Full-Body Exercises

Jailhouse Strong: Unarmed Combat Training Delivers Punishing Results

Become street lethal, ring deadly, and look better naked.

josh bryant thumbnail by CSCS, MFS, PES
man throwing knee kick at heavy bag

Over the last 20 years No Holds Barred Cage Fights have evolved into MMA. Once viewed as a barbaric form of human cock fighting, today, the sport is more accepted and popular than boxing. Twenty years ago politicians wanted to outlaw cage fights, now they are cage-side spectators.

With the mainstream acceptance of the sport, MMA workouts and fighting techniques have soared in popularity. The ‘Dirty Boxing’ method of fighting as practiced by MMA stars like Randy Couture and Dan Henderson focuses on controlling and dominating the clinch position. Its effectiveness is recognized by UFC pundits and casual fans alike.

However, a style of clinch fighting has been long practiced inside penal institutions. Known as Jailhouse Rock, or, more recently, 52 Blocks, this mythical form of unarmed combat has been confirmed by former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, and in the music of the Wu Tang Clan. While some oral traditions trace this fighting system to seventeenth-century slave communities in the south and among the Sea Islands of the Eastern seaboard, its history is shrouded in mystery.

fighter's torso

The Jailhouse Rock practitioner looks to implement the techniques that would be most devastating for use in the cramped quarters of a stairwell or a jail cell. The underlying question behind the techniques in Jailhouse Rock is to consider “if I were in a phone booth, how could I deliver the most damage to my opponent?” With this in mind, Jailhouse Rock often works from the trapping range to deliver devastating elbows, rather than the looping hooks and wild kicks often associated with unrefined street fighting.

MMA bouts consist of periods of moderate energy output followed by short bursts. Whereas, real fights happen fast and are over quickly. When training to mimic the energy output of an MMA fight, it is possible to become effective in the ring but ineffective in a real-life self-preservation system. The common denominator, however, in both the street and competition is that explosively violent movements can increase the likelihood of success. So, shorter and more dynamic training should be part of any training regimen.   

In our best-selling book, Jailhouse Strong, we had the opportunity to interview a wide array of experienced street fighters, from a former Hells Angel leader that runs a martial arts school to one of the co-founders of the notorious Crips gang. We also talked with some of the best bouncers from across the US.

All had similar advice to real-life confrontations. Throw the first strike was a unanimous decree. You don’t want to be a back-peddling, counter-puncher because yard fights, cafeteria conflicts, and back alley altercations can be decided as quickly as they are started.

Crips co-founder, Angelo “Barefoot Pookie” White summarizes this approach: “Always throw the first punch, be aggressive, and move forward.”

To ensure that your reaction time is at its peak and that your strikes are deadly fast, drill your techniques with the included workout on next page. Added to this workout, along with elbow and knee strikes, are burpees, because of their functionality to sprawling (or defending) a takedown attempt in a real fight.

Body Shredding Burpees

Also, one of the many benefits of burpees is that they cause the body to simultaneously send blood flow to the upper and lower parts of the body. Burpees mimic the way that a drag-out fight causes you to quickly fluctuate between standing, sprawling, squatting, thrusting, and pushing.

If you get to the point where you can throw these hard and fast on air, you will feel polished against potential assailants and predators. Along with preparing you for real combat, this workout will shred your body into a patchwork of lean, functional muscle.

Fights take place at three ranges: striking, trapping, and grappling (long-range, mid-range, and close-range). It is at the trapping, or clinching, range that someone with well-polished tools can quickly learn the skills to dominate the fight. To do this, you will make use of your body’s four natural and greatest weapons: two elbows, and two knees.

To get started training in this style, take a staggered stance with your power leg back. If you’re right-handed, put your right leg back. If you are left-handed, then your left leg is back. You will want your body as minimally squared as possible, to reduce the size of your body as a target.

For defense, place your open palms against your face (near where your jaw meets your ear). To guard your chin, tuck it into your leading shoulder. Lastly, to protect your body and internal organs, bring you bent elbows tight against your ribs. 

The elbow strike can end a physical confrontation through blunt force trauma and it may cause significant lacerations (this can be psychologically detrimental to an attacker, but psychologically empowering for you). Three elbow strike techniques may be learned relatively easily and delivered with brutal efficiency.

The first strike is the “slashing elbow.” The primary targets of the slashing elbow are the features of the face (the forehead, nose, and eyes). To deliver this elbow strike variation, start in the fighting stance described above, and bend the elbow closely against the arm. Then, twist your shoulder and pivot off your foot (on the same side of the elbow being thrown) to turn your hips in the direction of the strike. The elbow should swing downward diagonally in a 45-degree angle.

The second strike is the “horizontal elbow.” The goal of this strike is to deliver blunt trauma to the jaw or chin (and, in some instances, the ribs). Usually, this strike is thrown from the back, or power side, by twisting the hips and pivoting on the back foot.

Slightly more difficult to execute than the first two, the third strike is the “uppercut elbow.” Like the uppercut in boxing, much of the power for this strike is generated from the legs, and the target is usually the chin. This technique is usually delivered from the front foot, and is initiated by bending both legs. Then, push up through your legs, allowing your fist to pass the target, and have your bent elbow deliver the strike.

man throwing knee kick

Along with the three elbow strikes described above, the forward knee strike can be learned relatively easily, and then delivered with a high degree of efficiency. As with the elbows, the power for the knee strike should be generated from the hips. Possible targets include the torso, face, or groin

See the workouts and video on next page.

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