BJJ Belts, Ranks and Promotion – Simple Breakdown

Ever wondered why belt promotion in BJJ is talked about in such mysterious terms. Form some it just adds to allure of training BJJ but for others its just downright confusing. But it need not be and here at get into grappling we have gone to great lengths to explain this in the most simple terms that anyone can understand!

Belt progression in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is accepted to be much slower than most other martial arts that use a ranking system. There are fewer belt ranks to move through and a black belt is expected to demonstrate a mastery of BJJ.

How long does it take to move between grades?

There are rules set down by the IBBJF governing the minimum amount of time a student must spend at a grade before they can be promoted. The average person training as a hobby can expect to far exceed these timescales as even the most dedicated of students would struggle to be promoted so rapidly. BJJ is known for setting high standards students must meet before promotion.

Promotion like in other martial arts are decided by the instructor’s assessment of a student’s skills, so expectations can vary between different schools. The techniques your expected to become proficient in to promote vary from school to school, so if you’re desperate to move up (you really shouldn’t be) you might want to speak to you instructor to gauge where you’re at and what you need to work on.

What are stripes or tags

From white belt through to brown belt BJJ typically uses a system of stripes or as they are sometimes known tags, these are awarded between belt promotions. Stripes are more informal indicators of progress; 4 stripes are awarded before a student will be promoted to the next belt level. Stripes are commonly awarded in a casual manner often at the end of a class if the instructor believes a student has progressed. It is reasonable to expect a 4-stripe white belt to be better than someone with only a single stripe white belt, although they are still both the same rank.

Sandbagging

In BJJ sandbagging is essentially holding back a student who is more than worthy of being promoted. This occurs for several reasons and some even argue it’s not sandbagging but testament to the skill level required to make the higher ranks at the best schools.

Most schools will want to see their students collecting medals if they are competing, an easy way to ensure this happens is to hold back your best students so they are effectively competing against weaker opponents. If you ask anyone who’s competed they will almost always have a story about someone who steam rolled the whole competition without breaking a sweat. That could very well have been an example of sandbagging. The instructor may have very high standards before promoting but most likely they are sandbagging their student to gain the school some competition success. In recent years the North America Grappling Association (NAGA) have attempted to combat sandbagging by recording results nationally with a view to reassigning competitors to a higher skill level in NAGA events.

Check out this videos of a white belt beating a black belt! Don’t worry the camera man manages to sort the angle out by about 10 seconds in.

Most instructors want to produce the very best students and by making promotion as tough as possible they will ensure they have the very best quality students at each rank. Most schools won’t promote a student until they believe they can hold there own in sparing against classmates of the rank above. For instance, a blue belt would have to be able to hold his own more often than not against the purple belts before he will get promoted.

Due to the frequency of sparing in BJJ it is possible for a student to be held back for a little while to enjoy there moment at the top of a rank. A blue belt on the cusp of promotion can enjoy being a very good blue belt before they will have a target on their back as a purple belt and the pressure of not getting tapped by all the blue belts.

Overview of the ranks

White belt – This is the starting point for all new students. It doesn’t matter if the person has a background in grappling such as Judo or Wrestling they will still start as a white belt. This will often be the most difficult time in a student’s progression as they have so much to learn. Most instructors will expect white belts to focus on learning to defend and getting to grips with the basics of BJJ. Check out my article of how to get the most out of your time as a white belt.

Blue belt – At this rank a whole world of opportunity is opened to BJJ practitioners. Its no longer just about passing guards and basic submissions. A blue belt is expected to build up their all-round game and learn many of the techniques that they will use for long into the future. The IBJJF require a student to be at least 16 years.

Purple Belt – This is the middle point rank in BJJ and student of this level is expected to be extremely proficient. At this level a student is often allowed to teach lower ranked students or at least assist with the coaching. The IBJJF require a student to be at least 16 years of age and recommends a minimum of two years ranked as a blue belt. If your wondering how a 16 year old can become a purple belt having only just entered the adult ranks and having not spent the recommended 2 years at blue belt head over the IBJJF website and check out the technicalities of promoting junior grades to senior grades.

Brown – Like in many other martial arts a brown belt in BJJ is a time for a student to refine the skills and knowledge they have built up through years of practice. Usually a brown belt will have some experience of teaching, weather this is a regular class or just covering a few classes a year when required. Although not yet considered to having mastered BJJ a Brown belt will be a highly proficient practitioner. Minimum age of 18 and should have spent 18 months as a purple belt.

Black – A person who has mastered BJJ and has a thorough understanding of both the technical and practical aspects. To receive a black belt a student must be a minimum of 19 years of age and spent at least 1 year as a brown belt. From this point if a student wishes to continue being promoted there are 6 degrees of black belt they can advance through.

7th 8th 9th Dans – Anyone who has reached this level will have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to BJJ. The earliest a 19-year-old black belt could expect to receive their 9th dan would be 67! Obviously very few make it too this level and to so means they have contributed something extraordinary to BJJ.

Children’s grades

The ranks used for children differ from those of adults as they have additional belts since access to the higher grades are restricted to adults. The children’s ranks start with white and include yellow, orange and green and follow the same 4 stripe format as the adult ranks.

Belts awarded to Junior in BJJ

The Promotion

Getting promoted in BJJ used to be an informal affair with an instructor promoting students at the end of a class or after competition success. In recent years there has been moves towards a more formal process with some schools now holding gradings similar to those in traditional martial arts. There are examples of schools that will layout a formal grading path to reaching a black belt with a syllabus which a student has to master. However, this only represents a minority of BJJ schools and most still opt for the less formulaic promotion process.

Each way of promoting has its benefits and pitfalls but the lack of a definitive path to a black belt has lead outsiders to view promotion in BJJ as a more mysterious affair. The lack of a syllabus also gives instructors the freedom to help their students develop in different ways without having to follow a one size fits all approach.

Comparison with other martial arts

In comparison to other similar martial arts/sports such as Judo there are far less coloured belts to move through in BJJ unless starting as a child. If a school does use the stripe or tag system however, there are effectively 16 extra mini promotional steps a student moves through before reaching black belt.

One definite difference in the belt ranking in BJJ compared to other grappling styles is the quality of the senior grades. The frequency of sparing in BJJ means that the higher grades have been truly tested before reaching their rank. So, if you’re looking for a fast track to a black belt that you can brag about BJJ is definitely not the right place to start. You will need the skills and dedication to back up your rank which is why BJJ black belts are so highly regarded.

It’s about the Journey and not the Destination

Before we wrap up it’s worth considering this as it may sound cliché, but it really is true.

You shouldn’t get too hung up about moving up the ranks. If you are training regularly and putting in the effort to improve promotions will come in due course. Not everyone progresses at the same rate so it’s important to focus on developing your skills and not being too concerned if you think others are progressing quicker. You don’t magically become better because the colour of your belt has changed from the previous class you just become more of a target for lower ranks looking to prove themselves!