When you are attacked, you don’t really want to deal with an attacker that is throwing a barrage of punches at you–you want to stop their attack as quickly as possible. Limb control is one way of accomplishing this, and is a very important aspect of old Okinawan karate but, like many important aspects of old Okinawan karate, it has fallen somewhat out of favor in the modern karate world. It just doesn’t fit very will into the context of sport karate, which is too focused on long-range, controlled, mutual fighting. Where limb control comes into play is at close range, especially when dealing with committed attacks. It can be used in sport fighting, of course, but the opportunities to use it tend to be rather few and far between. In more open competitive rulesets, like mixed martial arts, more opportunities can be found, but it still isn’t the intended context for limb control. Limb control can be employed from grappling situations, ballistic attacks, and defense encounters, but always at close range. Drills for developing the skills to do this exist in a wide variety of martial arts, and this article will be covering just a few examples.
One of the most widely practiced forms of limb control in the world is simply wrapping your arms around your opponent’s arms. The “overhooks” and “underhooks” of wrestling and clinch fighting are prime examples. These arm hooks somewhat limit your opponent’s ability to use their arms, and also gives you control over their body. To do this effectively, you have to have the tactile sensitivity to be aware of your opponent’s grips and positioning, and the skill to transition between the overhook and underhook to improve your own grip and position. The most popular drill for developing these things is the classic “pummeling” drill, which can be seen in the animated GIF, above. While the basic drill is simply the transition from overhook to underhook in isolation, it can be used as a springboard for other techniques.
A variation of the classic “pummeling” drill can be to apply the same concepts to the elbows or wrists of your opponent. This actually provides a greater focus on limb control, and less focus on controlling the body, directly. Of course, when the limbs are properly controlled, the body is also limited. In the animated GIF, above, you can see this being practiced, but with the addition of an arm-drag. Arm-drags are an excellent method of transitioning from “inside” to “outside,” which improves your position in relation to your opponent. While they are most commonly associated with grappling arts, they also exist within striking-focused arts, and can be added to almost any limb control drill. It is a form of limb control that is used to enter into a variety of techniques–in grappling, it is usually an entry for a takedown.
When we start looking beyond pure grappling methods, limb control starts to take on more nuances. In grappling, most limb control consists of grasping the limb, in some way. When striking comes into play, limb control tends to be a little more pressure-based, so as to keep your hands available for striking (and blocking, should your limb control fail). This is where the development of muchimidi (sticky/heavy hands) becomes vital. The most popular drill for developing this pressure, and the tactile sensitivity required to make it work, is kakie/kakete/kakidi (hooked/crossed hands). I highly recommend that you read Ryan Parker Sensei’s excellent article on the subject to learn more about it. In the animated GIF, above, you can see the basic kakie exercise that most karateka are familiar with.
Just like the grappling drills, kakie can be modified, and used as a launching platform for a wide variety of techniques, from strikes to joint locks to takedowns. The classic kakie drill maintains forearm contact throughout the drill, at least until you use the drill to enter into a technique. This constant contact means that you can control your opponent’s limb at any point in the drill. In the animated GIF, above, you can see kakie being done with a circular, horizontal motion, and being used to enter into nage-waza (throwing techniques).
Once we get into more ballistic attacks, we start to look at actively trapping your opponent’s limbs. I have written about pre-emptive trapping, before, which is a type of limb control that is intended to stop an opponent’s attack before it starts. You can also do reactive trapping, where you take control of an opponent’s limb when it is used to attack you. This is something that is more difficult to do on a trained opponent, who snaps his/her punches back to guard in a controlled manner, although it can be done. It is really intended for committed punches that are thrown with serious intent to separate a person from their consciousness. A common karate drill, which is very similar to the Filipino “hubud lubud” drill, can be used to develop this, although it is usually practiced as more of a kote kitae (forearm forging) exercise, as seen in the animated GIF, above. If you move the participants to close range, and throw committed punches (or even elbows), it is a very good drill for learning to block, move the attacking limb out of the way, and trap it so you can counter attack.
Just like the previous drills, this one can be varied, and used as a launching platform for other techniques. Once you have made contact with your opponent’s attacking arm, you have the opportunity to trap it, or move it to a variety of positions, and apply strikes, joint locks, and takedowns. The animated GIF, above, shows a simple variation based on movements found in Naihanchi. You can see the the same basic uke-waza (receiving techniques) are being used, but at closer range, and against multiple punches. The person doing the drill moves the attacking limb so that he is “outside” of the attack, then traps his attacker’s arm to keep it from impeding his counter-strike.
It is also important to be able to use both sides of your body against both sides of your opponent’s body, which requires additional variation in your drills. Taking control of an attack from across the body (eg. right vs. right) is more difficult than taking control of an attack on the same side (eg. left vs. right). You might think that your opponent’s attack is coming from the same side, only to have it come from across the body. It is also fairly likely that, if you do not end an altercation immediately, you will have to deal with multiple strikes, which could come from either side. The drill shown in the animated GIF, above, is a simple one taken from Chibana Chosin’s Kihon Nihon (Basic Number 2) kata, which isolates the concept of cross-body control.
The skills developed by these types of drills all start to come together when you begin to deal with your opponent’s defense. Typically, if you attempt to strike someone, they will attempt to put something in the way of your strike to prevent it from hitting them. If you attempt to apply a joint lock someone, they may slip free or be too strong. If you attempt to throw someone, they may try to step away, or engage in grappling with you. These are situations that must be accounted for in your training, so you can immediately detect them and react accordingly. A very simple example, going back to grappling, is the “re-drag” counter to the arm-drag, as seen in the video, above. This prevents the person doing the initial arm-drag from using it as an entry into a takedown.
To deal with these defensive responses, we simply need to expand our drills to include them. Just as basic drills were expanded to include techniques, they can be further expanded to include our opponent’s defensive responses. The drill that I show in the video, above, is an example of a very narrowly-focused drill that can introduce this into training. What you develop, through drills like this, is a feel for obstructions. If you try to strike your opponent, and your strike is blocked, then you have to start all over again. That all changes if you can immediately feel that the strike has been blocked, and move the block out of the way.
In addition to detecting blocks, it is important to be able to detect deflections. This may seem like a minor distinction, but the feel is very different. Blocks seek to stop an attack, outright, along its path to its intended target. Deflections seek to move an attack from its intended path so that it does not find its target, at all. One drill to develop this kind of sensitivity is the one shown in the animated GIF, above. By maintaining arm contact, you can feel when your partner resists your movements in this drill–when you try to push their arm out of the way when you are on the “outside,” or when you try to strike to the face when your hands are on the “inside.”
Drills like my forearm clash hikite (pulling hand) drill, and Taira Sensei’s “under” drill, will help you develop the skills for more complex drills, which can be more free-form in nature. One example of this is in the animated GIF, above. In it, you can see that you not only have to deal with a partner who is blocking your strikes, but who is also striking back. This drill is intended to flow back and forth, rather than completely nullify your attacker, so that both parties can develop their tactile sensitivity for handling deflections, while also deflecting attacks.
As you can see from this animated GIF, the idea of clearing obstructions and controlling deflections is one that can be applied in a variety of ways. Essentially, any way your opponent can block a strike gives you another way to clear a path for another strike. This is a very important skill, because if your opponent stops your attack, and you do not know how to recover from that failure, then they could take the upper hand. If the opponent is blocking, they are giving you an arm to work with, and you can make use of that if you have developed the necessary skills. Once you have made contact and cleared the obstruction, you can go on with striking, or you can move into a joint lock or throw. Even if they throw another strike, you can use the deflection and limb control skills developed in previously mentioned drills to deal with those.
These are the types of situations that kata are very good at; up-close-and-personal fighting, where you may have to deal with your technique failing and your attacker continuing to fight. The kata do their best to show you how to end a fight quickly, and nullify anything that your opponent might do to stop you. This is something we can see in Taira Masaji Sensei’s renzoku bunkai (continuous analysis) drills–you work the first technique in the kata, and if that fails, the next movement counters that failure, and if that fails, the next movement counters that failure, and so on. If you work on the types of drills outlined in this article, you will find a lot more of this redundancy and gyaku/kaeshi-waza (reversal techniques) in your kata, and you will be more prepared to use them in an alive manner.