Dealing with the half guard is not an easy task in Jiu Jitsu. There are many variations and versions of the half guard, and they all tie in together in a needless loop, making it one of the most difficult guards to neutralize and pass. Playing top half guard works best when you already understand how to play the guard from the bottom, but in this article, I’ll share some pointers and shortcuts for those that are not fans of bottom half guard.
Why is Half Guard Dangerous?
Even if you’re not playing the bottom half guard, you’ll need to understand it in order to develop an effective top half guard game.
The dangers when you are in the top half guard come from the top arm and leg of the opponent playing guard.
The main problem to solve from the half guard top is how to unhook the bottom leg, which is what makes the half guard effective and keeps the bottom person attached to you.
In terms of the top arm and leg of the person on the bottom, they are in a symbiotic relationship, constantly protecting each other and creating walls and traps for the person on top. They work actively, which is why they are so dangerous.
Most sweeps and submission set-ups and entries for the bottom person work because of something their top arm and/or leg can produce. Killing both of these will render any half guard useless in an offensive manner, leaving only the bottom leg to deal with before you break the guard completely.
An important thing to remember is that there is virtually nothing you can do to unhook the bottom leg unless you kill off the top arm and leg first.
The bottom leg itself can be inserted in between the top half guard player’s legs at various depths, usually defined by the relation of the knee of the bottom person to the hips of the top person.
Regardless of depth, unless this leg is rendered motionless to a realistic extent, half-guard recovery is always going to remain an opportunity for the bottom person, so breaking the half guard’s structure, as defined by the bottom leg, has to be the primary goal when passing.
Top Half Guard Attacks
Attacking from the top half guard can go in one of three general directions:
- Passing the top half guard
- Going for submission finishes from the top half guard position, or
- Transitioning to other more effective control positions like back control or Ashi Garami.
The ideal way to deal with the half guard would be to threaten with all of the above simultaneously, which, when you understand what you’re up against and how to peel the layers of the half guard off, is a rather simple task.
Half Guard Passing
Let’s start with passing the half guard. Personally, I like to go in one of three directions when looking for a top half guard pass: cradle the bottom person, initiate a pressure pass or do an explosive hip-switch pass.
A common characteristic of all three types of passing is that they neutralize the top leg of an opponent, essentially taking away all sweeping attacks, and allow you to focus on dealing with the bottom leg from a mechanically superior position.
Cradling requires you to get an overhook control over the top leg and is a great way to immediately neutralize the medium and low knee shield half guard and the dreaded Z-guard. A cradle also requires head control, which is not difficult to get, given that half guard players stay on their side to avoid getting smashed.
Pressure passing is another venue of passing from the top half, which works perfectly. Bodylock passing is all the jazz at the moment. The main reason it works so well is that the body lock grip and subsequent pressure from body positioning take away both the top and bottom legs’ mobility, essentially killing two flies with one strike.
You can achieve the same in a slightly easier way, albeit more useful in the Gi, by going for an over under pass. It works great against a high-placed knee shield and even the half-butterfly variation since you can get an underhook / scoop grip behind the knee of the top leg.
From there, you can extend your control over the hips to the bottom leg and pass without any immediate sweep or recovery dangers.
The hip switch is also a very effective means of passing half guard. It works by dividing the upper and lower body of the opponent so that their body alignment is weakened. Pinning the bottom arm of a half guard player is essential for this pass variation.
Your free arm then goes on the opponent’s opposite side hip, elbow inside, and you push on their pelvis to pin them to the ground. This renders the top leg useless and lifts the bottom leg from the mats, making it less mobile.
Finishing the pass requires you to explosively thrust the front side of the shin of your far leg into the thigh of the opponent’s bottom leg as you do a “flying backstep” with your trapped leg to break the guard and end up in side control.
Top Half Guard Submissions
There are several submissions you can finish immediately from the top half guard, although, realistically, they will most likely lead to a pass unless your opponent is particularly stubborn. The best part about hunting for these particular submissions is that you can finish them even after you pass the half guard.
The Kimura is an obvious one. In this case, the submission attack targets the opponent’s top arm, taking away crucial grips for both sweep and submission setups. This kills off the offensive potency of the half guard, but does little in terms of helping you defeat the bottom leg to pass.
However, what you get instead is a submission threat which will allow you to tap someone out via a bent arm lock (Kimura) if they do not abandon the half guard in an attempt to free their arm.
Front headlock chokes feature as first-choice top half guard attacks as well. The sideways position of the bottom person, while preventing smashing, does provide access to the neck, which can easily lead to a guillotine choke or, more often, to a Darce choke, given the involvement and trapping of the bottom person’s top arm in the choking noose.
Finally, a toe hold is always a great way to see if an opponent is really aware of all the top half guard threats. The toe hold is available against the Z-guard whenever the feet are apart and can be a very quick way of getting either submission or causing a complete panicked breakdown of the half guard position.
Half Guard Tranistions
Sometimes, passing or submitting from the top half proves to be difficult endeavors, which is where direct transitions come into play.
A very reliable transition is backstepping into Ashi Garmi, more specifically, the Inside Senkaku variation. It will once again require that you beat the top leg of the opponent by placing their knee behind your back, at least long enough to backstep with your free leg into Ashi Garami.
Another Ashi Garami entry comes when you manage to get the shin of your free leg over the opponent’s bottom leg, stapling it in place. This will allow you to step up with your trapped leg and go into a reaping position.
Taking the back from the top half guard is also viable, but it requires you to force a quarter guard position. As long as you can free the knee of the trapped leg and force the opponent’s legs to face you, you can twister roll straight to the back or decide to attack more leg locks halfway in the Truck position.
The top half guard game is not easy to understand, and you will be frustrated when trying to solve a great half guard player’s game. As long as you remember that their top arm and leg are their offensive weapons, and their bottom leg is their defensive one, you can find ways to pass, submit or transition out of the half guard.
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.