Tag Archives: choke holds

Why is choking someone into unconscious normally an assumed death in movies? Don’t they have a chance to regain consciousness?

In the real world? Yeah. Killing someone by choking takes a
long time. It’s a legitimate way to kill someone, but not an efficient one, and
the timeframe you see in most films is a fraction of what you’d need to kill
someone. It is worth remembering, this can
kill you. This is one of those times where “safe” does not mean “non-lethal,”
just that it is not immediately lethal.

In films, choking is an ideal option. In a controlled
environment, it’s (relatively) safe. You can get both actors in frame together.
You’ve got a lot of options to set up the shots. Finally, it’s incredibly easy
to fake. You get the actors into position, one of them, “chokes,” the other
without putting any pressure on the windpipe or arteries, and play the scene

It’s probably worth remembering, (even if some actors forget
this part), that acting is a cooperative exercise. Your job isn’t just to hit
your marks, spit your lines, and (occasionally) devour any unattended scenery; you
also need to facilitate your fellow actors’ performances. Stage fighting is an excellent
example of this. It’s not about actual
violence, but it is about working together to create the illusion. If anyone
gets hurt in the process, that means you can’t just reset and do another take,
so this is something that the production staff and performers really want to

There are a lot of staples in film and stage violence that
do not translate to the real world. They survive because of a few factors: most
people don’t know what they’re seeing is unrealistic, it facilitates
opportunities for acting, and it is reasonably safe.

Choking is great on film, because it gives both actors
plenty of time to do whatever the script calls for. So long as no one is actually having trouble breathing, they
can do this all day until the shot comes out right. Characters die from this
because the power of plot compels them to, not because of any physiological
considerations. Audiences believe it kills characters because, “well, I’ve got
to breathe, right?” Without ever questioning how long they can actually go
without oxygen. The idea that effective chokes are about cutting off the flow
of blood to the brain never occurs to them.

If an actor does screw up, and accidentally starts choking
their coworker, you have a lot of
time to rectify that. This isn’t true for a lot of stunt fighting, where if
someone screws up, someone’s going to take a hit, and all that’s left is apologies,
or in some tragic cases, obituaries.

Choking, depending on where you put your pressure can also
include some insane stuff you probably wouldn’t think is safe. An example would
be the one handed choke that lifts the victim off the ground. You can do this a
couple ways, the easiest (without rigging) is to push them up a wall, keeping
your thumb and index finger under their jaw (against the bone), you’re actually
lifting their head, their throat is completely safe, the airway remains clear,
they can breathe, but it looks like you’re going full Darth Vader on them. Even
for someone standing right there, it can be difficult to realize the victim is
completely unharmed.

Beyond this, front facing chokes, like you’ll usually see in
films, are very difficult to use in a real situation. As I mentioned above,
they don’t really provide good access to the points you’d be trying to compress,
but, they’re also difficult to complete because the victim has a lot of options.
There’s a lot of counters to these, that range from simply pulling the hand
free, to breaking their arm at the elbow. Wrapping an arm around the attacker’s
and dragging it out of position will stop the choke, and tie up their arm.

So, no, this is something that’s used because it looks good
on film, not because it has any grounding in reality.


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Hello! If one character, reasonably stronger and more experienced than the other, is choking that other character with their hands around their throat, how would the victim of the attack be able to break free in a realistic manner? Where on the body should the character try to hit to stun the attacker? Is it reasonable to reach for an object to hit the attacker? Thank you in advance! (I’ve been having a little difficulty with this one.)

That’s a very specific degree of “more experienced.” Choking
someone from the front is, in general, a pretty terrible idea, and not
something you ever want to do to someone with training. It’s one of the easiest
chokes to counter, even for someone with a weekend’s self defense class. The
counters are simple and easy to remember, and there are many of them.

They will all leave
the attacker in a vulnerable position.

When you are choked, the first responsibility of the choke recipient is not to break the stranglehold but to ensure you can continue breathing as
you attempt your defense.

The first reaction when you see it coming is to drop your
chin, in an attempt to either keep your opponent from grasping your throat or
just protect your neck. This is not an escape, but it will stop the choke dead
in its tracks. Whether from the front or behind, dropping the chin is the first
line of defense.

The next step is to break the hold.

One response is to put your hands together, either in fists
or palm to palm, and drive your arms between theirs, then lever their arms off
your throat (this should happen naturally as you raise your elbows, but if it
fails, you can rotate your elbows apart keeping your wrists against one
another), and run your forehead into their face. This is all executed in a
fluid motion and leaves the attacker with a bloodied face, and probably off-balance.

Another option is to reach over across their wrists, bring
your forearm down, levering their hands off your throat, and tying them up,
while you have a free hand to work with, and (temporary) control over their
arms. Lock the wrist correctly on the way in, and you can pull it back off and
transition straight into the joint break described below.

The asshole response is to grip their skull by the temples,
and put your thumbs through their eye sockets. Good luck maintaining a choke
while you’re trying to keep someone from taking your eyes out. This assumes
your arms are of roughly equal length, which, they really should be close

The forward choke with the hands around the throat takes
forever. It takes four to five minutes to put someone out with it and even then
you’re not guaranteed the kill. You’ve got to keep it going past the point they
pass out or they’ll start breathing again. In a fight, it’s the “until next
week” choke. So, there’s a good chance they’ll get frustrated, make a mistake,
and end up much closer than they should.

The reason why Hollywood loves it is because, by comparison,
it’s safe. There’s a phenomenal margin for error. You can put two guys on set,
and even if you screw up catastrophically the chances are that they’ll walk
away fine. It’s a very difficult choke to actually kill someone with.

I’m assuming this is with both hands, because you said it
was, but for those of you wondering about how you deal with someone trying to
choke you with one hand, that is one of the worst ways you can grab a foe. You
can simply reach across their wrist, grab it, rotate across towards the thumb,
which will extend the arm, then when the bone locks drive your other hand into
their hyper-extended elbow against the natural pivot. Or, if you’re slightly
less bloodthirsty, you simply apply pressure, instead of striking, locking the
joint and driving them to their knees.

Chokes from behind are much harder to deal with. The
critical moment is if the victim can interrupt the choke before it actually
gets under the chin. This can be accomplished by dipping the head and using the
jaw to protect the throat. If you’re willing, you can also use your teeth as a
deterrent. This can also be accomplished with your hands. …wedging the arm;
if you can bite with your hands, please do not let us know.

There are several ways to position your hands, some of which
feed directly into throws.

If all of this fails, and you have someone with their arm
wrapped around your neck, trying to choke you, you can still snap your head
back, driving your skull into their face. Contrary to what you may have learned
from TV, head butting someone does not require a lot of windup. Your neck is
ready to go, most of the time. In fact, drawing back is usually a classic
beginner’s mistake. You can assist this by reaching over your head, and getting
a firm grip on their skull, to ensure they don’t pull away before you strike.

You can also double over (at the waist), dragging them with
you, and then throw yourself backwards into whatever’s nearby and relatively
solid. Bonus points if it’s something that will connect with their lower back
on impact. And, yes, even someone in fair to average physical condition absolutely can do this to someone larger
than them. It’s because you’re using leverage, and your legs can support far
more weight than you think. For reference: I was trained on this as a kid before
I hit 5ft, and could reliably do it to 200lb adults while I was in training.
(Throws too, for that matter.)

As with chokes from the front, you can still choose to be an
asshole. Reaching over, finding the temples, and taking out the eyes is an
option. The downside is you have to guess where their eyes are, the upside is
everyone’s skull is roughly the same
shape, so it won’t take long, and you can still make the ordeal a horrifically unpleasant
experience for your attacker in a matter of seconds.

Really, the problem with chokes, in general, is that they
don’t secure the victim’s limbs. For a martial artist that is a huge mistake.
It means they have a lot of options to utterly ruin your day. Conceptually you
can address the choke itself, and use that as a transition into a retaliatory
strike. Or you can ignore the choke (obstructing the flow of oxygen to the
brain takes a while to kick in) and exploit the attacker’s lack of defenses.
Choking from behind helps to mitigate that a little, but, really it only
requires that the victim be more willing to use their environment.

Ironically, dealing with someone trying to choke you from
behind is actually harder when they’re shorter than you. You can still pick
them up and take them with you, but things like head butting get significantly


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On the topic of knocking people out, will choking someone into unconsciousness do permanent brain damage the same way a concussion K-O would?

Choking someone out is essentially starving the brain of oxygen or cutting off the blood flow. It’s medically different but with similar results. Like with a concussion, you can come out of it okay.

The problem is that this gets treated as an easy and convenient “no kill” solution in a lot of fiction. Where, it really isn’t. Also, the longer they’re out the more likely it is something has gone wrong. I mean, you knock someone out with a choke, stuff them in a closet, and they’re still out when you close that door? They’re probably dead.

It’s very difficult to get someone to stop breathing. It’s also very difficult to tell where the line is between unconscious and dead. Some chokes like the ones that cut off blood supply are very quick, it’s easy to hold it too long. When practicing these kinds of martial arts for safety reasons, you tap out the second you start to feel it and it’s your partner’s responsibility to let go when that happens.

It is dangerous.

The trouble with a lot of fictional fighting is that there’s a desire (an understandable one) to want to make it “safe”. To say that there’s an easy determining line where “this won’t kill them but that will”. That there’s a safe way to do it that will lead to a happy conclusion where the character doesn’t need to bear the brunt of hurting other people. Films like some James Bond movies, other action movies, Saturday Morning Cartoons, present this idealized state where so long as the character doesn’t kill anyone else then they get to remain a “Good Person™”. This often leads to weird, unironic moments in fiction where the main character is doing straight up terrible things to people such as crippling them for life i.e. “Disabling shots”. While the narrative pats them on the head for being cruel and unusual while the villain is just straight up ending people’s lives.

There is no line. It is all gray area.

Choking someone out, asphyxiating them is denying their brain the oxygen it needs to function to the point where they pass out or die. That is what a traditional choke does. It starves the brain of oxygen. Starving the brain of oxygen can result in permanent damage. It can turn you into a vegetable, it can damage functionality and can leave long term issues even if they live. Starving the brain of any resource it needs to function will kill you. The good news is that when it comes specifically to air, it takes a while.

The point of the choke when you’re not trying to kill, in a lot of ways, is to scare them into giving up so they’ll stop fighting. If you get them to the point where they pass out, there is a good chance that they’ll never wake up again or that you did permanent damage to their brain.

There’s a basic understanding that I feel is hard for people to grasp when it comes to writing fight sequences in fiction which is: your character is going to hurt somebody. For some of us, this obviously trips up the part of the brain which goes “but if my character hurts someone, doesn’t that make my character a bad person?” which is a natural reaction to have. The secondary question comes: “does that make me a bad person?” because we often relate to our characters.

The answer to that is no. Your character comes from you, but they’re not you. It is okay to have these thoughts. It’s okay to think about killing people, so long as it stays in your head or in a fictional space where it belongs. Writing any character who fights is, on some level, crossing over into the realm of questionable morality.

Violence creates uncomfortable questions that we have to ask, both about ourselves and the human condition in general. They don’t come with easy answers. Trust me. Some of the greatest philosophers in human history have mulled over these questions and failed to find satisfactory answers.

Not being able to answer them is okay.

And not running away from those questions will make you a better writer. Lots of characters are going to ask them and the answers will be different each time, they may even differ from the ones you found for yourself.

At the end of the day, violence is about causing pain to someone else. It’s about harming them. You can justify it to yourself. You can understand the situation. You can review it over and over again. But, at the end of the day, that’s what it is.

Accepting that is probably the first step to writing really good fight scenes.


Is a blood choke a safe, reliable and effective way of knocking someone out temporarily?

There’s no real “safe, reliable way” to knock someone out that’s not in controlled circumstances. A blood choke like the triangle choke where the elbow wraps around the neck to cut off blood supply to the brain will knock someone out very quickly, but it will also kill them. It happens very quickly, so the margin for error ends up being a matter of seconds. In the heat of the moment, too much relies on aggressor’s discretion and their enemy’s physiology. The brain needs blood to function, if the flow of blood suddenly stops then the brain can no longer work and it shuts down. This is what causes the knock out, but knocking someone out is basically putting them in a coma and one step away from death.

The same is true of oxygen deprivation. When you choke someone, you’re strangling them. You’re cutting off oxygen to the brain by obstructing their ability to breathe. Many chokes apply direct pressure to  windpipe by squeezing with the hands or crushing with the forearm. The techniques always risk permanent damage to the windpipe and to the brain.

In a controlled environment like a martial arts match or a UFC bout where there are referees keeping careful watch on the contestants and are ready to leap in at a moment’s notice if something goes wrong (and the contestants are given the option to tap out before they pass out), this isn’t as much of an issue. The same is true of the Army and the Marines who both teach choke holds, including a more deadly variation on the triangle choke, because they are effective techniques in situations where the survival of the enemy isn’t an issue. Police in the United States used to love choke holds because they are very effective, the reason they aren’t used anymore is because policemen who used the techniques accidentally killed a great many suspects while subduing them. (The same is becoming true of Tazers. Yes, freaking out someone’s nervous system with electricity can in fact kill them.)

Drugs, in the controlled environment of a hospital they work very well, in a combat situation where you can’t control all the variables not so much. There’s also considerations like body weight, height, and resistances to various drugs that vary from person to person. Unfortunately, there are no one size fits all drug types and in a combat situation too many things can go wrong for it to be reliable. Add to that, any time you put someone under there’s a chance they won’t wake back up or will wake up with real brain damage and it just isn’t a viable solution.

This is all before we get to the issues of moving the body. Moving an unconscious person is a lot like moving a corpse (except they could wake up and, while you can guesstimate, you don’t know for certain when that will be). While putting someone over your shoulder in a fireman’s carry works, it’s incredibly aggravating and terribly obvious. Dragging the body is slow and cumbersome, while carrying it with two is awkward. If you saw a pair of guys in black dragging an unconscious body into the back of a black van, you’d probably call the police. On the other hand,if you saw a nicely dressed man putting an obviously drunk twenty something into the back of a taxi cab, you might not question it as quickly.

Whether it’s a hold up on heroes sneaking around a government facility or a snatch and grab off the street, it’s much more viable to make your target move themselves. Kidnappers don’t have fifteen to twenty minutes to exit a scene, they have five. They’re moving fast. This means disorienting their target and using the fear, shock, and trauma of being kidnapped to force them to move. Whether it’s getting hit with the butt of the rifle, a black bag and handcuffs, or getting dosed with an animal tranquilizer (or date rape drug like rohypnol), it’s much more viable to put them in a condition where they can’t struggle or fight back and make the target carry themselves.

I do understand the dilemma here. We’ve been conditioned by countless action movies to believe that a knockout is an easy out. The enemy cracks the character over the back of the head and we change scene. Unfortunately, (and if you look at most movies that deal with realistic kidnapping like Man on Fire, you’ll notice a change in tone) this isn’t how it actually works. The goal of a kidnapping is going to be extracting them alive and scared, but relatively undamaged. You’re taking them because they are valuable to someone (whether it’s for ransom or for sale is less relevant). Anything that jeopardizes that ultimate goal is going to be off the table for a professional. If you’re writing an amateur kidnapper, they may go for a knockout because “that’s how it works in the movies”.

In Hollywood and some books, knockouts have become sort of a “free pass” for badasses. The badass gets to do all the fancy tricks and cool moves but can also get the “good person cred” of not killing anyone. It’s a “have your cake and eat it too” bit where the author handwaves the violence and doesn’t deal with the consequences. It’s in the same range of heroes shooting arrows and bullets through joints and going “Ha! See! I’m super skilled and I don’t have to kill!” but avoids the obvious part about CRIPPLING THEM FOR LIFE!

This isn’t to say you can’t go with it but just remember, no matter what your hero does, if they are using violence then they are always running the risk of killing someone. This is especially true when harming vital organs or the brain.