One of the greatest gripes among smaller jiu-jitsu practitioners is how hard it is to find training partners who are a solid combination of safe and challenging. The argument is often made that jiu-jitsu is the “perfect” martial art for smaller people to use against larger opponents, and while that’s great for practical purposes, our day-to-day training gets painful, exhausting, and generally unpleasant if our only training partners are all people who are 50 lbs heavier and don’t understand how to properly manage their size and strength advantage.
For reference, I am 5’2″ and 120-ish lbs. My nine years of jiu-jitsu have given me the skills I need to be able to have an adequate defense against most people I roll with, but they’ve also left my body a bit broken and my mind a bit wary when I slap hands and bump fists with large, unfamiliar rolling partners. I’m lucky to have multiple training partners who are literally twice my weight and still give me safe, but tough rolls, but I also know that there are many jiu-jitsu students out there who have no idea how to roll with someone significantly smaller than them.
Whether you’re not used to rolling with much smaller people or you just want to be a better training partner for your smaller teammates, here are some things you should — and shouldn’t — do.
Do: Start slow and light and build up the intensity.
If you’re not sure how hard you should be going, it’s better to go too light than to go too hard. Start slowly and with minimal strength, and then, if you feel like you need to give a bit more effort to handle your rolling partner, increase the intensity little by little. Starting off slow is safer than going 110% from the beginning and having to dial it back.
Don’t: Substitute technique with strength.
Requiring a bit more strength for a more evenly matched roll isn’t the same as forcing your way into every position and submission just because your biceps are as wide as your training partner’s torso. Rolling with a much smaller teammate is a great opportunity to try out techniques that you may struggle with against larger partners. Focus on the details, and you’ll both get more out of your rolls.
While checking in too much can come off as patronizing, it never hurts to ask your rolling partner if you’re unsure about applying too much strength or weight in certain positions (like knee-on-belly). If they tell you that they’re fine, take their word for it. You can also let them know before you roll that you’re not used to training with smaller people and ask them to tell you if they’d like you to go harder or lighter during your roll.
Don’t: Assume their motivation for training.
Yes, many people train jiu-jitsu for self-defense, but that doesn’t mean you should try to smash your teammates just to make the roll more “realistic” (and this goes for everyone you train with, not just your smaller teammates). Training with anyone of any size is a privilege, and it’s up to each individual — and no one else — to decide why they’re on the mats. You’re not there to provide a real-life simulation for them — you’re there to get and give a safe, productive rolling session.
Do: Focus on the removal of space as a means of control.
Putting all your weight on your training partner in side control may make them stay put, but is it really helping either of you get better? Instead, focus on filling in all the nooks and crannies that separate you two when you’re on the offensive. Smaller people are often better able to create and exploit space in a roll, and while that’s not to say you shouldn’t use any weight or strength to control them, you’ll get more out of your time if you instead focus on making sure you’re not leaving any gaps between you two.
Don’t: Go easy on them.
“But if I’m not using all my strength and weight, then I am going easy on them!” Nope. Rolling with someone much smaller than you is a challenge all its own if you do it right. Use techniques that usually fail on larger opponents. Allow yourself to get into bad positions or even submission attempts, and find your way out. Let go of your ego, and see if you can find creative ways to stack the odds against you. Again, the best role is the one that can help you and your training partner improve.
Rolling with someone who has a dramatically different body type than you can be a serious challenge in jiu-jitsu, but with patience and practice, your smaller training partners can help your BJJ improve while you give them a challenge as well.