The open guard is extremely versatile. It’s the perfect set up for doing a sweep, performing a chokehold, and so much more. And while it’s one of the oldest types of guard in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), it actually traces its roots to Japan. After all, it was a student of Kanō Jigorō who brought it to Brazil (Kanō, a Japanese athlete, is the founder of Judo).
Today, the open guard style is one of the most effective and most important skills to learn if you want to win your next sparring or grappling match.
In this BJJ guide, we’ll break down the components of the open guard. Then, we’ll explore five specific exercises and drills for improving your open guard. Together, they’ll strengthen the right muscles and helps you to finetune the biomechanics you need to improve your guard game.
How to Improve Your Open Guard
Whether it’s the De La Riva guard or the butterfly guard, each specific style has its own distinct pros and cons. And while the technique may differ slightly from guard to guard, they all have a few things in common:
- Your grip and control are fundamental to preventing your opponent from breaking your grip.
- Flexibility and mobility are key to maintaining tension.
- Proprioception (i.e. self-awareness of how your body is positioned in space) helps keep you stabilized in dynamic, changing situations.
By using a variety of exercises and drills, you can sharpen your technical skills and strengthen the joints and muscles required for all of the above.
Grip Fighting and Control
In contrast with a closed guard, where you need to focus on full-body strength and coordination, an open guard moves the emphasis to the muscles of your hands, forearms, and biceps for a strong grip.
Grip is important when you are grappling, especially in a gi.
For instance, the spider guard requires you to grip your opponent’s sleeves, and proper forearm and hand strength are necessary for maintaining control of the other person while your legs hook their knees.
The same is true in a sitting open guard, where you’ll grip the gi’s lapel to hold the other person at a distance.
Even without a gi, your grip strength is critical. For example, in the butterfly guard, many MMA fighters use a strong bearhug grip to control their opponents.
Building your grip strength requires several muscle groups primarily in your fingers, wrist, and forearms. There are also some important differences between your isometric strength (ability to hold onto a heavyweight) and your range of motion (staying stable while your opponent moves). The proper exercise and drills will target all of the above.
Importance of Flexibility and Mobility Movements
Don’t just focus on brute strength. How easily does your body move when you’re grappling?
Flexibility and mobility are important for responding to your opponent’s movements and adjusting your body positioning for maximum efficacy.
Both the closed guard and open guard require a lot of flexion in your hips, back and shoulders. It’s the basis for maintaining leverage against your opponent and, when necessary, moving into a defensive posture.
If you want a dynamic open guard that’s hard to pass, you need warmed-up muscles, tendons, and joints that are flexible and able to complete a full range of motion. This is why jiu-jitsu practitioners make stretching and mobility exercise a part of their regular routines.
For instance, if your muscles are too constricted, you may not be able to keep a triangle choke locked. Or, if you have tight hamstrings, you may have difficulty with guard retention.
American Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner Tom DeBlass estimates that doing regular drills can help you build your BJJ skills four times faster than just sparring. Why? This is in part because:
- Drills build your proprioception (how your body is positioned)
- Drills enhance muscle memory, helping you to react quickly and accurately to your opponent’s movements without having to pause and think
- Drills build your coordination
If you’re serious about levelling up in your BJJ game, find a reliable, trusted partner with whom you can do partner drills. It takes your exercises to the next level, helping you to practice your next sparring fight.
5 Exercises to Improve Your Guard Game
The following BJJ workouts and drills will target the specific muscle groups required to boost your BJJ open guard game.
1. Gi Pull-Ups
Both pull-ups and chin-ups target your forearms and improve your grip. However, the best workout for your open guard should mimic the exact type of grip you’ll perform in BJJ.
A traditional pull-up uses a pronated grip, meaning your palms are facing away from your body. A chin-up using a supinated grip, meaning your palms face towards you.
But a neutral grip pull-up has your palms facing each other, which best imitates how you’ll grab the lapel of your opponent’s gi in a fight.
- Grab the parallel bars on your pull-up bar so your palms are facing inward, or toss a gi over the main crossbeam and grab each hanging end of the gi.
- Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended and your feet off the floor.
- Brace your core, exhale hard, and pull yourself up while keeping your elbows tight against your body.
- Pause once your chin has passed the bar.
- Inhale, then lower yourself back down into a hanging position.
- Aim for three sets of 10-12 reps.
2. Figure-Eight Flutter Kick with a Medicine Ball
You need a strong core when grappling, when trying to change directions swiftly, or when you’re trying to pass the guard.
Plus, a powerful core is essential for transferring the kinetic energy between your upper and lower body. It’s also key when you’re performing an open guard while attempting to sweep or do a similar move.
The flutter kick doesn’t just hit your abdominal muscles. It activates your back muscles, which helps you lock in a hold, as well as your hip flexors and quads (important for sweeps and kicks). By adding a medicine ball, the extra weight boosts the workout intensity so you ramp up the results even faster.
- Lie on a yoga mat or similarly supportive surface.
- Raise your upper body and legs off the ground so that your knees are at the same level as your shoulders.
- Hold a medicine ball in front of your chest.
- Raise your right knee up and straighten your left leg while simultaneously passing the medicine ball from the left to the right, under your right knee.
- Grab the ball with your right hand while simultaneously straightening your right knee and raising your left leg.
- Pass the ball from right to left, under your left knee. That’s one rep.
- Repeat for 30 seconds and increase either the time or the medicine ball’s weight if you find it too easy.
3. Static and Dynamic Stretching
There’s a reason BJJ pros like Keenan Cornelius talk about the benefits of yoga. Regular mobility work and stretching helps you with the spider guard and other guard positions where you extend your knee. It also brings additional benefits, such as improving your high kick and helping to prevent numerous athletic injuries.
All forms of static and dynamic stretching are helpful. The following are just a few examples of helpful stretches for a jiu jitsu practitioner’s guard game.
90/90 Hip Stretch:
- Sit facing forward with both legs in front of you, bent at 45-degree angles, with your heels on the floor.
- Turn to your right and lean your legs to the right, resting against the ground.
- Check your form. Your lead leg (your right leg) should now be bent at a 90-degree angle with your heel stacked under your right knee. Your left leg should also be bent at a 90-degree angle with your knee, leg and heel forming a straight line.
- Turn back to center, raising your knees with you.
- Turn to the left, repeating the above but with the opposite legs.
90/90 Isometric Contractions:
- Get into the first 90/90 position as noted above.
- Use your hands to gently push the knee on your leading leg down for 15-20 seconds. Go for as deep of a push as possible.
- Contract your hip muscles and lift that leading leg as high as possible for 15-20 seconds.
- Return to the starting position.
- Push down on your back leg (the anterior part of your knee) for 15-20 seconds.
- Contract your hip flexors for that rear leg and lift your knee and ankle as high as possible.
- Flip over to the opposite side and repeat.
Seated Forward Bend:
- Sit on the floor with your legs stretched in front of you, spread apart as wide as they can go.
- While actively pressing down into your heels and legs, lean forward at the hips.
- Lengthen, trying to push your tailbone away from your pelvis while stretching your arms outward and pressing your palms to the ground.
- Hold this position for 20-30 seconds, gently bouncing to get deeper into this stretch.
4. Inverted Wall Walk
You’ll practice getting used to being inverted and adjusting to the angle of fending off your opponent’s guard passing attempts while tucked up and upside down. It’s a great way to get used to the type of weight shifting and mobility you need to get under your combatant.
- Find a sturdy wall at your gym or martial arts studio.
- Lie down with your head away from the wall and your feet pressed against the wall. You should be spaced far enough away that you form 90-degree angles with your knees and your hips
- Press down into your left foot and pass your right foot under your left leg.
- Tuck your head against your right shoulder and continue to shift your weight to the right.
- Continue pressing into your left foot while tucking and rolling so that you’re rolling over your right shoulder and upper back.
- Pivot your feet back to the starting position, then repeat in the opposite direction.
5. Spider Guard Drill with Gi Belt
You don’t need a partner for this drill, and it helps you to practice the spider guard. With the spider guard, you’re using both your grip strength and hooking one leg behind his knee or hip for control.
This drill lets you go through the movements for familiarity. The tension of the belt also builds mobility in your legs and hips on multiple planes, and you can adjust the belt’s tightness to address any areas that feel especially tight.
- Lie down on your back with your legs in the air and your back gently rounded.
- Bring the gi belt around your feet, holding both ends of the belt with your hands. For added grip, wrap the ends of the belt around your hands one or two times.
- Rock to the left. Push your right leg up and forward while bringing your left leg gently back, all while maintaining tension with the belt.
- Rock back to the starting position, then rock to the right and push your left leg up and forward while bringing your right leg back. Your arms should be moving in unison to keep that pressure on your lower body.
- After a few rounds, add one more step: When you’re rocking to the left side, remove your left foot and hook it around the belt so that the top of your foot is pressed against the belt. Repeat for the opposite side.
In summary, if you want to improve your BJJ open guard game, your goal is threefold:
- Do grip and core exercises to prepare yourself for all forms of open guard.
- Stretch to give yourself the flexion and extension you need to fend off your opponent’s attempts to pass the guard.
- Perform drills that get you in touch with how your body feels in different movements and situations, and to improve your coordination and muscle memory when you’re in the heat of a fight.
These three approaches work well for a warm-up and a cool-down on your regular training days.
But top-performing BJJ pros also use them daily as a form of active recovery.
Maintaining a daily ritual of stretching and doing drills won’t just improve your BJJ flexibility, mobility, and open guard game. It will also lend itself to your overall fitness and injury prevention, and making a habit of it will take you to new levels.