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The triangle choke: an in-depth guide

A 101 guide to one of the most versatile and powerful BJJ submissions.

The triangle choke, or sankaku-jime in judo, is a popular stranglehold that can be seen in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), judo, grappling, and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitions. It is one of the most versatile and efficient submissions. There’s no clear origin of the triangle stranglehold, though it was prevalent in early judo competitions. The front triangle is the most popular version of this move, commonly used in BJJ and MMA.

This guide aims to give you an overview of the triangle mostly based on concepts from John Danaher’s excellent Triangles: Enter The System instructional. It will cover different variations of the move and give you an overall system in which they coexist. Additionally, we will cover various entries to the position and critical details that make this one of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s best submissions. At the end of the article, we will discuss the history of the triangle and give you additional resources to study this technique.

Table of contents

What Is the triangle choke?

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the triangle choke stands out as one of the most effective and versatile submission holds. It is a strangle that can be used from almost any position, and there are many ways to apply it. There are several main variations of the triangle, such as the front triangle, the opposite side triangle, the rear triangle, the side triangle, and the reverse triangle. 

The front triangle

The common element in all triangle attacks is that the attacker’s legs are locked in a triangular, figure-four pattern around the head and one arm of the opponent. This can produce an efficient strangling effect by utilizing the attacker’s legs and the opponent’s shoulder to cut off the blood flow through the carotid arteries. Cutting off the blood flow to the brain, blood chokes cause an opponent to submit or go unconscious.

There are many reasons why someone should become a master of triangles. It is a submission that can be well adapted to both gi and no-gi competitions. Also, it is great for mixed martial arts. Let’s examine some benefits of learning the triangle and why you should emphasize it heavily.

Why you should learn the triangle choke

1. It’s versatile in a range of circumstances

Developing a new skill in Brazilian jiu-jitsu can take a lot of time. Some techniques may need weeks or even months for you to become good at them. Because of this, you should work on techniques that can be used in many situations. It is clear that the triangle is amongst the most versatile of all the submission holds we use. There are a large number of scenarios in which we can use it. It works equally well in grappling and fighting, with or without the gi, and it works well across all weight categories. This versatility is one of its primary appeals.

2. Strangleholds can be better at finishing opponents than joint locks

Developing athletes should consider strangleholds rather than joint locks when mastering a submission. This is because, in some extreme situations, such as a competition, some athletes are prepared to take severe damage to their joints and continue fighting. However, in the case of strangleholds, no amount of courage or mental toughness will save you from going unconscious. Therefore, strangleholds are usually better than joint locks when a choice has to be made between them.

3. Triangles develop leg dexterity and skill

Another reason why you should emphasize triangles is skill development. Triangles require us to develop an extraordinary degree of leg dexterity and coordination, much more so than regular submission holds. These attributes of leg dexterity and coordination can be beneficial in other areas of jiu-jitsu. 

Jiu-jitsu is a sport where we should use our legs to wrestle the opponent’s upper body whenever possible. The triangle is an ideal example of this. Every triangle is a fight of our legs and hips against our opponent’s arm, head, and shoulders. By matching the strength of our lower body with the strength of our opponent’s upper body, we can overcome and defeat bigger and stronger opponents. The triangle is one of the best weapons for smaller and weaker athletes to take on and defeat larger adversaries.

How to do a triangle choke

It is best to learn and teach submissions in Brazilian jiu-jitsu by taking a systematic approach. When we look at the triangle, we can see that the best way to do a triangle is to follow a certain 4-step method, split into two stages. 

The first stage of a triangle is entering the so-called “trap” triangle. A trap triangle is a lock around our opponent’s shoulder and neck, which looks like a closed guard. 

From that form of control, we can move on to the second stage and convert it into a figure-four triangle that can strangle our opponent. If the triangle isn’t enough to finish the job, we must be prepared to switch to other forms of attack. 

This two-stage approach is greatly described in John Danaher’s “Triangle: Enter the system” DVD. Let’s examine this two-stage approach and go over the four essential steps of performing a triangle strangle.

Step 1. One in/one out scenario (grips and off-balancing)

The first step in this two-stage system is to create the critical one-in/one-out scenario, which makes all triangles possible. For any triangle to work, we must trap one of our opponent’s arms and head with our legs. All triangles have this in common. We create these scenarios utilizing proper grips and off-balancing (kuzushi). 

When grappling or fighting against a resisting opponent, we should always seek to get some kind of a dominant grip. There are various forms of grips we can use. For example, we can use the 2-on-1 or the collar & sleeve grip if we are fighting in a gi. They are great tools to off-balance our opponent. The essential off-balance criteria we want to have when looking for a triangle is for our opponent to post his hand on the mat. This is an ideal scenario from where we can hunt triangles.

The 2 on 1 triangle entry

Step 2. Shooting a trap triangle

Once our opponent is out of balance, we can move on to the second step in the first stage, which is shooting for a trap triangle. A trap triangle is an initial lock on our opponent that looks like a closed guard around our opponent’s one arm and head. Strangling is not the goal here; it is all about controlling and breaking our opponent’s posture. There are two main methods to achieve a trap triangle:

  • Foot penetration methods are used when there is a larger distance between our opponent and us. An example of this can be shooting a triangle from open guard.
  • Knee penetration methods are used when there is a short distance between our opponent and us. Triangles from closed guard usually use knee penetration methods.

We must be adept at entering trap triangles through both methods to become masters of triangles.

Step 3. Converting to a figure-four triangle

Step number three of this system is to manage the adjustment from a trap triangle to the complete figure-four triangle. This represents the second stage of triangle application, the so-called strangulation phase. To achieve this transition, we need to create a proper angle and work on eliminating the shoulder of our opponent. Many times the system will get completed at this stage. However, there will be many times when we cannot finish the strangulation phase. If this happens, we must proceed to the fourth step.

Step 4. Switching to joint locks

If the triangle proves to be inadequate, for whatever reason, then we switch to joint locks. We have two choices here; we can go after our opponent’s arms, where the most popular choices are straight armlock (juji-gatame) and kimura attacks. 

In addition, we can attack the lower body, especially if our opponent decides to stand up, which is a common defense. In these situations, we quickly transition to various forms of ashi-garami (leg entanglement) and attack with strong leg attacks.

Variations of the triangle choke 

The triangle system is based around John Danaher’s five different forms of the triangle. When most people talk about triangles, they usually only refer to one triangle – the front triangle. However, we should never forget that there are five variations that we can use in ground fighting, and they are split into two categories: 

Category A

Category B

Within each of these categories, whenever you have one form of triangle, you can easily switch to the other as a follow-up attack. For example, if you have a front triangle, you can quickly switch to the opposite side triangle by changing the lock of your legs. 

Category A

Front triangle (omote sankaku)

Front triangle no gi

This is the most popular form of the triangle, and most people are familiar with it. It can be used from the top and bottom positions and is the most important in the system.

The front triangle

There are many ways to get into the front triangle. Some entries can be done from the guard position, such as closed guard entries. However, front triangles can be easily set up from the top position, for instance, from mount or side control. When developing strong triangle attacks, the front triangle should be the primary focus of your training. Here is a great video of John Danaher explaining how to do a perfect front triangle:

Opposite side triangle (hantai sankaku)

Opposite side triangle

The second triangle variation is the opposite side triangle, a move that has been underused in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The opposite side triangle was made popular by Gordon Ryan in his match against Ralek Gracie. Gordon used this variation to finish the fight and counter Ralek’s defensive reactions. You can see the match below:

The opposite side triangle can be used when the opponent defends the front triangle by overhooking your leg, thus preventing you from moving to a perpendicular angle. In this situation, transitioning to the opposite side is a great way to strangle your opponent. You should underhook the leg, invert, and lock your legs below your opponent’s trapped shoulder. This will make a tight choke even when your opponent defends appropriately. 

The opposite side triangle

Rear triangle (ushiro sankaku)

Rear triangle

The third triangle in category A is the rear triangle. This variation has become very popular recently and is mainly used from the back position. It complements the straitjacket back attack system and has a lot of value in modern jiu-jitsu.

The rear triangle

When attacking with this form of the triangle, the critical element is to have your opponent’s arm extended over his head and his elbow on your chest. In addition, this is a great position to attack your opponent’s extended arm as there are armlock, Kimura, and Americana attacks. Take a look at the video where John Danaher shows some entries to the rear triangle:

Category B

Side triangle (yoko sankaku)

Side triangle

The side triangle is the first triangle in category B. The move is often used in judo but has recently gained popularity in Brazilian jiu jitsu and grappling. The side triangle is usually performed from the top position or when attacking the turtle.

The side triangle

The best way to use the side triangle is to combine it with a kimura attack from the top. When these two attacks combine, it creates a dilemma for our opponent and often results in a submission. Here is a video of an entry to a side triangle from the top:

Reverse triangle (gyaku sankaku)

Reverse triangle

The last triangle in this system is the reverse triangle. It is a move that can be used both from the top and bottom and is often used when an opponent tries to escape from the side triangle. It became famous through Braulio Estima, who used it to finish Andre Galvao in their ADCC finals match.

The reverse triangle

What’s the difference between a regular triangle and an arm triangle?

The main difference between arm triangles and regular triangles is that arm triangles use the strength of our arms instead of our legs. Arm triangles involve techniques such as the kata gatame, anaconda, and darce. Since arm triangles don’t fall within the overall triangle system discussed in this article, they cannot be considered regular “triangles” and need to be looked at in depth separately. 

How to make your triangle tight

A strong and tight triangle choke is a weapon everyone should have in their jiu jitsu arsenal. It is an attack that can lead you to victory if done right. A tight triangle requires us to solve some central problems during the application. Let’s go through some tips to make your triangle tighter and get you more taps. 

1. Get the right angle to remove your opponent’s shoulder from your triangle

Eliminating the shoulder

One obstacle to fully locking a triangle is the circumference of your opponent’s shoulder and neck, especially if your opponent has broad shoulders. 

To have a tight triangle, it’s essential to create the appropriate angle and ensure that your opponent’s shoulder is not inside the triangle. Position your free foot on your opponent’s hip, grab your lower leg, and then pivot so that you are across him. You should look directly into your opponent’s ear.

Creating a proper angle in a triangle

Once you have a good angle, you should work on removing his shoulder from the triangle. Your knee should be positioned on the shoulder within the triangle. Push yourself until the shoulder is no longer inside the triangle. It is important that your feet are pointing the same way, across your opponent. From this position, you can lock a full triangle and go for the finish!

Here’s a video from Lachlan Giles explaining how to eliminate larger opponent’s shoulder from the triangle:

2. Break your opponent’s posture

Breaking opponent's posture for a triangle

When you get to the triangle, it is usually not a full triangle that will result in submission. Initially, you close a trap triangle, which resembles a control similar to the closed guard, but only with your opponent’s head and one arm inside. After that, you transition to a full triangle and finish the choke. These are the two stages every triangle has. This transition can be exploited by a skilled opponent by posturing up and escaping. It is important to avoid this by using one of the methods below.

  1. Knee pull. Once you have an initial triangle, bring your knees to your chest. This will make your opponent’s head go forward and undermine their posture.
  2. Shin pull. You can also break your opponent’s posture by grabbing your shin. Your opposite arm should be holding the shin of your leg over your opponent’s neck. Avoid holding your foot, as this can result in a poor grip.
  3. Head pull. If your opponent tries to get up and create a proper posture, grab his head. Ensure that both of your hands are behind your opponent’s head and pull him towards your belly.

In this demonstration from Rener Gracie, he explains that breaking your opponent’s posture to prepare for the triangle should happen early as soon as you sense they’re getting ready:

3. Underhook the leg

Underhook the leg for a triangle

Underhooking the leg opposite the arm inside the triangle will help you create a proper angle and finish the strangle. Additionally, if you are fighting in an MMA fight or in a ruleset where slams are legal, this will prevent your opponent from slamming you and standing up. A great example of this can be seen in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s triangle victory over Justin Gaethje:

How to enter the triangle

In our earlier discussion, we mentioned the triangle’s versatility as one of its best features. As a result of its versatility, the triangle can be accessed from numerous positions. The story of every triangle is the same; it’s all about getting to that one in/one out scenario and then working towards the strangle! 

Some of the best entries to the triangle come from the guard position, but we can also use entries from the top. Additionally, the triangle is a great way to counter single legs when our opponent tries to take us down.

Triangle entries from guard

The guard position is excellent for getting to the triangle. Whether you are using a gi or not, you can use many guard forms. The best guard positions to get to the triangle are the closed guard and the open guard. The closed guard gives you the necessary control of your opponent’s posture. Additionally, you can use many strong grips from the closed guard, such as the belt grip, collar grip, underhook, overhook, etc. 

Alternatively, open guards such as the spider guard and the de la riva guard make your legs very mobile, so a trap triangle is easy to set up.

Triangle entries from the top position

Dominant positions such as the mount, side control, and back control are excellent opportunities to hunt for triangles. From these positions, you can enter various forms of triangles, such as the front triangle, rear triangle, and side triangle.

Triangle vs single leg takedown

One of the best ways to use the triangle is as a reversal, especially when our opponent goes for single leg takedowns. Single legs are a scenario where our opponent creates the much-needed one in/one out scenario for us. From there, we can reverse with front triangles, opposite side triangles, or side triangles.

How to defend a triangle choke

Attacking with triangles is a great skill, but you should know how to defend yourself if caught in one. First, you should not allow your opponent to get a perpendicular angle and eliminate your shoulder. This is best done by gluing your trapped elbow to the floor. From there, you can look to stand up and put pressure on your opponent, so he has to let go of the triangle. Here is a great escape from Andre Galvao you can watch:

History of the triangle choke

Numerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling moves have been around for a long time. There are ancient drawings of some techniques being performed thousands of years ago in ancient Pankration. 

However, the triangle is a relatively new technique first used in Kosen judo at the start of the 20th century. In the book Choque: The Untold Story of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil 1856-1949 by Roberto Pedreira, he claims the triangle was a judo technique actually inspired by two high school judokas in Japan.There is no evidence of the triangle being performed before that. The first version of the triangle choke created was the front triangle, and the side triangle was invented afterward. Many also believe that Masahiko Kimura developed this technique during a judo tournament. However, it is more probable that he just popularized it. 

When Royce Gracie started fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he introduced the general audience to many techniques of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. One of his most memorable finishes was in his fight against Dan Severn, where he used the triangle to finish Severn, who was much larger than Royce at the time.

Another memorable use of the triangle was by Anderson Silva in his fight against Chael Sonnen. Silva was losing the fight by a long margin, but he managed to lock a front triangle at the end and win the fight. 

The triangle was probably introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu by Rolls Gracie. According to Romero Cavalcanti, Rolls may have introduced the technique after reading a judo book. Márcio “Macarrão” Stambowsky, a pioneer of the triangle in BJJ and Rolls Gracie black belt has also credited Rolls.

Triangle specialists

Here are some jiu jitsu athletes famous for their use of the triangle choke:

Learn more about the triangle

If you want to learn more about the triangle, I have included some additional resources below. Enjoy!

About the author

Milos is a brown belt and the head coach of Fort Jiu-Jitsu. In his free time he likes to read books and lift weights. He also works in the digital marketing field.

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