Size Matters…in BJJ: Alignment & “The Score” When You’re a Bigger or Smaller Jiu Jitsu Player

Assessing performance can be tough for the bigger or smaller jiu jitsu player. A lot has been discussed about size differences in BJJ. This topic is of particular interest to me because I’m 105 lbs. Over the years, I’ve often heard people say that BJJ allows a smaller person to overcome someone who’s bigger and stronger. While that can be true, there are some caveats to keep in mind. Rob Biernacki’s ideas on Alignment and “The Score” have helped me think about how differences in size/strength affect results on the mats.

Jenn of Solarte BJJ in Sequim, WA teaching back control
That’s 105-lb me teaching back control at our club Solarte BJJ in Sequim, WA.

Alignment = Base + Posture + Structure

First, let’s define our terms…
Alignment describes your body’s ability to generate force. It’s made up of 3 elements: base, posture and structure. Base is a platform from which you can apply or absorb force. Posture is about maintaining the integrity of the spine. Structure is the arrangement of your limbs depending on your goals. Good base means you’re able to apply or absorb force without falling or being collapsed. Good posture maintains the integrity of the spine–no twisting, arching or hunching. Good structure arranges your limbs as efficiently as possible according to your desired result. For example, you bring your limbs in close when you want to deny lever access.

The Score: Adding up Base + Posture + Structure

When Rob talks about “The Score”, he gives a one-point value to each aspect of Alignment. Thus, you want to maintain a “3” at all times. You use frames, levers and wedges versus your opponent to get their score down to something less than 3…ideally a 1 or 0 if you want to succeed at a submission. Some sweeps and passes will work when your opponent has a 2. The score is a very useful thing to keep in mind, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s also an assessment best made between opponents of similar size, age and experience.

However, “The Score” is still useful when there are significant differences. Let’s go back to that definition of ‘Alignment’—your body’s ability to generate force. If we come up with values for each aspect of alignment, it can give you a more nuanced view of force and alignment between opponents. (NOTE: We’re just talking about force generation here—NOT differences in experience level.) I’m sure someone else could figure out specific values using particular exercises and methods of measuring. To keep things easy, I’m going to pick some simple numbers for comparison…

  • Say you’ve got a guy in his 20s who’s an athletic 190 lbs, in good shape. For kicks, let’s give him an overall alignment score of 75 (25 for each aspect of alignment).
  • He’s rolling with a gal in her 40s who’s an athletic 110 lbs, also in decent shape. We’ll give her an overall alignment score of 45 (15 for each aspect of alignment).

For the Bigger Jiu Jitsu Player: Sometimes a False Positive

If we use the above numbers, you’ll see that even when the guy is missing one aspect of alignment, his total alignment is still 50. That’s more than her total alignment score of 45. With that size difference, sometimes he’ll get away with some problems with his alignment because he’s still able to generate more force (i.e., beast out or muscle the submission). This can lead to bad habits of not addressing poor base, posture or structure or thinking a poorly executed technique is working well.

For the Smaller Jiu Jitsu Player: Possible False Negatives

Meanwhile, if the gal wants to successfully do anything (pass, sweep, submit) she’ll have to break down at least two aspects of the guy’s alignment while maintaining her own base, posture and structure. That means getting him down to a score of 25 while keeping hers at 45. Even then, she still might not have enough of an advantage to finish a submission. In that case, she might abandon a technique as ineffective when a) either some adjustments could be made to get the guy down to zero or b) the technique DOES work, but only on people closer to her size. (And, at 110lbs, that’s not going to be a lot of people).

Conclusion for the bigger or smaller jiu jitsu player

It’d be swell if we had a device that could tally up precise alignment scores (You, sir, have a 25 base, 12 posture and 20 structure—quit slouching!) Until then, this view of The Score still helps me when I think back on my rolls and try to figure out what did and didn’t work. I don’t look exclusively at size differences (in another article I’ll talk about other aspects to consider), but my ridiculously small size does make it a bit of a thing for me.

Since almost everyone is bigger, I do think about alignment totals in this way, even if I’m just guessing at the numbers. It’s given me a much more realistic view of what I can accomplish with various techniques on people of different sizes. I don’t feel like a failure if I break down 2 out of 3 aspects of a big guy’s alignment without being able to sub him. The fact that I was even able to break him down that far becomes a win when viewed through this lens.

I hope this is useful to those of us on either end of the size spectrum. The Boyd Belt System has also been a useful reference point. If you have any ideas on how to more accurately assess alignment scores, let me know! For more information on concept-based jiu jitsu, visit bjjconcepts.net, youtube.com/islandtopteam or RVV BJJ.

Jenn of Solarte BJJ and Rory van Vliet of Island Top Team
Hi, I come up to your armpit: me and Rory van Vliet, one of my instructors at Island Top Team.

About the Author

Jenn Lozada is a purple belt under Rob Biernacki of Island Top Team. She is the head instructor at Solarte BJJ, a grappling club in Sequim, WA.