Martial Arts Myths: Death Touch

In this post, I’ll continue from the previous installment and will discuss another one of the common martial arts myths: Death Touch. It is also known as, Dim Mak, Dian Xue, Pressure Point Striking and a bunch of other fancy names. If anything, this is a martial arts myth that is a bit harder to prove or disprove than the previous one. Primarily because the concept of death touch is not entirely black or white in how it is interpreted by practitioners across styles and lineages. As a result, I have to be more general in how I approach it while still looking at what I deem to be the most outrageous nonsense. It also means not everything is black and white, but if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you…

That said, let’s get started.

Martial Arts Myths: Death Touch

Perhaps the most famous Death Touch master ever?

Martial Arts Myths: Death Touch

Let’s first try to get a functional definition of what Death Touch is. For the purposes of this article, here’s how I describe it:

A secretive set of skills and techniques that allow a practitioner to knock out, injure or kill somebody with seemingly effortless techniques by targeting specific points on the body.

Let’s look at those things in order:

  • It is secretive because there are all sorts of claims as to where some people learned it (“secret masters” is a recurring explanation) but also because there is pretty much no scientific basis for some of the claims they make. So they tend to shroud what they do in flowery and vague language.
  • It’s not just one technique or skill-set but a bunch of wildly different ones, depending on which system you look at. Some are all about specific techniques, others are about types of strikes and still others take into account the seasons…
  • The results practitioners aim for are usually temporarily incapacitating an opponent (pain, numbness, etc.) or a full knock out. Some claim the ability to kill somebody by hitting a specific point.
  • Effortless power is another hallmark: it often looks like the practitioner isn’t really hitting all that hard but his victim drops unconscious to the floor.
  • Finally, there’s the aspect of targeting very specific, vulnerable points on the human body. Sometimes these points are based on anatomical weaknesses (nerves, arteries, etc.) other times they claim to use acupuncture points or other systems of schematizing those points.

You might want to include other elements here and that’s fine. This is just a working definition for the purposes of this article; it isn’t meant to be read as gospel.

 

Does that Death Touch thingy work?

Well, yes and and no. Like I said in the beginning, it depends on how you define and view it. Let’s first look at the bullshit and then at how you can make it work for real. Here’s a list of what I feel is nonsense, a waste of time or even dangerous:

  • Timing constraints. Some practitioners believe certain points are more vulnerable at specific times of the day and during specific seasons. I believe this is irrelevant and not practical at all. Irrelevant because you can knock people out or injure them 24/7, 365 days a week if you know how. It’s not that difficult. If a system forces you to select different targets simply because it’s Summer and 5pm instead of 9am in Winter, then I believe you are wasting your time learning it. There are plenty of more reliable options to spend any time learning stuff like that. More on that below when I mention training in a vacuum.
  • No-touch knock outs. I discussed this at length in my Chi projection article already; this is nonsense. Some of the Death Touch practitioners eventually believe their own hype and start with this kind of crap. But for some weird reason, it rarely seems to work with anybody except their own students
  • Time delayed Death Touch. At one time, it was claimed that a secret master used time delayed Death Touch to kill Bruce Lee. Meaning, he hit him with a secret technique (which left no trace at all) and Lee died from it. There really is no scientific proof for this kind of thing being possible, zip, nada, nothing, unless you take Fist of the North Star seriously…  It also brings up some interesting questions, which I’ll address later.
  • Unnecessary techniques. One of the ways Death Touch is often demonstrated is like this:

This is shown as a three-part pressure point knock out with the first two techniques preparing the last one. Here’s the thing: the first two steps are not necessary. Only the last and final technique is needed. It also has nothing to do with overloading the nerves; it’s a strike to the carotid artery and that works just fine for knocking people out. Case in point:

I sometimes show this vital point to students and clients using only my index and middle fingers in a relaxed, slow strike. I pull the impact short as to not knock them out but they feel the effect more than enough. I don’t need to hit two other points beforehand, it works right away every single time.

But let’s assume the first two techniques that teacher shows are necessary: if you need to hit multiple minuscule points in rapid succession to get a decent result, then you have a fundamentally flawed system. Because no way will you be able to pull this off consistently in the chaos that is a real fight. There’s just too much movement and things getting in the way for consistent pin-point accuracy like the kind you saw in this video.

  • Training in a vacuum. What bothers me as well about the vast majority of the Death Touch techniques as they are most commonly shown is this: they are rarely, if ever, shown in a realistic fashion. The student either just stands there or he freezes like a statue after launching his initial attack. Well, it’s not hard to knock somebody out who is not moving, who’s not doing anything to actively resist all those fancy techniques you have planned. Granted, there is a time and place for this kind of cooperative training but here’s the rub: as soon as the student can attack in a realistic manner (meaning not just stand there, retract his arm, react as soon as he can, etc.), your still need to be able to pull off your techniques. A vast majority of those only work in the isolated context of a dojo while pretending real violence happens that way. It doesn’t. If you train in a vacuum, ignoring the realities of actual violence, then don’t be surprised that your stuff doesn’t work in the street when you’re in an adrenalized state.
  • Unverifiable claims. You can make all sorts of claims if you don’t have to prove them. How many of the Death Touch teachers have actually used the points they teach in a real fight? My money is on there not being all that many. Furthermore, how many of them have actually used the Death Touch points they claim will kill a man? If they have, then they are killers. If they haven’t, how do they know those points work?

Now that I’ve talked about all the bad stuff, let’s see how you can make it all work for you.

 

How to make Death Touch work for real.

A long time ago, my teacher and I were talking and I made a joke about Death Touch techniques. He replied that we all use them to some extent, depending on how skilled and experienced we are, but that a lot of what you see on this topic nowadays is nonsense. I agree with that. The key here is the first part of his reply:

We all use it to some extent.

When you start training, you’re already happy when you can land a technique on an opponent and he acknowledges it. As soon as you have a little bit more experience, you try to be more accurate with your techniques, in an effort to get better results. Eventually and if all goes well, you get enough skill and control to land precise shots with sufficient power to get the effect you want.

How long you take to get there varies from one person to the next. But we all go through this process, though in all honesty, some people are not up for putting in the work to have that level of accuracy and power. So the question you need to ask yourself is this: How good is good enough? Where do you draw the line of diminishing returns? That’s something only you can determine for yourself but I’ll give my personal take on it here below.

I believe there are three fundamental keys to making Death Touch work for self-defense:

  • Type of impact.
  • Anatomical knowledge.
  • The right striking surface on the right target area.

Let’s look at those three now.

Type of impact

I’ve harped on and on about this for years now but I believe it’s fundamental knowledge; without it you can’t reach a decent level of skill. Because it’s such a long explanation, I won’t rehash it here. For in-depth information, try this video or this book. All you need to know is there.

What I will say is this: for a majority of vital or vulnerable points, shockwave, ripping or bouncing impact works best; penetrating impact, not always.  If you don’t have these types much in the art you practice, you’ll have to be careful to not injure your training partners while you figure out how to get them. If you need a quick visual: here’s Slavo showing a nice blend of shockwave and ripping impact (affectionately called the “Slavo Slap” by me and my friends) on an effective vital target:

Slavo’s an interesting guy: a police officer and trainer in Sweden, as well as a martial artist who studied those Death Touch techniques. But instead of going down the rabbit hole like so many instructors do, he went the other way: he started experimenting with what really worked. Not what people claim works, but what actually works consistently against resiting opponents in live fire situations. I’ll show a couple more clips of him in action so you can see his practical approach to Death Touch techniques.

 

Anatomical knowledge

A sizable portion of Death Touch techniques you mostly see demonstrated all end with a strike to one of the following targets:

  • Side of the neck. Hitting the carotid artery drops the blood pressure and causes unconsciousness. Hitting the brachial plexus along the way is sugar on top.
  • Back of the head. A shockwave impact there affects the hindbrain, which controls blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, etc.
  • Thoracic diaphragm. Sending this one into spasm knocks people out in that they almost can’t breathe for a while. You can also shock the entire nervous system by striking there.

All three of these targets are not just specific points, they’re areas.

Sure, there are more points but these three should form the basis of your skill set. In my experience, they are also the most consistent: the results are almost always very good, providing the other two components are present. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t target other points. You just saw Slavo go for the eye socket with great effect. I personally love to kick people in the sciatic nerve. But these take a bit more training in my opinion, so maybe it’s better to not start with those.

Another reason why I prefer to focus on these three  is that they are easily accessible in a majority of situations. I want techniques that work consistently, not just in a handful of situations.

 

Striking surface, target area.

When you hit a vulnerable spot with the right kind of impact, it can still go wrong: you need to hit it with the right tool to get the best effect. Take Slavo’s slap to the eye socket again: he uses an open, slightly cupped hand. Had he used a different striking surface, for instance a closed fist, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the same result. The fist wouldn’t have transferred the energy of that specific strike as effectively into the eye socket.

But the target area is equally important: if he uses that same open hand configuration and hits with the right kind of impact but he hits a few inches higher on the forehead instead, the result will once again be sub-par.The forehead is hard enough to handle that kind of blow. This is where accuracy comes in. You need to aim for the smallest possible point while still being effective if your aim is slightly off. Just how much buffer zone you need depends once again on so many factors it’s hard to give an individual recommendation.

So you need to have both these factors under control for best results. Which specific striking surface you use (fist, palm, edge hand, fingers, elbow,etc.) on which target area depends on the situation, the type of impact, the goal of the technique and so on. There are many variables and overlap between them so this is an area where you need to train hard and experiment carefully.

Martial Arts Myth  Death Touch

Death Touch in action?

If you can consistently integrate these three aspects, you have a good shot at using Death Touch techniques in an effective manner. Before I go on, a clarification:

Why am I not talking about Galbladder 5 or Large Intestine 7 vital points?

Simple: because there is no need for that. All the targets I personally use are anatomical realities that are well described in scientific literature and have been known for centuries, if not millennia. There’s nothing mystical about them, you can look them up in any study guide on human anatomy. Even better, hitting them correctly (all three factors are used well) gives consistent results on a vast majority of people.

This is a far cry from techniques only working on students. Or taking an Asian belief system and cultural heritage out of its context and then cherry picking the parts you like to mystify a gullible audience with. If that’s your scene, good for you, but I want no part of it.

 

How to make Death Touch work for self-defense?

You can make Death Touch work for self-defense but you need to get a few things straight and set your expectations realistically. I covered the background here above. Now let’s look at some more practical aspects.

Be realistic

Like I said before: everybody uses it to some extent. The trick is finding the right balance between training for this kind of skill and spending your time on other aspects of your training that are equally important. There’s more to effective self-defense than precision, despite how important it is. So if you spend all of your time on Death Touch techniques, it will be at the detriment of your other skills. Bear that in mind before you dive in.

Just to be crystal clear: I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to be precise and hit vital points. I’m saying that’s just one of several important skills you need to practice.

 

Any time, any place

Another way to approach striking is this: instead of only working on hitting vital points, work just as hard on developing your skills so that no matter where you hit, you always get a result.

This might look like the polar opposite of Death Touch to you, but is isn’t. It is simply focusing on two of the three factors I mentioned above: types of impact and right striking surface on area. That way, if you miss your vital point, the quality of the impact is still sufficient to cause a significant effect. In other words, you are not solely dependent on your accuracy.

Here’s another example from Slavo’s group:

The man getting hit is a friend of mine (tough as nails professional) and he sure isn’t faking it. If you watch closely, you’ll see that he gets hit in a specific target but what is truly impressive is the quality of the impact: even if he had been hit on another part of his torso, it would still have hurt tremendously. If you work hard at this kind of striking and then add the skill of hitting vital points with accuracy in a chaotic setting, your effectiveness will increase dramatically.

To achieve this result, I teach a model that is basic but it works well. It is in part a hierarchy but not in a qualitative manner. It’s more a teaching tool and a tactical matrix. Here goes:

When striking, you can aim for a volume, a part, an area or a point.

Here are some examples:

  • Volume: the entire body.
  • Part: the head, arm, leg.
  • Area: the groin, abdomen, side of the head.
  • Point: the trachea, carotid artery, eyes, thoracic diaphragm.

There is some overlap between the categories but you get the point: you progress from landing your technique on a large target (volume) to hitting a very small one, with several steps in between.

The hierarchy part in this model is about when you learn what exactly during your training:

  • When you start your training, aim for hitting a volume. Wherever you hit, it has to move his whole body, if only an inch.
  • When you can do this consistently, aim for parts like legs and arms.
  • Once you can do that consistently, narrow down on specific areas.
  • Only when you can do this well enough, focus on specific points.

The advantage of this teaching method is that you learn how to strike with specific types of impact first, usually penetrating and shockwave. You need to or get this right first or you won’t be able to move the volume that is his body. Only when you can do that well do you go for increasingly smaller targets that don’t require those kinds of impacts and allow you to hit with the others (bouncing, ripping, etc.) As you’re progressing towards this last skill level, you will retain the ability to hit any surface with tremendous power to cause a result. That’s when you are no longer dependent on always hitting those vital points with perfect accuracy, which is always a good thing.

The downside of this method is that this takes a bit more time and practice than going right away to training the small points. In my opinion, that time is well spent but you need to make your own choices.

The tactical aspect is this: you don’t have to pick just one; you can hit multiple categories at the same time.

For instance: block or slip a punch and then hit your attacker’s arm hard with your forearm, right on the tendon of his triceps (point) so his arm (part) moves violently across his body and he spins his back (volume) to you.

There are plenty more examples but you see what I mean: it’s not either/or. In this example, if you don’t hit the tendon (point), you still have the other aspects affecting your attacker. If you only aim for a point (without incorporating the other categories) and miss completely, you have nothing.

 

Conclusion

There is a tremendous amount of nonsense when Death Touch is taught. Some teachers don’t know any better, others are frauds. They have to live with themselves, not me, so if that’s what they want to leave as a legacy, then so be it. I disagree, but that’s not my call to make. The reason why they get away with such nonsense is that people want to be fooled. It’s scary to hear that there are no guarantees in a fight and no matter how hard you train, you might still get injured or die. that’s no fun at all, even though it’s true. Instead of the truth, people often prefer to believe in a fantasy solution that looks good on paper, especially if you don’t know any better. That makes violence not as scary anymore an they can go back to living their lives.

I believe that’s where the excesses you find in this area of training come from. If people want to be fooled, you can be sure that others will rise to the occasion and fool them.

But that doesn’t mean Death Touch can’t work for self-defense. It can. I’ve used it and so have plenty of others. But to make it work, you need to first strip it from the mysticism and bullshit that surrounds so much of it. When you strip it down to a purely functional level, it boils down to science, common sense and good training.

In this article I tried to give you my approach for just this. I hope it can be of use to you.

 

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Comments

  1. Joe Kaiser says

    Thanks for the great post!

    Joe

  2. Hugh Wallace says

    Thanks for demystifying the subject, Wim! Was that Martin C getting thumped in the chest by Slavo in the second clip?

  3. j. a. mullins says

    as i was learning hsing-i chuan striking vital points was explained to me as a fundamental of training. that once the basic how to hit is followed up by where to hit. the way it was introduced was to teach where to strike to achieve the fastest disabling effect. it also taught what to protect and why. doing this in a manner that became associated with the basic theory and embedded in application meant that the selection of an appropriate target wasn’t happenstance nor did require you to maintain serenity in the face of chaos to realize an opportunity was there.

    i studied yi quan in atlanta, georgia with one patric laou for a while before he died. we sat and talked about a lot of the old legendary, mystical, and metaphysical tails floating in the martial arts. when dim mak cam up he explained that his grandfather was a practitioner, and a former triad member, and that the real deal with dim mak was that those guys were very practiced at dealing out blows that can cause death to occur later after there has been time to separate one’s self from the event. he said it was usually a blow to the temple, liver, spleen, short rib, testicles, or carotid that led to slow internal bleeding that led to infection, fever, and ultimately death. these wounds could be treated by modern medicine of course, and in some cases the person would just heal on their own, but the legends revolved around the fact someone died from a mysterious attack.

    there was a lot that went into it; knowledge of how to strike effectively, use of a fist load of some sort (something almost always used), and an understanding of what you trying to achieve with a strike. his grandfather had told him that many of the legends around dim mak were told just make it harder to understand in the general populace. most of the techniques were just using commonly understood striking targets that yielded a mortal wound more often than not and training in a manner to more successfully get that result. it was supposedly to possible to get a one hit kill, but that wasn’t the point or the intended outcome because of the difficulty in achieving such a result.

    traditional chinese medicine really helped to clutter the understanding of dim mak once people began trying to understand such a thing had happened and misapplying the scientific knowledge of the time to explaining how such things were possible.

    • Your last paragraph should be framed and hung in the dojos of all those bullshit practitioners who throw chi balls and knock out nobody except their own students.

  4. Great post Wim, and I love the video clips! You are good at making sense out of mystery and you long detailed explanations are welcome because they are articulate.

  5. Hey Wim – I started reading this post thinking you were going to totally debunk the death touch but then the article brought me back into reality and the 21st Century.

    Yep modern medical science sees one hit injuries all for the time in sports, so in that context – sure the death touch can exist.

    • Hey John,
      Certain aspects of it are (the way you often see it done nowadays) complete bullshit. Other aspects, not so much. It’s knowing which is which that is the real challenge. :-)

  6. j. a. mullins says

    dim mak debates seem to be as endless and ongoing as the whole issue of defining internal and external or hard and soft in the martial arts.

    thanks for another cool post pal.

  7. Charles James says

    I just have a difficult time calling all this the “death touch.” Looking at the two words tends to convey inaccuracy. Vital point or whatever touching or striking or slapping seems more apropos but then again I am a nit picker when it comes to terminology.

    I think this is why so many get away with fooling most of the people all the time.

    Thanks for this one, really informative post once again.

    Charles

    • Well, blame Count Dante who popularized the term in the 60’s. He started it and it stuck. Doesn’t mean it’s accurate. :-)

    • j. a. mullins says

      hey charles,
      the chinese refer to it as tien hsui, which became atemi waza in japanese.

      vital points was one of the various definitions of the characters from the wade-giles conversion that became popular in the 1920s and 1930s with the export of ‘chinese boxing’ with the british in hong kong.

      i have been told, and feel it to be reliable, that dim mak was used to refer to the actual application of the knowledge of where to strike in order to cause serious injury that led to internal bleeding/infection/organ failure to cause death.

      most of what has filtered down to us over the years comes from sources that we feel to is original, authentic, traditional, and/or correct when in fact most modern martial arts originated in an era where martial arts had become a socialized and academic endeavor. these arts were all from a time when most nations had moved away from the martial arts as the primary models of warfare. gunpowder, firearms, cannon, and all their associated methods and technologies came to rule the battlefield, so martial arts knowledge became more useful as a means of self mastery, soon to sold on the civilian market, than a coveted knowledge of battlefield utility.

      another pet peeve, sorry to rant on.

      • Charles James says

        Hi, J.A. Mullins: Agreed, the karate most know of from Okinawa is more or less derived from the efforts to change it for school children.

        I hypothesized that what was taught for black belt in the late fifties was more in line with ensuring contractual renewal with the military special services than true proficiency toward what was perceived then as a black belt.

        Even then, the guy who created the system I practice was considered wealthy by Okinawan standards and losing those contracts would have been devastating.

        Only through efforts of a few current practitioners of today are others gradually finding some semblance of true karate but then again that is only an opinion.

        • j.a.mullins says

          ed parker and wallie jay both talked about the root of their arts and both basically felt like there had been too many generations of ‘spiritual and enlightened experiment’. basically that almost all of the movements are excess, not meant to hide the applications, but to exaggerate the applications in the interest of discovering new skill. over time, basic understanding of what was actually being applied was lost.

          funikoshi went and basically sampled everything that was being taught during his era, essentially chinese martial arts with a flavoring japanese occupational influences and local flavor. as the father of modern karate, his real legacy was to accurately record and pass on the forms used by many kenpo styles.

          many modern karate exponents feel that to truly understand the application of kata, and there use karate as a pure combative style, you don’t need to decypher the katas, but you need to strip them down to there most simple movements and then apply the principles.

          a lot is misunderstood because much of what was transmitted for standards for proper form came from centuries of comparing one guys athletic achievement to another guys. eventually this comparison became the standard, but later generations did understand what had been achieved or why. especially since most of these achievements were personal and having little to do with furthering the original style.

          some of the shaolin martial arts are so unusual that its hard believe that the masters of those styles truly know what there style was evolved to do. most people can’t understand, or they don’t want to, that martial styles where originally just a body knowledge specifically designed to achieve a specific battlefield goal that usually defeated the opposing sides tactics. most fighting arts have two man drills, probably to teach what to do for sure, but also to allow a person to know what to do to assist someone else fighting the same opponent. warfare is a team sport after all.

  8. Hi Wim, excellent article again! To re-enforce the debunking of the timing constraints of the strikes, there is a paragraph in a book that I have about this where an old article has been translated and this topic of the time of day affects the effectiveness of the strike is discussed. To quote the article (I think this is reliable given the quality of the authors) as ‘absolutely preposterous. In the old days, skilled masters often made it appear as if their power was quite mysterious. The reason for this was security, as they were only interested in cultivating their own skills and did not want anyone else to know their secrets, Subsequently they deceived many people.’

    This is a good article by Dan Docherty on the subject which I am sure you’ve already read by may be of interest to others who have not seen it:
    http://www.taichichuan.co.uk/information/articles/my_point_exactly.html

    I attended a vital point seminar I think about 16 years ago. There was a technique (or pressure point application) to stop a strangle where you would use your thumbs to lock into the notch in the skull behind each ear lobe and apply pressure there as if to create a triangle ie you press upwards at an angle so that if a line could be drawn from both thumbs pressing, the line would meet at the apex of the triangle. Everybody else seemed to be in mortal agony but although painful I could resist it and really now I think it would not do anything but be an irritation ( I must add that I don’t think I’m special although never done it again to anyone else but maybe the fact everyone was told it was going to be very sore made it a self-fulfiling prophecy). I just wouldn’t want to try it as you could probably do other better strikes and counters and as Kasey Keckeisen said in his last blog about Samurai Saturdays (16th April 2013) that the best defense out of a full nelson? Don’t get in one which I really like and the article is great too! So hopefully try to keep good distancing so it would be hard to get front strangled and maybe twin fist strike to temples may break the strangle for an escape or further counter.

    I have shown people what I now to believe to be ineffective techniques in the past which I wish I could change but I still think this particular one is too complicated to do in the heat of the moment and I could also resist it when the instructor did it to me too as the pain was supposed to blow your mind so that you stopped the strangle. Maybe there are techniques or ideas that should be dropped as I remember an Aikido teacher I had saying one of the basic techniques he could not do well and would not work at all well: From what I can remember now, may be that should be dropped too as it was may be the case of a technique that had poor body mechanics involved in it too as the other techniques seemed to work well if you could build a good momentum with them.

    What effect do you get if you kick the sciatic nerve?

    So maybe we’re blaming ‘Black Magic’ whereas we should be assigning the blame to ‘Milk Tray’ instead? Sorry folks, you will only get that joke if you read Dan Docherty’s article which won’t waste you time. :-)

    • should be your time

    • Hi Marc,

      Yes, I’ve read Dan’s article (as well as all his others). As usual, he writes clearly about the things where others prefer to beat about the bush. :-)

      Pain is a good goal to reach for hen you do techniques but it’s unpredictable, as you experienced. Some people are very susceptible to it, others not so much. Some can take a lot of a certain kind of pain but not a different kind. The problem is that you wont know upfront. So if you go for a technique (like in your example) that relies solely on pain to get results, you’re basically entering a lottery: hoping you will win. Personally, I believe there are better ways.

      If you hit the sciatic nerve in the leg correctly, it tends to go numb/jolt you with somewhat paralyzing pain. your leg also stops functioning correctly for a while.

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