The creators of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the Gracie family, popularized their grappling style for the better part of the 20th century. Still, they finally reached true mainstream success after MMA and, in particular, the UFC became famous. The rise of MMA organically created a new variation of BJJ, and today there are two main branches- Gi and No-Gi jiu-jitsu.
As the name implies, traditional Gi jiu-jitsu is practiced in a gi (or kimono) uniform, while in No-Gi BJJ, practitioners wear body-tight shirts and shorts.
Both styles are very similar but also very distinct. Despite heated opinions on both sides, the truth, as usual, lies in the middle, and both have advantages and shortcomings. It's our job to try and help you better understand those and pick the best one for you (spoiler: it's best to train in both).
No-Gi vs. Gi Jiu-Jitsu: What Are The Differences?
To make it easier for you, we will differentiate between gi and no-gi BJJ in a few aspects.
The main difference between gi and no-gi is the clothing. Gi BJJ is done in a cotton uniform called a gi or a kimono, as it's known in many places worldwide. The uniform design follows the form of traditional Japanese kimonos used in judo and many other traditional Japanese martial arts. It consists of a heavy cotton jacket, pants, and a colored belt that signifies the rank of its owner.
In no-gi, you ditch the kimono, and instead, a tight spandex shirt is worn on top, called a rashguard. The material of rashguards may vary, but it's always a synthetic elastic material.
The name rash guard comes from the material's properties that are manufactured to protect the skin from rashes and other skin problems. Board shorts or other long or short-sleeved pants are worn on the legs. The absence of a gi is why no-gi BJJ is significantly better suited for MMA.
The difference in clothing determines the distinctions in techniques used and, from that, the overall game of BJJ.
In classic BJJ, the gi can and is used to control and submit the opponent. The lapel is exceptionally sturdy and is the primary tool to aid in controlling and attacking or defending against certain moves.
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You can also grab the sleeves and pants, so a big part of the battle for control revolves around establishing gi grips and stripping the opponent's grip. Some guards, like spider guard, for example, are specific only to gi BJJ. Many strangulations involve using the lapel, which is impossible without the gi.
In no-gi, the clothing and the ruleset do not allow for clothing manipulation. The limited grips make the overall feel much more dynamic. The gi grips can stall the action quite a bit, while without them, you must be a lot more active in controlling the opponent as there are fewer ways to keep them pinned.
There are generally not many moves that are unique only to no-gi, but the competitive rulesets in the major BJJ federations usually have a lot more restrictions for gi BJJ. Because of that, they are often practiced in no-gi and left behind in traditional BJJ.
The dynamic nature of no-gi and the absence of tight clothing control means that physical attributes play a much more significant role in no-gi. The athlete's strength, speed, and explosiveness instantly become more critical when they are without the gi.
So you may better use the time spent learning specialized guards and grips to enhance strength and conditioning if your focus is predominantly no-gi. The scrambles in no-gi demand a lot from the body, so you surely need to build up some cardio.
Most of the things learned in gi BJJ are also transferable to no-gi. The opposite can't be said, though.
A person who trains exclusively without a gi will still have to learn the basics of clothing manipulation before he has any hope of winning a match.
In no-gi, more traditional wrestling takedowns and judo trips and throws play a much bigger role because there is no lapel to hold on to and pull guard. So this is another training aspect that will differ between the two variations.
Rest assured that regardless of which of the two styles you want to compete in, there will be many possibilities. All the major organizations like the IBJJF and ACCDC hold tournaments in both styles, and they are usually held on the same day.
It's only natural that the different clothing also affects the rules. The main thing is that in traditional BJJ, you can use the gi, while in no-gi, you are not allowed to grab the clothing at all.
Another key difference is the restriction of leg locks in the most prominent organization—the IBJJF. The history of that decision is long and complicated, but still, heel hooks and other leg locks are banned in all of their tournaments.
However, this is not the case for no-gi grappling, and this is yet another thing that makes it much more dynamic. Even the IBJJF lifted the leg lock ban for brown and black belts in 2021. In general, no-gi BJJ competition rules are less restrictive than gi rules.
No-Gi vs. Gi Jiu-Jitsu For Beginners?
This is perhaps the most challenging question of the bunch. It depends a lot on why you started BJJ in the first place. Gi jiu-jitsu will teach you to be technical in all positions and develop incredible grip strength. No-gi will teach you not to rely on clothing manipulation, making it much better for MMA and self-defense.
There are plenty of opinions, including those of the highest caliber competitors and trainers. Many of them will give you a different argument. Each is valid.
But your personal goal is what matters the most. If you plan on sticking with only BJJ, it's probably better to start with gi. If you want to learn how to grapple for MMA, many of the traditional BJJ moves will be a waste of your time that you can spend honing another skill.
No-Gi vs. Gi Jiu-Jitsu For MMA?
MMA is the main reason behind the surge of no-gi MMA, so it's only natural that it's better suited for the cage. All the lapel and sleeve grips and submissions become useless when fighting only with shorts. There is no point in spending countless hours learning the spider guard or the Ezekiel choke when you can focus on usable things in the cage. And there are more than enough techniques and concepts to learn for MMA already.
No-Gi vs. Gi Jiu-Jitsu For Self-Defense?
The answer to which of the two grappling styles is better for self-defense is not so clear. Some argue that the gi is just a jacket and jeans that you can use to your advantage. While that is true, clothes today are quite different than those worn in the early 1900s when the kimono was introduced.
Especially in warmer countries, you can hardly use a standard t-shirt and shorts for any meaningful control, let alone a choke.
In my opinion, the fast-paced and more frantic nature of no-gi and the reliance only on body mechanics make it better for self-defense if we have to generalize. Of course, both are incredibly potent and will give you an insurmountable advantage over most opponents you may have to fight in real life.
Is No-Gi Harder Than Gi?
Neither of them is harder than the other. Gi BJJ has more moves and positions to be learned. You have to be more patient, precise, and technical in your execution to finish a submission. On the other hand, no-gi is faster-paced and demands a better physical shape, both in strength and endurance.
In one sentence- Gi BJJ is more complicated, and no-gi is more physically demanding.
Should You Start With Gi Or No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu?
In all honesty, the best option is to train in both. You can specialize in your chosen variation, but you need both if you want to become the most effective grappler you can be.
Here is a pros and cons list of both styles to help you choose your style.