In many martial arts such as Boxing, Karate, Judo, BJJ, TKD etc., there is a strict rule-set of "safe" techniques [yes, often a fine line] and their practice/development is well defined.

There is also a well defined competitive progression: club to regional to national to continental to international. This progression also helps reduce injury risk.

So, my question is: "How can you properly learn techniques which are too dangerous to ever apply?".

As an (extreme) example, someone who claims to be an expert in martial art "X" which "teaches" eye gauges - what evidence are they basing that claim to expertise on? Have they left a very bloody trail of ruptured eyes behind them?... I know I don't fancy being that uke and especially not their competitive opponent!

Personally, the lack of actual "live" application of the techniques leaves a rather sour taste in my mouth, but I am very interested to hear other peoples' explanations and (hopefully) learn a thing or two.

  • See related question here: martialarts.stackexchange.com/q/501/347 Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 11:34
  • @DaveLiepmann Thanks, your answer there is very helpful (though it's worth noting that two out of the three links no longer work).
    – Nathan
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 11:50
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    I updated the epistemic viciousness PDF link. gilliankrussell.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/… Judoinfo may be temporarily down; not sure. Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 12:18
  • @DaveLiepmann Thanks: a very interesting read. If you duplicate your answer there to this question, I will gladly accept it: and hopefully it will then be a bit easier to find (for me, looking at the existing related/suggested items, the mention of a specific technique in the existing question guided me away from what is a very good, general purpose answer)
    – Nathan
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 13:36

4 Answers 4


You can't reliably get good at things you don't practice.

In a fight, we don't rise to the level of our expectations. Rather, we fall to the level of our training. Whether it's an eye-poke, strike to the carotid sinus, a chin-push osotogari, or some other dangerous technique, if you never train it against a resisting opponent (that is, in sparring), you won't ever really have a good handle on the technique. These are legitimate techniques that work, but you don't know you're any good at them just by miming them against the air.

Neil Ohlenkamp, judo 6 dan, notes:

I have never seen realistic training in throat strikes or eye gouges in any martial arts class, even though these are often recommended for self defense. The teaching generally done for these techniques helps students to understand what to do, but does not provide effective results for fast, reflexive and accurate application of these techniques against an unwilling opponent in real life combat.

And as Gillian Russell accurately points out,

there are a lot of martial beliefs that we do not get to test in such a direct way. Unless you're unfortunate enough to be fighting a hand-to-hand war you cannot check to see how much force and exactly which angle a neck-break requires, or learn from experience about the psychological effects and stopping power of an eye-gouge.

In an epistemically ideal--though morally horrible--situation, we'd be able to test the effectiveness of techniques by doing them in realistic set-ups over and over again. How many times out of 100 does your no-holds barred nukite to the throat result in death within 5 minutes? 20/10? 80/100? What's the most likely alternative outcome? Bruising? Scratching? Coughing? Unconsciousness? Internal bleeding? Partially crushed trachea? Escalation? Can subjects partially armour against it or roll with it? These questions have answers, but for good ethical reasons, we can't get at those answers by direct testing, and though martial techniques do get used 'for real', this rarely happens as part of a controlled experiment.

(Source - Martial Arts and Philosophy, edited by Graham Priest and Damon Young, Open Court, 2010 - PDF, emphasis mine.)

So, what to do? I say, get good at the techniques similar to the dangerous techniques by training them against resisting opponents. For a spear-hand to the eyes, that means working on your jab, wearing gloves, against a heavy bag and a good sparring partner. For a chin-push osotogari, it means getting good at osotogari from regular gi and no-gi grips. For a fast-ripping heel hook, it means establishing a wicked straight ankle lock that you apply slowly. Some techniques (e.g. neck breaks) don't really have less-dangerous variations, so you'll have to be content with just practicing getting into position to apply them.

After putting the bulk of your training into applying those less dangerous techniques against resisting opponents, add some compliant practice of the dangerous variations. Make it as chaotic as you can make it, but it will necessarily remain compliant.


Great question. I suggest that many of the so-called "too dangerous" techniques are very low-yield in practice. In other words, you're not going to get as much bang for your buck from them as you will your more "meat and potatoes" techniques.

Let's take the finger-tip eye gouge for example. This is distinct from shoving your thumb or finger into someone's eye while, for example, grappling (that is, in fact, a very high-yield technique). It is a jabbing strike with a spear-hand at punching range. While it is dangerous to do this to a training partner, it is actually significantly more difficult than punching to the face, because of the precision required to hit the smaller target of the eye, and because of the body's natural flinch response when foreign objects near the eye.

When you fight, you will also suffer a loss of fine motor skills, due to adrenaline dump, that many of these "too dangerous" techniques rely on. So many of the "hit this nerve to cause unconsciousness" styles find that their techniques do not work when pressure-tested. It is surprising how hard it is to hit someone who knows it's coming and doesn't want to be hit. This is true for basic punches and kicks, and doubly so for precision pressure points.

When it comes down to it, people who practice "too dangerous" techniques are basing their beliefs on tradition. A certain amount of tradition is common sense (much of it is BS). There wouldn't be a spearhand in Karate, for example, if a spearhand never worked for anybody at anytime. It is also logical that shoving your finger in someone's eye will hurt, or at least distract them. Nonetheless, these are difficult to pressure-test and therefore should not be go-to techniques.

How To Practice

But your question pertains to how to practice them, not whether or not it is advisable to practice them. Invest in a Century B.O.B. (Body Opponent Bag). It has all the heft of a standing kick bag with human-shaped targets for you to practice your accuracy.

Other than this, you can, as suggested in the other answer, practice your techniques at less than full force or at targets other than the intended ones. For example, while a claw to the groin will leave you with no more partners willing to train with you, you can use a claw to the tricep to assist you in a hip toss.


When in doubt, follow the 80-20 rule, a rule of thumb which, when applied to martial arts, states "You will use about 20% of the techniques your martial art contains about 80% of the time, while you will use 80% of the techniques of your martial art about 20% of the time". The trick is, you should spend about 80% of your time on those 20% of high yield techniques.

  • By the way, interesting thing to note about the spear-handed strike in karate: It's not a strike with the tips of the fingers. It's a strike with the knife-edge of the hand. Your other arm is performing a standing arm-bar on your opponent (similar to a kimura), and as you do that you're coming to the side of your opponent, standing perpendicular to him. Then you bend him over with the leverage of your arm-bar, so he's sort of bowing. Then you do a downward knife-hand strike (your spear-hand strike is actually a knife-edge strike) to the base of his skull for a knock-out. Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 3:11

You master it by approximation: the more accurate the approximation, the better your odds are when you need it.

Now mind you, that also means a great deal of the practice is your entry and positioning against a resisting opponent to deliver whatever is supposed to be your technique that's too dangerous for practice. That's the big pitfall most people fail on.

"Oh, you just do this" - and they show it against an unresisting opponent. That's great for demonstration of the basic mechanics of the technique, that's not great for seeing if you can get to the position to deliver it.

There's plenty of dangerous techniques people practice that have evidence of working:

  • Knife attacks to vulnerable areas. You don't actually stab people to see that it works, but your rubber knife getting a good position on the target is good practice. Militaries practice this all the time.

  • Grappling locks that break joints or tear tendons. You can look up all the accidental injuries in practices to see what these techniques can do and the occasional times people have taken an arm bar or ankle hook all the way through in a match. (also, "contraindicated mobilizations" for massage and chiropractic work that ends in injury)

  • Eye Gouging has a horrific history that shows it can be effective, however, my guess is that's also backed up by a lot of grappling to get into position.

  • For a non-combat example - CPR is too dangerous to practice on someone who doesn't need it. You break a great number of the recipient's ribs in the chest compressions - which is why they've made the dummy for people to practice on.

This is not to say every technique that someone claims is "too dangerous" is actually functional or effective, but that there are definite historical and current examples of things that are actually dangerous, that you can't actually do on your training partner, but you can be proficient enough to use.

It also helps to look up what moves are outlawed in combat sports - boxing, judo, etc. - if it wasn't effective at all, then it wouldn't have to be outlawed as a potential attack.

  • Also WW2 has some pretty interesting examples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Wake "During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. "They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised." Or this vet's description of knife defense in WW2: youtube.com/watch?v=uDGHKyB3T_U
    – Bankuei
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 18:09

The short answer is you go through the motions as best you can.

I practice Shorinji Kempo, our favorite attack is a strike to the eyes using the tips of the fingers in a whip like action. I have never hit anyone this way but I have:

1) practiced the strike single form.
2) hit people in places other than the eyes in this manner.

Perfectly safe, but you learn the movement.

Similarly we have a technique involving striking a valve on the carotid artery (on the neck). Even pressing this point causes someone to feel light headed. A strike will cause unconsiousness. Again this isn't something you want to try on someone you don't want to hurt. But what we will do is:

1) practice it alone.

2) practice hitting the shoulder in this manner.

3) do the technique full speed then slow down for the strike to the neck.

4) practice finding the point on each other.

The techniques that are hardest to do truly safely in this style are the wrist locks and fine joint manipulation. The founder of Shorinji Kempo adapted these from the original techniques so as to minimize the chance of breaking bones. But still the joints degrade over time and the techniques are very painful. This is considered to be the price we pay for learning the art. A sacrifice we make for our training partners to make sure they learn the techniques correctly.

Different people I have trained with in other styles have different approches to these techniques. Jitsu Foundation martial artists tend to do these techniques harder than us and as a result injuries occur almost every training session. Aikido practitioners tend to say things like "you need to learn not to do this so hard" but that is a difference in training style really.

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    "A strike [to a valve of the carotid artery on the neck] will cause unconsiousness." How do you know this? How reliable is this effect in live implementation? Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 12:28
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    I assume you mean the knockout at 1:00. Honestly it looks fishy to me in two ways: 1) uke does a break fall while supposedly unconscious, and doesn't exhibit any of the telltale behaviors of a person knocked out (e.g. stiffness, fencing response), suggesting he may actually just be falling for his teacher. 2) Hitting a defenseless opponent tells us nothing about my question, which is implementation against a live, resisting opponent in a chaotic situation. The example at 1:35 is not much better. This is fakery and tomfoolery. Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 14:54
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    It's a forward roll. Which unconscious people tend not to do. Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 15:10
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    @HuwEvans: At 1:00 it looks like standard mae-mawari-ukemi to me (Judo, Aikido, Jiu-Jitsu) Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 15:18
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Huw Evans
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 15:46

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