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Defeating The Headlock

Part I - At The Moment Of Initiation

by Christopher Caile

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two part article on how to defend against headlocks. This article focuses on escaping as the attack is initiated. The second article addresses how to escape from headlocks that are already secured, as well as how to deal with someone who is just playing. Some of the techniques shown in these two articles are dangerous. Always practice carefully so not to injure your partner. Also be sure to practice under the guidance and supervision of a trained expert and teacher.

As kids we used headlocks when rolling around the living room with our sibling, or when play wrestling with our dad or friends.

A headlock can be playful, or can be used to control another person, and/or wrestle them to the ground. In this way, it is not in itself dangerous. But, the headlock can also be used to hold someone in position while punching him in the face, or used to squeeze the neck to cause pain or unconsciousness. This is often what happens in a fight.

If you are on the street or in a bar and you are put into a headlock standing, or pulled to the ground in one, you become an easy target for their kicks and punches from the assailant's friends.

So what do you do? Almost every self-defense course teaches you techniques to use against a headlock, but many techniques do not work, or are not applicable to all situations.

In this and the following article we will illustrate two techniques (with a few variations) that are effective against the headlock and teach when to use them.

First, it should be said, you can react differently at different stages of a headlock, and you can also progressively escalate your response. Your response should also match the situation. Responding against a dangerous attack on the street is one thing; getting out of a headlock from a playful friend is another. Also, you should be sure that what you depend upon will work, if needed.

Responding To The Initiation Of A Headlock

Before someone gets a secure headlock on you, there is time to react. First, the attacker's arm comes around your neck. Then the hand or wrist is grabbed by the attacker's other hand, and the arms begin to tighten as the shoulder dips. You can take advantage of this movement as shown below.

The strategy here is not to fight the movement, but to follow it and use the opponent's energy and power for your own escape. If done correctly the movement is so effective that your attacker won't know what happened. You will be there one moment (attack initiation) and them suddenly seem to disappear.

If you are an aikidoka (one who practices aikido) this technique will seem familiar. This response is practiced in my aikido organization Wadokai Aikido founded by Roy Suenaka Sensei. Similar techniques are also taught in many jujutsu and grappling arts.

Here the attacker has brought an arm around your head and pulls in and down. Go with the motion. As you do, and before the attacker's arms are securely closed, shove the fingers of both your hands (palm down) between your own neck and his arm and wrap them around the attacker's left forearm.

As your head moves down (going with the motion), roll the attacker's forearm outward as you also pull it down and away from your neck (using your own weight and not just arm strength). This will create a little space for your head to slip free.

As you do this, circle the top of your head toward the attacker's ribs, with your body circling away too -- only a slight change in the direction the attacker was pulling you. You will find yourself outside the grip, to the side of the attacker and with the attacker's forearm in your control.

What you do at this point is up to you. One option is shown above. With the opponent's left forearm pulled back and down, it is simple to insert your own right arm under the attacker's forearm. Extend your right arm up along the attacker's back, your palm up.

You are trying to bend the opponent's arm up along his back (often called a "Chicken Wing"). To do so you should circle around behind the opponent. If you stay at the opponent's side, his arm is difficult to bend at the elbow and you will find yourself in a muscle against muscle situation. But if you move behind, the opponent's elbow will easily bend making the technique effective.

From here you can easily spin the opponent to the ground (not shown). Or, as shown here, your left arm is used against the opponent's head, pushing the face to the right (in a combat situation the flat of the hand is first used as a strike) -- a very uncomfortable position and one which allows you have assume control over him. In another variation, the left hand grabs under the opponent's neck to secure the collar of his uniform (gi) and then pulls toward you to effect a choke (not shown).


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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com. He has been a student of the martial arts for over 40 years and holds a 6th degree black belt in Seido Karate and has experience in judo, aikido, diato-ryu, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts. He is also a long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong. He is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. In Buffalo, NY, he founded the Qi gong Healing Institute and The Qi Medicine Association at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has also written on Qi gong and other health topics in a national magazine, the Holistic Health Journal and had been filmed for a prospective PBS presentation on Alternative Medicine. Recently he contributed a chapter on the subject to an award winning book on alternative medicine, "Resources Guide To Alternative Health."


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Self-defense, headlock, grappling, karate, judo, aikido, Kung Fu


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