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Mastering the Armbar Technique in BJJ

June 28, 2024

Next up in our series on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) techniques is the armbar. Also known as the “juji-gatame” in Japanese, the armbar is one of the most fundamental and effective submission techniques available in this grappling art. Like all techniques in BJJ, executing a successful armbar can be used to shut down even the biggest and strongest opponents. It just relies on attention to detail and the proper use of positioning, leverage, timing, and control. 

The elbow is a hinge joint designed to move primarily in one plane (bending and straightening). When an armbar is applied, it forces the elbow joint to move beyond its normal range of motion, which is quite painful and can cause an injury if you don’t tap out first. 

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In BJJ, the principles of leverage and control allow fighters to hyperextend an opponent’s elbow joint, and they love using this move to force them to tap out. It’s a versatile submission hold in which a practitioner isolates and extends their opponent’s arm while applying pressure to the elbow joint.

Armbar Positions and Variations

From the Closed Guard

This is the classic method for executing an armbar. Starting off with your feet crossed, you have two points of contact with two grips: a collar grip and a sleeve grip. With your grips in place, control your opponent’s arm by gripping outside their elbow so you can control their arm. If they try to move the grip elsewhere, you can push against the arm and set it up for the armbar. 

Once their elbow is set up, maintain control of their posture by pulling them down. If they let go to re-grip elsewhere, push their elbow in. If they focus on blocking the hip, keep your grip, place your foot on their hip, and move your hip out a bit, capturing their arm with your leg, and then move it back in to set up the armbar. Your foot stays on their hip, and your other leg is high on their back.

For the pivot, you need to be perpendicular to the arm you’re attacking. Push your foot against their hip, lifting your hips off the mat, and pivot by turning like a top. Swing your leg around their head, squeeze your knees together and curl your heels towards the mat. Come to the wrist, making sure their thumb is in the top position. Squeeze, curl your heels, and slowly lift your hips off the mat to tighten the armbar. 

From Mount

From the mount position, keep your knees wide and your arms away. Start pushing your opponent’s arm, and when they fight back, move your hand to the outside of their elbow, push it inside, and drop your chest on it.

Lift their head off the mat and slide your far side knee to the top of their head. Maintain control and walk your knees up, keeping your heel tucked tight. Slide your knee to the top of their head, straighten your leg, and curl your heel towards their head. 

Hook their arm with your elbow and make your leg light by leaning towards their feet and posting your hand on the mat. Step over their head, sit back while squeezing your knees and curling your heels, then slowly lay back to finish the armbar.

From Side Control

To initiate the armbar, reach for your opponent’s head. When they resist and push your arm, shift your weight and rotate your right knee in the same spot to prevent your opponent from pulling their elbow in. 

Once their arm is trapped, fall back to add pressure and tighten the hold. Your foot positioning is crucial; even if their elbow escapes your crotch, your foot can still apply pressure, allowing you to extend their arm and finish the armbar.

Remember: To execute this armbar effectively, place your knee correctly, shift weight onto your opponent, and maintain tight control. 

From the Back

Attack from the back usually revolves around applying a choke, but BJJ practitioners should know that when someone defends against chokes, they often open themselves up to armbars.

If your opponent defends their neck aggressively, their arms go wide and  you can use a seatbelt grip to control your opponent. Maintain control by holding onto their hand and blocking with your forearm. Align your upper arm bone with their body so that no matter how hard they lean into you, it won’t affect your control. From this position, use a Kimura grip to hold their arm, move both of your feet to the right, clearing your right thigh away so their back hits the mat.

Ensure that your angle is 90 degrees or less and hold their wrist to prevent it from going low, and keep their elbow flared up. Move your legs over and lean towards their legs, squeezing your knees and lifting to apply the armbar.

Common Armbar Defense and Counters

Hitchhiker Escape

For this escape, let’s say you are in bottom cross side and your opponent launches an armbar on you. When they fall back to execute the armbar, you need to act quickly, pointing the thumb of your arm being attacked toward your opponent as they fall back.

Control their leg, either by placing your hand underneath and hooking over the top, and then bring your feet over the top of their foot. Typically, your opponent will follow you with their trailing leg, and you’ll need to maneuver around the back of it.

If your opponent is lazy with their hips, bring your thumb to the hip you can see while running over their feet. If they are staying still take the opportunity to pick up their leg and simultaneously escape, potentially securing a pass right away.

More commonly,your opponent will stay tight with their knees to control you, in which case, you need to escape towards their back. As you roll, they will stay with you, using their knees for control. Keep moving until your head reaches their back.

Rolling Defense

A rolling armbar is often initiated from positions like the turtle or when your opponent is transitioning from another move. Keeping a strong and stable posture can prevent your opponent from getting the leverage they need to roll and extend your arm. If you are in a turtle position, make sure your elbows are tight to your body and your arms are not extended.

Control your opponent’s hands and arms. If they cannot control your arm, they cannot successfully execute the armbar. Use grip breaks and hand fighting to disrupt their control.

If your opponent has started to roll into the armbar, quickly stack them by driving your weight forward. Push their knees towards their chest, which makes it difficult for them to extend your arm and complete the submission.

Rotate your thumb towards their legs (pointing your thumb up or away from their body) to relieve pressure on your elbow joint to buy yourself time. Work on pulling your arm out of their grip. Use your free hand to assist in freeing your trapped arm if necessary.

Armbar Setups and Drills for Training

Once you understand how the armbar works, it’s time to start practicing it by drilling it repetitively – always with with a purpose. Do not view drilling as a mundane task. You have to understand that you are drilling for a purpose: to make sure your body knows exactly what to do when it’s time to execute the armbar in a live scenario. 

The next step once you have drilled the armbar technique thoroughly is to put your skills to the test in live sparring. Sparring or “rolling,” as it’s known in BJJ, is the crucible that sharpens your skills under the pressure of a real-life scenario. It allows you to see how well your drilling has prepared you and what adjustments you might need to make.

Conclusion

The armbar is a versatile and essential technique in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that is a cornerstone of any grappler’s arsenal. By understanding the mechanics, practicing various setups, and honing your defense and counter techniques, you can master the armbar and significantly enhance your BJJ skills. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced practitioner, the armbar offers valuable opportunities for growth and success on the mat.