The world of Jiu Jitsu goes through tectonic changes every decade or so. In the 2000s the inverting from the open guard took the grappling community by storm. In the 2010s leg locks became all the rage, proving that there was still a lot more to BJJ than we thought. While we are still clearly in the 2020s there is a new trend emerging – defensive BJJ.
My advice is to get on board as soon as possible or you’ll have to play catch up. The starting point for the new breed of defensive Jiu Jitsu is easy – learn the new and improved BJJ turtle position.
What is the Turtle Position?
The turtle position in Jiu Jitsu is not a new one. In fact, it has been around as long as grappling, but not many people (outside of wrestlers) were truly interested in training and developing it. In wrestling this position is called the “referees” position – and is an important part of each match.
In BJJ, Eduardo Telles was famous for his turtle guard, using it to achieve success even in high level grappling competition, but it never really caught on. A theory explaining this, is that most people do not like to train how to survive, but rather enjoy attacking.
Well, during the last couple of decades, we’ve devoted so much time to developing BJJ attacks that it is logical that defense now emerges as a new priority. The turtle position, as one of the safest positions in BJJ, Judo, and wrestling, unsurprisingly leads this charge.
A turtle position in BJJ is when a grappler curls up in a crunch, their knees and top of the feet on the ground, elbows, and arms inside, and forehead on the mats – similar to a turtle.
I can understand why most people are not overly excited to train a position that has you curl up and do nothing for a while until the top person finds a way to break through. That was the old way of training the BJJ turtle position.
Judoka were infamous for their static turtling – they’d turtle up, covering their collars, and stay there like a real 200-year old turtle. Then, when I did leg locks they would cry about those moves not being allowed in Judo.
Wrestlers, on the other hand, have always been more active while using the turtle. With so many different headlock attacks and leg rides, the turtle was never a static position in wrestling.
It took someone to put together everything Eduardo Telles did back in the day and connect it to how Judokas and wrestlers use the turtle to develop a very powerful new BJJ turtle position that is starting to cause all sorts of trouble to those attacking it. The man “guilty” of putting this together is Priit Mihkelson, a black belt from Estonia.
Exploring The New and Improved BJJ Turtle Position
When it comes to the BJJ turtle position, the way I’ve been taught is to keep your palms on the collars (or sides of the neck in no-gi), elbows inside, knees close to the elbows, and top of the feet flat on the ground. I could never really get it to work because the position itself never felt secure.
The new BJJ turtle position looks only slightly different but feels miles apart from the original one. For one, the elbows are not inside your hips, but rather touching the sides of your waist. Yes, they are pointing out slightly from the turtle structure, but this is what makes the position so strong.
Placing your elbows against your sides, and focusing on driving the points of the elbows to your thighs when you crunch forward makes the elbows immovable, and closes your inside space for good.
The palms go loosely to the side of your neck – arms parallel, not crossed in front you – ready to hand fight as soon as a grip attempt comes in from either side. To that extent, hand fighting means grabbing a hand at the knuckle line as soon as it tries to get anywhere near your neck.
Your knees should be wider than you think, as they will provide you with a base that becomes extremely strong once your elbows click into place, and you crunch down.
The feet can be in one of two configurations: seal feet, with the top of the feet flat on the ground, or active feet when you’re staging on your toes. In both cases, your butt should be as close to your heels as possible.
Your forehead should be placed firmly on the mats and you should turn your head slightly to look in the direction that your opponent is trying to establish grips from. You’d be surprised how much turning the head like this blocks chokes and headlocks.
Defending with the BJJ Turtle
The one thing to keep in mind when playing the modern BJJ turtle position is that it is a spot where you are surviving, rather than something you do to immediately escape a bad spot.
Going into a turtle means that you are safe – there are no ways for an opponent to score points against you unless they open the turtle up and achieve top position. The strong posture of the new turtle position I described above takes care of that because opponents won’t be able to establish any meaningful grips.
The modern turtle is an excellent option for guard retention.When someone breaks down your guard and gets past your legs, going to the turtle is your last line of defense before they score points for passing.
The interesting thing is that the turtle is a position of security that you can hold for a long time, and eventually exit on your own terms.
Will people be able to break your turtle position down with brute force? Of course. However, that will require them to create space in order to get momentum for their bully moves to work. That is all you need to actually get out of the turtle position and either into a comfortable guard situation, or a counter-attacking move.
Guess what? Causing someone to get frustrated and opt for moves that create space is actually the best way to defend – and that’s exactly what you get with the new and improved BJJ turtle position. That is what defensive BJJ is all about – surviving and biding your time to escape or counter.
Turtle Position Escapes
While the ability to withstand all kinds of attacks from the BJJ turtle position is the basis of a good defense, at one point or another, you’ll have to actually get out of the position to continue grappling. That is where escapes come in. Escape might not be the perfect term for this process – it will sometimes look like standing up, recovering guard, or even a ‘sweep.’
*Note: Under IBJJF rules sweeps can only be completed from the guard. Reversing the position from the turtle, while positionally advantageous, will not score you any points.
The rule of thumb when defending from the turtle is that you should not move unless you’re certain where both you and your opponent will end up at the end of your motion. That is why you should patiently defend from a strong turtle position until enough space opens up when your opponent inevitably grows frustrated.
A worst-case scenario is transitioning from the turtle position to another defensive posture. There are a few of them that are a part of Priit Mihkelson’s system and they all but guarantee you’ll be able to survive even when people come on top of you or try to take your back after successfully breaking down your turtle.
A direction most people do not really consider when in a turtle position is standing up. This is one of the easiest escapes you can do, especially as an opponent is moving around your turtle. It takes people by surprise and puts you in a neutral position in relation to your opponent.
A more “traditional” option is recovering guard, which is also very easy as opponents start to create space – simply identify which side your opponent is on, and fall with your hips to the opposite side.
From a counter-attacking perspective, it is very easy to start working inversions from a stable turtle position, which can open up a myriad of submission attacks, sweeps, and transitioning options.
Thinking Outside The Box
As I mentioned, there’s an entire defensive BJJ system out there that centers around the use of this new and improved BJJ turtle position. I will only briefly touch upon a couple of the turtle options included in it, which definitely qualify as being ”outside the box” options.
Seated Turtle / Panda
What would happen if you decided to sit on your butt from a turtle position, keeping the configuration of the upper body, your legs wide apart, knees bent and your back exposed to your opponent? It may sound as if you’re providing them with a free back take, but that is not the case.
This position, known as the sitting turtle (or Panda) is actually an extremely strong position to deter attacks, and one that you can get out of much easier than the turtle since you’ve got a wider range of motion because you’re sitting up. You’d be amazed at how many different options arise from this position.
I already mentioned standing up, but what if your opponent already has a hook in or has a seatbelt? Well, then you can take your turtle and move it from the ground into a standing position. Yup, there is such a thing as a standing turtle and it is a very powerful defensive position.
Getting to the standing turtle requires you to still keep the upper body configuration of the elbows and the crunch, but stand up on your feet, keeping the knees bent as you’re most likely carrying the entire weight of your opponent. Once again, this runs counter to traditional Jiu Jitsu but works like a charm.
Attacking from the BJJ Turtle
Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard is definitely making a comeback as one of the best ways to use the BJJ turtle position to launch attacks of your own rather than just defend.
In simple terms, you can think about attacking from the turtle position only when an opponent lets you isolate a part of their body. It usually happens during attempts to place hooks or seatbelt/choke grips. As mentioned, every time an arm or a leg comes near your inside space you use your hands to grip fight, not opening your elbows up in the process.
Holding on to an arm or a leg means you can easily turn the tables. By shifting the angle of your turtle in relation to your opponent you’ll be able to initiate turnovers and sweeps.
Does It Really Work?
The concept sounds crazy, but then again, so did Berimbolos, inverted guards, and leg locks when they first emerged. The best way to prove that something works is to pull it off in competition against high-level opponents right? Well, proof of the effectiveness of defensive BJJ and the new turtle position is starting to slowly pile up!
Telles and his turtle guard proved decades ago that the BJJ turtle position has potential to be a fantastically effective position. Priit and his upgrades to the BJJ turtle position have now made the position easier than ever to add to your arsenal.
Ogi is a black belt that does Jiu Jitsu full time and is very passionate about anything grappling-related.
He is also the head coach of Enso Jiu Jitsu in Macedonia and an aspiring Globetrotter.