Even during your first jiu-jitsu class, you will hear about the importance of “jiu-jitsu fundamentals” frequently. It is a phrase that receives a lot of attention from students, instructors, and commentators on jiu-jitsu. Put simply, jiu-jitsu fundamentals are the most basic and core moves of the martial art. They make up the foundation of jiu-jitsu, and they are the moves and techniques that you first learn when you are a white belt. Additionally, fundamentals also include specific body movements that are regularly employed in jiu-jitsu (e.g., shrimping and bridging) and the principles that guide jiu-jitsu technique (e.g., efficiency and energy conservation).

For legendary martial arts coach John Danaher, these foundations are based on the purpose of jiu-jitsu. As he said on an episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, “Jiu-jitsu is an art and science, which looks to use a combination of tactical and mechanical advantage to focus a very high percentage of my strength against a very low percentage of my opponent’s strength on a critical point on their body such that, if I were to exert my strength on that critical point, they could no longer continue to fight.”

For Danaher, jiu-jitsu is about being able to maneuver one’s body in such a way so that you can concentrate your strength on a focal point on your opponent’s body (the knee, the elbow, the neck) that they cannot defend against with their full strength. Part of learning jiu-jitsu is learning which parts of the body are vulnerable and difficult to defend against the parts of the body that are more resilient, and then using that knowledge to maneuver oneself and exert pressure or strength on the weakest points. These techniques allow smaller fighters to exert their strength more efficiently, which allows them to overcome far larger and stronger fighters.

As Danaher concludes, “I don’t have to fight your whole body; I have to fight your left knee.”

Is Jiu-Jitsu a Form of Art?

The idea that jiu-jitsu is an art form may get side eye from some people, especially since we tend to think of art as a creative act that produces something tangible—a painting, a novel, a song. However, in its purest form, art is simply about personal expression, and Danaher notes that the “art” within martial arts comes down to the choices that you use in defending yourself. “Ultimately, you have a set of choices, and those choices that you make will be an act of self-expression,” he says.

Someone who is trained in jiu-jitsu will opt to defend themselves in one way, while someone who has spent time learning to box or to become proficient at judo will choose to defend themselves using the tools that they learned while training in those martial arts. As jiu-jitsu has evolved over the course of the last 100 years, it has become highly sophisticated and more effective, making it arguably the best means of self-defense for people of all shapes and sizes. Still, it is just one martial art among many or, to return to what Danaher says, one set of tools or choices among many.

Why Is Efficiency Central to Jiu-Jitsu?

Efficiency is central to jiu-jitsu because the most important thing in jiu-jitsu is not winning; it’s survival. This is largely due to how jiu-jitsu was founded and its early evolution. When it was initially being developed by the Gracie family in Brazil in the early and middle of the 20th century, the primary venue for jiu-jitsu was in no holds barred fights. As the name suggests, there were few if any rules and, more importantly, no time limits. Given the absence of time restraints and the fact that the Gracies were relatively small fighters, they chose to turn these fights into endurance tests. By forcing their opponents to exert more and more energy, the Gracies could wait until their opponent became physically and mentally exhausted from constantly trying to attack, and then exploit their mistakes.

To this day, rather than relying on brute strength or speed, jiu-jitsu fighters place particular emphasis on survival. They learn how to neutralize attacks and use techniques to limit their opponent’s range of movement, robbing them of strength, and waiting until the most opportune moment to exert their energy. Consequently, efficiency is crucial if you are going to endure an altercation and have the strength to perform the necessary moves when needed.

Though these techniques and moves that will allow you to be an efficient fighter are learned in the first few months of your jiu-jitsu training, fighters spend years repeating these movements and learning how to make subtle refinements to technique. This is not only what ultimately makes you a better fighter; it’s also what puts the “art” in martial art.