Martial Arts Musings – Increasing Technique Effectiveness

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Photo of David and Elizabeth Rossiaky – USKF Members Chicago, IL
by GM Jeff Helaney

There is absolutely nothing mystical about pressure points or motor nerve points. They are part and parcel of the human condition. Everyone has them and they affect everyone to a greater or lesser degree based upon their own unique physiology. Although we can track the use of pressure points in the martial arts back thousands of years and through numerous cultures, it has only been in the last few decades that western science has begun to intensively study and document the effects of applied pressure point and motor nerve point techniques on human physiology.

Not surprisingly leading of research into this area came from the law enforcement and military sectors. Pioneers such as Bruce Siddle, Mike Kerby, Aubrey Futrell, Paul Whitesell, Steel Parsons, and James Lindell have done more to quantify and lend understanding to the use of pressure points and motor nerve points than almost any other researchers in modern western history. Their studies dissected martial arts techniques, looked their application scientifically, and created a methodology to apply these techniques with consistent results. Their research has lead to the development of practical combat and defensive tactics programs that are used world wide by law enforcement and specialized military units.
As martial artists we have been exposed plethora of information about technique development and personal training. Some of it is very good and some of it is so bad that it can actually be harmful. In this article we are going to examine some basic concepts of applied pressure-motor nerve point techniques in an effort to explain how and why they work in an easy to understand format.

The Sympathetic Nervous System:
A key to understanding the concepts behind applied pressure point and motor nerve point techniques lies in understanding the physiological changes a person goes through during stressful situations. These changes will affect the way we apply and react to almost all techniques.
Most of us were introduced to the psychological concept of the “Fight or Flight” response when we were in high school or college. Basically, we were told that when a person encounters stressful situations they either actively face it or avoid it. This premise was correct as far as it went. There is now a greater understanding of what this type stress can do to our physical state.
We know that when we are faced with a severely stressful situation that the body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can take over. This response is common to all mammalian species and allows them to focus on all their resources on a situation during a time of crisis. Unfortunately, this process is automatic and can virtually take over all voluntary and involuntary physiological systems until the threat is eliminated.

The problems that can be created by this type of stress are varied and significant. We can expect an increased heart rate, hearing loss, vision problems, increased reaction time, and a deterioration of motor skills. It is important that we understand that both the defender and the aggressor are feeling the affects of sympathetic nervous system activation. Although we can limit some of these problems through training, we can not totally eliminate them. Therefore, our training regime has to take into account how our body will be reacting during a time of crisis. We, also, need to understand what changes are taking place in our opponent.

A very important consideration for in the consideration of technique application is Hick’s Law. This states that reaction time increases proportionately to the reaction options in a defensive system.
Most martial arts styles have a significant selection of techniques to choose from. To progress in our arts we learn more techniques and hone existing skills. While these criteria are important in evaluating the progress of a student in a particular martial arts style, they may pose a problem for practitioners in real life encounters. This is especially true for the beginning martial artist that has not yet done enough technique repetitions to create muscle memory.

Additionally, fine and complex motor skills deteriorate as the heart rate increases. Many joint manipulation and balance displacement techniques that require the use of these skills can become problematic at best. It is important to find techniques within your style that do not require a great deal of effort to perform and begin working on with them. These techniques should include blocks, strikes, and a method of controlled pressure application.

Methods of Application:
Specific targets and techniques will be discussed in greater detail later, but common to the application of any technique are the concepts of full power delivery and kinetic energy transfer. To maximize the effectiveness of your strikes and blocks the techniques must be delivered at full power. By delivering your technique at full power you lessen the chance that you will need to repeat the technique and that you will create unnecessary injury in your opponent. Additionally, by briefly increasing the time of contact on your target area you will increase the amount of kinetic energy transfer into your opponents muscle mass creating a shock wave that increases the effectiveness of the technique on a pressure or motor nerve point.

Most of your blocking and striking techniques should be directed at the pressure and motor nerve points that are located on the trunk and limbs of the body. The large muscle masses surrounding these points make an effective medium transferring kinetic energy and for causing a temporary dysfunction of the muscles. According to a study done by Mike Kirby, the length of energy transfer must exceed 30 milliseconds to achieve motor dysfunction. This is the amount of ‘stick time’ that the technique requires to stop forward momentum and retract to a defensive position.

Although reactions can include a loss of consciousness, it is more common to see a reaction that is somewhat less dramatic. Strikes or blocks to the pressure or motor nerve points in the arms and legs are prone to something called a flex-reflex response. The effected limb experiences acute, temporary pain and may shut down. The possibility that an unaffected limb may experience a sympathetic nerve reflex also exists. This means that the other limb may also ‘shut down’ for a short period of time due to the overload of sensory input.

It is important to remember that although everyone has the same motor-nerve and pressure points, they do not affect everyone the same way. An example of this is can be found by striking the brachial plexus (a combination of three nerve bundles the median, the radial, and the ulnar nerves) on the side of the neck. In about one out of ten people, a full power strike to this area may cause a short loss of consciousness. Four or five people will probably experience a temporary loss of motor control throughout their body and some will experience some level of disorientation. An equal number of people will experience severe pain and very mild disorientation. About two percent of people this technique is used on will have no reaction to the strike.

Multiple strikes to pressure and motor nerve points can increase the effectiveness of technique, but also increase the chance that last injury will occur in your opponent. It is important to gage the need for repeated technique application versus the risk it can create.

The danger can be illustrated using a strike to the common peroneal nerve. This particular nerve plexus branches off of the sciatic nerve and runs behind the knee. The actual motor-nerve point is located about three inches above and slightly to the rear of the knee. Striking this point multiple times carries the increased risk of causing damage permanent damage. A miscalculation could cause the strike to impact the knee joint and shatter it. Some estimates indicate that a knee will break with as little as 75 to 90 pounds of pressure (PSI). An average adult can generate over a 1000 pounds of pressure with a standard kick. Depending on the actual nerves injured, a misplaced strike can cause drop foot.
While an injury by product of a defensive technique may not be of immediate concern in a use of force encounter, it may prove to be of great importance during any subsequent civil litigation. Courts can take days and weeks to decide what you may have to decide in a matter of seconds. Specifically, did you use the appropriate amount of force to defend yourself? Self-defense concepts should include a basic understanding of use of force issues.

Another method of application includes the use of applied pressure specific targets. Usually this type of technique will take the form of digital manipulation of nerves or nerve clusters located on the head or neck of an opponent. Often this type of technique is referred to as pain compliance.

Essential techniques are applied to an area of ever increasing pressure until the aggressor yields to the pain that is being created by the technique. Sensitivity levels differ greatly in individuals and these techniques do not always work. They are most often used to control behavior and to obtain voluntary submission.

When using a pain compliance technique it is important to remember to ease up on the pressure once compliance is achieved. Continuing the pressure can result in an adrenal dump and cause more resistance.

Summing it Up…
Pressure points and motor nerve points are excellent additions in any martial artist’s arsenal of techniques; however, they should only be one component of a well rounded system. Everyone has pressure points and motor nerve points but they do not affect everyone the same way. Individual physiology and tolerance varies from person to person. Reactions to pressure points can be either very minor or extreme and can range from mild discomfort to temporary loss of consciousness. Most of the pressure points and motor nerve points discussed in this article focus on the trunk and extremities of the body, they are designed to increase technique effectiveness through directed targeting. When incorporating pressure points into a self defense system, the number of techniques should be limited and involve gross body movements to improve reaction time and application effectiveness.

While learning about pressure points isn’t difficult, it can be difficult to find accurate information about them. Martial artists seeking to learn about pressure points should carefully check out an instructor’s credentials. Unfortunately, there are more than a few people out there that are less than truthful about their backgrounds. Regardless of whether the information comes from eastern or western sources, the instructor needs to have a better than average working knowledge of what he or she is teaching.

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