How To Use An Opponent’s Strength Against Them

There is a common saying within many eastern martial arts that a good fighter should be able to ‘use an opponent’s strength against them’. This goes beyond the idea that skill and subtlety triumphs over brute force and ignorance – that a small but well trained fighter can win out over a larger and stronger opponent with no martial arts skills. It suggests, in fact, that an opponent’s physical strength may be turned from an advantage to them, into an advantage to yourself – that their own strength may become a liability and that if you were to fully apply this principle, therefore, a stronger opponent may actually be easier to beat than a weaker one.

How can this possibly be? It goes so fully against the common sense viewpoint that a strength is an advantage in a fight that it can be hard to accept that there is anything solid behind this saying that you should be able to ‘use an opponent’s strength against them. This is not helped by the fact that if a beginner asks their teacher about this, they will probably get a vague answer about the general philosophy behind the martial art they are learning, or be quoted some cryptic proverb about water washing away the rocks or something of the like.

In order to brush aside the veil somewhat and reveal some small part of what is meant by this saying, I would like to use this article to provide a more practical explanation, along with some concrete and specific examples of how anybody can use an opponent’s strength against them in a fight.

Adjacent and Acute Force

I will start at the beginning, with defensive techniques, and the primary rule of effective defence against a powerful opponent: you should never try to oppose any force applied by your opponent.

Already I imagine that many people reading that statement will find it very strange indeed. It sounds as if you are just going to let your opponent do whatever they want to you - how can you possibly win a fight without even putting up any resistance to stop your opponent from beating you up?

The best way to explain this is with an example. It does not mean that if somebody is trying to punch you in the face, you should not try to stop them. But ‘punching you in the face’ is not the force, it is the intention behind the application of that force. You can resist and oppose your opponent’s intention without needing to resist the physical force applied to it. In our example the punch is likely to be moving towards you, from in front to behind; to oppose this force would be to try to either place a barrier in its way or to apply an equal force in the opposite direction. In either case the energy of the strike must go somewhere – it goes into your body, where it hurts and injures you. A more effective method is to apply your own force sideways, from left to right or vice versa; in other words you simply push the punch aside so that it flails futilely in the air rather than making contact with your face. By doing this you do not need to oppose or resist any of the momentum behind the punch, and, in fact, its own established direction of momentum will make it impossible for your opponent to resist your deflection, meaning that very little strength is required to do this.

What I have described above is ‘adjacent force’ – force applied at a perpendicular angle to the direction of your opponent’s momentum. This can be thought of as the point of balance, at which brute force and trained skill are equally matched, with each trying to win out purely by using its own innate advantages. But we can go beyond this. Rather than making the use of adjacent force our end point, our goal, we can make it our beginning, and develop the same principle into the use of acute force.

Acute force is applied at an acute angle to the direction of your opponent’s momentum. In other words, it is applied in a way which is in ‘partial agreement’ with what your opponent wants to do. Returning to the example of deflecting a punch, a skilled fighter may also grab their opponent’s sleeve and yank it back and to the side, using the momentum of the punch to help them pull the attacker off balance. The more strength and power your attacker has put into the punch, the easier it will be to pull them off-balance. An even better example uses a twisting motion: if an attacker charges at you to perform a tackle and knock you down, rather than resisting their force by pushing back against them, you can let them push you back and down, but by getting one arm under their armpit and placing the other on top of their other shoulder, you can twist them around so that they land on their back (you also need to throw your legs backwards so you land on your front, on top of them). The more of their strength the attacker is using to push forward in the charge / tackle the less they will have left to resist what you are doing to them, and this is part of what is meant by ‘using an opponent’s strength against them’. Effectively this technique ends with your opponent having thrown themselves to the ground underneath you. I have used that one myself with great effect against MMA fighters, who often use this kind of tackle. Another example can be used if somebody tries to attack you with a front kick. The basic technique, using adjacent force, is to come from their outside of their leg and deflect it sideways; this can be developed into acute force by deflecting it diagonally sideways, backwards, and down. This leads the attacker to land the kick in front of their opposite foot (or ideally even further to the side), with you effectively ending up standing behind them – a very useful position! Again, the more power there is in the kick the more they will be propelled forwards into the position you want when the kick is deflected.


In the dark arts of the Ninja this same principle is taken one step further – by actually tricking your opponent into providing the moment that you need for your technique. Again I will explain this with an example – that of a technique I learnt while I was studying Ninjutsu some two decades ago.

Imagine that you are fighting against multiple opponents, and two of your attackers have managed to restrain you. One is standing on each side of you, each holding one of your arms. They are standing very close and holding you tightly, so you cannot use your arms and the only part of them you could reach with a kick is the closest leg of each attacker. Perhaps a third attacker is coming to strike you while you are restrained and therefore unable to defend yourself. What do you do?

Here is the thought process: You can attack only one leg of each opponent. The only way that this can have a useful result is if they are both standing with the majority of their weight on that one leg that you can attack, in which case a good strike could knock them down. In order to pull them both inwards hard enough to cause them to shift most of their weight onto that one leg, you would have to be approximately twice as strong as the strongest one of the two. You are not that strong. So again, what do you do? The answer is actually very simple – you push them both outwards. All you need to do is to get a hand somewhere on the body of each and push them both away from you as hard as you can. They will resist this with a greater force in the opposite direction – the direction you wanted to pull them in the first place! A quick switch in direction will allow you to pull them both inwards with sufficient force regardless of how much bigger than you they are – because you are using their own strength to do it. As you pull inwards you put your knee hard into the back of the knee of one opponent and bend your leg, breaking the stability of the leg they are putting most of their weight on; as you do this you also kick the leg of the other attacker in the same position. With both opponents off-balance and with downward momentum, you know drop your weight and perform a backwards roll. This breaks their grip on the arms they were restraining, and further pulls them down to the ground if they try to hang on tightly. You are now free and on your feet (assuming you can do a proper backwards roll), and there is a very good chance that both of the men who were restraining you are lying on their backs on the ground.

Categories: Martial Arts

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