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bowlie's picture
Strength and Conditining Training for Self Defense

Strength and conditioning is a term used to refer to building the athletic qualities of an athlete. There are many qualities, such as strength, power, flexibility, endurance e.c.t. but really they all come down to one thing. Making the athlete more powerful, without making them less able to susstain that power output  (power and endurance being opposite ends of the same spectrum). The way training works is we put a stress upon our body, and in response to that out body adapts. The stress is called a training stimulus, and it sends a message to our body. 'we need to be stronger' or 'we need to be able to run faster'.

What happens then when we send our body mixed messages? If you are a beginner you will see results doing anything, but if you are an intermediate level athelet you will really need to focus your message. For example, if you are telling it to become more powerful (stronger) while also telling it to become more endurance ornented (doing lots of aerobic work) then it will do neither well. It has conflicting messages, and doesnt know what to do.

The way professional athletes overcome this is through periodization. They will list all the artibutes they need, and structure them so that they work on one at a time, building them so that they peak before an event. Sport specific training has greater carry over to the sport, but also wears out the body faster. Typically you will start with non-sport specific stuff. This is long aerobic runs and strength training. You might then move on to doing anaerobic training with sort of sport specific movements, targeting the main muscles, but not mimicing the motion, i.e. med ball twists. The last stage is where you focus right before an event, using sport specific training and power systems. If you do 3 x 3 min rounds, you should be doing 3 x 3 min rounds, with a sport specific exercise like pad work or heavy bag training. Periodization is a tried and tested method used by the majority, if not all, professional athletes and trainers out there.

The problem, then, is what if you need to be in a state of readiness all year long? What if you dont have the luxury of knowing when you will have to fight? What if you dont have the luxury of having an off period where you can work on the non-specific components? The only answers I have to that question at the moment are to either use periodization with very short cycles so you are never lacking one area too much, or to just train everything all the time. There must be a better answer, so I was wondering how you train for self defense in regards to your strength and conditioning work.

dvitkus's picture


If you don't know when to expect a fight, then you're talking specifically about self defense.  I was a police officer for more than two decades, and violent event I know of was very short and incredibly intense. 

That said, you will want to train both anaerobic and aerobic exercise.  In self defense, you will have a substantial physical advantage if your body is tuned to short bursts of very intense activity (anaerobic). 

However, physical and mental performance deteriorates rapidly under stress and I've seen some research that stongly suggests that the decline is inversely proportional to heart rate.  In other words, the higher your heart rate goes under stress, the more rapidly your ability to respond will decline. Obviously, extended excercise like running has a dramatic effect on the cardio vascular system.  So, if that system is in better condition, you r heart rate will be lower and your performance will not decline as quickly under stress.

That's my humble view in a nutshell,


Jr cook
Jr cook's picture

My thoughts are that to be ready for anything at anytime, it is better not to specialize too much in a single area. I use a physical training program where I incorporate a lot of anerobic conditioning, some aerobic/endurance conditioning, some strength work and some agility work. I have been pretty happy with it. This training has allowed me to run 10K obstacle races, play soccer, survive a 10 minute round of jujitsu throwing and ground work all within the same week without changing the program. I felt prepared for each of these with nothing more than a quick warmup. 

In the future I plan to focus a little more on specific areas where I want to improve such as speed or strength but the training base will remain unchanged. 

As for the idea of being prepared specifically for a self defense situation, I think of it like a sport. You can't control when or how things may happen but you can train for the "event" by understanding what problems will be likely. You can then develop a way to train these areas.

There will most likely be adrenal stress, fear, physical stress in short, high intensity bursts. These are things that can be practiced. The more familiar you can get with the symptoms, the less they will take out of you if something happens.

Another point I like to make is that usually, outside of a sporting environment, people don't win or loose a fight. Someone either quits or someone escapes or avoids it. I see quitting as making a decision that this is either not worth the effort or just not knowing what to do and hoping it will end soon. The first time I was hit in the face hard (in training) I was ready to quit right there. I have conditioned my mind to it over time and I don't mind it nearly as much now. It actually kind of pushes me to work more. I have learned that I don't have to quit because of a few punches catching me. I think this type of conditioning is important. Anything that is new or unexpected is going to take some adjustment to deal with. You don't want to have to make that adjustment for the first time in a self defense situation. 

I actually don't think that the physical preparation is quite as important as the mental and habitual training, but it absolutely doesn't hurt. And as a predator, I would be more likely to pick a target that seems weak and less fit than say a professional rugby player.

bowlie's picture

That sounds like a strong program. I just did my first 10K in 56 mins, and it was hard.

Jr cook
Jr cook's picture

To be fair, anyone who is pretty fit could do the above. I just wanted to make examples of the variety of activities that I feel prepared for now that I'm no longer overweight. With increased endurance and strength everyone can be more capable in a number of areas.

A 10 K run is a feat that the majority of the population will never attempt. As you said, it is hard! I remember a time not too long ago that I struggled to run a mile. The human body is an amazing piece of equipment. The harder you stress it, the better it can adapt. But the mind has to be strong enough to drive the body on. 

jeffc's picture

There is little doubt that real combat is more like the HIIT training that is so in vogue at the moment i.e. short duration of high intensity exercise followed by a short rest.  The obvious answer is that martial artists who train for reality should only perform HIIT training, so that the training relates directly to the activity which they are training for.  There is a massive trend towards everybody conducting HIIT-type training at the moment at the expense of more traditional aerobic training.  BUT, although studies do indeed show that HIIT is more effective in the short-term at increasing aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels and burning fat (i.e. more calories at a faster rate) the studies also show that these increases taper off at around the 8-10 week mark, whereas more traditional aerobic training although giving slower and apparently less dramatic results that the HIIT training, continue increasing aerobic levels long after the HIIT has stopped providing such dramatic results.  The increased aerobic levels also allo for faster recovery from intense exercise as the physiological adaptation to aerobic exercise occurs.

The answer?  Who knows for sure, but the research (and modern elite training methods) would suggest that combining HIIT training (as the bulk of the training plan) with aerobic conditioning training would provide the best short-term and long-term benefits. 

P.S. If you don't like running or cycling etc. don't forget that conducting 30-45 constant bag work or relatively intense kata training is just as valid.

Just my tuppence worth!

Jeff Capstick