Q+A: How do you condition the body for self-defense? The 3 Steps You Must Take in Preparation for Surviving a Violent Encounter

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Alright, now hold still...
Alright, now hold still...

Awhile back, I got this question from one of my readers, Mark, in response to a post I wrote about Specificity in Training. The law of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands dictates that the body only adapts to specific stimulus’ we subject it to, making generalized conditioning impossible to achieve.

So, how could we possibly condition the body for self defense?

The nature of self-defense, unlike most other activities (whether sport or not), is that there is a tremendous element of the unknown. There are so many possible situations that can arise, making it impossible to know in advance what to be prepared for. Will there be one attacker? a group? will there be weapons involved? firearms? will you be injured or ill, or completely rested and healthy (and warmed up)? I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Let’s take an example to the extreme, which I deem appropriate because any self-defense (survival) situation is EXTREME.

Situation 1: You walk into an alley on your way home, only to find out that you’re being followed by a group of men. Once you’re half-way down, another group appears on the other side of the alley, coming toward you. Immediately, you begin to panic – as your body rushes you with hormones waiting for your decision, to fight, flee, or succumb to the would-be attackers. You have 3 options in this situation that come to mind…

1) Fight – use your skills to defeat the opponents, whether or not you have a weapon.
2) Climb the fire escape ladder as fast as you can.
3) Wait to see what they want, and hope they don’t take any more than your wallet.

In this case, conditioning yourself to climb a ladder as fast as humanly possible would be a viable option – but is this a skill taught in self-defense schools? Obviously not. But it remains true that in this situation, the best option is to climb a ladder – and the proper physical conditioning for this scenario would be ladder training, which no one does unless they are a firefighter.

Situation 2: Now, what if this situation unfolded exactly the same way, except somewhere out in the open in the street. In this case, a full sprint would be your best option for survival, right?

You see, just changing one variable in any self-defense situation can drastically alter the optimal physical conditioning required to survive. In our example, climbing a ladder and running a full sprint are both the best means of escape – but VERY different skills that require very different conditioning. Sure, you could train for both of these skills, and become proficient at both of them – but you can’t train for every possible scenario that could arise because there are too many possibilities.

So, I think it is impossible to condition the body specifically for self-defense, making this an impossible question to answer – but there is a better question.

How can you prepare yourself for a self-defense situation?

Now, we’re not only talking about conditioning, we’re talking about the total process of preparing to survive a violent encounter. That huge element of the unknown still exists, but there are still things we can do to prepare. Here is the system I recommend.

The 3 Steps in Preparation For Surviving a Violent Encounter

1) Practice – you must get involved with a school or club that is devoted to either self-defense or martial art and practice the physical skills required for hand-to-hand or weapon-based combat. Note that I used the word practice, which is not training. Your goal in practice is technical mastery of rudimentary skills for fighting. There are a multitude of disciplines and schools that can be used for this.

2) Training – This is where physical conditioning comes into play, but not after you have practiced skills to apply in combat. The purpose of conditioning is to give you the most efficient and effective access and application to your skills as possible. Efficiency is developed when you can perform techniques without excessive fatigue or wear-and-tear to your own body. Being effective means being able to apply your skills and have them work in a practice environment, such as sparring. Knowing how to throw a punch in shadow boxing is very different from being able to land a punch and hurt or debilitate your opponent with that punch – that’s effectiveness.

Your conditioning should be specifically catered to help you improve the skills which you have been practicing, because all conditioning is specific. For example, if you have practiced front jabs, then you want to select conditioning exercises that will help improve the attributes required to execute the front jabs. This is where exercises that will improve speed, power, and strength come into play. In our example of the front jab, there are many exercises that can help, but one stands out in my mind: the single-arm clubbell mill.

Everyone who has practiced a martial art for more than a few months will know that punches are not an upper body or arm exercise – the power is generated from the legs and the hips. That power is then transferred up into the core, which should be contracted in a balance of tension and relaxation to channel that force diagonally to one shoulder and out into the hand – and hopefully hitting the opponent at the pinnacle moment of force transfer.

That same force transfer is mimicked in the clubbell mill exercise, except the force is driven into the clubbell, instead of into your opponent’s noggin. So, in our example, correctly training the clubbell mill for conditioning will help you apply a front jab more efficiently and more effectively.

3) Competition – This is arguably the most important of the 3 items, because it is usually the most neglected in a total training program. Competition provides an element of stress that makes it more difficult for you to efficiently and effectively apply your skills to a fully resistant opponent. This is where the rubber meets the road, and you test your true skills in an uncomfortable environment.

Competition is important because it allows you to experience the mental and physical sensations associated with being in a high stress, hostile situation. It puts you in a position where you may not have full access to your skills, or any of your skills. Competition is just as much of a mental test as a physical one – and if your mind is not prepared for fighting, your body won’t be either.

This leads us to the debate of whether “combat sports” are better preparation than “self-defense” training for surviving a violent encounter. My stance is that both are appropriate, if not essential, to preparing. And as my Coach Scott Sonnon always says, “be more prepared than the challenges you face.” This question has been answered thoroughly in other places, so I won’t answer it here.

If you do have any questions or comments about the above, feel free to leave a comment below. I would be happy to explore this topic further.

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional and Survivor of Two Violent Encounters

P.S. There is a great read about surviving a violent encounter by my Coach Scott Sonnon on his blog. Click here to read it.

One Response

  1. This is a great post John!
    I myself did a lot of Karate and competed often earlier in my martial arts career. There is nothing like the stress before the fight, having your coach whisper words of wisdom while you are not paying attention – worried about what will happen – get into the fight, and come out victorious and unscathed (most of the time).

    I was competing enough that the last few tournaments were a breeze. I would be chill and relax and enjoy myself. I was at that state of being prepared, experienced and ready beyond what was necessary, as Coach Sonnon, I was “more prepared than the challenges I’d face.”

    At that point, for me, I retired for competition as a new stage in my life started: work! This eventually took over training, but now that I’ve been exposed to CST, I am planning to get primed again to go back to Karate and maybe even compete, if the opportunity arises.

    This quote from Coach Sonnon is really good but doesn’t only apply to martial arts, but also for work (my business). Be more ready than my competition, know more about technological advances and techniques, be aware of opportunity before even the client realizes he needs our services, etc.

    I’d like to also share another quote from the guys who do “parkour” (you might want to look into it, it’s really cool): “be strong to be useful”. I’ll just drop that here and leave it as food for thought!

    Thanks for this post, quite inspiring!


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