BJJ Positions 101: Fundamentals Principles of Top Control

Last updated on 18.01.2023 by

What are your goals when you’re rolling or in a BJJ match? Most say submit to the other person or control them from a dominant position. Both are very understandable and realistic However, when it comes to being able to control or submit someone, you have to understand why your body position is allowing you to achieve both of those goals. So, today’s focus is going to be on understanding how top control works across all BJJ positions that offer it. 

What Is BJJ Control? 

Fundamentals Principles of Top Jiu Jitsu Control

Physically controlling people against their will is not an easy task to achieve. That is why we have so many BJJ positions – they are mechanically optimal to help us make grown people feel like toddlers who cannot move when and where they want. 

That is precisely one of the main aspects of control in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – movement. You need to be able to prevent a person from moving in a specific direction that they want to move in. Moreover, you want to make the person move in another direction they do not want to move in. 

The ability to achieve these two things gives you control over another person. The main thing to remember is that you can’t control someone by pinning them to the ground. There is no feasible way of preventing somebody from moving, even if you are lying on top of them and outweighing them by 100 lbs. 

At the end of the day, people will still be able to move certain parts of their body, which means controlling someone by making them lie without any motions whatsoever is impossible. So, instead of trying to achieve the impossible, chasing something precise and easy to obtain is much smarter. 

Controlling the directions of movement in Jiu Jitsu, regardless if you’re blocking somebody from moving or making them move, is what you should be after. Allowing people to move in directions that do not threaten your BJJ position is exactly what you want because it is extremely difficult to attack people that choose to do nothing. 

So, movement is your friend as long as you dictate where the opponent can go and cannot go. 

The 4 Golden Rules of Grappling

BJJ Positions 101

There is a thing I heard Chris Haueter say a while back that stuck weight me. So much so, in fact, that it is now hanging on the wall of my academy. His four golden grappling rules are more than helpful for anyone in BJJ, from beginner to expert. 

#1. Be the Person on Top

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you think about it, all BJJ positions that will score you points are top positions. There are no points for playing guard or for pulling guard – just for being on top. So, when you’re grappling, being the person on top should be your number one priority if you want to control people and win matches. 

#2. When on Top, Stay On Top

The real challenge in Jiu Jitsu is not getting to a top position – it is staying there. This is the aspect of control I will focus on in detail today. 

In terms of the four golden rules of grappling, if you simply get a top position (knee on belly, mount, back control, etc.) and do not hold it for three seconds, you won’t get points for getting to the position. 

This is precisely why retaining top positions is just as important (perhaps even more) than acquiring top BJJ positions. It is also quite straightforward when you know exactly what you’re looking for. 

#3. When on the Bottom, Have a Guard They Shall Not Pass

Another crucial piece of advice from the BJJ Dirty Dozen member. When you inevitably end up playing guard in Jiu Jitsu, you need to know the point of having a guard. Since you can’t get any points from being in a guard, you must focus on not losing any. That means your priority is preventing people from passing the guard

Moreover, once you have a guard that is secure from passes, you can look to either finish an opponent via submissions or score by getting a sweep. The first order of business, though, is not allowing people to get past your guard. 

#4. Remember Rule #1, Easily Forgotten Due to the Seductive and Rewarding Nature of the Guard

The final piece of advice in Haueter’s golden rules is to remember that you should avoid staying on the bottom for long, despite how fun and secure your guard game might be. At one point or another, the top person will get the edge since all they have to do is pass, and they immediately start outscoring you. 

As fun as playing guard might be, it is simply a checkpoint that will allow you to get to the truly dominant BJJ positions, which are the top ones. 

Hierarchy of BJJ Positions 

Following Chris Haueter’s advice will place you on your feet, half kneeling, kneeling, turtled, or in a sprawl position for most of the time. As long as the other person is between you and the mats, you have a top position, regardless of how they’re positioned relative to you.

That said, BJJ positions do have a hierarchy, and their places are determined by how much control you can obtain from a certain position. Keeping in mind the definition of BJJ control I went over earlier, the mount position and the back mount position are the two spots you need to be gunning for at all times. I call them checkpoints.  

You must be on top of the BJJ positional hierarchy whenever possible. So, going to mount or back mount is what you need to be after all the time, whenever you are engaged in rolling. 

Apart from those two, you also have the knee-on-belly position, which, despite not offering as much control or points, is still a very powerful top position, particularly when you’re looking to transition toward the top of the hierarchy. 

At the bottom of the BJJ positions hierarchy from the top is side control. The position is not going to get you any points. Still, it does offer a certain modicum of control, especially if you are not afraid of switching between the different side control positions (wrestling side, 100 kilos, Kesa Gatame, twister side control, north-south, etc.). 

A tip on the hierarchy is that despite the obvious tendency to want to stay in the mount and back mount, you will be forced to abandon them from time to time. Forget about the old-school notion of never allowing somebody to get you back down the hierarchy – it doesn’t work. 

Let me put it this way – do not fear going back to side control from the mount, or even as far back as a top half guard, if that means you retain top position. As I previously stated (in agreement with Haueter’s rules), the top person has a distinct advantage, no matter how good a guard player is. 

While the hierarchy is a good thing to keep in mind, goals-wise, as long as you stay on top and aim to remain in BJJ positions that place your partner between you and the mats, you will have better options for control than benign on your back. 

Fundamentals Principles Of Top Control in Jiu Jitsu

The most success I’ve had with controlling BJJ positions when I am on top was when I turned towards figuring out principles rather than trying to think about detailed technical ways f staying in control of every BJJ position on the hierarchy.  

All the principles below will work from any top position you have, from side control to mount. 

The Snake Principle

This is one of my favorite ones. If you are trying to control a snake, the best way to do so is by grabbing the snake at both ends. You want to have a grip on its head, as well as its tail. The same should be your focus when you’re getting to any of the BJJ top positions, particularly in the very few beginning moments of getting there. 

In BJJ terms, that would translate to controlling the head and controlling the hips. Mount and back mounts are the perfect examples of this. They both involve controlling the head and neck on one side and the hips on the other in order to get to BJJ control (as defined earlier). 

The same principle also works for side control, knee on belly, top half guard, technical mount etc. It is also why control positions like Kesa Gatame (Judo side control) are less efficient in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as opposed to holding side control from the north-south and twister side control, where you can keep a hold of both the head and the hips. 

The moment you arrive in a top position, aim to get these two points of control. Out of the two, getting to the head and shoulders is the more important one. Wherever the head trunks to, the body has the tendency to follow. Controlling the head means you will actually be able to predict where the opponent is going to move their hips toward, establishing the “snake control” with ease. 

Points of Control

Once you get some modicum of control (the snake principles), you want to make sure the bottom person is not going to get away from you is to prevent them from going in those directions they want to. 

What do people do when they try to escape your top BJJ positions? They will try to turn to one side or the other, otherwise, there is no way for them to get out. So, what are you going to do to prevent them, knowing exactly what they would be after? 

It is easy. Let’s use side control as an example. First of all, make sure you have control of their head (snake principle). If they turn their head towards you, the body will follow. The first order of business is to try to get their head back to neutral or towards the other side. Whether you use a crossface, Nelson, collar grips, lapels, or whatever else you can think of is down to you. 

Secondly, look at which shoulder is coming off the ground When somebody is turning towards you, it will be the far side one. Your goal is to prevent this shoulder from raising off the mats, and if it has, get it back down. Once again, the method is down to you.

The third piece of the puzzle is to make sure the person’s arm is on the near side. Stays away from their torso. As long as they can’t get it underneath them, they won’t be able to go into defensive postures or try to shrimp out. 

Finally, since you also want control of the hips, make sure both of the opponent’s knees are not touching the mats on either side. 

If you can control the head, prevent one shoulder from raising and the opposite side arm from getting close to the body, and you can prevent at least one of the opponent’s knees from going to the ground on either side, you will prevent them from turning to their side. 

And, if somebody is lying on their back with you on top and can’t turn to their side, how are they supposed to escape? 

Start A “Fight”

Let’s go further in your quest for control from top BJJ positions. First, it was trying to get a hold of the head and the hips in order to make sure the bottom person doesn’t just slide out. Next, we looked at several control points (head, shoulder, arm, knees) which make it difficult for the opponent to turn. 

Once you have them trapped there, it is time to make them suffer a bit. The best way to do this is to make sure their head is pointing in one direction and their knees are pointing n a completely different direction. 

For example, from side control, let’s say you are pushing their head to look away with a tight crossface. It means you should grab the far side knee and pull both knees towards yourself, thus twisting the body up. The moment you take their spine out of alignment that much, the bottom person will become as close to powerless as you can get in BJJ. 

The idea is that you make their head and their legs start to fight. While one is attempting to go one way, the other body part is directed in a completely different way, making them “quarrel” about which direction they should take. 


The cherry on top when it comes to holding top BJJ positions is making the bottom person carry all your weight. Now, if you are lighter than them, that doesn’t mean that you are going to feel the same. This is where the pressure comes into play. 

We are in our side control example again. The head and hips are firmly under our control via the control points, accentuating the snake principle when you introduce a fight amongst the opponent’s own body parts into the mix. This is exactly when you want to put them under pressure. 

The best way to make someone carry all your weight is to make sure nothing apart from your toes is touching the ground. So, if you are in side control, you want to lift your entire body off the ground except for your toes. And you don’t need to lift high – as long as someone can slide a piece of paper underneath you. You are high enough. 

Finally, as you keep all your weight on the poor soul in the bottom position, make it a point to keep your head higher than your hips. That is why I mentioned a sprawl earlier. Imagine you’re sprawling, head higher than the hips, but at the same tie, everything is off the ground except your toes. That is a recipe for making people tap from sheer top pressure. 

Even though I used side control to try and explain the principles in detail, all of the above principles apply to any and all top BJJ positions you want to control your opponent from. 

Final Thoughts

As I said, keeping people under your control is easy when you understand what you are doing. If you know what control is if you know why you want to be on top in BJJ, what top BJJ positions are, and how to make sure you prevent people from escaping and make them feel extremely uncomfortable while not engaging all your body parts for the job (you’ll need some to attack) then you’re doing an awesome job of controlling people from the top. Easy-peasy.