From the schoolyard to the barroom and just about anywhere else a fight erupts, one of the techniques you’re most likely to see is a headlock. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines headlock as “a wrestling hold in which one encircles the opponent’s head with one arm.” There are several types of headlocks but perhaps the most common is what’s often referred to as a “side headlock,” which is characterized by one combatant wrapping his arm around his opponent’s neck, with both combatants facing the same direction. The combatant applying the side headlock steps in front of his opponent’s legs to compromise his balance. The side headlock is often used to secure the victim’s head for a barrage of punches or to set up a takedown. Of course, anytime your opponent’s arm encases your neck, there’s a chance you could sustain injury to your larynx or trachea, which could have lethal consequences.

As with any hold, the sooner you respond, the better off you’ll be. Once the assailant joins his hands and squeezes your neck or connects with solid punches to your head, mounting an intelligent defense will be difficult. Fortunately, with a little practice, the side headlock is a relatively easy hold to escape.

Make A Turn

When you sense that your adversary is attempting to place you in a side headlock, immediately turn your head toward him. This will relieve some of the pressure on your neck, thus buying you valuable time to escape. Another benefit to turning your head into the assailant is that it makes your head a smaller target.

Some instructors advocate grabbing the assailant’s free arm to prevent him from punching. While this good in theory, actually trapping the arm is no easy task. Rather than struggling to secure his punching arm, why not focus your energy on actually escaping the hold?

Another commonly taught tactic is to strike the assailant’s groin to distract him and cause him to loosen his hold. This too could work, but while you’re striking his groin, he will probably be teeing off on your head. We all know being struck in the groin can be quite painful but being punched in the head could render you unconscious.
The two techniques presented below are not dependent on striking proficiency or athleticism. Instead, they are based on the premise that taking the assailant’s balance is the simplest, most efficient means of negating the side headlock and gaining the upper hand.

Nose Hook Escape

As soon as you find yourself in a side headlock, turn your head into the assailant and try to tuck your chin to your chest. This will help protect your airway and offer a degree of protection from incoming punches. You could also place your hand between your face and the assailant as an extra precaution. Reach over the assailant’s head and hook under his nose with one of your fingers. Then use his nose as a lever to force his head back.

There is a nerve cluster located just under the nose that inflicts significant pain to add to the leverage advantage you’ve attained. And because your legs are behind the assailant’s, he will be unable to step back to maintain his balance. As you’ll quickly discover in training, hooking the nose will reliably break the assailant’s grip.

Martial artists are familiar with the truism, “Where the head goes, the body follows.” Well, where the nose goes, the head also goes! In this case, hooking the nose enables you to tilt the assailant’s head back, then send him toppling backward, over your leg and onto his back. If you deem it necessary, deliver a strike with the bottom of your fist to the assailant’s chest to expedite his descent and make him think twice about getting up to attack you again.

Leg Lift Escape

When it comes to fighting, no technique is foolproof. If the assailant is much taller than you, if you have short “T-Rex” arms, or if the assailant’s head is positioned so that his face is not accessible, there’s another excellent way to escape the side headlock and turn the tables on the assailant. Of course, the first step is to protect your airway and head in the manner previously described.

To execute the Leg Lift Escape, simply wrap both arms around the assailant’s nearest leg. Lift his leg and drive him sideways. If there is a wall or other object nearby to send the assailant crashing into, by all means make it happen. If there’s nothing to ram him into, keep driving him sideways. Chances are after a few hops on one leg, he’ll drop with you on top of him. In either case, when the assailant’s balance is compromised, he will be unable to maintain the side headlock.

The Upshot
While no one wants to be placed in a side headlock, it is certainly an escapable hold, as long as you’ve done your homework. Remember to protect your airway by turning toward the assailant and pinching your chin down. If the assailant is punching you, shield your head with your hand momentarily as you hook under his nose or reach for his leg. Then take the assailant’s balance using one of the techniques presented. This should facilitate not only your escape from the headlock but your escape from the situation altogether, which is of course the ultimate goal of self-defense.

JOINT ATTACK: How to use your elbows—your body’s sword and shield!

Extend one arm to your side so that it’s parallel to the ground, with your palm facing down. Fold your arm tightly in half.

While holding the palm of your opposite hand in front of you, facing your folded arm, rotate at the waist and strike your palm with your elbow. Now imagine your palm cradling an assailant’s head and pulling it into path of your elbow, creating a “head-on collision.”

You’re on your back with an assailant straddling your chest in what’s referred to in mixed martial arts (MMA) as the “mount.” As punches rain down, you are keenly aware of the precarious position you’re in. Not only does your opponent have a significant leverage advantage, if his punches connect, your head will slam against the ground upon impact. The only thing between you and unconsciousness is a sound defense, which involves using your elbows as a cage to protect your head as you desperately attempt to better your position.

As you can see, whether for offense or defense, elbows are essential tools for unarmed combat. With proper training, your elbow can serve as both an anatomical “sword” and “shield.”

Sword Offense

In close quarters, many strikes are nullified, since there is not sufficient room to generate power. Sure, hooks and uppercuts can be effective when working in tight confines, but they require extensive training to effectively deliver. And if you are even slightly off target, you’re probably more likely to injure your hand than the attacker.

The metacarpal bones that comprise the knuckles are relatively small and fragile. When they collide with anything other than soft tissue at full force, you could end up with what’s commonly known as a “boxer’s fracture.” While this could have debilitating long-term repercussions, the short-term effects might be even more dismal, since one of your primary weapons would have been taken out of the fight.

The structure of your elbow makes it much more suitable than your fist for impacting your opponent’s head. That’s partly a result of the radial, ulna and humerus being significantly larger than the metacarpals. But the metacarpals aren’t the only concern when punching. If the wrist is not properly aligned, it too can be injured upon impact with a hard object like your assailant’s head. The inherent weakness of the knuckles and wrist during punching is why boxers thoroughly tape these areas before training or competing.

For optimal power, consider grabbing hold of the assailant with your off-hand and pulling him into your elbow strike. When the target cannot move away from your elbow upon impact, it must endure the full force generated by the blow. Since it’s flexed tightly upon impact, there is very little “give” in the elbow joint. This results in maximum transference of energy into the target.

Inward/Outward Strikes

When delivering an elbow strike along a horizontal plane, rotate your hips to incorporate the momentum of your whole body. Strike with the forearm side of the elbow when executing an inward strike and the triceps side of the elbow when striking outward. If you try to strike with the tip of your elbow, you’re likely to land only a glancing blow. While connecting with the tip of the elbow could cause a nasty cut, it’s unlikely to inflict “fight-stopping” damage. On the other hand, if you strike too far from the tip of your elbow, the blow will be reduced to a mere push. For best results, try to strike within about 3 inches of the tip of your elbow.

Vertical Upward Blow

From a clinched position, delivering an upward elbow strike to the chin is an excellent tactic. These unexpected strikes are hard to see coming, and if they land solidly, they will have a telling effect on the attacker. Depending on your position relative to the attacker, you could orient your upper body so that your arm is parallel rather than perpendicular to the assailant’s torso. Then slide your arm up along his chest, using it to “guide” your elbow straight to his chin.

Diagonal Downward

Diagonal elbow strikes are unpredictable and therefore tougher to evade than those delivered along a horizontal plane. A wary opponent might reflexively raise his hands to negate a horizontal elbow strike, but this tactic is not likely to stop an elbow delivered diagonally, at a downward angle. Such a blow will likely come over the top of the assailant’s hands and find its mark.

Based on their trajectory, diagonal elbow strikes frequently connect with the tip of the elbow. This is unlikely to result in a knockout but could open a gaping cut to your opponent’s face, leaving him vulnerable to follow-up strikes or creating an avenue of escape.


When grabbed from behind, rearward elbow strikes are often used to loosen an attacker’s grip and open him up to further countermeasures. If your arms are pinned, you’ll need to drop your base and establish a solid stance, then raise your arms to create enough space to deliver powerful strikes to the abdomen. If you’re striking with your right elbow, step laterally with your left leg or vice-versa so that your strike will be correctly aligned with the attacker’s centerline. If your arms are free, target the attacker’s head.

In either case, strike repeatedly until you have freed yourself from the attacker’s grasp. Create distance between you and the attacker and assess the situation. If you think you can escape, run like hell! However, if the attacker is close, you’d be better off turning to face him head on. That way you can at least see what’s happening.

Elbow Shield

Don’t let the name fool you—self-defense is not about being defensive. If all you did was defend, there would be no motivation for the assailant to desist. And even if you were highly skilled at evading and parrying blows, sooner or later, you’re bound to get hit. That’s why you need to seize the offense early and not relinquish it until the fight is over.

One effective strategy for handling a punch is to close distance with your opponent and get inside the arc of the blow. By keeping your chin tucked and your elbow up (oriented either vertically or horizontally), you can protect your head as you close distance with your opponent. If your opponent’s fist connects with your elbow, chances are he won’t try to hit you with that hand again.

Joint Strength

Your elbows should be your default response to protect your head when faced with a barrage of incoming strikes. Of course, you’re not going to last too long with a purely defensive response. At the earliest opportunity, seize and maintain the offense by clobbering the attacker with elbow strikes. Mix in some knee strikes and headbutts to stop the threat and facilitate your escape.

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