Technique, Theory

The Problem with Wrist Locks

You’re having a friendly roll with a semi-regular training partner.  The roll is competitive but not serious.  Then, your partner slaps on a wrist lock.

Whether or not they successfully catch you, the roll has changed.  You’re playing by prison rules now and now its time to see how much misery you can inflict.  Knee on belly – aiming to submit with pressure?  Definitely.  Get to top of the mount and open your gi for more effective waterboarding?  Yea.  And, for some people, wrist lock them back.

But why do wrist locks elicit such an emotional response?  What about them makes normally mild-mannered people’s vision go red as the blood rage wells up from the previously unnoticed darkness residing inside their heart?

Are wrist locks cheap moves?

It is common to hear wrist locks referred to as “cheap.”  The term is vague, but can be best defined as:

A move that does not require much technique to catch

The problem with “cheap” moves, if they exist, is that they undermine the point of jiu-jitsu.  If someone does not need skill to win, instead relying on an “overpowered” technique, then what incentive is there master anything else?  So, now that we’ve defined our terms, are wrist locks cheap?

The answer is complicated, but the short version is no.  Complicating the matter is that wrist locks can be thrown from almost anywhere, including positions generally regarded as inferior.  A player in a dominant position may not regard themselves as being in danger and thus not pay adequate attention to the risks posed by wrist locks.  This can be compounded when a higher ranked jiu-jitsero is going easy on a less proficient practitioner.

However, once players learn that the danger wrist locks pose it is generally easy to avoid them, even more so when in a dominant position.  Most cases of a lower ranked player catching a higher ranked player in a wrist lock are a result of the higher ranked player simply not being familiar with the technique.  Skill can compensate for unfamiliarity to some extent, but the first couple of exposures are still dangerous.  Ultimately, the fact that one can learn to prevent wrist locks means that they are not in fact easy to catch.  If you want to catch a skilled player in a wrist lock you’ll have to set it up from a position of control (like the omoplata), and even then don’t expect it to be easy.

So, if they aren’t cheap why do they make people mad?

The answer to this question has two parts that stem from the same root.  First, wrist locks hurt.  Second, wrist locks from anywhere except extremely dominant control positions must be applied quickly in order to catch them.  The second reason is the explanation for why wrist locks hurt!

If you think about it, most submissions can be put on extremely slowly and still be successful.  I’ll throw an armbar and move through the last 15 degrees of the submission like I’m moving in molasses.  Of course, this means that sometimes people escape.  And, yes, perhaps I would have caught those people if I had simply thrown the move more quickly.  However, this is a wonderful way to hurt your training partners and is doing my jiu-jitsu no favors.  If I always throw armbars as fast as I can then I’ll never get to work on the control elements of the position.  One day I’ll encounter someone strong, or technical, or both and my speed-reliant armbars just won’t work.

Unfortunately wrist locks don’t fit well within this play style.  The wrist is a highly mobile joint attached to the end of a limb.  It can move through a wide range of motion quickly, and only a small change in orientation is frequently enough to completely escape a wrist lock.  This means that unless you have the joint completely isolated you stand a very good chance of losing the submission if you apply it slowly.  This encourages people to throw the move on quickly…resulting in a painful submission.  Worse, the joint is small and relatively easy to sprain.  It is deeply frustrating to hurt for a week or more because your training partner wanted to catch you and didn’t care enough to find a way to do it without causing you possibly long-term pain.


This final point is why the submission makes me angry.  If I am unable to throw a submission (or sweep, or anything really) without hurting my partner then I don’t throw the damn move.  This is my hobby.  I pay money to play this game.  I don’t want to go home injured.  Yes, I recognize that this is a combat sport and not a strategy board game, but while I accept that accidents happen and I’ll receive the more-than-occasional bruise I do not believe that I have to accept injuries caused by the carelessness of my partners.  So, if you throw a careless submission on me I’ll get mad.  I will do my best to make you not enjoy the rest of the roll.

For me that means a pressure based game.  I stop going for submissions and instead go for uncomfortable control positions.  Cranking submissions or throwing wrist locks back is something I avoid doing when I’m upset because it is precisely what made me mad.  I don’t want to hurt my training partners, I just want them to know that I don’t approve of them trying to hurt me.

What can you do?

In no way shape or form am I saying wrist locks are, or should be, off-limits.  However, I believe that they should be applied with care.  Take the golden rule of jiu-jitsu and apply submissions unto others as you believe they could be universally applied onto everyone.  Practically this means that catch and release is your best bet.  Once you feel their wrist begin to bend in the direction of the submission stop applying the submissionOnce you are able to get that initial bend in the wrist you’ve functionally caught the submission.  You don’t have to crank it until they tap to prove the point, so just let go, move on, and keep your training partner happy and healthy.

If people aggressively apply wrist locks on you…well, as social situations are wont to be it is complicated.  In a perfect world, have a discussion with them about where you cover the points I have articulated here, ideally spiced with vernacular and ideas that make it more familiar to your gym.  In a less perfect world, either punish their bad behavior without hurting them, or simply stop rolling with them.

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