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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.


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