Jiu-jitsu allows a smaller person to defeat a larger one, and leg locks represent this principle best. Strength and size differences become much more important when both opponents are of equal skill, but leg locks are the great equalizer. Heel hooks have become the go-to leg locks in no-gi, but a crafty submission also legal in the gi is the toe hold.
The toe hold is a leg lock attacking the ankle joints through a figure four grip on the foot and ankle. The tension created is enough to damage the ligaments in the ankle, and if correctly applied, it requires little physical strength. The toe hold is legal at brown and black belt levels in gi and at most levels in no-gi, making it a very commonly used leg lock.
Being less dangerous than the heel hook and more effective than the straight ankle lock, the toe hold is an important move to learn both as a submission and as a way to sweep or force the opponent to move in a particular position.
The toe hold applies medial rotation to the foot and attacks the ankle ligaments, resulting in sharp pain followed by a tap or severe damage to two ligaments (ATFL and CFL). The grip is like a kimura grip on the foot, producing pressure in plantar flexion and inversion forces.
The effect a good toe hold has is similar to rolling your ankle badly from falling on it. The name of the submission comes from the grip, which should be as close to the toes of the attacked foot as possible.
Toe holds are nearly as effective as heel hooks but not as dangerous because, in most cases, they don’t damage the knee ligaments, which are harder to repair and rehab than those in the ankle.
The toe hold has been a part of jiu-jitsu since the beginning, but it hasn’t always been popular. The technique originates in judo, where it’s called ashi dori garami.
Leg locks were considered low-class moves by Helio Gracie and were frowned upon. Ironically, the doors for them were opened by a direct student of Helio, Rolls Gracie.
He was an innovator and broadened his horizons by training in judo, sambo, and wrestling, and appreciated leg locks for their effectiveness.
Rolls and his students became known for their leg locks, including the toe hold, but his untimely passing meant the techniques would again be left aside for decades.
But the leg lock renaissance in submission grappling in the past 20 years and a few key names in gi have made the toe hold and leg locks extremely popular today.
While heel hooks are expert leg lockers’ primary weapons, they are banned at all levels in the gi. The toe hold, however, is allowed for brown and black belt competitors, making it a viable attack in all jiu-jitsu styles.
The toe hold is versatile and used for more than just a finishing move, but before we get to the possibilities, let’s see how to execute a proper toe hold.
How To Do A Toe Hold
The grip required for the toe hold is easy to grasp because it’s the same figure four configuration we do for wrist locks like the Kimura and Americana.
The main hand grabs the top of the foot as close to the toes as possible. A good reference point is to have your middle finger holding the opponent’s pinky toe. This hand produces the tension on the foot, while the other hand serves as a fulcrum.
The secondary hand goes behind the opponent’s lower leg, and their Achilles should fall on your forearm. Grab your primary hand’s wrist to secure a thumbless figure four grip. The key to finishing the toe hold is to use both hands to create pressure.
Pulling with your secondary hand while pushing with the main one is important. Drive their toes towards their butt, and the tap or break is inevitable against most people.
By bending the foot out and over simultaneously, you can achieve much higher pressure and pain instead of just trying to push it in one direction.
Here is a nice video instruction from one of the masters of toe holds and leg locks in general, Gary Tonon:
In certain situations, the toe hold may also produce a lot of tension in the knee. This is done by placing your secondary hand’s elbow on the trapped leg’s knee.
This moves the fulcrum back and releases some of the ankle pressure but creates double trouble with pressure on the ankle and the knee.
Toe Hold Setups
Like with other leg locks, you will need reasonable control over the opponent to be consistently successful with the toe hold, achieved through leg locking positions called Ashi Garami.
The toe hold can be set up from most leg entanglements, but the most effective setups come from the 50/50, inside Ashi, and the saddle.
Especially the inside Ashi Garami, when allowed by the ruleset, exposes the foot perfectly for a toe hold and an outside heel hook.
Unlike a heel hook, a toe hold can be caught quicker, and more options are available when you are on top. The situations are basically the same as when falling back for a straight ankle lock or into a leg entanglement.
The easiest entry to a toe hold is from the top knee shield or Z-guard. Rotating and reaching for the foot may get you the submission or at least force the opponent to straighten their leg and make your pass easier.
Another common entry is against the De La Riva guard. The non-hooking leg sits at your hip, open for the toe hold grab.
The toe hold also sometimes goes hand in hand with the kneebar, and the threat of one of them can open the door for finishing the other.
How To Defend The Toe Hold
As is the case with all submissions, prevention is the best defense. The earlier you can address a threat, the higher the chance of escaping it, which is also valid for the toe hold.
But this move can come very quickly and from many positions, meaning you won’t always be able to predict and prevent it. If caught in a toe-hold grip, your first option is to roll with the pressure.
This is a common principle for all rotational leg locks. Just make sure you are rolling with the lock and not against it.
When this is not possible, you should aim to address the grip on your foot. If you can hand fight, they most likely won’t be able to finish the submission because it requires very tight control, which you can easily disrupt by grabbing the hands.
Often, you won’t be able to use your hands to grip fight. This is where your free foot comes into play to break the opponent’s grip. As you can see in the video below, kicking at the hands will often get you out of trouble.
The same is shared by the legend Renzo Gracie. The video is an excellent example of how to do an effective toe hold, but it also showcases how Renzo uses his free leg to defend against the opponent’s attempt to toe hold.
Another possible defense against a toe hold is to kick your leg straight. This will make creating rotational pressure very hard and also protect your knee, which is susceptible to damage in certain toe hold angles, as we’ve already seen.
Toe holds are a potent and dangerous technique applicable in many situations. While it may be caught during a scramble, good leg lockers use it from solid control positions. The toe hold is versatile and can be used not only as a finishing move but also for setting traps and transitioning into other submissions or better positions.
Even if you are at a level where the toe hold is not yet allowed in competition, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the basics and know how to deal with it because sooner or later, someone will attempt it on you during rolling, regardless of the belt level. And if you are into no-gi, this will happen much sooner than you think.