Hapkido Joint-Locks for Self-Defense:
Back to the Basics

By Scott Shaw

This article originally appeared in the March 1995 issue of Inside Karate.

Each system of martial arts teaches its practitioners methods of self-defense that will help them to successfully defend themselves from the various types of physical altercations. There are blocks, punches, kicks, throws, and perhaps the most misunderstood of all self-defense applications, the joint-lock.

A joint-lock witness you encounter an attacker, take a hold of an element of his body, and then joint-lock him into submission. In martial art classes, this style of self-defense is generally very effective. This is due to the fact that your opponent understands what joint-locking technique is about to be unleashed and knows how he is expected to react. This type of sterile joint-lock training is, however, not an effective means of training for street combat. In a street altercation your opponent is not only very adrenalized but is in a constant state of movement. His movements are generally very rapid and undefined. Therefore, to successfully take control over his body and joint-lock him into submission must become a science if you hope to effectively use a joint-lock as a viable means of self-defense.

Understanding the Basic Rules of the Joint Lock
At its most elementary level, the Korean martial art of Hapkido teaches its practitioners to never expend more energy than is absolutely necessary to successfully defend yourself. This is to say; as the joint-lock defense is often times predicated by a grabbing attack, you must never amplify the confrontation by randomly attempting to pull away from your opponent — hoping to relocate your positioning in order to defense yourself. The reason that randomly pulling away is not a sound defensive measure is because from this aggressive posturing, your attacking opponent and yourself will then have to go head-to-head into an unpredictable battle of muscle, force, and energy expenditure. It is a far more efficient means of defending yourself to immediately take action from the exact point of the altercation's inception. In this way, you will not only have the rapid counter attack surprise advantage, but also you will not alert your opponent to the fact you are intending to defend yourself.

Joint-Lock When, Where, and Why
An angered attacker, attempting to intimidate you, comes up and grabs you by your shirt. A common reaction to this type of attack is to follow the aggressor's lead and grab a hold of him, as well. This type of defensive action generally only enrages your assailant further and escalates the confrontation into a grappling match that lands both of you on the ground.

The second common alternative to someone grabbing a hold of you is to instantly strike him with a punch or a kick. Though a precisely directed strike may prove to be the most effective style of self-defense you can unleash, this type of very aggressive behavior may not always suit your environment or confrontational situation. In addition, if your strike does not completely disable your attacker it may only further agitate the situation, leading to an extended fight.

There is, however, a simpler much more effective course of action to take when encountering a grabbing attacker. That method is to rapidly analyze which body joint of your opponent is exposed and accessible. Then, with a precise joint-locking technique, you can powerfully lock that joint, easily disengage your opponent's grasp on you, and effortlessly lock him into submission.

Joint-Lock 101
To begin your understanding of proper joint-locking techniques, simply take your hand and bend one of your fingers backwards in the direction it is not supposed to go. The obvious reaction to this is discomfort. Imagine the reaction you would obtain if you were to perform this finger bending technique, very aggressively, against an attacking opponent.

To understand how this finger joint-locking technique can be effectively used, simply have a training partner grab your throat with one of his hands. You rapidly reach up to his grip. With your hand and fingers, you dislodge one of his fingers from his grasp. Immediately, you rapidly and powerfully bend that finger back, towards him. Due to the pain you are inflicting on his finger, he instantly releases his grasp on your neck. Thus, you are freed from his chokehold and you may have broken his finger in the process — depending on how powerfully you bent it back. Once you have a controlling hold of your opponent's finger, you can easily dominate his motions by maintaining pressure on that finger or effortlessly throw him to the ground, by simply bending his finger back further towards his own arm and directing him in the direction of the ground.

Though the bending back of the finger is a very simplistic illustration, it is not only a highly viable joint-locking technique, but is a very poignant example of how easy control over your opponent can be maintained by locking his joints — leaving him in a submissive positioning. Thus, he cannot readily come back at you with a further attack.

Making a Joint Lock Effective
The key element that makes all joint-locks effective is to move a joint in a direction that it does not naturally travel. By manipulating a joint against itself, you invariably come to a superior degree of control over your opponent — much more so than you could obtain by simply struggling with him muscle-to-muscle.

Of course, many of the grabs and holds that an opponent may use are not as easy to free yourself from as the previously described example. This is why the advancing joint-lock technician understands that whenever he is grabbed, the initial reaction, prior to locking your attacker's joint, is to strike him in a vital strike-point first. These vital strike-point zones include, but are not limited to: the nose, the throat, the solar plexus, the groin, and the knees.

By striking your opponent just before disengaging his hold, you momentarily distract him. In addition, you may possibly injure him. One thing will assuredly occur and that is his grip on you will be loosened. From this, it will be easier to disengage his hold and you will be able to lock and control his body joint much more easily.

Joint-Lock Targeting
What type of hold your attacker has on you dominates your joint-lock target on his body. Virtually any joint on the human body can be locked and manipulated under the right circumstances. The decision of which one to lock is largely dictated by how your opponent has taken a hold of you. As detailed, if a joint is not easily locked, it is not the one to focus upon. This is because of the fact that this will only prove to be a battle of individual strengths. Therefore, the key to immediately joint-lock success is to find a joint that is either already exposed or easy to take control over.

The wrist is a bodily joint that can be easily locked. To demonstrate an example of this to yourself, take your hand and powerfully push it in towards your forearm. You will no doubt feel the pressure and ultimate pain this causes. Now, reverse this control and push your hand back away from your arm. Again, you will observe the discomfort. You can now clearly understand that when your opponent's wrist is taken control of, you can easily dominate and limit his aggressive actions.


Adding a Strike to a Joint-Lock
An opponent grabs you by your shirt. You strike him to a pressure point, perhaps his solar plexus, to disarm the strength of his hold. Now, take a hold of his grabbing hand, by placing your thumb on top of his hand near its center and wrapping your fingers around his wrist. Powerfully, twist the hand over on top of itself and bend it in towards the opponent's arms, arching it slightly to one side. By joint locking your opponent's wrist in this way, his grasp on you is released and his hand and wrist joint are locked, no doubt causing him pain. From this superior positioning you have substantial control over his movements. You can add more pressure to the hold if additional control is necessary. Or, if you desire, by twisting the wrist further you can throw your opponent to the ground.

Advancing in Joint-Lock Theory
Joint-lock theory teaches you to view the positioning of your body in proportion to that of your opponent, and then to lock the joint on his body which is most easy to grip and manipulate in relation to where you are initially located. For example, your opponent has grabbed you in a two handed chokehold. First, you loosen his grasp by punching him in the solar plexus or kneeing him in the groin. You then, instantly reach in, twisting his neck to one side, slightly upward, with both of your hands. Then, by pivoting his body away from yours and downward, you effortlessly throw him to the ground. Because your opponent was standing directly in front of you, one of the easiest joints of his body to manipulate was his neck. Therefore, you reached in and controlled it and did not have to fight to manipulate it.

The neck is an easily manipulated joint-lock target. This is because of the fact that the neck's muscle structure does not possess a strong ability to fend off a well-placed single or double hand grab that will shove it to either one side or the other. Once the neck is pushed sideways, past its natural limit, the spine is instantly locked and there is little your opponent can easily do to retreat from this hold. Therefore, from superior positioning, manipulation of your opponent becomes quite easy.

Scott Shaw


The elbow is another of the primary focal points of effective joint locking. This is due to the fact that when an opponent grabs a hold of your clothing or body, there is generally a certain distance between his body and yours. This distance is bridged by his arm. As his elbow is at the center of this distance, it generally remaining very exposed.

The type of joint manipulation you can unleash on your opponent's elbow is as simple as powerfully striking downward on top of it with a knife hand. This will not only loosen his grasp but may also disengage your opponent's grip on you altogether. If you leave this knife hand strike in place and instantly bend his forearm back onto itself by using your other hand, you can easily maintain control over your standing opponent or rapidly send him to the ground simply by pivoting around, as you direct his body downward.

More advanced elbow joint locking can be put into action when your opponent grabs a hold of you with one arm. This is accomplished by extending your arm up and over his grabbing arm and then powerfully lifting your arm up, underneath his elbow joint. Due to his grab, his elbow is locked. Even if he releases his grasp, you still maintain control over his motion because his grabbing hand is forced under your armpit and, thus, his hand, elbow, and arm are completely locked into place. You can hold him in this elbow lock, or if you prefer, by continuing through with additional force on his elbow, you can lift it up further as you sweep kick him. He will be easily sent to the ground.





As you now understand, joint locking not only makes freeing yourself from an opponent's grabs virtually effortless, but it takes the normally necessary reliance on strength out of your self-defense methodology. The most essential element that must be kept in mind when using joint-lock self defense, however, is that each technique must be easy to unleash and will quickly take control over your opponent.

By putting joint-lock theory into practice, you learn to control your opponent with minimal energy, thereby, making your victory in any physical confrontation quick, quiet, and precise.

Copyright © 1995 — All Right Reserved
No part of this article may be used without the expressed permission of Scott Shaw or his representatives.