In real martial arts and self defense, strength is only one small aspect of the total arsenal:

After 20 years training countless students, it’s fairly often that a new student has the common misconception that brute force solves a puzzle. Whether it’s Muay Thai Kickboxing, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, or the Knife play of Kali, beginners sometimes think that if they just “go harder” they’ll be able to achieve something. Maybe they’ll learn faster, prove to themselves they’re not weak, or invalidate technique. Maybe it’s such a simple option that it’s the most obvious solution.

It’s only natural…

I can’t fault them for it, centuries of human nature are kicking in. After all, how could someone smaller and weaker than you put you in an arm bar and utterly dominate you? In our lizard brain it doesn’t make logical sense, at first. It’s such a massive affront to everything we understand about gender, masculinity, and how the world works that it can be a massive blow to the ego. After that break in the psyche it is also the most empowering and liberating concept you’ll ever learn.

Check out this Documentary on the women of BJJ and why the principles of leverage and technique can beat strength every time. (article continues below)

Ready to throw off the shackles of this paradigm? Let’s do this!

First, here’s what did it for me…


I was a tough guy:

My first experience with real technique in a grappling sense was with Relson Gracie. Many of my students have heard this story, but I entered a seminar with Professor Relson and proceeded to be a complete noob. I had done some grappling before, but it was all at meat head factories where explosive force solved everything. If you injured yourself or your partner that was just par for the course. I was doing my thing, being an ass, and Professor Relson tapped me on the shoulder. “Wow you’re pretty strong my friend, why don’t you play with me for a minute.” I was in my prime, 28 years old and working out for a living which meant weights, boxing, kick boxing, grappling, and Kali every day for a minimum of 8 hours a day.

Or so I thought:

He put me in his guard, which as the name implies is a position that protects you in Jiu Jitsu, but is unique because it also allows you to go on the offense. Imagine all the abilities of a Goalie in soccer, but also the two passing forwards. I began to activate my super power of youth and explosive strength. In the next moment I was utterly shocked, as soon as I tensed up Professor Relson relaxed. I found myself stuck in a mouse trap where I had just grabbed the cheese expecting to claim the spoils. Contrarily I couldn’t move anywhere, I was literally stuck under my own weight. Then I began to notice that Relson was almost tipping me over but wouldn’t let me fall, and to top it off he was choking off the blood to my brain and breaking my arm ALL AT THE SAME TIME! All I could do was tap out and let him release me from the web with a big smile on his face.

A realization was about to unfold:

I had never seen this kind of Jiu Jitsu in Portland up until this point. I had no clue how to fathom what Professor Relson was doing. We were wrestling, but I could not comprehend HOW he was controlling me with ease. This hooked me immediately,I laid down my ego and signed up for classes  as a white belt and never looked back.

What I quickly noticed over the next 11 year journey to attain a Gracie Jiu Jitsu black belt is that all the top tier athletes and coaches follow the same prescription. The very best boxing coaches, UFC fighters, BJJ athletes, they all strive to be smooth and use finesse, leverage and technique before strength. They all have academies where learning and authenticity go hand in hand with safe training practices.

The benefits of using finesse, leverage, and technique when preferred over strength

  1. Better Cardio: Because you’re not exploding all the time, you learn better cardio management and can function almost the same level throughout your work out
  2. Injury prevention: In any sport where there’s brute force you’re susceptible to ailments like muscle and soft tissue damage. This is compounded in combat sports and self defense where another person is already trying to do you harm.
  3. Calmness of mind: when you slow down, along with the breathing being more regulated, it also gives you time to think. In a fight that can save your life, in the academy, it gives the body time to process movements, plan, grow, and learn. Your workout will be far more productive and you’ll retain information better.
  4. Longevity: Most people get hooked on training and they want to do it for the rest of their lives. Now you can train into old age, and even be better than when you were younger!
  5. Everything works! This is the best part, when you start to use technique and your mind is calm, all these factors become extremely rewarding. Once you get a taste, the first time you use technique to control and own someone using muscle it’s 100% addictive! You’ll never go back to your former inefficient idea of brute force.
  6. It changes your thought patterns! Once you’re calm and using crafty planning to solve the puzzle of your opponent you begin to think differently. All of the sudden you start to look for the most efficient way to be good at everything. Driving through traffic, managing relationships, negotiating a sale, daily life events shift as you start to apply subtle technique in every situation.
  7. Learning is a constant: Once you open the door to strategy and start being solution oriented you will be amazed at what you learn. There’s rarely a plateau because you keep your ego in check and are always looking for new tricks, new understanding, and ways to build upon what you have.
  8. When you’re easy going, everyone trains with you: When the attitude in the academy builds on all these tenants there’s strategy everywhere. Maybe you catch your partner in an arm bar and there’s no way out. They tap, but the excitement is just beginning, because you caught them in a friendly way with technique they immediately want to see if they can escape it the next time.
  9. The training hall is a science lab: When everyone is playing like this with good mechanics, tapping out is just a training protocol. It’s not a win or lose thing, because again we’re winning KNOWLEDGE. Now what happens is everyone in the school starts sharing with everyone else and it flourishes. When it’s all muscle people ended up hiding moves, details and technique from their partners and rivalries begin.
  10. Self-Defense is perceived as effortless and you feel safe every where you go. When you can control any size of human being despite their athleticism it’s a very comforting feeling. All the machismo is gone, and you don’t feel intimidated by other people. This allows you to brush off conflict and if it’s unavoidable you have tremendous confidence.

What can you expect if you HULK OUT all the time:

  1. Constant injury: You might win the battle, but the war rages on. People in martial arts that are injured all the time are constantly taking time off. That means your training partners are getting better while you’re sitting at home. The only trophy for time on the mat is learning, you don’t take anything home with you but your body and knowledge. If you’re going to risk an injury it should at least be for a real street altercation or a professional match.
  2. False power, false success: Since muscle does work from time to time, it will reinforce the habit and belief that your strength leads to success. Since it’s a falsehood what will happen is you’ll inevitably meet someone stronger, and worse you’ll meet a plateau. The early gains of training will fade into a stagnate wall you’re unable to process.
  3. The hammer problem: Part of that learning curve decline is because every problem is only viewed with the one solution: athleticism. There are many activities that require hardly any muscle in life, archery, horseback riding, music, cooking, writing, disc golf, and on and on. You wouldn’t try to solve the mystery of these disciplines with more power. It’s like taking a hammer around the house and trying to do every job with one universal tool. Very quickly everything starts to look like a nail whether it’ll help you or not.
  4. You will hurt yourself far more than other people: Strength = toughness, and the same idea that brought us here brings the downfall. Its our ego trying to prove that we are not weak. You can expect cauliflower ear, arthritic fingers, lots of medical tape, for YOU! When you apply a force on an object some of that force is applied directly to you. I made these mistakes as well, I wanted to sweep my opponent flat on their back. I managed to do it, but in the transition I applied so much strength that I tore the cartilage in my ribs.
  5. How you train is how you live – Smashing things with a hammer? Unable to learn? Plateaus everywhere? I hate to be the bearer of bad news but this is also a metaphor for the other areas of your life. Chances are you’re not listening in your relationship. You’ve plateaued at your job or you might be angry all the time. You have to put the active mind to work to counter the lizard brain.
  6. People won’t want to train with you: When someone is using a tremendous amount of muscle against me these days I don’t flip out. I calmly subdue them and work my game with a smile on my face. This usually infuriates them more! I’ll do this a number of times before I say something like “hey partner are you looking for a fight here, if you’re going to go 100% and try to hurt me, why shouldn’t I do the same?” Sometimes that will sink in, other times I just start avoiding that person because I’m not getting anything out of training any more. I already know I’m tough, my goal is to learn and come back tomorrow. The only thing that individual can offer me is a chance to see how calculating I can be while someone goes crazy. That opportunity is easy to find and the benefits are infinitesimally small.
  7. If they do train with you, they won’t help you. Take the same partner I described above, instead of avoiding I train with them all the time. I feel comfortable and I get to own them in sparring any chance I want like a fun game. When we wrap up they’ll say “oh man, lucky you got me there I could’ve had a grip or I could’ve done this…… but tell me, how’d you do that?” To which I always reply “Gee I don’t know, you’re right on my friend, I just got lucky again!” There’s no point in imparting advice because the Hulk has proven he doesn’t have listening skills and the ability to change.
  8. You will find others like you – If you stick with a place like RCW where everyone is trying to use good mechanics first, you’ll try to find like minded people and roll with them. Hulk vs Hulk is about to happen. Injuries are more likely, but what you’ll do is reinforce with each other that muscle is the way to go. After all this person agrees with you, so it must be the way. Should that plan fail, a lot of Hulks end up quitting and finding a gym that FOCUSES on strength and athleticism. Usually cauliflower ear and taped joints are in sight.
  9. You’ll start to fear people with two years or more of experience: Since the Hulk has to defend the belt and smash, when he’s encountered with a fresh faced blue belt who’s been technical from the beginning it can be devastating. For the Hulk! A black belt journey is 10-12 years under Gracie Jiu Jitsu, so now the guy who was 28 and in his prime is 40 and looking back at the college kid. Ego got in the way of his training and he refused to believe in finesse, but the college kid is smart and has his number. Pretty soon the Hulk quits rolling with the more technical lower belts and might quit sparring altogether if they don’t quit the school.
  10. You could become a bully: It’s true story time. We had a Hulk floating around the academy for a while, we cautioned the guy. He was super rough, never listened and once even said he hurt his partner because he didn’t tap “fast enough.” Just a meat head through and through, and if you ever had his number he’d whine and bemoan about how life isn’t fair. Finally we decided it would be best for the school if we didn’t have this person around and we told him to pack up his loin cloth and go. Within the first month he found a like minded meat school and was excruciatingly injured. In martial arts it often doesn’t end well for the bully.


The truth is out there…

The last few words I’ll leave you with is understand we’re all the same. What’s tough for you was at one time tough for me. I couldn’t believe what people like Pedro Sauer were able to do on the mat, it was like magic. The best way for us to embrace change, is to hang out with people who set the example we want to emulate. If using finesse, leverage, technique and good mechanics sounds too good to be true, then you just need to find a place like River City Warriors that offers a way to train these elements. To gain understanding you need to feel it, to experience how it’s different. Let me tell you this my friends, once you get a little taste of how good technique can be you will search endlessly for the same results.

Don’t just take my word for it, come an experience quality training at RCW and see for yourself.  We always offer a free trial for new students conveniently located in Portland, Lake Oswego, Tigard, Tualatin and the surrounding areas. You can find that on our webpage and a direct link right here —> FREE TRIAL <—

If you don’t live in the Portland area but need to find a good Jiu Jitsu school we’re happy to help you search nationwide. We’ve trained across the continent and know many of the best coaches all over the country.


Stay safe, and stay effective by practicing good mechanics!

– Professor Joe Heller

Gracie Black Belt