling guard passes.

Conversely, if most people at your club pass the guard standing up then people are generally going to be pretty good at defending standing guard passes.

A person’s skills and ability to defend against certain kinds of guard passes are improved if they face those guard passes more often.

So then what’s the takeaway?

It’s simple…

If you’re at a school where most people pass the guard on their knees then start working on your standing guard passes…

And if you’re at a school where everyone passes the guard standing up then start working on your kneeling guard passes.

When it comes to tournament competition it’s a bit trickier, but if you do some reconnaisance you may find out that your opponent comes from a school that specialises in standing passes, which would tell you what style of guard passing you should probably use.

It’s a great argument for developing both standing and kneeling guard passes, isn’t it?

Strategy 2: Learn to Pass the Guard to Your Right

In the spirit of doing what your opponents aren’t good at defending, here’s another great strategy to add to your repertoire…

Have at least a few guard passes that go to your right side (i.e. to your opponent’s left side).

The reason this works is that many people – somewhere in the 60 to 70% range – primarily pass to their left hand side…

…which inevitably means that people are better at defending passes to their right side.

Think about it; are you more comfortable in your right sided half guard (with your opponent’s right leg trapped) or on your left (with your opponent’s left leg trapped)?

Most people are more comfortable on their left…

…so pass to their right (your left) and get a small-but-immediate advantage.

There are exceptions, » Continue Reading.

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Jiu-Jitsu: Helping A Generation of (Dis)connected Kids

Whether we wish to admit it or not, our kids especially in the urban areas are increasingly hooked on electronic devices. These kids are ‘connected’ to the internet with access to information and to their friends at the swipe of the screen of their devices. Today’s children are growing up in a new reality, one […]

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Getting Your BJJ Black Belt at Age 62


I hope you’ll like this episode of the Grapplearts Radio Podcast! In it I talk with 62 yr old BJJ black belt Rabbi Mordecai Finley (the Wrassling Rabbi) about many topics including…

Starting BJJ at a later age and finally getting his black belt at age 62 How to pick the the right jiu-jitsu club Training with sciatica and after a heart attack The horrors of the Eastern Front in World War 2 and the extremes of human fortitude Interpreting the Torah Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi Awarding Blue Belts in marriage counselling And much more.

You can listen to this episode in one of several different ways…

Click here to subscribe to the Grapplearts Podcast in iTunes (or Google Play, or Stitcher) and then look for episode 051 Directly download the episode as an mp3 file here Click play on the Youtube video below

Related Resources… Download the Roadmap for BJJ, our quick start guide for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for free.  More info about that book right here. If you’re thinking about starting and training BJJ in your 40’s, 50’s or even 60’s then click here to check out all our tips and articles designed to help the older grappler on the mats. Check out the most recent videos and articles on Grapplearts by clicking here.

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Blood, Sweat and… Sparta!!!

This may sound a bit weird coming from a guy who runs a grappling site, but I want you to ask yourself a question: why on earth are you spending hours and hours rolling around on the ground with men wearing spandex and/or pajamas?

Really… I mean it’s not the easiest of activities.  And it’s sweaty and sometimes it’s even painful…

Obviously there are self defense benefits to training, but if that was your only concern then you should just buy a gun! There are health and fitness benefits, sure, but wouldn’t it be easier to just hire a personal trainer a few times a week?

I think that a large part of the appeal of grappling is that it ISN’T a walk in the park!

We don’t train because it’s easy.  We train because it’s hard!

And the major milestones in your training – attending your first class, competing in your first tournament, getting your black belt – function as a sort of rite of passage, which is something that we’ve mostly lost in our society.

We have to remind ourselves that in bygone times rites of passage weren’t easy.  There was no guarantee of success.

But you need the possibility of failure to get the transformation and transcendence.

Let’s look at some historical rites of passage.  Not only is there the possibility of failure, but many of them were actually pretty brutal.

Did you see the movie 300?  Do you remember the flashback to King Leonidas killing the wolf as a teenager?  That was actually part of the brutal krypteia ritual that young Spartan men had to undergo in order to come of age.  And not all of them survived.

Old navy rituals for pollywogs (new sailors crossing the equator for the first time) sent many injured men to sickbay, but also marked an important transition in the sailor’s career. And not all Australian Aborigine adolescents who took off into the bush for months to do their walkabout returned.

Am I saying that you have to go out and assassinate slaves bare-handedly like ancient Spartan youths?


Am I saying that you should get beaten with boards and flogged with wet ropes like a sailor in the Royal Navy?

Not exactly…

But there is a certain glory in dragging your butt to class and getting it royally kicked.  Or waiting to compete at a tournament, scared s***less.

Most people get up, » Continue Reading.

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