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MMA-grappling & Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training: An introduction Pt. 2: Concept driven training

How to establish a conceptual framework for training in various BJJ forms.

This article is inspired by the conceptual framework of Bruce Lee. Although certain concepts have been modified a great extent to adapt it to the game of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The Three Stages of Learning Jiu Jitsu

A student will encounter three different stages on his or her journey towards learning and ultimately mastering the arts of grappling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The first stage is the natural stage, in which a person is totally ignorant of proper technique and tactics and uses natural instinctual response to, defend, or attack in a grappling situation. At this stage, natural instincts alone prevail without thought process of right or wrong techniques.

The second stage is the mechanical stage, in which a person learns techniques by training. A process that Jiu Jitsu practitioners often refer to as “putting the reps in.” At this stage, students train their mind into new thinking patterns (the mental) and the body into new patterns of action (the physical). The combination of mental and physical aspects of the learning process results in the technical development of the athlete. Unfortunately, the fluidity found in the first stage is lost and learned techniques prevail over the instinctual response. In other words: A student’s own effort to apply technique will inhibit their ability to react spontaneously, because their mind will get caught in all the details needed to apply the technique correctly.

The third and final stage is the stage of formless form. At this stage, the grappler understands the concepts and principles behind the techniques and has cultivated his attributes to work in perfect synergy with these concepts. This results in mastery of the game where techniques flow, the grappler’s game expands, and to quote Lao Tzu, this game is now “filled with infinite possibilities.”

The Masters Have Achieved ‘Formless Form’

A studnet has only to observe the game of two BJJ masters to see this “formless form” stage in action: Marcelo Garcia and Roger Gracie. The common observer will notice that their game seems “simple.” This is because they do not have to use fancy techniques. Practitioners like Roger Gracie can be observed achieving mount against even high level black belts and submitting them with the kind of chokes every beginner in the art learns to defend.

Marcelo Garcia Exemplifies 'Formless Form'

What the untrained eye does not see is that all necessary elements for success are there: Roger has the correct body type to avoid bridging escapes. He’s cultivated attributes, such as balance and grip strength. And when all these elements are applied within a conceptual framework of techniques, he has all options of escape covered.

Roger Gracie

Again, many will probably make the assumption that the opponent was not good enough to begin with, not seeing that the end started before Roger got the mount position, from side control or from top half guard. Like chess, once the sequence has been initiated there was no way for the opponent to escape. Ultimately, the secret of mastering the art of BJJ is not in learning hundreds of individual techniques. It relies on understanding the game of Jiu Jitsu and working on a more personal way of grappling. A student must create their own game. Before understanding the process grapplers can follow, to cultivate their own game, they must first understand the driving principles behind mastering the game of BJJ:

1. Concept driven application of techniques

2. Fluidity and economy of motion

3. Synergy

4. Attribute based selection of techniques

Fluidity and Economy of Motion

Examining Marcelo Garcia’s game shows that his techniques start flowing and seem to occur in simple repeating patterns. In attacking or counterattacking, his techniques emerge without re-positioning and directly explode into action from point A to point B. Although he adapts to attacks like water, his game is not passive. He often initiates fast moving scrambles and gets into scenarios that are familiar to him, situations where he has simple solutions that do not require much effort and strength. That is how he ends up on the winning side of these scrambles.

In order to do that he prefers simple-to-set-up techniques that rely on speed and the element of surprise so he can capitalize on his opponent’s natural reactions, like posting an arm or going for an underhook. Simplicity and going with the flow are concepts used in most martial arts and BJJ is no different. Key benefits of grappling using economy of motion are speed and energy conservation, as practitioners will not end up using unnecessary movements.

Concept Driven Application of Techniques

A guillotine choke is only a submission for most common BJJ practitioners. This is not the case for Marcelo Garcia, because he will often use guillotine attacks to sweep as well. He likes to go directly for the neck and not use unnecessary strength. When he gets a guillotine choke, he will take advantage of the fact that his opponent is defending the choke and cannot use his arms to post.

A grappler cannot defend the choke and also post their hands to avoid getting swept. So Marcelo, without letting go of the neck, uses the butterfly hook to sweep and go to mount position. Usually he does not even let the choke go and finishes the mounted variation of the guillotine. In this instance Marcelo took a common technique and used it within a simple but effective conceptual framework: “The best way to finish sweeps is to threaten with submissions first. Since the defending opponent will not be able to post and avoid the sweep you will either get a sweep or a submission.”

Marcelo’s game is all about concepts. Concepts give birth to new techniques and the application of these techniques will soon give way to new concepts, which is how the game evolves. This is when a student starts understanding the game. And when they understand the game, their mind frees itself from techniques. And that enhances their ability for fluidity and spontaneous reaction.

In order to achieve this state, the basics must first become second nature; students need to have certain attributes developed and a lot of “flight time” in rolling sessions or competition. Only then can they free their mind from the details of each technique and start working on applying concepts in live action.


The concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts has been known from the time of Aristotle and has become a common phrase in English. Synergy is the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect different from or greater than the sum of their individual effects. In other words 1+1=3. In BJJ as grapplers absorb different techniques from various sources they understand that they cannot drill and get good at everything. They also find out that certain types of techniques do flow effortlessly into other options. A grappler needs to find sets of techniques that can work in groups complementing each other.

Again, the aforementioned guillotine example is a perfect one. Two techniques, the guillotine and the butterfly hook sweep, each one can work when the other fails to deliver. Furthermore, techniques that work well together are those that adhere to certain concepts. Simply adding techniques to a grappler’s game without a concept-based system will get them nowhere. Most great grapplers usually have a small number of techniques that work in synergy and can go to these techniques from many positions and from many different set-ups.

Attribute-Based Selection of Techniques

In western boxing, a boxer learns basic punches, evasiveness, some footwork and a few blocks from his trainer. These techniques are the same for each boxer in the gym and the boxer is encouraged to train in them. The underlying similarities of the human structure (two arms and two legs) still allows for a common truth to exist in human combat. Eventually though, because of size, weight and individual attributes, every boxer develops his or her own style. A good trainer will notice the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, their body type and their characteristics and help them modify their game to work in synergy with these traits.

For example, some boxers will use jabs and footwork like Muhammad Ali or hooks and short range attacks like Joe Frazier. Boxing also has a different approach for orthodox or southpaw fighters. The result can still be identified as boxing, but are also unique for every fighter, as fighting is ultimately the art of expressing the human body.

When picking the right techniques to complement a student’s game, the student must take their personal attributes in consideration. Are they explosive? Do they have grip strength or great cardio? Are they flexible? How does their mind work? Can they make quick decisions required for scrambles or do they approach fighting in a slower manner looking for control and imposing your will?

And then there are injuries. Does a student have bad knees or back problems? Then maybe standing passes are not for them. Do they have finger problems? Maybe certain grips won’t work for them. Notable BJJ practitioner Roberto “Gordo” Correa developed the half guard game when he suffered a serious knee injury during his training and was forced to re-evaluate the way he grappled on the mats and started developing a half guard game.

In Conclusion

The overall awareness of the game is a journey, spiritually, intellectually and physically. It is not an easy one nor is it for everyone. Some people are talented athletes and can achieve greatness in sports just by following the instructions of their coach. But to become an artist in BJJ, especially if a grappler plans to teach at a high level, they must first become a student and start learning THE GAME!

The next part of this series will focus on training sport specific attributes vs. focusing on technical improvement.

Author’s note: Parts of this series were posted on my blog, and This is an updated version with extensive rewrites. Although these articles will cover several aspects of training in Jiu Jitsu for MMA and no-gi grappling, topics and techniques will include gi-oriented training. The main focus of this series is the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a whole.

About the author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state-certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system © which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the Continuous Feedback © mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a brown belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).

Follow Kostas on Twitter: and search #fantmoves for more techniques.