Rolling with Big Partners (strategies for small grapplers)


If you’re a small practitioner like myself (I’m 6’1″ and 155 pounds) you know what it feels like to roll with a big partner.  As much as I whine sometimes about everyone being bigger… I am reminded that my wife is a whopping 115 pounds.  To her everyone really is bigger!  You can’t approach every grappling match the same.  You always have to consider three areas:  weight, strength and ability. The latter usually corresponds to belt rank but isn’t limited to belt level.  As you may have noticed within each belt level you’ll see varying skills.  Some blue belts may give you fits and others you may have an easier time with and so on.  For weight I believe there is a 50 pound threshold.  What that means is that anything beyond a fifty pound weight difference is a challenge to overcome.  In other words, if you have two blue belts and one is sixty pound heavier, the  lighter person will have a very tough time submitting them.  Of course you have some small, amazing people who can submit anyone regardless of size.  I’m talking here about the average BJJ hobbyist.  Our third area, strength is a whole different beast.  Weight doesn’t always correspond to strength.  You have physically small men and women who are insanely strong.  You also have massive people who are physically weak.  Have you ever come across a small white belt who has no real BJJ skills, but is an absolute nightmare because they are so strong?  Strength can create real obstacles when not handled properly.

I will give you my time tested strategies to deal with bigger, stronger partners.  

Strike first…strike fast!  If your partner is physically bigger but looks like they lack speed… strike first.  A turtle can’t fight very well from its back.  If you’re grappling from your knees, then you want to get them on their back right away.  In most cases it’s easier to pass a bigger persons guard because they lack the mobility and quick reflexes.


Strategies:  When you slap and bump hands, immediately lock up and turn them to their back and go straight to the knee slide pass.    You want to catch them off guard and out of rhythm.  By going right to work on the turn and pass you don’t allow them to respond.  If it’s a standing match then develop a few good takedowns that require little physical strength, or work to their back.  A bigger person has a much bigger back which allows you to attach yourself to them better.  (Imagine you’re the backpack). Arm drags and duck under’s are excellent ways to get to the back standing and from the knees.  The larger back is a larger workspace for you to attack from.

If you were on a smaller persons back they could easily slither around and escape. Strong people can stop joint locks, but nobody can stop the choke…Remember, don’t fear the bigger person it’s all about proper strategy.

Target the Weaker Joints!  The elbow (a hinge joint) is difficult to attack on a larger person.  The most common elbow attack is the straight arm-bar.  This is a tough one to “pull off”…because to do it effectively you literally have to “pull the arm off”.  Pulling the arm requires a degree of strength.  If they’re stronger than you they may be able to curl the arm and shut it down.  BUT if you grip properly you can stop the resistance.  The thumb is the key!  When you grip the arm on the juji-gatame (cross arm lock) don’t grab the wrist – grab by covering the thumb.  The wrist is supported by a stronger set of muscles (forearm, bicep, shoulder and chest), the thumb is supported only by the wrist (a weaker joint).

Try this test:  Start in an arm bar on a bigger partner and have them resist with you holding the wrist and then with you covering the thumb.  You’ll notice that with holding the wrist with two hands you can barely pull the arm straight.  But covering the thumb is far easier.  Even with just one of your hands covering the thumb you can still pull it straight!  This little leverage trick works wonders.  To get added leverage get good at squeezing your knees together on the arm-bar.  A great drill is to practice squeezing just your legs around the arm on the arm bar.  Don’t use your hands at all – just the knees and inner thighs.

The next set of weaker joints is the shoulder (a ball and socket joint).  Now you would imagine that strong people must have strong shoulders.  They do… but they generally don’t have flexible shoulders.  The lack of flexibility is the kryptonite!  With the shoulder you have three basic attacks:  (Ude-garami) Americana, Kimura and Omoplata.

Kimura can be the toughest to pull off on a bigger person because they can defend it with strength from most positions.  A great strategy is to use it instead as a steering wheel.  When you lock Kimura into place they will defend by grabbing cloth or their other arm.  Don’t unlock your Kimura – keep it secured and use it as a way to open the back or to move their body. It’s the perfect steering wheel to access the back.


Americana is a great attack from the mount as you can use your entire body weight to push the arm to the floor.  A bigger person with little shoulder mobility will tap quick.  I’m always a little surprised when this works because on paper you would think they could defend easily, but again the poor shoulder flexibility is the kryptonite.  If they do defend by pushing you, follow the momentum and go to the face wrap (twisted arm control).  I cover this in a lot of detail in my instructional Flow-Jitsu.

Omoplata (shoulder lock) and wrist locks are another set of great attacks for larger opponents.  The omoplata is easy to get to on a bigger person if you have even a decent amount of flexibility.  The larger arm and body mass allows you to be tighter and more to lock around.  Plus if the shoulder lock doesn’t work you can go straight to the wrist.  A great example of this is when the 175 pound Royce Gracie fought the Japanese Sumo giant Akebono (518 pounds).  To see the result, enjoy the video below.

I also think that foot and leg attacks can work well too but you have to be careful you don’t hurt your partner and make sure you have the okay from your professor.

Manage your expectations.  We always hear that size doesn’t matter in Jiu-Jitsu.  That’s only sort of true.  If all other things are equal – size does matter.  You’re not going to tap out every giant you roll with.  If you can survive that’s the win!  You have nothing to prove to anyone… you train Jiu-Jitsu, that’s you proving yourself!

Try these great strategies and comment below or e-mail me with questions:

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