How to Counter Joint Locks, Arm Bars, and Body Controls

Whenever I am teaching bunkai and self defense I advise students to “create a disturbance” before applying a joint lock.

A disturbance could be a strike to the body or face that causes the attacker to focus on the pain instead of you. It could mean a subtle pulling off-balance that puts the opponent in a position of weakness. It could also be as simple as a movement of your body and hands that causes the attacker to critically expose his/her body.

By utilizing disturbance you can circumvent the strength, focus, and potential counterattacks of a live attacker. Often in the vacuum of a dojo we can apply punishing joint locks that make our partners whimper. Unfortunately we are working with a level of compliance that ignores the power of adrenaline charged muscles (which can ignore pain and significantly resist your efforts) and the volatility of swinging fists, feet, and forehead of an opponent that wants to take you out.

There is a great video of Taiji (tai chi) exponent Yang Hefa demonstrating what can happen to an attacker who is trying to apply various locks and maneuvers without doing anything else to create an initial disturbance. Yang is free to think and react naturally, and the results for the attacker are unimpressive and sobering.

As you were watching you probably had the instinct to say “just elbow him! punch him in the face! Perform KoshiNage! etc”. But that’s not really the point of the video as I’m sure Yang Hefa could have performed plenty of nasty techniques himself. What Yang is really showing is the ability to weave, bob, and slink his way out of some of the most commonly used grappling techniques.

Yang’s tricks are really not that hard to understand –

  • first, he is staying very relaxed. Many joint lock techniques are exacerbated by tension in the defender rather than sheer skill of the attacker.
  • Second, he keeps himself perfectly balanced and his weight underside, which makes off-balancing techniques for his opponent very difficult.
  • Third, Yang knows how to move with the force of his opponent, accept it, and redirect it when the attacker over-commits.

Is this video just a demonstration? Of course, but there are a lot of valuable takeaways. Next time you find yourself in a grappling or tegumi situation, take note of the amount of tension in your body. Figure out how your weight is distributed and if it is vulnerable to over-exposure.

If you feel yourself being put into a lock or bar, instead of resisting it with muscular strength experiment with rolling your body and moving with the motion. Find some willing and good humored training partners and see if you can frustrate them.

Finally take note of the possibility of failure when grappling and the need to move quickly to other techniques and methods. I personally recommend creating a disturbance in the opponent to distract his mind so that he can’t resist, or worse yet, show off skill like Yang’s.