The worm guard is now a position that is as much a part of BJJ curriculums as leg locks are. The open guard variation quickly caught on, providing Gi-based guard players with a fancy new toy. It has managed to stay a big and relevant part of modern Jiu Jitsu, which is why we are going behind the curtains to explore the key aspects that make this position so effective.
A Few Words On BJJ Guards
Before I embark on an in-depth analysis of the worm guard, I will shortly talk about BJJ guards. The reason is that unless it is clear what the purpose of a guard is, there is no real point in trying to explain something as intricate and complex as the worm guard.
What is a guard in BJJ? Any time a bottom person (somebody that has their butt and/or back on the ground) has their legs in between themselves and a top person (somebody standing, half kneeling, or kneeling) they are by definition in a guard position.
One big reason why guards are so effective in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that they utilize the strongest part of someone’s body (their legs) to help them achieve their objectives. That brings us to the objectives of the guard, which are also very easy to pinpoint.
The first objective of any guard in BJJ is to stop the top person from getting past the legs. The structure of all the guards we use, regardless of how different they might be from one another, is aimed at achieving this one key objective first and foremost.
The second objective is to use the structure of the guard you already have to attack. Attacks from guards go in two general directions: sweeps or submissions.
Finally, I will touch upon the subject of e common structure of all open guards. Regardless of the guard variation, the common structure shared by all guards is that one of the legs plays a role in attaching the bottom person to the top one (a passive leg) while the other had the task of making them move in certain directions (an active leg).
Now that we have the definition of the guard, the objectives of the guard, and the structure of the guard clear, we can proceed to explore the worm guard.
Understanding Lapel Guard Mechanics
I remember when the worm guard first appeared. I am not precisely sure of the year, but I do remember there was a video of a blue belt girl using it to control a highly skilled black belt. It was taunted as a “secret weapon” of sorts in the realm of BJJ guards.
While the worm guard did not turn out to be as unbreakable as everyone thought it might be, it is still one of the most effective open guards in existence. A big reason for this success is the fact that it is a lapel based guard.
The lapels are very powerful weapons in Jiu Jitsu, when utilized correctly. They give you what is almost an unfair advantage over an opponent, especially from the guard.
What exactly are the lapels? They are the thick parts of the GI jacket at each end that people usually grab a hold of. Gripping above the belly is referred to as gripping the collars. Gripping below is referred to as gripping the lapels.
A great way to think about lapels (and collars) in BJJ is to see them as a belt sewn onto the Gi jacket. That means that as a guard player, you have access to a belt that circles behind the opponent’s neck and comes back to the front. That amounts to a very powerful control, if you position yourself and, more importantly, your grips optimally.
Pulling on the lapels with your grips means you are forcing the opponent to lean forward, taking their posture away. Introduce the use of your legs into the mix, and now you have a much more powerful part of the body doing the pulling.
Go even further and loop and tangle the lapel around one of the opponent’s legs after you’ve broken their posture, and you now have an anchor that will keep their posture broken, and as a result, greatly restrict their movement options. Objective one of the guard (don’t let them pass) achieved.
The worm guard is exactly what I just explained – a guard that has the bottom person pulling on and tangling the lapel in a very specific manner around the top person’s leg. Now that you understand the power of the lapels, it is finally time to deconstruct the worm guard bit by bit.
What is the Worm Guard in BJJ?
The founder of the worm guard is Keenan Cornelius, a black belt who made a name for himself by experimenting with lapel guards. While he had somewhat successful results with other lapel guards prior to and after the worm guard, none of them ever came close to the efficiency of the worm guard.
What Keenan did is he used a basic sit-up guard position and introduced an innovative way to wrap the lapel in order to break posture and entangle the opponent in a web of traps that lead to sweeps and submissions.
From a very basic sit-up guard position (sitting up against a standing opponent, with one of the opponent’s legs in between his) Keenan grabbed the far-side lapel, gripping with the arm that is to the front of the opponent. He then passed the lapel in between the opponent’s legs to the hand that is behind the opponent.
The one thing he did differently here from previous versions of the seated lapel guard was that he left his front side leg (in relation to where the top person is facing) on the hip of the opponent and wrapped the lapel around it.
This specific type of positioning helps the worm guard easily achieve objective number one: keeping someone from passing the guard. The leg that is inside the lapel is the passive, or hooking leg, attaching you to the opponent. The fact that the lapel is brought forward and then back, around an added obstacle (the leg) means that the opponent’s posture is severely compromised.
From that position achieving objective number two: attacking with a sweep or submission is pretty easy given that you can be proactive (initiate an attack) or reactive (wait for the top person to move and bait them in a trap) about it.
The position depicted above is the “regular” worm guard which Keenan messed around with first. What he discovered is that there is an even better way to grip teh end of the lapel once it is all wrapped up in place.
Instead of holding it with the back hand, you can pass it back to the front hand grabbing with teh thumb facing away from the opponent’s leg. This provides an even tighter grip that is very difficult to break and further deepens the control you have over the top person’s posture.
Your other leg (the one that is not involved in the lapel loop) is the active leg, remaining free to cause all kidney of problems, mainly of the sweeping variety to the top person.
Sweeping from the worm guard is not very difficult, but it will depend on whether or not the top person wants to engage with you in passing, or simply tries to remain upright and looks to regain posture (good luck with that).
The easiest sweep is to simply block the opponent’s far leg by placing the sole of the foot of your free leg behind their heel. A simple scissoring motion is going to get you to the top. The grip you have of the lapel will help you pick the opponent’s leg up so that tehy can’t counter the sweep, and you’ll end up on top, often times directly in a pass.
Another really cool sweep you can do is the old Koala sweep but with a twist. It is essentially a technical stand-up motion, but instead of having your foto on the ground, you’ll use the foot on the hip as a post.
For this sweep, your free leg goes around the opponent’s near side leg like a hook, and you use your free arm to lift your butt off the ground and pull teh free leg behind you. The end result is an extremely effective sweep that’s quite easy to get.
The one drawback of the worm guard position is that you do not get any direct submission options, given that your own leg is deeply entangled with the lapel. That just means that if submitting someone is what you’re after, looking to take them back from the worm guard is the most logical way to achieve your goal.
When you’re in the worm guard the back is available through a very impressive-looking yet easy-to-get inversion. All you need to do is get the free leg in a shin-on-shin position. From there, just dive into a Granby roll, leading with your head in the direction behind the opponent.
Once the Granby ends you’ll be behind the opponent, still holding on to the grip, with your leg still in teh loop and already acting as one hook. All you need is to grab the belt, pull and establish back control which will in turn give you access to more than one submission option.
How to Break the BJJ Worm Guard?
Dealing with the worm guard was one of the most difficult things to do when Keenan First popularized it. Tiwas Rodolfo Vieira (if I remember correctly) that sort of solved the worm guard puzzle, as seen from the top person’s perspective.
The most annoying thing about the worm guard is the grip on the lapel which is greatly affecting the top person’s posture. Contrary to initial instincts you should not look to break this grip before you try and pass. The angle of the grip makes this a futile effort that will only get you swept.
Instead, leave the grip break for last. The first thing you should focus on is to keep your balance. Since there is no feasible way in which you can just posture up, your best bet is to lower your butt closer to the mats. The end goal is to put the bottom person under pressure, buying yourself time to break the structure of the guard.
In the sense of breaking the structure, there’s no way to get their passive leg out of the lapel entanglement. Instead, focus on putting pressure on the opponent’s chest vie the knee of your trapped leg. Placing it bang in the middle to hit the sternum is always a great option, given that they can’t pull too much without driving more pressure into their diaphragm.
Depending on how you’re going to position yourself in regard to the opponent’s leg that is attached to you, you can go in two general directions. One is to work against the guard by leaving the leg where it is. The other is to put the ankle of the leg in between your legs and sit on it (kind of like Lovato’s headquarters position).
If the leg is on or past your hips, I’d advise you to drive your hips as close as possible to the opponent’s hips, having their leg protrude behind you. This kills the power of the hook somewhat and will allow you to position for a pass.
It is important to anchor yourself before you move the hips, which is not difficult to obtain via a collar grip, given the proximity of the collars. Once you have a collar grip place your free arm on the ground, next to the opponent’s head (starting from the knee smash position). A backstepping motion with teh free leg, aiming to place your hip above the opponent’s head will completely kill off the worm guard.
You will not be rid of the pesky grip yet, so after backstepping, you’ll need to make sure the opponent can’t simply get on top scoring a seep. Gripping over their shoulder usually does the trick, and will allow you to move towards North-South, breaking the grip easily as you do.
The second version starts from the knee smash while you are sitting on top of the opponent’s ankle. Once again, you anchor yourself on their collar and then proceed to move both knees to the side, trapping them in a hip wind position with your torso. Once you are low, grab the opponent’s belt or pants, and proceed to use your knee to break the worm guard lapel grip as you move into a leg drag position. From there you can pass to side control, mount, or get the back.
The only drawback of the worm guard is that you can’t really substitute it when you are without a Gi. Apart from that, it is a great guard to use, given the amount of control, effortless sweeping, and cool transitions it provides. The fact that it is pretty difficult to pass also gives merit to how effective this lapel guard can be.
Finally, I did not include entries into the worm guard simply because there are too many variables to offer a direct and precise path that will always work. Opening the lapel and releasing it from the elt is tedious and can take a long time. Once you have that, though, the worm guard is not far away.
Ogi is a black belt that does Jiu Jitsu full time and is very passionate about anything grappling-related.
He is also the head coach of Enso Jiu Jitsu in Macedonia and an aspiring Globetrotter.