Self Defense Fact or Fiction: Wrist-Grabs

In this first installation in a series of articles about martial arts “myths”, we’re going to look a little at wrist-grabs.

There is a lot of skepticism, especially in many schools practicing “modern” self-defense systems, regarding grabbing of a wrist, or both wrists, as a form of attack, something which is considered a grappling fundamental in many traditional martial art-schools.

For an example of an opponent to wrist-grabs, please check out this video by James Bullock. Every minute is golden:

Now, I will not spend this article arguing against that video, perhaps mainly because I believe the fact that you are here, reading articles about self-defense, is a sign that I don’t have to, so instead I’ll just trot right along and explain things.


There are plenty of scenarios in which my wrist(s) can be grabbed. Let’s make a short list:

• I grab your groin/throat/thigh/hair.
• You seek to control my arms.
• You seek to control my arms, so you grab my arms, but I wriggle, so you grab what you can, which happens to be my wrist(s).
• You want to drag me along somewhere, say into a car, for example.
• I try to escape from said car, or a room, or any other confined space, or unconfined space, and you try to keep me from escaping.
• I have something in my hand at the point of attack, maybe a bottle that you don’t want me to smash over your head, or a car-key that I’m just about to open the car with, or money that I just withdrew from an ATM.

If it seems unreasonable for someone to grab your wrists as a way to control you, imagine your opponent has even a limited amount of grappling-training behind him, and think again.
Or just imagine that your assailant outweighs you by 150 pounds.

What’s the danger?

This very much depends on the wrist-grab. Is it one hand grabbing one wrist, on the same side? Opposite side? Two hands grabbing both wrists? Two hands grabbing one wrist? Your fingers pointing downward or your fingers pointing upward?

In text, and even shown on their own, these different attacks may seem small and insignificant, but in reality, your left wrist being grabbed by the opponent’s right hand isn’t necessarily very dangerous at all, and may still fall in the category of “space-invasions”, rather than “attacks” (to which, needless to say, you should answer with de-escalation…).

In contrast, your left wrist being grabbed by the opponent’s left hand puts you in a position in which the risk of being turned around, your back ending up towards your opponent, is very high, and from which the opponent can hit you with his right hand, while you have no hand to defend yourself with.

Think about that for a second.

Now put a blade in the opponent’s right hand.

Now imagine yourself being pulled, with no hands to defend yourself with, your whole body being thrown forward, right into someone’s steel-booted foot coming at your gut at full speed.

Now imagine yourself standing as you are, when both your wrist are suddenly caught and pulled behind your back, a kick in the back of your leg dropping you to your knee, when a third figure appears running towards you, a foot on its way to your defenseless face seconds later.

All these are different wrist-grabs, and they have different dangers, the common denominator as a rule being that you are left with weaker defenses.

What to do?

If by chance you find yourself in a situation in which you cannot simply smash your palm into your opponent’s face until the problem is solved, you may have to look for a different solution.
Just browsing youtube, there are probably 50 different escapes per grip available for your scrutiny, but keeping away from specific techniques for now, here are some general guidelines:

• Protection:
– Though not always true, as a rule, if someone grabs you with one hand they mean to do something with the other hand, or with their legs, or with their head, or to let their buddy go to work on you.

The grabbing hand is not an attack in itself, but a setup to an attack, so a complete and immediate focus on the hand grabbing you may be interrupted by a generous serving of knuckle-sandwich, after which focusing may be more difficult.

Instead, get an idea of what attack your opponent is preparing for, and then break lose while protecting yourself from that attack.

For a lot of relevant information about protecting yourself at close range, read this article.

• Weak-spots:
– “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, and when grabbing something, that weak link is the space between your fingertips and your thumb. After that comes the wrist, and there are plenty of ways to weaken a wrist. Further up the chain that that you should never have to go.

So jerk against fingertips while twisting and rotating your opponent’s wrist (while facing your opponent and staying in balance), and you have a fair chance of escaping.

• Isolation
– If you pull away, and the opponent merely follows with his arm, your pull is rendered meaningless.

Similarly, if your opponent after grabbing you pulls you off balance, you have no chance of trying to pull, or do anything else, in the first place.

One way to counter this is to isolate, e.g. if you want to jerk free from your opponent’s grip, grab his wrist with your other hand, holding it still, as you jerk free, making it more difficult for him both to follow you, and to pull at you.

For more about wrist-escapes (among other things), check out this short video:

Andrew Raynor

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