BJJ for Self-Defense: Good or Bad?

Is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Good for Self-Defense_

When I started BJJ, I wondered if it would be good for self-defense. After a few years of training now, I’ve put together this article to share what I’ve observed to answer whether or not BJJ is effective for self-defense.

BJJ is good for self-defense because it uses practical hands-on training from day one, including drills and live rolling. So students become confident using techniques against real force and resistance from a real attacker. BJJ also teaches grappling techniques to defend yourself against strikes.

There’s a lot of talk about whether or not BJJ is an effective martial art for self-defense – or whether it’s only effective against other BJJ people. The truth is, BJJ can be very effective for self-defense and offers many benefits for someone when in a self-defense situation.

Let’s break it down.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • The top 4 benefits of BJJ for self-defense
  • A video case study of BJJ working in a real-life self-defense situation
  • Some limitations of BJJ to be aware of in self-defense

1: BJJ Gives Hands-On Experience in Training from Day One

When a new student of BJJ walks into their first class, they will first be shown the basics of BJJ before then being able to start safely practicing the techniques they’ve been taught on their training partner. This means getting hands-on experience from day one of training.

This may not seem like a big deal, or it may even seem obvious that in order to really learn a martial art and be effective with it, you need to get real-life hands-on experience. But in some forms of martial arts, new students may go months before they’re allowed to start practicing what they’ve learnt on other students. This means they’re left training against an imaginary theoretical threat – which just doesn’t translate over to the real world of self-defense.

For someone to truly be able to effectively use a martial art in a real street situation, it requires them to regularly put their skills to the test during training. This does not mean you need to compete at a high level in order to be effective, in fact the major benefit of BJJ is that you don’t need to compete to still get real-life experience. This is because during sparring (called rolling in BJJ) you can go 100% – using maximum effort and resistance on a regular basis – and therefore, get all the benefits of competing.

Rolling with your training partner is enough to refine your techniques and increase your strength for a real-world opponent. This is because rolling puts you in a real-world situation – and emulates the same kind of stress and resistance you would experience. Meaning you’re able to get comfortable in this uncomfortable situation, you’re able to still think clearly and you’re able to still effectively apply your techniques.

If martial arts training is mainly focused on punching into the air against imaginary attackers, then the benefits that real-life hands-on training offers, are lost.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy”

The above saying means that you can have all the best plans in the world – but once the sh-t hits the fan and the fight begins, it all goes out the window. Martial arts training, with no real-life hands-on experience in the form of sparring or rolling – is the same as having plans based on how you would (in theory) fight off an imaginary enemy.

Training needs to be hands-on, as real as you can get it, from day one – in order to be able to survive in a real-life self-defense situation. Which is exactly what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offers.

2: BJJ Enables Training with 100% Force – With Less Risk of Head Trauma

The second benefit of BJJ, is you can train at 100% on a regular basis in sparring, but with a lower risk of head trauma.

If training is to be effective – it needs to put you under the same pressure you would be under in a real-life street situation – which means sparring (rolling) with 100% force and resistance against your training partners.

Let’s say as an alternative to BJJ, you started Boxing or Muay Thai and wanted to regularly push your training in order to improve your skills to be prepared for self-defense. This would mean you would need to be sparring as often as possible to keep sharpening your reaction times and reflexes – same as in BJJ.

But this means your training would involve a lot of strikes to the head.

Imagine a beginner in BJJ – like in any martial art they will have massive holes in their knowledge and therefore make lots of mistakes in sparring. In BJJ this leads to getting caught in submissions – and lots of tapping.

Let’s say for example you’re rolling with your training partner and make a mistake which then opens you up to your opponent’s submission – you don’t know the correct escape – and so you tap. No damage has been taken.

Now imagine a beginner in a striking martial art like Boxing or Muay Thai. The beginner doesn’t judge the distance or timing correctly and finds themselves in-range of their opponents strikes – but doesn’t have the correct head movement technique to evade the shots. This leads to lots of strikes to the head from a very early stage of training.

I personally started suffering with a lot of headaches after Muay Thai and Boxing training and so decided to primarily focus on BJJ. Again, this is because BJJ can still offer real-life experience – while still pushing me 100% and prepare me for self-defense – but without receiving continual blows to the head.

3: BJJ Reduces the Risk of Lucky or Unlucky Punches

Imagine for a minute that two people with no martial arts or fighting experience start fighting. Both stood within striking distance of each other, both wildly swinging punches, and neither with any proper technique.

Who would win?

Well, the real answer is – it’s down to complete luck.

We don’t even need to imagine it; we can all see hundreds of examples of it on YouTube. One person is lucky enough to land a punch, and one is unlucky enough to receive the punch.

The truth is that when we’re in stressful situations, we act on instinct (fight or flight) and resort to what we know (or what we have trained for) – and normally swinging wild punches is all we know. But a regular training schedule of BJJ offers a different solution for when you find yourself in a stressful fight or flight situation.  

With BJJ, grappling becomes what you know and what you instinctually resort to. Which means you move forward and close the distance, initiate a clinch, and turn the fight into a grappling match.

By doing so, not only do you give yourself a substantial advantage over an untrained opponent – but you also remove the risk of getting hit with a wild lucky punch.

This distance management is all about knowing at what distance from your opponent that you’ll be safe. This can be better explained by visualizing two green zones and a red zone.

BJJ for self-defense Diagram of the different zones used in BJJ - Green zones and red zone

Green zone 1: At this distance, neither you or your opponent are close enough to each other to land a strike or initiate a clinch. Anything over an arm’s length away from your opponent keeps you safe.

Red zone: At this distance, both you and your opponent are within an arm’s length of each other, meaning either one of you could be hit with strikes. At this distance there is a high risk of getting hit with a lucky punch from your attacker.

Green zone 2: At this distance there is no space between you and your opponent – green zone 2 is hands-on with your attacker, in the clinch – grappling. Now the trained grappler has the advantage.

4: BJJ Enables You to Control the Level of Force Used

The fourth benefit of BJJ for self-defense is it puts you in control of the situation because it enables you to adjust the level of force you chose to use to disarm your attacker.

Let’s say for example you’ve closed the distance, initiated a clinch and taken the fight to the ground – the advantage is now in your hands as the grappler. In a panic to escape, your opponent explodes with all their energy and rolls over, giving up their back – you lock in a choke and start to apply pressure.

Potentially, your overwhelming pressure and control will be enough to subdue your attacker – meaning you can adjust your force and turn down the dial. If your attacker catches a second wind and kicks up another storm, you can turn your force dial right back up, reapply the pressure and wait for them to calm down.

Another reason why adjusting your level of force is important in self-defense, is because it can help to de-escalate the situation.

Again, imagine you’re in a self-defense situation and your objective is to de-escalate and get away to survive. But all you have to defend yourself is a basic understanding of striking.

Then when faced with an attacker in a stressful situation, you resort to what you know and instinctually start wildly throwing punches at them. If you land a punch on them – you’re more likely to make them more angry, fuel their aggression and make the situation worse.

Not being able to adjust your level of force and relying on strikes alone to defend yourself – also puts you at real risk of unintentionally causing serious injury to your attacker – because you have little to no control over the damage your punch could cause to the other person.

Unfortunately, there are loads of examples of people who have been seriously injured or even killed by one single punch.

Breakdown of BJJ working in real life

Here’s an example of all the things we’ve talked about so far being used in a real-life self-defense situation – broken down scene by scene.

BJJ Self-defense diagram of distance management

First, the BJJ guy manages the distance by keeping back from the aggressor and out of the striking distance (Geen zone 1).

The BJJ guy then steps all the way through the red zone as quickly as possible to avoid the strikes and initiates a clinch.

BJJ Self-defense diagram of taking the grappling match to the ground

Once engaged in a grappling match, the BJJ guy takes the fight to the ground where he has a substantial advantage over his untrained opponent because he has been prepared through real-life, hands-on training with 100% force.

BJJ Self-defense diagram of reducing the threat and adjusting the level of force

Once the fight is on the ground and the aggressor has felt the pressure of the BJJ guy, the threat is reduced and the fight is over.

Now, the BJJ guy is able to reduce his level of force and talk to his opponent.

Without a single punch being thrown, the BJJ guy was able to quickly and safely take control of the situation and walk away unharmed.

You can check out the full video on YouTube here.

BJJ Limitations in Self-Defense

Sport Jiu-Jitsu Vs Self-Defense A common debate to hear in the BJJ world is whether or not training for sport Jiu-Jitsu is also good preparation for self-defense.

BJJ training usually takes two forms – one focused on self-defense tactics (like how to avoid strikes) – and the other, focuses purely on the sport of Jiu-Jitsu and prepares you for competition.

Some BJJ schools focus heavily on self-defense training, while others focus mostly on the sport aspect of Jiu-Jitsu. Whether your training is focused on self-defense or on sporting competition, will determine what sort of awareness you will gain (or not gain) to self-defense type scenarios.

Is sport Jiu-Jitsu good for self-defense? Sport Jiu-Jitsu is good for preparing you for self-defense because it teaches you to close the distance and control your opponent with grappling. However, it does have limitations – like not teaching you how to avoid strikes.

If you’re only focus is on sport Jiu-Jitsu and competition, then you may start to form bad habits that in a BJJ competition will not matter, but in the street could put you at risk.

The main issue is the threat from strikes.

In BJJ, there are no strikes allowed, meaning in training (especially sport Jiu-Jitsu training) it is easy to get caught up in all the different sport related complexities, technical transitions and impressive submissions – but to neglect fundamental self-defense principals of how to be aware of – and avoid strikes from your opponent.

“What might work great in a BJJ competition – may put you in more danger in the street”

For more on BJJ vs striking – check out our other article: Does BJJ teach striking?

Multiple Attackers Another very common concern for BJJ vs self-defense is what to do if you’re faced with more than one attacker. It’s a very valid concern – the last thing you want is to close in on one of your attackers and engage in a grappling battle on the ground, but leave the other person to kick and punch you while you’re unable to defend yourself.

This is not to say that BJJ will not still be an advantage to you against two attackers – but it is true that a striking art like Boxing or Muay Thai may be more useful because they enable you to:

  • Stay standing
  • Avoid going to the ground
  • Strike the first attacker and move off on an angle
  • Then strike the second attacker
  • And so on until you’re able to get away

Whereas in BJJ, more than likely when you engage with the first attacker, you’ll go straight to the ground with them – because this is what BJJ trains you to instinctually do.

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