Martial Arts with Integrity



How to Counter an Arm Bar—A Self Defense Class at Martial Journeys of Madison


One of the first classes I taught at Martial Journeys of Madison was a self defense class with a small group of fairly advanced students. After a warm up and a review of applying an arm bar after parrying a punch, I showed them three ways to counter it. (Obligatory disclaimer: Please do not try any of this without the aid of a knowledgeable instructor. An online article cannot convey everything you need to know to attempt this safely.)

Method 1: Spin out of it.

The first drill involved one partner throwing a punch so that the other partner could apply the arm bar. Once the arm bar was in place, the puncher twists away so that the locked arm ends behind the back but the other arm is free to strike the enemy.


Turning away to strike.

Method 2: Disrupt the angle.

The second drill is a little more difficult to apply because it must be done faster, before the partner can fully lock the arm. Step toward the opponent to keep your arm in front of you. Your free arm can strike the elbow to escape, allowing your formerly locked arm to strike for damage.


Turning into the enemy to disrupt the angle.

Pause for thought: Which method is better?

I asked the class which of these two methods was better. Traditionally, students of the martial arts are supposed to absorb, never asking questions, being as open as possible to everything they are told. There is value in this approach, but especially for more advanced students (as made up the class that day) critical thinking is important, too. I want my students to understand why, and not just how, a technique works.

For you online strangers who are not my students, I will just give you the answer rather than asking you to puzzle it out yourselves. Method 2 is better than Method 1. In Method 1, my opponent has control of my arm, leaving my movement restricted and taking away one of my weapons. I am literally fighting “with one hand behind my back.” In Method 2 I have all my weapons and more freedom of movement. You would use Method 1 only if you had to—if you reacted too late and the arm was already locked.

Method 3: Control the arm.

This method requires you to be even faster. As soon as the opponent makes contact with your arm (the initial parry that will lead to the arm bar), use your free hand to strike their elbow and disrupt their attempt–preferably before they even get a grip.  Use your punching hand to deliver a new strike.


Controlling the arm to prevent the lock.

Pause for thought: Now which method is better?

When I asked the class which was the better method between Method 2 and Method 3, there was a gem of a moment when my student was able to not only answer, but state it better than I would have. He said, “Method 3 is better because you never let them have any control over the fight.”

While that explanation is bordering on philosophical, it is absolutely correct from a practical perspective. Self defense is not a civil affair, where both sides take equal turns. If your life or well-being is threatened and you are forced to fight, the less control your opponent has over the exchange, the better your chances for survival.

Wrapping it all up

The students learned three ways to counter an arm bar, but that wasn’t the lesson. In practical self defense, your chances of needing to counter an arm bar are nearly zero. So why would I teach a class entirely devoted to countering an arm bar?

There are two reasons. First, by learning to counter a technique, you gain better mastery of that technique, by exploring its strengths and weaknesses and gaining a fuller understanding of how and why it works. But that wasn’t the lesson either.

I showed three ways to handle an arm bar, each a little more advantageous than the last, but each requiring a little more speed and control than the last. The speed and control allow you to end a fight more quickly, to spend less time in danger. So I gave the class one last question. What’s even better than Method 3?

This question was met with some sheepish glances around the room as everyone wondered if this was a trick question. It wasn’t, and while I knew that every single one of them knew the answer, we as martial artists should never let it slip out of sight and out of mind. So I was plenty happy when one of them said, “Not getting in a fight in the first place.”

From there we talked about dangerous situations that each student was most likely to encounter and how to avoid them, but that will be a topic for another article.


What are the Benefits of Taekwondo over Brazilian Jiujutsu for Self Defense?


I once had someone interested in self defense ask me, “What are the benefits of taekwondo over BJJ?”  You could substitute any art names in there, such as, “What are the benefits of kung fu over MMA?” or “What are the benefits of tai chi over karate?”  It’s a very common question.  Common answers tend to go into lectures about strategy or techniques or even dubious statistics about how many fights go to the ground.

Any serious martial artist, when faced with a question like that, will be tempted to extol the virtues of their favorite style.  When I was asked about the benefits of taekwondo over BJJ, it certainly would have been easy for me to go on at length about how taekwondo seeks to end an altercation as early as possible, by striking before grips can be established, by constantly moving to keep striking options open.  In the case that the distance is closed and an attacker grabs hold, we teach escaping.  Fighting on the ground is taught for the very worst case scenario—when you have already failed in the earlier stages of the altercation.

It would be very easy for me to rant about that, but any such answer is going to be incomplete at best.  Violence, and therefore self defense, and even individual martial arts styles, are simply too broad a topic to be adequately addressed in those terms.

This was my answer instead.

The style of martial art you eventually go with shouldn’t matter.  I say “shouldn’t” because sometimes unfortunately it does matter.  I teach traditional taekwondo, so it’s a little different from what most people think of when they hear “taekwondo.”  Taekwondo is known for its kicking and other striking techniques, and some schools teach only that.  However if you really study taekwondo in depth, you’ll find a complete art that includes striking, joint locks, throws, and grappling.

It’s the same in most arts, including BJJ.  BJJ is known for its ground game, and certainly there are schools that only teach that.  But if you trace BJJ’s history through Japan, Japanese jiujitsu is also known for its ground work, but traditionally it also includes striking, joint locks and throws.  Like taekwondo, the paring down to a limited skill set is a modern invention.  A traditional school will likely have a broader curriculum.

With rare exceptions, any style can be a superficial summary or a complete art.  It depends entirely on the instructor and how they teach.  BJJ is a great choice.  Personally I prefer taekwondo, which is also a great choice.  But really, the best martial art is the one you train in—the one you get good at and learn to apply.

That’s why Martial Journeys of Madison allows people to try out taekwondo with a free class or intro evaluation—to see if this is the right art and the right school for you. Most reputable martial arts schools will do this. Some will welcome inquiries even if you are not looking to sign up. Obviously I can’t speak for any other school, but if you contact Martial Journeys of Madison for any reason, I’d love to hear from you.