How to Safely Practice Dangerous Leglocks

Q: Given that leglocks are dangerous, how do you train them safely and still have confidence that they will work in a ‘live’ setting.

A: Although ANY submission is potentially dangerous, cranking someone with a heel hook or toehold can not only end the match, it can end your opponent’s athletic career. Go here if you don’t know what a heel hook is. . If you don’t know what a toehold is, check out the second-last photo in this article about the kneebar.

These two leglocks are dangerous because they are twisting submissions and can severely damage ligaments in the knee and foot. Furthermore, for most submissions the pain starts well before there is any damage to the joint. With twisting leglocks, however, you often don’t feel much initial pain: as someone is applying it to you might not feel anything at all, then you might feel a bit of discomfort, and then BANG, you feel a lot of pain because something has popped or torn.

So how do you train these dangerous locks so that you can trust in their effectiveness? My answer has 3 parts:

1 – Master the straight anklelock and the kneebar

When applying 95% of leglocks you end up either facing your opponents head, or facing his feet. The mechanics of controlling your opponent in these two positions are relatively similar whether you are doing a ‘safe’ straight lock or a ‘dangerous’ twisting lock.

The straight anklelock teaches you how to control your opponent’s legs, body and bodyweight when you are facing his head. The mechanics and techniques to control your opponent in this position translate well to controlling your opponent when attacking with a heel hook (and some variations of the toehold). The kneebar is the cornerstone leglock for learning how to control your opponent when you are facing his feet: once you master the kneebar you will have a lot more confidence maintaining positions where you are facing your opponent’s feet while attacking with other techniques (the toehold, for example).

I should emphasize that just because straight anklelocks and kneebars are fairly safe submissions this DOESN’T give you permission to apply them ballistically. At full power and full speed these ‘safe’ submissions can still screw up someone’s joints pretty badly (just like any other jointlock). Apply them with control, and remember it is far better to have someone counter your submission because you were applying it too slowly, rather than injuring them and losing a training partner.

Here are a few resources to help you understand and improve your straight anklelock and kneebar:

2 – Apply dangerous leglocks with control

Most sensible people who want to include toeholds and heelhooks in their grappling practice catch-and-release sparring when it comes to these two submissions. They fight hard to get to the right body position, then hunt for the correct hand position, and then hold the submission loosely (or apply it very slowly and very gently). At this point BOTH PARTNERS STOP MOVING and acknowledge that the submission probably would probably have worked if it had been applied hard and fast.

All that is lacking in this type of sparring is the final explosion into the submission. If you understand how to control your opponent with your legs (by practicing the ankelock and kneebar), and you know how to get to the correct hand position for the heel hook and toehold (by practicing catch-and-release sparring) then you can be fairly certain that your techniques will work in a live situation.

3 – Pick your sparring partners carefully.

Obviously catch-and-release sparring doesn’t work if either party is a) too caught up in their ego to stop contesting a lock once it is on, or b) too inexperienced to know that they, or their partner, are in danger. Don’t do these leglocks with a newbie, or the class spaz, or the guy who won’t tap out unless he hears something pop, or the guy who needs to submit everyone hard and fast.

Here’s a link to a related article all about how to train dangerous submissions in a safe way

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