Training With Henry Akins: Jiu-Jitsu Secrets In Plain Sight

I recently had the pleasure of once again spending a couple days training with the “Jiu-Jitsu Super Computer,” Henry Akins. When he asked if I would mind writing a seminar review for him, I was more than happy to oblige.

Henry is best known for his association with BJJ legend, Rickson Gracie. He spent more time training directly with Rickson than anyone else, was his fastest-ever student promoted to black belt, and for many years was the head instructor of the Rickson Gracie Academy.

That is a priceless amount of firsthand experience and technical knowledge to be sure. But the well runs even deeper than that, and if you really care about the art of Jiu-Jitsu, this is where it gets more important than simply saying “Henry teaches a great seminar.”

Let me explain.

To date I’ve been immersed in BJJ training and instruction for sixteen years, with many years of martial arts experience before that. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from many great professors of the art, both “old school” and “new school,” and my project for years has been to distill my teaching and performance coaching down to the essentials of skill development – to focus on and teach the key principles that form the foundation for all Jiu-Jitsu, regardless of an individual’s physical attributes or personal style of play.

I’m also a regional director for SBG, a performance coaching organization whose stated mission for all its coaches is to create martial arts “scientists” in all aspects of the game, from BJJ to wrestling, striking, self defense, etc. And in this respect, we tend to be far ahead of the curve.

Even with all that in mind, every time I spend time with Henry I am completely blown away. (A common phenomenon it seems – as one of Henry’s other East Coast Tour hosts, Charlie McShane, recently pointed out in his blog article, “Henry Akins and the ‘Mind-Blown’ Epidemic”.)

One hears the same things over and over again from those who attend his seminars… he will show you hidden or unknown details within the basic techniques you thought you knew. That’s true.

He will show you ways to make your execution of technique more simple and effortless. Also true.

But I also took away an even bigger “Aha!” over the course of my time studying with him. The Jiu-Jitsu he teaches is so profoundly simple and effective because it is literal.

Huh?

Let me give you a concrete example. In a private lesson covering open guard, Henry had me lie on my back with my knees tucked in and began: “So what you need to understand about the guard is that in order for me to pass, I need to get around your legs, get on top of you by bringing my chest to your chest, and control you.” As he said this, he moved around my legs, then lowered down and put his chest on mine to illustrate the completion of the pass and attainment of side control.

Now, in most cases if someone said this to a knowledgeable second degree black belt it would seem so obvious as to be a joke. But I knew there was an upshot to where he was going, and of course there was.

If someone wants to pass my guard, he explained, they have to commit to it and keep me on my back, otherwise I won’t stay there. I’ll just get up, because in a fight you don’t want to be on your back, you want to be on top. So if you commit to the pass, your energy is coming into me, and I use that against you.

Like many instructors, I have said this in more or less the same way to white belt students time and time again over the years. We teach the three primary pressures from guard as: sweep, submit, or stand up out of the position.

But if I could summarize Henry’s message in simplest term, it was that this concept should be taken literally. As in: why do anything else BUT this? Why complicate matters? From the standpoint of physics, you really don’t need anything else except these straightforward concepts….

If you don’t commit to the pass, I have no reason to hang out on my back. If you do commit, I use your energy to attack. Anything else is wasted effort.

So far the same principle has held true for every area of the game I’ve seen him teach. Closed guard? We all know from early on in our BJJ careers that if someone is in our full guard we should always be trying to use our legs to pull them into us and break their posture. And according to Henry, we should always be trying to use our legs to bring them into us and break their posture!

Meaning: instead of move around, pull with the legs, mess with your opponents grips, pull with the legs, grab the collar, pull with the legs, etc., it’s more like puuuuuuullllll until they fall forward. The pull never stops until this happens because every offensive possibility from the position comes from your opponent’s response to that pulling energy.

Now of course, there are technical nuances to his execution of these fundamental principles, pretty much all of which amount to small shifts in weight distribution and angle. But they all flow from the concepts you most likely have already heard – you just didn’t take at 100% face value.

To me, this is the Jiu-Jitsu ideal. The Jiu-Jitsu Henry teaches is not about Henry – it’s about finding the most direct and efficient way to perform a skill, period. He has no agenda beyond that… he doesn’t teach his personal style, doesn’t change the game based on self-defense or sport, doesn’t rely on physicality, etc. The benefit of training with him is that you both have access to the technical innovations he learned from Rickson, and the addition years he spent figuring out how to succinctly convey that knowledge.

A while back Henry shot a video about another familiar theme in Jiu-Jitsu, the concept of connection. The tragedy is that the power of that concept – and all the different ways it can be applied in every aspect of your game – will be lost on many precisely because it is so simple.

The line goes something like “Yeah, definitely. You need to know the basics”, and in the next breath those same students will be spending hours of their preciously limited training time breaking down the technical complexities of some famous competitor’s game. Many practitioners of the art share an (erroneous) assumption that the answer is always “out there,” but this is just the BJJ equivalent of the body conscious teenagers who turn to Muscle and Fitness magazine to emulate the weight training regimens of the world’s top bodybuilders.

All that being said, my advice is to pay closer attention to the “basic” Jiu-Jitsu concepts before venturing out in search of the next magic bullet. Those answers you’re looking for may just be hiding in plain sight.

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