Would you be able to defend yourself and your loved ones if someone were to physically attack you? It's a question most of us don't want to consider, but violence is, unfortunately, a fact of life. Thankfully, regardless of strength, size or previous training, anyone can learn several effective self-defence techniques. Here's how to prepare for and stay safe in common real-world violent situations.
First, remember that prevention is the best self-defence. Attackers, whatever their objectives, are looking for unsuspecting, vulnerable targets. So be sure to follow general safety tips like being aware of your surroundings, only walking and parking in well-lit areas, keeping your keys in hand as you approach your door or car, varying your route and times of travel, and other personal security precautions.
Apart from avoiding confrontation, if you can defuse a situation (talk someone down from physically assaulting you) or get away -- by handing over your wallet/purse or whatever they want, do that. Hand over your money rather than fight. Nothing you own is worth more than your life or health.
If violence is unavoidable, however, to really defend yourself, you'll want to know ahead of time how to fight back effectively. It's possible even against someone bigger or stronger than you. Here are some basic self-defence techniques that can keep you safe:
Get Loud and Push Back
As soon as the attacker touches you or it's clear that escape isn't possible, shout loudly ("BACK OFF!") and push back at him or her (for simplicity's sake we're going to use "him" for the rest of the article, although your opponent could be female). This does two things: it signals for help and it lets the attacker know you're not an easy target. It may not dissuade all attackers, but getting loud will warn off those that were looking for easy prey.
The Most Effective Body Parts to Hit
When you're in a confrontation, you only have a few seconds and a few moves to try before the fight may be decided. Before an attacker has gained full control of you, you must do everything you can --conserving as much energy as possible -- to inflict injury so you can get away. (This is no time to be civil. In a physical confrontation that calls for self-defence, it's hurt or be hurt.) So aim for the parts of the body where you can do the most damage easily: the eyes, nose, ears, neck, groin, knee and legs.
Su Ericksen, who has published multiple articles on self-defense for women, offers techniques for striking these pressure points so you can defend yourself and get to safety. She writes:
Depending on the position of the attacker and how close he is will determine where you will strike and with what part of your body you will employ. Do not step in closer, say, to strike his nose with your hand, when you can reach his knee with a kick. When striking a target on the upper half of the body you will use your hand. Effective strikes can be made with the outer edge of your hand in a knife hand position, a palm strike or knuckle blow for softer targets or a tightly curled fist.
Here are some photos Su offers on attacking these highly sensitive pressure points:
Gouging, poking or scratching the attacker's eyes with your fingers or knuckles would be effective, as you can imagine. Besides causing a lot of pain, this should also make your escape easier by at least temporarily interfering with his vision.
If the attacker is close in front of you, use the heel of your palm to strike up under his nose; throw the whole weight of your body into the move to cause the most pain and force him to loosen his grip on you. If he's behind you, you can strike his nose (from the side or front) with your elbow. Either way, aim for the nasal bones.
The side of the neck is a bigger target, where both the carotid artery and jugular vein are located. You could possibly temporarily stun your attacker with a knife hand strike (all fingers held straight and tightly together, with thumb tucked and slightly bent at the knuckle) at the side of the neck. For even more injury, you could thrust your elbow into your assailant's throat while pitching the weight of your body forward. See the Target Focus Training video below.
Su says the knee is an ideal self-defence target, vulnerable from every angle and easily kicked without risk of your foot being grabbed. Kick the side of the knee to cause injury or partially incapacitate your attacker. Kicking the front of the knee may cause more injury but is less likely to result in imbalance.
How to Maximise Damage
Use your elbows, knees and head: Those are the parts of the body that are most sensitive when hit. Now here are the parts of the body used most effectively for inflicting damage: your elbows, knees and head (they're your body's boney built-in weapons). This video from Elite Defense Systems explains how to defend yourself against three most common attacks by using these key body parts.
Use everyday objects: Everyday objects you carry around with you or things in your environment can also be used to your advantage as weapons. Hold a key or pen between your middle and ring finger while you're walking home in the dark for more assurance. Outdoors, you can toss some dirt or sand into your attacker's eyes. Women are often told to spray perfume or hairspray into an assailant's eyes. The point is, use what ever you can to make your defence stronger (for more inspiration, watch some Jackie Chan movies).
Leverage your weight: No matter your size, weight or strength in relation to your opponent, you can defend yourself by strategically using your body and the simple law of physics. This is the principle behind martial arts systems like Jujitsu and other self-defence programs where a smaller person is able to defeat a larger one.
Tim Larkin teaches in his Target Focus Training self-defence system that striking is not about punching or kicking, it's about throwing your body weight strategically at someone. You don't want to be standing there trading punches or kicks with an attacker; in a violent situation, it's critical to injure him using efficient, targeted moves. Basically, target those pressure points mentioned above, but leverage your weight to cause the most damage. (Note: The video above is a bit long, though all of it is insightful; if you want to skip to the demonstration part showing how to use your body weight in this "point of injury" technique, skip to about the four-minute mark. Also note that this technique, used by law enforcement agencies, can seriously injure the attacker.)
Moves for Getting Out of or Defending Against Common Holds or Attacks
Wrist Hold: When an attacker has grabbed your wrist, instead of pulling back to try to get out of the hold, squat down into a strong stance, then lean forward and bend your elbow towards him all the way towards his forearm until he can no longer hold onto your wrist. You can also try bending your elbow in to get out of the wrist hold, then pushing upwards to break free.
Front and Back Choke Holds: If you're in a choke hold, swing one arm across to break the attacker's hold then use your other arm's elbow or hand in a knife strike position to hit the attacker.
Bear Hug: When someone holds you from behind, drop your weight and try to hit his head with your elbows or stomp his feet with your own. If that doesn't work, pull his fingers back to force him to release you, rotate out of his hold, and attack him with your knees/kicks. (Pulling fingers is also an effective move in a choke hold in some cases.)
Mount Position: If the attacker has you pinned on the floor, you can pivot to be on top. Hook onto his wrist with one hand and use your other hand to grab behind his elbow, trapping his arm to your chest. Then use your foot to trap his foot and leg, lift your hips and turn over onto your knees to get on top.
Sexual Assault: In my interview with Rener Gracie, whose grandfather established the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu method 90 years ago, he told me there are four phases to nearly all sexual attacks on women: 1) Identify an unsuspecting target, 2) Subdue the target, 3) Exhaust the target, and 4) Execute the sexual assault.
We want to fight with all our might during the second phase using the moves mentioned above. In the third phase, however, right before an assailant executes his sexual attack, all he wants to do is exhaust the victim and gain complete control, so fighting back actually may backfire at that point, wasting energy. Gracie's Women Empowered training program teaches women to recognise when they've entered that phase where they are truly trapped and are no longer in the defensive movements phase -- and to feign giving in. Pretend to be compliant (kind of like playing dead for a bear). In those split moments, the predator will think you have given up and will loosen his grip, giving you a chance to injure him and get away.
These are just a sampling of the kinds of self-defence moves and techniques that might protect you one day or at least help you feel safer and more confident. There's no replacement, however, for taking a self-defence class and practicing the moves in real life.
To find a good self-defence program, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault offers these Guidelines for Choosing a Self-Defence Course.
You'll probably easily find self-defence classes at martial arts centres, but other resources to look into include:
- Local universities or community colleges
- Women's centres
- Just Yell Fire — a free self-defence movie specifically for girls age 11-19
- C.O.B.R.A. Self-Defence classes — real world self-defence training
- Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy — online self-defence training
If you know of any other good self-defence tips, techniques or resources, please share them with us in the comments.
This article has been modified and updated.