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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

22 September 2011

22/09/2011 - Teaching (Attacking the Back)

Teaching #021
Gracie Barra Bristol, (BJJ), Can Sönmez, Bristol, UK - 22/09/2011

The rear naked choke (so-called because you don't need to grab any cloth: the Portuguese term is the more flowery 'mata leão', which means 'lion killer') is a high percentage attack from the back, and perhaps the signature submission in jiu jitsu. One of the great things about chokes is that they are so efficient: while somebody might be able to muscle their way out of a locked in armbar, a choke will work on everybody, no matter how big. The previous time I taught a RNC, it was for a non-BJJ audience, meaning I left out a lot of details. Suffice to say, this time round will be a bit more in-depth. :)

First, keep in mind those five points on maintaining the back I mentioned last week:

  • Establish your hooks inside their thighs, making sure you don't cross your feet

  • Bring one arm under their armpit, then the other over their shoulder

  • Follow them with your hips, so they have no space to escape

  • Press your chest into their upper back, for the same reason

  • Jam your head next to their skull, for better control and visibility

In terms of its basic mechanics, the rear naked choke is relatively simple. Repeating what I said last time, begin by bringing one arm around their neck, so that the point of your elbow is under their chin. You don't want to leave any space, as the idea is to press into both sides of their neck. This will close off their carotid arteries and prevent the flow of blood to the brain. That is an efficient and safe way of subduing an opponent.

You are then going to grip the bicep of your free arm. This is to lock the choke in place. Bring the hand of that bicep arm to the back of their head: I normally press the palm into their skull, but there are various options, coming down to personal preference. Back of the hand against their neck is arguably better, as that may slip in more securely than palm down.

Also, palm down is easier for them to grab, if they try to peel your fingers off their skull. Either way, when you're locking in the choke, don't reach your hand forward over their shoulder. If you do, then they can armbar you using their shoulder as a fulcrum. Instead, slide it behind the head.

Bring your head next to theirs on the bicep gripping side, to further cut off any space. If for some reason after grabbing your bicep you can't get your other hand behind their head, grab your own skull, using that grip to finish from there. Staying close to their back, expand your chest and squeeze your elbows together.

Despite the simplicity, it can be difficult to get the RNC choke. Everybody with more than a few lessons under their belt knows that you're going to be looking for that choke, so they will immediately be trying to create barriers with their arms and hands. Hence why I started the technical portion of the session by having everybody drill the basic mechanics, then went into further details on the RNC.

In order to clear a route to the neck, there are numerous options. First, you can adjust your hand positioning to maximise your efficiency. If you have one arm under their armpit and the other over the shoulder, then it can be helpful to grip palm to palm, with your shoulder arm on top. That means that as soon as there is any gap between the neck and chest, you can immediately slide your arm into their neck.

You can also try tricking them into giving you access to the hold you want. For example, when you try to get an arm around their neck, a common reaction on their part is to grab your arm and pull it down. If you respond by pulling up, they will pull down even harder. This means that if you time it right, you can suddenly switch direction, shoving their arms down right when they're pulling.

Even better, you can take their arm right out of commission. With one of your hands, grab their wrist. Shove it down towards their legs, then step over that arm with your same side leg. When you then re-establish your hook, they are left with only one arm to defend against both of yours. If they've grabbed your wrist, twist your palm outwards, shove it down and out, then again step over their arm with your leg. Either hook your foot inside their thigh, or around the outside of their hip. Whatever the grip, your goal is to maintain pressure, so they can't simply swim their arm free.

You can also just hold their wrist momentarily with your hand, although that does mean you are still going one arm against one arm, rather than the preferable two arms against one. Then again, if you have already trapped their arm on the neck-arm side, then you can use your hand under their armpit to hold their remaining arm. That would mean you now have one arm with which to attack, while they have no limbs left to defend themselves.

Once your arm is by their neck, secure it by gripping the back of their shoulder. Stephan Kesting has a useful video on RNC details, where he talks about holding the ridge of bone at the bottom of the shoulder blade, using what he calls a 'tiger palm'. From there, switch to gripping palm to palm over their shoulder, dropping the elbow of your back-arm down along their shoulder blade. That will further help to lock it in position: as Demian Maia demonstrates, you can even finish the choke from there. If not, you can then do what Kesting calls the 'creep', wriggling that elbow across their back to cinch up the choke.

If they are doing the escape I showed a a couple of weeks ago, they are going to fall in the direction your choking hand is pointing. To finish the choke, you'll need to either switch your arms or bring them back to the other side. For the latter, release your mat-side hook, push off the floor and roll them back to the other side (being careful to maintain control, as you're vulnerable to the escape). For the former, reach further to grab around their shoulder, then using that in combination with your hook, lift them up slightly. That should create the space to bring your armpit hand out and switch your arms.

Another problem is that people will also tend to tuck their chin. Some people advocate unpleasant methods to force your way through to the neck in that situation. For example, Kesting has a list here: the results of that kind of approach (though Kesting does make a point of saying he is not fond of pain-based options either) can be seen in this video. That is not how I want my jiu jitsu to look.

My goal is smooth, technical, leverage-based jiu jitsu, causing as little pain to the other person as possible. As Saulo says in my favourite BJJ quote:

"You have to think that your partner, the guy that you're training [with], has to be your best friend. So, you don't want to hurt him, you don't want to try to open his guard with your elbow, make him feel really pain, because jiu jitsu is not about pain. You have to find the right spot to save your energy"

I strongly feel it is best to avoid hurting your training partners, for four additional reasons:

  • You're in class to learn, not to 'win' at all costs. Save the 'win' mentality for competition.

  • If you're always hurting the people you spar, eventually nobody will want to train with you, making it rather hard to improve.

  • Presuming you're in BJJ for the long-term, you're going to be spending a lot of time with your training partners. Therefore it would make sense to build a good relationship.

  • Even if you don't care about your classmates, everybody has a different pain threshold. So, the efficacy of pain-reliant techniques will vary from person to person. The efficacy of leverage does not: that's based on physics, not how tough somebody is.

There is a less nasty option you could try for opening up their chin, from Andre Galvao. If they really shove their chin down, this may not work, but it is worth a go. Twist your hand so that your thumb is pointing down, then as you slide the arm to their neck, twist the thumb back up to lift their chin.

If I find I have no option except something brutish (e.g., crushing their chin until they tap from pain or lift their head), my preference is to instead transition to a different attack, like an ezequiel, a bow and arrow choke or an armbar. In my opinion, if I get to the point where force and pain are the main routes to finishing a submission, then my set up was poorly executed.

Tonight, I covered the ezequiel choke from the back: I intend to take a look at some of the other submission alternatives in future lessons. The great thing about the ezequiel is that you don't need such a deep grip as with the RNC, therefore it is more likely to take them by surprise.

If you find that you aren't able to get your shoulder arm across their neck, then you can attack with the arm you have under their armpit instead. Slide the armpit hand up to their opposite shoulder, so that the edge of that hand is cutting into the side of their neck. Grab the sleeve cuff of your other arm, then bring the hand of that other arm to the other side of their neck. Chop down with a knife hand. This should block off the carotid artery on both sides of their neck, resulting in a submission. Instead of using your arms for the choke, like in a RNC, you are using a combination of your hands and the material of your gi sleeve.

Like the RNC, you can be sneaky about the set-up for your ezequiel. For example, while you have a typical harness grip, slip your armpit hand into the bottom of your shoulder arm sleeve: it should be possible to do this without them noticing if you're careful. At the right moment, you can then yank it up, moving into the choke. Worth noting that Maia suggests the power comes from pulling the with the armpit hand, rather than relying on pressure from knife handing with your shoulder arm.

As it was odd numbers, I was able to jump in during the specific sparring from back mount, which was fun. However, I should probably have warmed up or something first, as it didn't take long for my left side and right leg to both get massive cramp. I don't think it affected the roll (except that I couldn't hook properly with my right leg, so was mostly controlling with my arms and the one hook), but it still hurt the next morning. Good reminder to make sure I don't join in cold.

Naturally I made sure to ask my girlfriend what she thought about the class and BJJ in general afterwards. I'll be editing her response, and with her permission, sticking it up on the website. :)

I won't be training again this week, so hopefully I'll see some of you at the ADCC! If you're not going to be there in person, remember you can still watch it online, here.


  1. Thanks for the lesson Can. I would make one, hopefully constructive, criticism. I feel like your warm ups have been getting shorter lately and particularly last night I thought it wasn't really long enough, especially since the drilling was relatively static. I found I was quite cold by the time we were adding resistance.

    Hope ADCC is good. I'm a little envious of those going. I guess I'll have to drink a load of extra wine to take my mind off it :)

  2. Cheers Mike, good feedback:
    I often try and speed through the warm-up when I know I have a lot of technique I want to cover, but you're right, I need to make sure there's a balance. Perhaps my cramp was karmic payback. ;)

    I'd like to add in some more BJJ-specific drills, which should be easier now that there's a core group of regulars who have been through most of the first twenty lessons I had planned.

    Ideally, I'd have positional drills for each three week series: the next two weeks are going to be focused heavily on drilling (I'm intending to use it as a way of recapping what we've been doing over the last four and a bit months), so that will be a good opportunity for me to work some out.

  3. "If for some reason after grabbing your bicep you can't get your other hand behind their head, grab your own skull, using that grip to finish from there."

    Thank you! My arms are sometimes too short for me to get my hand to the back of their head, and I've struggled to find an alternative. Can't wait to give this a try.

  4. No probs, Gina: make sure you keep your head tight. It isn't anywhere near as efficient as finishing with the hand behind, but worth a try if you're stuck for options. :)