The heel hook is one of the top submissions in No-Gi BJJ. Historically, heel hooks have been frowned upon in traditional Jiu-Jitsu circles. However, they are now part and parcel of modern Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
This article breaks down everything you need to know about heel hooks, including what they are, how to get them, and a few defensive tips on avoiding them.
Be warned upfront: heel hooks are dangerous because, by the time you feel pain, it is too late to tap. When first drilling and using heel hooks, go very slowly, take care of your partner, and confirm ahead of time that you are both comfortable playing with heel hooks.
What is a heel hook in BJJ?
A heel hook is a leg lock that primarily attacks the knee joint but can also damage the ankle.
Unlike straight foot locks or kneebars, which rely on hyperextending the joint beyond its normal range, heel hooks rely on rotational force on the knee joint, forcing it to twist completely contrary to its normal line of motion.
If fully applied, this twisting force on the knee will tear the ACL, MCL, and LCL ligaments in the knee, and generally wreck destruction on everything below the hip.
Types of heel hook
There are two primary types of heel hook in BJJ: the outside and inside heel hook. All heel hooks require you to have solid control of your opponent’s knee line by pinching your knees together on their thigh above the knee.
This ensures that your rotational force applies directly to their immobilized knee so that their hip cannot move to absorb the force.
Outside heel hook
The outside heel hook can be found in traditional ashi garame leg entanglements.
Instead of over hooking your opponent’s ankle like you would for a straight ankle lock, you weave your elbow crook behind their heel while controlling their toes in your armpit.
Once you have this position locked in, bridging into their knee line results in a tremendous rotational force on the knee and a devastating finish. The term ‘outside’ refers to the fact that your opponent’s heel rotates away from their body.
Here’s Craig Jones breaking down the outside heel hook.
Inside heel hook
The inside heel hook is the most devastating heel hook and is attacked from the 4/11 position and variations such as honey-hole.
Like the outside heel hook, for the inside heel hook you will control the opponent’s heel with your elbow pit while pinching down on their toes with your upper arm and lats.
With this position secured, a gentle bridge with your hips applies the rotational force directly to your opponent’s knee, with the heel rotating inwards towards their body.
Both variations of heel hook are effective, however the inside heel hook generally allows better leverage due to the positions where it is found – namely honey-hole, 4/11, and 50/50 leg entanglements.
Heel hook positions, defenses, and escapes
Good positioning when attacking heel hooks is required for reliable finishes. While there are many varieties of leg entanglements, the following are the primary relevant positions, and their respective heel hooks.
Defending the heel hook almost universally starts with hiding your heel from your opponent by rotating it into their torso and preventing them from cupping it in their elbow.
If they manage to wrap up your heel, you need to hand fight with them to release your heel before hiding it again.
You can also use your other leg to kick at their grip – but be aware, they can always attack or tie-up the other foot!
Once you’ve hidden your heel, escaping depends on which specific position you are in.
Ashi garame is typically the first leg lock position most people learn. While the straight ankle is available from ashi garame, the outside heel hook presents itself when your opponent defends by ‘putting the boot on’ and exposing their heel.
If you have hidden your heel effectively, following the standard ‘hop over’ ashi garame escape will lead you to safety.
Check out this video for a breakdown of this escape when your opponent attacks the heel hook.
4/11, honey-hole, or leg triangle
The 4/11, honey-hole, and leg triangle are al variations of leg entanglement that have your front leg laced over your opponent’s leg, and back leg behind their thigh to isolate the target leg. Depending on how you orient your feet, you can apply pressure to prevent them from turning away or driving forward into you.
The 4/11 and variants are the primary positions used when attacking the inside heel hook.
Escaping the 4/11 requires you to hide your heel and get to your opposite hip.
Check out the following video for a breakdown:
In the leg lock game, 50/50 refers to a position where you and your opponent both have your inside legs laced with one another, putting you in the exact same position relative to each other. As such, you are both vulnerable to the same attacks.
In this situation, the player who can hide their feet most effectively while attacking the opponent’s foot will typically win this ‘leg lock shootout’ scenario.
To escape the 50/50, you will have to attack your opponent’s knee pinch and open up his legs, allowing you to shift your weight and pull your leg out.
Check out this video for a breakdown on escaping and countering the 50/50.
Heel hooks: the bottom line
Becoming proficient in leg locks is no longer an option if you plan to compete in No Gi BJJ. With the heel hook being the ‘king of leg locks,’ drilling the positions, defenses, and escapes is an absolute must-have for a full grappling arsenal.
Learning heel hooks requires you to understand the main leg lock positions we’ve discussed, as well as the specific threats, defenses, and escapes from each.
The leg lock game takes a lot of time to learn, and at first seems almost like an entirely different martial art than traditional BJJ.
Nevertheless, a skilled leg locker will seamlessly transition from traditional upper body attacks and positions to lower body leg entanglements and submissions.