Understanding the BJJ Belt Ranks & System

May 6, 2024
The belt system in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a means of tracking the progress of students as they learn and practice the art.
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The belt system can be somewhat daunting to newcomers of jiu jitsu. Because of the length of time, it takes to achieve certain ranks, it’s important for newcomers to understand what these belts represent to the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

As such, this article will be dedicated to elucidating the ranking system in jiujitsu, as well as what can be expected from each rank.  Much of these insights have been gathered through conversations with individuals who hold each rank as well as through readings which I have compiled here for easy access.

The Five BJJ Belt Ranks

A 5 BJJ belt system is used to track progression. Students are promoted through the following BJJ belt order:

  • White Belt
  • Blue Belt
  • Purple Belt
  • Brown Belt
  • Black Belt
  • Red Belt

White Belt

bjj belt ranks

Welcome to jiujitsu! This belt represents taking one’s first steps in the art. This is a period of developing one’s sensitivity to positions and fundamentals of escapes and control, as well as a few submissions and so, at white belt, one should be unhurried. White belt is often described as a period of unconscious incompetence— we simply don’t know what we don’t know and so, learning to relax within positions here is key to developing the ability to think through different moves while engaging with our opponent— As Rickson Gracie notes, developing one’s breathing to slow down our stress response will help to not become panicked when we are put in difficult positions. This is especially true as a white belt where we are making a conscious attempt to apply new knowledge in unfamiliar situations. 

White belt is also a period where a great degree of uncertainty in one’s knowledge and discouragement in ability can set it. Mainly from the amount of information one needs to quickly learn and needs to apply in live rolling, and inevitably from getting submitted often by peers. This of course is normal as one is learning a new skill. As such, this time should be spent refining their basics with the understanding that patience is necessary to masters these fundamentals. As one of the best coaches in the sport, John Danaher, notes “Defense is the foundation for effective offence” and so this time should be spent learning the basics of developing a strong defensive game. Learning to identify and play within the common guard positions (e.g., closed guard, open guard, half guard, etc.) both offensively and defensively is central to developing as a white belt.

This is also a period crucial for dissolving the ego. By this I mean the overinflated sense of skill, ability or confidence that one indelibly walks into the dojo with. Being high browed, or arrogant gets us in trouble in jiujitsu, especially early on as a white belt because we have yet to acquire an adequate understanding of our own limitations and strengths necessary to perform. The interesting thing is getting rid of one’s “ego” is less an active task on one’s part and more a simple consequence of application. One quickly finds how well they know positional concepts or submissions in live rolling and so, inevitably one becomes a better gauge of their comparative skill and ability. Live rolling is a litmus test for how well we understand jiujitsu and should always keep us humble as we progress as a white belt or at higher levels.

Blue Belt

adult belt system

Blue belt comes after demonstrating knowledge of the basic positions— typically having a few solid escapes from the mount, back mount and side control. Compared to white belt, blue belt is characterized by having a strong defensive game and ability to escape and attack from most of the major position. This is usually the period in jiujitsu where one becomes somewhat more confident by becoming competent in their knowledge base and application. In this period, one has a good understanding of positional control, weight distribution, timing, and angling one’s body but application is somewhat inconsistent. Often as a blue belt we are met with a conscious incompetence, that is we now know what we don’t know. We can see the mistakes we are making and the details that need correcting in our application of technique.

This of course requires patience and continued effort on our part for refining sensitivity and increasing our awareness of available transitions or submissions when rolling. What characterizes a blue belt is learning to apply more difficult concepts like Kuzushi— off-balancing our opponent to create strategic opportunities to attack or reposition— or how to link disjointed attacks together like the arm-bar, triangle, and Omoplata and understanding the positional relationship between these submissions. Learning to string together moves and create simple dilemmas of choice for our opponent is paramount for developing as a blue belt.

This is also a period where one becomes more independent with skill development. As a white belt one typically works closely with their instructor and have hammered through the fundamentals. So, it becomes easier to see how new moves are built off of basic positional concepts and to see how they are related. This makes it easier to add to one’s repertoire of available guards and submissions and refine moves that one has already learned. Having developed a strong defensive game, gives blue belts the opportunity to maneuver through positions and work on developing an offensive cycle.

As with every belt, patience is again needed here. Training can be at times inconsistent as one works on tuning their techniques to work for them. The International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) has blue belt set at a minimum of two years before promotion so at the very least one has quite a bit of time to settle into their game.

Purple Belt

belt rank

Purple belt is a very impressive achievement in jiujitsu as it requires a great degree of commitment and consistency in refining one’s skill and knowledge In order to become proficient in applying technique. This belt is often spoken about as being about movement and momentum, that is, purple belt is characterized as having a solid grasp of controlling the pace of movement in matches, of having good understanding of weight distribution for controlling an opponent, and of capitalizing on the momentum of their opponent for earning sweeps or opening up positions.

There is often an economy of action in the movement of someone who is a purple belt— movements are made to be efficient and intentional, having purpose and being tied to a greater strategy. This means that purple belts are strong at transitioning between both offensive and defensive cycles often having a cascade of submissions from each major position. Purple belts are expert at transitioning between submission attempts stringing together a group of related submission from each position. Purple belts are also characterized as being consciously competent— they are able to recognize the correct circumstances to execute technique effectively whereas in the earlier belts movements may have been done at random with hopes of achieving a certain outcome.

This is often a period dedicated to improving the subtlety in the application of technique or movement, and so improvements at this level are incremental. This is usually a time spent becoming more competent in the areas of their skill which are disconnected from the rest of their game. This is also a period where one’s core ability becomes cemented focusing mainly on tying up loose ends in details for positions while familiarizing with derivative guard positions. This means performance gains will be smaller especially if one has developed strong defensive and offensive strategies earlier on compared to earlier belts. Improvements won’t be as dramatic as they may have been while blue or white belts and one will have already developed a style or “game” they execute (e.g., guard player, top player, etc.)

Brown Belt

brown jiu jitsu belt

Brown belt is truly a pivotal achievement within jiujitsu. Not many who begin training have the dedication and consistency to reach this belt level. The IBJJF has a requirement for purple belts to remain within their belt for a minimum of one and half years before achieving the rank of brown belt. As a brown belt there are usually very few positions that one has encountered. The level of detail within each position has been honed significantly and the subtly in body position, weight distribution, movement and momentum is expert. Brown belt is often spoken about as the belt where one has “put everything together”. There is a clear and coherent style and application of technique and an expert understanding for transitioning between both defensive and offensive cycles.

"In Jiu Jitsu, the more you know, the less you use"

Jean Jaques Machado

As 7th-degree coral belt Jean Jacques Machado notes, in jiujitsu “The more you know, the less you use.” Many brown belts I’ve spoken with will say this is definitely where this wisdom becomes especially apparent, as it is characterized by an expert economy of movement. Brown belts have a solid grasp of advantages and disadvantages within each position and capitalize on the subtlest errors in opponents’ movements to establish positional advantage or to set up a submission. At this belt there is usually a high degree of success for submissions usually having mastered a handful of finishes from each major guard position. 

Brown belts will almost entirely be visual learners, being able to watch the application of technique, understanding the nuances of different concepts within their application, and be able to replicate them with few or no error. It’s often said at this level that one is unconsciously competent. The application of technique and maneuvering through position is usually automatic, smooth, and effortless. One is free to think about advancing position or creating opportunity for submission without much cognitive resource spent focusing on movement. Brown belt is often a period spent teaching others and giving back to future students.

Black Belt

his or her black belt

Black belt takes a considerable amount of time to achieve. One usually achieves this rank after 1-2 years of being a brown belt. Typically, by this point, one has practiced jiujitsu for around 10 years. The jiu jitsu black belt represents someone who has a solid understanding for most concepts within jiujitsu and has masterfully honed their skill with the application of technique. Knowledge of positions, and technique is very deep and technical at this level, and one is generally sound from all positions but has specialized in a handful of areas.

Many black belts come in with the understanding that they have not “mastered” their art. On the contrary, the sentiment seems to be that they have returned to being a beginner. It is therefore seen as starting a new journey as a jujitsuka, having to expand their knowledge base at a much more fundamental level. This is somewhat evident in the number of degrees the black belt is capable of receiving— 7-8th degree taking anywhere between an additional 8-10 years to receive. A red and white belt is worn by a black belt practitioner who has attained the rank of eighth degree. Black belt is seen as the pinnacle of jiujitsu, and so many black belts will either go on to open academies of their own to pass down their knowledge to future students. 

Red Belt

tenth degree black belt

This is the highest level achievable in BJJ and is awarded to those who have shown exceptional skill, knowledge, and dedication to the art. It takes an incredibly long time to achieve the red belt in BJJ. Typically, one must have practiced jiujitsu for at least 20 years and be of a master level before being awarded this honor.

"The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu red belt is reserved for those whose influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of the art"

Renzo & Royler Gracie

It'll take most people their entire lives to achieve a red belt. For example, take Mica Galvao, the youngest black belt ever. The earliest he could receive his ninth degree red belt is at the age of 66.

How long does it take to get through belts in BJJ?

The jiujitsu belt system is stricter than many other forms of martial arts. This is something apparent in the number of years it will take to reach black belt and continue to coral and red belts. Jiujitsu is a lifestyle, a commitment, and this is certainly reflected in the amount of time one spends refining their skills, knowledge and technique to reach these higher-level belts.

The belts in jiujitsu are separated and organized between different colors: white, blue, purple, brown, black, coral and finally red respectfully. throughout these belts, one’s experience is represented using stripes, each belt up until brown consisting of four stripes before grading and progressing towards the next. Black belts receive many more stripes depending on the number of years spent within the belt (e.g., typically 3-5 years for 1st-5th degree, 7 years for 6 and 7th degree and 10 years or more for 8th, 9th and 10th degree).

The time in between stripes varies of course on several factors; time spent training, level of athleticism and competitiveness, and demonstrable knowledge of technique among other considerations. Typically, from white to brown, one’s sensei gauges the level of progression and awards a stripe as one shows considerable development. These stripes represent advancement and depth within one’s knowledge of positions and concepts in jiujitsu.

For white belts, typically one receives a stripe anywhere between every 4-6 months. All following belts typically receive stripes every 6 months between degrees. As a white belt, this means to be promoted can take anywhere between one and a half to two or more years of commitment. Exceptions occur of course for white belts who are competing regularly and placing on the podium or who train full time (e.g., 5-7 times a week). This really depends on how quickly one begins grasping concepts and applying them within positions as the International Brazilian Jiujitsu Federation (IBJJF) does not have a set time necessary to remain within white belt and so, one can get through this belt relatively quickly.