Your Leg Lock Primer
Historically, a primer is a short book or document that gives one an introduction to a topic. In the past, primers have been used to teach children to read or to briefly encapsulate a topic for easy digestion and quick understanding. With the rapid growth and spread of jiu jitsu as a sport and hobby, along with the ever-changing landscape of popularly favored techniques or schools of thought, it is helpful to have a short introductory guide to help practitioners begin to understand an area that might be new to them.
In this article, we are going to give a short primer on leg locks, along with a number of helpful resources to further your study, should this be an area that you want to continue to study. If this is your first foray into the world of lower body attacks, hopefully this peaks your interest and causes you to explore more into this sometimes misunderstood aspect of Jiu Jitsu and submission grappling. There are more resources popping up every day about this aspect of submission grappling and with this rise of information, which can be very positive and influence the development of the sport, there is also the possibility that the information may not be legit. Be mindful as you study and make sure that you are seeking out the absolute best sources of information.
What are leg locks?
Let's keep things as simple as possible. The process of education can be seen as the accumulation of knowledge and connections. When learning new concepts, our brains are constantly referring back to and connecting new info to concepts already in our brains and understood by us. With that said, the general idea behind any limb submission is the attempt to apply pressure in a way that stresses a joint and the connective tissues surrounding said joint by moving it past it's normal range of motion or perhaps by applying a twisting pressure. There are also a number of submission known as "crushes" where intense pressure is placed on the muscle tissue, resulting in pain that forces the opponent to submit or incur physical damage.
The joints and connective tissues (ligaments and tendons) that can potentially be attacked start at the hips and work down to the knees, ankles, and toes. Though not generally attacked in themselves, the hips are key for the leg locker to control the movement and potential escape options of the person who is in the defensive position. The knee can both be hyper-extended in a knee bar, where the leg is kept straight and pressure is placed in a push/pull fashion at the hip level and foot level to create the hyperextension and/or twisted as in the case of a heel hook, where the foot is trapped against the opponent's upper body and the foot is both extended and twisted simultaneously. For the ankle, similarly there can be the over extension through the means of a straight ankle lock or Achilles lock, which essentially stretches the foot in a downward fashion beyond it's normal flexion.
So on the most fundamental level, the goal of the leg locker is to isolate and control one or more of the legs, very similarly as to when you are attacking an arm. First and foremost, the targeted limb must be isolated and controlled. Once controlled, depending on the submission being sought, the pressure will begin to be applied.
To recap, the most common leg attacks can be broken into techniques that either hyperextend a joint, twist a joint, or come in the form of a crush, where immense pressure is applied to a muscle inducing pain and the submission. Knee bars, toe holds, and straight ankle locks involve over extending the joints beyond a comfortable range of motion, which puts incredible pressure on tendons and ligaments and in some cases, even the muscles themselves that surround the joints. Heel hooks, which also involve some elements of hyperextension, also include twisting elements which further escalates the level and intensity of the submission.
All of these techniques can also be compared to upper body submissions as well, which may help you understand the mechanical aspect of the technique. A knee bar works the same way as an armbar. If you understand one, you should be able to understand the effectiveness of the other. Once you've made that connection, it will just be a matter of understanding the body movements that are necessary to put yourself into the proper position for the technique. Heel hooks, the most feared of the leg attacks, can be compared to wrist attacks in that they both attack the furthermost part of our limbs, whether it be our arms or our legs. There are some wrist lock variations that involve a great deal of twisting of the joint to apply pressure to the connective tissue. These are most directly comparable to the heel hook submission which involves the trappling of the heel and foot and the slow twisting of the joint until pressure is felt in the foot, ankle, knee and even hip in some cases.
For more on the different types of leg locks, check out this piece from BJJ Fanatics where we discussed the topic further!
Who are the best leg lock practitioners?
The rise of leg attacks in the recent decade comes after a long period of suppression. There has historically been a suppression or shunning of leg locks, most accurately attributed to fear and misinformation about their relative safety. The largest and most powerful sport organization in competitive Jiu Jitsu, the IBJJF regulates leg attacks very strictly based on Gi and No Gi competition and also based on belt levels of practitioners. With the rise of alternative competitive stages, the use and interest in leg attacks continues to rise. Because of this, there is a definite rise in the number of academies who are beginning to teach these techniques.
There are a number of competitors and instructors who have utilized leg attacks with much success in their sport. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of practitioners, especially since this list continues to grow. For the sake of this primer, let's look at an old school practitioner who is still active and influential today and talk briefly about the new school.
One of the pioneers of the lower body submission game has been Dean Lister who continues to be active today. Well-known as one of the OGs of the leg lock game, his influence on the current crop of leg attack gunslingers is highly evident. Dean's performance at the premier grappling competition, the ADCC in 2003 can arguably be said to have done for leg locks, what Royce Gracie's early UFC performances did for BJJ in general.
To learn more about Dean's 2003 ADCC Absolute run, check out our previous article from BJJ Fanatics!
Lister's impact and influence can be seen on the mats around the world. With the increased number of submission grappling events with their much more liberal and open-minded rule sets as opposed to the more strict IBJJF competitions, more and more lower body gunslingers are popping up from academies and affiliations around the world. One of the premier submission only events is the Eddie Bravo Invitational, started by a pioneer in his own right, Eddie Bravo. Eddie Bravo has built an entire empire on the notion of making jiu jitsu more effective for fighting, which has also included a strong emphasis on leg attacks.
Therefore, a number of his affiliation representatives, such as Denny Prokopos (see his instructional videos The Art & Science Of Locking The Shoulder From Rubber Guard) or the Martinez brothers to name of few have helped propel leg locks into the spotlight. But no group has dominated the world of submission grappling like the group, referred to initially in a tongue in cheek manner as the "Danaher Death Squad", but who have lived up to their name with their total domination of the EBI events. Grapplers such as Eddie Cummings, Garry Tonon, and Gordon Ryan, amongst others, led by Renzo Gracie black belt John Danaher have brought a innovative and highly systematic approach to their submission and grappling system, with arguably one of the most unstoppable leg attack games of any team.
Where can I learn more about leg locks?
The best source of information to add to your BJJ game is your instructor, team and home academy. Ideally, this will get you started on your road to leg lock expertise, but unless you're training in the blue dungeon with Garry Tonon and Gordon Ryan, under John Danaher, chances are you're going to have to supplement your learning.
Seminars with premiere leg lock practitioners can be a great supplement to the instruction from your home academy. Observing and listening to these high level competitors will have your knowledge of lower body submissions "hocky sticking" and help leap frog you past your opponents who don't make the investment.
If you can't get to seminars another great way to supplement your home training is via instructional videos. Legends like Dean Lister and others have put their knowledge out there for us to learn from and you should definitely take advantage of this fact.
The classic and complete "K.A.T.C.H." Leg Lock system of Dean Lister is one of the best places to start your training of key leg lock positioning, submissions and more. You can access it in minutes via the On Demand option (also available in DVD format).