Hand-to-Hand Combat in Western Martial Arts

by Gerald Singh

I am often questioned as to why I practice western martial arts. Besides the obvious reply of the enjoyment and exercise this activity garners me, I also tell them it is practical. This response usually generates disbelief in the person I am conversing with: How is swinging a sword practical? While swords themselves are not common weapons to be seen in these times in North America, the techniques I study with dagger can be applied to knife fighting, and in some cases close quarter gun fighting. Getting robbed by someone at knife point or gunpoint, with the robber ready to kill, is an occurrence that is sadly common in North America.

While civilizations have advanced weapons to the point that swords and spears have become obsolete, the principles of hand-to-hand combat have not changed; the human body is much the same now as it was in medieval times. Unarmed, hand-to-hand combat is what I find to be the most practical aspect of western martial arts.

What many people fail to associate with western martial arts is that unarmed, hand-to-hand techniques are an essential part of any fight. Unlike many eastern martial arts that have become more tournament-oriented over the years and have codes of ethics and honour embedded in their fighting systems, western martial arts has its roots in war, and has not strayed far from that. In war, anything can happen, and you must be prepared for that. The same case holds true for the streets. If someone has the opportunity to attack you from behind, they will if they have the intent to rob you or inflict bodily harm to your person. There is no invisible shield of honour protecting you. The only rule that you should follow in this case is that you should do whatever you must do to protect yourself. Western martial arts can give you the knowledge you need to defend yourself in very violent situations.

Basic Principles of Unarmed Combat

Five Masters of the Fight:  The five masters of the fight refer the five categories of movements that can be undertaken in a combat situation. They include:

  1. Strikes: punches, kicks, elbows, etc.
  2. Throws: any movement that gets your opponent off balance or takes them on the ground.
  3. Grappling: grabbing and wrestling with your opponent to prepare for an offensive manoeuvre
  4. Locks and Breaks:  joint breaks, finger breaks, limb immobilization via grabbling them, hyper-extending joints, etc.
  5. Disarms: any movement that takes a weapon away from an opponent.

Where civilians are concerned, another category should be included, as it is the action that should be sought after: avoiding confrontation. If at all possible, you should be aware of your surroundings and try to stay away from situations where violence must be applied to protect your body. Similarly, if in a violent confrontation, try only to subdue your opponent so that you can escape the conflict. Using unnecessary force can elevate the level of violence to the point where the attacker may react by aiming to cause more damage to your person than they originally intended. For example, someone trying to mug you may end up pulling out a lethal weapon to use against you if you take action that could potentially take his or her life.

Reach: You can only successfully launch an attack on your opponent if your attack is able to reach that person. This can be applied to strikes where the target is concerned. If two people of close to equal stature are fighting, and opponent 1 punches at opponents stomach while opponent 2 targets opponent 1’s nose with a punch, opponent 2 can successfully attack opponent 1 while staying out of the reach of opponent 1’s punch. This is because of the angle of each person’s attack. A punch to the stomach would have a greater angle than a punch to the nose, assuming that a punch horizontal to the shoulder is (or close to) 180 degrees. A vector with a greater angle has to be longer to cover the same horizontal distance as a vector with a smaller angle. Hence, the punch to the nose has greater reach than a punch to the stomach.

Targets:  When attacking your opponent, you want to attack areas of the body that are most susceptible to damage while protecting your own body. This means attacking soft body tissue with strikes and hyper-extending joints. You do not want to break your hand while punching your opponent in the elbow. David Kahn (2004) lists several targets that will injure your opponent while protecting your own self. These include:

  1. Hair: You can immobilize your opponent’s head and direct their body as you see fit by grabbing a handful of hair.
  2. Eyes:  A strike to the eye will usually end a fight, as eyes are very vulnerable targets.
  3. Temples: This is the thinnest part of the skull and it houses a sensitive nerve centre. A strike here can produce hemorrhaging.
  4. The Base of the skull: The brain stem (which controls autonomic responses in the body) is located here and a strike here can cause concussion, paralysis, and even death.
  5. Nose:A very fragile part of the body. A broken nose can usually stop a fight. A strike at the right angle to the nose can dislodge the crest of the nose and send it into the brain, causing death.
  6. Ears:  A strike to the ears can make an opponent temporarily lose their balance as the semicircular canals within the inner ear control the sense of balance in an individual.
  7. Chin, Jaw and Mouth:  The jaw and chin house many nerves that are vulnerable to strikes. A strike to these areas may rattle the brain of your opponent within their skull and can cause a knockout or localized brain damage.
  8. Throat:  The trachea, or windpipe, is located at the base of the throat, and is very susceptible to damage when struck. This is the ideal target for choke holds.
  9. Sides and Back of the Neck:  The carotid arteries (the arteries that bring blood to the brain) are located at the sides of the neck and are the targets for blood chokes,  chokes that block the blood flow through the carotid arteries.At the back of the neck the cervical vertebrae are very exposed, and a strike here can produce extreme pain.
  10. Clavicle:  This bone connects your sternum to your shoulder, so breaking this bone with a hammer-fist can prevent your opponent from using their arm.
  11. Ribs:  A blow to the bottom (short) ribs can break these ribs and make them puncture a lung, as these bottom ribs have no direct attachment to the sternum. They are the ideal ribs to aim for, as they are the thinnest and most susceptible to breaking.
  12. Small of the back and kidneys:  Strikes here produce extreme pain.
  13. Solar Plexus:  Above the naval and just below the sternum is the solar plexus, which, when struck, can damage the liver and the gall bladder. Due to the small size of this target, and the fact that it is surrounded by densely muscular pectorals and abdominal muscles (a missed strike would due minimal damage) this target is not one I would suggest aiming for.
  14. Testicles:  The testicles are an extremely sensitive area in a male’s anatomy and have a very low tolerance for pain. This target is useful for kicks and grabs while grappling.
  15. Vulva:  The vulva is highly sensitive in a female’s anatomy and is a good target for kicks.
  16. Knees, Elbows and Other Joints:  You can dislodge and fracture almost any one of the body’s joints with sharp blows and moving the joint against its natural movement. Other joints that are particularly susceptible to breaks are fingers and thumbs.
  17. Top of the Foot:  This area of the foot has many small bones that are easily broken. Stomping down hard on a foot when it is planted in the ground is analogous to smashing something between a hammer and an anvil.

There are other targets that can be useful in particular situations, such as squeezing the bicep, which is very sensitive, and striking the thigh, which can make someone compromise the way they move, as they favour one leg to stand on over another. These targets are not usually recommended; however, as they are difficult to effectively execute an attack on.

The Body Follows the Head:  This principle simply means that wherever the head is turned, the body will follow to alleviate the discomfort of twisting the neck too far. This principle is very important for throws. Generally, this rule can be applied to any joint in the body that, when twisted, creates discomfort. An example is the wrist. When the wrist is twisted, the arm will twist in the same direction as the wrist to alleviate the pain in the wrist, and the body will contort to alleviate the pain in the shoulder from the arm-twisting.  This can be used to put you in a superior position than your opponent.

Low Kicking – Kicks should be directed to areas of the body lower than your pelvis, because they are slower than punches, and the angle of attack when targeting high parts of the body make them inferior strikes to punches. You should also have minimal twisting of the body when you kick, as turning to the side will place you in an inferior stance to an opponent who has both shoulders quared into you (we will discuss stances later).

Simultaneous Defence/Offence:  When undertaking defensive action against an aggressor, you want to take the offensive as soon as you can. Simply redirecting a punch so that it does not connect with you is not enough to stop an attack on you; redirecting the punch while attacking the aggressor could. Another point when blocking is to move your body out of harms way. Even if you redirect a blow with a block you can still be hit; always move your body out of the reach of the attack.

Continuous Motion:  When fighting, never consider the motions you take to be separate movements in time. That is, never pause between steps. Your motions should be continuous, seamless transitions from one action to another. The martial art of krav maga calls this retzev, meaning continuous motion in Hebrew (Kahn, 2004). Splitting your actions into different movements wastes precious time that your opponent can take advantage of.

Attacking the Dead Side:  The dead side of an opponent is the side of an opponent that is open to attack without the opponent having an opportunity to successfully launch an attack on you. A situations of attacking an exposed dead side is: turning your opponent so that his/her body is directed away from you after you have successfully blocked a punch, allowing you to attack the short ribs. You should always attack the dead side whenever given the chance.


A good fighting stance allows for quick explosive attacks and defences while shielding the vulnerable areas of your body. The weight of your body should be distributed over both your legs to allow for easy movement in all directions. As well, do not stand flat-footed. That is, do not stand on the full bottom of your foot; you will move slowly. Staying on the balls of your feet can give you the speed you need in a fight. The basic stances presented below utilize these principles and allow for a wide variety of attacks.

Front Stance:  Stand erect facing your opponent with your feet shoulder width apart. Think of yourself being inside a square, with your two feet at two adjacent corners of the square. Take a half step backwards with your dominant-side leg so that your feet would be at the two opposite corners of a square. Raise your hands in moderately tight fists to shoulder level so that your dominant hand is back and your recessive hand is in front. Keep your elbows slightly bent and do not let them flare out, but do not bring your arms into your body like a boxer; you want to keep your arms extended to properly defend yourself with blocks. You can switch the side of your stance by drawing back your other leg and arm if you wish. Something to keep in mind is that you should keep the side of your body forward that your aggressor likes to attack. This allows you to defend yourself quickly as you close the distance between your defending side and his/her attacking side.This stance is a very good one for all-around combat: punches, kicks, grappling and defences against these sorts of attacks. It is the stance that I would suggest becoming very comfortable in, as I see it as the most beneficial to use, as well as being the most practical and easiest to move from.

Low Stance:  From the front stance, drop your hands (while still in fists) to the level of your pelvis. Keep the positioning of your front and back hands the same. This stance is useful for longer distance fighting and to defend against low attacks, especially low kicks. It can also help defend against stabs to the stomach, as your lowered arms can quickly redirect the attackers knife.

Boar’s Tooth:  This is another stance I would advise anyone to become comfortable with. It is extremely useful when you want to close the distance with your opponent to use attacks to the body, elbows, throws and other grapples. From the front stance, raise your hands so that your rear arm is positioned in such a way that your fist is in front and at the top of your head and your elbow is in front and to the side of your jaw and your front arm is positioned so that your fist is above your head and your elbow is in front and slightly to the left of your head. The two arms should be in a position so that they look like a slanted T. That is, the former rear arm is the stalk of the T and the former front arm is the top of the T. The arms should come together with fist touching forearm. This stance blocks your entire head from attack so that you can move into your opponent and forcefully push past his/her guard and launch a successful close range attack. This stance is more of a transitory stance to move you from your original stance to an explosive attack.

Long Stance:  From the front stance, step back even further with your rear leg so that the distance between your legs has doubled. Bend your leading arm’s elbow to almost 90 degrees and cup your hand while keeping your thumb tightly pressed in the side of your hand so that your opponent cannot easily grab and wrench at your thumb. Keep this hand in front of you. Bring your rear arm down to your side by your hip in a fist or a cupped hand and keep your arm bent at about 90 degrees. This stance is effective for exploding into your opponent to utilize grabs and other grappling techniques. Also, the hand by your hip can launch devastating attacks from below that are hard to defend against, such as attacks to the groin as your top arm distracts your opponent.

Artificially Exposing Vulnerable Targets:  Many martial arts teach and encourage their students to learn stances that expose a part of their body in order to lure their opponent in so that the student may catch their opponent off guard. The idea behind these stances is that the attacker will target this supposedly exposed area while you surprise this person with a movement that is totally unexpected, thus gaining an advantage over them. I do not advocate these stances at all, for a number of reasons. First of all, and most importantly, many of these stances are counter-intuitive.  Instinctively, you’re body tries to protect itself when attacked, and stopping to think about the positioning of your body is precious time lost especially when you are attacked by surprise that your opponent can take for granted. There is no sense in exposing a vulnerable target of your body when you are already at the disadvantage of being taken by surprise.

Because you are luring your opponent in you must be faster than your opponent so that he/she does not make a successful attack to your person. This is a high-risk situation in many cases, as most of the time you will not know how fast your opponent is. In violent situations, especially potentially deadly ones, your primary objective should be protecting your body and trying to go on the offensive as soon as you can instead of waiting for your opponent to attack and risking bodily harm just to trick your opponent. Finally, using these stances assumes that your opponent will actually attack these areas. In my experience, these stances do not work as well in application as they do in theory; opponents cannot be trusted to attack targets you want them to. An inexperienced fighter usually will not be able to see and take advantage of exposed areas of the body as they have not developed their fighting instincts to respond to advantages so well. Alternatively, experienced fighters may sense the trick that you are trying to lure them into if your stance is blatantly exposing a vital area of your body.

Using a stance designed to give your opponent a false sense of advantage is taking a large risk; I do not believe forgoing your protection for the chance to trick your opponent is worthwhile.

Upper Body Strikes

Many people mistakenly throw punches and jabs with the back of their hands facing up at the end of the motion. Doing this twists the bones in the forearm so that they crossover. The bones cannot withstand as much pressure this way and are easier to break. Think about two pillars holding up a structure. Pillars can hold up more weight if they are straight up, as the weight they are subject to is placed over their entire frame. If the pillars criss-cross, the weight they are subject to is distributed over sections of the pillars, decreasing the strength and making them subject to breaking. The fist then should be positioned in such a way that the back of the hand is facing the side, with the knuckle of the index finger being the uppermost knuckle. Having your arm positioned in such a way keeps the bones of your forearm straight. Keep your wrist steady to avoid damaging your wrist in any way. When connecting with a fist, connect with the two largest knuckles (the index fingers and the middle fingers) and keep your thumb on the outside of your fingers rather than holding them inside.

When striking, especially with your hands, make sure you aim for soft tissue areas so that you do not damage your hand in any way. Your hand is filled with many small, fragile bones and striking a hard surface can easily break some of them. Ken Shamrock, a former fighter in the UFC states that he has broken his hand a few times because he has punched a hard area of someone’s face or body (Shamrock; Hanner, 1998). An alternate to using your fist for jabs and straight punches are to use the base of your palms, but that compromises the power of the strike. Elbows are very hard bone, so they give you more leeway to attack harder areas of the body.

Jabs:  Jabs are strikes that make up in speed what they lack in power. From the front stance, extend your forward arm out but do not lock your elbow straight. As you extend your arm, twist your torso to give your arm greater reach. Also, transfer more weight to your leading leg by pushing with your rear leg. Using the muscles of your thighs, gluteus muscles, hips, pectorals, deltoids and triceps you will have executed a strong, quick jab. Use the hand that is not used in the strike to quickly raise and protect your head, as this is your most vulnerable body part and will be more exposed to attack.

Defending Against a Jab: There are two basic blocks for a jab, the cross block and the straight block. The cross block is probably the safer block, meaning that it leaves less of your body exposed and leaves you with greater room for error. The cross block will have you using the arm on the same side arm as the side that is being attacked to deflect the incoming arm to your inside with a bent arm as you traverse the opposite way. When deflecting the arm, use the fleshy side of your hand (opposite to where your thumb is) to strike at the attacker’s wrist, thereby damaging your opponent’s wrist while keeping yourself safe. Doing this exposes your opponent’s dead side and allowing you to gain an advantage. The straight block will have you using the arm on the opposite side that is being attacked to deflect the incoming arm to your outside while traversing to the other side. Use a punching like motion, with a straight arm, to move your opponent’s attack off target. This should make your opponent’s attacking arm pass your elbow, opening that person’s dead side for you to gain an advantage. A perfectly timed defence will have you striking your opponent in the jaw at the end of the movement. You must be quicker than your opponent to do this, as this can expose your dead side as well.

A more advanced and aggressive defence to a jab is the boar’s tooth defence. This defence has you moving into the boar’s tooth guard and using the top part of the T to deflect the arm out as you move into your opponent and catch him or her off guard.

Straight Punches:  Punches are similar to jabs but are much stronger, as they start from a position where your muscles can generate more power and your fist has a longer distance to build speed. From the front stance, extend your rear arm out while twisting your torso to give your arm more reach and transfer more weight forward with your legs. Some people like to pass their rear foot forward while punching; though changing your stance, this method will generate a lot of power for your punch. As with the jab, use the arm that is not punching to shield your head in case an attack is directed towards your head.

Defences to Straight Punches:  All of the defences listed for jabs can be utilized for straight punches as well.

Round Punches:  Round punches can be done with either forward or rear arm and can pass around your opponent’s defences, attacking the head. From the front stance, swing your arm in a circular path to the outside instead of moving straight and you can position your hand either with the closed palm of your hand facing out or facing in. Allow your arm to keep its natural bend while doing this. Having your palm out delivers a strike at a greater range then having your palm in but having your palm in delivers a strike with greater power. Move your body in the same manner as you would for a punch or a jab and keep your head protected.

Defences to Round Punches:  As the round punch attacks the side of your head, raise the same side arm as the side being attacked in a motion as though you were running your hand through your hair all the way. Having your arm in this position protects the entire side of your head. Traverse to the side that is not being attacked to help absorb the blow. Having you arm positioned in this way helps you grab your opponent’s arm for throws and other forms of grappling. Also, the boar’s tooth guard can effectively defend against a round punch, in a similar fashion to jabs and punches.

Uppercuts:  From the front stance, elongate either arm forward with the palm of your fist facing up. This attack usually targets the chin from underneath. While performing this action, do not keep your arm bent to the extent that you see boxers do; this limits the range of your attack. Extend your arm so that your arm straightens without locking your elbow. Your arm will probably have a natural, shallow bend to it and that’s fine.

Defending Against Uppercuts:  The cross block utilized against jabs and punches work well against uppercuts.

Down Fist (or Hammer Fist):  From the front stance, bring your fist (either one) down in a hammer-like motion onto your opponent’s clavicle or nose. You can either attack with your knuckles (requiring you to turn your palm up) or with the meaty part of your hand opposite your thumb. Attacking with the meaty part of your hand is safer for your hand, especially when attacking the clavicle.

Defending Against a Down Fist: The cross block or the boar’s tooth defences work well to defend against this attack.

Short Punches:  Short punches target the short ribs at very short distances. They can be used in grappling or from a boar’s tooth stance. They are executed much like an uppercut with elbows bent more than 90 degrees directed at your opponent’s ribs.

Defending Against Short Punches: Move your elbow into your body to defend your ribs against this strike while striking at your opponent.

Head Butts: Head butts should only be done with your upper forehead, as this is the thickest part of your skull and target your opponent’s nose primarily. Do not attack a thick area of your opponent’s skull.

Defending Against Head Butts:  Move out of the range of your opponent’s attack, as head butts have extremely short ranges, and strike at your opponent with your hands.

Elbows:  Elbows are extremely powerful and useful short range attacks. Swing your elbow out in a circular path and twist at your hips to create power. Elbows can successfully target any point on your opponent’s head.

Defending Against Elbows:  Counter elbows with attacks of superior reach or use your forearm to intercept the forearm of your opponent in your opponent’s attack.

Back Fists: As in punches and jabs, the back fist strikes with the two largest knuckles: the index and the middle.

Successful Strike Defences:  When your opponent makes a successful strike against you, there are still actions you can take to minimize the damage done to you. The basic principles to understand when receiving a blow are that dense muscle can withstand strikes better than unprotected bone, cartilage, or organ cavities and that moving in the direction the blow forces you decreases the force of the blow.

When receiving a blow to the body, try to rotate so that you receive the blow on the large muscles of the upper body, such as the latissimus dorsi of the back or the pectoral muscles (a woman should take care when receiving a blow to the chest, as a blow there can damage a mammary gland). The injuries you will sustain will be minimal, such as bruising. Also, as you are turning your body to receive the blow, the impact will be significantly lessened because the strike will roll off your body, which absorbs some of the impact.

When receiving a blow to the head, do not stiffen your neck. This only creates a more solid target, and the force of the impact will magnify. Instead, move your head in the direction that the strike would move it. Do not simply let the strike force you one way or the other, and do not snap your head back; you lose control of your actions and consciously injure yourself in each case. Stay in control as you move your head back as you receive the impact and you will significantly lower the power of the strike that is launched at you.

Feigns:  Strike feigns can be very effective when in a combat situation. Feigning means that you start a movement that looks as though you are going to perform a strike but pull back on your movement before actually committing to even a light strike. Doing this may make your opponent react to an incoming attack that really is not coming. This allows for you to take advantage of your opponent by launching an attack that he/she is not prepared for. An example could follow as such: you feign a round punch with your foreword hand (if in your left front guard this is your left hand) causing your opponent to cover the right side of his/her head and simultaneously dodging their head to their left. You quickly proceed to punch them with your right hand, as their head is vulnerable from this side.

One must be careful when performing feigns, to not overdo it. Throwing too many feigns may create a situation such as that in the boy who cried wolf; your opponent may not believe that you are actually launching attacks and may try to take the offensive, which is something that you do not want to happen. Also, do not feign when you do not need to. If you have an opportunity to launch a successful strike, take it:  there’s no sense in feigning and giving your opponent any time to cover an exposed area.

Lower Body Strikes

As told above, strikes made with the feet should not be targeting any area above your pelvic girdle. You should also take care not to move your body so that your side is oriented towards your opponent as you kick, as your leg can easily be swept aside with a medial rotation of your opponent’s arm. This would have your opponent facing your back, which is an extremely unfavourable situation for you.

Kicks are extremely powerful strikes, much more so than punches because they utilize some of the most powerful skeletal muscles of the human anatomy: the quadriceps and the gluteus muscles. There is a trade-off, however, with foregoing upper body strikes with lower body strikes. Punches are much quicker to perform and people generally have much more control over their arms for reaching high targets (above the waistline) than their legs. For these reasons, I would argue that lower body strikes should be used to target low areas of the body.

All kicks should be done with the heel of the foot, as this is the part of the foot that is least likely to break on impact. An exception to this rule is when targeting the groin. Kicking the groin can be done using the balls of your feet. Methods of kicking will be outlined below.

Straight Kicks:  From either a front guard or a low guard, lift your knee up so that you upper and lower legs make a rough right angle. While staying in your guard, extend your raised leg in a strong, stepping motion kick towards your target. Your target is usually your opponent’s knee. When aiming for your opponent’s groin, the kick can be more soccer-like, with less bending of the knee and more flexion at the hip joint. Of course, a kick to the groin can also be done using the other method described above as well.

Defending Straight Kicks:  There are a few ways to defend against kicks, which all have their independent uses. They are:

Defensive Kicks:  When someone raises their leg to kick you, perform a quick kick to the base of their shin. This will stop their kick on impact. If you are particularly quick, you can deliver a kick to their hip (or their groin) as they are starting to raise their leg. This could be very painful to your opponent, and they could be fighting with reduced mobility from then on, possibly allowing you to escape.

Leg Shields:  When you do not have time to perform a proper defensive kick, just raise your leg in a rough right angle to absorb the blow. It might hurt, but you will not any disabling injuries; you might have a superficial cut or bruise (at the most), but this is a small price to pay for defending yourself.

Cock Stepping:  Picture a rooster walking, and you will have a basic understanding of how this movement is performed. Like the leg shield, raise your leg to a rough right angle, then when your opponents kicks, use your raised leg to step past your opponent’s leg, to where his/her foot will be when their foot comes down. When your opponent’s leg comes down, he/she will lose balance, allowing you to launch a variety of attacks, such as strikes, throws, locks, etc.

Inside and Outside Kicks:  These kicks are performed exactly like straight kicks, with the final position of the foot having the heel pointed outside (outside kick) or inside (inside kick). The reason for doing so is to increase the surface area of your foot connecting with a target, so that you have a better chance of making a successful strike against a target. These kicks are usually used to target the knee when facing the knee at a diagonal. The angle of the upper and lower legs, when bent, creates a natural fossa for your foot to insert at an angle and push the knee to bend unnaturally, and potentially breaking.

Defending against Inside and Outside Kicks:  Any of the defences to a straight kick can potentially be used to defend against these kicks.

Defending Kicks Taught in Other Disciplines:  Other disciplines of combat would teach kicks that turn the body sideways, and even kicks that require the person to spin their body. Against kicks that turn the body of your opponent towards you, sweep their leg to the side, so that you will end up facing the back of your opponent. Against kicks that attack the side of your body, such as roundhouse kicks, move into your opponent so that their upper leg harmlessly slaps into your body, allowing you to catch their leg and launch attacks. Opponents who spin to kick you give you time to close in and attack them as they spin. Generally, these kinds of kicks are performed at long ranges, giving your opponent an advantage if they are skilled at fighting at this distance and you are not. To counter this, close the gap between you and your opponent, so that these kicks will not come into play.

Knees”  Launching strikes with your knees, because of their limited reach, should only target low areas of your opponent’s body. Performing a knee is straightforward simply raise your knee to make contact with an exposed area of your opponent’s body, such as the groin. Knees can be used to make devastating strikes against a person’s head, if you can force your opponent’s head down far enough to execute a knee-strike.

Defending Against Knees:  Because of their limited reach, I’d advise that the best defence to a knee would be to get out of the range of the knee. If your head is forced down with the intent of having your opponent knee you, you can bring both arms in front of you with your forearms parallel to one another, hand-to-elbow, to block the knee. If you are fast enough, you can even grab your opponent’s leg as he/she raises it to prepare you to perform a throw.

Locks and Breaks

A lock can be any movement with the end result being you immobilizing some part of your opponent’s body. Ideally, locks involve putting pressure on a joint to put your opponent is submission. A general rule is that forcing a joint to bend or rotate in a manner that it is not designed for will create a lot of pain in that joint. Fingers bent the wrong way, a wrist over-supinated, and an elbow hyper extended: these are all ways in which you can successfully execute a lock. From locks are great gateways into performing disarms, but because this treatise does not deal with weapon fighting, disarms are outside the scope of this paper.

From a joint lock, one can easily add more pressure to perform a break. Breaking a joint will usually end a fight right away. In generally, forcing a joint to move in a direction it was not meant to will result in a break. This means that you should focus on angle joints, such as the elbow, and try not to perform a break on a ball-and-socket joint, like the shoulder. Another thing to keep in mind when performing a lock or break is that you should never bend over to try and force your opponent down. This makes you lose the leverage that you need to perform a lock or break. Instead, rotate your hips in a direction away from your opponent while forcing your opponent down; this forces your opponent to follow where you lead him/her and makes them lose stability. Two simple locks and a simple break will be outlined below.

Upper Key Lock:  From a situation where you and your opponent are grappling, move so that your opponent’s arm rests on the top of your trapesius. Wrap your arm that is nearest to him/her overtop of that arm and use your free arm to clasp onto your wrist. Rotate your body away from your opponent (so you will face the same direction as him/her) while putting pressure downward on your opponent’s shoulder. From here you can kick the back of your opponent’s knee and do anything else you need to do to get away.

Lower Key Lock:  From a situation where you and your opponent are grappling, move your opponent’s arm under your arm. While turning to the side (in the same way as in the upper key lock) rotate your arm that has captured your opponent’s arm clockwise (if using your right arm) or counter clockwise (if using your left arm). This will rotate your opponent’s shoulder in a very uncomfortable way, and you can use your free hand to punch or eye gouge your opponent from here.

Elbow Break from a Punch:  If your opponent throws a punch at you, perform a straight block and grab your opponent’s punching arm with your blocking arm. Pull your opponent towards you while pivoting back and using your free hand to smash into your opponent’s elbow. If the strike into the elbow is strong enough, you will have performed a break, if not your can keep pressure on your opponent’s elbow and you will have performed a very effective lock.

Defending Against Locks and Breaks:  If a lock or a break is being performed on you, you can move your vulnerable area out of the danger zone. This typically means simply moving your limb or bending it so that a lock or break cannot be done on it. This usually requires a lot of speed, however. Another practical way to defend would be to launch a pre-emptive attack on your opponent before he/she can finish performing the lock or break on you. The best (because it’s the fastest) way of doing this is usually to deliver a strike to your opponent.


There are some principles of throwing that should be gone over before discussing any sort of throw, besides the principle of the body follows the head (see Basic Principles of Unarmed Combat). First, like in locks and breaks, do not bend over to try and perform a throw. Bending over actually decreases the likelihood that you will perform a successful throw as it may place you under your opponent, taking the advantage of any leverage away from you. Instead, rotate your body around your hips, as this will cause your opponent to lose balance as you are holding onto them. Second, do not push straight back of straight down to try to throw your opponent. Push your opponent along a diagonal –  either up and back or down and back – along with the twisting with your hips, and you will have a very good chance of taking your opponent down. Third, when performing a throw making your opponent fall backwards, do not place any of your feet in front of your opponent’s leg. This may allow your opponent to bend his/her leg at the knee, which could bend your knee, and making you lose balance. Instead, place your leg to the side or behind your opponent’s leg, so that when you rotate, your leg acts as a natural tripwire.

Finally, and possibly most important, is that you should not try to perform throws at arms length; instead move your body in close to your opponent’s body (Talhoffer, 1467). Getting your body in close to your opponent and you will have force from your entire body to assist you; trying to force you opponent down at arms reach will limit your power to the power within your arms. An example of a throw is outlined below.

Twisting Head Takedown:  If your opponent throws a punch at you, use a cross block to deflect the blow and quickly move into your opponent. From here you can utilize a palm strike to your opponent’s jaw and move your opponent’s head to the opposite side of you, or eye gouge your opponent and move his/her head to the opposite side that you are on. You should be stepped beside or behind your opponent’s leg at this point. Twist your body at the hips while pushing your opponent back and downwards and you will have successfully thrown him/her.

Receiving Throws:  When you are thrown, you can still do something to receive the least amount of damage to your person. First, spread your arms (with your palms facing down) and tuck in your head so that you slap the ground with your palms and you prevent your head from hitting the floor. This increases the surface area you come into contact with (with the meaty parts of your body) so that you can absorb the blow. If you can, you should also roll as you hit the ground, as this reduces impact as well. Roll from one corner of your lumbar region to the shoulder on the opposite side (if thrown backwards) or from your shoulder to the lumbar corner on the opposite side (if thrown forwards). When rolling, you can actually roll back onto your feet to quickly recover, something that is worth practicing.

So there you have it, you have just read the basics for hand-to-hand combat. Take care, however, to not view this as a comprehensive self-teaching tool. This paper has only gone over the bare basics, as more advanced movements should be shown and explained in person, and literature does not cater to individual styles of combat. This paper should be used to supplement a western marital arts class, as the only way to truly learn a physical discipline is through practice with an experienced and willing teacher. I would encourage anyone interested in learning western martial arts to join a school; you will not be disappointed.

Works Cited

  • Kahn, D. (2004). Krav Maga: The Contact Combat System of the Israel Defence Forces. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  • Shamrock, K.,; Hanner, R. (1998). Inside the Lion’s Den. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co.
  • Talhoffer, H. (1467). Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat (M. Rector, Trans., 2000). London: Greenhill.

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