​The Founding Principles of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

Grand Master Helio Gracie was introduced to the Japanese art of Jiu-Jitsu by his brother, Carlos, at such a young age that, as time passed, he no longer remembered many of the techniques in their original form. However, he vividly recalls experiencing great difficulty when he attempted to use the techniques on a larger opponent and, as a result, had to modify nearly everything he had learned to accommodate his frail physique.  He points out that, despite the overall effectiveness and value of the Japanese techniques, nearly all of them had one or more limitations that prevented them from being fully useful to him.  In most cases, he attributed the limitations to: 1) inapplicability against a striking opponent in a real fight, 2) over-reliance on strength or speed, and/or 3) dependence on body movements that were awkward or uncomfortable for him.  Accordingly, he began modifying the art to ensure that every technique was fully street applicable, energy efficient, and based on natural body movements. Using these principles as a guide, he spent several years developing a complete system of self-defense consisting only of techniques that he could successfully apply against larger opponents.  Confident in his adaptations, he spent the next thirty years of his life proving his system’s effectiveness by using it to defeat numerous challengers, including several opponents who outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds.

The Gracie Guidelines
After nearly a century of testing in a wide variety of settings, Grand Master Helio Gracie’s system of self-defense remains fundamentally sound and intact.  To be sure, three generations of Gracie family members and other equally committed practitioners of the art have evolved the original techniques and added to the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu arsenal.  All of these changes, however, strictly adhere to the Grand Master’s requirements for street applicability, energy efficiency, and natural body movement.  Today, we call these requirements the “Gracie Guidelines.”
On your path towards Gracie Jiu-Jitsu mastery, your knowledge of the Gracie Guidelines will serve you in two important ways.  First, it will enable you to solve problems on your own by modifying techniques in accordance with the guidelines, and second, it will enable you to recognize the multitude of impure techniques that are being developed by instructors who do not know, or choose not to adhere to the founding principles of the art.

  • Gracie Guideline #1: Street Applicability
    Focus only on practicing techniques that are fully street applicable.  Practicing techniques that are not “punch proof” will cause you to develop a false sense of security.  By practicing techniques that keep you safe from strikes, you will develop the most important reflexes and avoid habits that could lead to injury in a real fight. If you modify a technique, you must verify that the new variation keeps you safe from all potentially dangerous strikes.
  • Gracie Guideline #2: Energy Efficiency
    Any technique that relies on speed and power rather than leverage and timing is not energy efficient.  In a real fight there is no time limit, so you must learn to save your energy.  The only reliable way for you to defeat a larger, more athletic opponent is to utilize techniques that cause your opponent to exhaust energy while simultaneously preserving your own.  Before adding any technique to your arsenal, you must verify that it is more reliant on leverage and proper timing than on your athletic capabilities.  Do not trust techniques based on strength or speed as they are unlikely to work against a larger, stronger attacker.
  • Gracie Guideline #3: Natural Body Movements
    Any technique that requires you to move your body unnaturally is likely to fail in the heat of battle. Natural body movement is the best foundation on which to build the instinctive reflexes needed in a real fight.

Violations of Guideline # 1 
With the demand for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instruction at an all time high, thousands of self-proclaimed Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructors have opened schools around the world and are creating or modifying techniques at an unprecedented rate.  The problem is that most of these techniques violate the first guideline of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu – they are not street applicable.  The main reason for the divergence from this foundational principle is that these instructors are creating techniques for sport competition rather than real street fights.  Any technique that is designed to work exclusively in a controlled competition with all of their associated rules, weight classes, time limits, safety considerations, and point systems, will give the practitioner a false sense of security since these circumstances are totally non-existent in a real fight.

Violations of Guidelines #2 & #3 
Violations of Guidelines #2 and #3 occur when fast, strong and/or flexible instructors modify the techniques.  In contrast, it was the Grand Master’s lack of athleticism that forced him to develop techniques that relied almost exclusively on leverage making them reliable for any student regardless of their size and athletic ability.  Today, nearly all of the individuals who are making the adaptations are impressive, competitive athletes, and many of their “solutions” to sport situations rely on their superior physical attributes.  When a student, who is smaller, weaker, slower, or less flexible than the instructor, tries to learn these techniques, they invariably face difficulty due to their lack of equivalent athleticism.   Even if a student masters one of these techniques, they will find it difficult to use it in a real fight against a more athletic opponent.  Their reliance on excessive energy or an unnatural body movement will lead to exhaustion at which point they will realize the fundamental flaws in the modified technique.

The Three Fundamental Questions
Few schools, if any, share this concern for the preservation of the pure techniques, so you must be very discerning when adding techniques and strategies to your arsenal. To test the reliability of a new technique, ask the following three questions:

  1. Can I apply this technique in a real fight against a striking opponent?
  2. Is this technique energy efficient enough to be applied against a larger opponent?
  3. Is this technique based on movements that are natural for my body?

The Street Switch
While many sport techniques leave you vulnerable to strikes, there are some benefits to studying them. A good sport technique still utilizes leverage and timing and is effective against larger opponents. Practicing the technique against opponents of various sizes and skill levels will deepen your general understanding of these fundamental characteristics of the art, even though it does not qualify for inclusion in your street arsenal. The same way playing chess can sharpen your mind for jiu-jitsu, anything that improves your timing, use of leverage, and reflexes will enhance your execution of nearly all techniques. But, always remember that you must never become too reliant on any sport technique, and the key to your street survival is to develop an internal “Street Switch” that can be flipped on anytime strikes are added to the equation. ​