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Self Defense - Defending Against Standing Grabs

In the last segment, I talked about how to defend yourself against strikes. They are the most common attacks against both men and women. However, sometimes grabs will occur in an attempt to control you or as a precurser to striking you. This article deals with that possibility.

There are basically 7 grabs that are most common, with a 8th usually taught because it teaches a lot of principles. The 8th is the front wrist grab. I have a very hard time imagining why anyone would grab this way, but I'll talk about it first and discuss the principles around all grab defenses.

Defenses against grabs are harder to train than the striking defenses. You have to have a partner to practice these moves. They are also less intuitive sometimes and you need someone to help you get the technique correct. Don't just read this and think you can do it. Join a self-defense course to try it out more realistically.

Front Wrist Grab

In this grab, you are facing your attacker and he either grabs straight across (his left hand grabs your right wrist) or diagonally (his left hand grabs your left wrist). For a front grab, the attacker grabs with his thumb closest to your elbow. If he's thumb down, that's a side or inverted wrist grab, which I deal with below.

When dealing with grabs, the following principles hold.

Principle #1 - "Warming him up"

This means to take his mind off the grab. A lot of times when I teach wrist grabs to students they go home and tell their spouse to grab them so they can show what they learned. The husband holds tightly and the student finds they can barely move to perform the escape. They then conclude that the escape is useless.

I hope you understand that of course it won't work in that case. For one, the person is expecting something and will actively do everything they can to thwart it. That's why you generally can't even move your arm. For another, they are generally stronger and will therefore be very difficult to release from.

But then you say "that's the case for an attacker too. What can I do to make it work?"

I'm glad you asked. Well, I teach you to "warm him up." Your goal is to weaken his grab by using a distraction... usually a pain-inducing distraction. So, if you're grabbed and are going to perform an escape, you will generally use your feet to stomp on his foot, shin, or knee to cause enough pain for him to relax his grip a bit. Try that on your husband and see how cold the bed is tonight. I bet he'll think twice before grabbing your wrist the next time you ask.

Principle #2 - Attack the weak link

The second principle is to attack the weak link in order to get an escape. From a hand grab, for instance, the two weakest links are

From a bear-hug grab, the weak link is either his face or his groin, depending on whether he grabs under your arms or over them.

To get out of a wrist grab, for example, you'll twist so that the escape is through the gap between the fingers and the thumb. The twist you'll perform is dependent on the grab, so I can't elaborate more yet. If there's a problem where you can't perform that escape, you can always create a gap by grabbing and pulling a finger back. The pinky is the weakest finger, so it's the most commonly attacked.

Principle #3 - Circles

The next principle is the use of circles. When you're attacked by a stronger foe, which is most common, you don't want to move directly against his strength. If you employ circular motions perpendicular to his strength, he'll have less to hang on with.

Principle #4 - Strikes, strikes, strikes

Finally, escaping a grab is not just about twisting free of it. Your defense is a total package because he's grabbed you for a reason. Don't forget to begin striking as if it were any other attack.

So using the principles against a front wrist grab, you first warm him up by stomping on his foot or kicking him in the shin with the inside of your foot (soccer-style so you don't hurt your toes). Then when his grip relaxes slightly you swing your arm into his hand and then aggressively reverse direction and pull it away from his hand. The swinging motion will be hard to counter, it's out of his path of strength, and you're attacking the gap between his fingers and thumb. The nice part of this defense is your ability to whip your hand back and strike with a hammer fist to his head afterwards.

What if he's grabbed with both hands? Well, then we use Principle #4. If his hands are on one wrist, he's not protecting his face... hit him with a heel palm, hammer fist, or elbow. Even if both wrists are grabbed, kick him in the knee or shin, stomp on his foot, or knee him in the groin. Or do all of this. I guarantee at least one hand will let go.

Side (inverted) Wrist Grab

The side wrist grab is very common when the attacker is trying to drag you away. In this grab, he's holding your wrist, say his right hand is grabbing your left wrist, with his thumb down. In this grab, you warm him up by kicking him in the knee or shin with your left leg (aim with your heel). Then you circle your arm backwards first and continue up to the ceiling and around. He won't be able to maintain his hold. You're attacking the link between his fingers and thumb again.

Similarly, if he's holding your upper arm, with his thumb pointed up, after kicking him, circle your arm first forward, then up and around (opposite direction from the one above). Just remember you're moving your hand away from his palm. You lead with your hand and snake it around his arm. You can actually break his wrist or tear his shoulder if he doesn't let go.

If you're being dragged away, you'll find it hard to kick him. Try this first. If he has your left hand and is pulling you, lock out your left leg and lean away from it onto your right leg. Use your left leg as a brace against him. When he stops, move up and kick him in the knee and start your escape.

Overhead Wrist Grab

If you ever get held with your hand or hands over your head, pinning you, use this technique. Use some strike with your feet or knee to warm him up. Then put your hands together and bend your elbows to bring your hands down to one shoulder. Your goal is to use your lattisimus dorsi (latts) muscle (the strong back muscle) against his shouler muscle. The latts are used for pull-ups so they are pretty strong. Once you get them to your shoulder, move them to your chest. From there you can continue striking with your feet until your hands are free to strike from there, straight at his face.

Front Choke

This is probably my most favorite defense. I learned it from a style called Krav Maga. The attacker is choking you with one or both hands on your throat. You can be backed against the wall or free standing. To defend, warm him up with a swift kick to his shins (using the inside of your foot remember). Then begin to turn to the left, stepping towards him slightly with your right foot, while swinging your right arm over his arms between your bodies. When you're turned sideways strike him with the back of your elbow to his face. Nice!

If he's holding you with one hand, move in to the outside of his arm instead of the inside. So if he's holding you with his left hand, circle and strike with your right arm. The idea is that now you're outside of his line of striking with his free hand.

Rear Choke

In general, there are a two different rear chokes. The first is a double-hand grab to your throat, similar to the front choke. The one that I believe is most common is the one arm forearm choke where he's grabbed you around the neck with his right arm, his forearm in your trachea. There are three possible positions from here:

No matter what's happening, the common initial move is to grab close to his wrist with one hand and simply grab his forearm with the other. You want to pull his forearm down towards your chest to relieve the pressure in your throat (perpendicular to the force, remember?).

If he's bearing you forward, simply bend your knees, getting your hips under him. Bend forward and straighten your knees lifting him onto your back, and then twist your shoulder slightly so that he rolls off your back. This is called a shoulder throw. Now it sounds difficult, but it only requires some practice to perfect. Your legs are the strongest muscles in your body and can easily lift twice your body weight. With the bending forward, you're not even lifting all of his body weight as much as simply throwing him over you.

If he's bearing you backwards, usually with you bending backwards, hook your right leg around his. Twist around so that you're standing beside him, facing opposite him with his arm still on your chest, and then twist your shoulder down and away from him, tripping him over your right leg. It's a simple move with no strength required.

If he's just choking you with no forward or backward pressure, step out slightly with your right foot and step around behind him with your left foot, turning the hold into a headlock. Make sure your knees are bent and you're in a solid stance. You can simply strike his groin from here to make him release or, throw him by grabbing him behind his knees with both of your hands. Push him with your shoulder as you pull him slightly with your hands. He should trip over your left leg.

With just striking, you can stomp on his foot, kick back to his knee/shin, elbow him in the face with a rear high elbow, or elbow him in the stomach with a rear low elbow.

If all else fails with this hold, try turning around to face him by turning towards his elbow. Turning away from his elbow tightens the choke. If you can face him, you can strike him more easily AND his arm is not on your trachea cutting off your breathing.

Head Lock

In a lot of male-on-male attacks, the headlock is a common standing hold. Often resulting when the combatants get close to one another and one wants to minimize the striking capability of the other.

Head locks can be performed with you facing towards the opponent or both of you facing the same direction with him beside you.

If you are facing towards the opponent, grab his forearm with one hand and strike his groin with the other hand. Pull his forearm towards your chest instead of directly away from your throat. Be cautious of knees to your face or upper-cut punches from his other hand. Having one hand free to strike or block is advantageous. To minimize the chances of him striking you, move to the side opposite the arm holding you and clinch him by grabbing around his waist. Keep your feet comfortably spaced.

If you are facing the same direction as the opponent you will most likely have your inner arm free. If so, wrap around his back and grab his far arm, pinning it to his side. This keeps him from punching you. Grab his forearm/wrist with your far arm, pulling it towards your chest to minimize his choke. Turn your face into his abs to keep it from being struck. This is a stale-mate position, and a stale-mate is typically bad for him but good for you.

There are a variety of takedowns from this position, but those are beyond the scope of this article.

Front Bear Hug

In general, the bear hug is a very weak attack. The problem with it stems from the fact that it leaves several important targets available to attack. The strength in the attack lies in the fact that he can physically lift you and move you.

To defend against a front bear hug, you need to determine what targets are available. If he's grabbed under your arms, his face and ears are extremely vulnerable to strikes. If he's grabbed over your arms, his legs and groin are very vulnerable.

So, pick the vulnerable target to warm him up. Often he will let go right then. If not you have two options. If he's grabbed under your arms, brace your hands under his chin, step back with one foot, and then push up and forward, forcing his head backwards to break his hold.

If he's grabbed over your arms, brace your hands on his hips and move your own hips further back by stepping back with one foot. That will make it very difficult for him to lift or control you. Use knee strikes or front kick with the back leg to make him release.

Rear Bear Hug

A rear bear hug has the same advantages and disadvantages as the front bear hug. You warm him up by stomping on his feet or elbowing him in either the face or stomach. From there, grab his hands and pry one of his pinkies up and bend it backwards. He'll let go or you break his finger.

If he's under your arms and he's trying to pick you up, simply lean forward and try to put your hands and feet on the ground. In doing this, your center of gravity is moving away from him making it more difficult to lift you. From the position on the floor, you can attack with kicks to his knees or shin or elbow him in the face.


In this article I've talked about how to escape some of the most common standing holds. With each hold I presented one method for escaping from it. There will always be a lot of other methods and a lot of "what if this happens" kind of questions. The defense I presented will work in most cases but you need to practice them to make them available to you when you most need them. Enroll in a good self-defense course to do just that.

I also talked about the four basic principles for dealing with standing grabs.

Once you learn these principles, you should be able to create variations to suite your specific needs.

Don't forget you're striking too. Defenses against grabs are not simply twisting out of it. He's grabbing you for a reason. If he's trying to kidnap, strike, or rape you, you should also strike to defend yourself and create an opening for your escape.

Copyright 2006, Tien Shan Martial Arts