You’re walking home late at night and notice a guy about 10 paces behind you. You keep walking, quickening your pace. The last thing you want is a confrontation, but in a worst-case scenario, could you defend yourself? It’s a question worth asking.
“The smartest response [to a threat] is to avoid violence at any cost,” says Matan Gavish, founder of the Krav Maga Academy in New York. There’s no shame in running, especially when it means you can get away.
But when push comes to shove (literally), there are some simple self-defense moves you can master on your own.
Krav maga is an Israeli “hand-to-hand” combat system — meaning it’s done without weapons — that dates back to 1891. Today, it’s used by the Israeli Defense Forces and practiced by martial arts enthusiasts worldwide.
Krav maga relies on a no-nonsense approach and practical techniques. Because the moves don’t require equipment, they’re helpful in a variety of real-life scenarios and instill confidence in those who practice it.
In fact, a 2019 study found that a single training session may be enough to improve kick velocity and impact force (read: quickly and seriously hurt your attacker so you can get away, like, pronto).
Plus, you can do krav maga in normal street clothes. This is helpful since you likely won’t be wearing sneakers and boxing gloves when you encounter a real threat.
If you’re ready to brush up on your self-defense skills, it’s best to practice with a partner in an open space. If you don’t have a partner, most of these moves can be practiced solo against a heavy punching bag at the gym.
If you’re truly interested in sparring to work up a sweat, contact a pro at a nearby gym or krav maga academy.
Start slow, Gavish says. Beginners are most likely to get excited and accidentally injure a friend with an overzealous practice punch. As you become more comfortable and precise with each move, start adding speed.
Note: No editors were harmed in the making of this article.
To get started, here’s one important concept to keep in mind: “Striking the soft spots of the body are at the base of any effective reaction,” Gavish says.
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Basically, it’s the body parts that can’t be strengthened, no matter how much you work out. So, no matter how ripped your attacker is, they’re still vulnerable in these areas — giving you a way to fight back and escape.
Now that we’ve covered weak points, the No. 1 secret to a good defense is knowing how to make a solid fist. That means no wagging thumbs or crossed fingers.
Start by bending your middle set of knuckles in. Then, bend your second set of knuckles (the base of your fingers). Place your thumb over your pointer and middle fingers. Keep your wrists completely straight.
Pro tip: When striking with closed fists, aim to hit with your two biggest knuckles — the ones on your pointer and middle fingers, Gavish says. “They are bigger, stronger, and will cause more damage on impact.”
Gavish also says you should use your entire body when striking, rotating from the hip to maximize your power.
1. Kick the groin
“When in doubt: Kick the groin with as much speed and power as your body can master,” Gavish says.
Start in a staggered stance, facing your attacker, with your dominant leg (the one you’ll use to kick) behind you. Engage your hip flexors and quads.
Kick your leg straight out and upward, leaning back slightly from your waist to help balance. Kick directly between your attacker’s legs and connect your shin to the groin.
Tip: Unlike what you see in the movies, do not aim with your foot or knee, Gavish says. Your shin will deliver the maximum impact. Bonus: Your shin has a larger surface area, so it’s harder to miss.
“In your mind, don’t stop at the groin,” Gavish says. Think of kicking your leg as high as possible, following through the movement for maximum impact. (Ouch.)
2. Stop an outside strike
This basic defense move protects you from strikes — or slaps, punches, and waving batons — as an attacker approaches you from the front.
“Practicing your defenses can make a huge difference in how your body reacts to violence,” Gavish says. “Getting hit in the arm is not as bad as getting hit in the face.”
As the attacker approaches, bring your arms out, fingers extended, elbows slightly bent. Stop your attacker by raising your forearm inside your attacker’s oncoming arm, so he can’t hit your face.
At the same time, use your other hand to make a perfect fist and punch your attacker in one of the soft spots in the face: the nose, the jaw, or the throat — whatever is available.
3. Escape a bear hug
This isn’t the good kind of bear hug. It’s when someone approaches from behind and grabs you, pressing your arms against the sides of your body.
Drop your weight down swiftly by mimicking a fast squat. “This immediately lowers your center of gravity, making it much harder for you to be picked up or moved,” Gavish says.
With your feet wider than hip-width apart, shift your hips to the side, so you have a direct path to your attacker’s groin with your hand. Using an open palm, strike hard and fast until his grip releases.
Lunge forward slightly and throw your elbow back to your attacker’s belly, turning to face him as you do. Run if you can, or continue the assault with punches to soft spots.
4. Escape a two-handed choke from behind
If you feel hands wrap around your neck from behind, you need to act fast. Not to freak you out, but the risks — namely, cutting off your air supply — can be severe. Luckily, there’s a way to escape.
Raise the arm on the same side as the leg staggered behind you. If your left leg is slightly staggered behind you, raise your left arm. Bring that arm (we’ll use left) straight up — bicep to ear.
Step your corresponding leg behind the other. In this example, you would cross left leg behind the right. Turn back, rotating in the direction of your raised arm (turning over your left shoulder) quickly and aggressively.
Put your body weight and as much pressure as possible against your attacker’s wrists. At this point, you should be out of the choke. Strike at the attacker’s soft spots or run away.
We sincerely hope you’ll never have any reason to use these techniques, but in a dangerous situation, even a basic introduction to a new style of self-defense is better than no defense at all.
The next time you need to mix up your workout routine, grab a buddy and practice krav maga to break a sweat, increase your confidence, and hone your force and speed. Who knows, one day these moves might just save your life.