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Martial Arts: Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu

The Martial Grip - Introduction

By George Donahue

The most common classic clamping or crushing grip.

Karate, kung fu, taekwondo, jujutsu and other martial arts use a variety of methods of gripping the attacker in self defense, but they all are based on the same principles: maximum leverage and efficient use of power—your power and your attacker’s power.

In a series of articles to follow, I’ll discuss various grips that are found in martial techniques. I’ll concentrate on karate and kobujutsu applications, however, because the traditional grappling arts are very good at training the student to use the proper grip for each situation, and most karate and kobujutsu traditions tend to neglect proper grip training. Some karate systems don’t provide any training at all, except perhaps as an afterthought. However, even those traditions preserve a kernel of knowledge in kata—the kernel has just to be tended a bit to reveal itself.

To be effective and efficient in self-defense, we need to learn when to grip, how long to grip, how much force to spend in establishing and maintaining a grip, and how to grip for maximum leverage. There are also opportunities to use grips for attacks, rather than as controlling or defensive measures. Attack grips are the most fun to learn, of course.

The first thing to keep in mind is that in any struggle it’s often to your advantage if the attacker grips you, particularly if your attacker is much larger than you—as long as the attacker is not able to pin you or wrench anything of importance to you. That’s because your attacker’s hand or hands are occupied with gripping you and are thus not available to pound you. (You can encourage your attacker to waste power and attention on the grip by resisting the grip just enough to occupy the attacker. If the attacker is strong enough to do major damage by grip alone, then you have to provide just enough resistance to prevent that from happening.) For the opposite reason, it’s often not to your advantage for you to grip your attacker—in neutralizing your attacker’s ability to attack, you’re neutralizing your ability to counterattack. However, there are many opportunities to upset your attacker’s balance or to maneuver your attacker into a more vulnerable position or so that you are in a less vulnerable position. Many of those opportunities don’t require use of the hands. The gripping arsenal also includes wrists, feet, limbs and joints, armpit and ribcage, neck and chin.

When we think of grips, we first envision the classic clamping, crushing grip. This may be the most prominent grip, but it’s often the least useful, unless you are much larger or stronger than your attacker—or unless you are hanging on in sheer desperation. In either case, there is really no skill involved and there is no need to learn or practice it. It comes naturally to us all, without thought. The more useful grips must be learned and practiced until they become second nature. Among these are grips that lever, drape, shape, trap, and entangle. Of course, you can do all of these things without gripping at all, but that is more difficult and not always feasible.


Because we’d prefer to grip when it’s useful, rather than out of desperation, we should reserve our gripping efforts. Here are some situations that call for gripping:

  • to separate your attacker’s muscles and tendons from the underlying bone

  • to isolate and manipulate your attacker’s nerves

  • to move your attacker

  • to move yourself by using your attacker as an anchor or fulcrum

  • as a feint

  • to draw your attacker’s strike into yourself, then, as your attacker reacts with surprise, to draw the strike past your body just before it makes contact


Once we establish a grip, we tend to hold on for dear life. That’s usually not optimal, even though our lives may be dear. The best guideline for duration is this: Not as long as your opponent expects—if your opponent expects you to hold on, let go; if your opponent expects you to let go, hold on. Just because you let go, however, doesn’t mean you have to stay unattached. With a little training you can easily replace an uninterrupted grip with a serial grip—intermittent gripping, not necessarily in the same spot.


As little as possible. Unless the situation is desperate enough that you’re trying to crush an attacker’s throat, you don’t actually need to use much force for gripping. Even throat crushing can be done with fairly little energy, if you use the right leverage. Using any more than the absolute minimum force necessary (with perhaps just a tad more for a margin of safety) is not only a waste of energy but a waste of opportunity. In addition, it can have the perverse result of making you more vulnerable than you would be had you not gripped at all. For one thing, the harder you grip the harder it is to let go, psychologically and physically. Quite often, the best grip is a feather-light grip, one that your attacker is barely aware of or doesn’t even notice at all, and which you can release and then reestablish effortlessly.


We’ll discuss various grips in more detail in upcoming articles. We’ll cover the following:

  • C-grip (aka eagle claw)

  • inverted grip (thumb downward or trailing)

  • draping (heavy and light)

  • augmented grip (using two hands or, better, one hand and one other convenient body part)

  • reversed, or reinforced, grip (in which you add a little of your own power to your attacker’s grip)

  • grips on weapons

  • and maybe ripping or cutting grips, which are variations on all of the grips above. These are favorites of mine but are difficult to practice without injury. (Every American who was a child in pre-political correctness days knows at least one rudimentary ripping grip.)


There are many of these, and most of them are not totally on the mark, except for general increase of strength. Almost as important as increasing strength is increasing flexibility, especially of the wrist. We’ll cover a range of narrowly-focused exercises to increase both flexibility and strength, particularly for weapons work, in an upcoming installment.

So, in sum, in the following articles of this series we’ll discuss why to grip, how to grip, when to grip, how long to grip, how to grip better, and when to let go.

Copyright © 2011 George Donahue &
All rights reserved.

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About The Author:

George Donahue has been on the board of since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.

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

gripping, holding, controlling an attacker, controlling an attack, clamping grip, crushing grip, c-grip, draping grip, two hand grip, two hand grab, reversed grip, ripping grip, cutting grip, moving an attacker, controlling a strike, separating an attackers muscles, attacking nerves

Read more articles by George Donahue

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