Friday, May 11, 2012

Wrist Locks in the Real World

First, a disclaimer.  This information is based on my experiences and is therefore not complete by any means.  I think if anyone tells you they know it all they are likely trying to sell you a bridge or a skyscraper.

Locking techniques in the real world are something I would categorize as misunderstood.  Martial arts schools that teach them commonly refer to them as techniques that can be done against a variety of grabs and punches.  However, the setup for those in many cases is a bit too simple to be applicable in a real fight.  When adrenaline hits or when you have someone actively trying to punch you in the mouth it can be extremely difficult to put them into a wrist lock.  In some cases it might be difficult to get any kind of lock.  If the person is sweaty, moving fast, greasy from drugs or just generally unclean getting anything that requires friction during skin to skin contact can be tough.

That does not invalidate wrist locks as a practice but I think a few points need to be made in order to understand when, how, and why to use a wrist lock successfully. These include context, set up and application.

First, let's look at context:

Context is very important when considering how and toward what goal you are training. Context can simply be defined in one of four categories Sport, Civilian, Law Enforcement Officer (LEO), and Military. Here is a brief description of each context. 

Sport is obvious but just in case, the end result is usually no permanent damage. I want to win the match and that is it. Two people mutually agree to this fight under set rules and conditions.
A Civilian's chief goal is to get away, escape, vamoose, get the heck out of Dodge.  If we as a Civilians get attacked we need to just be free of the whole thing.  Our training should reflect that too.  As such, should I be performing a lock on someone when I want to run away?  No, I think this would by definition keep me in the fight, therefore, not accomplishing my goal.  

For LEO the objective is to arrest the action.  That means to bring things to a stop so that the court system can determine the best course of action to fix it.  It is not the Officer's job to pass judgment on people just to make the madness stop!  

Finally, in most cases the Military has simple task kill people and break things.  

Now, that is a gross over simplification I know and there are always the exceptions to each of these.  A Civilian might have to restrain a child for some reason, or a Military agent might need to work a police action.  Notice, that in those two instants the context category is pointing at the job of arresting the action again and/or back to the LEO goal. That is context in a nutshell and most of us study or should be studying either sport or civilian martial arts.  Studying multiple contexts is not necessarily a problem in my opinion so long we you recognize the differences during training.  There are other issues that go along with this but again, perhaps that would best be saved for another article.

Locking techniques are going to be a context specific tool.  What I mean by that is that you will only use them in a Sporting or LEO context.  In sport—as in law enforcement—the goal is to not damage or at least not to permanently damage an opponent while still having control over them.  For sport to end the match and for LEO/Security to stop crazed family members that you can not lay waste too; locking techniques are meant to bring things to a stop.

Second comes the Setup:
As mentioned, if you are a citizen who needs to run away or a military person in the middle of a fire fight, locks are going to attach you to an opponent and are therefore not helpful toward the end goal.  In those cases the lock (if still effective) should become a destruction of some kind.  The only problem here is that there are some locks out there that hurt a lot;  however they simply do not have the ability to damage or incapacitate an opponent.  Research and perhaps careful experimentation might need to go into these kinds of techniques to consider if they are useful.  As an example, there is a neck crank in Brazilian Jiujitsu that is quite painful.  I am certain if you have seen or received this technique you know what I am talking about.  However, the crank only really has the potential to hurt the muscles in the neck but has little chance of actually breaking the neck or spine and therefore is not a show stopper. 

(On a side note, Karate does not have any locks.  It has destructions or breaking techniques, and yes, I am saying that Karate does include grappling techniques.  In fact, they are all through the system. My Uchideshi would quote: there is no such thing as a lock, only a break. I will post more on that too at some point.)

Wrist locks in many cases are going to be what I will call techniques of opportunity.We can create the opportunity by something as simple as a poke in the eyes.  Imagine with me for a moment.  You are fighting someone with fast hands.  Grabbing a punch out of the air is going to be problematic.  So ideally you need the hands to become static or at least you need to know where they are going to be at a moment in time of your choosing.  Jab a man in the eyes and their reaction is generally pretty predictable.  Their head moves out of its location.  Might be tilting the head back or to the side or they may turn their head away to avoid being struck in the eyes again.  The next thing most will do is to bring their hands up to their face to shield them from the same attack.  Well, now you know where their hands are, at least for a moment.  Wrist locks are a go!  If you don't know any wrist locks, we will cover some basic wrist lock applications here in just a moment.  

The other opportunity where wrist locks are going to be a viable technique is again when the hands are fairly static.  Catching hands out of the air is possible but takes a lot of time and practice. I would not count on this working in your favor ever.  So if you are having problems making the opponent put his hands where you want them you may just have to wait till they put them on you.  Many times in a fight the opponent will try to get a grip on you for the purpose of making striking easier.  As soon as they get a grip on you the hand is not static and easily found.  More wrist locks can now be applied.

Finally, the application:

Here is the key to techniques of this kind: the human body has a specific range of motion for all joints.  In this case the wrist only bends so much.  Here is a list of all of the ranges of motion for the wrist and how far is the norm of movement:

  • Flexion - bending the wrist toward the palm side of the hand.  Normal bend is 80 degrees.
  • Extension - toward the back of the hand, 70 degrees.
  • Radial Deviation - Wrist bend toward the thumb, 20 degrees.
  • Ulnar Deviation - Wrist bent toward the little finger, 30 degrees.
  • Pronation - with elbow bent at 90 degrees and thumb pointing up.  Turn the thumb in toward you, 90 degrees.
  • Supination - again elbow bent at 90 degrees next to your side.  Turn the thumb out away from the body, 90 degrees.

To execute an effective wrist lock, you need only push, twist, or bend the joint beyond its normal range of motion. It's that simple. Once you get a hold of someone (should the context be right and the opportunity present itself), depending on how you have a hold of them, bend the wrist as per one one of the directions listed above and apply pressure further than it's normal range of motion.

You now know everything you need to know about wrist locks.  Every wrist lock that ever existed is based entirely on bending or rotating the wrist beyond its normal range of motion.  Another key thing that helps with all techniques in Aikijutsu or related arts — when you get a hold of someone to perform a lock, throw, or whatever — try to learn to get a grip on their bone structure rather than their flesh.  This means that if you grab someones hand to get Kote Gaeshi for example.  Remember that you should be getting a hold of the bones in their hand or fingers and not just focusing on grabbing their skin.  This change of focus can make a big difference in the effectiveness of getting a grip on someone. Don't just touch them or put your hand on them but dig in with the tips of your fingers. Think about it like you are pulling a chunk of clay out from a much larger chunk of clay, grip the material, don't just hold it.

* Thanks to Samurai Girl for her help as my editor.


  1. Good job Sir!!! Keep these coming.

  2. "You now know everything you need to know about wrist locks."

    Now that's funny.......

    1. It's hard to tell via the web if you're being sarcastic or not, but if you're being a dick, you can keep your snide ass comments to yourself, thanks.

  3. I can only assume that you disagree. And yes, this is a HUGE over simplification. Meant in part to be funny so thanks. However, if there is a wrist lock that uses something other than these motion ranges please tell me what that would be. I am always happy to learn something new.

    I have been considering a post that would break down a few individual wrist locks into the ranges and effects.