The Heel Hook – An Evolution in Modern BJJ

Heel hooks have become formidably popular over the last years. With the growing popularity of submissions-only events and submission wrestling tournaments such as ADCC, there’s a good number of leg lock specialists who shined in these formats catching opponents with different variations of heel hooks.

Many avoid heel hooks for good reasons whether in a tournament setting or a controlled training environment. The main reason why it’s banned by major organizations such as IBJJF and UAEJJF is because of the chances of causing debilitating injuries to the athlete. Heel hook damages the knee ligaments by rotating the knee internally or externally.  

Origins of Heel Hook 

The origins of the heel hook can go as far back as Ancient Greece. It has been seen in an artwork wherein a centaur is heel hooking a man. And in great detail, the centaur’s horse lower body is attempting to control the guy in somewhat a 50/50 position.

But one of the guys who made heel hooks famous is Ivan Gomes during the 1960s. During one of Carlson Gracie’s interview, he mentioned Ivan Gomes as one of the first Brazilians who made it big in Japan and used the heel hook that we know today.

However, if you will ask his younger brother, Jose Gomes, he said that heel hook was taught to them by Ze Maria (Jose Maria Freire) and he was then taught by Take Yano and Builson Osmar who are judokas who came from a school called Butokukai.

Banning Heel Hooks from BJJ 

In 1970, after the inauguration of the very first jiu-jitsu federation in 1969, heel hook was among the moves that were banned including kneebar, and spinal locks. The reason these moves have been banned was that it was then considered “lacking in technique” according to coral belt Pascoal Duarte.

The term “lacking in technique” was a stigma for practitioners who resort to leg attacks because they lacked the technical proficiency to pass the guard. It’s also a following the old dogma that position precedes submission.

It was only in the 90s when we saw the resurgence of heel hooks in competition. NAGA, Grapplers Quest, and ADCC are among the first organizations that started to allow the use of heel hook in tournaments.

This was the same time when competitors mainly from the US are already joining these tournaments.

Setting up the Heel Hook 

Heel hooks are now common in submission-only formats. It has become popular especially in NoGi submissions tournaments simply because guards have become good over the years. And also, heel hooks can finish the fight quick.

There are two popular ways how you can get the heel hook. One of them is the 50/50. However, Keenan Cornelius pointed out that one of the weaknesses of doing heel hook from 50/50 is that it’s easier for the opponent to defend and control the arms attacking the heel hook. In addition to this, it’s easier to nullify the heel hook by standing up from the 50/50.

A more common setup to catch the heel hooks is coming from the saddle position. The saddle is a more secure position mainly because it becomes harder for the opponent to grip fight once you torque the knee. What saddle does is have control of the opponent’s knee and hip. It has also been utilized as a good sweeping position recently in IBJJF tournaments. Plus, it can also serve as a great way to set up straight footlocks by attacking the far leg.

Killing Giants

One of the best practitioners to learn the heel hook from the saddle position is Lachlan Giles. He was able to catch bigger and high-level guys in ADCC with some of his heel hook attacks proving how effective his leg attacks are. Despite being disadvantaged by size, he was able to get to third place in the ADCC absolute division banking mainly on heel hook setups.

Giles points out that the proper way to saddle is not by extending the leg once doing the figure four position. Instead, it’s better to torque your leg facing the opponent. By doing so, it helps block the hip of your opponent preventing him or her from spinning off your attack.

Finishing the heel hook is all about torquing the knee either internally or externally. Lachlan Giles explained that he prefers to lean towards his opponent to expose the heel rather than fall away from his opponent making it harder to catch the heel. From this angle, he then proceeds to bend the knee and avoid the leg from being straight.

A common mistake among people applying the heel hook is they tend to trap the toe high on their armpit. Instead, Lachlan Giles prefers to trap the toe somewhere in his triceps and ribs while the forearm catches the heel. The other hand then establishes a gable grip to torque the knee externally.

When finishing the heel hook, Giles doesn’t just turn towards the mat. Instead, he isolates the knee by extending his body using his lower body as leverage to add pressure on the knee.

How do You Train Heel Hooks Minus The Injuries?

What makes Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu popular is the fact that you can go 100% and still be able to do it again tomorrow and the day after. But there will always be an exception. You can consider heel hooks as an exception. You can easily get a year off from training and deal with costly surgery and rehab in case you injure your knee.

To minimize the risk of getting injured, you and your partner will have to be extra careful when performing the submission. Apart from the actual heel hooks, escaping the saddle can also torque the knee accidentally and could even cause some injuries.

Also, it’s recommended to not clasp both hands when doing the heel hook in training. It allows less pressure and could give the other person enough time to tap.

Instructors should also be very cautious to whom they should be teaching heel hooks. It should be reserved for advanced players and competitors considering the risks involved if anything goes wrong. If you isolated the knee right using the saddle, it only takes a small movement to damage the ligaments and joints.

About the author

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Richard Presley

A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Richard is the owner and primary writer of Attack The back. Check out my About Me Page to learn more!