Trial Lessons

First Principles to Learning Jiu Jitsu

Mon May
by Ronin Athletics Team

If you look the best fighters in the world, you’ll notice that they may all have different variations of technique and certain combinations they prefer, but they all are following principles that are part of the same system of jiu-jitsu. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to introduce this system to new students. The first focuses on teaching individual moves or techniques. In one class you may focus on a specific type of sweep, and then in another focus on guard retention. The second way is to look at the fundamental principles behind the system. When taught this way, all moves, and techniques can be traced back to these core fundamentals. The hope is that a better of understanding these principles will translate into better technique.

You can think of the first method of teaching as being practical and the second method of teaching as being theoretical. Learning the practical is important because it teaches you muscle memory, the dynamics of a fight, and how to control your emotions when you are involved in a physical altercation. The theorical is just as important, since you learn the structural principles that allow the techniques to work. Because both are important, no instructor focuses on the theoretical or the practical 100% of the time. Instead, instructors use a blend of the two in their lessons, and no two instructors are the same

First Principles to Learning Jiu Jitsu

The study of history is very similar. A good history teacher won’t simply recite dates when events occurred and the people who happened to be there. The event will fit into a larger narrative. Some teachers will focus more on dates and certain individuals, while others will focus more on the telling of the narrative, but all teachers understand that you need to have knowledge of both to have a firm grasp of history.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

It can be difficult to think of jiu-jitsu within a larger narrative when you start taking classes, especially if you do not have a martial arts background. Even for the first few months, you may feel as though you’re going through the motions as you learn new moves without fully understanding how they fit into a larger structure. However,

There are numerous analogies and comparisons to describe this larger system of jiu-jitsu. For example, Matt Thornton, the founder of the Straight Blast Gym, compares the study of jiu-jitsu to a tree in the below video.

As Matt explains, a tree has its roots, its trunk, its larger branches (known as boughs), and then an enormous number of smaller branches and leaves. Without a strong root system, the tree cannot survive. If the roots are strong, but the trunk is not, then it can’t support the boughs and smaller branches. If the tree has a robust root system and sturdy trunk, but only a few healthy boughs, then it cannot support a large network of smaller branches. In other words, the tree’s strength and ability to flourish rests with a strong foundation that starts with its root system, then its trunk, then its boughs. When all three are strong, it has the potential to create an almost limitless web of smaller branches.

The Jiu-Jitsu Tree

For Matt, the analogy translates from roots, trunk, boughs, and branches to base, posture, connectivity, and pressure.


The roots of your jiu-jitsu tree are your base. It is literally your connection to the ground itself. It gives you your center of gravity and allows you to build your posture.


Your posture is your body’s relationship to your opponent’s body. As Matt says, learning correct posture means learning “the most structurally efficient position you can be in” to give you better leverage to then apply technique.


The next step is to establish the physical connection with your opponent so that you can then apply force or pressure. In the same way that most trees have a relatively small number of boughs, there’s only a few directions or angles where you can successfully apply force or pressure.


As the boughs flow into and branches, and then turn into a seemingly infinite number of leaves, so too does the relatively small number of ways to establish connectivity start to multiply once you begin to explore different techniques, counters, and variations on moves.

Growing Your Jiu-Jitsu Tree

As an instructor, Matt says his goal is to micromanage his students as little as possible. He prefers to focus on teaching the fundamentals of jiu-jitsu, and then giving his students the most possible freedom to figure things out on their own, to decide which variations they like, and to create their own style. This is where individual fighters distinguish themselves and begin to develop personal styles. It’s also when jiu-jitsu is its most fun and the most like a game of chess.



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