Is BJJ Good for Self Defense?

Will you be prepared to defend yourself in a street fight if you train in Brazilian jiu jitsu? The short answer is probably if you are familiar with how to adapt BJJ to a situation involving striking. 

No one wants to find themselves in a physical altercation. Unfortunately, you don’t typically look for fights, they find you. 

In this article, we will explore how jiu jitsu matches up to the self defense context. We’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages, how best to prepare yourself should a real-life alteration occur and other common questions about brazillian jiu jitsu for self defense. 

Is BJJ self-defense?

Generally speaking, Brazilian JiuJitsu is good for self-defense, but it’s not designed exclusively for self defense.

In theory, all Jiu Jitsu is premised on the concept that a smaller opponent can defeat a less skilled, larger and stronger opponent by utilizing leverage. In essence, jiu jitsu grappling techniques can neutralize this larger opponent, notwithstanding their bigger reach or better strikes. 

In this way, BJJ is a form of self-defense. Just how good a form of self defense is another question as it depends on the context. 

Sport BJJ vs BJJ for Self Defense BJJ

Rener Gracie practicing self-defense focus jiu jitsu

Not all jiu jitsu is created equally. Jiu jitsu can be divided into two camps: sport and self-defense.

There is an important distinction to understand between the “sport” of jiu jitsu and jiu jitsu’s applications in the self defense arena. 

The differences between each style can sometimes feel like splitting hairs. For instance, “Gracie Jiu Jitsu,” as taught by Rener Gracie and family, typically would fall under the self defense banner, through programs such as the Gracie Combatives program. Other styles, such as combat jiu jitsu might be better classified as competition or sport jiu jitsu even though the ruleset allows striking. 

Most commonly, jiu jitsu is practiced for competition. In competitions and tournaments, there are clearly defined rules and regulations designed to keep participants safe. And, of course, there is no striking in jiu jitsu competition. 

BJJ competition rules do not apply in the street. Real-world attackers will kick, punch, bite and do just about anything to harm you. Just because you have a great guard game, won’t prevent someone from picking you up and slamming you down. 

What you practice on the mat rolling is not going to necessarily translate well to a real-life fight. 

Self defense jiu jitsu, unlike sport jiu jitsu, is focused on understanding how to defend oneself in a “no rules” like setting. While the fundamental techniques are the same, the approach and goals are completely different between self defense jiu jitsu and sport jiu jitsu.

In sport jiu jitsu, you are playing for points and advantages. You take risks to win the match. In self-defense jiu jitsu, you are fighting for your life. Your goal is to minimize the threat to your physical well being. 

Conceptual Focus of Self Defense BJJ

One of the main principles in self-defense jiu jitsu (or for any self-defense application) is to maintain control and proper distance. 

You either want your opponent so far away from you that he or she cannot hurt you or so tightly in your control that you have neutralized their ability to attack.

Stephen Kesting masterfully (and hilariously) explains this idea in his MMA Strike defense comic. Kesting shows how regular sport BJJ concepts do not translate well when striking is involved. You are in trouble whenever an opponent is in the “dangerous middle” area (i.e. his arms can connect to your face). 

The dangerous middle concept is also reinforced by Rener Gracie in the gracie combatives program. For Rener, there are red zones and green zones. A red zone is a dangerous distance for you to be in a self defense situation, whereas a green zone is a safe place. These zones are drastically different than the spacing accepted in regular, sport jiu jitsu.

According to Grace, controlling the distance of your opponent is the key to using jiu jitsu for self defense. 

The idea of closing the distance and taking the fight to the ground is commonly reinforced from the Gracies, as explained by Rickson Gracie in the following video.

Closing the distance – understanding how to use BJJ in a self defense context

Benefits of BJJ for Self Defense

On the whole, BJJ is excellent for self defense because of its practicality and training methods. Jiu Jitsu practitioners know that they can perform their techniques well against resisting opponents. The concept of rolling in Brazilian jiu jitsu is to test your limits against a live opponent. 

Many martial arts triumph their self defense curriculum with supposedly “too dangerous” to perform techniques. You can never really know if an eye-gouging technique is going to work since no one will let you practice it on them at full force.

It’s very common in self defense martial arts to learn a static attack, in a set position to repeat that scenario over and over. However, if a stance is changed or the attack approached from a different angle, a defender may not know what to do. 

This problem does not exist in jiu jitsu. As an art, Jiu Jitsu thrives on repeated, live training. Jiu jitsu practitioners have years of adapting to variability with actual resistance. This is possible because the techniques are (mostly) safe to perform on training partners. They have ample time to tap out to tell you the technique is in place correctly. 

Similarly, kata forms (static, pre-arranged techniques) are mostly non-existent in jiu jitsu (save traditional forms of traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu). Even the Gracie Combatives program places an emphasis on practicing techniques against live opponents. 

Muscle memory in the martial arts will fade without constant repetition and application. 

Jiu-Jitsu is practical for self-defense because the muscle memory of fundamental techniques is put into use every practice. If and when you are attacked in real life your body will know what to do at the right time instinctively. You should not have to figure out if the “eye gouge” attack or the “groin kick” attack is most appropriate. 

Will this groin kick be your best bet for self defense?

Where many traditional self defense programs fail is in their overabundance of techniques. What use is training hundreds of techniques, if you cannot apply one successfully? As Bruce Lee famously said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” This statement shows one of the great advantages to training BJJ for self defense.

In Jiujtisu, you will practice fundamental techniques over and over in every context that it will become second nature. There will be no doubt about whether you can do them or not. 

How do you train BJJ for Self-defense?

Think street, train sport, practice art

Chris Haueter

If you are a sport jiu jitsu player, you might be interested in learning jiujitsu for self defense

If you want to learn self defense BJJ you need to find a gym that focuses on self-defense or offers a program that compliments competition jiu jitsu. Of course, finding a self-defense focused jiu jitsu instructor or program can be difficult. 

However, since it’s more common to find a sport jiu jitsu focused gym your options might be limited. Don’t worry, there are still ways to learn jiujitsu for self defense.

First, like in regular jiu jitsu, it’s important to have a training partner. Find a partner you can work techniques with so that you are not learning on your own.

If you cannot find an instructor to teach you, look online to videos or into a program such as the Gracie Combatives. While there is some legitimate criticism of this program, it probably offers the most comprehensive approach to jiu jitsu self defense available.

Stephan Kesting also as an excellent self defense guard program that is worth checking out. 

From a more practical level, consider adding light (or simulated) striking into your rolling with your training partners. This element alone will force you to reevaluate your concept of BJJ. 

Is Judo better than BJJ for Self Defense?

Whether Judo is better than BJJ for self defense is an interesting spin on the timeless debate of BJJ vs Judo. The answer depends on what application of self defense you are looking at it. 

Arguably, Judo is better for self defense if there are multiple attackers. A judo player knows how to quickly throw their opponent to the ground and stay standing ready for the next attacker.

Similarly, Judo players are arguably more dangerous against opponents who are wearing loose-fitting (i.e. grabbable) apparel, such as a jacket or long sleeve shirt. The judo player can latch onto their attacker and utilize a range of throws to immobilize them.

On the flip side, BJJ might be seen as better than Judo in self defense in a one-on-one scenario. It’s very common that street fights end up on the ground, and this is where jiu-jitsu skills excel. 

There is probably no winner or right answer to which is better for self defense. At the end of the day, BJJ and Judo overlap on so many levels that their commonalities in the self defense arena arguably outweigh their differences. 

Is BJJ good self defense for women?

Brazilian jiu jitsu is a great means of self defense for women. It is often said that jiu jitsu is designed for the “weaker and smaller opponent to overcome larger, stronger opponents. 

Often, women’s self defense classes are merely a hodgepodge of unproven, one-off attacks. As we’ve explored, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training offers a more realistic approach to the martial arts.

Jiu jitsu is also great for learning true situational and body awareness, which are keys to reacting in a self defense situation. Is the groin kick always the best option for a woman to defend herself? Some woman’s self defense programs seem to think so. However, because jiu jitsu takes a dynamic and live approach to training, a woman can understand how they truly best respond to an attacker. 

Above all, jiu jitsu is superb self defense for women because it offers such a complete package of added benefits. These include exercise, friendship, and healthy living, benefits which are attractive for both males and females alike. 

CounterPoint: BJJ is not sufficient for self defense

Not everyone agrees that jiujitsu is great (or sufficient) for self defense. In an effort to present a balanced view, we provide some counterpoints to the BJJ is the best self defense argument. These can be discussed from the perspective of other martial arts as well from other jiujitsu practitioners.

Some jiu jitsu instructors do not believe that jiu jitsu is not suited for a street altercation. The argument is similar to the discussion regarding sport vs traditional brazilian jiu jitsu. The argument from this line of thought is that what sport jiu jitsu has gained in technical ability and technique it has its ability to translate to street fighting, particularly the use and knowledge of takedowns.

More esoteric techniques like the worm guard might be useful in competition, but have zero use in real life. Or, on a simpler level, the prevalence of “pulling guard” that is endemic in BJJ has practically no use in the street.

Other martial arts might criticize jiu jitsu from similar angles. A Krav Maga practitioner might consider BJJ sub-optimal, or limited in its technical and tactical approach to multiple opponents. Likewise, weapons-based martial arts might see jiu jitsu as having poor answers to knife attacks. 

Some of the disadvantages to BJJ for self defense can be summarized as follows:

  • Poor application/preparation for a striking opponent
  • Self-defense context usually limited to one-on-one fights
  • Emphasis on ground game is a disadvantage with multiple opponents
  • Non-existent weapons training
  • Weak takedown focus

Conclusion

It’s probably safe to say that no martial art is perfect, or “right” for each situation. Even its biggest proponents would admit that Jiujitsu does not have all the answers.

However, despite any perceived limitations, we think that jiu jitsu, whether sport or self-defense focus, offers a value unparalleled by other arts when it comes to learning how to defend oneself. 

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