Your Main Jiu jitsu Tools Part 1: Frames & Levers

In the last article, I talked about Alignment and “the Score” when comparing jiu jitsu players with a significant size difference. If you can’t remember the three aspects of alignment (base, posture, and structure) give that article a quick review before proceeding on. I’m about to talk about the main tools of jiu jitsu, but here’s an important caveat: you’ll get the most out of these tools if you use them with good alignment. It’s just like using a pry bar to remove an old board. The tool won’t work that great if you’re holding it with only one arm while precariously balanced on one foot and twisting your back at a weird angle. That’d be way awkward and an accident waiting to happen. Maintaining good alignment comes first!

A Game of Frames & Levers

“When we do jiu jitsu, we’re essentially playing a game…of frames and levers.” – Rob Biernacki

In this article, I want to talk about the tools jiu jitsu players use to break down each other’s alignment: frames and levers. These are the tools that give us moments of jiu jitsu magic. It seems impossible that you could escape side control by pushing on an elbow. But you can! A 105-lb gal couldn’t possibly bear the weight of a 350-lb guy doing a push up on her shoulder, but….

Don was a sprightly 350 lbs at the time. I’m 108 in the gi. He’s doing a push up on my shoulder as I give a talk on matching force vectors.

Arms and legs are the most commonly used frames/levers, but the head and entire torso are also important frames/levers.

Of course some definitions are in order. A frame is anything that supports weight. A lever is a force multiplier, allowing you to get more work done with less energy. In the picture below, you can see me trying to dump Don on his back by directly pushing on his shoulders. Yeah…so much for direct application of force. In the second picture, I’m easily able to put him on his back by accessing his leg as a lever. 

Direct force versus lever-based force. I eventually succeeded in cruelly dumping Grandpa Don on his back using a force multiplier!

Goal—Hog all the Tools: When you’re playing this game of frames and levers, you want to keep these tools for yourself while denying them to your opponent. In theory that makes perfect sense, but the embarrassing reality is that we often give up some of our best weapons when we roll. So let’s go over some details on how to make the most out of these tools…

Using Frames Well

Frames can support your own weight or your opponent’s. Frames are key to managing distance the distance between you and your opponent.*

IMPORTANT POINT about using frames well: Make sure your frames are actually supporting weight. For example, if your opponent is on top, just because you’re pushing with your arms doesn’t mean they’re actually supporting any weight. If he’s postured, your arms may be too far away or at the wrong angle to make enough contact. Your arms have become free levers for the taking. Your intention to push doesn’t match the reality of your frames not doing their job.

How do you make sure your frames are actually supporting weight properly?

Matching force vectors… Back to the picture of me and Don. You’ll notice that my arm posting on the mat is at about the same angle as his arms pushing on my shoulder. Your frames, whether it’s your arms, legs, head or entire torso should match the angle of the force you’re opposing. If they don’t, you’ll quickly be collapsed. See Rob Biernacki and Rory Van Vliet’s example at

Use the right length frame for the job… Your opponent’s rushing to top side control and it’s the local mat hulk! It’s tempting to push with your hand even though he’s closer than the full length of your arm. But he’s so huge, you may as well be pushing a brick wall. You’re much better off if you adjust your frame: either make it a shorter one (such as the elbow/upper arm) or a longer one (find a way to fully extend that arm).

If you go for the longer frame, you’ll need to push yourself away to the full extension of your arm. (Think of your opponent as a wall. You can’t push a wall away, but you can push yourself away from a wall.) The upper and lower arm will have to lock temporarily into one long frame so the weight transfers along the entire length of arm.

Getting the Most Out of Levers

Control the end of the lever… You’ll generate more force from the lever if you control the very end. (Again, think of using a pry bar.) Where are the ends? When we talk about the main levers on the body, think of the torso as a box with sticks at each corner of the box. The direct end of the lever that controls each shoulder is at the elbow. The direct end of the lever that controls each hip is at the knee. The indirect ends (allowing access to the elbow and knees) are at the hands/wrists and feet/ankles respectively. The head is the north end of the lever of the spine.**

Take advantage of the natural handles at the ends of the levers. For example, the wrists offer a natural groove that your thumb and fingers can lock into. All the ends have these natural holds for no gi. Even in the gi, you’ll sometimes opt for a strong direct lever control at a joint rather than a proxy grip on fabric. But the gi also gives you literal handles at the ends of levers with the added bonus that force can be transferred along the fabric.

Control your opponent’s ability to turn… Applying force on the ends of levers allows you to control the corners of the body, affecting the ability to turn. Compare this with direct control (i.e., pushing directly down on the shoulders or hips) and you’ll see that the lever-based control takes less effort. In general, whether you’re passing, on top, or have the back, a lever-based control of opposite corners will allow you to completely control your opponent’s ability to turn more powerfully than direct control alone.

No cosmetic levers… Make sure you’re actually applying force to make that lever work! Holding on to a pry bar isn’t the same as actually using the pry bar. This seems like an obvious point, but I’ve made this exact error when I’ve been learning a new technique. I’m so worried about which hand goes where that I forget to actually apply force into the control point. Oops.

Learning to use the jiu jitsu tools of frames and levers well takes time and experimentation. In the next article, I’ll talk about another important tool: wedges. Until next time, have fun playing with the above ideas and let me know what you think!

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.

*In other articles I’ll talk about using frames for lever access and the relationship between frames and hip mobility.

**The south end of the spine sure has some lever access, but it’s pretty frowned upon by your training partners and tournament rule sets!