STRIKE BACK Part 2
PHYSICAL CONDITIONING FOR SELF DEFENSE
By Mark Lonsdale
STRIKE BACK is a series of articles dedicated to self defense, urban survival and the physical and mental conditioning required to protect ones self, or loved ones, when confronted with rape, robbery or assault.
Modern urban living has made many people very soft and dulled their less civilized primal skills necessary for survival and self defense. Many have developed a false sense of security based on the belief that “it could not happen to them,” or that the police will be there when needed. Others have placed their faith in changing the locks on their doors, installing alarm systems or carrying aerosol pepper spray. Now although each of these precautions may contribute modestly to your personal safety, they fall far short of the mark when one is confronted with the terrifying reality of a rape or assault. Street confrontations can occur without warning and take only seconds, but may leave physical and emotional scares that last for many years. Eventually we must admit that on some occasions calling “911” just doesn’t cut it. We must be prepared to physically defend ourselves.
Physical conditioning is required for unarmed self defense, and to perform the techniques that will be covered in future articles. Mental conditioning, the ability to control fear and use it to your best advantage, is of equal importance and will be addressed in Part 3 of this series.
A healthy lifestyle, general cardiovascular fitness, nutrition and elevated awareness are pluses when preparing for martial arts training or self defense, but as with any sport, self defense training has certain physical requirements and task‑specific muscle conditioning to consider. Fighting, and that is basically what self defense is, requires some degree of strength, stamina, flexibility and speed. This is in addition to technical know‑how, repetition training, presence of mind, determination and a fierce will to survive.
When we talk about physical strength in self defense, it is divided into two areas and does not include the ability to lift heavy objects. Firstly, it is sufficient strength in specific muscle groups to break an assailants grip and/or deliver strikes with sufficient force to incapacitate or cripple the would‑be attacker. Secondly, it is the strength to redirect an attack or utilize the attacker’s size, weight and momentum to your advantage. To quantify the amount of strength required varies from individual to individual and from situation to situation, but it is small by power lifting standards. This is not to say that there is such a thing as too much strength. A skilled large, strong man will usually win over an equally skilled smaller, weaker man.
While much of the power generated in a punch, for example, comes from the legs and body rotation, upper body strength plays a big part in the fight game. Most boxers and successful martial artists have well developed shoulders, arms (especially triceps), backs (lats), and to a lesser degree, chests. Well conditioned abdominal muscles (core strength) are also valuable in fighting in that they allow the fighter to absorb more punishment to the body. Core strength also adds significant power to strikes and throws that may require upper body rotation.
For the fairer sex, who genetically have less upper body strength than men, they can make valuable use of their strongest muscle group – the legs. Fight-specific leg conditioning will increase kicking effectiveness along with adding power to upper body moves. Most of the power generated by the legs is drawn from the calf muscles, so calf raises and lunges should be an integral part of any training program.
Strength, although an asset, is not the main ingredient in a successful counterattack. The speed and accuracy of the counterattack, against a vulnerable weak point is for more important.
Stamina is essential so that one can either show discretion and run from a confrontation, or continue a counterattack to the point where the assailant is beaten. One punch knockouts are strictly the domain of John Wayne and the silver screen. In the real world, an attacker is going to be neither deterred nor subdued by a single counter strike – unless of course that strike is delivered by a very powerful and skilled individual, or is delivered with sufficient force to a vital part of the human anatomy. Pain may not be a sufficient deterrent in the heat of combat, but extreme pain can be quite effective. In most cases, your response will need to be violent, forceful, accurate and sustained – until you are sure that the attacker is no longer a threat.
The stamina training required for self defense centers around both cardiovascular conditioning (running, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, aerobics, etc.) and muscle stamina achieved from doing high reps with specific weights, in a specific range of motions designed to replicate fighting. Dumbbell front throws, flies, bench press, triceps cable pull-downs and incline bench sit‑ups/crunches are all examples of conventional exercises that will benefit your self defense training.
Flexibility training, an aspect that many neglect, is one area where women usually have the advantage over men. Although high kicks are not recommended for safe or effective street application, flexibility in the legs will add ease of movement and speed to any technique. Overall body flexibility, agility and suppleness are beneficial in all aspects of martial arts training and greatly reduce the chance of injury.
Flexibility can be gained from personal stretching routines, stretch‑aerobics or even yoga classes, but it is recommended to warm-up before stretching. Stretching without first warming up can actually cause injury.
Speed is the fourth ingredient in our physical conditioning program. A determined counterattack is wasted if it is not delivered with speed and surprise. It is difficult to surprise an assailant with a slow move, so speed and surprise go hand in hand. Speed can also be an integral part of power. A strike or kick delivered with both speed and strength will be more effective/destructive than one that lacks one of these contributing factors.
Once again, speed and power can prove ineffective if delivered without accuracy and an understanding of the human anatomical vulnerabilities or weaknesses. These vital areas will also be covered in a future STRIKE BACK article.
The single best method to develop speed in fighting is with a willing training partner, coach or instructor. Limited benefit can be derived from working with the various types of punch bags seen in most fight gyms, but eventually one must use a live opponent so as to gauge one’s own speed, sharpen the reflexes, develop coordination and timing, and get a feel for human movement. Unlike strength, stamina and flexibility, speed and timing are hard to develop outside of formal martial arts classes or without a private self defense trainer.
The use of private self defense trainers is not unlike having a personal fitness trainer. For the busy executive, celebrity, or individual that is simply uncomfortable with group activities, a series of private self defense lessons (and a periodic refresher), can prove to be a practical form of fitness training, along with having the added benefit of providing a potentially life-saving skill.
General physical fitness brings with it a feeling of well being, confidence and self‑esteem that increases our alertness and often serves to deter an assault. But appearance alone does not stop an attack with certainty. Self defense fitness requires muscle specific conditioning that must include training for strength, stamina, flexibility and speed. The strength to break or escape a grip and/or subdue/cripple an attacker; the stamina to run from an attack or continue the counterattack until the assailant is neutralized; the flexibility to move easily and avoid injury; and the speed to surprise the attacker and deliver a devastating series of counterattacks.
Each of these four considerations will be detailed in future articles dealing with the specific attacks and counterattacks. These techniques are a collection of the most effective moves found in several martial arts, but then modified for street use. In the mean time, continue your regular workouts, put in the time running, cycling or swimming, and increase your overall upper body strength and stamina. Use medium to low reps with heavier weights for strength building, and high reps with lighter weights for endurance and stamina. If you have not tried CrossFit training with kettlebells, it is an excellent form of core, cardio and strength conditioning.
Mark Lonsdale is a national judo coach, unarmed combat instructor, and a former international judo competitor; an international shooting gold medalist; and holds a Masters degree in international criminal analysis. Mark develops training programs for military and law enforcement and is the author of several books related to tactical operations to include, “CQB – A Guide to Unarmed Combat and Close Quarter Shooting” available from amazon.com