Starting Jiu Jitsu

starting jiu jitsu white belt

When I made the decision to begin training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), I had no idea that the benefit would be so far-reaching. A year after starting jiu jitsu, I felt stronger, more confident, more determined, and more resilient. I signed up for a class, but have gained a transformation!

This site is here to help you find the answers I wish I would have had before I started. Even for those of you who like to simply jump head first into any new endeavor, there are important things to know before you ever show up for your first BJJ class.

First, a word about my level of expertise. Let me be clear in saying that I am a blue belt in BJJ, and not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve had a few periods in the years I’ve been training when I couldn’t show up for more than a couple classes in a month. Other times I’ve made it to three classes a week. I have a LOT to learn and that’s one of the things that keeps me coming back.

So the purpose of this site is not to give you expert advice. I only want to offer three things:

1. Some introductory knowledge that help you get started in BJJ. It’s basically what I wished I would have known before I started.
2. Resources in print and on the web to learn more from the “professors” of the sport
3. I will soon add information on BJJ gear (what to buy and some places to get it)

Searching for a School

After finding out what you can on the internet about the Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu schools in your area, visit a few different schools and see what the atmosphere is like. Meet the instructor and a few students, asking a couple of questions (like how long the school has been around and how often classes meet). Most schools will allow you to watch a class, sometimes more than once, before you ever put on a gi. Starting Jiu Jitsu is a big enough decision that you should be sure check out the school first.

Choosing a School

Which school you choose will depend on what you are looking for.

  • Some people train BJJ purely as self-defense.
  • Some want to learn BJJ because they want to improve their Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) skills.
  • Others want to learn BJJ in order to compete within the world of BJJ tournaments or simply to become proficient in BJJ.

I am more like the third option; starting jiu jitsu for me is mostly about the sport, so I found a school that encourages and preps their students to participate in tournaments, but also welcomes those who won’t formally compete. MMA schools are also very popular, thanks to the rise in MMA exposure.

Going to Class

I recommend showing up very early (20-30 minutes) to your first class so that you can speak with the instructor and say hello to some students. You’ll also want to sign any paperwork and write a check. It’s a good thing to go ahead and buy your first gi from that school, instead of finding a deal on the internet. You won’t save that much money shopping around and it’s a great way to show support for the school before you even start.

Take plenty of time to stretch and warm up before class begins. Most people don’t think about stretching their neck, fingers and toes, but remember to do that along with the larger muscles like the thighs and the back.

When you get dressed, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for help in tying your belt. (I was hesitant to ask and a year later I was still tying my belt the wrong way!)

Here’s a video that shows a good method for tying the belt:

To Gi or Not to Gi?

Find out ahead of time if the class you are attending is a gi class or a no gi class. If it’s a no gi class, then you can wear a pair of board shorts and a t-shirt. I have a long-sleeved shirt similar to an Under Armor shirt and I enjoy that for no gi class, but a lot of guys just wear a t-shirt.

If attending a no gi class, do not wear anything with pockets, loops, baggy fabric, or anything that could catch fingers or toes.

You can choose to wear any protective gear based on what you need. This might mean a tooth guard, knee braces, ear guards, or a cup. I’ve asked my fellow students about wearing a cup, and it seems like very few guys do. Some have mentioned the fear of a serious injury involving the cup, while others just think it would just be a nuisance.

Hygiene and Cleanliness

Here’s a head-to-toe hygiene checklist, to keep it simple:

  • Hair – keep long hair in a pony tail or formation that will keep it out of the way.
  • Piercing – remove any ear rings or rings on any other part of your body.
  • Body odor – it should go without saying, but please wear deodorant and take regular showers. No one wants to roll with a zoo animal.
  • Clothing – Wash your gi regularly. Sometimes you can get away with two classes before washing it, but after a particularly strenuous session it’s a good idea to just go ahead and put it in the washing machine.
  • Fingernails and toenails – Be sure you keep all your nails short and filed.

What Happens at a Typical Jiu-Jitsu Class?


Be ready for any intensity level for the warm-up session. Some classes start with light stretching and cardio as a warm-up. Others gradually build into a more intense warm-up at incorporates important movement drills. One of the most basic movement drills that will stay with you throughout your Jiu-Jitsu journey is called “shrimping.” Here is a quick video from Stephan Kesting about this important movement:

If you have a hard time with any of the drills, just watch what the other students are doing. If you can’t quite get the hang of it and everyone is about to finish, just jump back in line and try the next one. Some drills can take a while to master! This is another reason to show up early for every class. It gives you a chance to ask a higher belt how to do something you are struggling with.

Technique Training

After warm-ups, some schools will have you work on a beginner curriculum, but many schools will just have you dive into the techniques that are being taught that day.

Situational Drilling

Often you will work on the techniques you are learning with live drills, where you start in a certain position and work to apply the techniques you just learned. This allows you to work with a partner to practice what you’ve learned, but with full resistance. These exercises are limited to a particular set of moves or attacks, so sometimes they don’t end with a submission.

Sparring in Class

After training, most schools will finish with live sparring. My instructor was wise to have me wait a couple of classes before having me jump into sparring. You can jump in on the first night if permitted, but there are some things to keep in mind:

1. The instructor will probably pair you up with someone who has more experience since it’s your first night.

2. There are some general rules for sparring that will keep you safe. Be careful about all six of these:

  • No punches or kicks
  • No slamming (dropping someone forcefully on the ground)
  • No heel hooks (foot twisting)
  • No neck cranks
  • No manipulating finger joints

3. To start, you’ll face your partner on your knees or standing up. As a beginner, you’ll most likely start on your knees.

4. When you’re both ready, you slap hands, give a fist bump and commence having your ass kicked.

5. As a new white belt, do not try to “win” these sparring matches. That may sound strange, but winning is not the point at this stage. You are there to learn, so take it easy and start thinking about when you can use that shrimping movement you drilled in warm ups.

6. The sparring ends when someone taps. That tapping can be with your hand against the mat or your opponent, with your foot against the mat (loudly), or verbally. Do whatever it takes to avoid injury. “Live to roll another day,” one might say. Also, listen carefully for your opponent tapping so that you can release whatever hold you have on him or her.

Tap loudly, tap early, tap often

I learned much of what I needed to know about tapping the first time I sparred with someone at my Jiu-Jitsu school. After spending about 1 minute defending myself with anything but Jiu-Jitsu technique, my partner decided to go ahead and end the match with an arm bar. I felt that I was in danger, but I imagined that I could probably get out of it by resisting, since I was stronger than my opponent. The distinct popping sound that came from my elbow was evidence enough that should have tapped the second my arm was in danger. I felt that mistake for about three months.

It doesn’t take long to realize that you are going to lose a lot of sparring matches before you start winning any. But try to put learning first. Ask for one thing they noticed that you did that needs to be corrected. You’ll improve much faster than if you go in hard every time, just trying to win every round in your class. Enjoy the process!