Few things have revolutionized jiu-jitsu to the same extent as leg locks. In the short span of 10 years, they went from fringe techniques almost no one used to the most dangerous weapon in no-gi jiu-jitsu. But what are these leg locks, and are they revolutionary?
Leg locks are attacks on the lower body, mainly targeting the ankle or the knee. The main leg locks are the straight ankle lock, heel hook, kneebar, and toe hold, and their variations. To be consistent with leg locks, you need to be able to control the opponent, which is done through the use of specific positions called leg entanglements.
The novelty element of leg locks is gone, and they are now a regular part of jiu-jitsu, just like arm locks and chokes are. The modern leg locking game depends on positions called leg entanglements, which are just as important as the submissions, and we will go over the fundamentals of both to help you make serious progress in your leg lock knowledge.
BJJ Leg locks are a range of attacks on the lower body. Most of them attack the ankle or the knee, but some leg locks target the hip joint, and some compression locks like the calf slicer.
Leg locks comprise at least half of the finishes in high-level no-gi BJJ and submission grappling and are extremely popular now, but this hasn’t always been the case.
Leg locks have a complicated history in jiu-jitsu. They have been a part of the martial art from the beginning, given that BJJ comes from judo and catch wrestling, but for the longest time, most leg locks were not used.
They were considered a low-class move in Brazil and were frowned upon, with only the straight ankle lock having some limited use.
This status was the result mainly of the fact that they were used as a last resort method and were applied without any control or proper set-up.
This contradicts the core BJJ principle of position before submission, and leg locks were considered only a desperation move.
But leg locks started appearing in the ADCC in the early 2000s, with the likes of Dean Lister having great success with them.
He famously said, “Why would you ignore 50% of the body?” and people started exploring this previously neglected part of the game.
By the late 2010s, leg locks had become the new meta in no-gi, and today, they are no longer a novelty, with nearly half of the submissions at ADCC, EBI, and similar rulesets being leg locks.
Unlike before, leg locks today are systemized and are every bit as technical as other submissions. Each leg lock largely depends on securing a suitable position and controlling the opponent first, which allows the “position before submission” principle to be fully applied.
What is different from classic positions, though, is that often both grapplers will be in danger.
When you are in a leg entanglement, you are a quick move away from getting caught in the same submission you are setting up, which is wildly different than, let’s say, attempting a rear naked choke. When both grapplers are equally skilled, entanglements become leg-locking shootouts.
Leg Lock Positions
One of the prominent figures responsible for making leg locks respected is John Danaher, who created a complete system for leg attacks based on controlling the opponent’s lower body before applying the leg lock.
There are different leg lock positions called leg entanglements, or Ashi Garami, which are every bit as important as the submissions themselves, so we will cover them first.
This can be a lot of information for people new to leg entanglements, so if you want to see everything demonstrated, here is an excellent video on the topic:
The basic leg lock position is called Ashi Garami, which means leg entanglement in Japanese. This is the base for the whole modern leg lock submissions game and the first position to learn.
It involves isolating one of the opponent’s legs on the outside of your body and controlling them with your outside foot on their hip and the inside foot underneath their thigh.
From the basic Ashi Garami, you have access to the ankle lock, outside heel hook, and toe hold submissions.
Outside Ashi Garami
The outside Ashi is similar to the primary position, with the difference being in the placement of your inside leg, which is no longer under the opponent’s thigh but outside of their hips. This position offers better control, but you are in bigger danger of getting your back taken.
Inside Ashi Garami (Reaping position)
The inside Ashi Garami is also known as the “game over” position because it results in immediate disqualification in rulesets that ban knee reaping. In this position, both your feet will be on the inside of the opponent’s trapped leg and hooked to the calf of his free leg.
This configuration places a lot of tension on the trapped leg’s knee, which is why the position is illegal under IBJJF rules. From this position, you have easy access to the outside heel hook and the toe hold.
Saddle/ Honey Hole
The saddle is considered an inside position because the isolated leg is now inside your hips, whereas in the Ashi Garamis, it is outside. The saddle is perhaps the most popular leg locking position in no-gi because it opens up the inside heel hook and provides solid control.
In gi BJJ, the saddle is a legal position, but you are not allowed to grab the trapped leg, making it less effective than in no-gi. A kneebar is also accessible from the saddle, and advanced grapplers often use it for sweeps or back takes.
The kneebar positions are a subset of the saddle and can be either a lateral (you are on your back) or a classic kneebar position, where you are on your side.
The 50/50, as the name suggests, is a position where both opponents are on equal terms and have one leg trapped. The trapped legs are entwined with each other and give both equal opportunities.
The most common submission from the 50/50 is the inside heel hook, but openings for knee bars and toe holds can also be found. The position provides easy entry and access for the heel hook, so many leg lock enthusiasts favor the 50/50.
In the gi, where heel hooks are banned, the 50/50 can be used for sweeps and back takes.
A slight change in the angle of your hips towards your opponent tilts the position heavily in your favor, and the new position is called 80/20, the name reflecting the advantage of the player on the 80 side.
Fundamental Leg Locks
Now that we’ve covered the leg entanglements used for control and access to leg locks, it’s time to go over the fundamental submissions.
The straight ankle lock is the most popular leg lock submission and the only one legal at all skill levels in both gi and no-gi. The ankle lock places pressure on the Achilles tendon and the top of the foot while holding the entire leg in place.
The tension causes severe pain and damage to one or both pressure points and elicits a tap or causes severe damage to the bones and ligaments in the foot.
The heel hook has become notorious for its effectiveness and the danger it carries. The heel hook can be an inside or an outside one, and it involves attacking the heel and ankle, but the actual damage is done to the knee ligaments.
The heel hook works by twisting the shin bone through control of the heel and ankle while the thigh remains immobile. This creates strong tension in the knee ligaments.
The inside heel hook is done by rotating the heel to the outside of the opponent’s center line, while the inside heel hook rotates the heel to the inside.
The kneebar attacks the knee joint in a more direct way than a heel hook does. The kneebar works similarly to an armbar and is a straight joint lock.
The classic kneebar hyperextends the knee in the opposite direction it usually goes, while in the lateral kneebar, you hyperextend it sideways.
The kneebar is done similarly to an armbar. You should keep your hips as close to the hips of the opponent to prevent any movement.
The isolated leg comes across the front of your body, and your hips act as a fulcrum. While controlling the foot with your hands, apply pressure to the knee with your hips for the tap.
The toe hold attacks the ankle ligaments, similarly to the ankle lock, and damages the same set of ligaments. But toe hold grips are different, and there is a rotational element in addition to the hyper plantar flexion.
Often, the toe hold is used not so much as a finishing move but as a way to force the opponent to react in a certain way and give up a position.
The hold is done by grabbing the opponent’s foot as close to the toes as possible and securing a figure four kimura-style grip with the other hand, going under their ankle.
Because of their danger, leg locks are the most restricted submissions in jiu-jitsu, next to neck cranks. Different belts and skill levels have different restrictions. Under the IBJJF ruleset, straight ankle locks are legitimate for all levels, while the kneebar and toe hold become available at blue belt.
However, heel hooks and knee-reaping positions remain banned for all gi competitors, regardless of their level. It was only in 2021 that the IBJJF allowed heel hooks for no-gi competitors at brown and black belts.
In advanced no-gi and pro-level submission grappling, heel hooks and leg locks are very common. In beginner and intermediate no-gi competitions, though, heel hooks are also banned, and the rulesets regarding the other leg locks largely coincide with the IBJJF rules for white belts (beginners) and blue and purple belts (intermediates).
How Dangerous Are Leg Locks
Leg locks are some of the more dangerous submission holds in jiu-jitsu. Unlike chokes which are unpleasant, but have no lasting impact, a leg lock can cause severe damage to bones and ligaments.
Heel hooks are especially dangerous because they can cause catastrophic damage to the knee ligaments, which include:
- Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
- Medial cruciate ligament (MCL)
- Lateral collateral ligament (LCL)
- Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)
ACL tears particularly need surgery and months of rehabilitation and have been career-ending injuries for many athletes from different sports. Not only is the damage from heel hooks potentially catastrophic, but you may not feel pain or tension in the earlier stages of the submissions until it’s already too late.
As dangerous as leg locks can be, they are a part of jiu-jitsu and can be trained and used safely if approached carefully. By learning the proper mechanics of leg locks and each leg entanglement position step by step and in detail, you will be able to recognize the dangers and avoid them.
After all, many people train and compete using leg locks all the time, and they are not in a hospital bed, so evidently there is a way to do it. Just be smart about leg locks, learn them properly, apply the pressure slowly, and be wise when you are in danger, and they will become just another part of grappling.
Leg locks are an inseparable part of BJJ, and even if you are a beginner or only do gi, they are still required for a well-rounded skillset. Leg locks may get a bad rep for being too dangerous, but if trained properly, they are just as safe as arm locks.
Start learning them systematically by understanding all the leg entanglements, becoming proficient in recognition and transition between them, and then implementing the different leg locks one by one. They are incredibly potent and satisfying, and if you know how to use them and when to tap, they are completely safe.