Joint Locks

Joint Locks – Learn about the different types, when to use them and how…

Joint Locks are part of the martial arts techniques training . However the decision of whether or not to apply or train them depends on the theory basis “theory based decisions” of the specific martial art.

Locking a joint can be used to submit, neutralize and or control an opponent, and from that perspective it holds more options than striking elements which generally cannot be used for controlling purposes (To learn more about punching).

Joint locking is considered to be a wrestling and mostly a grappling technique (To learn more about the types of martial arts), nevertheless it's used in martial arts which aren’t only grappling and wrestling oriented.

Many martial arts regard and implement joint locking; The names vary from country to country, examples are the "Chi na" in the Chinese martial arts or the "Kansetsu-waza in the Japanese martial arts.

What is joint locking?

Joint locking happens when we force a joint to over extend, over twist, or over flex past its normal range of motion. This can cause – ligament, tendon or and muscle tearing, dislocation and or bone breakage which causes extreme pain and or inability to fight. (many uses of - “and or” - we know, but joint locking is very versatile…)

Joint locks can be divided into two main categories:

• Standing up

• On the ground

Standing up joint locking:

Standing up locks relate to locks which are applied to an opponent which is standing. Naturally, because of this definition, some locks become irrelevant like ankle and knee locks unless they are used as means to take the person to the ground…

Further more, the successful application of the lock depends very much on our ability to pin our opponent – preventing him from maneuvering out of the lock position and from countering.

This almost always dictates, providing that we’re talking about a “worthy opponent”*, that we must land a decent strike (one or more) before going for the lock. The strike/s may achieve two goals –

• Making him focus on defending against the hit and making him “forget” that he can move, counter or resist

• Disorienting him which reduces his ability to move, counter and resist.

While turning a push or a shove into a wrist lock, or any other locked position, can be achieved through precious and quick execution, attempting to do it on a strike be it a kick or a punch will mostly end up in us “chasing hands” and is likely to have devastating results.

However, what can be beneficial to improve the chances of applying a lock other than striking back, is to take our opponent to the ground.

This is done with take down or throwing techniques, and can be achieved through a clinch position or through twisting one of the joints of the arm or leg so that the opponent has no choice but to fall on the ground to prevent damage (further information about take down and throwing techniques in a future article)

Ground joint locking:

As examined above in order to achieve a lock we must pin our opponent so that he can not maneuver out of the lock and counter. Working the locks on the ground makes this a lot more efficient, because the direction of possible movement is reduced.

Another element which opens up on the ground are the legs, they become “joint lock potential” which widens the scope of techniques to be aware of.

One more important issue which plays a big role in turning the ground game into joint lock or submission heaven is the fact that striking power is much reduced, because of the problem in implementing the mass and speed factor of the striking equation.

Nevertheless the problem of power striking whilst on the ground has revolutionized itself in the last decade or so with the progression of what is known as “ground and pound”.

The “ground and pound” technique utilizes the body mass of the opponent while punching (the “pounder” punches while falling down). It also has tremendous effect when the part that is being hit is close to the ground and by that makes it endure all of the hit (For more information about where it developed visit Mixed Martial Arts)

Types of joint locks

Arm locks(juji-gatame) are probably the most common locks during a fight, because the arm can potentially resist less than , for example, the leg.

They are also less risky when applying (position and openness to counter attacking wise). They can be divided to shoulder locks and arm bars or elbow locks (wrist locks are considered as a different category): * Shoulder locks either over flex or over rotate the shoulder their names vary depending on the holding position, pinning method, direction of pressure and language: “key lock”, “Americana”, “Ude-garami”, “Reverse key lock” or “Kimura”, “Omoplata”, “Monoplata”, “Hammer lock”…

* Arm bars or elbow locks over extend, over rotate and or over flex the elbow joint their names vary depending on the holding position, pinning method, direction of pressure and language: “Juji gatame”, “Flying arm bar” (an arm bar while standing up), “Triangular armlock” or “Sankaku – jime”, “Elbow lock”…

Depending on a persons flexibility, over rotation of the shoulder can lead to over rotation of the elbow and vice versa.

Leg locks are not commonly used in fighting because they are hard to achieve (the leg having stronger resistance). They are more risky to apply (position and openness to counter attacking wise) and can be divided into ankle or foot locks, knee locks and hip locks:

* Knee bar or straight leg bar – is an over extension of the knee joint, similar to the arm bar. When twisting the ankle rotational pressure can also be applied on the knee.

* Ankle locks or shin locks typically overextend, over rotate and or over flex. The ankle locks vary, like the arm locks, in position, direction of pressure ext… some known locks are “Straight ankle lock” or “Achilles lock”, “Toe hold”, “Heel hook”, “Inside heel hook” ext…

The ankle locks are sometimes implemented with compression locks to increase the pain. (We will write about compression locks in a future article)

* Hip locks are very hard to implement because of the huge muscles which support it, but they are possible to achieve. Nevertheless we would think twice before trying to lock an opponent’s hip in a fight.

Like the arm locks, the way in which one joint lock effects another joint is determined by flexibility capabilities of the person being locked, so, for example, an ankle lock can lead to a knee lock or injury.

Small joint locks – these are very useful locks which can injure quickly, however while they can help control or frighten someone who does not really want to fight they will likely not end a fight, but rather be a stepping stone on the way.The locks divide into finger and toe locks.

* Finger locks – usually lead to some sort of injury because of the small amount of motion which is left between the points of unbearable pain to injury. It is advised to catch two fingers, because one finger is simpler to escape with while three or more become a bit more difficult leverage wise.

* Toe locks – like the fingers, but even more so, will not end the fight, but might slow our opponent down when back again on his feet.

Spinal locks – they are divided into two main sections neck locks or neck cranks and spine locks or cranks.

* Neck locks are probably the most efficient out of the spinal locks, and as always, this is due to the fact that the neck does not have very strong muscles especially because we can use the head as an enhancer of leverage.

However, neck locks are not highly used, and are usually implemented as a distraction or a phase towards the application of another lock and especially a choke.

Neck locks are used by over extending, over rotating and or over flexing, and cause serious injuries beside the normal ones such as damage to the vertebrae, spinal cord injury and even death. Some well known neck locks are- “Can opener” “Cattle catch” or “Crucifix”, “Twister” and so on…

* Spine locks – spine locks or spine cranks are very hard to achieve, because they involve overcoming a very large and strong muscle. Nevertheless like the neck locks, they can cause serious injuries, including damage to the spinal cord.

However, because of the leverage difficulties their potential for seriously injuring is lesser than the neck locks. The “Boston crab”, for example, is one of the few spine locks practiced and implemented.

Wrist locks – are commonly used joint locks because they are easily leveraged. They involve over flexion, over rotation and or over extension of the wrist. They are not widely used in submission fighting because they don’t “leave” much room for submission -

A wrist lock is effective usually in two cases – one, if the opponent doesn’t have a strong will to fight or is “frightened” out of resisting (like with police force or bouncer like situations); Two, if we break it. (Both cases are not common in submission fighting).

The good leverage we can usually obtain on the wrist makes it relatively easy to cause injury and breakage by simply using a swift movement; this makes it a very useful technique in no rules fighting.

There are numerous names for techniques involving the wrist lock, and they vary, as do the other locks, by position, situation, direction of pressure, the body part which applies the pressure, language…

Such locks are – “Rotational wristlocks” or “Sankyo”, “Cants”, “Supinating wristlock” or “Kote Gaeshi”, “Over flexing wrist lock”, “Pronating wristlock”…

For more information regarding specific joint locks

Effective joint locking -

For a lock to be effective it must be applied with pressure. In order for the pressure to be substantial we have to use more pressure then the joint and the muscles surrounding it are able to withstand and resist, for instance -

If we want to over turn an elbow (kimura) we need to use 2 hands on one (if our opponent can combine his hands or support it in another way against the pressure we will not be able to generate enough force to form the lock (of course with the assumption that our opponent is not weaker than us…)

If we intend to over extend the ankle we must use our whole body with at least one hand connecting the ankle to our body; and when wanting to over extend a finger we use our whole hand and arm power during the motion…

With this in mind trying to achieve a lock holds one major disadvantage –

When going for the lock (trying to achieve the locked position so that we can begin to apply pressure) we are exposed, maybe more than from any other kind of attack, to a counter of our opponent, especially from hits! Being empty handed or weapon ones…

This fact must be dealt with not only through precise timing, quick and clean execution of the technique, but also in the strategy and tactics of the fight ((To learn more about the theory behind a martial art).

When should we try to avoid joint locking?

A joint lock from its nature takes time to complete, when in a street fight, for instance, if we are fighting more than one person, trying to finish the fight with the lock can be dangerous.

Another aspect which needs to be considered is unorthodox fighting weapons, such as biting, groin hitting… For example an arm bar (juji gatame), when using the legs to pin the body can expose the leg for biting; and like a kimura which can also be countered with the help of a groin attack…

One way of dealing with this could be through striking before or during the application, in order to reduce focusing ability and to disorient.

Nevertheless like in striking deciding not to use one sort of lock doesn’t mean not using any, for example, small joint manipulation, especially when using it for causing a quick injury, can be effective even when fighting multiple opponents.


When training joint locks it is absolutely necessary to train it in a controlled manner so that no serious injury is acquired. It is too easy to injure our selves if we work with a partner who is not careful and responsible.

Joint locks are important techniques to have and master, but they become a must depending on our goals and understanding of the fight.

Learn more about Submission Holds

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* This will be a concept we refer to many times in this site. Meaning - what is the worst case we need to prepare ourselves to deal with in a “reasonable” situation? From that perspective it would be better to adapt our “fighting game” to an opponent which is capable, than to one whom we would probably defeat even without proper skill.

For example: In the boxing ring, we might want to prepare to face an opponent that’s faster and stronger then us, but there is no need to prepare or adapt our technique for someone that is out of our weight category. In the street, we might want to prepare and adapt our technique and strategy, to a very big guy that over weighs us and over towers us, but there is little need to prepare for someone holding a grenade… ( In this case - Run and pray…)

It is always better to train for the worst situation or worst opponent and be “surprised” in reality, from the fact that it turned out to be an easier situation, than the opposite - When reality turns out to be the worst scenario… To go back