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.
You have to go back to ancient Greece to see artwork and historical references to submissions.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 dojo. 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.
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. Now go and practice your armbars!