On Starting Sparring from the Knees…

A reader writes: Hi Stephan, I’ve been doing BJJ for about 6 months and am wondering if you have any advice about what to do when you’re starting on the knees?

I find that most wrestling-style takedowns are very difficult to do from the knees, especially because my opponents are really good at sprawling. And if I get my grips then inevitably my opponent also gets his grips and the whole thing turns into a big pushing and pulling match, which doesn’t seem very technical to me.

Anyway, I currently feel really lost and have no idea how to initiate the action from the knees – can you help?



Hi Bohdan,

Most BJJ classes start their sparring from the knees. This is because staying on the knees reduces the amount of space you need for each sparring pair, and that allows more people to be on the mat at the same time.

Starting on the knees also reduces the risk of injury associated with throws and takedowns.   Less throws and takedowns equals less injuries (I love Judo as a sport but don’t fool yourself – it has an incredibly high injury rate).

However starting with both people on their knees isn’t the most realistic position from which to initiate sparring.

First of all, starting on the knees has no application to modern self defense.

This might not always have been true.  In medieval Japan, after all, people spent a lot of time on their knees, and I’m sure that people did get attacked while kneeling.  That’s why many traditional Japanese jujutsu systems include armed and empty handed techniques for when both people are kneeling. But this kind of scenario – two people kneeling in front of each other – in today’s day and age is exceedingly rare!

Furthermore starting on the knees has very limited application in tournament competition.

I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of BJJ matches, and I can only think of one or two cases where both contestants both ended up on their knees facing each other for more than a brief moment (inevitably one person either pulls guard or stands up).

So spending most of the match on the knees, pushing and pulling against your sparring partner, is a waste of sparring time.

But what are your alternatives?

Well, often you can ask your opponent to start in a specific position. Tell him something like “Hey man, I really want to work on passing the closed guard” or “Can we start in my half butterfly guard?”  Most of the time they’ll happily agree to your request, especially if they get to be in a top position in your guard (which, realistically, was the best case scenario they were going to achieve anyway if their attempts at knee wrestling were successful).

But let’s say that your opponent doesn’t want to accommodate you by letting you get your favorite guard position.  If that’s the case then just sit down on your butt and start engaging him from the butterfly guard. Nobody can stop you from just sitting down, so you can always start in the butterfly guard (click here for more articles about the butterfly guard than you can shake a stick at).

Another alternative is to let your opponent start in a dominant position like mount, rear mount, side mount or with you in turtle.  Just lie down (or turtle) and let him jump on to of you.  I’ve seen a LOT of higher level guys start this way, especially when they’re going against someone smaller or less skilled than themselves.  Putting themselves at a disadvantage evens the odds, and allows them to practice techniques that they might not otherwise get a chance to use (like their escapes).  Also I guarantee that most sparring partners won’t complain – after all, they’re getting a chance to maul you without having to do all the hard work first.

By starting in a bad position you spend your valuable sparring time working your escapes, rather than wasting it on a kneeling shoving match where both people refuse to go to the bottom.

I explore this idea of deliberately starting in a bad position in this article from my series on targeted sparring.

One final piece of advice is to learn a few techniques that quickly take your opponent off his knees and onto his back so that you’re not spending your whole match practicing knee wrestling.  These moves resemble BJJ guard sweeps hybridized with Judo sacrifice throws.  And you feel really good when you hit them and send your opponent flying!

If you want more info on these ‘kneeling guard sweep sacrifice throws’ then click here to read my post on alternatives to pulling guard, complete with two cool youtube videos.

Hope this helps,

Stephan Kesting

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