How to Unlock and Strengthen Your Guard
One of the best ways to improve guard retention is to keep your knees to your chest.
Maintaining your guard means keeping your legs between you and your opponent.
There are many different guard retention techniques, but a guiding principle is:
"Keep your knees to your chest."
Lachlan Giles, the renowned Australian jiujitsu coach (and ADCC bronze medalist), describes guard retention as:
"Keeping your opponent in front of your legs and not allowing them to get into a better position".
According to Giles, there are 4 primary guard retention principles:
- Keeping your knees close to your chest
- Facing your opponent
- Having a small part of your body on the ground so you can rotate
Keeping your knees to your chest closes the space and defends your inside position, preventing your opponent from passing your guard.
"The most important area of inside position is that of your torso and your neck... Every submission and dominant control in Jiu Jitsu requires inside position."
I have witnessed many beginner jiujitsu practitioners and even coloured belts with horrible guard retention due to their physical limitations of getting into and maintaining the 'Knees-to-Chest' position.
Knees-to-chest is a fundamental human movement pattern that extends beyond jiujitsu.
Another way to look at the movement is simply a deep squat with your back on the floor.
Next, we will discuss improving this movement pattern and why stretching isn't enough.
How To Get Your Knees To Your Chest
"If you want the best guard retention, then you should be stretching to make your guard harder to pass and be able to implement a lot of these principles better."
- Lachlan Giles
While I share Giles' sentiment, there's more to the story than stretching and 'flexibility'.
Let's start by defining the difference between flexibility and mobility.
Flexibility is being able to move through your body's natural 'Range of Motion (ROM)'.
Mobility is being able to move through your body's natural ROM and being strong throughout that range.
It's the difference between being active and being passive.
Dr Kelly Starrett explains mobility brilliantly in his groundbreaking book 'Becoming a Supple Leopard'.
"I define mobilization as a movement-based, integrated, full body approach which takes into account all of the elements that limit movement and performance… In short, mobilization is a tool to improve your capacity to move and perform efficiently."
- Dr Kelly Starrett, Becoming a Supple Leopard, Page 493.
But why isn't stretching enough to see benefits in a grappling context? Why can't we just stretch out our hamstrings and our hips and call it a day?
Well, Dr. Starrett goes on to explain,
"Stretching doesn't work by itself. It doesn't improve position, it doesn't improve performance, it doesn't make you faster, it doesn't eliminate pain, and it doesn't prevent injury."
By stretching, he refers to 'static stretching', which you may be familiar with where you're holding a stretching position for the 30s or longer, 'hanging out' in an end-range position with zero intention.
We can contrast this stretching approach with a holistic approach to mobility, which combines unlocking greater ROM with strengthening so that we are strong throughout that range (which provides a more practical benefit to our guard retention on the mats).
The Knees-To-Chest Checklist
The guard retention movement of 'Knees-to-Chest' is just a supine deep squat.
We can use squat assessments, mobility drills, and squatting derivatives to evaluate, unlock and strengthen our guard retention.
Run yourself through this checklist to determine if your guard retention movement is up to scratch.
The Knees-To-Chest Checklist
- Sit in a deep squat position for 1 minute without your heels lifting off the mat (having a rounded back is okay)
- Perform 'knee-drops'
- Bodyweight squat below parallel without your heels lifting (and ideally with a 'neutral spine')
- Perform cossack squats without your heel lifting
- Perform weighted cossack squats without your heel lifting
- The 10-Minute Squat Test
A squatting movement pattern is an imperfect substitute for a supine guarded position. In a squat movement pattern, your hips or ankles may be the limiting factor for your full ROM.
However, ankle mobility is rarely an issue for guard retention because you're in a supine position, and there's no weight going through your ankles.
But that's no reason to ignore ankle mobility, as squatting patterns are pivotal in strengthening your 'Knees-to-Chest'. That is where '10-Minute Squat Test' comes into play — thanks, Kelly!
Unlock and Strengthen
I'm going to break it down into two steps:
- Step 1: Unlock
- Step 2: Strengthen
Step 1: Unlock
The first step is to "unlock" your ROM for the deep squat.
One of my favourite ways to achieve greater ROM is jiujitsu-specific warm-ups and cool-downs before and after your BJJ sessions.
Some movements to consider adding are:
- Olympic Wall Squat
- Long Lunge and Move
- Modified Pigeon
- Knee Drops
- Hamstring Flossing
- Deep Squat and Reach
- Couch Stretch Pulses
I have a free jiujitsu mobility warm-up and cool-down program incorporating these movements.
Consider incorporating daily mobility routines focused on improving your guard to accelerate this process.
Step 2: Strengthen
Stretching is not enough; you must also strengthen.
You can strengthen your 'Knees-to-Chest' in many different ways. The most effective strategy is incorporating squatting movements (with a grappling-focused lifting program).
Here are some movements to consider adding to your training:
- Cossack Squats
- Weighted Cossack Squats
- Barbell Back Squats
- Barbell Front Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Zercher Squats
- Zercher Box Squats
- Zercher Good Mornings
- Dumbbell Split Squat Romanian Deadlift
- Bulgarian Split Squat
These exercises are not the only ways to strengthen your 'Knees-to-Chest' movement, but they will get you "moving" in the right direction (pun intended).
Jiujitsu technique is king — guard retention is more than just being able to get into the positions.
You need to be able to move into the basic positions required by the sport to avoid being severely disadvantaged.
The 'Knees-to-Chest' movement pattern is essential for guard retention.
Your guard will improve if you unlock and strengthen your 'Knees-to-Chest' — This is achieved by unlocking greater ROM and strengthening that range with squats and squatting derivatives.
Ensure you're doing the following:
- Dynamic mobility warm-up and cool-down before/after jiujitsu.
- A jiujitsu-specific strength program with squats and squatting derivatives (minimum 2x per week)
- Jiujitsu-specific mobility follow-along routines to accelerate your results
- Be consistent, and you will see results.
Resources and References
I highly recommend checking out these resources and references.
- Jiujitsu Mobility Warm-Up and Cool-Down Program (Free)
- BJJ Strength Program (Free)
- 30-Day Jiujitsu Mobility Challenge (Free)
- BJJ Strong Online 'Move' Program
- BJJ Strong Online Movement Library
- Jiujitsu Theory Course
- Jordan Teaches Jiujitsu - YouTube Channel
- Becoming a Supple Leopard - Dr Kelly Starrett
- Analysis of guard retention at the highest level of BJJ competition - Lachlan Giles YouTube Video
- 10-Minute Squat Test
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