February 2, 2016

To Gi or Not to Gi – That is the Question

When it comes to jiu jitsu, there’s a spectrum of attire, from minimal to traditional, that can cast practitioners into very specific camps. Training with a gi or kimono is the domain of classic Gracie Jiu Jitsu, judo/ne-waza, and Sambo. Submission grapplers, as well as collegiate, Greco and catch wrestlers, favor compression shirts, fight shorts, singlets, etc.

This subject of what to wear on the mat can be tremendously divisive in the grappling community. I once politely listened to a young fighter explain, prior to a class, why he refused to train in a gi. Something about it not being realistic. This was the same reason, he added, why he didn’t read fiction. Only history and biographies for him, apparently, because that was the “real world”. When he paused to catch his breath, I adjusted my lapels, tightened my belt and said, “Well, Never Come Morning is a hell of a book. Your loss.”

By the same token, I’ve known plenty of practitioners who have a closets full of Atamas, Gameness, Fuji, etc. but struggle to recall the last time they put on a rashguard.

The good news is that there’s a third faction of grappler — the majority, I think — that sidesteps the gi/no-gi debate by balancing training in both. Instead of preaching some rubber guard gospel or breathlessly telling you how they scored a used Shoyoroll on eBay for $300, they put their energy equally in to gi and no-gi training, and to excellent effect. The gi/no-gi debate feels, in truth, like a simple discussion that has been spun up into manufactured controversy. Most grapplers enjoy training both because training both simply makes you a better grappler.

When training partners ask me which one I prefer, I say, “Why choose? Sharpen both edges of the sword.”

The benefits I’ve observed in training no-gi have been:

  • Improved sensitivity to timing for transitions, setups, sweeps and attacks
  • Developing unconscious reactions that chain responsive moves together
  • Much stronger position establishment thanks to ideal posture and strong framing
  • Improved endurance, flexibility and reflexes — it’s where the game gets truly athletic

What’s more (and this is a forty-something geezer being grateful), without the friction of gi fabric, you can slip out of threatening situations that would otherwise end the exchange. Similarly, you have to get ultra-precise on how you immobilize your opponent, committing to strong body grips, hooks/jailbreaks, etc. to keep them where you want them.

Now, put the gi on, and in addition to friction, you have to contend with grips, from cuffs and collar to shoulder and knee plush and anywhere in between. I liken those initial grips as moving pawns out in a game of chess. They may seem innocuous at first, but you ignore them at your peril. Your opponent has — or at least should have — a serious intention with any grip he or she sets up. Similarly, you need to establish your grips with a complete thought in mind, or have responses ready to your opponents grips that launch effective counter-attacks.

Beyond the grips, however, a further advantage of gi training is the expanded strategic consciousness it gives you in the chaos of a good exchange. That might sound heady, but it’s something I realized recently during an extended training session with Cesar Cabrera, a good friend and Renzo Gracie black belt who is getting into a competition mode. During a roll that lasted close to an hour, I noticed that there were extended pauses, often close to a minute, where we would both be in a balanced state, waiting to see who would do what. Positions were effectively neutral, or perhaps a slight advantage for either of us, but because of grips and pressure, we had to be patient and stay hyper-aware.

And that attentiveness was not just about being ready to hit a single move. In the time each of us had to collect our thoughts, we were thinking in terms about how to follow through to a complete positional improvement and finish. I’m certainly not suggesting that kind of thinking isn’t possible in no-gi, but those more furious exchanges seldom have those kind of anticipatory moments.

With the gi, the physical realities of grips and friction are obvious. Less obvious, but incredibly valuable, is the calm — that’s really the word — intervals you have to formulate strategy. You’re developing that in the midst of the roll itself, as opposed to no-gi, where your line of attack is more likely a result of disciplined drilling and situational sparring. Again, both are worth having, so both are worth training.

So, to gi or not to gi. Why ask the question?

by Jay Ferrari

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