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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

25 March 2010

Book Review - BJJ: A Training Manual (Ricardo Da Silva & Ed Semple)

Short Review: As far as I'm aware, this is the only BJJ instructional book on the market which will fit in your coat pocket. It is also one of the very few by a BJJ instructor based in the UK, with an interesting take on BJJ history from a Sports Science PhD. The technical explanations rely heavily on text, rather than the exhaustive photography of a series like Ed Beneville. In many respects, this is a book reminiscent of Mastering Jujitsu, so fans of Renzo's book might well enjoy this too. Available to buy here.

Full Review: Last year, I spent a few months training under Ricardo at Nova Força in Surrey. While checking out his old website, I saw this book linked down the bottom left as 'our training manual'. It's written by Ricardo and Ed Semple, the owner of the sadly defunct Sleeping Storm Dojo, Nova Força's old home.

What got me interested in actually buying it was one of those Amazon 'look inside' previews, because that provided an opportunity to look at the opening section on BJJ history. As books on BJJ history are rare, I immediately became keen to pick this up.

BJJ: A Training Manual was one of the various books under the tree at Christmas last year. The history isn't quite as extensive as I'd hoped, but nevertheless it does provide a different perspective. Semple has a PhD in Sports Science, which he brings to bear in discussions throughout the book. He also has a black belt in judo, as well as training (at least at the time) under Ricardo in BJJ.

Nevertheless, it would appear that Semple (who I assume is the main writer here, with Ricardo providing technical input, but I could be wrong) is not afraid to criticise judo. I was surprised to see him say on page ten that "at this time [1900] judo had virtually no ground fighting techniques." While that is commonly stated in histories of BJJ, the denigration of judo groundwork is often a point of contention for judoka: I need only look at the comments to my own history post for some examples.

Semple views BJJ as a means to return judo to 'the streets'. He also attributes Maeda with the progression often claimed by Helio, saying that "Maeda refined the judo skills he had learnt so that he would win fights against opponents of all styles, sizes and abilities. Being relatively small, he knew that it was on the floor that he would dominate and win." Semple also emphasises the central importance of competition to BJJ, noting on page thirteen that:

What defined both Maeda and the Gracie family, and therefore their skill as fighters, was their willingness to fight anyone from any background. They believed absolutely in their skill and technique and thus they had the confidence and skill to take on and defeat anyone and everyone. Gracie jiu-jitsu schools throughout their history have issued a challenge to fighters from all styles and schools to come and fight them without rules. It is in these no-rules fights, or what were to become known as vale tudo (Portuguese for 'anything goes') fights, that the Gracie family and their students would evaluate, refine and develop the techniques. The family had little time for stylized patterns of practice or complex technical movements that helped a student to gain a higher belt or grade, they had one interest and one only – the development and execution of techniques that would defeat their opponents as quickly and efficiently as possible in the arena.

The question of size is another interesting point raised by Semple's history. As I've discussed recently, there is a long-standing myth that Helio was much smaller than those who came before him, necessitating a radically new approach to the techniques he learned. I remain dubious, and if Semple's statistics are accurate, that only strengthens my opinion.

Semple writes on page thirteen that "Carlos Gracie was a similar fighter to Maeda because, like him, he was relatively small at 61kg (135lb)." If Carlos was only 61kg, then it seems highly unlikely that Helio would require a different methodology, because both men clearly would not be able to rely on strength and size. I was surprised to see Semple go on to say that Carlson was also small, stating on page fourteen:

Carlson was also relatively small at 72.4kg (160lb), but he is acknowledged as one of the best Gracie fighters ever and as having had a huge influence on the technical development of Gracie jiu-jitsu. He altered many of the techniques his uncles had taught him because of his small stature and relative weakness and was to refine and develop many of these techniques so that they became even les reliant on strength and conditioning. He is quoted as saying that he could not get out of certain of the positions that he had been taught by his uncles so he had to invent new techniques to help him to escape from them.

Then again, that is also a little confusing. If Carlson was bigger than both his father and uncle, why would he need to modify their techniques to work for a smaller fighter? Either way, I thought this was intriguing, given that I've always imagined Carlson was a relatively large man, seeing how he is regarded as responsible for reaffirming the importance of athleticism in BJJ (something Semple discusses later). I guess the pictures of him in later life, where he certainly doesn't look small, give a misleading impression of his build in the early years. I've seen a few earlier pictures, like around the time Carlson fought Santana the first time, but assumed he bulked up shortly after that point.

Semple acknowledges the importance of judo, saying on page fifteen that "the influence of judo on Brazilian jiu-jitsu is immense and a fundamental part of whence it originates." However, he also states on page seventeen that BJJ has "a more sophisticated ground game," while judo has "become less and less effective on the ground," as a result of competition rules. In judo, "this formality, the restrictive rules and the move to emphasise stand-up techniques has diluted its effectiveness in the mixed martial arts," according to Semple, By contrast, "Brazilian jiu-jitsu has developed into an art that defines effective ground fighting and, as a result, is an essential part of mixed martial arts competition."

It is a comparatively brief history, but certainly more extensive than most other BJJ books, with the exception of Mastering Jujitsu, still the best combination of history with technique. I enjoyed Semple's unusual viewpoint, and for me it was the selling point of the book (which is also relatively inexpensive).

There are a few problems that run throughout the text, which appear to be down to printing errors. For example, there are no apostrophes. Instead, the text just has a space. The same thing happens with special charaters, like on 'Mata Leão'. In other places, letters are bunched together, though this was fairly infrequent.

As the book is text-heavy, that makes those lapses in formatting more noticeable. Rather than mainly describing techniques through illustrations, Semple and Da Silva prefer to explain each move step-by-step in large chunks of prose. There are photographs as well, but nothing like as many as, say, Ed Beneville's densely packed volumes. This has its advantages: BJJ: A Training Manual is much smaller than the other instructional books I own, meaning that it is the only one which I could easily carry in my bag on the train, or even a coat pocket.

The authors cover off a number of basic drills in the first chapter, like shrimping, but generally just a couple of pictures. As before, it mainly relies on text. The chapter also begins another general trend, which is the importance of physical conditioning and taking care of your body. Unlike many instructionals, such as No Gi Essentials, Semple and Da Silva advocate bridging off your head, like a wrestler. This is because it is a great exercise for strengthening your neck: the authors emphasise that BJJ is designed for practical fighting, so you need to be in shape.

Indeed, the authors then go further: BJJ is for fighting everyone: "Many of the techniques you will learn have not just been developed so that you can fight other Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters, but so that such fighters are also effective against other styles." That leads into the next chapter, on takedowns, as you need to get your opponent to the ground. All the usual techniques are discussed, such as the double-leg, along with defences like the sprawl.

Chapter Four explores the guard, starting with 'basic guard' (which is what I would call closed guard). Butterfly guard follows, as does spider guard, then submissions. Semple and Da Silva run through the classic trio of armbar, triangle and omoplata, choosing to demonstrate the triangle off spider guard.

I found their description of the other fundamental submission, a cross choke, a little confusing. This is because it contradicts what I've learned in class. Here's how the book describes it:

Place your hand palm up underneath the collar of his gi and drive the hand as deep as possible. It is important that your hand is on the opposite side of your partner's neck so that your arm crosses his body. Your fingers are inside the collar of the gi but your thumb is outside the collar. This gives you a good grip. You then do exactly the same with the other hand on the other side of your partner's body. Make sure that you have a really deep grip and then simply pull down on his gi and open your elbows outwards. This will pull his head forwards toward you and drive the blade of your forearms against his neck. This will cut off his air supply and will force him to submit.

The specific part I'm referring to is flaring the elbows to complete the choke. I had thought that was a mistake, as it makes it easier to defend the submission: you simply wrap over the arms and drive them together, which blocks the choke. That is why I have normally seen instructors emphasise twisting your grips to block off their arteries, which is more difficult to defend.

Chapter Five moves on to the half guard, first showing how to get up on your side from the bottom. On top, Da Silva and Semple plump for the shoulder pressure pass, before explaining two submissions, a kimura from underneath and an arm triangle on top. Passing the guard is up next, and unfortunately it kicks off with a pet hate of mine.

Page sixty-four suggests digging your elbows into your partners' inner thighs to force their guard open, basically using brute force and pain compliance. It is a legitimate technique, but I personally dislike it: I find Saulo's technical approach much more appealing. However, digging the elbows in seems to fit with the tough, no-nonsense attitude of Semple and Da Silva's book.

Da Silva and Semple follow with a far more pleasant alternative from standing, where you control their arm before you get your feet, then push on their knee to open the guard. The chapter closes with an open guard pass, pushing the opponent's feet to their head and passing around their legs.

The focus then shifts to a chapter on side control, covering both the basics of the position and a few submission attacks. As is common with numerous other instructionals, knee-on-belly and north-south are treated as subsets of side control, with several arm bars from each of those positions.

Semple makes the statement on page seventy-three that "Brazilian jiu-jitsu has evolved into a much more complex and comprehensive fighting art on the floor than judo has." Again, as Semple is a black belt in judo himself, it is interesting that he feels it necessary to make this criticism (though it is one many BJJers would agree with). However, as the next chapter on the mount demonstrates, Semple and Da Silva are not blind to BJJ's flaws. The most glaring of these is striking, something for which a BJJ fighter is ill-equipped. As they go on to state, "the complete fighter must be able to fight standing up as well as on the floor."

Chapter Eight covers the mount and its submissions: the authors decided to take the armbar and a cross choke. Chapter Nine is similarly straightforward, demonstrating how to take the back, then secure a rear naked choke. That leads into two other powerful submissions from the back, the bow and arrow choke, then finally an armbar.

After all those finishing holds, Semple and Da Silva emphasise in the next chapter that submissions aren't everything. Instead, they cover sweeps, which also provides them with the opportunity to make an essential point about attitude in training:

Do not think that you always have to finish and submit your partner during practice. This can be counter-productive, especially if your partner is less skilled than you and therefore relatively easy to finish. One of the best drills you can do in Brazilian jiu-jitsu is to fight but with no finishing techniques, so that you and your partner and constantly fighting and striving for better positions from which to control one another.

That fits in perfectly with the philosophy I have always tried to follow in BJJ, as exemplified by my favourite thread of all time. As gratifying as tapping people can be, it does not necessarily result in a fulfilling or worthwhile training experience, especially if it becomes your only goal in class.

The chapter kicks off with the 'hugging sweep', which is a variation on the flower sweep. The motion is the same, but the difference appears to be in the control: their arm is across their body, clamped in place by reaching around their back and pulling them close. This is also how I first learned the flower sweep at RGA: Kev's more recent class made the technique seem far less complex.

Semple and Da Silva continue with a flower sweep off an armbar, before completing that segment with a basic sweep from butterfly guard. The final technique is unusual, even though it is normally the first sweep you learn: the ankle grab. The surprise element is that the authors do not suggest you push on the hips or into the stomach. Instead, they open their legs wide and press just above the knees.

Escapes are covered next, with a selection of defences to the triangle and armbar, then trap and roll from mount, brought to a close by tips on freeing yourself from back mount. There are also two important theoretical points, at the stard and end of the chapter. First, the authors comment that:

in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as in any other sport, you need to have some humility and not be too self-important to be submitted by your partners. Of course, nobody wants to be submitted, but you must put yourself in difficult situations to develop the skills necessary to cope with them.

Second, Da Silva and Semple make a recommendation I think is essential to keep in mind, and it is something I try to do after every spar: ask questions. While it can occasionally feel a bit awkward, especially if you're a beginner, getting feedback from sparring partners is hugely beneficial.

The last two chapters are entirely different, as they do not discuss technique. Instead, they focus on nutrition and the correct approach to training. Chapter Twelve is called 'Eat Like A BJJ Fighter', breaking down the main constituents of a good BJJ diet, like water, carbohydrates, protein and so on. There was also a potentially useful point on eating a small, protein rich meal, if your class times mean you always end up coming home late.

Chapter Thirteen is similarly entitled 'Train Like A BJJ Fighter', and begins with another interesting point: according to the authors, health and fitness are not the same thing. Health is judged by indicators like cholesterol, diet and blood pressure. Semple writes that, by contrast, "fitness tests will look at how quickly you can run or what weight you can lift." That leads into the point that even if you may gain fitness from BJJ, "only a healthy lifestyle will help you to stay healthy."

The focus in that closing chapter in on fitness, so the authors discuss class elements like the warm-up, drilling, sparring, and the all-important warm-down, something far too many classes forget to include. From both a personal and historical perspective, this part of the book was also notable for the pictures. The old dojo at Sleeping Storm is no more, but many of the people you'll see in these pictures, including the one near the start of the review, are still training with Ricardo at Nova Força. I'm guessing that the final picture, which is captioned 'the founders of Brazilian jiu jitsu UK', refers to the club, rather than the advent of the sport in this country (as that title would rightly fall to someone like Maurição Gomes or Chen Morales, or perhaps Arlans Siqueira).

This is a short, easily portable book, with the relatively unique selling point of coming from a UK BJJ instructor, who also happens to have been one of the first in the country. There are details on history, diet and training approach, along with plenty of basic techniques, explained thoroughly through text, with a few accompanying photos. If you liked Mastering Jujitsu, you may well like this too. Available to buy here.

1 comment:

  1. I've just training BJJ with Ricardo whilst my Judo club is closed for the summer months and was looking at getting this book so it was great to read your review.
    Also that link to the Bullshido post about BJJ training and not being afraid of tapping or losing to lower belts was very interesting. My last two posts on my blog are about my first 2 BJJ lessons, if you get the time go take a look an dlet me know what you think.