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The Strenuous Life Podcast with Stephan Kesting

This is the Stephan Kesting's Grapplearts Radio Podcast where we discuss BJJ, Grappling, MMA, and all manner of martial arts training.

Stephan runs, where he has published many hundreds of martial arts videos, articles and tutorials.

His free guide to learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, A Roadmap for BJJ, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times and has become a foundational text for the art. Click here to download that book for free as well.

Stephan has a lengthy career in martial arts, spanning more than 3 decades.  He has dedicated many years to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and you can find his accessible and practical expertise on all BJJ matters at

A black belt in multiple martial art systems, he brings a range of approaches to self defense, and a critical eye for what works in the street.

Stephan has been featured in Black Belt Magazine, Ultimate Grappling, Tapout Magazine and Ultimate Athlete.

He is also a frequent guest on martial arts related podcasts, including The Fightworks Podcast, Atlantic MMA, Combatives Corner, The Warrior’s Den, The Spartan Underground and many more.

Feb 5, 2018

The other day I almost tore a partner’s ACL off the bone, which would have required him to have surgery and many months of rehabilitation.

What happened exactly?

I was more experienced and a bit bigger than my training partner that day and we were doing some no gi sparring.

Because of the experience discrepancy I was hyper-focusing on a couple of very specific positions, namely Ashi Garami and the 411.

(This is a form of Targeted Sparring which is a great tool to use when you're going against less experienced training partners - by limiting myself to only a couple positions and one submission it makes the match more even and better training for both of us.)

So we’re rolling, carefully and respectfully... I’ve tapped my training partner out a few times with heel hooks, all applied in slow motion...  He’s beginning to defend the leglocks more intelligently and I'm having to work a little harder to get them... 

Everything is going the way it’s supposed to.

Then it almost ended very badly.

I had the Ashi Garami firmly in place, and was just finishing the dig part of the heel hook (where you get your wrist under his heel in preparation for finishing the lock). 

And 99% of the time when I’m sparring that’s as far as I’ll go - no need to actually apply the heel hook.  At that point my partner typically knows he’s caught and will tap out.

But this new training partner didn’t know when to quit.  He tried to escape by spinning.

And, to make matters MUCH worse, he spun the wrong way!

Spinning or rotating can be part of an effective heel hook defense, BUT NOT WHEN YOU GO IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!!

Instead of relieving the pressure, spinning into the dig amplifies the power of the submission exponentially!

If I had remained still, not moving, his wrong-way-spin would have slammed his heel into my forearm.  

He would have full power heel hooked himself, which can tear all sorts of ligaments in the knee, the foot and the ankle.

Fortunately I saw what was about to happen and completely released my grips without a second to spare.  

The submission evaporated, he spun safely and ‘escaped.’

Then I sat him down and we had a good little chat about the dangers of spinning out of leglock if you don’t know which way to spin.

Now I'm not here to vilify leglocks, because I've managed to train them safely for years.  

And I've seen lots disasters and near misses on the mats with many other techniques and submissions over the years.

So let's universalise a few take-home lessons from this incident…


This is certainly true of the heel hook example above, but this applies to any submission.

Imagine an absolute beginner caught in an armbar from guard with no idea how to defend or escape technically.

But he still doesn't want to tap out, and lacking a good plan, decides to try something dynamic and unorthodox.

He turns 90 degrees to the side then does a flying belly flop onto the mat.  Or maybe he launches himself into a full power backwards somersault.  Or maybe into a breakdancing head spin.

Do you think something could go wrong in those situations?

Yes!  Very seriously wrong.  Snap, crackle, pop wrong!

Introducing that much additional and unexpected momentum into a situation where  you don’t know exactly what you’re doing is guaranteed to lead to disaster.

At some point a limb will end up in a vulnerable position and the heavy body in motion will result in a sprain, tear, break or dislocation.

Yes, there are times when momentum is your friend for escaping submissions, but it’s a tool that you use rarely, in specific situations and with specific techniques.

Don't get injured because your ego makes you unwilling to tap out.

If you’re caught in a position or submission and you don’t know which way to turn then don’t turn!

Instead 1) accept that you're caught, 2) open your hand and 3) tap it on your opponent a few times.

Your jiu-jitsu will improve SO much faster if you're on the mat rather than at the physiotherapist trying to put Humpty together again.


A lot of this near miss heel hooking situation was my fault.

I knew that I wouldn’t crank my training partner’s leg, but I had made an assumption that he understood the basics of defending the heel hook.

I should not have made this assumption.

(You know what they say about the word “Assume”?  That it makes and “ass” out of “u” and “me”.)

I should have at least double checked with him prior to training that he understood the mechanism of the heel hook and the basic do’s and don’ts.

Teach the basic safety parameters around a submission you're going to be drilling.

This as logical as teaching or teaching break falls before you teach throws, but I've seen newbies get concussions on day one because they were starting on their feet with zero idea how to land safely. 

I've also seen beginners put to sleep because nobody had told them that that was a way to stop a choke once it was applied.

Easily preventable mistakes.

Jiu-jitsu is a contact sport and injuries are inevitable, but let’s minimise those injuries!

As the teacher, senior belt, or more experienced rolling partner it’s YOUR job to try and keep things as safe as they can be, and that includes not assuming that other people know what you know.

Safety precautions that are totally obvious to you might be revelations to others, so don't assume that a beginner knows anything, no matter how much internet research they seem to have done prior to coming to class.


The most important rule in boxing is to “protect yourself at all times.”

In training, as opposed to actual fighting itself, I would extend this to be “protect yourself and your training partner at all times.”

Expect people, especially beginners, to do stupid things, without warning, for no reason at all.

Do you have someone new in your closed guard?  Maybe he’s getting ready to try a superman dive forward with the idea of getting directly to mount.  Unfortunately this results in him accidentally spearing you in the face with a head butt.  I’ve seen it done…

Protect yourself and your training partner at all times!

Are people sitting on a crowded mat with their arms locked straight behind them with people rolling all around?  That arm will shatter if someone falls, rolls or scrambles directly onto that locked elbow. Gently let those people know that they’re putting their arms in danger.

Protect yourself and your training partner at all times!

Are you passing the open guard?  Watch out for him accelerating to ludicrous speed, lashing out with his legs and inadvertently breaking your nose with a heel kick.  This happened to me, which is exactly why I will never be a nose model….

Protect yourself and your training partner at all times!

Are you rolling on the ground while other people are on their feet?  Can you guarantee that their takedown gone wrong won’t have them landing on your face, shattering your orbital bone?  Again, this happened to me, and my face is still lopsided 30 years later.

Protect yourself and your training partner at all times!

Do you see your training partner about to do something really stupid that could get him injured?  Don’t let it happen.  Release whatever you’ve got, even if it's  a submission that you really, really wanted to tap him out with.  Then explain to him what could have just happened.

One more time… Say it with me… Protect yourself and your training partner at all times!

Safety first!  Injury is the enemy!!


Related Articles and Videos on Grapplearts


My best tips, tricks and training methods to get good at leglocks while not getting hurt or hurting your partner, with videos and input from two other experienced leg lockers.


Modern leg locking is really about the 12 major leglock positions.  The game is to enter into the entanglement position of your choice, maintain it against opposition, and prevent your opponent from escaping.  

This free PDF is the best intro to the leglock positional game you can get.


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