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Self Defense - Defending Against Strikes

In the next few articles, I'll try to describe the physical side of self defense. Note that the mental side of self defense, knowing where crimes are commited, how to act assertively, how to generally keep crime from occurring in the first place, is 80% of self defense. The physical side of self defense that I'm describing here is only 20%.

I know it's difficult to read about self-defense moves and be able to practice them. Therefore I encourage you to use a trusted friend and actually perform these moves on them. Better yet, join a self-defense class and practice the moves against a padded attacker so you can get a real feel for what the strikes require.

These articles are meant for a teen/adult audience, basically age 13 and up. I don't recommend a lot of this stuff to the younger crowd because it will be misused and they will end up in more trouble. I'll deal with that age group a little later. Most of the physical defenses will work for male or female defenders. If there's an attack that is more prevelant to one sex, I'll denote it.

For this first article, I'm talking about defenses against stand-up strikes. This is probably the most common form of attack you will encounter (assault) and provides a good base from which to discuss other situations. Of all violent crime, simple assault is THE MOST COMMON. Between 80% and 90% of all violent crimes are labeled as assaults. This can be anything from being attacked in a bar to spousal abuse. In general, assaults are striking affairs where the attacker is hitting you in order to dominate/punish you or cause you grave harm.

There are two levels of assault that are documented separately: simple assault and aggravated assault.

Simple Assault65%65%
Aggravated Assault15%25%
Rape/Sexual Assault10%less than 1%

One more word, too, about attackers. Note that the statistics show that a large proportion of attacks come from non-strangers; for women, nonstrangers dominate the attackers. Your defense will likely be against someone you know. I've talked previously about what is required to justify self defense and the legal level of force you can use.

Attacked By...WomenMen

Of "Known" attackers...

Attacked By...WomenMen
Relative29% (19% by intimate)8%

Mind Set

In any self-defense situation, your mind set is extremely important. In fact, your mind set defines whether you're striking in self defense or as a fight. In self defense, your entire goal is to safely DISENGAGE from the attacker. Every defense, every strike is used to CREATE AN OPENING from which you can withdraw. As long as you remember that and don't go into the mind set of attacking him or punishing him for attacking you, you will always have a terrific claim of legal self defense.

For men, the mind set is one of the most important things because of their "macho" traits. Men seem to have a natural instinct to react to a challenge and turn everything into a fight. Men like this can easily go to jail because of reacting incorrectly to a self-defense situation, so beware.

If you get into a situation in which you need to defend yourself, the first 5 seconds will determine if it will be a physical confrontation or not. In that first 5 seconds, the attacker is sizing up his potential for success (according to Ability, Opportunity, and Intent). You want to be assertive in your demeanor so that he know's his ability and opportunity are weakened. You want him to think you're not worth the trouble.

Self-Defense Stance

The basic self-defense stance can help de-escalate violence and show to third-parties present your intent is *not* to fight, which is extremely important for the legal battle later. This stance will also provide you with a quick blocking ability and show a mental "wall" to the attacker.

The self-defense stance is with one leg (usually your strong-side leg, right leg for right-handers) slightly behind the other, maybe 12-18 inches. Both of your hands are out in front, open with the palms forward, about 12-18 inches in front of your face. Both palms should be the same distance from your face with the elbows bent.

Your attitude is very important in this position and should suggest that the person calm down, that you don't want trouble. Your open palms suggest this strongly. The open palms also form an invisible wall which the attacker should feel.

Merely closing your hands into fists will suggest that you want to fight and will many times encourage an attack; it's issuing a challenge. Keep your hands open. And make sure your hands are at the same level in front of you, as in a "calm-down" position. If one hand is back, you lose the image of a wall and you appear to be in a fighting stance simply with your hands open. Again, it's then a challenge.

From the self-defense position you are easily able to block and strike, but you show a defensive attitude. To practice assume this position in front of a mirror and actually talk to image, tell it forcefully to calm down, that you don't want any trouble. Act like the attacker is a child and be forceful in your attitude... you're the parent. Get used to assuming an ASSERTIVE attitude as opposed to AGGRESSIVE or PASSIVE. Use good eye contact and a strong voice. The stance and attitude that you are willing to protect yourself if necessary can stop most attacks against you. Perpetrators want easy victims... show that you won't be one without conveying a desire to fight.

Assertive means to be "inclined to bold and confident assertion; aggressively self-assured." An assertive person knows what they want and isn't shy about telling the other person. They aren't trying to be pushy or dominating, but they have a line that they will not cross. An assertive person holds their head up high, with their shoulders back. Their arms swing confidently when they walk and they aren't afraid to look others in the eye. They feel they have an equal voice and believe they are in control of their destiny.

Aggressive means to be "inclined to behave in a hostile fashion." An aggressive person acts mean, domineering, and pushy. They know what they want and they force others to give it to them. An aggressive person tries to dominate others through threats and intimidation and show that they will react easily with force if challenged. They feel their voice is more important than others' and feel that they have to fight to gain control of their destiny. Aggressive people are typical victims of violence because they challenge others, both verbally and through their body language.

Passive means "accepting or submitting without objection or resistance." A passive person has slumped shoulders and their gaze is downwards. They have difficulty looking at others in the eyes and generally have the opinion that what they think doesn't count. They feel they don't have a voice and are not in control of their destiny. Passive people are typical victims because they're seen as being an easy target. They are perceived as being weaker, not willing to fight back, and not willing to do anything about it once the attack is over.


In defending yourself within the self-defense stance, you want to make sure the attacker stays at least two arm lengths away from you, which is about 6 feet. The distance is important because it gives you time to see what's coming and react to it. He, of course, wants to move in closer so it's up to you to maintain the distance. In the self-defense stance, there are generally three ways to move - backwards, circle left, or circle right. You generally don't need to move forward, but once you understand the principles, you'll be able to if necessary.

To move backwards in the self-defense stance, move the back leg first, slightly widening your stance, then move your front leg back to regain your stance. Don't make your stance too wide or too narrow as you move, both of these make your stance weaker and make it more likely you'll fall down. You want to think about moving backwards through the woods or even on ice. There will probably be obstacles in your way, so your step backwards is kind of a testing step to verify it's safe. Stepping 6 inches to a foot at a time is plenty.

If the attacker moves around you, you have to learn to circle. No matter which way he goes, always use the front foot as a pivot point (like in basketball) and move the back foot away from the attacker. Moving the back foot instead of the front allows you to keep your balance in case of a push, and keeps your body further from him.

To practice moving, you can go out to a field somewhere, maybe a park. You can use your dog or your kids as "attackers" without them even knowing about it. As they move close to you, simply back away, circling as needed, trying to keep them from getting too close. Don't worry about your hands if you're embarassed, just keep your feet moving. If you want, you can even loop something to your back belt that the kids have to try to grab (like flag football), so you make sure you always face them. You probably won't be able to keep them from winning but the practice will help you with coordination and balance.


In most cases, the first attack to be thrown is a circling right punch, often called a haymaker punch. It's often preceeded by a push to the chest with the attacker then looking away as if he's done and then he turns back and... bam. This is a powerful punch that can knock you out if it connects. Fortunately, it doesn't often connect properly.

There are three ways to deal with the incoming strike of an attacker. The first is the easiest and safest. It's to not be there in the first place. You don't have to worry about blocking or being hit by something that can't reach you. That's where moving in your stance is so important. Don't let the attacker get in close enough to be able to hit you. I know, it's easier said than done.

The second way to deal with a strike is to block it. The problem with blocking is that it typically absorbs the power of the strike, causing some damage in the process. But, you often don't have a choice. From the self-defense stance, the block you will typically throw is simply a turn at the waist, exposing your forearms to the strike at his forearms. To block a right haymaker, you turn your body (not moving your feet) to the left. Use both arms to block, if possible, and use your forearms not your hands. You can practice this by simply twisting in your self-defense stance, blocking an imaginary strike. Or, better yet, have a trusted friend throw some slow, easy punches at you that you block. As you get more confident, the strikes can be harder and faster. Don't get into a mode where they punch at will and you just sit there blocking, you WILL LOSE and it may discourage you. Typically, you'll block one strike and then return with strikes to put the attacker off balance.

The third way to deal with a strike is to block or "slip" it and then clinch. This is an important skill for people who are dealing in a fight situation (not life or death) that they simply want to control without harming the other person. In general I find this approach best against friends or family members. They're probably not trying to really hurt you, just "dominate" you.

"Slipping" is different from blocking in that you don't take the force of the punch, but you perhaps duck under it. You can also redirect the punch without absorbing its force.

There are a few different types of clinches, but the most common is the over-under-side clinch. In this clinch you block his punch and circle your left arm over his and hold his right tricep in your hand, his arm and hand tucked under your left elbow, pinched to your side. Your right arm is around his waist grabbing his right hip, hugging his waist to you. Your feet bracket his left foot, so your feet point 90 degrees to it, but are at a comfortable width for you. Your head is buried in his chest. Your legs are bent, you are fully in balance. His upper body is twisted putting him out of balance.

Another really good clinch is the double-under-behind clinch. This is like a hug from behind. Both of your arms are around his waist, with you grabbing your own wrist. Your head is held tight against him right between his shoulder blades.

From a clinch, he has very few striking options and you are in a terrific position to control him and throw him to the ground if necessary. I won't deal with the throws right now, ask me in class... Just know that the clinch is used to defuse a situation because you limit everything he can do and you're not escalating the conflict by striking him back.

Striking Back

Ok, so we talked about how to attempt to difuse the situation, how to stand in a defensive posture and how to react to a strike. I also said not to get into the practice of block after block because you will lose and get discouraged. I doubt anyone can truly keep blocking someone that's attacking them without throwing a strike back. It's very difficult to do unless he believes you might hit him too. So, after blocking you need to think about striking back to create your escape.

There are several strikes that I recommend when defending yourself. In general I only teach "simple" strikes, strikes that you already know, that will cause damage to him but not to you. Remember, your entire goal in self defense is to retreat safely, not to attack him in anger or domination. The purpose of the strikes in this case is to create an opening through which you can quickly leave.

You'll probably be surprised that I don't show how to make a proper fist or talk about how to punch. Well... I don't teach you to punch for self defense. For women in particular, punching is foreign to them and I don't consider it a "simple" strike. Women typically have long nails and jewelry that prohibits making a tight fist. And a loose fist or a mis-strike can easily lead to a broken hand. Boxers don't wrap their hands so tightly just for the look. If you're a man (or woman) that feels confident enough and practiced enough to punch someone, then go ahead and use it. However, do not assume a closed-fist, fighting stance prior to physically defending yourself.

I also don't go into details about this or that target to hit. I would bet you already know what targets are vulnerable, the nose, ears, throat, groin, blah blah blah. But, if you only think about the targets, you might start thinking about the best time to hit, you might wait for an opening, and then you get into trouble. I basically have 6 targets and they're usually tied directly to the strike. So if you think of the strikes, you'll know where to hit with them. The targets are:

Strikes should be practiced on a heavy bag or a live, padded partner. You can strike into the air, but you won't get a good feel for the force of the impact without hitting something.

Once you start striking the attacker, in general you won't stop until you've created the distance needed to escape. You are not in a fight. You are not sparring. Once it begins, your entire goal is to end it quickly so you can get away. The longer the conflict ensues, the less likely you will survive. With that thought, you kind of turn into a wild beast for a moment and like my daddy used to say "be all over him like ugly on an ape."

Heel Palm

The Heel Palm is a straight-forward stike. From the self-defense stance, you simply extend your arm forward, wrist bent back (fingers curled if possible), and you strike with the bottom of your hand, closest to your wrist. You want to strike at the nose, in general, so no matter what you'll hit somewhere on the face. Usually this is a rapid-fire technique with both hands striking one after the other until the defender retreats giving you an opening. The heel palm can cause the attacker's eyes to water, cause a black-eye, and in general help temporarily blind him.


The slap is something I think every girl learns in school. For self defense you want a little bit different attack, but it's pretty much what you already know. You want to hold your fingers closed, slightly cupping your hand. Your target is the ear, not the cheek. You want to use your waist as the source of the strike instead of just your arm. A good slap will temporarily deafen the attacker and may disorient him. It's not a particularly strong strike so it isn't a favorite of mine. A better one is the hammer fist below. However, this is very easy for women to use while a hammer fist may not be.

Hammer Fist

The hammer fist is a pretty powerful strike, similar to a slap. You make a fist with your hand and strike in a swinging motion with the bottom of your hand. Use it like you would hit a table or wall with force. You can swing your arm palm up or palm down to strike sideways and palm sideways to strike downwards. The only difficult part, especially for women, is making the fist. Only use this strike if you can make a tight enough fist, otherwise you risk breaking your hand. Your target with the hammer fist is typically the side of his head or the face.


The elbow, as well as the next several strikes, are most useful when the attacker has closed within your arm range. When within this range, straight forward attacks, or attacks with a straight arm are difficult if not impossible. The elbow is an extremely potent weapon for close attacks. To strike with your elbow, make a light fist with your hand and put it on your chest. Hold your elbow up shoulder height and twist your body, striking with the point of the elbow. Don't strike with the side of the elbow. Your target with the elbow is typically the side of the face or front if he's in front of you. If you put both hands on your chest you can twist your body back and forth and strike with each elbow rapidly.

You can also strike behind you against a rear grab. If you're grabbed around your waist underneath your arms, you can strike with a rear elbow to his head by swinging the elbow up and back. Look over the same-side shoulder in order to verify his head is there first. It's difficult to alternate elbows in this case, so stay on the side where his head is.

If you're grabbed around your neck with your arms free, you can strike with a rear elbow to his stomach by swinging your arm forward and then come crashing back into him. You can easily alternate elbows in this case.


The knee is also a close-in attack. It's very useful against standing grabs or grab attempts but available for other potential situations. All you need to do is lift your knee into the air. Your most likely target is the attacker's groin. You can apply a lot of force in this strike so watch when you practice it. If it hits, your attacker can be *very* disabled. However, no strike is a be-all-end-all, know several and learn to combine them effectively.

You can also apply this strike to his stomach. To do that, grab his head or shoulders and pull him towards you. Lift your rear knee and thrust it upwards and forwards striking him. Two or three of these and he'll back away.

Front Kick

The only time I advocate a front kick is following a knee strike. For example, if you try to knee a few times and the attacker retreats a little, the knee will no longer reach him. However, a well-place shin/foot strike will. Therefore, when you bring your knee up and don't hit anything, the next time you come up, don't bend your knee, but think about extending your leg and striking upwards. Your target is to hit anywhere between his legs. In general, striking the inside of his legs will cause your foot to slip in and move directly to the groin. You simply have to concentrate on the upward power. It's not a snapping motion of the leg and the more you hit with your lower shin instead of the foot, the better. Again, be careful with any practice of this.

Stomp Kick

The stomp kick is like crushing a pop can. You lift your knee up high and then come down with the heel to strike. Your strike should target the top of the foot when striking downwards. You can also strike backwards or sideways with this kick (think of a pop can on the wall). You just lift your knee up and push your heel into the target. Both kicks target the knees or shins in this case, so don't have to be very high. There are many, many little bones in the foot and the knee is an especially weak area, so this strike can keep the attacker from being able to stand to follow you as you retreat.

You can practice this by stomping down on a pair of shoes placed in front of you or behind you (position them as an attacker would be standing) or by striking against a couch or chair.


Lastly, the push is a very important part of your self-defense repetoire. It is usually the last "strike" you make before escaping. Your goal is to move your attacker away from you to provide that opening. The push is performed by stepping towards your attacker, making contact with both arms, and thrusting forwards. The more you can put your body weight and leg pushing into it the better. You almost want to treat this like you would pushing a car. You don't want to just use your arms, but get your whole body involved.


Now that you can block and have an idea of the strikes possible, here are some drills to practice what you've learned. The idea is to not only practice the individual moves, but to link them together with scenarios. Imagine an attacker doing something and practice what blocks and strikes you can use to stop him.

"Dirty" Strikes

There may come a time when you tried to defend yourself but nothing is working. You've gotten into a position where you're desperate. That's what this category is for. These are not moves that you should use lightly, but they should be in your arsenal.

Eye Gouging

Use any of your fingers or thumbs to attack straight into his eyes. In general this is difficult target to strike due to the small size. Your goal is to at least temporarily blind him or distract him. If you're in front, grab the sides of his head with your hands and drive your thumbs in. I know you're squeamish about this, but when you're desperate...


Biting is pretty natural for people and can be easily performed. Your jaws are very powerful. You will find many, many opportunities to bite the attacker. I don't choose biting as a primary weapon because your head is a prime target then; he will strike you to get you to release him. Also with the potential of blood-borne diseases... but, when you're desperate...

Groin Grab

Sometimes you have the opportunity to not only strike at the groin, but to grab it. It is of course very sensitive and can be pulled and twisted causing great pain. It can be difficult to perform when any clothing is worn, so it's not a prime attack. But, when you're desperate...

Head Butt

Sometimes your head is very close to his face and you have a prime oppotunity to strike him with it. If you head butt towards the front, use the side of your forehead as the striking surface and aim for his nose. If he's behind you, use the back of your head and strike straight backwards into his nose. I don't consider it a prime strike because of the potential damage to you. But...


Most women have longer fingernails that are very good for clawing at their attacker. You can use this as an attack if you're desperate, but in general it doesn't do enough damage to stop an attack. Probably the best use is for the collection of DNA to send the bastard to prison later.


In this segment, we've talked about how to handle stand-up aggression, typically coded as assault. We talked about how to stand to protect yourself, how to project yourself assertively, how to move, how to block an incoming strike, and how to strike back to create an opening for escape. This little bit is very important to learn as it deals with 80-90% of the self-defense situations you will find yourself in.

While I present the information here and give you some methods to practice them, there is no real practice or confidence builder than against a live, padded attacker that is simulating a real attack. If you truly want to master these, you have to practice them that way.

Copyright 2006, Tien Shan Martial Arts