Hand Fighting Fundamentals for Grapplers

Nov 13, 2023Jiu-Jitsu

Hand Fighting Fundamentals For Grapplers

Hand fighting is an indispensable skill in grappling that all practitioners must develop. The hand fight at the start of a match or during transitions can often determine who gets the dominant position. Mastering hand-fighting fundamentals allows grapplers to control their opponent, create angles, take the back, and set up submissions. This comprehensive article will explain the critical concepts and techniques for effective hand fighting in grappling. Learning proper hand-fighting principles and strategies will give grapplers a significant competitive edge.

Control the Head and Create Leverage

The most crucial principle of hand fighting is controlling your opponent’s head. The head is the most extended lever on the human body. By holding your opponent’s head, you gain the maximum leverage and control over their movement and balance. Here are the primary methods to control the head during grappling hand-fighting exchanges:

Collar Ties

A dominant collar tie grip allows you to move and manipulate your opponent’s head and upper body. You can push, pull, drive, or jerk your opponent off balance with a proper collar tie. Controlling the collar tie is powerful because their hips and legs must follow wherever you move their head. A good collar tie can shut down your opponent’s hand-fighting as they must address your control first. Collar ties are typically used with your lead or rear/power leg. Lead leg collar ties set up shots on that lead leg, while rear leg collar ties expose the back leg. But be aware that the leg you use to collar tie also becomes more susceptible to attack.

Head Position

Anytime you can get your head lower than your opponent’s, with your forehead positioned on their temple and their head driven off their centre, you achieve a dominant head position. This is extremely powerful during hand-fighting exchanges. Your opponent cannot effectively hand fight if you control their head in a down position. They must first address re-centring their posture before they can attempt their techniques. Maintaining a dominant head position forces your opponent to carry your pressure and work much harder.

Constant Head Pressure

In addition to controlling head position, keep constant pressure on your opponent’s head to wear them down physically and mentally. The more they contend with your head pressure, the more tired they will become. Use collar ties, head snaps and driving pressure to tax your opponent. The prolonged fight for head control takes its toll and makes it difficult for your opponent to hand-fight effectively.

Controlling and pressuring your opponent’s head provides maximum leverage and control over their body. Master head control techniques like proper collar tie grips and down head positioning to gain a dominating advantage in the hand fight.

Control the Critical Positions

Along with the head, there are several other key positions on the body you want to control during a hand-fighting exchange. Dominating these critical positions allows you to manoeuvre your opponent, create angles, and set up your takedown or pass.


The shoulders provide excellent handles to control your opponent’s upper body. Pushing or pulling on the shoulders lets you move your opponent side to side or backwards, disrupting their balance. Other effective shoulder techniques include digging for underhooks, using an armpit claw grip on the tricep, and “snaking” your hand under the armpit up to the back of the neck. Combine shoulder and head control for maximum control.


By controlling the elbows, you can dictate the position of your opponent’s arms. Use an inside elbow control to keep their elbows tight and arms closed. Switch to an outside elbow grip to spread their arms wide open. Drive their elbows across their body to off-balance and create openings. Master both inside and outside elbow controls.


The wrists provide additional handles for control, typically used in conjunction with other positions. Grip your opponent’s wrist with your thumb up to “strip” their grip off you. Thumb down allows more leverage for re-grips, pulls and drags. Use wrist control strategically to set up your techniques.

Coordinate Controls

Master individual techniques, but also learn to coordinate controls together. For example, use a collar tie to assist a wrist drag or control the wrist to open the elbow and arm up. The sequence and combinations of your various hand-fighting controls are essential. Time them together to manipulate your opponent into your desired angles and reactions.

Learn to aggressively control the head, shoulders, elbows and wrists during hand-fighting exchanges. Master both individual techniques and how to sequence them together to hold positions and create openings in your opponent’s defences.

Off-Balance Your Opponent

In grappling, an off-balanced opponent cannot effectively defend themselves or attack you. Use the hand-fighting exchange to disrupt and manipulate their balance constantly:

Push and Pull

Use your grips and pressure to push your opponent backwards, then look to capitalize as they try to pressure forward to regain their base. Conversely, pull them on and capitalize as they try to pull away and re-establish their footing. Their weight and momentum will shift back and forth from their toes to their heels, allowing you split-second opportunities to attack.

Break Their Stance

Do not let your opponent settle into a strong, balanced stance during the hand fight. Keep pushing, pulling and circling them so they cannot establish a solid broad base. The more you can keep them moving and reactive, the less effectively they can defend.

Change Levels

Use sudden level changes like knee drops during the hand fight to disrupt their balance. As you push them one way, drop your level so they have to adjust their weight. These level changes open up opportunities for leg attacks.

Disrupting your opponent’s balance impedes their movement, loosens their limbs, and allows you to take dominant angles for your takedown or pass more quickly. Constantly manipulate their base with your grips and pressure.

Create Angles

In addition to balance disruption, use the hand fight to manoeuvre your body into better finishing angles. The proper angle gives you an open lane to attack with less likelihood your opponent can defend. Here are the angles you want to create:

Get to the Side

Get your body off-centre from your opponent, working towards their lead leg. This angle allows you to attack their hips and legs while obstructing their ability to defend front-on. Circle towards their lead leg to open up shots.

Push Backwards

When you push your opponent backwards, they instinctively want to pressure back forward towards you. Use their forward pressure to drop levels and attack the legs as they step forward.

Snap Down

Use a strong snap down during the hand fight to get your opponent’s weight moving forward onto their hands. As their momentum carries forward, circle behind into a dominant angle on their back.

Cut Off Positioning

Don’t let your opponent settle into a strong stance. As they try to establish good positioning, use movement and angles to cut them off balance.

Winning the hand fight allows you to create optimal finishing angles where their hips and legs are exposed, and their mobility is limited due to their compromised base.

Make Them Shoot

An effective hand-fighting strategy is forcing your opponent to make mistakes and take poor shots. If you win the early hand-fighting exchange, your opponent will feel pressure to take you down.

Read Their Shot

Their desperation shot will likely be poorly timed and set up. Your active posting hands give you an early read on when they will shoot.

Circle Behind

Use your grips and control to influence their momentum as they shoot, and circle behind as they finish their shot off-balance.

Snap Down

Time your snap down as they shoot so their momentum carries their weight forward onto their hands.

Let your opponent make the mistake and get themselves off-balance. Use your hand-fighting position to control their momentum and capitalize on their desperation shot.

Exhaust Your Opponent

Even if you don’t immediately take your opponent down, an extended hand fight exchange allows you to exhaust them both physically and mentally. The constant movement forces your opponent to work and react. If you can overwhelm them with varied looks and pressures, it becomes very taxing on your opponent as they try to contend with your tactics.

Physical Fatigue

Hand fighting causes your opponent to carry your weight and pressure on their head, hips and limbs. This accumulates into physical exhaustion the longer the exchange goes.

Mental Fatigue

In addition to physically tiring, extended active hand fighting overwhelms your opponent mentally as you force them to continually react and think through your pressures.

Set Up the Finish

Tire your opponent so that their reactions are dulled when you attack and they cannot adequately defend.

The prolonged hand fight takes its toll on your opponent, allowing you to gain an advantage for later techniques and attacks.

Master Hand Fighting for Grappling

Effective hand fighting allows grapplers to control positions, off-balance their opponent, create angles, and exhaust their opponent. Mastering hand-fighting fundamentals is critical for setting up dominant positions and submissions. Next time you train, focus on improving your collar ties, head position, limb controls and off-balancing techniques during live hand fighting. Start implementing these hand-fighting concepts in your rolls, and your grappling will improve dramatically.

Now that you understand the core hand-fighting principles try out a beginner grappling class or a 7-day free trial at Apex MMA in Brookvale to apply these techniques on the mats!

author avatar
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.
You may like also
Mastering Boxing Footwork for MMA

Mastering Boxing Footwork for MMA

Boxing footwork forms the foundation for success in mixed martial arts (MMA). Proper footwork allows fighters to control distance, set up strikes, and move efficiently around the cage.

read more