Heel hooks have been taking over the BJJ world for the last couple of years. It seems like every Nogi competition involves people rolling around trying to grab each other’s legs and rip their knees apart. This is largely thanks to John Danaher and his team who exploited BJJ’s lack of focus on heel hooks over the years.
Through specializing in leg locks his team was able to have tremendous success against high level opponents who despite their experience had little understanding of heel hooks.
Despite heel hooks being now such a popular technique in BJJ they are still banned in white belt competitions and most gyms will not teach them to beginners. Let’s find out why!
Can White Belts Do Heel Hooks?
White belts can not perform heel hooks in either Gi or Nogi competitions. They are outlawed in all major competitions such as IBJJF, ADCC, NAGA and Grappling Industries. Due to this most gyms will not teach white belts heel hooks and will ban them from using heel hooks during sparring.
If you are a white belt you will have a very hard time finding a competition that will allow you to use heel hooks. The industry standard in BJJ has been to only allow heel hooks from Brown Belt up and in expert divisions.
As no competitions allow heel hooks for beginners most gyms will not teach them to white belts. In the past many BJJ gyms would completely avoid heel hooks and would not even teach them to experienced students.
However, as they became an extremely effective technique gyms started slowly introducing them into their curriculum. Now most gyms start introducing heel hooks to purple belts with a number gyms even teaching blue belts this dangerous technique.
While heel hooks have become one of the most popular techniques in BJJ, schools that teach them to white belts are still in the minority. Based on my experience training in a bunch of gyms over the years I think these are the percentage of gyms teaching heel hooks based on belt level:
- 15% of gyms – Teach heel hooks to only brown belts and up
- 30% of gyms – Teach heel hooks to only purple belts and up
- 30% of gyms – Teach heel hooks to only blue belts and up
- 5% of gyms – Teach white belts heel hooks
- 20% of gyms – No heel hook instruction to any belts
Why Can’t White Belts Do Heel Hooks In BJJ?
White Belts are banned from doing heel hooks because the submission has the ability to significantly damage the knee and leg. It requires great control to perform without hurting your training opponent and if the defender either moves incorrectly or doesn’t tap quickly they can be seriously injured.
Here are the main reasons BJJ coaches don’t teach white belts heel hooks:
Require a lot of control – A heel hook needs to be performed carefully and slowly in training. In other submissions defenders have a long time to tap before injury occurs, this is not the case with heel hooks.
Coaches are worried that white belts will apply the submission too quickly and powerfully leading to a nasty knee injury.
Incorrect defense can lead to injury – A common defense against a heel hook is rolling towards the side your heel is being cranked to. This rolling technique alleviates pressure and helps you slip out of your opponents grip.
Unfortunately if you accidentally roll the wrong way you make the submission much tighter and can tear your own knee. Coaches are worried that white belts will roll the wrong way and injure themselves.
Focus on passing the guard – White belts who become obsessed with leg locks often neglect developing their passing skills which is a fundamental component of BJJ. To avoid white belts not training their passing coaches will often only teach BJJ athletes leg locks once they have strong passing skills.
Illegal in Competitions – Many BJJ coaches take the viewpoint that there is no point teaching white belts heel hooks because they won’t be able to use them in competition. They believe it is better to focus on submissions that are legal.
History of BJJ – BJJ has traditionally viewed leg locks as a low percentage and shameful technique. In the mind of purists, BJJ is all about improving position through a sweep or passing the guard and then applying a classical submission such as arm bar or rear naked choke.
Leg locks were viewed negatively because they could be performed without passing the guard. It didn’t help that the Gracies and their students allegedly got leg locked by Luta Livre practitioners who were strong believers in heel hooks.
This attitude still persists in some BJJ gyms. In these gyms heel hooks may not be taught at all or very reluctantly to upper belts who have to compete in rule sets where they are legal.
White belts are prohibited from performing heel hooks in competitions. Competition organizers are concerned over the injury risk that they present. Due to them not being legal in competition and the risk of hurting training partners most BJJ gyms will not teach heel hooks to white belts.
However, this is changing, only a few years ago gyms would only teach heel hooks to brown and black belts but it is now common for purple and blue belts to train them. I would estimate about 5% of BJJ gyms are currently teaching white belts heel hooks and this is likely to rise substantially over the coming years as the technique continues to become more accepted.