Guard passing is perhaps the most critical phase of grappling matches. Against equally skilled opponents, the competitor who passes guard first often goes on to dominate the rest of the match. Without the ability to reliably defeat guards, a grappler will struggle to impose their game or attack submissions effectively, particularly from the top position.
In no-gi grappling, where opponents cannot rely on gi grips for breaking posture and manipulating limbs, guard passing takes on an even greater significance. Without the friction and control afforded by the lapels and pant legs, no-gi passers must use a smaller set of highly effective techniques to consistently defeat even the most dexterous open and closed guard players.
This in-depth article covers the essential concepts required to master no-gi guard passing against skilled resistance. Read on to gain the skills needed to attack submissions and assert dominant control from top position in No-gi matches and MMA fights.
The Fundamental Asymmetry of Guard Passing
The starting point for developing elite guard passing skill is recognizing the fundamental asymmetry in strength and endurance between the human body’s upper half versus lower half. The legs and hips can easily push heavy loads, absorb impacts, and propel the body over long distances without tiring.
Plenty of average weekend warriors can squat or leg press double their body weight for dozens of repetitions. Contrast this to the arms and shoulders, which fatigue quickly under heavy loads and are completely unsuited for any kind of locomotion. Even elite gymnasts would struggle to walk on their hands for more than a minute or two, even if they possessed the requisite balance.
This radical asymmetry is absolutely central to the sport of jiu-jitsu, where smaller and weaker grapplers routinely defeat larger, stronger opponents. By playing guard on their backs, lighter fighters use their stronger lower bodies to control and submit adversaries who often have a significant size and strength advantage.
This strength disparity allows the jiu-jitsu player to match their legs and hips against their opponent’s weaker arms, shoulders, and torso – a winning strategy for smaller combatants across history.
But for the athlete playing from the top position, guard passing often means accepting the exact opposite dynamic, with the passer forced to square their upper body up against the bottom player’s legs and hips in what amounts to an extremely difficult battle even against weaker or lighter opponents who know how to use their guards effectively.
An Unfair Fight
Without the ability to pass guard, the top grappler is essentially limited to attacking just the lower body with leg locks and foot locks while remaining vulnerable to endless sweeps, triangles, armbars, and chokes initiated by the guard player. Truly dominant top play requires the ability to reliably pass guards in order to attack the whole body, not just the legs and feet.
But when initial guard passing efforts are undertaken, the fundamental problem manifests itself in full force – the passer’s upper body strength is no match for even an average opponent’s lower body power when working from front headlock or squared-up bodylock passing scenarios.
The guard player can comfortably bench press the passer straight up into the air repeatedly using just their legs. And over time, the passer’s arms and shoulders will fatigue rapidly compared to the guarder’s legs and core. This inherent disadvantage makes smashing or brute forcing through guards an unrealistic approach against skilled opposition.
So while the basic asymmetry presents a significant challenge, there are several conceptual approaches to evening the odds and overcoming this fundamental problem, as covered in the next section.
Conceptual Approaches to Overcoming the Strength Imbalance
While a direct battle of passer arms versus guarder legs is inadvisable, the guard passing battle need not be thought of in such simplistic and unwinnable terms. After all, skilled grapplers pass high level guards successfully all the time, even against larger, stronger opponents. So how is this possible given the disadvantage at play?
It comes down to using conceptual approaches that allow the passer to employ their techniques in areas where the legs lose leverage and strength. To pass consistently, the passer must avoid squaring up into the guard player’s strongest pushing and extending ranges.
Work From Superior Angles
The first conceptual approach involves never passing head-on, but always working from angles above the hips or shoulders. Here, downward pressure is far more likely to succeed in breaking the guard’s most fundamental component – the connection of elbow and knee on at least one side.
As long as this elbow-knee connection remains intact, the guard passer’s chest cannot reach the torso to flatten out and consolidate the pass. But when pressuring downward from angles above the hips or head, leverage favors the passer’s efforts to separate knee and elbow.
Working from the knees, examples include stepping up to Kesa Gatame and Knee Slice angles where downward hip pressure can wedge apart the elbow and knee. When passing standing, examples include pressures from headquarters or high leg drag positions. Wherever possible, work from angles where gravity assists in collapsing your opponent’s guard frames.
Target Weak Ranges of Motion
The second conceptual approach is to avoid encountering the legs and hips in their strongest pushing and extending ranges of motion, and instead target weak ranges where the legs lose leverage and strength.
For example, the legs can powerfully extend the knee when working from even a slight bend, but rapidly lose pushing strength as the foot is pinned closer and closer to the buttocks. It is from these tightly flexed positions that the passer can use their upper body to defeat even very strong legs.
Examples include folding the feet tight to the hips with over/under passes or cinching up the body lock as the foundation for a wide range of backstep and leg drag passes. Just as a crocodile’s jaws can chomp down with incredible force but cannot open once bound shut, so too can even the strongest legs be controlled and beaten once pinned in mechanically weak positions.
Incorporate the Hands as Temporary Bases
Because the legs must support the passer’s weight and balance, they cannot typically be used for passing movements simultaneously. So a third conceptual approach is to incorporate the hands as temporary replacements for the legs when it comes to base and support.
By posting one or both hands to the mat, the legs are freed up to poke, prod, pummel, and pass without compromising stability. Examples include float passing variations where hips hover above one posted hand, or leg dragging with the other hand posted.
While not suitable for extended periods, brief support on the hands can enable the legs to join the fight as passers move between more stable kneeling or standing bases. The passer’s legs versus the guarder’s legs is now a much more even fight than passer arms against guarder legs.
Never Square Up
The fourth and final conceptual approach is to never passively square up and meet force with force. Even with the leverage and angle advantage working from the knees or feet, the guarder’s legs will usually still outmuscle the passer’s upper body if allowed to push straight out.
Instead, the goal should be to always pass at opposing angles using the legs. This could involve pressuring across the body from headquarters, floating the hips through at 45 degree angles, or backstepping and dragging legs across. Attacking the limbs is another example – why try to out muscle the legs when you can step over them instead?
Wherever possible, make encounters about guarder legs versus passer legs rather than the doomed passer arms versus guarder legs dynamic. If you keep these basic conceptual guidelines in mind, you will already be ahead of most developing guard passers when approaching the skill. But knowledge must now be paired with technical skill…
The Four Essential Guard Passing Scenarios
While the conceptual understanding covered in the previous section is critical, it is nothing without the requisite technical skills to manifest that understanding into tangible passing results against intense resistance.
There are four common scenario types that a guard passer must be able to reliably defeat:
Opening Closed Guards
The first and most obvious passing prerequisite is the ability to efficiently open closed guards secured with crossed ankles and heavy hip pressure. Without the ability to detach this glue-like adhesion of the guarder’s legs, no actual guard passing can even begin.
Students often waste tremendous time and effort fruitlessly chipping away at this initial barrier through naive brute strength techniques learned early in training. But a skilled guard passer must develop the leverage-based technical finesse to uncross ankles and detach closed guards within seconds, not minutes.
Examples include proper shin prying, ankle isolation, standing postures, and cross-face leverage. You will be using your time and energy poorly in matches if you cannot open closed guards quickly and efficiently.
Passing Seated Guards
The second scenario is dealing with open guards where the bottom opponent remains seated, such as De La Riva, Reverse De La Riva, and shin-on-shin variations. These interlocking guards各 aim to control or trap one of the passer’s legs.
Since the bottom player is upright, pressure must be generated through driving forward from front or side kneeling postures on the floor. Standing passing is also viable but requires modifying grips and angles compared to passing guards with the opponent on his back.
Against all varieties of seated open guard, the passer must avoid getting tangled up, establish strong bases, defeat leg entanglements, and pressure through to flatten the guarder out. Failure to handle seated open guards will see you stalled out and unlikely to reach more dominant passing positions.
Passing Supine Guards
The third essential guard type involves open guards where the bottom player lies flat on their back, such as De La Riva, butterfly variations, X guard, shin-to-shin, and other styles reliant on active hips and mobile legs to frame, capture, and recover guard.
These supine open guards aim to control all possible angles using the legs. Dynamic scrambling attacks are also more common, especially when passers make mistakes or present opportunities from poor posture and positioning.
Remaining upright through this 360 degree gauntlet of traps presents a difficult balancing act requiring the integration of many techniques – managing distance, defeating leg entanglements, slipping out of submission attempts, and pressuring structurally through flexible defensive frames.
Failure to handle the threats posed by supine open guards will ensure endless time spent mired in the quicksand, unable to reach more dominant positions to attack submissions.
Escaping Half Guards
The fourth scenario a passer must master is escaping and passing the notorious half guard, where the bottom player has trapped one of the passer’s legs between his legs. Half guards fuse control of a limb with many of the open guard retention tactics covered already.
Half guard situations require the passer to carefully extract their trapped leg while avoiding sweeps and submissions, and also overcoming the guarder’s ability to underhook, frame, shrimp, and reclaim full guard.
Quick half guard escapes are invaluable because the position otherwise represents a significant stall point in the match where the passer’s best options are often simply maintaining pressure and defending until an opportunity to withdraw the leg presents itself. Learning to pass half guards with authority is a definitive passing benchmark.
Ultimately, consistent and successful guard passing demands competency in all four of these scenarios. Lacking proficiency in even one leaves an obvious hole in your game for opponents to keep dragging you back into endless guard recovery battles.
But by drilling the techniques covered in the next section, you will enter matches with a complete guard passing toolbox, able to reliably defeat any guard your opponent throws your way, even against the highest levels of skill and flexibility.
The Three Nemeses of Guard Passing
While conceptual knowledge and broad technical familiarity with the major guard types is essential, putting that together against skilled resistance reveals guard passing to primarily be an ongoing battle against three recurring problems. Learning to overcome these nemeses is central to mastering the skill.
Maintained Elbow-Knee Connection
The first major roadblock to passing is your opponent’s ability to maintain connection of their elbow and knee on at least one side, typically by securing an underhook or deep collar tie and keeping their legs between yours.
So long as this basic post remains intact, the passer’s torso cannot reach the guarder’s torso to flatten out and consolidate the pass. At best, some back exposure points may be scored, but no dominant control can be achieved.
While a completely defensive posture, the maintained elbow-knee does limit the guarder’s own submission attacks in exchange for retention. But every pass must involve breaking this post at some point, which can require tremendous pressure against flexible and determined opponents.
Look to create angles where downward hip pressure or block-stepping leverages can wedge apart the stubborn elbow and knee just enough to penetrate your own knee or torso through. The most efficient passes will dismantle this post early in the movement by attacking it immediately once angles have been gained.
The Outside Leg
Another persistent problem when passing is your opponent’s outside leg, which functions as his last line of defence once you’ve succeeded in breaching the elbow-knee connection. As your hips or torso threaten to move past his hips and flatten him out for the pass, he will frantically swim his free leg over to hook or cross-face you.
This enables the guarder to re-establish his alignment and distance relative to you, allowing him to reconnect his elbow and knee and regain his guard, essentially resetting back to the starting point.
To avoid getting caught in this endless loop, work to establish strong inside position with your head and limbs any time you step past the knee line. When passing right, your right arm should pin their leg while your head stays lower than their left knee to form interlocking frames.
This makes it far more difficult for the guarder’s outside leg or knee to reach across your body. Shutting down the outside leg’s ability to swim through and reconnect the post must happen in conjunction with breaking the initial elbow-knee.
Upper Body Frames
The third common obstacle faced by passers, typically once leverage has been gained and the legs have been defeated, comes in the form of stiff upper body frames. With the legs and hips flattened out and controlled, the guarder will quickly stiff-arm your hips with fully extended arms as last-ditch “stall frames”.
While not nearly as formidable as the legs, these hand and forearm posts don’t need to be – they only have to hold you temporarily for the legs to recover, after which point more robust guard recovery efforts can begin again. Repeated breaking of these frames can gradually fatigue the shoulders and arms.
Avoid the temptation to stubbornly try bulldozing forward into these extended frames, as this rarely works and just wastes more of your own energy. It also exposes you to triangles and leg pummeling as you hang heavy on your opponent’s arms.
Instead, slip off at angles around the frames and attack the now undefended hips and legs rather than playing directly into your opponent’s strongest mechanism for stalling your progress. Now their stalling has put their own lower body at risk.
Much of developing high level guard passing skill involves learning to smoothly navigate around these three inevitable phases of the guarder trying to retain position – maintaining the central elbow-knee connection, swimming the outside leg across to reconnect, and framing the upper body when flattened out. Consistently breaking through each stage is essential.
Integrating Knee Slices and Chest-to-Chest Pins
At the end of the day, every guard pass must result in approximately 3 seconds of control, or back exposure points for the wrestler. While the back certainly has advantages, for pure top position dominance, chest-to-chest control tends to be higher percentage for attacking submissions.
Gaining the requisite torso connection to establish this consolidation usually requires separating the elbow and knee enough to allow your own knee or torso to penetrate. But how much separation is needed?
You have two viable options to penetrate to the torso for control and points:
The first option is inserting your knee on the belly when only a small separation between the elbow and knee exists. Because your knee is only as wide as your thigh, not your entire torso, this can more easily wedge into even tight gaps.
Hooking up a knee-on-belly and driving down with the shin can score points by itself if held for 3 seconds. While the knee slice succeeds as a pass with less space needed, it does provide less control as you cannot flatten out the guarder fully or trap the hips.
The second option is your whole torso flattened out chest-to-chest. This requires separating elbow and knee considerably more, essentially the width of your shoulders or wider. This full flattening out allows for complete control of the guarder’s torso and inflicting crossface pressure.
But the chest pin requires far greater elbow-knee separation to achieve. Against frames and active hips, the space may simply not exist. As a tradeoff however, chest contact secures much tighter control once achieved.
To optimize passing efficiency against skilled opponents, you must become competent in executing both knee slices and chest pins, and understand when each is better suited based on the amount of space available and angles achieved:
- Tight elbow-knee and stiff frames? Use knee cuts to slice through.
- Major separation gained? Smash through with the chest instead.
Do not become overly reliant on just one method. Learn to smoothly transition between both tactics depending on the position and reactions you get.
Prioritizing Hip Control Before Moving to the Head
Now that we have covered penetrating the guard itself, the next major consideration is consolidating control once initial torso connection is achieved. A common mistake is aggressively pursuing head and shoulder control too early when passing.
The hips and legs must be pinned first before moving up, or else the guarder simply slides a knee in to reestablish guard recoveryClosed guard. Eager passers often fundamentally compromise position by leaving the legs and hips mobile while rushing to trap the head and shoulders instead.
This allows the guarder to quickly insert a leg between yours, leading to an endless push-pull stalemate as you try to crush their head while their legs shove you back out – winning head control alone means little if the legs and hips remain free.
Connect Knee-to-Hip, Elbow-to-Knee
To consolidate control and minimize mobile space once you pass initial knee and elbow frames, first get knee-to-hip and elbow-to-knee connection on the same side. Drive your knee into their tailbone while your elbow connects to the side of the knee, forming a single unbroken chain from knee to hip to elbow.
This simple concept shuts down the guarder’s ability to shrimp, frame, and reinsert their legs back in between yours – any hip movement will just further wedge your own knee and elbow tighter together. Opposition from the hips and legs becomes self-defeating rather than productive guard recovery due to your chaining.
Do not transition up to the head and shoulders until you can comfortably sit through multiple shrimp attempts without opening space or getting pushed off. Only once the legs are immobilized should you begin carefully advancing up towards upper body control.
Trap First, Then Advance
Think in stages – trap the hips first before pursuing the head. By fixating prematurely on the finish line of head trapping, too many passes are lost from skipping this all-important intermediate step. Control the space between your knee and your elbow first.
Once your opponent’s hips and legs are pinned and neutralized, methodically slide your shoulder up the torso and secure the head last. Never go to the head before the hips are conclusively beaten – this undermines the positional dominance earned from your pass.
Against persistent framers and scramblers, focus on pinning the hips using knee-to-hip and elbow-to-knee chaining rather than blowing your load early trying to force head and shoulder control. Slow positional advances with heavy pressure lead to superior long-term control compared to rushed and disconnected attempts to trap the head.
Turning Exposed Backs into Taking the Back
As you progress through guard passes against competent opponents, a common occurrence is the bottom player turning away from you the instant they feel their guard being passed. This turning motion functions not to escape entirely, but rather to avoid giving up points by never allowing their shoulders to be pinned flat.
While this does require exposing their back, skilled guarders mitigate the risk through timing and urgent hand fighting if caught in transition. Turning away to hands and knees can prevent back exposure points if done quickly enough after feeling the guard pass.
Prioritize the Back over Other Passes
Many passers will consider this a botched or failed pass attempt since side control or mount was not achieved. But against savvy opposition determined not to surrender points, adapting your pass to secure superior back control instead will yield better results than stubbornly trying to force a side pin.
Back exposure points are still scored, but more importantly, the back position is far more dominant for attacking submissions than even the full mount. Against athletic and sweaty no-gi opponents, seat belts and hooks are also often tighter than any decently framed mount.
The one exception is versus heavier opponents, where pinned side control, knee-on-belly, and mount become higher percentage control positions. But against similar size competitors, capitalize on every back exposure opportunity for maximum domination, even if traditional “passes” are unavailable.
Three Common Turning Scenarios
There are three common scenarios where turning exposes the back that you must be ready to capitalize on:
- The Opponent Turns Into You
If they are still facing you but turn in and up to their knees, often achieved by underhooking with one arm, drop your elbow across to block their hip and use your leg to hook and steer their motion.
- The Opponent Turns Away From You
When flattened out face down as you pass, opportunists will roll to hands and knees away from you. Your hand should dig deep across their waist to block the motion while your leg hooks their rear knee.
- The Opponent Half Turns Up
A partial turn where they face neither towards nor away sees them posting one elbow and bringing that side’s knee up and in tight to prevent back exposure. Dive through the open side to expose the trapped arm.
Drilling swift reactions to all three of these common scenarios until hooking and blocking becomes instinctual will allow you to turn your opponent’s defensive turning to avoid points into dominant back attacks again and again. Never allow a pass and control opportunity to simply slip away once earned.
Master No-Gi Guard Passing at Apex MMA
Through this extensive examination of the concepts and techniques required to develop elite no-gi guard passing skills, several key themes emerge:
- Master the proper technical responses to opening common guard types.
- Internalize key leverage principles to overcome the legs’ strength advantage.
- Swiftly move to the back whenever opponents turn away.
- Relentlessly pin the hips before pursuing the upper body.
By integrating these insights into your overarching approach, frustrations with stifled passing progress can be replaced with more dynamic victories from top position. No opponent’s guard need be feared.
Now the challenge lies in putting this knowledge into practice through extensive live sparring. Master the art of no-gi guard passing with free beginner classes at Apex MMA. Sign up now!