The Beginner’s Guide To The Front Headlock in Jiu-Jitsu

Feb 10, 2023Jiu-Jitsu0 comments

The front headlock has long been one of the highest percentage techniques in BJJ and submission wrestling. Along with the rear naked choke, guillotine chokes from the front headlock consistently account for the most submissions in jiu-jitsu matches and MMA fights.

But there’s far more to the front headlock system than just guillotine chokes. When utilized properly, the front headlock allows you to control your opponent’s posture, set up takedowns, threaten submissions, and transition behind your opponent – making it an incredibly versatile position.

This article will teach you the front headlock system in-depth, including:

  • Proactive and reactive entries into the front headlock
  • Establishing strong initial control
  • Negating your opponent’s resistance
  • Executing submissions vs. positional attacks
  • Key principles and concepts
  • Common vulnerabilities to be aware of
  • And more

Whether you’re brand new to jiu-jitsu or a seasoned black belt, a mastery of the front headlock system should be a fundamental part of your grappling skill set. The concepts and techniques discussed in this guide will give you the knowledge to apply the front headlock effectively across a wide variety of situations, in training and competition.

Entries Into the Front Headlock

The first step in executing any technique or system is getting to the position you want to be in. With the front headlock, there are two broad categories of entries:

Proactive Entries

Proactive entries refer to situations where you initiate the front headlock, usually by snapping your opponent’s head down in some manner. The most common type of proactive entry into the front headlock is the snapdown.

The snapdown can be performed from both standing and ground positions. From standing, you can either snap your opponent’s head straight down or diagonally across your body to get to the front headlock position. On the ground, a common snapdown entry happens when your opponent is on their knees – you can reach up, pull their head down, and secure the front headlock.

The key is that you are the one initiating the action by bringing your opponent’s head down into range for you to wrap up the front headlock. Other proactive entries besides the snapdown include deliberately shooting in for a sloppy shot, baiting your opponent to sprawl on you, and then locking up the front headlock as you land on your hip.

But the snapdown will be your highest percentage proactive entry into the front headlock position. Drilling snapdowns relentlessly from both standing and ground positions until snapping your opponent’s head down becomes second nature would be time well spent.

Reactive Entries

While proactive entries require you to initiate the action, reactive entries occur when your opponent is the one initiating and you are simply capitalizing on openings they present.

The most common reactive front headlock entries happen when your opponent shoots in for some variety of takedown – whether a double leg, single leg, high crotch, or otherwise. As your opponent changes levels and drives in for the shot, their head comes below your elbow line, allowing you to reach up and secure the front headlock in reaction to their takedown attempt.

This often happens if your opponent is sloppy with their takedown technique and leaves their head hanging out as they shoot in. But you can also deliberately bait your opponent into taking reactive shots you’re waiting to counter with the front headlock.

For example, you can extend your arms and expose your hips, inviting your opponent to shoot a double leg. As they do, wrap up the front headlock. Now their takedown attempt has put them right into your control.

The front headlock system requires you to have diverse entries – both proactive and reactive. Relying solely on one or the other leaves holes in your game. If you can only hit reactive entries, savvy opponents may refuse to shoot on you. If you only have proactive entries, opponents who are difficult to snap down could stifle your front headlock attacks.

Master both proactive and reactive entries to ensure you can get to your front headlock whenever you want.

Initial Front Headlock Control Concepts

Once you’ve successfully entered into the front headlock position, your next task is to establish strong initial control of your opponent. Remember, the front headlock is not an inherently dominant position like the back mount or mount. Your opponent still has a high degree of movement and freedom.

Therefore, it’s critical that you achieve excellent control right off the bat to limit your opponent’s defensive options. One of the best ways to establish strong initial front headlock control is by utilizing the “three points of control” system:

Shoulder Control

Proper shoulder placement is one of the most important elements of the front headlock. Your shoulder should be tight on the back of your opponent’s neck.

This accomplishes several things. First, it allows you to pin your opponent’s head down rather than their upper back or shoulders. Their head and spine are much more sensitive targets.

Second, your shoulder placement controls the distance between you and your opponent. If your shoulder is over their upper back and you’re too far behind them, they can easily pummel in and attack your hips and legs. Your shoulder on the back of the neck prevents this.

Finally, your shoulder placement makes it difficult for your opponent to circle away from you and around to your back. Driving your shoulder forward puts pressure on them and limits their rotational movement.

Chin Control

The second point of control is your hand cupping your opponent’s chin in a “chin strap” grip. Your wrist should be bent 90 degrees with your fingers controlling their jawline.

Combined with your shoulder control, this chin strap grip makes it very difficult for your opponent to create space and pull their head away from you. Their head is now essentially trapped between your shoulder and hand.

Elbow Control

The third point of control is your grip on your opponent’s elbow. This can be an outside grip, wrist deep, or an inside grip.

Controlling their elbow limits your opponent’s ability to clear their elbow and circle away from the front headlock. It also allows you to pull their arm forward for increased control while you retract your own elbow (more on that shortly!)

Together, control of the head, chin, and elbow restricts your opponent’s movement potential in the critical forward/backward and rotational directions. This buys you valuable time to execute submissions and positional attacks out of the front headlock.

Negating Front Headlock Resistance

Once you have that initial front headlock control established through the three points, expect your opponent to begin resisting and defending the position. No one likes having their head controlled, and even beginners will instinctively fight to get out of the front headlock.

Your next task is to negate and shut down your opponent’s resistance so you can maintain control of the position. Here are some common defensive reactions you’ll encounter and ways to overcome them:

Handfighting – A very common reaction you’ll face is your opponent vigorously handfighting to try and break your controlling grips. For example, if you have an initial chin strap grip, they may try aggressively stripping your hand off their chin.

The solution here is generally to abandon the submission attack and immediately transition to a positional attack like a go-behind, switching to controlling their upper body rather than going for a choke. We’ll discuss attacking the back in more detail later.

Elbow Clears – Another defensive reaction you’ll run into is your opponent urgently working to clear their caught elbow. If they manage to circle their elbow out, the front headlock control is compromised.

When you feel your opponent fighting to clear their elbow, transition to a different submission attack such as the karigatame shoulder lock, often called the “japanese necktie” in BJJ. The karigatame doesn’t require elbow control.

Circling Out – As discussed earlier, one of the inherent weaknesses of the front headlock is that it doesn’t control your opponent’s rotational movement very well. Your shoulder and chin strap grip mainly stops them from moving straight forward and backward.

As a result, a very common defensive reaction is your opponent explosively trying to circle, turn, and spin away from you to release the pressure.

The solution is to “circle with” your opponent by turning your body and moving with them rather than staying stationary. This prevents them from gaining an advantageous angle and maintains your control.

You can also transition to a whizzer control while circling with your opponent to leverage their motion into a takedown. We’ll examine this in more detail later.

Tripoding Up – The final defensive reaction we’ll look at is your opponent “tripoding” – posting their hands on the ground to stand more upright and alleviate the pressure of the front headlock.

When your opponent tripods up, transition from your front headlock to a bodylock or bearhug. With their hands committed to the ground, their upper body is vulnerable. Use your bodylock to bend them right back down their knees. From there you can re-pummel your arms back into the front headlock.

By having solutions to negate your opponent’s most common defensive reactions, you can maintain strong control of the front headlock position and set up your attacks.

Executing Submissions vs Positional Attacks

Once you’ve entered the front headlock and established solid initial control, your next decision point is whether to finish the position with a submission or execute a positional attack.

Generally speaking, you want to be highly competent with both submissions and positional attacks out of the front headlock. Relying solely on one or the other makes you predictable and one-dimensional.

Let’s examine submissions and positional attacks from the front headlock in more detail:

Submission Attacks

The most common submissions from the front headlock are the guillotine and its variants. This includes the arm-in guillotine, the high elbow/Marcelo guillotine, and the old school “power guillotine” with the thumbs locked.

In addition, several other choke varieties like the anaconda choke and the Darce/brabo choke can be applied effectively from the front headlock.

The primary element that makes your submission attacks from the front headlock more effective is attaining a high wrist position. This means your choking wrist is above your opponent’s shoulder rather than low on their chest or stomach.

The high wrist gives you access to both carotid arteries for a significantly tighter and faster choke. It also makes defending much more difficult for your opponent.

Some key details for finishing guillotines from the front headlock:

  • Drive your shoulder forward into their neck
  • Keep your elbows retracted and pinned to your sides
  • Arch your back and crunch your core once the choke is locked in
  • Bring your choking hand palm-up in the “sword grip” for maximum pressure
  • Fall to your hip or back rather than staying upright on your knees

Drilling guillotine specifics like this from the front headlock until they become muscle memory will make your submissions very hard to stop.

Positional Attacks

While guillotines and chokes are excellent for finishing matches quickly, you can’t rely on them exclusively, especially against savvy opponents. Executing positional attacks from the front headlock is also important.

Here are some effective positional attacks from the front headlock:

  • Snapdown or outside trip takedowns to score points
  • Knee taps to take the back
  • Forward rolls into a pinning position
  • Whizzering off their circling movement into a takedown
  • Transitions directly to the back with a go-behind

Threatening these strong positional attacks makes your opponent hesitant to overcommit to defending the submissions. They won’t want to expose their back or get taken down.

The most important point is that you want your opponent to feel genuinely threatened by both submission and positional attacks from the front headlock. This forces them to hedge and defend both options, which ultimately opens up your A-game submission attacks.

Neither works in isolation – you need skill in both areas to maximize the front headlock.

Principles for Front Headlock Success

Now that we’ve covered entries, control concepts, negating resistance, and attack options, let’s discuss some of the key principles and concepts that will help you succeed with the front headlock system:

Create an Immediate Submission Threat

As soon as you lock up the front headlock, your first task is creating an immediate and urgent submission threat. This makes your opponent instantly defensive and reactive.

The most straightforward way to create immediate danger is locking up a deep high-elbow guillotine choke. Your opponent will need to address the submission threat right away, allowing you to capitalize.

Advantage vs Dominance

The front headlock is not a dominant position like the mount or back control. You are not pinning or immobilizing your opponent.

However, the front headlock provides a strong temporary advantage that allows you to attack submissions and improve your position. Recognize these “advantage” positions as gateways to better positions.

Immovable Elbows

Proper elbow positioning is critical for control and strength in the front headlock. Your elbows should be pinned tight to your ribs at all times.

Extending your arms and flaring your elbows out weakens the position and makes you vulnerable. Keep those elbows retracted and immovable.

Double Attack

When applying chokes from the front headlock, get your choking wrist deep through to attack both carotid arteries simultaneously. This is far more efficient than only closing one.

Gateway Position

The front headlock itself may not score points, but view it as a gateway to dominant positions and fight-ending submissions. Always capitalize on the front headlock when the opportunity presents itself.

These principles form a solid strategic framework to guide your training and optimization of the front headlock system.

Common Front Headlock Vulnerabilities

To round out this guide, let’s discuss some of the most common vulnerabilities and weaknesses you must be aware of when playing the front headlock game:

Exposed Elbows – Extending your arms and flaring your elbows rather than keeping them pinned to your sides makes them vulnerable for your opponent to grab. Keep those elbows retracted.

Wrist Control – Never allow your opponent to control your choking wrist with their near-side hand. This should be an immediate trigger for you to abandon the submission attack and switch to controlling the upper body.

Circling Out – As discussed earlier, you must prevent your opponent from successfully circling away from the front headlock. Circle with them and utilize whizzers.

Tripoding Up – When your opponent posts their hands and stands more upright, be ready to transition to an upper body control like the bodylock rather than staying stationary.

Remaining aware of these vulnerabilities will allow you to shore up holes in your front headlock game and apply the position successfully in sparring and competition.

Master The Front Headlock At Apex MMA

That covers all the major elements of an effective front headlock system for Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling. From the initial entries to control concepts to attack options, you now have a detailed blueprint for integrating the front headlock into your grappling skillset.

While the front headlock may appear relatively simple on the surface, all the subtle details covered in this guide separate a good front headlock from a great and dangerous one. Drilling the techniques and concepts here repeatedly will soon make front headlock attacks a go-to weapon in your grappling arsenal.

Here at Apex MMA in Brookvale, we make the front headlock system a staple of both our fundamentals curriculum and advanced training. Try out one of our beginner BJJ classes or 7 day free trials to experience the front headlock for yourself under the guidance of our black belt coaches! We hope to see you on the mats 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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