Escaping Side Control


How many times have you heard the phrase, “Hey, I saw someone do a Guatemalan Death Slicer in the UFC, I wanna do that!” All the time, right? Often in Jiu Jitsu our first impulse is to learn all the cool submissions. But as Jiu Jitsu players we live and die by our abilities in bad positions.

As much fun as learning a cool choke from the back or armbar from mount is, how often do newer students end up there to practice these techniques? The same problem exists for instructors. Let’s face it – basic positional Jiu Jitsu can be boring to teach over and over again. But it’s our positional escapes and transitions that allow us to survive against higher belts and really open up our offense without worry of getting passed or reversed.

For beginners it is absolutely necessary to start from the ground up in Jiu Jitsu with techniques that they are actually able to practice on a day to day basis in rolling. There’s a reason why the first two chapters of Saulo Ribeiro’s Jiu Jitsu University focus on survival and escapes, respectively.

Side control can be one of the most frustrating positions to be stuck under in Jiu Jitsu, and one of the most dangerous.


Demian Maia – Side Control Escapes


There are several forms of this position, although the main branches are regular side control, kesa gatame (scarf hold), reverse kesa gatame and north south. Although it’s a unique area – I include north south as a side control position since similar principals are used to survive and escape it, but it’s not a position unto itself in the Jiu Jitsu scoring system (in contrast to knee on belly). Each requires a different set of escapes, although many rely on similar principals.

Even the regular side control can differ depending on your opponent’s leg positioning (e.g., sprawled out versus knees in tight), arm position (e.g., underhook versus blocking the hip) and weight distribution.


Kurt Osiander speaks the truth – Side Control Escape


Kurt Osiander – North South Escape (my instructor recently showed me this escape, I think I like it!)


Regardless of the type of side control being used we need to be aware of a number of fundamental principals and movements. The exact methods of escaping side control have evolved during Jiu Jitsu’s history  but the fundamentals haven’t changed much – as evidenced by one of the first Jiu Jitsu instructional videos – Renzo Gracie/Craig Kukuk Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Examining their side control escapes and comparing them to more recent instructional resources allows us to compile three overarching principals of side control escape:


Principal #1: Survival before escape -in contrast to its offensive counterpart, “position before submission,” this maxim reminds us that we must secure our defensive posture before initiating our escape. This requires that we bring our limbs in tight to create a frame and prevent armlocks and chokes and that we block our opponent’s attempts to advance position.

Principal #2: Create space – Your opponent’s offense is predicated upon his ability to take away any space you may use to move your body back into a neutral position. In Jiu Jitsu we must therefore open up an area between our opponent’s body and our own in order to occupy this space.

Principal #3: Square up – Your ability to create space and then occupy it in a way that is advantageous to you is virtually certain to be centered around the action of your hips. Having quick, strong and efficient hip movement is sine qua non for the elite Jiu Jitsu practitioner and in no place else is its importance evident as escaping bad positions. Whether “squaring up” refers to retaining guard or switching to your knees depends on your opponent’s positioning and your desired outcome.


There are several errors newer (and some experienced!) Jiu Jitsu students will make while inside control. For each of the three above listed principals there is a major mistake I see  over and over again.  Here are the most common errors that I see:


Mistake # 1. Angry hugging – Instead of bringing your limbs in tight as your opponent enters side control some people will grab tightly around their head and arm and hold them in place with all their might. Correct this error by understanding principal # 1 – you need your defensive posture to create space – by holding them tight you are removing your ability to escape.

Mistake #2. Bench pressing – The bench press is easily the most popular exercise in commercial gyms. But this movement will result in a quick and painful armlock in Jiu Jitsu. Instead of lifting straight up, try to keep your elbows tight to your ribs and push on your opponent’s hips. This is explained in more detail below.

Mistake #3. Feet off the ground – When some Jiu Jitsu players hip escape their first instinct is to throw their legs in the air hoping to catch an opponent with their feet. Unfortunately this means that there is nothing bracing you against the ground making it easy for your opponent to flatten you out again. Keep your connection to the mat.


In all side control configurations it is of primary importance that you don’t let your opponent control your head. This is often performed with a crossface or shoulder pressure. Therefore the first step in side control survival is to block this control using your hand to cup their shoulder as they press into you. Remember to keep your elbows as tight as humanly possible to prevent your opponent from achieving an underhook.

If you can’t use your hand to block their shoulder pressure it’s important to still use it to facilitate your escape. Blocking the hip with your hand is a good method of keeping them away while you escape. From here I like to circle my arm inside to add a crossface of my own. Be careful here, since instigating the crossface is an often-used method of isolating your arm for armlocks. Once you get your crossface you need to act – primarily by hip escaping to reclaim your guard or circle out to your knees.


Saulo Ribeiro – Running Man Escape


Remember that you’re already in a bad position – it won’t help to rush or frantically try to escape without an opening to do so. This will just burn your badly-needed energy and open you up to attack. Try your best to calm your mind and control your breathing while checking off your mental list of defences. But as soon as you sense an opening you must take advantage. It’s also important that you do not allow your opponent to advance their position. It will be difficult at first but the more time you spend under side control the better you will be at feeling when your opponent is attempting to transition to knee on belly or mount.


Great Grappling – Side Control to Back – you may need to turn the volume down. 


Escaping side control is counterintuitive. The first instinct that often needs to be corrected in Jiu Jitsu (and one I absolutely hate) is when the guy on the bottom reaches around their opponent and tries to hold on for dear life. The other is pushing straight up on the chest like a bench press. This is one case that we need to train to ignore our stupid, stupid instincts and learn to calmly survive and wait for an opening. As stated in principal #2, above, we need to create space to escape. At the lower levels a great deal of space will be needed to escape since we do not have fine control and precision over our movements. Higher belts need only the most minute areas to initiate their defensive movement. This is why “angry hugging” from under side control is counter to our objectives. However, pushing straight up violates principal #1, which requires us to adopt a defensive posture first and foremost.

When considering the movement of the arms in Jiu Jitsu a fundamental principal is to keep your elbows tight to your chest. As your elbows separate from your ribs the mechanical leverage that your latissimus dorsi muscles in your back are able to exert on your arms is reduced. Without this large muscle being able to control your arm movements your opponent is better able to isolate your limb for an armlock or to control your torso with an underhook. This is why you often see the T-rex arm posture adopted by experienced Jiu Jitsu players. However, by extending your arms alongside your body to push on your opponent’s hips you are not violating this principal, since your elbows are still within an acceptable distance from your body, allowing your to prevent your opponent from controlling you will being able to create distance between you and your opponent.


Roy Dean – Pathway to Escape Side Control – BJJ Weekly


Hip movement is essential to escaping side control. In our series on Jiu Jitsu warm-ups we spent a great deal of time working on our hip movement – primarily by shrimping, also known as hip escaping. The endless repetitions that are required in Jiu Jitsu practice prepare you for efficiently being able to escape side control and other dominant positions. Remember, you aren’t trying to move your opponent – you’re creating space and moving yourself. Hip escaping is a counterintuitive movement and much practice is needed to make it second nature. As you square up to your opponent (principal #3), whether it be to guard to to turtle it is good practice to be ready to instantly begin to attack by further advancing your position or attempting a submission.

The idea of taking advantage of positional transitions is important in side control – both entering and exiting the position. If you’re being passed it’s essential to bring your side control defences into play before your opponent achieves position. That’s not to say you should abandon your pass prevention techniques and just give up side control. When all else fails, be prepared to deny your opponent further advantage by allowing them to get an underhook or crossface.

When we drill escaping from bad positions we will often stop as soon as we improve our position. Try to take advantage of the openings created by your escape and transition directly into a position to submit, sweep or further improve your position. A neat version of this is the hip escape to armbar shown in Andre Galvao’s Drill to Win book. It’s a quick armlock that I use all the time to surprise my opponents. Alternatively if you use the far underhook to spin out to your knees you should be aware that a Darce choke is often available for the taking.

Let’s take a closer look at one side control escape in greater detail. Most Jiu Jitsu academies generally teach the same basic escapes, but the elbow push is one often-overlooked escape that relies on redirecting your opponent’s energy to facilitate your escape. It relies on all of the above-mentioned principals, although it takes advantage of angles not normally used when escaping side control.



One versatile side control escape that I’ve been focusing on a great deal is the elbow push. I first saw Marcelo Garcia doing it in rolling, and he has released many lessons on the technique on The elbow push takes advantage of the force your opponent will attempt to apply to control your head:

  1. As Garcia’s guard is being passed he brings his elbows in to begin his defense. He blocks his opponent’s arm from coming over his head.
  2. If his opponent attempts to force his hand down, Marcelo will redirect this force past his head. If his opponent is very strong he may use both hands.
  3. Once the arm is past Marcelo’s head he cups the elbow and pushes it away creating space between his opponent’s arm and torso.
  4. The push facilitates Marcelo’s ability to slide his body out from underneath his opponent.

If his opponent does not force his arm down and Marcelo is unable to redirect it he will bridge and hip escape into guard. Marcelo immediately sits up instead of resting on his back. Here’s a short video of Marcelo using the elbow push on Jake Shields:




So now you have several options to escape side control. Pay careful attention to the starting conditions that lead to each escape. I tend to use a combination of the basic hip escape and the elbow push from bottom of side control, never letting my opponent get their weight settled. Although I tend to first retain guard from side control I’ve also been playing around with more of the escapes that bring you to your knees, and am finding them much more comfortable than I originally thought they would.

If you’re able to escape side control well a world of possibilities await. It opens your ability to be aggressive with your guard without fear of being stuck under your opponent and allows beginners to use all of those fancy submissions they learnt off the internet (Ha! Because I would never do that!).


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Filed under Jiu Jitsu Technique

2 responses to “Escaping Side Control

  1. Cool: strangely, escaping side control is one of the areas I enjoy studying the most in jiu jitsu. Hence why it was my first choice for teaching, when I was asked to take charge of Thursdays a couple of months ago.

    I’ve never managed to land the elbow push: I first saw Braulio teach that on CageFilm, but I’m still working out the kinks in my attempt to incorporate it into my game. So, Garcia’s method could be worth a go. :)

    • I find the elbow push very useful, but only in particular situations – e.g., your opponent is really pushing to get head control or they’ve gotten into reverse kesa gatame. Although I prefer not to teach, when I do I’m a big fan of teaching side control escapes as well. I feel it’s the way I can most effectively improve my teammates jiu jitsu in a short period of time.

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