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Joint Locks: Most Popular Jiu Jitsu Locks, and How They Work

Joint locks are one of the most effective techniques in martial arts. They work because they make use of physics and leverage, rather than brute strength – theoretically allowing someone to submit a larger opponent, if they use correct technique.

There are a number of martial arts that make use of joint locks, including Judo, Aikido, Hapkido, Sambo and Kung Fu. The most popular art to use joint locks, however, is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and, by extension, MMA).

In this post, we’ll explain the theory behind joint locks as a submission technique, and touch on several popular joint locks in BJJ.

What is a Joint Lock, and Why Do They Work?

Joint locks work by using leverage to manipulate your opponent’s body so that a joint reaches its full range of motion. If any more pressure is applied to the joint, it breaks, forcing the person to submit, or suffer a nasty injury.

You can see how a joint lock works by observing the movements in your own joints. Take your arm, for example.

Straighten your arm – easy enough, right? However, what if you keep trying to manipulate the angle past 180 degrees?

If you’re very flexible, you may be able to extend a little past 180, but everyone will eventually get to the point where it can’t extend any further. That’s because the elbow joint does not have full range of motion. It can bend one way (such as when you’re doing a curl), but the arm can only extend to a straight angle the other way (give or take a little from person to person).

Joint locks target this range of motion, forcing the joint to its maximum level. The part, however, is not so much the extension of the joint, but control of it. The idea is to isolate the joint (say, the elbow for example), to where the force of your entire body is going against the strength of just that one joint.

By doing this, you should have more power to work with, no matter the size of you or your opponent, allowing you to finish the submission lock.

The Keys to Doing an Effective Joint Lock

There are two keys to effective joint locks: leverage and control. Almost all joint locks require these two elements – if your submission isn’t working, look for which one you’re missing.


Leverage, or lever physics, influences the amount of effort needed to move a proportional load. Generally, leverage works by placing a “fulcrum” in between the load (what you’re trying to move) and the effort (the force coming from you).

This video explains it better and more clearly than my two years of high school physics can:

To use the armbar as an example, you apply force on one end (the end of your opponent’s arm), while using your hips as a fulcrum, on the other side of the joint. That allows you to put more pressure on the elbow joint, in the middle, and break it.


Leverage is the first key to a successful joint lock. If you’re strong enough, that may be all you need.

However, in most cases, you will also need to control your opponent, and in doing so, isolate the joint you’re attacking.

This achieves two things. First, it puts your whole body’s force against the force of the joint only, which will come out in your favor 99.9% of the time.

Second, if you control your opponent’s body, they can’t move around and change the angle, which may affect your leverage, to where your leverage is not effective anymore.

In the arm bar example, this means the power of your legs is vital, in order to control your opponent’s shoulders and posture, so that you maintain your fulcrum (hips) in the right place to finish the submission.

Does Strength Matter for Joint Locks?

While martial arts techniques, particularly in BJJ, are designed to put skill and leverage over strength, strength still does come into the equation.

The stronger you are, relative to your opponent, the less you need to rely on leverage, and isolating the opponent’s joint.

Think of it like breaking a full chicken wing (this is the example I most like to use when explaining joint locks).

You can use leverage to separate the flat from the drum, by twisting the joint past its range of motion to where it snaps.

However, if you’re strong enough, you could also use brute strength to just pull it apart, without twisting.

This is essentially the same in Jiu Jitsu. Proper technique matters a whole lot less if, for example, you’re a 250lb heavyweight against a featherweight. You may be able to power through the inefficiencies of your technique.

You still need some degree of leverage and control, but it will be a lot easier to maintain and apply force if you have a significant strength advantage.

Popular Joint Locks in BJJ

Alongside chokes, joint locks are among the most common submission techniques in Jiu Jitsu. Here are some of the most common BJJ joint locks:


Joint targeted: elbow

The armbar is one of the most basic fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu. You can attack this from multiple positions, but it’s most common to target from full guard. The key is to hyperextend the opponent’s arm, using your hips as a lever to attack the elbow joint.

^ Armbar submission (Parhessiastes, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)


Joint targeted: shoulder

The kimura is another common joint lock, this one attacking the shoulder. It works very much like breaking a chicken wing – you rotate your opponent’s arm, controlling it with a “figure-four” grip on the wrist, to rotate the shoulder past its natural range of motion, eventually dislocating it.

^ kimura shoulder lock (, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Joint targeted: shoulder

The americana submission is very much like a kimura, just in reverse. It attacks the shoulder too, only instead of your opponent’s hand pointing down, it points up. 

^ a figure-four grip, with the attacker grabbing his own wrist and his opponent’s (to apply an americana submission)


Joint targeted: shoulder

Another shoulder lock, the omoplata puts the shoulder under the same pressure as a kimura, only you use your legs to control and apply the pressure, rather than the upper body.

^ omoplata shoulder lock (Rebelx2g1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Joint targeted: shoulder

One last shoulder lock. The baratoplata is less common than the previous three shoulder locks, but very sneaky and effective. It’s a little bit like an omoplata, but in reverse. The aim is to trap your opponent’s hand in between your legs, while their elbow is outside the legs, and your arm in the middle acting as the fulcrum. This allows you to attack the shoulder joint.


Joint targeted: wrist

Effective, sneaky and versatile, the wristlock can work by rotating the wrist, compressing it or hyperextending it. Since the wrist is a smaller joint, it generally requires less pressure to attack, and can often be an opportunistic submission, hit by trapping your opponent in difficult positions.


Joint targeted: knee

The kneebar is just like an armbar, except attacking the leg (specifically the knee joint). The motion is almost exactly the same – you put force down on the foot (as opposed to the hand), with your hips putting force in the other direction past the knee, with the goal of hyperextending the knee.

^ kneebar submission

Heel hook

Joint targeted: knee

The heel hook, despite the name, actually attacks the knee. You “hook” the heel (hence the name), while controlling the opponent’s leg, above the knee. This allows you to put a rotation on the knee joint, which is devastating when done correctly.

Toe hold

Joint targeted: knee (and sometimes ankle)

The toe hold is another knee attack, again working by putting force on the foot, controlling past the knee, resulting in pressure on the knee.

The name comes from the technique of holding onto the opponent’s toes, which you combine with a figure-four grip, then rotating the foot in a chicken wing kind of motion, attacking the knee. 

The toe hold can sometimes attack the ankle joint too, but is most commonly a knee attack.

^ toe hold submission, gripping the opponent’s foot to rotate and put pressure on the knee.

Ankle lock

Joint targeted: ankle/foot

The ankle lock, or footlock, is designed to rotate or hyperextend your opponent’s ankle. There are several variations of the ankle lock, such as the straight footlock and estima lock, which itself has a couple of different ways it can be done.

Legal & Illegal Joint Locks

Most arm locks, shoulder locks and footlocks are legal in BJJ, at all belt levels.

Wristlocks are legal in most competitions at blue belt and above. Straight kneebars may be allowed at this level as well. 

Other knee attacks, in particular heel hooks, are illegal at many levels, generally only allowed at black belt levels.

Aside from the common joint locks above, some techniques will attack the neck or spine. These techniques – such as the twister (spine) and neck crank (neck) are almost always illegal in BJJ, however are allowed in pro MMA fights.

Small joint manipulation – attacking joints such as the fingers and toes – is illegal in BJJ.

BJJ Locks & Submission Holds: In Summary

Joint locks are an effective way to control or submit someone in BJJ, MMA, and real life self-defense scenarios.

With this post, you should have a good understanding of the most common and effective Jiu Jitsu locks, attacking areas such as the arm, shoulder and foot.

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