If you follow the BJJ metagame you will know that BJJ leg locks are “in” and will stay here. Especially with non-Gi-BJJ, leg locks are a standout technique in both submitting points and MMA rules. However, these days, if you want a chance to really win in a mid to high-level BJJ no-gi, then leg locks should be your lookout.
Leg locks are a controversial topic in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu doctors are often told that leg locks are dangerous and will cause you to twist your back, which is not recommended and should only be practiced by experienced martial artists. In fact, until relatively recently, leg locks were considered “dirty” in Brazil.
Those who practice leg locks find that assumptions about the maneuvers are usually wrong. Leg locks rarely report injuries. The knee is a much larger joint than the elbow, and while it can certainly be broken, the knee or ankle is more difficult to break than the elbow or shoulder joint.
Leg locks are fast becoming a popular display option among high-ranking Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes. This could be attributed to the fact that tournaments like EBI, Sub-Only, and events like Fight to WinPro have exploded in popularity and growth. The game is developing a completely new segment of grappling and is changing..
What is a BJJ Leg lock?
Leg locks in BJJ include a variety of submissions that target any of the joints below the waist. This includes the ankle, knee, and hip joints. Due to the body positions needed to apply leg locks, leg lock entanglements stray from the classic positions in BJJ such as side control, mount, and the back.
Therefore, the traditional scoring system in the IBJJF rule sets is not an excellent way to assess a leg blocker’s competency. Many good leg lockers couldn’t even bother to pass guard and go through the traditional control series. This is because most leg locks cannot be applied from traditional BJJ control positions.
There are many variations of leg locks, including:
- Ankle Locks
- Heel Hooks
- Knee Bars
- Toe Holds
- Estima Lock
- Foot Locks
The History of Leglocks in BJJ
Leg locks have become popular in today’s BJJ. John Danaher would even say: “why ignore 50% of the body”. However, if you look at the history of leg locks in BJJ, it wasn’t exactly like that. In the 1950s, Oswaldo Fada built a school on the outskirts of Rio and trained practitioners from all walks of life. In 1951, Fada challenged the Gracies. Helio Gracie’s students lost the challenge via leg locks applied by Fada students. Helio later called it “suburban techniques”. After that, the negative connotation in leg locks invaded most of the consciousness of the BJJ community for the longest time, regarding leg attacks as inferior.
In reality, you have to learn leg locks. To have a full game, you must be equipped with knowledge of how to finish and defend leg locks, regardless of whether IBJJF is legal or not.
Leg Locks Are for Experienced BJJ Practitioners
The reason only experienced BJJ practitioners perform leg locks is because lower-level students are generally not good at doing them. For example, a student with a brown belt will often perform leg locks on a level with a blue belt.
One of the great things about leg locks is that you attack all areas of the body, your attack combinations get longer, and you have a lot more options to start a counter. While there are some “dirty” leg locks that shouldn’t be used, many leg locks are perfectly fine and a big part of the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Important Components For Best Leg Locks
The best lower-body submissions have four things in common:
1. They completely immobilize the leg that is being attacked
Usually, once a lower-body submission is set in, any movement in your opponent’s leg dilutes the amount of leverage that can be applied. For example: If you have your opponent in a knee-bar, any rotation of his foot or knee will relieve the pressure of the submission.
Note: There are a few exceptions. In certain instances, movement of the leg will actually amplify the submission.
2. They completely immobilize the opponent’s pelvis
This is closely related to the point above. Almost all leg locks work better when you shut down the movement of your opponent’s pelvic girdle. If you fail to do this, he will be able to either change the angle or create a movement of his leg that will prevent you from applying leverage correctly.
3. They make it very difficult for the opponent to counter-attack
A great leg-lock will not put you in immediate danger of a counter-attack, but a crappy one will. And when that happens, all other things equal, the bigger stronger player will come out on top.
4. They either have the leg fully bent or fully straightened
Lower-body attacks can be broadly categorized into two types: those in which the opponent’s leg should be bent at the knee (e.g. heel-hook), and those in which it should no not (e.g. knee-bar). It’s important to identify which of these conditions is required for the attack you’re using and then make sure that the condition is met. (Note: One of the smartest things you can do is practice attacking combinations that switch between the two. The most basic example of this is the knee-bar / toe-hold combination.)
The Risks of Attacking the Legs in BJJ
With most BJJ submissions, you’ll generally have some form of dominant position before attacking. With traditional top-game or back control, by the time you’re attacking a submission, the opponent will generally have a few steps to work their way back to a decent position.
For example, with a rear-naked choke, your opponent has to defend the choke and escape the back position before they can begin imposing their own game. Unless they catch you with something stupid like a wrist lock or your feet crossed while you’re on their back, there’s a fairly low chance of them turning the position around and submitting you.
The opposite is true with leg locks. When you attack a heel hook from a leg entanglement, you are sometimes a simple grip away from getting heel hooked yourself. With a quick leg re-weave, a crafty opponent might submit you seconds after you go for the entanglement.
As one of my coaches frequently says:
“When it comes to leg locks, you have to put a quarter in to play the game.”
As such, you have a very small margin for error if you’re attacking the legs of someone with decent knowledge of BJJ leg locks.
Leg Locks That You Need to Know
1. Straight ankle lock
One of the first leg locks that you should know is the straight ankle lock. It is legal in IBJJF across different belts from white belt all the way to black belt. To be able to finish the straight ankle lock, you will have to overlook the opponent’s leg with your radial bone touching the opponent’s Achilles.
A tight straight footlocker is quite similar to having guillotine chokes. Instead of squeezing on the person’s neck, you instead get afoot.
Dean Lister even came up with some details to make his straight ankle lock tight. He also explained apart from the grip that he uses his entire body to torque the ankle and impose pressure on the Achilles. He pinches with his knees and engages the hips, core, and even the traps to finish the ankle lock.
- The Damage from Straight Ankle Locks
Straight ankle locks attack the ankle joint and attempt to hyperextend the foot, which can strain the tendons and ligaments and the ankle and potentially fracture the ends of the ankle bone. If your ankle ‘pops’ during a straight ankle lock, you may be out for several weeks to a month, and will likely need some form of rehab.
2. Toe hold
For those who are new to toe holds, just imagine doing a rear-naked choke on your opponent’s foot. This movement allows the foot to get hyperextended. Applying pressure on the knee keeps the opponent from turning away.
In some instances, toe holds can also be used in order to threaten the opponent and concede the sweep or to go out of bounds to get the two points in an IBJJF competition setting.
- The Damage from Toe Holds
While not as brutal as heel hooks, a fully applied toehold results in a potentially serious sprained or broken ankle. The recovery will usually be a few months. Once again, toeholds are safe provided you tap in time.
A kneebar is quite similar to doing an armbar. Instead of the elbow, you are going to have a fulcrum right on the knee. It’s common to see competitors use their hips as a fulcrum when they are setting up the kneebar. The same as doing an armbar, you will have to pinch using your own knees to make sure that the leg doesn’t move around.
And also, this helps engage your own lower legs and hips to make the kneebar more powerful. As for hyperextending the leg, some people prefer to catch the leg by their armpit while others simply hug the leg and keep the foot beside the ear.
4. Calf slice
Calf slice is another great leg attack that can be used as a chain from your sweeps and even from scrambles. There are opportunities to do the calf slicer during peribolos, matrix, and even when the opponent attempts to escape from a kneebar and successfully get his knee out of the fulcrum.
To secure the calf slice, you will need to figure four of your legs and hug the hip of your opponent. This brings pressure at the back of your opponent’s knee.
5. Heel hook
The heel hook is not typically used in jiujitsu tournaments unless it’s a submission-only format. Heel hooks are more commonly used in submission wrestling tournaments such as ADCC. One thing that you have to understand about heel hooks is that they can potentially injure your opponent or partner’s knee. This is one of the reasons why it isn’t typically drilled by many gyms.
Heel hooks can be done by twisting the heel internally or externally. By doing so, you rotate the opponent’s knee beyond its range of motion. It has the possibility of causing full tears on different ligaments found in the knee.
Heel hooks have been proven to make a huge difference regardless of your size. Lachlan Giles was able to make it to the podium in ADCC despite having a huge discrepancy against most of his opponents.
- The Damage of Heel Hooks
Heel hooks can strain, sprain, or completely sever the ACL, MCL, and LCL ligaments in the knee. One of the reasons they are considered “dangerous” is that you don’t feel a ton of pain until the damage has been done.
Tips to Increase Your Finish Rate
- Know The Rules: Finishing leg locks can be tricky especially if you are simply going to count on one submission. It is important that you mix things up for you to become successful in your leg attacks. You also want to know the rules in case you are doing it in competition. For instance, knee reaping can instantly get you disqualified.
- Control: Control is also a huge part of catching leg attacks. The saddle position is now becoming popular. In fact, it has even been called a position of ignorance even for many black belts. It is both a sweeping position and also a good way to formulate leg attacks.
- Involve The Entire Body: Next, another important tip when doing leg locks is to involve the entire body. This detail is oftentimes ignored especially by lower belts. You want to get submit your opponent using your hips and legs and not just your upper body.
Never Ignore 50% of the Body
Leg attacks make up 50% of the body. This is a great way to diversify your attacks and can easily increase your chances of ending the fight. In some cases, leg locks can help you get the score you need, whether you’re using it to sweep your opponent or let the opponent defend out of bounds.
However, it’s important not to use leg locks as an excuse for not learning to pass. Also, you have to also have a full understanding of your leg attacks to be able to finish it. Understanding leverage and how to adjust things can help make your leg lock game more effective and efficient.
Consider the game of leg lock to improve and transform the landscape of jiu-jitsu, especially for years to come. If there has been a delay in your progress due to Helios’s comment calling leg locks cheap submission, leg locks are undeniably effective and practical regardless of the rule set in competitions. And luckily, we now have proponents of leg locks such as John Danaher and Lachlan Giles.
If you are serious about having a well-rounded BJJ game, then you need to develop your BJJ leg locking skills. Whether you want to win championships or local tournaments, or just want to have serious grip knowledge, leg locks are a must.
Take proper care of your partners, don’t be afraid to tap, and get to leg locking!