7 Martial Arts Moves for Self-Defense

Train to protect yourself and get fit with these kick-butt martial arts moves.
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Fitness is said to be “functional” when it transcends the gym and extends to real-life situations, and it doesn’t get any more functional than martial arts. This kind of workout improves your strength, mobility and cardiovascular prowess while giving you the skills and the confidence to defend yourself. But you don’t have to join a dojo and earn your black belt to be able to fight off an attacker. Incorporating some basic martial arts moves into your workouts will enhance your self-defense capabilities while amping your fitness level.

These seven moves were curated from combat experts across various different disciplines.

These seven moves were curated from combat experts across various different disciplines.

These moves were curated from combat experts across various disciplines and include suggestions on how to integrate them into your workout programming. Implement them for a few months and you’ll be functionally fit to fight off the bad guys — and body fat.

Air Strike

Nothing is more satisfying than hitting an actual target, but you don’t need a heavy bag or a partner holding mitts to get a good workout. Shadowboxing against an invisible opponent is a valid training protocol, and while throwing punches against the air may seem harmless, it’s actually pretty easy to hyperextend a joint or strain a muscle. Use these tips from Adam Zart, strength and conditioning coach and instructor at Dyme Boxing & Fitness and Hayastan MMA in North Carolina, to properly fight with yourself.

Start Slowly

Striking accuracy and body position are more important than throwing the hardest punches and kicks you can muster (no matter who you’re envisioning on the receiving end). “When striking the air with no target to impact, it’s extremely important to slow down the moves and emphasize control,” Zart says. “Start at about 30 percent of your speed and focus on form and balance.”

When against air, stop a punch or kick about 10 to 15 percent short of full lockout to keep your joints safe.

When against air, stop a punch or kick about 10 to 15 percent short of full lockout to keep your joints safe.

Shorten Your Range of Motion

Normally when hitting a pad or a bag, you try to punch or kick “through” the target. “But against air, you want to stop about 10 to 15 percent short of full lockout to keep your joints safe,” Zart says.

Speed Up Conservatively

As you get more comfortable and your technique improves, you can progressively increase your speed. Zart recommends ratcheting up 10 percent at a time until you’re 70 to 80 percent of full throttle. “Anything beyond that and you’ll want a target to strike,” he says.

Fight Club

The first rule of fight club is… not to be a pushover — literally. A strong, stable fighting stance is paramount in all manner of martial arts. Use these pointers from Adam Zart to stand up and deliver the most effective strikes possible.

  • Stagger your feet about a foot’s length away from each other and spread about 2 inches apart. Imagine standing on the edges of a strip of painter’s tape running between your legs.
  • If you’re right-handed, stand with your right foot back and your left foot forward (and vice versa). Your lead hand is on the same side as your forward leg.
  • Roughly 60 percent of your weight should be in your back leg so you can easily use your forward leg to kick or to transition to a punch.
  • Stay loose and light on your feet; don’t plant your heels.
  • Raise your hands to the sides of your face covering your cheeks, not below your jaw.
  • Keep your chin down and tucked slightly, and look at your target “through” your eyebrows.
Open-Fist Punch

Open-Fist Punch

Open-Fist Punch

Expert: Marika Hart, third-dan black belt in taekwondo, physiotherapist, owner of Dynamic Strength Physiotherapy in Perth, Australia

If an attacker is front and center, a punch to the head is darn effective, but using a closed fist could get you injured, as well. “An open-fist punch is easy to learn and apply, and you’ll be less likely to break your hand,” Hart says. Punching drills enhance upper-body strength and speed, trunk mobility and core stability, and because your power travels from the ground through your body and out your fist, punching uses every part of your body, according to Hart.

  • Face a heavy bag (or imaginary opponent) and assume a relaxed fighting stance. Strike the bag/opponent at shoulder height — as if aiming for the nose, jaw or chin — with your wrist bent back, fingertips slightly curled and thumb tightly pressed against your hand (not sticking out to the side). Do a series of left-right jab-cross combinations, then switch your stance and repeat on the other side.

Quick Tip: After each two-punch combo, reset before repeating. If you go too fast, form tends to get sloppy, Hart warns.

Punch Up Your Workout

For endurance: Do the two-punch combo in 30- to 90-second rounds. Perform five to 10 rounds and rest one to two minutes
in between.

In a metcon: Do 20 punch combos leading with the left, then drop and do five burpees. Repeat on the right.

Shaolin Front-Ball Kick

Shaolin Front-Ball Kick

Shaolin Front-Ball Kick

Expert: Melanie Rains, American Kenpo Karate instructor at Shaolin American Self Defense Academy in North Hollywood, California

A strong front kick is one of your best defenses against an assault, and this particular version mimics how you would be positioned if you were tying your shoe. “A swift kick to the attacker’s groin could be enough to stop him and give you the necessary time to run to safety,” says Rains, noting that this move done for reps is super effective for lower-body conditioning.

  • Kneel with your right foot forward and your left knee down with the ball of your left foot in contact with the ground. With your arms raised in a guard position, push off your left foot to stand and fire a quick front kick at your attacker’s groin with the ball of your foot. Recoil, immediately step back and lower into the kneeling position. Repeat on both sides.

Quick Tip: “Keep your posted [right] leg and core engaged to prevent you from rising when you kick,” Rains says. In other words, the momentum of the strike should not bring you up off the ground or cause you to lunge forward and lose your balance.

Punch Up Your Workout

For conditioning/circuit training: Do 10 kicks with your right leg, then repeat on the left. Perform three to four sets, resting one to two minutes between each.

When kicking a bag — or an attacker — pull your toes back as you make contact to prevent breaking some bones.

Up-Knee

Up-Knee

Up-Knee

Expert: Ryan Hoover, instructor and programmer of krav maga, co-founder of the Fit to Fight Republic in North Carolina

A vicious knee to the groin, face or solar plexus can end a fight in a split second. Such efficiency is a hallmark of krav maga, an Israeli self-defense system popular for both real-world and fitness applications. “The up-knee is a close-range strike,” Hoover says. “It is also an explosive, fast-twitch movement used to build the quads, glutes, calves, hip flexors, core and hamstrings.”

  • Stand within arm’s reach of a partner holding a pad, a punching bag or an imaginary opponent. Grab the opponent with both hands at shoulder height and stagger your feet for a stable base. In one explosive movement, drive your back knee up while pulling the opponent down. Point the toe of your striking leg and bring your heel up near your glutes to protect your feet. Make contact, pull your leg back, reset and repeat.

Quick Tip: “The hip leads the motion,” Hoover says. Meaning you’re not just lifting your knee but are also driving your hip forward and contracting your glutes to thrust your pelvis forward.

Punch Up Your Workout

Tabata: Perform continuous up-knees, alternating legs with each round.

Multidirectional Elbow

Multidirectional Elbow

Multidirectional Elbow

Expert: Angela “Coach Ange” Oliver, Protect Self-Defense–accredited trainer, owner of Pulse Training for Life in Christchurch, New Zealand

Your elbows are two of the most effective weapons you possess. “A truly violent encounter will happen at close quarters,” Oliver says. “Training your elbows in multiple directions puts you in good stead to confidently defend yourself against an attacker of any height — with the added bonus of a great shoulder workout!” Elbow strikes are useful to hit several bodyparts, including the face, chin, clavicle, shoulders and head.

  • Stand facing a heavy bag or imaginary opponent in your fighting stance. Keeping your forward elbow bent, quickly lift your arm up toward your opposite shoulder, twisting slightly as if grabbing a seat belt behind you, then forcibly drive that elbow diagonally downward, as if pulling the seat belt down to click it in, hitting the bag as hard as you can. Immediately reverse the movement and hit the bag with the same elbow in an upward diagonal motion. Repeat on both sides.

Quick Tip: Pivot on your front foot to help drive your hips and maximize your striking power, Oliver says.

Punch Up Your Workout

Add into a HIIT or circuit workout, or use as a finisher: Perform 10 reps on each side (diagonally down + diagonally back = one rep). Complete three to five rounds, resting briefly between each.

Knee-to-Elbow

Expert: Kelly Kula, American Kenpo Karate instructor at Shaolin American Self Defense Academy in North Hollywood, California

If an attacker is trying to grab or choke you from the front, you may need to double up on the defense. “Grabbing their shoulders and delivering a thrusting knee to their groin or solar plexus brings them down,” Kula says. “Then as you land, you can deliver a roundhouse elbow to their face.” This is also a great full-body exercise that hits the quads, hams, abs, shoulders and especially the triceps.

  • Assume a fighting stance with your left foot forward. Drive your right knee up as you pull your hands/attacker down to meet your knee at about hip height. Continue turning toward the left and lift your right elbow to shoulder height. Land with your right foot as you simultaneously swing your right elbow across you in a roundhouse motion to the left.

Quick Tip: “Keeping your posted (standing) leg engaged and staying low is key for maintaining your foundation,” Kula says.

Punch Up Your Workout

For interval training: Do 10 knee-to-elbow exercises on each side. Rest one to two minutes and repeat for three to five rounds.

Turning Kick Strength Excercise

Expert: Angela “Coach Ange” Oliver

Your adversary won’t always cooperate and stand perfectly squared up in front of you awaiting your straight-on strike. This move helps develop the power and precision needed to execute a turning kick to effectively hit an off-center target. “It builds strength, particularly around the hip capsule, glutes and hip flexors, within the range of motion used in turning kicks,” Oliver says.

  • Stand with your right side near a wall (in case you need it for balance) and raise your hands in a guard position. Balance on your right leg as you raise your left knee, pulling it back behind you and opening it to the side so your knee, hip and ankle are in the same lateral plane — like a dog visiting a fire hydrant. When you feel a good stretch in your groin, return to the start. Repeat for reps, then switch sides. Ready for more? Extend your knee with each rep as you come to the front to execute a turning kick.

Quick Tip: “Practice at a range of heights to strengthen the muscles of the hips and glutes for stronger kicks,” Oliver says.

Punch Up Your Workout

In your warm-up or as a leg-workout finisher: Perform two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.

Technical Stand-Up

Expert (and model!): Shaina Johnson, black belt/sensei in kenpo, pink belt Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Women Empowered, eight-year Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, Beachbody master trainer in Providence, Rhode Island

If you get into a scuffle and end up on the ground, you’ll have to be able to get up quickly and safely. “In a self-defense situation, returning to your feet and managing distance is imperative — and your life may actually depend on it,” Johnson says. Most people drop their head to stand up, which puts you at risk for choking and strikes, Johnson says; This exercise teaches you how to protect yourself while simultaneously getting back on your feet.

  • Sit with your right knee bent and your leg open to the side and your left foot flat on the ground. Place your right hand behind your right hip and hold your left hand in front of you. Push down with your hand and foot to lift your hips, then retract your right leg, pulling it underneath you. Place your right foot down, knees bent and hips low, then rise into your fighting stance with both hands lifted for defense.

Quick Tip: “Extend your bottom leg straight before retracting it,” Johnson says. “It acts as a block and also can be used to kick or trip, if necessary.”

Punch Up Your Workout

For core/mobility training: Perform one stand-up on the right side, then return to the ground and repeat on the left. Continue, alternating sides, increasing your speed as you go.