The “Straight Arm Bar”




It is perplexing that some in the “Police Jiujitsu” industry say “straight arm bars don’t work.” Perplexing, because they have worked for me a number of times in my career, when “doing it live,” and considering that my skill level is as a journeyman jiujitsuka at best, nowhere near what some of the full time trainers denying the technique, so I wonder what the heck it is I’m missing.

Well, actually I think I know, and that’s why I’m writing this. But it’s much more a tactical problem than it is a technical one.

Generally the critiques go like this:

Trainer talking to the camera, and proceeds to explain that because they are ( or “were” – if this is even the case….) a cop, and they have used force “hundreds of times” and tried the straight arm bar, they can confirm they simply don’t work. There is often an element of sarcasm here. Then a play-acted demonstration is provided where they go to “arrest” their training partner, and the partner begins either actively batting their hands away, actively grappling with them, or literally starts boxing with them, throwing jabs and crosses while bobbing and weaving. The trainer attempts a flaccid execution of the straight arm bar, which of course – doesn’t work.

As an alternative, the same situation is re-played, where the trainer enters, performs a typical BJJ-esque takedown, rolls the “suspect” up, and all is good….

But what they are presenting is a straw man. It demonstrates a lack of tactical decision making, not the validation of a perceived problem with a technique.


Snatching Punches:

If you are trying to snatch a punch out of the air and go into a straight arm bar, the technique will not work. This is a ridiculous example. Teaching as if straight arm bars should even be attempted here is foolish. Yes, there are martial arts and defensive tactics instructors that do so  (and even teach wrist locks off grabbing punches), but savvy cops know that it’s crap.

It’s even worse if the bad guy starts actually boxing. And yes, the answer to this is,  if you are close, to enter, shut down the attack, and take the bad guy down.

If the suspect is actively batting your hands away, or starts to actively grapple with you, then, again, if close, enter-takedown-cuff n’ stuff.  The same Police Jiujitsu industry has been getting much better with the takedowns they are showing. It’s no longer the ol’ BJJ grab the guy, lay down on the ground, and drag him down on top of you, so we’re good here.

If you have some distance, the answer is a less lethal tool, or even simple de-escalation: talking him down over taking him down.. These are not always workable options, if the suspect assaults you, but if you have the opportunity to manage the scene tactically, do so.


A Caveat:

Some people are SO out-of-it, and punching or grappling so ineffectually, just flailing, that a straight arm bar can be effective, and makes more sense than tangling up and grappling – or god forbid body slamming them – when there is no need to.


Something to pay attention to:  When a jiujtsu-ka (or even jiujitsu-cop) is trying to find reasons to tangle up and use jiujitsu, when alternative means are more tactically sound, there is a problem. There are cops that are really into jiujitsu that do exactly that.

At the same time, there are people who are only trained and experienced in highly regulated, even idiosyncratic competitive fighting sports, versed in only the tactics and options allowed, accepted, and rewarded under those conditions, who do not have a frame of reference to understand the tactical aspects and implications of what they are trained and experienced with as “what works.”




Understanding Compliance and Risk:

A secret revealed: the VAST majority of arrests are compliant. Including or even especially high risk arrests.

High risk arrests are conducted on persons who are known going in to be “high violent,” or to have a history of prior violence, including against police. And they are often used when arresting subjects who are known to be armed or have a history of being armed. They are most often conducted by first directing a suspect into kneeling or prone positions.

This provides officers a Position of Advantage in a number of ways: the suspect’s mobility and maneuverability are limited, his vision and ability to monitor the approaching arrest team is reduced (as he will usually be positioned looking away from officers), and he is holding his hands above or on his head, or fully extended out on the ground “like an airplane,” as directed.  The advantages include ability to monitor the suspect’s movement (if he changes position or moves his hands), greater ability to assess approach and plan options for taking into custody, and access to the arms for final cuffing. There is a significant advantage to improved mobility, in the event that the suspect suddenly moves, produces a weapon, or begins to fight, and allows for more use of force options.

An arrest team approaches – at minimum, a contact officer and a cover officer – and the contact officer will make physical contact, always controlling at least one hand.

Though compliant, these arrests obviously still present risk. Such encounters can be tense, and there are moments of decision: some suspects have used this very moment to feign compliance and then launch assaults on officers, since they know the officer must approach and make close physical contact with them. Many officers over the years have been shot or stabbed right at the time they went “hands-on.”

These factors, taken together, allow for the higher level of force utilized ordering the suspect into these positions (which has to be articulated), having a police K-9 close at hand, pointing less lethal tools and firearms at them, and, when making contact – using holds and locks to establish control.


Enter the Arm Bar:


Approaching someone kneeling or lying down and facing away from you allows a better vantage point to observe suspicious bulges or movements on the part of the suspect. Mobility and maneuverability is superior to that of the downed person. Greater leverage can be applied. There is better access to our tools and weapons, and it is far easier to communicate with teammates and, if necessary, to disengage

If, upon contact a suspect starts to become non-compliant, tensing up or actively  resisting physical control, or attempts to turn on the contact officer, or goes for a weapon, there are more options. Due to the greater leverage and maneuverability, the straight arm bar just became a viable option. They are more effective when standing over a kneeling or prone person, and with a suspect’s arm already in hand can immediately be applied, in some cases to prevent the suspect from moving or turning – I have done this many time.

It is more tactically sound – against an armed person, for example – to go with a straight arm bar than it would be take the suspect’s back and attempt a rear naked strangle. Would I really want to leave the hands of a suspected armed person free? Do I really want to tie up both of mine trying a neck restraint while has a knife or gun in his hand? Do  I really want to be lying entangled with him when the K-9 is released? Or the cover officer shoots a Taser, or worse, a rifle at the suspect because he just grabbed for the gun in waistband?

Most likely, none of those response options are available now because I decided to lay down and press my head against the suspect’s, while trying to wrassle him into submission.


Unknown Risks

Most arrests are not high risk, and are not treated that way in terms of tactical positioning and orders given to the suspects. In most arrests, in fact, we cannot articulate doing so. And so we are faced with the “Unknown Risk” arrest.

One again, just because the risk isn’t known doesn’t mean it isn’t risky. Suspects can be the very same bad guys we would treat as high risk – if we only knew. Any suspect can start to resist or actively aggress on officers at any time, or, they can simply try to pull away and flee.

In these cases, sometimes a straight arm bar can work if an arm is under control at the moment the suspect makes his move. Depending on tension and positioning and motivation, it may be effective, or not. Even in the “flight” versus “fight” cases, simply harnessing a suspect and taking him down is the best bet over trying to get that arm out. The key is knowing when to not stick with a technique, or  try it at all, if it has little chance of success.

THIS is what the naysayers are calling the problem with the straight arm bar – but they are criticizing a technique that should never have even been considered in the situations they lay out. That does not invalidate the technique for any and all situations. One of the benefits of proper training should be to recognize this.

There is a great deal more to jiujitsu than what we might believe through facile phrases like “if it doesn’t work in the cage, it doesn’t work.” That may make sense to instructor who has never had to restrain anyone, much less in a tactical situation, and can only rely on their mat training and competition experience for their understanding. The true tactician, and the wise instructor, understands that all tactics and techniques are situationally based, and must be framed inside a bigger picture. Advanced skill has nothing to do with more complex technique – it comes from understanding conditions, adapting tactics to the current situation, and applying techniques best suited to the desired end state.



Densho Photo 003






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