How to Choose a BJJ Gym

So, you want to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Awesome! But, where do you start?

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing what could potentially be your gym for the next ten (or more!) years. You might some day want to bring your partner and children to this place. Of course you want to make sure you pick the right one!

Well, first of all, it’s not that serious. You can switch gyms at any time. I, personally, changed gyms within the first six months because I didn’t feel like I was fitting in where I was. Through this, and other experiences, and crowd-sourced internet searching, there is some basic criteria that repeats itself as important to consider when looking for a BJJ gym.

1. Is the head instructor a black belt? If not, is he/she a brown belt, or a successful competitor at purple belt?

Whether you call it a BJJ gym, a BJJ school, or even a dojo, the instructor is the most important piece. Basically, the thought is that you want someone with experience to match your ambitions. A hobbyist brown or black belt will be just fine if you plan on going to class a couple of times a week and maybe competing once a year or not at all.

However, if you have higher ambitions, eyes set on local, state, national championships, well, you better find someone who knows the way. As John Danaher has taught us, you don’t have to compete to teach competitors, but it sure helps. Look at the top students if not the Professor (instructor) – do they compete? Are they samples of who you want to be some day?

2. Do they allow white belts to roll?

Some places only allow white belts to watch rolling (sparring). Personally, I disagree with this. Positional sparring, at the very least, ought to be accessible to all levels. If you find yourself with only schools near you that don’t allow free sparring, then fine, some jiujitsu is better than no jiujitsu. But try to find somewhere that lets you practice live rolling.

Definitely don’t go to a place that makes you wait multiple belt levels before having a single real match.

3. Does the instructor roll with his or her students?

This can be a big one. If the instructor doesn’t EVER roll with their students and does not compete, it could be the sign of an ego problem. Do they only roll with women, smaller guys, and/or white belts?

Sometimes instructors are just injured, tired, or have been teaching all day – be aware of this and not too quick to judge. But you should be able to roll with higher belts who run right through you. It’s how you’ll learn.

4. Are there a good number of female students?

Ladies, look at this one. Fellas, you too. If a gym has NO regular women – or if women come, stay a week or two, and never come back, there’s likely something sketchy going on. Sure, if the gym is only ten people total, and there happen to be no females, that’s not so odd. But if there are upwards of 30 students and not a single one of them is female, beware.

5. What’s the cost of membership? Is this similar to other gyms in the area? Are there additional fees besides the regular membership fee?

Membership fees will vary (possibly greatly) depending upon location. Do some specific research in your area. If one gym charges twice as much as the others, make sure you’re getting twice the value (more classes, better instruction, better facility, etc.).

Beware of “belt fees”. Some places do belt testing – this is not to my taste, but it’s not necessarily illegitimate. However, some gyms charge a large fee for belt tests. These tend to come off as money grabs. If they require seminars regularly, same deal. If they offer seminars as a cool extra, with a reasonable fee attached, that’s another thing entirely. As long as the extras are optional, you should be good.

Do they require a specific uniform? Again, not a deal-breaker, but important to know. If you’re switching gyms and have a half-dozen colorful gis, and they require only white gis, you’ll have to consider whether you want to invest in all new gis.

6. Do they have other programs? Do these other programs take focus away from BJJ or supplement it?

Some places have a strong karate program, others offer Muay Thai kickboxing, still others are full MMA gyms. Is the gym primarily a boxing gym? A UFC gym? Look at how BJJ is treated within the bigger picture, and decide if that’s something you’re okay with.

For example, a lot of MMA gyms will prioritize no-gi grappling. So, if your dreams consist of winning IBJJF Gi Absolutes, you may want to go somewhere else.

7. Do they teach takedowns? Leg locks? Or are they only interested in one ruleset?

While not the most important question on this list, it’s important to know if the instructors are up to date on the latest moves in BJJ. Despite the advent of the leg lock game being relatively far in the past (at least as far as development of BJJ moves goes), some gyms still don’t teach them, or don’t allow you to even learn them until brown belt.

Personally, I think this is silly, and a sign that you’re outdated and need to adjust for the changing rulesets in competitions. By not teaching leg locks, you’re not teaching your students how to defend against them in competitions.

8. When you walk in, are you excited? Are the mats clean, are the students smiling?

Are you treated with kindness when you walk in? Any martial arts gym should be a place that you look forward to going to, not somewhere you feel inept and judged. Your teammates should be just that – teammates. That’s not to say they’ll go easy on you, but they’ll let you know that everyone has worn that white belt before and knows how hard it can be.

Conversely, if you walk in, and no one says anything to you, the mats are grungy, there’s a funky smell – get out now. A BJJ gym should be a happy place, a place of encouragement and learning. Sure, you’ll have hard days, but the people you train with should make those days a little better.

9. What will your commute be like?

Is the gym with the best instruction two hours away? It might be worth considering a gym with slightly less prestige that’s in a more convenient location. It’s the same as a regular gym, or anything else for that matter – if you have to travel far, you’re less likely to go often, even if you love it.

Particularly at the beginning, consider compromising instruction for proximity. Get a taste for it. Even a blue belt can teach a white belt the absolute basics. Should you decide you love it, you can always leave and go train somewhere else.

10. What are you waiting for? Sign up and get training!

Do a Google search of “BJJ gyms near ____”, call those schools and ask to try a free class, and bring this list of questions (plus any you have!). Ask if you’ll be able to borrow a gi (the answer will almost always be yes) and if you should know anything before you come in.

Google is your friend here. Google your instructor as well – find out who they got their black belt from (it should say on their website if they’re not a competitor). If it’s hard to find info on your instructor, or something weird comes up (arrest records, accusations, etc.), consider discussing them before signing up, or looking at your other options.

Most importantly, go forth and get taps!

Rachel Dows

Rachel is a 20-something year old writer and martial arts enthusiast. She works at a desk job all day to afford to be able to spend the majority of her free time at the gym, where she is a blue belt in BJJ. She also sometimes goes outside to run, hike, and enjoy living in small town USA.