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A guard is an arm and body position that offers a degree of protection against attacks without any other movement or conscious thought; it’s like a barrier or fence. Although a guard is not actually a block, it serves as a block when it prevents an attack from getting through. It’s also the starting position for most blocks. Guards are most effective when in close punching range when punches are coming faster than you can block. A tight guard can stop punches you didn’t even see coming.

Is there one best guard?

There are many different martial arts, each with its own method of fighting and each with its own rules of sparring. Thus, there are many different guard positions; each of which has its pros and cons.

Traditional martial arts were developed as methods of self- defense and the guards they used were those effective against unknown opponents, so you didn’t know what type of attack to expect. Modern martial sports use guards that are more useful for sparring and fighting in competitions where there are rules that govern what techniques may or may not be used and you know what types of attacks to expect.

Some things that determine which guard position is the best to use at any given time:
  • The primary fighting method used in your martial art, such as a grappling as in judo or kicking in taekwondo.
  • The primary fighting method of your opponent’s martial art. For example, you may be a kicker who is fighting a grappler.
  • The height, weight, strength, speed, and proficiency of your opponent in relation to your height, weight, strength, speed, and proficiency.
  • The distance the opponent is from you.
  • The environment, such as being on a well-lighted or dark sidewalk, facing a known or unknown opponent, the type of clothing you are wearing, whether it’s in open or a confined space, etc. 
  • The rules of the tournament in which you may be competing, such as are throws or sweeps allowed.
  • Your own personal preference. You may have guard position that works best for you but is contrary those espoused by your martial art.

The basic guard

This is a basic guard position used by many martial arts:
  • The lead hand protects the high section of the body. It’s held just below cheekbone level and it extends forward more than the trailing hand.
  • The trailing hand protects the middle section of the body. It’s held lower and closer in than the lead hand.
  • The hands may be held in fists or open. The hands may be held with the palms toward you, toward each other, or toward the opponent. When the hands are held open, they are held with the fingers extended, slightly bent, and nearly touching to keep them from being jammed, and the thumbs are tucked to keep them from being snagged or grabbed.
  • The distance the hands are held in front of the body and the height they are held depends on the range of the opponent and the types of expected attacks. The distance and height they are held in changes depending on whether you expect attacks to be kicks, punches, or grabs. The hands are held closer and higher when the range is near to better protect against hand attacks and they are held farther away and lower when the range is far to better protect against kicks and grabs. 
  • The hands should not be held closer than about 12 inches; if they are held too closely they may not be as effective at blocking or attacking and they may be pushed back into your face by a blow. The hands should not be held so far away that the forearms exceed much more than a 120-degree angle with the upper arms; if extended too far, the arms lose power from a loss of the effect of leverage

The boxing guard

In the boxing, the only techniques allowed are punches using the front of the fist, to areas above the waist, and to the front and sides of the head and torso; this means attacks are limited to the jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. Therefore, the guard only needs to protect against these attacks.

In the modern boxing guard:
  • To protect the head, the hands are held with the fists just under and a few inches in front of the cheekbone with the palms toward the face.
  • To protect the upper body, the forearms are held almost parallel.
  • To protect the abdomen and lower ribs, the elbows are held together and close to the body.
  • To protect the jaw, which when struck makes you vulnerable to a knockout, the head is tilted forward, the chin is tucked, and the shoulders are raised.
This type of close-in guard works also works because the fighters are wearing gloves. Gloves make the fists larger, which makes it more difficult for them to slip between the arms and make it easier to block by putting your glove in front of an attacking glove.

In the early years of boxing when fighters fought with bare-knuckles, the rules were different, and the guard was different than today's guard. Some rules for these early bouts were:
  • Grappling and throwing were permitted.
  • The rounds were not timed; they ended when one of the fighters hit the mat.
Because of these rules, boxers avoided getting too close to each other to defend against grabs and throws; instead, they relied on straight punches thrown from a distance so there would be less chance of them being thrown to the ground. Hiding behind the bare fists and arms as boxers do today wouldn’t an effective guard since the opponent’s smaller, gloveless, slippery hands could slide by them.

Because of the rules and the greater distance between the fighters, the early boxers held their guard much lower and more extended than modern boxers. Since the lead hand was extended further from the body, it was used to parry punches, which was effective because the extra distance a punch had to travel gave more time to defect the punch.

The karate/taekwondo guard

Most karate sparring takes place at an extended range and uses straight-line punches and kicks. Since the points awarded are the same for head and body targets, most of the attacks are directed toward the larger and easier to hit body targets. Therefore, karate fighters use a lower and extended guard, much like the one used in bare-knuckle fighting.

Karate originated during the Japanese occupation of Okinawa when citizens weren’t allowed to possess weapons. In response, the citizens developed methods of unarmed self-defense and found ways to use farm implements as weapons, such as the sai and tonfa.

Since karate was developed for self-defense, its techniques were focused on defense and neutralization of the attacker, not fighting. If you look at the movements in traditional karate katas, there are no specific guards used; they are just a series of blocks and attacks. Since taekwondo’s development was heavily influenced by the shotokan karate training of its founders, its early patterns also don’t emphasize guards.

When sparring, guards are usually only used while the two fighters are moving around at a distance, evaluating each other, and looking for weaknesses and openings to attack. During this evaluation, the fighters make quick attacks to test what the opponent’s reaction will be, while they maintain a guard to protect themselves. Once this preliminary evaluation is over and the action begins, the guard is not a major concern, the action is mostly rapid attacks, blocks, and counterattacks. During breaks in the action, the fighters may retreat and use the guard again as they take a quick rest.

Self-defense guard

In self-defense situations, we are not fighting, we are defending ourselves. We don’t want to fight; we try to avoid the confrontation and walk away, but when this fails, we will defend ourselves. When an attack is imminent, we strike quickly and decisively and when the threat is neutralized, we walk away.

As martial artists, our first reaction to a confrontation is to not fight; it is to try to defuse the situation and walk away. Since are trying to keep a distance between ourselves and the threat, we are not concerned about having to close the gap. However, to attack us the attacker must close the gap, giving us time to react.

At an extended range, a guard is not usually necessary, and it may even provoke an attack. If we are in a situation where we can’t leave, and the attacker is close to us, then our arms are going to be working to attack, block, and control the attacker, leaving us no need or time for a guard. Control involves entangling the attacker’s arms, so they can’t be used to hurt you while still allowing you to get an attack of your own periodically.

Although a fighting guard is not needed or desired in most self-defense situations, we still need to keep ourselves protected. Using a direct guard may look like a threat to the person threatening you and provoke an attack and it shows the person that you may have some fight training, which will put the person on alert.

One way to use a guard during a confrontation without looking like a threat is to keep your hands and arms free and in front of you, using them as a sort of barrier that must be crossed to get to you. Keep the hands relatively high, open and moving; open hands are the universal sign of non-aggression. Some people are hand talkers, they are always waving their hands around for emphasis while talking. If you move your hands in a similar manner, you will be guarding yourself without looking like a threat.

Some guards used in other martial arts

Some martial sports, such as MMA, which uses punches, kicks, sweeps, throws, and grappling, use high open-hand guards. Some non-competitive martial arts, such as some of the Chinese martial arts, are not concerned about points; they concentrate on protecting and attacking the centerline of the body where all the vital target areas are located. The Chinese martial art of wing chun emphasizes rapid straight in attacks to the centerline from a close range rather than attacking from angles or using hooking attacks. Instead of using the powerful, hip snapping, thrusting punches of karate, they use rapid, multiple punches are they move continuously toward the opponent. Therefore, they use a more front-facing stance with a guard held close that protects their centerline while allowing both arms to punch freely.

Some martial sports, such as judo, don’t use a guard position. In judo, there are no strikes and since every technique requires you to grab the opponent, judo players just keep their arms up so they can grab the opponent or swat away the opponent’s attempted grabs.

World Taekwondo Olympic style taekwondo, is another martial sport that doesn’t use a guard position. Since grabs, clinches, and punches to head are not permitted, punches to the body are rarely used, kicks to the head are difficult to block, and kicks to the torso usually come from a low angle, sport taekwondo fighters just bounce around with their arms hanging at their sides. They depend on using evasive movements, deflection, and quick counterattacks to avoid kicks. Since traditional taekwondo still uses hand techniques extensively, their fighters use guard positions like those used in karate.


Guards should be an integral part of your repertoire of martial arts techniques. Whether you use a guard or not and, if you do use one, which one you use, depends on many factors. Therefore, you should be familiar with them all the different types of guards and have at least one that you are proficient at using.

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