The good news is that the “bear hug” is one of the most common grabs and most self-defense courses will teach you how to break free from it because it’s surprisingly easy in concept once you know how. It’s like the one handed wrist grab, there are a lot of ways to do it.
As always, this is purely conceptual. If you actually want to learn any of what I describe in this post, then always seek out actual real world training from someone in your area.
For those that don’t know, the bear hug is when someone wraps both their arms around your body in a hug that pins your arms to your sides. Essentially, they use their body to trap you. Doing so traps their arms too, though. When you’re looking at it in an actual fight context, this normally means you’re dealing with multiple opponents. In a self defense context, it can run the gamut. You could very easily end up trapped in a bear hug by someone trying to kiss you when you don’t want to be. So, it’s not automatically linked to violent situations. It’s a useful method of intimidation used usually by someone larger to control, it’s easy to to do so it’s common, and because it’s intimidating it is effective.
When you’re trapped in a bear hug, most of the normal avenues of attack that someone who has never been trained to deal with the situation usually doesn’t think of. It’s our first instinct to actually use our hands rather than any other other part of the body, and those usually take the shape of fairly wide swings (less power, but feels powerful). So, the initial natural human reaction is going to be to flail and panic. Being trapped is terrifying, feeling like you’re helpless or powerless often causes the mind to shut down or give up. This is where the bear hug itself is actually most dangerous because panic means you don’t think critically and if you can’t think then you can’t observe your surroundings or determine a plan of attack then you can’t actually fight.
This is why mentality and your character’s mental state is very important to combat. Your ability to control your mental state is a weapon in and of itself, which is why I keep saying that training will change your character on a fundamental level.
A lot of techniques used in combat attack on two levels, the physical and the mental. They are there to exploit the way the body functions and the way the mind thinks. Which is why the ‘natural instinct’ some writers love so much as an excuse doesn’t work at all when dealing with normal trained humans. Whether or not their naturally inclined toward fighting is immaterial in regards to anything other than a character level and a willingness to learn. It may help when performing the unexpected against school yard bullies who can’t adapt to change, but not the more sophisticated ones. Human behavior is fairly easy to track, adapt to, and exploit once you’ve been at it for a while. Other than that, nobody is gonna just bust out a perfect roundhouse on natural instinct. There’s nothing natural about trained combat techniques.
This is why the bear hug is so common. It’s easy and it’s effective.
Thrashing doesn’t usually work (unless their grab is really weak). You can’t punch or elbow because the trapped arms mean no leverage, no chamber, no chamber means no arm movement, no arm movement means no punch. So, the question is: what’s left?
The answer: every other part of your body.
Breaking a bear hug is about convincing your opponent to let go usually by causing them pain. (Though persuasive conversation is not out. I know you’re asking for violent solutions, but peaceful solutions are always an option if your character can get them to work.)
Remember, you’re not trapped in here with them. They’re trapped in here with you.
So, let’s go over these in sequence and since there are many, many ways to do this, I’m absolutely sure that I won’t get anywhere close to listing them all. You also don’t have to pick one, most of these are complimentary. They’ll work if you do several of them.
The forward facing bear hug is when you’re trapped while facing them, so your nose and their nose are pretty close. Maybe they’re grinning down like a loon. The easy solution to that is the headbutt. So forehead right to their face. Biting is also an option. Kick them in the shin.
The shin sounds funny, but unless they’re wearing heavy work boots, leather boots, biker boots, or any kind of shin protection then it’s actually a very good target. It doesn’t cause much damage, but any place on your body with exposed bone or places where muscles are thin like your funny bone is direct access to a lot of nerves. Hit it and it hurts like a mother.
It’s not as good as hitting the nose because a broken/swelling/swollen nose impacts their ability to see, (tears, the nose gets larger, blood in the mouth, all very scary) but it works.
The point is to cause pain as quickly as possible. The goal is to get the arms to let go so you can free your hands. Holding onto someone requires that you keep thinking about it and focusing on that. Pain is distracting. When you damage the face anywhere, the hands will automatically start to rise to defend it. Natural instinct.
Once their hands no longer around you then you are free. Run or fight, you’re choice.
Again, there are a lot of ways to break free from this and the same principles apply. I should say that most of these come with corresponding holds/locks/grabs/attacks, but I’m not going to go over them because we’d be here all day. Also, I really don’t want anyone getting in the habit of thinking there’s only one way. A major problem in recreational martial arts self-defense beyond just the problems in writing is that you get locked into repetitive actions or single techniques because there’s not enough freedom to be spontaneous. This is for safety reasons, but it also hampers growth.
What I want you as writers to really think about when looking at your scenes is “what does my character do next?” and not assume there’s a right answer to this question. Because this is all in your imagination, you’re not in a situation where you could be hurting someone for real. Think about it.
What your character does once they’re free can tell you a lot about who they are.
Go limp, forcing them to hold the whole of your dead weight. They go from holding 30 something or less to a hundred or more. Boom.
Drive the heel into their shin. The heel works even better than your toes.
Lean forward against the hands, then spring back driving the back of the head into their unprotected face.
Clasping both hands together in front of you, bring them up above your head. This leverages against their grip, forcing their hands to pop open. Step sideways, drive elbow into gut.
From Behind, if they aren’t trapping the arms:
Lift hands to face, grab skull, put thumbs against the eyes.
All the rest still work.
I know there are others, I just don’t remember them.
Remember, this blog and any internet information/videos are not a substitute for real training. If you are interested in learning self-defense or practicing martial arts, seek out training from a qualified professional in your area.
Please use whatever information you find here responsibly.