Jiu-jitsu can be a strange sport. Despite the common purpose, not all joint locks are treated equally, and some attacks are considered dirty, low-class, or even cheating, while others remain the gold standard. One set of submissions falling into the first category is wrist locks.
A wrist lock is a submission hold that bends, flexes, extends, or rotates the wrist outside of its normal range of motion. Wristlocks can be highly effective due to the weakness of the wrist joint and the fact they are available from anywhere you can grab one of the opponent’s hands.
Traditional marts are often ridiculed for their ineffectiveness, and wrist locks are important in many of them, but in the case of wrist locks, effectiveness cannot be denied. In BJJ, wrist locks might be even better, but do you know how to utilize them effectively?
What Is A Wrist Lock in BJJ
A wristlock is a joint lock attacking the wrist and is one of the most effective submissions due to the inherent weakness of the wrist joint.
Unlike elbow and shoulder joint locks, which can be resisted through the strength of adjacent muscles, the wrist is more vulnerable, and even a modest amount of pressure is enough for an instantaneous result—a quick tap or a broken wrist.
Furthermore, wrist locks are available literally from anywhere where you can touch the opponent’s hand, although they are not as easily finished from positions with poor shoulder and elbow control.
In such scenarios, wrist locks remain a great move to force the opponent to move into a bad position or as a transition to other submissions.
Wrist locks can be used from every position—from standing, from top, bottom, from inferior, and from dominant positions, making them equal parts effective and despised.
Wrist locks are a core element of many traditional martial arts like Aikido, Hapkido, and Japanese jiu-jitsu. This is natural since they often deal with armed opponents, and by controlling the wrist, you effectively disarm the attacker.
As much as BJJ evolved from traditional jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling, wrist locks were not fully implemented early on. In time, they were gradually added to the list of moves used in jiu-jitsu, but even to this day, wrist locks are not very popular, and only a few are taught in most academies.
But I assure you, this is not due to a lack of efficiency. If you have any doubts, take a look at the video highlighting a myriad of wrist locks finished in high-level competition.
Wrist locks are legal in most BJJ competitions. Under the IBJJF ruleset, you are not allowed to do wrist locks only as a kid or a white belt adult. From blue belt onward, wrist locks are fair game.
The same goes for other popular BJJ federations like NAGA and SJJIF- wrist locks are illegal for kids and teens and legal for adults. In no-gi rulesets like ADCC and EBI, there are generally fewer restrictions than in gi BJJ, so wrist locks are permitted at all levels.
How To Do Wrist Locks
The mechanics of a wrist lock are simple. Flexing or extending the wrist far enough will get you the tap. This vulnerability in both directions is important because if you are trying to flex the wrist and the opponent resists, you can instantly switch to overextension instead and use their effort against them.
Another critical little detail is to slightly rotate the wrist during flexion, as this will drastically reduce the opponent’s ability to resist.
Like all other joint locks, you need to control one or multiple neighboring joints to isolate the one you are attacking. In the case of wrist locks, this means the elbow and shoulder, but the elbow is usually more important.
Shoulder and elbow control is why there is a big difference between the frequency and effectiveness of wrist locks while standing and wrist locks while on the ground. The second group is much more likely to work because you have tighter control over the elbow.
Wrist locks also come in handy when someone is successfully resisting other submissions like a triangle or an armbar. In these moments, people are usually worried about defending the main submission and forget about their wrists, making them an easy target.
Pete “The Greek” Letsos is perhaps the top authority in wrist locks, and I like to learn from the best. Here is an excellent overview of wrist locks, which you can watch before we move on to specific techniques from standing and on the ground.
Standing Wrist Locks
Standing wrist locks are the bread and butter of Aikido and are common in other traditional martial arts. Still, the problem with them is there aren’t many ways to control the shoulder and elbow of a standing opponent, and they can easily move and release the tension from the wrist.
That said, there are still effective ways to do a wrist lock while standing. For those, we return to the wrist lock king, Pete Letsos, who demonstrates some simple yet effective techniques on the feet. And unlike in Aikido, these can work well against a fully resisting opponent.
Wrist Locks on The Ground
Due to the much better control over the opponent’s body, the vast majority of BJJ wrist locks will happen on the ground. And like most other joint locks, wrist locks work best from dominant positions like mount and side control.
Wrist Lock From Mount
The wrist lock from mount, as shown by the great Roger Gracie, starts with controlling the elbow similarly to what you would do for an armbar, but this time, you need to go on the outside of the opponent’s arm. From there, you grab their hand and secure a kimura-style grip on your own wrist for the tap.
Wrist Locks From Side Control
There are many ways to approach the wrist lock from side control, but the easiest way is to use the action of framing against the opponent.
A solid frame is done with the forearm precisely because the wrist is vulnerable, but if the opponent is careless, you can smash their wrist with your shoulder by switching to a two-on-one grip on their elbow.
If they frame correctly, you can also position yourself better to expose the wrist. This won’t always work, but it’s extra sweet when it does, and there is almost no risk if it doesn’t.
Wrist Locks From Other Submissions
The most effective way to do wrist locks is off of other submissions while the opponent is occupied defending the initial attack. Another reason this is a superior way of doing wrist locks is because you are already controlling the opponent’s wrist and elbow.
For example, you can apply a wristlock from a stalled triangle. You already have control over the opponent’s entire arm, and if the angle for the choke is not working, you can go straight for the wrist.
The wrist lock is an excellent extension to arm locks like the Kimura and Americana. In those techniques, you have an arm isolated and controlled, but the opponent may be defending well or have freakily mobile shoulders. If that’s the case, you can transition into wrist locks in both directions.
A full sequence of these can be seen in Pete Letsos’s video about mastering wrist locks shared a couple of paragraphs earlier.
Are Wrist Locks A Dirty Technique?
Wrist locks are legal in most rulesets for all levels above white belt but are often frowned upon. In fact, they are despised at least as much as heel hooks, if not more. But why is this? Isn’t it just another technique like all the rest?
While wrist locks are completely legitimate submissions and cannot be considered cheating since everyone has equal access to them, some people call them dirty because they bypass one of the key principles of jiu-jitsu-position before submission.
To do many of the other joint locks and chokes, you need to secure a dominant position, set up the submission, and execute it. This process means you’ve outmaneuvered the opponent and dominated him.
With wrist locks, you can be winning the entire time and leave your hand where it shouldn’t be and be caught in a wrist lock in an instant.
Additionally, the wrist is a relatively weak joint, and there is very little time to defend, so the only option is to tap as quickly as possible.
And since wrist locks are not a big part of BJJ, many people, even at higher levels, don’t always know how to defend them well enough.
At times, it’s even silly how easy it is to submit someone with a wrist lock, which is why some think it’s a form of cheating or at least a dirty move.
But I believe wrist locks are a submission like any other, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to learn how to deal with them. The right word for wrist locks is not dirty, but sneaky.
Love them or hate them, wrist locks are simply another submission type in jiu-jitsu we all must respect. Unlike heel hooks, which are banned in gi BJJ and most of no-gi, and you can pretend they don’t exist, wrist locks are allowed for all adults, and everyone has to deal with them one way or another.
I view wrist locks as crafty, sneaky, and readily available submissions that can serve a great purpose in certain situations and spice up everyone’s game. Even if you have no interest in using wrist locks to attack someone, you should definitely at least practice defending against them.