With a more flexible schedule and encouragement from both the long-time friend who introduced me to martial arts and a competitive BJJ co-worker, I've recently begun attending a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym that also teaches wrestling. Before I started, I reflected on my goals and some pragmatic concerns.


In the late '90s, I studied at an eclectic Kempo Karate school weekly for about 18 months.

Since 2013, I've sporadically trained in techniques derived from Filipino martial arts (MBC, TAA), Greco-Roman wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (IAC, ShivWorks) in the context of self-defense where weapons (primarily handguns and knives) are assumed to be "in the mix".


First, I'm interested in martial arts because they improve my ability to protect myself when I've failed at awareness, avoidance, detterence, and de-escalation (like any other technique-oriented self-defense training), and my attacker employs:

  • deadly force at very close range, or
  • lower levels of force

Second, during Immediate Action Jiu-Jitsu, at one point my training partner rested his full weight (~220 lbs) on me (~170 lbs). I panicked and tapped. I had a similar but much less intense experience during ECQC, which I had (incorrectly) attributed to the FIST helmet I was wearing. I want to be able to think and fight until I'm unconscious, not uncomfortable. The only way I know of to overcome this is to put myself in that situation repeatedly and work through it.

My IAJ partner was heavy, but wasn't using any technique to apply pressure. I've now experienced much lighter sparring opponents who feel as heavy or heavier, because they know how to apply pressure. So I'm definitely getting what I wanted in that respect.

Third, timed sparring rounds seem like pretty good exercise, and they definitely aren't boring.

Self-Defense Context

I evaluate martial arts (and individual self-defense techniques) against the following concepts (paraphrased from InSights and ShivWorks).

I assume my attacker...

  1. is trained,
  2. is armed, and
  3. brought friends.

My priorities are to...

  1. stay conscious - capable of self-protection
  2. stay on my feet - capable of dynamic movement
  3. stay mobile - capable of escape

My procedure is to...

  1. stabilize the attack by stopping or limiting damage, then...
  2. counter-attack to create an opportunity to...
  3. escape

Pressure test

  1. If a technique can't be tested, regularly and repeatedly, against live, resisting opponents, at full speed and intensity, I assume the technique doesn't work.
  2. If I can't test it, regularly and repeatedly, against live, resisting opponents, at full speed and intensity, I assume I can't make it work.

Practical Concerns

I need an art that values pressure testing, and allows students to acquire and practice techniques against escalating pressure. Craig Douglas uses these phrases to precisely describe the levels of resistance:

  1. consensual, non-competitive - Your training partner is cooperating with you, offering little or no resistance, so that you learn the basic mechanics.
  2. non-consensual, non-competitive - Your training partner is resisting your attempts to execute the technique so that you to learn nuance and limitation, but does not view it as a contest to be won.
  3. non-consensual, competitive - Your training partner does not want you to succeed; their goals and yours are mutually exclusive. You both want to "win" (within explicit limitations known to both of you in advance).

Another clear-eyed discussion of this topic is found in Burton Richardson's Choke 'Em Out, in which he adopts the terminology of weightlifter: progressive resistance. What's more, Richardson emphasizes that appropriately varying the level of resistance and intensity is critical, not only for contextual skill acquisition, but also for a fun, sustainable training environment:

We use progressive resistance so that each student is playing at the intensity that will best develop his skills while having a great time with the training.

I also need an art that's respectful of aging students. Now over 40, I can start to see that recovery, either from injury or unusual exertion, takes more time than it used to. If there aren't any students over 40 (better still, over 50 or 60) at the school, that doesn't bode well for sustainability.

Those two attributes are, to a certain extent, at odds with one another. In an environment with the more frequent, realistic pressure testing (e.g., a competition oriented MMA gym) there will be injuries and training will be extremely strenuous. In an environment that is friendliest to aging or physically limited students (e.g., Tai Chi), pressure testing will be severly limited in frequency and intensity.

Finally, understanding a little about how you learn this type of physical skill can help me wring more value from limited training time. An excellent survey of the current understanding of this type of learning is Dustin P. Salomon's Building Shooters. One surprising takeaway is that new procedural skills are unstable and subject to disruption or loss for 5-24 hours after initial acquisition. Attempts to recall or perform them are negatively affected (it'll be harder to do) and attempting to do so can hinder consolidation into long-term memory.
The result: There's no shame in attending class a couple days a week; it ensures that there are at least two sleep periods between classes. Additionally, I've been experimenting with how long I wait after a class to visualize, take notes, or practice new things I've learned.

Why BJJ and Wrestling?

With respect to injury-potential and sustainability, BJJ has an interesting advantage over stand-up wrestling, grappling, and striking arts trained at high intensity because step one is always to sharply limit your adversary's potential for explosive movement. Practically speaking, a great deal of sparring actually occurs from either well-understood starting positions or on your knees. It's important to note that intentionally taking your opponent to the ground does not serve the priorities of staying on your feet and maintaining your mobility, and thereby complicates your ultimate goal of escape. I'm eager to get some time in the weekly wrestling class understanding better how take-downs work, and get some experience trying to stay on my feet.

Although striking is incredibly important, it's generally harder to train frequently, reaslitically, safely, and sustainably at the non-consensual, competitive end of the spectrum (or to do so requires expensive equipment, such as a FIST suit for every student). I'm not trained as a boxer, though I'd kinda like to try it before I get much older (and suffer increased risk of brain injury). That said, I've spent a little time with striking pads and heavy bags, and believe I'm more capable of delivering strikes successfully than I am of grappling successfully.

Finally, from Craig Douglas and Cecil Burch, I've learned some about how to apply these specific arts in an environment where weapons are present, and how to test specific techniques, which makes identifying techniques that need to be adjusted or discarded for self-defense a more managable task.