At this point, it might be cliche to tell you how popular leg locks are in the Jiu Jitsu landscape. Leg attacks have an interesting history, but have recently been given center stage in Jiu Jitsu. In the past few years, BJJ icons like Dean Lister, Gordon Ryan, and John Danaher have transformed the sport’s dynamic in grand and subtle ways.
Thanks to the constant hunt for quick leg lock finishes, the popularity of submission-only style tournaments and no gi focused training have substantially increased.
A proficient leg lock game demands perfection in controlling leg entanglement positions. Without control, there is no submission. Let’s examine a few principles to strengthen your leg lock game.
Leg Locks Don’t Work (For You)
“They’re just not my style.” If you’ve been training BJJ for a while, that’s always been the easiest excuse to come up with to avoid unlearning and relearning the new systems of Jiu Jitsu that leg attacks offer.
One of the greatest roadblocks to becoming effective at leg locks is impatience. The tunnel vision that demands that you jump straight to the finish of a submission will likely make you skip fundamental steps to keep your opponent from escaping or counter attacking you. This is likely where the old meme of “don’t know how to pass? Just leg lock them,” comes from.
Many old school Brazilian coaches, including my own, often called leg attacks “the lazy man’s game.” However, the “F**k it, try a leg lock” sentiment, made popular by John Danaher, has caused the BJJ community to hone more efficient systems.
It might be lazy to dive in for a leg attack without a plan, but there are many leg entanglement positions that don’t allow for lazy attempts. Some of the main leg entanglements include ashi garami, 4/11 (also known as inside sankaku/triangle), and 50/50.
The Main Principles Of Every BJJ Leg Lock
All leg attacks rely on the common concept of control. You need to be sure that your opponent is immobilized to enact your leg attack. Moreover, you must be aware of the positioning of your own feet to ensure your opponent doesn’t return the favor.
If you forgo proper control of your opponent it is unlikely that you can sustain your attack while dealing with constant resistance from your uncontrolled opponent.
To clarify control, there is no need to immobilize every portion of your opponent’s body. However, it is imperative that you exhibit control over both of your opponent’s legs, in some form or another.
Although positions like 50/50 and outside ashi garami tend to focus on one leg, it is still important that you understand how your opponent might use their free leg to escape or counter.
Considering leg attacks have become commonplace in the Jiu Jitsu world, defense is just as fundamental as offense, even in an advantageous position. If an opponent is unable to escape a leg entanglement in time, they may opt to turn the attack back on you, in hopes you’ll abandon the assault.
You should not resort to panic if your opponent counterattacks, but be aware of how exposed your own legs may be in a given position.
Control is the goal
The 4/11 position is perhaps the most dominant leg entanglement position. This position tends to offer maximum control over your opponent’s legs only using your legs. However, you should still be sure to use your hands for control or adjustment when necessary.
Although 4/11 provides optimal control it is important to remember that your fight for the finish does not necessarily become easy. Your attacks from 4/11 should be just as measured as your strategy to get into the position in the first place.
For the sake of creating a clear sequence, we can transition to 4/11 position from the ashi garami. Just from your initial reap, you will notice how your opponent’s outside heel will be automatically exposed for a heel hook.
Even if your opponent is a novice in the leg lock game, they will understand the danger they are in. Prioritize maintaining your position over snatching the submission quickly. If they cannot escape your position, then it is only a matter of time until the submission becomes available.
Until you can develop a sophisticated leg lock system, it’s important that the leg attacks you choose are in line with your capabilities and represent a sound stratagem. Try creating a submission checklist where the hierarchy is determined by the technique’s risk versus its reward.
For example, I would place a straight ankle lock at the top of my checklist, because implementing it puts me in no real danger even if I fail, but it does reap me a good reward if I succeed. However, I might place a knee bar at the bottom of my list. While it may not be overly complex, I may be at risk of having my back taken or losing my position all together.
That said, if you can fire off imanari rolls straight into rapid leg attacks without hesitation, your hierarchy may look a little different. After all, your opponent may be as well versed in the defense against a simple attack as you are in its implementation. So, mix it up, if need be.
Be flexible with your positions
One aspect of the “meta” Jiu Jitsu game that you should remember is that BJJ practitioners know when a leg lock is coming and often fight like wild animals to avoid them. That said, you may find that the positions you took time and effort to set up become loosened or completely out of sorts.
As is the case with most Jiu Jitsu attack positions, there are often other options you can seamlessly resort to if you are unable to complete your current attack.
If you are determined to finish from a specific entanglement try to maintain and reestablish your position using grips available to you, like the crook of your opponent’s leg which is a natural grip. However, it’s ok to move to a new leg entanglement without feeling like you’ve lost progress.
Whether it’s 4/11, 50/50, or ashi garami, you should have at least one submission from each position. Instead of resetting or abandoning position when you meet resistance, try to learn how to seamlessly transition between leg entanglements.
Knowing the submissions and positions of each leg entanglement is only effective as a roadmap as long as you understand how to navigate it.
The Case For Learning All of the Leg Locks
Every gym has its own culture and distinct way of training. Sometimes a gi focused, or a more safety conscious gym might shift focus away from what are perceived to be the more dangerous leg attacks.
Unfortunately, the safeguard that these gyms provide does not extend to other gyms or tournaments that students will encounter. Even if a particular leg lock is not your style, or not within thelegal parameters of your tournament divisions, it will be beneficial for you to learn to implement and defend them.
If you have never tried a heel hook, it is very likely that you’d be unable to defend it appropriately, and your uninformed defense could even result in a serious injury for you.
When it comes to Jiu Jitsu it’s OK to have boundaries that communicate what you’re comfortable with training. However, try to extend those boundaries with a partner you trust, who is knowledgeable in leg attacks and will move at your pace.
All Jiu Jitsu submissions have the capability of being dangerous. Often leg attacks, especially heel hooks are portrayed as having a greater inherent danger. What is unique about the heel hook that earns it that infamous reputation is how it actually feels.
The margin between feeling the pressure of a heel hook and being severely damaged by one is much smaller than other submissions. It’s often suggested that when a heel hook starts to hurt, it’s already too late. That being said, as is the case with any submission, practice with your partner’s wellbeing in mind.
Leg locks are nothing new to Jiu Jitsu, but their renewed focus has made them an integral part of any solid Jiu Jitsu game. While many submission hunters like to jump right into the finish, it is imperative that you learn how to effectively navigate leg entanglement positions.
You should learn to prioritize control over your opponent and how to adjust different positions to make your finish secure and more effective. While some leg attacks are illegal at certain levels, it is important that you at least experience them to gain a fuller understanding of the leg attack systems.
Jeremy is brown belt and has a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, but he also enjoys creative writing. Originally from Connecticut, where he began his 11 years of Jiu Jitsu training.