Best Moves to Learn

It’s been roughly 12 months since I learned the “arm-bar escape.” The reason I had learned this was I was consistently getting arm-barred in sparring, and even in our in-house tournament that year, I lost a few matches to arm-bar. So I asked one of the coaches how to escape. He showed me a couple, one stacking the attacker and the other doing a kind of Homer Simpson type escape, basically turning on your side until you escape the arm-bar:


Since that time I’ve gotten arm-barred a lot less. I still get arm-barred, but the frequency isn’t what it once was. And let’s be honest, if  a white belt could defend all arm-bar attempts after learning “one simple move” then BJJ wouldn’t be a super effective martial art.

This past week one of my readers asked me to do a blog post about the 10 most important moves to learn, from a white belt’s perspective.  I’ve thought about this off and on since he asked. For the most part, I’ve been hesitant to discuss moves on this blog.  In part because there are great resources online (like the Mendes brothers, Galvao’s site) or DVDs you can buy that will have high level guys demonstrating moves. Plus I’m a white belt, so my knowledge of moves is super basic, and honestly, at this point, isn’t something that hasn’t already been covered over and over again.

But then I started thinking about the arm-bar escape that I learned a year ago, and how the number of times I’ve dropped to arm-bar has gone down and I reconsidered.  I don’t have 10, but here are some of the best moves I’ve found to learn in my short 18 month journey.


Elbows In

This is the real reason I’ve been getting caught with fewer arm bars. Yes, I learned how to do a couple arm-bar escapes, and every once in a while I’ll escape an arm-bar attempt. But the difficult part of doing the arm-bar escape is that I have to hit it faster than my opponent can hit the submission. It’s like in the old westerns when they’d step out of the saloon and see who could draw their weapon faster. And to be honest, the guy attempting the submission has an advantage because they know it’s coming.

So instead of trying to execute a perfect escape, I’ve focused on not giving them an arm in the first place. Now, like I said above, I’m not at 0% taps to arm-bars. Because sometimes I have to defend a choke or defend a knee mount, or I get sloppy when I’m escaping something else, or sometimes my opponent tricks me and I willingly give up the arm.  But by far, my focus on keeping my elbows in has helped a ton.

Protect Your Neck

Or as one of my teammates says “Wu Tang.”  Which isn’t actually all that helpful, because it will make me think of 1 of 2 things, either Cash Rules Everything Around Me or that “I bomb atomically, Socrates philosophies and hy-poth-o-ses can’t define how I be droppin these mockeries, lyrically perform armed robberies, flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me.” And honestly, if I’m thinking about lyrics during a match, I’m probably not doing a very good job in my BJJ.

But in all seriousness, protecting your neck is one of the most important moves you can have. It’s very easy to get distracted (at least for me) and lose focus that my neck is exposed. Thankfully, I roll with some really nice guys that are super eager to teach me to protect my neck. They do this by choking me every chance they get.  I’ve had guys have back control and start messing with their legs, I’ll lose focus and address that, and then all of a sudden there’s an arm across my throat. Two weeks ago I had someone knee mount and as I tried to defend that I was caught with a baseball choke.

Back Off the Mat

The first two moves listed lead directly to submissions. If you give up your arm or leave your neck exposed, you will most likely be submitted. This one is a bit more subtle than that. If your back is flat on the mat you’re going to have a hard time doing much of anything. If your opponent is on top, he’ll have 2 sides of your body to attack. If he’s in side control, he has a much higher chance of gaining a better position if you’re just hanging out laying flat on your back.

Additionally, if you’re on your flat on your back your ability to do a sweep is much smaller. Your ability to escape is also severely limited. Part of that is just physics. If your back is flat on the mat, there is more of your surface area, more surface area equals higher friction, higher friction means more work for you to escape. If instead, you’re on your side, it’s easier to shrimp out. If you’re not laying flat on your back, you have a better position to perform a sweep. Your hips are more mobile and will let you set up an arm-bar or triangle choke.

Teeter-Totter Rock

I don’t know if all gyms call it this or not, but we call it teeter-totter rocking. Basically, imagine you’re in guard, and you’re just rucking back and forth, basically on the small of your back. That is, your back is curved in a convex fashion and you’re a rocking horse, or a teeter-totter.  Why is this an important move? For one, it can off-balance your opponent. Much like trying to bridge while your opponent has mount will keep them off balance, so will rocking while you’re on the bottom.

But it also has the advantage of keeping you moving. How hard is it to steer when your car isn’t moving? It’s pretty hard, especially if your power steering is out. But once a car is in motion, it becomes much easier to get it to turn. The same principle is true here. How are you going to sweep your opponent, or get into a position to perform a triangle choke? If you are going from dead still to full exertion, you’ll never pull it off. But if you’re already moving, adjusting that movement is much easier.

Final Thoughts

Of the four moves listed, I’d say that for me, they are listed in easiest to hardest. I struggle to keep moving on the bottom. I find myself being flattened out more times than I’d like. I’m not incredibly proficient at any of them, really, but I think I’m better at keeping my arms in and protecting my neck than I am at moving.

Also note that for me, none of these moves involve attacking. That’s how I think of BJJ. I don’t know that I’m the one who came up with this, or if I read it somewhere else (I think it might actually be a Saul Ribiero thing.) But when it comes to sparring, my progression is:

  1. Survive
  2. Defend
  3. Attack
  4. Submit

That is, first things first I want to survive. If that means that you’re doing just about everything you want, but I’m not tapping, then it’s a good day (relatively speaking.) After I feel like I’m surviving, I’ll move to defending. That means, I know I’m safe where I’m at, so I will not let you put your hand there, or your knee where you want it. I will break grips etc. Once I’m sure I’m adequately defending this attack, THEN I will try to attack you. That means I’ll be looking for a better position, or moving myself to where I want to be, only then will I look for the submission.

So how might a match with me go? We start on our knees, and perhaps I try to get past your legs, and I fail. You hook my foot and start to move into side control. I immediately do what I need to survive. Elbows in and hands protecting my neck. I realize that I’m safe, and so as you continue your pass, I check your knee, or I pull your hand off of my sleeve. I start to shrimp away and get to my guard. I have now successfully survived and defended. I’m ready to attack. So maybe I go for a sweep and wind up in side control or mount. I’m starting to enforce my will against you. Once I’m in a good position, I will start looking for a submission.  But when you’re chucking my legs to the side and trying to get to side control, the last thing on my mind is “How do I submit this guy.”

So since that is my philosophy of doing BJJ right now, it makes sense why the 4 best moves I can think of have almost nothing to do with submitting someone. In order to submit someone, I have to still be awake and with no broken bones. To do that, I need to keep my elbows in, protect my neck, keep my back off the mat, and teeter totter rock.