The Best System for Self-Defense

There are many thoughts on this, and there is much, much to be said, but in this article, I’ll explain one systematical aspect that I recommend looking for when choosing a school, or when trying to make your own little system of training.

In my world, an optimal self-defense system is divided into three levels of application:


Basics and forms

This is essentially where we practice movements. Some movements, like a jab, cross or hook, and in fact most impact-techniques, are more intuitively interpretable in nature. Others, particularly movements representing grappling-techniques, which by nature in reality include also an opponent’s limbs, are less so.

For an example, see this article about technique.

In the context of these individual exercises we study the biomechanical principles behind the motions themselves, including various force-generating principles (synergist-isolation, joint-acceleration, power-lines, weight-engagement…) and other factors, like balance, breathing, and so on.

Basics can be this:

But they can also be single techniques practiced with a partner:


When I say “drills”, I mean pre-determined, flowing sequences of movements performed with a partner.

Take an example from one of my great martial arts idols, Patrick McCarthy:

They don’t have to be as long and complex as that though, of course. Just practicing a couple of simple techniques in sequence is a drill.

Drills include both more static and more dynamic exercises, i.e. with different degrees of mutual action and flow, but all of them pre-determined, and this is where we first practice applications with a partner, partially so that we afterwards can take the understanding of the technique back to our individual training, and improve our movements, but it’s also where we experiment with mechanical principles including an opponent (extension, compression, isolation, PWR…), and develop an understanding for what it means to work against different degrees of passive resistance, i.e. a partner who doesn’t cooperate, but doesn’t fight back.


The ultimate goal of our training is to be able to make use of these movements in a very serious situation, in which a dangerous opponent is doing everything to hurt us as much as possible.

To practice this, however, would be to expose ourselves regularly for much of what we aim to never experience, if possible.

Our compromise is sparring, a non pre-determined exercise, where we, among many other things, learn to apply the movements learned in individual training, against an actively resisting partner, i.e. a partner who fights back.


So how much should we do of each, how should we spar, how do I find the right drills, etc?

For some inspiration on sparring, read this article.

Regarding the other questions, there are as always many answers, but here is one way to structure your training in five steps:

I. First practice the applications with a partner, to understand the technique – where resistance naturally occurs, what details are important and which aren’t, and so on. You cooperate with your partner, and focus on one technique at a time.

II. Then you practice the movements separately, alone, just the movements, to make them natural to both body and mind, to get things like coordination working, but also to let your muscles adapt. Keep practicing, and practice intelligently, i.e. don’t just stand and mindlessly repeat the movements, but visualize the application, work on specific details. Apply your brain, as well as your body.

III. Then you go back to your partner, and practice the applications again, and you gradually increase passive resistance when training with your partner.

IV. Then you take the resistance away, relax, and begin to spar, but in a spirit of cooperation, so as soon as someone starts a technique, the other one follows, and lets the other perform the technique. It’s still a way to practice the techniques, and this is a way also to find transitions into techniques, from a neutral position.

V. Then you gradually increase resistance in the free exercises as well, both passive and active, while keeping up the individual practice. Always go back and practice on your own.

When you have introduced all the parts, make sure to keep practicing them all about equally, both slowly and with speed, with different degrees of resistance.

Two Tips For Optimizing The Individual Practice:

I. Put techniques together and practice them in series. It will help your memory, among other things. Just take for example all the defenses against bearhugs, make the movements into one long series and practice that series in one go. Then do the same for, say, all techniques in which you get one hand more than your opponent, or all the techniques that include striking. Categorize them however you want.

Such a sequence can look like this:

II. Do the opposite. Break things into parts. Notice how your feet are moving when you perform the techniques, then practice those steps individually. Then do the same for the various stances you end up in, and so on.

Of course, once you’ve broken things into components, you can then put the components together into sequences, as well, and practice them together. When you’ve done that you can use the components as a base for categorizing the techniques, so you make sequences with all the techniques using a certain step, for example.

Then you do the same thing with your partner. You make sets of techniques and perform them as a series, with your partner, gradually increasing resistance, speed, power and so on.

After a while you’ll notice which things you simply can’t do at full speed and power with a partner, even if you’re cooperating and your partner knows what’s going to happen.

The way around that is to practice those techniques at full speed individually, and then more carefully with a partner, and then at full speed individually again. Techniques like that is a good example, by the way, of something that you can make into a category and practice as a set, individually.

Thus you will begin to develop a system.

Image credit:

Andrew Raynor Dover NH

Andrew Raynor

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