What Is the BJJ Belt System and How Does It Work?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a system built around the concept that a smaller, weaker person can, with the aid of leverage, defend against attacks from larger, heavier, stronger opponents. The system is derived from Japanese Judo and focuses heavily on ground fighting. The aim of the game is to take your opponent to the ground and force them to submit via either a choke or joint lock. Much like Judo, BJJ uses the idea of controlling your opponent’s momentum and using it against him or her.

Also, like its parent-style, BJJ uses a belt system – awarding a series of colored belts – to denote rank and skill level. There are several differences among the colors and grading criteria.

So, how does the BJJ Belt System work?

Grading Requirements:

There are 10 Categories in which you are graded:

  • Movement: How you move in your matches is important, so instructors pay a great deal of attention to your in-game movement(s).
  • Bottom Game: Techniques used when you’re on the bottom from both open and closed guard positions.
  • Top Game: Techniques used to attack and defend while in the top position.
  • Standing: Standing techniques – submissions, passes, locks, etc.
  • Submissions: Which submissions do you know, and how well can you use them?
  • Escapes: How well can you escape a bad position with what you’ve learned?
  • Mindset: Your mindset and how you view BJJ are important. You need to have a basic understanding of positions and hierarchy and a desire to learn. Additionally, you need to keep your ego out of your training and be willing to tap out against students your level or lower.
  • Self-Defense: The ability to apply what you’ve learned to a self-defense scenario. You learn to escape from headlocks, submit an attacker on the ground, clinch fighting, and distancing.
  • Drills/Rolling: How you do in rolling (sparring) and how you behave.
  • Behavior: Good behavior in class is important for good camaraderie and keeps the training environment open and welcoming.

Getting good results or scores in each category and passing your grading allows you to progress through to the next rank. Each rank has different requirements for each of the 10 categories.

Gi vs. No Gi Grading

The categories and requirements are the same for both Gi and No Gi BJJ grading. The only real difference is that in one you’re in a Gi uniform and the other you’re in shorts and a t-shirt. Another smaller (depending on your POV) difference is that some organizations will not recognize ranks achieved in No Gi BJJ.

Gi vs. No Gi Grading

Stripes/Degrees

Okay, so we’ve discussed parts of grading and the various ranks and requirements. Let’s discuss stripes and degrees for a few minutes. Stripes are applied to the color belts (blue, purple, brown) and are typically either pieces of tape or strips of cloth sewn onto the end of the belt at equilateral distances.

The number of stripes will vary from place to place, and not all schools will use this system. Black belts and higher have degrees which are awarded through a formal testing and ceremony.

Youth Ranks (in Order)

Students under the age of 16 will train in the youth program and transition to the adult program when they turn 16.

  • White
  • Gray-White
  • Gray
  • Gray-Black
  • Yellow-White
  • Yellow
  • Yellow-Black
  • Orange-White
  • Orange
  • Orange-Black
  • Green-White
  • Green
  • Green-Black

Adult Ranks (in Order)

  • White
  • Blue
  • Purple
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Red/Black (Coral 7)
  • Red/White (Coral 8)
  • Red

White Belt: The Starting Point for All Students

White belt students are beginners. The aim is to build a usable framework to structure your training and fighting style. Training emphasizes defensive tactics, escapes, basic offensive techniques, submissions, and getting through your opponent’s guard. At this level, there are no serious expectations on you beyond controlling your ego and keeping it in check. You also learn to be more aware of what your body is doing.

Youth-Specific Ranks

Youth-Specific Ranks

I’ve already discussed the white belt, so I won’t go over it again, but there are exclusive to the youth program. There are 4 primary ranks outside of the white belt:

  1. Gray (ages 4 – 15)
  2. Yellow (ages 7 – 15)
  3. Orange (ages 10 – 15)
  4. Green (13 – 15)

There are 3 levels within each of these ranks: White stripe, solid, and black stripe. As far as rank goes, the gray levels are aimed at children aged 4 to 15 and are considered as intermediate levels (white is the beginner level). The intermediate levels go up to yellow/black and then students move on to the start of the advanced levels (orange). The advanced levels, of course, last until green/black belt, after which the student will turn 16 and transition over to the standard adult ranks.

Adult Ranks

Blue

Blue belt students are also focused on defense, spending a lot of time working on passing their opponent’s guard. Grading requires you to be able to work both offensively and defensively in all the major BJJ positions with at least one technique. You also need to have at least one of each major submission that you can use with some success.

Purple

Purple belts are intermediate/advanced students, and, at their level, they typically focus on the use of momentum. This goes back to the style’s roots in Judo, where the focus is on using your opponent’s own weight and speed against them. You address any holes in your game, working on the weaker elements of your BJJ. Combining techniques is a huge part of the purple belt level of training as you learn to string together a few different techniques in each of the different guard positions into an effective attack. At this level you also work on refining your movement so that you don’t have any wasted energy.

Brown

Brown is the second highest black, and this is where practitioners fine-tune their game. At this level, you should have an almost-perfect balance and be able to use your weight and keep your opponent or training partner pinned for a while. Your personalized fighting style – developed over the course of your training – should have taken shape at this point and you’re probably known for a couple of particular combinations, techniques, and positions. You’ve also learned to counter a variety of attacks quite well. This level is also where students become teachers, teaching white belt students in order to improve their own technique expand their knowledge.

Black

The black belt is considered by many to be the pinnacle of martial arts. This is where you are considered an expert in the art of BJJ. You continue learning, refining techniques that you’ve practiced a thousand times or more, making them better for your game. As a black belt, you know your physical and mental limits, and you know how and when to move in a fight. You’re also teaching your skills to other people, and so you need a substantial knowledge of BJJ.

Usually, the black belt is the final belt in a system, but BJJ is different – which also confused me when I first learned about it. The black belt levels/degrees go from 0 to 6th Dan before being replaced with the next rank: the coral belt.

The average time to get from white belt to 1st Dan is roughly 5 – 10 years.

Coral

There are two coral belt ranks, the first is Coral 7 and the other is Coral 8. Both belts have a base color: red, with a stripe. On 7, the stripe is black and on 8 it’s white. If this has confused you, an easy way to think of this rank is as a continuation of the black belt levels. This would make Coral 7 and Coral 8 the 7th and 8th degrees of the black belt.

Like the 7th and 8th Dan ranks, practitioners are often addressed as masters and have usually had some major influence on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a whole.

Red

If the coral belts weren’t discussed much, the red belt wasn’t discussed at all. A red belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the equivalent of a 9th Dan in Taekwondo or Karate. This rank is reserved for those whose dedication and commitment to their art has resulted in some major influence or change for the better. Those who reach this level are addressed by the title of grandmaster.

Note: the term ‘grandmaster’ is just a title. It doesn’t confer a rank, but it does mark that practitioner as someone special or revered in their art.

The reason the red belt gets so little attention is that very few people get that far. Many reach the blue belt and drop out. Additionally, it takes a long time to get to this level – around 48 years from your first black belt level.

Gracie BJJ-Specific Ranks

The Gracie family had their own ranking system with a youth program that followed the same pattern as the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) – with a slightly different color scheme. Their colors are:

  1. White
  2. White/Yellow
  3. Yellow
  4. White/Orange
  5. Yellow/Orange
  6. Orange
  7. White/Green
  8. Yellow/Green
  9. Orange/Green
  10. Green

These are for practitioners under the age of 16, after which they’ll go on to the standard ranks. With that in mind, there are also three other colors that are unique to the Gracie system.

Navy Blue – the color worn by head instructors, professors, and masters. This follows an older tradition wherein a white belt marked a beginner, a light blue belt would mark an instructor, and a navy-blue belt would mark a senior instructor or master.

White belt with navy blue interior (navy blue with white edges) is a transitionary belt. It is awarded to students who have been promoted from the white belt level but lack the experience required of them for the blue belt level.

The Gracie system also includes a pink belt for women who complete their Women Empowered self-defense program – a program with limited techniques designed to defend against sexual assaults.

Competition as a Form of Grading

Competition is a good way to hone your skills, and, in some cases, it is part of the grading process, with your score based on how well you did in the tournament. This is why many instructors will encourage you to compete as you train.

It’s also just a social exercise. Speaking as a taekwondo practitioner, tournaments are a fun social time for students from other schools to get together and, for lack of a better phrase, talk shop. We can share tips, tricks, training stories, and other interesting bits and bobs of information – this is true of almost all styles.

In Closing

There are some common colors; white, black, red, etc., but not all systems will use the exact same colors. This is especially true in styles like BJJ where there is no real standardized grading system. Each school has different requirements, so even if they take some organizational standards (i.e., the IBJJF’s belt colors), their grades will be vastly different.

In terms of the belt ranking system, there have been several discussions over the years, in all styles where this system is used, as to whether it’s good or bad. It’s a great motivator, and – theoretically – it’s a good way to measure progress. Despite this, I can’t see it as being a good way to gauge a student’s understanding of what they’re doing (i.e., why certain things are done in certain ways).

Well, as always, I hope you guys found this interesting and informative. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you for the next one

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