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Choosing a BJJ Gym?

37 year-old, no-stripe white belt with zero martial arts background here. I’m just over two months in to BJJ and loving all aspects of it so far. That said, I’m beginning to have doubts about the gym I’m currently at and I’d greatly appreciate the opinions of those more experienced than me.

  1. Sport or self-defense? My instructor seems knowledgeable about both topics, but he seems to jump from one to the other during class. Usually the self defense aspect is tossed on at the end. For example, we are shown how to do a double-under back control escape, and then at the end he’ll say “if it was self defense make sure to dig your shoulder into his face”, but we don’t drill that way. Is this normal or should the emphasis be on one or the other?

  2. Belt significance. I’m a helluva lot bigger and stronger than anyone in the class, which obviously matters, but I kinda feel like I should be getting dominated by senior blue belts and higher. I’m getting a lot of 5 minute draws right now. I tapped a stout purple belt last night with an armbar. Only the black belt instructor makes me feel like I’m drowning with no hope of swimming, and the only other person I’m tapping to regularly is a senior blue belt. Belt promotions seem to be done subjectively, but they definitely aren’t just handed out. I’m told two years to blue belt for most people. There are no exams that I am aware of. Is this a sign of a gym being casual or is this pretty typical for the BJJ world?

  3. Casual vs. competitor. Everyone at my current gym definitely trains hard, but nobody competes in MMA and I don’t think anyone has any significant competitive accomplishments. I’m not necessarily looking to compete, but I also want to be as productive as I can with my training time. Is this a sign of a casual BJJ environment?

  4. My options. There’s only two other gyms that are remotely feasible for me. One is a local place that has a kind of “Cobra Kai” reputation. I’m unsure if that is deserved or not, but it does have active MMA fighters training and instructing there. I plan on dropping in for a class to check it out. The other gym is a long drive and would require me to change work hours slightly, but the instructor has a stellar local reputation, competed in pro MMA and his lineage goes from his instructor right to Renzo Gracie.

A student from that school dropped into one of our classes a few weeks ago, asked a question of the instructor and, after giving the answer, my instructor said “jiu jitsu is jiu jitsu”. Is it though?

Like I said, I’m absolutely enjoying everything about what I’m doing right now, but the doubts about the quality of my gym have crept into my head. My instructor has a solid lineage, getting his black belt from an old-school guy named Marcelo Alonso. He can absolutely destroy me, and it is clear there is a LOT I can learn from the guy.

What I’m not sure of is if I could be learning BJJ better somewhere else. Any opinions, insights or shared experiences would be most appreciated.

Thanks for taking the time to read!

Only way to find out is go. 2 years to blue, if that’s avg, sounds a tad fast to me.

Sounds like a decent instructor with a small talent pool. Good competition, especially if your big and not being put in deep water because of that, can make a big difference

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As a Thai guy, only thing I thought was wrong about Cobra Kai was his students hesitation to sweep the leg…didn’t equip them with a hard enough mindset :wink:

Combat training gives you what you put in. If it’s an MMA gym full of fighters, there are propably times in that gym people are knocking the shit out of each other. But u control your participation, so that’s not really dangerous if your not too awkward to refuse. But the opportunity to deal with real situations gives you the oppurtunity to conquer them and learn…and injuries, etc. Double edged sword.

If your an older lifter, learning, have enough competition that it can get u to the level YOU ARE LOOKING FOR, and your shits not getting ripped, changing that could result in more damage/injury for an increased level of skill thT may not suit your lifestyle.


My personal opinions:

  1. Although Gracie/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu began as a mostly Self Defense oriented art, there are actually 3 versions of BJJ; a Self Defense version, an MMA/Vale Tudo version, and a sport BJJ/submission grappling version.

With the explosion of the sport of BJJ/submission grappling worldwide there has developed a large market for offering classes pertaining to such. Likewise, MMA has also grown significantly in terms of popularity and exposure and thus there is also a pretty big market for offering BJJ classes that translate to MMA.

It seems that the aspect of BJJ that is least addressed these days is the Self Defense aspect and in fact many schools never teach any of it (or if they do, it’s an after/passing thought). There is an ongoing effort on the part of people like Rickson, Pedro Sauer, and Rener/Ryron to revive the Self Defense aspect of BJJ, but since there is really no single universal “standard” for what is taught, instructors are free to teach what they want to/feel will bring in (and keep) the most students into their classes.

So, it’s not that uncommon that your instructor mostly focuses on the more sportive applications. It doesn’t necessarily reflect his knowledge base or efficacy as a BJJ instructor, just perhaps signifies that he either feels that doing/teaching the way he does is the best way to keep his school going, or perhaps that he is more knowledgeable in the sportive aspects (which again, doesn’t signify that he isn’t a “good” BJJ instructor).

  1. Some schools have structured requirements for belt promotions, others don’t; again, there is no universal standard.

It’s also important to understand that you can’t really judge everyone by the exact same standards. For instance, let’s say you have a 50 year old professional man who has a full time career, some nagging injuries, and is not particularly athletic and a 20 year old HW Division 1 NCAA All American wrestler who start at the same time. Do you really think that the 50 year old is going to be tapping/keeping pace with the wrestler at any point in their BJJ career? No, they’re most likely not and you cannot really expect that 50 year old to keep pace with the 20 year old (unless maybe the 20 year old stops doing any athletics for the rest of their life and the 50 year old religiously attends classes and does everything in their power to get as good as they possibly can; then maybe in a pure Gi BJJ context they might catch the wrestler at some point).

You also have to take into account injuries/physical limitations, sex/gender, and just plain natural abilities/talent. Even though BJJ prides itself on its effectiveness, anyone who tries to tell you that attributes don’t still greatly affect the outcome and experience of any grappling match is flat out lying to you. Yes, skill can potentially make up for or even turn the tide in the favor of the physically inferior individual, but the discrepancy is going to have to be much bigger than if it were two equally physically matched foes.

And don’t worry too much about it only taking 2 years to get to Blue Belt; Blue Belt does not generally represent any great accomplishment in terms of skill gained, it generally just means that you pretty much look like you have some idea of what to do when rolling and aren’t just spazzing around when on the mat, have some idea what to do in the common positions (both offensively and defensively) and prop have a few subs that you have gained some level of proficiency with. If it was 2 years to Purple Belt, then I’d say to be concerned.

  1. As contradictory as it seems to what I said in point 1, most people are not interested in competing. Most people who do BJJ actually just enjoy the art, want to get in some exercise to help them stay in shape, enjoy the self improvement and community. My head BJJ instructor actually ran an open BJJ poll not too long ago and competition was actually towards the bottom of the list of priorities (when all answers were tallied up). Yes, there are people who enjoy it and want to pursue it, but they are in the majority as far as the entire BJJ community goes.

And, just to note, my instructor is a former World Champion, Multiple time NAGA champ, has won multiple other competitions, is Glover Texieria’s BJJ coach, and has quite a few very successful competitors (in both MMA and Submission Grappling/BJJ) who train under him, so I would definitely not classify him or his school as “casual”.

  1. Whether you choose to change gyms is going to come down to whether you feel that you are getting what you want out of the school you are currently training at. Just like not every car is going to “fit” every individual who test drives it, not every BJJ school/instructor is going to “fit” every student who tries out the classes.

Staying where you are not happy just for the sake of “loyalty”, while perhaps admirable from an integrity standpoint, will in the end only wind up creating resentment and is unlikely to end up seeing you stay for the long haul.

So, I say try out the other school if you think those other logistical changes are feasible and see how it “feels” to you. If it’s a better fit, then switch gyms. If not, at least you’ll know that the “grass isn’t greener” over there and you will likely be more at peace with your decision to train at your current school.

Finally, your instructor is correct in that Jiu-Jitsu is Jiu-Jitsu from the standpoint that the same principles underly all grappling arts (be that Japanese Ryu’s, Judo, Sambo, Small Circle, all Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, etc…). The differences make up the “art” portion of all Martial Arts and that is where all the variation in terms of exactly how techniques are executed, to preferences of subs/escapes/passes/etc…, to strategies, to Belt requirements, to “priority of techniques” based on chosen arenas of application,etc…

Hope this helps. Good luck.


@Sentoguy @coplan Thank you both for the thoughtful and well-written replies! You both gave me a lot to think about.

I think I am guilty of over-thinking things, and perhaps I’ve attached an unearned mystique to middle belt ranks in BJJ. I certainly don’t want to give myself too much credit for being a mildly athletic guy with a 600+ deadlift and an 60-100 pound weight advantage over most of my sparring partners. Those guys all whooped my ass the first month, which is a credit to them, their training and to the art of BJJ.

I’m going to drop in the local MMA gym in a few weeks just to get a taste of what it is like. It is more convenient for me, but I chose my current gym on the recommendation of my lifting partner. I’ve decided that the “elite” gym is out, as it would just take too much time out of my life to make it happen. After giving it some reflection, there is a lot of good things going for me at my current gym.

It is a small gym in rural Maine, so classes are small. Anywhere from 4-10 students most of the time. I actually get to roll with the black belt almost every night, sometimes more than once. I get a lot of attention during drills too. I’m also learning a lot, having a good time and generally fulfilling what I had hoped to get out of BJJ. Everybody is so chill, its really easy to hang out with these people for 90 minutes and choke the shit out of each other.

I might like a little more self-defense, but my instructor will ALWAYS answer my questions, which are sometimes very specific. Besides, I’ve worked as a part-time bouncer for the last year and a half and I’ve always managed to produce good outcomes there when I’m working without having the benefit of martial arts training. I’ve also got a fair bit of firearms training and live in a constitutional carry state with the lowest crime in the country, so it is not like I’m in some crisis of personal safety.

Upon further reflection, I think I was falling into a “program hopping” mindset, to steal a term from lifting. I don’t think it is good to have too many doubts about what you’re doing, always thinking something better can be found around the corner. I’ve got a good instructor who can destroy me, and a handful of training partners who like rolling with me, and I probably fit in better rolling with bankers, nurses, carpenters and electricians than going to mix it up with the MMA guys. Besides, I can always drop in those gyms if I want to have a go with the top guys from the area.

Again, thank you both for taking the time to help me think this through.