This article was written by 3rd-Degree Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.

There’s a reason why guys like Garry Tonon are killing it with leg-locks in elite-level competition - they work.I’ve always been a fan of lower-body submissions. There’s something inherently satisfying about catching somebody with one of them. Some people call leg-locks ‘The Great Equalisers of Grappling’ and I believe there is some truth to that. When I started training jiu-jitsu, I had come from a submission-wrestling background and I already knew a decent amount about the lower-body submission game. This knowledge helped me to hold my own against more experienced BJJ players who didn’t have the same understanding of this aspect of grappling.

There’s Never Been a Better Time to Learn

Even as little as 10 years ago, BJJ had a pretty basic leg-lock game. The explosion in its popularity and the increase in cross-training has caused great interest and growth in this part of the art. The best submission grapplers of today have better leg-locks than even traditional lower-body attack specialists, like Sambo players. Now there are even whole systems based around a single type of leg-lock and esoteric attacks like calf-crushers, Estima-locks, and knee-separators are becoming more and more commonplace. There’s never been a better time to develop this aspect of your jiu-jitsu.

Know the Rules

In the IBJJF ruleset, all leg-locks with the exception of the straight foot-lock (sometimes known as the Achilles) are illegal up until the brown and black belt levels and some are even illegal at brown belt. In addition to this, even the straight foot-lock has limitations placed on it (you cannot reap the opponent’s knee while attempting it). It’s up to you to check both the ruleset of your academy and the competition. But, just because a move might be illegal at your belt level, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice it. If you’re going to be a black belt, you’ll need to know what a knee-bar is and if you’re going to train no-gi, you’ll need experience using and defending against the heel-hook, etc. Be aware that some guys get super upset if you try lower-body subs on them - make sure you clear it with your training coach and training partners. Everybody has met that white belt who travels to different academies and tries to heel-hook the higher grade students so he can feel like King-Ding-a-Ling for a few minutes. Don’t be that guy. Nobody likes that guy.

Safety First

Always apply leg-locks as smoothly and slowly as possible. This is good practice for all submissions, but especially important for the dangerous lower-body attacks. Don’t go all Palhares on your training partners and try to cripple them. It signals to everyone in the gym that you're a douche and it's also bad karma. If you start using leg-locks, you will inevitably have to defend against them more often. Keep in mind that your legs and feet are naturally less sensitive than your arms and hands, so sometimes you can’t feel just how close a submission is to injure you until it’s too late. You can go from feeling totally safe to having a wrecked knee in a split second. Tap early and tap often. Also, be aware that most lower-body attacks cause you to lose positional dominance. For example, if you’re inside an opponent’s half-guard and you see a knee-bar opportunity, remember that it will cause you to give up both your pass and the top position. If you decide to use a technique like this, have a back-up plan in case it fails.

Important Components

The best lower-body submissions have four things in common:

  1. They completely immobilise the leg that is being attacked. Usually, once a lower-body submission is set in, any movement in your opponent’s leg dilutes the amount of leverage that can be applied. For example: If you have your opponent in a knee-bar, any rotation of his foot or knee will relieve the pressure of the submission. (Note: There are a few exceptions. In certain instances, movement of the leg will actually amplify the submission)
  2. They completely immobilize the opponent’s pelvis. This is closely related to the point above. Almost all leg-locks work better when you shut down the movement of your opponent’s pelvic girdle. If you fail to do this, he will be able to either change the angle or create movement of his leg that will prevent you from applying leverage correctly.
  3. They make it very difficult for the opponent to counter-attack. A great leg-lock will not put you in immediate danger of a counter-attack, but a crappy one will. And when that happens, all other things equal, the bigger stronger player will come out on top. Case in point: A couple of years ago, I was training with a technical black belt who outweighed me by 20lb. I went for a toe-hold on him but my set up was sloppy and left one of my feet exposed to attack. He saw his chance and countered with a toe-hold of his own. We were both using the exact same technique from the exact same position, but his bigger bone structure and increased strength meant that my ankle was the first to give. Cue an injury that took 3 months to heal…. If I had been using a superior foot-lock technique my foot would not have been exposed and I would have won the encounter.
  4. They either have the leg fully bent or fully straightened. Lower-body attacks can be broadly categorised into two types: those in which the opponent’s leg should be bent at the knee (e.g. heel-hook), and those in which it should no not (e.g. knee-bar). It’s important to identify which of these conditions is required for the attack you’re using and then make sure that the condition is met. (Note: One of the smartest things you can do is practice attacking combinations that switch between the two. The most basic example of this is the knee-bar / toe-hold combination.)
Road Map

If you’re predominantly a gi BJJ player, this is the road map for developing a well-rounded lower-body submission game that I’d suggest that you follow:

  • White to Blue Belt: Master the straight foot-lock. The mechanics and principles in this attack carry over to most other leg-locks. And, even though it’s considered a ‘basic’ attack, when used properly it can be devastating.
  • Purple Belt: Here is where you should start experimenting with toe-holds and knee-bars. It’s generally good etiquette not to try them on lower grades unless you have a spoken agreement that you’re going to use them. You should also clear it with higher-grades.
  • Brown Belt: By the end of your brown belt you should have mastered the three basic attacks (straight foot-lock, toe-hold, knee-bar) and started experimenting with the more advanced attacks.If you compete in no-gi competitions add the heel-hook in too.
  • Black Belt: You should now have a deep repertoire of lower body submissions and know how to set them up effectively from several positions. Here is where you can start mastering the more complex techniques (knee-separators etc.)
Know the Rules

The various competitive organizations in jiu-jitsu and grappling all have different and rules regarding foot and leg-locks. Sometimes these rules are highly-nuanced. Under one governing body, a particular lower-body submission might be banned whilst another might allow it, and a third might permit it but only when performed in a certain way. It's your responsibility to find out if your preferred attacks are legal.

Don’t Become One-Dimensional

So, if you took the advice above and did a bunch of intelligent practice, by now you’re probably starting to become something of a leg-lock wizard and are enjoying your newfound dominance on the mat. But therein lurks a danger.... over-specialisation. Here’s a story to illustrate: On my travels, I found a great academy where the students all had amazing ashi-garami-to-leg-lock games, modeled off a system used by a famous grappling coach.They had obviously trained it intensely and were excellent at executing it. I spent my first few classes there tapping a lot. By the third session, I had started to figure the style out and how to counter it. It soon became apparent that for some of the guys leg-locks were almost the entirety of their game and that they had over-specialised. Don’t let this happen to you. Now go foot-lock some poor bastard ;)