Training and Safety in the Martial Art of Ju Jitsu by Rab Letham


Training in any martial art can be difficult at first. It’s a little bit like learning to dance. You learn the moves and try to convince your two left feet to move in unison with your partner. You’re slow, stiff and clumsy but you keep practising You drill this over and over and slowly your body starts to incorporate these new and strange moves into it’s memory until a wonderful thing happens; you don’t have to think about the moves anymore, your body does them all by itself subconsciously. You have effectively built new pathways in your brain and the mind-muscle link just plays out these movements on automatic pilot leaving you to decide which way you want to “dance” to which “song”.


However, getting to this stage can take some time and it’s inevitable that we will “stand on our partner’s toes” occasionally. Most martial arts are a contact sport and as such, accidents do happen from time to time and it is possible to sustain minor injuries whilst training. With this in mind there are ways we can reduce this and keep them to an absolute minimum.


Laying the mats

Laying out the mats might seem like a no-brainer but correct mat placement is in the small details. If you are using the jigsaw type mats that fit neatly together, then your job is made a lot easier. However the thick blue padded mats that tend to come in sizes roughly 2 metres by 1 metre by 4 centimetres thick are a little more complicated. Normally these connect together with Velcro that lies along the sides. The main problem is that these mats are not always made by the same manufacturers and can sometimes be a little different in sizes. This difference usually only amounts to a centimetre or so but when you lay four or five mats out together and connect them up with ones of the different size, it can mean leaving the odd gap between the mats. Now these gaps might seem small and inconsequential amounting to a couple of centimetres here and there but it doesn’t take a large gap for an elbow to fall between or for a foot’s heel to get caught in. Take the time to make sure that these gaps do not exist. If there are different makes of mats, try to match up the ones of the same make. These size differences are so small that if you take the time to make sure that you are lining things up 100% then it is possible to lay the mats out with the minimum of gaps and the maximum of protection. There is normally one person in charge of laying out the mats with the help of other students in the class, so if you are not sure, follow their lead. Also make sure that the mats also cover anything lying around the training area with sharp edges. The metal trolley that the mats lie on for instance can easily become a hazard if you inadvertently hit your head on one as you roll off the mat. Cover those sharp edges and corners just to be sure.

Warm ups and stretches.

Many people show up late for a class and sometimes this is unavoidable. As well as being disrespectful to your teacher, you are also not giving yourself time to get ready for your training by missing the all important warm ups and stretches.

It is traditional for any exercise regimen to commence with a suitable warm up followed by stretching the muscles. There are good reasons for this. The body must be prepared for activity to prevent sprains, pulls and other minor strains on the joints and muscles. When we perform warm ups, that’s exactly what happens to the body, its temperature increases. Lubrication is also produced in the joints and an increased heart rate pumps oxygenated blood around the body putting the body into the optimum performance mode that it needs to perform such dynamic movements. This also helps the body in becoming more efficient at removing the waste products from the muscles caused by exercise.

Once the body has been warmed up, it’s time to stretch the joints. This increases the range of motion in the joints helping the body move more quickly and dynamically without damage to the muscles, tendons or ligaments.

Do not do these warm up exercises and stretches half-heartedly. Your training and your focus should start as soon as you step on to the mat (tatami). This period of warm up and stretching is even more important as we get older as the body’s ability to cope with physical stress diminishes with age.

So the next time you think it’s no big deal if you get there 10 minutes late and miss the warm up, try this little trick:

Take two elastic bands and place one in iced water and the other keep at room temperature. Now stretch both of the bands back and forth really quickly to their limits and see which one snaps first. Your muscles and tendons work more or less in the same way.

Breakfall practice

An easy and effective way to win a fight quickly is to take the planet Earth and throw it into your attackers face at 10 metres per second per second. The Samurai realised this many centuries ago. Warriors would attack them dressed in full battle armour and if the Samurai had been unfortunate enough to lose their sword in the heat of battle, the chances of punches and kicks disabling their attackers were practically zero. So instead, they used throwing methods to induce blunt trauma on their enemy’s bodies. A bit like smashing a turtle onto a hard surface (a horrible visualisation but you get the picture).

Now we don’t wear armour and we do used padded mats but the principles that the samurai employed all those years ago still hold true today. We pick people up and we throw them down hard. THEN…(if they’re still conscious) we hurt them.

Anyone who doesn’t take his or her breakfall practice seriously is just temping fate. It’s not if you will get hurt, it’s more than likely a case of when. We practise our martial arts for many reasons, the main one being as a form of self-defence. This is exactly what breakfalls are: a form of self-defence against being thrown to the ground. So pay attention during the breakfall practice and perform them with due diligence EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU TRAIN. It’s easy to fall (no pun intended) into bad habits so listen to your teachers and anyone else who may notice if your breakfalls need further practice. If you are not confident in your breakfalls, you will be tight and stiff as you are thrown and this will only end up in injury to either yourself or your training partner.

The relationship between Tori and Uki.

In normal training we pair off into twos and practice our techniques. One person will attack (Uki) and the other will defend (Tori). We then reverse roles and practise the techniques again.

The relationship between these two students is very important and should not be taken lightly. When we begin our practice, we bow (rei) to our teacher (Sensei) and to our fellow students. This rei is a mark of respect and is one of the seven virtues associated with Bushido: The way of the warrior. It means etiquette, courtesy and civility. We should always treat our training partners with this respect because we cannot make progress without their help.

Whilst training with them we must take into consideration their limits and abilities. We all learn at different rates and we all have different levels of strength, stamina, pain thresholds and range of movements in our joints, so take this into consideration when you practise with someone and learn their limits if you are not used to training with them. Also people are all different sizes and shapes and it’s easy for a larger person not to realise how much pressure or pain they are imposing on a smaller partner. Pay attention and if a person submits or taps out, listen to them, even if you think they could take a little more. It’s not your call.

If you are practising a move for the first time with someone, go through it slowly and let your Uki know exactly what’s happening and how and where he should fall if they are not sure. This will give them more confidence in performing their side of the technique and it will help to relax them before the throw, which makes your job easier.

Being a good Uki

Sometimes you see people in the Uki role whose mind is just not on the game. They are waiting for it to be their turn to practise the moves. Well wake up because this IS the time for you to practise your moves. It’s time to practise your strikes and breakfalls (and we all know how important breakfalling is now, don’t we?)

If Uki is half asleep and throws his punches a mile wide of the mark, how can Tori possibly practise his techniques affectively and safely? I can guarantee you that Mad Harry down the pub won’t throw his punches a mile wide the next time you spill his pint. So Uki, learn your attacks and make them realistic. Having said that, don’t throw your punches like a demented Mike Tyson (and don’t bite off your partners ear as blood is really hard to wash out of a gi.) Learn your attacks correctly but make sure you use only light contact in case Tori doesn’t manage to block the shot. This goes for punches, kicks, elbows, knees et al. If you are hitting your training partner by accident with force, you need to practise your strikes more and get used to your fighting distance and range. Think black belts, not black eyes.

Secondly, don’t resist techniques. You should feel comfortable with the technique that is about to be applied to you and you should be relaxed. If you are not comfortable with a new technique, make sure Tori knows about it, so you can both go through it slowly and get use the movements and which breakfall or protection method to follow. Remember that many of the techniques employed in ju jitsu begin with a strike to some part of Uki’s body to break their concentration and balance (kuzushi) and that a real attacker will not know exactly what technique is about to be performed on them. This doesn’t mean that you should help Tori by leaping over his shoulder as he throws you either. This is just as unhelpful as being stiff and resisting technique. Let Tori perform the technique without help or hindrance.

Sparring: The art of fighting without fighting

One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful.- Sun Tzu-The Art of War

First and foremost, remember that sparring is not fighting. Your purpose is to learn to utilise the techniques you have learned in a simulated combat situation with an opponent who is trying to resist and counter the moves. Although there is an air of competition whilst sparring, the most important objective is to learn. Remember that ju jitsu is the art of yielding so you should be trying to minimise using your strength. Over a long fight, technique will win out over strength because the person struggling to muscle their way through the fight will eventually get tired. That is why Helio Gracie didn’t like to have rounds in his fights. He was smaller and weaker than many of his opponents and he could level the playing field by draining them of their strength as the fight progressed over a long period. If the fight was broken down into rounds, this gave his stronger, heavier opponents the time to recuperate and this would put Helio at a disadvantage.

When you do apply a technique on your training partner, apply it smoothly and build up the pressure allowing your partner to tap out before injury. Be careful when your partner has your gi tightly in their grip too, ripping it forcefully from their hands can easily dislocate fingers. Remember he or she probably has work tomorrow and they would like to go there in one piece.

Remember that a sparring session need not necessarily be about who wins. You can use this time to practise certain techniques like how to escape from an armbar. Ask your partner to try to armbar you so that you can practise the escape methods. If you can’t escape, keep drilling it over until you work out what you are doing wrong. It will only improve your skills.

If you are sparring and use a technique that wins out over your opponent, how about telling them exactly what you did and where their defence was weak? You could even tell them how to defend against this attack the next time they spar with you. Not only does this make losing a better learning experience from your partner’s point of view, it will also improve their sparring skills. This does make it more difficult for you to defeat them next time around but hey, do you really want to beat the same person with the same technique every time you spar with them? It might be good for your ego, but does it improve your skills?

Instead of trying to win out over your opponent, try working just for position. The mount is the supreme position in ground fighting, so try to drill around this so that you work around mounting, being in the guard, reversing from guard, side mount and such. This can be used very effectively if you are suffering a minor injury that you want to prevent making it worse.

The rules of sparring

To protect ourselves from injury we put certain rules in place so that we may train hard but safely with our partners well being considered at all times.


  • Be thoughtful of your training partners safety at all times.

  • Pay attention to the referee and do what they say at all times.

  • Ground fighting is exactly that so no standing up. Not even for a second.

  • No kicking, punching or any other strikes of any description.

  • No scratching, biting, gouging, head butting or pulling of hair.

  • No pressure point techniques.

  • No groin strikes. This can happen unintentionally even when you are being careful so it is advisable to wear a sports groin protector. Even whilst wearing one of these, a groin strike can still be painful so take care. Girls, you can get chest protectors too which do the same job “upstairs”.

  • Avoid face contact and watch out for unintentional pulling of ears and poking of eyes etc. It’s easy to pull or fold over ears whilst tussling and with the rough material that gis are made out of; friction burns can occur if people are not careful.

  • No manipulation of the small joints. This means fingers, toes, wrists and ankles. These joints are very delicate and can be easily damaged or broken.

  • Be very careful with strangles and choke holds. These can come on very quickly and be very devastating, especially if you are using techniques that crank the neck, such as the guillotine choke. Apply pressure slowly and make sure that your opponent can tap out or say “Matte”. How will you know if they are submitting if both their hands are pinned and you are choking them out? PAY ATTENTION.

  • Lastly, if you are a lot heavier than your opponent, be careful with your weight. It doesn’t take strength to unintentionally hurt your opponent when you weigh 50% more than them. Keep your movements light.


If you take up a martial art there’s one thing for sure, you’re not going to make black belt overnight. It’s going to take years of hard training and commitment. As Sensei Salur says, if you want to make it to black belt; you just have to turn up and train. If we train with careful consideration to our fellow students and to ourselves, we can make this path a whole lot easier and we can avoid a few bumps and bruises along the way. Slow and sure wins the race, as Aesop made clear in his famous fables. Hold on, that’s a really boring quotation to end this article on. Go for something more modern and punchy…er…as Neo once said in The Matrix; “Ju jitsu? I’m gonna learn ju jitsu?” (Yeah, that’s better…swish!!!)


Rab Letham has been studying ju jitsu for two years and is in training for his green belt at the time of writing this article. As well as training in ju jitsu he has trained in aikido and tae kwon do. He has over twenty years experience with many forms of fitness and exercise and today cross trains with many activities including weight training, running, boxing and also numerous water sports.

In 1993 he studied with Leeds Sports Development Unit and Carnegie College and holds a Fitness Instructors Award with qualifications in Anatomy, Physiology, Kinesiology as well as aerobic, resistance and circuit training.