This article originally appeared for patrons at Patreon. Due to its length, I’ve broken it into two parts. Part One includes discussion of the chokes in general and defensive considerations of air chokes in particular. Part Two discusses defense against blood chokes, and offense of both blood and air chokes.
Some time ago, I shared my frustration with a fight scene I saw on television. (Yeah, go figure, right?) The scene showed our hero valiantly fighting a bad guy with direct and aggressive blocks and strikes… until the bad buy got his hands around her throat. Then that supposedly well-trained and aggressive fighter seemed to lose all training and sense, and battled the person choking her by grabbing his wrists to attempt pulling his hands away.
Now, a situation like that—a trained fighter demonstrating sudden incompetence and/or panic—is totally possible if the fighter never received proper training for a suddenly-changed situation. And many martial arts schools don’t teach how to set or escape a choke, and some that do teach them do so poorly. But in the instance mentioned above, when the character’s extensive training had been established through backstory and on-screen action, the abrupt shift from good fighter to startled victim on the floor happened so another character could arrive to save the day.
That’s not bad fight-scene writing. That’s bad writing: a storyline that sacrificed being true to the character for the sake of a forced plot point.
Being choked is a frightening thing. Really frightening. It’s the training experience most likely to put my adult students on edge, and I plan accordingly by including time to establish comfort and trust. But even when folks have trained together for awhile, permitting someone to apply pressure to the neck kicks off all sorts of adrenaline-fueled aversions. I’ve had students on the verge of tears, students pace the mat to calm down, break into nervous laughter, or close their eyes and take deep breaths as a trusted peer sets hands at their throat or tightens an arm around their neck. Chokes set off all our THIS IS NOT RIGHT STOP I MUST FIGHT RUN MAKE IT GO AWAY triggers.
And with good reason. Some well-set chokes can incapacitate a person in seconds. Some can cause a lasting and/or fatal injury in even less time, even though death itself might take unconsciousness and death take longer to occur. There isn’t much time to escape, and the stakes are high if you don’t.
There is no tap-out in real life.The variety of chokes is huge, and the names of techniques can vary depending upon the instructional framework and knowledge. Rather than attempt to define each one—rear naked choke, sleeper hold, front choke, side choke, bar choke, figure-four choke, and so on—we’re going to talk about two general types of chokes, and general escape and evasion principles. Honestly, step-by-step techniques won’t do you much good unless you have a skilled partner to practice with and lots of time for focused repetition.
Since this isn’t a self-defense class, I’ll resist the temptation to indulge in overly detailed explanations and examples of body mechanics, positioning, and physical cues. I can’t be as exhaustive as I could were we standing in front of each other for a hands-on class. Truly, there are approximately 6,329 possible elements to consider in a single choke, and it isn’t unusual for me to spend an hour teaching variants of a single fall, throw, or choke.
But y’see, just as brutal enthusiasm often trumps step-by-step stiffness in self-defense, understanding principles trumps listing details in writing fight scenes. Details relegate us to painting by numbers. Principles permit us to extrapolate.
And when it comes to practicing… If you want to walk through choking and being choked… Please, my darlings, exercise extreme caution and patience. Sure, you can try a few things, but don’t go around choking and being choked out of mere curiosity. Stopping oxygen from entering the body and blood from flowing to the brain is nothing to be taken lightly nor done frequently. Unless you and your partner understand force and speed and pressure, don’t go playing around, m’kay?
Lastly, keep in mind I’ve written about four thousand words on the topic here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. My purpose is not to be exhaustive, but to offer possibilities, a realistic foundation for other research, and an insight into how a fight might flow. Questions are always welcome.
When we think of choking, we think of an obstructed airway—the blocking or limiting of air intake that happens when we apply pressure to the windpipe. That’s what we call, amazingly enough, an air choke.
Push gently on the front of your throat—that hard lump above the hollow sometimes referred to as the Adam’s apple. I said gently. It doesn’t take much pressure for that to become uncomfortable, does it? That’s your body’s way of saying, “Hey, y’know, if you keep pushing on that, you won’t be able to breathe well and might break something, so take it easy, please!”
And for good reason! You’re pressing on your thyroid cartilage, which is there to help protect your larynx and windpipe Just above that is your hyoid bone—the one that can be broken in cases of strangulation or hanging. It’s there to protect you, too. You don’t want any of those things to be fractured. Fractures cause swelling, and no one really wants swelling against and around their windpipe.
Most likely, the air choke happens when attacker and victim are facing one another, whether standing or on the ground, or if the attacker is behind the victim and the attacker uses the arm as a bar across the windpipe rather than a vice to squeeze the neck’s sides. Air chokes cause immediate, eye-watering pain, yet take longer—three, four, five minutes or so—to produce complete unconsciousness. (You can bet that feels like a terribly long few minutes.) They can cause lasting damage as well—making it difficult and painful to swallow and speak for a month or more after the initial injury. If damage to the windpipe is severe enough, the person doing the choking can leave the victim to suffocate alone.
The other primary choke used doesn’t limit air intake specifically (though that can be a side effect). Instead, it shuts down the ability of blood to make it to your brain. This one, as you might guess, is called a blood choke, or a submission hold. For the purpose here, we’re calling it a choke.
Have you ever stood up so quickly, your vision grays and you lose your balance? That’s the sensation we’re talking about. Except for the fact someone is squeezing your neck to shut off the carotid to make sure you can’t recover. Unconsciousness comes quickly—in seconds, if it’s done correctly. The majority of the research checking long-term effects of blood chokes shows no long term ill effects for the brief interruption of blood flow, which makes this kind of choke less likely to accidentally maim or kill your opponent.
On the other hand…
The vice-like pressure on the sides of the neck also puts pressure on the vagus nerve—one of the nervous system’s most awesome structures. In some people, this triggers a sharp and immediate drop in the heart’s desire to work very hard. That leads to a drop in blood pressure, which then leads to an irregular heartbeat. And as you know Bob, an irregular heartbeat can lead to cardiac arrest. This is why some incompletely trained folks are absolutely shocked when the object of their choke ends up dead from a “safe” submission hold.
And this is why I advise you to practice with caution, yes?
Aside for martial arts students: If you’re learning chokes from an instructor who never brought up these risks and the reasons behind them, you need a different instructor and a different school. There are many reasons traditional martial artists learn about the body and healing as well as fighting and killing The safety of their students is paramount among those reasons.
Aside for writers: Fighters who understand anatomy and physiology are far more interesting in fight scenes and their aftermath than fighters who have cool moves and big muscles.
The blood choke is usually set from behind—the attacker’s elbow pointing away from the victim, with the pressure coming from the forearm and biceps squeezing on either side of the neck. It can be set from the side, too, with the added benefit of binding up on the victim’s arms to prevent them from landing a good defensive strike, and from the front, though that involves more practice to place the hands and knuckles in just the right place while the opponent struggles.
In my experience, the aftermath of this choke doesn’t last as long and doesn’t feel as severe as those from the air choke. Sore neck muscles and headaches aren’t uncommon, with the occasional and glancing involvement of the air-choke consequences.
Whether you’re the person trying to set a choke or the person trying to escape one, the same set of principles must be considered. The same knowledge benefits attacker and defender. The difference lies in what you (or your characters) do with that knowledge. There are ideas here—stuff on cause and consequence and logic and flow. That’s what fight scenes are made of.
For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to call the character doing the choking Pat, and the person being choked Jess. And we’re going to start with Jess practicing defensive moves against Pat’s attempts to choke him.
Let’s say Jess is on the ground, face up. Pat straddles Jess and presses her hands around Jess’s throat, just like the set-up in the television show mentioned above. This is a very, very bad place to be. I don’t care what super-cool bouncy, flingy, gritted-teeth technique someone comes up with, it sucks to be pinned to the ground. No one facing an actual life-or-death situation wants to attempt fighting from the ground. If Pat knows how to control Jess’s hips, or outweighs Jess by a great deal, or knows how to keep her sensitive target areas beyond his reach, Jess is going to be one struggling and unhappy person. Jess can still win, but it won’t be clean or easy. And he isn’t escaping without injuries, period.
Jess’s instinct might be to sit up, but this will push his throat harder against Pat’s hands. Jess might try to push Pat off or try to pull her hands away. Or Jess might try to do the old MMA thing of trapping one ankle and bumping one hip up to gain enough leverage to roll Pat to the side.
What do all these things have in common? They all work against gravity. And that ol’ hip-bump thing that nearly every self-defense class teaches as the be-all end-all often fails when undertaken by MMA fighters who train it every day. Just sayin’. (Resists the urge to go on and on and on about this one topic…)
So let’s consider how to work with gravity instead. Think of it as helping the attacker to speedily go in the direction they’re already heading, and in this case, that direction is down. It will absolutely seem counterintuitive, bringing one’s attacker closer, but it’s better than fighting gravity.
If Pat is exerting downward pressure, Jess might be able to knock Pat’s arms loose by smacking fists and/or elbows on the inside of Pat’s elbow joint, by ramming his linked arms against her forearms, or some other means of breaking Pat’s grip. That gives Jess breathing room and brings Pat’s face (and own throat) close enough for strikes, jabs, and twists. If Jess can force that elbow to bend rapidly, Jess might be able to yank and shove Pat’s face all the way to the ground (while avoiding Pat’s face smacking into his, of course).
Similar strategies can work if Pat has Jess backed up against a wall. Think of what happens if two people are pushing against each other, and one person suddenly twists to the side. That’s Jess’s best bet when his back is against the wall. Sideways is an excellent direction to take when going forward involves needing to move someone who wants to kill you barehanded.
Jess better be using his lower limbs, too. While it’s possible the reach of Pat’s choking arms exceeds the length of Jess’s legs, it isn’t likely—unless Jess has injuries, mobility challenges, joint issues, or even really stiff hamstrings.
Jess might want to go directly to Pat’s hands. Not wrists, mind you, which are comparatively strong. We’re talking about fingers and the backs of knuckles.
Attempting to pry off a person’s thumb or pointer finger isn’t the best option. But what about the pinky and ring finger—the two weakest fingers on Pat’s hand? Getting hold of one of those fingers is gold, especially if Jess decides to rip that finger all the way to his own knee as quickly as he can. That will cause Pat pain enough to loosen her hold. Jess might also make a fist and grind his knuckles between the small bones on the backs of Pat’s hands. This, too, is quite painful, and will result in a loosened grip.
In the second part, we’ll go over aspects of blood chokes.
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