Accelerate Your Game – Maintain Space When Defending

Roger Gracie, a master of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, teaching a seminar at Rilion Gracie’s academy in the US – I love this picture. Photo courtesy of

Management of the space between you and your opponent is essential when defending. This short article is about maintaining adequate space when defending from the bottom position – but just to make a point – your best strategy when attacking from the top position is to stay tight to your opponent and take space away. You need to maintain space to defend and execute submissions. If someone manages to shut down the space you need in order to defend and submit, of course you need to carry on defending and will need to open up space to become comfortable again – but the job of making space becomes a far harder one. You are dealing with weight, strength, gravity and technique. Once someone gets their body weight over you, particularly if they are heavier than you are, you are in trouble.

There are two skills that I feel are important to acquire if you are going to successfully maintain space in order to defend yourself and stop your opponent from progressing to a stronger position. Space is critical if you are going to have a chance of submitting your opponent, or yet to be mentioned, sweeping your opponent.

The first principle:

Simple to understand, harder to apply, don’t let your opponent get near you. To close the space the person on top needs to come forward – I know how much space I am comfortable with – I know how much I need to have a chance and successfully operate – so if some of the space is taken when someone comes forward, you need to take it back by physically moving back. You have a chance of doing this because there is still sufficient space in order to move. If you don’t move back when the person on top enters your imposed danger zone, your chances of survival are halving and will soon disappear altogether, presenting you will the tougher next battle, which is creating space once body weight is down and locked in with technique. Much better to become highly skilled at managing the radar and stopping people from entering the danger zone in the first place. If they come onto the radar and stay there, they need to be dealt with and removed from the danger zone. This can be achieved by a combination of moving back, mostly, and moving them back with your feet.

Basically, I want just under an arm’s length of space to successfully operate, if someone comes forward, I move back an equal amount to preserve my ideal amount of space. I protect that space as a top priority, they move a little, I move the same amount of space back – they move forward a lot, I move back a lot. Whatever my opponent does in terms of coming forward, I retreat the same amount of space – this way, my protected area remains constant and I’m not forced to deal with increased weight and power. The space is maintained by moving the hips back – one of the big keys to Jiu-Jitsu. The only time I allow someone into the danger zone is when I want them there – they will have tried unsuccessfully to come forward a couple of times, and I will now let them through and providing they are committing too much weight forward and have through frustration started raise up a bit to clear my legs – I will attempt to sweep them, failure to sweep results in retreat to put myself out of range of them, again. By moving back, I put them back outside the danger zone I manage. You can also let them come forward if you want to attempt a submission or an arm drag, but things are on your terms, they are your invention.,

The second principle:

Put simply, make sure you bring your knees up to create a shield. For your opponent to dominate you they need to get their body down across you between your hips and your shoulders. If you bring your knees up, it’s very difficult for your opponent to get their body down tightly onto you. If your knees fill the danger zone, you can ensure there is enough space to push back if necessary to establish your ideal amount of safe operating space once more. I remember distinctly, this break through and it allowed me to keep bigger people off me. Lie there flat and all they need to do is drop themselves on top of you. Pulling your knees up towards your chest and bringing your elbows down creates a very effective defensive barrier.

Maintain space and you are always in a much stronger position than you would be if the space has been lost.