Several BJJ students I’ve met seemed both discouraged and confused about the subject of playing inverted positions in jiu-jitsu.
It is common to see more advanced competitors use inverted guard or Tornado guard in tournament matches. “Cyborg” Abreu, who has won at the highest levels of grappling competition, uses the position quite often with great success.
Competition-focused BJJ schools often have shoulder roll drills in the warm-up to build the flexibility and movement to effectively invert while playing guard. When a very flexible player can readily invert, their guard can be extremely challenging to pass.
There are difficulties with the inverted position, however.
1) It requires a fair degree of flexibility in the neck and back to be able to stay in the position. Not all BJJ students have that level of flexibility, especially in the cervical spine.
2) You are placing your cervical spine in a precarious position with an opponent directly on top of you. Due to the uncontrolled and unpredictable nature of intense rolling, there is a chance that the top opponent can suddenly drop their bodyweight on you and injure your neck.
I watched one 22-year-old blue belt who loved to play inverted guard. He was pretty slick at it and comfortable even with his toes pinned to the mat by the opponent trying to pass. I expressed concerns about him using the inverted position so often. It seemed like a dangerous position. But he scoffed and said it was fine and that his guard was difficult to pass and he had success setting up spinning triangles from there.
The next week in class I saw him slumped against the wall when it came time for rolling. I asked what was up? He sheepishly replied “My neck hurts since last week.” He was playing inverted against a wrestler/MMA fighter and when the wrestler suddenly sprawled his weight it painfully compressed his cervical vertebrae. Ouch!
I saw some new students become discouraged at their inability to perform smooth shoulder / monkey rolls that were shown in the warm up by one very flexible coach. It was only when I reassured them that this inverting skill was not absolutely essential to them learning and being effective at jiu-jitsu that their confidence and enthusiasm was restored.
Another skilled blue belt had suffered extreme neck pain brought on by trying to execute the inverted moves that his instructor was teaching. His doctor forbade rolling for four months to recovery and the blue belt feared that his days of BJJ were over. The risk for a permanent spinal injury were too great. Fortunately, with an inversion free style of rolling he was once again able to return and start improving his jiu-jitsu.
In an interview, the head of Gracie Barra Carlos Gracie Jr. had a great quote regarding this very subject:
I don’t get this obsession with all of the acrobatic guards. They are efficient, sure. But they’re fleeting. Your body has difficulty understanding them for too long. I say this from my own experience. The lumbar region, for example, as strong as it may be, will never be armored against the passage of time.
Jiu-jitsu is for your whole lifetime, and by that line of reasoning you can rest assured that the basic techniques like the closed guard or this open guard I enjoy doing, will never abandon us. At 70 we’ll still be capable of performing them with plenty of mobility. That can’t be said of the tornado guard or the berimbolo.
Wise words. While there are effective positions in jiu-jitsu that require inverting, it is not necessary to practice much inverting to learn and practice an effective jiu-jitsu.