The Unpassable Guard 1

Tricks, Concepts, Techniques and Drills to Prevent Opponents from Passing Your Guard

In December, 2008, I sent out a Grappling Tip Email with a tip about not letting your opponent control your hips (see the first tip below). I then asked readers to share their own top tips for preventing or blocking the guard pass.

Below is a selection of reader contributions on the topic of making your guard ‘unpassable.’ I find it the diversity of suggestions very interesting, and I’m sure that you’re going to learn a lot about developing a better guard.interesting that the

Thanks to the contributors for making a better, richer place!

Stephan Kesting

Don’t Let Your Opponent Control Your Hips

A few years ago Denis Kang and I published an article in Grappling Magazine about passing the guard in MMA. In that article we said the following about the three stages of getting past your opponent’s legs:

“If your opponent is using a closed guard (i.e. his ankles crossed behind your back) then you first have to open his legs. Once his legs are open you have to establish some sort of control over his hips and legs, and then finally you have to pass over, under or around his legs.”

Now, if you think about it, the same principle also applies in reverse. Here’s what I mean…

Let’s suppose that your opponent is in your guard. As long as you consistently block him at one of these three steps (opening the legs, controlling the hips, passing your legs), he’ll never be able to pass your guard.

After that article got published, ANOTHER training partner (with a very good and difficult-to-pass open guard) explained his secret strategy to me.

“As soon as I feel that my opponent is controlling my hips I go into emergency mode”, he said. “At that point I push his head, I bridge my hips, I kick my legs… I do whatever I need to do in order to get my hips free again”.

I’ll admit that, up until that conversation, I’d been a bit complacent about allowing opponents to control my hips. Sure, I’d try and block the guard pass, but I’d only start fighting hard during the very final stages of their guard passing efforts, rather than ‘getting serious’ about it a step earlier (during the battle for leg and hip control).

Since that day my guard has improved. I think that most of the improvements are due to fighting for leg and hip freedom earlier, and trying not to allow my opponent to move forward and impose his guard passing plan on me.

Don’t let your opponent control your hips!

Stephan Kesting

Three Rules for the Open Guard

My instructor David Ruiz (a Rigan Machado Black Belt) in Denver has 3 rules that he teaches that really changed the guard game for me, and specifically the open guard game.

  1. Always maintain a maximum of 90 degrees between your torso and your thighs. It can be less (i.e. knees pulled tighter into your chest) but it can never be more than 90. For example if you opponent goes for a bull fighter style pass by pulling/pushing your legs to one side, you must sit up to maintain your 90 degrees.
  2. Always maintain foot controls on either side of your opponents body (e.g. a foot on either side of the hips, on his shoulders, spidered around one arm & one hip, legs X’d on either hip, etc.).
  3. Knees always bowed/flared out. This makes passing around the guard much more difficult and leaves the best option for the opponent to pass through the center where your arms and grips can come into play more effectively.

I find when someone passes my guard, inevitably, I have broken one of these 3 rules.

Training at Colorado BJJ in Denver CO.

Push The Head

Breakthroughs on the mat are very exciting times for grapplers: you work, sweat, toil and labour for the longest time and your game does not improve. Then, without warning, something happens and your game jumps to another level, making all that work worthwhile.

Sometimes it is possible to know exactly what caused the breakthrough. In my own development, for example, my no-gi guard game lagged behind my gi-based guard game for the longest time. Try as I might, my closed guard would get opened, my open guard would get passed, and my training partners were rarely in any danger from my submission or sweep attempts.

The breakthrough happened rather suddenly, when I finally realized that I wasn’t controlling my opponent’s head in no-gi sparring. When I started controlling, holding, shoving, stuffing and pushing the head it became much more difficult for opponent’s to make good posture and to pass my guard. Anytime my opponent tried to pass my guard on his knees, for example, I would push his head up, sideways or down to the mat, creating the room I needed to reguard and block his guard pass.

My no-gi open guard game probably jumped a full belt level in less than a week as that revelation, and its implications, sunk in.

Stephan Kesting

P.S. This tip is also drawn from a previous Grappling Tips Newsletter

Three Thoughts On Guard

  1. Treat your legs as if they were arms- gripping, pushing, pulling, pummeling…
  2. In open guard move your feet fast like a Latin dancer constant movement and position change makes it extremely difficult for your opponent to mount his attack.
  3. Know when your guard is about to be passed, and initiate your next technique before your opponent has opportunity to establish a control position

Jeramiah Armstrong

Head and Hips to Same Side

I have an tip for “an impassable guard” that has changed my Open Guard game. It’s such a simple tip that I can’t believe I wasn’t using it earlier.

It goes something like this…when an opponent is attempting to pass your guard, as long as you keep his head and hips on the same side of you, he will never be able to fully pass and secure side control.

How do we do this you might ask…when your opponent is passing, use a stiff arm and push his head (with your outer arm) to the same side as his hips (your closest arm can push on whatever, I perfer his inner bicep to prevent the crossface). Your opponent must have his head and hips on opposite sides of you to secure a successful side control pin.

Also, this is quite annoying for your opponent, being pushed in the face is not fun! As the old saying goes, “Where the head goes, the body follows”.

I hope this tip helps someone!

Chuck Rainey
Springfield Fight Club

A Unique Drill

My guard game improved a ton when I developed an exercise where I put a punching bag in my closed guard. I would then do an exercise called the 360 where you spin in a circle using your legs, hips, and shoulders.

Once I developed the right muscles, I was able to keep real opponents off balance anytime they entered my guard. If an opponent is off balance there is no way he can attack you. Gone were the days when I’d just lay back and hope. Now I was on the offensive. 🙂

Here’s a link of photos to show what I’m talking about.

Mike Geronsin


The best way to really prevent a guard pass I find is going for the underhooks. As your opponent starts to pass your guard through and over your legs, the underhook enables you to be able to take their back as they move forward. Also the underhook prevents them from passing the guard when they get underhooks of your legs and try to throw you to one side. So many positions in jiu-jitsu can be improved with underhooks.

James Duscio

Head Control

Here is a little something I use and see BJ Penn use this a lot in grappling.

Controlling the head when trying to pass on either side by pushing from closed or open guard. It is also very effective on standing back up or getting back to your knees.

Ex. In closed guard or open guard, place both hands to each side of his head and push opponents head away with your open hand while also using your forearm on his collar bone to the side he wants to pass. Each situation is different and this is just one of the many things to control opp. pass that I have used effectively.


Hawaiian White Belt

Grip Control

I don’t let my opponent to put their hands anywhere they want on me. If they take a grip that I consider dangerous, like a grip on the waist of my pants or on my knee, I will grip the cuff of their sleeve and do a strong high pull (like pull starting a lawn mower) to break their grip. Then I let them put their hand somewhere less danger or nowhere at all.

Regaining and maintaining their grip control significantly helps me prevent guard passes.

Purple belt at Uflacker Academy in Chicago, IL

Act As If

My understanding of breaking the guard is to make a wedge using a limb, mostly parts of your leg, and to expand your opponents clutch until they can’t hold on anymore and the guard simply “pops” open. The wedge is accomplished by either placing the upper thigh or the shin into your opponents butt crack and turning on an angle, while postured straight, to make space.

To counteract this there are many techniques, breaking down your opponents posture, wrapping an arm or the head, not allowing them to post their hands on your hips, but my all-time favourite is to ride my hips high on my opponents thigh and to square up with their shoulders.

This is frustrating for the opponent because it forces him to restart his guard pass, but this also provides time to see where their guard pass has flaws which gives opportunity to sweep or submit.

My instructor has a philosophy, “Act As If”. In other words, act as if you are always attacking, because if it seems like you are attacking then they can’t be because they are always defending. Again, another opportunity to submit, sweep, or transition. This is the easiest thing a person can do, but it works. I think the simpler the movement the better!

Davide Ferrelli
Training at Defensive Arts Training Centre

Straight Line Principle

Even though I am still a white belt, I have been told by many higher ranking students that I have a very tough guard to pass.  One key principle that has helped my game is the straight-line principle of Demain Maia.  When my opponent tries to go to one side, I escape my hips and then align my hips with his so that he is in front of me again.

Training at American Top Team in Florida under Marcos “Parrumpinha” Da Matta

Use the Turtle

My guard is hardly unpassable, but it is very frustrating to those who are about to finish a pass. When I feel that my opponent has finished a pass and will soon be attempting to crossface me and establish side control, I always quickly attempt to turtle to one direction or another.

If his pass was fast and explosive, say, to my right, I’ll often get an underhook on his right side with my right arm. I will “ask a question” with that underhook under his ribs; raising it up over my head and using it to spin, in this case to my left. From there, I keep the underhook and use it to sit back to half guard. Sometimes – though rarely – you’ll spin out so fast that you’ll end up with a confused opponent sitting in HIS turtle; you can thank him and then work to take the back from there.

If his pass is slow and methodical, I usually just turn towards him and come up onto my knees. If he blocks this attempt by latching ahold of my hips or shoulders, normally I can fight back into some sort of guard; if he doesn’t block it, I can sit back to half guard from my turtle again.

After a few months of practice with these two turtling techniques, I’ve been able to pull them off pretty regularly. They actually saved me from losing a match in my last tournament. At the very least, I think it’s better to attempt the turtle than just accept the pass and then work for the hip escape.

Lukeus Peterson
Blue belt from Peak Performance MMA

Free the Knees

When fighting with a Gi (I suppose it also applies somewhat to no Gi) NEVER let your opponent control the knees. As soons as they grab the knee do whatever you have to break the grips, for me grabbing their sleeves and pulling them towards you while kicking your legs forward usually works. As soons as the opponent starts gripping at the knee alarm bells should start to ring.

It seems quite obvious but I often see people realising what they have to do when its too late.


Position before Submission

One thing that we always state at our dojang is 1-control, 2- position, 3-transition, 4-submission. This also applies to fighting from your Guard.

This set-up has especially helped our beginners to think about what their doing and to control there opponent before going for that transitional move right out of the gate. one other “thing” that we say is “don’t give up a good position for a bad submission”. This one really helps.

R. Blankenship
Red Dragon Martial Arts

Control the Head

While defending the guard, control my opponents head.

If he’s trying to control my hips and pass to my right, I push his head to my right. That helps me “shrimp” away while creating an uncomfortable pressure on his neck.

Gracie Barra Corona

Once again, THANK YOU to all the contributors! I know for a fact that your advice will really help people.

Stephan Kesting

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