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The guillotine choke: The 101 guide

We explain what this powerful choke is, how to do it, its variations and how to find it in a roll.

The guillotine choke is a common chokehold used in grappling arts, where you use your arms to surround and squeeze an opponent’s neck. It is regarded as one of the most versatile and efficient submissions out there, with its origins dating back to the ancient art of Pankration.

Man performing guillotine choke from closed guard.
The guillotine from closed guard

This article will go over the guillotine choke and all of its variations, including entries and common defenses if you are trapped in a guillotine. We will give some tips on how to have a strong guillotine and get the most out of this submission. This article was heavily influenced by legends of the sport such as John Danaher, Marcelo Garcia, Garry Tonon, Kron Gracie, and Gordon Ryan.

Table of contents

What is the guillotine choke?

The guillotine choke is one of the most popular chokeholds in martial arts. It is applied in front of the opponent and can be set up from various positions with or without the opponent’s arm. In this choke, arms are used to encircle the opponent’s neck to resemble a guillotine. Depending on how and where pressure is applied, the technique is either an air choke or a blood choke. Air chokes block the airflow through the trachea, while blood chokes cut off blood flow to the brain through the carotid arteries. 

Diagram showing guillotine and three key points: Chin covering shoulder, legs locked over opponent's hip and arms encircling and compressing opponent's neck.
The guillotine from closed guard.

In jiu-jitsu, the guillotine is a popular technique, and many students become familiar with it early. As a result, many believe it is easy to escape from a guillotine and that it only works at the lower levels. However, there is a big difference between well-applied and poorly applied guillotines. A well-applied guillotine can finish anyone at any level of competition and is a move that everyone should try to master. Guillotine attacks are mostly carried out from the front headlock position, where one of our opponent’s arms and their neck is trapped.  

Why the front headlock position is important for the guillotine

The front headlock is a position mainly used in wrestling and grappling. It is done by trapping your opponent’s head and arm with a chinstrap and elbow grip. There are many ways to enter this position, both from standing and on the ground. 

Front headlock position
The front headlock position

Some of the most popular methods to get to the front headlock involve using snap downs to lower your opponent’s level and then wrapping your hands around them to secure the position. 

In wrestling, strangles are not allowed, so a front headlock is used only to control an opponent and eventually try to pin him to the ground. However, in grappling, there is a large number of submissions that you can set up from the front headlock. Additionally, you can use a front headlock to go behind your opponent and take his back.

The four main positions you can apply a front headlock from

There are four different scenarios from which you can apply a front headlock. All of them differ and require you to employ different tactics:

1. Standing front headlock

Front headlock from standing
Standing front headlock

You can get to this position from any standing situation. To do this, you need to lower your opponent’s head below your shoulders. This is usually done with snap downs. You can use this position to take your opponent to the ground or attempt standing guillotines.

2. Kneeling front headlock

Kneeling front headlock
Kneeling front headlock

This is popular in wrestling. You can get to this position from a standing front headlock or when your opponent tries to shoot for a takedown. Hip heists from the guard position are also a great way to get into a kneeling front headlock. This position is great for attacking submissions and going for your opponent’s back.

3. Seated front headlock

Seated front headlock
Seated front headlock

This variation is associated with submission grappling and jiu-jitsu. You can snap down your opponent from the guard position and get his head below your shoulders. From here, you can attack guillotines, but you cannot go for your opponent’s back.

4. Front headlocks from top

Front headlocks from top
Front headlock from top

You can use front headlocks when passing someone’s guard. A great example of this can be passing a seated guard or passing a half guard. Both options can lead to great follow-up attacks.

The three points of control required for the front headlock

No matter which type of front headlock you have, there are three crucial elements of control that you must employ. Let’s look at them.

1. Put your shoulder on your opponent’s neck

Front headlock with shoulder on your opponent’s neck
Front headlock with shoulder on opponent’s neck

If you use a right front headlock (you control your opponent’s head with your right hand), your right shoulder should always cover the back of your opponent’s neck. This prevents him from moving forward and going for a double leg or single leg takedown. When using the shoulder, your shoulder should move forward but not go high to your opponent’s upper back, as this will alleviate the pressure.

2. Chinstrap grip on your opponent’s jaw

Chinstrap grip on opponent’s jaw
Chinstrap grip on opponent’s jaw

A chinstrap is an excellent way to control your opponent’s head and prevent him from moving backward. When holding a chinstrap, ensure that your elbow is retracted back and that you are activating your lat muscles. Also, bend your wrist at 90 degrees and cup it around the jaw. Combined with the pressure of your shoulder, you can control your opponent in both forward and backward directions.

3. Control your opponent’s elbow

Control opponent’s elbow from front headlock
Control opponent’s elbow from front headlock

Your free arm should always control your opponent’s elbow, as this will prevent him from countering you. Don’t connect your hands. Rather grab your opponent’s elbow either from the inside or outside. Make sure that your elbow is retracted back. Therefore, both elbows are attached to your ribcage.

Weaknesses of the front headlock

We have looked at the crucial control points from a front headlock position. Now, let’s look at some of the weaknesses your opponent can try to exploit and make your front headlock less effective.

Elbow exposure

Given that you control a right-handed front headlock, you should always connect your right elbow to your ribcage. If your elbow is exposed, your opponent can use elbow post methods and push it forward, which can expose your back.

Wrist exposure

This can also deteriorate your front headlock control. If your opponent can take control of your right wrist, he can stop your guillotine attempts and go for an escape. 

Opponent gripping wrist
Opponent gripping wrist

Opponent circling

The front headlock is excellent at stopping your opponent from moving forward and backward. However, it does not stop him from circling. If you control a right-handed front headlock, you should put your left leg up. This will help you follow him.

Front headlock circling
Front headlock circling

How to do a guillotine choke in 5 steps

There are many ways to do a guillotine choke. The technique can be set up from numerous positions. Also, there are a couple of variations of the technique. Here we will demonstrate how to do a fundamental guillotine from the closed guard position, called a low elbow guillotine. It is easy to do, and it is a great technique that you should consider learning first.

Step 1: Control your opponent from the closed guard

Controlling an opponent from guard
Controlling an opponent from guard

Before attacking with any techniques from the closed guard, you first must ensure that you have strong control over your opponent. Your hips should be above your opponent’s, and there should be no space between you and your opponent. Your legs should be locked as high as possible. From here, you can off-balance your opponent quite easily and go for attacks. 

Step 2: Sit up for a kimura sweep and grab a front headlock

Kimura sweep from closed guard
Kimura sweep from closed guard
Guillotine grip from kimura sweep
Guillotine grip from kimura sweep

With your opponent’s posture upright and his hands on the floor, sit up and go for a traditional kimura sweep. Kimura sweep and guillotine from the closed guard work very well together; when your opponent blocks the sweep, you can always return to the guillotine. Wrap your arm over your opponent’s neck and grab a chinstrap grip on his jaw.

Step 3: Connect your hands and secure double closure

Double closure grip for guillotine
Double closure grip for guillotine

Once you have head control, secure double closure on your opponent’s neck. This means that your control hand should slide, and your fist should cover your opponent’s carotid artery. From there, you can connect your hands for a low elbow guillotine grip.

Step 4: Correct your angle and do a compression finish

Correcting angle for guillotine
Correcting angle for guillotine

When you have a secure grip, you should shrimp away from your opponent and lock your legs over their hip (If you are controlling with your right hand, you should lock over their left hip). 

Step 5: Ensure that your opponent’s neck is covered with your chin

Guillotine covering your opponent's neck with your chin
Cover your opponent’s neck with your chin

For the finish, bring your knees to your chest and do a side crunch; your elbow should be pointing down. Make sure you are on your side and don’t extend your spine. Instead, use compression to finish the choke.

How to use the high wrist position to increase your guillotine power

When attacking from a front headlock, especially kneeling front headlocks, there is one adjustment that you can make to increase the power of your guillotines. John Danaher dubs this the high wrist position in his Enter the system: Front Headlock instructional. A high wrist position refers to any situation in which you take your strangle arm and put your wrist above your partner’s clavicle instead of holding a traditional chinstrap grip. 

The high wrist position
The high wrist position

Once your wrist is high, you have double closure over your opponent’s neck. This means that both of his arteries are covered, and from there, the strangle is much stronger. Furthermore, the high wrist position allows you to use multiple guillotine variations. For example, you can attack both an arm-in and a high elbow guillotine. Here is an excellent study of this position utilized by the Danaher death squad.

Centerline shift

You must perform a centerline shift to get into the high wrist position. Imagine that there is a line splitting your partner in half. When you hold a front headlock, your head is on one side of the centerline (if you have a right-handed chinstrap, your head should be on your opponent’s right shoulder). To get a high wrist position, move your head from the right shoulder to the left to get a high wrist position. This will give you the space to insert your wrist high and get to the position. Once your palm is above his shoulder, you know you are in a good position. 

The centreline
The centreline

Below is a video of John Danaher explaining the centerline shift.

The 3 most important guillotine variations to know

There are various guillotine chokes that you can do in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling. Some of them may be more popular than others, but all of them are amazing attacks. To become a true guillotine specialist, you should know how to attack with different guillotines. Here are the most important guillotines you should know: 

1. High elbow guillotine/marcelotine

The high elbow guillotine is one of the most powerful attacks in all grappling. It is a guillotine variation popularized by the legendary Marcelo Garcia. Thus it is also named the Marcelotine

The marcelotine
The marcelotine

The marcelotine is a version where you use your non-choking hand and put your elbow above your opponent’s clavicle and point it to the ceiling. This creates an enormously tight strangle and blocks your opponent from reaching over your head (a common guillotine defense). Many believe that the high elbow guillotine requires a lot of shoulder mobility and flexibility. However, the key to this move is your head position or the so-called “centerline shift.” 

Here’s a video by Marcelo Garcia explaining the marcelotine:

And here are some other videos you can watch to study the high elbow guillotine.

2. Low elbow guillotine

The low elbow guillotine is considered a “classic” variation of the guillotine. Beginners should consider learning this guillotine first because it is relatively simple. This guillotine was very common in the early days of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling. 

The low elbow guillotine
The low elbow guillotine

The most important part when going for a low elbow guillotine is to have double closure. This means that you must cover both of your opponent’s carotid arteries. From the chinstrap position, slide your hand inside and cover your partner’s artery with your fist. Your fist should be pointing at the ceiling, and you should feel like you are wrist-locking yourself. Connect your hands and retract your elbows to your ribcage. This will secure a tight strangle. 

Double closure grips
Double closure grips

3. Arm-in guillotine/hingertine

The arm-in guillotine is one of the most commonly used guillotine variations in mixed martial arts and grappling. Instead of wrapping the guillotine around your opponent’s neck only, this version goes around the opponent’s arm and neck. 

Arm-in guillotine
Arm-in guillotine

Advantages of the arm-in guillotine

Attacking an arm-in guillotine has a couple of advantages. First, using this move on a resisting opponent is much easier. When your opponent drives into you, it can be challenging to lock a regular guillotine because he will reduce the space between his shoulder and your chest. Second, the arm-in guillotine has many follow-up attacks. When attacking with this guillotine, you can easily transition to moves such as the anaconda or Darce strangle. Additionally, you can attack an Omoplata from this position as well. 

Disadvantages of the arm-in guillotine

Nonetheless, the arm-in guillotine has a disadvantage. The arm-in guillotine is a weaker strangle than a regular no-arm guillotine. This is because you are applying pressure against your opponent’s arm and neck. Many beginners shy away from this technique because it can be challenging to do it properly. Do not let this discourage you, as this can be a deadly stranglehold if you apply it correctly. 

Arm-in guillotine grip variations

You can use several grip variations when going for an arm-in guillotine. The first is the high wrist position. As mentioned earlier, if you can get to a high wrist position, you can immensely increase your guillotines’ power. From the high wrist position, overhook your opponent’s arm and grab your wrist. Lock a closed guard, and do a side crunch for the finish. In case you cannot reach the high wrist position (seated front headlock), use a low elbow guillotine grip. You need to ensure that both arteries are covered and that there is double closure. 

The high wrist position
The high wrist position

Another variation you can use is the Hingertine popularized by Josh Hinger. This guillotine uses a chinstrap grip and is performed as a tracheal choke instead of a blood choke. Cover your choking hand with your other hand and rotate your wrist into your opponent’s neck. Although this guillotine is not a blood choke, it is still very dangerous.

Here are some videos that you can watch to learn more about arm-in guillotines:

How to have a tight guillotine: 3 important tips

It takes practice and time to have a strong and tight guillotine. Many individuals become black belts but still have trouble with finishing this move. This is because guillotines require a great deal of precision and excellent timing. It is not a move that you can procrastinate with. Start by learning the mechanics of each variation, and after that, practice entries. The following tips will assist you. These tips apply to all guillotine variations.

1. The double closure principle

The double closure principle has been mentioned several times in this article. This principle is the key to having a strong guillotine. You can get this by working towards a high wrist position or covering your opponent’s artery with your fist. Invest time in mastering this principle, and your guillotines will become much more robust.

Double closure grips
Double closure grips

2. Cover your opponent’s neck

When using guillotines, you should always try to cover your opponent’s neck with your shoulder. You know you have a good guillotine if you can’t see your opponent’s neck. A great way to ensure this happens is to put your chin close to your opponent’s upper back and round your spine. 

Cover your opponent's neck
Cover your opponent’s neck

3. Perform a side crunch

To have a tight guillotine, you should be on your hip. Make sure you are not extending your spine when going for a finish. Instead, you should do a side crunch and connect your elbow to your hip. 

Side crunch when finishing a guillotine
Side crunch when finishing a guillotine

Arm-in vs. arm-out guillotines: Which to learn first?

An arm-in guillotine is a stronger control than a no-arm guillotine. You don’t have many follow-up attacks if you attack a guillotine without an arm in. Additionally, if your opponent decides to roll, it may be hard to chase him. Nonetheless, an arm-in guillotine can be harder to finish than a regular guillotine. 

Because of this, beginners should first consider learning a classic low elbow guillotine with the arm out. Once you understand the mechanics of the strangle, you can move to more complicated versions, such as the arm-in and high elbow. 

Guillotine entries

A great feature of the guillotine choke is its versatility. You can set up a guillotine choke from almost any position in grappling. The only thing that is required is for you to get your opponent’s head below your shoulders. 

The most popular entries to the guillotine are snap downs, which you can use both in the standing position and on the ground. Another great way to enter into a guillotine is to counter your opponent’s takedown attempt or when you pass the guard.

Standing entries to the guillotine

The standing position is great for entering guillotines and front headlocks. There are two main methods of entering from the standing position: 

  1. Reactive methods. Reactive entries refer to any situation where your opponent initiates an action, and then you react to it with a counter. A great example is when your opponent goes for any type of single or double leg. To perform these takedowns, he needs to lower his level. This is an excellent opportunity to enter into front headlock situations and attack guillotines. Prepare for your opponent’s takedown and have a down block. This means that your lead arm should always protect your lead leg. Once your opponent goes for a takedown, sprawl and grab a front headlock.
  2. Proactive methods. Methods where you initiate the action first, are called proactive entries. These are usually snap downs that bring the crown of your opponent’s head below your shoulder and allow you to enter a front headlock scenario. Snap-downs can be used in many different ways. There is one thing that all snap downs have in common: the push-pull principle. This means that if you want your opponent to go forward, you should try by pushing him backward. As soon as your opponent reacts to your push and moves forward, you can create space and snap him down.

Seated guard guillotine entries

Another great way to enter into front headlocks and hunt for guillotines is the seated guard. A seated guard gives you a lot of mobility and can be great for off-balancing your opponent. From this position, you can go into front headlocks either by snapping your opponent down or performing a hip heist and rising above him. Let’s look at both methods.

  • Seated snap down. These are very similar to the standing snap downs. You should start by pushing your opponent back. Once they push into you, it is the perfect time to snap them down and grab a seated front headlock. From here, you can attack with various guillotines. However, you can’t attack your opponent’s back as in the kneeling front headlock.
  • Hip heists. Hip heists are similar to seated snap downs. Instead of snapping your opponent to a seated front headlock, you perform a hip heist and pull them down to a kneeling front headlock. As your hips rise and you change level, you will create space for your opponent, creating a perfect opportunity to get to a front headlock. This position gives you more options to attack and go for your opponent’s back. 

Guard passing guillotine entries

When passing guard in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling, a great way to pass is to threaten a submission to get a guard pass. Front headlocks and guillotines are an excellent way to do this. When you are on top, your shoulders are above your opponent’s head. This means that you can easily get to a headlock position and threaten guillotines. If your opponent defends the guillotine, he will concede a guard pass, and you will strangle him if he doesn’t defend. You can do this both from seated and half guard. 

  • Seated guard entry. When your opponent is in the seated guard position, his head will come forward. If he does not put his head forward, in front of his hips, you can easily push him back to supine guard. You can perform a snap down from the seated position using the push-pull principle and a collar tie. Here, your opponent is faced with a dilemma. Either he can defend against the guillotine and let you go after his back, or he can get strangled if he doesn’t. This is a perfect attacking scenario.
  • Half guard entry. The top half guard is a perfect position to threaten guillotines. If your opponent wants to be offensive from the bottom half guard, he will have to close the distance and bring his head forward. A typical scenario is going for an underhook and sitting up. Put your elbow on the crown of your opponent’s head, and from there, grab a headlock. To ensure stability, put your shoulder on the ground. Once again, your opponent is in a dilemma. He can either defend the guillotine and let you pass his guard or defend his guard and get strangled.

How to defend a guillotine choke

There is considerable danger in being caught in a guillotine choke. The technique is quite simple, and even a novice can attack with it. Because of this, it is crucial to know how to defend against it. We will look at defending against the low elbow guillotine from the closed guard we showed earlier. 

Once you are caught in a guillotine, the first concern is defending your neck 

Quickly grab the wrist of the arm encircling your neck and pull it down, as this will relieve some pressure. With your other hand, reach over your opponent’s back so that your hand is between his shoulder blades.

Defending your neck to escape a guillotine
Defending your neck to escape a guillotine

From here, drive into your opponent and put him on the shoulder of the opposite hand. If he is choking you with the right arm, put him on the left shoulder. Having taken the danger out of the choke, you can start extracting your head.

Drive into your opponent and put him on the shoulder of the opposite hand
Drive into your opponent and put him on the shoulder of the opposite hand

Keep your weight forward and place your forearm on your partner’s throat. Push into his neck, and pull his wrist down. This will weaken the grip and make it easy for you to slide your head out. 

Slide your head out of the guillotine
Slide your head out of the guillotine

History of the guillotine

The guillotine choke has been a big part of combat for millennia. There are examples of guillotines on ancient Greek vases, and it is believed that this was a common technique in Pankration (an ancient version of mixed martial arts). The guillotine was also prevalent in the early days of judo and was known as mae hadaka jime. In popular culture, the legendary Bruce Lee used the guillotine against Chuck Norris in his 1972 movie “Way of the Dragon.”

Bruce Lee performing a standing guillotine against Chuck Norris in the 1972 movie “Way of the Dragon.”

Once submission grappling started developing and the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) became a major event in the sport, guillotine submissions became very popular. One of the first guillotine specialists was Renzo Gracie. Renzo used the guillotine multiple times during his mixed martial arts and grappling career. He was famous for his arm-in guillotine, which he used to finish Sanae Kikuta in their match at Pride 2. 

Another individual that will be remembered as one of the greatest guillotine specialists is Marcelo Garcia. It was Marcelo who invented the famous high-elbow guillotine, which he used to finish many fights in the ADCC.

Guillotine specialists

Additional resources

If you want to learn more about guillotines and become a master at this move, I highly recommend watching some of the DVDs below. Thank you for reading the article!

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