Side control is one of the fundamental positions in BJJ, which practitioners become familiar with from their first day of training. Early on, you will get stuck in side control more often than not, but in time, you learn how to attack from there effectively. But what exactly is side control in BJJ?
Side control is a pinning position where you are oriented perpendicularly to the opponent, hence the name. The position is dominant for the person on top and very bad for the one on the bottom, and there are multiple variations, each having different characteristics and possibilities for attacks and transitions.
Some use side control more as a transition, while others love to hunt for submissions and even prefer it to mount, which is considered a more dominant position. Regardless of your style, side control is one of the main positions in jiu-jitsu and something you must master in all aspects.
What Is Side Control In BJJ
Side control is a dominant position in BJJ where you are perpendicular to your opponent and pin him to the ground. The most common variation of side control is chest-to-chest, but there are many other variations.
Side control is a fundamental position in jiu-jitsu and one of the most dominant. At the same time, it’s one of the most unpleasant to be on the bottom. You can enter side control in various ways, but most often, it’s after a successful guard pass.
Securing side control on its own does not score in competition, but passing the guard does, so you will generally earn points every time you get top side control because of the transition.
The basic side control variation includes being at 90 degrees to your opponent, kneeling, and controlling them chest to chest.
Your top arm is under the head, with the shoulder driving into the chin, and the other arm is underneath the far arm and through the armpit, known as an underhook.
Bottom side control can be a nightmare to be in, and if the person on top knows what he is doing, you will be crushed under intense pressure both on the chest and head.
The primary way to escape side control is by turning towards the opponent, which is why the shoulder is used to smash the head in the opposite direction. This is commonly referred to as “cross-face.”
Aside from this basic side control, there are multiple other variations, which we will cover, but the main thing in all of them is that your body is oriented perpendicular to theirs.
Variations Of Side Control
There are dozens of variations of side control depending on the arm position, control points, and body position. Still, we will cover just the main ones with the most significant differences from each other.
Being able to transition into different side control variations is important because opponents will inevitably be able to place frames or disrupt your position in other ways, and the ability to adjust will be the difference between maintaining a dominant position and losing it.
Classic Side Control
The classic side control is also called a wrestler’s side control. You have the cross face with the shoulder and an underhook on the far arm. Your leg position is kneeling, with both knees tightly pressed against the opponent’s body.
Your top knee should be touching your elbow, and your bottom knee should be pressed on the opponent’s hip. This leg position is important because it lets you be compact and frame the opponent at multiple points, allowing you to react and control them.
What most people do in jiu-jitsu is the 100 kg variation of side control. In this position, instead of framing, you aim to be as heavy as possible and put pressure on the opponent.
The position of your upper body is the same as the cross-face and underhook, but the leg position differs from the classic side control.
Instead of being on your knees, you want both your legs to be sprawled behind you. This lets you put more of your weight on the opponent’s chest.
This way of controlling is strong and can be hard to escape once you get good at applying the maximum pressure.
Kesa Gatame and Reverse Kesa
Kesa Gatame is a strong pinning position traditional for judo, which is also where the name comes from. In the standard Kesa Gatame, your hips are turned towards the opponent’s head, and your near leg is under their shoulder. Your feet will usually be straddled to provide stability.
Usually, you will have a far-side underhook and control of the elbow on the near side. Not everyone in BJJ uses Kesa Gatame for anything other than a transition, but it can be a powerful position of control and open up some submissions. In rulesets where neck cranks are allowed, the Kesa becomes even stronger.
The reverse Kesa Gatame, as the name suggests, is the opposite of the standard one, meaning your hips are rotated towards the opponent’s legs. This way, your body is blocking the opponent’s view, and it’s a great place to hunt for submissions from or transition into mount.
North South is a position still considered by many to be a variation of side control, but it does not fit the criteria of being perpendicular to the opponent. Instead, your head is pointing towards their feet, and vice versa.
North South allows for some unique submissions, but technically, it’s a position of its own and not really side control like all the other variations.
There are more subtle differences between variations; you can see many of them in this excellent video by Stephan Kesting.
Solid Side Control Checklist
Here are a few fundamental points for solid and crushing top-side control. And if you are receiving the same points, there are problems you need to solve to escape.
Control the Head
Just like with every position in jiu-jitsu, you can control where the body goes by controlling the head. This is why the cross face is crucial for strong side control. When you smash the opponent’s head the opposite way, they will have difficulty turning towards you.
Secure an Underhook
The underhook is essential for control and means the opponent does not have one on you. If they get the underhook instead, you are on a fast track to getting your back taken. When you have the underhook, you have the superior control.
There are a lot of pointers you can get about how to apply your weight the best way, but a lot of it comes down to feel and experience. Always aim to be as heavy as possible and crush the person on the bottom, even if he is heavier than you.
We are in jiu-jitsu, and pinning is not enough to win. Thankfully, side control offers many submission options and is not only a way to hold people down and make them uncomfortable.
The most popular submissions from side control are the Americana and Kimura armlocks. The nature of the position gives you easy access to the opponent’s far-side arm. The combination of the Kimura and Americana is great because it allows you to switch from one to another depending on the opponent’s reaction.
The two armlocks are similar in their mechanics but have different details, so it’s worth exploring them. The two following videos are excellent presentations, and the Americana variation by Braulio Estima especially is a game changer.
The armbar is another possible submission from side control. It again attacks the far side arm but in a different way. This includes a transition from north-south. The key to succeeding with a transition so big is to have tight control over the opponent the entire time, preventing him from escaping.
Plenty of chokes are available from side control, especially in the gi, with the baseball bat and paper cutter choke being among the most commonly used.
For the paper cutter, place the opponent’s near-side arm between you and them, with a grip under their armpit and holding the back of the collar at the midway point behind their neck.
Insert the opposite arm’s thumb inside the collar. Finishing involves pulling the elbow of one arm, gripping the collar towards you, dropping the elbow of the other arm to the mats, and opening it toward the opponent’s ear.
The Darce choke is usually done from a front headlock, but it’s also possible from side control and is a preferred option by many in no-gi. One of the setups for this is when the opponent manages to get an underhook on the far side. Instead of fighting it, you can put your whizzer in and go for the Darce.
Escaping From Side Control
You will end up in bottom side control all the time and learning how to escape is likely one of the first skills you will need. We have an entire article dedicated entirely to side control escapes here, which will serve as a great resource, but let’s move through the basics again.
There are a few ways to get out of side control- to reestablish some form of guard, to get into turtle. You need to first open up some space, which is done by establishing solid frames with your forearms against the opponent’s hips and head. Without them, escaping will be nearly impossible.
You then use the frames to create space and insert a knee or roll away. As usual, John Danaher has extremely detailed step-by-step instructions on how to do the basic side control escape:
Side control is a fundamental position with many variations and endless possibilities. We all have struggled with being stuck in bottom side control and learning how to escape is crucial. But just as important in the long run is knowing how to adjust, transition into other variations, and execute submissions while crushing people beneath you.