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Mike's Martial Arts Research Topics:

Considerations in Responding to a Grab.

by Michael Liem

Copyright February 2003 (All Rights Reserved)


This page is not a "how to" manual on responding to grabs or on self-defense whatsoever, and should not be treated as such or as instruction of any kind. Rely at your own peril. Instead, come to my Sifu's kung fu school to receive proper instruction. Also, such material is covered in various martial arts and self-defense schools, as well as self-defense seminars, manuals, books, and websites.

Instead this page serves to lay out my thoughts on the subject of grab defenses. While noting that there are numerous types of grabs and numerous ways of responding to any such grab, my individual approach follows the method as taught to me via Sifu Al Bender's kung fu, which includes a mixture of Northern Shaolin Quan, Taiji Quan, Chin-na (Chinese joint-locking and seizing method), as well as some Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. Also by "grab" I mean generally an attack by seizing any part of the body using the hand, or arms, and thus may include a "hold", a "choke", or even a "tackle".

Under said kung fu system, as well as many other martial arts and self-defense systems, the general approach to responding to attacks is to use the attacker's energy and momentum to control the attacker's movements. In contrast, use of "force-against-force", i.e., attempting to directly oppose the power and momentum of the attacker with the defender's own, is avoided as unreliable and potentially a waste of valuable life-saving time and energy, as well as ineffective against a stronger opponent.

When training for self-defense in kung fu, the usual practice involves having a partner execute a specific attack, allowing the defending student to respond accordingly. The number one priority is to effectively neutralize the threat. In other words, self-protection and safety comes first, while following the proper kung fu form comes a distant second, although usually the most effective responses happen to coincide with proper kung fu form, i.e., removing the target out of the attacker's direction of force, following the direction of the attacker's energy, using the attacker's direction of movement and momentum to supplement the defensive technique and to control the attacker.

As stated previously, this particular page does not cover general self-defense "how to" methods. For the purpose of this page, we assume that a defender has failed to take the necessary measures prevent becoming the target of a violent attack, starting with a grab. Therefore we will not dwell on prevention strategies and tactics. Nevertheless, it should be noted briefly that the best way to defend oneself is do whatever you need to do in order to prevent finding yourself in a violent encounter, and do whatever you need to do to be able to control such a violent encounter if one occurs. In other words, purposely avoid dangerous areas, such as notoriously crime-ridden neighborhoods, areas without witnesses, and by avoiding violent confrontations whenever possible. For instance, if you are looking for a place to park, avoid the space that lacks lighting, or the space that is next to a large van, where assailants may be hiding in ambush. If walking outside at night, be aware of your surroundings at all times, and do not distract yourself by conducting a conversation on your mobile telephone. If you sense that you are about to be confronted violently, and you have an opportunity, surreptitiously pick up a weapon, even if it is a handful of gravel or loose change to throw at an attacker's eyes. Et cetera.

The Problem.

Suppose a pedestrian has failed to take the precautionary, preventive measures and is surprised to find that her arm is suddenly grabbed by an attacker. Let us suppose that this pedestrian has trained in specific techniques for responding to specific grabs, such as the basic wrist grab for instance. For instance, the pedestrian had been taught to drop her weight and bend her elbow, allowing her wrist to break through the weak point of the attacker's grab between the thumb and forefinger, accompanied by an immediate strike to the attacker's eyes.

However, the pedestrian finds herself unable to execute this response because the attacker has not only grabbed her wrist but also violently yanked her toward him, into the alleyway from which he appeared. Surprised not only by the attack but also the pull, she finds herself off balance. While she struggles to regain her footing in order to respond to the grab, the attacker strikes her at the temple (the weak point between the eye and the ear) with a brick in his other hand. Since she was concentrating on the specific wrist grab response for which she was trained, she forgot to apply another technique that she had learned, a simple temple block with her free forearm to deflect the brick attack at the oncoming wrist. Instead, her temple block is too late; she is struck unconscious or killed by the brick attack.

The problem with regard to training for defense against a grab is that sometimes a grab is more than just a grab. Often, a grab is also a pull, a push, or even a strike. Also, an attacker is likely to grab with the intention of striking with the non-grabbing hand, or with a weapon held in that hand. In addition, an attacker that successfully grabs with one hand will also grab with the other hand, or arm, to establish a hold or a choke, or to threaten with a knife or a gun placed close to the intended victim's body. If the defender responds only to the initial grab, as shown in the example above, that response may become obviated by the attacker's secondary attack, and cause the defender to expend valuable time and energy on a wasted effort, which may result in ultimate failure to control the situation.

In summary, a grabbing attack should be expected to entail four possible secondary attacks:

One: a secondary grab, e.g., a chokehold following a rear belt grab.
Two: pull, or push, with the grabbing hand(s).
Three: strike.
Four: a attack from additional assailants from another direction

Possible Responses to a Grab.

The following are possible immediate responses to an initial grab. Suppose you find yourself grabbed, or your clothes, hair, scarf, headband, tie, hem of dress or coat, handbag/briefcase, etc. immobilizing you at least for the moment.

A. First, you use lethal force instanteously.
PRO If successful, this will neutralize the threat decisively.
CON However, you may hurt someone you do not want to hurt, i.e., it was your friend trying to play a joke on you, or kill someone unnecessarily, and end up in jail for a long time. Although the proverb "to be judged by twelve is better than to be carried by six" has merit, there are better choices.

B. First get a look at the grabber & what he/she is doing, to assess the threat before taking further action.
PRO The grabber might be a prankster friend, etc. Or, looking & assessing first will allow a response to a possible secondary attack.
CON There might not be time to assess the threat, especially if the grab is from behind and accompanied by a pull and strike.

C. First, use reflexive, instantaneous movement to escape the grab. If it does not work, then conclude based on the attacker's persistance that the threat is lethal, and use any self-defense technique, even if it is lethal, untll the threat is neutralized.
PRO If the initial escape works, you can run or otherwise prevent further threat.
CON Assuming the initial escape works, you may lose an opportunity to completely neutralize the threat of a renewed attack, plus lose time & energy needed to respond to a second attack. If the initial escape fails, you may have lost valuable time to deal with a pull, second grab, or a strike.

D. First, establish, or regain, your balance to prepare to apply a non-lethal self-defense technique for control.
PRO If you have balance & control, you can apply a self-defense technique to neutralize the threat, before taking time to assess the degree of danger.
CON There might be a force-against-force struggle if the grab is accompanied by a pull that is strong enough to resist your efforts to establish balance. Such a struggle could cost valuable time if a strike is coming.

E. First, be aware of and respond to a secondary attack to apply a self-defense technique and take control. If no second attack, respond to the grab.
PRO Avoids a time-consuming and energy-consuming struggle that pits force against force.
CON Looking & waiting may allow the grabber to get a firm grip and establish his/her own balance, which may make the grab difficult to escape or respond to. But this is not a major concern. See Note below.

F. First, secure the grab if necessary so the attacker cannot release, then respond to a secondary attack. Once the secondary threat is neutralized, or if none, then reverse the grab and/or control the attacker's balance. If the threat is lethal and your ability to keep the threat neutralized is in doubt, use incapacitating or lethal or means as may be necessary.
PRO same pro's as with D above except with added benefit of reducing the chance of missing an opportunity to completely neutralize the threat.
CON Taking time to secure the grab may allow the attacker to make a secondary attack. Also, if grabbed from behind, it may be difficult and time-consuming to assess a secondary threat.

Note: if there is a firm grab by an attacker whose balance is centered and is not otherwise in motion, attack the weaknesses (Eyes, Throat, Knees, Shins) to either weaken the grip or provoke a reaction that can be used to gain control. Since the attacker is grabbing with at least one hand, you have an advantage in having more hands available as weapons.

Summary of Choices First Reaction to Grab
A instantaneous lethal force
B look & assess danger
C reflexive escape
D find balance
E respond to assumed secondary
F secure the grab


Any of these choices may be appropriate given the particular situation. For instance, Choice A is appropriate if the attack is unquestionably "lethal" and where lethal self-defense is justified. However, Choice B becomes appropriate when the threat is not real, i.e., the grabber is merely a friend playing a joke on you, or perhaps a police officer with legitimate intentions. Choices A and B are opposite extremes of each other. Like flipping a coin, choosing the wrong one could spell the difference between life or death versus a jail sentence and/or a dead friend. Therefore, we eliminate both choices are look to the remaining four, to find a medium where there is control and opportunity for proper judgment.

Choice C does not rely on control, but on speed, luck, and a relatively weak grab by the attacker. Therefore we eliminate C.

Choice D seems correct because control is impossible without balance. If the grab is stationary without a pull, Choice D will allow the defender to follow up with the correct response to the grab, including lethal force if necessary, and even respond to a secondary attack if any. However, if there is a pull, fighting the pull will become a struggle of strength and weight, and could become problematic for the defender, whose time and energy is distracted by the struggle, if there is a secondary attack by a strike or a weapon. We therefore eliminate Choice D.

Choices E and F are safe because they contemplate prepared responses to secondary attacks as well as pull/push accompanying the grab. Thus, the Defender who is pulled will allow herself to move with the pull and use the momentum to push or enter the attacker's center, while simultaneously preparing for a possible second attack by way of strike or grab. The difference between E and F is that the Defender using Choice E may find the attacker simply letting go of the grab, which will abruptly end the opportunity to use the attacker's momentum unless the defender as already countered with a grab or has established steady contact with the attacker, "sticking" as in Taiji Quan. Choice F, however, allows the defender to remain in contact and control of the situation by continuing to follow the attacker's energy, even if the attacker is remaining stationary. Securing the grab first is consistent with Chin Na practice, which requires the defender to secure the attacking grab before reversing it and executing a joint lock or submission hold. Therefore, between E and F, we eliminate E and stick with Choice F.


By listing the possible choices in initial grab-responses and analyzing the pro's and con's of each choice, we have not only concluded as to a general rule of thumb for responding to a grab, but also we have established the reasoning behind eliminating other possible choices of initial responses. Having conducted this exercise, we can now concentrate our self-defense preparations and training on other concerns and become less likely to find ourselves distracted during a violent counter trying to remember all we have learned about self-defense.

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