What To Do When You Start On Your Knees in BJJ?

4 min read
Why in a sport where you start standing up do we train SO MUCH on our knees?… there is rhyme to the madness!

Duncan and Ollie fighting it out in Lake Nona, FL.

What To Do When You Start On Your Knees in BJJ?

Why in a sport where you start standing up do we train SO MUCH on our knees?… there is rhyme to the madness!

Location: London, UK.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

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It’s confusing. Jiu-Jitsu fights start on their feet, and yet we spend most of our time on the ground. When we do come to roll, some gyms have you start on your knees. We train takedowns and guard pulls and sometimes begin on the feet, but then we move back to starting on the knees.

What’s going on with Jiu-Jitsu?

The concept behind starting on your knees is twofold. Firstly, it keeps everyone on the floor, which in a busy class can be essential. If two people are sparring on the floor, preoccupied with the roll, and two other people standing up, those standing up can quite easily fall on those on the floor, causing an injury. Or alternatively, those on the floor could trip those standing, again causing an injury. 

There’s also the average level in the class to consider. Those not used to takedowns tend to either cause or be prone to injury. Knowing how to fall safely and being aware of your surroundings is essential. By keeping everyone on the ground, it minimizes the risk of injury.

The Jiu-Jitsu neutral theory

Then there’s the neutral theory. Jiu-Jitsu typically takes one form: one person playing on top and one on the bottom. The forms and roles change, and of course, you can both start standing or double guard pull, but at some point in a Jiu-Jitsu match, you should eventually see a scenario when one person is on top and one is on bottom.

By starting on the knees, however, you create a dilemma: both of you are on neutral ground. Neither is really on top nor bottom. So, what should you do?

Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast ruleset for knee training, from personal experience, I apply the following rules:

  • Is there a natural occurrence? What I mean by that is, does your partner immediately look to play guard or come on top. In that scenario, carry on.
  • If nothing happens, who is the higher belt? If I am the higher belt, I tend to initiate. This creates a dilemma if I go to play on top and my partner comes on top. In this situation, I tend to drop down to guard. If I drop to guard and so does my partner, I look to play a double guard pull, or I come on top.
  • The reason I drop to guard if my partner stands up when I do, is the prior reasoning behind not wanting to play standing when everyone else is on their knees.
  • If I am the lower belt, I wait to see what happens. If nothing happens, I initiate and see what comes of it.
  • If during the round there is a submission and we reset, I tend to play the opposite to the last round so that we can alternate.
  • If we reset and are out of position, I tend to stick to wherever I was when the round reset (top or bottom) but not necessarily in the same position. Sometimes, however, I will go as close to the position as possible.
  • An example might be a complex leg weave/crab position/inverted situation that, once we reset, neither of us can remember the exact specifics of the position. In this situation, I will suggest we get as close to the position as possible without putting either at a disadvantage, or if we can’t find a spot, then I suggest we reset entirely.

This simple scenario planning plays within the common rules of all the class, starting on the knees, and provides some rough guidelines for interacting with your partner.

One exception to this secondary piece is if your partner asks to play in a specific position. This could be because of an upcoming competition and wishing to work one guard or pass. For this, it’s over to you; however, if your partner is a higher belt, then typically, you’d be expected to oblige.

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