The guard characterizes BJJ the most because this ability to fight off your back is not found in any other grappling martial art. For a long time, there were just a couple of guards—closed, open, and half guard—but the sport has evolved significantly, and now dozens of different positions are at play in competitive jiu-jitsu.
The Z-guard is one of the easiest and most natural to do, yet effective at all levels. So, what does this universal guard do?
The Z-guard is a variation of half guard, where you place your shin and knee across the opponent’s center line to keep distance, which is why the position is commonly called the knee shield. The guard has different variations depending on the position of the shielding leg and grips, but all offer an excellent way to defend against pressure from the player on top.
Defense is not the only option in Z-guard, but it is what makes it so utilized at all levels. It’s one of the most natural techniques that some beginners even discover on their own. But to be truly proficient with the z-guard, you should familiarize yourself with all of the details and be able to defend effectively, sweep, and submit from there.
What Is The Z-Guard In BJJ
The Z-guard is a half-guard variation where your shin and knee are placed on the opponent’s hip line, belly, or chest, and the other leg is wrapped around their leg. This is also known as the knee shield or open half guard.
The key concept for an effective Z-guard is you must be on your side and not flat on your back. One shoulder must always be off the mats, creating a clear separation between the top and bottom legs.
The top leg is the shield, and the bottom leg controls the opponent’s leg, and its position will determine your level of mobility.
The placement of the top leg allows you to control the distance. The top arm is the other important frame in the equation. The strongest position is with the forehand framed against the opponent’s neck and the palm on his shoulder.
This way, you prevent them from entering the inside space between your knee and shoulder.
The task of the bottom arm is to protect your head from being controlled. You can control their wrist or biceps or keep your hand back, ready to defend against attempts to cross-face you.
Some people like to differentiate the Z-guard and the knee shield as separate positions, but this is too much needless segmentation. But if we want to stick to this system, the Z-guard is the position where the top leg on the opponent’s hip line and your feet are crossed or at least touching.
This angle connection will prevent the opponent from compromising the structure of the guard and ultimately smashing it.
The Z-guard is so popular these days because it’s so easy to do. It comes naturally and has no requirements for strength or flexibility. When I think of it, there aren’t many other positions in BJJ that tick the same boxes.
The Z-guard, or knee shield, effectively uses one of the most important aspects of BJJ: frames. In the case of the Z-guard, the top leg plays the role of a shield and prevents the opponent from pressing forward. This is one of the strongest frames possible in jiu-jitsu.
The fundamentally simple nature of this position and its effectiveness make it extremely widespread across all levels of gi and no-gi. The half guard has been the favorite guard of many modern BJJ players, and the Z variation is perhaps the most commonly used.
It allows you to control distance with low energy expenditure while remaining more mobile than other guards, to defend effectively even against heavier and stronger people, and to attack with both submissions and sweeps.
No wonder the Z-guard is so popular. Now, let’s see how to attack it.
Attacks From Z-Guard
Like with all other attacks from bottom guard, you must first ensure the opponent doesn’t pass, then disrupt their balance to be able to go for a submission or a sweep. Another great thing about the Z-guard is that the transition to other forms of guard is easy if the attack is unsuccessful.
The Z-guard is so great for sweeps because, by assuming it, you are already halfway through a sweep—you have some grips and the knee in place.
The scissor sweep is as easy and basic as it gets, but the beautiful thing is it works. You only need a grip on their posting leg pants and gi sleeve. In no-gi, this is much harder to finish but still doable.
Switching to the rainbow sweep is a natural progression when the opponent is resisting the scissor sweep well. This technique requires the same side grips (same side sleeve and pants).
Move the arm you control over your head in a big circle and sweep the opponent over your head. Both options are demonstrated in the video:
For no-gi, a great option is the deceptively simple John Wayne sweep. You will need a shallow hook on the bottom leg to do this sweep, meaning your knee should be free.
The key in this cowboy-named sweep is timing. You must wait or force the opponent to move towards you and unload their weight from the hips.
From there, the sweep is surprisingly easy. Then, in one motion, put your knee shield down and bump with both knees and the hips for the sweep. Here is a detailed instruction from Lachlan Giles, who will take you through all the details.
Submissions From Z-Guard
People like Craig Jones have become masters of the Z-guard and can use it as a base point for multiple attacks, but for most people, the more readily available submissions from this guard are armlocks.
The first armlock, as taught by Craig Jones himself, is sneaky because it is executed after the opponent secures a cross-face, which, in theory, is a win for him.
The first step is to secure a wrist-to-wrist grip over their shoulder and clamp it down hard. Then, the knee shield leg goes over the back of their head. From there, the position looks much more familiar for those proficient in armbars.
The kimura is also available from Z-guard, and like always, it doubles up as both a submission and a sweep. As mentioned, your top arm is usually across the neck or chest, and the bottom arm controls a wrist or sleeve.
The kimura is ripe for the taking if you manage a grip on their wrist. Remove your knee shield, explode up to get the wrist lock grip, and glue their trapped wrist to your belly button.
For the finish, you need to pry their hand with a strong hip motion, then pull the arm up high and push it behind their back for the tap. If their defense is good and they tuck in the hand, you can always resort to the trusty hip bump sweep and end up on top.
On top of the joint locks in the gi, we also have the option to lapel choke the guy in our Z-guard. The simplest one is the cross choke, and for it, you will need to grip his far side collar and wrist, like you would for the kimura entry.
After you create enough space, you can switch from the wrist to the other collar and finish the cross choke.
The knee shield position and the Z-guard variation are among the most straightforward techniques found in BJJ. Despite its simplicity, the Z-guard is hard to pass, so many beginners prefer to use it. But the Z is far from a white-belt tool. Elite grapplers also frequently employ it for the low effort required and the variety of sweep and submission options it presents.
Regardless of your level, if you haven’t already, it’s time to give the Z-guard a chance and make it a permanent part of your game.