Dealing with wrist grabs


In my article "Gorillas in the midst: the question of wrist grabs" I wrote about the common misconceptions about wrist grabs: their occurrence in attacks, their function in "setting up" techniques and their use in martial training pedagogies.

But recently a correspondent's query made me realise that I haven't yet addressed the question of how to deal with wrist grabs. In this regard, Nathaniel wrote:
    "As a small man (140lb), I've found that people frequently grab my guard. They use these grabs to easily break my structure and make me feel quite foolish. I've been having a lot of trouble countering these grabs, especially double wrist grabs. I don't suppose you'd know anything I can do to improve this without anyone physically there to provide resistance, do you?"
The occurrence of wrist grabs

Nathaniel's comments provide an example of what I believe is the most common use of wrist grabs.

Yes, you don't see wrist grabs in MMA bouts (other than the odd, brief, set up for grappling etc.). But this is precisely because of the context in which those bouts occur. MMA fights are typically between two fairly evenly-matched opponents who have the particular goal of winning the fight. You can't win an MMA fight by wrist-grabbing!

This contrasts with many civilian defence situations where the perpetrator of the violence is a larger, stronger person picking on a smaller, lighter "easy target". The purpose of the grab isn't to "win a bout" but rather to effect a specific result, namely:
  1. to restrain you for the purposes of effecting a serious criminal offence (eg. a murder, sexual assault, abduction or robbery); or
  2. to effect some form of lesser abuse against you (involving harassment, humiliation or other domination) - whether through the restraint itself or some follow-up measure that relies upon the restraint.
In my previous article about wrist grabs, I referred to a particular case I was involved in prosecuting, where a woman was dragged out of sight of a surveillance camera. Had she resisted or otherwise been able to deal with the wrist grab for another 15 seconds or so, two people passing by would have seen her and might have come to her aid (or at the very least, their appearance might have caused the attacker to abandon his attack). So for a smaller person, I believe there is a very real need to learn how to deal with wrist grabs.

But the "lesser assault" cases are probably going to be of greater concern to my average reader, simply because they occur more often – in a park, on a train, in a domestic situation or even in the dojo. Some people are bullies. And wrist grabs are often used by them to dominate smaller, lighter people. The bully will use a wrist grab to assert dominance: to inflict humiliation and to cause distress.

Even if you aren't the victim of a bully, you might find yourself being overwhelmed by a larger person in honest dojo sparring; the larger person might unconsciously revert to wrist grabs because he or she can do so relatively effectively. I think this is totally contrary to the purpose and spirit of sparring, but I recognise that it might not be conscious or deliberate. In other words, it happens.

(In the above pictures and the video below , you'll see me "dominating" a student – but I did this reluctantly and only for the purpose of this article! The student got to throw me around at the end to make up for it!)

A video where I discuss dealing with wrist grabs

"If someone grabs you, just hit him!"

Bruce Lee famously said: "If somebody grabs you, hit him!" And that makes a lot of sense in the "more serious" offence situations. But it also assumes that:
  1. you are able to hit the person who has grabbed you (eg. you have enough strength and skill and the grab hasn't incapacitated your own ability to attack); and
  2. your strike is likely to be effective in dislodging the grab; and
  3. hitting the grabber is appropriate in the circumstances (ie. the grab is not one of the "lesser assaults" where causing harm is uncalled for, and you won't simply be escalating a situation to a new level of violence that is even less desirable to you and that would otherwise be avoidable).
Regardless, I shall take as a given that the simplest response is always the best one. If you can strike someone who has grabbed you and it will be both effective and appropriate for you to do so, you should do this rather than go through some more elaborate escape, lock or throw. In that case, the grab is really just an incidental part of a larger altercation.

But for the most part, people (like Nathaniel) who are concerned about grabs are looking for a response that is less "violent" and will be appropriate to a wider variety of situations than a "full blown fight".

Learning how to "escape" from a grab is the first step to dealing with grabs in this wider context. (Note that strikes can, and in serious cases should, accompany any escape from a wrist grab. They can assist in the escape and also permit a "follow up" to deter or even prevent further attacks.)

Escaping from wrist grabs

So how can one best escape from a wrist grab?

The answer to that question is really quite straightforward, even for a relatively small person. Obviously if the size/strength disparity is too great, it might be past the "tipping point" – ie. where you are no longer going to have enough physical strength to escape from a wrist (or any other) grab. A simple (absurd) example would be if you were grabbed by King Kong.

But for the most part, pretty much any adult will be able to escape from a wrist grab by another adult. This is because of one simple factor: if you do it correctly, you can use your entire body to aid the escape, while your attacker will be relying on his or her finger muscles (and to a lesser extent the muscles in his or her arms).

So how should you go about escaping from a wrist grab? Here are the general principles:

Act quickly

If you want to escape from a grab, it is always best to do so as the grab is being effected – not after it has been firmly established. The less secure the grab is, the easier it is to escape (using the principles to which I refer below). You need to act quickly, decisively and with as much vigour as you can muster.

As you are grabbed, keep your elbow(s) low and close to your body

This might seem to be obvious advice, but it isn't widely known. In much the same way as the uninitiated will try to escape a grappler by turning their backs (only to find themselves in an even worse situation), smaller people will often struggle with a wrist grab and raise their elbow in a futile attempt to find an escape route "upwards".

In this regard, I often think of the 1950s horror movies I used to watch as a kid. Inevitably the plot would feature a woman running away from a werewolf/vampire/monster, somewhere deep in a forest. The woman would trip and fall and the attacker would grab her by the wrist. She would scream and flail about – and lift her elbow! It wasn't till I watched surveillance footage of attacks on (untrained) people that I noticed how accurate this Hollywood depiction actually was.

Lifting your elbow as you are grabbed is the absolute worst thing you could ever do. Trust me. Keep your elbows low and close to your body. This will help you use more of your own bodyweight, while any distance your attacker keeps (eg. through a straighter arm formed by trying to pull you) will work against him/her.

(The only thing that you need to be careful about is not to let your opponent jam your elbows into your abdomen; for that reason, always keep your elbows about a fist distance from your body - don't rest them against your ribs. This allows you enough room to wiggle out from an attempted downward "jam" by your opponent.)

Move your body in towards your elbows

In order to keep your elbows close to your body, you will probably have to move your body towards your elbows and not the reverse – particularly if your opponent is much stronger than you are. I mention this as a separate point to the preceding one (even though they are really one and the same instruction) because people tend to try to pull away from their attacker. "Moving in" is often the last thing people will do reflexively.

So make sure you move into your opponent as the grab is being effected, keeping your elbows low as you do so. This will ensure that you will be able to use your whole body in levering your way out of the grab.

Attack the gap between the thumb and the fingers!

One of my first teachers used to say that "God didn't made your hands perfect for grabbing – he left a gap!" (and he would point to the gap between the thumb and fingers). I used to imagine a human hand comprising a solid, cylindrical band of flesh, and wonder how one could ever use it to grab something in the first place. But of course this was just my instructor's humour.

The fact is that with all but the most disproportionately large attackers (I'm thinking of King Kong again) there is a gap. Even if there isn't a "gap" there is a weakness. And it is this gap/weakness that you must exploit. Get it right, and you'll be levering your wrist through the gap with the whole weight of your body – while your attacker is left to resist the escape with his or her finger muscles. That is the "ideal" you're striving for. In reality, you'll end up with something less than that. But the closer you get to this ideal, the better your chances of effecting an escape from the grab.

Turn the "thin" edge of your forearm into the gap

I haven't discussed this in the preceding video, but it is a point worth making. When you are "attacking the gap" between your opponent's thumb and fingers, turn your forearm so that you present the "thin" edge to the gap. This will maximise your chances of escape.

Use a twisting lever action to escape in one quick, decisive movement

In the video I show that even a slow lever action against the gap will make holding on to your hands impossible. But in reality, and given a possible size/strength disparity, you want to leave nothing to chance! So effect your breakout as quickly and with as much venom as you can. In doing so, you can use a twisting action – ie. one that rotates your forearm on its axis. This will make it harder for your opponent to hold on.

You can see this clearly in the cross-hand grab escape that I demonstrate, but it occurs in the same-side grab as well; my wrist starts off palm down and ends up in a "thumb up" finish. You should use your twist so as to present the thin edge of your forearm at the start of the breakout and to lever your breakout for the rest.

Use both arms if you have to!

Nathaniel specifically refers to situations where both wrists are grabbed. In that case, as well as in the case where one of your wrists is grabbed with two of your opponent's hands, you can always use both hands together to assist your breakout.

In the case of both hands being grabbed, the easiest, most basic and most effective technique is to clasp your hands together, bring your body to your elbow and lever the elbow up, twisting your forearm through the gap as you do so.

In the case of two hands grabbing one of yours (a daft attack since you still have one hand free to hit your attacker – but it still happens!) you can use the same tactic. All that changes is that you might have to grab in between your opponent's forearms. If you can't grab there, you can always grab around them (on your grabbed hand's little finger side).

An alternative to clasping your hands together is to make your grabbed hand into a fist, then grab the fist with your supporting hand.

Note that "assisted breakouts" can also be used against single-handed grabs to make up for a significant size/strength disparity.

Counter if you need to!

One thing I didn't show in the preceding video is that you can and should effect a counter after your escape if the circumstances warrant it. An upwards levered breakout can easily be followed by a "reversal of momentum" bringing your fist onto the bridge of your attacker's nose, for example.

Taking advantage of your opponent's grab

But breaking out of a wrist grab isn't the only thing you can do. Even a relatively small person can use being grabbed as a platform for "turning the tables" on an opponent.

I discuss using wrist grabs to your advantage (video set to start at the correct point)

From about 5:22 onwards I discuss such strategies for exploiting wrist grabs. There are simply too many to enumerate here. It is sufficient to note that if your opponent has his or her whole attention fixed at grabbing you, your opponent will be preoccupied with that (foolish) task. This will leave you plenty of scope for exploiting that preoccupation.

One way in which you can do so is by using the grab to lever your opponent into a lock or throw. That might seem incredible for a smaller person, but you'll note in the above video that good lever locks/throws don't require much strength. In particular, note when my student locks/throws me towards the end of the video. This wasn't rehearsed nor was I "acting" or making it overly easy on my student (other than the initial pause when I invited him to throw me).

The secret behind this method is to realise that a grab is really a kind of "platform" for your own techniques. I call it that, because a firm grab provides a level of certainty. The firmer it is, the stronger the foundation for your technique.

For example, a stiff straight arm can more easily be locked at the elbow, a rigidly bent arm can be levered upward at the elbow, a firm grip on your wrist is almost as good as your own firmest grip (given the "grip reflex")... the list goes on!

By contrast, if your attacker's grab "evaporates" as soon as you start to try to apply your own lock, you have "nothing" upon which to base your technique.

So I teach my students not to be concerned about wrist or other grabs. For every hand your opponent is grabbing you with, he/she has one less to hit you with. And you still have your hands free to lock, throw – or simply strike.

Understandably, you can't actually strike in every instance (eg. in the dojo or when you and a friend are just mucking around) which is why I've concentrated here on "non-violent" counters (although I can tell you there wasn't anything non-violent about my student's last throw against me!).

High wrist grabs

I gather from Nathaniel's query that he is mostly experiencing high wrist grabs - ie. when his guard his being grabbed. This usually means that the grab is effected with your hand higher than your opponents.

I haven't really focused on that in the peceding video because it is really an extremely weak grab; it is generally much easier to break out of using the very principles to which I have previously referred. This is because all you will usually have to do to "attack the gap" and dislodge the grip is simply "drop" your hands. As you will see from the adjacent picture, this automatically weakens the grip and widens the gap through which you can escape.

Indeed, the same is true for a low wrist grab - simply raising your arm will weaken the grip and allow you to exploit the gap. The problem is, of course, that raising your arm uses much smaller, weaker muscles in your shoulders. Dropping your arms uses your latissimus dorsi (your "lats") - ie. your back muscles. These are some of the biggest, strongest muscles in your body.

So if somebody ever grabs you in a high grab, don't be too troubled. My first instructor used to call this a "goofy grab" because it is so inherently weak. The only thing you really need to worry about is the previously mentioned issue of having your elbows pushed down into your body. If your guard leaves a sufficient gap between your elbows and ribs (one fist distance is about right) then you should have no trouble wiggling out of this hold.

Otherwise, the adjacent pictures make it clear just how "transient" any wrist hold can be. You can test this with a simple "up/down" exercise where you take turns at converting his/her wrist grab into your own. If one side resists, you'll note just how much harder it is to do the rising conversion (from a low grab) than it is to do the falling one. It's simply phyisics and physiology. Larger muscles + gravity make escaping a high grab much easier.

If this is your problem Nathaniel, take a look at the following video, especially towards the end, for some tactics you can employ on high, double-hand grabs. Note of course that the escape is the first thing you should practice. Explore the weaknesses and the gap to see how best to effect it from any particular position.

Another video where I discuss locks/throws from double-handed grabs


So when your wrists are grabbed the main thing to do is remain calm. Keep your elbows low and move your body in towards them. Use a lever action and the thin edge of your forearm to exploit the gap between his thumb and fingers. Or use the grab as a platform for your own lock or throw.

Whatever you do, act confidently, decisively and quickly.

And remember that even if you don't succeed entirely in escaping/countering, you might well have impeded the attack sufficiently to permit your escape, allow others to help you or simply to make attacking you "not worth the effort".

Also remember that people who would grab you are normally going for an "easy target". If you are anything but that, they will be more inclined to leave you alone. Of course no one can guarantee this but you want to give yourself every chance...

Wrist grabs can and do get used in attack. Everyone should know, as a minimum, the basics of dealing with such an attack. I hope this article serves to provide some useful information in this regard.

To Nathaniel, I can say that while there is limited training you can do without a partner to grab you, you can, at the very least, practice the above basics on your own via simple drills (such as stepping forward into your elbow and effecting a twisting lever action with your arm). I would strongly recommend repeating this with a partner as soon as you can find one.

Remember however that no video, book or article is ever going to be a substitute for a good instructor!

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic