Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a multifaceted art that encompasses everything from standing self-defense, takedowns, to ground grappling. This variety is one BJJ’s defining features that separates it from other grappling arts like Judo or wrestling.
Another key difference between BJJ and these other sports is the guard. Judo’s ruleset makes the guard challenging to use effectively and wrestling’s rules means that the guard is a surefire way to lose a match as you are essentially pinning yourself! But without the artificial constraints of these rules, the guard has been established as a dominant and vital element of ground grappling.
The Founding Guard: Closed Guard
The closed guard is certainly the most common Jiu Jitsu guard in the sport. This guard is often one of the first positions people learn in BJJ. The closed guard demonstrates perfectly where the power of guards in Jiu Jitsu lies: distance management and the power of four limbs versus two. A long as you are the one dictating the range at which a grappling exchange happens and have more limbs to attack with, you’ll be in control.
Leg Position in Closed Guard
In the closed guard, your legs wrap above your opponent’s waist, secured by interlocking your ankles together behind their back. A common error is to think this is sufficient – in fact you want to be squeezing in with your knees while simultaneously bringing your knees to your own chest. This will pull your opponent towards you, making it more difficult for them to make space to establish posture.
Grips in Closed Guard
The grip placement from a closed guard is as versatile as the entire art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. However, if there’s one common denominator for gripping from the closed Jiu Jitsu guard for sports BJJ, MMA, and self-defense it is double wrist/sleeve grips. By controlling each of your opponent’s arms you keep yourself safe from attacks. When paired with good postural control (provided by your legs) you’ll find this puts you in a dominant position from which to attack.
Goals in Closed Guard
The first goal of any guard is not to have it passed! Only when you are sure your guard is impregnable can you begin attacking. All attacks begin by breaking your opponent’s posture; you won’t achieve too much against someone who is sitting upright in your guard. But, double wrist grips and effective use of your legs will make this job easy for you. Once their posture is broken, you have sweeps, attacks, and even back takes at your disposal.
The Evolution of the Guard
Up until the early 1990s the guard was relatively simple; there was closed guard and open guard, and compared to today neither was particularly specialized. Guards have evolved greatly since then, although we’ve kept the aforementioned categories when trying to organize guards into systems. Additionally, we have seen the addition of half guard as a separate category.
The half guard, as a guard of its own, which can both be closed or open, appeared as the result Roberto “Gordo” Correa sustaining a knee injury that prevented him from being able to play closed guard. Not able to play closed guard, he hid one leg in between the legs of his training partners, and the rest is history.
While not every guard was the product of inventiveness borne from injury, they all shared an underlying vein of creativity. The past 30 years have seen a tremendous proliferation of guards as guard passing has evolved, forcing guards to change in response.
When it comes to winning in competitions, the guard offers a few paths to victory: you can sweep and end up on top, or you can submit your opponent.
Sweeps will score you two points, with the possibility of more points depending upon where your sweep takes you. Submissions are the true goal of any match and the guard offers a huge number of options to do so. Keep in mind that when you throw submissions you generally are weakening your guard to do so, exposing yourself to being passed if the attempt fails.
The BJJ Half-Guard
The half guard is one of the crowd favorites in BJJ. Almost every white belt that comes to the gym asks me about half guard sooner rather than later. This guard has proven itself at all levels of competition and has even seen some limited usage in MMA.
The half guard is extremely effective because it merges the best of both the closed and open guards’ worlds. You get the mobility of an open guard with the closed guard’s security of having a leg physically trapping your opponent in place.
Today, there are a bunch of common variations of half guard in use: the Z-guard, the deep half guard, the butterfly half guard, the lockdown, and many others. It all comes down to goals and personal preference once again, but still, there are a few principles that help define the half guard and help you achieve your goals from there. The half guard can be a really powerful position on its own, but using it to connect the open and closed guards can actually turn you into a world-class grappler.
Leg Position in Half Guard
Plenty of configurations mean plenty of options for the legs in this Jiu Jitsu guard. The one common thing is that one leg is in between the legs of your opponent. That leg should always aim to hook the near side leg. This provides the connection to your opponent. the other leg can be in a bunch of different positions, but always with the same goal – manage distance by directing, pushing, or preventing the hips from moving.
Grips in Half Guard
There are a wide variety of grips available in half guard, but generally you will want to select grips that prevent your opponent from establishing a crossface and an underhook on you. More often than not this takes the form of framing your bottom arm against your opponent’s far arm to prevent the crossface. The easiest way to prevent an underhook is to get your own underhook first.
Goals in Half Guard
Don’t allow people to pass your guard. Try to avoid being flat on your back, if you are able to come up onto an elbow while facing your opponent you’ll have more sweeps and attacks at your disposal. Generally you want to shorten the distance between you and your opponent so that you can more easily off balance them.
With a strong underhook you open up the constant threat of a back take, forcing your opponent to respond with a whizzer. This in turn opens up a whole direction to sweeps as your opponent has to give up their ability to post on that side! Most half guard sweeps are lateral, try sweeping first to one side and then to the other if the first fails. This strategy applies to all guards, but is particularly important in half guard.
The Deep End of the Pool: The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Open Guard
Most of your time rolling in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu will probably be you trying to pass someone’s guard or trying to stop someone from passing yours. In the modern BJJ game, that guard is going to be an open guard variation more often than not. Most of the innovations for the open guard has happened over the past two decades.
The early open guards like the De la Riva and Spider guard have given way to Reverse de La Riva, 50/50, and elaborate lapel guards like the Worm guard. With so many guards available it is important to recognize that these basic tips are generalizations at best and some guards may have their own nuances and exceptions.
Leg Position in Open Guard
The legs in the open guard have very specific goals that generally remain the same regardless of the guard. There is always one leg that is going to act as hooking leg , attaching you to your opponent. The other one is an active leg, one that makes things happen in terms of guard retention, sweeps, and/or submissions. How you place each, depends on the open guard variation you’re playing.
Note: Some guards like Spider guard rely on switching the role of each leg, catching your opponent in the transition. Other guards like De la Riva are more narrowly constrained, with each leg only being able to serve one role.
Grips in Open Guard
There are huge variety of grips available in open guard, but an underlying principle is diagonal control. It is preferable to have a grip on a leg and a grip on the opposite side arm, regardless of the guard variation you’re using. However, there are many exceptions here with some guards using two grips on the same side such as collar sleeve in De la Riva.
Goals in Open Guard
As always: retain your Jiu Jitsu guard first, attack second. However, from here it becomes difficult to offer overarching advice. Some open guards offer very few attacks, prioritizing off-balancing and sweeps. Other guards let you chain sweeps and attacks, forcing your opponent to constantly be on the defensive.
The Jiu Jitsu guard, whether it is open or closed, half guard or inverted, with or without the help of the gi, is an extremely powerful position. It is a signature position of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and is what makes BJJ unique amongst grappling arts. Today there are more guards out their than you can reasonably expect to master, so be sure to try out as many as you can and pick a few that match your play style!