The Hands-up/Hands-Down “Non-troversy”

A common misconception about Systema is that we fight with our hands down. I’ve read vociferous tirades about this supposed “controversy,” including one using a machine to demonstrate reaction times that “proves” you should never have your hands down. All this demonstrates is you can respond faster to a non-human stimulus, the closer you start.

Does this even need an experiment?

The same answer that applies to people applies to this machine, “why would you get so close to it in the first place if you know it was going to hit you?”

The argument goes like this: your reaction time is faster with your hands up (because you are closer), therefore it ‘s imprudent to ever have your hands at your side.

Of course it would be foolish to place yourself at a distinct disadvantage by getting too close to someone who obviously wants to punch you in the face. Systema does not advocates that. What Systema does advocate is factoring other variables into your self-defense strategy beyond weapon-to-target distance as it relates to response time.

Speed is not absolute, and factors such as intention, speech and body language all provide valuable information about the onset of an attack that you can use to make yourself deceptively faster. Range is another critical factor to consider when deciding where to place your hands.

It doesn’t matter where your hands are when you are out of range.

If you’ve ever watched Major League Baseball, you will have seen batters do some weird movements with their bat while setting up to hit.

Willie Stargell, of Pittsburgh Pirate fame, would twirl his bat with a signature rocking motion as the pitcher was preparing to throw the baseball.

In spite of the flashy bat-swinging, Stargell always brought his bat into the ready position just as the pitch was about to sail, very often sending the ball over the outfield fence.

No matter what pre-swinging ritual various batters display, they always bring the bat to the most effective position right when they need it — just before the ball comes their way — by reading the pitcher’s body language.

Likewise, it matters not at all where you put your hands when you are out of range, as long as you bring them up to engage your attacker when you are about to be attacked.

A prime example is the great Mohammed Ali, who danced around the boxing ring while keeping his hands relaxed at his side.

Ali played with being in, then out of range, making his opponent just miss and countering with a vicious barrage of his own. He would carry his hands around his mid-section as he got closer and also used a one-hand up, one-hand down, reverse guard to hide his punches.

He would only drop or keep his hands down when he knew he was safe and out of range, relying on many more skills and strategies than just keeping his hands close to his opponent as he could, to unparalleled success in the ring.

Let’s look at the psychological effect of having your hands up.

Picture a guy walking around with his “dukes up.” Everyone would know he is prepared to fight, depriving him of the advantage of surprise. Such a gesture puts others automatically on guard and makes it harder to hit them because they recognize the threat.

Even putting up your hands in the “calm down” position, called The Fence, The Passive Position, among other names, alerts a belligerent to their presence when you put them in his face. When I started Systema, I always put up a “checking hand” and got summarily wrist-locked each time I did.

I’ve since learned better ways to use my hands than to put them up rigidly out in front of me.

So what are some advantages of having your hands down, especially when having them close to the target is objectively faster, all things being equal (which they never are)?

Muhammed Ali’s ability to play with range, to read his opponent’s intentions, to dodge punches and make opponent miss was a thing of jaw-dropping beauty that is unsurpassed to this day.

I remember when BJJ became popular in the US in the early 1990’s. Everyone who had their hands up too high was taken down by a grappler shooting in down low, under their arms. The textbook takedown was (is) to strike or fake high, and as the opponent raises his hands to block, then close the gap, shoot low and take him down.

This takedown strategy doesn’t work so well when the defender doesn’t have both hands out high and in front and doesn’t react to a punch as soon as it’ thrown. Over-reacting to the punch and over-reaching for it set up the takedown.

Once the attacker has to commit to the punch, you can thwart the takedown before it begins, and, if he does shoot low, at least one of your hands is there to defend against the takedown.

Thanks to BJJ and MMA, it seems like that’s everyone’s plan. Keeping your hands up and out in front does you a disservice and puts you at a distinct disadvantage against these types of fighters.

On my first trip to Russia, I was so exhausted after a few days of training that I couldn’t keep my hands up. In addition, I was trying to keep my hands down, mimicking the other students. My very experienced partner, Dimitri, kept telling me to put my hands up and keep my elbows in to give my shoulders a rest, which were tightening up from the fatigue of supporting my arms.

It was Dimitri who fixed my habit of putting up my checking hand. After repeatedly attacking my hand as we closed distance, he showed me to put my hands up with my palms facing me (like in Filipino knife defense) so when he attacked my hand I could easily curl it and avoid getting wrist-locked. Worked every time.

So why the controversy?

I attribute it to bad students. That may sound harsh, but I’ve never, ever, worked with Mikhail or Vladimir where they’ve “fought with their hands down.” Yes, they’ve started with their hands down, however, as soon as I readied my attacks, sure as shinola their hands came up and didn’t come down until I was down.

Why does Mikhail scratch his head or bring his hand to his face? To get his hand up surreptitiously and not alert his attacker that Mikhail’s about to punch him in the jaw.

Why does Vladimir put one hand on his chest? Because it’s non-threatening, until he takes your teeth out.

Why do I talk with my hands? Because I’m Italian, but also because people are used these gestures, making it easier for me to hit them out of the motion.

I have heard Vladimir point-blank say, on several occasions, “once your hands come up, they continue to work until your work is done.” Then he would demonstrate it for several minutes.

Once he activates his hands, each hand, arm, elbow and shoulder, along with the rest of his body, works. Every body part is doing something useful.

I’ve watched Vladimir chastise an entire gymnasium full of students for dropping their hands, then having to lift them up again to use them.

I know, firsthand, they are not teaching Systema students to fight like double amputees.

Systema is taught and trained from the body first, then distally to the limbs. Many drills begin with moving your body, by segmenting or stepping, which prevents an over-reliance on using your hands and forgetting the rest of your body.

Poor students confuse the drills with the final integration and culmination and self-defense application, leading to the “fights with hands down” misunderstanding.

One of the “answers” posited is to resort to a tense Tony Blauer, SPEAR, type of response, basically making a wedge with your hands and trying to tackle the attacker as he comes in. Yeah, this kind of move works, a move I learned in several arts, pre-Systema, so I know what I’m looking at when I see the moves demonstrated.

Trying to defend against a knife attack this way? Ludicrous! Any good knifer i know would slice-and-dice you. I cringe with the knowledge of how poor a substitute this method is.

Knife defense is dangerous enough without using a defense that screams, “cut whatever you want.”

The abject lack of understanding of the most basic Systema principles is the only explanation I can find for someone thinking this brute, clunky response is an improvement over the subtlety and sophistication of Systema.

Don’t fight with your hands up and your brain down.

Come to our next workshop on August 22, 2015, Controlling the Edge, to learn how to effective use range and to take advantage of your opponent’s ignorance.

Click here to register, and use the code RMAEDGE by July 31st for $50 OFF.