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Jiu-Jitsu 101 - Strategies For Smaller Students

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Are you one of the smaller, lighter students in your Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu school? Being one of the lighter people in your class has its own set of challenges.


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If we look at all of the students in your GB class, there is a wide variety of weights and body sizes. The rolling experience is markedly different for a lighter student who can not rely on physical attributes like size or sheer muscular strength. Often, it can be difficult for heavier students to relate to your rolling reality.

Sure, Jiu-Jitsu is known for its ability for the smaller, weaker person to beat the larger opponent. But it isn’t that easy. As any of you, lightweights can attest from personal experience, sometimes size DOES matter!

Some good news for smaller Jiu-Jitsu students: This week, we bring some helpful advice for all of you smaller, lighter students on how to create an effective jiu-jitsu game, including some strategy advice from a GB Jiu-Jitsu professor who has successfully adapted Jiu-Jitsu techniques and strategies to their game. Professor Ricardo Arita has learned to use Jiu-Jitsu to defend against and deal with opponents much heavier than him.


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Jiu-jitsu is, above all, a martial art that evolved from its early Japanese origins as an art to allow the smaller, weaker person to defend themselves against and ultimately defeat a larger, stronger opponent.

Our smaller GB training partners know full well the challenges of rolling when nearly every one of your training partners is heavier and stronger than they are. Getting caught underneath a bigger training partner’s side control? Uuughhh!

Fortunately, there ARE solutions. This can be tested and proven on the mats. The nature of rolling in Jiu-Jitsu reveals the truth. Either the techniques work… or they don't. It can be a very humbling experience to be tapped repeatedly by a much smaller training partner. But the experience should make a believer out of you as well.



Jiu-Jitsu might be the best martial art that allows smaller, less strong people to defend against and defeat larger opponents. Grandmasters Carlos Gracie Sr. and Helio Gracie were famous for their smaller stature and ability to defeat bigger opponents using Jiu-Jitsu to compensate for being smaller in the early years of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil.


Meet Professor Ricardo Arita

Professor Ricardo Arita is the head instructor of GB Itaim Paulista in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo.

Professor Ricardo is smaller in stature with a light, fit build and would not look out of place in an engineering office or as an IT professional. Yet he is a highly technical and skilled Gracie Barra professor and IBJJF competitor.



Looking at the class photo (with other students for scale), Professor Ricardo is one of the smaller men in his GB school. Professor Ricardo has spent years developing his Jiu-Jitsu to be effective against larger opponents.


Professor Ricardo reveals that he is 167 cm in height (5 feet 7 inches) and 74kg (163 lbs), which would position him in the lighter end of most adult male Jiu-Jitsu practitioners. This makes him an authority on the specific problems that go along with being a lighter Jiu-Jitsu student.



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PROFESSOR ARITA AT THE FAR LEFT


The challenges of the smaller Jiu-Jitsu student

Those smaller Gracie Barra students reading this are well acquainted with the problems of rolling with bigger opponents. Take some comfort from the fact that you are not alone.

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We asked Professor Ricardo if many of his smaller, lighter students say they have difficulty rolling with bigger training partners.

"Here I have A LOT of students who are lighter and smaller. In the past, they always talked about fighting bigger training partners,” says Professor Ricardo.

As a smaller Jiu-Jitsu student, Professor Ricardo was forced to look for ways to avoid getting smashed by his mostly bigger training partners. “Since I received my brown belt, I started to work on that game, to learn how to keep the distance and use my skills to deal with that problem."




What are the common problems experienced by smaller Jiu-Jitsu students?

Prof Ricardo answers simply, "The most common problems are to play guard and takedowns." In open sparring, a lighter Jiu-Jitsu student will often be forced to fight from their backs as the bigger training partner will be very difficult to take down.

Getting more into the details, we asked Professor Ricardo what the specific positions that have been most effective for him in dealing with larger and stronger opponents are.

Professor Ricardo says that for him, from the bottom, the Collar Drag and the Butterfly Guard have been his most effective techniques for dealing with bigger opponents.

From the top positions, the Toreando / Bullfighterguard passes and back takes where the smaller person can negate the size advantage of a larger opponent.

"These are the techniques and positions I like to use the most," says Professor Ricardo.


Smaller Jiu-Jitsu students should avoid these positions

Inverting the question and looking at it from the opposite perspective, we asked Professor Ricardo what positions or techniques have yet to prove to be effective against larger opponents for him.

Professor Ricardo provides some insight into WHY some techniques work well for smaller Jiu-Jitsu fighters while other fundamental techniques do not work as well for them.

"Normally, positions and techniques that you need strength and closer position are not so effective,” says Professor Ricardo.

“The Kimura and Americana locks are examples of techniques that you will need to be close to the opponent."


Why does the closeness to a larger opponent make these types of techniques disadvantageous for a smaller person? The reason is that your body is connected to the bigger body when you are close. When that body rolls or moves suddenly, your balance can be compromised. If they roll and you are closely connected, you end up rolling also and can find yourself on the bottom.

Many lighter Jiu-Jitsu students experience problems staying on top in the Top Mount position when the opponent is bigger. They find that they often get reversed when the opponent bridges and rolls. Many skilled lighter Jiu-Jitsu fighters tend to favor the Knee on the Belly position at the top as they can transition more effectively. Since they are not as close to the opponent, they are less susceptible to getting reversed.


Building the smaller person Jiu-Jitsu game

We asked Professor Ricardo what the most important thing(s) a lighter Jiu-Jitsu student should focus on to build their game to be effective against bigger opponents.


Professor Ricardo answered, "Keeping the distance is the first step to fight a bigger training partner. When a bigger opponent is passing guard, they will always have the weight, gravity, and strength in their favor, the distance is to help to deal with it."


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We might look at the strategy of maintaining the distance as the proverbial “ounce of prevention” that “beats a pound of cure.” Preventing the opponent from getting close and settling their weight on you is a better strategy than trying to fight out from underneath your opponent’s weight. Avoid getting pinned under heavy weight before it happens, and escape becomes much more difficult.

Professor Ricardo recalls how he adapted his own jiu-jitsu game to deal with larger opponents and says, "Over time, I learned that the best thing for me is to do what I feel most comfortable with, that is, I play guard, and I go for the sweep.

To acquire this trust in the guard, I kept studying Butterfly guard, its possible variations, and transitions for the X-Guard."



Most effective positions and techniques for lighter people

The next time you are sitting at the edge of the mat watching the sparring at your GB school, pay special attention to the lighter, more advanced students. Instead of merely enjoying the action, note which positions the smaller fighter uses in the roll. And, almost as importantly, what positions they avoid.

Most advanced, lighter Jiu-Jitsu fighters (especially female students) tend to experience their greatest success against larger opponents with a smaller number of positions.

The straight armbar from the guard, for example, seems the best submission attack for smaller females from the guard. By observing these smaller “giant killers” in rolling, we can notice patterns in the techniques and positions they prefer when rolling against training partners that outsize them.

Here are a few tactics that traditionally prove effective for smaller Jiu-Jitsu students.

1- Develop a great guard. The most effective smaller, skilled Jiu-Jitsu fighters play strong Butterfly, Spider, and Lasso Guard games.


The lighter student will likely be forced to develop a strong defensive guard out of sheer necessity. If they spend the majority of their rolls on the bottom, they will become very proficient in guard retention, control the opponent’s movement with hooks, and have the ability to frame and keep their distance to avoid carrying the weight of the heavyweights. It helps to have a dangerous straight armlock or omoplata from their guard to keep the opponents from feeling too confident inside your guard.

When we think of the submissions that smaller Jiu-Jitsu players tend to be successful in tapping bigger students with, it is most often the straight armbar from the guard. And as a form of control and sweeping tool, the omoplata also allows the lighter BJJ fighter to utilize the strength of their legs and hips against the shoulder of the opponent.

Professor Ricardo’s guard strategy: "I try to make the opponent always uncomfortable and having to defend himself. So he gets tired faster and starts making mistakes. This makes it easier to work with the extra size and weight."


Developing strong grips and hooks will make your guard very difficult to pass. This will lead to the bigger opponent getting fatigued and making mistakes, and exposing themselves to sweeps and submission attacks.


2- The leg lock game. The great equalizer for many smaller Jiu-Jitsu players is leg attacks. Leg entanglement guards like the Single Leg X-Guard and 50-50 guard enable the smaller fighter to control the movement of a heavier opponent. Leg locks like straight foot locks and toe-holds allow smaller fighters to submit bigger opponents by using the strength of their entire body against the comparably weaker joints of the ankle and knee.


Competition Jiu-Jitsu fans will remember numerous upsets in the Open or Absolute category where the smaller fighter submitted a heavier opponent with a heel hook or toe hold.

3- The most dominant position in Jiu-Jitsu. Getting to the opponent’s back is also a strong weapon in the games of smaller Jiu-Jitsu fighters. By using their speed advantage, the smaller person can use an arm drag or 2-on-1 grip to get around the bigger opponent’s defensive arms and catch the back.

The Back Mount is considered the #1 position on the ground for several reasons. All of your opponent’s offensive options are facing away from you. They also are unable to see how you are attacking their back. Back Mount control might be the safest position for a lighter fighter in the match. It’s also important to mention that the highest number of submissions at the black belt level in competition tend to come from chokes from the back - in both Gi and No-gi rules.


3 Best tips for the smaller Jiu-Jitsu student

Professor Ricardo shares his three best tips for smaller Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu students to improve their ability to deal with the pressure from bigger training partners:

1) Keep their weight off of you by maintaining distance. "To deal with the pressure of the heaviest opponent, the first step is not to allow the opponent to get too close or get too far away unless you want to," says Professor Ricardo. Think about the Sitting Up guard with a stiff arm in the opponent’s collar as a great example of this principle in action.

2) Use your ability to move your hips on the bottom. "Second step is not to have your back flat on the mat," says Professor Ricardo. When you are on your side, your ability to move your hips - and avoid the opponent being able to settle their weight on you - is much easier. Lighter Jiu-Jitsu players also enjoy a speed advantage over their larger, slower opponents.

3) Use fakes, deceptions, combinations, and traps to gain an early advantage. "To mislead, always maintaining uncomfortable positions or possible attacks in your favor," says Professor Ricardo. Get the initial advantage on your opponent (for example, an arm drag from Butterfly guard that exposes your opponent’s back) and make them uncomfortable and unable to get their offense going.

We ask you smaller GB students: Which of these challenges for lighter students do you relate to the most? What has worked best in your game? Please share your answers in the comments.





1 Comment


tom ferna
tom ferna
Dec 17, 2023

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