Size Matters - In Qín Ná (擒拿)

Why Qín Ná works, and does not work. 

Original article can be found here

Qín Ná (Capture and Seize 擒拿) - the Chinese art of bone and joint locking found in many styles of Kung Fu including Tángláng Quán (Praying Mantis Boxing 螳螂拳).

The human body has a plethora of ways that it will, and will not bend. Qín Ná capitalizes on these anatomical weaknesses with the objective of controlling, or destroying one's opponent. Locks exist for every joint, from the head to the toes; and quite possibly 20 to 50 variations of each one depending on who you talk to, or what reference you use. 

Having spent years studying these locks, I found it awkward to pull some of them off in 'live' situations. A great many of them if attempted, would have landed the practitioner in a world of hurt from their opponent. Simply from the person reacting by punching them with their free hand/arm. This article attempts to clarify some of the misunderstanding of how and why Qín Ná does, or does not work.

qīng Dynasty and Republican Era 

Much of the documentation I have been able to find on Qín Ná, comes from the late Qīng Dynasty (late 1800's when China's Martial Arts practice was in decline), and the Republican Era; with some emerging during the Communist reign.

These sources are often littered with a ridiculous amount of locks; and include locks that are completely irrelevant to fighting. I recall one technique involving a hair grab from the front - the victim is attempting a forward hand press lock with no leverage to counter the attacker grabbing hair on the front of his head. A simple counter-attack to the persons groin would suffice, yet here lies an ineffective lock.

Forms - Our Window to the Past 

Forms are perhaps our oldest and most reliable documentation of Kung Fu's history of techniques. They are our library or catalog of applications that are relevant to each system or style. Given the lack of documentation on Chinese Martial Arts through the ages, we have to rely on forms as our window to the past.

If you look at the majority of Kung Fu forms they are comprised of strikes (fists, elbows, knees), kicks, throws, and locks. The locks however, typically focus on gross motor movements; attacking the most accessible joints - elbow, shoulder, hip, and knee. Earlier in my training I studied close to 25 to 35 hand forms, and rarely, if ever, have I found a small binding lock within those forms.

Motor Function and Stress

The primary reason Qín Ná often fails to work, or has no place in certain situations, is our motor function skills. According to the National Police Association the level of accuracy in gun fights across the nation was reported at 12% for 2008. These are individuals that train to use their weapons over and over; yet there is a problem hitting their targets when under intense pressure; proving we as human beings lack accuracy and fine motor skills under stressful situations. 

In the world of Qín Ná - humans in the midst of situations such as physical altercations, use gross motor function and react with adrenaline coursing through their system; the heart rate is up, breathing becomes erratic, palms sweat. These factors alter the reality of trying to attempt a finite lock on someone as they attack; grabbing a hand out of mid air becomes increasingly difficult.

Training the same technique over and over through repetition, helps eliminate this problem, but only if the training approaches live scenarios in it's charter.

In essence, if the locks are simply practiced with compliant partners, and/or in fixed sequences such as line training, then we will find them unreliable in combat. To counter this, we can train the locks with 'feeder drills' that lead to random sparring to increase effectiveness.


The where, when, and on who, of locks is the most crucial element of lock training. What we cannot recover from, is attempting a lock on a larger and stronger opponent when we tried to use the wrong lock on them. This is typically where we get punished trying to use joint locks. 

A human body, is a human body; no matter what size the person is. Aside from certain individuals who are double jointed, locks will work no matter how big the person is. The problem isn't whether a joint will lock, the problem is, a larger person also has larger muscles.

It becomes increasingly more difficult to manipulate these larger muscles when we are a smaller fighter. We need the appropriate strength to turn and position the joint, and then apply the lock. The battle becomes strength on strength, instead of technique winning the day.

As an analogy - joint locks will work on animals just as they will work on people, but you will see drastically different results if you attempt a lock on a dog vs. a horse. The two animals are not only different sizes and weights, but possess far different strength potentials. 12 dogs to pull a sled vs. 1 horse to pull a wagon. In the human world of Qín Ná, there is no difference. If you attempt a lock on a much larger opponent, they will resist with strength and then counter with a punch, grab, or counter lock.

Working with different sized partners can give us insight and kinisthetic feedback to this phenomenon. Learning to move from compliant to resistant training will train us on how to detect, and become sensitive to, the when and where of applying locks; so that when we meet someone that resists, we know automatically to switch to another lock, or resume striking to soften the target.

Target Fixation

Military and civilian pilots have a term - 'Target Fixation'. For a military aviator it is most prevalent when we are diving and attacking a ground target. We become so fixated on our target, we fail to realize our altitude reduction, and leave insufficient time to pull the aircraft out of the dive - thereby crashing into the target itself, or the ground.

This same principle applies to joint locks. It is a common occurrence when we train Qín Ná in fixed patterns, to get lock fixation. As we attempt a lock, and the initial attempt fails, we become fixated on making the lock work. We continue attempting to apply the lock while our opponent is at first resisting, and then changing position; then starting to hit us, throw us, or reverse the lock.

We can avoid these situations by dynamic lock training, or principle based lock training. Instead of opponent throws X punch or Y grab, we train the principles of locking by themselves; direction, fulcrum, refined technique. Then once we have an understanding of these, apply feeder drills to train dynamic locking and counter locking.

In this type of training, opponent attacks, we counter and apply X lock, and our opponent resists and/or applies Y counter, and then we can apply our counter. The lock, the counter, and the counter to the counter, so each of us learns to move fluidly from one joint lock technique to another, or even transition back to striking.

Since fighting is random, it only makes sense for us to recreate this randomness in our training without full on fighting. If we try to apply in sparring, stress will take over and we operate in survival mode rather than learning mode.

Small vs. Large Binds 

We can narrow locks down to two major categories:

  • Large Binds - locks attacking major joints such as the elbow, shoulder, knee, ankle.
  • Small Binds - locks that attack small joints such as the wrist, fingers, toes.

The key is for us to know when and where to use each of these locks. Given that stress is involved in a live situation, and as previously stated, gross motor function is more likely - large binds should be used for initial contact. The larger joints take larger motions, which fits into our first response to an aggressive act. Gross movement is more reliable and quite possibly why we see these in the Kung Fu Fighting Forms and a lack of small binding locks.

Small binds are more appropriately used when we are responding to a grab, in the clinch, on the ground, or finishing the opponent after softening them up with a throw. When we are tied up (grappling) with an opponent and have access to the occasional finger, toe; wrist, or ankle, then small binds are extremely effective. After we have thrown the opponent and they are stunned, we have access to time and movements that were otherwise difficult to pull off and can score a small bind as well if appropriate.

Leg Locks

Leg Locks are effective when we are able to pull them off; keeping in mind that the legs are proportionally stronger than the upper body of a human being. When we are attempting to lock up an opponents legs, we are fighting strength, maneuverability, and multiple weapons - other foot/leg, arms.

These are best attempted after a throw, or when our opponent is least expecting it - such as rolling in a ground fight. Basic knee bars can be applied as a counter to a kick, but attempting to maintain the lock on the ground after you have tripped them, is foolhardy at best. Our arms alone lack the strength to keep their knee from bending, and once they bend it, they will be more than willing to use their fists on our head. 

I mention these due to our applications of trapping a kick and trying to apply a leg lock in the air. This works to effect a takedown, but enters problems when trying to maintain that lock on the ground without using larger parts of our body as the fulcrum and lever such as the hips or torso.

In conclusion, Qín Ná is a highly effective and rich part of our art and can be of great benefit. Training and practicing with appropriate measure is crucial to success, as well as understanding when it is appropriate to use each lock. We are wise to avoid the over complication that is commonly seen in much of the reference material on Qín Ná. Seek out the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple Stupid) when locking and you will find success.

Randy Brown

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