How to Hold Your Hands in Guard

There are a lot of different martial arts out there with a lot of different styles of hand positions that are used as their main fighting stances. The hand positions that are adopted are generally developed around the goals of the art. So in determining how you should hold your hands, you should keep this in mind.

Guard Hand Position in Martial Arts Sport

Sport-oriented martial arts are naturally influenced by the rules of their sport. In Olympic WTF rules Taekwondo, you’ll often see that the hands are held quite low in sparring competitions. Punches to the head are not allowed and kicks to the body are going to come in faster than kicks to the head simply due to distance so it can make sense to hold the arms in a lower position, as you can see in the video of Olympic Taekwondo sparring below. And because the vast majority of kicks used are to the body, often to the ribs, it makes sense to keep the arms lower and wider. Clinching and grabbing are also not allowed, so keeping the hands low and wide are not a disadvantage. When kicks do come into the head area, the idea is to use speed and evasive manoeuvring to avoid impact.  (*Please note that this description specifically applies to WTF Taekwondo competition sparring. ITF Taekwondo is different, allowing punches to the head, and while a lower guard may be used more often in WTF competitions, there are other guards that are taught for self-defense applications.)

In Kyokushin Karate, sparring is full contact, continuous and point-based, with no padded gloves or foot pads worn for protection. No hand/arm strikes are allowed to the head, but they are allowed to use elbows and knees to the body. Kicks to the head are allowed, but aren’t used as often as the punches to the body. Foot sweeps and knockdowns from strikes are allowed, but grabbing or clinching are permitted. This seems to result in a lower hand position that is held more central to the torso (though not as low as in Taekwondo) to protect against the barrage of body strikes that occur with the arms held closer to the body to minimize the body’s target area. It can also be handy for blocking body blows and movements that could serve to knock a person down. You can get a good idea for the overall hand position in this video below.

Of course, the above thoughts are based on my personal experience with these styles and what I have seen of them. Every school and instructor has a different approach, which can lead to variances in hand positions. The point of writing these thoughts is more to explore how different rules/equipment in competitions might affect where people hold their hands.

Hand Position in Self-Defense Oriented Martial Arts

A non-competitive martial art like Wing Chun, however, is not concerned about points, and but has fairly unique operating principles. The “centreline” of the body, from the top of the head down to the groin, is considered to comprise of all the main striking targets, including the eyes, throat, solar plexus, groin). Wing Chun strikes primarily emphasize attacking straight to this centreline, using direct lines of attack at close range. As a result, most of the strikes are straight punches rather than arcing strikes. As a single punch, Wing Chun style punches don’t utilize the whole body as seen in arts such as Karate and Western Boxing. The art relies on chain punching instead, blasting one punch after the next, moving forward with ones feet, throwing more of their body weight with each step as they close. For these reasons they use a more front-facing stance. They keep their limbs closer to the body, protecting their centreline, also allowing for both arms to perform straight punches with equal effectiveness, as you can see in the photo below in which Ip Man (right) is in a traditional Wing Chun stance.

Wing chun stance

You might think from this position that the head would be fairly vulnerable, but Wing Chun has a greater variety of defensive/intercepting hand positions that allow them to block and strike at the same time, using various parts of the arm in many different types of positions to block whatever is necessary. You can see some examples in this article about Wing Chun hand positions.

The stance we use in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, is based on the boxing/kickboxing stance. While its origins are from a sport-oriented martial art, the reason why it was chosen was because the goals and principles behind it are in line with the ones from our style. It was chosen for its simplicity and ease of use, while simultaneously being effective for self-defense. You need only learn a few simple blocks and strikes, which can be adapted with different hand/arm positions for different targets, making it versatile and adaptive.

We usually hold our main stance, which we call the “defensive stance” with our hands open. Open hands are a universal sign of non-aggression. They are also effective for striking targets on the head, while still allowing you to block and deflect blows. This also takes into consideration the fact that we wouldn’t be wearing gloves to protect our hands in a self-defense situation. The hands are held in front of the face with the fingertips above the chin and below the eyes. The under arms should be about one fist-width away from the body. The arms should be relaxed but not completely loose which would make it easy for someone to simply punch through your guard. The higher hand position is preferrable for self-defense because the vast majority of punches that are thrown in street situations are to the head. From this position, you can more easily absorb and deflect straight punches to the face, while a simple lift of the forearm can block hooking punches, and a drop of the rear palm can be used to deflect uppercuts. With the strong arm in the rear position, you make the most of the leg and hip torque in your power arm, while using your lead hand primarily to measure distance and set up power strikes, usually with straight jabs.

Proper hand position in guard

You don’t want to hold your arms too far from your body as it minimizes your power, while giving away your reach. It also makes it easier for your attacker to grab your arm to control you. Holding your hands too close is no good either as there is not enough space for you to absorb/deflect blows and make effective counter attacks.

bad guard

We’re not the only ones who use this type of stance/hand position though. It is often taught within law enforcement and military organizations, as well as other reality-based self-defense styles such as Krav Maga.

Ultimately, every hand position has its advantages and disadvantages, which vary from style to style. It is interesting to analyze the differences. What hand position do you use in your standard guard and why? I would be most interested to hear some of the varying schools of thought on hand position.

Comments (12)

12 thoughts on “How to Hold Your Hands in Guard

  1. Good post. Many people don’t realize that the rules (or lack of rules, for self-defense) determine the style of fighting. I was recently watching some Olympic judo matches on Youtube. They begin their matches with their hands low and close to the body, and their heads jutting forward. They can lead with their head because their are no strikes to worry about, but it is important to prevent your opponent from getting a favorable grip on your arm.

    Hey, I have a question for you: One of the things that is illegal in MMA competitions is small joint manipulation. I’ve imagined that when someone is grappling and attempting a typical MMA submission a wrist lock or finger lock could be a quite effective counter. Any thoughts? How would MMA be different if they allowed small joint manipulation?

    1. I think that if small joint manipulation were legal in MMA it would force people to either complete their submissions faster or move on to something different to keep the defender on their toes. It certainly would make things interesting! 🙂

  2. I use the same hand gaurd position you show here once. I was just walking to the library to meet a friend, when some jerk wanted to pick a fight with me. I was taking Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate at the time and immetiantly put my hands up, palms out, chin tucked and walked backwards away from my would be aggresser. Fortunatly his girlfriend conviced him that it wasn’t worth it. He was a big dude and I was lucky to have his gf there to bale me out! LOL!

    1. Always safer when situations don’t have to be resolved through violence. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. Great Post ! Generally from a reality based self defence perspective there is no guard. I say this because as you mentioned in your post most guards have been developed for the context they are going to be used in such as, boxing, karate, ect.

    In reality a fight just happens so there is no time to settle into a guard position unless we are talking about a consesnual fight which we should never be engaging in unless completely unaviodable. If completely unavoidable I would pre-emptively strike. So for me a consensual fight is not self defence it’s fighting in my view.

    In a self defence situation the goal should be contolling limbs and striking to end the threat if at all possible.

    1. It is definitely important to be able to handle one’s self should you get attacked suddenly and unexpectedly. However, there are many situations in which you might be talking someone down to avoid a fight, as security and law enforcement personnel often have to do. In the case of the civilian, you might be just trying to calm someone down to keep it from escalating into a fight. While there are many situations in which a pre-emptive strike can also make sense, having your hands up also up can also served to stop someone else’s pre-emptive strike too. It’s impossible to speak of every possible situation, of course, but if there is an excuse to have your hands up in a non-aggressive manner, it is definitely helpful. Thanks for commenting!

      1. I do agree that is a great point. The guard in law enforcement is used a lot when dealing with people and like you say it’s a non threating open handed guard but,there should also be at least a 6 feet reactionary gap so that one can respond accordingly if need be with your hands up !

        So again in my view a lot of martial training and application comes down to context. What am I using my skills for Sport, Self Defence, Law Enforcement they all require something different. I do agree that for traditional martial artists like ourselves the non threating open handed guard is probably the best choice.

        In my earlier post I referred to having no guard and that comes from the application of karate bunkai where the old masters of the day didn’t seem to employ a guard in civilian self protection. The hands would come up to protect the head and face and the goal would be control a limb and strike back. The guard we see in karate today comes from sport.

  4. Lori, while I don’t disagree with your main points about defensive hand position, I just want to point out your comments about Taekwon-do and hand position are misleading and somewhat incorrect. The photo shown is a demonstration of a stance meant to show foot placement and technique, not defensive hand technique. Taekwon-do has a number of defensive hand positions and the one shown (called ready stance) has specific applications unrelated to defensive or “guarding” position. It is misleading to present this particular photo as representative of typical Taekwon-do guarding stance. Taekwon-do does have a specific guarding stance which closely resembles the defensive stance you demonstrate later in your post and this is employed in most drills and preparatory movements within the art.

    Also, there are two distinct styles of Taekwon-do and different sport, combat and self-defense applications for each. In ITF style punches to the head are allowed (and encouraged!), kicks are impressively quick to both the head and the body, and we employ a wide variety of different types of kicks to both the head and the body. It could not accurately be said that the “vast majority of kicks are roundhouse kicks to the ribs”. Far from it.

    Keeping the hands wide and open such as in the photograph you noted, even in a sport application of TKD, would leave one very vulnerable to a number of straight line kicks to the body as well as kicks to the head, both of which we ITF TKD practioners tend to employ with vigor. 🙂 Thus this is not a practical fighting stance within our style and is rarely employed.

    While WTF practioners tend to employ a more open stance and guard than ITF for sport applications, it is generally understood that the skill in sport WTF TKD is to use speed to either avoid or, more especially, counter with an attack of your own, to the targets left open by your opponent’s movement and attack. This is strictly a sport application and is not representative of other applications of the art,such as self-defense.

    Either way, I just wanted to correct the myth that Taekwon-do typically employs a low, open guarding stance such as the one you have chosen to display in this post. It simply isn’t true.

    1. Thank you for commenting Sheila. The purpose of the section on competition sparring in this article was to help explain the different types in hand positions used in rules-oriented martial arts sparring. The part about Taekwondo is specifically addressing WTF rules Taekwondo sparring, which I tried to make clear in the lead-up. I wasn’t generalizing about all styles of Taekwondo in all contexts, I was referring to competition sparring in the WTF context, in which I have direct experiences having trained in it for nearly 2 years. I also watched a number of competitions. I did not, however, make any reference to ITF, which I was aware had different rules. I decided to add a clarification about that to the article though if you wish to check it out.

      In the WTF competition context, from what I’ve seen personally, and from the videos I’ve seen on the Internet, that vast majority of kicks are to the body, and there seems to be a higher percentage of roundhouse kicks to the ribs, but I went ahead and broadened the description so as to not appear to imply that that is all that is used. I’ve also changed the photo to a video of Olympic WTF sparring, which better shows the lower guard that I’ve witnessed in my experience and research.

      I hope these adjustments serve to better reflect that points I was attempting to convey in the article. My goal was never to generalize about Taekwondo as a whole. That being said, I do feel that these points are accurate when kept to the context used in the article. Thank you for your helpful comments. It is important to me to ensure that my readers are able to clearly understand the context of my writing because I have nothing but the utmost respect for the beautiful variety that comes from all the different forms of martial arts.

      1. Lori, I’m impressed. The changes you made and your explanation above provide a more clear and balanced view of different hand positions used in Taekwon-do and their applications for sport, in particular. I really appreciate your effort to respond to your readers in such a positive fashion. I have a great deal of respect for that.

        1. Sometimes I have an idea in my head, but the words I choose don’t quite get the right connotation across. I really appreciate respectful, insightful critique such as your own as it communicate my point of view more accurately. Thank you very much for the highly useful comment. I am always looking to continually improve as a writer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jiu-jitsu Sensei
Martial Arts Blog