Every gym has ‘that guy’ who specializes in leg locks. Rolling with him can feel like an effort tin futility as they use techniques you don’t fully understand, and rightfully fear, to pick apart your game. Well, I have a confession – I used to be ‘that guy.’ But before you leave the page in disgust, hear me out!
I am about to share seven concepts which will help you defend even the most advanced leg lockers. These concepts were hard learned from years of leg locking (and being leg locked), so keep reading for a crash course in defeating leg lockers!
Habits of Highly Successful BJJ Leg Lockers
As you probably know by now, there are different levels of leg lockers out there.
You have the folks that dive on the submission from everywhere, and it all seems scary, but there’s no real pressure, nor any position that you have trouble escaping. Then, you have those that will enter into a bunch of very intricate Ashi Garami positions but aren’t able to finish a submission.
And then you have that guy. The seasoned leg lockers who will have you in a checkmate long before you realize that there’s no way out. With them, there’s no pain, just immense pressure, both positional and on the joint(s) under attack.
It is this last kind that you should fear. It is also who you should look to understand if you are to have any hope of beating one of them someday.
First of all, experienced leg lockers are patient. They will not rush getting to your legs and have no problem waiting it out. They are aware of the importance of timing, so they won’t just steamroll ahead towards a finishing position.
Next, first-class leg lockers will attack both legs. Just when you think you’ve gotten one of your legs free, you realize that the attacks were actually focused on the leg you thought was safe. This trait makes them unpredictable and doubles their chances of success.
A leg locker will transition out of an Ashi Garami if things are not working out. The troublesome part for you is that they will probably transition into a different leg entanglement or perhaps another highly efficient position for finishing, like the back or front headlock. They might be patient, but good leg lockers are never stubborn.
On that note, leg lock experts like to diversify their entries into Ashi Garami. That means they will get to a controlling position equally good from top and bottom, as well as any other position in BJJ, oftentimes where you least expect them from.
Finally, all great leg lockers have strong control once they get to an Ashi Garami. They will focus on keeping your hip pinned to the ground, blocking your escape directions until there’s nowhere left to go.
The Ultimate Defensive Strategy Versus Leg Lockers
Knowing how leg lockers think is crucial in being able to battle against them, and eventually, impose your own grappling game without losing a foot (or a knee) in the process. That means knowing what they’re going to be after (their habits) and knowing how to deny them exactly what they want.
What to Focus On When Defending Against Leg Lockers
The Inside Space
The first thing that a leg locker will look for when trying to enter an Ashi Garami position is the inside space. While this term has different meanings in different situations in BJJ, in terms of leg locks it means that they want at least one, preferably both, of their legs to be in between your legs.
Denying leg lockers access to the inside space will frustrate them, taking away their ability to draw you into their world. Remember that they have a myriad of ways of achieving this position, and they are also quite patient when hunting, so you will need to be precise with your passing or sweeping attempts, not allowing their legs to stay in between yours for too long.
The Ashi Garami
Ashi Garami is a generic term which simply means: leg entanglement. Leg lockers use a set of several different positions, all falling under the Ashi Garami category. Leg lockers are well versed in getting to and navigating through them, looking to get to the strongest one available.
In terms of hierarchy, every time you find your leg crossing your opponent’s torso, you’re in one of the Ashi Garami variations that is very dangerous. Your goal needs to be to deny them the control that they get from a leg entanglement position.
Your first goal is not to allow your knee to get trapped deep in the positions. As long as your knee is on the ground, people will have a hard time maintaining an Ashi Garami.
If you’re late with extracting the knee, simply grab the knee of the leg under attack with the same side hand. Aim to have your arm threaded underneath one of the opponent’s legs. This will help you keep your hips mobile, and since Ashi Garami positions are designed to provide control over the hip, retaining mobility of your hip is crucial in rendering the positions ineffective.
Even if they manage to lock on to the configuration, they won’t be able to keep your hips trapped because of the arm that is inside the loop. This will frustrate even the most experienced of leg lockers, believe me.
The Free Leg
Having an arm inside an Ashi Garami will decrease the amount of control a leg locker has over your hip. To get out though, you will have to make sure you have a power source. That power source is your free leg. Your goal is simple – try to pick your butt off the ground and stand.
All leg locks worth chasing won’t work well against a standing opponent, and experienced leg lockers will choose to restart.
Keep in mind though that people who really know leg locks will try to get your free leg under control as well as the one they are attacking. This is known as the double trouble principle. Not allowing a leg locker to get your free leg, or getting the leg free from their grips, is essential to eventually getting out of the Ashi Garami conundrum.
Being in an Ashi Garami means you are at risk of getting leg locked. However, the leg lock finish is only going to happen if the opponent gets the right grips on your leg.
To that extent, leg lockers look for two things – digging mechanics, exposing the part of your leg they need to get a submission, and breaking mechanics, applying breaking pressure that gets translated to the joint under attack via the grip configuration.
Deny them any of these grips, and you will not tap to a leg lock. Of course, it is preferable to deny an opponent earlier, so stopping digging grips is a lot safer than dealing with breaking grips.
In fact, getting out of a leg lock is possible up to the point that you can prevent breaking grips from being established. Once the breaking grips have been established, escape is a fool’s errand. Tap and start again is my advice once you find yourself here.
One of the sneakiest things to do in order to defend against leg locks is to exploit the leg locking rules. I will use the example of IBJJF rules, since they are the most common ones.
Under IBJJF leg locking rules, you can only attack with a straight ankle lock until you are a brown belt. Even then, you only get to use kneebars and toeholds in the Gi. So, the greatest defense you have to an ankle lock when competing in the Gi, at any level, is to expose your heel for a heel hook.
Seriously, this will make any ankle lock impossible, and leg lockers know that full well. If the rules (which admittedly aren’t really logical in my personal opinion) are in place, why not use them to your advantage?
The Counter Attacks
A big part of a leg locker’s arsenal is counter leg locking. Experienced ones will sometimes even look like they’re giving you access to a leg lock, or even a full-on Ashi Garami. That is like taking candy from a stranger in an old, unmarked panel van – do not accept it at any cost!
When a leg locker is letting you leg lock them, they will know your prowess with lower body attacks within seconds. Then, they will use your inexperience against you, hunting for counter leg locks that they set up from Ashi Garami positions far more superior to the one you have… or think you have.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them
The best advice I can give you for dealing with leg lockers is to learn leg locks yourself. The experience you gain from actually doing leg locks is going to be a different class compared to experience only in defending leg locks.
What If You Are Too Late?
What happens if one of those notorious leg lockers grabs your leg, and you’ve missed all your windows to do things to deny them their sweet victory? There’s always that last Hail Mary, the very, very late leg lock escapes. I have already covered those in another article, which you can check out HERE.
Or, don’t ever be afraid to tap and try again next round!
You don’t have to be a world-class leg locker in order to beat a world-class leg locker. Yes, it would help immensely, but if leg locks aren’t your thing, then be smart about who you learn your defense from – ask a leg locker. Preferably a seasoned one.
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.