How to build a curriculum for your martial arts school

A structured curriculum for classes is something that is often missing in martial arts schools. The most common approach is the “technique of the day”, where an instructor would show a few random techniques during class, often without any unifying theme or continuation of previously taught material.

If they’re more diligent, instructors might prepare a week or two worth of material in advance, hopefully covering the same theme or related positions.

The problem with those kind of approaches is that it makes it harder to acclimate new members and beginners into the art. This is especially true for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and other ground fighting arts, due to the amount of different positions one might encounter while sparring, and because most of the movements feel very unnatural for beginners.

(This post is based on my experience training in BJJ for close to a decade, and thus uses BJJ instruction as reference. It should be applicable to every martial art though).

Covering the basics

The most fundamental part of a good curriculum is the instruction of the basics. Beginners need the most guidance and structure to help them understand the instruction being taught. The basics provide the foundation upon which you can expand with more advanced instruction later.

When you build a basics curriculum, your goal should be to get new members and beginners up to speed as quickly as possible, so that they could better appreciate and enjoy the art you are teaching, and not quit because they felt lost.

Considering that, here’s a useful framework to get you started:

  • List down all the positions you consider basic or fundamental, especially for beginners.
  • For each position, think about the principles that are important to know at the most basic level.
  • For each position, list 2-3 attacks you consider core to that position.
  • Do the same for escapes / defenses for each position.
  • Estimate the number of classes needed to cover each item on the list. Sometimes multiple items can be covered in a single session if they compliment each other, and sometimes a single item would require multiple sessions to cover in full.
  • Using the information you gathered so far, build a timeline using the class schedule you currently have at your gym (or if starting a new gym, build your class schedule to accommodate your curriculum). From what I’ve seen, most gyms have 2-3 beginner’s classes per week.

And there you have it – an outline of your basics curriculum. The time from the start of the curriculum to the end of it is how long it should take for a new member at your school to know all the basics of the art.

This kind of approach is not common at all in BJJ, but I’ve had the privilege of training at an academy that does just that – Heroes Martial Arts in downtown San Jose. The head instructor, Alan “Gumby” Marques has in place a 4 months “Fundamentals” curriculum that covers all the basic positions in BJJ, and provides a few options for both offense and defense in each position.

The curriculum repeats itself every 4 months. That means that no matter when you joined the gym, after 4 months you would have covered the entire “Fundamentals” curriculum. Another benefit of this structure is that the same position is covered over the course of several weeks, allowing newcomers to get somewhat comfortable in that position, even if they never seen it before. Contrast this with instruction that shows a different position every other session, which can be overwhelming to beginners.

It’s no surprise that Gumby’s student are very well rounded after following such structured instruction. They have the tools for dealing with all the basic positions they will find themselves in during sparring.

The introduction class

Even with a structured curriculum, it takes a while for new people to understand the terminology and basic movements, and what is expected of them as members of the gym.

That’s where the introduction class comes into play. An assistant instructor takes people who have come in for their first session aside, and shows them the very basics without going into too much detail. In BJJ that should cover the following:

  • Basic hygiene and gym rules
  • How to put on the uniform and how to tie the belt.
  • Breakfalls – backwards and sideways. Starting from a squating position and then a standing position, preferably with a crash mat if you have one.
  • Forward rolls, backwards rolls
  • Shrimping / hip-escapes
  • Show the basic positions (Guard, side control, mount, back) and what is the purpose of each
  • What is a submission (choke / joint manipulation) and how to tap.

Going over those details should help to reduce confusion and better prepare new people for attending regular classes.

Advanced instruction

Advanced instruction would be everything that requires a solid grasp of the basics to understand. Advanced instruction can be more relaxed and free-form compared to basic instruction, and you should use it to cater to the different needs of your gym members.

While the basics are generally agreed upon, people sometimes are not sure what they should be teaching to advanced students. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:

  • Building on the basics with more detail and depth
  • Trends in the sport (geared towards people who want to compete)
  • Your personal game
  • Addressing common problems you see people have during sparring

Regardless of what you would like to focus on, it’s good to still have structure to it and not revert to “technique of the day” instruction for those classes. Since the material is much broader than the basics, you don’t need to have the whole curriculum planned out start to end, however, choosing a theme and focusing on just that for a few weeks greatly increases the chance students will be able to retain the material you show.

Kids classes

Kids instruction is different from adult instruction, for obvious reasons. Kids find it harder to concentrate for long periods or understand abstract concepts.

An effective approach I’ve seen instructors use to teach kids is replace regular instruction with games that incorporate the movements they want to teach. The goal is to have the kids perform the moves naturally while having fun, and then tie it together as an actual technique they can repeat in sparring.

Thus, while the kids curriculum can be based on the basics curriculum you have, the timeline might need to be adjusted to account for the difference in instruction. You might want to allocate more time to specific parts you feel are more important, and less time (or even none at all) to parts of the instruction you feel might be too advanced or dangerous for kids who are beginners.

Kids also need a bigger emphasis on the rules of conduct of the sport, so include more time to cover the material you would normally show an adult during the introduction class.

Improve through trial-and-error

You can keep track of the effectiveness of the curriculum and instruction by observing your students during sparring and free training:

  • How much of the instruction is retained by students? Ask students questions during instruction to see if they remember what you taught them
  • Are students using what you showed them during live sparring and competition?
  • Do students still have glaring holes after going through the entire curriculum?

Don’t expect to create the perfect curriculum in one attempt. No matter how much you plan ahead, you can only tell if something works when you try it out in practice, and then observe the results. Keep an open mind and be willing to change and update your instruction based on how well it’s received.

How did you build your curriculum? If you have other approaches or feedback on the article, please leave it in the comments below.


Published by Eran Galperin

Eran has been developing software for over 15 years, and is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In 2016 he founded Martial Arts on Rails, online software for managing gyms and martial arts schools.


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