THE HOW-TO OF HELLBOWS: VOLUME I
When fans think of this sport, they first imagine razor-sharp elbows cutting through the air and slashing skin from skulls. Whereas boxing is all about the hands, Muay Thai is defined by its elbows.
A well-placed elbow is a close range, devastating strike that is woefully underused in the West. This is surprising as they are one of the most diverse weapons a fighter can have in their arsenal.
While we do occasionally see close range elbows used to devastating effect, it is very rare that you see a farang muay thai fighter or a mixed martial artist use elbows to their full capacity. Elbows are commonly thought of only as that “brutal” technique that you throw from the clinch. This a very limited way to think of elbow strikes.
Today we are going to go over the good, bad and ugly of elbow strikes, plus the various strategies that you can employ to make the most out of them.
FINDING THE CORRECT FORM
First, we need to go over the dos and don’ts for the three basic elbow strikes. Correct form will maximize your power with the bare minimum effort required from you.
This simple strike should be the first elbow you learn. To perform the elbow, you simply step towards your target and whip your elbow up vertically in a motion similar to combing your hair. This elbow is particularly useful for slashing up and between the guard of your opponent, hitting them directly. It also serves as a great ending to a combination.
Common mistakes include:
- Failing to raise elbow high enough. This results in less elbow strike and more forearming your opponent in the face. While a forearm to the face certainly isn’t comfortable, it doesn’t have near the devastating impact of an actual elbow strike. When shadowboxing an elbow, you ideally want your elbow to be pointing out from your eyes to ensure it properly hits your opponents chin.
- Not taking a step. Taking the first step towards your opponent gives you more reach and power. Elbows are a close range weapon, so you need all the extra distance you can. When your opponent is advancing towards you, that forward step will cause a collision and likely bust up their face.
If you throw a lot of lead hooks when you fight then this should be a fairly straightforward strike for you.
You begin by bringing your arm up in the same way you would to throw your uppercut elbow. However, as soon as you bring your arm upwards, it is time to turn the elbow horizontally to slash across your opponents face. In order to generate power, you should pull backwards the hip and shoulder opposite your striking elbow, shifting your weight to the opposite side to properly pull the elbow through the target.
Common mistakes include:
- Pulling your arm outwards and towards the target. A proper elbow strike should come up and in, not unlike a proper round kick. This prevents telegraphing it and speeds up the strike. It also gives the elbow more power as you hit them in the middle of your strike rather than at the end.
- Not shifting your weight. If you throw a right elbow, you need to shift your weight to your left and vice versa. This will keep you balanced and allow you to get far more power into your strike.
While it’s hard to throw an overhand elbow without a telegraph, it is one of the best elbows to throw in combination.
Start with a step off your opponent’s centerline and allow your elbow to come up, before bringing it down on your opponent – like an axe chopping a block of wood. As you do so, you again bring your weight to the opposite side of the elbow you’re throwing to remain balanced and deliver more force.
Common mistakes include:
- Staying on the opponents centerline while on the front foot. When you are on the offensive, it’s important to take the step off line. If you take a step directly towards the opponent, not only are you putting yourself at risk by not taking any angle, but you are also making it harder to land an already fairly difficult strike.
FIGHTING YOUR OPPONENT’S GUARD
Due to elbows being the shortest strike you can throw, they are typically quite hard to land without a lot of training. Learning to throw elbows is not a great challenge; a novice can pick it up in the span of a few hours. Becoming an elbow fighter, on the other hand, is thousands upon thousands of hours of training to become an expert at setting them up.
SPLITTING THE GUARD
Landing elbow strikes is an art unto itself. It primarily revolves around controlling and removing your opponent’s guard.
The basic Muay Thai guard is high but fairly loose. Take a look at this picture of Sean “Muay Thai Guy” Fagan.
When Sean’s hands are close to his face, uppercut elbows are the way to go. This will slice upwards through the guard and the force of the elbow will smash through whatever guard may be in the way. The only way for Sean to avoid this is to take a step back.
If your opponent’s guard is especially tight, and you’re looking to land a hook or overhand elbows, guard destruction is the way to go.
The easiest way to land an elbow is to simply grab the guard and pull it down before sending an elbow careening into your opponent from the opposite side.
When your opponent’s guard is more outstretched, then it’s best to place your palm over the back of your opponent’s hand. This shuts down their punches or elbow strike. Now that their hand is successfully taken out of the action, you can fold your elbow over their arm.
BOXING COMBOS WITH ELBOWS
Any boxing combination you can imagine has space for an elbow in it, if you’re so inclined. Elbows usually make for a great finish to a combination due to their stopping power.
When boxing with elbows, you must always remain aware that you’re getting very close to clinching range. Unless you have a solid clinch game, it may be better to hold off on these techniques.
Our first two elbow strikes come off the jab. The jab is the quickest strike you can throw, which makes for the perfect technique to temporarily blind your opponent and land your next strike.
#1: JAB –> STEP –> REAR HOOK ELBOW
#1: To properly land elbows in the after punching combinations, you’ll need to be able to close space properly. With each of the preliminary punches you throw, you should inch closer to the opponent until you’re in range to throw an elbow strike.
#2: JAB –> STEP –> LEAD HOOK ELBOW –> REAR HOOK ELBOW
#2: After a solid rear straight, your opponent will be locked in place for the quick elbow to follow. This combination will catch most opponents off guard, as it’s not one typically thrown.
I can’t claim to have invented it myself, but I’ve never seen someone else do it – and they really ought to. The straight will snap the opponent’s head back and in the moment they expect to recover, the elbow knocks them out.
#3: JAB –> REAR STRAIGHT –> REAR OVERHAND ELBOW
#3: Our final combination is great for pressure fighters. The 1-2 brings the opponent’s guard up, only for them to be hit with a hard body punch. Now that the opponent’s attention has been directed to their midsection, they’ll be hit with the elbow.
Using this combination a few times will either put them out,or the damage to their midsection will make the later rounds of the fight much harder.
This is all well and good for an elbow fighter who likes to be on the front foot, but what do you do when your opponent is trying to attack you and you still want to land your hellbows?
Join me next time to find out!
- Andrew Bryan is an actor, writer and martial artist based in the UK. He likes long walks on the beach, fighting technique, and history.