Why Martial Arts are Obsessed with Wrist Grab Defenses? – The Self Defense Company

Why Martial Arts are Obsessed with Wrist Grab Defenses?

Why Martial Arts are Obsessed with Wrist Grab Defenses?

If you have ever taken any type of self defense class there’s NO DOUBT you’ve been taught to defend against a wrist grab. But that’s not all, beyond that you were probably taught a variety of  defenses to a series of grabs, holds and attacks. No matter how many self defense classes you attend, or how many styles you take, from BJJ to MMA, when it comes to self defense they all have very similar curriculum and it’s not an accident (or divine intervention).

The reason is Judo.

Judo was the first modern martial art to be packaged and distributed world wide as a large part of Japan’s cultural export. Teddy Roosevelt even had a dojo in the Whitehouse. This is also why Judo is literally in every area of the world. People of the time would mistakingly called it  “jujutsu”, but that’s a branding issue of the time. Judo was created in 1882 and it took some years (even decades) for the name to catch on, so people commonly referred to it as jujutsu or Kano’s jujutsu (named after founder Jigoro Kano).

Specifically the self defense that underlies all martial arts systems of defense is Judo’s Goshin Jutsu. Goshin Jutsu was a series of techniques for specific self defense situations that was developed by the Kodokan (Headquarters for Judo).

The video below is the Goshin Jutsu Kata (a series of choreographed demonstrations). You’ll discover a lot of familiar attacks and perhaps defenses that have found their way into many martial art’s “self defense” programs. Notice the stylized type of attack, extended arms, one single attack and wait for your partner to defend. All of which has survived a century and it still practiced as self defense in many martial arts programs.

Unfortunately…these self defense simply don’t really work in the real world…correction, they could work in the real world, if the conditions are correct – but there’s a very slim chance of that, besides all of the defenses below are 95% unnecessary… allow me to explain…

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some good little nuggets in there, but they’re lost in the sauce, convoluted by style and ceremony. If you don’t know what to look for, you’ll surely miss it.

So how did Goshin Jutusu infiltrate the martial arts? Simple, the focus of martial arts isn’t self defense. Even though all of them list it as a benefit (after all, a punch is still a punch and a choke is still a choke) but the primary focus of martial arts is competition, sport or national pride. So when it came to self defense, they simply took Judo’s Goshin Jutusu and injected their own style into it.

The video above is a great example of this…all of the defenses end in a Judo throw, lock or choke. The reality is, you don’t need any of those finishing moves. Most of the defenses include an opening strike, it’s my assertion that if you just kept striking your attacker, you wouldn’t need to do all the fancy stuff after it. As soon as he grabs your wrist, start hitting and keep attacking, he’ll let go and if you got him “dazed” enough to throw him easily, just hit him again and end it.

The other thing you need to realize is that all of these techniques are demonstrated and practiced in the absence of fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system activation) which removes your ability of fine motor skills and even cognitive thought and reasoning.

So why a wrist grab? Well, Judo comes from Jujutsu and that centers around the sword. Remember Judo was created in the 1882 and and it wasn’t too long ago (about 15 years) when the samurai class came to an end in Japan, so defending an attacker with a sword was real and one way to stop him from drawing his sword was (you guessed it) GRAB HIS WRISTS. This is why a lot of attacks center around controlling the wrists and arms.

And this is why we all practice wrist grab defenses…samurai, the sword, jujutsu, goshin jutsu, judo, martial arts > YOU!

Another reason is boredom. “OK, I punched you in the face repeatedly, now what do we do for the other 50 minutes of class?” People get bored and want more to do. Which is fine, I get it and have gone down that garden path many a time, but the fact remains, for self defense…you don’t need it.

So will any of this work in the real world? Yes, but only on compliant and non-compliant subjects. But they DEFINITELY will not work on active resistant and combative subjects – and the problem is… you’re taught to believe they will..

Compliant, Non-compliant, Active Resistant and Combative are the four levels of resistance when arresting a subject.

Compliant – they do what you ask.
Non-compliant – they don’t respond to your orders, but can be moved without protest.
Active Resistant – they don’t allow you to move them, but do not attack you.
Combative – they are trying to kick your ass.

So yes, these types of techniques generally work on the first two subjects,  but so does a stern command and a firm nudge in the right direction from a position of advantage.

Many people suggest using pain compliance on non-compliant and active resistant subject and if you decide to use them (keep in mind, there are other means of physically persuading them) I would strongly suggest you be ready to roll because that pain compliance technique might just trigger a combative response. So be ready.

Don’t waste your time trying and lock or hold on active resistant or combative  subjects unless you have a partner (or two or three) but then again, there are better ways to take someone down as a team and these complicated locks that are typically designed for are “one on one”. Remember, these self defense techniques are derivative of martial arts which are based in one on one competitions.

Look, if you want to spend your time training these techniques for art and tradition sake, by all means, I did. But when it comes to self defense, your time is better spent elsewhere. Martial arts based systems of self defense are more concerned with injecting their style into self defense rather than focusing on what works. Everything about the art is to promote their culture. Whether it’s sparing, kata and even self defense…it’s all about the style.

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Published by Damian (Instructor)

Founder, The Self Defense Company

Join the Conversation


  1. This is one of the best posts on the subject. Every self defense system (or at least those taught to civilians) uses a wrist grab…..a carryover from another time. However, I think you made a great point of showing how the wrist grab represents a lot of what is actually taught and shows most is simply a derivative of the original and is more to differentiate the country of origin rather than anything special about the style itself (Sanda-China, BJJ-Brazil (but it is just a derivative of ground-based judo), Karate-Okinawa (later Japan), Tae Kwon Do-Korea, Pankration-Greece). Yes there are variations in technique (i.e. kick slightly more this way than that way) and a lot of mysticism around where they came from, but have a look if they ever try and fight/defend themselves for real and you will see a lot of the same stuff….but that is assuming any of them actually have had to defend themselves for real which 99% of them haven’t.

    1. Thanks Cameron and you bring up an excellent point about martial arts being derivative. If you think of martial arts as a brand, rather than the ultimate fighting art for (insert whatever fictionalized history here) it starts to make sense. founder of TKD, Cho Hon Hi was a black belt in Shotokan…wanted to have a system of self defense and national pride, so he developed TKD that focused on high kicks, rather than the reverse punch…and the same goes for all of them…self defense was kind of an after thought and it was easy enough to insert what was already in place and add their spin on it.

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