Wristlocks. Cheap low percentage submissions, or useful tool in the arsenal? Both. Although wristlocks are indeed a low percentage submission much of the time, there are situations where they are quick and don’t require you to risk giving up position. Wristlocks also can be used as a wedge against a defensive opponent, where the wristlock “encourages” them to give up their arm.
First things first. Having your wrist messed up because of an over-enthusiastic wrist lock is no fun. Take your own wrist and bend it backwards towards the top of your forearm. It will easily move, then stop. A little more pressure doesn’t hurt. It’s not until significantly more pressure is applied that you feel like a submission is happening. This makes it more difficult to determine when to tap when you are on the receiving end, so you want to make sure that wristlocks in this direction are controlled and you are able to immediately release the pressure.
Now try bending your hand forward. There is a lot of variation of flexibility in this direction. Just like the other direction, there is a free range of motion, then a noticeable stop. You’ll notice a little bit of discomfort, then as you apply more pressure, you’ll feel a proportional increase in discomfort. This makes wristlocks in this direction a little harder to feel when you have enough submission pressure, and some people can put their hands almost onto their forearm in this direction. Despite these disadvantages for the attacker, I prefer these types of wristlocks because they are harder to accidentally injure your training partner.
Another thing to remember about wristlocks is a straight wrist is far stronger than a bent wrist. With a standing training partner, have them hold their wrist straight as you try to bend it. It is very difficult. Now, have them bend their wrist a little and see how much easier it is to bend their wrist. This means that when you are attacking a wristlock, you want to get your opponents wrist away from straight before they realize they are in danger and can strengthen their wrist in a straight orientation. Just a small slap of the hand can be enough to get the angle introduced, so focus on an accurate initial contact, but once you get a little bit of bend, you can relax and focus on leverage against a weakened joint.
With those safety warnings and anatomical basics out of the way, we can look at a few of the dozens of scenarios where wristlocks can be utilized.
Self Defense Scenario
This wristlock setup is when you have someone who is trying to push you backwards. Their fingers will be pointed up, and their natural distance for the shove will have their elbow bent in preparation to extend and generate power against you. As they place their hand on your chest, grab above their elbow and bring your shoulders over their wrist. Be sure to keep your elbows collapsed towards your attacker’s arm to keep them from moving their arm side to side and to give you a good angle for pulling their arm into your body.
This wristlock is the variety that is harder to feel, so take it slow when practicing.
This wristlock is usually performed as a reminder to lower level students to avoid blocking their own elbow on the mat and attempting to push against the belly or hip of their opponent. In other words, your opponent has put everything in place for a wristlock without you doing anything. In this scenario, dropping your weight and twisting slightly into the wrist will apply this wrist lock. Since their elbow is pinned to the ground and their hand is held in place by your weight, this wristlock is hard to get out of. Sometimes in friendly sparring you’ll see upper level belts give a quick and light pressure twist into the hand to remind their opponent they should avoid having their hand there when their elbow is pinned to the ground.
The setup for this wristlock is similar to an armbar setup. From a high mount, you’ll drive your knee up towards the head. This will tend to put your opponent’s elbow in your belly. To finish, cup your opponents hand just like you did for the self defense scenario. Your thumb and index finger should be near the wrist joint, while the rest of your hand is cupping over your opponent’s hand, pulling it into the forearm. If you have a particularly flexible opponent, this may be a particularly hard wristlock to finish.
The attack after a rolling omoplata escape is one of my favorite surprise wristlocks that is actually high percentage from this position because it is so hard to escape from. When your opponent rolls out of a omoplata attempt, they are expecting you to go to side control, or they are expecting a re-omoplata roll. What they aren’t expecting is a wristlock that immobilizes them.
After you opponent rolls to their back, get in tight against their side and wrap your feet to the outside, as if you were thinking of finishing the omoplata. Keep control of the arm and pin the upper arm to the mat with all of your body weight. Make sure your legs are very tight together, and try to ball up your body close to your legs and beside your opponent’s body. This will lower your center of gravity and help prevent your opponent from pulling you over their body.
You are focusing your entire body on their arm, and their forearm should be almost completely immobilized. From here, a quick snap of the wrist will break the straight angle, and you can leisurely finish the wristlock.
Another way to use the wristlock is against armbar defense. This works particularly well against opponents that clasp their hands together in any configuration. There are too many variations to this to describe well in this post, but your goal is to get the near wrist bent if it is not already bent, then attempt the wristlock. It’s extremely rare to get the wristlock, but your opponent will give up their armbar defense to relieve the pressure, at which point you can resume your armbar attack. Of all the armbar defense breaks there are, the wristlock variety are my favorite. Practice with a compliant partner whose only goal is to keep their hands together in any configuration (gable, wrist grabs, etc). Find the angle where you can either attack the hand directly, or look for a way to place your forearm under their forearm, use that hand to grab your other forearm, which then chains up to the hand that is trying to bend that wrist. This figure 4 of your arms can apply a lot of force to your opponent’s wrist
One scenario that crops up occasionally, even against higher level opponents, is side control against you with an arm in-between your legs. Usually your opponent is trying to control your outside leg. When this happens, lock up a figure 4 with your legs, like you are doing a shallow leg triangle on their arm. This will block the elbow, and it usually considered a non-threatening tactic.
Once the arm is locked in, you have to have a smooth and rapid attack. If you reach and try to pry your opponents hand down, they will strengthen their wrist. At this angle, you won’t have the twisting strength to apply the wristlock, and the attack will be stopped cold. You need to encircle their wrist and immediately snap their wrist away from straight. Once it’s bent, your opponent will have much less strength to resist the submission attempt. Push the hand into the forearm and up towards your inside knee. This will help you get the appropriate angle as well as restrict how much your opponent can move their arm.
At this point, you either get the submission, or your opponent finds a way to pull their arm out. If they escape, you get a perfect opportunity to reclaim your guard.
Although wristlocks are often looked at as cheap “gotcha” submission attempts, It’s good to incorporate them into your thinking as a general purpose tool. Either you complete the submission, or you loosen up your opponent by putting them on the defensive. When they are on defense, they will either open up for a different submission, or you’ll have an opportunity to transition to a more advantageous position. In any case, the wristlock acts as a wedge against your opponents offense and defense. Keep it in your back pocket and ignore the naysayers that insist wristlocks don’t work. They work, just not always as a primary submission attempt.