Ground Techniques

How to Improve Your Success Rate in Applying Submissions

If you’re a regular reader, you already know that my focus in the martial arts is primarily self-defense oriented. That being said, I do enjoy training skills that are more oriented towards competition, like ground grappling skills. Because so many people do it, I can’t afford ignore this phenomenon as a self-defense instructor. You have to learn what they do so you can better understand how to defend against it.

A visiting Shorinji Kan Shodan asked me for tips on improving his ability to complete a submission when doing ground grappling. I like these kinds of questions because it gives me the chance to focus on fine tuning the overall approach rather than just demonstrating the basic application. These days, anyone can piece together how to do submissions from the myriad submission grappling videos all over the Web, but this doesn’t teach you the finer points that helps you actually complete these moves against a live, resisting opponent. Ultimately, it all boils down to 3 basics. (more…)

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Muscle Memory & Confusion for Building Technical Ability & Strength

My last two posts addressed Muscle Memory and Its Role in Self-Defense, as well as 4 Factors that Affect Muscle Memory Development. This week, I’ll be discussing how muscle memory and muscle confusion work into martial arts training regimes to build technique and strength.

Warm-ups are not only used to get the body warm to prevent injury. They also help develop body movements, and strengthen the body, to help students improve their performance of the techniques learned in class. To this end, I try to work in movements that relate to the techniques I plan to teach later in the class to develop both strength and technique.

If I’m running a ground defense class, I’ll use shrimping, bridging and rolling and/or turtling as part of our warm-up. These movements not only develop strength, they develop the students’ technique in movements that apply directly to ground defense. By having these drills, students get to work on their muscle memory as they warm up and build strength. (*Be sure to check out all the ground defense drills I teach in my new ground defense book!)

Here is a video of me doing these drills:

These are just examples from my ground warm-up, but these principles can be applied to any other aspect of martial arts training. If you’re working punches, try doing punching with hand weights or resistance bands as part of your strength training. If you’re working on kicks, try doing isometric leg training by going through the movements of your kicks slowly and holding your leg out in the extended position. If you’re working on throws, try throwing a heavy bag or weighted throwing dummy. Breakfall training also strengthens the body and prepares you for being thrown. If you’re going to be sparring or you’ll be taking hits to the body for some other reason, do a medicine ball ab toss to strengthen the muscles you use to absorb hits(see video below).

Muscle Confusion for Further Development

After a while, students get very comfortable doing strength training exercises like the ones shown above. And that’s good because if it’s in their muscle memory, they’re more likely to use it on the street when it counts. That being said, if students are to continue to develop their muscle strength/endurance, they can’t just keep doing the same strength training drills all the time. Muscle memory makes people more efficient at doing the movements, using less efforts for the same results. This is a hindrance for muscular development. That’s why I like to switch things up and do movements that are not natural and are not trained often. This leads to “muscle confusion”. When the muscles aren’t use to a movement, they tend to exert themselves much more so to make the action happen. This in turn helps develop muscle strength and endurance.

Below is a video of another drill I like to throw in to my ground defense warm-up. I uses the same core muscles that are important on the ground, but using movements that are counter-intuitive to the way the body naturally moves. Basically, you swing your arms and legs in opposite directions while lifting your hips, causing you to move across the floor. Even if you don’t manage to move much, it’s still a great ab workout. The embedded version is a little cut off, see the full size version here).

How about you? Do you have any special exercises in your pocket that you like to use to develop your skills (or confuse your muscles)? Please share them in the comments. 🙂

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5 Rules of Street-Oriented Ground Defense

I was recently asked what my general rules that I apply to all ground defense (for street application as opposed to sport). It’s pretty straight forward. I’ve laid them out in this post.

Rule #1: Protect your head and neck. If an attacker is trying to immobilize their victim and eliminate their defensive capabilities, the most dangerous targets are the head and neck. While defending from the ground, the forearms should be kept up close to the head (when possible) to protect it and the chin should be tucked with the shoulders raised to prevent strangulation.

Rule #2: Keep your elbows and knees tucked close. On the ground, an attacker will try to immobilize your limbs to keep you from fighting back. When your arms are straight and spread out away from your body, they are easier to control. If your attacker knows joint lock submissions, they will more easily be able to apply them too. Keeping your elbows tucked close to your body prevents this and also allows you to use them to protect your head and neck. Keeping your knees bent allows you to kick out and hides your kicking reach.

Rule #3: Create and use space. When defending from the ground, the more space you have the better. This is particularly important when your attacker has the size/strength advantage. Space opens up more defensive options. Use whatever attacks to vulnerable targets you can, in combination with whatever body shifting you can manage to create more space. Then use the extra space to apply more powerful defenses. Another good use of space is to try and ward off an attacker with kicks and takedowns from the ground before they get on top of you.

Rule #4: Watch out for other hazards.
The ground can present a number of hazards that you need to watch out for as you defend yourself. The attacker may produce and use a concealed weapon. If you see them reach back for something, assume it is a weapon and take the necessary measures to defend yourself. You also have to watch out for environmental hazards like glass or other debris/obstacles on the ground that could cause you harm.

Rule 5: Get off the ground! The ground is a dangerous place to be (See my article on the dangers of ground defense). You greatly increase your ability to protect yourself and escape by getting off the ground as soon as you have the opportunity to safely do so. As such, all defenses should end with the student getting back to their feet.

For more information about practical, street-oriented ground defense, check out Lori O’Connell Sensei’s book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground.

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Can-Ryu Ground Defense Concepts Applied

In the past few weeks, I discussed the updated ground defense system that I developed for my style, Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu. In my post “Fundamentals of Can-Ryu Ground Defense,” I explained how we use a combination of attacks to vital targets and body shifting manoeuvres. The body shifting was demonstrated in more detail, complete with video in my post, “Body Shifting from the Underside of a Ground Attack.” Since then I’ve had a number of readers request that I demonstrate applications in more detail through video.

In the video below, I demonstrate a few different applications of Can-ryu ground defense concepts. These applications are really only the barest surface scratch of the myriad ways our ground defense concepts can be applied. I perform them at an instructive speed with a compliant partner so you can better see what I’m doing, but in practice it can be applied more dynamically and at greater speeds with no prior knowledge of how the attacks will shift and change. For more video footage and advice on ground defense, check out my new book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground. Enjoy!

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Body Shifting from the Underside of a Ground Attack

There are 3 types of body shifting I emphasize as part of the overall strategies I teach for defending from the underside of a ground attack. These, in combination with attacks to your attacker’s vital targets, are designed to be used by anyone regardless of size. They are adaptable and can be used interchangeably depending on the way the nature of the attack changes throughout its course. These body shifting methods include: bridging & rolling, shrimping and turtling.

When first introducing these movements to students, I like to have them do it dry, without an attacker (as in the video below), so they can learn the movements. They can also be incorporated into the warm-up for any ground defense or ground grappling class. They get the blood pumping, they strengthen core muscle groups, and it helps them improve their technique. These and other useful ground strength/technique drills can also be found in my new book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense.

In my next posts, I’ll show how these are applied.

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Fundamentals of Can-Ryu Ground Defense

I am happy to report that the ground defense principles I proposed over the weekend were well-received. They were considered to embody the 4 tenets of Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu and are therefore being incorporated into what we teach for ground defense.

As discussed in my last post, I discussed the idea of moving away from set defenses against specific ground attacks to apply a system of defense that is more flexible to different body types and the adaptive nature of ground attacks. And of course, the goal, as always in ground defense, is to get to your feet and get away. The system of defense is based in the idea of combining two strategies. They are as follows.

1. Body Shifting. When defending on the ground, you shift and move your body in ways that will give you an improved tactical position from which to fight back. If you’re defending against a standing attacker who is trying to kick your head or get on top of you, you shift your body in ways that will keep your feet towards your attacker so you can kick them as they come in. If you’re under someone on the ground, you use bridging & rolling, shrimping, etc. to off balance the attacker and/or create opportunities to strike.

2. Vital Targets. Body shifting alone is not enough, especially when you’re dealing with a much larger attacker. Striking, grabbing, squeezing, or applying pressure to vital targets can help you create space, off balance/distract an attacker, thereby giving you opportunities to use body shifting to create more space and escape.

These strategies can be used interchangeably as ground attack changes in nature. In some situations, body shifting may be enough on its own to create an avenue of escape. In others, you might have to attack a vital target first in order to employ body shifting effectively. Or in yet another situation, you might only be able to use body shifting enough to improve your position but not get away. In this case, you might have to attack a vital target to create enough space to use additional body shifting to get away.

The idea is that it’s a flexible system that is highly adaptable. While it may be necessary at first to introduce the concepts with set attacks and defenses, the goal is to quickly move forward into adaptive attacks and adaptive defenses. These concepts are explained in a lot more detail in my new book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense.

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Moving Away from Set Defenses from Specific Ground Attacks

As many of you know, I am presenting my ideas at a black belt class this Sunday for an updated approach to Can-ryu ground defense for use in street situations (not sport-oriented). My suggested approach is to encompass the 4 tenets of Can-ryu.

Over the past few months, I’ve devoted considerable time and energy to challenging traditional ways ground defense has been handled, in addition to challenging my own ideas and concepts. One of the main differences between the old approach and the new approach I’ve been working on involves a shift in the paradigm.

The old approach, like many other more traditional styles of Jiu-jitsu (as opposed to BJJ) involved learning a set of defense against a specific attack on the ground with a compliant uke. There are two main problems with this approach.

1. Different body types.
A defender’s body type, as well as the body type of the attacker being dealt with, heavily influences the effectiveness of different types of defenses. What works easily for one body type or against one body type may be completely useless for a different set of body types.

2. The quick-changing nature of ground attacks. Your proximity to your attacker is very close in a ground defense situation. Also, in many cases, more of your body is confined. This means that the attacker can feel your resistance and respond to it quicker than he or she might other types of attacks.

The new paradigm I am working with involves teaching a set of concepts and skills that can be combined and used in a wide variety of ground attack scenarios. The students then learn how best to apply them using their own unique body types. Because the new paradigm is more focused on learning to apply a set of concepts and skills more broadly, it also leaves more room for adaptation to variable attacks based on the way the attacker reacts to the initial defense.

As far as teaching goes, you can start from specific positions and compliant ukes so that students can learn the foundations, but ultimately, you want them to quickly move beyond these types of static attacks so they can have a more adaptable approach that is specific to the student’s own body type. This approach is covered in much greater detail in my book When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense.

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How Good Are Your Perceptions Skills?

It is amazing to see the difference that good perception makes when it comes to martial arts and self-defense. People with greater perception are able to see openings that others are not able to detect.

Try the following perception test and see how good yours is:


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How to Grapple When There is a Major Size Difference

Over the weekend, Chris, Jon and I headed over to Vancouver Island and did some training at Ari Bolden Sensei’s dojo 10th Planet Jiu-jitsu Victoria. This was a great opportunity to work on our ground grappling with guys who dedicated most of their training time to developing these skills, as well as a few who cross-train between Japanese Jiu-jitsu and BJJ.

Part of the package though, was that all the people who trained the two days we were there were considerably bigger than me. They ranged between 185 and 220 lbs (50 – 85 lbs heavier than me). When you grapple with someone with whom there is this big a size difference (and potentially a big difference in muscle mass if the pair is a woman and a man) your approach to training must be different for safety’s sake.

Sure, if the smaller person is significantly more skilled than the larger, it is possible to dominate or even tap their partner out. But, if the two people are of equal skill or the larger person is more skilled, the difference in weight and strength in most cases will make it even easier for the larger person to dominate.

So here is my advice on how to approach your grappling when there is a big size difference, starting with my suggestions for the larger person.

For the Larger of the Pair: This is a great opportunity for you to work on your technique. When working with a smaller person, you should strive to relax and take all your strength out of the equation, focusing on developing better positional strategy and improving the technical application of your submissions. It’s true that your weight will still give you an edge if you’re doing what you’re supposed to in terms of positional strategy. But, when you’re breaking holds, applying submissions, or doing positional transitions, you should try not to just muscle your way through. This leads to a much greater risk that you could accidentally injure your much smaller partner, plus you really don’t improve your grappling from the experience.

For the Smaller of the Pair:
If the larger person you’re grappling is of equal or greater skill, you’re not as likely to tap them out (though if the opportunity presents itself, of course, attempt it). So instead, focus on developing your defensive strategies. Because you’re smaller, your technical defense must be that much better to make up the difference. Be sure to communicate with your partner as you grapple. Tap early and tap often, especially if you find they are using their strength. You will probably lose a strength battle if it comes down to it, and it isn’t worth risking injury. And if you are more skilled than the person you’re rolling with, help your partner with their technique. Stop the action when you see that they’re using strength and show them a more technical option. People often use strength simply because they don’t know any better, so it is in both your interests if you help him or her. Check out the video in this blog post in which BJJ brown belt (then a purple belt) Jennifer Weintz does this very skillfully.

Of course, you aren’t likely to end up grappling someone so much bigger than you in competition, but remember, if you face an attacker on the street you can’t count on things being equal on the size front. So as you grapple, try to recognize what other tools you have that can be added to improve your likelihood of getting off the ground should you be in this situation on the street. Here is a post a wrote about useful striking targets on the ground for self-defense.

As for me, I want to thank the guys at 10th Planet Victoria. They were all very good about not using their strength to get the better of me and I was able to safely roll with them and learn from the experience. For more detailed advice on grappling with different sized training partners, check out my book When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense.

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JJJ vs. BJJ: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Ari Bolden Sensei, president of the Jiu-jitsu BC Society and owner of 10th Planet Jiu-jitsu Victoria (both a BJJ & a Japanese Jiu-jitsu school), recently expressed his frustration at the many grapplers/ MMA-ers out there who give him attitude about Japanese styles of Jiu-jitsu. He wrote an article called “Understanding Japanese Jiu-jitsu” about it on I hope lots and lots of people read his article and broaden their minds on the topic.

“The problem with the majority of the public is that they don’t understand the principles behind Japanese JuJutsu because all they see are BJJ schools or grappling in a MMA setting,” Bolden says.

It’s true. Sadly, self-defense doesn’t compete against grappling styles in a world in which more value is placed on things featured in public arenas. But just because the capitalist world isn’t rewarding self-defense oriented dojos doesn’t mean they provide nothing of value.

I know there are a lot of grapplers/ MMA-ers who are more enlightened and open-minded, but I can tell you from moderating my blog that there are a lot of squeaky wheels out there and many of the ones with whom I’ve come in contact on my blog are from that subset of martial artists. I can understand where the attitude comes from. These are people who measure a martial art’s worth by its effectiveness in the ring, however, there is no safe public forum for measuring a martial art’s street effectiveness.

“Make sure you know what you are taking and WHY you are taking it!” Bolden suggests at the close of his article. “If you think that all you need is spinning back kicks in a real fight you’ll be toast pretty quick when a real fight comes your way. If you want to study GI BJJ and want to compete-GREAT! If you want to study PURE self defense-AWESOME. But remember, doing well in one medium (the ring/mat) doesn’t mean it will translate well into another arena (the street). The same goes for JJJ stylists who think they can roll around with BJJ BB and come out on top playing the BJJ player’s game.”

Well put, Ari. If we all just lose the ignorant, pretentious attitudes and realize we are all just on our own paths of self-actualization, no matter what we’re studying, the martial arts world will be a better place. One in which we can all learn from each other.

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