Teaching Breakthrough

Last week I was teaching kesa gatame. It was almost an exact replay of teaching kesa back in October, and I still felt like I sucked at teaching, but I at least saw a lot of good progress from where the students (especially newer ones) started the evening and where the finished the evening, so I must have taught something right. Andrew also had a really good question with respect to something Henry Akins showed at a seminar. Unfortunately, I don’t do kesa the same way as Henry Akins so I couldn’t really answer it.

This Wednesday Mike let me show some kesa gatame details and escapes. It was surreal. He stopped me to show people details I didn’t even realize I was doing. For example – the escape I refer to as “the uphill escape” where you bridge into tori and pull your elbow to the mat to escape out the backdoor of kesa (to take tori’s back), I brace my arm against my ribs/hip when I’m creating the frame against tori’s back. I just instinctually do that because it’s what I need to do to generate power. I don’t recall ever being shown to do it. It was really nice being able to show the technique, but have someone with more knowledge about how to teach there to stop and point out which details are the ones people will miss during the demonstration.

So, lessons from the last two times I’ve taught now:

  • I’m way more comfortable teaching when I have the safety net of an actual instructor to add details or correct things I say. I’d like to try to teach more with this kind of a safety net system were I to start trying to become a full fledged instructor.
  • After showing a technique, the 1-2-clap might feel silly, but it serves as a good indication that the demonstration is over and students need to grab a partner. As much as I want to resist this one, I’m giving in and using it.
  • I feel weird having people bow to me, but ceremony at the end of class is a good indication for everyone that class is over. I need to get over feeling weird being on the instructor side of the lineup when I teach. I don’t know why I feel like I need a black belt to be on that side – it’s probably a judo thing.
  • Demonstrate once, show with some details, demonstrate again, ask if anyone needs to see it a fourth time works really well. Breaking a single technique into two iterations of this to show different details might be even better.
  • People need to see transitions just as much as they need to see submissions. It always feels better to show an armbar or some other way to finish the fight, but how and when to enter into a position are arguably more important.
  • 3 “techniques” is about all the time there is in class for. 30 minutes is warming up and introducing the concept we’ll be working on, 30 minutes is rolling, so each technique ends up being about 10 minutes of repetition. Any more than that and people get bored and start doing other stuff. Any less and they don’t really seem to retain it by the end of the night.
  • I really like stretching at the end of class, and other recreationalists seem to enjoy it as well (one student even commenting on how much she liked ending with stretching). Dropping warm-ups where we run and jump and get exhausted in favor of stretching at the end is definitely going to be part of classes I teach. We’ll still warm-up with a drill for the technique or position we’re doing each night, but I think we can skip the running and go right to line drills or partner drills.

Review: Top Rock 2: TURBO

Reilly Bodycomb released a new download series, Top Rock 2: TURBO – a sequel to Top Rock and all-around great Street Fighter reference. You can pick it up on Rdojo, at a phenomenal price of “whatever you feel this download is worth” (I recommend the full $20).

Before we go too far into this, Top Rock felt like it assumed you had watched Sambo Leglocks For Nogi Grappling. I felt like it was a “if you know the locks, here’s how to approach them from the top as part of a passing game”. Traditionally I’ve recommended starting with SLfNG if you’re brand new to leglocks and that message hasn’t really changed here with Top Rock 2; however, Top Rock 2 is presented in a way that doesn’t seem to assume you’ve seen any of Reilly’s other material, rather just that you understand the basic mechanics of each submission. You could get that from SLfNG or from No Kurtka (specifically part 2 if you’re trying to buy minimal material) if you haven’t trained under someone who does leglocks before. He does make a couple of comments about things that have changed since Top Rock. The take away I’ll note about those

With respect to production quality, it looks like a recorded seminar that’s been well edited. The sound quality is a significant improvement over Top Rock and the video is more crisp than SLfNG. However, it still doesn’t feel quite as high a production quality as No Kurtka was. Notably, there is a red dot present in many of the videos which led me to wonder if I had a dead pixel on my monitor (I do not). While I can never unsee the dot, it doesn’t honestly detract from the content in any way.

The download is broken into two files – the first is a sequence to correspond with a leg drag pass. The second is a sequence to correspond to a back-step pass (the primary position from the original Top Rock). While at first blush and even from my below descriptions this may seem like just another set of leglock videos I do want to call out – passing is covered in a good amount of detail and Reilly explicitly shows where/how he would pass rather than going for the legs. In some instances he even describes trying to go for the legs as a trap because when it seems like a good idea it may be giving your opponent the escape and opportunity to smash pass you as a result.

The ankle lock from the leg drag has Reilly addressing a specific problem – if you’re unable to finish it’s probably because you’re just turning instead of extending. The description itself was helpful, but what I noticed in the video fundamentally changed how I think about inside straight ankle locks. When I do a straight ankle lock on the outside I always think about using my shoulder to curl the toes down and roll the ankle slightly to create the pressure that resembles a toe hold or heel hook (toes down and in, heel up). However, on the inside I’ve always had problems accomplishing that do to the angle I turn to to try to line my shoulder up on the foot and so I’ve either had to just crank into the achilles tendon and hope for the best or switch to something else like a Clover Leaf on the other leg. The camera angle during this tip about extension is such that you can really see how Reilly is getting the same roll in the ankle from his shoulder by turning his body, and then the extension keeps the leg in the right place for the pressure to still be there. For someone with more experience using the inside leg control positions, this is probably pretty obvious, but as someone who’s really only done the outside leg controls except for a few of the most obvious inside techniques, this has made the inside positions really viable for me in a way that they previously were not.

I’ve been trying to do the back step and make it work since I watched the first Top Rock video. Against lower belts, the back step from the 3/4 mount position worked awesome. But from standing against upper belts with good open guard games, I would just get swept or have my back taken when I tried to go for it, basing out be damned. The new details about pushing with the hand (Vulcan Death Grip) have been pretty instrumental in fixing my balance problems while back stepping (something I’ve been making up for with speed), and the notion of making sure you face them (now ending up in the High Top position) has also helped ensure that if I do fall I’m in a much better position. Since I already thread the legs for most of my half guard passing, this High Top position felt pretty natural when I tried it. It’s going to be awhile before I’m able to really know how well it will work since for now it’s a novelty, but it’s at least opened up a few ideas for ways I can try to approach this kind of a pass.

In summary, Reilly has again killed it with this download. It’s straight to the point with directly useful details being explicitly called out, but there’s also layers of additional details which are shown but not said. Oh, and you really can’t beat that price.

The Myth of the Untrained Stranger

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a real conversation about the use of martial arts for self-defense without someone adding a stipulation about “but against an untrained attacker…”. One of the assumptions I’ve encountered a lot relative to the use of martial arts for self defense is that of the surprise attack by some random guy with no training or experience. I don’t really think that’s a valid assumption, let alone a reasonable one.

TL;DR: You’re unlikely to be attacked in general. If you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in such a situation, it’s likely you’ll know your attacker. Whether or not you know your attacker, you should try to be honest about the people you associate with and the community you’re in if you’re making assumptions about a “normal” person’s reaction. For me, that means assuming everyone knows at least the basics of grappling. Continue reading


Aliveness, with respect to training, is the notion that the degree of efficacy of training is related to the degree of realism in the setting and circumstances of the training. That is, training against a resisting opponent makes you more able to apply a technique while an opponent is resisting in a live context (not training).

Aliveness is a spectrum. On one end you have complete compliance. Tori charges up some ki and blasts a compliant uke who falls of their own accord. On the other end you have actual experience. Nothing will prepare you for an MMA fight as well as being in an MMA fight. Somewhere between those is everything we do in training. It’s important to note that the far side of the spectrum, the most realistic side, depends heavily on what the goal is. Being in an MMA fight won’t prepare you to stop a mugging necessarily. Some skills will likely transfer over, but stopping muggings will better prepare you to stop a mugging. Whatever your defined end-goal for training is becomes that far side thing.

Just like engineering doesn’t really exist without physics which doesn’t really exist without math, I don’t think higher levels of aliveness training would exist without the lower levels having done some research first. At some point someone in Japan was dissecting corpses to see how tendons and ligaments connected tissues and bone. Many of the old jujutsu masters were the equivalent of orthopedic surgeons. This dissection and experimentation on the ultimate complacent opponent let them test and discover the directions and angles which give efficient leverage against joints. That then gets tested on complacent (but alive) individuals, then with slightly increasing resistance up to the point of what we consider “full resistance”. We’ve all done that – you play around with something, when it seems like it will work you drill it, then you try it in rolling to see how it fairs there.

I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial up to this point, but I think we now at least have a common language for the real topic at hand: what degree of aliveness are you really doing, and what degree do you think is the minimum acceptable for training in preparation for your goal?

If we were to take two schools training judo – one for sport, one for recreation – the sport school would likely have students who are better able to execute throws in situations against resisting opponents. They’re more likely to have intense randori sessions. They’re more likely to have competition experience where they’ve had to figure out how to throw someone who’s resisting. One school is clearly more likely to produce an Olympian than the other. For the goal of sport judo, you want something that mimics those sport situations as close as possible. However, if the goal is self-defense, it could be argued that the recreational school is a better choice. Even though it has a lower degree of resistance in training, not having to mimic the conditions of sport rules means not having to worry about gripping restrictions or limitations on grabbing the legs. Honestly, it’s a balancing act of assumptions. If I can throw a competition judoka, I can probably throw anyone, but if I train without restrictions I’m probably better equipped to deal with my partner not having to give me a certain grip.

Many people will criticize the martial arts which have lower degrees of realistic training. For some minimum degree of aliveness, I think it’s reasonable to call bullshit when a martial art advertises itself as being effective in an untested situation. Like, ki blasts are pretty much never going to work on someone from outside your class who hasn’t been conditioned to fold when you yell at them. Aikido has a pretty bad reputation in this regard. It’s largely seen as working solely on compliant partners, being often criticized as a form of self-defense. When an aikidoka is paired against a wrestler it seems to always looks incredibly one-sided. I’d argue that the two should have vastly different goals, and that those goals should be taken into account when determining the efficacy of techniques and level of aliveness appropriate to training.

Let’s pretend I am the head bouncer at a bar, looking to hire a new bouncer and two individuals have come to me – one a nikkyu in Aikido, the other a blue belt in BJJ. Let’s assume they’re both about equally fit – similar heights, similar weights. One candidate likely has experience with wrist-locks in a martial art that professes non-aggression. The other likely knows better how to fight for MMA or theoretical self-defense scenarios. I’d hire the Aikidoka. I’ve known a lot of bouncers who bounced for many years. Few of them have had to be in a fight. Almost all of them have had to escort a drunk out of the bar without hurting them. Techniques like the Devil’s Handshake, Bouncer’s come-along, a basic hammerlock, or a similar basic wrist lock tend to be the favored means to do this. The Aikidoka is likely to have a better base to be shown these. This does assume I’m not running some Roadhouse-style dive bar where fights break out with a high frequency and kicking your rowdier patrons in the face doesn’t seem to carry a risk of lawsuit, to be fair. It’s betting escorting someone out is more likely than having to fight someone. But under those circumstances, I’d say Aikido is the more applicable of the two. Now, if I were in the business of managing MMA fighters and I got the same two applicants, I’d pick the BJJ blue belt. In that context, I want the person who’s more likely to win a fight, and for that context my bet would be on BJJ.

Everyone has a set of assumptions about their end goal(s). If you assume you’ll be in a situation where your partner is more or less compliant (too drunk to fight back, hasn’t noticed you because they’re engaging someone else), then there’s no real problem with polishing your compliant partner techniques. Problems really arise when we project our assumptions and end goals onto other arts, or when other arts are not internally consistent between their assumptions and training methodology. If someone training BJJ assumed that BJJ would prepare them for gun violence, but never trained situations with guns, there would be just as much of a problem as someone doing Aikido assuming they can step to the side of a shot from a trained wrestler. If we assume a majority of fights go to the ground, of course a martial art with no groundwork looks bad – but it’s likely not an assumption they hold. Almost none of us are training in perfect simulations unless our goal is easily reproducible like sport. Almost all of us rely on some level of assumption. Many arts have different assumptions from each other, and that’s what you really need to get at to evaluate someone’s training – what are their assumptions and why or why not might they be valid?

Variations Matter

Early in my judo career I couldn’t do uchi mata to save my life. I have relatively long legs, I’m just about 182 cm (pretty much 6’0″), so it should have been a bread-and-butter throw. Tanner had no problems with it. He would just grab and before I knew it I was on the ground.

The variation I first learned was what I consider “traditional”. You throw facing forward, your leg lifts up making contact along theirs more or less the whole length of the leg, and it’s the hand pull and twisting of your hips that finishes it. Later I’d learn that the reason it wasn’t working is that I didn’t have uke’s arm pulled out in front of me enough. I also learned how hard it was to get that much pull for me because even to the limit of what I’m physically able to do, it’s not as much pull as the coral belt who was teaching at the time wanted. If I’m in just the right configuration and the person has committed themselves forward already, I might hit it. Maybe.

The second variation I learned didn’t work any better. It’s the “hip version”. It looks about the same, but you actually attack the opposite leg – making thigh to thigh contact on the far leg for the lift – and then cut across to the nearside leg during the finish to cause the rotation. I can kind of fake this one by starting with a hane goshi and then cutting the leg across once they’re lifted, but I still am not quite sure what detail I’m missing that would make this one work the way it’s supposed to. Play with it as I may, only in a kata setting have I ever been able to hit it.

The third variation, which I hadn’t learned until only a couple years ago, is a lower uchi mata. You make ankle to ankle contact rather than whole leg contact, and are facing more toward uke rather than the same direction. I’d describe the action as an ankle pick with your leg – pulling to the rear outside corner instead of the forward outside corner to finish. This quickly became a staple throw of mine. It just works for me. Even if uke has shorter legs so I can’t get low enough to get my leg in, being able to pop theirs up usually lets me do some throw. Having said that, I’ve tried to show it to others, and they still prefer one of the other variants.

Personal preferences and slight variations in the application of a technique are important. The core set of techniques work, but sometimes finding the right variant of a given technique is what’s really necessary to turn it from hot garbage into a staple. Everyone has some variant on the notion that you can ask four black belts how to do one technique and get six different answers. If you feel like you just absolutely suck at a technique, but you want to do it better, it may be worth a try to see if there’s a different variation you can use instead.


Juji Gatame Variations

Ude hishigi juji gatame – the cross-body armlock – has two major configurations in judo. In the first, one leg is over the head and the other behind the back. This is the one that Catch refers to as the “Japanese armbar”. It’s the first one I learned as being the “traditional” way to do it in judo. The second configuration is one leg over the head and the other over the body. I’m pretty sure this is the default in BJJ.

Neil Ohlenkamp demonstrates these two variations in his JudoInfo article on the technique.

The first configuration is generally more applicable in a context where you’ve just thrown uke, especially with an arm or hip throw that places them in front of you in an almost knee-on-belly position already. It’s also good from knee-on-belly for the same reason. It’s faster from here because you don’t need to get the leg over the body. However, if you’re doing this variation you want to be off to a 45 degree angle from their body instead of perpendicular to them. You should actually use the foot behind their back to push slightly and the one on their head should be biting in to make that angle as it lifts their shoulder up, reducing the amount of give and preventing them from being able to sit up into you as an escape. Pointing the thumb toward their hips (as opposed to straight up or towards their head) helps prevent a Hitchhiker escape and will tighten the lock. Some people like to hook into the armpit with the foot over the head. The big reason is that it prevents the escape where they just push the leg over their head. I’m not personally a huge fan of that and as Mike had noted the other night at class being on the head helps keep more pressure in the position. It’s nice for a transition to reverse sankaku though.

The second configuration is better from mount or closed guard because you don’t need to clear the leg to the other side of the body, and in my experience, is probably the better control position. The Spider Web from here is often easier for me, but it’s also a nice position to set up a bicep crush or jigoku jime (which has apparently been renamed to “Hebrew Necktie” by 10th Planet when done for no gi? This is an old technique, the no gi variation was up on LapelChoke back when that was around). I’ve always been taught for this configuration to point the thumb straight up to the ceiling. Switching to sankaku here, I’ll thread the leg that’s over the body through the arms and over the shoulder. Almost everyone sits up thinking that I’ve given them the escape, but really I just had a hard time breaking their grips and decided a triangle would be easier. You can switch the legs (threading the leg near their head through their arms) for the same reverse sankaku you got from the first configuration, but again, it’s more work than threading the body leg.

So, the big differences? When you use it (KoB vs mount), what angle you want (45 vs 90), and the hand rotation (toward belt vs straight up). Everything else is situational so it’s not as clear cut. You can always throw your leg over the body one way or the other to swap between them as you need too.

On Kesa

How I learned kesa gatame in judo is almost identical to how Steven Koepfer shows it. Both legs straight – one at nine o’clock and one at twelve o’clock so that you have dispersed weight and a bolster to stop bridging in either direction or being able to get leverage to take you backwards. Mike was showing for no gi a variation that looks more similar to how Joel Bane demonstrates – one jack leg, one drive leg. However, we were still doing head-and-arm, not kuzure kesa.

Mike’s variation is a tremendous amount of pressure. If you’re not used to being pinned by bigger guys, if you don’t know how to control your breathing a bit, before he even pulls up on the head for the added leverage into the chest you may feel the need to tap just from chest pressure. Using one leg to drive in and one leg to lift your hips off of the ground makes that pressure. However, doing so means that both legs are pushing your body backwards. Without the gi, that doesn’t really mean anything. It just means you’re getting free pressure. They’d have to get the far (non-trapped) arm in front of your face/body to push you backwards in no gi. With the gi, it means they can grab the lapel and do the sit-up escape.

Building pressure with the variation I’m used to necessitates a strong pull on the arm and sinking your hips forward. Your hips should still be off the ground, but subtly low; the lower they are, the most weight uke is holding. Winding in and driving your hips forward still won’t generate as much pressure as the jack/drive system from the other though.

Typically, what we do in no gi is equally valid in gi, but not vice-versa. An armbar, a choke, even a shot you would use in no gi can be used in gi with minimal modification. But a lapel choke, a sleeve throw, or a grip relying on the jacket won’t work in no gi. In this case, the gi version works in both contexts; it’s just potentially suboptimal in no gi given that there’s a better way to generate force there.