Wrist Locks-An Overview

A common question I  get is to explain the difference between Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and other systems or styles of Jiu-jitsu and why these other Jiu-jitsu styles often have so many wrist locks.  As far as major differences go, most people want to point out that Brazilian Jiu-jitsu places a heavy emphasis on ground grappling and fighting while other Jiu-jitsu systems did not. As observed by many lay people, these other systems of Jiu-jitsu may place a heavy emphasis on wrist locks, for example, instead of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu’s trade mark of ground fighting. While certainly true, as I have written before, it still misses the larger point.

In the bigger picture, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is different from other Jiu-jitsu styles because it is (or at least was, until the over development of the sport version) dedicated to the most realistic and effective approach to real life self-defense the world has ever known. This is why there is a lot of ground fighting in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, because ground fighting is the most dangerously common and natural occurrence when two human beings engage in real unarmed combat without any rules. In other words, form follows function-because People who were actually fighting much bigger, stronger adversaries-for real and not just theorizing about it-found themselves on the ground a lot and not because someone dreamed up a set of sport rules where only ground work was rewarded by the points system. This is something everyone should be reminded of these days.

For the same reason, we do not see a lot of wrist locks in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu even though they are a real staple of many other Jiu-jitsu styles. In other words, it was found that most fights, especially serious ones, were not being decided by wrist locks so the natural evolutionary process led to wrist locks being de-emphasized. However, this is not to say that some wrist locks do not have their place in certain self defense situations and they are taught in the complete authentic Brazilian Jiu-jitsu systems. Nevertheless, the philosophy of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is simply that there is much more relevant and practical material to spend our often limited training time on. Simply put, wrist locks were found to be highly problematic under real life self defense conditions so we don’t need to waste a lot of time on them when there are other tactics proven to work much better.

Pretty simple idea right? The only problem in understanding this is when we return to the old “politically correct” martial arts idea that any nonsense someone dreamed up and declares a “self defense” system is equal to all others making the same claim. This is where the empirical testing and proving part trumps uncritical adherence to tradition or the non reproducible exploits of individuals. In other words, is Jiu-jitsu a “science” or a “superstition”? Brazilian Jiu-jitsu certainly was built on elements of the scientific method, which it directly inherited from Jigaro kano and his “science of attack and defense” and continued this empirical method by using trail and error and real world testing. It is in this area that I believe we can continue to enhance Brazilian Jiu-jitsu with an “evidence based” approach to self-defense, which is one of the major themes of this blog.

That being said, let us return to the topic of wrist locks.  Why were wrist locks empirically found to be problematic in real life situations?  The problems with wrist locks are many, but the main one is that you are trying to control a bigger and stronger aggressor by only one joint of his body, the rest of him is free to move. Not only are you trying to control his whole body by one joint, it is the joint furthest from his spine and “center of mass” which means it has the least influence on his general stability and posture, (this is basic joint hierarchy theory).

Wrist locks can be done, but they are not easy and generally not considered very practical in the real world, especially for smaller people. For example, with the worst ones you have to first break the grip with hand strength in order to keep a hold and then move the hand into the locking position, then apply the leverage. If that sounds like a lot to do, it is and there are lots of things that can go wrong. Furthermore it is basically just your hand strength that is performing the actions. Remember the technical axiom for simplicity: the more steps a technique has the more that can go wrong and the more likely it will fail. This is often referred to as “too many moving parts” and is an excellent analogy.

Therefore, if you are going to use a wrist lock, which may still be a good choice in lower threat self-defense situations, I wanted to give you an example of one that has the best chance of actually working in the real world but is not taught that widely. This lock has some advantages because you do not have to break the attacker’s grip or really change the position of his hand. In fact, the idea with this lock is to pull the attacker’s hand in tighter so you are controlling it more with your entire body then with your hands and you are in a sense “using three hands” or at least three grips. By using your own jacket for additional support, you leave both hands free to do other tasks; this makes this kind of lock a lot stronger than the usual wrist locks.


Imagine an aggressive person has grabbed your jacket with their right hand. Reach over the attacker’s hand with your right arm. Grip your own jacket lapel right below his hand and Grip as close to his hand as you can but thumb towards you. You can use your left hand to first hold your lapel and pull it out a little to take the slack out and make it easier for your right hand to find the grip.

You want to use the long hard “blade” of your arm and not the strength of your hands. By gripping this way you cut into his wrist where it bends and you can squeeze it very tight against you. This takes all the slack out of the wrist. Flex your wrist in that same direction as if you were “cracking a whip”. This makes the fit very tight and very strong. You must not let your wrist bend up or down or use the thick part of your arm.

It should be so tight that he cannot pull his wrist out even when holding it with just the one arm. Then the second arm reinforces this grip to make it even tighter. Your second hand can hold at the wrist or it can reach further across and hold your own elbow. The whole idea is to hold his wrist so tight that it cannot move, and then you twist it, not with hand strength but by “basing out” and twisting your hips and shoulders. This is much more powerful and painful because his wrist is being twisted side to side and not up and down. There is much less slack in the wrist this way, so be very careful not to hurt the wrist of your partner.

This kind of wrist lock developed in the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu training environment for use in the stand-up phase of tournaments. Thus, It had to be tight enough and effective enough to be able to catch a trained Brazilian Jiu-jitsu player who is well versed in how to prevent and escape joint locks. Therefore, it has some real advantages over most of the traditional wrist locks that rely too much on hand strength.

This is a further example of the non-traditional approach that also distinguishes Brazilian Jiu-jitsu from other Jiu-jitsu systems. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is always looked on as a work in progress that can be improved on and made more effective, and this includes all areas of self-defense and not just ground work. It is this crucial difference that truly distinguishes the scientific based Brazilian Jiu-jitsu from the “tradition” bound classical systems of Jiu-jitsu or other martial arts for that matter.  To reiterate, extensive ground work is a product of an empirical approach to self-defense and unarmed combat. However, empiricism also reveals that there are times when ground work is inappropriate or inadvisable and therefore Brazilian Jiu-jitsu strives to be not only the most effective but also the most complete system of self-defense.