The human hand is made of a complex web of small bones and short tendons, that’s why it is very prone to injury when hitting a solid skull with no gloves or wraps. On the other hand, elbows are made of a few big and large solid bones which make them perfect for a devastating strike in MMA, Muay Thai or even self-defense.
Before getting to the different elbow techniques, let’s understand first what damage can an elbow strike cause.
Slicing: The tip of the elbow is very sharp, that’s why it can slice the opponent’s skin easily and make them taste their own blood. Some areas are more prone to get cut than others, such as the eyebrows, under the eye, and the forehead. According to UFC stats, 57% of doctor stoppages are caused by elbow strikes.
Smashing: Elbow strikes can occupy the role of an extremely heavy punch without the risk of getting injured or breaking the thumb or the wrist. The short distance between the elbow and the body makes the strike more compact and more able to generate force.
With that being said, let’s get to the different variations and styles of elbow strikes:
Side elbows are the most common form used in modern martial arts, they are simple to use and devastating at the same time.
When throwing a side elbow remember to stay tight with your chin tucked to avoid being countered. Also, for extra precaution, keep your free hand up across your face to protect yourself from strikes.
How to use a side elbow?
There are 3 ways to use a side elbow:
1. Distance elbow: An elbow can be thrown from free range without having to clinch with your opponent. You can throw it as a proactive strike or as a counter-strike.
2. From the clinch: Muay Thai fighters excel at that, they are masters of hitting with elbows inside the clinch.
3. Trapping opponent’s hand(s): Fighters with a long reach do it often, they grab your hands, push them downward or to the side and then hit you with an elbow of the same hand they are using to trap yours. Jon Jones applied the same technique against Rashad Evans in their title fight. Jon jones has a reach of 84 1⁄2 in (215 cm), he clearly had a significant advantage over Rashad Evans who has a reach of 75 in (191 cm).
2. Down Elbow
The beauty of this elbow strike is that you don’t have to do tricks to lower your opponent’s guard, it can go between their guard to hit their forehead, nose or cheeks.
Chris Wiedman used the same technique against Mark Munoz as a counter-strike when Mark launched a right hand. Chris ducked under and threw down elbow at Mark’s forehead which knocked him down, then Chris finished him and left him unconscious in a pool of blood with a flurry of punches.
3. Up Elbow
The up elbow has the same advantage as a down elbow.
There are two ways to throw an up elbow strike:
As a spear with the tip of the elbow directly to the forehead or the face in general. This method is used to slice the opponent open and cause them to bleed.
As an uppercut with the same mechanics of an uppercut. This method has its own advantage especially when going high with the shoulder, as the shoulder will protect you from potential hooks or wild heymakers coming your way.
Elbows are not used only for offense, you can also use them for defense as Floyd Mayweather does. George Foreman used it too in his famous cross-armed guard, alternating it with the standard guard.
Framing can be used in offense too, especially when your opponent is having their back against the cage or ropes, you can push them with your lead elbow and redirect them wherever you want while charging with your rear hand.
Also, you can use framing in ground and pound, especially when you are in your opponent’s full guard or half guard.
How to use framing for ground and pound:
- Place your elbow against your opponent’s neck to pin them down, or against their face to create distance for the upcoming strikes.
- Make sure to put all your weight behind your elbow to make it even harder for your opponent to escape
- Unleash hell with the other hand.
5. Spinning Elbow
Now we are getting to the fun part, the fancy and flashy spinning elbow that everybody loves to do in sparring sessions.
One of the most effective fighters to do it in MMA is Jon Jones, he did it almost against all his opponents, and sometimes it played a significant role in slowing them down or even stopping them.
Gaston Balanos is also a master at knocking out his opponents with spinning elbows.
In MMA and Muay Thai, the spinning elbow can be thrown from the clinch or free range, but the most devastating ones are the ones thrown from the clinch, because the opponent doesn’t see them coming.
In the clinch your opponent will be focused on dominating the clinch with under hooks, bear holds, leg sweeps, dirty boxing, etc. This is where fighters like Jon Jones seize the opportunity to launch a spinning elbow.
How to set up a spinning elbow from the clinch like Jon Jones?
Let’s suppose that you will strike with your right elbow:
- Press your opponent against the cage or the ropes
- Free your right arm
- Prepare the turn by pushing your left shoulder into the center of your opponent body, at this stage you will be almost sideways forming a 90 degree angle with your opponent.
- While going sideways, be careful to keep yourself protected from getting your back taken by your opponent
- Now, bait your opponent by letting them grab your left hand. This will leave your opponent’s face unprotected.
- Step with your left hand towards your opponent’s left
- Now, explode and make your turn
- When doing the turn, make sure to duck a little bit to avoid being countred by any wild punch coming your way
6. Downward jumping elbow
This is an excellent strike to use against a taller opponent with a high guard.
Also, it’s an excellent technique to add to your arsenal if you are a fighter who likes to fight in long range.
Note that the downward jumping elbow requires great explosiveness and excellent jumping ability.
Important tip: Don’t jump out of nowhere into your opponent’s striking range, instead, set up your jump by launching a jab or a cross without the intention of hitting. This will distract your opponent and will cause them to raise their guard which will give you an opening to strike them with the downward elbow between the guard without the risk of getting intercepted in the air by one of their punches.
7. The lawn mower elbow or reverse vertical elbow
Anderson Silva is well known for using this strike to knock out Tony Fryklund in his middleweight title defense at Cage Rage 16.
The reverse elbow is the least used one amongst all elbow strikes, this is due to the fact that it’s very difficult to generate enough force to hurt the opponent using this strike.
But surprisingly, Anderson Silva had great success with it. So don’t eliminate it from your arsenal until you try it and see if it fits your body mechanism.
Remember to be very careful with your elbows in sparring, as they can cut easily, especially when the skin is dry, so stay away from making contact with your elbows. If you insist on making light contact with elbow strikes, make sure to wear elbow pads.