The way you hold your hands in a violent encounter and in the moments leading up to it can influence the outcome. That's why the martial art of silat teaches students to open up.

The debate is as old as the martial arts: If you have to fight, should you follow your instincts and ball up your hands to form fists, or should you keep them open?


Some martial arts instructors argue that under pressure, you’ll always make and use fists. Others insist that fists should be avoided because they’re technically limiting and their use is potentially hazardous to the puncher as well as the punchee.

No matter which side of the fence you’re on now, you should consider these 10 open-hand strategies of modern silat. Even if they don’t make you change your ways, they’ll help you open your mind with respect to technique. Contemplate the strategies and review the photo sequences, and you’ll become a more formidable fighter.

Silat Strategy No. 1: It’s easier to de-escalate a situation with open hands.

Like all martial artists, you want to avoid conflict whenever possible, in part because you know that using your skills can lead to legal trouble. This alone is a great reason to always do your best to end a conflict without any physical interaction. Because real fights often start with an angry aggressor yelling and posturing, you’ll want to maximize your ability to calm the situation.

If you close your fists and get into a stance, you’re signaling that a fight is imminent, and that can prompt the assailant to initiate his physical attack. Keeping your hands open can help calm him down while you talk him down.

Silat for the Street is the title of a book from Black Belt Hall of Famer Burton Richardson and Black Belt magazine. Now you can learn the most functional silat techniques. Order here!

Silat Strategy No. 2: Open hands facilitate the use of more techniques.

It’s pretty tough to target an attacker’s eyes when your hands are balled into fists. Likewise, you can’t grab an assailant’s throat when your hands are closed. Those are just two reasons to keep them unclenched.

In general, being comfortable with open-hand tactics expands your defensive options, and in any serious attack, you’ll want to have as many options as possible. Once you experience the effectiveness of techniques like the finger jab to the eyes and the slap to the ear, you’ll want to keep your hands open whenever you can.

Silat Strategy No. 3: Open hands make it easier to catch kicks.

If someone launches a leg at you, of course you can block or evade the technique. Tactically, however, it’s better to catch the leg. Doing that not only gives you control of the attacker but also allows you to keep him in a very vulnerable position — balancing on one leg.

When your hands are open, you have the ability to snatch a straight kick, to check and capture a roundhouse kick, and so on. Because these responses require speed, it’s best to stay mentally primed to react, which is what consciously keeping your hands open does.

Silat Strategy No. 4: It’s easier to stop a weapon with open hands.

If you’re in a fight and a weapon is drawn, you’ll need to physically control the weapon or the weapon-bearing limb before you apply a disarm. You can make that happen more quickly if your hands are already open when you begin. Having your hands open signals your body that it’s not just a frantic striking mode that you’re in. It’s a mode that entails quickly searching for a way to control your adversary and his weapon.

Silat Strategy No. 5: Use of a physical-restraint technique requires open hands.

If you know only how to strike, you’re limited to smashing your assailant into submission. But what if the situation doesn’t call for that level of violence? What if you’re dealing with a belligerent drunk who’s not actually combative? In such cases, you need to lay open hands on the person to control him. Being able to respond with limited violence is especially important for law-enforcement officers. When they’re forced to interact with people who are resisting arrest but aren’t actually combative, striking isn’t warranted.

Read Part 2 here. Go here to read another Black Belt article by Burton Richardson.

Article by Burton Richardson • Photos by Robert Reiff

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