Embracing your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Body

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu White Belt

I’ve never met a person who was completely satisfied with their body. Due to the exquisite variety and diversity of the human form and preferences, one woman’s thunder thighs might be another’s curvaceous booty, while one man’s lean runner’s calves might be another man’s chicken legs. We’ve all heard the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but when it comes to sports, beauty isn’t what empowers us through long training sessions and grueling competitions. Beauty isn’t even the reward after a hard season, especially in grappling sports because — let’s face it — gnarled fingers, smashed faces, and bruised skin aren’t going to be the “new black” any time soon.

However, in sports, Beauty is about performance. Performance is about learning to maximize the unique tools and weapons built into your individual body. Confucius once said, “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” And I’m willing to bet, had Confucius ever met Helio Gracie, he, too, would have become a fan of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The first time I walked into a BJJ gym, I was a thirty-six-year-old mother of three who had never studied martial arts, let alone a grappling sport. My white belt was crisp and clean and tied completely incorrectly, the ends akimbo, shrugging awkwardly toward the ceiling as if already frustrated with my inexperience. My mind raced with all the typical insecurities and fears: Will I look foolish trying something new? Will my body handle these new pressures? Will I throw up because I’m so out of shape? (spoiler alert: the answer to all of these was “yes, and that’s okay.”)

I watched, transfixed, as more experience grapplers rolled on the other side of the gym — sweaty bodies twisting in flash of colored belts, muscled chests, and legs like hungry anacondas racing for the same kill. My stiff, new gi gaped at my soft waistline, the sleeves and legs too short for my spider-like limbs. For all my post-childbirth body had in common with the athletes I saw on the mats, I might as well have shown up at a WNBA practice with a step ladder and a naive grin hoping that grit and determination would somehow add six inches to my height.

Honestly, I almost turned around and went home that first day. But I’m extremely grateful that I didn’t, because not only have I learned that there’s no such thing as an “ideal” body for Jiu Jitsu, I’ve learned that I already possess all the power and advantage I needed to succeed. I just needed to learn how to use them.

The Gentle Art of Jiu Jitsu

Unlike sports such as basketball, football, or even running, where aptitude can frequently be measured in feet, inches, and body fat percentile, success in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is not necessarily size, shape, or strength dependent. The name “Jiu Jitsu” is derived from Japanese meaning “the gentle art.” BJJ was developed to maximize the efficiency of smaller athletes against even the biggest and strongest opponents. Before BJJ became an almost fundamental requisite in mixed martial arts (MMA), the world assumed that when it came to fighting, bigger was better; bigger arms mean greater knockout power, stronger legs deliver more damaging kicks, and longer arms mean wider reach and less chance of getting punched in the face.

It wasn’t until the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993 that the world realized that sometimes size really doesn’t matter. Royce Gracie, the smallest competitor to compete in the round-robin-style MMA tournament, weighed in at a lean 178 pounds to fight against seasoned opponents like Ken Shamrock who tipped the scales at a solid 220 plus pounds of pure muscle. Yet, within minutes, Gracie controlled his larger, heavier adversaries and submitted them effortlessly. All without sustaining damage.

The mixed martial arts community sat back and scratched their heads. Turns out, stockpiling raw power is not enough to rise to the top of the UFC. Lasting success is about finding your unique power based on your specific body, and BJJ encourages exactly that kind of creativity and specialization, no matter what your body shape.

Body types in BJJ

There are three basic human body types: ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs. Though most people don’t fit perfectly into any one category, an individual may possess aspects from two or even all three. It’s also possible to shift body types as you grow and age or to mask your “natural” body type through diet and exercise. Winning often requires a basic understanding of not only your own body type advantages, but also the advantages and disadvantages of your opponents in order to anticipate their strategy.

Ectomorphs are thin and lanky with long limbs. Many ectomorphs appear to be skinny because they struggle to put on bulky muscle, though they can actually be very fit. Because of their lean physiques, these individuals tend to be flexible which comes in very handy in Jiu Jitsu when pulling guard or stretching for a D’arce choke or a triangle. Ectomorphs are also quick and explosive, making them difficult to pin down. At 6’2’’ and 195 pounds, BJJ superstar Keenan Cornelius is a good example of a highly successful and innovative ectomorph.

Mesomorphs are the athletes who appear to be in ideal physical shape. They are muscular with low levels of fat. These are the fighters who like to post photos of themselves on social media, hash tagging their bjj bodies proudly for all to admire. These are the athletes that intimidate many of us ectomorphs and endomorphs out of gyms and training practices because how could we ever hope to grapple with some half-naked guy who looks like Thor?

However, even mesomorphs have limitations. Muscle mass sucks oxygen and flexibility, so these fighters often run the risk of gassing out before they can chase down quicker ectomorphs or overpower heavier endomorphs.

Endomorphs are the opposite end of the body spectrum from ectomorphs. These individuals tend to be stocky with short limbs and a low center of gravity. Think of endomorphs as human tanks. Many endomorphs carry a lot of muscle along with higher fat percentages and dense bone structures. They might even have soft midsection. They are the battering rams of mixed martial arts, the wrestlers and the power lifters. While endomorphs sometimes struggle with their cardiovascular fitness, they are much more compact than ectomorphs and mesomorphs, with smaller limbs to target and often very short necks to choke. Russian MMA fighter, Fedor Emelianenko is a good example of an endomorph at 6’0’’ and a hulking 243 pounds.

Maximizing Your Individual Power

While mesomorphs are often considered the aesthetic ideal, BJJ isn’t about earning a modelling contract. There are advantages to each body type that essentially boil down to physics. Shorter fighters tend to favor positions like butterfly guard and strategize back taking, while taller fighters prefer to wrap people up in guard and mount, using their long limbs to help stabilize them on top.

Even basic techniques used by all body types might differ in execution. Close your eyes and travel back to high school: remember the lever and the fulcrum? If you’re trying to move a heavy object (or lock up an arm bar), you can either use a longer lever or more force. Long limbs acting as levers have to pull farther, but require less brute strength. Shorter limbs are less likely to get pinned down and don’t have to move as far to create pressure, however, they require more force against the fulcrum.

The goal of advanced Jiu Jitsu training isn’t just about weight loss or muscle gain, though those might be happy side effects of the increased exercise, but rather about experimenting with techniques to figure out what works best for your body. While sports which tend to focus on athletic prowess and presentation (i.e. dancing, gymnastics, body building, etc) can exacerbate body image problems and feelings of inadequacy, properly focused BJJ training can actually help an athlete learn to appreciate the parts of their body that they might otherwise find less than ideal.

Body dysmorphia and insecurities about physical attractiveness or perceived athleticism is a serious problem for many young athletes, and can lead to eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Women tend to be preoccupied with feeling fat while men tend to focus on muscle building, hating that their arms look too skinny. But both fail to take into consideration that their own individual body type may preclude them from reaching what they consider to be the “ideal” body type.

For many people, the game of ideals is rigged.

However, learning to find power and pride in what your body can do currently and educating yourself on the realistic and complimentary improvements you’d like to make, can help boost self-esteem and confidence. But not if you focus on the moves that don’t work for your body instead of those that do.

If you’re a natural ectomorph struggling to put on muscle, you still might be able to cultivate a wicked guard game, and if you’ve ever been caught in a gogoplata by some flexible person with bony shins, you know how uncomfortable it can be. If you’re a natural endomorph with short legs who can’t cinch up a triangle to save your life, you might still be able to take someone’s back and hang on like a spider monkey, using your body weight to pull them to the ground or sink in a choke. Shorter, thicker legs might not be able to snap up to a triangle as quickly as some, but they also don’t get swept as easily.

Many athletes find it helpful to create a flowchart of their favorite moves. Starting with a static anchor (a position, hold, grip, etc.), and branching out all your opponent’s possible or likely responses to that starting point, and then what positions become available from each of those. This is a great way to visualize how many positions can lead you right to where you want to be, especially if you choose some starting anchors which are positions or grips you don’t prefer or which give the advantage to your opponent’s body type.

BJJ and Your Changing Body

But what happens if your body changes throughout the course of training?

For many of us, those changes will be welcome: weight loss, increased muscle tone, cardio for days. We all want to see tangible results to any exercise routine. But any change can temporarily throw off your BJJ game. If you’ve relied on your weight to help pin down opponents while you inch your short legs into position, you might find yourself swept once you lose some of that bulk. Similarly, if you put on a lot of muscle mass, you might naturally find that you are less flexible that you were before.

Young athletes are most likely to experience extreme body changes. Boys and young men might experience large weight fluctuation cycles as they go through growth spurts. Children who were once lean and flexible, might find themselves suddenly bulky in places they weren’t used to carrying weight, or they might find that their legs seem to have grown three inches last year, but their arms are still short. Joints can become loose or unstable during growth spurts, post-pregnancy, and also during aging.

Teenage girls are at highest risk for poor body image (though plenty of boys experience body dysmorphia, as well). Some girls might welcome their budding curves, while others might hate how their new bodies feel as they move through familiar positions and transitions. Pressuring down on an opponent feels very different with sore breasts or a bloated premenstrual stomach.

It’s important to accept and embrace that not only will your BJJ skills improve over time, there might be moves you couldn’t quite perfect a year ago that suddenly becomes your go-to attack, or personal favorites that only worked twenty pounds ago. Human development is a somewhat unpredictable experience and as athlete’s bodies grow and change, they must also adapt their Jiu Jitsu repertoire.

Advancing as a grappler is about finding and appreciating the advantages and disadvantages of all body types, not just your own. Starting with a well-rounded basic Jiu Jitsu game is essential before you can start to individualize your training. Breadth also allows you to anticipate the strategy your opponent might take based on not only their own body type, but the match-up as well. In other words, buy all the tools, but know which ones to take to each fight so you don’t have to carry the whole mental toolbox with you everywhere you go.

Training for a sport like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu isn’t about showing off six-pack abs and tickets to the gun show. Sure, your BJJ body might not be perfect. Maybe it’s not even Instagram ready. But that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. I, for one, am tired of scrolling past shirtless pictures of fighters showing off their flexed muscles. That’s not empowerment. Show me what your BJJ body can DO, not just what it looks like it can do.

Stop comparing your body to some unachievable ideal, and instead focus on how you can take that ideal and crush it between your meaty thighs until it taps out.

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