BJJ Rolling & Sparring: Overview of What to Expect


In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, rolling is an all-encompassing term for sparring or drilling at varying degrees of intensity. BJJ practitioners may specify the degree of intensity by using a qualifier such as flow rolling (a low degree of intensity) or hard rolling (a high degree of intensity). When someone says, “Let’s roll,” it’s similar to a wrestler saying, “Let’s wrestle.” In this way, rolling can be similar to wrestling, sparring, playing, or horsing around with a friend. The degree to which both parties will exert force probably depends on the context of the situation, such as a warm-up roll before drilling or hard rolling to prepare for a competition). Additionally, other factors may come into play, such as your familiarity of your training partner or gym, such as someone you just met as opposed to a lifelong training partner.

Rolling to get Warm

A roll to warm up or get warm can mean a variety of things, and it is never a bad idea to verbally inquire the specifics when you are at a new gym or roll with a new training partner who uses this terminology. However, a warmup roll will typically involve a low intensity positional roll or flow roll with no submissions. Some gyms will allow catch-and-release submissions and some will not, but a general rule of thumb is to not go for submissions during a warmup roll, as this increases the risk of injury.

Flow Rolling

A flow roll refers to a low-intensity roll in which the purpose is to flow between positions, rather than looking to pin or tap the sparring partner. There is typically a sense of give and take, as each partner moves through positions smoothly and with minimal force, regardless of whether it is advantageous for them. Due to focus on flowing through positions, flow rolling is sometimes referred to as positional rolling. When two highly experienced BJJ practitioners are flow rolling, this type of rolling is often characterized as a graceful or beautiful display of art. You can also see the characterization of flow rolling among practitioners with less experience, but who have been training together for some time, and know each other’s games inside and out. However, this type of rolling requires a keen sensitivity and in-depth knowledge of a range of positions, so it is common for newer grapplers to have difficulty flow rolling until they are more experienced.

Positional Rolling

Similar to flow rolling, a position roll refers to a roll in which the purpose is to acquire and maintain position. If this occurs during a warmup, there is typically minimal intensity. If this occurs during a more competitive sparring session, there is typically higher intensity. Regardless of intensity, the goal is not to be to tap the opponent. In lighter rolls, a flow roll may be indistinguishable from a positional roll. However, in higher intensity matches, a position roll may be indistinguishable from a roll where the goal is to look for a submission. You may also see a positional roll occur during a pocket drill, in which partners are drilling or sparring within a specific position or positions.

Rolling to Submission

When you are told to “Roll to submission,” this means that the goal of the roll is to submit (or tap) your opponent. The numbers of submissions at your disposal will vary, depending on the context or rules of your gym. In some gyms, lower belts may not use submissions such as the knee bar, toe hold, or heel hook. There is also a social etiquette to be considered. For example, if you are visiting a new gym or rolling with a new training partner, it is typically looked down upon to use painful or dangerous submissions, such as a neck crank or spinal lock. Depending on the severity, you may even be asked to leave or banned from the gym, so ask the instructor if you are unsure of which submissions are not allowed.

Live Rolling

A live roll will typically mean a roll with resistance, generally with the ultimate goal to get a submission. Traditionally, the concept of sparring with resistance is one of the fundamental differentiators of BJJ from other martial arts. Sparring with resistance allows for practitioners to study not just the theory of the art, but to live the situations in real time against people who are trying to do the same thing. This is often different from other martial arts, in which they may study the positions and forms, but will not practice them in real time and with full force against resisting opponents.

Hard Rolling

A hard roll may refer to the intensity of the roll, or it may refer to difficulty, depending on the context. Someone may say, “That was a hard roll” or “That was a tough roll,” and refer to the difficulty of the opponent. In this case, they are probably saying that the opponent was bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced, or more advanced than them, and that they struggled to keep up. However, it someone asks you, “Do you want to roll hard?” or says, “Let’s get in a hard roll,” they are likely referring to the intensity of the roll and are looking to roll competitively. As always, if you are unsure, you should ask for clarification.

Competitive Rolling

A competitive roll typically refers to two sparring partners who are closely-matched in intensity, skill, speed, or size. These will often be matches that end in a stalemate or are won by the slightest advantage. However, it can also refer to training partners who submit each other an equal amount. Competitive rolling can also be considered hard rolling, but since you can have a hard roll that isn’t a competitive roll, it isn’t necessarily the same thing.

Rolling Partners

In some situations, you will be encouraged to pick your own partner, while other times you will be paired up with someone. This may vary based on the gym, class, or instructor, and it is important to learn how to roll with all ages, genders, shapes, and sizes of people. For newcomers, it may be awkward to roll with the opposite gender or someone who is much smaller or larger than them, but you will

Picking a Partner

In some cases, the instructor will tell students to select a partner to roll with. How to pick a partner depends on your goals.

  • Nursing an injury? Roll with someone smaller than you.

  • Training to compete? Find someone who is your size and skill.

  • Working a new technique? Choose a partner who is down color.

  • Deep in the trenches of your “A” Game? Roll up color or size.

There are many ways to approach a sparring session, but you may also be limited by your training partners. If it’s a smaller class, you may have to set aside what you hoped to work on, and adapt to the situation you’re given. Be communicative and express what you are looking for to your training partners, and make sure you are both on the same page. If you are looking to roll hard, but your training partner is injured, that obviously won’t be a good matchup. Be open to adapting to your training partner, even if it means not getting what you wanted in that moment.

Being Paired With a Partner

Sometimes, the instructor will choose your training partners. Keep in mind that an instructor may have their own reasons for pairing you up with someone, even if you don’t think it’s a good matchup. If you are paired up with someone larger than you, and you are getting crushed, consider that your instructor may be giving you exactly what you need. Perhaps they think you need more experience going against larger opponents, and they have just given you an opportunity to grow. If you are paired up with a smaller or less experienced opponent, it’s possible they trust you to take care of them and not hurt them. This would be a great opportunity to work on that technique you’ve been struggling to pull off against your peers. When paired with someone your exact size and skill, the instructor might be delivering you a competitive roll to gauge your progress. All of that being said, it’s also possible there is no meaning behind the pairing. The point is that regardless of what your instructor had in mind, there is always a way to make the best of every single roll, regardless of skill, size, age, or gender.

Declining a Roll

Especially in situations where students are picking their sparring partners, you may occasionally need to decline a roll. This could happen for a number of reasons.

  • You are injured and looking for a specific skill level or body type to roll with.

  • The challenger has a history of hurting people or has hurt you before.

  • They are much larger than you, and you’re worried about training with them.

  • The person is very new, and you’re not yet skillful enough to handle them.

  • It is a person who makes you feel uncomfortable or is frequently rude.

  • This person never taps to submissions and is a danger to themselves.

As you progress, it’s possible that you will learn how to easily handle all of these situations. For example, if someone doesn’t ever tap, and you are worried about hurting them, only go for chokes. Beware that they may lose consciousness, so know what to do ahead of time, and you may even want to let the instructor know when it happens. Once that happens enough times, the person will probably starting tapping to your chokes. If they do, you can probably move on to other submissions again. If they don’t tap to those, go back to chokes. Unfortunately, not all situations will be so easily handled, and sometimes you will want to always avoid specific people, especially those with a history of injuring their training partners.

Awkward or Inappropriate Situations

Sometimes, things can get awkward or inappropriate. It's important to know that this might happen to you and to have a plan in place in case it does. One of the hardest parts about staring BJJ can be finding the right group of people to train with. Make sure you are surrounding yourself with good people, so that if something inappropriate does happen, you are surrounded by people you can trust.

Rolling With Another Gender

For some people, rolling with the opposite sex or gender can be uncomfortable. Especially for those new to BJJ who did not grow up wrestling or playing contact sports, it can be very alarming to have a stranger in such close proximity. While it will be strange at first, you may find that it becomes more and more normal to you. Eventually, you will have no problem with someone bumping into you on the street or sitting close to you on the train. If you find that you continue to feel uncomfortable with the closeness involved in BJJ, talk to someone in the gym about it. Express what you’re feeling and see what others think. It could be that you are still adapting to the newness of the sport, or it could be that there is someone in particular at the gym that is making you feel uncomfortable. Also be aware of the culture of the gym. When starting BJJ, you may need to try multiple gyms before you find a place you feel comfortable.

How to Address Inappropriate Behavior

If you do encounter any issues or inappropriate behavior, you should definitely address the problem. First, try to verbally communicate with your partner. Perhaps what you thought was an inappropriate grab or touch was just an accidental byproduct due to the intimacy of the sport. However, if another instance occurs, tell the instructor immediately. From there, if the situation is not handled to your satisfaction, it’s probably time to find a different gym to train at. One important lesson in BJJ is that not all gyms are created equal, and you deserve to enjoy the sport without dealing with inappropriate behavior. Regardless of the situation, the bottom line is that you should feel at ease in your gym and the people you train with. If you don’t, keep looking for another gym.

Safety and Discomfort

In certain situations, there can be a fine line between a situation that is uncomfortable and unsafe. For example, during a very competitive roll, you may find the intensity ratcheting up and the potential for injury increasing. If you are training for a competition, this might be a necessary part of the training routine that you accept as a temporary necessity. However, other times, you may not want to put yourself at that kind of risk. When you start training, and as you move forward in your training, it's critical to distinguish the difference between discomfort and potential injury. 

Stop if you Feel Unsafe

When you find yourself in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, stop and and asking yourself, “Do I feel unsafe? Am I at risk of being hurt? Is this person out of control?” If you answer yes to any of those questions, you should probably remove yourself from the situation and find a different partner. If you have been paired with someone, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation. Depending on your personality and how you prefer to handle situations, this can be accomplished a number of ways. You can verbally communicate to your training partner that you would like to lower the intensity of the roll, you can tell the instructor you would like a new training partner, or you could tell the instructor you do not feel well and excuse yourself from the remainder of the class. There is not right or wrong way to handle the situation, just do what you feel is necessary to keep yourself safe.

Discomfort can be Fine

When discussing safety and discomfort, it is important to understand the distinction between the two. For example, if someone has a crushing top pressure and you can’t escape from a bottom position, this can be extremely uncomfortable. Learn to understand when you are at an actual risk of injury and when you are simply uncomfortable. This can be difficult when first starting BJJ, but be open minded and don’t tap at the first sign of discomfort. However, also listen to your body and be aware of when you are risking injury or suffering unnecessarily. As always, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and ask your instructor if you’re unsure about a specific situation or position. In some cases, the submission is actually lung compression, so you would definitely want to be tapping to that until you learn how to prevent, escape, or counter it.

Rolling Gi vs. No Gi

When training BJJ, you may find that some gyms distinguish between Gi and No Gi classes. If you are new to the sport, you may recognize the Gi as the traditional Judo uniform. Given that BJJ stems from Judo, it should be no surprise that the traditional BJJ uniform is the Gi. However, No Gi is also a popular method of training, which typically involves the use of compression shorts and a rashguard. Depending on whether the BJJ gym leans more toward a traditional approach or an MMA approach, you may see more of one than the other. Are you in need of a starter Gi or other BJJ gear? See the products below for an affordable, starter Gi for BJJ.