“Speed” Self-Defense

One of the questions I often get is about the value of short term “quickie” self defense courses and how valuable they are. I have done a lot of research and development in this area. Several years ago I took a serious look at the content of short-term self-defense courses and also at the idea of vastly accelerating the process of teaching someone to be able to defend themselves in a practical way. I reached the conclusion that if done right there can be a lot of value to this kind of training.

Obviously, if you have a lot of time and can commit to an extended training program you can achieve a great deal and reap a lot of benefits. This is the way that Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and most other martial arts are designed to be taught and in doing so goes far beyond just the self-defense aspect and into the areas of long term physical fitness and personal development. In other words, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu can become a life style with a lot of interwoven benefits and that is a very good thing.

However, there are people who simply do not have the luxury of being able to commit to extended training times and even those who do would understandably prefer to be able to realistically defend themselves sooner rather than later. Therefore, there has always been a need for and interest in what we can call “accelerated training protocols”. Many “experts” dismiss the idea that you can adequately train normal people quickly but too often they begin with a faulty paradigm that most usually comes from a sport based perspective.

The idea is not: can we compete on pare with people with long periods of training and experience in an athletically demanding, complex and strategic combat sport, but instead, can we respond to highly predictable common street scenarios that often rely on  our ability to surprise the attacker and quick and decisive actions more than on complex and difficult to learn motor skills.

Don’t get me wrong, I see a true “accelerated training protocol” as being a little different from the short term courses or seminars that I was often hired to teach. I often viewed these kinds of courses as a good way to expose the public to what Brazilian Jiu-jitsu had to offer in the way of self defense and hopefully make it interesting and compelling enough that people would then want to continue. In other words, I taught them more as orientations and try outs for people who are not going to get those long term benefits if they don’t get exposed and interested in the system in a way that does not start with a big commitment.

However, this is a different premise from the idea that: “what if we had to train someone who was going to have to fight for sure, in a short amount of time”? Can this be done and if so what is the best way to do it. My idea was to focus on one high percentage technique that could be used in multiple situations instead of multiple techniques that may only be usable in specific situations.

While not an entirely original idea I’d never seen it really explored in a realistic way because the starting point was usually the same unfounded opinions and untested methods that were the problems with long term extended training. The same old strikes that can’t really be tested and are surprisingly low percentage after years of training are not suddenly going to work better in the short term. Even among Brazilian Jiu-jitsu instructors I got little help with the ideal because they were usually too busy focusing on tournament style training which was becoming more and more technically complex.

What was very interesting, and what I did not know at the time was that this was the same approach taken by Moshe Feldenkrais during World War Two. Feldenkrais was a high level Jiu-jitsu/Judo instructor who was instrumental in developing judo in France during the 1930s but then had to flee to England when France was defeated by the Germans at the start of World War Two.

Feldenkrais was also an accomplished scientist by profession, so while he worked on a military base doing research on sonar and radar at a time when a Nazi invasion was a real threat, he also wanted to put his Jiu-Jitus/Judo knowledge to good use for the defense of the country that was protecting him.

At that time, everyone in England had to be mobilized to resist the anticipated Nazi invasion. The fittest young men went into  active military service and the older people went into the home guard. Feldenkrais found himself having to train a group of home guard members in hand-to-hand combat. These tended to be non-athletic middle aged men. You could teach almost anything to young fit aggressive soldiers fighting for their lives and homes and have a chance of it working since the soldier’s other physical attributes were expected to carry him through. However, older less well trained people were a different story. Feldenkrais had already seen France fall so this was no theoretical exercise for him. He felt that these men could very well be fighting for their lives in the very near future and wanted to truly prepare them as well as possible. He had just ten hours to do it.

Feldenkrais reached the same conclusion as I would many years later, that if you focused on only one powerful technique you could gain real skill with this technique in a condensed amount of time. He determined that with proper military drilling you could get the recruit to practice the technique about 100 times in the hour training session and this meant it would be practiced literally 1000 times by the end of the 10 hour course. Nevertheless, all kinds of things could be practiced this way like a jab or hip throw which might have little or no value in a real hand to hand fight. The technique had to be something decisive that was easy to learn and would totally change the outcome of a hand-to-hand fight. For his purposes Feldenkrais chose the “hadaka-jime” as it is called Judo, which is a bare armed strangle from behind.

This is a very good choice and fit well into the military context that might include sentry removal and other battlefield situations where you are behind the enemy. Quite independently but working with the same principles, I too chose a choke as the basis for a one technique based accelerated training protocol. What is also interesting is that Feldenkrais considered the hadaka-jime and my preferred choke as variations on the same theme. His original course dealt with weapon attacks and really was incredibly comprehensive in scope while covering so many high danger situations with only one response. It was pure genius.

Feldenkrais did not focus on the choke from the front version as I did. I had not really considered a rear attack as a starting point since I felt getting behind the attacker was a relatively difficult problem to overcome for the beginner. Furthermore my version did not venture into weapon defense and was focused on the first level of self defense which was the most common unarmed  “street” attacks such as “haymaker” punches and clothing grabs. That being said, the two approaches are very similar because they are based on the Jiu-jitsu idea of “maximum efficiency”, however we had to also include the idea of maximizing very limited time which in a sense is the ultimate expression of maxim efficiency. Thus, I started with the idea of common “street” attacks from the front, instead of a broader “battle field” context and my choice was the “guillotine” choke.

I found that the “guillotine”, or as I call it a “noose” choke was a true fight ender that was easy to learn simple to apply and very versatile. I learned this choke and was involved in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu before the term “guillotine” choke was coined at the first UFC so their terminology never caught on with me. I used the term “noose” because it was a better description of how your arm is acting very much as a “noose” that goes around the opponent’s neck and hangs him with his own body weight.

A simple choke like this is a far better bet than striking; the odds and percentages are much higher. Even professional MMA fighters who can absorb punch after punch routinely choke each other out with this technique and they know all the defenses. It is extremely simple and effective and could be your primary method of finishing an opponent in the standing position for any medium to high threat level situation. I kid you not, 3000 reps of this choke is far, far more valuable than years of striking training or just about anything else. It is the single most proven and effective standing finish or submission that exists in MMA-it is that simple.

For example, If you know your MMA then you probably know that an incredibly talented fighter like Lyoto Machida who was both a Black Belt in Karate and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu was still choked unconscious  by a version of a standing “noose” choke. Machida was not just a competent MMA fighter but the very formidable champion of his weight class. Here was a fighter who had hardly even been hit flush by a punch because of his masterful karate footwork but when John Jones wrapped that long arm around his neck, like a noose, years of training and skills were nullified. The point being that if a fighter of the caliber of Machida is susceptible to that choke literally every one is.

Unlike striking and many joint locks that can be resisted, no matter how large someone is they can still be rendered unconscious by this choke. You do not need dozens of finishes for real world self-defense; a much better strategy is to have dozens of ways to get someone into this choke. For example, This can be effectively done a few ways from a clinch which is the standard and proven Brazilian Jiu-jitsu way to deal with strikes .

Moreover, there are many grabs and hold releases taught in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and other systems of self defense. A lot of them are very good but a lot of them can still be difficult to completely incapacitate an attacker with. Hence, a lot of these locks and holds can be used in a simpler yet more effective way to get the attacker to bend over and bring his head into a position that you can apply your noose choke.

For an even simpler approach, I used and tested a “Thai clinch” to bring the opponent’s head down for the noose choke. This really works well and can cut through months or even years of training. In many if not most bent arm type grabs and holds, including the ubiquitous double lapel hold, you can access and lever the opponent’s head down for the noose choke. Furthermore, the common strikes that are taught as ways to take out an attacker  probably can not deliver on that expectation but can usually help get someone to flinch or bend over enough to set up a “noose” choke. This has a lot of advantages for real world self-defense beyond just the accelerated learning since it takes most of the decision making process out of the equation which is one of the hardest things for many people to do under the stress of a real life situation.

 Furthermore, if you remember our discussions on “stability” and “joint alignment” then you can understand why this choke is so formidable. The opponent’s back is bent forward so that he is nearly folded in half and therefore he is in his weakest standing position (back parallel or 90 degrees to the ground). If this were not bad enough, he is being choke unconscious and is lucky if he has ten seconds before passing out.

Furthermore, you apply this choke from a good wide base where bending your knees helps to use your hips to power the choke and makes you very stable and powerful. A person being choked this way is very unstable in this position so they are both physically weak and off balance so they can be moved around quite effectively. I have used this approach to choke one attacker unconscious while moving the scum bag in between me and the other attackers in a multiple opponent situation. As we have discussed in other posts there are probably better ways to deal with multiple opponents but this can still be done if necessary and demonstrates the power and versatility of this single technique

Let me reiterate, as a real world standing self-defense technique the “noose” choke or “guillotine” is incomparable because it is quite simple to apply even under the stress of a real personal defense encounter and very effective in an observable, testable and repeatable real life kind of way. When applied correctly, an opponent will go unconscious, no theory, no untested assumptions, no non sense only nap time for the bad guy.

Thus, it is about as “perfect” a standing self defense technique as can be found and I believe that all standing self defense techniques have to be compared to this one. In other words, it should be the standard that all other techniques are held to before we teach them for real world use. Therefore, this choke is the perfect starting point for any standing self defense training (and also has very powerful ground application as well) and is the perfect focus for short term training because of its unparalleled versatility and effectiveness.

Thus, looking at self-defense in this way also improves our long term training by forcing us to evaluate our results and realize that just because we spend a lot of time on something does not mean we are getting good results. Now, don’t misunderstand me, one technique can still only take us so far but even people who know the choke well do not seem to understand how much potential it has for solving a multitude of both standing and ground defense scenarios.

This is evident  when we look at the  Brazilian Jiu-jitsu “Blue Belt” street defense program, which admittedly has lots of variations from instructor to instructor but still only uses the “noose” choke a couple of times out of the 100 or so classic self defense moves. In other words, even the experts in this technique under utilize it in favor of more traditional hip throws and wrist locks. If you are in a hurry to actually be able to incapacitate a larger dangerous opponent a lot of that stuff is not necessary and could easily be replaced with more reps and set-ups of the “noose” choke. Ergo, long term students might actually have something to learn from the short term students.

Now I am sure, that there must be some “pseudo-experts” who are going to tell you what a bad idea using this choke is, they may even tell you “it’s all a myth” but as you hear their rationales instead of me being redundant and telling you about unfounded opinions once again, I want you to remember a little history. In the 1500s the “experts” in England had a debate about whether the English army should be armed with bows and arrows or fire-arms! No, I am not joking.

Thus, bad advice and stupid opinions are nothing new in the history of fighting so trying to anticipate the prattling of fools is not always easy. Their ideas are usually so silly and illogical and can be disproved with just a little hard training but as we know training may be the last thing a “pseudo-expert” wants to do. Jaw-jitsu is always much more deadly.

However, one that I have heard and you are likely to as well, is that the “noose” choke is completely useless because it leaves your groin “open”. When I hear such pronouncements my question is “open to what”? In theory, a person that bent over may still be able to reach your groin with their hand…sometimes, but there is not a lot they can do in such a weak position and any attempts can be blocked with your legs or better yet by snapping down the attacker, (a sudden downward jerk that unbalances the attacker and would force him to try and catch himself with his arms).

One version of the choke is to get his head under your stomach instead of in your armpit, it is a tighter choke and you are basically blocking your groin with his head. In another version of this choke you dont need your hips and can sprawl you legs back completely removing your groin from the equation. In the real world theory does not stack up to reality, since myself and others have used this choke many, many times not only under MMA conditions but in real self-defense encounters and I have yet to see a groin attack attempted let alone succeed.

The one exception that comes to mind but is actually a very different situation was the very early Keith Hackney vs, Joe San UFC fight. What in theory looks probable becomes next to impossible when we understand that when you are being choked your brain goes into complete panic mode because a cut off oxygen supply equals death. Your hands will instinctively go to your neck and your brain will not be able to think of anything else but trying to breathe. This is a physiological fact not a theory.

If you want another example from the old school NHB/MMA days look at Ken Shamrock vs. Dan Sevrin. The much heavier Sevrin ended up getting caught in a Noose choke from the front and wasted valuable split seconds trying to hit Shamrock from his bent over position which had no effect and he ended up having to tap out. This is a good example because Sevrin was 260 lbs and could not strike his way out of the choke from a significantly smaller man.

Therefore, I think that accelerated training is not only possible but can be quite effective and blocks of training like that should be used in long term training as well and for the same reasons-to make you more effective faster and better able to deal quickly with real life dangers. A program like Feldenkrais’ holds up very well even 75 years later especially compared to the often silly stuff we have to sort through now days. Thus, I suggest taking a look at it since it has been reissued in printed form and is fairly easy to find these days on the internet. While no single technique can ever hope to solve all self-defense problems,  a few thousand reps of two very simple and proven chokes, one for the rear and one from the front really could prepare someone better than literally years of pad work, kata, pressure points, uchi-komi or simultaneous attack and defense. Programs like these are about not wasting time but going right for the throat…literally.


  • Chas54

    This is a very interesting summary. I look forward to going back and reviewing all of the blog.