Helio Gracie fight philosophy backed up by science


(by James Smart, co owner and head instructor at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Cape Town)

In the Jiu Jitsu world, we know about the changes that Helio Gracie made to Japanese Ju Jitsu. By using leverage he made it more useable by a smaller weaker person and he incorporated live sparring. Some also know that he had a strategy of not losing the fight.  Helio figured that if he did not lose the fight, then in by default his opponent in his attempt to beat Helio would defeat himself, either through exhaustion or through making a mistake.  Others may know that Helios’ sense of preparation or planning for the fight gave him and his family an edge. At the stage of creating these philosophies some 80 years ago, what Helio could not have known, is that in years to follow science and research would prove  that his strategies where sound.

I will now attempt to break down each element of Helio’s strategy and thinking, to show how it makes 100% sense scientifically.

Changes to Japanese Ju Jitsu

Having done Japanese Ju Jitsu for many years, when I started Gracie Jiu Jitsu I found the difference to be subtle but significant. In Japanese Ju Jitsu there are many small joint lock and locks that require great accuracy of finger and thumb placement to be able to make them effective, in Gracie Jiu Jitsu this finite manipulation was excluded. The joint locks are on larger body parts i.e. the elbow, knee, shoulder and use much larger body parts to do the lock i.e. the whole arm, two hands etc. Another marked difference I found was that in Japanese Ju Jitsu, a very lager number of techniques had to be “set up” with a series of other movements and to “soften your opponent”. In Gracie Jiu Jitsu this did not seem so necessary.

So how does this apply to being able to fight more effectively and to science?

In a fight situation it is well known that the fighter’s heart rate goes up and you become stressed. How stressed will be talked about later, but your stress levels will affect many psychological and physiological abilities. At just 115 Beats Per Minute (BPM) your Fine Motor Skills deteriorate, at only 145 BPM your Complex Motor Skills deteriorate. What does that leave you with…………..Gross Motor Skills!

Now might be a good time for me to clarify what the different Motor Skills are that are relevant to this article.

Fine Motor Skills – Skills that are performed by small muscle groups, such as hands and fingers and frequently involve hand-eye coordination. In a fight situation a fine motor skill would include an action requiring hand-eye coordination such as catching someone’s moving hand in a wrist lock.

Gross Motor Skill – These are movements that generally involve large muscle groups or large movements. In fight, a gross motor skill, would include pushing, pulling or two handed gripping.

Complex Motor Skill – Complex Motor Skills are skills which involve hand-eye coordination, timing or tracking and have multiple technique components. An example of a Complex Motor Skill in a fight would be a Double Leg takedown.

So how does all of this relate to Gracie Jiu Jitsu – Gracie Jiu Jitsu in general, is made up of Gross Motor Skills. An Arm Bar, a Body Fold Takedown are all largely Gross Motor Skill techniques. Whether by Genius or by instinct, Helio Gracie when creating Gracie Jiu Jitsu, must have realised that the fine motor skills required for many martial arts to work, were simply too hard to do in a real fight. Yes, there are some Complex Motor Skill techniques in Gracie Jiu Jitsu, and to be able to solve all problems there has to be, but as for Fine Motor Skill, I can’t think of any.

If you take into account that Jogging is considered a 60 to 65% of maximum heart rate activity (with no stress) which means your heart rate will be somewhere around 130 t 140 BPM. In fight, you would have already lost or seriously diminished your ability to use fine and complex motor functions. I added “with no stress” in there because stress does play a part that I will explain. So, consciously or subconsciously, I can see that Helio thought, (maybe not using these terms) it is guaranteed in an attack situation that my heart will elevate, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be above 115BPM. So in a fight, if all I have will have at best is gross and complex motor skill, it makes sense for me to only train techniques that include complex and gross motor skills!


The next of Helios strategies, that I believe came more from Judo than Ju Jitsu (but please don’t shoot me if I’m wrong) was Sparring or what today we commonly call Rolling. During a fight our cognitive ability (think, prioritize, understand, plan, remember, and solve problems) deteriorates at about 175 BPM. Only using gross motor skills will combat this deterioration to a degree due to the fact that they do not require so much cognitive ability to bring into operation. However, many skills and even more situations do require a cognitive process. The question then is, if we know our stress and heart rates are going to rise. How can we make the cognitive process easier? In many martial arts we are taught a technique and then we drill it 20 times, 50 times, 100 times, often depending on how dedicated you are as a student. The problem is that in most cases, the drilling of a single technique does not teach us when that technique should be applied in a real environment. This means that, when the day comes that the fighter is “in fight” has a heart rate of 175BPM and sees an attack, the process of selecting the correct technique is very slow due to the fact that it is the first time the brain has had to process that information and make that selection.

Helio incorporated Sparring into the learning process, and in fact in more recent years, Reflex Development and Fight Simulation has also been included in the training process by Ryron and Rener. How does this benefit the student? In sparring and even more so in Reflex development and Fight Sim, we are not only practising the techniques, but we are incorporating them into a cognitive learning process. Our brain is processing the information, recognising the problem, building pathways for that program to be recalled quickly and solving new problems all in a relatively comfortable environment. In fact, studies have show (known as the Inverted-U Hypothesis) that between 115BPM and 145BPM cognitive processing is working at its’ best. So by doing a Fight Simulation and not accelerating the heart rate too high, we are able to optimize that learning process and give the brain and the body the reflexes to respond quickly when being attacked.

Not Losing

In Helios strategy of not losing he had 2 tactics. Firstly, it was to not make a mistake, to allow the opponent to do all the trying to win and eventually for the attacker to make a mistake. The second tactic was about being comfortable no matter where he was. Helio was comfortable underneath the mount on anyone. He had been under the mount on some of the best fighters of his day and not lost. If he was comfortable under Ricksons mount, then how could he not be comfortable under anyone’s.

Both of these strategies link into the same effect. Helio by being comfortable underneath was able to stay calm, keep his heart rate and stress levels at a level where he could use his Gross Motor Skills, Complex Motor Skills and Cognitive processing at its’ most effective. Conversely, his opponent by being on top, unable to beat Helio and not comfortable underneath, resulted in frustration which would send his heart rate through the roof. The fighter would be losing his Fine Motor Skills (which many martial arts rely on) deteriorating his Complex Motor Skill and have diminished Cognitive processing, resulting in a mistake, leaving the Calm and relaxed Helio to finish the fight.

We have all felt these effects when sparring normally in two ways. Firstly when we roll with someone we think we should be able to beat, we then try harder, stressing more and putting pressure on ourselves to be the victor. As a consequence, our brain freezes and we end up not being able to beat that person. Secondly, when we roll with someone we think can beat us. We get mounted, are not comfortable, get stressed, try to escape when we shouldn’t, make a dumb mistake that we would not normally do (this dumb mistake is the result of extreme stress and called Hyper Vigilance) and get tapped out.


Preparation can be seen in two main ways in Gracie Jiu Jitsu both ways giving the same very important result. Firstly we see that Helio prepared for a fight by having a plan. He knew he was not going to exchange punches, he knew he was going to close the distance, take his opponent to the ground, maintain and or improve his position and then submit his opponent. Having a clear plan gave Helio confidence, it decreased his stress before and during the fight. Stress level has a direct affect on the heart rate, the greater the stress the more elevated the heart rate. Reducing this had the effect of reducing his heart rate and as we now know, this resulted in him being able to perform better in the fight.

Preparation also has another benefit, in Fight Simulation classes we prepare by exposing ourselves to a simulated stress of our opponent trying to hit us. More recently we have included some “stress drills”. Both having our opponent trying to hit us and the stress drills has one main effect. It changes our perception of firstly that we can protect our self against the punches and secondly we become comfortable with how exhausted we will feel in a full on fight.

When someone learns to swim they learn in the shallow end of a swimming pool. Once they can swim in the shallow end they move to the deep end of that same swimming pool. Nothing has really changed in the swimming part, the only thing that has changed is that the student knows they can’t touch the bottom. However, the students stress levels will elevate because there perception of the associated danger of not being able to touch the bottom is greater. Once the student can swim in the deep end confidently they may well move to the Ocean. What happens to their stress level? It goes up again, simply due to the associated danger of the open ocean. Now if the student goes back to the deep end of the swimming pool, they have significantly less stress, simply because the perception of the danger has changed.

Fight Simulation and planning has the same effect of swimming in the Ocean, it changes our perception of the associated danger, decreases our stress level, decreases our heart rate and in turn makes us more able to use our Complex and Gross Motor Skills and our Cognitive processes.

Bringing it all together

Helio was not only ahead of his time with regards to the development of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Techniques, but also with his mindset. Somehow, Helio may have figured out that his ability to learn to defend himself in the shortest possible space of time, revolved around not only leverage, but a number of other key elements. He majored on techniques that used Gross Motor Skills. He created training methods that keep stress levels low enough to use cognitive abilities and strategies to speed up cognitive processing. Helio  kept the heart rate low enough to be able to use Complex Motor Skills and finally, he developed methods to change his perception of the of danger he was in.

This information was collated and transferred into a Gracie Jiu Jitsu context by James Smart. The main source of information and scientific studies was Bruce K. Siddle excellent book – Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge.

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