My Love-Hate Relationship with the Triangle Choke

Applying the Triangle in Submission GrapplingI’ve been grappling for a number of years now, and have developed a variety of different submissions into my repertoire. Like many people, I’ve come to have a few submissions that have emerged as my “go-to” moves that I come back to time and time again. One such move is the triangle choke. A great number of my successful submissions have been from the triangle, especially against larger/stronger opponents.

The triangle is a dynamic submission in sport ground grappling, and as much as I love it as a move in a rules-based, competition-oriented martial arts context, it has its limitations, hence my love-hate relationship with it. Every martial arts move has its own purpose, as well as its own benefits when applied in some contexts, as well as some distinct disadvantages when used in other contexts.

I train in and teach the martial arts for the purpose of self-defense. While we do incorporate submission grappling techniques into our curriculum, as you’ll notice in my recently published ground defense book, we do so with the goal of being better able to defend against them so we can get back to our feet and escape in a real self-defense scenario, not to score points. There are a number of factors that make the triangle, as well as other popular submissions like the arm bar, dangerous choices for self-defense, so even though it comes to me so naturally when doing ground grappling training, it is not something I would want to rely on primarily if I were attacked on the street. I want to give the triangle a fair shake though, so I’ll present some of the pros and cons I’ve come across as a move.

The Pros of the Triangle

There are many benefits of the triangle in a competition context:

  • Works on larger/stronger opponents. Because the triangle relies on the strongest muscles of the body, the leg muscles, it is one of the easier submissions to use against larger/stronger opponents.
  • Can be hard for opponents to see coming. Because the triangle can be applied from a wide variety of positions, you can transition into it quickly and unexpectedly, when you get good at it, catching people off-guard.
  • Makes good use of flexibility. The triangle makes my flexibility a big advantage. Being flexible allows me to slip my legs into position and even hold on to it against a resisting opponent more easily as they try to bend me over and stack me (something that will cause many other people to let go).
  • Allows for smooth transitions into other moves. Even when I don’t get the triangle choke successfully, I often use the position to transition into others submissions like the arm bar or the omoplata, or a simple sweep. It is a powerful controlling position whether you get the vascular restraint on or not.

The Cons of the Triangle

In a self-defense context, the triangle has many potential disadvantages.

  • It keeps you on the ground. The triangle is nearly always applied on the ground, not from a standing position. The ground has many potential dangers in a self-defense context, like environmental hazards (i.e. concrete, broken glass, etc), kicks from multiple attackers, close contact with your attacker which can make you more susceptible to weapon attacks, and more. Applying a triangle can therefore put you in a dangerous position.
  • It ties you up. When you apply a triangle on someone, you tie yourself to them with your legs. And while it can be an effective move for taking out one person, you have to essentially untie yourself first before you can deal with other threats that may presents themselves.
  • Requires fine motor skill development. The triangle can be quite powerful but only once you’ve learned how to apply it, which can take a long time. And it’s not even enough to know how to do it. You also have to be able to recognize good opportunities and be able to get into the position quickly before the person has a chance to defend against it. These factors make it a fine motor skill, which takes more time to develop in training, to make it more potentially useful in the high stress context of an attack. If you’re in a good position to go into a triangle, you could easily kick your attacker in the head, which is as easier move to pull off with less training.

Even with all the above potential disadvantages to consider in a self-defense context, I try to always remember the following maxim often quoted in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu: “Never say always. Never say never.” You could find yourself in a self-defense situation in which a triangle could make complete sense. You could be alone with your attacker, on a cushioned surface like grass or a rug, and on the underside position for whatever reason, and your attacker gives you the perfect opening to get into a triangle, allowing you to cut off their blood supply and make them pass out so you can escape. You might also be able to sweep them and get on top to more easily make an exit. If a person doesn’t know how to defend against it, it can be really hard to get out of it. That’s why I try to always keep an open mind in self-defense and martial arts training. Every move can have its place when used sensibly.

What are your thoughts on the triangle as a martial arts move? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (17)

17 thoughts on “My Love-Hate Relationship with the Triangle Choke

  1. I’m a huge fan of the triangle choke (as I’m sure you recall), and since I also focus on self-defense, I’ll just play devil’s advocate here.

    It’s true that the triangle requires time on the mats to learn. It shares that weakness with every other move I know. But people who don’t know how to grapple are, as you pointed out, absolutely terrible at defending against it. This makes it a high-percentage submission in a self-defense context, where your opponent is unlikely to know much technical grappling. This makes the time you spend on it much more worthwhile.

    In my view the main disadvantage of the triangle choke from a self-defense context is that yes, it keeps you on the ground, and, since it requires the use of your legs, it takes time to disengage and run away. However, these disadvantages can be offset. Whenever I go for a triangle choke, I am always looking to sweep them and take a mounted position as soon as my triangle is locked in place. From the top, I can finish the choke, transition to a different attack, see my surroundings, and disengage faster once my opponent is unconscious.

    The triangle still isn’t a perfect move from a self-defense standpoint, but using it as a sweep as well as a submission makes it much safer and no less effective.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alan. I use the sweep from the triangle sometimes too, which can make it more useful in a self-defense context. Basically, if you can get the quick knock-out or sweep, it can be useful, but if it takes any time to get it on, for whatever reason, as you basically say, it leaves you vulnerable. As long as people know when to use it or abandon it, it has its place. Great times rolling with you on the weekend btw! 🙂

  2. The triangle is a great technique no doubt and it can certainly be used against a larger opponent (as demonstrated by Helio Grace time and time again) but it’s still a submission technique that takes time, both to apply and to take effect. Even if you can get it on quickly (not unrealistic considering the fact that the great majority of people have no experience with grappling whatsoever) it still takes about 7 to 10 seconds to render someone unconscious which can be too long in a bad situation. It’s certainly true that a transition to a high mount is very feasible and that position is much, much better but in my opinion this is a technique to train as an add-on and because it’s fun: for self-defence there are better, quicker techniques. If you can get your leg around his head you sure can kick him in the face or hack his neck and that’ll give you a good opportunity to escape.

    You really don’t need to ‘win’ on the ground, you just need to get up (relatively) unharmed. Grappling is a great skillset to have and it’s certainly wise to learn the basics of it in order to increase your confidence but training in pure sports-grappling can easily lead to a disregard for danger and an attitude of going for the technical solution instead of the more practical one.

    1. All valid points, although I’ve seen people lose consciousness in less time than that. I’ll just add this:

      In self-defense, obviously, you don’t fight from your back if you don’t have to. So already, we’re talking about making the best of a bad situation. You’re there. It happened. I’ve found that if the opportunity for the triangle comes up (which is the only time you’d go for it anyway), then it’s just as fast and just as easy to control your opponent with the triangle AND hit them in the face or sweep them, at the same time, as it is to JUST do the latter. It’s much easier to reverse position on, or run away from, an opponent who’s choking than one who isn’t. Getting out from underneath an angry and combative opponent is extremely difficult. Happily, putting the choke on and using other tactics are not mutually exclusive. 🙂

      1. Very true. I’d teach the simple, gross-motor techniques first to give them something useful quickly, then move on to the basic grappling techniques like the triangle, straight armbar, bent armbar and the like. In my opinion this would provide the best of both worlds so to speak and lead to a well-rounded martial artist who’s specialised in self-defence but has a good understanding of sports MA aswell. In this day and age it’d be foolish to disregard the training methods and approaches of BJJ, MMA and the like which can be quite useful if tweaked a little.

        In any case it’s a good idea to let students roll once in a while (with BJJ rules) since this’ll help to become comfortable on the ground which is even more unnatural than stand-up fighting. At least to most people.

      2. Just one more thing: why choke him if you’re going to hit him anyway? In my view it’s still quicker to just kick him in the face and roll backwards or just swing your leg back and stand up than putting on the choke, reversing position, hitting him (or breaking his arm) and then standing up. Plus it’s easier to learn than any submission technique which still needs fine-tuning in order to work and you should have at least one back-up technique in case the first one fails. Both techniques are valid though and anything that works for you is great. I’m sure someone with an extensive background in grappling like you can effectively use grappling in almost any context, my perspective is more of learning/teaching effective SD-skills in the least amount of time. If you have years to train almost anything can be made to work, even aikido and the like.

        1. On the ground, choking is like infighting. If somebody’s on top of you, you probably don’t have the space to maneuver for a kick, and you can’t throw knees because there’s no way to generate power. You can strike with hands and elbows even from the bottom, but they will lack knockout power. You’ll also be trying to hit a moving target, and a couple of solid shots may cause your opponent to stand–leaving you on the ground–or shift position, maybe passing your guard and leaving you worse off than before.

          A triangle choke, collar choke, or even a good tight armbar from the bottom, doesn’t rely on space to generate power. You can maneuver for one even when getting smothered–actually it sometimes makes it easier. Most chokes are also effective control measures. Even if you don’t have the fine motor skill to complete the choke and render your opponent unconscious, you can pin them in place for strikes, take away their balance for a reversal, or at least make them think about getting free rather than hitting back.

          In grappling we use the term “scramble” to describe a situation where the two opponents are not tied up, but rather free to move and scramble for position. Hitting somebody without a control creates a scramble, which can turn out either for better or worse. Grabbing a control position, even if it’s not tight enough to function as a choke, and THEN hitting your opponent, gives you the advantage without the risk of a scramble.

          1. Getting a couple of solid shots in causing your opponent to stand is a good thing (if they are indeed able to stand after a solid kick to the head or other potent target). If they have the time to get off the ground, reeling after being hit, then so do you, and a smaller/weaker person is usually in a better position to defend themselves on their feet. Plus, you get off the ground and out of the possibility of being attacked by multiple people.

            I’m not saying submission grappling moves can’t be used effectively in self-defense. They definitely could be useful is some situations, and far more if the person applying them is particularly skilled. However, if someone doesn’t have a lot of time to put towards ground defense skill development, perhaps because their focus is split with standing techniques, which is applicable in a greater number of situations for self-defense and law enforcement, then it might be efficient for a person to focus on skills that are more gross motor oriented. They could be spending their limited time developing body shifting techniques for creating enough space to get those solid shots in and create opportunities to escape. I know from experience that it’s faster and easier to teach a 110 lbs woman how to shrimp and create enough space to get in a couple of solid kicks to a 220 lb attacker’s head or ribs who is resisting, than it is to teach them to successfully apply triangles and arm bars against that same resisting attacker. Heck, I’ve seen this size a man able to do a bicep curl against a small woman attempting to do an arm bar. Yes, skill helps, but you have to wonder if the amount of time someone at that big a size/strength disadvantage would have to put in to make to learn such maneuvers at the same proficiency as simple body shifting and striking methods.

            Of course you know that I am not saying never to train triangles and arm bars, just that it’s important to realize their limitations.

          2. I don’t need knockout power or space in order to be effective on the ground: if you can lay your hand on someone’s face you can poke him in the eye and this is a pretty surefire way to create space since it’s an automatic reflex. Then you can knock him out or at least stun him enough so you can disengage safely.

            I agree it’s better to control someone before striking but pinning his hand to your chest while creating space is enough to ensure he’s not getting away from you and to limit his ability to defend. Control can be achieved without putting someone in a chokehold although it’s obviously good for you if you can get to that position.

            In the time it takes for him to stand up I can do the same and then basically my goal is achieved. Grappling techniques are good tools and it pays to become familiar with them but for pure self-defence that can be taught quickly I’d go for simple strikes and kicks combined with basic reversals.

          3. The great advantage of chokes is of course the ability to subdue the opponent without having to harm him and this can be extremely useful in certain situations: law enforcement, a drunken friend or relative that you really don’t want to harm… Still it takes quite a lot of skill to achieve this (especially against someone much larger than you as Lori noted) but then again I’m all about the long run so for me and others willing to make martial arts a big part of their life chokes and the like are a worthwhile and fun area of study.

            Personally I like standing chokes better since they allow for control, mobility and a view of the surroundings with the same benefits as chokes on the ground. Of course you can’t always choose, but it’s nice to have this option available and it’s quite feasible if you know how to work your way in and combine it with other techniques.

            As for grappling techniques on the ground I’d prefer the armbar over the choke since you can immidiately snap the arm if you’re in the proper position and this almost garantees you’ll win the fight. At the very least it’ll make it much easier to control and fight him (2 arms against 1).

            Another danger with the triangle(albeit rare in reality) is that it’s possible he’ll have a knife on him and in the time it takes for you to choke him out he can pull it out and use it so I’d rather get it over with asap. Of course if you start hitting him in the meantime this becomes a moot point but weapons are always a possibility (however remote, at least one may hope so) that’s why it’s best to limit the amount of time you spend on the ground as much as possible.

  3. You’re in a fight, you’re on the ground and someone is on top of you and you’ve managed to get your legs wrapped around them. At this point I can’t get out of the striking range of my opponent without possible injury. My next instinct, is to get inside their striking range and hold them there. I find with people who have little or no knowledge of grappling will reach for your ankles to get out, allowing an opportunity to go straight in to a triangle choke, failing that, break there arm with an arm bar, sit up sweep, kimura, guillotine, collar choke, shrimp and kick. Anything from this position, in order to get to another position is good.
    There are 1000’s of different scenarios from here and if one move worked 100% of the time, there would only be one move. The triangle choke, is a viable option in self defense, when you have the knowledge to use it.
    It’s easier to get away from someone who is out cold, then someone who is scrambling (same as me) to get up.

  4. Sorry to contradict you lori, but practical mma and bodybuilding. the triangle choke when there is enough weight or strength advantage is not effective. the first time I did bjj was against a woman who is a champion of Spain, and yet I made a triangle well done but because I have a lot more strength to achieve escape. I say that if I really wanted to hurt a woman, a triangle or amber would not be effective against me. S iempr I escaped when I miss a woman has.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Salvador, though I don’t really see your point as a contradiction. No one move works for every person against every person. Some people have larger shoulder spans making the application of a triangle by a person with shorter legs impossible to do effectively, regardless of how good their technique is. Even an arm bar can be easily resisted with strength if the person isn’t caught off guard by it. My point in writing the article wasn’t to make it out that the triangle is a trump card that can work in any scenario for any smaller sized person. I was never making that claim. I was simply saying that it has more potential to work against a larger opponent than many other moves do in a competition grappling setting. And the overall point behind the article was to emphasize that the triangle, while a potentially useful tool in sport grappling, has a lot of liabilities in a real self defense setting. I hope that clarifies my point of view. Thanks again for commenting!

  5. Actually, you don’t always have to remain on the ground when applying the triangle choke.
    I remember during my MCMAP sparring with my fellow marine and I had if on the triangle. Our instructor, GySgt Anthony Jefford (probably a Master GySgt by now), told me to twist my opponent head as if I’m trying to break his neck, but don’t not so hard or things can go very wrong, and guide him to the ground beside me. Then get on top of him while still having the triangle chick on lock.
    Next thing I know, I was sitting on my opponent chest with the the triangle choke still lock. But it wasn’t for long because GySgt told me to pull his head towards my crouch but slowly and the marine I was facing tapped out in a split second. And I think that’s because the triangle choke is more lethal when applied like that. I felt as I can easily snap the marine neck when I on top of him grabbing it while the triangle choke was still in locked in.

    1. I’m not sure if it’s clear, but the triangle I’m referring to in the article is one using the legs, rather than the arms. Arm triangles, of course, can be done from standing.

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