Your First BJJ Class: What to Expect and How to Prepare

Taking a trial Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class is the best way to get a feel for the sport and the gym you’re considering, but it can also be intimidating. Even as an experienced grappler, I still sometimes get butterflies when I drop into a new gym.

That anxiety comes from the unknown – new faces and new challenges. Fortunately, getting the inside scoop can make things a lot less nerve-racking. Here’s what you can expect from your first BJJ class and what you should do to prepare for it.

What Happens in a Typical BJJ Class?

Having trained at a dozen BJJ gyms in states across the country, I can confidently say your first BJJ class will look something like this:

  • Warming up: For the first 10 to 15 minutes of the class, you’ll perform basic exercises and fundamental Brazilian jiu-jitsu movements to get your blood flowing. Many BJJ instructors also use this to improve your coordination and personal fitness over time.
  • Technical instruction: For the next 30 minutes or so, the instructor will demonstrate a series of BJJ techniques, dive into critical details, and answer relevant questions. They’ll also have you partner up and drill the moves while they walk around and assess your execution.
  • Live sparring: Everyone’s favorite part, this is where you get to partner up with various classmates and “roll,” attempting to apply your grappling knowledge against fully resisting opponents. Rounds usually last about five minutes.

That’s how the vast majority of BJJ classes work. There are exceptions, but the differences are usually minor. For example, some schools do away with warm-ups, while others restrict live training to certain positions.

Will I Have to Spar at My First BJJ Class?

There’s no consistent policy on first-timers sparring at BJJ gyms. Some locations forbid it, while others encourage it. Most gyms will let you do whatever you want.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever your level of grappling experience, no one can make you spar. Take that lesson to heart early, and don’t be afraid to politely decline rolling requests. That’s completely normal and happens all the time.

For example, you might opt not to roll because you’re:

  • Inexperienced and don’t feel ready yet
  • Tired after a previous round and need a break
  • Much smaller than a prospective partner and want to avoid risks

These are all completely valid reasons not to spar, and most people at the average gym will respect them. No one should look sideways at you for sitting out a round or skipping the sparring portion of class altogether, especially when you’re new.

If someone does throw a tantrum about your refusal for whatever reason, that’s probably not where you want to train. Be grateful you saw the gym’s true colors and take your business elsewhere. Your health and safety always comes first.

How to Prepare for Your First BJJ Class

Now that you know what to expect from the typical BJJ class, let’s explore what you should do to prepare so everything goes smoothly when you show up to train.

Communicate With the Gym

BJJ gyms have very different levels of organization. Some have a sophisticated onboarding process, while others have you sign a waiver and let you hop onto the mats.

Regardless, communicating with the gym before showing up is always the right move. You can start by reaching out online, but it’s always a good idea to call too. BJJ gyms often have outdated or barely functional websites.

Try to schedule your first visit and fill out any necessary paperwork online, then call the gym. Let them know you’re planning on dropping in for a visit and ask about: 

  • Pricing policy: Many gyms offer free trial classes to prospective students who live nearby, but some may charge up to $50. Any trial fee usually goes toward your membership if you sign up, but check these details before you arrive to avoid nasty surprises. It’s also best to learn how much BJJ classes are on average to help put each gym’s costs into context.
  • Uniform requirements: BJJ gyms sometimes have specific rules regarding attire. Many are flexible, but others may require a white uniform or even the gym’s uniform. They may not let you train in other gear and will charge you to rent the proper clothes, so be sure to ask about this too.

These are usually the most significant things to ask about before dropping into your first class. However, it never hurts to ask if there’s anything else you should know if you can get someone from the gym on the phone.

Assemble the Proper Attire

Depending on whether you’re training gi or no gi, you’ll need to wear either a gi or shorts and a rashguard to your BJJ class. You’ll also need a pair of flip-flops or some other easily removable footwear to wear when you’re off the mats.

Otherwise, there’s a variety of optional protective gear that you may want to purchase. For example, that includes:

  • Mouthguard (wise choice)
  • Headgear (you’ll get some funny looks)
  • Cup (usually more trouble than it’s worth)
  • Elbow/knee braces (great for any weak joints)

Generally, only a mouthguard is worth buying before your first class. They’re dirt cheap and significantly reduce the chances of an expensive trip to the dentist. They’re also inconspicuous, so no one will think twice about you wearing one.

Learn How to Tie Your Belt

Unless you’re taking a no-gi BJJ class, you’ll have to wear a gi, which refers to the thick jacket and pants martial artists often sport. To complete the outfit, you’ll also wear a belt that represents your experience level.

Tying a BJJ belt around your waist can actually be pretty tricky the first few times, so watching a video and practicing a bit before your class can be a good idea.

No one will judge you for not knowing how to tie your belt as a beginner. However, a little preparation will prevent you from awkwardly fumbling with it while everyone stares at you until you finish so the class can start.

Review Basic BJJ Movements

If you’re an overachiever, you may also want to study the basic BJJ movements instructors often have people perform during warm-ups. Again, you’re not expected to know these, but it can help prevent awkward moments.

When everyone is “shrimping” their way down the mat, it can be a little embarrassing to hold up the line because you aren’t sure what to do. To avoid that, here are some movements you may want to look up:

  • Shrimps
  • Breakfalls
  • Technical stand-ups
  • Forward and backward shoulder rolls

There’s no need to master these before your first class, but even taking a quick look at how to execute them can help you avoid a BJJ traffic jam.

How to Have the Perfect First BJJ Class

Now you know how to prepare for your first BJJ class in advance, let’s review the steps you should take on the actual day of your visit to optimize your experience.

Take Hygiene Seriously

Practicing grappling requires close physical contact with other people. You should do everything you can to make that experience as pleasant for your training partners as possible – other than your attempts to strangle them, of course.

Here’s a quick checklist that covers the bare minimum:

  • Cut your nails
  • Take a shower
  • Wear deodorant
  • Brush your teeth
  • Use mouthwash
  • Wear clean clothes

The last thing you want is to develop a reputation for coming to class with coffee breath or for leaving your partners with Wolverine-level scratches. We all know the power of first impressions, so emphasize this on your first day.

Arrive in the Right Clothes

If you’re training no gi, feel free to arrive at the gym wearing your shorts and rashguard. You probably want to wear tights or sliders underneath to help keep everything in place.

If you’re going to take a gi class, it’s standard to show up in your gi bottoms and a workout shirt, then put on your jacket and belt once you arrive. Of course, you can also show up in casual clothes.

Just avoid showing up in the complete uniform. You’ll get some weird looks from your fellow BJJ players, not to mention your neighbors.

Bring Only What You Need

BJJ gyms generally have rooms for you to change clothes and store your stuff, but they don’t always have lockers. Since grappling communities tend to be tight-knit, the chances of theft are low, but it never hurts to be cautious.

In other words, it’s best to leave your jewelry at home. However, if you forget, it’s just fine to stash it in your gym bag with the rest of your things. Just be sure not to wear your accessories on the mats, as they can break and cause minor injuries.

Besides the training uniforms and protective gear mentioned previously, the only other thing you’ll need is a water bottle. You can bring it out of the locker room and leave it beside the mats once training begins.

Show Up 20 Minutes Early

Usually, showing up to BJJ class a few minutes early is plenty. You just need enough time to put on your gear and hop on the mats. Once you’re a purple belt, you can actually show up a few minutes late, and no one will look at you sideways.

However, it’s best to show up about 20 minutes early for your first BJJ class. That gives you time to figure out parking, sign any necessary paperwork, and introduce yourself to people before getting dressed.

Pause Before Stepping on/off the Mat

The mat is a sacred place with its own set of rules. In some BJJ gyms, you may be expected to observe certain traditions, such as bowing when you enter or exit. Watch what others do to get a feel for these things.

Those behaviors vary significantly between locations, but some rules are pretty much universal, such as:

  • Never wear shoes (including flip-flops) on the mats
  • Take off any jewelry before stepping on the mats
  • Don’t bring food, gym bags, or cell phones on the mats
  • Always wear shoes when you step off the mats
  • Sign a waiver before stepping on the mats for the first time

These are usually the most significant rules to be aware of but don’t hesitate to ask someone about others if you’re worried about making a mistake.

Partner With Experienced People

During the instruction portion of your BJJ class, you’ll partner with another student to practice the techniques of the day. It may be intimidating but try to pair up with someone who has a colored belt around their waist.

Ideally, aim for a purple belt around your size and weight. They’ll have enough experience to answer your questions about the jiu-jitsu moves you’re studying and help you have an enjoyable experience at the gym.

Take It Slow if You Choose to Roll

As an absolute beginner, it doesn’t make much sense to jump right into live sparring. If you don’t know the fundamental BJJ positions, you probably won’t get much out of the experience. You might even hurt yourself or your partner if you go too hard.

If you decide to engage in live sparring anyway, be cautious. Do your best to keep your limbs under control at all times. Don’t fight against anything too much. You don’t want to be the spazzy white belt stereotype.

Once again, it pays to partner with someone who knows what they’re doing. Contrary to what you might expect, the more skilled people will generally be safer to train with than a fellow beginner.

Tap Out Early and Often

One critical thing for BJJ beginners to know is how to tap out. The sport is about controlling your opponent and applying submission holds like strangles and joint locks, and tapping is how you prevent those techniques from damaging your body.

New grapplers are often reluctant to tap, but you shouldn’t be. You go to BJJ class to develop your skills, not to compete, and it’s not worth risking physical injury to preserve your pride. There are no winners or losers in the gym.

As a result, you should tap long before you feel pain. Don’t try to escape submissions when you don’t know how. Just tap. If you’re too new to even recognize submissions, tap whenever you feel uncomfortable. Better safe than sorry.

One method is to physically “tap” somewhere on your opponent’s body by lightly (but firmly) slapping them at least three times. You want to tap where they’ll notice but not feel pain, like their thigh or chest.

You can also say “tap” out loud, which is especially useful when someone is pinning your limbs and making it difficult to move. The safest option is to do both.

Try to avoid tapping on your own body or on the mat. That can work, and people often do it, but there’s a risk that your partner won’t notice you’re tapping until they’ve already caused you pain or damage.

Ask Questions (Within Reason)

When you drop into a BJJ class, you’ll usually be shown a random grappling technique. If you don’t have previous experience, you may not understand the purpose or mechanics of the move.

That’s totally normal, and you should have a ton of questions. Just avoid interrupting the instructor during their lesson to ask them. Wait until after they finish, and only ask questions relevant to performing the technique.

If you have more general questions, it’s more practical to ask your training partners. Just make sure they’re a colored belt to avoid getting bad advice.

What to Do After Your First BJJ Class

Finally, let’s review what you should do in the hours after your first BJJ class to make sure you end the day on the best possible note.

Don’t Be In a Rush to Leave

One of the best things about attending a regular BJJ class is connecting with your instructors and fellow students. When you join a BJJ gym, you’re not just signing up for combat instruction. You’re also joining a community.

Before you leave, try to get a feel for that community. Do your best to engage with people and get a feel for the vibe by chatting with other students in the locker room.

If there’s no class after yours forcing you off the mats, see if you can stick around. If so, don’t be afraid to ask more questions. As a rule, we BJJ players are huge nerds about our art. There’s nothing we love more than talking about our favorite hobby. 

Be Wary of the Sales Pitch

At the end of the day, BJJ gyms are businesses. Like any business, their goal is to make a profit. Don’t be surprised if someone from the gym pushes you to sign up on the spot after you’ve done your trial class.

If their BJJ gym is the only location in your area and you’re sure you want to sign up, go ahead! Just be cautious about locking yourself into a long-term contract before you’ve read all the terms.

If you’re not sure you want to commit yet because you have other options, don’t. At a good gym, you won’t offend anyone by saying you need time to think about it. If a salesperson acts offended or gives you a hard time, that’s a red flag.

Take a Shower Sooner Than Later

Grappling is a physically intimate sport. You rub directly against other sweaty people, swapping germs and bodily fluids. Not to mention, you also roll around on a mat where other sweaty people have also trained.

That’s usually harmless, but don’t take it lightly. Make sure you hop in a shower relatively quickly. You should be fine to drive home, especially if you’re in a clean gym, but some people shower on-site for a reason.

Don’t sit in your sweaty BJJ clothes for hours on end. Go home and rinse off your body before you do anything else, including sit down to eat.

Hang Your Clothes Up to Dry

One of the worst mistakes you can make is to leave your sweaty gi or rashguard in your gym bag for hours after class. Your bag and your gear will be disgusting when you use them next.

Throwing your clothes directly in the hamper is also often a mistake, especially with a gi. Instead, hang everything up somewhere it can air dry like you would with a wet towel after a shower. You’ll be glad you did.

Consider Your Experience

Before your BJJ class fades from your memory, consider documenting your experience. Having an objective record of how things went can be an invaluable reference when it’s time to decide whether or not to sign up.

You could write them down, but I find it best to record a voice memo on your cell phone during the drive home. That’s also a great habit to develop when you start training more regularly, as you can document the lessons you learn from your rolling sessions.

Take Trial BJJ Classes at Other Gyms

Most people take their first BJJ class to assess whether they want to join the gym that offers it. However, it’s tough to put your experience into context without training anywhere else.

If you live in an area with multiple BJJ gyms nearby, don’t sign up for the first one you try. Even if you have a positive experience, you don’t know what else is out there, and there’s no need to rush.

Take advantage of the free trials at the other gyms around you. You might find one that’s cheaper, cleaner, closer, or more conducive to your personality and learning style.

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