Earning Your Stripes
You’ve found a gym, gotten a few lessons in, and you feel ready to roll with the best. Or maybe, you’re thinking about starting jiu-jitsu and want to know how long it will take to reach the top.
For centuries, martial arts have distinguished the skill level of practitioners through the colorful belts tied around their waist. Whites, yellows, blues, and blacks, all with various tapes and other distinctive features separating them.
What do these belts actually mean, and how long does it take to get a black belt in jiu-jitsu? Months, years, or even more? If you’ve been wondering about what all these belts mean and how long it takes to move up the ranks, this guide is for you.
The Origins of the Belt
Martial arts ranking systems are much more complex than they appear at first glance. In the years before colored belts were used to differentiate between student skills, the practice of ranking students varied wildly between different countries, cultures, and time periods.
Since we’re focusing on jiu-jitsu, we will stick to only covering the Japanese and Brazilian ranking methods. There are two popular and pervasive myths regarding the origins of the belt system in Japanese martial arts.
The first myth appeals to the romanticism of the “inner warrior spirit” which is likely why it’s been around for so long. Legend has it that there originally was only a single belt color, white, given to every student when they began practicing their martial art.
In eastern cultures, white is the color associated with death and funerals, as opposed to black in the west. Symbolically this white belt represents the student who has sacrificed his old life in order to begin his new,more sophisticated life as a martial artist.
Over the long years of dedicated training, this pristine white belt would grow blackened with the dirt, sweat, and tears of the student, eventually turning completely black. It was only then that the student would be recognized as having given enough effort to become a master of the art.
While this romantic story is sure to stir the hearts of many young, would-be master martial artists, there’s no historical evidence to support this. Not to mention the Japanese culturally prize cleanliness, there’s just no way that not washing your belt for years would ever be acceptable.
The second myth plays slightly off the first, acknowledging that the white and black belts are indeed separate and not a dirt-stained version of the other.
This myth states that there are only students and masters – white belts and black belts. Embodying the intensity that characterized the early practitioners of these arts as a way of life, you are no one until you are indeed someone.
When Japanese martial arts were brought to the United States, the Japanese masters needed to find a way to keep the “lazy American students” motivated throughout the years of hard training in order to sell memberships. A colored belt system was therefore introduced to award more frequent promotions and keep their gyms full of happy, and paying, students.
This is yet another myth that should be consigned to the dustbin of history. Theoriginal colored belt system was designed in the 1880s by Dr. Jigoro Kano, the father of the martial art of Judo. Gichin Funakoshi who founded the Shotokan martial art, and who was a friend of Dr. Kano’s, began using this ranking system for his own Shotokan students.
From there,colored belts became commonplace as they spread to different schools of martial arts, and then across the world.
Types of Belts
In modern Japanese jiu-jitsu, there are a total of 7 different belt colors between white and black. New students start with white, the same as in the legends, and from there progress to yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and then black.
The trials don’t stop once a student obtains a black belt, there is then a gradation system within black belts. Black belts are given a white stripe to denote different ranks among masters, eventually, the highest black belt levels actually forego their black belts altogether in favor of a red belt.
If that wasn’t confusing enough, the highest level of belt progression within Japanese jiu-jitsu, the “junidan”, is actuallyanother white belt. That’s right, the highest ranking jiu-jitsu masters are given a wider version of the white belt they started out with to recognize their consistent training over the decades.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a little simpler with 8 belts for adults and 4 to 5 different belts (depending on the school) for children under the age of 16. The youth belts are white, gray, yellow, orange, and green. Adult belt colours are white, blue, purple, brown, black, red and black, red and white, and finally solid red.
Some schools will trim the 8 belts down to 6 by removing the gradations of red and progressing straight from a black belt to a red belt. Mastery of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is usually considered once someone has obtained the first-degree black belt, the higher belts are reserved for the most dedicated who wish to take their skill to a truly world-class level.
How Long do Belt Promotions Actually Take?
The period of time between belts and belt promotions can vary slightly between martial arts schools, as well as if you are studying Brazilian or Japanese jiu-jitsu. In general, going from a brand new, freshly minted white belt, all the way to a black belt will take roughly four to five years.
The time spent in each belt rank varies based on how long it takes you to demonstrate a full understanding of the essential skills of that rank, including a beginning understanding of the more advanced moves of the next rank. A dedicated student can advance through the lower few belts, up until about the brown belt level, in as little as 3 to 4 months per rank.
Once brown belt level is reached, it’s more common for the time in rank to extend to 6 to 8 months, or even as long as a full year. In order to get all the way to junidan rank it would almost a decade to reach the appropriate skill level to be considered an unrivaled Japanese jiu-jitsu master.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is similar but sometimes can have a significantly longer time frame between belt promotions. First, there are fewer belt ranks. Secondly, there is a tendency in Brazilian jiu-jitsu to slow the progression of the student until they have truly mastered their current belt, and are more than simply “good enough”.
Instructors who can trace their lineage to legendary martial arts masters like Royler Gracie or other famous masters do not want to promote a student who they feel is less than perfect as they fear it would cheapen the lineage of their training.
These instructors see the first promotion to a blue belt as a major milestone in a pupil’s development that signifies a serious mastery over the fundamental skills of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Since there is no universally accepted system of skill requirements or physical techniques required to progress, there is a larger degree of lattiude in Brazilian jiu-jitsu advancement.
While a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu can be attained in a 5 year timeframe, this is generally only done by those who have prior wrestling experience or a significant commitment to training (or preferably both). It is not uncommon to take up to 10 years to attain a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The Black Belt: An End, or a Beginning?
Some view the achievement of a black belt as the end of their martial arts training. The culmination of years of hard work to build the practical skills of their martial art. Others though, see the black belt as the mark of someone who has only just begun to truly understand jiu-jitsu.
Above the black belt, a truly devoted martial artist can continue to progress to the “coral” belt ranks up until the final red belt. Few will ever make it this far. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, less than one hundred have ever received the 9th degree red belt, commonly seen as the highest rank ever attainable.
The 10th degree red belt has been reserved exclusively for the original Gracie brothers who founded the Brazilian style of jiu-jitsu, the only “grandmasters” that will ever be known to the sport.
A commitment to either major school of jiu-jitsu is an intense undertaking that will test the resolve of the heartiest students. It can feel exciting to obsess over getting to the next rank. However, as you continue to progress, you’ll start to realize that asking “how long does it take to get a black belt in jiu-jitsu” isn’t the important question.
The journey of martial arts progression is far more important than the destination. Even though we all covet the next rank, the trials along the way are what makes the belts mean anything at all. Without that, it’s just a piece of colorful fabric.