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Pressure Points: A Sceptical Examination

Pressure Points: A Sceptical Examination

In this article I want to discuss the always controversial subject of pressure points. Before we go any further, I should make it clear that my articles are always 100% focused on my personal views. It would make little sense for me to try to explain the views of others (I’ll leave that up to them) or to arbitrarily give “the other side of the story”.

I have to assume that as a reader of this article you are interested in my views. You may not agree with them, but you still have an interest in hearing what I have to say. So that’s what I always aim to give: an honest presentation of what I think and why I think it. If I disagree with something, then I will say so. I’m not going to be dishonest or misrepresent my views in an attempt to remain “balanced”.

I will give you the truth of the matter as I perceive it. If you want an alternative view – which is always a good thing – then seek that from an alternative source. It’s up to me to argue my point, and those who disagree to argue theirs. There is no obligation on me to give a platform to views I disagree with and regard to be foolhardy and dangerous.

All that said, everything I do should be approached with a critical mind. If people disagree with everything I say, then perhaps I’m failing to clearly communicate my position, or maybe the reader is being dogmatic? However, if the reader agrees with everything I say, then maybe they are not being critical enough with their own thinking? As General Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn't thinking.”

I’ve looked at the information for myself and from there formed the views I hold. We all need to do the same and accept that disagreement and dissent is healthy.

I state my case in the hope that others find it useful to them. I don’t demand that people think the same as me. I’d therefore expect others to afford me the same courtesy.

So with all of that out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the discussion on pressure points.

The first thing that often jumps into people’s minds when they think of pressure points is the martial use of the acupuncture points. Acupuncture, as I’m sure you know, is the insertion of needles in specific points along the meridians, along which the “chi” or life force of the human body is said to flow.

The meridians are associated with various organs and functions i.e. we have a stomach meridian, a heart meridian, a lung meridian, and so on.

An acupuncturist will carefully manipulate the chi through the use of points along the meridians in an attempt to cure illness and improve health. The martial artist, it is said, can manipulate the chi through these same points in order to injure and incapacitate their enemy.

There is certainly no doubt that some who subscribe to this view can generate an effect. But is it chi that is at work?

Personally, I do not believe that chi exists as a real force. I also don’t even like using the term to express abstract concepts either.

In Kennedy and Guo’s great book “Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals”. There’s a great section on Chi which offers the following four definitions of Chi:

1 – A kind of “life force”

2 – Biomechanical efficiency

3 – Any thing about the martial arts that the speaker does not understand or cannot put into more concrete terms

4 – Some combination of the previous three

I think that is a great and very succinct summation of chi and all the issues surrounding it. I’d now like to break down my thoughts on those definitions.

1 – A kind of “life force”

Personally, I am happy to totally discount this first one on the basis that there is no concrete evidence for its existence (i.e. anecdotal “evidence” only). There are better, repeatable, evidence based explanations for the differences between that which is alive and that which is dead, that do not demand the leap to Chi for an explanation.

Chi is not needed to explain the processes of life and hence I feel this kind of chi comes from a “world view” as opposed to any basis in reality. We could use “chi” as a shorthand catch-all term for the processes of life, but I feel this adds nothing but confusion and should be avoided.

2 – Biomechanical efficiency

When it comes to the martial arts I am a great believer in optimising our biomechanical efficiency. This can result in things that, on the surface, seem beyond human capabilities. However, close examination reveals that high levels of skill are at play as opposed to any mystical energy. I can therefore understand “chi” as a term to reflect this biomechanical efficiency; but it is not a term I would personally use due to the instant implication of an “energy” that is not biomechanical in origin.

3 – Any thing about the martial arts that the speaker does not understand or cannot put into more concrete terms

I think this is a great point that Kennedy and Guo raise! I’m sure we all know of superb martial artists who are not good teachers. They have the skills, but are unable to articulate them or get others to develop those same skills. They therefore use the term “chi” for the “element X” that they have, but are unable to articulate.

It’s the key element that take the technique from good to great, and it is something they feel, but cannot explain. It is therefore labelled as “chi”. However, the key here is that someone who is more articulate WILL be able to clearly define what “element X” is and hence they will have no need to resort to using the term “chi” as a kind of “I’m not sure?”.

4 – Some combination of the previous three

Seeing as definition 4 is a mix of the proceeding three, it is also baseless if 1, 2 & 3 are accepted as baseless themselves.

There is no evidence for a mystical “life force”, biomechanical efficiency is biomechanical efficiency; it is not magical or supernatural, and a good teacher should be able to communicate all elements of a technique and not need to resort to “chi” as a fig leaf for misunderstanding or being unable to articulate something.

I would therefore say “chi” is a redundant term that can safely be dropped from modern martial arts.

The only reason I can see for keeping the term “chi” in common use in the martial arts is an appeal to the “mystical” in an attempt to perpetuate the myth that martial artists have “superpowers” and to market the arts based on that myth (definition 5?).

If we believe chi to be a real force independent of biomechanical efficiency and vital to the processes of life, then we need to provide evidence for that. The burden of proof rests on those who make that claim. Seeing as no such evidence has been forthcoming (only anecdotal evidence, and we also have that for UFO abductions and the Loch Ness monster, and hence I feel about as much store can be placed in that same “evidence”). There is therefore no good reason to believe in chi as a “life force” until any such solid evidence is forthcoming.

There have been experiments where acupuncture treatments have been compared to the random placement of needles (where the recipient believed they were getting genuine acupuncture) and it was shown that both “treatments” yielded the exact same results.

A great demonstration of placebo and the power of the mind to effect health, but it showed that the accurate placement of needles on the meridians makes no difference; which is not what one would expect if the meridians were real.

There is no doubt that enough studies have been done to show that acupuncture can provide pain relief. Although sceptics would say this is due to the endorphins released in the brain through the insertion of the needles as opposed to chi manipulation. Wallace Sampson (editor of the “Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine”) commented that a “pinch on the butt” is also likely to generate the same response … and indeed it did on acupuncture tests on animals!

Some proponents of acupuncture even accept that “chi” is not the mechanism at work. Felix Mann (the 1st president of the British Medical Acupuncture Society) is on record as saying, “traditional acupuncture points are no more real than the black spots a drunk sees in front of his eyes”. This obviously has serious ramifications for those who would entrust their lives to a chi based view of these points!

Despite the doubts about “chi” and the reality of acupuncture points, acupuncture has been shown to provide pain relief for some people; however, there is zero in the way of scientific studies that show acupuncture has any effect AT ALL on things like breathing issues (i.e. asthma), circulatory issues, digestive issues, etc. The claim that the meridians are linked to the internal organs therefore has nothing to support it.

This obviously has big ramifications for how acupuncture points apply to the martial arts. Any claim that striking a certain point can interfere with the heart etc – through the manipulation of chi – has no basis in fact. To be clear, western medicine can explain why trauma to certain areas can interfere with the function of the internal organs; but chi does not come into it.

The scientific evidence would also debunk the theory – which originates from the theories of acupuncture – that striking pressure points in a certain order is more effective than striking them in any other order.

Certain meridians are associated with certain elements (fire, wood, water, metal & earth). For example, the stomach meridian is “earth” in nature; the heart meridian is “fire” in nature, etc.

From these elemental associations we get a creative cycle (i.e. wood creates fire) and a destructive cycle (i.e. water destroys fire). Some martial artists subscribe to the belief that hitting acupuncture points in accordance with these cycles can have a catastrophic effect on the body. There is zero in the way of evidence for this however.

Striking certain areas does have a mechanical effect of course. And it is to these mechanical effects to which the proponents of chi cycles most frequently point. For example, if the enemy is holding my lapel and I strike them on the forearm, their head will twist, presenting a prominent target, and hence making a strike to the jaw all the more effective. This has nothing to do with chi however.

The head turns because the forearm is connected to the upper arm which in turn is connected to the shoulder. Hitting the forearm therefore directs the corresponding shoulder forwards and down … and because the neck and head rest on top of the shoulders, the head turns and lines you up for the great shot to the jaw. The enemy’s brain shakes, and he passes out.

There is no need to invoke Chi in any of this, it confuses the issue, and adds an unneeded layer of “mystical” complexity to what should be the simple job of protecting oneself. There is no need to consider “direction of chi flow”, what element a given meridian is associated with, what time of day it is (because certain meridians are said to be more active at certain times of day), etc. We can make things much simpler, and hence more accessible and effective by avoiding all of this.

So there is no misunderstanding, let me state for the record that striking weak points, pressure points, kyusho points, whatever you want to call them, can work very effectively. What I’m saying is that this has nothing whatsoever to do with a magical force called Chi. There are better, more consistent, scientific explanations that I prefer to work with.

This is not an article on chi, so I’ll stop now and avoid going onto such obvious nonsense as “no touch knockouts” i.e. using chi to knock someone over from a distance, or the extremely dubious “light tap knockouts”.

The bottom line is this; I am a martial artist not a magician. I will therefore study the weaknesses of the human body and learn how to exploit them. I don’t however see any need to study chi.

Now, let me also make it clear that this is not an out of hand rejection of chi. I did spend sometime studying weak points from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective. The conclusion I reached was that it got in the way of the simplicity that I’m always seeking, and that the application of the “rules” of acupuncture made not one iota of difference to the actual result. I could simply whack the weak points that have a scientific basis and get as good if not better results. I therefore ceased to look at points from a “chi” perspective.

Now I know others have found the principles of “chi” and the associated laws to be very useful. But that was not my experience and that is why I hold the views I do.

If you disagree with me, and what you do is working for you, then more power to you. As I say, I know some good guys who subscribe to a belief in chi and my conflicting belief in no way takes away from their ability or sincerity. My own path has not led me to reach the same conclusions though. So no “chi” for Iain!

There are some people who are toalty deluded about their chi based prowess. They believe that their mastery of their chi, and the chi of others, makes them infinitely superior to those poor deluded souls who actually train hard! A quick scan of YouTube shows what happens when they put chi up against a physical combative test. So while they are deluded, they nevertheless honestly believe in what they do. Whether they still do after the test remains an unknown.

There are also some out and out charlatans who use “chi” as a way to make themselves seem more mystical and hence make some dishonest money. However, they are a million miles apart from the effective martial artists who have a sincere and honest belief in chi. Whilst I don’t agree with such people about the existence of chi, I nevertheless respect their ability and sincerity.

So I don’t subscribe to a belief in chi, nor do I use acupuncture based terminology for striking areas. For example, I don’t use the term “Stomach 5” when referring to the point on the jaw that can result in unconsciousness … the reason being that such a point has nothing to do with the stomach and western medicine gives a solid a scientific reason for why unconsciousness results; whereas acupuncture theory does not.

I will always choose “function” over “tradition” and hence I prefer to move away from “traditional labelling” and stick with a scientific, as opposed to misleading, terminology.

The advantage of using acupuncture terminology is that students can look at any acupuncture chart and find the exact location of the point in question. The big disadvantage, in my view, is that it invariably brings chi and all chi based theories into the mix and adds unproven and unnecessary complexity to what should be the simple job of taking a guy out.

I prefer a scientific “whack here” approach as it is simpler and gets better results. The lack of “chi” and acupuncture terminology in my approach has led some to wrongly conclude that “pressure points” don’t play a part in my interpretation of kata. That’s wrong because it does – for practical reasons it’s not the primary element as it is with some – but it is there in a scientific and simple way.

Whether you are “pro-chi”, “anti-chi” or undecided about chi, there should be a general agreement that knowing where to hit is an important part of any martial artist’s knowledge. I do study and teach striking areas as I feel they are very important: not as important as being able to hit hard though!

Doing demos on a guy who stands there is one thing. Hitting accurately when things kick off is something else entirely. Expecting to hit with pinpoint accuracy at a set angle and direction in a live fight is unrealistic.

People move a lot in live fights and the frantic exchange of “fire” leads to an extremely chaotic situation. It’s simply not realistic or practical to say that power is unimportant if you know where to hit.

Sure, we will always intend to direct blows to weak areas, but the realism and the chaos mean – once we have gone past the pre-emption stage and are in “a fight” – that blows are unlikely to land exactly as we intend and hence they’d better be capable of doing damage anyway. The ability to hit with power ensures an effect even if we don’t hit exactly where we wanted to.

Some martial artists mistake powerful strikes as being the result of raw, untamed strength i.e. “powerful blows are the crude way to subdue an enemy whereas a true martial artist will rely on skill and accuracy”. The big mistake with this is the false assumption that powerful blows are not the result of skill!

Where this comes from is the unskilled martial artists who can’t hit hard because their technique is poor. Instead of working on their technique, they incorrectly conclude that only big people can hit hard and hence their weak technique is beyond their control. The answer, as they see it, is to accept that they will never be able to hit hard and hence the only chance they have is to hit vulnerable areas that require less power. This is totally wrong!

The key and overriding component of power is good technique. Sure having extra bodyweight to get into a technique helps. But a big guy with poor technique will not hit hard. I know lots of martial artists, with slight builds, who can generate massive power! One of the smallest martial artists I train with is also one of the biggest hitters I know. Indeed, I have students who in self-defence situations have dropped much bigger enemies due to good technique. It’s therefore not right to say a small person’s only chance is pressure points when good technique will help them much more.

Knowing “where” to hit is important. Knowing “how” to hit is much more important.

If you lack the “how”, the chaos of live situations will in all likelihood render your knowledge of “where” impotent.  So while I believe a study of weak areas is vital, believing that knowledge of pressure points removes the need to be able to hit hard is failing to acknowledge the reality of conflict. You need both to be effective; but I would always say the “how to hit” is of greater importance than the “where to hit”.

All the people I know who use pressure points effectively have good quality striking and are good martial artists. They also tend to dislike those who say that pressure points absolve you of the need to hit hard as it misrepresents what they teach and the field of study generally. People then think that “pressure points” are ineffective; whereas in reality it is ineffective people using them ineffectively that is the issue.

While it is not the topic of this article, the kata do include methods for increasing accuracy including controlling the limbs (clearing the path of the strike) and “datum setting” (ensuring you have a tactile awareness of there the enemy is). However, even with these methods, pinpoint accuracy is still difficult and that is why power is so important.

One other thing we can do to make things simpler with regards to accuracy is to think in terms of “zones” as opposed to “points”.

A zone is an area that contains a number of “points” and when hit hard enough any number of them is likely to be effected. For example, whereas some would ask we hit “Stomach 5”, “Triple Warmer 17”, “Stomach 7”, “Conception Vessel 24”, and so on, in light of the fact that exact location, angle and direction are almost impossible to achieve in a live situation; I would suggest we group these together in a “zone” and accept that good shot to the “jaw zone” – from any angle – will take a guy out.

The advantages of the “zone method” is the avoidance of chi and all associated mysticism, the clear cut demonstrable fact that hitting the jaw shakes the brain and can KO people, the practitioner is not looking to hit a small point but instead has a larger zone to aim for (which prevents hesitation and promotes positive action), and the whole thing is infinitely simpler in terms of both theory and application.

In addition to the “jaw zone”, the other main zones I use are the four diagonals around the neck. Those who have been on the seminars will have seen me demonstrate a basic drill for these 5 key zones (Jaw plus the four angles of the neck) utilising the motions and concepts recorded in the early part of Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan) kata.

It would be difficult to describe that drill here, but a very simple drill that rotates around the four zones on the neck would be as follows:

Imagine a partner standing in front of you, take your left shoto or forearm and take it diagonally into the right (your right) / front side of the partner’s neck (Zone 1). Then take your right haito or forearm and take it diagonally into the right / rear side of the partner’s neck (Zone 2). Then take your left haito or forearm and take it diagonally into the left / rear side of the partner’s neck (Zone 3). Finally, take your right shoto or forearm and take it diagonally into the left / front side of the partner’s neck (Zone 4). You can then repeat, reverse or mix up the cycle to get familiar with the zones.

These zones are all used a lot by kata and it is important to be familiar with them.

Now the zones work because they have “points” within them. So for “knowledge” it can be useful to know the points (by which I mean the nerves and structures that lead to the results experienced when hitting those areas). For function, however, I think we are far better thinking of the zone.

For those who insist on acupuncture terminology – and I’d suggest that we’d be better dropping the confusion and mysticism and not using that terminology – Zones 1 and 4 could be associated with Stomach 9 & 10 & Large Intestine 18. Zones 2 & 3 could be associated with Small intestine 16, Gallbladder 20 & Bladder 10.

However, I’ll say again that the effects of these points have nothing whatsoever to do with chi or acupuncture theory. They also have nothing to do with the organs they are supposedly associated with. These acupuncture points  just happen to overlie physical structures which when impacted have sound scientific reasons for taking a guy out.

The front zones (Zones 1 & 4) primarily work because of the baro-receptors associated with the Carotid artery. The sole function of these baro-receptors is to monitor the pressure of the blood flowing to the brain. A strike to this area fools the body into believing that the blood pressure is too high. In response to this stimulus, the heart will slow down, the veins will dilate, the arteriolar smooth muscle will relax and the heart will pump less blood per contraction. This will draw blood away from the brain, which will cause the recipient to pass out.

The Vagus nerve runs alongside the Carotid sinus at this point and that also has an effect on the body generally. Applying pressure to this area, as in a strangle hold, will also result in a loss of consciousness. Striking this area is very potent and can have severe effects. The point is also very close to the throat, which may also be effected by the blow. We are not deliberately attempting to hit the throat though.

The rear zones (Zones 2 & 3) are where the muscles of the neck attach to the base of the skull and below is the occipital bone which covers the cerebellum. This is the part of the brain that controls muscular movement, balance and muscle tone (it is said to be alcohol’s sedation of the cerebellum that results in people staggering around when drunk). A blow to this area can therefore result in a loss of motor function, disorientation and unconsciousness.

Where the base of the skull meets the centre of the neck is where the spinal column has the least amount of support from any surrounding tissue, and is hence at its weakest. A blow to these zones can therefore have very serious results and even cause paralysis or death.

This brings us to a very important point in that there are no “safe striking” points!

You could kick someone in the shin and they could fall and die from their head hitting the floor. We therefore need to be careful about any claims of “safe ways” to disable a determined attacker. We should always do everything we can to avoid conflict, but when it can’t be avoided, then we have to do what we need to do to disable the attacker; and that is going to mean doing damage to them.

One of the common “myths” surrounding pressure points is that they can provide a “safe” or “humane way” of stopping at assailant. This is simply not true. If a person is intent on doing you harm you have to be prepared to harm them.

Trying to “humanely” stop them is likely to result in you NOT stopping them. I therefore strongly object to those who suggest the best response to violent rapists and murderers is to humanely “de-chi” them. The giver of such advice is inadvertently assisting the criminal element. When our wellbeing is threatened and escape is not an option, we need to hit areas that will cause damage and hit them hard.

When our health and wellbeing are legitimately threatened – and I hope you have the good sense and maturity not to be fighting unless that is the case – then I would suggest that the jaw and neck are the primary targets. Those are the targets that are most likely to end the fight and hence they should be given priority.

Of course, there are many other striking zones (or points) beside these (all of which should eventually be part of your study), but I would suggest that these 5 zones are the primary areas.

There are many other key areas and points to discuss, such as the eyes, throat, groin, solar plexus, supra-sternal notch, xiphoid process, sciatic nerve, etc, etc.

Obviously it is not possible to study all these points as part of this article; but all these areas and points should be part of your study. My Bunkai-Jutsu book covers the main ones as does Gichin Funakoshi’s Karate-Do Kyohan; so there would be two places to start.

I’d now like to conclude this discussion by quickly recapping some key points:

1 – Chi is unproven and no link has ever been established between acupuncture points and the organs and biological functions they supposedly affect. Western medicine makes a much better job of explaining why martial pressure points get the results they do and hence I personally don’t make reference to chi or use acupuncture terminology when discussing weak areas.

2 – When a fight is in full flow the accurate placement of blows becomes very difficult (if you disagree, try some energetic all-in sparring). A knowledge of “where to hit” does therefore not mean you can ignore the “how to hit”. We need both; but in the overall hierarchy of martial methods, being able to hit with power – through solid technique – is more important than knowing where to hit.

3 – Because carefully defined points, angles and directions are rendered functionally meaningless in the chaos of combat, I believe we are better grouping points into “zones” in order to make things simpler in theory and in practise.

4 – We should only ever fight if we truly have no other option available to us. In such a serious situation we need to incapacitate the enemy quickly in order to ensure our safety. I would therefore suggest that the jaw and neck are the primary “zones” in study and application. However, all other zones should also be studied.

5 – There is no such thing as a “safe” striking area. Every time you hit someone, in training or in practise, there exists the risk of injury, paralysis and death. It is therefore vital you practise safely – with great care and control – under the close supervision of a suitably qualified and experienced person, and that you never strike someone in reality unless you are legally and morally justified in doing so. If you have such justification you should be focused on your health and wellbeing and not that of the person trying to harm you.

As I said at the start of this article, pressure points are always a controversial topic and there are many different ways to approach the subject. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope that this discussion of my own personal approach to pressure points has proved useful.


Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals:

A sceptical look at acupuncture: