Sunday, February 19, 2012

Joint Locks and the Pain Game

I don't normally post another person's work, but Sue at My journey to black belt wrote an article that I felt compelled to comment on.  I recommend you link to her blog to read her reader's comments.  There's lots of other good stuff over there too.  I've included the article here followed by my comments below.  It's important to continually examine and question what you are learning to make sure it:

a) actually works
b) can be used in a violent encounter

Here's Sue's post:

"Joint locking – how useful is it really?
Learning how to lock up joints seems to be an integral part of many martial arts, both for self-defence training and in grappling sports. In my kobudo class we learn how to apply joint locks with weapons. I can apply wrist, arm, shoulder and ankle locks with a pair of nunchuku or lock you up with a pair of tonfa. It’s quite fun, though not so fun when I’m the one being locked up with a jo or tanbo – ouch!

In karate we also train with locking techniques, in fact we have a couple of lock flow drills that we learn. These are quite useful in helping us to remember how to apply a range of different locks. We start with thumb and finger locks, then wrist locks, arm locks, shoulder locks and eventually moving onto the floor with cross body arm locks and head locks.

After a bit of practice and an understanding of the mechanics of how locks work they are relatively easy to apply to a compliant partner (except for the few people for whom locks don’t seem to work on at all). However, if your partner is determined to resist being locked up then it is almost impossible to apply. Of course, neither total compliance nor total resistance is a very realistic scenario. In a real situation there will be neither compliance nor total resistance from an attacker. Instead there will be striking, constant movement, grappling, shouting, spitting…….how do you apply a lock to someone who’s playing out their own game plan and not complying with yours?

What’s the purpose of applying locks anyway? I can think of three reasons why people say locks are useful:

*To restrain and control
*To control and reposition the opponent to a more advantageous position to strike/ throw them
*To disable the opponent by injuring/breaking a joint

Restraint and control – I see restraint and control as the domain of specific groups e.g. the police, prison officers, mental health nurses, security guards, bouncers etc. I’m aware that there are techniques called ‘painless restraint’ techniques that can be used to control someone and prevent them from hurting themselves or others. However, I don’t see that this is of any value to me – why would I want to restrain an attacker? Even if I achieved it, which I doubt, what would I do with him then? Surely my aim should be to escape….

Control and reposition – This is based on the assumption of ‘pain compliance’; that the opponent, once locked, will be in so much pain that he will become putty in your hands and allow you to pull him into a position that is advantageous to you so that you can strike or throw him to end the confrontation and make good your escape. Though I can see some merit in trying to do this, I think the problems in actually doing it are twofold:  1. In the melee of a fight it may be extremely difficult to get the lock on in the first place and 2. Even if you are successful in applying the lock it may not cause pain in your adrenaline fuelled attacker.

Disable/injure/break joint – In principle this may be a good strategy in a self-defence situation but again it depends on the possibility of getting the lock on in the first place.

Theoretically, using joint locks as part of your self-defence arsenal seems a good idea. From a mechanical point of view they undoubtedly work. However, in practice, in the frenzy of a fight, I have my doubts as to their usefulness.  You could argue that you need to strike the opponent first to weaken them and then apply the lock – that may work if your aim is to restrain, but if I’m able to strike hard enough to weaken my attacker to the point that I could apply a lock unopposed then surely my work is done and all I need to do is escape?

It seems likely that bigger people can more easily apply locks to smaller, weaker people. This is clearly a big disadvantage to women as their attacker is most likely to be a bigger, stronger man. It seems more likely to me that my attacker will be the one applying locks on me to control and restrain me while he drags me off to some secluded place to continue the attack.

Wouldn’t it be more useful to learn how to counter a lock rather than apply it? At least for women.  Are there such techniques? If so, perhaps they should be taught in tandem with how to apply the lock…..

What do you think? Am I missing the point somewhere along the line? How useful do you think locks are for self-defence?"

My response is here: (with a couple of pictures thrown in)


Another thought provoking post.  I must also compliment your readers for their excellent comments.

Some thoughts:

Restraint and Control – Although the focus of specific groups such as the ones you mentioned should and do have a different focus and may use restraint and control techniques, they are not without value for others.  There may be circumstances where having at least a cursory knowledge would be helpful, such as when dealing with a child who has gone berserk and is a danger to themselves, or a loved one in a state of crisis, or an elderly person suffering from dementia. 

Granted, the goal of most of your training should be to get away, but there could be times when retraining someone would be helpful.

Control and Reposition – I won’t talk too much about pain compliance.  I did discuss it in a post here and here.

For the purposes of your post, however, the choice of the pain compliance technique is important.  I would concentrate on choosing techniques where the pain is brought about by the joint being in jeopardy of breaking or dislocating.  This puts you in a position of advantage as you can easily escalate the technique. 

Disable/injure/break joint – I have a few thoughts.  In my opinion, joint locks most definitely work. 

Firstly, lock flow drills are of limited value.  They’re fun and good for energy work and learning some of the mechanics, but that’s about it.  Also, compliant partners fail to give a realistic experience.  Fully resisting training partners aren’t helpful either.  The problem with this type is that they know what is coming so can easily defend against it.  Lock flow drills are most valuable when you learn to completely change the direction of the first.  This way, if you attempt one in a real situation and the person resists, you can use their own strength and resistance against them.

You mentioned using a strike first to weaken them to apply the lock.  The purpose of this initial strike if often misunderstood.  The main purpose is to distract your opponent from the limb or joint that you are targeting, not necessarily to overpower them.  It is great if you do weaken them sufficiently to make good your escape but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t always happen after an initial strike. 

Training Tip - Just before you apply a lock, slap your training partner unexpectedly in the face.  See how much they resist it the joint lock when they are surprised by the slap. 

“It seems likely that bigger people can more easily apply locks to smaller, weaker people. This is clearly a big disadvantage to women as their attacker is most likely to be a bigger, stronger man”

This is where we differ in opinion the most.  A proper joint lock negates the advantages afforded to larger stronger individual.  Just like you can’t flex your throat, you can’t strengthen your joints.  Pounds of pressure required to dislocate a joint are largely the same, regardless of individual.  It is for this reason that I recommend joint locks and manipulations for smaller individuals, regardless of sex.

I must also mention here that Felicia brings up an important point.  As a woman, you are less likely to be attacked by a complete stranger.  If your attacker is someone known to you, the chance of a full out violent attack occurring spontaneously is fairly rare.  Chances are there will be some escalation of unwanted contact.  This increases the chances of successfully getting a hold of a joint earlier on, if only to show him you mean business or to extricate yourself quickly from the situation.

You mentioned you were concerned that using joint locks may be ineffective in an adrenaline-fuelled situation, suggesting that strikes may be a better bet.  I’ve found the opposite to be true.  In my experience, strikes are often ineffective on a  ‘jacked up’ individual, especially if alcohol or drugs are involved.  Joint locks however, if applied properly, always work to a degree.  I draw on my own experience of dealing with a guy drugged up on crystal meth.  He shrugged off several bigger guys and strikes didn’t faze him at all.  I managed to get him in a shoulder lock, face down on a couch.  The pain part didn’t do much, but he was immobilized.  If needed, I could have separated his shoulder, reducing his mobility and ability to fight.  All that being said, I was not in a position to simply leave the situation, which touches upon your first point.

As far as learning counters, yes I think it’s very valuable.  In our style, we must eventually learn at least 3 counters to each technique.  Understanding the areas of vulnerability serve to increase your skill in applying them.  It’s my opinion that you can’t just learn the counters; you must also study the original attack.  Your mindset, however, can influence how proficient you become at escaping attempted locks.

The most important point, in my opinion, is to continue to examine not only the techniques but also how you are being taught and how you practice.  The process of questioning and exploring your art is key to making it your own.  It’s my hope you don’t count out joint locks just yet.

Food for thought.


  1. The top level artists that I have worked with use joint locks simply to connect the centers of balance between the two people. The application should feel like nothing. Pain, tightness, the feeling of control are all indicators of immature technique of inefficiencies of energy use.

    You say flow drill are of limited value? The Japanese is renzaku. Continuous attack based on the energy the opponent is giving. As far as I am concerned at my current level of training - flow drills are crucial. I have never felt a joint lock artist who was worth his salt that did not understand the natural flow between locking conditions.

  2. Rick,

    Glad you liked it. Lots of good stuff there.

    Sensei Strange,

    To cause no discomfort and to completely immobilize your opponent takes a high level of skill and is an altruistic goal we should all strive for. However, there may be certain situations where the responsible application of a pain inducing lock may be required or be advantageous.

    Examples such as safely handcuffing a person or getting them to release a weapon come to mind. We must always stay mindful that we could be facing multiple attackers, and to be tied up with one immobilized individual may be dangerous. If this is the case, the lock may need to be escalated to a strain, dislocation or break to make good your escape or to prevent your assailant from attacking again while dealing with the other aggressors.

    So while I agree a proper lock need not cause pain, there are several instances where it can be advantageous to do so.

    On to lock flow drills. I stand by my statement. From what I've seen commonly being practiced, they are of limited value. I’m referring to seeing people go through a rehearsed series of several, often dozens of loosely tied together locks. When I watch it, I imagine a music track in the background keeping time to the dance.

    If we’re talking about transitioning from one lock or failed attempt based on the attack, energy, or response from your attacker, that’s a different thing altogether. I think perhaps what you refer to as continuous attack may be different from what I've seen described as lock flow drills.

    You must always be thinking ahead and be ready to adapt or adjust. Too many people get locked (pun intended) into one single technique. The problem is if it doesn’t go as planned, they often freeze up.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  3. Thanks for reposting my blog post here - I've now just posted a follow up post to address the comments I received which were amazing :-)