How to Set Up a Toe Hold: a BJJ Tutorial

Setting up the toe hold at an Andrew Smith toe hold seminar
Setting up the toe hold at an Andrew Smith toe hold seminar

The toe hold

The toe hold (or, sometimes, "figure four footlock") is a very quick and nasty submission that torques the ankle to a degree that the ligaments that connect the foot and ankle are often ripped, or the ankle itself dislocated. There is sometimes even an injury to the knee that occurs whenever the angle shifts a bit. For these reasons, toe holds are generally allowed only in brown and black belt divisions in the gi, and in advanced no-gi divisions. However, the toe hold is one of the most versatile and effective submissions, and can lead to a variety of other positions. In this tutorial, we'll examine some of the more high percentage, basic methods of entry, and talk a bit about finishing.

Knee cut/backstep

One of the easiest ways to start working on the toe hold is to start with a knee cut pass position (check out our tutorial on leglocks from the knee cut for a follow up on this material). Start by sliding your knee across as though you're going to finish a knee cut guard pass, but without an underhook on the upper body. Lean forward, then backstep, ending up sitting on your partner's hips, looking down at their legs. A very likely reaction is for them to cross their legs to defend the straight kneebar, so you're going to attack the other leg. If you're facing their feet and they are crossing their right leg over their left, you're going to attack their right foot with the toe hold.

Catch and finish

One important detail when diving for this toe hold is that you will want to make your your right knee is below their crossed legs. You can either let them choose whether this happens (and if it doesn't, you can transition to a more unorthodox leg attack), or simply force your knee down as they're crossing their legs, ensuring that you have the mobility to dive for the toe hold. You can dive forward outside of their crossed legs (ideal) or in between them (if you can't reach the foot). Once you have the figure four grip on the foot (think of it as a Kimura for the foot), bring their foot inward toward their body, making sure their knee is bent inward. Now flare your right wrist outward to apply external pressure to the ligaments of the ankle, forcing the tap. Go slowly!


Attacking the other leg

Sometimes your partner will forget about the leg that's caught in between your legs (the one you might kneebar), and in this case, it's easy to attack for the toe hold. A classic method of going for this would involve diving for the foot as you extend the leg fully, going after the kneebar first. Unfortunately, this facilitates your partner's escape, as extension is likely to be the first thing they do to make things harder for you. In this case, however, start with the same backstep, then crunch forward to grab the toe hold, keeping their leg bent at 90 degrees or more if possible. If you can't reach the foot due to arm length vs leg length, just put their knee underneath your left armpit. This particular toe hold can be devastatingly quick, so be extra careful when applying the pressure inward, particularly considering your partner's knee angle.

Higher percentage submission

  • Toe hold
  • Straight ankle lock
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Getting started

Remember: this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what you can do with toe holds, and we'll explore more options soon. Even more important: remember to take the time to fully understand how the submission itself works. Your partner will likely feel a small twinge of pain in their ankle just before it snaps (there isn't much of a warning, or much pressure required to break some ankles), or even feel a tweak in their knee. This is definitely the time to tap, if not sooner (due to tension and the position itself). Only use the toe hold under the supervision of an instructor, at least until you get the okay to play with it yourself, and be sure to keep your training partners safe! Once you get the safety thing down, you can have a lot of fun with these.

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