An introduction to joint locks in Karate. Despite many people referring to Karate as a striking art without any grappling, this is only evidence of the watering down of Karate since it became a popular sport among kids. Karate contains many grappling techniques including joint locks.
Karate, at the omote level (surface level), is a striking art–it obviously contains strikes and trains them extensively–but when looking more closely at kata there can be found a plethora of grappling concepts and techniques. The joint locking techniques of karate (tuite, or kansetsu-waza) are often similar to those found in jujutsu and aikido, but they tend to be applied differently because they work in conjunction with strikes and are not relied upon to end a fight on their own. These techniques, once learned, are very easy to locate in kata but many students have difficulty in applying them because they start to think of joint locks as being separate from karate, rather than an extension of it.
Joint Lock Examples
Soto-Uke – This technique, also known as a “cross block”, is found in almost every style of karate and is usually taught as a simple deflection to defend against a punch to the body, but another way to apply this technique is as an elbow lock. Consider the rule that your “chambered” hand is always holding onto something–in this case, your attacker’s forearm–and suddenly the ability to strike the exposed elbow with your soto-uke becomes evident. If this lock is applied with constant pressure, you will often find yourself in a position very similar to gedan uke (low block), and so this lock can also be applied to that technique in kata.
Te-Uke/Te-Gatana – This position has many variations between karate styles, and even individual kata, but the general position is both hands pulled to one side, one on top of the other. Many people simply call this a “preparatory position”, either to make it simple for teaching to beginners or because they do not know how to apply a lock from this position. In order to use this technique as a lock, grip the attacker’s hand with both hands and pull to your te-uke position on the opposite side of your body, tucking their elbow beneath your armpit. When you pull up on the hand and hold the arm down with your armpit, you are performing a lock called waki-gatame (under-the-arm lock), but you can also apply downward pressure to the elbow with your own elbow, rather than simply pulling up with the arm trapped in your armpit.
Sasae-Uke – The supported block, whether performed with open hands, closed hands or a combination, has little useful application in its pure form as a block because there is very little benefit to blocking one arm with two. One way to apply this as a lock is to grip your attacker’s hand with your thumbs on the back of it, then bend the hand toward them while twisting it. This technique is known as kote-gaeshi (wrist flip) and is often taught as a throw because the best way to relieve the pressure from the wrist lock is to flip through the air, but most attackers will not have the training to know this, resulting in them breaking their wrist or tumbling awkwardly in an attempt to avoid that result.
Applying Joint Locks in Karate
In grappling arts, practitioners are required to apply their techniques against resisting opponents without incorporating striking, and so there are many joint locks that are removed from the curriculum of those arts, unless the level of resistance is reduced, simply because the practitioners cannot make the techniques work. This is a problem that I have seen karateka run into, time and time again, because they are applying tuite as if it were separate from their karate training. All of the locks described above are very difficult to apply against a resisting opponent until you hit them.
An attacker that notices you grabbing their wrist is going to resist anything you do to that wrist in any way they can, so you must take their attention away from it. “Softening” or “distracting” blows must be used to initiate joint locks so that you can apply them against a resisting opponent. This is often seen when police officers restrain suspects–sometimes using the techniques described in the examples above–because locks that require speed and very little movement also have very little power in-and-of themselves.
Completion of a Joint Lock
When is a joint lock considered “complete”? There are many ways to answer this question, but the most common are “when the joint is broken” and “when the attacker gives up”. There are some issues with using a joint lock to end a fight when using these two answers to that question, however.
A joint being broken can be pivotal in self defense because it can disable an attacking limb, but it may not actually end a fight. Pain is key to making joint locks work, but once a joint is broken the body will flood itself with chemicals to reduce pain and it is at this point that some people will immediately respond with increased aggression.
Having your attacker “give up” due to a joint lock is going to be highly uncommon, and should be treated with extreme caution because, typically, they will only submit to this type of technique if they intend to catch you off-guard after you release them. This means that you may be considering the fight over and won, but your attacker is still fighting you.
In order to avoid these complications, it is important to follow up your joint locks appropriately, rather than attempting to use them to finish a fight. Using joint locks to control and restrain your attacker until help arrives is a viable option, provided you have the stamina to do it and there will be help arriving. You can also continue to strike your attacker while applying the lock, causing more damage than you otherwise would with just a lock in order to incapacitate your attacker. Yet another option is to use the lock to apply kuzushi (off-balancing) and sweep or throw the attacker, having the effect of both causing damage to them and getting them away from you so that you can escape. Any of these is an acceptable way to complete a joint lock, so long as the lock itself is not expected to end the conflict.