The Complete Armbar Breakdown
BY HEATHER RAFTERY ·
Did you see what I did there? Armbar… “break”down…
Aside from having puns for days, as both a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and a social scientist, I’ve made it my mission to study the art of jiu-jitsu and all the systems within it. One thing that I’ve found is that there are a handful core principles underlying jiu-jitsu generally, as well as every submission and position individually.
What does that mean? Let’s take the armbar for example. It means that whatever the entry, whatever the position, however you finish it… an armbar requires just few key elements. If those aren’t addressed, it’s no longer an armbar. And in understanding what these elements are, you will be able to execute an armbar – effectively and efficiently – no matter what crazy position you might find yourself or how your opponent might be defending against it.
First of all, let’s begin by defining an armbar. Go ahead, take a second to think about how you’d explain an armbar to someone who has no idea what jiu-jitsu is. I’ll wait… tick tock, time’s up. If you said something to the effect of “an armbar is a hyperextention of the elbow joint”, you’re right.
Regardless of the type of armbar, ultimately an armbar is applied by understanding that the elbow bends one way, and not the other. When you bend it in the opposite direction, there’s a point at which it wants to stop moving. That’s the breaking point. Keep forcing it in that direction, and you’ll get the tap.
That, or you’ll end up breaking the arm. And by “breaking”, I mean you’ll cause a strain, sprain, or even a tear in the muscles or ligaments supporting the proper movement of the elbow joint, and possibly a dislocation of the bones. All of that sucks, by the way, and requires extensive recovery time. So, I don’t suggest trying it in the name of science. Just take my word for it.
Three Core Elements
Now, understanding exactly what is an armbar, we can now think about how to effectively apply it.
Properly applying an armbar requires three core elements: 1) immobilization of the wrist, 2) immobilization of the shoulder, and 3) applying pressure in the opposite direction of the elbow. If any one of these three are missing, the odds of getting the tap are extremely low. Not entirely non-existent, mind you. Exceptions to the rules and weird shit happens in jiu-jitsu all the time. But if you want to have higher than a 5% chance of getting an armbar submission, you do need to focus on those three elements.
Immobilization of the Wrist
When you first learned how to armbar, your instructor probably emphasized keeping the wrist glued to your chest and the thumb pointing out. More than likely, your instructor did not explain why.
The “why” is that by doing so, you immobilize the wrist, which positions the elbow in line with your hips, which is the surface that will be exerting pressure on the elbow to hyperextend it. If you don’t immobilize the wrist, the wrist can rotate, which in turn allows your elbow to rotate – because the elbow will be more or less in the opposite direction as the thumb – away from the line of your hips. This could then foil your armbar attempt.
Immobilization of the Shoulder
Again, when you first learned how to armbar, your instructor probably emphasized getting your hips as close to the shoulder as possible and pinching your legs around the arm. All great details. But why?
This has to do with immobilizing the shoulder. Just as the bones of the your forearm connect to both the wrist and the elbow, the long bone of your upper arm – the humerus – connects to both your shoulder and the elbow. If you don’t immobilize the shoulder, your shoulder can rotate, allowing your elbow to rotate away from the breaking pressure, as well as your body to rotate to a better position to defend (hitchhiker escape, anyone?).
Pressure in the Opposite Direction of the Elbow
Finally, once you have both the shoulder and wrist immobilized, the final ingredient in finishing an armbar submission is to exert pressure in the opposite direction of the elbow. Often this is with your hips, which are incredibly powerful.
But what happens if everything is not textbook perfect? What if the elbow is still not in line with the hips, although you do have those other two ingredients locked down in some way? You can still finish the armbar. Say the elbow slipped and is now pointing to your thigh. Recognizing that all you have to do is exert pressure against it, you can adjust by turning and pulling the wrist across your waist, so that now your leg is acting as the same surface that your hips were.
And there you have it! You’ve just learned the underlying principles behind every single armbar you’ll ever apply in your entire life. Hopefully this armbar breakdown will have given you a deeper understanding of the proper execution of an armbar, will enable you to make those necessary modifications, and will increase your success rate for finishing armbars on the mat.