The infamous heel hook. No other jiu-jitsu technique has been so controversial and had such a profound effect in such a short time as the heel hook. But what is the heel hook, and why does it matter?
The heel hook is a leg lock that attacks the knee joint by immobilizing the knee and hip and applying rotational force to the heel. When fully applied, it can destroy knee ligaments instantly or force an immediate tap from the opponent.
Learn how the heel hook went from a forbidden technique barely anyone knew to the “king of submissions,” the core principles of applying it, and the key elements that will help you defend and keep your knees healthy.
What Is A Heel Hook
The heel hook is a leg lock that damages the knee ligaments by twisting the foot laterally or medially through control of the heel. For the submission to work, you first need control over the opponent’s hip, knee, and foot.
Only after the knee is tightly controlled can you apply twisting pressure to the heel, which will immediately create immense tension on the joint and can rupture ligaments in a second if they don’t tap.
There are two types of heel hooks, depending on the type of leg entanglement:
- Outside heel hook- the opponent’s leg is placed on the outside of your hips, and you attack the outside part of the heel.
- Inside heel hook- the attacked leg is inside your hip, and you attack the inside part of the heel.
Leg entanglements are crucial for heel hooks. The move was considered a tool for the unskilled because, back in the day, leg locks were most commonly used as a last resort to get a quick submission without first obtaining a dominant position.
But, John Danaher, his students, and other high-level practitioners created a complete system of control based on leg entanglements. Now, leg locks, including heel hooks, are as technical as other submissions.
How To Do A Heel Hook
There are numerous ways to enter for a heel hook, with new ones being discovered constantly, but some details remain the same regardless of how you end up in the heel hook position. Here are the main points:
- 3-point Control: You need control over the opponent’s hip, knee, and foot. Otherwise, the submission won’t work.
- Knee control- The control over the knee is more specific and must be applied by pinching your knees above the opponent’s knee. This ensures the twisting force will go directly to their knee joint. It’s best if the opponent’s knee is bent.
- Foot control- The opponent’s foot must be placed and trapped between your elbow crease and armpit
- Grips- Having a good grip is crucial for finishing, and there are 3 main options. The most common one is palm-to-palm, followed by butterfly and reverse butterfly grips. The palm-to-palm is the easiest to get but least secure, while the butterfly and reverse butterfly are progressively tighter but more challenging to obtain
As I said, there are many ways to get into a heel hook position, and dozens of hours of instructional on the topic. We will cover the most common and basic ways to do outside and inside heel hooks from the leg entanglements from which the two variations are available.
Outside Heel Hook
The outside heel hook is done when the opponent’s trapped foot is on the outside of your hip, and one of the most common positions this happens in is the basic Ashi Garami.
This leg entanglement is the first you will likely learn; the same goes for the heel hook variation.
The Ashi Garami involves isolating one of the opponent’s legs between your legs and on the outside of your hip. You control their hips with your outside foot and pinch the thigh with your inside knee.
This triangle prevents the opponent from rotating and relieving the pressure.
The Ashi Garami is often used for straight ankle locks, but if the opponent defends by “putting on the boot,” they expose the heel, allowing you to get some of the aforementioned grips. You weave your elbow crook behind their heel while controlling their toes in your armpit.
Once you’ve established this position, bridging into their knee line results in a massive rotational force on the knee and a devastating finish. The term ‘outside’ refers to your opponent’s heel rotating away from their body.
Inside Heel Hook
Out of the two variations, the inside heel hook is considered the more devastating one because the specifics of the position target mainly the ACL and can cause catastrophic injury in an instant.
But it’s also one of the primary weapons used in high-level submission grappling.
The inside heel hook is often set up from the saddle position, but it’s also available from elsewhere, like the 50/50. In the saddle position, the opponent’s trapped leg is inside your hips.
Having tight control over the trapped leg is critical as you pinch it above the knee. Grip-wise, you again will control the opponent’s heel by placing it on top of your forearm, near but not in your elbow crease, and pinching down on their toes with your upper arm and lats.
Slightly bridge and rotate inwards for the finish. If you’ve tight control over all the points, very little movement will be needed to elicit a desperate tap.
How To Defend Heel Hooks
Defending the heel hook is just as important as being able to attack with it. The two most important aspects are attacking the opponent’s grip and hiding your heel. Different positions require different escape measures, but there are universal methods that can be applied to all heel hooks:
- Fight the grip– By breaking the grips, you drastically limit their ability to create enough tension.
- Hide the heel– While the opponent doesn’t have a strong grip, you must try to hide your heel by rotating it to the opponent’s torso. In many situations, extending your toes will also make the heel smaller and harder to grab
- Keep the knee straight– Some angle on the knee is required to finish the heel hooks. Otherwise, you can rotate and pull your leg out. You have an easy way out as long as you can keep your leg straight.
- Free the knee- While the opponent has control above your knee, a heel hook is dangerous. If you pull your knee out, the danger is eliminated.
- Roll out – One of the main defenses against a tight heel hook where none of the above is possible is to roll toward it.
These are key concepts, but of course, each of them has a lot of details. The two videos by one of the premier leg lockers in the game, Craig Jones, will help you get a better understanding.
What Damage Hell Hooks Cause
All BJJ submissions are inherently dangerous. Every joint lock aims to break a bone, destroy a joint, or tear a ligament in its finished state, but the heel hook is considered one of the most dangerous joint locks and in a league of its own compared to other common moves.
But is this a correct or undeserved reputation?
Depending on the type of heel hook and the angle at which the pressure is in place, the damage is dealt to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), and potentially even the medial cruciate ligament (MCL) or the lateral cruciate ligament (LCL), and can even damage the meniscus and patellar tendon.
Damage to the knee ligaments is usually worse than, let’s say, an elbow injury because you need both legs to stand and function normally in the world.
A torn ACL means surgery, months of rehab, and up to a year off the mats. So, the potential for severe injury is higher than in many other submissions.
Furthermore, a heel hook doesn’t hurt until the very last moments, when it can already be too late, meaning you may miss the point of no return.
But if we look at it realistically, heel hooks are just another joint lock in the arsenal, and if treated with respect and awareness, they are not more dangerous than a kimura or an armbar.
People from different styles and MMA fighters have been training heel hooks constantly for decades, and they don’t end up in rehab centers, nor have we seen a lot of torn ligaments in competition.
A heel hook can be problematic in two situations: when someone is too stubborn to tap or when people are unaware of the dangers. The solution to the first problem is obvious: tap when you know you won’t be getting out.
The second issue is quickly resolved by introducing new practitioners to the move, the dangers, and the proper positioning.
Even white belts can safely train heel hooks if a gradual approach through drills and positional sparring is employed.
The History Of Heel Hooks
Most grappling techniques we use today originate from ancient times, when wrestlers from Egypt, Greece, and Rome would use them.
We can see various leg locks in drawings and sculptures, and some rare images depict clear heel hooks, from which we can be confident the move was used back in antiquity in Pankration.
The recent history of heel hooks and how they got into BJJ is unclear. One would assume the technique came through judo, but master Carlson Gracie credited a vale tudo fighter named Ivan Gomes with the creation of the move.
However, Ivan’s brother Jose refuted the claim and said heel hooks were used before them and were initially taught by Japanese master Takeo Yano.
When jiu-jitsu began taking shape as a sport in the 1970s, heel hooks were outright banned for being too dangerous. Leg locks, in general, were considered almost dirty moves because they went against the old dogma of “position before submission.”
But as no-gi formats like ADCC and others began to gain traction in the early 2000s, many grapplers from around the world and different styles clashed, and heel hooks started to come back.
Submission-only and professional-level events like EBI, Polaris Pro, and Metamoris have become popular in the last 10 years, and the heel hook has become a legitimate move.
Still, it has completely revolutionized and changed how submission grappling is done.
Today, the technique, along with other leg locks and the important leg entanglement positions, are a fundamental part of the advanced no-gi game.
The heel hook is now the most important submission in no-gi BJJ and something everyone must be familiar with, even if you don’t compete or if it’s still banned at your level. The technique is extremely potent, and if everyone is familiar with the mechanics, positions, and dangers, it can be trained as safely as any other joint lock in jiu-jitsu.