I remember the early days in the Karate class were you would stand in front of your partner, adjust your distance accordingly and wait for that little nod of the head to show they are ready, a split second later he would lunge forward delivering a straight arm punch for you to step back and block, a split second later he would take another step forward delivering another straight arm punch for you to step back and block again, then he would come at you one more time, stepping forward and bringing a third straight arm punch, only this time you stepped off to one side, blocked the punch and then very swiftly delivered a counter strike your partner with a reverse punch to his kidneys … KIAI, job done. I guess way back then many of the people who trained in that same class must have imagined things like this: they’re walking down a street late at night when a mugger jumps out of the nowhere and demands their money. Picturing himself as the hero, the Karate man remembers those very same karate sanbon kumite, and drops into his fighting stance, and blocking the attackers best punches before he counters and makes his attacker wish he had have picked on someone else.
The more likely scenario: our well-trained person is stumbling down a dark street, either drunk from a great night out, or just cold and distracted. He sees a shadowy figure step out from a shop doorway, but before he can even get his hands up, someone grabs him from behind. His legs are knocked out from under him and he wakes up on the street, battered and bruised after a good kicking, without his wallet or phone.
What is this all about?
They say knowledge is power, I for one don’t agree with that, I believe it is what you do with the knowledge that makes it powerful, I can only provide you with a comprehensive program to prepare you to survive an attack on the street. While being in the right kind of shape will certainly improve your odds of survival, actually taking time to practice self-defense strategies and techniques is essential, and the concepts in on this page are meant to support a self-defense program. In my experience, most self-defense classes tend to neglect the fitness of their participants. Combat sports are, as the name implies, sports, and thus physical conditioning is usually incorporated into the training. Self-defense, on the other hand, requires a deep and involved study of a much wider variety of situations and attacks, so time for fitness and conditioning is much more difficult to incorporate.
Self-Defense vs. Combat Sports
There are few similarities between a real street fight and any kind of combat sport. Thai Boxing, Judo, Mixed Martial Arts, Olympic Tae Kwon Do, all of these has the following traits in common when it comes to fighting:
a) You know who your attacker is, their size relative to you, and possibly even their fighting habits and experience
b) You know when the fight will happen, and you know the environment
c) You know the number of attackers
d) There are rules preventing serious injury or death
e) You are wearing protective gear, not just to avoid injury, but to allow you to hit harder without fear of breaking your hand.
f) Your attacker is not trying to kill you, or even to injure you. They are trying to win. (Tempers and egos do sometimes play a part in these fights)
g) Nobody else will get hurt during the fight.
h) You know the environment and the arena.
i) You know the duration of the fight.
In contrast, an attack on your way back to your car has none of these rules. In addition, there are certain assumptions you should always have regarding an attack:
a) The attacker wants your property, your body, or your life. They will threaten your safety accordingly.
b) Your attacker will have some advantage–size, numbers, a weapon–and/or you will be at a disadvantage–isolated, lost, confused, sick, drunk, and injured, etc.
c) You will most certainly be surprised.
d) You will be seriously injured, even if you win.
These assumptions don’t apply to social fights, like a good old night club fight, but even they can very quickly escalate. A common scenario is two guys ‘taking it outside’ to settle some difference, only to have the fight escalate to a lethal encounter when the loser won’t go down quietly and grabs a weapon or his friends jump in as tempers flare.
Please note, this isn’t meant to diminish the exceptional people out there who excel at combat sports, nor should it be taken to suggest that they can’t hold their own in a real attack. It is simply to point out that the fitness requirements of winning a boxing match and those of surviving an attack are very, very different, on the street and should be trained for with that in mind.
The Elements of an Attack
To get a better idea of what you need to accomplish to survive an attack on your property or your life, let’s look at the elements of this kind of scenario.
Most self-defense scenarios last only for a few seconds, from the initial contact to one of the combatants being incapacitated or escaping. However the flip side is that in very rare situations these fights can last up to a couple of minutes.
The attacker always has the advantage. Since the attacker initiates the fight, they would not do so unless they perceived that they had an advantage. It is possible that they are mistaken – you may have a concealed weapon, but if an attacker makes a mistake in choosing a target (and survives it); they usually learn very quickly how to screen their future targets.
For the most part, attackers are cautious. They risk arrest and serious injury if they choose the wrong target, which is one that will put up a fight, take too long to drop, or cause a loud and noticeable disturbance. If someone chooses to attack you, you should assume they have a very good chance of winning, and if there is no apparent reason for their confidence, you can bet there is something you don’t know. Their advantage can be in the form of back-up, a weapon, or size. This is why self-defense classes teach their students to always assume the attacker has a weapon, even if it’s not visible, and to always be looking out for the attacker’s friends. One notable exception to this is attackers who are on drugs or are drunk. In these cases, they are still a serious threat because certain drugs dampen or eliminate pain sensations.
Unlike a sport fight, the goal of a self-defense scenario is to protect your life and escape. It is not to defeat the attacker. That’s not to say taking your attacker down, or even killing him isn’t the most efficient and effective way to protect your own life, but it isn’t the primary goal. If the opportunity to run presents itself, you should always take it. In some cases, the safety of a loved one may also be at stake. Generally, property can be sacrificed, but some people may decide that risking their life for the contents of their wallet is worthwhile. That is a personal decision you will have to make for yourself, and which may vary depending on the situation.
You should always assume that you could die or be permanently injured. Even when an attacker doesn’t intend to kill you, they have little concern for your safety or well-being and might simply kill you accidentally. Considering how easy it is to crack your skull on a pavement, it doesn’t take much more than a bad fall to end things. If you are cut or shot and left unconscious, you could simply bleed to death. In short, you can die, and should assume it is a very real possibility.
Requirements for Surviving
Knowing all that, what do you need to be able to do to survive an attack?
You must be able to go all out for a least 30 seconds to 2 minutes. You don’t have to last twelve rounds, so the fight usually goes to the person who can inflict the most damage in the shortest amount of time. If you knock someone out cold in the first 5 seconds, which saves you 25 seconds in which you could have been killed.
You must be able to stay on your feet while being attacked. The quickest way to lose a fight is to end up on the ground. Remember the attacker’s mates? As soon as you’re down, they will be playing football with your head. Getting back up is very difficult under these circumstances.
You must be able to run. There is no substitute for this, absolutely none what so ever. You can do your cardio workouts in the gym on a rowing machine or a bike, but if you are training to protect your life, you need to be able to sprint 80m and then run a fairly fast half mile…after a fight.
In terms of fitness, here are the benchmarks:
1. Extremely intense cardio-activity for 30 seconds followed by an 80m sprint and 800m jog. You should be able to operate near or at your maximum heart rate for 1-2 minutes.
2. Good coordination and balance to stay on your feet, probably the best way to ensure your survival.
3. Muscles that can generate a lot of explosive power in short bursts. Think throwing or Olympic weightlifting instead of power lifting.
4. Exceptional core stability and strength to protect vital organs and postural integrity while your hands are protecting your head.
5. Durability in the form of supple joints and the ability to absorb shock, whether from falls or hits. Muscle helps here, but so does flexibility and mobility.
6. Ability to hit small targets accurately and quickly. Your targets in an attack are eyes, throat, and groin.
What you don’t need:
1. Endurance. Beyond the ability to run a short distance to escape, you won’t need to go for very long. Training intervals can be longer, but only if they assist short-term performance.
2. Strength beyond a certain point. Your attacker will almost certainly be stronger than you, and getting into a contest of strength is a sure-fire way to lose. Be strong enough to maintain your body’s integrity, and then focus on power and speed, and don’t ever rely on your strength to win a fight. A small woman can learn to generate enough explosive power that her strikes crush an attacker’s windpipe without being able to bench her bodyweight. It’s not about big strong muscles.
The basic training methods for strength and conditioning program designed to improve survivability in a self-defense scenario will follow the following criteria.
Mimic the real movements as closely as possible, your training should be as close to the actual requirements of the scenario as possible. This means that short circuits using kick shields and punching bags are a great way to improve cardiovascular capacity for a fight.
Training for Toughness
One of the distinguishing features of an effective self-defense conditioning program is that it takes into account the fighter’s toughness, both mental and physical. Mental toughness is the ability to perform well under less-than-ideal circumstances without losing focus or intensity. Physical toughness is also called resilience, and is simply the ability to absorb shock without sustaining permanent damage.
Training Techniques for Mental Toughness
Training for mental toughness requires that you train in uncomfortable situations. The classic example of this is from the movie Rocky IV. We see Rocky turn down state off the art training facilities for some log cabin in the middle of nowhere in despicable weather.
I love training outdoors; some of the best classes I have ever conducted have been in local parks, low lighting, and uneven ground along with unpredictable weather. It’s just perfect, no mugger it will ever attack you in your gym so he won’t hurt himself on the four inch mats. If at all possible, commit to training at an outdoor location on a regular basis. Simply going for a jog, rain or shine, can do wonders for your ability to tolerate environmental stress. You will be subjected to rain, mud, snow, sleet, cold, heat, and variations of all of those. The important thing is to learn to function when the environment dose not wan’t to cooperate. Also, try to train on surfaces other than flat. Even a grassy field has lumps and divots and worse traction to challenge your balance and foot placement. The ability to adjust for unusual terrain can save you in a fight.
In my Combat training we made use of a special kind of exercise called a stress drill or sometime known as the pressure drill. These were not especially physically taxing, but were socially uncomfortable because they involved other people trying to touch you or even grabbing you. If you have access to a training group, consider implementing these into your training:
Example Drill: Several people surround you making a circle, the instructor gives each person a number, except the one in the middle, and the object of the exercise is to be aware of your surroundings and your personnel space. The instructor calls out random numbers in quick fire succession, example one, four, three, five, eight, each time the student on the outer cycle hears there number they walk forward in a straight line and try and touch the person in the middle, If you the one in the middle your job is to be aware of someone entering your personnel space, and avoid any contact by side stepping there approach. More advanced versions allow a successful attacker to grab the player in the middle, who must then use a defense technique to force an escape.
Balance is the ability to control your center of gravity. It is essential for surviving a fight because the surest way to lose a real fight is to end up on the ground where your attackers can easily surround you and play football with your head.
The statistic is often cited as a reason to master grappling technique and forgo stand-up fight training. This number is a myth. Nowadays, we have a generation of people raised on MMA as the dominant combat sport, in which many fights do go to ground, because in MMA, you can safely drag your opponent to the ground without making things worse for you if you know how to grapple. In real life, even a skilled grappler would want to avoid going to ground in the street because they would be rolling on concrete, often with uneven terrain and debris, there is no rule against striking (or biting), and you cannot effectively control spacing or arrangement of multiple attackers. If you’re on the ground, it means you can’t run when the chance presents itself.
Balance helps you stay off the ground because it allows you to manage your center of gravity effectively, even when you are in compromising positions. It encompasses more than just the ability to walk across a narrow or unstable surface, but also includes the ability to move over and around obstacles while maintaining control of your center of gravity, to rise from the ground or maneuver low to the ground without actually falling, and recovering stable footing when you are tripped or fall over.
Balance is also essential for force transfer. By keeping your center of gravity where you want it, you make sure all the power of your legs goes into your strikes rather than keeping your on your feet.
Hand-eye coordination is especially useful for fighters because we use our hands to defend ourselves and respond with attacks. Martial artists have always known the value of fast hands, and have developed numerous drills to develop this skill. The boxing speed bag is the classic and perhaps the best for the specific conditioning fighters benefit from.
Throwing and catching drills are great for hand eye coordination.
Basic: Simply toss and catch and object between you and one or more partners. The object can be anything, but unusual objects provide more of a challenge. Objects that require you to adjust your grip to catch it in a specific way, sticks or poles, training knives that could spin in the air or pieces of cloth are examples of these. Catch with one or both hands.
In the context of a fight, power means the ability to generate a lot of force in a very short amount of time, as opposed to maximal force generation. Think about the difference between a short, powerful punch as opposed to a slow push. The push may have more weight (force) behind it, but it is delivered slowly and so causes no damage. The punch, on the other hand, might just be a jab with very little bodyweight behind it, but if it is done fast, it will still hurt and might break a nose.
Power is important because most street fights are over as soon as one party gets a good solid hit in, causing the other fighter to stagger or leave an opening that allows a finishing attack (if the initial hit wasn’t) or an escape. Real fights don’t allow for long drawn out exchanges of blows. Conserving energy is useless.
Power obviously relies somewhat on sheer strength, aka muscle tension, but it is more reliant on neurological activation. For this reason, power training is different than strength training. The classic illustration is once again the difference between power lifting and Olympic weightlifting.
Non-weight-bearing exercises for power development include jumps for height or distance, and depth jumps. Since power in a fight is transmitted from the hips to the arms, drills to develop power in the arms should be focused on this hip-to-extremity transfer; clapping pushups are not as useful as heavy push presses or medicine ball throws.
The ideal training methods that emphasize this hip-to-extremity power development are Olympic lifting and kettle bell. Olympic lifting, allowing for higher weights on a barbell held by both hands, develops a deeper foundation of power development, and kettle bells allow you to train unilaterally, the way you’d use your limbs in a fight: one at a time.
Pretty much any of the traditional kettle bell movements will be applicable here, but the Primary movement pattern is the clean and press.
Running is a necessary skill. You can’t get around this. In most fitness training regimens, running is lumped in with biking, jump rope, or swimming as generic cardio, but from a self-defense standpoint, running is treated as a specific skill that needs to be developed.
This is because the primary goal of a self-defense situation is to escape danger and it is easier to run from danger than to neutralize it with violence. The best strategy in a fight is to run away from it, and if you can run fast enough, your attacker may never even lay a hand on you.
Failing that, protect your vitals, fight back enough to create space, and then run away. Unless you are the attacker with the goal of killing or injuring your target, sticking around to “finish the job” is a waste of your energy, brings down legal culpability, and increases the risk of further serious injury.
So learn how to run and how to run fast.
Luckily, running in the context of self-defense is very short-duration. Half a mile is the longest you’d ever have to run in most cases to reach the safety of a populated and well-lit area or to simply lose an attacker.
The beginning stage of your escape from danger will take the form of a sprint as you seek to put as much distance between your attacker and yourself.
Singles (40-80 yards): Set up a marker 40-80 yards out and run as hard and as fast as you can to it. Rest for 60-90 seconds, and repeat 3-10 times.
Intervals (400m, 800m, or distance with interspersed sprints): Interval training is a staple of effective conditioning programs because it teaches the body to maintain a high output of energy for a defined time period, recover quickly, and then do it again. This closely mimics the cardiovascular demands of a fight, in which you will go all out for 30 seconds to 2 minutes and then run away.
Measure out your distance (400m or 800m. A running track is 400m long). There are two ways to run intervals: pick a pace and try to maintain it over all the intervals you are planning to run, or try to run each interval as fast as possible. Both are useful. Do 3-10 intervals with 60-120 seconds of rest.
Interval training is a popular form of programming because it allows trainees to get a lot of movements into a short workout. It is useful for real-world self-defense as well because it trains the body to transition from one kind of activity to another with minimal rest in between.
A good example of interval training would be 30 seconds each of five exercises, with the whole cycle repeated five times, with no rest between individual exercises. Variations might include rest after each cycle is completed.
An effective self-defense program should utilize scenario training to allow the trainee to exercise his skills in the context of a complex situation. That is different from scenario simulations in the context of a conditioning program.
Most fights contain a series of complex movement patterns performed in a kind of sequence. You might encounter an attacker, wrestle for a moment, sprint away, become cornered, fight with strikes, and then run and escape.
Simulating the fitness demands in that kind of scenario might look something like this:
1. Medicine Ball pick up & drop
2. 30 seconds of sit ups with striking into focus mitts
3. 30 second cover & fight drill
4. 50m sprint
5. 30 free style striking into kick shield or focus mitts
6. 400m run
Training Programs & Basic Structure
The basic structure of a fight conditioning program follows the general rules of any good exercise program. It starts with a warm-up meant to prepare the body for exertion by priming the muscles and nervous system, transitions into the main phase of the workout, and finishes with a cool down, stretch, or rehab session to aid recovery. The main phase of the workout is itself divided into three parts: a technical part, a strength/power skill, and a conditioning segment, done in that order to allow you to get the most out of body systems before performance tapers off. Fine motor control fatigues first, followed by maximal muscle activation, and followed by actual muscle fatigue.
The beginner workout published on the older posts is ideal for the new student or someone who is returning to physical activity after a long period of inactivity. It can also be used as a pre-training workout before a martial arts class.
It is can be performed in a more controlled environment, such as a gym, or home workout area, however taking it all outdoors where terrain and climate change would add an additional challenge.