Friday, November 27, 2015

Standing arm bar - issues and solutions


I've previously written about how civilian defence grappling differs from full grappling in that it maintains a kind of "buffer" that avoids clinches and other grabs that take you into a range where you can be tied down (a situation that might be quite useful in combat sport, particularly if you're good at grappling, but which is contrary to the objectives of civilian defence, as I've often discussed).

You will see from my civilian defence grappling article that I'd chosen to illustrate my point (at least partially) with the classic (and oft-seen) standing arm bar - noting the pitfalls of this technique and how easily it could take the unsuspecting traditional martial artist out of the melee range and into the grappling one.  Indeed, at one point I went out of my way to point out how traditional martial artists seemed largely unaware of this factor in demonstrating their suggested applications of traditional forms.

Unfortunately, I took a particular karateka (sorry John Titchen) to task so unfairly (amongst other grievous deeds) that I had to finish the year off with a specific apology to John (see the addendum to the article) and a universal apology for going overboard with criticism.

In relation to the whole "arm bar grappling" issue, I also feel I didn't quite explain the nature of this problem very clearly.  So I'm going to try to remedy that now.

The technique

So what is my issue with the standing arm bar?  In principle, nothing.  It is a fantastic technique that is very useful in civilian defence.  Its most common manifestation is the elbow lock.  Here is an excellent example featuring my friend Noah Legel (whose blog "Karate Obsession" you really need to read - it is fantastic).

The first thing I want you to note from the above image is that (like John Titchen, who I unfairly maligned), the karateka applying the lock to Noah has, to some extent, actually dealt with the problem I'm about to discuss (I didn't quite notice in John's case from the still photographs - my bad and my apologies again John).  The relevant "safety measure" here is unbalancing the opponent via the use of a zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) to collapse Noah's knee, taking him off balance as the arm bar is applied.  [I'm not sure if it is quite enough to deal with the issues I'm about to raise, but we'll get to that.]

Other arm bar applications (many of which I've personally used for around 3 decades!) don't have such a "knee collapse" or other "safety" measure.  For example, the image below is a fairly standard representation of how karateka like myself have been doing an application from various kata for years, using a wrap around "waki gatame" to apply the arm bar lock. [Note that I use "lock" to describe the correct angle of pressure to the joint - which would, in civilian defence, more usually be applied as a ballistic attack rather than as some sort of "tap out" hold. The bunkai below are all predicated on the basis that the joint attack can be thwarted - or, for whatever other reason (mistiming, wrong angle etc.), fail.]

Consider the application which Noah shows below (one of my favorites from naihanchi in this case, but similarly applicable using gekisai and seiunchin kata):

To give you an idea that I'm not singling Noah out here as doing anything "wrong", note our own tuide bunkai for gekisai using similar principles from the following 2005 video:

[Addendum: thankfully the horse stance in both Noah's and our application does allow some lateral movement to escape if the arm bar fails for whatever reason; the even weighting of the stance means you can quickly shift to one side or the other, as the case requires. But whether this is enough is something we have yet to see...]

The problem

Okay, so what's the issue with the standing arm bar?  Basically it is this: the technique works fine against a person who is not trained as a grappler.  But against a grappler (of almost any training) I've found to be a high risk technique - to say the very least. Why?   
Because the grappler can - and will - dive for your legs as you attack the joint.
Indeed, the downward pressure of the attack actually aids the grappler in doing this - pushing him or her in the direction he or she wants to go (which is down).  All the grappler has to do is change the angle of the downward moment slightly and - "voila!" -  you're on your backside.

Now John's and Noah's fix in the first gif above is fairly neat: collapsing the front knee does indeed impede a dive to some extent.  But, as I foreshadowed, in my experience it is just not enough against someone trained to shoot for your legs.  Why?  

You'll notice that as Noah is unbalanced he makes a small step away to relieve pressure on the knee that is being collapsed.  This is a perfect set up for a diving technique known in the internal arts as "snake creeps through grass" which my students illustrate in the gif below.  In this case, Noah's step would be a quick adjustment to the back leg before the dive and takedown (something I often do in the form itself, never mind in application!):

Of course, this is a very formal move from taijiquan that might look rather silly to some.  When it is applied however, it is actually a very simple, logical and efficient defence against an arm bar - a technique that "shoots" or dives for one or both of your opponent's legs as he or she starts to apply the lock.  We can see that below (particularly in the second example which is more literally like the form).  However the principle is really the same in both examples:
  • Armando grabs an arm and starts to punch;  
  • Jeff/Xin convert the grab into a standing arm bar; but
  • as the arm bar is applied, Armando simply dives for their legs - either behind or between; and 
  • it's all over.

The second (single leg) takedown (where the dive is between the legs) is precisely what happened to me while sparring in Kowloon in Hong Kong in 2009.  

I'd been sparring with karateka all my life, applying all sorts of standing arm bars.  I'd shied away from trying it on grapplers, but with an internal artist I felt quite certain it would work just fine.

Suddenly I was on my backside, nursing a bruised back, head and arm.

The student with whom I was sparring (Chris) saw my surprise and obligingly demonstrated the solo form of "snake creeps through grass" - as if to say: "This is what just happened."

And that got me thinking: just how safe is the stand up arm bar?  How can I use it without falling prey to this very simple, elegant takedown?  

Over the following years I've come up with various solutions, mostly by carefully noting how my traditional forms utilise any arm bar applications:

Keeping your weight back

One of the standard ways to apply an arm bar is found in the taiji movement "step back (or forward) and deflect". 

What this technique effectively allows is for you to apply the arm bar in a way that leaves the requisite "buffer" (to which I have previously referred in the context of civilian defence grappling).

I show the applications of this "back weighted" arm bar method below.  Note that if it is done correctly, it will allow you to apply the lock to your opponent's elbow.  In some cases it will negate the dive completely and secure a lock.  In others it will allow you to release and escape as your opponent starts to dive.

Compare the gif below to the previous one above.

What is interesting is that this interpretation of "step back (or forward) and deflect" makes sense of the literal form in Chen Pan Ling taijiquan - where you step both back (in the second section) and forward (in the third).  I think the form is trying to teach you that you can move forward or back - or simply swap legs on the spot - depending on what distancing is required in the particular instance.

I discuss this issue (and arm bars generally) in my video below:

Using a twisted stance

Another valuable method of keeping a buffer while being able to apply the full weight of your body to the downward moment of a standing arm bar is the use of the twisted stance (kosa dachi).

I covered this technique very specifically in my article "The secret of the sinking backfist" so I won't go over the same ground.  What I will do is upload a recent gif I've made which illustrates my point.

I will also add that in addition to multiplying force while adding a buffer, the technique drives the opponent off line in such a way that further negates the possibility of a shoot or dive for your legs.  In other words, I think it is a particularly useful method of applying a standing arm bar.

In my opinion this application can be found in most moves that utilise a cross-step.  Consider the video below, taken from my video "Bridging Hard and Soft Vol. 1" and note its similarity to the sequence of naihanchi kata...

or this sequence from the taiji form:

Using a spin

Yet another very useful (and arguably most prevalent) way of applying a standing arm bar without risk of being taken down is to spin your opponent around as you apply the lock - what is known in aikido as "tenkan".

It can either be a full spin - as show in the following gif...

or it can be a partial spin that then reverses and takes you in another direction:

The ankle hook (Shisochin) approach

The final method I'd like to analyse comes from the goju ryu kata shisochin.  (Similar approaches can be found in other Okinawan karate kata and Chinese forms (eg. baguazhang) that involve ankle hooks or trips.)

Essentially the approach seeks to keep your opponent off balance by hooking one ankle and adding an unbalancing pressure as the arm bar is applied.  In this regard it is similar to the method employed in the opening gif - except you will notice some important differences: 
  • the hook is applied with the rear leg reaching in;
  • this results in you having your weight in a forward stance (zenkutsu dachi/gong bu);
  • however you will have your weight away from your opponent.  
This latter element is crucial because it means you can quickly move away if your opponent is able to dive despite your leg hook and push.  Meanwhile you've got added insurance in that your backwards facing stance is pushing from that (rear) loaded leg, driving your opponent into the ground off-balance as you apply the arm bar.


The standing arm bar is quite a staple of karate bunkai and traditional Chinese martial application, yet it is rarely seen in MMA. When it is seen, it takes the form of one of the above - in particular the "spin" option which is often called an "elbow wrench".  

I think the reason the standing arm bar is seldom seen apart from this is really quite simple: it leaves you open to a dive from your opponent, leading to a single or double leg takedown.

It is my view that if more fighters knew the precautions I've listed (other than the spin/wrench approach above) you might see a whole lot more standing arm bars, especially from fighters who specialise in a stand up game and don't want to get involved in a clinch or ground grapple.  There are probably other methods too - this is just my summary of the major themes I've managed to identify from traditional forms.

In the meantime, I believe the technique is supremely useful in civilian defence - not because it enables you to "lock" an elbow or even smash it, but precisely because it allows you to reach joints from a relatively safe, non-grappling distance.  This can, in turn, unbalance an opponent long enough for you to counter strike or simply escape.


In any arm bar, if you are trying to grab an arm, I find it best to start the grab on the slow moving part - the forearm - and slide down.  Sometimes you can slide down to the hand where you have the most leverage - and can even apply an added wrist twist.  If you are able in the circumstances!  The pictures below show material omitted from two of the gifs (the gifs have been kept short to conserve bandwidth and maintain relevancy):

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic