Heel Hook 202: The Guide to Scary Heel Hooks in BJJ & MMA

The heel hook is the most infamous submission in BJJ and MMA. Many people fear the heel hook, but fear for heel hooks only makes them more dangerous. Understanding the heel hook submission helps you to practice it safely. So in this post I explain what a heel hook is, how to do a heel hook, why heel hooks are illegal in many competitions and whether heel hooks are dangerous.

heel hook

What is a Heel Hook Submission?

The heel hook is a submission hold applied through a hold on the heel. Although in a heel hook you hold the heel, you are actually attacking the knee in most cases. The heel hook is a very effective way to finish a fight, as it attacks the weak lateral ligaments of the knee.

There are two types of heel hooks, namely the standard or outside heel hook and the inside heel hook or inverted heel hook. The inside heel hook results in a more catastrophic injury to the inside of the knee and is more effective in high level BJJ competition.

How to do a heel hook?

The heel hook is a technique applied from various positions following a set number of steps. The steps to do a heel hook are the following.

1. Trap your opponent’s leg with your legs

The first and most crucial step to doing a heel drop in BJJ or MMA is control the leg that you’re attacking. In particular you need to control the knee line. if you don’t control the knee line in a hook your opponent can rotate with your submission and there won’t be any pressure on his knee.

2. Catch the heel

After you control your opponent’s leg you need to catch his heel. You can do this with a variety of grips. Catching the heel is difficult against knowledgeable opponents, as they’ll be trying to slip the heel from your grip.

3. Rotate the heel and bridge into the knee

To finish a heel hook submission you need to do two things at the same time. You need to rotate the heel that you caught, and at the same time you need to bridge with your hips into the side of the knee. The bridge is important because it prevents the knee from rotating together with the heel to relieve pressure from your submission.

What does a heel hook damage?

A heel hook damages the ligaments in the side of the knee. The primary ligaments that are damaged are the Meniscus, the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) and the Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL). All of these ligaments connect the thigh bone to the shin bone and help to hold the knee joint in place.

The inside heel hook primarily attacks the ligaments on the inside of the knee, so the MCL and meniscus on the inside. The outside heel hook attacks the outside of the knee, so the ACl and the meniscus on the outside, as well as the outside of the ankle.

Are Heel Hooks Dangerous?

Yes, heel hooks are the most dangerous submissions in BJJ and MMA. There’s four reasons for this:

  1. You don’t feel pain before you need to tap. This is so because the heel hook attacks ligaments, which have very little pain receptors.
  2. Heel hook injuries don’t heal well. Ligaments don’t have a lot of blood running through them, so they heal slowly. Often, a heel hook injury needs to be repaired with surgery, especially when the injury is to the ACL.
  3. A heel hook injury is devastating to everyday life. Any knee injury is a huge impediment to everyday life, much more so than a shoulder injury or elbow injury for example. Often, a heel hook injury makes it so that you can’t even walk for a while, and can’t do any sports for months.
  4. Many grapplers are ignorant about heel hooks. If everybody in BJJ was aware of the danger of heel hooks, they would already be less dangerous. There’s still a lot of people that think they don’t need to tap to a heel hook until it hurts, which is too late.

When to tap to a heel hook

When you should tap to a heel hook depends on how well you understand them. If you’re new to heel hooks, I recommend tapping to them as soon as your opponent gets a grip on your heel. As you become more advanced, you’ll know if you have time left to try to slip your heel, or if the ashi garami is loose enough that you can roll out.

When to use a heel hook

You should only use a heel hook when you know that your training partner also wants to roll with heel hooks and is capable of defending them intelligently. Also, in training you should never apply a heel hook fully. If your opponent is not yet good enough to realise he’s in danger, you should either talk to him to let him know what’s going on, or just let the heel hook go.

Are Heel Hooks Legal?

There are huge differences in BJJ rule sets from one organization to the next, and whether heel hooks are legal in BJJ is one of the biggest points of contention. Some organizations have it legal at all belt levels, whereas others have it illegal for everybody.

Are heel hooks legal in BJJ?

It depends on the organization, and on whether we’re talking about gi or no gi jiu jitsu. Almost every grappling competition nowadays allows heel hooks, since the IBJJF legalized heel hooks at the no gi World Championships in 2021.

At the same time, heel hooks are illegal in almost every gi competition in BJJ. And there are also restrictions on the other leg locks, with most of them only being legal at brown belt and black belt.

Are heel hooks legal in the UFC?

Yes, heel hooks are legal in the UFC and other mixed martial arts organizations. MMA fighters like Ryan Hall and Garry Tonon also make frequent use of them. But, most fighters don’t use heel hooks, because leg locks always come at the risk of losing the dominant position.

Are heel hooks legal in IBJJF?

Yes and no. The IBJJF allows heel hooks in no gi competition for brown and black belts. This is a new rule that was first applied at the no gi Worlds in 2021. But the IBJJF still doesn’t allow heel hooks for lower belts or in the gi competitions.

Are heel hooks legal in gi?

No, heel hooks are almost never legal in the gi. There are some gyms that make exceptions to this, such as Roy Dean’s gym. However, almost all gyms follow the lead of the IBJJF, and therefore make heel hooks illegal in the gi.

Are heel hooks legal for white belts and blue belts?

Whether heel hooks are legal for white belts and blue belts depends on the organization of the grappling tournament. The IBJJF doesn’t allow heel hooks until brown belt. But, most local grappling  competitions in my area allow heel hooks at any level, or sometimes from blue belt and up. So check with the rules and regulations of your grappling competition.

Related: Why is BJJ not in the Olympics?

Why are heel hooks illegal in bjj?

Heel hooks are illegal in many BJJ competitions for a few reasons. I’ll tell you about the traditional explanation why heel hooks are illegal in Brazilian jiu jitsu, the modern official reason why jiu jitsu doesn’t allow heel hooking, and what I think the real reason is that heel hooks are illegal in jiu jitsu.

The traditional reason why heel hooks are illegal in BJJ

The traditional explanation why heel hooks are illegal in BJJ is that they are too dangerous. This makes some sense at the lower levels, as heel hooks are more dangerous than other submissions in BJJ, as we discussed earlier.

But, this explanation is not believable anymore at the higher level since the IBJJF legalized heel hooks for brown and black belts in no gi competition. 

The current official explanation why heel hooks are illegal in BJJ

Nowadays, the explanation why heel hooks are illegal in BJJ is that heel hooks would be ‘too good’ in the gi because of the extra friction that the gi pants and sleeves add. Because of this, nobody would want to play open guard anymore, and a big part of current jiu jitsu would disappear. Because clearly, high level black belts wouldn’t be able to adapt their open guard to the introduction of a new technique, right?

The real reason why heel hooks are illegal in BJJ

Personally, this official explanation smells like baloney to me. Heel hooks are ‘too good’ in the gi? That reminds me of people that say that the five finger death punch is real, but they won’t show it because they don’t want to kill you… 

Although it’s true that the gi adds friction which makes it harder to slip out of leg locks, sleeve grips also make it way easier to defend heel hooks by just holding the guy’s sleeves. I think this factor is way more important. For comparison, think of how much easier it is to finish a straight ankle lock in the gi compared to in no gi.

I’m personally 99% confident that the real reason why heel hooks are still illegal in the gi is political. If heel hooks suddenly became legal, many of the sport’s icons and figure heads would start losing to heel hooks left and right. Arguably, this isn’t good for grappling as a sport at all, because we would lose all the fans associated with these athletes and teams. Therefore, it’s better to keep heel hooks illegal, at least until there’s a new generation of icons that are good at them.

Should heel hooks be banned?

Heel hooks should be banned in Brazilian jiu jitsu for white belts, and possibly also for blue and purple belts. At the brown and black belt level they should be legal, both in the gi and in no gi. If heel hooks are banned, we leave the door open for other martial arts to come in and wreck us with them.

The important thing to realise here is that heel hooks can be trained safely. There are actually other techniques which aren’t safe that should be banned but aren’t, such as the flying scissors takedown (kani bansami) and jumping to closed guard.

Heel hooks compared to other leg locks

To understand heel hooks it helps to understand them in relation to the other leg attacks. So here’s a few comparisons to help you out.

Heel hook vs ankle lock

The ankle lock attacks the ankle jock by extending it straight backwards. The heel hook attacks the side of the knee joint, and possibly the ankle in a rotatory way. The heel hook is far more dangerous than the ankle lock. The ankle lock is legal in the gi at white belt.

Heel hook vs kneebar

The kneebar is executed by bending the opponent’s knee backwards through an arc. This overextends the knee straight back. The knee bar attacks the back of the knee, whereas the heel hook attacks the side of the knee, which is much weaker. The kneebar is therefore much harder to finish than the heel hook.

Heel hook vs toe hold

The toehold is a submission that is applied to the foot and ankle. It’s quite similar to the outside heel hook, but the difference is that in a heel hook you can also bridge into the side of the knee. Also, with the toe hold you can only apply internal rotation, and not external rotation, which hurts the knee more. This makes the heel hook a far more dangerous submission than the toe hold.

Heel hook vs inverted heel hook

As I discussed above, there’s two variations of the heel hook: normal heel hook vs inverted heel hook, also known as outside heel hook vs inside heel hook. With the normal heel hook, a lot of force is taken by the ankle, which threatens the ankle but alleviates pressure from the knee. In the inverted heel hook all pressure is directly applied to the knee. Therefore the inverted heel hook is stronger and more dangerous.

Heel hook vs leg lock

A heel hook is only one of the many leg locks in BJJ. It’s the most popular and most powerful leg lock in modern BJJ. Leg lock experts like Gordon Ryan, Craig Jones and Nicky Ryan are always experts in the heel hook and use that as their primary weapon, although their understanding of various forms of leg entanglement (ashi garami) is equally important.

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