Step Off: Quick and Dirty Self Defense for the Street

Street self-defense is not an opportunity to show off what you learned in that Tae Kwon Do class or to emulate all of those MMA fighters you’ve watched while drinking beer and eating nachos.

A confrontation that turns physical is a dangerous scenario you want to avoid at all costs, but if you’re in a situation where you must fight, you should be prepared to defend yourself.

Today, our goal is to provide our readers with a solid foundation of knowledge and expectation when defending themselves.

The actual technique and practice are vital; we can only show you how and give you the right direction to take.

That hard work is up to you.

The Standard Warning

Always consult a physician before beginning an exercise or training program.

Reading about street defense is one thing, but practicing it can be more harmful than an actual street fight if you aren’t conditioned and following the guidance of a good teacher.

And yes, you’re going to need to practice. A lot. We call it “drilling,” we’ll talk more about that below.

The (Im)practicalities of Street Defense

man doing Kung Fu

When I was in my mid-teen years, I became an enthralled student of kung fu. It was the only physical activity/sport besides hiking that captured my interest and dedication. For two years, I practiced the art of kung fu daily.

The idea that I was privy to these thousand-year-old self-defense and combat techniques was fascinating and at once reassuring. Heaven forbid anybody tried to mess with me in a street fight, or I’d be forced to crescent-kick them into oblivion!

At 15 years old, I went to a competition and witnessed the San Shou kickboxers. This form of kickboxing allows throws and takedowns, but a referee stops the fight in the event of a takedown and returns the fighters to a standing position.

It’s MMA without the ground fighting.

Imagine how my mind was blown to witness these dudes actually fighting and using a mere handful of techniques.

The strikes were real, noses were broken, and fights continued even if blood and sweat clouded the eyes.

Now, this was combat, and suddenly, the sixty-two kicks I had learned were utterly useless, all replaced by a roundhouse and a front snap kick.

This was a significant turning point for me and the first step I took on the road of combat sports and, ultimately, real-life self-defense.

Traditional Martial Arts Are Art, Not Self Defense

Karate class

If you want to learn an ancient art form and get an awesome workout while doing it, take up some traditional martial arts… but if you’re going to learn how to truly defend yourself, skip the dojo.

I love traditional martial arts as an art form, and I’ll always be grateful for the transformation they helped me achieve as a person. Hell, I often recommend people take classes in a discipline; it is worth your time.

But don’t do it if you want to learn to defend yourself in a street fight or as preparation for self-defense when the SHTF.

Even when these schools and instructors promise to teach you real and practical self-defense, don’t do it.

I’ve got an especially bitter grievance regarding instructors who teach students “secret techniques” that are guaranteed to drop any assailant.

If I hear one more “solar plexus punch!” or “use this wrist lock!” suggestion for a woman defending herself, I will scream.

I found this excellent video that demonstrates what a real combat scenario looks like for women.

Be warned that this video has some pretty unpleasant footage of women being assaulted.


Save your money and find an instructor who teaches something like Krav Maga.

Find What Works

Steer clear of traditional martial arts when learning self-defense; try something that gives you real experience of getting hit in the face.

Disciplines such as Krav Mage sacrifice art for effectiveness.

You won’t learn long-winded forms or kata, and there is no mysticism about the origin of the techniques you’re learning. You’ll learn to eliminate threats quickly and return to safety.

Jujitsu is in a funky position when it comes to practicality.

Many techniques are highly effective to learn when defending yourself, but the reality of most grappling disciplines is that you will wind up on the ground to execute your technique.

Depending on where you are, that means you could be rolling around on broken glass, rocks, and other unpleasant stabby things… or you could find yourself at the mercy of your attacker’s friends coming to the rescue.

Boxing, Kickboxing, and Other Combat Sports

I admit my preferential bias for combat sports. There’s something about an activity when you leave class with a black eye and a smile on your face that tugs my heartstrings.

Combat sports are excellent for learning how to handle a street defense scenario.

For starters, you’ll get hit once, twice, thrice, and then again.

A major ace up your sleeve in any self-defense scenario is an understanding of what you will experience.

Knowing how to keep moving when your ears are ringing and your nose is bleeding is a significant skill to develop and maintain that you will learn from sparring in the ring.

A significant edge you’ll develop in these programs is a focus on learning a mere handful of techniques and drilling them constantly to become automatic actions. Traditional martial arts teach a unique punch or kick for every scenario, as if you’ll have the time to flip through your mental Rolodex and whip out the right one when needed.

Combat sports focus on four or five punches, a handful of kicks, and a few takedowns and joint locks. Some disciplines focus more on the striking or the grappling, but the core curriculum is more or less the same.

Most importantly, you will develop true confidence in one of these classes. Being calm and measured, a conduit for self-control, is a major aspect of successful street defense.

The first few times you get hit in the nose, your eyes will water, and you’ll swear nothing’s ever hurt so much, but after a few weeks, you won’t even react anymore.

And believe me, that endurance carries over into the street.

The Basic Rules Of Self Defense

Making an extensive list of rules for a self-defense scenario is overkill.

After all, each scenario is different, but there is enough common ground between these situations to make a few core tenets to remember.

  1. Distance: The first rule of any self-defense scenario is to distance yourself and your loved ones from it. Get away from it, plain and simple; you can run, shout for help, or drive away. You are not a character in a movie; you are a squishy human who can die or become seriously injured because you’re stubborn and proud. Remove your ego.
  2. Defuse: If you can’t run, try to defuse the scenario. If somebody wants your money, give them the wallet. Material things can be replaced and are easier to part with than your health or life. If somebody is belligerent and trying to start a fight, speak calmly, keep your distance, and talk the situation to a point where violence is no longer a threat.
  3. Defense: When all else fails, defend yourself appropriately for the scenario. A scuffle outside of a bar because some guy calls your wife a hippo and starts a fight is an entirely different scenario than one when you are confronted with multiple assailants. Always use an appropriate response for the situation.
  4. Legalities Matter: This isn’t “the good old days” when a few guys could get into a scuffle and head home to sleep it off. We live in an increasingly litigious world. Even a scenario where you are clearly defending yourself in a minimalist manner could result in jail time and legal fees.
  5. See a Knife? Start Running: This is a no-BS scenario. Get yourself the hell away from anybody with a knife; don’t even bother trying to defend yourself. Self-defense instructors will use practice knives with chalk edges to demonstrate how often you will get slashed open when “defending yourself” from a knife. DO NOT fight against an opponent armed with a blade, just run.

Basics of Technique

We will break this into a few sub-sections for ease of reference.

Stance, Foot Movement, and Handedness

Watch this video for a good visual explanation of placing yourself into a stance for street defense.


You want to maintain an athletic stance.

No, you’re not in a three-point stance ready to tackle into the offensive line; instead, keep your feet about shoulder-width apart with your knees slightly bent and relaxed. Ready to move anywhere you need to go, not leaning one way or the other.

If you’re right-handed, you’ll keep your right foot to the back and your left foot to the front. Your left hand is held out about a thumb’s length from your chin, and your right hand is up protecting your jaw; imagine you’re holding a telephone to your ear.

This is an “orthodox” fighting stance.

If you’re left-handed, swap it! Right foot and hand forward, left foot back and left hand over your jaw. This is called “southpaw.”

You want to be able to step and move as naturally as possible. Don’t get tripped up in your steps, and don’t overstep. Maintain your foot position as close as possible to shoulder width whenever you can for balance.

If you throw a strike, keep moving; don’t stand and gloat.

If your assailant is tough or has some fighting experience, your punch is going to be absorbed far more readily, and they will be ready to respond quickly. Keep moving to minimize any openings.

You’ll probably be tense, but try to loosen up. Bruce Lee suggested that you stand as naturally as you would be while waiting for the bus.

Relaxation is key.

Basic Hand Striking

For a great visual, check this one out; the volume of the guy’s voice is difficult to hear, but the visual is easy to see;


First off, do NOT hold your thumb against your palm. That’s a recipe for some broken bones. Instead, fold your fingertips down one knuckle at a time until your fingertips are touching your palms, then place your thumb naturally over your index finger.

You strike with the largest two knuckles on your hand (index and middle fingers) with a straight wrist. Punches should be sharp, fast, and quickly return to a defensive position; imagine the hand moving in an A to B and back to A motion with no dipping or dropping.

In general, you will work on straight punches (jab and cross) and the hook punch.

This is an incredibly challenging technique to accurately describe without visual representation, so here are some excellent video resources to watch. For clarity’s sake, I will describe what each punch is used for.

  • The Jab: A straight punch from the lead hand. This punch is thrown to test range and distance but can be a powerful weapon by itself. I had a boxing coach that wouldn’t teach me anything about any other punch until I could win a round with my jab alone. Excellent for taller folks with longer reach (the length of your arm).
  • The Cross: Straight punch is thrown from your rear hand. It is a more powerful strike and has serious stopping power; use this to put somebody down after you’ve tested the range with your jab and can set up a square strike.
  • The Hook: Can be thrown from the lead or rear hand. It is a horizontal punch that is best used defensively. It is difficult to master but excellent for guys like me who are on the short side of the scale and need to throw counter punches. The secret to a good lead hand hook is pivoting your lead foot; imagine you’re crushing peanut shells beneath your foot for maximum effect.

The Jab and Cross:


The Hook:


Open Hand or Closed Fist?

Well… it depends.

Nobody can sum this up more efficiently than Bas Rutten. He is a legendary mixed martial arts fighter with extensive experience in street fighting.

Check out this video to see his explanation of open hand versus closed fist striking.


To summarise, he says,

If you know how to fight and are facing one opponent use a closed fist and aim for the jaw. If it’s a more chaotic scenario use open fist (striking with inside bony part of your wrist) and your forearms.


I’ve never been a fan of kicking in any scenario, but there are some limited scenarios when it can be beneficial.

  • A kick to the groin is one of the most useful techniques you’ve got, so use it. Forget about honor and decency when your safety is on the line and kick that dude in the family jewels.
  • A kick to the knees can be effective if you can throw it out effectively.
  • The front kick/snap kick can be useful if you’re proficient in throwing it, but a missed kick can be disastrous or if your assailant catches the kick and throws you to the ground.

I would advise you to never kick above the knees of your assailant unless you’re aiming for the groin.

When an opponent is down, and the situation calls for it (more on that later), some kicking or stomping can be effective.

Other Strikes and Techniques

A good grappler in the right scenario can easily dominate a street fight, but these situations should be avoided whenever possible.

That said, a powerful takedown can be devastating. Be warned; a strong takedown can be deadly.

Most wrestling-style takedowns are effective; here is a great array of takedowns that can be situationally effective.


Watch this stunningly detailed tutorial for a more in-depth look at the double leg takedown (my personal favorite). You’ll also learn the defense against this attack.


The Best Targets

If you attack a person’s throat, neck, or eyes and are not in a deadly scenario; you will be in deep legal doo-doo.

In a typical street fight, you want to strike areas that will put an opponent down with minimal effort. That includes the jaw, liver, and chin.

Most street fights should be quick; only strike enough that you can escape and minimize any damage done.

In almost any scenario, once an opponent is on the ground and incapacitated, you need to stop your defense and get away to contact the authorities.

If it’s squishy, it’s a good target. That includes the groin, eyes, neck, and ears, but don’t forget areas like the kidney and liver. These vulnerable areas are the most effective ones to strike but are also capable of causing the most damage.

Attacking those areas is reserved for deadly situations or when faced with an opponent of much greater size than you.

Women should focus on these sensitive spots when defending themselves against men.

In general, you want to bend things in a direction they shouldn’t go, scratch, scrape, and scoop what is soft and tender, and generally attack any weak points with the most ferocity you can muster.

When Extra Damage is Needed

Maybe the SHTF and there is no law, or you’re of slight build and in a situation where somebody is ready to cause you grievous harm.

It could be an angry drunk who is towering over you in an alley, a group of assailants intent on using their numbers against you, or maybe a mugger or rapist.

In that situation, you need to ensure your attacker is not getting back up to chase you.

If a man is kicked in the groin, he may stand back up after a short period and continue his pursuit of you. A dazed opponent can recover quickly if they have training or experience to do so and continue their assault, thereby eliminating your advantage.

In that case, keep them down and prevent them from chasing you. Stomp on their ankles or hands to prevent them from pursuing you before you run away, or kick them again in the groin to guarantee their incapacitation.

In a terrible situation, you may need to get creative and stop your attacker.

We’ll take a look at Bas Rutten’s street defense suggestions for an idea of short, effective attacks against deadly opponents.


The Importance of Drilling

You must practice this stuff for it to become truly effective.

Sorry, there’s no way to absorb technique by osmosis through the internet. You’ve got to practice, practice, practice.

That’s why a short list of simple, effective techniques useful in various situations is so important. Watch boxers train, and you’ll see them throwing the same punches for hundreds of repetitions, hitting a heavy bag, focus mitts, or just shadowboxing.

There’s no way you can employ these techniques without practicing them. Shadowboxing by itself is a useful tool to practice techniques when you’re alone.

Ideally, you have an instructor to comment on your technique and help you improve.

The Power of Distractions

If you are calm and in a prepared, stable state of mind, you can outwit an assailant who is hellbent on a physical confrontation.

When the adrenaline is flowing, and awareness is at a high, the mind can be easily tricked.

For example, if a mugger asks for your wallet, take it out and toss it. The mugger is interested in your money, not shooting or stabbing you. They want to get away as quickly as possible. Just make sure anybody you’re with runs to safety as well.

If an assailant is approaching you and getting too close, and you know violence is inevitable, look over their shoulder and say questioningly, “Is that your car?”

It doesn’t matter if they look; what matters is that half-a-second when they register your question. In that time, you had better punch them in the throat or kick them in the groin and capitalize on the moment.

A feint, or deceptive strike, can be a good distraction too.

For example, you punch with your left hand to make your assailant reflexively move to the right. Your opponents dodge actually lines him up to your cocked-and-ready right cross, a considerably more powerful strike. That is a successful feint.

Ideally, any feint should still strike the attacker even if they don’t react to it; using the example above, your left-hand punch should still make contact if the attacker doesn’t fall for the setup.

The Importance of Health and Conditioning

SHTF fitness training

At Primal Survivor, we’ve talked about the importance of your health and physical conditioning before.

It’s just as important when discussing self-defense, especially because you need to be healthy to start any new exercise or training program.

Join a gym if you like using lots of equipment and the social setting of a group fitness area.

If you’re the solitary type like myself, employ some calisthenics and home gym workout programs.

Get strong, practice those drills, and you’re on the right path.

Got Into a Fight? Get to the Doctor

If you’ve been in any physical confrontation and got yourself out with zero injuries, still go to the doctor. Adrenaline can dull any pain, injuries, and trauma you’ve experienced.

It also looks far more responsible to the authorities if you immediately go to your doctor or a hospital to address any potential injuries.

It’s the smart thing to do, so do it.

Buy the Right Gear

I love to save a buck when I can, but do yourself a favor and buy good quality gear when it comes to any fight training.

Understand that expensive and good quality are not tied together; you can find excellent training gear for modest prices.

Do your homework and make the right purchases for your needs.

If you’re training at a gym, you’ll likely need two pairs of gloves (bag gloves and sparring gloves), a mouthpiece, other protective gear (a cup, headgear, etc.), hand wraps (buy 180″ wraps, not 108″ wraps), and the appropriate attire.

Some gyms only expect typical workout attire, while others require you to purchase a uniform (Jujitsu and other grappling disciplines come to mind).

If you are setting up a home gym, you’ll need to purchase a good heavy bag (buy a Thai bag/banana bag, and you’ll thank me later) along with the necessary hardware to set it up.

If you have friends and training partners, focus mitts and/or Thai pads are worth their weight in gold.

Consider purchasing a few workout mats to protect yourself from unintentional training injuries.

Keep a Balanced Head, and You’ll Be Fine

“All things in moderation” is an excellent code to live by, and it applies aptly to any self-defense training.

I know the temptation to dive full-on into a new program or hobby, “Damn the torpedoes,” and all that.

But please, catch your breath and wait a moment!

Training for any self-defense is a long-term program that compliments the survivor mindset.

Find your footing and step with traction in the right direction, never too hastily or without knowing where you’re going.

And remember, anybody can be a street fighter; it takes no special skill, just a thick head and willingness to put yourself through a helluva lot of pain, all for the sake of admiration from a bunch of numbskulls.

Self-defense is about surviving an ugly confrontation and getting to safety.

This is ideally accomplished by running and getting far away. Otherwise, talking your way out of a bad position is another desirable outcome.

But lastly, if you find that you need to throw fists to get yourself to safety, know now that you have the tools and understanding to get yourself there.

Now get off your chair, stop fantasizing, and get to drilling.

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Leave a comment

  1. Great article Matt and some of the best advice I have heard in awhile regarding this uncommon (yet surprisingly common occurrence).

  2. I am 73 and have a fused knee, so I can’t run so well, either. As for mindset try “When Violence Is The Answer” by Tim Larson. He says, “Violence is rarely the answer, but when it is, it is the only answer.” I agree with him. I hope I never have to use violence against another person. I now walk with a cane that I can use as a weapon. If an attacker grabs it and pulls, inside is a Cold Steel sword. (It is legal in my state. Check your state’s laws.) If I or mine are in danger I will not hesitate to injure or kill the attacker.

    • My husband also uses a cane and has the same mindset that he’d use it as a self-defense item if he had to. The sword inside the cane is a good idea. Maybe he will get one for his birthday coming up. 🙂

  3. This is really weird. About an hour ago I was online looking at self defense courses. I knew I didn’t want the graceful Kung Fu stuff. I was looking for the Israeli Military fighting but I didn’t know the name of it. Found it with Google and then found classes nearby but didn’t register yet. I’m a 66 year old woman in decent shape. I expect to get hurt while learning these techniques. I saved the site to my favs and then checked my email and saw your weekly post. I couldn’t believe it was about the type of fighting that I was just looking at!

  4. Excellent article I think also maybe say a little about the mental preparation Ie practice scenarios in your mind about a confrontation and when you realise that there is no way out and you have to fight you must be prepared to go for it and hit first and make those strikes to eyes throat nose and groin very fast Paddy

  5. Gotta ask: I’m 78. How do I cope? Just pray? Cant run so good. Or just never go out and die of Boredom?? Seriously, whats my bets options?

    • Hey Ted, that’s a great question. It’s an aspect I hadn’t considered when writing this article, and I really should have.

      A person in your situation is probably better off carrying some sort of self-defense tool, especially something like pepper spray. If you carry a cane, that’s an excellent self-defense tool as well. I’ve seen senior self-defense classes advertised before and it’s a solid option; you’d likely learn some joint locks and some take downs that are mechanically sound and safe.

      I’ve read about some personal alarms to carry around, they emit a high-pitched noise to serve as an alarm. I don’t know how effective they are, but a piercing and loud-pitched noise can deter people effectively. Imagine holding something like that to an assailant’s ear!

      Using your words and deescalating the scenario is a solid option as well. Traveling with a friend is wise as well; many self-defense scenarios are attacks of opportunity to people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      I’d suggest researching a senior’s self-defense class in your area. I hope this was helpful, Ted, please give me another shout if and when you have other questions or want some insight on anything. Thanks for reading and taking the time to reach out.


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