I’ll start right up front and say I can’t imagine where I’d be without the gi. When I started training, I had no idea what the gi was for. It could have been a simple sweat collection device for all I could tell. Over the last few years, my appreciation for the gi has grown with my understanding of how I can use it to build my skills. Most people seem to regard it as a heavy uniform that they are forced to wear and it’s uncomfortable and slows them down. As soon as class is over, they switch to shorts and t-shirt for open mat. They might have more fun and be more comfortable, but I don’t think most people fully appreciate what the gi can do for them.
Angle 1: Defense
The first angle that is under appreciated is that the gi forces you to become better at defense. Every grip that someone gets on your gi is a problem, and it hinders your offense. You have to be worried about cross collar chokes, amassa pao, loop chokes, clock chokes, baseball bat chokes, bread cutter chokes. . . the list goes on and on and on. All those chokes that use the gi teach you to protect your neck. You get in the habit of keeping your hands at the ready to defend your neck against all types of gi and no-gi chokes.
The defense training is also important when it comes to posture and balance. If someone can control your weight, you are a moment away from a sweep. If they can break your posture, you are in danger of all types of submissions. Learning how to maintain proper posture and weight distribution is a critical skill, and learning it under circumstances where your opponent can use your gi against you forces you to take your defense very seriously.
I think the ease of attacking someone in a gi is part of the reason people avoid it. When you can grapple no-gi and escape all kinds of positions that the gi wouldn’t allow, you feel like you are doing better. This isn’t good for your long term development. You might be having more fun now, but you aren’t building good habits. If you are used to being able to slip out of someones control because your sweat makes you slippery, or you can use strength to pull a limb from danger, you are getting a momentary benefit along with a habit you will eventually have to break. High level jiu-jitsu players know how to control you even if you are slippery. If you depend on technique that only works against people who aren’t highly skilled, you are going to be someone that isn’t highly skilled.
When you have a gi on, you learn that if you are in someones guard and you step up a leg too close to them, they can grab your pants and initiate a sweep that might be much harder to perform with a grip on just your leg. So your natural learning process teaches you to keep your leg away. This habit translates perfectly into no-gi grappling and prevents even higher level players from having a chance of controlling you. You learn that if you lean too far forward in the guard, your opponent can control your lapel very easily and use it to break your posture and initiate attacks. In no-gi, they have to use your neck and skull to work with. If you are already disciplined in keeping your head away from them, then any grip they get on your head or neck is going to be far less effective than if you are used to relying on being slippery.
Angle 2: Offense
Now, let’s talk offense. It is far easier to learn effective defense than it is to learn offense. Your opponents gi serves as an equalizer. Instead of having to be perfect to get sweeps and submissions, the gi can act as a crutch to let you use less effort and skill to manipulate your opponent. As your skill increases, you can rely less and less on the gi, and more on controlling the persons bone structure and natural gripping points on muscles like lats.
The gi also opens up a world of guard play and offensive techniques by using your own gi or your opponents gi. I am perfectly happy using either persons gi to choke out my opponent. I can also rely on friction for some moves and less on my grips This sets up habits that translate into minimizing the space between me and my opponent when I do no-gi. For example, when I perform an arm bar, I often wrap one of my arms around my opponents arm, maximizing the contact between our arms. It’s like two wires twisted together. When I do this in gi, it creates more friction and also helps me to fully control their entire arm. When I transition to no-gi, the friction isn’t there, but the habit of fully controlling their arm remains.
Taking advantage of your opponents gi also opens up tons of techniques that don’t exist in no-gi. These extra options give rise to the “human chess” aspect of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You get used to seeing more opportunities and options, and when you switch to no-gi, you are more than capable of dealing with the more limited set of choices presented to you. Training in the gi is like having a superset of no-gi. Everything you can do in no-gi can be performed in a gi, while the reverse simply isn’t true.
When I train in the gi, my preference is to treat any technique that has a 1:1 equivalency in no-gi as if I am training no-gi. This means if I am getting a grip on an elbow, I try to control the elbow, not the material. If I am getting grips at the waist, I try to cup the crest of the hip bone in my palm, rather than get a simple grip on the pants. This has also caused me some trouble. I have actually been scolded in class for not using the gi when it is available. Of course, that makes sense. I still sneak in pure bone structure manipulation during my reps, but I also try to remind myself to use the material when it’s there.
To sum up offense and training in gi, I’ll simply state that the gi serves as a crutch early on, and as a mind expander later.
What does this imply?
In light of these observations on defense and offense when training in the gi, the next question is what kind of gi will maximize the training advantages of the gi? You will see all kinds of recommendations on the internet about choosing a gi with heavy, hard to grip lapels. You’ll also see some say that thick material is better because it’s tougher and harder for your opponent to grip. Or the sleeves should be “BJJ” cut, instead of “Judo” cut. That is just another way of saying narrow vs. wide.
The common theme you see is people are treating the gi as a collection of elements that they want to combine to make their opponent’s life as difficult as possible. This, to me, goes completely against why I want to have a gi on me. I want my opponent to be able to grab on to me. In fact, I enjoy grappling where my opponent is no-gi and I am in my gi. Common mat etiquette says that if one person is gi and one is no-gi, the no-gi person should not use the opponents gi against him. When I start a sparring session with someone who doesn’t have a gi on, I explicitly ask them to use my gi. I want to be at a disadvantage. I want to be forced to be better than I would have to be if I simply switched to no-gi like my sparring partner did.
My desire to be at a disadvantage constantly pushes me to be better. This also has the benefit that cheap gis are perfect for my goals. I don’t need a fancy trim BJJ gi. I prefer loose cut, cheap beginner Judo gis that my opponent can get massive grips of any kind on. I get to practice avoiding grips, and I get to practice grip stripping under the most difficult circumstances. This style of thinking also helps when I train with less skilled opponents. It gives them more of a fighting chance, and we both have more productive sparring sessions. When I train with more skilled opponents, my weaknesses are exposed quicker and I quickly learn what not to do.
You’d think that I would compete in a jiu-jitsu gi that gives my opponent the hardest time controlling me. If I were training jiu-jitsu for one competition, that might be a good choice. Instead, I choose to use the same gi I train with every day, and I don’t care if that gives someone a theoretical advantage. My goal is more than competition. I want to be the best I can possibly be, and competitions are just a more serious training ground where I can put my skills to the test against other people who want to win just as much as I do. Just as I want adversity in daily training to increase my skills as quickly as possible, I want adversity in competition. I want to compete and train just out of my comfort zone. Perhaps when I’m a black belt I might start competing in a way that maximizes my chances of winning, but for now, it’s more valuable to me to go in with the cheap gi and find out where my weaknesses are.
I hope this encourages more people to train in their gi more often. I shoot for a minimum of 75% of my time in gi for class and open mat. Sometimes that drifts up to 100% because I’m more likely to give up a no-gi class if my schedule requires less time on the mat. Make a commitment to train in the gi more often. I am just a successful in no-gi competition as gi, and I attribute that to how much time I put in with my gi. Even 100% isn’t too much, especially for a fundamentals student.