BJJ Positional Hierarchy: Overview, Context, and Strategy
Within the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a “position” refers to the bodily arrangement or placement of two grapplers. Each position comes with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. While there are a handful of generally accepted basic positions, not all practitioners agree on what to call them or which are the best. Additionally, new positions are being created and expanded upon all the time.
The naming conventions of the positions may not always make sense, nor will they be used consistently across different BJJ gyms or schools. A good example of this is the 10th Planet organization, who typically has their own internal naming convention for even the most common positions. Until there is a universally recognized governing body that catalogues the specific and general positions, it is likely that the community will never fully agree on the terminology. However, grapplers who continues to learn and evolve with the sport will always benefit from being able to clearly communicate with other grapplers, and understanding the various names of positions is a part of that journey.
One of the first things that is typically taught to a newcomer to BJJ is position hierarchy, which is simply a ranking of positions from best to worst. Each gym will likely have their own version of this list, some long and some short. Additionally, as you get closer to neutral, the harder it is to define who is at the advantage or disadvantage. Furthermore, a grappler who is larger, faster, or more experienced than their opponent may submit, reverse, or escape from a disadvantaged position with relative ease. Due to these complexities, the positional hierarchy should be seen as a general rule of thumb.
Positions in the Top-Level Hierarchy
Assuming you are in the top position (except for closed guard), the following positional hierarchy starts with the best:
Back Mount: You have control of their back with hooks in.
Mount: You are in full mount position with strong base.
Knee on Belly: You are knee riding with control.
Side Control: You have side control with good grips.
Closed Guard: You are on bottom and control their posture.
Open Guard: You are standing and your opponent is sitting.
Neutral: You and your opponent are standing or sitting.
Positions Beyond the Top-Level Hierarchy
In addition to the major positions above, there are many other positions that don't quite fit into the top-level hierarchy. This doesn't mean that they don't belong in BJJ or in any hierarchy, but once you start adding additional positions to the top-level, it can be difficult to know which to include and which not to include. Some examples include:
Quarter Guard: Some might argue that this guard is simply a Half Guard position that the top player has almost passed. In recent years, some grapplers have developed entire games from bottom Quarter Guard, and some might argue that it belongs in the hierarchy.
Half Guard: If the Quarter Guard belongs in the hierarchy, the Half Guard definitely belongs. There are many grapplers with extremely dangerous Half Guard games.
Inverted Open Guard: Normally, the top player's mobility and use of gravity would give them an advantage. By inverting, the bottom player has four limbs at their disposal. This can give the bottom player a significant advantage.
Top and Bottom Positions
When talking about BJJ positions, you may want to qualify whether the context is from the “top” or the “bottom” of the position. In most cases, the top will refer to the grappler with the most advantage, but this is not always the case. For example, the bottom player in closed guard is often considered to be at more of an advantage, because they have four limbs at their disposal (both legs and both arms), whereas the top player will only be able to use their two arms.
Top Position Advantage
The key advantages of the top player are gravity, movement, opportunity. Gravity is advantageous, because it allows the top player to generate pressure on the bottom player. In the case of movement, the top person generally has the ability to disengage from any position at any time. When the top player combines the use of pressure with the ability to move freely between top positions, they can create opportunity. One example of opportunity the systematic isolation of a bottom player’s limb through pressure and movement, which can set up a submission attack.
Bottom Position Advantage
The key advantage to the bottom player will be when they have more limbs at their disposal to use than the top player. The example mentioned above was closed guard, but it could be any guard variation in which the bottom player has controlled, tied up, or removed the top players limb(s) from the situation.
When to Concede Top Position
A grappler may concede certain positional advantages in the short-run if they think they will be outclassed or outmaneuvered in the long-run. For example, competitive matches generally start from a neutral standing position, and one grappler may have a strong wrestling or judo takedown background, while the other grappler may not. If the grappler with the weaker takedown game knows this, they may choose to pull guard or sit down, which would concede the top position to the other player, but potentially prevent that better takedown artist from achieving a good throw and ended up in a highly advantageous position.
Position Before Submission
One thing you may hear people say is, “Position before submission.” This has become a saying due to the general eagerness and overambitious nature of new grapplers. A new player may train for months before they get their first submission during a live roll, and so they may chase a submission when they think they see an opportunity. A coach may tell a student, “Position before submission,” after the student has failed in their overambitious chase of a submission, especially if the student gave up positional dominance to chase it, and their opponent capitalized on their overambition and punished them for it.
Positional Tactics and Strategy
People will often compare BJJ to chess, as a lot of the terminology and concepts from chess can be applied to BJJ. For example, strategy and tactics play a significant role in both arts. In chess, strategy is the evaluation of position combined with a long-term plan, while tactics are the series of moves strung together to achieve short-term goals (like capturing a piece). Similarly, your positional strategy in BJJ may be to achieve a top cross body position, with the intent of submitting the opponent from there with a Kimura or arm lock. However, you will likely employ and execute several tactics before along the way.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter that one player is in a more dominant position than their opponent. In these cases, the opponent may get out of the inferior position. The stark change in position may be classified based on the context of how the change occurred.
A “transition” is the change from one position to another. When watching a BJJ match, you may hear a spectator say, “That was a great transition from side control to the north south choke,” or something similar. What makes these transition moments special? In order to carry out an effective transition from one position or submission to another, there are often nuanced and intricate details that must be executed correctly and dominantly. This is especially true at the highest levels of grappling, where players are often fighting for the slightest of advantages. To again use the chess example, consider that most high-level games are won simply by a single pawn advantage.
A “reversal” occurs when a player in a bottom or disadvantageous position reverses the position so that they are now in the top or advantageous position. This is impressive, because it allows the initiator to skip several steps in the changing of position. A more standard change would involve getting from a bad position, to a neutral position, to a good position. Depending on the technique, a reversal may allow the player to go straight from a bad position to a good position.
A “scramble” is a broad term that generally involves a series of fast and unpredictable movements with the intent of creating confusion. The initiating grappler will typically create a scramble to get from a worse position to a neutral or better position, but not always. Sometimes, a player who feels stuck in a good position may create a scramble in hopes of catching their opponent off guard or to get inside their head. However, it is important to note that this is usually a risky way to play, and coaches may frown upon this behavior in newer practitioners.
An “escape” simply means that the grappler in the disadvantageous position was able to get out of the position and into a better position. This does not necessarily mean that they escaped to a good position, just that they escaped to a better position. This new position may still be inferior in the grand scheme of the positional hierarchy, but if it is getting closer toward neutral, it is considered an escape. It is important to note that if a player gets out of a bad position and ends up in an equally bad or worse position, this is not considered an escape.
Developing a Game
Each gym will likely have their own definition, but a “game” can be loosely defined as how you transition between your favorite positions. In going back to the chess comparison, a game is essentially your favorite tactics; the series of movements you gravitate towards, string together, and execute well. Depending on which gym you attend, a grappler’s game may also be used as a measurement of when they are ready to test for a new belt. For example, some gyms think that purple belt is where a grappler should create, develop, and sharpen their best game. Understandably, this can be a part of why purple belt often takes the most time to get through; the journey is unique to each player and each player must find their own game.
Even if you're new to BJJ, you've probably already spent time on YouTube looking up techniques and sparring sessions. With mobile devices, this has never been easier to do on-the-go, but sometimes you just want to pick up a book. There are a few good BJJ books out there, but I think Jiu-Jitsu University is the best. It has been reviewed over 500 times on Amazon, and at this time over 92% of them were 5-star reviews. The techniques are broken down very well, with pictures from different angles, and a clear and concise narrative. It will make a great addition to your continued learning.
Did you Find This Helpful?
If you didn't know what a BJJ position was before, or if you're new to BJJ positions, I hope this helped you get a better idea of what to expect. If you think of something that wasn't covered or would like to know more about a specific detail, leave a comment below or send us a message.