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How To Do the Toe Hold, and How to Defend It

You’re not a true leg locker if the toe hold is not a part of your game.

The toe hold is a versatile foot lock submission, which you can hit from a number of different positions, as well as during transitions. It can go on pretty fast, getting the tap, or cause your opponent to take evasive action and open up other opportunities.

It works great in Gi and No-Gi, as well as MMA, where it can be a good way to threaten from the bottom and escape bad positions.

This post will share with you everything you need to know about the toe hold, and how to hit this simple but effective technique.

What Is a Toe Hold?

The toe hold is a lower leg joint lock submission, that attacks the foot and/or the knee. The person applying the toe hold grabs their opponent’s toes with one hand, locking up control with a figure-four or kimura grip, to rotate and put pressure on their opponent’s joints/tendons.

Over the years, it’s been known by several names in Portuguese, including mata leão no pé, americana no pé or pé de vaca. The toe hold grew particularly popular in the 1970s, taught by Rolls Gracie, who broke tradition in the Gracie family by encouraging the use of leg locks.

The issue with Gracie’s and leglocks came from Grandmaster Helio Gracie, who was said to look down on them as a “suburban (uncultured/brutish) technique”.

At the same time, Oswaldo Fadda, whose lineage is the oldest and most prestigious challenger to the Gracie lineage, taught leg attacks to his students more freely, which made it controversial when Gracie family members began to adopt these techniques.

Some notable proponents of the toe hold included Marcio “Macarrão” Stambowsky, who learned under Rolls Gracie in the 1970s, and Rodrigo “Comprido” Medeiros, who brought the submission back into the spotlight in a comp in 1999, after years in which is was not often used.

Nowadays, with the growing popularity of foot locks, as well as open guard variants (which make it easier to attack the foot), the toe hold is a staple of any pro leg locker’s game.

How Does the Toe Hold Work?

The toe hold works by applying a kimura grip to the foot, and twisting. According to Stambowsky, he and Rolls Gracie’s students used to say it was like a wristlock on the foot, because of the similar motion.

This figure-four grip allows you full control of your opponent’s foot, which can be used to torque the ankle, or the knee, or both.

Whether it should primarily hit the knee or the ankle is up for debate. Depending how you can apply it, the toe hold can realistically attack either joint. You can attack it similar to a wristlock, in which case your goal will be to put pressure on the ankle ligaments.

However, you can also attack it with the lower half of your body controlling further up your opponent’s body, past the knee. This will let you use your control on the foot as kind of a lever, and put pressure on the knee, which will give out a lot quicker than the ankle ligaments.

How to Apply a Toe Hold

To apply a toe hold, you’ll grip the top of your opponent’s foot at the toes, with your pinky finger on their pinky toe.

With your other hand, reach under your opponent’s leg and grab your own wrist, in a figure-four grip.

See here:

toe hold grip

Once you’ve got this grip, torque your opponent’s foot inwards, pointing their toes towards their butt. This will put pressure on the ankle ligaments and often the knee.

The most important part to note is the grip. Many people make a mistake with their grip, putting it too high up the foot, towards the ankle. This doesn’t allow you to get the proper leverage on the ankle.

Remember it’s called toe hold. Always grip on the toes.

Here’s a video showing a basic and close-up view of the toe hold being applied, as well as a setup from open guard:

Here’s another video describing how the toe hold works from a scientific point of view:

You can set up the toe hold from many different positions. It’s often done from open guard or somewhat neutral positions like guard (top) or half guard (top). You don’t usually attempt it from a strong position like mount or side control, since you half to partially turn your back to do it, thus risking losing your position.

Check out this video of Dean Lister showing off how to apply the toe hold:

How to Defend the Toe Hold

To defend the toe hold, you will usually try to spin, and in doing so, free your leg from the toe hold grip. 

If you roll with the rotation of the foot, you’ll ease the pressure on your ankle/knee, buying time. Thus, if you’re trying to finish the toe hold, it’s important to control your opponent to stop them rolling.

If you roll, it’s vital you roll the right way – with the submission, rather than against it – or else you’ll double the pressure, and most likely get a serious injury.

Otherwise, if you’re unable to roll, you’ll need to use your upper body or your free foot to break the toe hold grip, and regain control of the leg that was in danger.

Check out this video for help defending the toe hold:

Toe Hold FAQs

What does a Toe Hold damage?

The toe hold primarily attacks the ankle. However, it can sometimes be more effective at attacking the knee, as the knee ligaments damage much quicker than the ankle.

Is a Toe Hold dangerous?

The toe hold can be devastating when done right. It doesn’t come on quite as quickly as a heel hook, however it is more dangerous than a straight ankle lock or kneebar.

Why is it called Toe Hold if it attacks the ankle/knee?

The name comes from how the submission is done – gripping and holding your opponent’s toes. Use this to always remember how to properly apply the toe hold grip, on the end of the foot, near the toes, rather than higher up near the ankle.

Are Toe Holds legal in BJJ?

Under IBJJF rules, toe holds are legal in brown belt and above. Some competitions allow them at a lower level though, including ADCC rules, which allow them at all levels.

Generally you won’t train toe holds at all in the gym until at least blue belt level.

Are Toe Holds legal in the UFC?

Toe holds are fully legal in the UFC, and almost any pro MMA rule set.

What’s the best position to do a Toe Hold from?

Toe holds are often done from open guard, where you have the space to reach in and grab your opponent’s feet, without completely giving up your back. They are also common from typical leglock positions such as 50/50 or checkmate.

Toe Hold Submission – In Summary

The toe hold can be an incredibly effective submission, in both BJJ and MMA. It can affect multiple areas of the body, it can be hit from numerous positions and angles, and can lead to sweeps, passes and reversals if you’re not able to finish it.

You probably don’t want to start doing toe holds in your gym if you’re still a white belt, but for colored belts and MMA fighters, it’s a submission that’s definitely worth learning.

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