Saturday, May 10, 2008

Leverage in BJJ

Leverage. I have heard the boast from many martial arts, including BJJ that they/we use leverage, not strength to do whatever we/they do.

But after John's recent seminar, talking about general vague words that we use but don't really know the meaning behind, like experience, control, I wanted to really look into this claim, and what it means. Especially for BJJ, is there an overall theory or thought behind this claim? Or is it anecdotal, referring to a submission here, and a sweep there. Fortunately or unfortunately, sitting on my butt for 16 hours in a car on a bumpy road gave me lots of time to think about it.

When we think of leverage, we think of levers, and the most common thoughts spring to mind, well for me its mostly rocks and sticks....
... and pulleys
But an overall concept or theory on leverage for BJJ? Ultimately when someone talks about leverage, they are talking about using minimum effort for maximum effect. In a martial arts sense, generally we are talking about ways of controlling/moving/effecting someone whereby a smaller person can do so to a bigger guy with minimum effort.

Leverage is about using levers. Medically, there are many levers in the body. But in a BJJ context, we are mainly talking about the levers on the skeleton. The primary lever is the spine, from the top of your head to the tailbone, and the 2 major levers the shoulders and the hips. The purpose of the shoulders and the hips are to control the spine.

This concept carries through to the minor levers too. So for example, the tarsals control the tibia & fibula, which controls the femur, which in turn controls the hips, which ultimately controls the spine.

Similarly, the carpels control the ulna & radius, which controls the humerous, which controls the shoulder, which again ultimately controls the spine.

*yawn* ok that was boring, and I won't go into the 3 classes of levers in each case I will give, so this is the gist of the theory. When we say we use leverage, what we mean is we control the spine, and thus control the whole body using the levers that I have mentioned.

More specifically for BJJ, we use leverage to bring an opponent to the ground and to control him/her there. That is the emphasis of our game.


There are quite a number of martial arts that use leverage to control and throw their opponent. When you bend the spine, the person is off balance. And while many theories are banded out on how to get an opponent off balance, the gist of it is they manipulate the levers to bend the spine, and while the opponent is off balance, finish off their opponent.

As a quick disclaimer, I know that the other arts I will mention below have different emphasis on what they do, and why their throws etc works, for example the judokas teach kuzushi with an emphasis on the making an opponent make a step, but as a uniform concept, I want to concentrate on how all those things ultimately manipulate the spine, which makes the throw/takedown happen.


A direct manipulation of the top of the spine is used in clinches to the head. Other martial arts like Muay Thai and Greco Roman wrestling, and to a lesser extent judo too use clinching to control the spine. Once the spine is bent, the opponent is thrown or elbowed/kneed.


As stated earlier, when you manipulate the shoulders sufficiently you will be manipulating the spine as well. This sets up many throws

Many Judo throws are set up with manipulation of the shoulders. If you look at the concept of kuzushi (unbalancing), with any typical judo grip on the gi, a manipulation of the shoulders is the primary motion, whereby the spine is bent making the opponent off balance and forced to shift his weight or step to re-balance. This off course is followed up by a hip throw (which is an attack of the hip levers), leg trip etc. But the act of moving the shoulders made the entry.
Similarly in Greco-roman wrestling, many over and under hook grips are primarily to manipulate the shoulders. If you manipulate one shoulder higher than the other, the opponent is off balanced, and a throw happens, whether by the unbalancing itself, or with an addition of a hip throw like in judo, or leg attack.

An aikidoka too manipulates the shoulders. Using wristlocks, the pain induced together with generally a circular sidestep, the practitioner will throw the opponent exactly when the opponent's one shoulder is moved in front of the other.


All hip throws and high leg takedowns, whether single or double legs, are about making the hips move. The moment the hips are no longer centered, the opponent is thrown/taken down.

All lower leg trips or low leg takedowns indirectly affect the hips via the minor levers.

On Knees

For the BJJer, in training we often times start head to head, on our knees or initiating guard. Here are a few basic ways we BJJers manipulate the levers.


One way to manipulate the spine is by moving to the side of our opponent's head, and driving with our whole body, oft times blocking the far knee. Another way is by grabbing the opponent in a Thai clinch, and pulling the head down and sideways while ourselves driving forwards.

There are examples of the opponent moving their spine themselves, letting us take advantage of the movement at the precise moment they are off balance.

An interesting example my instructor John Will showed me years ago is a sweep Dave Meyer used to do. In guard, with both feet on opponent's hips, arms grabbing their knees, wait for the opponent to move his head. The instant it moves, extend your own hips and pull the knees for a sweep.

I have used a variation of this, but in closed guard. Similarly, I wait for when my opponent moves his head, at that instant pulling my legs forwards and then kicking out sideways, similar to a flower sweep but with legs still closed. I reckon 70% success rate for me. Not bad considering it is a no risk sweep, my guard is still closed, and my hands free to choke or do whatever I want.


Besides under-overhook attacks, the easiest way that I use is just to pull one shoulder down while pushing the other shoulder back, whilst driving forwards. Works on even the biggest opponent. Another example of this is using the spider guard. Using one foot on the shoulder or bicep, you push that shoulder behind your opponent's head, while pulling the other arm deep into your guard twisting him sideways, leaving him is off balanced, and swept.


Many sweeps from the guard are a manipulation of the hips to bend the spine. Any sweep where you move the hips, whether scissoring with your legs, using hooks, tangling their legs or simply pushing the hips, most of these sweeps will include pulling of their top body whether pulling the opponent's gi or arms using your arms. Thats basically describing 90+% of all guard sweeps there.

On the ground

All these tactics from standup or on the knees, the goal is to take someone to the ground and establish a dominant top position. In fact, in BJJ terms, perfect control on the ground is the ability to hold your opponent down completely helpless, and the only reason they can move is that you allow them to move into some submission or better position. This is a goal of wrestling and judo as well.

When controlling someone while on top in a control position, we aim to ensure that both ends of the spine, both the shoulders and both sides of the hips are pinned into the ground. When an opponent tries to lift one shoulder, or move their hips to one side, control is retained by pinning it back to the ground. This way, a smaller guy can pin a bigger guy indefinitely as long as he can feel the shift in movement, and put his weight on the lever that is being lifted off the ground.


There you go, my uniform theory of leverage for BJJ. The goal is to bring your opponent to the ground, and keep them there, and from there setting up your submission.

This is done either by being super strong, or if not by using the levers on your opponent's body to manipulate the throw/takedown, and then furthermore using the same levers to keep them there.

Sam Wee is the head instructor for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at the KDT Academy (, Malaysia and has been teaching BJJ since 2003. 

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