The training of leg lock submissions has always been a controversial issue in the grappling arts. Sambo and catch wrestling practitioners swear by them while jiu-jitsu and judo players downplay or completely ignore their use. Moves such as the ankle lock, kneebar, heelhook and toehold were made popular in the Russian military because injuring the legs would render the enemy unable to walk without the aid of another person. Many instructors frown upon beginners using leg locks because they can be dangerous if done recklessly. This is true, but the same goes for many other techniques such as the kimura which can lead to shoulder injuries if applied without regard for safety. Currently the IBJJF only allows kneebars and toe holds in the brown and black belt divisions while heel hooks are completely illegal. There is also the no-reaping rule which is controversial in itself. It states that a competitor may not pass his or her leg over the hip bone of the opponent when attacking the legs or else be immediately disqualified. While this regulation was probably put in place for safety issues, it has also caused confusion and frustration among the athletes. This is mostly due to the vagueness of the exact point at which the leg could be considered past the hip bone. In some cases the rule has even been taken advantage of (i.e. when a competitor intentionally moves the opponents leg past the hip bone to have him or her disqualified). The only real solution is to get rid of the no-reaping rule and encourage more control in the application of leg locks in competition.
While most leg locks are illegal in jiu-jitsu competition with the exception of the brown and black belt divisions, they should still be practiced in training by lower belt players (especially those who aim to compete). This is not to say that from now on every white belt out there should start slinging heelhooks with reckless abandon; instead they should focus on learning the fundamental technique first just as they would with any other move then slowly integrate it into their game with safety in mind. For example, at Renzo Gracie Pittsburgh we frequently work on leglocks in our advanced nogi class but stress controlled live sessions where the emphasis is placed more on correct technique rather than going all-out for the submission. It is important to learn these leg attacks (and escapes) from the start in order to have a more complete game. This is probably why many high-level jiu-jitsu practitioners who neglect leglocks end up losing in competitions where their opponents are not necessarily more skilled, but simply have more weapons in their arsenal. Anyone who recently competed at the Slippery Rock University tournament can relate to this.
Leglocks have gained prominence not only in the submission grappling scene lately but in mixed martial arts, as well. While he is now on a two fight losing streak, Rousimar Palhares went on a tear in the UFC not too long ago where he established a reputation for his ruthless leglock attacks. This, combined with his physical strength and episodes of mental instability, made him a feared opponent in the middleweight division. Few wanted to face him because there was such a strong possibility of suffering a serious injury during the fight and being out for months or even years. While Palhares is an exceptional example, it should be noted how big of an impact leglocks can make in competition, both physically and mentally.
Gokor Chivichyan once said “I believe the reason why we don’t see leglocks in grappling and MMA as often as other submission techniques is simply because most people don’t know how to do them.”
This quote essentially sums up why leglocks should be practiced more in jiu-jitsu. It’s that element of surprise, that extra tool in the box that gives the player a certain advantage over his or her opponent and at the highest levels sometimes that makes all the difference between a win and a loss.
To observe leglocks being used effectively, watch videos of Dean Lister, Vinny Magalhaes, Davi Ramos and Sambo practitioners in action.