When foreigners travel to Thailand to learn kickboxing, the biggest fear they face is the “knives of muay Thai.” Considered the secret weapons of Thai boxing, they’re the top cause of bloodletting in the ring. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the knives of muay Thai are the elbows. Over the past few decades, they’ve proved so devastating that Western martial artists in Thailand customarily request that their bouts be conducted without elbow strikes.
One of the most feared full-contact fighting systems in the world, muay Thai is renowned for developing the human body into a collection of weapons. For maximum effectiveness, the art teaches that each weapon should have a specific bone for striking, a specific movement for power and a specific target for destruction. The application of that ideology to elbow strikes is the subject of this post.
Nailing the nose
In muay Thai, two parts of the elbow are used for striking: the terminus of the forearm and the terminus of the upper arm. Note that the tip of the forearm (front tip) is not in the center of your arm; to access it, you must raise your elbow above the target before you strike. And contrary to what many martial artists believe, hitting with the tip of the upper arm (back tip) doesn’t mean hitting with the muscle; for maximum effect, it requires contact with the bone, which is also necessary to avoid injury to your limb.
Elbow techniques are called the “knives of muay Thai” for a reason: Rather than wield them with brute force, you strive to be smooth, relaxed and fast. The goal is to slice at just the right angle and just the right moment.
Described below are the best methods for using your elbows to attack five common targets. It’s safest to practice the techniques on a heavy bag or a Century Martial Arts BOB training dummy, which has realistic facial features on a soft surface. Avoid doing drills with a partner because sooner or later you’ll make accidental contact and learn quickly why the elbows are referred to as knives — they can cut.
Start from a right strong stance (left foot forward if you’re right-handed) and use your left arm to effect a front elbow strike that at first resembles an uppercut done with a bent arm. The technique is powered by body movement and footwork, which unite to move your elbow forward. It’s that forward motion, rather than an upward swing of the arm, that makes the technique work. In fact, the strike can be done with no arm movement at all — by locking the elbow tip in a forward position and charging ahead.
The strike is often used against boxers who rely on powerful hooks and grapplers who shoot in for a takedown while keeping their arms spread wide to grab your torso.
Proper footwork entails pushing with your right leg while stepping forward with your left. The best time to use the technique is when your opponent is aggressively approaching, making the effect not unlike two rams slamming their horns together.
Tagging the temple
To attack this body part, use a left diagonal elbow strike, which is a near-horizontal technique that’s often delivered immediately after a left front elbow. The diagonal strike is small, smooth and fast. If it makes contact squarely, a knockout may result, but if your opponent moves his head forward, a laceration will likely occur above his eye. If he happens to raise his head, your elbow will hit him in the jaw and possibly knock him out.
Before you strike, make sure your left foot is slightly in front of your opponent and your right is planted in back, providing a solid foundation for the technique. Stand tall and lean forward to hit the target. The power comes from the sequential twisting of your hips, waist and shoulders, not from moving your arm. Frequently overlooked detail: Your left fist should effect a small movement as though you’re punching your right shoulder.
To attack this region, use a back-tip strike delivered in the form of a short poke that travels straight up and into the bottom of your foe’s chin or jaw. A sneaky and effective strike, it often results in a surprise knockout, especially when your opponent has his mouth open. In muay Thai bouts, however, it’s seldom seen these days because it’s been deemed an old-school technique.
Footwork: Turn to present the back tip of your elbow to your opponent. After hitting him, immediately establish a strong stance in front of him, with your left foot forward and slightly to the right of his body and your right foot slightly back and to the left.
Chipping the chin
Start in a right strong stance and use your right elbow to effect a front-tip strike that crashes straight through your opponent’s guard. This is the only all-out power elbow strike in muay Thai. Even if he has his hands up to block, he’ll feel the effect because your whole body is behind it. As mentioned above, the tip of your elbow must be slightly up to fully expose it, after which your body pushes it forward with a small swing. Your right fist should move as though you’re punching your left shoulder.
If your foe knows muay Thai, as soon as he sees this attack coming, he’ll stand strong with his forehead out and braced for impact. If he fails to detect the movement, chances are good he’ll sustain a broken nose.
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Before using this technique, plenty of practice is required because the body movement is somewhat unfamilair. With your right foot in back, push forward with your leg so you move to your opponent’s right side as you slam your elbow through the target. Typically, the technique is performed without a step, just like a right cross, but your body has to move forward to ensure that the elbow cuts effectively.
When you’re slightly to the right of your opponent, you’re in position to catch him with a swinging elbow. Your weapon is the back tip of your left arm, which is powered by a half turn of your waist. Your left hand pulls up slightly as if you’re starting a lawn mower. Caution: This is not a spinning movement. Knowing that muay Thai is composed of mostly short and direct techniques, you should try to be conservative in your swing because after the strike, you’ll want to turn back around to face your foe in a strong stance.
After the strike, push off on your right foot, then step back into a right strong stance to assess the damage you did. Advisory: If you missed and your opponent knows muay Thai, get ready because now it’s his turn to go on the offensive. All the more reason to be prepared to defend yourself at all times.
Daniel C. Docto is a former boxer, full-contact martial arts champion and California state kickboxing champion. He lives in Thailand, where he trains in and writes about muay Thai.
(Photos Courtesy of Daniel C. Docto)