Friday, February 1, 2013


Recently I received a message from a young Police Officer who has just been hired by a new department and started training in BJJ

Can you tell me what the 5 best arm locks from any position are?

I gave him the readers digest version of joint lock clinic, but his question got me thinking.

There really are no easy answers to a question like that.  Any answers that are easy are very prescriptive.  Meaning if he does this exact specific thing, then you do this particular move.

That is fine if you are trying to pimp a specific style, but actual confrontation is never cut and dried like that and happens much too fast for that type of if/then thinking.

However, principles are universal despite style.  People have been in confrontation since Cain and Able.  There is nothing new under the sun, and there are only so many ways a human body can be manipulated.

To help clarify my point and answer my friend’s question lets look at arm locks or joint locks (kansetsu waza) in general.

There are 1000s of locks but only very few principles. Understand the principles and you can improvise / create locks under pressure from any position.  Much more useful in conflict then trying to choose a technique from a mental list of different locks form different positions you may have memorized.

To lock an arm you have to attack one of the joints of the arm
  • Elbow
  • Shoulder
  • Wrist
  • Or even the knuckles of the fingers

Elbows (and finger knuckles) are hinge joints they break by placing a fulcrum close to the joint and applying opposing force as far away down the lever arm as you can.  This is a principle, it is universal across all styles.  Every joint lock you know that attacks a hinge joint works this way.

Shoulders (and although your thumb is not a ball and socket the principle still applies) are ball and socket joints. Distal to any ball and socket joint is a hinge joint (re elbow). Take the hinge joint to 90 degrees then turn either direction to lock the shoulder.  This is a principle, it is universal across all styles.  Every joint lock you know that attacks a ball and socket joint works this way.

Wrists are floating joints.  To clarify terms stick you arm out and point your thumb back at your nose, like you are drinking from a long neck bottle. 

From this position if you try to make your middle finger touch your elbow either palm to arm or knuckles to arm you are folding the wrist. 

From this position if you try to turn your pinky towards your chest or your thumb away from your chest you are twisting the wrist.

Folding can hurt, twisting can hurt, but floating joints are broken by folding and twisting.  This is a principle, it is universal across all styles.  Every joint lock you know that attacks a floating joint works this way.

Look for these principles in your techniques and you'll see there is no lock that cannot be broken down this way

Understand the principles and you can improvise / create locks under pressure from any position.  

That is a useful skill to acquire because hunting for joint locks in a confrontation is actually very hard.  

This is where Police Officers see many of the techniques they were taught at the academy fail.  

Because they were taught specific prescriptive techniques, not universally applicable principles.  

Hunting for a specific lock is difficult.  Taking advantage of a “gift” the control subject gives you is actually fairly easy.

A way I learned from Rory Miller (Also available in his book “Drills”) to train this can be broken down into two drills.

I call them different names than Rory does just because it sticks in my head better

1 – Improvise
After discussing the principles, pairs of students have 5 (or how ever long) minutes to come up with as many locks as the can think of for the shoulder.  Repeat for the elbow and the wrist.

2- Apply
After the discussion and the first drill students should begin to see that no matter how differently they locked each joint, even including using the environment and weapons.  The principles that made the locks work were the same.  Now time to play with it.  Using a one step drill and thinking about locks encourage students to improvise locks based on the “gifts" their partner gave them.  For example say your partner threw a right hook with his / her one step.  Can you in one motion improve your position, worsen his/her position, protect yourself from damage, and apply force to him /her (for this drill in the form of a joint lock).  If you hunt for a specific lock it will be very hard to do.  If in the course of improving your position, worsening his/her position, and protecting yourself from damage a joint becomes exposed (gifted to you) applying the appropriate principle is relatively easy.

Also, and seemingly inversely, understanding the underling principle makes learning the technique easier and allows you to adapt techniques to your specific needs.  

The technique may look different than your Instructor's say for example because you have short stumpy arms and Sensei’s arms looks like he received a transplant from an orangutan.  But if you apply the principles and lock the joint who cares what it looks like?  Does it work?  Can you make it work on larger stronger attackers?  Can you do all of that under pressure without eating damage while you lock it?  That is what matters, not any strict adherence to some aesthetic  idea of how a technique should look.

Can you tell me what the 5 best arm locks from any position are?

Re-examine the question, fight to the goal.  If your goal is to control an attacker with an arm lock we have to re-frame the question to what is the best way to lock an arm?

Understanding the principles answers the re-framed question.

By mastering a few principles you own 1000’s techniques and can improvise what is needed on the fly even if you have never been trained in that particular position or situation.

To me this is takemasu aiki, spontaneous creation, the highest level.  You don’t need to be the last dragon or train for 50 years to achieve this, but you do have to be able to break away form style specific, even dogmatic thinking and train smart (fight to a goal).

Train hard, Train smart, Be safe

You now posse the power of the glow


  1. Being the Last Dragon helps though.

  2. Excellent post Kasey. Something I have long argued with people who have the dogmatic, technique-driven approach that you mentioned. It seems that the technique approach makes more sense commercially so that's why so many defend it. Principle-driven training all the way!