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The ‘pressure-pain-danger’ scale (in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu)

Grappling arts have a specific weapon in their arsenal that other martial arts don’t – the pressure of the fighter’s own body. When fine-tuned, it becomes most grapplers’ best tool.

Pressure and causing pain are commonly used techniques in tournaments. Regular trainers know well that causing and taking pain are arts in themselves if one aims to do them mindfully and purposefully. Simply butchering the opponent’s body in the hope that it leads to a tap might not classify as martial art.

More interesting in this topic is how to use the power of the fighter’s own body mass during training. There are two thresholds we were able to identify, the passing of which changes the game as they come with severe physiological consequences. These changes have different implications during training or during tournaments.

#1. Pressure – the baseline

The first level of impact of the body mass can simply be called pressure, since it doesn’t actually hurt, but the opponent notices the force and will apply some force of their own in response. Fights usually slow down when pressure is applied; however, it’s nothing more than the presence of the opponent, their body weight, and their grip.

Pressure makes the opponent work harder, but it still enables the players to learn and practice without risk. In this case, the training is very efficient, and the techniques are applicable, which makes it ideal for entry-level students to build up their game.

At tournaments, this has no value though, as it lets the opponent play their game, which is not what we want.

#2. Pain – passing the first threshold

When the pressure reaches the threshold to evoke pain, a brand-new game starts. Physical pain triggers stress chemicals that quickly circulate around the body. A fighter’s state of mind and the condition of the body both change.

This threshold is important for lower belts or entry-level budokas because one of the most important consequences of this stress response is the complete lack of access to the learning centre of the brain. Learning is one of the most complex and energy-consuming cognitive activities. The brain saves this cognitive load when in pain, diverting resources to other action-responsive areas to get out of the painful situation.

Accordingly, when the pressure of the opponent passes that first threshold during sparring, you don’t listen to your moves anymore; you don’t observe the techniques, and you do not build any knowledge. You just try to get rid of the pain.

When you spar with people who come at you hard or have a body mass great enough to cause you pain simply by being put on you, you don’t really learn martial art. What you can learn, though, is emotional control – managing the emotional responses when you feel threatened to have better control over your moves.

At competition level, emotional control is critical, as discussed in great details in the Brain and Combat tournament preparation series, so for active competitors and/or higher belts, this level of applied pressure is quite useful to practise with. During a tournament, this is the basic level everyone tries to operate on most of the time since it doesn’t let the opponent think and so ensures greater control for the fighter.

But at entry level, where technical readiness needs to be built up, this condition is not suitable for learning, and the partner needs to be asked to dial down.

#3. Danger – passing the second threshold

When the pain reaches another threshold of intensity and threatens to become a physical injury, it becomes a danger. This is a situation that must be acted on immediately. You will have little-to-no control over your response; your survival instincts kick in, and you drop all your strategy. Nothing else matters anymore; your attention narrows to the task of getting rid of the danger without delay.

This threshold is the most important for regular competitors because this is when instincts override, and they loses control of the game. Even if they can get out of the situation, the stress response is so strong that they will likely remain stuck in the mental state of self-preservation. Since it takes about 15–20 minutes for the stress chemicals to disperse from the system, they commonly have very little chance of winning after this point.

For training, this condition is useless. Nothing is learned there – neither techniques nor emotional resilience. A partner causing such intensity of pressure needs to be openly called out, and if that doesn’t work, denied sparring with.


It’s every fighter’s own journey to find a way of dialling up and down on the pressure scale, choosing the force they apply, and picking partners for sparring who are aligned with their learning goals or game plan.

If the skill of fine-tuning pressure doesn’t come naturally from regular training, then you likely need to apply conscious effort to heighten your awareness. If you keep getting injured and are in full pain constantly after each class, it’s a clear sign you need to revise your pressure-dialling skills or be more picky with your sparring partners.

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