We just started focusing on Heel Hooks in our Master Cycle class at Watford Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Whenever I’ve heard or read about heel hooks, they’ve always been accompanied by a tagline that referred to them as one of the most dangerous submissions. Hearing that link over and over again might make you wonder – why learn it? Is it worth the risk of injury?
Well, all knowledge is beneficial. Learning about heel hooks does not mean you need to implement them into your game plan. Moreover, during practice, if you ever do get hold of a heel hook, it doesn’t mean you need to complete the move to the point of injuring your partner. It all comes down to responsibility, really. You need to be responsible for your partner’s safety when training, and you need to be responsible for your OWN safety by either escaping early or tapping out quickly to avoid injury.
Understanding what the submission involves, identifying when it is possible to use the submission on someone else, recognizing when the threat appears for yourself, and tapping quickly when you feel vulnerable are all key elements to mastering and surviving the heel hook.
All submissions, whether they are a joint lock or a chokehold, are dangerous in one way or another. The impact varies depending on the submission. The heel hook is particularly dangerous because it affects multiple complex joints. Although it is the heel that is being physically attacked, the impact is felt around the knee joint. What makes it even more dangerous is that the pain is usually felt after the damage has already occurred.
In the simplest explanation possible, the standard heel hook involves isolating your partner’s leg and holding it in a steady position, securing their heel on your forearm and holding it in place with an inverted grip, and twisting with the whole body. This twist places a great amount of torque on the ankle which also torques the knee. The anatomy of the knee only allows it to bend and straighten. So, when the leg is held in a static position and the knee is torqued in a direction it is not designed to move in, severe stress is placed on the joint — which can lead to some major injuries.
Rather than give any misleading information about the anatomy and physiology of the knee and how heel hooks have an impact on it, I’ll list a few links to sites that helped me get a better understanding of what is involved in a heel hook.
Dr. Ethan Kreiswirth wrote an article that I found really informative, entitled Dangers of the Heel Hook. He provides details of the anatomy of a heel hook injury.
Looking at the basic anatomy of the knee can also give you a better understanding of what happens when the knee is torqued:
Heel hooks are complex, but they’re also quick to get and super effective. That being said, in a training environment, there’s really no need to squeeze an actual heel hook. You can lock it up, let your partner know so that they know how/where they are vulnerable while grappling, and then let go and move on. Conversely, if you get caught in a heel hook, tap. Tap twice. Tap quick. It makes no sense to endure months and months of recovery time due to major ligament damage just for the sake of not wanting to tap. Keep your ego in check and be smart with your training.
Learn. Drill. Repeat.