How to Use Trapping in Self-Defense: Everything You Need to Know for the Real World

Practitioners of wing chun kung fu and jeet kune do make trapping look easy, but can it work for the rest of us? This guide will get you started!

In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee displayed his incredible mastery of combat skills, wowing audiences around the world. Before the movie hit theaters in 1973, few people had seen a trapping technique in action. Fewer still knew how to apply one.

Even today, trapping is, for the most part, surrounded by mystery and confusion. Before you can gain a realistic understanding of trapping, you must understand what it is not. Perhaps the most fundamental point that needs to be made is that trapping is not grappling. When you trap, you should make no attempt to struggle with your opponent and pit your strength against his, nor should you try to manipulate his joints for the purpose of pain compliance. Grappling is a separate art, and it has its own rules and realities.

Here’s what trapping is: the momentary immobilization of an opponent’s limbs designed to give you a brief opportunity to strike while he cannot. Trapping does that by removing your opponent’s defensive barriers.

Origins of Trapping

Trapping probably originated when warriors fought using razor-sharp blades and other deadly implements. Imagine a martial artist facing an opponent with a sword. Physical contact with it means injury or death. The last thing he wants to do is grab the blade. If he tries to punch or kick, he’ll be cut — or worse. So he deflects his opponent’s sword using his own and creates a brief opening that enables him to attack.

In battles with swords, it wasn’t uncommon for fighters to strike, deflect or momentarily trap each other’s blade to get the upper hand. When these weapons were removed from combat, similar techniques were developed for the empty hands.

But how effective is trapping in the real world when a sword is nowhere to be seen? Why don’t boxers and kickboxers use it? Why do we rarely see it employed in MMA matches?

Reality and the Trapping Controversy

One camp holds that trapping is a practical and street-effective tactic. The other faction has dismissed it as theatrics and claims it’s unrealistic, outdated and better left in the movies. The truth is that like everything else, trapping does work — but only in certain circumstances.

Under the right conditions, trapping can be a fast way to end a fight. Under the wrong conditions, it can become a pathetic form of slap boxing with little effect other than opening yourself up for a knockout. Like all control techniques, trapping should be viewed as a tactical assault, meaning there must be a specific reason you’re using it.

Forms of Trapping

There are two forms of trapping: tactile and non-tactile. Non-tactile trapping is more common. It consists of immobilization techniques that don’t require the use of touch to trigger their application. You use your eyes and sense of spatial judgment to determine the range and timing of the assault.

No contact with your adversary’s limbs is necessary until the moment of attack. You make no attempt to connect with or decipher your opponent’s movements or energy; rather, you focus on using speed and surprise to suddenly overwhelm him. Non-energy-sensitive traps most often take advantage of your opponent’s positional liabilities, such as a poor guard or passive blocking techniques.

Tactile trapping focuses on the ability to decipher and manipulate the energy of your opponent’s aggression or resistance. It’s light-years ahead of the non-tactile version. It can enable you to feel your opponent’s intentions the moment you and he come into contact.

Although the use of sight is highly recommended, it’s not a requirement. With proper training, it’s even possible to defend yourself in complete darkness as long as you can maintain physical contact with the attacker’s limbs and end it quickly.

Once contact is made, you use your sense of touch to feel the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent’s defense. The incredible neural network on the surface of the skin allows you to “hear” the pressure and friction of his resistance. 

You can learn to recognize the direction of an attack and continually redirect it to your advantage. This results in the uncanny ability to second-guess your opponent’s actions and smother or crush his attacks before they hit. The bad news is that tactile trapping is one of the most difficult skill sets to develop and has limited application in the real world. Only a fool would fight blindfolded if given the choice. 

The real value is the acquisition of the ability to sense and redirect force on contact. With enough practice, this skill can transcend trapping and become useful in grappling, balance attacks and weapons defense. Touch-force training can become a powerful supplement to the eyes, but it should never replace the knock-down-drag-out basics of hand-to-hand combat.

When It Works

If done correctly and under the right conditions, trapping does work. It can be performed with the hands, the forearms, the elbows and even the feet. If you’re accustomed to only conventional exchanges of blocks and punches, trapping can be completely unexpected. Instead of going around your opponent’s guard, you go through it.

As stated above, once you master touch-driven or tactile trapping, you can wrap your opponent’s limbs in a confusing net of controlling techniques, checking his every move and frustrating his attempts to escape or counter. You can crash through his guard and snare him in a web of suppressive actions like a spider traps a fly.

Effective trapping drives your attack into the heart of your opponent’s defense. When it’s initiated with speed and the element of surprise, few people are prepared for the blitzkrieg. Trapping works best when your opponent is on the defensive and willing to stand his ground and fight.

The ideal opponent is a stationary fighter with a high defensive guard and a commitment to blocking techniques. That’s because the very nature of trapping requires close contact with his limbs — at least for a moment.

An opponent with a high guard or commitment to block your attacks creates the obstructions that become the “bridges” on which the techniques of trapping are built. Without the ability to create such a bridge, trapping usually isn’t feasible or necessary.

That observation brings us to the most important rule of trapping: Don’t do it unless you have to. Trapping should be used only when there’s some form of barrier preventing a direct attack. If there’s no barrier, just hit.

When It Doesn’t Work

Trapping does not work well against aggressive fighters or those who prefer to use evasion as their primary defense. Unless you’re unbelievably skilled, attempting to trap such a fighter is dangerous because he won’t allow you to make the connection you need. He’ll evade you, retract his guard or counterattack at the first sign of your attempt to control him.

A highly mobile fighter with a tight guard will provide no obvious barrier to fight through. No barrier equals no trap. Trying to connect with such a fighter will likely get you hit.

Remember that no matter how swift your trapping may be, it’s still an attempt to control, and controlling techniques are never as direct and efficient as striking itself. While you’re attempting to control him, he’s trying to tear your head off. Forget about the endless exchange of check-and-control techniques often seen in martial arts movies. Remember that these moves exist only to create drama and prolong the action. They have nothing to do with real fighting.

It’s easy to be seduced by complex controlling and trapping techniques because they provide a feeling of utter dominance over an opponent — at least in practice. But the more you’re seduced by complex actions, the further from reality you drift.

In the real world, trapping must be sudden, brutal and direct. An effective trapping attack should include only one engagement, in which you blow through your opponent’s defenses and overwhelm him. For that reason, trapping should be applied on a case-by-case basis and only as needed. In the art of trapping, less is more, and keeping it simple is just plain smart.

(Standing Photos by Tom Sanders, Grappling Photo by Rick Hustead)

Richard Ryan is the founder of Dynamic Combat and the designer of the Tactical Defense Training System for law enforcement. He has more than 40 years of experience in martial arts, combative firearms and weapons training.

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