In the 1990s, a new category of martial arts emerged: reality-based self-defense. It was spearheaded by systems such as krav maga, Tony Blauer’s Tactical Systems and senshido, along with padded-assailant programs like Peyton Quinn’s RMCAT. The emphasis on practicality and real-world applications was also fueled by the rise of the mixed martial arts, which took off around the same time.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the development of conditioning programs that mirror, in the world of fitness, the results-oriented nature of RBSD. The best-known one, called CrossFit, has made great headway among MMA fighters, military personnel and law-enforcement officers. CrossFit is booming; it hardly needs this article to act as its advocate. However, it’s interesting to note how quickly RBSD teachers have adopted it and to explore why that’s so.
Tony Blauer recalls how he first discovered CrossFit: “[Creator] Greg Glassman and I consult for many of the same clients in the special-forces and law-enforcement communities. We both had been hearing about one another’s programs for several years. At a certain moment, we made contact. He invited me out to Santa Cruz for a cert, and I was officially hooked.”
A number of schools in the krav maga community teach CrossFit. One of the first instructors to adopt it was Jeff Martin, the owner of a facility near San Diego. “I had always thought I was in shape, but I was amazed at how fast I became exhausted doing stress and fatigue drills,” he says. “More important, I realized my technique suffered. I started upping the training I was doing—tried to do more cardio and spent more time in the gym—but nothing made a significant impact on my abilities under stress. There seemed to be little carry-over from my efforts in the gym to the stress and fatigue drills we were doing in krav maga.”
In trying to simulate real-life violent encounters, RBSD systems react with high-intensity, short-duration bursts of energy—complete with adrenalization, unsustainable levels of exertion, and the recruitment of multiple muscle groups and bodily systems for punching, kicking and running. Traditional cardio workouts are not so relevant because the training focuses on quick bursts, while the typical cardio workout involves long-duration, steady-paced exertion.
At first, Jeff Martin attributed his exhaustion to his age, which at the time was 43. “Then it dawned on me that the current model for training wasn’t really helpful in preparing me for a fight,” he says. “I could run forever but got winded after a few minutes of drills. I was pretty strong, but again after a few minutes of drills, I was weak as a kitten. So in 2003, I started Googling different ways to work out and ran across CrossFit.”
CrossFit, as it turned out, had a fitness approach that matched krav maga’s approach to self-defense. “In my first certification,” Jeff Martin remembers, “coach Glassman said, ‘Strive to blur the line between cardio and strength training—nature has no regard for this distinction.’ That makes sense to a fighter. When you’re attacked, you don’t get to say, ‘Today I’m going to punch a little.’ Chances are you’re going to have to lift, throw, punch, run, grapple and kick. You move from one thing to another, yet when they work out, most people segment the training.”
Tony Blauer makes a similar observation: “CrossFit is the only organized functional fitness program that consistently prepares its athletes for the unknown and unknowable. The workout of the day is always varied, and it challenges and conditions the athlete from head to toe. I can’t think of a more dynamic and complete program to prepare the warrior athlete.”
Specific Combat Fitness Techniques, Generalized Approach
This broad approach to fitness mirrors krav maga’s jack-of-all-trades approach to self-defense. Like many other RBSD systems, krav maga strives to be comprehensive by incorporating defenses against guns, knives, sticks and other weapons, as well as empty-hand techniques, stand-up fighting and ground work. Obviously, efficiency is a prime concern. That’s why the movements you learn to use against a standing choke, for example, also apply when you’re defending against a mounted choke.
CrossFit eschews isolated muscle movements in favor of multi-joint compound body movements. Some traditional exercises are adapted for whole-body recruitment. For instance, in CrossFit, you don’t always do traditional, military-style “dead hang” pull-ups. You’re allowed—and, in fact, you’re encouraged—to do gymnastics-style kip-ups that involve an explosive upward swing. That emphasis on practical, whole-body movement is mirrored in krav maga, which avoids techniques that use fine-motor skills and sticks to the gross-motor functions that are more available under stress.
Fighters, whether they’re preparing for self-defense or the ring, need explosive power. Some of it comes from training and timing: You build muscle memory to deliver the “oomph” of the punch or kick the moment you make contact. The rest of it comes from developing stronger muscles and using those muscles in explosive movements, such as the hip-pop of a kettlebell swing or the upward drive of a CrossFit “thruster.”
CrossFit and Metabolic Pathways
According to experts, CrossFit focuses on three metabolic pathways: the phosphagen, the glycolytic and the oxidative. Of these, the phosphagen is most important to immediate self-defense because it provides the bulk of energy used in high-powered activities that last less than 10 seconds. Although some street fights and assaults can last longer, the physical dimension of most violent encounters lasts about that long.
The next metabolic pathway, the glycolytic, energizes moderate-powered activities that last up to several minutes. Occasionally, a violent incident will continue this long, especially if it involves fighting and running.
The third pathway, the oxidative, provides energy for low-powered activities that continue for several minutes. While most violent run-ins won’t last this long, the benefits of being prepared won’t be lost on anyone who’s had to fight, run and fight again.
It’s easy to see why MMA fighters are leaning toward CrossFit: During three five-minute rounds, they’ll draw on all three metabolic pathways. The classic format for preparation is interval training—long, steady movement punctuated by short bursts of high, intentionally unsustainable exertion. Krav maga and other RBSD programs already provide some version of this format with stress drills and scenario-based training, but the obvious need for instruction, correction and slow training often prevents the sessions from maximizing the fitness aspect.
Enter CrossFit. More and more krav maga instructors are finding that if they supplement their stress-drill training with high-intensity workouts that draw on the phosphagen, glycolytic and oxidative pathways, their students will benefit. Their bodies will be better prepared to deal with the sudden short- and long-term exertion, and their minds will be better adapted to deal with the stress.
“A more confident athlete is a more capable martial artist,” Tony Blauer says. “Remember Vince Lombardi’s words: ‘Fatigue makes cowards of us all.’ Having the knowledge that you have the stamina and endurance to go [means that you] can more readily focus on the strategy and tactics to solve the self-defense conflict.”
The CrossFit Philosophy
The complementary philosophies of CrossFit and krav maga have benefits beyond the obvious increase in physical performance. Krav maga advocates simple, aggressive reactions based on natural movements. They’re used in surprise attacks to elicit a reaction from a poor state of readiness.
Following a fitness program that reinforces that notion is synergistic. CrossFit, which measures itself in terms of repetitions done during a given time or the shortest time to finish a predetermined number of reps, creates an atmosphere of friendly competition and aggressiveness. “It reinforces what we tell people in the krav maga classes,” says Brent Wilkening of Focus Self Defense and Fitness in Culver City, California. “The two types of classes feel the same.”
Putting a treadmill in a martial arts school might not be horrible, but it would send a mixed message: hard-core self-defense combined with long, slow cardio. It’s better to find the proper marriage of fast-paced, aggressive self-defense training and fast-paced, aggressive conditioning. It underscores the concept of aggressive reactions to aggressive attacks.
Self-defense instructors can make no guarantees to their students, but they do have an obligation to equip them, to the best of their ability, with the means to protect themselves. Proper conditioning is an essential aspect of that process, and any conditioning program that also underscores the need for aggressive reactions to aggressive attacks will help students in their time of need.
(John Whitman is a CrossFit level-one coach and fourth-degree black belt in krav maga. He is co-author of Complete Krav Maga and Krav Maga for Beginners. He is also the founder of Krav Maga Alliance and CEO of Focus Self Defense and Fitness).