Criteria for Rank in BJJ

This is a really touchy subject.  I have seen adults act like children when it comes to getting promoted in BJJ!

What creates some of this frustration is that most schools do not have a clear set of requirements for advancement.   I understand why students can get frustrated.

It took my 11 years to achieve my black belt, and now as an instructor I can shed some light on what instructors are looking for.

You may wonder what your instructor is thinking.  When in doubt, trust your instructor.  You may ask them where they think you are at, and what you need to do to improve, but you don’t need to ask when you are getting your next belt.  Your instructor may be right in assuming that you are over focused on the belt instead of getting better!

I have to mention that not all rank promotions are fair.  We are dealing with human beings, and everybody makes mistakes.  Occasionally I have seen some students promoted too soon, but more common is that students get held back.  Every instructor has their own criteria, and I am not making a judgment about what I think is right and wrong.  This article will just give you an idea what some of the criteria are.

Rolling Ability

This is the most important consideration of most instructors for promoting students.   I heard one famous instructor say “My black belts don’t get tapped by brown belts, my brown belts don’t lose to my purples, my purples don’t lose to blue belts, and my blue belts don’t get tapped by the white belts.”  I don’t believe this is always true.  But it will be true most of the time.

At some point you have to try out new techniques and strategies, and whenever you work with something new, it probably won’t be done with perfect timing and technique.  I have heard a world champion say that he sometimes gets caught by his brown belts.  I have a lot of respect for him for that because that means that he keeps expanding his abilities.

But if your instructor wants to see your best, that is not the time to try out new techniques.

Most instructors will consider the age and size of the student they are considering for promotion compared to other students, but they want to see a blue belt consistently beating most of the blue belts and sometimes catching purples before they are promoted to purple, for example.

What sets BJJ apart from almost every martial art is that every match ends with one person tapping.  In the stand up arts, if you are not hitting each other with full power, you don’t always know what would have happened.  You may have landed a hook with the front arm to their jaw, they may have landed a kick to your kidneys, but you don’t really know what would have happened.

It is a good thing that each rank is able to control position and submit lower ranks.  It keeps the ranks tied to the reality of who can execute vs. a resisting and trained partner.  It makes this art difficult to be promoted in because you actually have to represent the rank.  If a person wears a brown belt and regularly gets tapped by blue belts, it devalues the rank and the art.

One exception to this is the students who are black belts in one area or one technique of Jiu-Jitsu.  I am thinking of Lloyd Irvin’s student, Ryan Hall.  He was a purple belt and was regularly tapping black belts with the triangle choke.  He was  black belt in the triangle, but not necessarily in all other areas of Jiu-Jitsu.  When you are a rank, almost all of your abilities should be that rank: a black belt has black mount escapes, black belt side escapes, black belt guard passing, etc…

Time Training (how many years)

Some students are less athletic, may be older, smaller, so their rolling may not be their strongest area.  If they are a little weaker in their rolling ability, they will need to make up for it in other areas, like amount of time training, knowledge and teaching ability.  However, Jiu-Jitsu is about leverage and technique.

Training Frequency (how often per week)

Someone that trains 6 days per week is going to grow much faster than a student who trains twice per week.  But I have heard several instructors say that it takes years to really understand Jiu-Jitsu and training 6 days per week does not give you the depth of understanding that years of training gives you.

Knowledge and Teaching Ability

Some instructors place little emphasis on this and some more, but like I mentioned under total time training, if a student is not able to compete with other students physically, they need to make up for it in other areas.

Competition Record

Some school require competition to get ranked.  They may tell their students to win the blue belt division at a major tournament, or several small tournaments, in order to get purple.  This can help maintain the integrity of the rank in that you can be somewhat sure that whoever wins a major tournament can represent the rank above them.

Attitude, Service to the School or Organization, & the Loyalty Factor

This is not something that will get you promoted as much as if you violate the loyalty rule, you can be sure that you won’t be promoted.  One of the best ways to not get promoted is to train at a lot of different schools!  When instructors feel that you are disloyal, many will become very cold with you, and may even kick you out.  Most instructors will tell some version of a common story, “I trained ________ for 3 years, put a lot of work into that guy, then he switched over to ________ and now he’s winning tournaments with that guy’s logo on his back, and they are getting all the credit, and I am getting none.”

There is even a term in Portuguese for students who jump from teacher: “creonte.”

The Bottom Line

Earning rank in BJJ is no easy task.  Anything worth having is worth working for and a rank in BJJ is a perfect example.

13 Responses to “Criteria for Rank in BJJ”

  1. Shawn says:

    Yea… This is definitely a touchy subject with many people.

    I have seen grown ups act like 3 year olds when it comes to wanting to get ranked before their time. As well as the purple belt who still wears a white belt due to being held back and not given their deserved belt.

    In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I say… When you are ready, you will be promoted.

    It is unlike every other style out there due to the time and proficiency required for promotion. Show me another art that requires on average 10-12 years of regular, consistent training and growth to reach Black Belt.

    Unlike many of the stand up arts that have been (in my opinion) bastardized by the “Western Mindset” of pay me and I will promote you, in BJJ that is just not possible.

    And for that, I respect it that much more.

    Back in the day, about 13 years ago when I was one of the first teaching BJJ I used to tell my beginning students to not worry about rank. When they were ready for Blue Belt, I would let them know.

    That was how it was for me. We did not have traditional testing back then. After you had been there long enough and were consistently beating everyone else your rank, you were told to go get your next belt and come to the appropriate classes.

    This way, you would focus on what was important… Training, getting better and learning new moves, set-ups, strategies, etc…

    I say relax with the thought of promotion, pretend there are no such thing as belts and you are only there to learn and grow every time.

    In this way… We relax and let it flow…

  2. Eric Smith says:

    I wasn’t going to comment until later on this one but I’m all riled up now thinking about the WANNABE’S. I sometimes feel sorry for BJJ black belts who have dedicated years to training, sacrifice and patience, only to have to deal with the immaturity, foolish-childish behavior of wannabe lower ranked colored belts. I can understand why black belts only want to train with other black belts…where the focus is on TRAINING, IMPROVING AND GROWING rather than getting another ‘Scooby Snack’ in the form of a colored belt. Wannabe’s….Bah Hum Bug. Just like Mr. T, I pity the fools!!!! I will give more edifying comments later…this is my rant for the moment.

    Until later, That’s All Folks…
    Eric Smith

  3. Eric Smith says:

    Many of you know that I am a JKD (Jeet Kune Do) practitioner so here’s something that I think is good for perspective and food for thought. This is meant as a means to accelerate ‘true’ progress, ability and understanding.

    Bruce Lee did not award colored belts as other martial arts schools do–as an indicator of progress in his method of martial philosophy. Doing so, he believed, would only be rewarding and encouraging an individual’s ability to ‘accumulate knowledge,’ which was definitely a step in the wrong direction: Learning is definitely not mere imitation, nor is it the ability to accumulate and regurgitate fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery–a process without end. In JKD, we begin not by accumulation but by discovering the cause of our ignorance—a discovery that involves a shedding process.

    Good training to you all.

  4. Shawn says:


    Good addition Eric

  5. Dave Rybski says:

    I thought we were done with the whole “my way is better than your way” approach to martial arts. I just don’t understand how people can claim to be true martial artists, yet get all riled up about who trains with whom. We live in a world where we have the choice of where to train and we also have the choice to choose our own path in martial arts. Instructors are there to guide us, but if an individual feels their growth can benefit from multiple instructors or even multiple schools, who has the right to deny them of that choice? Loyalty is earned through attention to student’s goals and how a school or instructor conducts themselves. Instructors need to leave their egos at the door too.

  6. Billy Holman says:

    Hi everyone, I am obviously not a regular on this site, but I’ve recently picked back up on the martial arts quest. however, I do not have the money to train at any dojo in my area. I was wondering if one of you guys knew a place I could go where it does not cost me an arm and a leg to train, but still has dedication to it’s students. If you know of a place, I would appreciate the help. I live in clinton township, MI, have a black belt in shotokan karate, and have basic training in Bo staff, Kali, and combat jiu jitsu. Also, I am 17 years old, if that makes a difference at all.

  7. Ryan says:

    I totally agree. You can learn from anyone regardless of rank.

  8. WhiteToBlack says:

    Pity instructors get upset when you move on to another school. It’s a part of life and they’re running a business – they don’t do you any favours with fees but they get upset if you move on to someone else – is it possibly because they’re now losing money ? BJJ has become a business and instructors who really get to know a student may be upset but I’d say in the majority of cases its the loss of fees (or prestige / marketing potential if you win tournamnets) that really upsets them.

  9. chuck says:

    Great article! This topic is discussed where i train regularly as we often wonder what is the criteria. I like how the article is laid out and agree with everything except the loyalty piece. I can say I was 100% taken back by that attitude the journey is that of the member taking the path and his alone. He or she has to put that gi/belt on and train …should they decide to train somewhere else should be respected as all schools are different and they may find another that compliments them better. The only reason I can see someone getting upset possibly is if they trained you for free.

  10. Wolfen says:

    Excuse my ignorance, but if like you say, a black belt must be a black belt in all areas and not just in one particular technique. Then would that make the black belts who got regularly submitted by Ryan Hall (as a purple belt) not fully equipped to be at black belt standard?

  11. Ryan says:

    Hi Wolfen,
    That’s a good question.
    There are different levels of black belt. Black belts submit each other all the time in tournaments. Ryan Hall’s triangle was at a level higher than many black belts ability to defend it. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t black belts- they may both be at black belt level, but Hall may have spent 150 hours training getting into the triangle and the other black belts may have spent on average 100 hours.
    Thanks for your question. Take care!

  12. Eternal whitebelt says:

    Here are the issues i think 90% of students have with belt promotions and who gets promoted when. In some schools/academy’s/dojo’s etc…it has become basically a pyramid scheme, where the instructor makes the all the $$$, while the “underlings” (lower ranks/students) must mindlessly and UNQUESTIONABLY pay monthly fee’s, testing fee’s, belt fee’s, etc. are expected to be “Loyal” and when you finally do get some degree of rank, you are expected to teach, and cover for your instructor. The real hypocrisy that is at the root of students frustration is the politics and greed involved in a large number (not all but alot) of the reasons for students being held back. 90 % of the time it is either ego or greed that keeps a lower belt stuck. I have seen instructors hold back young 17-24 year olds, just to keep them in a certain division, to sand bag at competitions. basically using that guy as a marketing tool. then hear that instructor bash the guy when he leaves to another school, calling him dis-loyal or saying he just left cuz “he can just pay that other guy for his next promotion rather than earn it.”

    I find it insulting when an instructor (and i have heard them) tells a student, “you have to be on time with your monthly fee’s, this is a business” or “i am running a business here, not a charity” but then gets mad or offended when that CUSTOMER (which is basically what the instructor has now made him) asks a very understandable question of “what do I have to do to get promoted?” or leaves to another school…i find it highly entertaining how martial arts instructors (across the board not, just bjj) Think they get to have both sides of the argument, WHEN it suits their needs of course.

    this is what i have to say i have learned in life. If someone is too insecure to allow you to have friends and learn from outside of their defined circle, they probably are holding you back. If someone wants a one-sided relationship, where no matter how you slice it, you either do it their way of NO WAY at all, they are using you. IF someone tells you that questioning their way or their authority is wrong, immoral, dis-loyal, etc., they are usually trying to manipulate and control you.

  13. NewtoBJJ says:

    Eternal whitebelt,

    I agree fully with what you say. I have been in other martial arts, and come across the same problem. I had a situation where it wasn’t money, it was time, and lets just say the instructor wasn’t pleased at all. Lucky enough, I’ve only came across this problem once. But instructor ego can get in the way sometimes.

    With that being said, I encourage people who want to do BJJ or any martial art for that matter to research on the school and the instructor. I’m not saying to talk to someone who is already there,of course they’re going to say it’s great. But by making sure an academy, dojo, or what ever is a member of the BBB and check the rating of the academy and what complaints if any have been made and/or resolved. That is just one of many ways to do it. You can also check the lineage of the instructor as well to make sure they are legit.

    One other thing I suggest is to advice people who want to join martial arts. Is to let them know you are pretty much joining a college. You pay to learn something and at the same time you have to follow rules and ethics of the school. Otherwise you can be forced to leave.

    It is very easy to get close with the instructors and you can make a lot of friends but it is a business overall. So remember pay your fees.

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