Tips for Female Grapplers: When (Small) Girl Meets (Big) Boy

April 13th, 2010  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  16 Comments

Squee! I got published on!

While more women are getting in to grappling, it’s still a sport dominated by males. And while in theory BJJ is a martial art developed with the premise that you’ll be smaller and weaker than your opponent, what do you do when you really ARE a lot smaller and weaker than most of your training partners?

Welcome to the situation faced by female grapplers.

Now, some of you ladies lucky enough to fight in heavier weight classes and those of you who’ve been going to kettlebell classes faithfully can often hold your own pretty well. But when you’re smaller and female, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself frustrated as all your best techniques seem worthless against a 200 lb white belt who can simply (it seems) sit on you and squash you.

What to do?

Tips for Female Grapplers: When (Small) Girl Meets (Big) Boy


  1. KCK says:

    April 13th, 2010at 6:49 am(#)

    Awesome article! These are things that I am seriously going to go use on some dudes tomorrow. I dig that half guard escape.

    The lean body mass thing is interesting, too. I knew that men have lower BFPs than women, but I never made that connection to an equal-weight guy being stronger by that amount. Duh.

  2. melissa says:

    April 14th, 2010at 12:19 pm(#)

    Fantastic article, very well written and great info! Thanks

  3. J.B. says:

    April 14th, 2010at 4:24 pm(#)

    As someone who at 220 gets lumped in with the “big guys” (the next smallest of which is 250, and the biggest is over 300) I end up using some of the same strategies (I realize it’s not the same, but its enough to get the idea). Very well written article, and very complete.
    good stuff.

  4. Simma says:

    April 14th, 2010at 9:32 pm(#)

    Great article. I’m not a grappler, although internal Chinese arts such as taiji and bagua have a lot of locks and throws, where a grappler’s frame of mind can help smaller women.

    I like that you and the author stress that being small and female can have advantages–and many of those advantages happen when we close in tight.

    Of course, in grappling, that’s a given. But in other styles, WAY too many people tell women not to close, to stay back and rely on their leg techniques (kicks, etc.) because of the widespread misconception that this is playing to a woman’s strengths (i.e, she has less upper body strength, therefore, she should concentrate on the techniques using her stronger lower body).

    This is so frustrating for me, because it immediately surrenders any advantage a smaller person has. All of a sudden, she’s putting herself in a situation where the larger person has the advantage because he has the better reach, and the distance amplifies the strength advantage of the larger opponent by orders of magnitude, especially in arts that have a lot of striking attacks.

    It also ignores the basic principle of 99% of all MA styles that body structure and “coherence”, if you will, is paramount and dividing techniques into “upper body” and “lower body” categories is actually incorrect and goes against the whole paradigm of what movement in MA is.

    I have always tried to convince female martial artists that they should look for openings to close and once there, stay compact (while always, always maintaining structure). Smaller levers mean more mobility in tighter circumstances. We can still generate force where the larger opponent gets tied up and where it becomes physically impossible for him to do the same. We have, as you point out so well, a lower center of gravity and more natural mobility in the hips, allowing us to generate power from a wider range of postions. And power from the hips is the key to all athletic movements, not just MA techiques. We’re better at uprooting, we have an advantage in a lot of throwing. The opponent’s most vulnerable parts are within easy reach, and we can still move and access them.

    Unfortunately, I find that a lot of martial artists, both men and women, think that this is counterintuitive.

    I think the best point in this article is that we should pay attention to physics and anatomy, not let our assessment of these get distorted by our cultural imaginings of the male vs. female body and what the strengths and qualities of each should be.

    One thing I’ve always had trouble with, though, is advising tall women who are naturally slender in build. Of course, if I were in their shoes, I’d turn to the iron to get some strength and meat on those bones, and get those bones denser and stronger, but so many women are averse to beefing up. I find that this body type has a harder time finding a strategy niche (I, like you, am short and robust, and I find that I can work with this just fine). I’d be interested to see if you have any thoughts on this, although it may be very different from a grappling point of view.

    On a side note, do you keep a list of reader-approved grappling schools? I’ve been looking to add grappling training for a while but haven’t really been happy with a lot of the schools I’ve seen. I’m not looking for women-only schools–in fact, I think that in MA it’s of key importance to train with men and with as wide a variety of body and psychological types as possible. I’m more looking for a school where instructors follow the spirit of this article, which is to abandon gender myths and give honest and smart instruction based on actual physics and anatomy of individual martial artists.

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    April 15th, 2010at 5:51 am(#)

    Simma: I couldn’t really comment on striking as much, but in grappling, longer limbs give you an incredible guard game and a lot more ability to wrap up complex chokes. For example I can rarely finish a triangle on people much larger, although if I can, it’s a good one because if you’re shorter and stockier there’s more “stuff” in there to cut off the air supply. However, triangles (arm or leg) are way, way easier if you have longer limbs. I’ve been in situations where guys were so big I had them in a perfect arm triangle setup but couldn’t close it, because my limbs were too short.

    Some of the setups are different (e.g. harder to get knees in) but there are many more options with submissions that require you to wrap things up, such as Darce and anaconda chokes. If tall lanky women are also flexible they can get their long legs into things — e.g. I used to have a judo partner who could actually defend with her foot, even when I was in side control. She could actually reach all the way up there.

    You can play a kind of “octopus game” like Anderson Silva does. Combine the reach with the “not being there” aspect of being slimmer. Slimmer people have less “stuff” to them, so they present less of a target, and there’s less weight to move. So, they have the advantage of longer limbs without the detriment of being slowed down by weight. Make them faster and lighter, and if they’re fighting shorter women then force the shorter women to reach. My old judo buddy could just reach over my shoulder, grab my belt, and throw me with it.

  6. KCK says:

    April 15th, 2010at 9:28 am(#)

    I’m one of those tall women you ask about, and my experience in grappling has been that I can make people reach or stretch them out to unbalance them, and I do have an easier time with triangles than folks with short legs do. I am generally considered medium-to-small among men, but largeish among women (150 lbs, 5’9″), and I play guard more than I’d recommend for genuinely small people. But that’s mostly because I can use a longish reach to my advantage in the guard. I have recently been getting shut down by very tall people, though.

    The other pillar of my strategy relies on making contact and keeping structure with my legs — I am A-OK if I have a foot hooked under their knee, or a knee across their chest, as long as I do not allow my structure to collapse. Since my legs are so long, I can always get a hook in, making it difficult for folks to circle around to pass my guard. And my feminine flexibility allows me to sneak a knee between myself and my partner at the most improbable of times.

  7. Simma says:

    April 16th, 2010at 10:57 pm(#)

    Hm, this is highlighting some of the big differences between ground-based grappling vs. other styles of MA.

    Do you keep a list of reader-recommended schools at all?

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    April 17th, 2010at 4:22 am(#)

    Simma, no, I don’t — you’re just going to have to use trial and error. :)

  9. Lewis says:

    April 22nd, 2010at 7:32 am(#)

    I read your article even though I’m a 6′ 220 lb. guy. I have always trained with the attitude that I can learn from anybody, even if what they are saying doesn’t seem to apply to me. How ironic that the very next time I was rolling at BJJ class I had a (no exagerration) 6’5″, 360 lb. guy ask me to roll. I would like to say your article helped, but I was too busy being squished to remember much of it. Since then I have reread it and tried to put some of it into practice. Anyway, thanks for a well written blog.

    Lewis C.

  10. Mistress Krista says:

    April 22nd, 2010at 1:43 pm(#)

    Lewis: LOL. The universe has a sense of humour, apparently.

  11. Great links for the weekend! says:

    May 21st, 2010at 2:06 pm(#)

    […] are and you are a woman then you should be immediately alerted to Mistress Krista’s article with tips on grappling as a woman (eg. dealing with being smaller, lighter etc).  Of course, I’m way behind the game posting this […]

  12. Louise says:

    June 4th, 2010at 3:17 am(#)

    Not only am I smaller than all the men at my Judo club I’m also the lightest of the women. One of my coaches had a similair problem when he was younger so he has alot of usefull advice when it comes to fighting at a severe weight disadvantage. The advice I’ve been given is to use my speed, size and flexibility to my advantage and in my case suprising strength. So if you’re on the small side add some extra strength training to help with the bigger guys, and it’ll give you an edge when you eventually get to people your own weight.

  13. Garren says:

    November 7th, 2010at 11:09 am(#)

    Thank you so much for this article. I am not small, and I am not a woman. To be honest I am actually not a martial artist of any sort. I am, a 5′ 11″ 200 lb man. We are deployed and for our workout yesterday, a few of us decided to grapple.

    Some of the guys in the group had been through some training. I have only had some relatives and friends show me some things. But, I have had unfair success with the few things I have been shown.

    I have grappled with people many times since joining the military. Fighting a smaller person, I can always move quickly and just endure their strongest efforts to wait until I can gain advantage. Against larger people I have been able to use the two or three moves I know to submit them while outlasting them with stamina. That is, until yesterday.

    He is 6′ 7″. He is only about 10-15 lbs heavier than me so I thought it would not be a problem. But, no matter how many times I could mount him or get him in my guard, I just could not finish him. When I was on top, I would reach for an arm. But I had to shift my entire body to reach his arms. Then he rolled me.

    I also experienced bieng pinned, you are right. I did not like being pinned flat on my back. I am not used to being crushed. I will avoid that from now on.

    One of the things that beats people more often than it should is a cross collar choke from the guard. It is risky, but people who are not trained do not know how to take advantage of it. So I use it when they do not know how to stop it. His highly effective blocking technique was to drill his elbow into the center of my sternum. With his elbow in my chest I could not pull him in close enough for a cross collar choke. In fact, nothing I did seemed to work the way it does on someone my height. And now I have an elbow shaped bruise in my chest.
    Well, after 8 or so minutes, we both backed up and agreed to try again later.

    Up until now I have been smart enough to only challenge people I could submit. Well, lucky really. But this is bothering me that I could not submit him. I sumitted the 5′ 9″ guys without even coming close to losing.

    I have been searching for techinques against taller opponents. Thank you for your insights.

    I know I am dangerous to just grapple with friends. But I do try to be careful, and we try hard to not hurt each other. Aside from some mat burn and some minor bruising, we keep it friendly. But I still have to find a way to make him submit.

    By the way, the next guy I grappled tried to stop the cross collar choke with the elbow technique, it did not even come close to stopping the choke. Only someone with wickedly long limbs can use that effectively.

    Aside from that, my wife is a 5’9″ 140 lb woman, I think she would really do well to get into MMA. I particularly like BJJ, what recommendations do you have?

  14. Mistress Krista says:

    November 7th, 2010at 1:11 pm(#)

    @Garren: Don’t get overly focused on the tap, or on submitting others. Focus on self-mastery and improving your own skills. You will lose much more often than you will win in grappling, and if you focus too much on the outcome you end up with your game determined exclusively by your opponent. You cease to become the master of your own domain — of your own skill set and internal environment. Grappling teaches us humility and there is always someone who will beat the shit out of us. Often that person isn’t even better, stronger, or whatever — maybe they are just spazzy in exactly the way that confounds you. Focus on taking the steps that lead you towards the outcome — on your own behaviour and mindset — and let the outcome take care of itself.

    If you’re presented with particular challenges, figure out what they’re offering you instead. Long legs/arms usually means lots of space to maneuver. If you can’t get arms, control the head and neck. (Don’t be a head-squeezing asshole, but understand that the jaw, neck, and skull are effective points of control.) If you’re choking from guard and his elbow is framing, abandon it — and hey, if there’s an elbow in your sternum that means the arm has been presented to you to grab, right? In order to do that he has to lean over, which means his posture is broken, which also means it’s probably not too hard to knock that elbow to the other side of your chest and set up something else like a triangle.

    If you’re smaller then you have to MOVE. Don’t let them settle. Don’t be on your back. Keep moving, keep turning and shifting. If you’re smaller then play a small game: get into a ball and tuck into little spaces, like down around their hips in half guard. If you’re on top, surf them and stay agile. Be quick and nimble. Use speed and lightness. (But don’t get sloppy — work on your accuracy.)

    Re: your wife — why not get her to try a bunch of things and find out what she likes?

  15. Gert says:

    June 28th, 2011at 4:13 am(#)

    It’s not all black and white when it comes to size, so give me some tips too! Size matters, but so do a hundred other things – everything matters.

    I have been training at the Karawatha BJJ club in New Zealand for about 5 years now, as has one of my closest friends Harmon. We have a girl in the club too that we know and roll with as well as each other. Now here are some things that I have noticed.

    I’m 6’2, 191lbs and Harmon is 5’10, 165lbs. I am generally stronger in power, not drastically but am stronger and have more controlling and pinning power. However he is a better mover on the mat hands down, more agile, better reflexes and control. Hence size works differently and provides different types of advantages relative to your opponent. I do not always win when we grapple, and when I do I usually obtain a triangle choke or an arm bar submission, whilst I have noticed that he takes my back on more occasions than I do his, and those are usually choke submissions – tap or lights out.

    Same happens when I roll with Jen who is roughly 135lbs and stands at 5’7. She is not as strong as me but very good at moving around and throwing her legs into attack and guard and also taking the back. It seems that those two have naturally adapted and picked up more technique then I did, nothing drastic of course but when we take it to the mat (Harmon and I) shades usually decide the fight. Last time I got my back taken after 6 minutes on the mat, and choked for a tap.

    The length of the fight is also a key point I want to make and I think that all my smaller opponents up til now that train as seriously as I do have had me in the stamina department – the longer the struggle the more they benefit towards the end, where I get tired and sloppy more so then say Harmon and Jen.

    So keep these stories in mind if you are frustrated at not being bigger and don’t be – use what you have and you will never need what you don’t have.

    Any tips would be much appreciated.

  16. Mistress Krista says:

    June 29th, 2011at 11:16 pm(#)

    @Gert: this is a good Q to ask here:

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