Leg Locks In BJJ

The discussion of leg locks is always a hot topic amongst Brazilian Jiu Jitsu students and instructors. Some guys will tell you that you should avoid leg locks, knee bars and heel hooks like the plague. Other instructors, however, may say that leg locks are perfectly acceptable and that all BJJ practitioners should practice both applying them and escaping from them to become more complete fighters.

So what’s the deal regarding leg locks in BJJ? Should leg locks a legitimate part of Jiu Jitsu, or should we all avoid doing them during our training and sparring? To answer these questions, we’ve tapped into the knowledge base of East West Martial Arts. Let’s start off by debunking a few myths and taking an honest look at leg locks.

Leg Locks In BJJ

Leg Locks In BJJ

Should legs locks be a part of BJJ?

First of all, let me define leg locks.  Leg locks are any attack to the leg, which includes: ankle locks, kneebars, toe holds, heel hooks, muscle locks, and miscellaneous twists and cranks.

I have pretty strong feelings about this.  For my first few years of training, I knew how to do an ankle lock, had almost no idea how to do a kneebar, I didn’t know the toe hold, and I had heard of heel hooks.  A student of mine, Carl Canfield, kept talking about leg locks, and telling me that Gokor Chivichyan, Erik Paulson, and Yuri Nakamura were great at them.

I started training leg locks with him.  After a while, I started teaching them to my advanced students.  Then I started allowing my lower level students to do them.  What I found is that most of the assumptions of many BJJ practitioners were WRONG.

1) Leg locks aren’t more dangerous than other submissions.  I have been allowing kneebars in my school for 10 years now, and we have 0 injuries due to kneebars.  0!  We have had popped elbows, shoulders, and ankles, but none on the knee.  The knee is a bigger joint than the elbow, and it can definitely be broken, but it takes more to do it.

2) Turning your back isn’t bad when you land a submission!

3) Your guard passing percentage will go up when you incorporate leg locks into your practice.  If you attack a leg lock when you’re in someone’s guard, even if you don’t land it, now your partner has to think about defending your passes AND your attacks to the leg.  It’s true that if you spend 10 hours per week training total, and you start training leg locks 1 hour per week, you will be probably spending less time practicing your guard passes, but what’s the point of Jiu-Jitsu anyway?  Is it to get a good position or get a submission?  Submission is the goal.  And the way to really be effective in the guard is to combine passes with leg locks.

4) Higher level practitioners do them and not lower level because most BJJ practitioners are not good at leg locks.  If they are a brown belt, their leg locks are normally at blue belt level.  Beginners may be told that they will learn them when they are higher rank, but in most schools, they won’t learn much about them.  Because many BJJ practitioners do not know them.

I believe that lower level practitioners can do ankle locks and kneebars, and they should be taught to do them with the same respect and control that they are taught to do all other submissions.

Dirty Submissions

To be fair, I have to define what I am talking about.  Leg locks include so many different types of attacks, that you can’t generalize.

What is a dirty submission?  In my opinion, when your arm is straight when you’re put in an armbar, you should tap.  If you wait, your arm will get popped.  If your ankle is straight when you’re caught in a kneebar, you know you should tap.  If your leg is straight when in a kneebar, you should tap.

In a heel hook, there is no point that you know you have to tap.  It is a twisting motion.  I know that shoulder locks are the same, that there is not an exact point that you should tap, but shoulders are built different than knees.  When the lower part of your leg twists, and the upper part is not rotating, it is the knee that is being attacked.  The knee does not have a lot of nerves in it to tell you that you are in trouble.  When you are in a kimura or americana, you feel a lot of stretching and pain before the joint is damaged.  In a heelhook, you don’t feel much.  You just hear the popping sound!

I was training years ago with a Jiu-Jitsu guy and he went for a heel hook.  At that particular school, the rule was no heel hooks.  He went for it anyways, and I didn’t feel any pain.  My knee started to feel strange, and I tapped immediately.   If I were in a competition, I may not have, because it wouldn’t have seemed like I have to.  My knee probably would have been destroyed.

My point is that ankle locks and kneebars are clean submissions.  The leg is straight, you should tap.  You didn’t prevent the attack, and you didn’t escape.

Any other leg lock then is not as clean: heel hooks, toe holds, muscle locks, and other cranks and twists.

In general, leg locks have a greater negative consequence than other submissions.  The Russian military used Sambo leg locks so much because if you break someone’s arm, they can still walk and fire a gun.  If you break their leg, they can’t walk, and it takes another soldier to help them walk.

But all submissions are dangerous.  If you get caught in a submission and you don’t tap- recognizing that you are finished, you could get hurt.  Now if someone throws on a submission really fast and doesn’t give you an opportunity to tap, then that is their fault.  That lack of control is really irresponsible and students that cannot control themselves shouldn’t know the art of Jiu-Jitsu!

One type of leg lock may have given leg locks a bad name: the cranks and twists.  I have trained leg locks with several people: Erik Paulson, Gokor Chivichyan, Igor Yakimov, John Donahue, and others, and there are some leg submissions that are nasty.  Visualize this: someone has you in an armbar.  You are flat on your back, facing the ceiling, and they are sitting on their butt, perpendicular to your body, and they grab your ankle and start pulling it toward your head!  You will feel pain in your knee, your hip, and even your back!


There was an army commander that had a sign on his desk: “Assumptions are the mother of all f*** ups.”  If you accepted the assumption that you shouldn’t do leg locks, guess what?  You have missed an awesome component of grappling.

To be honest, if someone wants to slow you down from submitting them, all they have to do is keep their arms close to their body while protecting their neck, and then move their hips.  But if you attack their legs, it will not slow you down at all.

It is similar to striking.  If you throw a roundhouse kick to their thigh and a jab to the head, and a cross to the body, you are attacking the low area, the high area, and the middle area.   Protecting the neck and arms is the high area.  Leg locks attack the low area.  You are way more effective when your partner has to think about defending every area of the body!

Besides attacking all areas of the body, one of the great thing about leg locks is they make your attack combinations longer, and you have more counter options.  When I lose an armlock, a leg lock if often right there.

If you don’t utilize leg locks, you are missing a large part of the art.

Source: East West Martial Arts

Anyone who tells you that leg locks are more dangerous than other submission holds isn’t necessarily giving you the big picture. Think about a choke. If you don’t apply it correctly, or with control you could actually seriously cause brain damage to your opponent, right? So how could a heel hook be more dangerous than a submission that could potentially result in serious damage or permanent injury? Leg locks are not more dangerous than other submission if the practitioners are properly trained.

The key to learning and using leg locks is the same as it is with any other submission. You have to learn the locks correctly, you have to practice them with control, you should avoid letting a beginner (e.g. white belt) do them unsupervised, and you must always tap when the lock is applied to you. We have also seen some gyms and academies restrict the lower levels in practicing leg locks and this can also be a middle ground.

But if you keep these basic training tips in mind, you can practice leg locks without fear, and add them to your fighting arsenal.

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