Essential Grappling Techniques for Striking Specialists

Dec 15, 2022MMA

For mixed martial artists and strikers looking to round out their skillset, developing competent grappling skills is a must. Even if you consider yourself a standup fighter first and foremost, having an understanding of core grappling principles will ensure you can be effective if a match goes to the ground. This article provides an overview of vital positions, submissions, escapes and concepts to help striking specialists navigate grappling encounters.

Core Positions in Grappling

There are six fundamental positions that provide a framework to approach the huge variety of techniques in grappling arts. Understanding these basic postures allows you to transfer skills between the many variations.

Rear Mount

Also known as taking the back, rear mount refers to controlling an opponent from behind while remaining upright on your knees. Your legs hook around their hips with your heels tucked near their inner thighs, neutralizing much of their mobility. With their back exposed, your arms are free to attack as your opponent’s arms are occupied trying to defend and relieve potential chokes.

This position heavily favors the person on the back. The most urgent threat here is the rear naked choke. If you find yourself in an opponent’s rear mount, defending against this submission should be priority number one. Try to trap the choking arm against your chest so they cannot get it around your neck. Once you’ve mitigated the choke threat you can try to escape by hip escaping out the back door.

For the person on the back looking to finish with a rear naked choke, focus on establishing hooks with your legs first before attacking the neck. This limits their ability to roll or spin away from the choke. Apply pressure with your bicep and forearm, using your other arm simply to brace and cinch up the choke. Improvising with one arm grasping their shoulder can also work in a pinch.

While not a common position in self defense encounters, knowing rear mount is useful for finishing fights decisively and humanely with a clean choke if the situation arises.


One of the most dominant top positions, the mount involves sitting across your opponent’s torso while pinning their arms with your legs. Their legs are hooked behind yours with their ankles crossed, severely limiting hip mobility and ability to generate power. Pressure is directed straight down through the core into the chest cavity, inflicting pain and sapping the will to continue fighting.

From top mount, the priorities are control and inflicting damage via strikes. “Get heavy” by bearing your weight down through your hips and center of mass. Watch for them trying to bridge their hips upward to disrupt your base. If needed, open up just enough space for short punches and elbows targeting the head and face. Mount can be secured from front headlock variations and offers a relatively safe way to strike a grounded opponent if absolutely necessary.

For the bottom fighter, escaping mount is imperative. The simplest high-percentage escape involves trapping one of the top fighter’s arms against your chest and hugging their same side leg tight between yours. Explosively bridge your hips upward, using that trapped side to roll and sweep them over your head. As you roll onto your side you’ll have a moment to shrimp your hips back and free your legs. Other options work to get half guard or full guard as well. Whatever you do, don’t just roll over onto your stomach as this gives up your back.

Overall mount is one of the most frustrating and dangerous positions to be caught in. Having at least one reliable escape technique here is highly recommended.

Knee On Belly

Also referred to as knee-on-belly, knee mount is exactly what it sounds like—driving forceful pressure through your knee into a small surface area on the opponent’s torso. Pressure can be increased further by concentrating your weight through the knee rather than posting out wide with your foot. Grabbing their belt or lapel and pulling up into the point of the knee multiplies the effect.

Knee mount offers excellent control and stability for striking, though not quite as much as the full mount. The major advantage is the ease of disengaging when needed. Simply stepping back off the knee is all it takes. This mobility makes it ideal for self-defense when facing multiple attackers. You don’t want to be tied up on the ground vulnerable to others when opportunities to escape arise.

For the opponent on bottom, the knee driving into their belly is intensely unpleasant. The lowered hip on the other side makes it difficult to bridge explosively and buck the top fighter off. Focus on framing against the knee and hip to make space, shrimping the hips to roll into the open side.

Overall knee mount is one of the best top positions for quickly and harmlessly controlling an aggressive opponent while staying mobile and ready to disengage.

Side Control

One of the most common top positions, side control refers to controlling your opponent from the side with their near-side arm trapped by your legs. Your head rests near their far armpit, posting on your hand and using your shoulder and chest to apply downward pressure. The far-side arm is controlled with your arms, limiting their mobility and ability to frame against you.

While not as dominant as the full mount, side control offers excellent stability and control of your opponent’s upper body. Striking is very limited but transitions to other spots like mount, knee mount and north-south are readily available. The lack of leg involvement also leaves their legs free to shrimp and re-guard if you lose focus. Constant pressure and isolation of that far arm is key.

For the bottom opponent, work first to control that nearside arm you’ve given them direct access to by trapping it between your head and shoulder. Keep your elbow tight and hands active. Regaining guard can be very difficult from here so focus on neutralizing strikes first while waiting for opportunities rather than forcing moves. When chances arise, grip the belt or pants and bridge up onto the shoulder of the side you want to roll them over. Kick the furthest leg back then roll yourself on top, landing in either mount, knee mount or side control of your own.

Overall side control is a relatively safe position for both players. The top fighter isn’t vulnerable to getting swept or submitted easily. The bottom fighter can stall and bide their time waiting for chances to escape and reverse.

Turtle Position

The turtle position involves curling up in a fetal posture on your knees facing down. The head is tucked and arms shelter both sides trying to defend against strikes and chokes. This is almost always a voluntary defensive position rather than one imposed by an opponent. Turtling tends to happen for two reasons:

  1. As a defensive transition from a worse position by a skilled grappler looking to improve their situation.
  2. As an untrained reaction to flee and cover against oncoming strikes.

The major vulnerability of the turtle is the complete exposure of the back, shoulders and head. The top opponent has free access to throw knees, kicks and other focused strikes. Chokes can also be applied, especially if the bottom fighter fails to keep their chin tucked. Overall the turtle is one of the worst positions to end up in during a fight.

The most urgent priority in turtle is to get out and regain a better posture immediately. Forget trying to tough it out here—the strikes will only get harder. Frame out widely with both arms and walk the knees back towards the opponent. Lift your head and work urgently to stand back up or roll over onto your side at minimum. If a choke is applied, tap or go to sleep. Not worth the risk.

For the top opponent, continuing to strike a turtled opponent may raise ethical and legal issues. Once they are defending in the fetal position fight likely over. Focus should shift to controlling the opponent in a safer position like side control until law enforcement arrives.

Guard Positions

Arguably the most important category of positions in grappling is the guard. Guards are defined by the bottom fighter controlling the top fighter’s movements and attacks using their legs. There are closed, open and half guard variations offering differing means of control.

The closed guard is likely the default guard position for most. The bottom fighter has their legs locked together around the top fighter, typically anchoring their ankles against the hips or lower back. This allows maximal control and limits the opponent’s mobility and striking ability. Pulling them down tight against you further decreases space to maneuver. The lack of space also makes the closed guard ideal for controlling a tense or aggressive opponent while keeping things relatively safe.

Open guards use the legs in a more active and technical way to control position. Common examples are butterfly guard, spider guard, de la Riva guard and inverted guards. These open guards aim to create space rather than eliminate it, facilitating movement and setting up intricate submissions. Open guards do require significantly more skill and experience to use effectively however. Beginners should stick to closed and half guard variations.

As the name implies, half guard involves controlling only one of the opponent’s legs between yours. Your near-side arm will underhook their leg with your head and shoulder pressed into their hip and torso. This limits mobility while still giving access to sweeps and submissions. Half guard also provides a stable intermediary control point when transitioning between open and closed guards.

Overall the guard is where the chess match of grappling really begins. Even individual guards like closed guard contain entire systems of maneuvers, attacks and counters. Make time to deeply study the guards that fit your style rather than jumping between them constantly.

Escaping Bad Positions

Even experienced grapplers get caught in bad spots repeatedly. Knowing a highly technical escape or two for these key vulnerable positions goes a long way.

Escaping Mount

Being controlled from top mount is one of the most dangerous predicaments in grappling. As mentioned earlier, a proven simple escape is:

  • Trap opponent’s arm and same-side leg against your body
  • Bridge hips up explosively
  • Roll opponent over your head using their trapped side as the axis
  • Once on your side, shrimp hips away to make space and free your legs

This trap and roll method relies on gross motor motions without fine technical details, making it accessible even under pressure and fatigue. Other options do exist such as regaining guard or taking the back, but this escape gets you out of immediate harm’s way.

Escaping Knee On Belly

With knee mount, the major concept is to make room and roll the opponent away from their posted knee:

  • Frame strongly against knee and hip to create space
  • Shrimp hips back and away from knee
  • Roll in direction that takes their weight off posting knee
  • Regain guard or get on top as they fall

Don’t try to explode directly up against knee mount—this just drives the knee in deeper. Be patient and control the posture before making space.

Escaping Side Control

  • Secure grip on belt or pants on side you want to roll them
  • Hip escape slightly to take pressure off trapped shoulder
  • Bridge up onto shoulder and post on your head
  • Kick leg furthest from opponent back
  • Continue rolling to complete sweep
  • Land in mount, knee mount, or side control

The bridge and roll from side control relies heavily on that grip and leg post. Drill it extensively under controlled circumstances before relying on it during live rolls.

Avoiding Turtle

As mentioned earlier, turtling during a fight is essentially conceding defeat. Here are some tips to avoid it:

  • Frame out widely with both arms against opponent’s hips
  • Walk knees back urgently towards opponent
  • Drive backward if needed to make space
  • Keep head up and press shoulders forward
  • Stand up or roll to side/back as soon as possible

Getting flat on your stomach or just covering up tightly will only make the situation worse. You must take assertive action before you are at the enemy’s mercy.

Offensive Submission Chokes

Cutting off blood flow to the brain compels an opponent to quit quickly and harmlessly when applied correctly. Developing even one or two submission choke techniques as weapons in your grappling arsenal is highly recommended.

Rear Naked Choke

The most iconic grappling submission, the rear naked choke involves taking the back with your chest to the opponent’s spine. Your arm encircles their neck and squeezes inward, using the bicep and forearm bones against the arteries. The choking arm can be braced with the other arm or augmented by reaching across the chest and grabbing your own shoulder. It can even be improvised with one arm by grasping the far shoulder rather than your own arm.

No matter the exact grip, reducing space and sinking the choke in under the chin is critical. Striking to create openings can help secure it against resisting opponents. Once locked in correctly, only a few seconds of blood flow restriction results in unconsciousness.

Triangle Choke

One of the highest percentage submission chokes is the triangle. By controlling the opponent’s head and arm between your legs, you can choke them from the bottom position. The triangle lets you attack from your back while remaining relatively safe. And unlike arm submissions, the triangle is accessible for all body types when executed technically.

The setup involves controlling the arm and head, keeping them together. Break their posture down and secure one or both legs in front of the shoulder and behind the head in a closed guard position. Shift hips out slightly from under them, and bring your ankle across into the armpit. Figure-four your legs locking on the triangle. Squeeze knees together, break their posture down, extend your hips and voila.

There are details like cutting angles, opening closed guards and more, but the foundation is straightforward. Try it from standing positions too just for fun. The triangle opens up guard play enormously.

Guillotine Choke

Among submission chokes, the guillotine provides uniquely urgent and wrenching pressure. The guillotine functions essentially as a headlock combined with a choke. When applied correctly it leaves literally no space for the opponent to escape. They have no choice but to tap or go to sleep.

The setup for the guillotine starts with a strong headlock where you’ve isolated one of the opponent’s arms. Drop your hips and sprawl back at an angle, using your shoulder to drive into their neck and chin. Grip palms together just under the back of their head and pull back your elbows to arch their spine. For maximum pressure, swivel your body perpendicular to theirs so the choke hits their windpipe from the side. Once mastered, the guillotine can be a fight-ending weapon.

Pro tip: Focus on blood chokes compressing the arteries rather than air chokes against the windpipe. Blood chokes finish fights cleanly and ethically.

Standing Back Up and Takedowns

Getting taken down or caught in a scramble on the ground is very likely. Having technical standup skills to get back to your feet is vital. Takedown defense also goes hand in hand with this.

Technical Standup

Haphazardly exploding up off the ground typically ends with you getting taken back down just as quickly. Use this controlled, technical method instead:

  • Frame widely with both arms posting on the ground
  • Bridge hips up forcefully, creating space and unsticking your back
  • Lift one leg back and post foot firmly on the ground
  • Drive hips forward powerfully and extend standing leg until upright
  • Once up be ready to sprawl if opponent shoots again

This preserves your base and keeps weight centered over your posting foot. Don’t reach down to grab their legs or jump into guillotines—stay upright.

Defending Takedowns

Sprawling is the primary reaction to neutralize takedown attempts:

  • As opponent drops their level to grab your legs, take a sharp backward step
  • Spread feet wider than your hips and drop weight down through them
  • Flatten your back at 45 degrees, driving hips down into upper back
  • Turn head away to avoid getting caught in headlocks
  • Control their wrist and underhook the near-side arm

The sprawl frames your weight against their upper back at an angle they can’t drive through. Keep your feet moving and stay heavy through your hips. Don’t reach down for their head with your arms.

Core Grappling for Striking Specialists

The techniques covered here only scratch the surface of the intricacies of grappling. But they provide a solid initial framework upon which to build your skills. Whether your focus is MMA competition or pragmatic self defense, developing a competent grappling game alongside your standup skills is invaluable. With an understanding of core positions, a few go-to submissions and sweeps, and proper defensive concepts, striking specialists can become complete well-rounded fighters. We hope this overview helps point you in the right direction.

Here at Apex MMA in Brookvale, we incorporate these fundamental grappling principles across all our classes. Our expert coaches can help standup fighters integrate grappling techniques into their skillset in a fun, supportive environment. We offer a free 7 day trial for all beginner classes so you can experience our approach firsthand. Why not stop by to try a session and get started on becoming the best possible martial artist? Your journey is waiting – we hope to see you on the mats training with us soon!

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Team Apex MMA Martial Arts Coach
Apex MMA is a specialist mixed martial arts gym focusing on Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Led by an experienced team of instructors, Apex MMA offers comprehensive training programs for students of all ages and skill levels. With Apex MMA's systematic teaching methods, passion for martial arts, and strong community relationships, you will gain the tools to succeed in the gym and beyond.
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