Ringen Acupressure or The Liechtenauer Touch of Death

by Pamela Muir

In a survey of medieval wrestling techniques, called Ringen in the Liechtenauer tradition, there is a recurrence of actions that use pressure. The idea is that by applying pressure at partcular points on your opponent’s body, you force him into compliance because you have either created pain or naturally disrupted his body structure. I have taken to calling these Ringen acupressure points.1

One of the precepts of medieval wrestling is that if you need brute force to pull off a particular technique, odds are you are doing the technique incorrectly. Throughout the literature in the Liechtenauer tradition, wrestling techniques rely on a combination of physics, body mechanics and weak points in the human body.

First, let’s take a look at physics, which in wrestling, is applied mostly in two ways. Firstly, there is the use of leverage, whereby you use a point on your own body as the fulcrum while wisely applying force to disrupt the opponent’s body or limbs. Then, since only two points (in this case, the combatant’s feet) are in contact with the ground at any time, there is a naturally unstable position to be exploited. As an example, in one of the most basic throws you step so that the front of your lead hip is positioned directly behind and in contact with your opponent’s lead hip and at the same time you thrust your lead arm across his chest. You apply a turn of your body in the direction of your lead arm and leg, thus throwing your opponent onto his back. In this case, you are treating your opponent’s body as a lever and your lead hip as a fulcrum to aid in throwing your opponent off his feet. In addition, you are throwing him to his missing point of balance. Visualize your opponent as a three legged stool, with the third leg behind and missing: that third missing leg is the point towards which you should throw him. With the proper application of the principles of leverage and balance points, you will be able to execute the technique without the need for the use of brute strength.

Body mechanics comes into play simply because there is only a certain number of ways that a human body can move, and some of these ways are more efficient than others. Suppose we take the above throw as an example. It is important in the application of the throw that you thrust your arm across his chest in preparation for pushing your opponent backwards. The reaching of your arm is a more efficient and structurally sound position than using a straight arm to push sideways. A fun bar bet example of this principle is the “unbendable arm” trick. Bet your buddies that they will not be able to bend your arm as you hold it out straight in front of you. If you simply hold your arm up, they will be able to accomplish this effortlessly. On the other hand, if you instead visualize reaching for a glass of beer that is across the room, it becomes virtually impossible for them to accomplish the task. It is the efficient use of body mechanics that is a key ingredient in both the bar bet and the throw.

Now that we have a clearer view of the physics and body mechanics, we can focus on our knowledge of the weaknesses of the human body. Those weaknesses can be exploited through the use of a strike or blow or the application of pressure to a specific point. The strikes or blows are used to initially soften up your opponent through the use of pain in preparation for the finishing point of the technique. The application of pressure to a specific point causes your opponent to comply because of the pain induced and/or because his stable body structure given by skeletal alignment has been disrupted.

The Mortstöße, or murder strikes, are a named subset of the pain compliance techniques, usually used at the onset of the action. These can be found in Sigmund Ringeck’s commentaries.2 Most of these are blows aimed at parts of your opponent’s body so as to cause intense pain and thus getting your opponent to pre-comply with your intended follow-up grappling. Besides the oh-so-obvious move as the knee to the groin, the Mortstöße include fist blows to the heart, the temple, the sides of the neck and the navel. If you have ever been on the receiving end of one of those blows, you know that it takes some time to recover, even if only a fraction of a second, time that a savvy opponent will use to his advantage.

One of these Mortstöße, the gouging of your thumbs into your opponent’s checks, is not a blow, falling instead into the category that I refer to as Ringen acupressure points. These are not a named set of techniques, but are a group of techniques that I have noticed through my studies and practice. Most are not as grisly as the aforementioned cheek gouging, but with the use of pressure, they target specific points on the body and insure compliance by your opponent through the induction of pain or the disruption of his stable structure.

One such point is the soft spot on the chest just inside and below the shoulder. Here is a simple throw that utilizes that pressure point. Step so that the back of your lead hip is positioned behind and in contact with the back of your opponent’s lead hip. At the same time, press the heel of your lead hand into the soft spot below your opponent’s lead shoulder. Pushing forward with your lead hand and adding a turn of your body towards your rear foot will cause your opponent to fall backwards. Though we are still using the fulcrum principle in this technique, it is the forceful application of pressure to that particular spot on his chest that disrupts his structure in such a manner that he starts to lose his balance even before you add the body turn.

Another such pressure point is on the back of the upper arm. It is that spot right between your deltoid and triceps muscles. We can use that spot on the arm to counter the simple straight-arm throw mentioned at the beginning of this article. As your opponent starts to perform the throw on you by thrusting his arm across your chest, grasp the back of his hand with your same hand and with the other hand push down and forward against that spot on the back of his upper arm. In this manner, you either throw your opponent onto his face or you can walk him down to the ground. Once again, the forceful application of pressure to that body point will cause your opponent to lose his stable structure. It may also induce pain compliance as well.

The front of the leg at the joint where your leg meets your hip is another such point that induces compliance through pain and disrupts body structure. Unfortunately, I have been on the receiving end of that one in free fencing. My partner fell and as he did so, he raised up his buckler accidentally smashing into the top of my leg at the front hip joint. My body automatically folded in half and all I could think at the time was “Oomf, now I understand why that spot works so well!” I came out of the incident with a barely visible bruise and a deeper understanding of these pressure points. How about a more deliberate application for this one? As you plunge your fist or the heel of your hand into the joint at the top of the leg, use your leg to sweep your opponent’s out from under him. The combination of pain and pressure causes his body to fold up allowing you an easy way to sweep his leg.

In the above examples, the Ringen acupressure points were used in the midst of the throw or takedown. However, just like with the Mortstöße, the applied use of pressure can be used as a prelude to the intended technique. A finger break is just such an example. If your opponent has a hold on you with both arms either in front of or behind you, you can grab a single finger and wrench it backwards. As you can imagine, this would cause great pain for your opponent and his initial reaction would be for his body to follow the direction that you are pulling his finger, allowing you to take advantage of his disrupted structure. Along the same lines is the manipulation of your opponent’s head by pushing or pulling on his chin. If you can reach your opponent’s chin from behind, grasp it and pull it up and out, or if you cannot reach from behind, push his chin up and to the side. In either case, the neck pain and disrupted structure will give you a momentary advantage in which to perform a throw or takedown.

We have examined some specific examples of the application of these pressure points. In order to gain a better understanding as to how they work, if you have a cooperative partner, you can experiment with some of these points yourself. Have your partner fix himself in as stable a stance as possible. Gently manipulate these pressure points. (Please note the use of the word “gently”, as some of these work through pain compliance and it is important to be especially mindful of your partner’s safety.) With your fingers, push into the soft spot on the chest below the shoulder or the front of the leg where it meets the hip joint. Have your partner extend his arm and push with your fingers or the heel of your hand on the back of his upper arm to get a feel as to exact location of that pressure point. Very, very gently push your partner’s chin up and to the side. During all of this, it is important that your partner give you feedback. At what point did he feel that he was losing his balance? At what point can he visualize the pain compliance? Make sure that you allow your partner to do the same to you. It is on the receiving end that you are more likely to grasp precisely how these manipulations work.

Though I have only mentioned a handful of examples, these Ringen acupressure points, though unnamed as such, appear throughout the literature as a means of extra insurance in manipulating your opponent. By applying forceful pressure, as opposed to a blow or a strike, you either disrupt your adversary’s body structure or force him into a moment of compliance from the pain. It is precisely in that moment that you can then safely take advantage of his weakness and move on to your main grapple, lock or takedown.

1I would like to thank my friend, Christian Tobler, for coining the phrase “Liechtenauer touch of death.”
2Tobler, Christian Henry, Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001.