Kesa Gatame: The Devastating Ground Hold

Kesa Gatame is a technique that any Judoka aged 5 and above will know.

It is the first technique taught on the ground but that doesn't mean it in not effective at all levels of Martial Arts, self-defence and grappling.

And in this article we are going to break down everything that you need to know about this incredible technique.

Ready? Let's dive in.

What Is Kesa Gatame?
kesa gatame


Kesa Gatame or as many people call it- The Scarf Hold is a staple of Judo training from the first lesson.

It is also seen in Wrestling where there is no doubt it would have first been seen and where it is called the Head and Arm hold.

The hold works in a number of ways.

Firstly, the lifting of the opponents head causes their neck to flex, this makes breathing uncomfortable and reduces the ability for them to move.

Secondly, the control of the arm takes the power of that limb away. This makes turning or pushing you off, near impossible.

And thirdly, the position of your body weight onto the opponent’s chest makes breathing nearly impossible. Indeed a good Kesa Gatame can feel like the air is being squeezed out of your chest.

When combined, Kesa Gatame is a powerful hold which is both a pin and a method of asphyxiation.



How To Apply Kesa Gatame


There are several versions of Kesa Gatame and depending on your system, body shape and style you will pick one that suits you.

However, to apply the basic Kesa Gatame you will have your body next to the body of the opponent.

From there you will take hold around the head and also take the arm of the opponent with the other hand.

Your bodyweight should be directly on the opponents as well.


What Does Kesa Gatame Feel Like?

It feels like your whole body is being crushed at the same time as you are being asphyxiated.

It is so brutal that it was banned by most government agencies in their restraint programmes.

One of the reasons for this is that the hold leads to the death of individuals being restrained.

In essence, the scarf hold delivers what we call positional asphyxia.

This means that a person can be asphyxiated as a result of their body position.

Because Kesa Gatame applies pressure to the chest (in the Judo version) the person on the bottom struggles to breathe and this can be further exacerbated if the person on the floor is intoxicated or overweight.

Death can be quick and happen in seconds.

However, you can vary the technique to avoid this from happening.

Kesa Gatame In Self Defence 

Kesa Gatame does have great uses in self-defence.

Firstly, if I have to use it in a real fight (which I have), I am not using it to choke anyone out, as a choke goes, it is not great and causes pain far faster but we aren’t looking for the tap out, so you need to use it as a holding position.

To do this, take the kesa as you would normally.

However, with this kesa, you are going to grasp behind the back of the head and bring the head towards you.

Your aim is to bring his chin to his chest.

With the neck in that position, it brings their shoulders even further off the ground and makes escape very difficult.

Once in that position, you can do a range of things.

My personal favourite is locking the arm under the leg and punching to the face.

They have no defence and as such you end the fight really quickly.

Kesa Gatame In Grappling Sports

Former UFC champion and well-known catch wrestler Josh Barnett took on one of the worlds best grapplers Dean Lister.

A man who hadn’t been submitted for 16 years!

This was a classic match-up which you can watch below (until it gets removed). Josh the bigger man came in looking out of shape and slightly reminiscent of Dan Severn with his black trunks yet he made this a one-sided fight.

The final submission comes right at the end but please take a look at it, watch the power of kesa gatame in action.

In a world where the rear-naked choke gets so much press its nice to see an old school move back in fashion.

Remember that wrestling and Judo are designed not to put a person in another grapplers guard. They are all about throws and takedowns where the thrower ends up past the legs where brutal moves like kesa gatame can be applied.

I have a lot of respect for Jiu-Jitsu but all fights start on the feet not on the ground.  

Judo and similar arts including Sambo were developed without the reliance on the guard game and it is a factor worth considering.



Kesa Gatame Videos

Pictures are great, but videos are even better. And we have 2 great examples of Kesa Gatame being taught here.

First up is my friend Matt D Aquino who shows you how to get into the hold.

Next up is the video we discussed earlier about Josh Barnett. He finishes the match with Kesa Gatame.


Kesa Gatame is a versatile tool for any grappler.

Once dismissed as an old school Judo technique, it is in fact a devastating technique with a wide range of options.

Learn it, train it and use it if you end up scrapping on the floor.

Thanks for reading.

Andrew Holland

Andrew Holland


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