The Armbar – A History & Techniques

Let’s face it. Every Jiu Jitsu practitioner is looking for something to add to their arsenal. With a multitude of ways to mangle, suffocate and disable an opponent, it can sometimes be prudent to go back to basics and apply an ancient, yet powerful submission: The Armbar.

Known as the cross armlock in Judo, or ude hishigi juji gatame; this hyperextension of the elbow joint, when applied correctly, requires controlled force and full-body leverage to apply and secure the lock; as well as preventing the opponent from escaping. Known as a traditional lock, and not to be confused with the general term ‘armlock,’ the armbar is a very specific movement that is easily identifiable. The practitioner has the opponents arm, generally at the wrist, secured between their legs. The practitioner will have one of their legs across the opponent’s chest and the other across the opponents face while squeezing their own knees together. With the thumb facing up, the practitioner holds the opponent’s wrist to their chest, making sure that the opponents elbow joint is lying across their hips. When the arm is secured, the practitioner can apply pressure to the elbow joint by arching their hips against or towards the elbow. The pressure from the hips moving one way, and the trapped arm being pulled by the practitioner’s torso another, causes the joint to break or the opponent to tap out.

The armbar is a great submission because it has many variants and can be performed from dominant and non-dominant positions. An armbar can be available to a savvy practitioner in nearly every position on the ground: armbar from full guard, armbar from side mount, armbar from bottom side mount, armbar from mount, armbar from the back. Being so ubiquitous in a variety of situations that can arise while rolling; it is easy to see why the armbar is one of the first submissions generally taught to beginner students.

History

You have to go back to ancient Greece to see artwork and historical references to submissions. Although Grappling has existed for thousands of years, going as far back as 15000 BC, it wasn’t until the ancient Greeks came along that we began to see submission holds incorporated into grappling. With their wrestling and pankration (meaning all-force), the Greeks applied and recorded submissions such as armlocks and chokes. Unfortunately, not much imagery on the technical aspects of the submissions has survived.

With regards to Brazilian Jit Jitsu, the armbar has had a prominent role as a submission of choice for many practitioners, including Carlos Gracie Sr. The armbar was so effective that it became extremely popular around this time. The closed guard to armbar setup became widely utilised in the jiu jitsu world. Being applied from full guard, the armbar setup from bottom became a saviour submission for any practitioners who frequently ended up on their back, or those who favoured a defensive, reactive style. It is perhaps noteworthy that the armbar, although popular from top position, became most popular in the early days from a full guard position. This may be due to the positional sacrifices one would have to make from the mount position. It would be more stable and secure to apply an Ezekiel choke or a cross choke from mount as it allows the practitioner to remain in a dominant position, whereas the armbar takes the pressure and weight off the opponent and allows them space and time (depending on the attacker’s speed) to make an effective escape.

The armbar is also a favoured defensive submission for those who come under attack outside of the gym. When attacked in the street for example, or by a much larger opponent, the practitioner may end up on their back (hopefully in full guard). From this position, the armbar is particularly effective against an untrained, larger opponent. An attacker who is untrained is generally unaware of their arms crossing the centre line, or what their arms are doing at all. This lack of defensive awareness in regards to the attacker’s arms makes the armbar the perfect defence, especially for the smaller opponent. The triangle choke, for example, can often be negated if someone has large enough shoulders and they’re being choked by someone with relatively short legs. The armbar, instead, isolates an arm, and even the largest attacker cannot defend a single arm against the technique of a trained individual who can utilise their full body against it.

Competition

The armbar has had frequent success in Jiu Jitsu competitions and in MMA all over the world. Notable armbar specialists in the Jiu Jitsu world includes Rodolfo Viera, Roger Gracie, Alexandre Ribeiro, Andre Galvao, Marcus Almeida and Rafa Mendes. It has recently become a submission with a lot of attention in MMA due to the popularity of armbar machine Ronda Rousey. Coming from a Judo background, Rousey makes excellent use of the armbar from various positions, especially once she has an opponent’s back after a throw. Being a Judoka she can throw an opponent, catch their arm, and keep it as they fall and then apply the armbar with minimum fuss.

Though it is not only Rousey who has displayed armbar prowess and success in the MMA world. The armbar is the most utilised joint lock submission in MMA today and possibly competing with the rear naked joke in overall utilisation. Royce Gracie popularised the armbar in MMA first, as well as bringing the UFC and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu into the light. His elder brother Rickson fought in Japan more than America and frequently won bouts via armbar. Fedor Emelianenko, considered one of the greatest fighters ever, was also known for vicious armbars in the ring.

The armbar may very well be one of the first submissions taught to beginner students, but this does not diminish its power or standing in Jiu Jitsu. It has long been understood that consistent practice and honing of the fundamentals is the road to mastery of a discipline. This could not be more fitting for the armbar. Deceivingly simple, it can often be relegated in place of more fancy submissions or even sweeps. However, the history of Jiu Jitsu and MMA shows that the fundamentals are fundamentals for a reason.

How to do an Armbar

Armbar From Mount

In this position we’re going to look at an armbar from mount. The armbar from mount or Jiji Gatame, is a classic attacking position in Jiu-Jitsu. However, it is also a position that is lost easily as the opponent escapes an elbow during the armbar attack. To stop this from happening, you must first look to control an arm before initialising the attack. Here we will show you how to start the attack by first isolating a single arm with your hands, and then your bodyweight. This will dominate the arm into an attackable position. The armbar is best caught when  it is done slowly and methodically, it is also a lot tighter as a submission.

  1. You have your opponent in a high mount position. Here you look to threaten the cross-collar choke, which will force a reaction out of your opponent. If done correctly, your opponent should bring their hands up to the collar to defend the choke. If they don’t then continue with the cross-collar choke.
  2. As both hands come up, establish a higher mount to break the frame of their arms. This will make isolating one arm easier. Take the choking hand out of the collar and grab the tricep of the same-side arm. Pull the arm into your chest and secure it by bringing your same-side knee closer to their head
  3. Now that you have the arm, you will need to secure it to stop them from escaping their elbow. Bring your chest closer to theirs and lean your weight into their trapped arm. They should not be able to escape their arm now. Establish position and continue with the attack.
  4. While maintaining constant pressure on your opponents trapped arm, shift your bodyweight to the leg furthest from the arm, this will allow you to bring your other leg up higher and around their head. You should now be sat on their chest, with your feet in the shape on an S. This is known as S-Mount.
  5. Bring your top leg over their face, and secure. The crook of your knee should be over their face. Bring your lower leg up and shift your weight so you are now sat off to the side at a 90 degree angle to your opponent with their arm between your legs.
  6. With their arm tight to your chest, start to lean backwards towards the floor, while also raising your hips to hyperextend your opponents elbow. Keep your knees tight and if all goes well, expect your opponent to be quickly tapping.

Below is a video instructional from Firas Zhahabi, which goes through the same details.

Arm Bar Variations

Armbar From Guard

We’re now going to look at the second most-common position for getting and armbar in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, from the guard. The armbar from guard really is one of those beginner bread-and butter techniques that every Jiu-Jitsu practitioner should be practicing. However the mechanics of it can confuse some people, including myself when I first started to learn it, but let’s break it down into it’s fundamental movement pivot, the hips. Like many other moves in BJJ the hips are key when it comes to getting a clean, tight armbar from guard, the more fluid you are with your hips, the easier the catch. Let’s take a look at how to perform an armbar from the guard

  1. First you need your opponent in full guard. If you do not know what full guard is, it’s when you are on your back and have your opponent kneeling (or standing) between your legs. Your legs are then closed off by crossing your ankles.
  2. For an armbar from guard to be effective, you must first look to isolate an arm, similar to the armbar from mount. To start this you will need to break your opponent’s posture.
  3. Similar to the armbar from mount, we are going to look to cause a reaction and take advantage of it. Take your right arm and bring it over the crook of the elbow of your opponent’s opposite arm. Sinch it in tight as we are looking to isolate this arm.
  4. Break their posture by pulling that arm across your body and bringing your knees to your head, similar to doing a crunch.
  5. With your opponent’s posture broken, you’re now looking to reinforce that position to stop an escape. Uncross your feet and bring your left leg up and place your foot on their hip with your knee pressing into the side of their body.
  6. Keeping your right leg in the same position, use your left leg to pivot your body underneath your opponent. You need to pivot to a 90 degree angle across their body. You will also notice that your right leg, if you have not moved it has adjusted to it is also going across their back. Clamp down on the back to make it more difficult to escape.
  7. Your left will now come off the hip and swing around your opponent’s head. The inside of your knee should be on their face, similar to the mounted armbar.
  8. During their moves your hands should not have left your opponent’s controlled left arm. Use them to secure the arm to your chest and in one movement your raise your hips to the sky and drive them into your opponent’s elbow. If everything goes smoothly, your opponent will be tapping.

Below is an instructional from Stephan Kesting on the Easiest Way to Perform and Armbar from Guard

Belly Down Armbar

The belly-down armbar is often caught from your opponent turtling or from a transition during the armbar from guard where your rotate your body further than 90 degrees past their hip line. Here we’re going to about how to can quickly snatch an unsuspecting armbar when your opponent turtles up. The belly down armbar is a bit of a last-ditch move, something that should be attempted if you’re down on points and desperate for the submission against a dying timer.

  1. Turtling normally happens as a last ditch effort to prevent the guard pass. If done correctly it can be used offensively (see Edwardo Telles’ Turtle Guard), however 90% of the time the turtle is used as a stalling position to prevent points. Here’s how you’re going to capitalise
  2. From a controlling position, normally a hip-to-hip position, we’re going to have to look at isolating one arm, a regular theme when attacking an armbar.
  3. Isolating a single arm for the belly down armbar, however, is a riskier strategy. First you will need to move from the hip-to-hip position to a more north-south position, being careful not to give up space to allow your opponent to sit through to guard.
  4. With your chest down infront of your opponent your right arm will swim over the top of the back, underneath the body and connect with your opponent’s arm.
  5. With the arm secure, you start to climb the back and your right leg bent into your opponent’s armpit, with your foot hooked across their back.
  6. Your other leg with do the same thing, but over your opponent’s head. Your foot should be hooked onto the back of their head to prevent the sit up.
  7. With your body 90 degrees across from your opponent, your chest should now connect to the back of your opponent’s arm.
  8. With your body connected, extend your body to bring out the isolated arm, as the arm stretches out, move your arms up to the hand and secure it to your chest.
  9. Drive your hips into the floor and catch the submission, be prepared to let go quick as this is a tight one.

Below is Ryan Fiorenzi teaching his variation of the belly down armbar from the back, with uses similar positions as the ones described above.

Straight Armbar

The straight armbar is a variation on the armbar, where instead of using your hips as the fulcrum to cause the hyper-extension, you use another limb. Normally your own arm. Here we talk about performing a straight armbar from guard.

  1. Start off with your opponent in your full guard, similar to the armbar from guard position. This time we’re looking at attacking the same-side arm, not the cross side.
  2. Similiar to the armbar from guard setup, bring your opposite hand over your opponents arm and secure the elbow and the ditch of the elbow. Break your opponent’s posture, so you can perform this move more easily.
  3. With your opponent’s posture broken, shrimp your hips out to the side. This is should be same side as the arm this is being controlled. Ideally your opponent should fall forward, occupying the space.
  4. Next we need to regain a bit of control on your opponent, this is to further isolate the arm. Your top leg will come over your opponent’s back and your knee will look to clamp down on the nearside shoulder of your opponent. With your lower leg, you will need to put your foot on their farside hip and then squeeze your knees together. This will lock your opponent into position, ready for you to attack the arm.
  5. With their arm still isolated, you now need to secure it. Bring your opponent’s hand and wrist up to the crook between your shoulder and neck and secure it.
  6. With your arm, move up to just above the elbow, clasp your hands together in a gable grip and press down, the isolation of the shoulder and wrist, will create the same hyper-extension as a standard armbar.

Below is a video explaining the straight armbar in more detail.

Flying Armbar

The flying armbar is one of the most spectacular moves in mixed martial arts and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. If performed correctly, it’s an instant tap and submission. Here is Firas Zahabi explaining the finer details of the flying armbar. To effectively finish this position, it is highly recommended that you know how to finish an armbar from guard. The rest is about timing and confidence.

  1. From a standing position tie your opponent up, one arm around the head, the 2nd overwrapping your opponent’s arm.
  2. Snap down on your opponent’s neck to cause a reaction. As your opponent snaps back up, bring your foot into the armpit of the non-controlled arm and jump your second leg up and over the controlled arm. Your aiming to get the crook of your knee into the face of your opponent.
  3. Slide down to the wrist of the controlled arm and keep it tight to your chest.
  4. Drive your hips into their elbow for the tap.

Helicopter Armbar

The helicopter is a flashy move that was first introduced by Gracie Barra black belt Braulio Estima. Used correctly, it allows you to surprise your opponent with a fantastically quick submission. This is an advanced technique, so before performing this, you should already know how to perform a standard armbar from mount as the finish is identical.

  1. Starting from De La Riva guard, you need to load your opponent’s weight over you, so they’re floating over you. To do this scoot your hips underneath your opponent.
  2. While you’re underneath your opponent, rock backwards and roll your opponent’s weight up onto your feet and raise them up so they’re floating.
  3. With weight loaded above you, unhook your De La Riva hook, pull the controlling arm towards you and bring the unhooked foot around your opponent’s head.
  4. At the same time push on the hip with the other foot to create a rotation. All don correctly your opponent should fall into the armbar position, where you can then finish.

Check out this video, which goes into the finer details of finishing the helicopter armbar.

 

About the author

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!