As an experienced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) practitioner, I’ve come to appreciate the journey that the BJJ belt system represents. Each belt color marks not only a new level of skill but also the personal growth and dedication that come with consistent training. In this blog post, I’ll be your guide to understanding the intricacies of the BJJ belt system and share some insights I’ve gained along my own journey on the mats.
From the excitement of receiving my first white belt to the immense pride of earning my current rank, I’ve experienced the full spectrum of emotions that accompany the pursuit of BJJ mastery. Together, let’s dive into the meaning and significance of each belt, the time it takes to progress, and the lessons you can expect to learn as you navigate the captivating world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
BJJ Belts: The Basics and Rules
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu belt system can be daunting for the sport’s newcomers. While many other martial arts such as Karate and Taekwondo give belts on a more subjective basis, the BJJ belt system follows a standardized and structured belt progression system.
The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) has a mandated rule set when it comes to belt promotions based on the practitioner’s age and experience, which are followed by most accredited BJJ academies around the world. With that in mind, here is everything you need to know about the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu belt system.
IBJJF Belt Graduation System
Belts in Jiu-Jitsu are given out based on skill and the amount of time the participant has been training. From lowest ranked to highest ranked, the belts are ordered as follows:
- White Belt
- Blue Belt
- Purple Belt
- Brown Belt
- Black Belt
- Red and Black Belt (Coral Belt)
- Red and White Belt (Coral Belt)
- Red Belt
The IBJJF has established guidelines that regulates how long a practitioner must remain at each belt before they are eligible for a promotion, as displayed on the graphic below. A blue belt must have been at that rank for a minimum of two years before they can be given a purple belt. From there, one must have their purple belt for at least 1.5 years before they can move to a brown belt, and so on.
It is important to note that, while there is no explicit time limit for white belts, it typically takes practitioners 1-2 years to get promoted to a blue belt.
In addition to the experience requirements, the IBJJF also has age requirements for each of the BJJ belts. As displayed in the graphic above, the white belt has no age limit. Blue and purple belts must be at least 16 years of age, while brown belts must be at least 18 years old. Black belts must be at least 19. There is a separate belt system for children under the age of 16 that prepares them for the adult rankings discussed in this section.
IBJJF Kids Belt System
The IBJJF has its own BJJ belt system and requirements for children under the age of 16. There are actually more belts in the children’s ranks in order to give them a faster sense of progress. These belts, from lowest ranked to highest ranked, are as follows:
These belt ranks are only for competitors under the age of 16. Once a practitioner turns 16, they are awarded a rank in the adult Jiu-Jitsu belt system based on their children’s rank, as well as the opinion of the instructor. A white belt in the children’s system is given an adult white belt. Gray, yellow and orange belts can be given a white or blue belt based on the instructor’s opinion. Likewise, a green belt can be given a white, blue, or purple belt based on the decision of the instructor.
There are still age requirements for each junior BJJ belt, as can be seen on the graphic below:
BJJ Belt System in Competition
The belts of Jiu-Jitsu matter particularly in competition, as participants will generally compete against those on the same belt level as them. There are slightly different rules for most of these competitions as well, which vary based on the rank of the participants.
As you can see by the graphic above, certain submissions are banned in lower level competition, while brown and black belts have access to a wider variety of techniques. Most standard submissions are allowed at all levels such as Arm Locks, Kimuras, Arm Triangles, and Chokes (like the triangle, rear naked choke, Ezekiel, Darce, etc). White belts do not have access to techniques such as Knee Bars, Toe Holds, and Calf Slicers. Many leg submissions, in particular, are reserved for intermediate/high levels of competition based on the rate of injury with these types of techniques.
Age also plays a factor in the rule sets for most BJJ tournaments, as techniques like Groin Stretches, Straight Foot Locks, Standing Guillotines, and Wrist Locks are usually restricted in under-18 tournaments, regardless of rank.
Heel Hooks and Scissor Takedowns are banned in most Gi Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, but are allowed in some No-Gi competitions. Slams, on the other hand, are almost never acceptable in accredited competitions.
What About No-Gi BJJ?
Most No-Gi Jiu Jitsu systems do not award belts due to the slight rule inconsistencies and the lack of belts at all while grappling without a traditional gi. Some No-Gi academies mark progress with different colors of shorts or rash guards, but even if they do this, it is not recognized as true belt progression under IBJJF rules.
10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu is one of the rare cases where BJJ belt progression is followed somewhat traditionally despite being a primarily No-Gi school. Students of 10th Planet have said that other Jiu-Jitsu schools tend to accept the ranking they earned, even though 10th Planet is a No-Gi program. This is likely due to the respect that 10th Planet has gotten as a Jiu-Jitsu academy, as well as the respect that the program’s founder, Eddie Bravo, has earned within the sport.
This is not the norm, though. Several high-profile grapplers have a elite submission skills, but are still considered white belts since they only train in No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu. This is particularly common in the mixed martial arts space, since No-Gi skills translate better to MMA competition. Former UFC champion Demetrius Johnson, for example, was considered a white belt for most of his career, despite submitting BJJ black belts in prior mixed martial arts fights. He trains Gi Jiu-Jitsu more often in recent years, and was awarded his brown belt in 2018.
BJJ Belt Rankings & Progression
So we have gone over the order of the Jiu-Jitsu belts, as well as how long the IBJJF requires practitioners to be at each belt level before progressing. But what are the actual skill differences between belt rankings? Ryan Young of Kama Jiu-Jitsu explained this in his video linked below.
However, a summary of each stage is as follows:
- White Belt – This belt signifies the beginning of your Jiu-Jitsu journey. Many practitioners say that during a student’s time as a white belt, their primary purpose should be to survive and learn proper defense. As stated before, the IBJJF does not require white belts to remain at that rank for a set period of time. It can take a practitioner anywhere from several months to 1-2 years before they are ready for the next rank.
- Blue Belt – A BJJ blue belt typically demonstrates an understanding of the basic Jiu-Jitsu positions. They have put enough into training so that their instructor now sees them as a more serious practitioner who wants to learn more and get better. Ryan Young in the video above describes blue belts as “street ready,” meaning the student is not yet a proficient grappler, but has enough of an understanding to use their skills in a real life scenario. A blue belt is required to stay as a blue belt for at least 2 years, but many remain at this rank for as long as 3-5 years before being promoted.
- Purple Belt – Ryan Young described purple belts as being “street proficient.” A purple belt typically has at least a basic understanding of every main Jiu-Jitsu position, and has been training long enough that the sport is now a large part of their life. Purple belts tend to get more attention from instructors, as achieving a purple belt takes a level of dedication to BJJ that many simply do not have. Once a practitioner gets to this rank, they are typically focused on filling in the gaps in their techniques. They work to become proficient in virtually every area of BJJ before progressing to the next rank. For this reason, despite the IBJJF only requiring you to remain a purple belt for 1.5 years, it is not uncommon for practitioners to remain at this rank for 3-5 years.
- Brown Belt – Once a BJJ student gets their brown belt, it is assumed that they can pull off submissions and understand positions almost as well as black belts can. For a lack of better words, brown belt is the rank where you “put everything together.” Practitioners combine the tools that they have learned for the past several years and use them to mold their BJJ game. Since a brown belt should understand essentially every aspect of Jiu-Jitsu, now is the time that they can hone in on their skills and focus on the positions and strategies that they are good at. Assuming the student’s belt progression from white to purple was done correctly, the brown belt is typically just a 1-2 year rank before being promoted.
- Black Belt – Finally, we have reached the pinnacle of the Jiu-Jitsu belts. A black belt represents the completed journey for a BJJ student. They have a full understanding of their academy’s curriculum, and are technically sound in most every BJJ position. It is important to note that a black belt does not make you a “master” in Jiu-Jitsu, nor does it imply that you know everything about the ever-evolving sport. It simply shows that the practitioner has paid their dues and worked their way up the ranks to become a proficient and skilled Jiu-Jitsu player.
All things considered, it takes most black belts around 10 years to achieve this honor. However, there are certainly exceptions to this. Former UFC champion BJ Penn, for example, progressed through the BJJ ranks in just 3 years and 4 months before getting his black belt under Andre Pederneiras. Because of this, Penn was known as “The Prodigy,” as earning your black belt in such a short period of time is still unprecedented.
Penn was also able to devote his entire life to Jiu-Jitsu when he began training, living in Ralph Gracie’s BJJ academy and training several times per day every day. This, combined with his clear natural talent for the sport, allowed Penn to get this belt so quickly.
After Black Belts
Now that we’ve covered the white, blue, purple, brown, and black belts of the BJJ belt system, it’s time to look at what comes afterwards for some of the most skilled BJJ players. Similar to other martial arts, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has varying “degrees,” or grades of black belt that they can earn based on experience. These degrees are displayed in the form of white bars on the end of the belt.
- 1st and 2nd Grade Black Belt – After receiving the initial black belt, a practitioner must hold that rank for 3 years before earning their 1st degree, and another 3 years after that to earn their 2nd degree. It is generally standard that, in order to earn degrees past your initial black belt, that you be involved with the teaching of Jiu-Jitsu rather than simply competing.
- 3rd to 6th Grade – Once a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner receives their 3rd degree black belt, the time between degrees increases from 3 to 5 years. It remains this way until the 6th degree is reached. When this happens, the practitioner must wait 7 years before getting their next degree.
- 7th and 8th Grade (Coral Belts) – BJJ coral belts are the next step after the 6th degree black belt. These 7th degree coral belts are an alternating pattern of black and red stripes instead of being solid all the way through. A practitioner must hold this rank for another 7 years before receiving their 8th degree. For their 8th degree, they are awarded a red and white patterned coral belt similar to that of judo.
- 9th and 10th Grade (Red Belt) – The red belt in BJJ, or 9th degree black belt, is the highest honor one can achieve in the sport. Renzo and Royler Gracie said that the red belt is reserved “for those whose influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of art.” One must hold their 8th degree belt for 10 years before being eligible for the red belt. This essentially means that, in order to get a red belt, you would have to be a practicing black belt for 48 years. 10th degree belts also exist, but were only given to the original pioneers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, none of whom are still alive today. Red belts are generally referred to as “grandmasters.”
Some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academies give students stripes on their belts to indicate progress before a real belt promotion. This is particularly true of students who have a white belt or blue belt, as many academies will give these lower-ranked students stripes since it may take them months or years before they get their next belt.
Typically, for academies that do use a stripe system, students are given 4 stripes per belt before receiving their next promotion. Stripes are usually just strips of finger tape, which you’ll find at any gym.
There is a bit of a debate between schools over whether or not to award students stripes. Some say it is good to give students this sense of progress on their Jiu-Jitsu belt, while others refrain from the practice altogether. The method varies heavily from gym to gym, as there is no standardized guide for stripes like there is with actual belt promotions.
Who Can Give Belt Promotions?
In many instances, a Jiu-Jitsu instructor may only be a brown belt. If this is the case, the instructor can promote students to as high as a purple belt. Black belt instructors can promote as high as brown belts, but they would need their 2nd degree or higher in order to present a student with a black belt of their own.
Again, some schools handle the belt promotion process differently. Some have BJJ tests that students must pass to be upgraded. Others have skills and milestones that the student must hit in order to get their next belt. Many instructors simply present their students with their next belts when they believe they are ready.
Do BJJ Belts Really Matter Any More?
Especially with the rise of No-Gi, you see tons of athletes dominating competition even though they may not have a black belt. Nicky Rod took 2nd place at the prestigious ADCC even though he was only a blue belt!
So you might be wondering, do BJJ belts even matter?
In my humble opinion, YES. They are a marker of progress in the sport and are important for motivation. Sure, if you’re a world class competitor they may be less important. And don’t take someone with a lower belt rank than you for granted, they could certainly work you up badly. But belts are still an important part of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Clearly, there is a lot of nuance to the BJJ belt system. It can be confusing for newcomers, but the belts for Jiu-Jitsu are rooted in tradition and clearly take years of commitment to progress through the system. Progressing in BJJ takes a long time, and is a totally different process from other martial arts like Muay Thai or Kung Fu.
After all, about 90% of people never even make it to their blue belt according to Rener Gracie. For those that do make BJJ a part of their life, however, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Good luck on your own Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu journey!