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On the Wrong Side of Reality: Much of What’s Taught in Self-Defense Classes Is Incorrect!

Updated: Apr 2

self defense demonstration

Many of the things that people teach — and possibly some things that you learned — in self-defense class are wrong. This should not be overly surprising when two things are taken into consideration.

The first is that self-defense classes are based on martial arts curricula, and the martial arts were passed down as secret transmissions to be guarded from outsiders. The arts were intentionally mistaught to everyone except trusted “closed door” disciples, and to become a closed-door disciple required training with the same teacher for 10 to 20 years.

Walk into a dojo and instead of asking the teacher, “How long have you been in the martial arts?” ask “How long did you study martial arts before you began to teach?” Your next question should be, “How long did your teacher study before he or she began to teach?” The answer is that, on average, people train for three years before they begin teaching. So chances are few of the teachers — and few of the teachers’ teachers — trained with one master long enough to have received correct instruction before they became teachers. Some of them began teaching after learning only the mistaught methods reserved for outsiders.

But if self-defense is so often taught incorrectly, why do some martial artists continue to practice and teach what they learned instead of fixing the problem or seeking out more complete instruction? There’s no easy answer to this, but one explanation is that martial artists are accomplished athletes. An athlete trains to perform a skill that’s both difficult and challenging. So after some years of practice, a martial artist can perform movements in a manner that’s convincing enough for every setting — except an actual, fully committed attack.

And this is the second simple fact about self-defense that explains why much of what the public encounters is wrong: Self-defense classes are generally developed and taught by martial artists, which means by athletes who can make techniques look workable even if they aren’t very good techniques. But who takes self-defense classes? Non-athletes looking for effective and simple techniques. So much of what you see in self-defense class is wrong. And it may be wrong in three ways: wrong from a biomechanical perspective, wrong from a strategic perspective and wrong from a learning perspective.


Consider this common scenario: Someone is choking you from the front. In the usual self-defense class, people are taught to raise their arms between the attacker’s arms and then knock the hands away from their neck. Typically, this is followed by a palm to the chin and a knee to the groin. Sounds good — until you consider the reality of physiology.

Think about exercising in the gym. You lie on your back and work your chest by doing dumbbell flyes. Maybe you can use 15 pounds in each hand. Then you stand up, lean forward and work your back by doing bent-over flyes. Suddenly, you can manage only 5 pounds in each hand. The action of bringing your arms together to the front (called adduction) is much stronger than the action of separating your arms toward the rear (called abduction).

BAD RESPONSE: Chris Martingilio chokes April Taylor (1). The defender raises her arms between her opponent’s forearms (2) and attempts to push them away from her neck (3). Because her motion depends on weaker abductor muscles, she’s unable to overcome his choking action, which uses stronger adductor muscles.

When an attacker squeezes your neck, he’s bringing his hands together in the strong movement of adduction. If you bring your hands up between his arms and try to knock them away, you’re using the weaker action of abduction. Now, an attacker is likely to be a man, so he’s likely to have greater upper-body strength than the defender. How does it make sense for women or children in self-defense classes to choose a weak movement as their go-to technique?

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If you reverse that approach, however, everything changes. As the assailant chokes, you raise your forearms outside of his forearms and squeeze inward and down toward your chest. Suddenly, you’re using your strongest motion to gain an advantage and to take the pressure off your neck. 

Then what? Well, he may be stronger than you are in general, but your hand is stronger than his little finger. So it becomes a ridiculously easy matter to grab his pinkie and crank it back. And the bigger and stronger the man is, the more vulnerable his little finger is. It’s surprising how quickly a macho man will drop, screaming in pain, when his little finger is properly manipulated.

Now, the word “properly” is important here. Just the description above can get someone

close to doing this move effectively. But with only about 10 minutes of instruction — and a little practice — that person can learn to do this reliably even under stress.

self defense demonstration


Another thing commonly taught in self-defense class is how to escape from a grab. The teacher will explain that when you’re grabbed, you should pull against the assailant’s thumb to break his grasp. And this is true.

But what happens when this is done successfully? You’re grabbed and you pull away. Does the attacker quit? Does he walk away? Or does he charge forward, grabbing you more forcefully and securely? By pulling out of his grasp, you’ve informed him that he needs to grab you harder, use both hands, wrap you in a bear hug or maybe throw you to the ground.

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You’ve done nothing to improve your situation and have actually made it worse by escalating the level of force being directed against you. This is wrong because you’re playing the role the assailant assigned: You’re prey to his predator.

Now consider a different solution: When grabbed, you don’t move back and pull away. Instead, you bend your arm and squeeze his arm tight against your chest. He grabbed you, but somehow he ended up being the one who’s trapped. You’ve turned the tables and rescripted the encounter. This simple action is so confusing to an assailant — so psychologically unanticipated — that you gain the strategic upper hand. It’s easy to capitalize on this advantage by kicking the inside of his leg and sending him sprawling.

When attacked, it’s not enough to block a punch or break a hold. You must defeat the assailant at a level that’s about more than physical technique. It’s about strategic resolve. You must accept the situation, draw the assailant into your strength and change the relationship of victim to assailant. In essence, you must welcome the attack.

What’s so important about this concept is that it empowers the victim to take action and exert control over the situation.

self defense demonstration


In the typical self-defense class, the teacher will offer instruction for a variety of possible

attacks. If you’re grabbed, do this. If you’re choked, do that. If you’re choked while standing, respond thusly. If you’re choked on the ground, try this other thing. In other words, the instructor will offer a unique response for each situation. This is known by the rather inelegant term “single-scenario tactical solution.”

That means you must know and be competent with a specific technique for every likely attack. Now, a typical martial artist will be able to show specific ways of dealing with many different situations. But such a repertoire of responses takes years to learn and many more years to use effectively at the instant of an attack. How can such an approach be taught in a self-defense class that lasts a few weeks at best?

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In contrast, consider the examples shown in the photo sequences featured in this article. At heart, they’re the same basic response: Bend your arm, pull it close to welcome the attack and then go after something vulnerable. What if he’s choking you on the ground? Do exactly the same thing as you would do standing up: Squeeze inward and pull his forearms to you, then grab and manipulate his little finger.

What if he grabs your wrists instead of your arm? Bring your arms in, squeeze, trap his hands tight against your body and then kick the inside of his leg.

What if he grabs one wrist and pulls you forward? Bend your elbow and pull it close while moving toward him, then blast the inside of his leg with your knee.

In each example, the fundamental response is the same: Bend your arm, pull it close to welcome the attack, then go after something vulnerable. There aren’t different techniques for every possible situation, just a set of sound physical and strategic principles that are consistently applied in every case. This is the only practical way people can learn self-defense in a short time.

It doesn’t help to know that the teachers of most self-defense classes are sincere in their desire to help. That sincerity won’t matter if a student is attacked and she tries unsuccessfully to defend herself using a technique that’s biomechanically unsound, strategically flawed and impossible to remember. There’s no escaping this simple truth: 

Much of what’s taught in self-defense classes is wrong. But understanding what’s wrong can equip us to be more discriminating in our search for truly effective techniques to use and teach. They may be harder to find, but they’re out there.

self-defense demonstration

About the author: Chris Thomas has trained active-duty military personnel, law-enforcement officers, hospital workers, schoolteachers, legislative aids and martial arts instructors around the world. He’s written for Black Belt on numerous occasions and is the co-author of several books, including Humane Pressure Point Self-Defense and Effortless Self Defense for Women. Thomas created Self-Defense Rescripted and CAST: Compassionate Awareness and Safety Training.

About the demonstrators: Chris Martingilio (attacker) is the owner of and chief instructor at Martingilio Martial Arts in Madison, Wisconsin. April Taylor (defender) is a registered nurse and a mother of two.

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