What are the essential elements of self-defense that you could learn quickly?

Understanding what techniques to train and perfect, is the key to learning quicker.
Understanding what techniques to train and perfect, is the key to learning quicker.

Is it possible to learn the essential elements of self-defense quickly?

Or to put it another way. How are you able to defend yourself with a minimum amount of training?

By understanding the key elements of what that actually is, that’s how.

This might sound simple, but by focusing on a set amount of things that you would need to do if under attack and train them first and foremost you can develop your self-defense skills much quicker ( see Pareto Principle article)

This is nothing new as this quote from the military self-defense legend, W. E.Fairbairn states…

“We do not advocate that students should attempt to master all the methods, but that they should select about ten, and specialize in thoroughly mastering them.” –

William Fairbairn, All-In Fighting

Being good at a specific set of useful things is better than being average at a lot of potentially useless things when it comes to defending yourself.

Training using a set of basic self-defense principles

Basic self-defense principles, if you are under or close to an actual physical attack, can be broken down, into roughly 5 sections.

There is never any substitute for constant and realistic training, but by concentrating on these from the outset you can save time on learning unnecessary techniques.

1, Keeping your distance, the “Fence”

The first thing to learn is to control the distance between you and the attacker. This has been often named as “The Fence”, advocated by Geoff Thompson and Combat Academy UK among many others.

Simply put, if you can hold up your hands in front of you, arms slightly extended at around head to shoulder height. You have created a “fence”, giving you a certain level of control against a surprise attack. Especially one to the head.

Hands raised "Fence" position

Your arms are already in an active position and also displaying a certain amount of confidence and knowledge to your would-be attacker.

You can then attempt to talk your way out of trouble or use it to guard against any attack. Put simply, if you can become good at controlling the distance between you and your “attacker” you have less chance of getting hurt. If they can’t reach you they can’t hit you!

2, The Guard

The "Guard" position
The “Guard” position

If the “fence” is breached, then the Guard is used to protect against head strikes. This is an extreme version of a boxing style defense that covers the entire head almost as a cage, the idea being that any strikes would be caught on the arms as you move around to avoid the attacker.

If done correctly, the elbows and the top of the forehead can cause damage to bones in the attacker’s hands if struck as they are hard bone. Most importantly it can protect you from dangerous damage to the head.

3, Basic Grappling

Grappling is a crucial part of any self-defense training
Grappling is a crucial part of any self-defense training

Training in grappling or wrestling techniques is very important as it’s main job is “damage limitation”. Things can get messy in a real fight and knowing how to hold someone or how to escape someone grabbing you is crucial.

Taking control of your attacker in a grappling hold can stop them from seriously hurting you and if done correctly, can cause them to tire very quickly. If correct control is applied you can then dictate terms if the fight goes to the floor ( or if you make it happen ). Grappling training would include “throws” and “takedowns”.

4, Striking

The "Hammer Fist" strike technique.
The”Hammer Fist” strike technique.

From the “guard ” position it is possible to get inside the attackers range with your head as a strike weapon, but also use it to shield strikes ( fist, palm, hammer fist ) to the head or leg and knee strikes.

The debate about grappling or striking being better exists, but, in my opinion, this depends on your own personal training, experience and abilities. One could argue that training in both is the best thing to do.

5, Follow through or escape

Get the hell out of there!
Get the hell out of there!

Continue with whatever means at your disposal until your attacker is no longer a threat ( but not beyond: see The Law and reasonable force ) and be ready for any other attackers. The main focus is doing enough to be able to make your escape. Hanging around too long can often lead to further trouble.

A realistic view

Have a look at the following video and you will see the reality of street fights in all their brutality. But you will also see how the above points make sense.

Stay out of range if you can. Be ready to protect yourself. You are more than likely to get grabbed so make sure you know how to deal with it. If you can strike, make sure you are well guarded when you do. Then get away from the situation before other people get involved.

Crazy and brutal street fight examples where various types of “fighting ” are on display.

Technique examples

What techniques do we train?

So for instance on the grappling side, it could mean an armbar or choke. Judo holds or control of the head and arms and so on.

On the striking side, a KO blow or incapacitating strike ( bone break). These are delivered with open hand strikes, fist strikes, kicks, the head or with the knees.

Further along in this blog, we will look at grappling and striking techniques.

Whatever it is you train, it is very important to actually train the whole process from start to finish, however possible, until it becomes a habit. That means training from trying to control the space, right up to the eventual escape.


Many times I have gone through the previous phases in training with a student and after a takedown, the student is so busy being triumphant and in love with their technique, that they don’t notice the person on the floor grab them or jump up and strike them.

Sometimes I introduce another attacker that they aren’t aware of and they end up in more trouble. Make sure you finish it and escape! Follow the whole process through to conclusion as a habit and it will pay off in the long term.

To Conclude

If you concentrate on simplifying what you really would do in a self-defense situation and focus on the key parts, a simple and functional training system can be developed.

A system that is organised and simple, such as the guide given above, is far more likely to be of benefit when under pressure in a real violent situation.