The stiff arm on the Heisman Trophy is an iconic posture in football, and it is used by players in every single game. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, however, the stiff arm has a bit of a bad rap.
One of the first lessons a grappler learns is to NOT push the chest with straight arms when trapped in the mount. This piece of wisdom is reinforced by training partners endlessly applying effortless armbars until the lesson is learned.
But there are many times and places to use the stiff arm correctly…
One good example is in guard pass prevention. I’ve written before about this before in the breakthrough I had about pushing the head to prevent the guard pass. If you manage to lock your arm straight when you do this it is much more efficient than using a bent arm: you can push your opponent further away AND it leaves you with more energy to think about what to do next.
Another example comes from offensive guard work. If you’ve seen my Butterfly and X Guard DVD then you know that transitioning from butterfly guard to X guard is one of my favorite techniques. This technique requires a stiff arm push to the ribs in order to keep your opponent’s weight off of you. The most common error I observe when people try to do this technique is that they try to push with a bent arm, which usually just isn’t strong enough to do the trick.
A final example is the backwards somersault mount escape. In this technique you bridge to get your opponent’s weight forward, put your hands in his armpits, keep your arms straight and do a backwards somersault to escape the mount. If your arms are bent you just won’t be able to pull off this escape.
A straight arm can hold much more weight than a bent arm, because the bones, not the muscles, are doing the work. Consider weightlifting: a person can usually hold (or ‘lock out’) at least a hundred pounds more than they can actually bench press. If the arm is bent then the triceps muscle has to actively work to push the weight away, and gets tired much more quickly.
Keep in mind that when you stiff arm your opponent in the middle of his chest you might be giving him the positioning and energy he needs to apply a quick armbar on you. On those occasions when I do stiff arm someone in the chest I am on ultra-high alert for the armbar. If you want to avoid the armbar danger, restrict your stiff arming to the head, hips or side of the ribcage.
Finally I need to say a few things about injury prevention. Intentionally stiff arming an opponent is very different from just sitting around on the mat with your arm locked out. It’s also very different from putting your arm out straight to stop being thrown, which is a recipe for breaking your arm and/or dislocating your elbow. The general rule in jiu-jitsu is that you DON”T fully straighten your arms, and what I discussed today is an exception to that (very good) rule. Go ahead and stiff arm people, just be conscious about what you are doing and use it judiciously.