Very early on most Jiu Jitsu practitioners and grapplers in general learn that “pressure” is a very important concept that must be fully understood in order for a person to get good at grappling. The idea is that if we cannot hold another person down for long enough to set up a submission, our submissions from the top will not be effective and far more importantly the other person will be able to escape and mount an intelligent attack against us. What does pressure mean? And what do we need to do to truly master it?
One crucial element in Jiu Jitsu is the ability to flow, to bend our bodies around other people in order to better control their movement. This concept has given way to many analogies of “being like water.” Similarly, a major aspect and element of pressure is the ability to form your body in such a way to prevent movement of the other person. For example: when you are in top side control, you want to eliminate any gaps between you and the other person, as those gaps can then be used by the other person to insert a knee, or a hand and eventually to recover guard.
Another crucial element is weight distribution. One of my teammates uses the expression “Bed of nails.” For anyone who doesn’t know: if you make a bed of nails pointing upwards you can lay on it, but if you try to lie on just one nail pointing upward, it will pierce your skin. When taking a top position, it is advisable to eliminate points of contact that the other person has with the ground, including their elbows, shoulders and the back of their head. In doing this, you force them to bear your weight on their soft midsection making your application of pressure have a far greater effect on their ability to breath.
One analogy I like to use is a handstand. When you do a handstand your palms bear the entire brunt of your weight. A master of pressure will be able to have the same effect on whatever contact point they have with their opponent. Eliminate other points at which you bear your weight and deposit it entirely upon the other person, this will greatly improve your pressure. Be aware that you should never depend on another person to hold you up though, because as soon as you depend on them, they may be able to sweep you.
Pressure is, in essence, the act of forcing the other person to bear your weight on as small a surface area as possible. It is a very difficult skill to master but it is one of the most valuable tools for playing a top position as it determines your ability to control another person and ultimately impose your will upon them. A good exercise is to roll with someone bigger and stronger than you and ask them to let you set up a top position; side control is the best option. Set it up; get as strong a position as possible. Then let the person work their escape without trying to transition to a submission. If they are able to escape, your pressure and weight distribution wasn’t up to par. If you are able to pin them, you’re heading in the right direction.