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Self Defense - Defending From the Ground

(At White Birch, grappling is currently a FREE add-on to any White Birch program. I encourage you to try it, for the self-defense practice if nothing else. I believe it is one of the most important aspects of self defense that you'll ever learn.)

In the course of defending yourself, it will be common to find yourself on the ground. When guys fight, it's very common for the fight to end up on the ground due to the pressure of the assailant grabbing you or from you being forced to the ground through an intentional or unintentional throw or trip. Grabbing seems to be a defense mechanism used to keep from getting hit and the ground is a natural follow-up from a standing grab.

In a woman's self-defense battle the same can be said, but very often as well women find themselves in date-rape situations. In these situations, they may be sitting or laying down with the man over them, in a ground position when the attack starts.

Learning to grapple does not mean your goal is to go to the ground. Remember, your goal in self defense is to get away. But attackers don't want to simply attack you. They want to totally dominate you from the beginning. It's not going to be a "fair" fight. Expect to go to the ground right from the beginning and learn how to defend yourself from there and learn how to get up safely and flee.

No matter how you get to the ground, your goal is to obtain a dominant enough position that will allow you to escape. In general, when you're on the ground, you want to keep your feet and legs between you and your assailant to keep your head and torso from being open to attacks and to keep your most valuable weapons, your kicks, to bear. An attacker's most likely attack will be to kick you if he's standing, or join you on the ground if he wishes to punch or rape you.

Ground defenses are nearly impossible to practice without a partner, so I encourage you to find a trusted friend or better yet, join a self-defense class in order to practice these moves. Grappling or Jiu Jutsu instruction will allow you to practice these moves as well as a ton more. Although it's uncomfortable for women, I firmly believe that practicing ground fighting is important for everyone; men, women, and kids.

Striking from the ground, opponent standing

First off, let's start with the assumption that somehow you are on the ground and your assailant is standing over you. From this position, as stated above, your goal is to keep your feet between him and you. Sit up, so that you use one hand to brace behind you, the other to block in front of you. You want to sit mostly on one hip so you can strike and rotate easily. For example, you might sit on your right buttock with your right hand behind you. Your left leg is bent, foot resting on the ground. Your right leg is bent, off the ground, held sideways, ready to kick out at his knee or shin. You want to hold the foot sideways, parallel to the ground, to give you a large striking surface.

Use your hand and left leg to rotate if the opponent walks around you. If he comes in range, lash out with a right kick to his knee. If he somehow grabs your foot, kick him with your other foot. If he grabs both feet or if he suddenly rushes you, roll to your back, your feet come up, and you pump your feet as if you were riding a bike. Each rotation of your feet is a kick to his chest, stomach, or face.

Your goal is to always have your legs and arms between him and you.

Striking from the ground, opponent on the ground

In this situation, you both are typically on the ground, at least somewhat separated. It's very difficult to strike when the assailant has his weight bearing down on you in a hold, so you typically will disengage first and then strike.

When you're on the ground, you want to try to limit your strikes. In general, a heel palm or straight punch will have little power because of limited body motion behind it. Rotational strikes, such as the slap, elbow, hammer fist, or hook punch will have far greater impact. Stomp kicks are most common in striking with your feet.

When you're both on the ground, a common position to be in is to be sitting up as discussed above, with your bottom leg straight, your foot locked in his hip. You can then use the other foot or either hand to strike. The straight leg is used as a brace to keep him from advancing on you. If he grabs your foot, strike him hard and fast to make him let go. Some of the escapes below will end up in just this position.

You always want to be facing your assailant. Never turn your back to him as long as he's close enough to strike or grab you.

Standing Up from the Ground

When you're going to escape from the ground, there are two methods I teach. Use of each is dependent on how far the assailant is away from you.

The first is a very typical one that I call "stand-and-flee". The idea is that the attacker is far enough away from you that he has to take several steps to reach you or he's on the ground away from you. With this escape, you turn over and sit up as if you are in a sprinter's starting position. One foot is held close up at your hip, the other is back. You simply bolt away from him. The benefit of this position is that you have a quick retreat while offering a very low profile to keep him from being able to grab you from behind.

The second escape is done when the attacker is a little closer to you and you don't want to turn your back on him. I call it "stand-and-fight" and is also called "standing in base." From the sitting position discussed above (sitting on one hip, one hand behind you, etc.), you use your back hand and opposite foot to hold your weight as you lift your hips into the air. From there, you push your free leg and hip back behind you so that your foot ends up past your hand. This position is similar to a football player's 3-point stance. Your free hand remains up to help block strikes. From there, simply straighten up until you're upright. The benefit of this position is that you never have your back to him, always have a block in case an attack is thrown, and you have a solid base underneath you to keep you from falling.


The first ground position that I'll talk about is the headlock. The headlock is a common position for guys to end up in when fighting. This is usually a carry-over from a stand-up position with both simply falling to the ground. The defender is typically lying on his back or side. The attacker is holding onto his head with one arm. The other arm is helping to squeeze his neck or could be about to punch you in the face.

To escape this position, turn onto your side, facing the attacker. This keeps his weight off you enabling you to breathe and move. Let's say he's on your right side, so lay on your right. Your left hand does one of two things. If he's squeezing your neck, put your left forearm against his neck and your right hand grabs your left wrist. In this position, you're able to keep his head away and apply a little pressure to his neck as well.

If he's punching you, you might try to reach behind him and grab is arm/elbow with your left hand to stop the punch. Your right hand can then block your face.

Once you've protected your neck and head, walk your hips away from him, removing any "posting" that he has to maintain his position. When you get your body close to perpendicular to his, sit up and push him to his back/side. If needed because of his strength, you can kick your left leg over his head and push it against his head to assist. As he rolls to his back, you come up onto your knees. When you're completely up, kick your right foot over his body, foot flat on the ground, and bring your heel into his stomach (assuming he's on his side). You're sitting on your left leg, shin down with your left knee on the floor behind his shoulders.

At this point, hold your hands out wide because he'll likely struggle and attempt to roll you over him. Once he settles down a little, you can make him leg go of you by putting your left forearm in the side of his neck, grab your left wrist with your right hand, and lean into his neck to apply painful pressure to it. He will likely let go of your head.

You are now in a mount position, able to strike him or immobilize him, depending on your needs.

Date-Rape Position

The date-rape position is similar to the headlock position. The woman is on her back, the man is sitting up at her side, his torso is over her chest, his right arm over her body resting on the other side. From this position, the man uses his body weight to pin her to the ground and forces himself down on her. To escape, the woman should turn onto her right side, to face towards him. She puts her left forearm into his throat, and grabs her left wrist with her right hand. This gives her a "frame" with which she can apply pressure to his neck to keep him away from her.

She moves her hips away a little bit and then brings her right leg up so that her shin rests in his hips, her knee in his stomach, off the ground. She then uses her leg to push her head away from him. Then she sits up on her elbow or hand, scoots her hips away from him and replaces her knee/shin with her foot on his near hip. She locks out her right leg to keep him away from her and can strike readily with her left hand or left leg and with her right hand after a little shifting of weight.

Kicking him in the head and torso are your favored attacks from this position.


In the mount position, you are ideally lying on your back with your assailant sitting on your stomach/hips. It is a very bad position to be in if he's punching you, but it's one step better than lying on your stomach with your assailant sitting on your back (aka back mount).

The mount position is particularly dangerous because your assailant can strike you easily, adding shoulder rotation and gravity to the strike's power. You have very limited ability to strike back. Your shoulders are pinned to the floor reducing a lot of your power, so you don't want to get into a striking battle. You cannot be raped from this position, but you can be choked or struck until you submit.

If you're lying on your stomach, your first goal is to turn over onto your back. You have no defenses against his attacks when you are on your stomach. To turn over, raise one arm straight over your head. Turn your body over, putting that side down first. Putting your arm over your head gives you the freedom to turn over; your should won't block you.

If you're lying on your back, your biggest defense is your ability to move him by lifting your hips. You always want to make sure your hands are inside of his arms to allow you to block his strikes. As he pulls his arms back to strike you, suddenly lift your hips in the air to throw him off balance. You may still get hit through your blocks, but he'll have less power behind the strike and won't be able to get more than one off at a time.

At some point, you'll buck your hips really well and he'll fall forward using his hands on the ground to brace himself. At that point, put your right arm over his left shoulder and your left arm under his right arm and grab your hands together tightly across his back. Use your body weight to keep him from raising his upper body higher to strike you.

In order for him to strike you, he'll have to brace on one arm and shift his weight to that side. For instance, he braces onto his left arm and attempts to punch you with his right hand. At that point, bend your right leg and put your foot outside his left foot. Circle your right arm down and around his left arm, pinning it to your side. Put your left hand on either his hip, shoulder, or bicep. Lift your hips in the air as if you're trying to throw him over your head and then slightly turn to your right to flip him over. Roll up with him to end up in an "open guard" position. From here, you can strike him in the stomach or groin easily, then push away and stand up.

Of course, since the mount position is so powerful, especially the rear mount, it's advantageous for you to obtain these positions on your opponent as well. In both positions you can choose to strike or control your opponent.


The guard position is one step better than the mount position and in grappling is considered a neutral position. There are two variations of this position, a closed guard and an open guard. In a closed guard, your legs are tightly wrapped around your assailant's waist, your feet locked behind him. One of your hands tightly grips the back of his neck while the other grabs his tricep and controls his arm by hugging it to your side. Your head rests on the side of his head. In this position, he has only one arm to strike with, but no open targets. In general, the closed guard is a stalling position until he moves you into an open guard position.

In the open guard, your feet are on his hips gripping them tightly. Your legs are slightly bent. Your hands are up and inside his arms, able to block any strikes. You can use your legs to push him or simply to keep distance between you.

Notice that for self-defense, there is no "in-between" guard position. You will never have your legs wrapped around his waist with your arms free, a common position in grappling/jiu jutsu competitions. You will either be holding him in tightly in a closed guard or holding him away in an open guard. You do not want him to be able to freely punch you at close range. Again, being on your back, your striking power is limited so you DO NOT want to get into a striking bout from this position.

For assault situations, the guard is a good defensive position, preparing you to obtain a better position such as a mount or side mount. For rape situations, this is a common starting position required for rape. Either way, it's an important position to practice. From this position, there are several attacks, reversals, and incapacitation moves that you can use depending on your situation.

For example, a common attack a man might use against you is a right forearm across your throat to choke you. To defend against it first grab his wrist with your right hand, holding it tightly to your chest. Grab the outside of his elbow with your left hand, bracing it from pushing down onto you. Use your legs to keep just enough pressure off you so that you can breathe, but not so much that he completely gives up. He will generally try harder at this point.

In just a fraction of a second, push harder against him, force his arm to your right with your left hand so that his bicep goes across his throat. Then let him collapse into you, pulling in with your closed-guard legs, Your right arm goes under his right arm and around his neck. Your right hand grabs your left bicep. Your left hand goes to your left ear. Squeeze to apply the "sleeper" choke in which he'll pass out in about 15 seconds. The choke, done correctly, cuts off the blood supply to the brain, so the opponent passes out without the violent struggle of the loss of breathing. If the choke isn't done correctly, you still have a incapacitating hold that is very difficult for him to escape from. Either way, a slight turn to your left will roll him over you so that you can obtain a mount position.

A common reversal from the open guard position is for him to stand up, bending over to strike you. In this case, you'll move to an open guard position (feet on his hips), quickly grab the back of his ankles with both hands. Thrust your knees up into his chest to push him backwards making him fall. Turn over into a sprinting position and escape.

Hands and Knees

The last position is usually a left-over from a standing grab, such as a rear bear-hug. You can also get caught in it if you attempted the stand-and-flee escape from above, but the assailant was too close to you and caught you.

It is not a common position for guys, but women can be raped from this position.

With this position, you are on your hands and knees with the assailant having an arm around your waist. He can be beside you or directly behind you. His free hand is typically holding your hair or is removing clothing.

Your first goal in this position is to turn around so you can face him and bring all your attacks and defense to bear against him. To do this he has to not have much weight on you. To get him off you, look over your shoulder to determine where his head is. Use left and right elbow strikes to his face to get him to back away and ease his hold on you.

If his right arm is wrapped around you, turn to your right and sit on the ground. Put your right foot into his hip and lock out your leg as I talked about above in the date-rape position defense. From this position, he can't advance on you with your leg in the way, Your main attack is to kick him in the head and torso with your left foot or slap/hammer fist with your left hand. Your right hand is behind you allowing you to sit up.


This article just touches the surface of what you can learn about defending yourself from the ground. The defenses I presented are the most common positions both men and women will find themselves in and will require practice to be able to employ them.

Ground-fighting is not an aspect that many people, men or women, usually excel at. Men have more experience but women can easily become very adept at it, once they become comfortable with the close contact. I've found women to become skilled more quickly because they learn more quickly to use technique rather than sheer strength.

I urge men, women, and children to learn ground-fighting defenses because they will be very common.

Copyright 2006, Tien Shan Martial Arts