Why are BJJ athletes becoming leg lock specialists? The answer is quite simple – the modern Ashi Garami system for leg attacks in BJJ works efficiently for people of all levels.
With so many people in BJJ now using leg locks as their main submission threat, the question we need to answer next is: What is the best way to defend and escape modern leg locks?
What is the Modern Ashi Garami Leg Lock BJJ Game?
The main reason why leg submissions suddenly began working in Jiu Jitsu is simple: leg entanglements are now thought of as control positions, allowing for the adage “position before submission” to be applied to leg attacks.
Before John Danaher (who really needs no introduction) put together an effective system of controlling people before submitting them with a leg lock, BJJ leg locks were thought to be hastily applied techniques of last resort. Since they were thrown without first establishing control, they were considered ineffective and dangerous techniques.
The control system that Danaher introduced revolves around methods of controlling your opponent’s entire lower body before setting up a submission. Given his passion for giving concepts Japanese names, Danaher dubbed his system Ashi Garami, which simply means ‘leg entanglement.’
Danaher’s students took his system and used it to submit pretty much every BJJ superstar, despite being next to unknown themselves. This caused the grappling community to sit up and take notice: no longer were leg locks a low-percentage submission that serious grapplers didn’t need to concern themselves about, now they represented the future of grappling.
The ins and outs of the modern-day Ashi Garami leg locking game are not complicated – control an opponent at all levels of the leg (hip, knee, and ankle) and control both their legs whenever possible. In fact, this simplicity is exactly what makes the modern BJJ leg lock game difficult to beat.
That said, while it may be difficult, it is in no way unbeatable! This article will teach you how to shut down the newest threat in modern grappling!
What Are The Biggest Threats?
In terms of the modern BJJ leg lock game, there are two main threats that you are facing when tangled up in an Ashi Garami.
The first one is the obvious threat of your ankle or knee being broken via straight ankle locks, toe holds, heel hooks, and kneebars. These attacks, however, only represent the endpoint of the modern leg lock game and their success depends on how good a person’s control over your lower limbs is.
That brings us to the second threat of modern leg locks: control. As long as an opponent can keep you in an Ashi Garami position, they will have the chance of switching between different finishing techniques or even adjusting the same attack until it works.
Without being aware of these two central problems when defending leg locks, you will be hard-pressed to figure out an effective way of beating a modern leg locker.
How Should You Approach Leg Lock Defense in BJJ?
In any situation in BJJ, from leg locks to guard passes, you’ll have more success in defending if you learn how attacks work in the first place. The approach to learning any escape in BJJ starts with you spending some time learning the attacks. This will provide you with insights into the positions and submissions that are otherwise hard to grasp when you’re only focusing on defense.
That said, from a more defense-specific standpoint, there are two main things to focus on when defending and they coincide with the two biggest threats of modern leg locks – the Ashi Garami control and the submissions themselves.
First things first, if an opponent has you in Ashi Garami, positional control is the main threat to focus on. However, if they manage to get deep enough into the position to apply submissions, then you must shift your attention to the immediate threat of submissions first. This leaves you dealing with their Ashi Garami again, and this cycle can drag on for a good while
The rule of thumb is to try and get out of an Ashi Garami leg lock BJJ position as soon as you’re caught in one, or preferably, as soon as your opponent is setting it up. This is the concept of escaping early, one of the few escape concepts in BJJ that works universally.
In order to stay safe from Ashi Garami control you need to keep your knee outside of their ‘knee-line.’ The knee-line is the imaginary line connecting the opponent’s two knees; if your knee is inside of their knee line (closer to their head) you are in danger, while if it is outside (closer to their feet) you’re pretty much safe.
However, some opponents are slick with their setups, or you may simply be late. In such situations, looking to hide the joint they’re attacking and breaking their grip is all you should be focusing on. These are the technical, or late escapes, which are also highly reliable when executed correctly.
Escaping Specific Ashi Garami Leg Lock BJJ Attacks
When it comes to beating the modern Ashi Garami leg lock BJJ game, you need to know which submission holds it includes. The heel hook, straight ankle lock, toe hold, and kneebar are the four main ways of submitting someone with BJJ leg locks. Paired with the positional control of Ashi Garami position these attacks can be quite challenging to defend and escape!
Early bird defense – Beating the Ashi Garami
The Ashi Garmi positions are quite intricate, especially those devised by Danaher. While you are very welcome to go deep into dissecting how they work and how you can defend them, I’m looking to provide you with a quick way of escaping any Ashi Garami entanglement: hip mobility.
Basically, for a leg lock to work, an opponent needs both your hips on the ground in an ideal scenario. However, even having one hip stuck to the ground, or just your hip slightly lower than yours will allow them to play the Ashi Garami leg lock game. If you lift one hip higher, the other will follow and you can spin out, changing the angle to release your knee from the entanglement.
This is exactly why good leg lockers control both legs, even though they’ll only attack one. 90% of resistance during leg locks comes from the secondary leg, which helps raise the hips off of the ground, and subsequently, helps you turn away from an opponent.
Making sure your secondary leg is free before attempting to deal with an Ashi Garami is of paramount importance. Whether you’ll decide to stand up, or use the free leg to make a shared spiral and get some slack on the knee line is up to you.
Keep in mind that it is very difficult, even for seasoned leg lockers, to finish while holding both your legs. That means you can free up the secondary leg (the one they’re not attacking) much easier than the other, and use it to help you beat the Ashi Garami position before a submission is even close to materializing.
Heel Hook Defense
Heel hooks are the most devastating of leg locks due to the breaking mechanics behind the technique. Despite the grip being on the heel and foot, the attack damages the knee. Basically, heel hooks work by turning your leg into a series of levers, using rotation at the ankle to force the knee to rotate in ways it was never intended to.
How do you protect yourself from heel hooks? First of all, get out of the Ashi Garami! If you clear the knee line, no heel hook grip will end with a tap (or break) if you just remain calm and methodically dismantle the grips.
When you’re stuck deep into an Ashi Garami position, though, you have to think about last-ditch escapes. In that case, the principle is the same for all leg submissions – first hide to buy yourself time to break the grips and look to begin dismantling the Ashi Garami. Your efforts should look something like this:
- Hide your heel – Use what is known as a ‘heel slip,’ by turning your heel and the sole of your foot towards your opponent’s ribcage.
- Break grips – Pry open the top arm of your opponent’s grip. This arm will become more accessible as they try to ‘dig’ your heel out from the slip. With this arm controlled you’ll be free to look for a way out of the Ashi Garami.
The above formula will work for both inside and outside heel hooks. The reason why this works is that most people will have released your other leg to really commit to the heel hook. If you slip the heel and break their grip you’ll be left with a free leg to use as a power source to continue escaping Ashi Garami.
Straight Ankle Lock Defense
Straight ankle locks are painful but not nearly as devastating as heel hooks. A hastily set up ankle lock will most likely just put pressure on your Achilles tendon. A well-applied ankle lock will also cause torsion in your ankle possibly leading to multiple ligament tears in the joint.
Most ankle locks work in combination with heel hooks and are set up from the same Ashi Garami leg lock BJJ positions. That means that disengaging from the entanglement is identical regardless of the submission in question.
The most common straight ankle lock defense is generally referred to as “giving the boot.” This means straightening your leg as much as possible so that your foot ends up behind your opponent, moving your ankle out of danger. This is only half effective though, given that it only covers half of the equation – hiding the ankle. In order to complete the defense, again you’ll need to beat their grips.
- Give them the boot – extending your leg will only work to beat a fully locked ankle lock if you also change the direction in which your knee points. It should point towards an opponent’s hip (either side will do, depending on which Ashi Garami you are caught into).
- Focus on the same grip break as before – one arm always becomes accessible when you start defending. Just keep the boot on and remember that if an opponent switches to a heel hook, you should also switch to a heel slip instead of the boot and keep working to disrupt their grips.
Toe Hold Defense
Toe holds are quite different from ankle locks and heel hooks in their mechanics because they only work when the leg is bent at the knee. This is why most people usually look to straighten the leg as their main method of toe hold defense. In the modern leg lock BJJ systems though, this will quickly land you in a kneebar, making this simple defense inadequate against a skilled opponent.
Let’s look at the two-step process of dealing with toe holds:
- First, you need to straighten the leg, but in a way that will deny a kneebar follow-up. For that, you need to make your foot heavy, placing it on the ground to prevent your knee from getting bent. This is how you hide the foot, similar to giving the boot or slipping the heel. As before, you will need the power of the free leg to help you make the foot you’re defending ‘become heavy’ and stuck to the ground.
- Use the free leg and a turning motion to break the grip. Unless there’s a clear path to bend the knee, an opponent won’t be able to finish a toe hold without pushing your foot to your butt. The fact that your knee is not fully straight in the ‘heavy foot’ position prevents possible kneebar follow-ups.
The kneebar is slightly different from the three other submissions outlined above in that the focus of the breaking pressure is applied to the knee joint, rather than the ankle. While the heel hook also targets the knee, the kneebar operates by hyper-extending the knee joint just you’d hyperextend the elbow when finishing an armbar.
For the kneebar, clearing the knee line, aka getting out of the Ashi Garami, is more difficult compared to other positions. That means that how you hide your knee and deal with the grips is paramount to kneebar defenses and escapes.
The most often cited kneebar defense is to triangle your legs. While this might delay the inevitable, the fact remains that it is an escape attempt in the middle of the move, which means the opponent has lots of time to adjust. Instead, you should aim to defend either very early (clear the knee line) or very late.
Here is a great example of an effective late kneebar defense:
- Hiding the leg will work the same as with the toe hold – turn the knee slightly away from the opponent’s belly and bend it a bit, so that you get to the ‘heavy foot’ position.
- Instead of breaking the opponent’s hand grips, which are quite far away, you’ll pry open the legs instead, which are closer. A two-on-one grip with a hand on both the shin and thing of the opponent’s top leg will help you open up their legs and unwind the entire Ashi Garami position.
One thing to keep in mind is that once you’re safe from the Ashi Garami leg lock BJJ systems, you are not necessarily safe from all leg lock attacks. The moment someone has control over your shin, but not your knee, calf slicers become a clear and present danger.
Also, you should consider the fact that many highly effective leg lock escapes will end up opening other avenues of attack for the opponent, whether it is sweeping, passes, or back takes. Stay alert and keep up your defensive postures until you’re the one attacking!
Finally, remember that most BJJ leg lock injuries are a result of people panicking, resulting in them turning or twisting inside an Ashi Garami. Instead of injuring yourself and perhaps causing your partner to start shying away from leg locks, be certain that you understand how defense works, both very early and very late.
As with all late-stage escapes, keep in mind that sometimes your only escape is to tap. Particularly when you’re first learning these techniques, work with experienced partners who roll thoughtfully and with control.
The Ashi Garami leg locks BJJ systems are not impossible to beat. Actually, the formula we outlined above more or less universally applies to all of the possible attacks from Ashi Garami, with only small adjustments.
In summary, if you are caught in a heel hook, straight ankle lock, toe hold, or kneebar, hide the joint that is under attack first, beat the grips that provide your opponent with breaking power, and then, get your knee out of the Ashi Garami. These simple steps are easy to remember and are deceptively effective!
Ogi is a brown belt and very passionate about Jiu Jitsu.
He is also the head coach of Carlos Maia BJJ Macedonia and Globetrotter.