The joints of the human body are only meant to bend in certain ways. When they are bent, either by force or by accident, in ways that are unnatural, the result is typically pain and possibly debilitating damage. Many martial arts capitalize on this fact and purposely explore the quickest, most efficient, and most brutal ways of manipulating and destroying joints.

My training in the martial arts began about 35 years ago in a system that was based largely on the principles of the traditional Japanese art of aikido. In the early phases of this system, I learned very complicated, deliberate patterns of movement to counter attacks by establishing angles and levers that worked against the joints of my attacker/training partner. When I earned my black belt in that system and began working toward second-degree black belt, I was introduced to quicker, more efficient, and more functional ways of achieving the same goals. Even though I had purposely studied a “non-traditional” system to focus on combative function instead of form, I felt betrayed. I wanted the shortest route to self-defense proficiency, not tradition once-removed.

Years later, while serving in the Army and stationed in Hawaii, I explored aikido again. Although I tried to approach it with an open mind and a fresh perspective, the instructor insisted on focusing on the supposed metaphysical aspects of the art, rather than its practical application. After being thrown out of that class for my irreverent attitude, I was committed to mastering combative joint locks without giving in to misguided tradition. The result is what I refer to as “Junkyard Aikido.”

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I have great respect for traditional aikido and those who prefer to follow the path of the classical martial arts. However, any time an art and the institution that promotes it becomes more important than its combative function, it becomes more art than self-defense. Therefore, with all due respect, let’s take a “non-denominational” look at the practicalities of manipulating and breaking the human body’s “bendy parts.”

One-Motion Efficiency

One of the fascinating, yet frustrating, elements of the traditional martial arts is the fact that there is no clear, logical explanation for many of the classical movements. For example, in many traditional systems of karate, when a punch is thrown, the non-punching hand is drawn back to the ribs or hip of the opposite side of the body. This “draw hand” motion is often explained as a means of developing torque, an elbow strike in case a second attacker is behind you, or a variety of other possible “could-be” functions. What is it really? Unfortunately, most martial arts don’t offer a definitive explanation. Therefore, in my opinion, it makes more sense to consider and explore what it could be rather than arguing over what the art’s founder intended it to be.

If we look at the basic physical mechanics of this movement, it consists of moving from an extended palm-down position to a retracted palm-up position, rotating 180 degrees in the process. If we look a bit deeper, what we see is the concept of using the large muscles of the back—the latissimus dorsi—to draw the arm and hand back with power.

If we explore the possibilities of that motion—what I call its “physiological potential”—what we get is a strong pulling action and a 180-degree rotation of whatever that hand might be holding. Taking that concept a step further, imagine reaching out with your left hand—thumb down—and grabbing your attacker’s right thumb with your four fingers. As you pull back and rotate your hand, his hand also rotates, twisting outward to painfully lock the bones of his right wrist and forearm. The result is an outside wrist lock, also known as a kote-gaeshi in aikido.

Now, imagine your same movement applied against your opponent’s left hand. Grabbing with your thumb facing down, your fingers will wrap around the “knife edge” of his left hand. As you draw back, the little finger edge of his hand will face upward. If you stabilize his left elbow with your right hand so his bent arm and wrist form a “z” shape, you will create nikajo—the second position lock in aikido—using the same basic movement of your left arm. Which is it? Both. One movement yields both locks, depending on how it’s applied. In a practical self-defense system, the more things you can do with a single motion, the more efficient you are. In the process, you also learn to understand technique, not just accumulate it.

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