The guillotine is a classic choke in many martial arts, including BJJ. It is intuitive, prevalent, and effective at all levels. But why is this choke named after an execution device so powerful and common?
The guillotine choke is a move where you surround the neck of the opponent with your arms, stopping the blood flow to the neck, air to the lungs, or a bit of both, to force him to surrender. Like any other blood choke, the guillotine has the potential to put someone to sleep very quickly.
The guillotine has many variations, entries, and defenses. As easy as it looks, finishing consistently against experienced grapplers is tricky. As a move all grapplers must master, a detailed look at all of its aspects is well worth your time reading, watching, and practicing on the mats.
The guillotine choke is among the most popular chokeholds in BJJ and many other grappling martial arts. It’s one of the first techniques taught to white belts, and it remains widespread even at the highest level of jiujitsu and MMA.
The guillotine is a choke applied from the front of the opponent, and the arms encircle the head and pressure the neck. His head is under the armpit, while the forearm pressures the neck. The choke is named after the very effective execution device widely used in the years of the French Revolution.
A guillotine can be either a blood or an air choke, depending on the angle. When it’s a blood choke, the forearm presses the carotid arteries and stops the blood flow to the brain, while when the tension is on the trachea, it becomes an air choke. In reality, the guillotine is often a bit of both, making it even worse to endure.
When To Use The Guillotine?
The guillotine is a very versatile move that can be applied from many places, which we will take a more detailed look at in the variations paragraph. But the most common variation is from a front headlock, making it a perfect weapon to counter careless takedowns.
The front headlock is a common position, usually resulting from a failed takedown attempt or a well-timed snap-down. The position is common in wrestling, but strangles are not allowed there, and the headlock serves only as a transition. But BJJ has many choke options from the position, with the guillotine being the primary one.
The most common variation of the guillotine is done from a closed guard, where you end up when you are taken down. The guillotine is highly effective against wrestlers who enter with double-leg takedowns with their heads unprotected.
This is even more valid for self-defense, where people are rarely aware. If someone is trying to take you down, I can almost guarantee you there is a window for a guillotine choke.
There are many variations and setups for the guillotine, but we will start with the basic one you can use as an attack from closed guard. The other most common way is to use the guillotine as a counter to a double-leg takedown. In this case, the finishing steps are the same, but instead of being active, you are anticipating a takedown and reacting to it:
Here is how to execute the basic guillotine from full guard:
Control the opponent from closed guard and make him place his hands on the mat. You can do this by using your legs to pull him towards you.
Drive up for a kimura sweep, and when the opponent blocks the sweep, you wrap your arm around his neck while he is exposed and posted. Of course, if they don’t stop the sweep, you can continue with it. It’s important to quickly grab a chinstrap grip on his neck and squeeze your elbow so he doesn’t pop his head out.
Grab your wrist with the other hand, connecting them while sitting back down, and lock in the full guard again. Your fist or forearm should be covering your carotid artery.
The main factors for a successful guillotine are angle and compression.
Do not go straight back; instead, do a side crunch to the side where the opponent’s head is. It’s vital to be on the same hip as the strangling arm.
The entire head should be underneath your armpit, and your chin should be over his neck. Bring your elbow towards the hips and point it down.
The guillotine works either as a blood choke or an air choke, depending on how the pressure on the neck is applied, or often as a bit of both. When the choking arm presses on the carotid arteries in the neck, it stops blood flow to the brain.
At other angles, the forearm blocks the airway to the lungs by pressing against the trachea. It’s not rare for the head to be in a position with tension on the neck vertebrae, giving the guillotine some neck crank properties.
The result is discomfort and pain, causing the opponent to submit by tapping. If the choke is applied correctly, holding it leads to unconsciousness or even death if held for too long after that.
Blood chokes are very effective and can lead to a loss of conciseness in less than 10 seconds if applied tightly enough. When the choke is released, the person usually quickly wakes up without much repercussion.
Air chokes are much more painful and uncomfortable due to the pressure on the front of the throat, and they can lead to unconsciousness after 2 or 3 minutes of steady pressure. In sparring, the pain from an air choke quickly leads to a tap. The danger with air chokes, including the guillotine, is that they may cause damage to the trachea, which is life-threatening.
There are many variations of the guillotine differing by the position they are applied from and by different grips used to close off the arteries.
Arm In Guillotine Choke
The arm in guillotine is extremely common, and the difference with the classic one is that the head is still encircled with one arm. Still, the other goes around the arm of the opponent instead of being directly clasped to the choking arm.
The advantage of the arm in the guillotine is that it’s much easier to get. When the opponent is driving into you, be it on the ground or through a takedown, it’s difficult to be inside both his arms. The downside is that it’s less powerful and much harder to finish.
The best grip you can do for an arm in the guillotine is the high wrist, meaning your wrist is as far away from the chin as possible, and the neck falls near your elbow joint. This grip immensely increases the power of the choke. But the chinstrap grip can also be applied, turning the guillotine into an air choke.
Beginners usually shy away from this variation, but once you have more weapons in your toolkit, the arm can also be used to transition into other chokes like the Darce and Omoplata.
The standing guillotine is less common because, to succeed, you usually have to be taller than the opponent to produce enough pressure on his neck. But it is also the easiest to learn; you encircle the neck of the opponent and lock in your grip, with no other moves required.
It’s also very effective for self-defense, where pulling a guard on hard concrete is not ideal. The standing guillotine most often comes from the collar tie position, and you must find a way to put the head under your arm.
From there, you don’t have the leverage you have on the ground, but you can step closer to the opponent and pull your arm up with a very tight elbow to finish the choke.
The reverse guillotine is more unorthodox than the other variations making it more surprising. The trick is that this guillotine uses a completely different grip, namely the figure four, much like what you would do in a Darce choke, but this time without the arm in.
The reverse guillotine is an excellent antidote to single-leg takedowns like the regular guillotine treats double legs.
Defending The Guillotine Choke
Knowing how to defend against guillotines is crucial because the move is simple and common among beginners and even people without training. You will certainly get into it often.
In general, the first rule in submission defense is not to panic. Picnicking and doing the wrong thing almost always make the chokes even tighter.
The first and most crucial step is to protect your neck by grabbing the choking arm’s wrist and alleviating as much pressure as possible.
This goes for both standing and grounded guillotine attempts. On the ground, you can put your forehead on the mat and push forward instead of pulling back, which releases some pressure.
If you are in a guillotine on the ground, you must try to exit the guard and hop to the other side of where your head is. This is done when the opponent is dragging you down in his guard. You are basically out of the choke if you succeed, even if he continues squeezing.
If caught in a standing guillotine, takedowns are the best defenses. When you are caught, immediately lift your head and step to the opposite side of where your head is. From there, you can lift him for a double leg or place your leg behind and drag him down.
The guillotine choke is legal under all BJJ rulesets and for all belt levels. It is a common chokehold used by white belts and elite athletes in grappling and MMA. A guillotine may be penalized only if it’s turned deliberately into a neck crank.
All choke holds, including the guillotine, lead to loss of consciousness. Blood chokes need between 5 and 12 seconds to put you to sleep, while air chokes much longer and are significantly more painful. Either way, if you do not tap to a properly applied choke, you will sleep sooner or later.
Luckily I haven’t been in a real guillotine, so I don’t have a comparison with that, but the guillotine choke does not feel good. When the blood to the brain is reduced, it sends stress signals terrifying to those unfamiliar with them. Most guillotine chokes are usually not tight enough to put you to sleep but are incredibly uncomfortable.
The windpipe is often pressed, or the neck is cranked, further increasing the nasty sensations. With experience, you will learn when the sensations are tolerable and when a choke will put you to sleep.
Can You Put Someone To Sleep With A Guillotine?
If a guillotine is tight enough, it can quickly put someone to sleep by stopping the blood flow to his brain. This process takes only about 9 seconds on average. The good part of it is once the pressure is released, the person quickly regains consciousness feeling not much worse than before quickly after.
The guillotine choke is very intuitive and easy to do but hard to master and finish. Many small details in play make it effective, and you will need to know them if you want to submit more experienced people. The guillotine will be with you from the first BJJ lessons you take, so you’d better become good at using and defending it.