complete beginners judo guide

The Complete Judo Beginner’s Guide

Judo is an intriguing yet mysterious sport. From fantastic agility to impressive strength and flexibility, judo practitioners possess a range of highly desirable traits, including increased confidence. 

Not only is judo an excellent means of self-defense, but becoming a judoka means developing a higher sense of self-awareness. You’ll accomplish physical feats that seem impossible — throwing opponents, mastering pinning moves, and implementing powerful armbars — and become stronger than you thought possible. But that’s just the beginning. 

Read on to learn everything a beginner needs to know about the art and sport of judo.

What is Judo?

Though it may appear to closely resemble other martial arts at first glance, judo is entirely unique. The Japanese grappling-based martial art requires impressive control over both your mind and body. 

Mental discipline and physical stamina combine to create a sport that focuses on gentleness as its fundamental theory. In fact, the name comes from an adaptation of the Chinese phrase jou-tao meaning “gentle way.”

When practitioners are on the mat, however, the intense sport may not appear gentle at all. 

No weapons, punching, or kicking are involved, and judokas learn the way of unarmed combat under a complex combination of rules and guidelines.

The History and Invention of Judo

Jigoro Kano, Judo History

In the 1800s, a young jiu-jitsu practitioner named Kanō Jigorō began learning martial arts to defend himself as a child. His passion for self-preservation against bullies later became a desire to share the physical and mental benefits of a well-rounded practice.

After studying for years, Jigorō combined various martial arts techniques and called the result Kodokan Judo. Over his lifetime, Jigorō traveled the world teaching judo — including during World War II — sharing his sport as both a method of combat and a form of recreation.

The first official recognition of judo as a sport occurred in 1964 when men’s judo matches were held at the Tokyo Olympic Games. But both before and after the rise of judo as a sport, it became ingrained in Japanese culture and cultures worldwide.

Modern judo hasn’t changed much since Jigorō’s days, making it a traditional yet dynamic sport suitable for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The Difference Between Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu are similar sports. Both sports are variants of the traditional jiu-jitsu style, but there are a few key differences.

The Rules

The biggest difference between Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the ruleset.

Judo concentrates more on the techniques used in a standing position to overpower their opponents. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu relies more on ground-based techniques to defeat their competitors. As a result, the rules regarding how to play each sport are different. 

In Judo competitions the rule set doesn’t allow much ground action, while in BJJ athletes will have every opportunity to work on the ground.

The Uniforms

The uniform that one wears while competing in Judo is longer and looser than the BJJ Gi. 

Designers designed the looseness of the Judo uniform to allow you to easily grip your opponent’s sleeves. As BJJ mostly features ground-based techniques, the uniform has a tighter fit to prevent tripping and stepping on loose clothing.

The Rules of Judo

As far as martial arts go, Judo is simple in its rules and setup. The sport takes place on a mat, typically 45ftx45ft. Within the mat, there are markings to show where the two practitioners will compete. 

Judokas will wear a traditional uniform known as Judogi. The Judogi must be in excellent condition and not too long. A belt will be worn around the waist and tied with a standard knot.

Scoring

  • Ippon results in immediate victory. You can obtain Ippon by throwing an opponent in a way that causes them to fall on their back. Ippon can also be obtained by exerting an arm or stranglehold to the extent of submission or stunning an opponent for 25 seconds. 
  • Waza-ari counts as a half-point. Two waza-ari points will have the same value as an Ippon point. Thus, two waza-ari points will result in a victory. Waza-ari points are for throws that are awarded for techniques that do not meet the Ippon standard. 
  • The third point is yuko, and these points are awarded for short immobilizing holds and mediocre throws and shots. Yuko has less weight than any other point and will be immediately overshadowed by a waza-ari point.

Penalties

  • Shido is a penalty in Judo that is doled out for minor rule infringements. Minor rule violations can look like long periods of no movement and using stalling tactics. 
  • Hansika Make is awarded for major rule violations or if a practitioner accumulates four Shido penalties. Major violations can happen if any Judo artists strike, kick, or punch their opponent. Attempting to use a weapon of any kind would also be considered a major violation. If a practitioner is awarded a Hansoku Make(or four Shidos), they automatically lose the match.

Basics of Judo Combat

One can apply a lot of studying to the art of Judo combat. Judo is one of the many martial arts that is based around certain philosophies. Many techniques can be studied and applied to training and competing with Judo combat.

Posture (Shisei)

The best posture to apply throwing techniques is an upright position. Knees should be slightly bent, and the head should be centered over your hips, with the feet shoulder-width apart. This position should be natural. 

Your gaze should be focused on the center of your opponent’s body, as watching the hips will tell you more about their next move than their feet will. A judoka’s position should allow easy movements while maintaining balance and strength.

Footwork (Suri ashi)

The footwork (Suri ashi) used when moving during both competitions and friendly games should maintain a practitioner’s balance. 

Suri ashi is one of the most important techniques to master, as it can easily throw a judoka off balance if they do not center their body weight. The Suri ashi footwork method avoids lifting the leg farther than it has to be, eliminating uneven weight distribution.

Body Movement (Tai sabaki)

There are several forms of body movements to master, and these movements can help throw your opponent off balance. All forms of movement rely on balance and footwork.

Mae sabaki is the act of moving one foot forward and bringing the other foot at a right angle to the opponent. Ushiro sabaki is the opposite of Mae sabaki. With Ushiro sabaki, you will shift your position by bringing one foot back and pivoting on the other foot at a right angle to the opposing practitioner. 

Mae-mawari sabaki is about turning your position. Moving diagonally in front of your opponent, make a 180-degree turn by moving from one foot to the other.

Falling Techniques (Ukemi)

Falling techniques are perhaps the most crucial part of learning judo. Though it looks simple, falling without getting hurt is a key tenet of judo (and many other martial arts as well).

Fortunately, both opponents work together to create a safe fall in every move — this is in stark contrast to other martial arts that rely on disarming opponents by causing them to fall.

In judo, the technique used to fall or be thrown down safely is known as Ukemi. The primary motivation in ukemi is safely receiving the power of your opponent’s throw and actively falling in a way that disperses that energy without harm.

Practicing ukemi will soften any impact and will protect the most vital parts of your body. As a beginner, it’s best to start closest to the ground, and the mat, to learn falling techniques. Once you feel comfortable with falling, you’ll work toward ukemi from a standing height.

Gripping Techniques (Kumi kate)

The uniform worn while engaging in Judo is made specifically with gripping techniques in mind.

The basic grip and hold have many variations, but gripping your competitors’ Judogi is done the same way, no matter the grip’s skill level. 

When gripping your opponent, one hand should grab the lapel of your competitors’ Judogi, and the other hand should be holding the sleeve. While grabbing the Judogi, you should have strength in all of your fingers except the thumb, which should be resting lightly on the Judogi.

Unbalancing an Opponent (Kuzushi), Making an Opening (Tsukuri), and Applying a Throw (Kake)

There are a few ways to unbalance your opponent and throw them to the mat.

Kuzushi

Kuzushi is the act of forcing the opponent into a state of unbalance. 

Having your opponent be unbalanced is a key factor in achieving an effective throwing technique. When your opponent does not have their full balance, their strength is lowered, making overpowering them easier. 

Tsukuri

Tsukuri is essentially the setup of a throwing technique. Tsukuri is the process of moving towards the completion of a throwing technique. Kake often follows Tsukuri.

Kake

Kake is the act of completing your throwing technique.  Once you have completed Tsukuri, you will then complete Kake, the final step in a throwing technique.

Judo Home Training Routines 

There are multiple ways to train for Judo. Some people use Judo as a form of exercise and strength training. Other people like to take classes with others and learn about the philosophy of Judo in depth. As the pandemic rages on, there has even been an increase in virtual Judo classes

In classes, Judo instructors will have their students learn about the basic principles of Judo. Once students are aware of Judo’s rules and basic structure, classes are centered around students practicing different techniques. 

Early classes often start with learning beginner techniques such as good posture and footwork.  Outside of class, students are encouraged to do strength training exercises for their shoulders and backs. 

The Judo Belt System

Students who study and practice Judo show their progression in a series of ranks. These ranks are known as kyu and are differentiated by belts of different colors known as obi. Different countries may have varying colors and levels of achievement.

There are ten rankings in Judo, known as dan. Students will typically start with white belts and eventually advance to black belts. Once they have reached blackbelt status, there are ten rankings within that blackbelt status that a student can achieve. Originally, Kano had a simplistic way of having his students display their skills. 

However, once Judo’s art became more popular in the Western part of the world, a more colorful belt system was introduced. These colors included white, orange, green, yellow, blue, and purple belts and included traditional black and brown belts.

Judo Belt System

Popular Judo Competitions

As Judo and BJJ are popular forms of martial arts, there are quite a few competitions involving them. Here are the top five Judo competitions out there.

TournamentDetails
2019 World Judo ChampionshipHeld in Tokyo, Japan, from late August of 2019 to early September of 2019.
2021 World Judo ChampionshipsIt will be expected to be held in Hungary in June of 2021.
2021 Judo World MastersHeld in Doha, Qatar, in January of 2021.
Paris Grand Slam 2020 Held in Paris, France, in February of 2020. 
2020 European Judo ChampionshipsHeld in Prague, the Czech Republic, in November of 2020. 

The Safety of Judo

Like any sport, Judo does come with the risk of physical injury.

As a combat sport, Judo safety should be taken very seriously. If not taken seriously, injuries to the neck and head could occur and cause lifelong issues for the practitioner’s brain, back, and overall body.  

Even if no injuries occur, not practicing Judo safety can cause long-term strain on the body and knees. Practice being safe while training or competing in Judo, and do strengthening exercises when you can to keep your body in good condition. 

Tips for Judo Beginners

When it comes to any form of jiu-jitsu, beginners should be informed of tips by their instructors or their schooling. 

Knowing a few small tips can increase students’ chances of success in their Judo careers and their BJJ careers. Tips can also allow students to hand down information to other students. Here are a few tips for beginners in BJJ. 

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Because judo is both a mental and physical sport, aspiring judoka must recognize their personal limits. That’s not to say you can’t improve, but expecting to hit the mat and execute the perfect throw your first time isn’t realistic — nor is it safe.

Set Personal Goals

Growth happens with practice, dedication, and clear goals. Of course, as a beginner, your first goal should be to learn to fall safely. But beyond that, establishing goals can help you target areas of improvement and help instill a sense of accomplishment as your skills develop.

Watch Judo Competition Footage 

Learning from judo masters is an excellent way to develop your skills. Especially for a beginner, watching competition footage can highlight judo essentials. Observation is a valuable tool. From how to fall safely to which moves are the simplest or most complex, you’ll learn a lot by watching judo experts on the mat. 

Take Notes in Classes and Compare Them with Other Students

Guided classes are a must when you’re a beginner in nearly any sport. With judo, you must learn in a safe environment. However, classroom-style judo practice is critical for another reason. Learning from others by comparing notes in class can help you develop a well-rounded approach to judo. 

Keep a Journal to Record Your Progress

In any martial art, beginners often have high hopes for how much they’ll learn right out of the gate. But truly building skills takes time, which makes a progress journal an excellent idea. Make notes on what is challenging or successful day by day, and over time, you’ll see the progress you make and how much you’ve grown in your practice.

Judo FAQ

IS JUDO GOOD FOR SELF DEFENSE?

Judo is good to know for a multitude of reasons. But one of Judo’s biggest appeals is the way it can help people defend themselves. 

Judo requires a great deal of strength and balance, both of which are beneficial when taking on an opponent. Judo also provides confidence to those who practice it, which can be intimidating in itself. 

While Judo is about gentleness, there are techniques that Judo incorporates that could disarm or knock down an unsuspecting opponent. 

WHAT IS THE BEST AGE TO START JUDO?

The age at which you (or your child) should start training in Judo is dependent on the size of the person and the classes available. Most children will start competitive sports around 5-6. Many people start later in their lives, and some even start a little earlier. 

Final Thoughts On Judo

Judo may look like a fun and simple martial art to first-time spectators. But the truth is, beginners in judo have a lot to learn, and the practice is not as easy as expert judoka makes it seem. 

Fortunately, with the right guidance (including this comprehensive beginner’s guide), you can start off strong in this traditional martial art. It may not take long before you’re mastering moves on the judo mat and overpowering your opponents in the gentlest yet fiercest way possible.

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