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Improve Your Toe Hold Mechanics with these Tips from Garry Tonon

Improve Your Toe Hold Mechanics with these Tips from Garry Tonon



To Hook or to Hold?

Leg locks were once considered unorthodox and dangerous, but times are changing. The leg lock game has risen to prominence in Jiu Jitsu circles in recent years as moves that were once considered off-limits make their way into the sport. The bad reputation of these attacks has mostly faded, clearing the path for innovators like Garry Tonon and John Danaher to popularize the leg-based style. However, the reputation of the heel hook as a dangerous attack has lingered even as these submissions become more popular.

While toe holds and straight ankle locks are good finishes, they have their downsides. Straight ankle locks can be very dependent on the physiology of your opponent and toeholds are often better as controls during a transition than an actual submission. Neither one of these moves presents the potential for damage that a heel hook does. If yanked on, heel attacks offer a small window in which to tap, requiring the practitioner to be aware of the positions and tap early. Failing to do so can result in damage to the knee almost instantly.

For these reasons, heel hooks are treated with more reverence, fear, and sometimes disdain, than the other leg and foot attacks. This isn’t just an opinion: they’ve been banned in both gi and no-gi IBJJF Competitions for years. With their recent rule change, only brown and black belt no-gi competitors may use them. The concern over the application of this hold demonstrates that heel hooks are at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to leg locks. If you’re concerned with finishing efficiently, you should look for a heel hook over any other type of leg lock… except when you shouldn't. In this video, Garry Tonon shows a situation where the correct move is to ignore the heel hook and look for a toe hold. 

The Special Case

Anyone who’s spent time around the leg game knows that you’re often at risk of getting reversed and leg locked by your partner when attempting these holds. In most cases, the heel should be your target, but there is an instance where this is decidedly not the case.

When people are in the Ashi position, they often expose their own heels while looking for the heel of their partner. This is doubly true when you are closer to a 50/50, or a mutual Ashi Garami. As they turn towards the ground to attack the heel that is buried underneath them, their top leg may slide into a position where it can be attacked easily. In these situations, we should think about the toe hold first.

Tonon on Toeholds


This move is built on your opponent making a mistake. Namely, they have you in Ashi but expose their own heel in an effort to go belly down and find your heel. When they do this, it feels natural to grab the heel and start working. This is incorrect in this instance for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t have a significant lateral squeeze on their knee in order to make the heel hook tight. Your attempt is bound to be fairly loose. 

Check Out More Great Content From Garry Tonon! Click Learn More!



This first problem may be helped by the fact that your partner is bearing down for their own submission and staying tightly connected, but that will lead us to an even more significant issue: we’ve already lost the race. As Tonon points out in the clip, the other person is in a far better position to complete the heel hook than you are. If you try to race your partner to finish the submission, you will likely end up losing that race.

The toe hold works well here because the usual problem, the opponent spiraling out and disconnecting, is a non-issue while they’re cemented to the ground trying to submit you. Since they’ve nowhere to turn while so entangled, they’ll be forced to tap. In the interest of being thorough, it’s worth covering the proper mechanics of the toe hold. Catch the last two minutes of the video for a visual breakdown of the same technique.

Proper Toe Hold Technique

  • Put the second knuckle of your middle finger to the pinky knuckle of your opponent’s foot
  • Overhook the foot with your free arm and come back for a keylock (double wrist grab)
  • Suck in your elbow, slide it down towards the heel, and fold the foot over your forearm
  • Apply pressure to finish: curl the toes inwards, bring the entire foot towards their butt, pull in and down on the elbow

Learning from a Master

Garry Tonon is one of the most respected and innovative no-gi grapplers alive. Specializing in submission-only styles, he has competed in both Metamoris and the Eddie Bravo Invitational, taking first place in his division in three consecutive years, from 2016 to 2016. Tonon is a student of Tom DeBlass and was a key factor in the growth and development of his teammate and friend, Gordon Ryan. A member of the Danaher Death Squad since its founding, it remains to be seen if Tonon will follow Danaher and the Ryan brothers to their next location after their recently announced split.

If you’d like to learn even more technical details on the leg lock game, I recommend taking a look at Garry’s awesome instructional, Breaking Legs and Breaking Hearts, available on Tonon does an awesome job of not only modeling the techniques, but breaking down the reasoning behind each one. Take a look and improve your leg lock game.



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