Archives for category: Technical Concepts

I arrived at my private lesson with Eduardo Rocha with his school curriculum in hand.  I knew where my holes were, and my goal was to plug some of them up with this private.  However, he looked at the list and, to my surprise, put it aside.  “I have something better to show you.  You can learn this stuff [meaning the curriculum] by coming to class.  But, people who come from other jiujitsu schools don’t know this.”  For the next hour, I would learn that the “this” he referred to was the concepts behind his pressure game.

My Conceptual Takeaways

The very first thing I noticed when I first rolled at Prof. Rocha’s school was how heavy everyone felt – regardless of belt level and regardless of actual weight.  Being on the bottom was exhausting and discouraging.  Here are five concepts I took away from my private on how to feel crushing on top.

  1. Let your opponent carry your weight at all times.  Let gravity assist.
  2. Do not disperse or dilute the effect of your top pressure by placing any part of your body on the ground unless it is necessary to do so.
  3. Do not disperse your weight across the entirety of the opponent’s body.  Rather, focus applying pressure to the person’s hips or to the person’s shoulders to maximize pinning effectiveness.
  4. While not incorrect, do not grip your hands while in side control when possible.  While it might help you hold down your opponent, it a) fixes you to the opponent thereby limiting offensive opportunities, and b) it diminishes your ability to base should you get bucked, bumped, or rolled.
  5. Connection is vital.  When transitioning from side control to knee-on-stomach or to mount, do not allow for space or lose the connection of your hips to their hips.

An Illustration

In the video below, at 0:49 you can see the side control position Eduardo favors and teaches us at his school.  The only difference is that even the rear knee is off the ground, concentrating downward pressure from your hips to his hips.  The ensuing drill Xande teaches is identical to the drill Eduardo taught me during our private as a counter to a person’s reaction to the hip-to-hip pressure, which is to bump and try to get their knee in.


Knee-To-Elbow Connection From On Top

Knee-to-elbow is often associated with strong posture when escaping mount or side control.  However, the concept of a strong knee-to-elbow connection is important for top players to think about when passing the open or half guard.

Last night at Eduardo Rocha’s, Verne (who is a newly minted black belt) taught two strong guard passes for when you find yourself caught in half guard.  In the second pass particularly, after establishing combat base, the knee-to-elbow connection was key to preventing your opponent from re-establishing an advantageous connection point for them – their foot on your hip.  The knee-to-elbow “wall” guards against this, allowing you to initiate your pass.

The open guard tutorial by Ryron and Rener below, while not focusing on this specific concept, illustrates it as they teach the guard pass.

My friend Tony Tao running his first marathon in 2007.


Last year, Martin Rooney, renowned strength and conditioning coach, was interviewed on The Fightworks Podcast on the topic of fitness resolutions for the coming year.   He shared a framework for how to approach goal-setting that I found extremely valuable and that I’d like to share and expound upon here.   I would also suggest (re)listening to that segment because Martin’s energy and enthusiasm help ignite fire.


Martin’s framework is encapsulated in the acronym M.A.T., which stands for Measurable, Attainable, and Timeframe.   Let’s break these down.

Measurable: A goal that is not concrete and measurable is a goal that is doomed to fail because of ambiguity.  The only way to know if you hit a target is to have a defined target in the first place.  Many of us begin with a resolution, or what I will call an “intention.”  This is a very important seed, and since it often emerges from a deeply emotional and spiritual place within us, it is often amorphous.  The key to converting that from amorphous intention into reality, though, is to make it into something actionable.

In The Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss illustrates how to take an intention and transform it into an action item.  One of his examples follows:

Become fluent in Chinese —–> Hold a 5-minute conversation with a Chinese co-worker.

I’ll share a personal example as it applies to BJJ.  My “intention” for this year is to improve my jiujitsu so that I am on a purple belt level.  The personal target that brings that into reality is: Submit three purple belts in one sparring session.

Be on purple belt level —-> Submit three purple belts in one sparring session.

Attainable: If your goal is simply out of reach, it is booby-trapped for failure.  When goal setting, be ambitious but sensible.  The ambition part is important, as the audacity of the goal serves as inspiration especially when the inevitable hurdles appear.   However, to shoot for something that is simply not possible is a great way to create excuses for inaction.

Timeframe: You must hold yourself accountable, and a great way to do that is by setting a deadline.   However, a timeframe is not just about accountability.  In my professional endeavors, especially as a 5th grade teacher in the South Bronx and as a Recruitment Director for Teach for America, having a deadline in the future allowed me to plan backwards from the end point and define milestone markers to track progress.  At these regular checkpoints, I knew if I was on track to reaching my goal or if I wasn’t.  And, knowing the latter ahead of time allowed for real-time adjustments.

Other Thoughts:

1.  Less is more. – Busy doesn’t always mean purposeful.  Focus on just two or three goals that will have a transformational impact on your jiujitsu (or on your life.)  Your goal could be to tap someone with a low-percentage submission.  Or, your goal could be to realize that smoking is inhibiting your full potential on the mats (and in life) and thus seek the help of a medical professional to implement a plan to stop all smoking in 4 months time.

2.  Publicly share your goals.  (Or don’t.) – I’m of the school of thought that sharing your goals publicly with influential stakeholders who will hold you to them (your coach, a spouse, etc.) increases your chances of achieving said goal.  However, I recently listened to a fascinating TED talk that actually argued the opposite.  (see video below) Ultimately, do what you think best sets you up for success.

Apply the Technique

Consumption is human, creation is divine.  Don’t just read this post, but apply Martin’s formula and my tips to a couple of goals that will move you forward, whether on the mats or in some other area in your life.  If you want to share them publicly, please post in the comments below.

Odds & Ends

Gracie Diet Phase-in // Week 3 (no two starches)

I am now in the third week of the Gracie Diet phase-in plan.  Now, in addition to waiting at least 4.5 hours between meals, and avoiding desserts and sodas, I now have to ensure that none of my meals has more than one starch as a component.  This meant that I ditched the buns to my sliders so I could eat the yucca fries last night.  It meant reaching for the whole wheat bread instead of the multi-grain loaf this morning.

So far, I’m not seeing significant change in energy levels, though it’s still early.  I can say, though, that thanks to the diet, I am realizing that I consumed more food previously that I really needed.  I’ll keep you posted on how this week goes.

Christian Montes at what will soon be the “old” Ronin Athletics location, standing proudly after his twentieth or twenty-first armbar on me. I lost count after a while.

Christian Montes, a purple belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu, is the owner and head coach at Ronin Athletics, a Brasa affiliate under black belt Felipe Costa.  Despite sharing the jiujitsu market with powerhouses Renzo Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, and Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Christian has amassed a large, diverse, and loyal following of students.  This is due to many factors, not the least of which is his ability to convey jiujitsu concepts and instruction with a high level of articulation and detail.  Other factors include the care and passion with which he coaches everyone, and, he might have you believe, his passing resemblance to Dean Cain.

I’ve known him for over a decade and trained at Ronin for three years before moving to Oakland this past July.  I made it a point to visit him today for a little catch-up,  a private lesson focused on fine-tuning pin escapes, and some rolling.  I left the session with a valuable framework and strategy for escaping various incarnations of the pin.  Techniques are essential ingredients, but having a framework accelerates learning, retention, and application.  As Christian put it, if techniques are puzzle pieces, then the framework is the completed puzzle picture on the box, which allows one to see how everything is supposed to fit, reveals gaps, and provides hints for closing those gaps.

Overall Framework and Strategy for Pin Escapes

Once stapled to the mat and cross-faced, everything becomes exponentially more difficult.  Thus, the strategy consists of moving dynamically so as to never have one’s hips flat on the mat and defending the cross-face at all costs.

To defend the cross face, establish a thumbless grip on the bicep/bend of the opponent’s cross-facing arm with your near arm.  The far arm then establishes a secondary frame with the right forearm digging into the opponent’s arm pit of the cross-facing arm.

To prevent being “stapled” to the mat, avoid having your hips flat on the mat.  Endeavor to stay on your side, with the foot of your top leg placed behind you at such an angle so as to prevent your opponent from pushing your top shoulder to the mat.  Your foot’s connection to the mat and angle with respect to your opponent reinforces the frame and inhibits their ability to flatten you out.  The foot on the ground is key and is the power behind the frame.  See the video below from 0:22 to 0:55 for an illustration of this principle.

Once these things are in place, elbow placement can be the key to escaping.  When an opponent is trying to impose a pin, whether cross-side, kesagatame, or an untrained headlock, the escape begins with you tucking the near elbow close to your body, with the aim being to establish a frame against your opponent’s hips, and in certain cases, trying to get your elbow to the mat.

Christian emphasized an additional strategic element  for me because he would like to see me exhibit more assertiveness on the mat and mount counter offensives in the course of an escape.  He recommended I focus on getting to my knees instead of always opting to replace guard.

Pin Escape Technical Concepts

What follows are notes meant to jog my memory and will thus fall short of being instructive in many instances.  However, I hope that some of the key details will be valuable.

Schoolyard Bully Headlock Series

  • The progression begins with an attempt at getting your hips adjacent to theirs and inserting an overhook with your top leg.
  • Sometimes, this first hook allows you to initiate the escape by pulling on their leg with your hook, turning your hips down and pushing with the toes of the other foot, posting, and driving the opponent’s head in the direction where they do not have base.
  • Other times, the person’s far, second leg is spread out in such a fashion so as to distribute the person’s weight evenly and preventing a loss of balance.  In this situation, you will have to overhook this second leg after establishing the initial hook, pulling it back until you compromise the opponent’s base and can take their back.
  • There will be times where your opponent runs away from your attempts at overhooking.  In these instances, begin to move in the opposite direction.  This creates the gap into which the opponent unwittingly falls into when you scissor your legs, go flat on your stomach, and pull him/her to the mat.
  • There may be times, especially when the opponent is very strong or is holding on for dear life that even with hip connection, and an overhooked top leg, it may feel difficult to come to the back.  In these cases, you must slide your second, non-hooking leg between their outstretched legs, which facilitates your getting under their center of gravity, and bridge to reverse the position.

Key points:

  • I thought I knew how to utilize the frame on the opponent’s jaw when in side mount position after reversing and coming on top to force them into releasing the headlock.  Tip: Instead of pushing on their jaw by outstretching your arms, maintain the distance in the frame from your forearm to your chest and rather lean the entire weight of your body onto the contact point with your opponent’s jaw.  Pushing on the jaw with your arms employs strength inefficiently.  Using the entire body on one fragile part of the body is much more efficient.
  • When inserting the hook for the escape, Christian recommends bringing your own knee to your shoulder and establishing the hook from this entry point as opposed to just throwing your leg over in an arcing fashion.

Kesa-gatame Escape

  • To prevent having the trapped arm put into a lock, look for your opposite hand and establish a strong grip/hug either low on the opponent’s waist or high up by their armpit.
  • Once this is established, walk your hips quickly until they are right up against the back of your opponent’s hips.
  • The bridge escape has two distinct phases.  The objective of the first is to bridge with the objective of having your opponent’s head land at your “1:30.”  Once here, the opponent should feel very light, and you complete the bridge to the side.
  • If the opponent’s reaction is to base with their arm, take advantage of the release of your arm to bring it close to your body, elbow in, and firm frame connected to your opponent’s hip.  Now, other escapes are possible.

Interesting note:

  • Christian showed me a variation of the Kesa-gatame hold that is very, very difficult to escape from.  The variation comes in how the bottom person’s arm is trapped.

Escape from Cross Side Pin Where Opponent’s Hips Are Facing You.

  • As with all pin escapes, tuck your elbow in and establish a frame against their hips.  The opposite arm posts or stiff-arms the opponent’s top arm at the bicep/bend.
  • Instead of bridging or shrimping, move your hips away from your opponent in an arc.  This creates a gap that will disrupt the top person’s balance, causing a) them to fall back to the mat, reversing positions, or b) causing them to change their hips to account for the shift in balance, which opens up possibilities for other pin escapes.

Key point:

  • Beware not to get your arm dragged across your opponent’s body and caught in the armbar pictured below.

Getting to the Knees

When you’ve established your frame, you can facilitate getting to your knees by withdrawing your bottom shoulder.  See the video below starting at 4:14 for an application of this principle.

Closing Thoughts on the Private

I cannot recommend Christian and his team enough. (Erik Ryerson, a brown belt, is also a resident gi specialist.)   He is one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable instructors I have come across.  If you are or will be in New York, I highly encourage you to check out a class at Ronin and/or reach out to him for a private session.  You can get information on the new location (they are moving) and more by emailing

Odds & Ends

The Gracie Diet Phase-In // Update

I am strong into the second week of The Gracie Diet phase-in.  Here are some observations so far:

  • While, physically, it has been increasingly easier to wait 4.5 hours between meals (especially with coconut water), it has proven to be challenging to coordinate lunch or dinner plans with friends or loved ones.
  • I am also avoiding desserts and sodas, which is the focus of the 2nd week of the phase-in.  This has not been as hard as I thought it might be during the Christmas season.
  • I am posting a photo of my dinner from last night at Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village.  While my dinner is not Gracie compliant (next week, when I focus on avoiding two starches in any meal, this would be a no-no), it is characteristic of the great food to be found there.  Many of the options served at Caracas would be Gracie compliant.  What’s more, the staff is friendly and warm.  The only drawback is that it is always packed (even, it seems, after a blizzard), which sometimes makes for a long wait.  Otherwise, go check them out!!!

Plato Pabellon: Ropa vieja, white rice, black beans, maduros, and cotija cheese. The plate on the right is the arepa version, which my friend Sol had.

The Photo That Didn’t Make It

Christian tried to take a “serious” photo to convey his toughness.  Judge for yourself.  It’s hard to play tough when you are one of the nicest guys around.

Verne, brown belt under Eduardo Rocha, is funny.  Funny in a way that relaxes his audience just enough so that the lesson sinks in without diluting the teachable moment.  In comparing the hip movement needed for a bow-and-arrow choke, he promptly got on the mat and broke out some old school (and admittedly rusty) b-boying.  We all laughed.  But, when the laughing died down and I went back to perform more reps, voila – I understood the underlying hip movement. Verne is that kind of funny.

His best line came while teaching the basic lapel choke from the back.  A few reps into it, he could tell from our grimacing faces that many of us were applying the choke as a trachea choke.  In fact, had he not said anything, I never would have realized that the choke is actually meant to be a blood choke (or to be more precise, a strangulation.)  The casual practitioner might wonder, well, what’s the difference?  Both elicit the tap.  His answer was this: If you’re a choke snob, you best believe the difference matters. We all laughed some more, but then it made sense.

If jiujitsu is at the foremost about technique, then such a nuance matters deeply.  Case in point.

Verne told the story of some police officers he knew and trained with who had been practicing the rear naked choke as a restraining technique to use when confronted by belligerent drunks on the weekends.  Tragically, what was actually being practiced was a trachea choke where the forearm directly crosses the throat.  One weekend, an unfortunate fellow who couldn’t hold his liquor was picked up for disturbing the peace, and when he became aggressive with the cops, one officer used the technique he had learned to subdue him and promptly place him in the drunk tank.  Later, the man died.  He had suffered a damaged trachea from the choke, and it swelled and the man suffocated.  Nuances matter.  A seasoned jiujitsu practitioner with sound fundamentals presumably has the choice of applying the rear naked as a strangulation or as a trachea choke, depending on the severity and context of the situation.  An unschooled person, or a person not sufficiently schooled, does not.

In Rorion Gracie’s old Gracie Academy tapes, he asserts the power of jiujitsu to empower the practitioner with the choice of selecting the level of violence proportionate to the situation at hand.  While life isn’t always so cut and dry, it is for this reason that I’m choosing the path of being a choke snob.  In fact, I intend to be an arm bar snob, a leg lock snob, and an all around jiujitsu snob.  The small details really do matter.

[The technical concept entries are going to be my way of remembering key principles from my classes.]

Physics dictates that what goes up will eventually come down because of gravity.  This applies to escapes from the cross side position.  Often, I bridge straight up and down.  What ends up happening is that the person, especially if they’re heavy, is lifted up by my hips, but falls straight back down, and I’m back to square one.

With the bridge motion taught today, the key is to bridge laterally, so the person is lifted at an angle away from you.  When I hip away, elbow to bottom knee to form a frame, he or she will have a lot more space to make up, in addition to lacking the straight line back to the center of my chest that has always plagued my escapes.