Photo: Traci Dean
Combatives fall under a list of perishable skills for law enforcement officers; you either use them and practice them, or lose them. Let's face it, most of us allow life to get in the way and we don't eat right, we don't work out enough, and we hardly ever practice our control measures past what our agency requires for yearly training. Law enforcement combatives are about obtaining control, and knowing how to strike properly is a big part of that. This concept is brought home every time we see an ineffective officer struggling for control in a YouTube video or in a story on the local nightly news.
The obvious answer to this problem and unfortunately the one that continues to elude most officers is to train more. Since we only kid ourselves about doing that, maybe it's time we focus on what little training we do by stressing proper mechanics. We accomplish this by looking at traditional martial arts and physics.
The Science of Strikes
Physics teaches us that force equals mass times acceleration, which is expressed in the equation F=ma. What that means in terms of combatives is that the more mass you can get moving, the more powerful your strike will become. Mass in this instance translates to body weight. Some of it is used for maintaining balance, but the rest can be transferred to the target.
Most traditional martial arts teach that power comes up from your feet to your hips. To convey this point, I use two examples.
The first example involves the mechanics of throwing a ball. If you keep your feet planted, don't move your hips, and just throw with your arm, the ball won't go very far. However, if you step into the direction of the throw, twist your hips, and follow through, you can launch the ball with relative ease.
The second example is about mass. If you only use your arm to make a strike, then you are just using a small portion of the mass that's available to you. If you change your body mechanics to include using your legs to push up from the ground and twist your hips in the direction of the strike, you will find yourself striking with increased body mass. A simple test on a striking pad will demonstrate what should be obvious; more mass means more power.
Another formula we need to understand is that kinetic energy (KE) equals one half mass times velocity squared (KE=1/2m x v²). This means the faster you strike, the harder you strike. By following this formula, if you double your speed, you're quadrupling your power.
Putting both force and kinetic energy principles in action means maximizing your strikes so knowledge really is power.
Knowing what you should do and how to apply that knowledge are two different things. The following tips are presented in random order. Though they focus more on striking with your hands and elbows than kicking, some apply equally well to both. They should be read in that light.
- Rely on speed and surprise. It is better to act than react. You have to commit to what you are doing and do it quickly. Don't telegraph your intentions. Be explosive and use surprise to your advantage.
- Multiple strikes cause sensory overload. We want to believe in the possibility of the one strike scenario but it seldom happens unless it's a sucker punch. Multiple strikes, aimed at alternating targets, serve to confuse and disorient. If your opponent can't defend against your strikes, sensory overload will occur, reducing his or her ability to respond. The secret is to make each strike count. Don't sacrifice technique for the mere sake of numbers. Another tactic is to build momentum with each blow and work up to your last all-out strike.
- The closer your technique is to your core, the stronger it will be. The farther your arm goes out from your body, the weaker the punch will be. To maximize your power it should not extend more than a few fist lengths away from your body. Yes, that means you have to get close and stay there. Obtaining control always includes getting up close and personal.
- Maintain your center of gravity. If you don't control your center of gravity, your opponent will. If you come up on your rear leg when punching, and lean too far forward, you are extending your center of gravity, thus making it easy for your opponent to grab you and take you down. At a minimum, your opponent will be able to manipulate your balance, which will negatively affect your abilities.
- Root your feet to the ground. You need to keep your feet flat on the ground. This position will make you stronger, helping you push your mass up and out in conjunction with a twist of your hips. The second you raise your foot up, you start an energy leak and you start losing power. If you're not rooted when you strike your target, you will absorb some of the very energy you are trying to transfer.
- Your maximum reach is obtained when you punch straight out, horizontally with your shoulder. You need to remember this when targeting different parts of your opponent's body. If you don't, you'll miss unless you compensate by moving in closer. The worst thing you can do is lean forward because it moves your center of gravity and creates openings a street fighter can exploit.
- Get your mass behind the strike; you start the body moving in the direction of the strike first. If you throw a punch from the arm first and then follow with the body, your punch will end up dragging the body instead. This will slow your technique down. For example, the boxer's jab is a flick of the arm with little to no mass behind it. Because it has a smaller mass it has less power. Speed is essential but without mass it's only half as effective. That's why a jab is a distraction-type technique used to set up for a second and more powerful strike where the body's mass can be incorporated behind the strike.
- A relaxed technique is a faster technique. When striking you must be as relaxed as possible in order to build and maintain speed. You only tense up at the moment of impact in order to connect to your body mass. Once you hit your target, you relax as you set up for your next technique. If you are tense or contract your muscles, you will be slow and less effective. You will also burn valuable energy.
- Use your driving foot. The driving foot is the rear foot while in your stance. It is used to push and move forward. As explained earlier, it must stay flat and rooted to the ground in order to add the ground's mass to yours.
- Keep your elbows in. Pushing them to the outside works very much like raising your rear foot when striking. It weakens the strike because you create an energy leak. It also violates the principle of keeping your arm close to your core.
- Control your hip rotation. You should not rotate your hips more than 45 degrees when you strike because it weakens your technique. Anything past 45 degrees starts to create a pushing effect rather than transferring energy and shock to your target. Some may argue that going past 45 degrees will give you more reach, but because of the drop in power, generally I don't consider it a good tradeoff.
- Your opponent is weakest and most vulnerable when he or she is inhaling and when his or her feet are close together when moving. Though it's hard to get the timing right, looking out for these two things and taking advantage of them will help you be more effective.
- Strike to gain a response. You don't strike just to strike. Each time you make a strike, do it with the intent to elicit a specific response from the target. A palm heel to the jaw moves the head back. A strike at the midsection forces your opponent to bend forward. Each strike sets you up for the next intended move, ultimately leading you to a takedown and subsequent handcuffing.
- Fighting is nothing more than rhythm in action. There is a natural rhythm to striking. You have to find your own rhythm, which will make you stronger, and you must confuse your targets' rhythm to make them weaker.
The 30-Second Clock
When I teach Combatives at the academy, I stress the need to obtain control quickly. If you are still trying to obtain control of a subject after 30 seconds then you are losing and you need to try something else.
Though 30 seconds doesn't seem like a long time, it is when you are out of shape, wearing 35 pounds of extra gear, and the guy you are fighting with doesn't want to go to jail. Forget the fact that he might be trying to kill you in the process.
It's important to maximize your striking abilities because it may very well come down to just one or two opportunities before you get yourself in a worse situation. By following these tips, you will increase your power and therefore your effectiveness. I know they work because at my agency we teach our recruits the right body mechanics and build from there. Those that pay attention hit like hammers toward the end of the program.
Keep in mind that if all you're going to get is one chance to strike, then it damn sure better be good. There are no do-overs in our line of work except in training.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.