The 8 Primary BJJ Guards Explained (Guide): Build A Killer Guard

By Tsavo NealLearning BJJLeave a Comment

bjj guards: single leg x guard

BJJ guards: what are they, and how do you get good at them?

A key differentiator between intermediate-level BJJ players (purple belts and above) and beginners (white belts and blue belts) is their BJJ guard proficiency.

Saulo Ribeiro, in Jiu-Jitsu University, writes “As with every other position, you will learn the guard at the white belt level. However, it is not until purple belt that you will really feel the guard falling into place. At purple belt, you should see your guard developing into a game full of defense, sweeps, reversals, favorite positions, and combinations.”

In this article, I’ll explain the primary BJJ guards — and help you train in a way so you can improve your guard game.

You’ll learn…

I’ll start by defining what the guard is conceptually.

What Is A BJJ Guard?

A “guard” in BJJ is a position where you’re able to use your legs to control distance between you and your opponent.

Think of a BJJ guard as a wall. The wall is your legs. The wall keeps a space between you and the top player. This wall — your guard — must keep you safe.

For example, if the top player gets past your legs and into side control, they have passed your wall. You can no longer use the strongest part of your body — your legs — to control distance. You are no longer safe. Now, you have to focus on survival and escape. You’ll have to recover your guard.

There are many different types of BJJ guards. Conceptually, the commonality between each guard is that they are all a type of wall. They’re positions where you can use your legs to control the distance between you and your opponent.

The 8 Primary BJJ Guards

Below are the 8 primary BJJ guards. There are many additional types of guards (like spider guard, lasso guard, collar-sleeve guard, etc), but they can be considered sub-types of the guards listed below.

(All images are from the works of Stephan Kesting at Grapplearts

1. Open Guard

The bald grappler is in open guard bottom.

Open guard is where you are either seated or lying on your back and your legs are freely moving around. Your opponent is standing.

Bottom open guard is a dynamic position where you can sweep your opponent or attack them with leg locks.

From here, you must focus on keeping your legs in front of you and your opponent, as they are trying to get around your legs and into a better position like side control or mount.

John Danaher teaches the open guard in his instructional, Open Guard: BJJ Fundamentals – Go Further Faster.

2. Closed Guard

The bald grappler in in bottom closed guard.

Closed guard is when you are lying on your back but have your ankles crossed around your opponent’s torso.

It’s a neutral position where you have plenty of ways to attack, sweep, or take your opponent’s back. However, you must be wary of them trying to stand up and pass.

From bottom closed guard, you’re focused on breaking your opponent’s posture down by crunching your abs and legs. This is what opens them up to your attacking options.

Taller, lankier grapplers tend to thrive in the closed guard. Having longer legs makes it harder for your opponent to stand up and open your legs up.

Gordon Ryan teaches the closed guard in his instructional, Systematically Attacking From Closed Guard.

3. Half Guard

The bald grappler is in bottom half guard.

Half guard is when you are on the bottom and you have your legs wrapped around one of your opponent’s legs.

This is a common position you’ll find yourself in as a white belt.

It’s an interesting position where you don’t have a ton of high-percentage submission options, but you do have plenty of ways to sweep your opponent or take their back.

If you practice it, you can develop a deadly game from bottom half. Many older, unathletic grapplers swear by it.

Lachlan Giles teaches you how to win from this position in his instructional The Half Guard Anthology.

4. Butterfly Guard

The grappler in the blue gi is in Butterfly Guard

Butterfly guard is a seated guard where your legs are open and hooked underneath your opponent’s legs.

In this guard, your legs resemble the wings of a butterfly. With your feet hooked underneath your opponent’s hamstrings, you’re able to scoot underneath them and get underneath their center of gravity. This makes it much easier for you to sweep the top player.

It’s a powerful guard with plenty of sweeping and submission opportunities.

Grapplers like Marcelo Garcia and Gordon Ryan are famous for their unstoppable butterfly guards.

Adam Wardzinski teaches you how to develop a deadly butterfly guard in his instructional Butterfly Guard Re-Discovered.

5. X Guard

The bottom grappler is in X Guard

In the X guard, you’re lying on your back, with your hands clasped around the top player’s leg (knee) that’s closed to your head. Your legs form an X-like shape around their other leg.

In this position, you’re able to stretch your opponent’s legs to off-balance and sweep them.

X guard is another guard popularized by Marcelo Garcia who used it effectively in the 2003 ADCC to sweep his opponents.

He teaches how to use the X guard in his instructional The Marcelo X Guard.

6. Single-Leg X Guard

The bald grappler is in Single Leg X Guard

Single-Leg X Guard is where you’re lying on your back with one arm wrapped around your opponent’s ankle, with one of your legs wrapped around the back of their leg, and your other leg corralling the front of their leg.

Your legs form an X-like shape around one of their legs, hence the name single-leg X guard. In judo, this position is known as “ashi garami” (leg entanglement).

This is a popular, strong guard in both the gi and no-gi. It’s used for its excellent sweep and leglock options.

Gordon Ryan infamously submitted Roosevelt Sousa in 11 seconds by using this guard.

John Danaher teaches how to attack from the single Leg X guard in his instructional Leglocks: Enter The System.

7. De La Riva Guard

The grappler in the blue gi is in De La Riva Guard

De La Riva guard is where you wrap one of your legs around the outside of your opponent’s forward leg. Your other leg is usually straight, with your foot posted on the back leg. In this guard, you employ your hand to control your opponent’s sleeve.

It’s named after BJJ competitor Ricardo de la Riva. He invented the guard so that he could be offensive from the bottom against much heavier opponents.

Using this guard, Ricardo was able to off-balance and sweep much heavier and stronger opponents.

The De La Riva guard is primarily a gi-guard. From this position, there are numerous sweeps and creative backtakes.

Joh Thomas is known for having a killer De La Riva guard which he teaches on his website: Modern De La Riva Guard

8. Reverse De La Riva Guard

The grappler in the blue gi is in Reverse De La Riva Guard

In Reverse De La Riva guard, you use your inside leg to trap the top player’s lead leg instead of your outside leg — hence the name “reverse.”

In De La Riva guard, when your opponent attempts to use their knee as a wedge to pass your guard, you can switch to Reverse De Le Riva to entangle thir passing leg and prevent the pass.

Reverse De La Riva guard is much more popular in no-gi jiu-jitsu than De La Riva guard because the passer does not have the same side collar grip used for passing.

However, standard De La Riva guard is preferred for gi jiu-jitsu because Reverse De La Riva guard is shut down easily with collar or pants grips.

Jason Rau teaches this guard in his instructional called Modern Reverse Da La Riva.

How To Improve Your BJJ Guard Game

In my article on BJJ instructionals, I described Gordon Ryan‘s “specific training method” for using instructionals to improve your game.

Here’s that method to help you improve your BJJ guard game. This is how I’m training to improve my various BJJ guards:

  1. Pick a BJJ guard that you want to learn. It could be the guard you’re weakest at, the one that naturally “clicks” for you, or the one your coach wants you to work on.
  2. Find a highly-rated and popular BJJ instructional that covers that guard. BJJ Fanatics has plenty of instructionals for every single guard you can imagine. And it’s easy to get them for a discount using BJJ instructional deals.
  3. Spend 25 undistracted minutes per day watching the instructional. Take notes on what you learn and would like to try in class.
  4. Go into each training session/open mat with a goal in mind: to execute something you learned in your instructional. This is called “specific training,” and is how Gordon Ryan trains.
  5. Spend 8-10 weeks doing specific training based on one instructional. It takes 66 days to make a new habit. So, if you spend around 66 days to make what you learn in the instructional a habit, that means you’ve integrated it into your game.
  6. After your rolls, write down in your BJJ journal:
    • What did I do well?
    • What did I do badly?
    • What could I do better during next class?
  7. Before the next class, review your BJJ journal entry from the last class. Read what you did badly, and try and improve on that next class.
  8. Periodically review the instructional and continue to do specific training on it for 8-10 weeks.

If you follow this training methodology, you can go from not knowing anything about a particular guard to being competent in a few weeks. 

Takeaway Thoughts & Discussion

The guard positions are what make BJJ such an interesting, powerful martial art.

And if you want to advance to the higher belt levels, you’ll have to get really good at least 2-3 BJJ guards.

If you can develop a killer guard game, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

What’s your favorite BJJ guard? What video or instructional helped you develop it most?

Did I miss any guards? What other guards would you consider to be “primary”?

Leave your comment or question below in the comments.

Happy rolling. 🤙


tsavo neal bjjequipment.com

Tsavo Neal

Tsavo is the founder of BJJ Equipment, an assistant BJJ instructor at InFighting, and a BJJ purple belt. He's a passionate hobbyist and BJJ gear/equipment aficionado. He launched BJJ Equipment in 2022 to make it easy for grapplers to find the best BJJ gear so they look, feel, and perform at their best on the mats.

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