Physical Knife Skills

The physical knife skill involve using the knife for attack and defence. In order to learn to defend, you need to be attacked by someone with a realistic understanding of the weapon. We incorporate drills to learn both attack and defence. Also, if you do not understand how to attack, you will have a limited idea of the types of problems that the knife can give you.


The program consists of the major topics listed below. Many of these could be expanded into many pages of explanation. Since this is meant to be an overview of the program, that detailed description will have to wait for another time. Here is the list of topics:


  1. Knife Drill Safety
  2. Decorum
  3. Warm-ups
  4. The Fundamental Categories of Martial Technique
  5. Core Theory
  6. Categories of Defence
  7. Commonality of Form
  8. Mobility and Evasion
  9. Striking Drills
  10. Closing the Gap
  11. Cuentada
  12. Corridas
  13. Sparring
  14. Knife against Unarmed
  15. Unarmed against Knife
  16. Knife against Knife
  17. Superior Weapon against Knife
  18. Multiple Opponents
  19. 1 to 12 Drill for Unarmed Knife Defence

Knife Drill Safety

  • no live blades in the training hall
  • equipment must include:
  • rubber or plastic training knife
  • racket sport goggles
  • equipment should include (strongly recommended):
  • groin protector
  • mouth guard
  • throat guard
  • attend to the instructor


  • practise what is shown, save your own material for a different venue
  • courtesy and good manners to all
  • show concern for your partner’s well-being – control



The warm-ups show our basic form, emphasizing standing on 3 points, torquing (turning the hips) and slumping.

  • Weaving practise: twisting while bending over and twisting while leaning back
  • The Three-count Shuffle and variations

The Fundamental Categories of Martial Technique


Here is a high level description of the fundamental categories of technique in out martial art. They apply to all aspects of our art, but the current frame of reference is knife defence, particularly where the teacher feeds attacks, and the student defends. This is the 1-12 stick drill, done with a knife. You must explore the stick drill to see what is possible as an attacker with a knife, using all relevant attacking techniques. This can be done while the student is unarmed. If the student is armed, it is similar, but the student will be able to slice the attacking limb as a defence, and his counters will be with the knife. Eventually, you will be doing corridas (infighting) with a knife. In addition, the closing the gap techniques should be trained, and various choreographed defensive techniques should be learned.


During the training, the student should be shown how the one to twelve pairs techniques can be modified for the pocket stick or for unarmed combat.


Below, I put forth some terminology for the various sorts of manoeuvres found in our art, and also in many other arts. Most students of our art will have some notion of what I mean by these terms.



  1. Evade – duck under, weave (bamboo), twist, fade back, advance diagonally
  2. Re-position – advance, retreat, flank
  3. Intercept and attach – block, parry, attach from behind
  4. Control arms – check arm, pass arm, elbow over-ride on arm, pin arm, trap both arms, grab and pull arm, wrap-up arm, clear arm, lift arm, throw or fling arm, jam arm, arm wrapped around neck, lock
  5. Control balance and alignment (Off-balance) – turn, pull, push, drop weight, uproot
  6. Control head – Head grab
  7. Control legs – leg-lock, jam leg, step on foot, clip leg with leg
  8. Strike – Hit the body with hands, forearms, shoulder, shins, feet, knees, or head, turn the attacker’s own weapon on him, slip-in to hit
  9. Bone-break (break joints) – hit or twist with leverage, throat break, neck break, knee break, elbow break, shoulder dislocate
  10. Throw or take-down
  11. Choke – stick choke or forearm choke
  12. Restrain opponent (standing hold or pin on ground)
  13. Disarm
  14. Counter take-down and throw Counter hold or pin to escape




  1. Evade


Evasion is an absolutely central skill in Balintawak. We learn to move the body so as not to be hit. Much of our evasion is done by weaving, swaying the body or twisting the body. The feet may or may not move. The generic term we use is “bamboo”, which implies that we sway like a bamboo plant. The motions we use are to:


    • duck under,
    • duck to the inside,
    • duck to the outside,
    • slip to the inside,
    • slip to the outside,
    • fade back with a half-step,
    • step forward diagonally with a full step or a half-step and
    • twist or torque the body to the front or the rear while getting some lateral displacement.


  1. Re-position


Repositioning the body by stepping is used to evade or attack. There are probably three general methods employed here. We re-position with:


    • an advancing step,
    • a retreating step, or
    • a flanking step, to get behind the opponent.


  1. Intercept and attach


We intercept an attacking limb to stop it, deflect it and control it. We may:

    • block solidly to stop most of the momentum,
    • parry lightly to deflect,
    • touch lightly by coming in from beneath after the blow has passed to attach to it to control it


  1. Control arms


Controlling the arms after we have made the initial attachment is a huge part of the art. Much of the control is done with the guarding hand, the hand that does not have the weapon. The different types of arm control techniques will usually fall into the following categories:


    • check arm with the guarding hand
    • pass arm away with the blocking hand
    • elbow over-ride on arm to a pin against the body or a trap
    • pin arm at the elbow to the ribs
    • pin hand to your wrist (a stick technique)
    • trap both arms with one of yours
    • grab at the wrist and pull arm
    • wrap-up arm with both of your arms, as in restraining or armpit clipping
    • clear arm away with a sweeping motion from below or above
    • lift arm up at the wrist or triceps
    • throw or fling arm away
    • jam arm by pushing or pinning
    • wrap arm around neck
    • lock up the arm by forcing the joints to bend too far
    • clip arm under armpit



  1. Control balance and alignment


By pushing and pulling, and dropping your weight you take away an opponent’s balance, and misalign them so that they are less able to respond. You can turn them around and flank them or even get behind them. These sorts of control techniques are generally referred to as off-balancing.


  1. Control head


The head can be controlled by grabbing it and pulling or twisting it in various ways. This is also a part of off-balancing. This can be a set-up for a hit, as in the hammer and anvil techniques, or the butcher’s block technique, or may be a prelude to a head control takedown.


  1. Control legs


The legs can be controlled to off-balance and reduce the opponent’s mobility. The legs may be jammed with your leg, clipped with your leg, or the opponent’s foot may be stepped on. You may push against the knee from the side to off-balance.


  1. Strike


Striking of course is a key mechanism for control. We can hit with pretty much any weapon found in other martial arts, and can use the various specialized strikes found in various martial arts. We can hit with hands, forearms, shoulders, shins, feet, knees, or head. We can turn the attacker’s own weapon on him. We flow from hit to hit, and move subtly around blocks with a method we call slipping-in to hit.



  1. Bone-break


We call breaking joints bone-breaking. This involves both leverage-based and impact-based techniques. We can hit or twist with leverage to do a throat cartilage break, neck break, knee break, elbow break, or shoulder dislocation.


  1. Throw


We use the term throw to cover what other styles might term takedowns. There are several dozen methods, and variations and hybrid throws can be used to produce even more techniques. We classify throws as they do in judo according to the primary lever arm, so we have hand throws, elbow throws, should throws, neck throws, head throws, back throws, leg throws and hip throws. The end result is the same when the work, the opponent is taken to the ground, perhaps quite forcefully.


  1. Choke


We really only have one choke, and it really a stick based technique. However, a version exists that uses the forearms. The choke is really as much a joint-breaking technique as it is a choke. In this regard, it is part of a throw.


  1. Restrain opponent


There are only small number of techniques used to hold, pin or restrain an opponent. Only one of these is a standing lock, the hammerlock. The rest are for restraining an opponent on the ground, either in prone or supine positions. Most of the restraining techniques can be converted to bone-breaking techniques. Several can be used to facilitate a disarm.


  1. Disarm

Taking away an attacker’s weapon to disarm them is used in knife defence quite sparingly. It is very difficult to disarm someone who is standing and unhurt, and extremely difficult if they are skilled or very strong. Disarms against a knife wielding opponent are more practical when the attacker is on the ground and when otherwise restrained.



  1. Counter take-down


The art has a sophisticated set of methods to counter attempts at throws or takedowns. In general, you want to control distance and position to deny the attacker leverage, control their arms to deny them leverage, hit them to disrupt the attack, turn them, off-balance them, and counter throw. You need to maintain your own balance and structural integrity in your posture.

Core Theory

Five Rules of Hitting


Five rules for attacking have come down to us from Attorney Jose Villasin, the teacher of Dr. Dom Lopez. These are:


  1. Hit right away.
  2. Hit repeatedly.
  3. Hit what is sticking out.
  4. Hit high, then low (or alternatively) left and right.
  5. Be able to change to a new target.


In addition, Dom Lopez has said:


  • “Don’t let them have a second strike.”


I usually recommend the following:


  • “Cultivate an offensive mindset not a defensive mindset – become the attacker.”


The Five Pillars of Skill


Dom Lopez teaches some principles for performance that he calls “the five pillars”. These are discussed in more detail in Appendix A – The Five Pillars by Dom Lopez. For a worked example of the pillars, see Appendix B – Detailed Examination of the Pillars . The pillars are listed here for reference:


  1. Eye training
  2. Rhythm
  3. Distancing
  4. Form
  5. Control


We use our eyes to see the attack and move with the appropriate synchrony, tempo and rhythm to the right distance and place, with the correct form, in order to control the attacker. The five pillars must not remain a theoretical discussion, to be filed away and forgotten. An instructor need to internalize the concepts, and use them actively to fine-tune his teaching.

Categories of Defence

Dom Lopez classifies countering according to the following scheme:


  • Category 1 – block, check, hit by alternating hands
  • Category 2 – block, hit with the same hand
  • Category 3 – block, hit with alternating hands, simultaneously if possible
  • Category 4 – don’t block, just weave and hit


These categories were originally conceived with respect to unarmed defence, but it became apparent that they applied to any weapon. Categories 3 and 4 in particular allow you to control time and not play catch-up with your blocks and counters. They seem to be more difficult to use, but very much worthwhile when mastered.

Commonality of Form

There is a commonality of form to all that we do. It is independent of the weapon, and independent of the particular application of technique. Without getting into the complexity of the full techniques yet, the following are absolutely key considerations for proper form, being common to every thing that we do. It is it is complex when written out, but if you can do it properly for even one technique, you should be able to quickly do it for all:

  1. three-point stance – like running
  2. delayed weight shift when stepping
  3. the slump with good posture and sitting onto legs (one leg has the most weight)
  4. weaving – twist or torque
  5. foot turning -on heel or ball of the foot
  6. hips turn – 45 degrees to 45 degrees
  7. gravity drop
  8. flexing and extending the spine
  9. compressing your body
  10. seating (stabilizing) the shoulder girdle
  11. tucking the chin
  12. using extensor muscles – for structural integrity and the ability to bear a load or exert force efficiently, from feet to fingers
  13. connecting the body via the core
  14. relax and optimize muscle use

Mobility and Evasion

Mobility and evasion are hallmarks of our club. All Balintawak makes use of weaving techniques. Dom Lopez learned a particularly mobile style of Balintawak during his training. I have developed some drills to help train students in the form that Dom uses, which is less linear than that seen amongst many Balintawak Eskrimadors. These drills are categorized as follows:

  • Shuffle Drills
  • Stepping Drills
  • Weaving Drills
  • Shadow Boxing
  • Target Attack Drills
  • Stringing the Fish Drill


Each one trains certain core aspects of controlling distance, time and rhythm, while moving with proper form, and practicing controlling techniques. The mobility techniques come very much into play with knife defence, and even more so when practicing against multiple opponents.


Striking Drills

In order to learn our attacks, I have students practice stabbing and cutting in the air, and against targets. The following are covered:

  • 4 key angles (#1, #2, #5, #12)
  • 8 additional angles (#3, #4, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11)
  • right handed attacks – weapon hand at the rear
  • left handed attacks – weapon hand at the rear
  • normal grip (like a sword) and reversed (like an ice pick) grip


I often combine these with the mobility and evasion drills so that students can learn how to move and cut at the same time.

Closing the Gap

When attacking, we prefer to close with the opponent in many cases. In knife defence, you can choose to pre-empt the attacker by closing in. In knife attack, you may choose to be the aggressor. There are a number of key ideas and techniques for doing so. We call this area Closing the Gap.


Cuentada is a term from book-keeping in the Spanish language. It means basically an account. In our art, it carries an extra meaning – the margins, the bottom line. The sense of meaning here is that your bottom-line looks very good with respect to that of your opponent. One authority (the reference escapes me) has defined Cuentada a little differently, saying that it is a “well-calculated move”. Others have emphasized that with sufficient skill, you are always a step ahead of your opponent, causing in them to respond in a certain way, and exploiting this response before they have even finished.


Corridas is a type of free-practice carried out at close-range. It is actually the Spanish word for bull-fighting, but Dom Lopez translates it as infighting. The essence of Corridas as he does it is that both participants in the training may perform any technique, as long as it is safe. With knife, we have only just started to explore the feasibility.

The Knife Defence Combinations

Over the years, there have been a number of sets of combination techniques against the knife. The original set was referred to as the knife block and hit. It consisted of twelve different sequences. Each one involved evade, block, hit, and take down. Over time, many other sets were developed. Most have been lost to posterity, but the original set, another set developed for showcasing the throws, and another set developed for the seminar in October of this year are all on video.


When you combine corridas and closing the gap, you end up with sparring. We do not currently emphasize this, but it is part of the knife art. In fact, from a self-defence viewpoint, it may be less important. Knife against knife combat is not that common. Both participant would have to deploy their knifes, and then have the motivation to engage an armed enemy. Certainly it happens, but more often it is ambush and assault, where you might not have time to even get your weapon out, or are prevented from doing so. If your attacker is looking for an easy victim, he may pass if he sees that you are armed, and are ready to pull out your weapon.


This is not academic, since I probably saved my life by having a knife and letting a predator know, non-verbally, that it was ready to be used.

Knife against Unarmed

The strongest focus in our program is defending against an attacker who is armed with a knife, when you do not have one, or have been taken by surprise and have not been able to deploy a weapon. A number of categories of technique exist, and several drilling approaches are used. For the most part, static choreographed drills were used. In the last year, I have augmented those with more alive student and instructor drills. For more information on the live training approach, see Appendix D – Aliveness in Training.

Static Knife Threats

These techniques are used when confronted, and threatened, most often with a hold of some sort, by a knife-wielding assailant. We cover three types of situation:

  • Static Knife Threats Standing
  • Static Knife Threats Seated
  • Static Knife Threats On the Ground

Knife Against Unarmed


These techniques prepare you to defend when you have a knife, and also teach you to attack against multiple opponents. You learn what the knife if capable of, and you learn how to feed attacks to someone playing the student role of unarmed defence against a knife attack.


  • Instructor 1-12 Role
  • Corridas using Knife
  • On the Ground at Long Range
  • On the Ground when Grappling

Unarmed against Knife

These technique prepare you to defend when you are unarmed and your assailant has a blade or a short stabbing weapon. You learn how to defend against progressively more difficult attacks, and learn to apply longer defence combinations, both in choreographed situations, and in more live training.

  • Student 1-12 Role
  • Corridas against Knife
  • Complex Standard Combination Defences
  • Defence when on the Ground at Long Range
  • Defence when on the Ground and Grappling
  • All-out attack with gear

Knife against Knife

This is a minor part of the curriculum for reasons discussed above. The skills learned in the unarmed versus knife training are now transferred to a situation where both parties are armed. There are some changes now, since both have weapons. Usually, someone is cut at every clash.

  • Student 1-12 Role
  • Instructor 1-12 Role
  • Knife against Knife Closing the Gap
  • Knife against Knife Cuentada
  • Sparring Knife against Knife
  • Throwing the Knife


Throwing a Knife

Although normally you would not throw your knife at an attacker, since you will then have lost your weapon, there are situations where it might be warranted as a last ditch manoeuvre. For instance, someone may be about to pull out a gun, so you feel that you need to close the gap to control him before it is deployed. The knife could be thrown in order to delay him while you close into a range where you can grab.


The knife is thrown in a sidearm manner, and only from a distance of a few yards. Learning to throw the knife takes much practice. You may decide that there is little benefit in learning how to do so. That is the decision that I have taken.

Superior Weapon against Knife

If a superior weapon is available, and you know how to use it, and are able to deploy it in time, you clearly have a greater chance for survival. We of course have an emphasis on the stick, since in our cultural context, guns are not necessarily an option. We also look at weapons improved from whatever may be available in your environment.

  • Stick against Knife
  • Improvised Environmental Weapons

Multiple Opponents

Sometimes, it is useful to conduct training against multiple attackers. Conversely, it is useful to look at training with multiple defenders, and learn how to work as a team.

  • Position with respect to multiple attackers is crucial to success. We call this practice “stringing the fish.” It is not a completely easy skill to master.
  • The mobility and evasion drills really come into there own when “stringing the fish.”

1 to 12 Drill for Unarmed Knife Defence


As in the stick 1-12 drill, there are 2 roles: that of the instructor, and that of the student. In this case, the instructor is armed with a knife, and the student does not have a weapon. The instructor “feeds” the student with attacks, making them increasingly more difficult, as the student attempts to counter.


In order to prepare the student to become a feeder, they must learn the instructor role in the knife 1-12 drill. They must also learn how to attack with knife, and defend using a knife against a knife attack. They also must learn to defend against a knife using a stick. This implies that they have learned at least the basics of the stick fighting that we teach.


There are some preparatory drills needed to first learn the knife. These include:

  1. Striking using the 12 angles with a knife held in the standard grip (left and right hand).
  2. Striking using the 12 angles with a knife held in the reverse grip, with the edge outward (left and right hand)
  3. Defend against the 12 angles while using a knife to block and slash the knife arm
  4. Closing the gap with a knife
  5. Counters against closing the gap with a knife, including advanced counters (cuentada).

Instructor’s Role


The instructor role starts off with just 4 angles, with the standard grip and the right hand. After a while, all angles will be used. The strikes will come in random order, and the speed will increase.


The feeder will alternate leads, sometimes in left and sometimes in right. The feeder will alternate hands, sometimes knife in the left and sometimes knife in the right. The feeder will hold the knife in the standard grip and the reverse grip. Below I present additional considerations.


After a period of training, the feeder will start to add more difficult techniques. Many of the techniques found in the stick art can be adapted for use with knife attacks. These will include:

  1. hitting with the guarding hand
  2. low kicking
  3. faster and more varied combinations
  4. attacks and controlling techniques with the guarding hand including
  • repeated fast stabs,
  • trapping,
  • lifting,
  • clearing,
  • off-balancing,
  • turning,
  • grabbing,
  • head grabbing,
  • slashing the blocking arm,
  • slipping in
  • place and slice
  • blocking
  • striking
  • bone-breaking
  • take down
  • and more.

Student’s Role


The student will learn to deal with attacks at a faster and faster pace. The instructor will give progressively more and more difficult attacks. Unpredictability and speed and difficult will be gradually increased. However, the deck is stacked in several ways, and defence is extremely difficult.


The student will start defending with a simple 3-count block, check and hit. After some skill is obtained with this, other techniques will be added. Here are some possible patterns for knife defence in our system that can be practised by the student in 1-12 drill fashion:


  1. Re-position to pre-empt, attach, pin arm, hit, take-down
  2. Evade, hit, take-down (4th category)
  3. Evade, block, check and hit as three counts
  4. Evade, block, check and hit as two counts
  5. Evade, block, check, hit, and take-down
  6. Evade, block, check to pin, hit, take-down
  7. Evade, block, check to trap, hit, take-down
  8. Evade, block, disarm, hit, take-down
  9. Evade, block, pass, disarm, hit, take-down
  10. Evade, block, pass, hit, disarm, hit, take-down
  11. Evade, double block, hit, take-down
  12. Evade, block, throw or fling arm, hit, take-down
  13. Evade, block, grab and pull, hit, take-down
  14. Evade, block, check, hit, turn, hit, take-down
  15. Evade, block, push and pull (jerk) and hit
  16. Evade, block, turn, hit, take-down
  17. Evade, block, pass and hit, with a variety of passing techniques
  18. Evade, block, pass, and disarm
  19. Evade, block, pass, hit, take-down
  20. Evade, block, pass, check, hit, take-down
  21. Evade, block, wrap up the attacking arm with a clipping or wrapping motion
  22. Shield against take down while avoiding the knife


Also we include any formal combination taught, such as those detailed previously for the Knife Program


Note that after the take-down, you may still hit, bone-break, restrain, or disarm.


You will never exhaust the possibilities in practise. Settle on a few that work for you. Don’t think defensively; become the attacker. Learn some standard choreographed combinations and drill them as well as doing the feeder drills.


In order to allow a blistering pace, protective gear can (and perhaps should) be worn by both, and the attacks can then be taken to the edge of reality in terms of intensity and speed. Of course, there is no live blade, and the counter strikes will be pulled or sent to a protected target.