Leverage and Better Armbar Defense

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

When you grab somebody by the end of their arm, you’re more likely to get the armbar than if you grabbed closer to the shoulder. You’re closer to the end of the lever, which means the strength differential is in your favor.

So what can you do about it as the one being armbarred?
• Keep your elbows in.
• Increase your awareness.
• Work on widening your strength curve.

As the first two options are pretty obvious, this article exists to address the third – widening your strength curve. Think of what position your arm is strongest in – when it’s bent. Somewhere in the middle, about when it starts to look like you’re just making a muscle to show off. There comes a point as the arm straightens (long range) where pressure will be harder and harder to resist. There is also a point where your elbow is compressed past a point that you can exert much strength in (short range).

Now think about your hooks – knees bent, toes up. You’re strongest in the middle here too, right? As your legs straighten it gets harder to lift up or push away an opponent. The same is true for a compressed hook, and here’s why. You have two different ranges of motion – one is active and one is passive. A passive range of motion is what most people think about when they talk about being “flexible.” An active range of motion is what range you actually have control over, otherwise known as mobility.

Confused? Try this test:

  1. Kneel in a lunge position. You can do this next to a wall if you’re not sure about your balance.
  2. Bend your back knee so that your heel is as close to your butt as you can make it. This is your active range of motion.
  3. Now reach back with your hand and grab your ankle, pulling it in closer to your butt. See how much farther you got? The difference between this position and #2 is your passive range of motion.
  4. Bonus: since you can pull it in more, let’s see if you can control it. Start to slowly let go of your hand and fight as hard as you can not to let that foot drop any farther from your butt than it is.
  5. Did you cramp? YOU’RE WELCOME! Cramps like that get high fives in the mobility classes that I teach, because they mean that you are working to expand your active ranges. You cramped because your brain doesn’t know how to control that range just yet. Sure, maybe you could eat more bananas (an oft-cited cure for cramping bc of the potassium), but this is just good neuromuscular confusion.
    • GET BACK ON THE HORSE. If you want to expand your ranges, make friends with cramps, anthropomorphize them if you need to, but do your best to stay in the position and stay calm. You want your neuro system to feel safe in this new, temporarily confusing range. They will fade soon, and faster if you stick with it and don’t jump away when they happen.
  6. This is an exercise to begin improving the shorter ranges of your hamstring, which will start to spread out that strength curve.
  7. You literally can’t use your passive range of motion actively. Make sense? It’s just there, not helping you get anywhere. Ideally you want the difference between the two to be about 15 degrees or so. You will never completely capture all of your passive range.

Why should you care?

Bigger, wider strength curve = more movement options. And who doesn’t want more movement options? For this particular example, it means:

  1. More strength to push away when someone is pinning your hooks to your butt.
  2. Easier time getting hooks in when someone is crowding you.
  3. Better armbars as you pinch down on the back of someone’s neck and lat.
  4. Easier time passing without getting caught in halfguard because your hook can shorten out of range.
  5. Easier time passing to mount when sliding the knee across the belly.
  6. Healthier knees because you are building strength in the joint as well as increasing the ranges it can operate in.
  7. A better brain map of the area (as the cramps subside), meaning that even off the mat you will have more movement variability and less risk of getting injured.

Every single one of your joints has a difference between active and passive ranges. If you train to expand them in to bigger, stronger ranges, you will have more options everywhere.

The dangers of passive ROM

If you have a large discrepancy between your passive and active ranges of motion that means you have a lot of range your body can limply be pushed into but no motor control or strength in. You may stop a guard pass because you’re folded up like a pretzel but you sure ain’t getting out of it as effectively as if you had the ability to engage your muscles in that range.

At its riskiest you may try and wrench yourself out of there using other muscles that you do have control over but this can leave the affected joints vulnerable. Another risky but less immediately obvious factor is that whatever muscles and joints you are using to get yourself back in the game are now working harder than they should. (We can get into gaining control of your overall musculature better another time). If you think of all your body parts as a team, the limbs in unusable ranges are sitting on the bench. The guys on the field are now working that much harder. Eventually they’re going to get tired from taking on all the load, wear down, and possibly get injured themselves. There’s a great line by Tom Myers that says, “it’s not the culprit that cries out, it’s the victim,” meaning wherever you are feeling a problem I can pretty much guarantee is not the actual issue. So if your therapist wants to look at your big toe because of your ankle or shoulder problem, trust them and give it a shot ok?


Simply discovering where your active ranges really are can inform your training and keep you safer. Since you’re only strong within those ranges (have fun experimenting with pushing someone away at different ranges of knee flexion to figure out where you’re strongest), knowing them can help you fight to keep your body within them. When you start getting into end range training remember the best time to work on expanding is probably not a chaotic training session. New movements should be practiced and strengthened in a controlled environment before they’re ready for the stage. Going back to the example of the hooks, I might now fight harder to keep them from getting compressed past my active ranges. Boom, less stuck and you’re probably using your hips better as a result too.

So what about that armbar?

Strengthen your end ranges, defend your armbars better. And keep your elbows in, dammit.

One more thing

If any range of motion is painful to your joint you shouldn’t be using it much. You are giving bad information to your brain. Seek help instead of pushing through it. The great thing is it can get better. Working all the ranges that are pain-free is very important and will help.

Want something to help you start using your ranges effectively? Here’s a video I made taking you actively through every joint articulation. https://youtu.be/Ticyjd3AD40. I do some version of this every day and have reaped a lot of benefit from it. Every day you have new cells to educate and new sensations that you feel differently than yesterday. Every day is a chance to get even better than the day before.
I have most of my movement education through Dr. Andreo Spina’s Functional Anatomy Seminars series and my own exploration and reading, where this controlled articular rotations (CARs) routine is derived from.