The fear of the unknown. Many grapplers, especially lower belts, refrain from training leg locks, which includes the dreaded heel hook in BJJ. While understandable from white to purple belt, it is the equivalent of learning a skill you are not allowed to use. Learning submissions like the heel hook comes with a responsibility, as you can injure someone severely if you are not careful.
Training in the defense for a heel hook holds the same purpose as training in martial arts for self-defense. As the adage goes: “It is better to have the skill and not need it than need the skill and not have it.”
The Inherent Danger Of Heel Hooks
The heel hook is one of the most, if not the most, dangerous submissions in BJJ. This is because the damage comes first before you feel the pain to tap out. If you have been training in BJJ for quite some time, it is important that you know how to escape it. Although the heel hook is only allowed for brown and black belts in most grappling competitions, it doesn’t hurt to know the defense in the early stages of your grappling journey.
It is critical to first understand the mechanics of how the submission works before doing it in training to avoid unintentionally injuring your training partners. Once the heel hook is fully locked in, it can cause irreversible damage.
It is essential that when practicing this technique in training that you and your partner understand the danger and recognize when to tap and not to fully crank the submissions once you get a strong bite. Some grapplers do a catch and release approach when training the heel hook because it is a safe way of training for the entries and transitions of the technique.
The best time to tap from a heel hook in the inside sankaku position is once the opponent has collected the heel. After collecting the heel, even the slightest thrust of about 2-3 cm using the hip is enough to damage and cause injury.
The problem with the heel hook is that it happens so quickly that you wouldn’t have time to react. Although you shouldn’t tap too soon until the opponent gathers your heel, recognize that it is already too late when that happens, especially during competitions.
Escaping The Inside Heel Hook
To start, understand that the inside sankaku, inside ashi garami, honey-hole, 411, and saddle are terms to the same position. It is a leg configuration where you triangle your legs inside the opponent’s legs. Eddie Cummings, a revolutionary figure in BJJ, a former student of John Danaher, and a master of leg locks, shows how to escape the inside ashi garami heel hook.
The ligaments are weaker when defending the inside heel hook than the outside heel hook. In the inside heel hook, the problem starts when your knee is outside the line of your ankle. What you have to do is take your knee inside the line. To do this, turn your knee down, curl your toes (point your feet similar to a ballerina), and push and pull your leg to slip on your heel.
Remember not to directly heel slip when your knee points upward and is outside the line of your ankle, as it is simply breaking your knee. The general defensive posture in the saddle position is that you turn your knee inside the line of your hip and ankle while you hide your heel below the opponent’s hip. It is similar to how you tuck your chin when someone takes your back.
Escaping The Outside Heel Hook
The most common mistake grapplers make when escaping the outside heel hook is to roll away as it exposes the heel from behind. The only time it’s safe to roll away is when your knee line is past the opponent. Likewise, to defend from the inside heel hook, tuck your feet beside the opponent’s hip to make it difficult for the opponent to grab your heel.
If the opponent is attacking the outside heel hook on your right leg, the correct way to clear your foot is to roll on the right towards the heel hook. You can use your left leg as an anchor against the opponent’s hip or body as you roll over. Post your hand on the floor and pull your right knee out. In an inside heel hook, rolling in the direction where your heel is trapped will expose your heel, as opposed to the outside heel hook.
Escaping The Heel Hook From 50/50
If the opponent catches you in a heel hook from the 50/50 position, note that their aim is to lock your heel and toe, creating two points where your foot is stuck, including your hip. The rotational torque happens in the knee. There are two ways to escape the heel hook from 50/50, as shown by Livia Giles. The first is to clear your heel through the gap and get your toes out by pulling them out.
To slip the heel, block the opponent’s hands and don’t let them connect their grip to lock the heel hook. If the opponent successfully connects their hands, point your toes down (ballerina toes) to prevent the opponent from getting a good grip on your heel. After pointing, rotate your toe away from the opponent and kick your foot deep in, curling it towards their ribs as your knee faces down.
To slip your toes rather than the heel, right after you get in 50/50, the opponent will most likely dig for a heel. What you need to do is actively curl your heel towards your hip. This prevents the opponent from getting good leverage even if they manage to catch your heel.
Use your hand to prevent them from connecting their grip, and use your other foot to block their bicep to create a gap and slip your toe. Stretching your feet like a ballerina is a suggested exercise that can help you in defending the heel hook.
Positional drilling is an essential aspect of building your defensive game. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, creating a solid and annoying defensive game means you are on the path to becoming an unstoppable grappler. Once you know how to escape from all positions, it doesn’t matter where you end up when grappling against someone. You will have the confidence to constantly defend and stay safe from attacks.
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