Jan 18

Josh Vogel talks about the fusion of movement and jiu-jitsu

Intro by Ken

The following is a guest post by Josh Vogel. He’s a black belt under the Migliarese brothers, a Level 2 Certified Movnat coach, and a Level 1 Kettlebell Athletics coach. And in addition to that he’s also a contributor to Breaking Muscle and the author of the Sloth Report.

In this post, he’s going to share in his insights on how movement practice can contribute to excellence in our art. Why would he do that? Well, I asked him to.

I respect the fact that he has never lost the desire to learn even as he has had significant accomplishments in our art. Almost all the time, he’s exploring new disciplines and thinking of ways to apply those lessons back to Jiu-jitsu. That process is the key to great creativity, and within Jiu-jitsu, there are few black belts that have explored movement practice to the level that he has.

Enter Josh

I’m pretty psyched to see movement training getting more popular right now. Ido Portal’s work with Connor McGregor and Erwan Lecorre’s work with Carlos Condit have gotten people in the MMA and BJJ worlds to really take notice of what’s going on in the movement community.

Naturally there are misconceptions which people have in both communities, this is unavoidable, but overall the attention is a good thing I think.

The article I was asked to write was a description of the specific ways movement training has improved my BJJ practice. The second I put finger to keyboard, I was stumped. Not because I can’t think of ways, but because there are so many ways. It’s a hard article to write without making it so generic as to be indistinguishable from every other “what yoga and BJJ have in common” or “boost your BJJ with ankle weight training” article out there.

I felt including technical stuff, like how crawling relates to guard passing, or specific joint mobility work wouldn’t really explain anything about the Movement world and would just further current misconceptions.

Besides, the real gold I’ve gotten from this training has been philosophical and conceptual in nature. Ideas are powerful.

I am focusing this article on three basic concepts I commonly see in the movement community, regardless of the method you practice. My hope is to use these concepts to illustrate some of the perspectives I have gained in training with various Movement teachers and how this has influenced my practice and teaching in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

I won’t presume to speak for these people, but I’ll do my best to share some of the things I have gleaned from them both directly and indirectly.

The reason I am focusing on concepts first is I think the philosophy you have shapes all of the actions you take in any form of training. If you are starting from a self defense perspective in BJJ, then the techniques you choose, the way you train and the people you train with will all reflect this.

Approaching BJJ from another perspective will take you in a different direction. In learning from various Movement teachers, I have learned to look at everything I do, including Bjj, through a different lens which has changed the way I approach my Bjj training, teaching and practice.

CONCEPT 1: Generalist vs Specialist

Try to think of movement in a general sense…the full spectrum of human movement. This encompasses everything from dance to skateboarding to BJJ to bowling.

Soften your vision and see the forest rather than focusing on the individual trees. From this broad perspective, BJJ is one part of human movement and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the forest. It feels kind of cheesy to put it this way, but bear with me, it’s in my nature to say this sort of stuff.

But how can we really practice such a broad topic?

It’s impossible to become a truly great dancer, gymnast, judo player, boxer, bowler, traceur all at the same time. The cliched phrase “jack of all trades and master of none” springs to mind and….that’s bad, right? I don’t think it is. This is where the generalist vs specialist concept emerges.

If you use MMA as an example of the generalist concept in martial arts, this might make more sense. There is the overall goal of winning a competitive match and being skillful enough in the major areas a fight can go so there are no glaring gaps in your game. You can play in most of the areas you might end up.

The MMA athlete learns elements of a striking art, a clinching/throwing art and a ground fighting art. This is the technical base. From this base (I mean base in the sense of highly recommended skills to have), some athletes choose to explore more unorthodox arts, tactics and strategies.

Some choose to dig deeply into their base and keep things relatively simple. But by nature, MMA fighters are generalist fighters, competent enough in every phase of a bout without being overly specialized in any one area. If you focus too much of your energy in one area, you become vulnerable in other areas. Not only that, but every thing you learn from specialists in individual arts passes through a filter of what is useful for MMA.

The generalist draws from the specialist and keeps what makes sense in his world.

CONCEPT 2: Blurring the borders between arts

Similarly, movement generalists seek to become well rounded, competent movers without over specializing in any one area. Most movement methods or systems advocate developing a general “base” of ability (strength, mobility/flexibility, etc…) which will allow them to play freely in most activities. A mover who can run, jump, dance, fight, climb.

What can you take from this video and apply to your guard passing, positional adjustments, escapes? The small micro movements and adjustments of the feet alone are amazing! Here’s one way to apply this:

This generalist concept is the first thing which changed the way I view BJJ and was of benefit to my practice. When you think from a broad perspective, you are constantly blurring the borders between arts. The border around BJJ becomes porous and inspiration then can seep in from any place. If you cook Mexican food and you only live within the box of Mexican cooking, there are fairly specific limits to what you learn.

When you start looking at Japanese food and Italian food, you start to expand your horizons and find solutions to problems you didn’t even know existed. You learn new techniques of cooking with foreign utensils, different ways to use flavors, new perspectives which influence and breathe fresh life into things you have cooked a million times before.

I told you, I go overboard with the analogies. I should also mention, my knowledge of cooking is less than stellar so I may be talking out of my ass.

A simple example: In BJJ, there are all kinds of demands placed on the body in rolling and injuries happen when the body is insufficiently prepared for these demands. There is no organized way of preparing the body in BJJ culture for these demands besides the vague advice to “stretch” , “take a yoga class” or “do a warm up”.

In some styles of dance, gymnastics and some sports, this is not the case at all and they have well defined practices to prepare the body (wholly, or the parts relevant) for the demands of the activity. Practices to reduce injury and improve longevity. So if we soften our eyes and let the lines blur between bjj and dance or gymnastics, we can borrow some important technology which can help us remain healthy.

We can blur with the world of strength training to understand how to improve a variety of aspects of our practice, stronger grips being just one example. Take from the world of motor learning to learn how to better structure drilling and sparring sessions. Draw from the world of parkour to expand our concept of self defense (everyone says to “run” and “get away” but no one talks about how to do this and how to navigate obstacles which might be in our way).

Just as interesting, once we start to look from a generalist perspective, we start to examine how we can bring useful technology from BJJ to other areas.

How can the “drill,positional spar, roll/full spar” model apply to rock climbing, or acrobatics, for example? Can we apply BJJ techniques (sweeps, for example) to dance, or two person hand to hand balancing?

There are even a number of parkour teachers borrowing elements of martial arts break falling to help their students practice more safely!

CONCEPT 3: Educating the body

In coming from a generalist perspective, you are naturally exposed to a variety of movement patterns. An infinite amount of ways to move your torso, arms, legs, face, everything.

Each new thing you practice influences the rest of your practices. A drop of rock climbing influences the way you grip and pull in BJJ. Experience in BJJ can influence and educate the way you move in Muay Thai practice (particularly clinching).

When you first learn Jiu-jitsu, one of the things you will notice is how difficult it is to move your legs and feet with control and precision. You struggle to put your foot in the right spot, meanwhile the purple belt next to you looks like she could perform open heart surgery with her feet.

The problem is this: When you start training, your legs, hips and feet are educated to do the things which they have practiced doing. For most people this is walking, running, getting out of bed or sitting on the toilet. If you were athletic growing up, you may have a larger repertoire including handling a soccer ball, or swimming. But Jiujitsu is interesting in that you are using your legs in ways which, at an intermediate level, are completely foreign to most people.

The technical vocabulary the lower body uses in BJJ is vast and well developed because not only do we drill technique, but we deepen and expand our vocabulary through consistent sparring. It’s not so different than learning language. We learn our alphabet, words, sentences, grammatical structures but learn on a deeper level when we test our knowledge in conversation, argument, debate. So the process of educating your legs begins.

Watch BJ Penn’s leg work here. Bear in mind that while it’s just a friendly roll, and they weren’t going super hard, Viera was one of the best competitive guard passers in the world around this time.

I have used this example of educating the legs for years, but attending seminars with Ido Portal’s crew woke me up to the idea that this should apply to every body part. This is related to the blurring the borders concept in some ways.

BJJ people typically educate their legs and hips beautifully, developing a broad vocabulary of movements, but not necessarily their necks, shoulders or upper torso (in some cases).

Dancers of various types educate much of their bodies almost more than anyone, but the most obvious examples would be the variety of things they can do with their torsos and feet. Musicians develop an amazing vocabulary and fluency of movement with their fingers and hands, but not necessarily with other parts of their bodies.

I found in my own practice, in seeking to educate my entire body through increasing the strength and range of motion of my joints as well as the repertoire of movement styles I’m capable of, I become more capable in a number of ways:

  1. I have significantly more control and awareness of my body when it is taken out of it’s usual position. This is helpful for escaping tricky situations, avoiding injury and taking advantage of openings which might not otherwise be feasible. I feel like this is particularly useful during those undefined scramble moments where I have to improvise an answer to a crazy problem on the fly.
  2. By using technology from other arts and systems to strengthen and expand the range of motion of my joints (what people usually call “mobility work”) , I open up not only the repertoire of BJJ techniques available to me, but the versatility with which I can use the techniques already in my arsenal.

A video I was requested to make of my morning joint mobility routine. Check the video description for good info about how to perform this, who to learn more from and what to read.

So, in some cases, when I hear one of my students say they cannot perform a hitch hiker escape because they lack the shoulder mobility, or they cannot resist an x guard sweep because their hips cannot open enough to save their balance I know which tools to use which can sometimes help solve these problems and unlock these closed doors.

In adding to already existing technique, with an expanded movement repertoire, I can perform something like a knee cut pass and close off more space than before by having more control and mobility of my scapulae, neck and spine. Or more effectively angle my shoulder and neck while passing guard to defend a guillotine without having to use my hands.

My hope with this article was to get some simple but potent ideas across while avoiding my tendency to go nuts with over writing. I’m not claiming expertise in this movement work, but I’ve dug around in this world for the last 6 years or so, so I think I have some reasonable insight here. These are my interpretations and mutations of ideas I’ve got in working with some great teachers both in person and through their writings. I highly recommend you check out these folks to learn from, read about, research and watch endless videos of:

  • Frank Forencich. I have not met Frank, but his books are excellent and he does not get nearly enough credit for the amount of influence his ideas have had on this community, in my opinion.
  • Ido Portal and crew. I have not worked directly with Ido, but his students John Sapinoso, Odelia Goldschmidt, Summer O’black, Joseph Bartz, Zach Finer.
  • Andreo Spina.
  • Jason C Brown
  • Dewey Nielsen.
  • Erwan Lecorre. I have mot met him, but I’ve had the pleasure of learning from his students Clifton Harski and Kellen Milad.
  • Rafe Kelley.


Dec 27

It’s all about the fundamentals of the art

Jiu-jitsu Fundamentals

Listen: I’m a conceptual learner, and one thing I realized early is that technique is formed from fusing concept and movement.

That seems like such a simple idea. In fact, you’re probably saying, “ahh, that’s obvious”. For me though, it was revolutionary. It changed how I thought about technique. And it had a significant effect on how I learned the art.

Now the process of taking that idea and transforming it into a system of education. And I’m going to share some of the milestones in that journey with you starting with this post.

First though, let’s step back and answer a few questions.

What are the Fundamentals of Jiu-jitsu

Concepts. Movements. That’s it.

There’s a difference between common technique and fundamental knowledge. It’s sometimes hard to see that difference, but it does, indeed, exist.

There’s this idea that certain techniques like the armbar from closed guard or the cross choke from mount are fundamental. They’re not. They’re common. There’s a difference.

They have been in the art for so long that it’s likely that they will be taught early. You’re also more likely to have them attempted on you early. But students struggle with learning them all the time. They each have many steps and many variations.

They also require movements that aren’t common.

Why Does the Concept Matter

The concept is the why.

When you learn any technique, ask yourself why does it work. Answering that question will reveal the concept. And just so this doesn’t stay too general, I’ll give you a quick example.

Why does the armbar work?

Well, someone realized at some point (in the very distant past) that there was a limit to the mobility of the arm. Taking it past that point (hyper-extension) caused damage. And they also realized leverage can be used to generate significant force without significant strength. That was the beginning.

From there, details were added:

  • The Principle of the Thumb – The thumb always points in the opposite direction of the back of the elbow, so the thumb can be used a compass to tell you where to apply pressure.
  • Closed Chain – If the wrist or shoulder is mobile, it is possible to change the position of the elbow and minimize the threat of the submission. So both the wrist and shoulder must be immobilized in order to ensure the finish.
  • Triggers of Vulnerability – Whenever there is space between the elbow and the ribs, there is opportunity to isolate and attack the arm.

That’s a brief summary of the principles that form the foundation of the armbar. And the applications are countless. Once you understand why it works, you can make it work in numerous ways. Hell, I find ways to do new armbars all the time, just from knowing the concept.

How Does Movement Effect Learning Speed

If you break down a significant amount of technique into their individual components, you’ll notice that certain movements are repeated often. Those movements can be hard to learn as a beginner (because Jiu-jitsu is unlike anything they’ve ever done).

For example, I’ve seen students struggle at all ages with the basic movements like the forward roll, backward roll and shrimp (that’s why I changed how I teach them). I’ve also seen students struggle hard with doing the basic armbar from closed guard. They’ve seen it. They know how it should look. But they haven’t taught their bodies how to move in that way yet.

Movement limits their ability to perform technique.

I remember once I had a student say something that upset me. After struggling with a technique, he said, “Man, I’m just not good at this”. Whoa. It was like his second day in class, and he was already judging himself and his ability to learn. It saddens me when I see that because I know it’s not true.

The movement can be learned. The art can be mastered. And anyone can do it if they have the right mindset.

Focusing on the Jiu-jitsu Fundamentals

I consider the starting point of Jiu-jitsu to be a concept. Specifically, the concept of positions. It’s the idea that certain positions hold inherent advantages. That’s why I’ve been focusing on the positional hierarchy lately at Randori. Understanding it is important. It gives you a framework for making sense of Jiu-jitsu.

And here’s a simplified version. It’s stripped down to bare essentials.

Simplified Positional Hierarchy

  • Rear Mount (Top = Dominant / Bottom = Vulnerable)
  • Mount (Top = Dominant / Bottom = Vulnerable)
  • Side Control (Top = Dominant / Bottom = Vulnerable)
  • Guard (Top = Neutral / Bottom = Neutral )
  • Standing (Neutral)

From that, you can create specific learning objectives that leave room for diversity. It acknowledges the fact that different people have different attributes, and what may be easy for one person will not be easy for another.

Learning Objectives

  • Rear Mount
    • Top
      • Submission
      • Positional Control
      • Transition
    • Bottom
      • Escape
      • Defensive Posture
  • Mount
    • Top
      • Submission
      • Positional Control
      • Transition
    • Bottom
      • Escape
      • Defensive Posture
  • Side Control
    • Top
      • Submission
      • Positional Control
      • Transition
    • Bottom
      • Escape
      • Defensive Posture
  • Guard
    • Top
      • Submission
      • Positional Control
      • Pass
    • Bottom
      • Submission
      • Positional Control
      • Sweep
      • Backtake
  • Standing
    • Grip Fighting
    • Takedown
    • Guard Pull

If you learn at least one technique that fulfills each one of those objectives, you will have a strong foundation in Jiu-jitsu.

It will also help you to think about the technique as a fusion of concepts and movements. That way you’ll not only learn technique, but you’ll also develop your fundamental knowledge.

That will speed up your progress.


Dec 14

Picking up steam as the rock rolls down the hill

At a certain time, and in a place far from here, a man stood in front of a massive pillar of concrete. It towered high into the sky. Immense. Heavy. Immovable.

But he had to do the impossible. The tower had to fall, and he had to be the one to do it, no assistance allowed. There was a gun to his head. Do or die. But how?

With his current strength, there was no way to even budge that much weight. Straining against it would have accomplished nothing, but there were variables in the situation that weren’t apparent at first glance.

In addition to the pillar of concrete that towered into the sky, there was another one right next to it. It was different though. Smaller. Lighter. And then next to that, there was yet another and another and another. Each smaller and lighter than the one before it.

Once he noticed that, a small seed of an idea starting to form in his mind and he ran until he found smallest and lightest of the pillars. He pushed against it, and it MOVED. Whoa! What if? His eyes drifted back to the largest pillar, the immovable object, with a smile on his face.

There was now a possibility of success.

And he seized it by pushing the smallest pillar with all his might. As it toppled over, it crashed into the pillar next to it, toppling that one over as well, which crashed into the next one. And so it went. Each time more force was generated, until a pillar finally struck the last one. The sound was loud, and the force was enormous.

And as the largest pillar toppled over, it was like watching a giant fall in slow motion. And when it hit the ground, dust flew, the earth shook, and tremors were felt far and wide.

What’s the Significance of the Story

This story is a dramatic way of telling you about a physics experiment. And when I saw it, I immediately thought of the power of the smallest step forward in achieving any goal.

Of all the massive goals that exist in Jiu-jitsu, reaching black belt is the most universal desire. And it’s not something that can be achieved easily or effortlessly. Thousands upon thousands of small almost insignificant steps are required to achieve that goal, and many fail along the way for numerous reasons.

Black belt is that massive pillar.

And in order to topple it, you have to start with one step and then build momentum until one day you look back and can’t believe all that you’ve achieved.

The Smallest Step Forward

The first step is effortless. It’s something that you’ve already accomplished. You went out. You found a reputable gym. You contacted them. You visited. And you tried a class.

It was easy. Not everyone takes that step though even if they desire to learn. They hesitate. They have excuses. I know because I once did. I trained at Evolve Academy for almost a year before I finally convinced myself to try Jiu-jitsu. Now I wish that I had started earlier.

Momentum Builds

In that first class, you learned a bit, and then promptly forgot most of it. No worries though. At that moment you started the journey towards mastery, and you’ve already completed the most important step. Starting.

Once you’ve begun, it becomes easier to take the next step and the next after that. The momentum you build by continuing to take small steps forward like showing up to class, drilling technique, and taking notes starts to create a domino effect. And consistent effort is what determines how far you will go in the journey.

Other Applications

There are also specific ways that you can use that focus to develop aspects of your game.

Imagine this.

One day, you walk into class, and your instructor is showing a technique that blows your mind. It seems like something far outside of your ability. You try anyway though. It just doesn’t turn out pretty. You’re forgetting steps. Some movements are hard to do. All kinds of problems.

In that case, there is a method you can use to ensure that you’re still improving. Take the technique and break it down into its individual components. Pick one that is easy for you to do, and then just drill that for a moment. Once you have a firm grasp of it, try another step and another and another.

You still may not get the technique perfect that day, but progress has been made. If you continue to work on it, you’ll master it. That’s a certainty because…

Momentum is powerful.

Dec 06

All white belts should know these side control escapes

“I can’t breathe. He’s too heavy. This sucks. I need space.”

All those thoughts and more go through your mind when you’re trapped under side control. It’s rough. Especially when you’re rolling with someone who understands pressure. They know how to make you feel every last bit of discomfort. They know how to make you wish you were somewhere else. And they know to make you tap to pressure alone.

Have you ever been in that situation? Whoa, if you haven’t, it’s only because you haven’t been training long enough. I know because I’ve been there more times than I can count.

It’s Not A Fun Place To Be

You want to escape. Hell, you want to do more than just escape. You want to do it easily and effortlessly. You want people to start believing that you simply can’t be held down.

Wouldn’t that be great?

When you get to that level of ability, that’s when you really start to have fun. It’ll mean that you’ll be able to try out all of those new and fancy techniques because you won’t be concerned about getting passed. That’ll allow you to truly explore the art and discover where you want to focus.

So You Should Escape

Listen: the title of this post promised you 4 effective side control escapes. And you’re going to get them below. It will even include added details and conceptual focus.

These escapes will give you a firm foundation for escaping the position once it’s been established (the hardest thing to do). You’re going to have to drill them though. It’s going to take time, but it’s worth it. In fact, it’s a better investment for your time than learning any advanced technique.

Hell, I wish I had spent more time drilling side control escapes when I was a white belt. Because being able to escape bad positions gives you freedom.

Essential Elements for the Side Control Escapes

Every last one of these escapes require two things. One, you must create space. And two, you must move within the space you create. Those two essential elements is what we are going to focus on in this quick review of technique.

Escape #1

  • The elbow frame against the hips will help you maintain space once you create it. Without it, escape will not be easy.
  • Rolling the head will help you create space. The body always follows where the head leads, and when you move someone’s head, their body will naturally follow.
  • The bridge and shrimp are used to create more space, and you have to move back in while that space is still present.

Escape #2

  • The elbow frame serves the same purpose here.
  • Space is created by stepping away and rotating your hips towards your opponent. This reduces the flexibility requirements for your leg, and give you another space to weave the foot inside.

Escape #3

  • Rolling their shoulder towards you will create a small pocket of space and shift their weight slightly over you. It’s a small detail, but it works.
  • Bridge towards your opponent. That creates space, and it allows you to bring the arm that was framed against their hips under their body.
  • Use both arms to scoop yourself out as you roll. This movement should only be done while you’re elevated. You must create space and then move within that space.

Escape #4

  • This time, you pull their shoulder away from you to maintain space. The constant pull will make it hard for them to follow you once you start moving yourself.
  • Lifting one shoulder and then the other, as you walk backwards will help you create space. That movement is otherwise known as the shoulder crawl, and it has broad applications.

I didn’t outline the techniques as I have done in the past. But these little elements are things that you can focus on and apply elsewhere. For the actual techniques, watch the video and go drill. Being able to escape from side control is liberating, and you can never get good enough at the basics.

Essential Elements for Side Control Escapes

Oh, and let me know if this was helpful. I’m also willing to do requests.

Nov 21

Three basic armbar drills that must be learned

Every technique begins with movement.

And even the most basic technique isn’t always easily learned. It takes time to develop the correct movement because Jiu-jitsu is so different than most common activities. That’s the reason why drills exist.

They allow us to isolate specific movements and repeat them over and over again until they’re mastered. That’s the true basis of excellence when it comes to Jiu-jitsu. Master the movement, and the world opens up to you. You can start playing, and that’s incredibly fun.

Armbar Drills for White Belts

If you’ve started Jiu-jitsu recently, and you don’t know the three armbar drills in the video below, it’s time to rectify that.  They each teach you specific movements that are necessary for the future of your development.

So study the video right now, and we’ll break it down afterward.

First Drill

This is the most common drill, but it’s common for a reason. It works, and you will benefit from mastering it.

  • In the drill, the first step is to post both hands on the shoulder, surrounding the arm you want to attack.
  • Use that post to elevate yourself so that you can rotate into S Mount, with one knee pressed against their ear and the other knee pressed against their armpit.
  • Lean slightly towards their hips while keeping your knees pinched tight. That will shift your weight off of the leg closest to their head, making it light enough to easily move.
  • Slowly slide the leg that was pressed against their ear over the head and pinch your knees tight.
  • Fall back into the finish position, and then disengage to reset back to mount.

Second Drill

This armbar drill is less common, but it really complements the first drill extremely well. Add it to your arsenal, if it’s not already there.

  • Your partner is going to defend the armbar by clasping their hands in some fashion.
  • Grab the sleeve or elbow of their far arm and pull it towards you with the hand that is closest to their hips. Your goal is to make that arm immobile.
  • Plant your other hand on the mat. That’s your post. It’ll help you keep balance as you make your next transition.
  • Rotate your hips across their chest. If done right, it should place you in S Mount on the other side of their body.
  • From there, lean towards their hips, and bring your top leg (the one pressed against their ear) over their head, before falling back into the finish position.
  • Release and let them defend again.

Third Drill

The armbar from closed guard is fundamental in Jiu-jitsu, but the transition to the arm can be difficult to learn. I’ve seen so many students struggle with it, but once you simplify it by taking out the hand grips, it becomes easier to learn. That’s the purpose of this drill.

  • The key to the drill is tight transition. At all times, you must keep control of their arm using only your legs.
  • That starts with the first step. Place one foot on their hip, and immediately pinch that knee against the back of their arm.
  • Bridge off their hip, which will elevate your hips and increase your control of their arm.
  • Straight your other leg and rotate it high into their armpit, before clamping down to immobilize their upper body.
  • Slide your first leg in front of their face, pinch your knees, and lift your hips for the imaginary finish.
  • Reset back to closed guard.

So with that, you’re able to see the drills in action, listen to an explanation, and read a written breakdown. Whew, that’s a lot, right.

Now it’s all up to you. Go out, grab someone and master the movements.