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 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.
More Substance, Less Flash
One of the other critical principles of practical joint locking is that the ultimate judge of any lock is the guy being locked. If he’s writhing in pain, whatever you’re doing is working—regardless of how it looks. As long as you can do it fluidly and consistently, you’ve got valid technique.
To understand this, let’s go back to the outside wrist lock or kote-gaeshi. If applied against an opponent’s right hand, good form would have the fingers of your left hand wrapped around the base of his thumb. Your palm would be against the back of his hand and your thumb would be on top of the knuckle of his little finger. With this grip, drawing your left elbow back to your ribs and turning your hand palm up rotates his hand counterclockwise (from your perspective), crossing the bones of the forearm, locking the wrist, and binding the elbow and shoulder joints.
Instinctive Shoulder Stop
Now let’s consider a common street attack: an assailant swinging a weapon at your head or neck with a right forehand strike. In a traditional application of the kote-gaeshi technique, you might block the wrist of the striking hand with your right wrist as you reach around with your left hand to achieve a proper grip on his weapon hand. Pivoting to your right, you would lead your attacker in a circle around you. You would then reverse your motion, turning to your left to lock his wrist, usually with the help of additional pressure from your right hand. With proper training and sufficient practice, this technique can certainly be made to work on the street; however, it will take the average person a long time to get to there.
I prefer something that is easier to learn, works better under stress, and even works in confined quarters. A “junkyard” approach to applying the same technique mechanics against that attack would go something like this: As the attacker’s strike comes toward you, shoot both your palms forward so your left hand stops his arm below the elbow and your right palm stops his shoulder. Known as a “shoulder stop,” this tactic can stop his strike cold and is very consistent with the instinctive human reaction to push or hold an attack back with straight arms.
Once the attacker’s arm is stopped, slide your left hand down his forearm until it stops at his wrist. This can be done very easily by closing your hand and letting it “snag” when his narrow wrist expands to his larger hand. When it does, grip his wrist tightly so your palm covers the base of his palm and the inside of his wrist. Now perform the “draw hand” movement—pulling your left elbow back to your ribs and turning your hand palm up. If you do this while maintaining a firm grip on his wrist and hand, his right hand will be twisted powerfully outward (counterclockwise, from your perspective), locking the bones of his forearm and binding his elbow and shoulder. To make it even better, pull his hand right in front of your belt buckle and add your right hand to the grip. Bend your knees to lower your body and you’ll drive your attacker powerfully to the ground right in front of you.
Disable Your Attacker
Joint locks can be a form of submission hold. Applied properly, they not only produce great pain, but scalable pain. As a form of restraint and control—as they are often used by law enforcement and security professionals—they can be used to subdue an unruly person and apply enough pain to let him know you’re serious.
In a self-defense context, however, submission is a risky way of ending a violent encounter. If someone is angry or delinquent enough to attack you, the odds of that person spontaneously “repenting” when you apply a lock are pretty low. So even though your technique might be successful, if it only ends in pain compliance, you haven’t finished the job. Eventually, you’ll have to let him go. If he’s not physically incapable of attacking you again, he’s not only able to do so but probably very motivated to as well.
The combative applications of traditional aikido and its parent art aikijitsu incorporated a lot of striking techniques to facilitate locks and throws. Known as atemi, these strikes are often categorized as distractions to take the attacker’s mind off the body part you’ve latched onto while you manipulate it. In their true combative form, however, they are full-fledged hits. In the biographical book “The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba”, written by his son Kisshomaru, aikido’s founder is quoted as saying, “My technique is 70 percent atemi (striking) and 30 percent nage (throwing).”
With this in mind, as well as the goal of all real self-defense—safe escape—I believe that hits lead to joint locks, which in turn lead to even better hits. To be more precise, “better hits” really means some type of finishing technique that physically disables the attacker, leaving him unable to continue his attack or follow you when you escape. In the most basic sense, this consists of using a lock to hold the attacker momentarily in a compromised position so you can take the “free shot,” hitting or kicking him hard and often enough to take him out of the fight.
To illustrate this, think back to the junkyard version of kote-gaeshi described earlier. When the lock is applied, your attacker is right in front of you. Dropping your body weight suddenly will drive him to his knees—the perfect opportunity for you to drive your knee up into his jaw. At this point, you might as well take advantage of your raised leg and stomp his groin too.
Another type of “better hit” is your attacker hitting the ground. Most traditional aikido techniques are designed to throw your attacker. Trained martial artists know how to fall safely, especially on mats. Attackers don’t necessarily have that skill—or a mat—so locks that become throws capable of putting them down hard or bouncing them off hard objects qualify as potentially fight-ending hits.
Joint locks can be an incredibly effective part of your overall approach to empty-hand tactics. However, if they require movements that are too complicated or intricate, accept that you will have to train harder and longer before you can use them to defend against a real attack. Focusing on the basic mechanics that create locks—the “junkyard” approach—can give you fight-ready skills sooner and dramatically increase your chances of surviving a street attack.