In my opinion, the guard is the position which really distinguishes Jiu-jitsu from all other martial arts, even including other grappling based arts. The guard brilliantly gives the person on the bottom of the fight the opportunity to not only survive and defend from a seemingly inferior position, but also provides a platform for a plethora of sweeps and submission attacks. This is one of the primary reasons that a smaller person, skilled in the art of Jiu-jitsu, can effectively control a larger, stronger, more athletic opponent. Because of the leverage provided by the use of the legs and hips, the guard position helps to neutralize the opponent on top. Being on top is always an advantage in a fight. However, while the top person has the advantage of gravity, they are typically either standing on both feet, kneeling on both knees, or one one foot and one knee. This means that, essentially, the top person primarily has only their hands to work with. At the same time, the bottom person utilizing an effective guard, has both hands and both feet at their disposal, while at the same time not having to worry about loosing their balance. This helps to minimize the advantage of the top person.
The guard is a position that has been very highly developed. Particularly in the more sportive applications of Jiu-jitsu, there are many highly specialized variations of the guard. However, if we break it down to its most basic form, there are three versions of the guard. Closed guard (with the legs wrapped around the opponent's waist), half guard (where the bottom person is controlling only one of their opponent's legs in between their legs), and the topic of this post, the open guard.
In the beginning stages of Jiu-jitsu training, most students find the closed guard to be the most familiar and comfortable. Obviously, if the top person wants to pass their opponent's guard, they must first open the guard. So, naturally, many beginning students tend to expend a lot of energy trying to stop their opponents from opening their legs. However, while the closed guard does offer some very good defensive and attacking options, more experienced students often tend more towards open guard variations, as it offers more options for sweeps and submissions. The open guard can be a struggle in the beginning though, so let's go over a few general concepts that may help with your utilization and retention of the guard.
Nobody Opens Your Guard
This first concept is very important, and deals with the transition from the closed to the open guard. This is a very brief, but very important moment in time, where either you or your opponent will gain an advantage. When I say "nobody opens your guard", that doesn't mean your guard is an impenetrable fortress and that no one has the power to force your legs open. What it means is, when you start feeling your opponent pressuring your guard, don't wait for them to pry your legs open. Open your own guard on your terms, so that you can establish your grips and foot placement, giving you an advantage over your opponent. If you hold on, waiting until they ultimately force your guard open, they will have an advantage in timing and often in position, that may lead to them passing your guard. As a general rule, if you're not sure what to do, open your guard and place your feet on your opponent's hips. This is a good default position in the open guard.
Control of the distance is one of the key concepts in the guard, whether we're talking about a fight, involving striking techniques, or just a grappling match. In either case, you need to effectively manage the distance between you and your opponent. As previously mentioned, placing the feet on the hips is a good way to manage the distance. This represents the furthest distance that you can establish between yourself and your opponent. Particularly if you are dealing with someone bigger than you, it's generally a good idea to keep them further away, until you are ready to close that distance on your own terms. However, whether you are using the bottoms of your feet, your shins, knees, hands, forearms, etc. you need to always be aware of managing the distance between yourself and your opponent. When they are able to close that distance, controlling your hips, and establishing a chest to chest position, your guard is passed and you are pinned, now facing the problem of recovering your guard or escaping a bad position.
Grip fighting is a huge aspect to every position in Jiu-jitsu, and it is especially important when fighting from the guard! Achieving and maintaining positive grips and foot placement on your opponent, while denying their grips is critical to success. This is a constant and ongoing process. In order to take advantage of the fact previously mentioned that in the guard, you have four limbs to your opponents two, you MUST always seek to keep all four of those limbs engaged in the fight. Both hands and both feet have somewhere to be all the time. You shouldn't be hanging out in a position where you aren't utilizing one of your available tools. Generally, your feet are looking for posts, or hooks. This can be on the hips, as previously mentioned, on the biceps, shoulders, front of the thighs, or behind the knee or ankle. Your hands can also be used to push or pull, whether utilizing the material of the gi, or more no-gi gripping using undercooks, overhooks, and head control. Try to make sure that your grips make sense for what you are trying to accomplish, and not working against each other. You should have a reason for every single grip or foot placement. Also, make sure to pay attention to the grips your opponent is making, as they often will give away their intentions. Don't be afraid to break grips and reset if you find yourself behind in the grip fighting game.
Controlling Inside Space
This is a general concept, and not a hard and fast rule, but generally speaking, it is to your advantage to control the inside space. That means that your arms and legs are controlling the space inside, between your opponent's arms and legs. This will often involve pummeling and exchanging grips, but if you can stay on the inside and keep your opponent outside, it reduces their ability to put weight on you or attack you directly through the center. This will also generally lead to superior grips and attacking options for the person controlling the inside. This concept is also extremely important when striking techniques are involved. Keeping your arms, and in some case legs, inside your opponents arms on the bottom gives me much better options for defending strikes from the bottom position.
Putting Up Walls
Before you can develop an effective attacking guard, you have to make sure that your opponent isn't passing your guard. This means working on your guard retention and guard recovery techniques. There are specific defenses for various passing strategies, but the basic concept is putting walls between yourself and your opponent. From a defensive standpoint, space is your friend, and you want to put as many barriers as possible between you and your opponent to maintain that space. These barriers, or walls, can be the bottom of your feet, your shins, the front of your knees, your hands, forearms, or elbows. Your opponent is generally trying to establish a chest to chest position to pin and control you. As they attempt to break through these barriers to accomplish this goal, your job is to always replace the walls. For example, if they are able to remove your feet from their hip and close the distance, your job is to replace that wall with another one, such as the front of your shin/knee, or if they are closer, maybe a stiff arm, or forearm. As you are defending your guard, keep the concept of always trying to protect yourself behind walls and replacing these walls as your opponent attempts to break through them. As mush as possible, these walls should be frames, reinforced off of the floor, aligning your body in such as way that as your opponent applies their weight, you are utilizing the skeletal structure of your body to resist the force they are applying using the solid surface of the ground. This will allow you to support much more weight for a longer period of time with less physical exertion. Often, these means having to move yourself to create space to replace or recover these walls. That leads us to our next concept....
Having a good guard means having good hips. This is something that you must develop if you want to have the ability to effectively defend and attack from the bottom. As a general rule in Jiu-jitsu, if you can't move the other person, you should move yourself. This usually involves some form of hip escape or shrimping. This is one of the primary means of creating space when on the bottom of the fight. This is why Jiu-jitsu practitioners spend so much time practicing this basic fundamental movement drill. Being able to move your hips is imperative for creating space while defending and escaping, but it is also an essential part of many attacks. In order to have good hip movement, you have to have good structure and contact with the floor. Power in Jiu-jitsu is generally not created through the use of explosive movements. This is because Jiu-jitsu is about efficiency of movement, and explosive, dynamic movements require a lot of energy. Real power is created through good structure, stability and balance, and that means that you need to have points of contact with the floor. Sometimes, the floor can be replaced by utilizing your contact with your opponent, but your feet need to have contact with a solid surface in order to have power to move your hips effectively. As an example, try to lie flat on your back with both feet in the air; now try to lift your hips off of the floor. You can't do it without the use of explosive movements and core strength. By simply placing at least one foot on the floor, it is very easy to move the hips. So, in the open guard, your feet need to have good points of contact at all times. That means either placing them on your opponent, or on the floor, so that you always have the ability to move your hips.
Maintaining the Knee Line
From a guard retention perspective, a good way of thinking about maintaining the integrity of your open guard position is to draw a "line in the sand". This line represents a point where if you keep your opponent beyond it, you are generally pretty safe and can have a better platform for launching your attacks. Inside of that line, your opponent is now encroaching on your space and presents a legitimate threat of passing your guard. That line should be the front of your knees. The general procedure to pass the guard involves systematically breaking through the barriers by controlling and passing (usually in order) the feet, then the knees, then the hips, then the shoulders, then the head. Once the head and shoulders are controlled, your guard is passed and you are pinned. You are no longer dealing with guard retention, you are now in the territory of escaping and guard recovery. When your opponent starts to get past your knee line and begins controlling your hips, your ability to move and create space is significantly reduced, and they are getting dangerously close to passing your guard. In this range, your frames become primarily the hands and arms, which don't allow you as much space between you and your opponent, and can't support as much weight for an extended time period. As with most things in Jiu-jitsu, the earlier you can start to defend the better off you will be. So, pay attention to not letting your opponent pass the line of your knees. If they do, you need to immediately address it through movement, pummeling, or replacing walls. Usually a small adjustment earlier can prevent the need for a much bigger movement later.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
The guard is an amazing defensive tool, but you can't rely on simply defending. The bottom line is, being on top is generally superior to being on the bottom. So, if you're on the bottom, and you're only defending, it is a matter of time before a skilled opponent will break through your guard. A good guard is an active guard. You have to always maintain good fundamental guard retention and defensive concepts, but you should be attacking your opponent from the bottom. If you keep your opponent busy dealing with defending your attacks, it is much harder for them to pass your guard. Attacking doesn't mean just haphazardly going for armlocks and chokes. This can often lead to your opponent passing your guard and gaining a better position. The best way to attack your opponent, in almost every position in Jiu-jitsu, but particularly from the bottom of the guard, is to attack their balance, posture, and structure. There are various specific techniques and strategies to accomplish this which are beyond the scope of this article, but your focus should be on finding ways to weaken your opponents structure by breaking down and controlling their posture, and/or finding ways to break their balance. By breaking the posture or balance first, it becomes much easier to attack your opponent through the use of sweeps and submissions.
The guard is definitely one of the most important positions in Jiu-jitsu. Utilizing some of these strategies will hopefully help you to make your guard more effective, so that you can more efficiently defend and attack when you are on the bottom of the fight. Of course, you have to put the time in on the mat to put these concepts into practice, but if you put the work in, your guard can become a nightmare for your opponents to deal with!