How to Improve Your Success Rate in Applying Submissions

If you’re a regular reader, you already know that my focus in the martial arts is primarily self-defense oriented. That being said, I do enjoy training skills that are more oriented towards competition, like ground grappling skills. Because so many people do it, I can’t afford ignore this phenomenon as a self-defense instructor. You have to learn what they do so you can better understand how to defend against it.

A visiting Shorinji Kan Shodan asked me for tips on improving his ability to complete a submission when doing ground grappling. I like these kinds of questions because it gives me the chance to focus on fine tuning the overall approach rather than just demonstrating the basic application. These days, anyone can piece together how to do submissions from the myriad submission grappling videos all over the Web, but this doesn’t teach you the finer points that helps you actually complete these moves against a live, resisting opponent. Ultimately, it all boils down to 3 basics.

1. Using Effective Body Control. It is almost always easier to complete a submission if you first establish body control. “Position before submission” is one of the golden rules of grappling for a reason. You use your body weight and position to establish the most control over your opponent’s body to minimize their ability to effectively use their body to defend. For example, if applying an Americana (or ude garami) from mount (or tate shiho gatame), you’ll have a better chance of applying the lock if you press your upper body weight into your opponent’s chest. This gives them less room and mobility, which are necessary for effective defense.


2. Knowing When to Speed Up or Slow Down. Timing is vital when applying submissions. When you have a dominant position and you’ve established good control, it sometimes makes more sense to slow things down to let your opponent struggle and tire him or herself out so that when you do go for the submission they’re too tired to mount an effective defense. If I end up on top, sometimes I’ll just coast there switching from side control (mune gatame) to scarf hold (kesa gatame) to reverse scarf (gyaku kesa gatame) to mount (tate shiho gatame). This gives me a chance to slow down and rest while my opponent expends his or her energy trying to get out from under me. That being said, if I get a prime opportunity to do a submission, I’ll speed up to quickly capitalize on the opportunity before my opponent realizes what’s going on. For safety purposes though, only speed up to get into the position but once you have the lock on, slow right down so your opponent has time to tap out.


3. Keeping Your Opponent Guessing. This is the hardest of the 3 concepts to develop. When setting up a submission, you want to hide your intentions from your opponent to the best of your ability. If you get into mount, for example, and immediately grab their wrist, most people will realize that there’s a good chance you’re going to go for an arm bar (or ude hishigi juji gatame) and as you drop into it, they’ll be more prepared to counter. There are ways to make it less obvious though. Instead of grabbing the wrist or sleeve, try hooking around the arm at the elbow and grabbing your own hip. This secures the arm in a less obvious way. To make the approach even sneakier, switch the opposite arm at the last second if you think they’re on to you. If I’m going for an americana from mount, drop your upper body weight into your opponent’s chest and start driving your shoulder into their neck. Make them think you’re setting up for some sort of choke or just make them uncomfortable so that they’re distracted. Then when they’re pre-occupied with that, go for the arm and apply your lock.

To be a truly great grappler, you have to develop ability to fake out your opponent then effectively capitalize on the resulting openings. Of course, everyone will develop different ways of doing this based on their body types and skill sets. That’s what makes it all so fascinating. Now I know that there are plenty of submission grapplers out there. While my book When the Fight Goes to the Ground is primarily focused on self-defense applications on the ground, it also offers tips that are useful for submission grappling too, so check it out for more info. Please feel free to share your insights on this topic in the comments. 🙂
Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Success Rate in Applying Submissions

  1. #2 cannot be stressed enough. 'Coasting' in a superior position is important not only to conserve energy, but:
    1.) it allows you to be more relaxed which will give you the speed to 'pounce' when opportunities arise (when you're struggling at maximum power, you'll be more rigid)
    2.) it embodies the whole compliant/'jiu' concept so fundamental to our art.

    Most grappling sessions I've won have been by saving my energy for when I need it while my opponent simply tried to overpower me.

  2. As someone who has applied one successful submission lifetime, I am convinced it's all about space. Space is the enemy!

  3. These are indeed universal principles, applicable in all forms of groundfighting: establishing a proper hold (attaining control) is indeed vital in achieving succes, as well as using deception to one's advantage. I'm by no means an expert in groundfighting and I don't participate in competition but I can attest your information is correct: I've been defeated by people using the principles and I've won applying these methods. In our style we have drills that combine the different kinds of holds and we also teach novices the holds this way so they realise as early as possible holds are only temporary and your reaction is based on the opponent's reaction: it's a bad idea to try to keep your position (by using force and weight) if the opponent's doing everything he can to escape it. Instead use his momentum and switch to a different hold, later on locks and chokes are added (Yori Nakamura's shooto combo's are great for learning flow) culminating in typical judo/BJJ randori. We do make it clear this isn't the way you want to fight on the street but the interactive nature of this type of exercise teaches to improvise and escape holds asap, of course in reality you wouldn't try to go for a submission but hit and get up.

    I support the notion you can't defend against what you don't know so you should at least have some basic knowledge of holds and submissions in order to counter them. Besides: they're fun to train and they bring variety, ground randori is also great for warm-up. It's always funny to see beginners completely wearing themselves out in minutes (they're not pacing themselves), although I admit I sometimes fall prey to this too. To conclude: the whole submission-game is not exactly my cup of tea but I do see value in it and while I'm not planning on training in BJJ or a related art I'm glad someone else (my sensei) does the work for me and selects the most useful elements from these arts to enhance our SD-curriculum. A while ago I participated in a kenpo-seminar (where I injured my back but that's another story) and for warm-up we did some ground-sparring: while these guys are clearly very good at stand-up their groundgame sucked and I got submission after submission (again I don't delude myself into thinking I'm any good at this) so we must be doing something right. Clearly only focussing on stand-up leaves you very vulnerable if taken to the ground and there is sense in the saying you're only as good as your weakest skill. By this I do not advocate to spend all your time on the ground but imo 20 to 25% would be a good ratio. What do you think Lori?


  4. One question: do you actually manage to pull of an ude-garami from the mount? I found it's just too easy to counter since all he has to do is bridge and you'll roll right off. What I try to do is secure a grip and switch to side-control (yoko-shiho-gatame)before applying the lock, this usually does the trick. Other suggestions are welcome. If you could do a post on your favourite submission-combo's I'd be grateful, like I said the groundgame isn't really my thing but I do recognise the need to achieve at least a basic level in it in order to become a complete martial artist.


  5. Zara, I think your ration for ground defense is about right. As for ude garami from mount, I have used it before. I tend to get away with it more with less experienced grapplers, but that doesn't make it any less valid. It's definitely easier to do in side control. Like any other submission, I use it when the opportunity presents itself. As such, i don't really have any favourite submission combos. I just learn all the manoeuvres that are come up most often and use them when it makes sense.

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