When people think of elbows in martial arts, they usually think of them being used as strikes, or being the target of joint locks. Those are certainly the two most common uses for the elbows, apart from their natural uses as a component of moving the arm. Personally, I love elbow strikes and joint locks, but I also use elbows defensively. This is something that has been around for a long time, but people have recently started discussing it because it has been cropping up in MMA. Primarily, it is being used passively, as a guard position, but it can also be used more dynamically.
Most notably, Rory MacDonald, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Ronda Rousey have all been seen using the elbow defensively. Specifically, they have been using something that boxers call a “cross arm defense.” Lately, it seems that MMA fans have been calling it a “high elbow guard.” It can be done with the lead arm, or it can be employed from the reverse side, as seen in the photo, above. The shoulder is rolled up and forward to protect the side of the jaw, while the arm wraps around the head with the elbow pointing forward. This position, combined with appropriate evasive movement, keeps you fairly well protected from hooks and straight punches aimed at your jaw and nose. A variation of this comes up fairly often in Muay Thai, as well.
An added benefit of the “cross arm defense” position for MMA and self defense situations is that it puts a bony surface in the path of punches headed your way. This means that your opponent’s punch may actually hit the point of your elbow, and with 4oz. gloves (or no gloves at all), that could potentially break someone’s hand. In traditional martial arts–particularly Filipino and Indonesian martial arts–it is not uncommon to see techniques that are intended to “damage the opponent’s tools.” One such method is to attempt to elbow strike incoming punches, as seen in the animated GIF, above. While some people may be able to do it, I find this to be very difficult to do. Instead, I prefer to parry punches into my elbows, somewhat like this. It is still not easy to do, but it is much more doable than elbow striking punches.
In addition to being used as a passive guard position, your elbow can be used to actively deflect strikes. In the video, above, I show a drill that uses enpi-barai (elbow sweep) to deflect a punch. This can be related to the enpi-uchi (elbow strike) movements in Naihanchi Shodan, or in the rolling elbows of Naihanchi Nidan. The most commonly seen method of deflecting a punch with the elbows, in the form of kata application, comes from the “official” Shotokan application of Pinan/Heian Sandan. I don’t personally like the way it is used in that demonstration–and it isn’t my preferred application–but the concept is still sound if used appropriately. Your elbow can be used to parry punches, and it is easy to roll a backfist or hammerfist strike off of the parry. In addition, using the elbow keeps your hand closer, so you can cover up quickly. It is not something the replaces other methods of dealing with punches, but it is certainly a viable option.
You can also use the elbow after you have engaged with your opponent at close range, in the form of trapping. Ryan Parker Sensei demonstrates several kakiya/kakete-biki drills in the video, above, that use this concept. Your elbow can be used to check your opponent’s arms and prevent them from striking, or at least limit their range of motion and, therefore, their available targets. You can also wrap your arm over your opponent’s and use the elbow against the inside of their arm as a sort of hook. This can simply be used to trap and facilitate your own striking, of course, but it can also be used to off-balance your opponent. Any time you are using the elbow like this, you are also putting yourself in a position where tuidi-waza (seizing hand techniques) can be employed. You will also note that using the elbow as a trapping tool leaves your hands free to do a variety of other things, such as striking, deflecting, and grabbing. It is really a much more versatile tool than it sometimes gets credit for.