No Gi: Why to Heel Hook
I had a conversation not too long ago with a friend of mine who is a big MMA fan, but who has never stepped inside a gym himself. He was been watching professional MMA since almost its earliest inception in the 90’s, through the Pride Days in the early 2000’s right up into the modern era. As such he has followed the course of the development of the sport from the outside. We were having a conversation about training MMA, and specifically jiu-jitsu, and the subject of leg locks came up. My friend immediately had an emotional reaction, saying that he thought it was irresponsible to teach leg locks in a gym setting due to the high potential risk for injury. He was repeating an oft-repeated and much debated opinion. That leg locks, and heels hooks in particular, were one of the “dark arts” of the martial arts world. One gets the sense that if BJJ had existed in the middle ages that leg lockers would have been burned at the stake for heresy. But, like most heresy, the opinion is based more on politics, emotion and a desire to espouse ones own view point, more than it is based on reason.
Lets look at the arguments against the practice of heel hooks in a class setting, or at least avoiding them until one has reached a relatively advanced level. I think we can address them and move on.
First, lets look at the arguments that are the easiest to dismiss. There is a long tradition in BJJ of looking down leg locks. There is a sense that is somehow less “clean” or “honorable” to foot look or heel hook your opponent than it is armlock them or choke them. I could not disagree with this view point more vehemently. There is so such thing as a “clean” technique vs a “dirty” technique as long as its allowed in the rule set. There are only effective techniques vs ineffective techniques. The entire purpose of Brazilian Jiujitsu is to illicit a surrender from your opponent. If you are passing up opportunities to illicit that surrender you are not doing yourself any favours.
I love grappling with people who think leg locks are a “cheap” win. They put themselves at an immediate tactical disadvantage.
This type of bias comes from the rule set of your grappling art. I’d like to take a moment to contrast two grappling arts with a similar lineage but which developed along different evolutionary lines. Like aquatic Iguanas of the Galapagos Islands and their land locked counterparts in south America. Sambo is a Russian grappling martial art that is a derivative of Judo along with some other arts. Their rule set favors leg locks to the point that they have forbidden chokes in competition. As such they have developed a sophisticated and complex system of leg locks and leg lock defenses. Brazilian Jiujitsu on the other hand, is also a derivative of Judo, but instead developed a sophisticated system of strangles and chokes. Ignoring chokes in favour of leg locks, or ignoring leg locks in favour of chokes amounts to the same thing: an incomplete game. It is impossible for your opponent to simultaneously defend their upper and lower bodies. As such they will have to make a tactical decision to commit on one over the other. A complete grappling game allows you to take advantage of which ever opportunity presents itself.
Secondly I’d like to address the safety concern of attacking leg locks and in particular heel hooks. This is one of the more compelling arguments that anti-leg lockers make. They say the relative consequences of being injured by a heel hook are worse than other submissions. A heel hook if applied to the point of damage has the potential to tear the cruciate ligaments of the knee, particularly the ACL. An ACL surgery and recovery can take beween 12-18 months to recover from. That is certainly a steep price to pay. I would argue though that any submission has the potential to be dangerous. Some common submission in BJJ are actually more damaging than a heel hook. When I introduce the idea of attacking submissions to my new students I usually tell them to pretend they are a weapons range. If you are firing a gun on a gun range you have to respect the fact that it is a weapon that has the potential to be lethal if you aren’t paying attention to the rules.
In much the same way any submission that you apply without respect has the potential to be very damaging. A kimura and Americana are one of the most fundamental attacks which exist in jiujitsu. If a Kimura is applied too aggressively the results can be devastating. I would argue that a torn labrum, or a torn rotator cuff, both of which are likely with a cranked kimura, have the potential to be far more difficult to recover from than a heel hook and a torn ACL.
Next the argument that heel hooks should be saved until you are at a high belt level. Again, on the surface this seems like a reasonable and somewhat compelling argument. I still disagree however. If you wait until you are a purple belt to learn leg locks you have a huge disadvantage when it comes to recognizing, attacking and defending leg locks. You will be a purple belt everywhere and a white belt at leg locks. Secondly an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Most injuries in heel hooks come from an incorrect reaction from the defending grappler. This is usually because they don’t have enough experience defending leg locks and they react emotionally.
A good coach that understands the system can introduce them in a way that will keep everyone safe and make everyone better. I don’t want my students to wait until they are at the black belt level to learn techniques that are legal at that level, I want them to build a complete grappling game and add or subtract techniques based on the rule set you’re competing in. In an ideal world I want to have grapplers who could compete in freestyle wrestling, or no-gi BJJ, or Sambo, or any grappling rule set and simply apply the techniques which are appropriate in that environment.