Traditionally overlooked and frowned upon by many BJJ practitioners, both Gi and No-Gi grapplers have come to appreciate the benefits of a solid leg lock game. Today, many of the high-level matches in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at high-level tournaments end with skillfully executed leg locks.
The leg locks present a number of BJJ moves that, if performed properly, put your opponent’s leg joints (and sometimes muscles) under tremendous strain. But, there used to be a time when they were not held in high esteem. That happens even today in some BJJ schools. To finish a fight with a leg lock in BJJ was considered low-class, similar to punching “under the belt” in boxing. Fortunately, today more and more people who practice BJJ laugh when they hear something like that. Because, as Dean Lister said, “Why would you ignore 50% of the human body?” Indeed, why?
Introduction To BJJ Leg Locks
The leg-attack system in mainstream Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was pretty much overlooked until recent years. Even though there were some BJJ players that have been using leg locks successfully for years, it took the masterful mind of John Danaher to develop this system in-detail with his “Danaher Death Squad”, and make it an incredible weapon in the arsenal of BJJ practitioners around the world.
Another important BJJ figure who popularized the leglock game, even before Danaher, was Dean Lister, who became famous for asking a simple question:
“Why would you ignore 50% of the human body?”
The missing link in training and executing leg locks in BJJ, prior to Danaher’s breakthrough, was using them without proper positioning. When leg locks are used as a quick submission in BJJ, they’re rarely effective because of a lack of positional control.
Danaher managed to isolate the best positions for leg locks and put them together in a complete system. Even though he focused primarily on heel hooks, most of the other submission options are also available from the majority of positions.
Fundamental Leg Locks Positions In BJJ
To help you get started with leg locks, the following is an overview of the primary positions from which they can be applied.
Ashi Garami is often the first leg lock position that BJJ students learn, and typically presents a starting point in most leg lock attack systems. Meaning “leg entanglement” in Japanese, it is, in essence, a grounded version of the Single Leg X guard. The position allows solid control over the hip, knee and, along with correct grips, the ankle. This completely immobilizes an opponent, creating a space for different attacks.
When attacking an opponent’s left leg, your right foot is placed on the opponent’s hip. That allows you to create tension and prevent the opponent from closing the distance. Your left leg is then placed between the opponent’s legs, which enables you to pinch your knees together and successfully control the opponent’s leg. Many leg locks are available from this position in BJJ, including heel hooks, straight ankle locks, and toe holds.
The Ashi Garami is the least controllable position in the BJJ leg locks system.
The heel hook is the best option of all, with ankle lock being the next one. Toehold is also available when an opponent attempts to spin out, or when the leg being controlled ends up on top instead of on the floor.
Outside Ashi Garami
The outside Ashi Garami can be categorized as the next step on the BJJ leg locks ladder. It offers better control than the standard Ashi Garami, and also better transitioning options.
In terms of mechanics, the bottom leg remains in the same position as in the regular Ashi Garami. The top leg, that hooked the opposite side butt in Ashi, now goes over the hip of the leg that is being attacked. In essence, both feet are being placed to the outside of your opponent’s hip. This allows for increased control over the hip, although sacrificing a bit of the knee control.
The outside Ashi Garami provides outstanding control of the leg being attacked and provides opportunities for heel hooks, straight ankle locks, toe holds, kneebars, and other techniques. Again, the heel hook is the preferred submission, alongside the ankle lock. Toe holds are also available from the top position, like with the standard Ashi. There’s also a kneebar option, just a short transition away from the outside Ashi Garami.
Also, it is considered to be an “outside lockup” because it involves placing both feet outside of your opponent’s legs. Outside lockups provide better control than the standard Ashi position, but they leave the feet more open for counter leg attacks.
Both the standard Ashi Garami and outside Ashi Garami are preferred by BJJ students due to their legality in most BJJ competitions. For more details about the differences between Ashi Garami and Outside Ashi Garami, check out this article.
The 50/50 guard is snother outside lockup, similar to the outside ashi garami. The only difference is that the opponent’s leg is passed across your body. When the 50/50 guard is achieved, both students’ legs are placed in the same position, thus giving both grapplers equal offensive and defensive options.
The 50/50 is an outstanding position from which you can attempt the inverted heel hook submission, which is an extremely efficient and powerful technique. Just you need to be very careful with it, since that technique does the most damage of all of the BJJ leg locks!
In addition to the inverted heel hook, the 50/50 presents openings for straight ankle locks, toe holds, and many other options.
Still, due to the nature of the position, one must be aware of counter-attacks by the opponent: he is in the exact same position, meaning he can attack with leg locks at the same time as you.
The Inside Sankaku is considered the “back mount” position of the leg locking system. Sometimes, it is also called The Honey Hole, 4-11, The Saddle, and Top Rock. It gives the ultimate control and numerous submission options. The position involves placing a triangle with your legs around one of the opponent’s legs (so-called “primary leg”). The triangle structure gives very high control over the leg that is under attack. Keeping your knee in the opponent’s hip fold emphasizes the pressure of the position. From there, the foot of the opponent is placed across your body, opening up the inverted heel hook – one of the most brutal submissions in grappling. It is the most popular attack from this position.
Estima locks, ankle locks, toe holds and kneebars are available on both legs, too. Escaping the position is particularly difficult.
Inversely to the outside lockups described above, “inside lockups” involve placing both legs between the legs of the opponent. Inside lockups are regarded as superior to outside lockups because they offer superior control and eliminate the threat of counter leg attacks.
Also, The Inside Sankaku is similar to the 50/50 in that the opponent’s leg is pulled across one’s own body. However, in this position, the attacking student’s opposite leg is hooked under the opponent’s outside leg. The Inside Sankaku position provides all of the offensive options of the 50/50 guard, at the same time allowing opponents very few attack options.
So far, Inside Sankaku was illegal at IBJJF tournaments as it gets. It includes both knee reaping and the inverted heel hook which are banned by the IBJJF rules, and will result in an instant disqualification at an IBJJF event. The news is that this will change in 2021.
The Leg Knot / Game Over
The Leg Knot, also known as The Game Over position, is a highly effective position from which is possible to execute a variety of leg attacks. It involves placing one of the opponent’s legs in a triangle while keeping the foot on the same side of the body as the leg under attack is. The opponent’s other leg can be controlled by locking both of your feet around his or her ankle, keeping it bent and on the ground.
From this position, you have complete control over both of your opponent’s legs and are free to attack with heel hooks, ankle locks, toe holds, and hip locks. Heel hooks and Toe holds can be done with one hand only, and transitioning between this position and the Inside Sankaku is tight and easy. It is also illegal in Gi competitions.
The only option that your opponent has in this position is to attempt to untie the leg knot. However, this is very difficult to do and gives you plenty of time to attempt submissions. If this position is achieved, the submission is almost a foregone conclusion, hence it got the name “game over.”
BJJ Leg Locks Safety Tips
To correctly understand BJJ leg locks, we need to bust some myths first. Until the IBJJF relaxes their rules (reportedly in 2021), it’s always going to come up. So, to clear things up – BJJ leg locks are perfectly safe to train and use in sparring and competition. They are no more hazardous than any other submission hold when done correctly. It is this “done correctly” part that is behind the misunderstanding of leg locking submissions.
In order to be able to successfully execute a submission in BJJ, you have to understand it first. Every submission that we do is based on strong mechanical advantages over an isolated part of the opponent’s body. Whether it is a kimura, an armbar, or a heel hook the same principles apply. This is the foundation of training any submission based martial art. If a BJJ practitioner understands what they’re trying to do, they are less likely to cause an injury to their partner or themselves. Otherwise, even a usual guard pass or a sweep can go very wrong and cause problems and injuries.
In order to achieve a safe and efficient leg locking game, a smart approach is to have a checklist:
- First, you need to know how to enter the position correctly.
- Then, you have to control the position so that you can enforce your mechanical advantage over your opponent.
- Following control, you should seek to build a structure that loads pressure on the limb you’re attacking,
- Finally, after all these steps, you go for the finish.
There’s one more important point for the people eager to leg attacks. Dean Lister’s catch-and-release philosophy is by far the best approach. The concept is to catch a submission and release it immediately before any possibility of injury. If the opponent is too stubborn to tap, this is going to keep him safe and allow you to train the moves. It’s a win-win situation.
Five Misconceptions About Leg Locks In BJJ
Leglocks represent 50% of the joint attacks you can possibly do. They are increasingly important at the higher levels of competition in BJJ, and grappling in general. In fact, at the ADCC Submission Championship in 2011, there were more leglocks than ALL other submissions combined!
Nonetheless, they are rarely practiced with as much regularity as armlocks or chokes. Rather, they are often absent from entire BJJ curriculums across the world. Why is that? We will give you five main reasons why these incredibly effective attacks are feared rather than utilized:
BJJ Leg Locks Are Illegal In Tournaments, So Why Would You Train Them?
This first myth is the easiest to debunk. One look at the very clear rules of American Grappling and you can immediately see that some BJJ leg locks are allowed in all adult divisions (straight ankle locks / foot-locks for everyone and kneebars for all no-gi competitors). Calf slicers, Toe holds and Heel hooks (among others) are much more limited, only allowed in a certain few divisions.
Also, competition isn’t everything. There are three aspects of grappling that exist other than just rolling in the gym, and only one of them is sports BJJ or grappling competition. Mixed Martial Arts is another, and most leg locks in BJJ are usually allowed in MMA fights. The third is self-defense, and there are exactly zero techniques that are not allowed when defending your life!
BJJ Leg Locks Are Too Complex To Be Executed Properly.
This is another dangerous, deceptive myth, often propagated by those who do not understand the leglock game well enough to teach it to their students. There are a few leg locks in BJJ that are really complex. However, there are some that are disgustingly easy to execute.
If we avoided anything complex, we would have never had such an amazing evolution in our sport! Just watch any highlights video, based on leglock or otherwise, and you’ll see an amazing array of increasingly complicated mind-provoking techniques. Without more complicated things, jiu-jitsu suddenly becomes quite boring.
BJJ Leg Locks Are More Dangerous Than Standard Submissions.
This myth has the greatest merit if leg attacks are practiced in an environment where there is little to no supervision. If you are reading this and practicing with your friends in the garage, you could really consider a “no-leglocks” rule. But, if you’re in a gym where you trust your training partners and your instructor, leglocks can be safe (and fun) part of your training. Still, you have to follow the rules set in your gym. If your gym does not allow certain attacks below a certain belt level, you absolutely must adhere to this rule in the interest of safety. You definitely have to trust your instructor and the rules he or she has set!
With proper education about what can be damaged by each submission, there’s no reason that leg locks can’t be practiced regularly in your BJJ curriculum. With very little force, you can break large joints in the body and even break bones in special circumstances. You can even destroy someone’s ligaments, which take much longer to heal than the damage from broken bones. This applies to all joint locking submissions! It is therefore important to learn what kind of damage can happen and when it can happen.
BJJ Leg Locks Are Low Percentage Techniques, And You Will Lose Your Position By Going For Them.
This is perhaps the most blatant myth about locks. First, there is a right and wrong time to try to attempt a leg lock in BJJ. The wrong time is if you have a dominant position, and then go for a leglock where you are likely to give up the dominant position if you miss it. On the other hand, unusual attacks from a dominant position can catch your opponent off guard. That said, as a general rule, you’ll always strive to play “position before submission” while rolling, and that includes leg attacks too!
Second, there is a right and wrong method to attempt leg locks. The right way involves using a leg attack to sweep from the bottom or to pass the guard when your opponent is defending a leg lock. Or, to prevent the passage of your own guard.
BJJ Leg Locks Should Only Be Taught At Higher Belts.
If a student is planning to compete before the purple belt, that’s a terrible idea. Almost all tournaments allow some leglocks before the purple belt. Grasping a general idea of the submissions that are below the waist is a very good idea, even if you don’t plan to use them yourself when competing. They could be used against you, and you would be better off (at least) knowing how to tap!
Furthermore, unintentional leglocks actually happen quite often in the gym. If you know you are putting your training partner in danger, you are much less likely to injure him! (or her)
The conclusion can be: educate yourself! Let the knowledge overcome fear, and you can add these amazing attacks to your game, often defeating an otherwise more technical opponent.
Leg locking submissions are based on forcing pressure on the joints or muscles of the legs. As such, different BJJ leg locks are based on different mechanical principles.
Straight Ankle Lock / Foot Lock
The straight ankle lock or “foot-lock” is a classic in the field of BJJ leg locks. Ankle locks are allowed under all kinds of competition rules, for every adult belt level. The foot and ankle form a complex joint with approximately 26 connected bones. This means that there are at least that many ligaments that can be damaged by correct pressure.
The mechanics of ankle locking rely on the simultaneous induction of hyperextension and torsion of the joint. To do this, the hands must be properly placed around the foot. The bony part of the wrist below the thumb must be situated at the lowest end of the Achilles tendon, just above the heel. The grip is palm over palm, just like with a guillotine choke. Similarly, both hands should be high on the chest. The pressure is attained by squeezing the elbows backward. With the hips as a prime power-source generator, the finishing movement involves extending the body and rotating the torso.
As demonstrated in the video above, Vlad Koulikov (Master of Sport in Sambo, Judo Black Belt, and No-Gi Submission Grappling) has a vicious straight ankle lock from a standing guard pass. The foot lock setup is the key, and the bite he gets on the ankle lock is very, very tight.
The heel hook is the ultimate authority of leg locks in BJJ, and the most unforgiving submission of them all. Affecting both the ankle and the knee, it easily destroys the internal structure and ligaments of the knee. It is forbidden in all Gi-competitions, unless otherwise specified. In the No-Gi competition, this is the choice of most competitors. It is the one submission that the DDS – “Danaher Death Squad” built its reputation around.
If you take the heel hook to the bitter end, then your opponent will get several fractures along the leg. He will become crippled. And that’s why you should be very careful when doing this move. You can also execute the heel hook from the 50/50 guard. All you need to do is take the opponent’s leg and then put your elbow under his heel. Then rotate the leg until the submission is achieved. Warning here: there is no precursor pain for a heal hook, because the knee was not designed to ever come in that position. That’s why it’s extremely important to tap much before the actual torque is applied to the full.
The heel hook can be performed in two versions. The first is a regular heel hook and the second, and more dangerous, a reverse heel hook. The mechanics for both are very similar, the main difference being the direction in which you apply the rotation. The fingers of the opponent’s foot are placed in the armpit, with the heel sticking out. The heel is then cupped with one arm and placed right under the thumb, similar to the ankle lock. Pulling the heel in a twisting motion, while being in the correct position, results in torsion of the knee that completely tears most of the ligaments.
The kneebar is for leglocks what an armbar is for standard submissions. It involves pressure on the knee in the opposite direction from the natural bend. The position of the body for a kneebar is also very similar to the position of an armbar. The whole body should be positioned against the leg in such a way that the hips are just above the opponent’s kneecap. Several gripping options are available, none more devastating than putting their foot in your armpit.
In Gi Jiu-Jitsu, kneebars are not available to those ranked lower than a brown belt.
Many BJJ leg locks can cripple your opponent if they are performed to the end. Kneebars are no exception. This move works by excessively stretching the opponent’s leg at the knee joint. Typically, the knee is resistant enough to withstand a moderate amount of pressure. But if you overdo it – then it could break in half. Again – you need to be careful when doing this move.
The toehold is based on the twisting mechanism, although there is also an extension of the joint as well. The grip of figure four, like with Kimura, is used around the opponent’s foot. The palm of one hand is placed around the toes, with the four fingers of the hand over the pinky toe. Then the other hand is pulled to catch figure four. The pressure results from squeezing the foot towards the chest and holding the elbows firmly.
The toehold can damage your opponent’s ankle if brought to an end. His knee will also be in jeopardy. A great way to perform this move would be from a knee-shield position. All you need to do is rotate and grab the opponent’s toes. Then slide your other hand underneath the foot and grab your forearm – similar as you would for a Kimura lock. And then you push his foot towards his back for maximum usability. Be careful – this move can also be dangerous and injury-inflicting.
The toehold is a submission that is also legal in Gi BJJ, but only at the higher belts. Brown belts and above can use this devastating hold without restrictions. It is a signature move of many BJJ World champions in Gi, like Caio Terra and Mackenzie Dern.
The calf slicer is a very harsh submission that can completely open the knee, as well as rupture the calf muscle. The idea is to place one of your shins behind the opponent’s knee, while pulling their foot with your hands. The secondary leg is used to reinforce the calf slicer submission, causing extensive damage to the opponent’s leg.
There are some opponents who will never tap out to a calf slicer. This may be due to the fact that their calves are as strong as steel. Or, maybe it’s because they can handle high levels of pain. Which is exactly what this submission technique presents. With your legs, you can make a triangle on the opponent’s upper hip. Then you need to put your forearm below his knee joint, at the weakest upper point of his calf. Use force to generate pressure and create great pain for him. Few people can withstand this, and there are cases when under the force of this submission the entire calf muscle ruptures.
All in all, leg locks are very effective and safe submissions that need to be a part of every BJJ school’s curriculum. They should be addressed like every other submission, with control and positioning to the forefront of the techniques.
For a successful BJJ leg lock game, you have to keep in mind that leg locks are not The Holy Grail of BJJ. They are neither a silver bullet that works against everyone, every time and everywhere. You need to know when to transition between leg lock positions and other BJJ positions. More importantly, you need to understand when you need to back off and move on to a pass or another submission attempt before it’s too late. Therefore, make sure you’re using BJJ leg locks as a system that is integrated with other attacking systems of your game.