Everything You Need to Know Before Your First BJJ Class

Are you considering taking your first Jiu Jitsu class? Then this article is specifically for you! I’m going to tell you what to expect, and how to make the most out of your first time on the mats. This is all advice I personally learned the hard way – and I sure wish someone would have given me these tips before my first class.

I’m going to try to answer every possible question you might have. I’ll also take you through your first day, and what to expect before stepping on the mat for the first time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Most beginners generally have the same questions about what to expect before stepping on the mat. I’ll be answering all of these questions about your first BJJ class below.

  • What should I do before class?
  • What should I bring to the gym?
  • What should I do when I arrive?
  • What is the format of a Jiu Jitsu class?

What Should I do Before Class?

Here is everything you should go through before attending your first class. Doing these things will make you first class go smoothly and you’ll be less stressed about it.

Know the Boundaries of Jiu Jitsu

Jiu Jitsu is a grappling martial art. There is no striking involved as there would be in boxing or Muay Thai. To avoid hurting your training partner or breaking the basic rules of Jiu Jitsu, follow these boundaries:

  • No hitting
  • No bending fingers/toes
  • Stop when the round is over
  • Tap before something hurts

If you understand these basic boundaries, your first day will go a lot smoother. Most importantly, do not be afraid to tap early and often.

When tapping, I always recommend tapping your training partner at least twice while also verbally saying “tap.” You might see some people tapping by rapping on the mat, but if you’re a beginner this is not a good idea. It’s too likely that your opponent won’t hear your tap or will mistake it for general noise from the roll.

Experienced athletes know when their opponent is aware of a coming tap, and can safely get away with tapping on the mat or one light body tap. As a beginner, you should make it overwhelmingly clear with a double tap to your opponent combined with a verbal tap. I’m not saying to yell TAP! so loud the entire academy stops their roll, but make your intentions clear.

Review Proper BJJ Etiquette

Knowing the rules is a great start, but you’ll also want to brush up on some basic Jiu Jitsu etiquette to avoid offending anyone or making a bad impression on your first day.

There are important unwritten rules that everyone training Jiu Jitsu follows. Breaking these rules will get you on the bad side of your instructor and your teammates.

Notice I say unwritten here, and I do mean it – as a beginner it can be very hard to know what proper BJJ etiquette is since most academies don’t formally cover it. I know I screwed plenty of these things up as a beginner, so I want to cover them to hopefully save you some embarrassment:

  • No shoes on the mat (very important, never to be broken!)
    • Bring slides or sandals that you can slip off on the edge of the mats
    • My simple rule: On the mats = barefoot, Off the mats = shoes
  • No talking when technique is being explained
    • It’s perfectly fine to ask questions after the instructor has shown the technique, but don’t interrupt or have side conversations while they are teaching the class
  • Shake every teammates’ hand as well as your instructors, introducing yourself if you’re new to the academy
    • This is somewhat academy dependent, but when in doubt I always recommend erring toward introducing yourself and shaking hands with every person on the mat
  • Bow on and off the mat
    • Again this is somewhat academy dependent, but if it’s your first time I would err toward bowing on your way on and off of the mat even if you don’t see others doing it
  • Don’t go to the bathroom barefoot
    • Again follow my simple rule here: On the mats = barefoot, Off the mats = shoes
  • Don’t try moves you saw on Youtube during drilling time
    • Drilling time is for practicing the technique showed by the instructor, it’s disrespectful to go trying some other random moves you saw somewhere else
  • Don’t try to correct the instructor
  • Don’t ask black belts to roll
  • Slap hands or bump fists before and after every roll
  • Use technique against people you have size on (particularly female teammates if you’re a man)
    • The general rule is to try to match the strength of your opponent
  • No coaching your partner when rolling with them
  • Respect your training partner’s age, you don’t need to go full-on Rambo against older training partners even if they are much more skilled than you
  • Don’t start every match with the intensity of a fight for your life
    • Again, start slow and relaxed and try to match the intensity of your opponent – some people will want to roll hard and others prefer to flow and take it easy

One last thing that was never covered on my first day, but actually got me in some hot water later on when I was first promoted: black belts are traditionally referred to as “Professor“, while other belt level teachers are called instructor or coach. Again, this is the sort of thing that varies from school to school depending on how traditional it is.

When in doubt you might not want to just go calling the black belts at your academy by their first name or a nickname. Using the term Professor is a show of respect reserved for black belts, and you can err on the side of referring to any black belt as Professor and let them correct you if they feel necessary. Not every school strictly uses these traditional greetings, but I recommend playing it safe rather than sorry until you get a feel for the vibe.

Learn the 6 Basic Positions

This is optional, but highly recommended. If you know these six fundamental positions of Jiu Jitsu, it will make your first day go so much more smoothly:

  • Closed Guard
  • Half Guard
  • Open Guard
  • Side Control
  • Mount
  • Back Control

You don’t need to know all of the nuances of each position, but if you at least know that guard means you have your legs between you and your opponent, it will be much easier to actually learn a technique on day 1. Here is a (short) video that explains what these basic positions are:

I also recommend briefly learning about the BJJ belt system so you know who is more senior when you get to class.

Pack Your Gear

Most academies will have some loaner gear, but honestly it can be pretty gross – depends on the school. If you are serious about taking up BJJ, I would recommend picking up your own gear. You don’t need all that much – here are my gear checklists for Gi and No-Gi, as well as a short list of gear that you should pick up for both styles:

Gear Checklist (Gi)

  1. Jiu Jitsu Gi (optional if they have loaners, but highly recommended)
  2. Rash guard (optional at some academies, but highly recommended)
  3. Belt (optional if they have loaners, but highly recommended)

Gear Checklist (No Gi)

  1. Rash guard
  2. Fight shorts
  3. Spats (long base layer for your legs, optional but nice to wear under your shorts)

Gear Checklist (Both)

  1. Jiu Jitsu specific gym bag
  2. Mouth guard
  3. Sandals – no shoes on the mats!
  4. Towel and toiletries
  5. Water bottle

Other items you might consider are an ear guard if you’re worried about getting cauliflower ear, a cup to protect the crown jewels, and nail clippers so you can make sure your finger and toe nails are kept nice and short.

Learn How to Tie Your Belt

Some academies are particular about how belts are tied, while others really don’t care. Either way, I recommend learning how to tie your belt before going to your first class.

You’re going to have so much new stuff thrown your way in class, that the last thing you want to worry about is a belt that keeps coming untied because it’s secured incorrectly. Here’s a video from BJJ black belt Stephan Kesting that shows how to tie your belt so it won’t come off during training:

Hygiene

Training Jiu Jitsu is just about as up close and personal as it gets. You’ll want to make sure you show up to class clean, with short nails (so you don’t scratch your training partners), and with fresh breath.

Shower

You don’t want to be labeled by your teammates as “the smelly one” on your first day of training. Reputations like that are difficult to shake, and will keep people from wanting to train with you.

If you’re heading to class directly from work, this can require a little planning. Most academies have showers (call in advance to make sure), so you can always show up a little early and take a quick shower before training.

Trim Your Finger and Toenails

You can’t train Jiu Jitsu with raptor talons on your hand and feet. The general rule in all Jiu Jitsu schools is that you have to cut your nails before training.

In grappling long, sharp nails are liable to cut your partners and give them an infection. You don’t want to start out your training by cutting your new training partners. This isn’t just about giving them annoying nicks and cuts, any open wounds can be a hotbed for infections like ringworm and staph. Long fingernails or toenails that cut your partners could potentially sideline them from the mats for months.

Brush Your Teeth

Again, you’re going to be rolling around with people up close and personal. Do you really need that garlic bread an hour before training? Show up to class early if necessary so you can brush your teeth.

Many academies keep extra mouthwash in the locker room – but I always take a toothbrush, toothpaste, and mouthwash to class in my gym bag. There’s nothing worse than training with someone that has cat breath, and you don’t want to be stereotyped as that person either.

Mental Hygiene

What’s inside your mind when you step onto the mats is just as important as what’s inside your body. If you

The number one thing you’ll want to try to do during your first class is relax. Most newbies show up to their first class stiff as a board and way too intense. The more you can try to relax on the mats, the better training partner you’ll be.

If you’re feeling nervous before you go to your first BJJ class, do something that will relax you. Try anything from listening to music, watching a movie, or doing a little stretching.

Show Up Early

At your first Jiu Jitsu class, you should really make it a point to arrive early. This will allow you to get things done that you may need to do before class. Arriving between 15-20 minutes early should be enough time for those things. It also makes a good impression and shows that you’re eager to start training.

I really can’t stress this enough: show up 15 minutes early to your first class. It is a sign of respect that will help kick things off on the right foot with your instructors, and it will also help you relax if you’re not rushing to get your gear ready.

When You Arrive

You’ve got your gear, Once you get there, you’ll be greeted by the person at the front desk, who is expecting you. You’ll have to fill out a waiver if you haven’t already and then you’ll get shown around.

The person will show you everything from where you’re training, where to put your things, and restrooms for changing. They will also tell the instructor/professor a new student is trying class and they’ll talk to you before class.

After you get shown around, you’ll go to a waiting area for your class to start. By this time other BJJ students should be coming in, so take the time to introduce yourself. Most everyone in Jiu Jitsu is friendly, so everybody will be nice and answer any questions you may have.

Now all you’ll have to do now is relax and wait for class to start.

How is Class Structured?

Jiu Jitsu schools may have different curriculums and styles they prefer teaching, but class formats are generally the same. Usually they are done in 3 phases. The 3 phases of a Jiu Jitsu class are: 

  1. Warm-up
  2. Technique and Drilling
  3. Rolling (sparring)

Warm Up

Before you start the warm up most schools have a class introduction. This is where all of the students greet each other before lining up and bowing in. The instructor will also talk to you for a moment and let you know they’ll be attentive to help you. After bowing in to start class, the warm ups begin.

Warm ups are usually either exercises like push-ups, or Jiu Jitsu specific drills mixed with stretching. This part of the class is designed to get your blood pumping and a little sweat going before the instructor shows the technique.

An example of a common warm up is doing different submissions for reps. Something like: Armbars, kimuras, and triangle chokes – 20 reps a piece with a partner.

Technique

This is the part of class where you learn a new technique by either drilling or doing positional training. The instructor is going to take between 5-10 minutes to explain every detail about the technique you’ll be doing.

After they explain and show the technique, they’ll ask if anyone needs to see it again. Do not be afraid to ask to see the technique again. In Jiu Jitsu, it’s always important to ask questions about the technique if you don’t understand it. Training a technique improperly is going to set you up on a shaky foundation and could also injury you or your training partner.

Rolling

Now you get to the really fun part of class… or for some people, the most intimidating part. Rolling. This is the part of class where students get to practice techniques on one another in live-action sparring. 

If you’re feeling nervous about your first rolling experience it’s okay. You just have to remember a few important things and follow these helpful tips.

Selecting Training Partners

At most reputable Jiu Jitsu schools, the instructor will set you up with a more experienced training partner on day one. If you have to pick your own partner, the best thing you can do is seek out more experienced students. This way, they’ll be able to walk you through the movements and you’ll understand the technique better.

If you partner up with someone who has never been to a class before, it will be the blind leading the blind. Neither of you will have a grasp of what to do, and I can assure you it will be a frustrating experience. Even if you go to your first class with a newbie friend, split up and try to work with more experienced students.

Generally, you’ll want to pick training partners that are a similar size and weight to you. If you’re a 230lb ex college linebacker, it’s poor form to show up on your first class and ask to be paired up with a 125lb woman.

Tips for Rolling

Before you get into your first rolling sessions remember these helpful tips.

  • You’re going to be exhausted
  • Accept losing
  • Learn to tap
  • Don’t spazz
  • Relax
  • Breathe

Your first rolling sessions may be one of the most exhausting experiences you have ever felt. It will test you physically and mentally, but you’ll get through it.

One thing you need to know going into rolling is that you need to accept losing. Losing is just part of the learning process and something you’re going to do for a long time… a lot.

But it’s okay. No matter what belt someone is, they all still get tapped. In fact, the best Jiu Jitsu athletes are those that check their ego at the door and aren’t afraid to put themselves in tricky spots on the mats. Don’t believe me? Check out this tweet from MMA and BJJ legend Garry Tonon:

Tap early and often, and don’t be a sore loser. Remember that rolling is just practice and we’re all here to help each other get better.

You have nothing to gain by train to power out of an armbar or choke. Having an injury or waking up from a nap is not a good way to start out your Jiu Jitsu training. Learn to tap and again be okay with losing.

The final tip I’ll give for you newbies is don’t spazz. By spazz I mean generally using herky jerky movements that are likely to hurt your training partners. If you’re throwing elbows and knees all over the place, you are going to hurt yourself or someone else very quickly – and no one is going to want to train with you.

I know it might be difficult since you’ve never done this, but try to stay calm and relax. That may be harder said than done when someone is trying to strangle you, but you’ll get used to it.

Have Fun

The most important thing I can tell you about your first Jiu Jitsu class is to have fun. Jiu Jitsu is one of the most enjoyable and exciting martial arts to participate in. You’ll learn self defense, while getting in great shape and making new friends.

So try to remember these things before your first Jiu Jitsu class to have a fun and injury-free experience. Hopefully it will be the start of a new passion in your life, and maybe I’ll see you on the mats someday.

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