Let’s get the obvious out of the way straight off the bat. John Danaher is arguably the best leg locks coach in the world. His Danaher Death Squad is the most fearsome group of lower limb submission artists on the No-Gi scene. Okay, now that we stated the obvious, let’s look at what matters. Leg locks are definitely powerful submissions, but they’re no longer the one submission to rule them all. As people wise up to them, there are certain patterns that start appearing. When people follow these patterns, they start to understand the leg lock game. These patterns are exactly what we’re going to focus on today.
Despite the seemingly unaffected state of traditional Jiu-Jitsu, there’s no denying that the leg lock game has reshaped the BJJ world. Although it is mostly limited to the No-GI scene, the emergence of the leg lock game has caused a lot of top competitors to reevaluate their approach. Just look at Gordon Ryan’s success at this years ADCC. Despite being well rounded his leg lock game was the pinnacle of his performance. Furthermore, leg lock attempts were seen by other top competitors, like Miyao, who weren’t known for them previously. So, why are leg locks such a game changer?
Leg Locks Safety Tips
To understand leg locks, let’s bust a myth first. Until the IBJJF relaxes their rules, it’s always going to come up. So, to clear things up – leg locks are perfectly safe to train and use in rolling and competition. They’re no more dangerous 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 apply a submission in BJJ, you have to understand it. Every submission is based on strong mechanical advantages over an isolated part of the opponent’s body. Whether it is a choke, a kimura or a heel hook the same principles apply. This is the basis of training any submission based martial art. If a student understands what they’re trying to do, they are less likely to cause an injury to their partner or themselves. Otherwise, even a guard pass or a sweep can go very wrong.
In order to have a safe and efficient leg locking game, a good approach is to have a checklist. First, you have to know how to enter the position correctly. Next, you have to control the position so that you enforce your mechanical advantage over the opponent. Following control, you should look to build a structure that loads pressure on the limb you’re attacking, Finally, after you have a clear power source in place, you go for the finish.
There’s one more important point for people training leg attacks. Dean Lister’s catch-release philosophy is by far the best approach. The idea is to catch a submission and release it straight away before any opportunity for injury. If the opponent is too stubborn to tap, this is going to keep him safe and allow you to train the moves. A win-win situation.
Working in a backward fashion, let’s look at the top leg lock submission holds available in BJJ. The point of listing them before listing the positions is simple. I, personally, prefer this way of teaching when it comes to submissions. I have no idea where I first saw it, so I cannot credit anyone. Nevertheless, the concept is that you should know what you’re looking for in a submission before you set up a position. Conversely, positional teaching should proceed to teach entries, again, due to the fact that a student should know what they’re looking for.
That said, leg locking submissions are based around putting pressure on the joints or muscles of the legs. As such, different leg locks have different mechanical principles. Different locks fit different situations and they have a varying degree of success.
Ankle locks are the one submission that is allowed under all kinds of competition rules, for every adult belt level. The foot and ankle make up a complex joint with approximately 26 bones involved. That means there are at least that many ligaments that can be damaged by correct pressure.
The mechanics of an ankle lock rely on causing simultaneous hyperextension and torsion of the joint. In order to do so, the arms have to be placed correctly around the foot. The bony part of the wrist below the thumb needs to be situated on the lowest end of the Achilles tendon, right above the heel. The grip is a palm-over-palm one, just like with the guillotine choke. Similarly, both arms should be high on the chest. The pressure is loaded by squeezing the elbows back. With the hips as a power source, the motion to finish involves extending the body and rotating the torso.
The toe hold is a submission that is also legal in Gi Jiu-Jitsu, albeit only at the higher levels. Brown belts and above are allowed to use this devastating hold without many restrictions. It is a signature move of many Gi BJJ Worl champions like Caio Tera and Mackenzie Dern.
The toe hold is based on twisting mechanics, although there’s extension of the joint involved as well. A figure four grip, like that of a Kimura is used around the foot of an opponent. the palm of one hand is placed around the fingers of the foot, with four of the hand’s fingers over the pinky toe. The other arm is then weaved through to catch the figure four. Pressure stems from squeezing the foot towards the chest and keeping the elbows tight. To break the foot, the general rule of thumb is to force the fingers towards the opponent’s butt.
The kneebar is the leg locks analog to an armbar. It involves putting pressure on the knee in the opposite direction of the natural bend. The body positioning for a kneebar is also very similar to that of an armbar. The whole body should be positioned against the leg in such manner that the hips are just above the opponent’s kneecap. There are a few grip options available, none more devastating than putting the foot of the leg in your armpit.
Kneebars are one more submission not available to those ranked lower than brown belt. In Gi Jiu-Jitsu, at least.
The calf slicer is a very brutal submission that can completely open up the knee as well as snap the calf muscle. The positioning is quite complex and involves knowledge of the truck position. The idea is that you place one of your shins behind the knee of an opponent while pulling their foot with your arms. The second leg is used to reinforce the submission, causing extensive damage to the leg.
The heel hook is the king of leg locks and the most brutal submission of them all. Affecting both the ankle and the knee it destroys the knee’s inner structure with ease. It is forbidden in all Gi competitions unless specified otherwise. In No-Gi competition, it is the submission of choice for most. It is the one submission that the Danaher Death Squad built its reputation around.
The heel hook can be done in two varieties. The first is the regular heel hook and the second, and more dangerous, the reverse heel hook. The mechanics for both are very similar. The fingers of the opponent’s foto 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 with a torsion of the knee that completely tears most of the ligaments.
Now that we covered all the submission options, let’s see which positions offer the best bang for your buck. The missing link in training leg locks, prior to Danaher’s breakthrough was using them without proper positioning. When leg locks are used as a quick submission, they’re rarely effective because of lack of control.
Danaher managed to isolate the best positions for leg locks and put them together in a complete system. Despite focusing on heel hooks, most of the other submission options are available as well from the majority of positions.
The Ashi Garami is the least controllable position in the system. Standing for “leg entanglement” in Japanese, it is, in essence, a grounded version of the Single Leg X guard. The difference is that the foot that’s kept on the butt in Single Leg X is now hooked on the opposite side. The position allows control over the hip, knee and, along with correct grips, the ankle. This completely immobilizes an opponent, opening up different attacks.
The heel hook is the best option, with the ankle lock the following suit closely. There’s also a toehold available when an opponent tries to spin out, or when the controlled leg ends up on top instead of on the floor.
The outside Ashi Garami is the next step on the leg locks ladder. It offers better control than the standard Ashi, as well las 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 placed to the outside of the opponent’s hip. This allows for increased control over the hip, although sacrificing a little of the knee control.
Again, the heel hook is the preferred submission, along with the ankle lock. Toe holds are available from the top position, just like with the Ashi Garami. There’s also a kneebar just a short transition away from the outside Ashi.
The 411 is the “back control” position of the leg locking system. It offers the ultimate control and numerous submission options. It involves placing a triangle with your legs around one of the opponent’s legs. The triangle structure offers very high control over the limb that is under attack. In the 411, your legs should be triangled between your opponent’s legs. 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. Estima locks, ankle locks, toe holds and kneebars are available on both legs. Escaping the position is notoriously difficult.
So far, both the Ashi Garami variations were IBJJF legal positions, despite the limitation on some submission options. The 411, on the other hand, is as illegal as it gets. It involves both knee reaping and the inverted heel hook and will result in instant disqualification in an IBJJF event.
The Sambo Knot is also known as the infamous “knee reap”. 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 other leg can be controlled by locking both of your feet around the ankle, keeping it bent and on the ground. If the 411 is the back control, then the Sambo Knot is the amount of leg locking positions.
Toe holds and heel hooks can be done with one hand only, and transitioning between this position and the 411 is easy and tight. Also very illegal in Gi competitions.
The 50/50 position is a staple of BJJ and falls under the legal positions category. In terms of control, it is somewhere in between the Aashi Garami and the triangle controlled positions. The 50/50 is also a position involving a triangle of a kind, but this time on the outside of the opponent’s hip. Heel hooks are the submission of choice, although there are ankle locks and toe holds available too. The drawback of the position is that the opponent is in the exact same position, meaning they can attack with leg locks at the same time as you.
The truck is a position developed by Eddie Bravo for his 10th planet JIu-Jitsu system. It is a halfway position between side control and the back and offers a host of different submission options. The calf slicer is the easiest one accessible, and a few steps away, the twister is also an option.
Putting It All Together
All in all, leg locks are effective and safe submissions that need to be part of every BJJ school’s curriculum. They should be approached as every other submission, with control and positioning to the forefront of the techniques.
For a successful leg lock game, you have to remember that leg locks are not the Hail Mary move of BJJ. They’re not a silver bullet to work against everyone, every time, everywhere. You need to know when to transition between leg locking positions or other BJJ positions. More importantly, you need to understand when to bail out and switch to a pass or another submission before it’s too late.
That said, make sure you’re using leg locks as a system that is integrated with other attacking systems of your game. And remain wary of competition rules that can land you a DQ because of your favorite leg lock!