Should Beginners Learn Leg Locks?

Garry Tonon has been training religiously with John Danaher for over two years.

In classical, traditional jiu-jitsu there is a hierarchy of positions, situations, and submissions.  Because of the history of the sport, leg locks are viewed on the low end of that hierarchy, often being decried as “cheap” or not fundamentally sound.  This has led many academies to not study them and especially not offer them as part of their white belt curriculum. Is it time for leg locks be taught to white belts?

I started studying leg locks in earnest close to the end of my time at blue belt.  Up until that point, I thought I understood leg locks because if I got a hold of many opponents’ feet I could often get the tap.  There are of course levels to the game, and when I finally encountered moderately seasoned, skilled leg lockers, I realized that I was a brand new white belt when it came to lower body submissions.

The thing with leg locks is that many people who train either don’t learn them at all, or learn them improperly.  John Danaher famously philosophized that leg locks break the mold of the 4 step system that BJJ offers its practitioners.  I would tend to agree with Danaher, but at the same time I’d say that leg locks accomplish the same things as the 4 step system but by using different methods.

A summary of Danaher’s description of these 4 steps is:

  1.  Ground your opponent
  2.  Circumvent their legs
  3.  Improve position
  4.  Get the finish.

To the untrained eye, when someone drops back for a leg lock, they fail to circumvent the legs but rather entangle them. They fail to improve position and often worsen position all in the name of getting to the finish.  Of course, any trained leglocker will tell you that the positioning attained in order to set up leg attacks takes away lower body power from the person being leg locked, thus effectively circumventing the legs AND improving position, so the 4 step system remains in tact.

The question remains, should white belts/beginners be learning leg locks?  My answer is a bit more complex than one may expect. Yes, white belts should learn leg locks, but they should also learn how leg locks work into overarching positional hierarchy.

For example, if you’re not capable of executing a guard pass, but instead sacrifice position for a leg lock you’re doing yourself a disservice. If your opponent is able to defend against the leg lock, and you are unable to recover position and use that exchange to pass their guard, you’re missing out.  I see it all the time with beginners who sit back for ankle locks without properly securing their desired position.

There’s also the issue of understanding how to apply leg locks safely in training.  Beginners should learn to control the position first. Just like you wouldn’t want a first day white belt gripping and ripping an armbar or a kimura, there’s a lot to be said about teaching the control positions for leglocks before teaching someone how to break another person’s leg.

There are a lot of general knowledge gaps throughout the jiu-jitsu world regarding leglocks because they have been treated as taboo for so long.  No, I am not advocating for white belts discarding the fundamental hierarchy of position, control, and submission, but I am absolutely saying that if someone is a blue or worse yet purple belt and doesn’t understand the fundamentals of leglocks, it’s as bad as them not understanding the fundamentals of armbars or cross collar chokes.


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