Kneebar Leglock Q & A

back spin kneebar 3

Should I attack the top or the bottom leg when doing a kneebar? New Question June 2006

When you are doing a kneebar, 90% of the time you will be on your side, attacking either the top or the bottom leg. Say you are attacking your opponent’s right leg with a kneebar: if you are lying on your right side then his leg is in the BOTTOM position, if you are on your left side then his leg is in the TOP position.

To see pictures of what it looks like to attack the bottom leg look at the very first picture in the Kneebar Mastery article or this picture of the week.

To see photos of someone attacking the top leg check out the “Basic Leg Position #2 about halfway down the Kneebar Mastery article, OR the front cover of *ahem* my Dynamic Kneebars DVD.

Sometimes you have a choice about placing the attacked leg on top or on bottom, and sometimes the position is forced upon you. So let’s cut to the chase: which side is better?

A lot comes down to personal choice: my coach, Marcus Soares, prefers to attack the TOP leg because he feels it is harder to counter. Personally I feel that attacking the BOTTOM leg is preferable, because it is more secure and allows your opponent less wiggle-room.

The answer, therefore, is that both sides are good, so long as you are comfortable there. Regardless of which side you prefer you should try to develop skill attacking both the bottom AND the top leg, because you might start out with the leg being on the bottom and then have that change as your opponent rolls around.

What are the pros and cons of kneebarring people with a) your legs crossed or triangled around the leg you’re kneebarring, or b) One of your legs (your inside leg) BENT at the knee, the other one behind your opponent’s butt and your legs NOT crossed or triangled?

A) Ankles crossed or triangled: this gives the best control of your opponent’s legs with the minimum number of counters. Whether you triangle your legs or cross your ankles depends on personal preference, body type and situation. For most people triangling your legs gives you the strongest ‘squeeze’ on your opponent’s legs, but there is a 6’5″ guy at our club for whom the leg triangle doesn’t work – his legs are too long. He is best off crossing his ankles and really squeezing his knees together.

I often like triangling my legs when I am attacking my opponent’s top leg (i.e. we are both on our left sides and I am attacking his right leg). When I am attacking his bottom leg (his left leg) I most often end up in the crossed ankle position.

B) The ‘Shin In” position: Some entries pretty much require that you end up in the shin in position, but I don’t think it is as strong or as stable as the 2 positions described above (unless you end up with his leg behind your armpit). Sometimes you end up in this position and, as your opponent rolls around in an attempt to escape, you can switch to a better control position.

What is the best way to finish a really strong opponent with the kneebar?

To apply the kneebar leglock submission on a really strong opponent your form needs to be perfect. You need to have your legs, your body, your arms and even your head in the right position. Against a very strong opponent you may need to use the ‘leg in the armpit’ grip (i.e. where you stuff your opponent’s leg behind your arm). Finally you have to consider the context – if your opponent can squat 500 pounds for reps and you can’t squat 200 pounds once then this might not be the finishing technique of choice in this particular situation. All techniques have their limitations, the kneebar is no different.

What is the best way to finish a really flexible opponent with the kneebar?

To kneebar someone with a hyperflexible knee you once again need to pay attention to your form. In particular you need to make sure that your body is bent 90 degrees at the hips and 90 degrees at the knees – if you are in a straight line your opponent may be able to match your back arch with the natural flexibility in his knee. Once again the ‘leg in the armpit’ grip may be the best grip to use on a hyperflexible opponent.

I have watched your video (Dynamic Kneebars) and you say that ideally you have your opponent’s foot between your head and the mat. Is this true for the ‘leg in the armpit’ grip?

For most of the hand and arm positions you want to try to keep his foot between your head and the mat. For the ‘leg in the armpit’ grip, however, you typically use your top armpit, the armpit further away from the ground. If you experiment with using the top arm and the bottom arm you will typically find that it is easier for you opponent to rotate his leg out of the lock if you use the bottom arm.

What are some tips for applying the kneebar leglock?

  1. When you’re applying the kneebar DO NOT have your body stretched out into a straight line – maintain a 90 degree bend in the hips and a 90 degree bend in the knees and you will have MUCH more power and more range of motion
  2. Pinch your knees together as hard as you can – this limits his ability to move his leg, weakens his muscles and makes the lock come on much sooner
  3. There are a variety of hand and arm positions, but try not to have your arms straight: weld his foot to your chest (or put it under your armpit) and you will be using the power of your legs and back, not your arm
  4. If you are on your side, keep his foot between your head and the mat, regardless if you are attacking his top or bottom leg. This limits his escape options.

How do I position my feet and legs?

There are many different ways to position the feet for this submission hold – the two most basic ways are:

  1. Crossing your ankles on his butt
  2. Triangling your legs (but make sure that the triangle is on the outside, not the inside, of the leg you are attacking – see next question).

Both methods are effective – I feel that for most people the first method is a little bit more powerful while the second method offers a little bit more control over his leg. It’s a trade-off, so take your pick.

Should I triangle my legs on the inside or outside of my opponent’s leg?

Triangling your legs to the outside of his knee makes the kneebar a lot tighter. Try both on a willing partner and I’m sure he’ll tell you that outside feels much tighter. It also cuts down on his desperation counters (ie trying to toehold the foot that would be on the inside if you did it wrong).

This foot-on-the-outside principle applies whether you are attacking his top leg or bottom leg. Say you are lying on your left side: from here you can have a kneebar on either his left (bottom) or right (top) leg. If attacking the left (bottom) leg then your right instep is triangled behind your left kinee. If attacking his right (bottom) leg then your left instep is behind his right knee.

Should I twist his leg with my hands?

Twisting the leg is a bonus: it can add a little bit of extra pressure and is especially useful to prevent him from moving his foot into a better position to escape.

I am having difficulty overpowering his leg, what can I do?

Strength is an important factor in most submissions, but technique can definately compensate for a strength difference between you and your opponent. I have seen grapplers successfully apply kneebars to opponents who outweighed them by 30 or 40 pounds. That being said, if your opponent is 100 pounds heavier than you, going for a kneebar wouldn’t be my first suggestion…

If you are having difficulty pulling his leg straight back then you are probably making one of the following mistakes:

  • not keeping the 90 degree bend in hips and knees,
  • not welding his foot to your chest,
  • not squeezing your legs together hard enough,
  • possibly being too low on his leg (ie not having his kneecap above your pubic bone).

Should leglocks, and kneebars in particular, be allowed in competition?

Many Jiujitsu teachers don’t teach leglock submissions, saying that they are too dangerous and/or that if you rely on them you will never learn to pass the guard. I agree that there is a bit of a danger of a beginner flopping back for an ankle lock instead of trying to pass the guard. That being said, I think that it is a BIG mistake to disallow leglocks. It’s a little bit like saying that working on the armbar from mount means that beginners don’t get good at holding mount…

Without the threat of leglocks how will you ever learn to defend them properly? Without the threat of leglocks many beginners develop unrealistic guardwork, leaving their legs WAY too exposed. After a certain point leglocks and guard passing actually complement each other: e.g. you fake an ankle lock and then go for the guard pass.

Also leglocks are becoming much more popular in competition (thanks to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the increasing popularity of no-gi competition). To learn the offensive and defensive aspects of a technique you NEED to include it in your sparring – if the knowledge stays theoretical (i.e. you are shown the counters but never get to use them on the mat) then you might as well be doing Kung Fu.

Now I agree that heel hooks probably have no place in the beginner’s menu. The risk-to-reward ratio is pretty high for that lock. Kneebars however, are a different story. I find it totally bafffling that many tournaments allow toeholds (which are quite dangerous) while banning kneebars (which are actually quite safe). I hope this will become change as the grappling community becomes more educated about leglocks.

If I am doing a rolling kneebar should I have my head on the inside or outside?

The basic rule is “keep your head in for rolling kneebars from standing, and head out for rolling kneebars from turtle”. There are, of course, always exceptions and variations, but here is why I do it my way:

One of the (very overlooked) keys to the rolling kneebar from turtle is to kick your opponent as hard as you can in the armpit with the hamstring of your outside leg. This drives him over you and into a much better position to finish the kneebar. This is impossible to do if you you keep your head to the inside.

Also if you keep your head in for a rolling kneebar from turtle I think it is too easy to cross-faced and countered.

Standing rolling kneebars are different – the bread and butter standing rolling kneebar, the one you always see working, is head in. You need to do this because you can’t kick him in the armpit efficiently when he is standing. By weaving your leg in and keeping your head in you maintain control over one leg and his hips which allows you to unbalance him.

Again – I don’t mean to say that anybody else’s approach is wrong, but this approach works great for me and anyone I have taught.

More detail about the kneebar, including over 30 entries, 20 counters and re-counters, and additional drills and exercises is presented in the Dynamic Kneebars DVD, available at


Comments ( )