I wish that all women had some self-defense training. But, most don’t, even among preppers. Worse yet, most women I know are too embarrassed to learn anything about fighting. They don’t know where to learn or maybe don’t want to appear foolish. And the misinformation out there about how a woman should defend herself is often worse than useless – it’s actually harmful. Most men teach what works for men and often, those techniques don’t work very well for women. This article is intended for those women who have little or no experience with self-defense. I won’t kid you, reading something to learn to defend yourself is not the way to learn. I hope no woman ever has to defend herself. But, if your man is down, or you’re on your own, even if you aren’t terrifically effective with these techniques, some of this information could make the difference even if all you do is read it. I’m a woman and this is what I believe works for women.
So I want to recommend this exercise: sit with your butt on your heels, on the floor about two feet from your opponent, who is sitting the same way. You should be facing each other. Put a small cloth, like a bar towel or washcloth on the floor between you. Here’s the game; you are trying to grab the cloth and quickly roll away from your opponent before he (or she) can reach out and touch you anywhere he can reach. Neither of you can touch the other unless one of you is holding the cloth. Your opponent is trying to do the same thing, in which case you’re trying to reach out and touch him before he can roll away with the cloth. This exercise can really help you in several ways. It teaches you what your reaction time is and what other people’s reaction time is. It teaches you to feint – fake a grab that you won’t complete in order to keep your opponent off balance. And, it teaches you to read your opponent’s body language, and how your opponent “telegraphs” what they’re about to do.
The reason I recommend that exercise is that most women I’ve known don’t have a lot of confidence in their ability to defend themselves. And, for good reason – because most women are at a big disadvantage in a fight with a man. But, most women have equal or better reaction time compared to most men. Even if a male opponent has studied martial arts, women often can win at this exercise. So, it’s a confidence builder for women in an area they can excel. And, when your life might be on the line, you need to know what your assets are, what you can do with a reasonable hope of success. And what your opponent can do. You can do the exercise with men, other women or kids.
The sad truth is that a woman’s chances in a fight with a man aren’t good. For this reason, a woman has about seven seconds to take a guy out in a fight before the odds for your success start to decrease. For that first seven seconds, your opponent probably doesn’t see you as a lethal threat and you really do have a big advantage. He probably thinks you won’t be a big obstacle. You have to be lethal in your seven second window of opportunity. That fact narrows down your range of targets considerably. There just aren’t that many targets on a male opponent that will kill or disable him in a short time frame. After that seven seconds, you can still win, it’s just harder.
Don’t try to look tough. In fact, try to look scared and totally useless. By trying to look tough, you’re just advertising to the guy that you intend to fight back.
Rule One: The best weapon is never your body. Nearly anything you can grab or hold is less likely to break and therefore a better weapon than your fist is. Anything hard or sharp that you can get a good grip on is a weapon. If you have a choice between a four inch knife and a ten inch knife, go for the shorter knife – it’s harder for your opponent to get away from you. Never throw a weapon. Keep your weapon and keep it in your control at all costs. There are nearly always weapons around. If you can get to a knife, slash at your opponent’s hands, short circular slashes that can reach both of the guy’s hands. By circular slashes, I mean out and back towards your body, so that you’re set up for another slash. Don’t try to get past his arms for a body stab. Instead shred his hands. Always stay aware of both of his hands. Men are smart and competent, so if you are only paying attention to one hand, you can bet his other hand is about to take your knife away.
Take a few minutes to look around any room you’re in and think about what could be used as a weapon and how it could be used to bludgeon your opponent’s “soft” targets (like his nose) or to cut someone. Anything you can reach that is not too light or too heavy can be used in one of those ways. Be aware your opponent will try to get any weapon away from you. As I mention later in talking about multiple strikes, if you don’t meet his move to disarm you with additional strikes, he probably will disarm you.
Rule Two: Forget any kind of typical karate punch. You’ll break your wrist. The bones in your hand and wrist are more fragile than almost anything you could hit. And aside from a strike to someone’s nose or throat, that type of blow won’t incapacitate your opponent.
The difference between a male’s upper body strength and a woman’s is huge. You can pound sand for a couple of years to work up to karate-style punching, if you want to. But you have better weapons available: your knee, foot, elbow, side of fist, back of fist, head, teeth. Those are your weapons if you can’t get a better one. Having said that, it’s sensible to do 20 pushups a day (working up to it). That little bit of muscle might save your life and will keep your tits from sagging as an additional bonus.
Karate is a power style and it suits men perfectly. I don’t think it works for women. Oh, it can work! But it still plays to men’s strengths. Wrestling is the.same deal. If an assailant tried to wrestle with me, I’d try to bite his nose off. Karate and wrestling are biased in favor of power and size. If you want to take a martial art, try jiu jitsu (which uses leverage instead of power) or kickboxing – even boxing will teach you to duck and be light on your feet although it won’t teach you how to successfully hit someone. I’m sure there are women martial artists who will disagree with me on this issue. But, in a fight between a reasonably fit guy with no martial arts training and a woman with a black belt in karate, my money would go on the guy. I wasted years on karate before coming to that conclusion. And it wasn’t a conclusion I was happy to reach.
I used to think that martial arts was mostly a matter of learning to take a beating, ignore the pain and keep going. There’s a weird humor in that, and it’s also true. In a real fight, adrenaline will usually keep you from feeling the damage, for awhile. Some people are really pain sensitive. Other people are really afraid of pain and that’s a much, much bigger problem. But pain is always preferable to death or permanent damage. Pain is temporary. Don’t let the prospect of pain wipe you out. In a sense, martial arts teaches you that pain isn’t the end of the world. Like hunger, if you ignore pain, it fades away. I’ve known people who were afraid of hunger as if it was a big, scary thing. Hundreds of thousands of years have honed humans to function perfectly in spite of pain or hunger. We’re built to do that and succeed. Even if someone shoots you, you can still function.
Get out of the mindset that you’ll lose the fight. Your biggest limitations are mental. You can do a lot more than you think you can. You won’t lose if you’re vicious and sneaky enough. It takes 12 pounds of pressure to break an elbow – including the elbow of a six foot four inch tall, two hundred and fifty pound guy. About four pounds of pressure will break his nose. In either case you just have to know your targets. Speed and accuracy are more important than power.
In a true do-or-die fight, go for gouging out eyes, nose strikes or bites, windpipe hits (below the adam’s apple), breaking knees or elbows. Bite fingers off – don’t just bite them, bite them off. If you want to win, you have to be brutal.
I’ve been told by guys who should know what they’re talking about, that kicking or kneeing a guy in the balls creates such a adrenaline surge that a guy doesn’t always become incapacitated for several minutes afterwards – and for those few minutes you have an enraged, adrenaline-overloaded opponent to deal with. I mention this for what it’s worth. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go for a guy’s genitals as a target of opportunity. I just wouldn’t put all my faith in it. Giving the impression that you’re terrorized will give you an addition edge. Terror is incapacitating. If you allow terror to rule you, the other guy’s job is already done for him. You handed him your life on a platter. But you can give the impression you are terrorized and it will lull your opponent into not expecting much retaliation. Don’t rush him, let him come to you, then move in at the last second when he’s in arm’s reach. Read his body language for how he’s going to attack or grab you. What I’m trying to communicate is that, for a woman, there are a small number of targets and a small number of ways of attacking those targets. This should simplify your decisions. Hence the next “rule.”
Rule Three: You need to work continual strikes. Do not kick someone and then back off to see if the guy is going to stop or run away. It’ll never work. Use continuous strikes at your attacker – nose, knee, eyes, throat, temple, elbow, genitals and whatever else you can strike at. The only exception to this rule is if you can either run away or get to a better weapon. In that case, run or break away and/or go for the weapon.
Most people, in a fight, will try to stay back from their opponent. That doesn’t usually work for a woman, kid or smaller guy. When you back away, you’re playing to your opponent’s strengths – his longer reach. It’s not instinctive, but a smaller fighter needs to get inside the reach of the bigger guy. That way the bigger guys blows can’t deliver with full power and you can actually reach your targets. The danger is being close enough to get into a grapple with someone who weighs a lot more than you. But any distance where you can reach your target is fine. You don’t want your opponent to be at the end of your reach, but within your reach. The big point here is that backing away isn’t in your best interests. Your fear tells you to back off. Ignore that fear. You have to be close enough to hit the guy.
You cannot use brutal techniques (with the possible exception of breaking an opponent’s knee or elbow) on some drunk guy who grabs your ass or a school-yard bully. If you do, you’ll go to jail for a very long time. Brutal techniques are for situations that are deadly to you. [JWR Adds: Any strikes at the neck or head are considered lethal force attacks, for good reason. Do not use them unless you are in a truly life threatening situation where you are legally justified to use lethal force.]
If someone grabs you (including chokes), always break the hold towards the guys thumb. The thumb is the weak part of any hold. If someone grabs you by the wrist or arm: swing or twist and pull your arm in a direction that puts force against the guy’s thumb, bending it towards his wrist. Be fast. If you can get the guy’s arm straight while you’re trying to break the hold, bring up your other hand and use the heel of that hand to smash into the back of the guys elbow or his nose. If he pulls his head back, go for his knee or groin. And continuously go for any other target of opportunity. Back of neck, temple, ear, etc. Any move you make will cause your opponent to change his position to protect what he thinks you mean to attack, and his motion, in turn, will bring a different target into reach. If you try to pull out of his grasp, he’ll brace his knees beautifully for you, so you can break them.
If someone is choking you from the front reach up and try to grab the guys thumbs and pry them away. Thumbs move in more or less three directions with some kind of mobility, but not in the fourth direction, directly back towards his wrist. That’s the direction you use to pry his thumbs away from whatever they have a grip on. If you can get your fingers around his thumb you can break the choke by twisting the thumbs back fairly easily. You can also try to bring both your forearms up between his forearms and explosively push your arms out against his arms – but this probably won’t work for an untrained woman against a powerful man. Better to gouge his eyes or strike his throat with the side or back of your fist or your elbow. If you can reach his eyes, go for them – that’ll almost always break his choke hold. Or grab his private parts in your fist and twist hard. The guy will let go of your throat.
Sometimes trying to pry out of someone’s grip isn’t using your best resources. Better to break his knee, which is usually conveniently close (more on this later). The great thing about knee attacks is that even if you don’t strike accurately enough to break it the guy will probably be limping and you can outrun him and you can almost always reach his knees with some kind of kick. If someone has you from behind, usually your hands and feet (and possibly your elbows) are free. Head butting (smashing back) into the guys nose is a great technique, but often the guy is so much taller that you can’t reach his nose with the back of your head. Same deal for using your forehead to bash someone’s nose. You can often reach back with your hands and grab, squeeze, wrench or tear the guy’s groin. You can drop all your weight completely, which will sometimes get you free (to roll fast and get up). Although women have much less upper body strength than men, a woman’s leg strength is almost as great as a man’s leg strength. If you have shoes on, you can rake the guys shin with your heel, smash his foot (aim for the top of the arch) or better yet, kick back with one or both feet, repeatedly, to try to hit the front of his knees with the heels of your feet. Most guys, holding you from behind, if you’re trying to hit his knees with your heels, will bend forward (to try to distance his knees from your feet) – this brings his head conveniently close so now you can smash the back of your head into his nose. And, while you’re doing this, be thinking about a weapon you can grab if you get free. Also, scream your rage loudly. Get in touch with your inner berserker. Sometimes rage and relentlessness are more important that power. If you can’t reach his nose with the back of your head, hit anything on his face – except his teeth. Other than teeth, every single part of his face is more susceptible to damage than the back of your head, or your elbow or the back or side of your fist, for that matter. If you do all this, fast enough and continuously enough, you probably will get loose, at least briefly.
Before we get off the topic of an assailant grabbing you. I just want to mention the tactic of faking blows (feints) to set up your opponent for a different blow. We all telegraph our attacks, more or less, and you can use this to set someone up. As I mentioned earlier, if someone has hold of you by the arm or wrist and you tense as if you’re about to break or wrench away, he’ll instantly brace for it. That brace sets him up perfectly to break his knee – he’s got the knee all nice and braced for you. Braced, it takes more time for him to get his knee out of the way or turn his knee to direct your blow at a less vulnerable part of him. Every kind of attack sets up your opponent for another attack. Every time your opponent moves or braces, he’s setting himself up for a different strike. You need to think about that a little. Every time you move, he’ll brace, move or try to compensate. Every attack sets your opponent up for the next attack. The point in feinting is that it helps avoid telegraphing your real attack.
For any of the kicks, imagine the target is about six inches past where it actually is. Really believe that – that you’re trying to strike something behind the true target. Don’t worry too much about power because trying to put all your power into it will slow you down and make pulling your foot back after the strike harder, plus you’ll telegraph the coming strike to your opponent a lot more. Aim for a point behind your target and pull back instantly after striking, all in one motion. That’s how you want your kicks to work.
There are three basic kinds of kicks. Front kicks, side-kicks and back kicks. Front kicks involve hitting with the ball of your foot at something in front of you (unless you have hard shoes on, in which case use any part of your foot). Keep your toes bent up if you’re barefoot – you’ll strike with the ball of your feet. Think about running in place, how your foot comes down and hits the ground and recoils back to your torso. Like running, your toes aren’t pointed towards the ground as your foot comes down, they’re angled up, out of the way, so that you’ll hit the ground with the bottom of your foot. Now try to translate that kind of motion except instead of hitting the ground you’re hitting a target. Hit and pull back like a spring. If you have heavy shoes on, you can kick the way a guy kicks a football without hurting your toes. Any attacker, if you try to kick anything above his knee or leave your leg or foot out where he can grab it, will grab your foot and lift it (keeping hold of it), putting you down on the ground and completely in his control. You need to pull it back in to prevent that from happening and also to support yourself for your next strike.
Side-kicks involve hitting with the outside edge of your foot at something sideways to you. Side-kicks are both powerful and fast. I wouldn’t hesitate to side-kick to the front by turning slightly while I’m kicking. It’s a stronger blow that front kicks and faster pulling back. Watch a martial arts movie to see some side-kicks, but ignore the fancy high strikes. Nothing above the knee. Imagine you’re running up to a boulder, then raising your foot to push off the boulder and reverse your running direction – and since you’re moving fast you’re pulling that leg back and down fast to hit the ground and continue running. That’s not a perfect analogy, but for someone who has never tried this, it’s better than nothing.
Back kicks usually mean using your heel or back edge of your heel as a weapon to hit something behind you. Again, don’t worry about power, worry about speed, accuracy, not telegraphing the motion and getting your foot back under you fast.
Elbow strikes mean using your elbow as a weapon. Practically any place you can hit is a good target. But, preferentially, throats, or noses, solar plexus, ribs, kidneys, anywhere on the face or throat is less ideal but good targets.
As I mentioned before, if you need to use your hands, use the bottom or the back of your closed fist or the heel of your hand rather than your knuckles. The reason is that these blows don’t compress your wrist as much. By the bottom of your fist, I mean the area on the same side as your little finger – hammer-wise, the way you would pound on a table. Back of your fist is similar to ‘backhanding’ your opponent, except with your fingers closed in a fist.
A lot of women have long fingernails. Another reason for using the bottom or back of your fist is that these blows can be used without a really tight fist so they will work even if you have long nails. If you have any nails, a normal karate or boxing-style fist strike (like you see in the movies) will compress your nails into your palms. But, back of fist or bottom of fist strikes can be done with a loosely made fist, just fine. Regardless, any kind of fist is your very last choice as a weapon. And if you do have to use fists, put your heart into it. Targets are nose, throat, temples but hit anything you can reach if you have no other option. Don’t pound on a guy’s chest or upper arms, they’re useless as targets. Worse than useless.
Striking with the heel of your hand is very effective for nose strikes. The area around someone’s nose and upper lip has more nerve endings than (almost) any other place on their body. A hit to someone’s nose is one of the most painful blows you can give someone. It makes your targets eyes water copiously, so your assailant can’t see too well. It bleeds a bunch. The biggest danger in this strike is that your miss the nose and hit your opponent’s teeth. His teeth will really mess up your hand. A lot of people think you can drive someone’s nasal bones up into their brain, killing them, with this kind of blow. I’ve been told it’s an urban legend. The heel of your hand is also effective against the back of someone’s elbow. Use a hard sharp blow at the exact back of the elbow, pushing the elbow in the direction it doesn’t bend while holding the guys wrist or forearm with your other hand. If you don’t have your other hand on his wrist, but he’s holding you, that works too. It has to be fast because your opponent only has to slightly turn his elbow so that the elbow can bend with the blow, if he sees it coming. But even if he turns his elbow, it’ll hurt.
Another way to break an elbow, if the guy isn’t too much taller than you, is to step under his arm (turning so your back is to him) and bring his arm down on your shoulder so that his elbow is just ahead of your shoulder, pull it down hard to break his elbow. If the guy’s too tall, you can’t get the leverage you need to break his elbow this way – your shoulder needs to be almost as high as his.
As an example of continuous strikes: Let’s say the guy throws a punch at you. You quickly bring up your forearm to block his punch, then slide your arm and grab his wrist and start to swing under his raised arm. As you swing into the turn, you build momentum to swing your other elbow around into his solar plexus (just below the breast bone) which brings his head down, bending him over a little and that puts you and him in position to swing you fist up for a back fist strike to his nose. Which swings his upper torso back and away so he’s set up for you to bring his upper arm down on your shoulder to break his elbow (his elbow is facing down). See what I mean about each strike, even if it doesn’t land, setting him up for your next strike?
A few words about blocking: the most common way to block an incoming blow is to use your forearm against his forearm. It’s a pretty decent move but only slightly diffuses the direction and force of his blow, so you also need to be moving to the side so his target (you) isn’t where it was.
To gouge someone’s eyes: punch your thumbs into the very inside corners of your attackers eyes (the side where his tear ducts are). Once your thumb is in behind the eyeball, bend your thumbs in and push towards the outside corners of his eyes and then back out. You’re reaching in behind his eyeballs and then pushing them out in one smooth move.
If you’re down on the ground, on your back, and your opponent is standing anywhere near your feet, you can hook one foot behind his ankle and with the bottom of your other foot, push hard on the front of his shin, just below his knee. That will put your opponent on their butt if you do it fast enough and it doesn’t even take much strength. Roll fast and get a foot under you to get up and away fast. The reason you always roll to your feet is that it’s faster than any other way to get to your feet. It uses your momentum to help you get up. You have to practice.
The classic way to fall when you go down onto your back, is with your arms out from your body about thirty degrees, slap your forearm and hand on the ground hard, just as your back hits but before your head hits. That slap will defuse the force of the fall to prevent your head from hitting. Don’t get your elbow under you, keep your arm out nearly straight at that 30 degree angle out from your torso.
Often a man will grab a woman by her hair to try to control her. If a man has a handful of your hair, use your hand to try to press his fist against your head while using your other hand or feet to attack him. If you can keep his fist against your head, it keeps his hold on your hair from hurting you. If you can’t do that, attack with everything you have and ignore the pain.
You can practice kicks on a tree trunk or stacked bales of hay, if you don’t have a heavy punching bag. Everything else, you can practice with a brother, boyfriend or friend, except use soft slaps or taps instead of blows – practice ducking, blocking blows and feinting (faking moves). Practice with your kids or women friends. This alone won’t make you a good fighter but it’s a lot better than nothing and might save your life or your family.