The Kesa Gatame in BJJ: Position and Control

Last updated on 26.05.2022 by

Side-control is a phenomenal position with numerous possibilities to finish your opponent. One super effective variation of side-control that BJJ adopted from Judo is the kesa gatame position.

Kesa gatame is a really effective way to hold side-control that allows you to lay down heavy pressure and opens up multiple attack options. The kesa gatame position has so many possibilities that we needed to cover the position in two parts.

This is part one of our series on the kesa gatame, covering how to get to the kesa gatame and how to hold the position. 

The history of Kesa Gatame

Kesa gatame is one of the seven mat holds that was created within Kodokan Judo. Some also refer to the kesa gatame as the scarf-hold position due to a mistranslation to English.

Many believed that the name refers to a western style scarf, but it actually refers to the type of sash that Buddhist monks wear. This sash is called a ‘henden uken,’ and is worn from the left shoulder to the right hip.

This sash was originally known as a ‘kesa’ and was the source of how the kesa-gatame position was given its name. Given this origin, a better translation would be sash-hold, but odds are scarf-hold will prevail given its popularity.

The kesa gatame position in wrestling

The kesa gatame position is also used within wrestling, but it goes by the name head and arm ride. In amateur wrestling this is a riding position and one of the most dominant positions in the sport.

The position also finds use in forms of submission wrestling, which is why they generally refer to an arm triangle choke as a head and arm choke.

Kesa gatame variations

There are three different variations of the kesa gatame. The normal kesa gatame, kuzure kesa gatame [modified kesa gatame], and the ushiro kesa gatame [reverse kesa gatame].

Normal kesa gatame 

Normal kesa gatame is where you’re facing toward the head of your partner. You have an overhook with head control and your ribs placed on your opponent’s chest, while putting down heavy pressure.

Your hips shouldn’t be resting on the ground – instead your weight should be resting on just three points of contact: your two feet and your ribs on top of their ribs.

Kuzure kesa gatame

The kuzure kesa gatame, or modified kesa gatame, is almost the same as the traditional kesa gatame except for the arm with head control. Instead of going underneath the head, you instead have a deep underhook. 

This is a fantastic pinning position, and is arguably more secure than traditional kesa – however there are fewer submission opportunities available. We often get into this position after a successful knee slide passes into side-control.

Reverse kesa gatame

Reverse kesa gatame is the exact opposite of the kesa gatame, where you are facing your partner’s knees. In this variation, you hook around your partner’s neck like a north/south choke, while underhooking their near arm.

In BJJ, we use another variation of the reverse kesa gatame without having head control. We usually get to the variation of this position off a reverse half guard pass. It’s also used as a transitional position to get to the mount.

How to get to kesa gatame?

You can get to the kesa gatame position generally in two different ways. Either off of a Judo throw or sweep and from a guard/half guard pass.

Koshi-guruma to kesa gatame

One Judo throw that can put you right into the kesa gatame upon completion is the koshi-guruma. It’s very simple to execute and only has a few steps.

Break partner’s posture

The first step is to break your partner’s posture. Take a standard collar and sleeve grip, then step back as you pull your opponent’s head down.

Penetration step & back step 

After breaking your partner’s posture, you’re going to take a penetration step and back step between their legs. These steps put you in place to perform your throw.

Hook the head

As you’re executing your penetration step, you’re going to hook your arm around your opponent’s head. Be sure to use your arm to pull your partner’s head down and really break their posture.

Finish to kesa gatame

In one fluid motion as you’re pulling down on your partner’s head, pull them over your hip, and take them over. Once they hit their back, you’re going to follow them right down into the kesa gatame side-control.

Knee slice pass to kesa gatame

The knee slice pass is one of the best guard passes in BJJ and can put you right into kesa gatame. Here are the steps to do a basic knee slice pass into kesa gatame side-control.

Step & collar grip

From standing, step to the side to put your partner’s leg in between your legs and grab a collar grip. Take whatever collar grip you’d like, as the pass works with either grip.

Drive your knee in

Once you get your collar grip, you’re going to get into position for the pass. Drive your knee across your partner’s leg and get to quarter guard.

Keep them flat and prevent the underhook

To do the knee slice sweep, you need to keep your partner flat on their back. Use your collar grip to hold them down and keep their back on the mat.

At this stage it is critical that you prevent them from getting an underhook, which they can use to set up backtakes.

Sleeve grip & sit-through

After establishing your collar grip, you can begin your knee slice pass into kesa gatame. Take a sleeve grip and pull up your partner’s arm up to further contort their body. 

Then to finish, all you do is sit through to free your knee and slide right into kesa gatame.

How to hold kesa gatame 

When you get to kesa gatame, you have to consolidate the position. Here are important tips for holding a kesa gatame style side-control.

Body positioning 

The first thing you have to be mindful of when holding kesa gatame is your body positioning. Your ribs must be placed directly on the center of your opponent’s chest as you lay heavy pressure down. If you’re too far over your partner, you’ll get swept or they’ll recover guard if you’re too far away.

Head positioning 

Your head positioning is just as important as your body position. It also needs to be centered with your partner’s body to prevent them from sweeping you or recovering guard.

Leg position 

Leg position is also an important detail that you can’t forget with the kesa gatame is the positioning of your legs. Your inside leg must be flat on the mat under your partner’s shoulder, while your other foot is based up. Having your feet like this allows you to lay down heavy pressure while keeping your base.

Overhook & head control 

In a traditional kesa gatame or scarf-hold position, you have an overhook your partner’s arm, while hooking around their head. For the overhook, grab above their elbow and pull their arm up. Then with the arm hooking their head, drive your shoulder down to put on pressure and keep your partner’s head turned.

Modified scarf-hold variation

The broken scarf-hold position is a variation of the kesa-gatame position, where you don’t hook the head. Instead, you take an underhook on your partner’s far arm and keep them flat. 

This position can be better for jiu jitsu, because it takes away the chance of your partner getting an underhook, taking away one of their options to escape your kesa gatame.

To be continued!

Did you enjoy this breakdown of how to get to kesa gatame and tips for holding the position? Well stay tuned, because part two is coming out soon! In part two, we’ll cover different attacks from kesa gatame and how to escape this position.