The armbar is one of the most ancient and powerful submissions known to man. Dating back thousands of years, this arm lock variation is one of the most used in the UFC and has a high submission success rate. Also known as a cross arm lock in Judo, or Ude Hishigi Gatame in Japanese, it is a fundamental technique for any grappler to learn and will often be taught in the first few weeks of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) classes.
However, the armbar is not exclusive to BJJ; it in fact, is part of a long history of grappling and submission that dates back to the Stone Ages.
Grappling sports can be traced back to at least the Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) era, around 15000 BC. There are ancient cave paintings that exist depicting wrestling competitions over 17,000 years ago. Wrestling, a ruled subset of grappling, is now considered the oldest living organized sport. Complete wrestling manuals found in Greece, contain detailed instructions on techniques and date back to 100-200 AD. We can look to Greece for a substantial amount of information regarding the sport, especially in reference to submissions.
Pankration, literally translating to ‘all of the power’, is an ancient Greek martial art that mainly combined boxing and wrestling; however, it also involved kicks and locks, holds, and chokes on the ground. According to Greek Mythology, it was created by divine heroes, Heracles (son of Zeus) and Theseus (founder of Athens), who used it against their legendary opponents. From an academic standpoint, it is thought to have entered society around the 7th century BC, but other evidence suggests it may go as far back as the second millennium BC.
It provided a solution of a ‘total combat’ sport, something boxing or wrestling alone cannot provide, similar to MMA today. Although knockouts did happen, the majority of competitions were finished via submission. Also adopted by Greek soldiers (including Spartans), Pankration was introduced into the Greek Olympics in 648 BC.
Arm lock variations have been recorded for almost 3000 years and existed as a technique in the Pankration arsenal. An armlock is a single or double joint lock that hyperextends, hyperflexes, or hyper rotates the elbow or shoulder joint (or in some cases, both). If the lock hyperflexes or hyper rotates the shoulder joint, it is known as a shoulder lock; however, if it hyperextends the elbow joint, it is called an armbar.
Clearly, the armbar was not created from BJJ, but it has been evolved by it. It’s considered one of the best techniques to ever master due to its incredible effectiveness and versatility. Aside from that, it is an efficient way to win a fight. It is so powerful that fighters like the legendary pioneer of women’s MMA, Ronda Rousey, built her illustrious career with it, scoring her first 8 UFC wins with an armbar.
This lock focuses on using the strongest parts of one’s body together against the opponent’s weakest parts. It requires full body leverage to apply the lock while simultaneously preventing the opponent from escaping.
Defined by the practitioner having a hold of the opponent’s arm by the wrist while securing the rest of their body with the legs, the armlock forces the victim to tap out or face a broken elbow. It is not only dangerous, but also highly adaptable, as it works from a variety of angles and both dominant and non-dominant positions. Additionally, opportunities for an armbar present themselves often so it is a worthwhile technique to master early on in your training.
The trick with armbars is to get the right setup. It is essential to exploit the extended arms of the opponent. However, only beginners will give up this position willingly. After a certain level of experience, the reaction must be enticed out of them. This lock can be obtained from any starting guard position, but is traditionally performed from high mount, which is favored in gi BJJ.
1- From Mount
Beginning in mount is the classic attacking position for the armbar setup. However, it is worth noting that this position is also the easiest for an opponent to escape from, which is why it is crucial to isolate the arm and control it before proceeding to the other steps. This will be easy if your opponent is a beginner as it is common rookie mistake to push against the attacker’s body, making an easy target of their arms. This will never happen at a more experienced belt level where the arms and elbows are tucked against the body as a form of defense.
Position yourself into a high mount, sitting closer to the chest rather than the hips. This reduces the power and leverage they have in the lower body. Threaten your opponent with a cross-collar choke. This will draw their arms out in front of them. As their hands come forward, thread your left hand through the gap between their arms and grab their right tricep. Use your right hand to move their face towards the ground.
Bring the left leg forward so that your knee is just above their shoulder and your foot is flat against the floor. Maintaining your grip on the tricep, swing the right leg over as you lean your body back until it reaches the floor. Hook (cross) your feet around the left shoulder and pull the right arm by the wrist. To finish, squeeze the arm with your knees and shift the hips diagonally to the left to increase pressure until you get the tap.
2- From Guard
The second most common setup for the armbar is from guard position. The mechanics here are a little trickier than from mount but it’s worth the effort as it is harder for the opponent to escape compared to mount position.
Begin on your back with your partner between your legs. Wrap your legs around their waist and hook your feet together. This is closed guard, your starting position.
Armbars are very hard to get when your partner has a good posture (sitting upright), so it’s crucial not to force this attack until their body is leaning forward at a roughly 45 degree angle. You can break their posture yourself by pulling on the lapels of their gi or grabbing their shirt and dragging them towards you. This will often elicit a desired response: their hands will come down and push against your chest.
Pull their right arm forward with your left hand and cover (hold) it tightly against your chest with your right forearm. If possible, adjust the grip so that is a little higher up the arm on the back of the triceps. This isolates and secures the arm.
Uncross your feet. Raise your left leg and place the foot into their hip on the same side and squeeze the knee in against their shoulder which restricts their movement further. Lift the right leg straight up, pivot the hips to the left (which brings your head closer to your right hip) and place your right leg across their left shoulder. Your partner should now be squeezed between both of your legs without much ability to escape.
From this position, simply pass your left leg over so that their left arm is held firmly between both of your legs. Cross your feet but make sure the right leg remains on the bottom so that it maintains pressure on the shoulder joint. Make sure their thumb is pointed to the ceiling.
Squeeze your knees together and bridge (raise hips) to finish the lock
The armbar is one of BJJ’s best submissions. From beginner to elite levels of combat sports, this submission has stood the test of time for a number of reasons. Firstly, it capitalizes on mistakes the opponent makes; this requires less force from the attacker and leads to more effortless movements.
Secondly, the armbar is one of the most finished submissions, making it remarkably effective. And finally, as is clear from its elaborate history and thousands of years of development, the armbar can be used in BJJ (gi and no-gi), Judo, MMA and as a form of self-defense if needed. It can also be done from almost any angle and has many variants making it one of the most versatile submissions available to a practitioner. Whatever your ranking, make sure this dominant and dynamic lock is part of your arsenal.