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Defense Against A Rear Bear Hug Attack -
Part 3

A Low Grab Around The Elbows

By Christopher Caile

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles on defenses against various kinds of bear hugs. Part 1 discussed a defense against an attacker moving into the defender and who grabs him as he is going forward. Part 2 discussed the defense against a static bear hug attack where a standing attacker grabs around the defender’s upper arms. Part 3 discusses an attack similar to that discussed in Part 2, but with the grab lower, around the arms at the elbow level.

Some readers to this series have questioned bear hug attacks, suggesting that they are unlikely. That’s not true. When emotions run hot or when circumstances are high pressure and there is ego, fear or frustrations boiling over, people often act physically if words fail them. Sometimes a person will attack with a bear hug just to vent anger or frustration, not meaning to injure – against a child, small adult or spouse.

Also, friends, family or others close to you might be kidding around and do this type of bear hug maneuver. In these situations you might just want to persuade them to cease, but you don’t want to cause injury. Here I would suggest a quick and painful pinch. See: “Ouch! The Mighty Little Pinch For Self-defense.”

Other times a bear hug is used to stop or control a person, or man-handle the defender someplace, throw them down, or hold them in place (with the arms pinned) while another person robs or attacks. While in college I got caught up in a bar fight and was suddenly grabbed from behind in a bear hug. I used the defense shown in Part 1 and the attacker was fortunately thrown forward past me. The fight didn’t end there, but that’s another story. So bear hugs do happen. You should be prepared.

A low rear bear hug at the elbow level.

This article focuses on a type of bear hug where your attacker grabs you from the rear, low around your upper arms or at your elbow level. Here, unlike the bear hugs discussed in previous articles, the defense is more difficult.

The good news, however, is that the attacker has tied up both his arms and he or she is not hurting you, scaring you possibly, but not injuring or hitting -- just grabbing and immobilizing you. The attacker could, of course, try to lift you up to throw you to the ground which could hurt and lead to further assault, but this subject is left to a future article. Some of the defenses shown here, however, might interdict any lifting effort and persuade the attacker just to leave you alone.

One more comment: on stances. A reader of Part 2 of this series on the rear bear hug e-mailed me and said, “Your stances are terrible.” I wrote back, “Yes they are, but this is self-defense not karate: stances in self-defense are usually more natural.” (1) Here we emphasize what works.

The bear hug discussed in this article is a bit different from those shown in Part 1 and 2. Here the attacker grabs you low around the upper arms at elbow level or just above.

In this type of bear hug you will know immediately (by feel, or being unable to expand your elbows to allow you to slip away as in Part 2) that your defense will have to be different.

You should initiate a counter-attack. The idea is to turn the table on the attacker, to overwhelm him or her with a series of quick, powerful and painful counterattacks – attacks that can injure or incapacitate, attacks that will turn the attacker into a defender and occupy his mind and scare him.

Rear head smash

Foot stomp

I usually start with a rear head smash (you can usually sense where the attacker’s head is) and even if it is out of reach a movement by my head will draw his attention upward. I follow this with a foot stomp (notice that the foot is turned to the side) or series of foot stomps (dance on his toes), followed by a groin strike.

Hip movement

Groin hit

In striking the groin I shift my hips hard and fast to one side. The opponent is usually quite aware of a potential strike to the groin and a natural response is for the attacker to shift his hips to the side too (to protect his groin). This is just what you want – since if you quickly shift your hips in the other direction and strike down his groin will be exposed (an alternative is just to grab the groin or pinch it).

These techniques alone can often suceed in freeing you. Sometimes, however, more is needed to force the attacker’s arms free.

Pry the little finger away.

Pulling the little finger away, lift it with the hand, forcing the little finger down. This can be very painful.

One method is to pry away the attacker’s little finger on his top hand and then lift and pry it backward. The little finger is always vulnerable because it is not strong.

A second and complementary move (which is sometimes not possible if the grab is so low that it restricts forearm movement) is to attack the long bones on the back of the opponent’s top hand.

The top of the hand is a sensitive area and these bones (metacarpal bones that run from the wrist to the first knuckles) (2) can be easily hurt, injured and broken. In this example I used an extended knuckle fist, supported with the other hand, and drove it into the top of the opponent’s hand. At the same time I extend and tighten my stomach muscles to press outward on the opponent’s grip as I simultaneously strike with a knuckle fist in the other direction.


Using an extended knuckle attack, supported with the other hand, attack the back of the attacker’s hand.

If the attacker doesn’t open his arms, pry them open. This strike can loosen the opponent’s grip so you can grab a little finger (shown above), or spread the opponent’s arms which can let you escape.

If you are versed in aikido or jujutsu, you can also retain control of one hand and wrist in order to do a wrist lock. You can follow up with an arm bar or a kick to the face as shown here.


(1) Actually the stances in much of traditional Okinawan karate are relatively higher and more natural than what most students of Japanese karate today are used to. Many old masters believed that higher stances provide greater mobility and enhanced reaction time in movement as compared to stances of many styles of Japanese karate which emphasize stability (low stances) and appearance (for kata and in practice).

(2) The back of the hand was often a target in old Okinawan karate. An old Okinawan adage goes something like “Take what is presented to you” (meaning that if someone attacks or kicks at you, attack the hand or the foot itself rather than other targets that are more distant).

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About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes aikido, diato-ryu aikijujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. 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. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

self defense, bear hug defense, attacks from behind

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