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8 Situations When Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Can Save Your Ass

Here's how to break out of a headlock, escape a choke hold, and evade the worst, according to this practical martial art.
8 Situations When Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Can Save Your Ass

A modernized form of an ancient Japanese martial art, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an ideal martial arts discipline for guys who care about fitness, form, and function. “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu extensively develops muscles in the hands and forearms, back, triceps, and, most of all, the core”—all familiar strength goals for the gym-going guy, says Chris Ulbricht, a black belt under Professor Jared Weiner and the owner and head instructor at Garden State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Red Bank, New Jersey.

And while Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is definitely a formalized martial art, it certainly has practical applications in the real world. Ulbricht trains police officers and bouncers who need to learn non-dangerous control positions and submissions that they can use to stay safe.

“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a style that is designed to allow a smaller fighter to defend themselves against a bigger or stronger opponent using speed, leverage, and timing,” Ulbricht says. 

But as with any martial art, any practitioner must learn, practice, and (only if necessary) apply Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with discipline. “By training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu you are learning techniques that can you can use to kill or permanently injure someone,” Ulbricht says. “It is for this reason that discipline must also be developed alongside just technical and physical conditioning.” 

Furthermore, practitioners are always trained to only deploy their training after they’ve exhausted every other option. “Step one is to always see if you can deescalate or leave a bad situation,” Ulbricht says. “It is paramount that at gun or knife point you always just give an attacker whatever physical possessions they want. No wallet or phone is worth your life.” 

Some final disclaimers: We here at Men’s Fitness absolutely endorse martial arts training for fitness, but we don’t endorse violence. Always train at a well-regarded, reputable school staffed by well-trained experts.

If you get literally knocked off your feet and sent flying backward, your main focus is to break your fall. “It’s impossible to defend yourself if you’re unconscious, so it’s crucial that you protect your head as you hit the ground,” Ulbricht says. 

The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu move to protect yourself in this scenario is the (aptly named) Break Fall, and Ulbricht says it’s one of the most important techniques in the entire discipline. As you fall backward, Ulbricht says, make sure you:

-    Tuck your chin into your chest
-    Tighten up your core
-    Smack the ground with the palms of your hands as you land to minimize the impact on your spine
-    Keep your feet near the ground, because if they fly upwards, it’ll bring your head closer to the ground.

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After you’ve used the Break Fall to cushion a landing, you still need to get back on your feet. (It also comes in handy after a particularly nasty set of crunches.) 

When it comes to getting up and scrambling away from danger, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaches the proper way to get up.

-    From a basic sitting position, prop yourself up on one arm (say, your right arm) with your opposite leg (your left leg, in this case) is folded close to you with your left foot planted, knee facing the ceiling.
-    Plant your left foot and your right arm. Shift your weight, pivot your hips, and bring your right leg underneath you and behind you. 
-    Plant your right foot on the ground behind you, and swivel upright.
-    Keep your left hand up in front of your face throughout the course of the whole movement to deflect strikes.

It may seem complicated but this method is key, Ulbricht says, because if you get up by bringing your hands in front on the ground—you can a) get hit or kicked in the face, or b) get pushed back down to the ground. Having the arm behind you acts as a post to prevent an opponent from keeping you down, like a kickstand.

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If an opponent manages to get close to you while you’re on the ground, you can deploy what’s called a Closed Guard, a strong defensive maneuver that can prevent him from punching you out.

“To put them into closed guard, you’ll wrap your legs around him and cross your feet at the ankles,” Ulbricht says. “Trust me, the awkwardness won’t matter if he’s trying to knock you out.”

From there, Ulbricht says, slip one of your arms under your opponent’s arm, and then wrap another one of your arms over his shoulder. Bring your hands together and put him into a clinch, breaking his posture and removing his punching power.

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Contrary to what your older brother and your crazy uncle might have told you, it’s not impossible to break out when someone's got you in a headlock from behind—all it takes is core strength and some leverage. Here’s how to do it:

-    “First, straighten your back to get your spine in alignment and create a strong posture that will make it difficult for your opponent to pull you to the ground,” Ulbricht says. Be wary of your opponent’s free arm, in case he tries to punch you—use your arm to parry. You can also wrap your other arm behind his back and grab his free arm, limiting his ability to throw a punch.
-    “Next, it’s time to channel your inner John Cena,” Ulbricht says. Perform a squat, making sure to keep your back in its natural strong arc, and grab behind his knees. From this position, Ulbricht says, lift your opponent’s legs off the ground and take him down, using his body to cushion your fall.
-    If your opponent is too heavy to lift, place your foot (the one closer to him) behind his heels and use your bodyweight to fall backwards, cushioning your fall with his body instead of yours.

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The simple bear hug, where an opponent wraps you around the arms from behind, is a favorite of physically dominant dudes who can simply out-size their opponents. Fortunately, a fit guy can get out of this, too. 

-    First, Ulbricht says, get into a good escape posture: Straighten your back and flare your arms to your sides, lifting your opponent’s arms up and giving your torso more room to operate. 
-    If you can, try to squirm against your opponent’s hold, pivoting about 90 degrees so that your body is sideways to him, rather than having your back to his chest. This will free up some extra room in the hold. 
-    Without giving up your balance, crouch and grab behind your opponent’s knees. 
-    Here, you have two options. You can back your foot behind their far foot, and then use your bodyweight and leverage to trip your opponent backwards, using his body to cushion your fall. Alternatively, Ulbricht says, if you have enough power and your opponent isn't too big, you can grip him around the knees, lift him off-balance, and topple him over—you'll fall on him, giving you an opportunity to break his grip.

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“If someone is going to throw punches at you, there’s a high chance that there will be some type of verbal altercation leading up to their physical attack,” Ulbricht points out—and that gives you an opportunity to defuse the situation before things get violent. “It’s important to remain calm, maintain good posture, and keep your hands in a ‘prayer position’ with your hands up and palms together. This will put you in the best position to defend yourself if your opponent attempts a sucker punch during the heat of a verbal dispute.” (For more on breaking up a bad situation before it turns to violence, see How to Break Up A Fight).

If your opponent decides to throw a haymaker (technically called a “hook” in boxing, and informally known as the “drunk-guy-trying-to-fight-you punch” at the bar), here’s what Ulbricht suggests you do: 

-    Duck, then quickly raise your hand closest to the arm he’s punching with (so, if he’s punching with his right, your left arm). Push your hand into his elbow—robbing the punch of a lot of power—and grab his tricep.
-    Move in quickly and, using your other arm, grab him around the back under his other arm. (If he’s punching with his right, use your right arm to grab under his left arm.) “This position gets you too close to them for them to hit you effectively and puts you in a great spot to go for a throw to take them to the ground,” Ulbricht says.

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If someone sneaks up behind you and wraps his arm around your neck while you’re both standing up, you need to act fast—but more importantly, do not panic. “A properly applied or undefended choke can render you unconscious in 8 seconds,” Ulbricht says—so practicing this move is critical.

-    First, get your hands up and around your opponent’s arm. Buying yourself even an inch of breathing room is crucial.
-    Bend your knees and tighten your core so your opponent can’t bend you backwards. “This will take away a lot of their control,” Ulbricht says.
-    Grab your opponent’s arm with both your hands and pull it away from your neck.
-    Then, Ulbricht says, wrap your leg around his leg on the side of the arm he’s using to choke you. Step with your other leg so you and your attacker are facing opposite directions. Do a big kick back, bend forward at the waist, and take him down to the ground. 

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Say someone’s got you grounded on your back, and they’re straddling you, enabling them to punch at your face and mostly preventing you from hitting theirs. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, this is called a “Full Mount.” Here’s how to quickly get out of this situation:

-    Fire your abs and do a hip bump—like a hip raise—as quickly and powerfully as possible. It’ll throw your opponent off his balance, forcing him to bring his hands to the ground so he doesn’t fall over.
-    Once his hands hit the ground, take advantage by swinging one of your arms over his arm, trapping his arm. Bring your other arm up and stick it on his hip.
-    On the same side you’ve trapped his arm, bring up your leg and wrap it over his other leg, trapping his ankle.
-    Now that you’ve got his arm and leg trapped on one side, he’s fundamentally unbalanced, Ulbricht says—like a table missing two legs. Finish the escape by doing another powerful hip raise, rolling him over his trapped limbs and pushing yourself to a sturdy base on your knees.

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