Why This Buzzfeed Self-Defense Video Doesn’t Suck

There’s an old joke in the martial arts world: How many martial artists does it take to change a light bulb? 100. One to change it and 99 to tell you how your way of changing bulbs won’t work.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time around martial artists, you’ll know we’re fantastically egotistical, very dogmatic, and prone to pointing out all the flaws in every system but our own. Frankly, this is antithetical to the idea of martial arts. We’re supposed to be able to look past all the nonsense and collect anything that we can use, put a little thought into it, and say “Okay, this has some promise.” And then use it.

There was a video from Buzzfeed floating around Facebook last week that I stumbled across in one of the many martial arts groups. Predictably, the comments were full of “there’s no way this would work” and “you’ll get yourself killed if you try this” with a handful of positive comments. In my opinion, there were some decent tips in it, with a few caveats.

The video, in case you’re interested is here:

It’s only a couple of minutes long and worth a watch. Just as a side note, this is Buzzfeed’s property and if they ask, I’ll happily take it down.

Now, granted, there are some shady videos out there. Marie Claire had a pretty bad one that focused on fancy techniques to escape things like wrist grabs and chokes and relied a lot on fancy movements and specious theories with a few bits of good advice at the end. A pair of MMA fighters took that one apart and showed why it wouldn’t work. Here’s a hint: it wouldn’t work because it relied too much on being fancy and having a cooperative opponent. In a stress situation, fancy is the last thing you want and you can safely assume someone trying to rough you up isn’t going to cooperate. Rather than try an obscure Chin Na technique against someone grabbing your wrist, how about just kicking him hard in the balls and boogying the heck out of there?

As a martial artist myself (nearly 20 years of Kenpo), that’s what I found interesting about Buzzfeed’s video: There was nothing fancy about it. It’s just simple, relatively easy to pull off things. Someone grabs your wrists from behind? Look at who’s grabbing you, kick backwards as hard as you can then turn around (something you’d want to do anyway) and hit them. Easy peasy. Someone’s too close, maybe a bear hug or just getting a little too aggressive? Thumbs in the eyes work wonders for getting people to back off.

The only thing I didn’t think was a good idea was punching someone straight in the jaw. Someone else might be able to shed more light on this, but it seems like a hook to the side of the jaw or a straight shot to the nose would work better. Jaws can be pretty pointy and tough and the last thing you want to do in a fight is hurt your hand trying to hurt someone else.

Sure, the video might not be the way your system teaches Purple Dragon Spreads Its Wings or Monkey Steals the Peach, but that doesn’t mean it’s not functional. And functional is all we need to care about in a simple self-defense video. The question shouldn’t be “Why didn’t they go for a wrist grab to ground and pound?”, but rather “Will a rear kick to the midsection followed by forearm to the side of the neck be enough to create enough space to get the fuck out of the situation?”

That’s it. This is about survival and creating the means to escape, not auditioning for the next Kung Fu biopic. Truthfully, all self defense situations should be seen through the lens of keep it simple and keep yourself safe.

Again, there’s a lot more that could be covered. For instance, once you’ve got your thumbs in someone’s eyes and their head is tilted back at a huge angle, keep pushing. At the very least, they’re gonna stumble if not flat-out fall, but that’s something that’s beyond the scope of a video designed to give you a few pointers to keep your ass out of too much trouble.

Toward the beginning of this point, I noted one thing that I’d like to reiterate. Even though all this stuff is pretty straight forward, watching a video and doing stuff in the air is one thing. Doing it against a person is something else entirely. The air, and even a heavy bag, will just hang out and let you pummel it. People have arms and legs and they go in all kinds of weird directions and we even have pointy parts (like chins) that hurt to hit. Even some heavy bags hurt to hit – my instructor has a bag that feels like punching rocks – and a broken hand is not a surprise you want in a fight. Find a friend and very carefully work through things. Do that a lot. Do it until it you’re sick of it and then do it some more. That tactile awareness is very important. Then find a heavy bag and pound the snot out of it. Don’t just rely on two minutes of video-based self-defense techniques to make you feel safe.

Besides, fighting is great exercise and beating holy hell out of a heavy bag feels pretty damned good.

As always, I’m interested in your comments. Tell me what you think, share an anecdote, or tell a quick joke.

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If It Was Easy…

My son will be testing for his Jr. 1st Black Belt in Kenpo in a couple of months. Part of the test – actually, a large part of the test – is just physically surviving the damned thing. I’ve been through it twice and it nearly wrecked me back when I was in my 30s. At some point, I’ll be doing it again for 3rd black and, let me tell you, I’m not looking forward to it.

At any rate, part of the prep for the test involves three-hour-long Saturday classes where we run through the techniques and katas in the system, spar, do hands-on work with partners – more on that in a little bit, I’ve got a cool story – and run and do push-ups and run some more and then do some sit-ups and then more running and yada, yada, yada. Someone did some estimating based on Fitbit calculations and a normal one hour class can burn up to 1100 calories, so you can imagine what we’re burning off in three hours. Actually, there’s probably not much need to imagine, it’s simple math: in three short hours we’re burning off more calories than one of those Baskin Robbins Oreo shakes.

2500+ delicious calories in one small package.

So, “tired at the end” barely covers it. It’s a rough workout and the final test will run over the space of a few days. In the end, you feel like you’ve earned that damned belt. Which is a good feeling. My kiddo will probably be wasted after the test, but he’ll have his first black belt and that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Sure, there are plenty more to go – including testing for the adult versions – but earning that first black belt will only ever happen once.

Getting to that point has been a multi-year process. I started teaching him Kenpo was he was about three or four and dragged him kicking and screaming into the school when he was five. That was six years and two schools ago (our old teacher retired) and he’s now on the cusp of finishing the first step into a much larger world.

It’s a long process to get to that point and I have to applaud his determination. Even though there were several times he wanted to quit, he kept going. That was partially me telling him he couldn’t quit, but it was also him working through the system and struggling to get better at it even when he really didn’t want to be there because the siren song of video games was too loud in his head.

Just like writing that book, or finishing that degree, or any of the myriad other  long-running things people do, getting to the first black belt takes determination. It’s hard work. But, let’s face it, if it was easy everyone would be doing it and getting handed a reward for doing something easy is a total waste of everyone’s time. Hooray! You managed to make it to work on time! Here’s your trophy. While I could wax philosophical for days about just how stupid it is to hand out meaningless trophies for trivial things, I’ll save that for another post. For the end of this one, I’ll just say two things: a) I’m really proud of my son right now and b) whatever it is you’re working on that seems like it’s taking freaking forever to get done, keep going until it is done. You’ll thank yourself for it at the end.

Need a little motivation to keep going? Drop a comment. I’m usually fairly good at yelling at people to keep going. 🙂

Now, as for that cool story I was going to tell. If you’ve never hear of Walter Jon Williams, he’s a sci-fi writer here in Albuquerque. He’s also a long-time Kenpo student (let me just say, he’s got a lot of stripes on his belt). Mr. Williams has been coming to our black belt prep Saturdays and I’ve had the opportunity to work out with him over the past couple. Let me tell, it’s not often you get to meet a writer you like, but also get to kick him. He’s a nice guy with a wicked elbow strike and potent punch. If you’d like to see more about his writing, go check out his website/blog. I suppose I should also tell him Google thinks he’s been dead since the 30s.

No, Seriously. You Can’t Do That

My son is nearing his test for his Junior 1st Black in Kenpo. This summer, after years of training, he’ll be at that first plateau that we look at as the really the first step in a life-long journey.

Of course, being steeped in the martial arts these days means you have to wade through a ton of crap and lies that have sprung up over the centuries. Recently, on the drive home, he told me it was possible to hit someone’s nose so hard it sends shards of bone into their brain and kills them instantly. The trick, he assured me, was to use an upward palm strike so that you blast that nose with everything you’ve got.

In case you’re wondering, it looks like this:

Ninja hoods and Marines shirts add +5 to your strikes. But don’t tell anyone I told you that.

This exact strike – and the killing theory behind it – has been the stuff of martial arts legends for as long as I can remember. We talked about it on the playground when I was in school and everyone knew someone who knew someone who totally swore it worked and back off or I’m gonna test it on you and then you’ll be dead and no one will care.

It’s been used in books and movies. This was the strike that got Nicolas Cage busted at the beginning on Con Air. It seems any time someone needs to die from a single strike, this is the tired old trope that gets trotted out. Unfortunately, it’s utter hogwash. Pushing nose bones into someone’s brain falls into the same category of fighting nonsense as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique and the Hurticane. Simply put, the human body doesn’t work like that. Your nose is mostly cartilage (sexy cartilage, in my case) and there’s another layer of bone behind your sinus cavities that you’d have to pierce into order to shove bits of nose into someone’s brain.

That’s not to say it’s not going to hurt like hell. The nose is always a good target in a fight because it’s so close to everything else on your face. I’ve been popped in the beak a time or two and I can assure it’s no fun. Your sinuses swell up, your nose starts leaking fluids you’d rather it didn’t, and your eyes leak water like a comic book fan watching someone burn the original X-Men. In other words, it’s a great place to hit someone if you want to take the fight out of them quickly. It’s not always an easy target to hit, but it is effective. It’s just not deadly in and of itself.

What about all that anecdotal evidence about people getting killed with one punch? Is that all bull, too? Well, yes and no. It has happened, but in most cases death comes from someone hitting their head when they fall down.

I guess the takeaway from that is if you want to kill someone with one strike, make sure they hit their on something hard on the way down.

So, if you’re writing about a fight scene and want to have your main character kill someone with a single blow, choose something realistic. If you want to have your character do some really crazy stuff, look into Dim Mak. On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of a fight and are worried about killing someone with a palm strike to the nose, don’t fret. Just fire that sucker and get the heck out of Dodge.

This gif cracks me up. Fun fact about Bolo Yeung: he swam from China to Taiwan to escape oppression. Fun fact about VanDamme: he can do the splits.

Just make sure your opponent doesn’t hit their head on the way down.

Start Early

We’ve been doing an exercise in Kenpo lately that nicely illustrates something that most people don’t quite understand. Your hands and feet have a fixed range and, unless you’re Plastic Man or Dhalsim, you’re not going to be punch someone if they’re further away than you can extend your arm.

The exercise works like this: find a partner who doesn’t mind getting tapped every now and then. Have him or her take a fighting stance and extend an arm, fingertips out. You do the same thing, but don’t worry about taking a stance. Stand naturally, like you would if you were hanging out at the grocery store or picking up people at the bar. Or disco. You know, whatever floats your goat.

The distance between you two is your kill zone. Even though you’re both out of range of each other, this is the distance that a normal person can cover with a single step. That’s right. At fingertip distance from someone, all it takes is single step and they’re on you like flies on a Taco Bell dumpster. If someone steps into that zone, you’re in danger. But, the really cool thing about it is you’ve got all the time in the world to get out of the way.

Unless you’re a lumbering monster.

Start with something simple. Have your partner step in and try to punch you in the head. All you have to do is step to the side and they’ll go right past you. As your reaction time gets better, start mixing things up. Instead of a punch to the head, try a nice, big roundhouse kick. Instead of just stepping to the side, step out of the way and punch ’em in the noggin. Go back and forth and appreciate the give and take. It seems simple, but it illustrates an important point. What you’re training here is awareness. If you’re looking off the to side or checking your phone, you’re going to get clobbered. If you’re focused and aware, you’re a much harder target.

There are a couple of important takeaways from this exercise. The obvious is paying attention to distance is extremely important. The less obvious one is the question at least one person reading this is thinking right now. That’s not how fights start, right? You’ve got to be closer.

Wrong.

Give this guy a very large kill zone.

All fights start at a longer range that you’d expect. Unless you’re standing right next to someone when they decide you need a beat down, that attacker is going to have to cover some distance to hit you. As soon as someone you don’t know gets within your kill zone, be ready to act. You don’t necessarily have to attack everyone that gets close, but you should be aware of their position and what you can do if they decide to attack. If someone gets too close and you don’t know their motives, move to a better position. That’s what I mean by start early. Before the first punch is thrown, be aware. Watch your surroundings, watch the people around you, and watch anyone who gets into your kill zone.

If we define winning the fight as “getting to go home that night and hug your loved ones instead of spending the night in the E.R.”, then you’ve got a much chance of winning if you’re aware of the world around you. Awareness gives you more time to think, more time to prepare, and – most importantly – more time to avoid the fight altogether. Start early, and you can win the fight before it even begins.

Got any self defense tips? Drop ’em in the comments! I love comments.

A Self-Defense Tip For You

It seems there’s still a large contingent of people out there who will believe you can use car keys to turn yourself into Wolverine.

The set-up is simple and there’s a certain elegance to it. The theory is this: you usually have car keys handy, so why not turn them into a weapon? While I applaud the idea of using common items as improvised weapons, putting your keys between your fingers and punching someone with them is going to have less than stellar results.

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Both of these are extremely bad ideas. Unless you want to hurt yourself, in which case, go for it.

(Actually, when you get right down to it, both of these examples are bad ideas for self-defense, but for different reasons.)

When I was a kid and reading “authentic” “ninja” training manuals, these things would have looked great. In fact, the first time I heard about putting keys between my fingers and slashing at an opponent, it seemed like a great idea. I mean, why not? Keys are quite pointy in parts and slashing at an opponent seemed guaranteed to shred their face, at which point I could take their wallet.

The problem is it only looks good on paper. There are a couple problems with holding your keys this way and assuming you’ve reached the pinnacle of self-defense. First: your attacker is likely to be covered up and keys aren’t terribly effective against clothes. Truthfully, they’re not great against skin, either. Your dreams of going full Weapon X on a guy in a parking lot with nothing more than the keys in your hand are going to come crashing down quickly when you slash at him and wind up doing almost as much damage to your own hand as you do to his face.

If you do any damange to him at all.

The problem is, none of the keys are stable. Try it. Put your keys in your hands like in the above picture and wiggle them. Not too secure, are they? As soon as you make contact with something, those keys are going to press into the webbing between your fingers with an enormous amount of force. Possibly even enough to make you drop them.

Next thing you know, you’ve got a pissed off attacker, a damaged hand, and you’ve lost your keys.

Which leads to the next problem. In any self-defense situation your primary goal should be survival. The best way to make that happen is to get away and the best way to get away is to get in your car and make tracks. If your car is locked and your keys are tangled up in your hands, it’s going to take extra time to find the right key to unlock your car and skedaddle. It may seem easy when you’re in your living room, but remember when you’re attacked it’s a high-stress situation. In any high-stress situation, adrenaline is going to be pumping into your body to stimulate the fight or flight response. Adrenaline’s good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but fine motor skills disappear when it’s pumping. In other words, your brain turns to mush.

So, how about a better solution? Hold one key – the one to your car or your door – securely between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure you’ve got a tight grip and the tip isn’t sticking out too far – that cuts down on the force that’s coming back into your hand and gives you a better chance of holding onto your keys. Now, you’ve got a secure weapon to slash with and you’ve got your key ready to go, so when adrenaline hits you, you don’t have to think about which key is which.

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Think tactically and strategically. The strategy should be escaping in one piece, tactics need to support that strategy, not hamstring it. Although, I would argue the “right” key is still held too far out to be stable.

Of course, you still have to deal with the pesky “getting a key past your attacker’s defenses” part, but if you do it right, you’ll have surprise on your side. Slash at the eyes or throat and get the heck out of there.

Just a quick note on the ring up there, too. Most people don’t know how to punch. It actually takes some time and a lot of practice to get good at punching something. If you slash at someone with that ring, it’s just going to turn on your finger and not do much to your attacker. If you punch someone with that ring on, you’re really going to be in trouble.

The thing about punching is the hand is very good for punching if you punch correctly, namely striking with the big two knuckles on your fist. That ring will put an enormous amount of pressure on the long bone of your middle finger. If you hit a hard enough target – anything on the head, for instance – you’ll break your own finger.

If you want some things to carry for self-defense that aren’t obtrusive, look for a kubotan or something similar. Heck, even a monkey’s fist made from paracord and a big ball bearing would work better.

Don’t believe me? Check these sites for more info:

Martial Arts on Stack Exchange

ACWA Combatives

Think Like A Black Belt

Book Review – The Kenpo Karate Compendium by Lee Wedlake

bookReview

Most martial arts books aim to teach you martial arts by showing you pictures of people doing things. Some do it really well, others do it exceedingly poorly. Some of the books out there that purport to teach a martial art through pictures are trying to teach a shitty martial art poorly. In those cases, you’ve got the double whammy of suck.

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Don’t try this at home.

I have a huge library of martial arts books ranging from obscure treatises on Savate to modern explanations of Krav Maga and everything in between. Some are good, some not so good, but most of them can be counted on to have a gem or two ferreted away between the covers.

Whether or not you can learn a martial art from a book is debatable. I would argue that it’s really not possible to understand motion from static images, but once you’ve got a solid grasp of a martial art, you can start to pick things up from books and videos. The caveat, of course, is what you learn will be tainted by your understanding of whatever art you’ve been studying. In other words, you’d be doing Jeet Kun Do as a Kenpo practitioner, not as a Jeet Kun Do practitioner.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure. I’m of the opinion that if you can make it work, it’s all good. Others would likely disagree.

But, I digress. Lee Wedlake’s The Kenpo Karate Compendium: The Forms and Sets of American Kenpo isn’t one of those books that aims to teach you a martial art. It’s written for people who are already proficient at Kenpo and shows some extra details and notes that may or may not have been picked up during live training.

Kenpo’s a fractured system. It started out in Hawaii, moved to Utah, and exploded after that. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), that explosion has lead to a lot of different schools doing a lot of different things. My school broke from Ed Parker’s school at some point in the distant past, but we still use a lot of his techniques and forms. In fact, the bulk of the first forms from Parker Kenpo are still extant in AKKA Kenpo. There’s more divergence as the belts go higher, but especially the early ones are almost exactly the same as what Lee Wedlake wrote his book about.

That kind of fracturing isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s nice sometimes to go back to the source and see that it hasn’t changed as much as we sometimes like to think it. It’s also nice to get some insight from someone else. Not knocking my own Kenpo instructors here, but it can be a great thing to break out of the norm and see what someone else has to say.

The bottom line for a book like this is it isn’t a great book for beginners. This is for people who want to dig into the original forms and pick up what’s changed here and there over the years or catch those little details that get lost from time to time. It’s also nice to have a different take on something.

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Get your copy here

Changes Changes Changes

My Kenpo school in Albuquerque is closing down. Our head instructor wants to be able to spend more time with his family and, after decades of running a school six days a week, probably wants to be able to sleep from time to time, too. So, my seventeen years at AKKA on Montgomery came to an end today.

It’s a melancholy time, but I wish Mr. Gilbert the best. He’s certainly earned it. On the plus side, my son got a personal lesson from a man with something like forty plus years of experience today. I’ve had plenty of one-on-one time with Mr. Gilbert over the years, but this was my son’s first chance to get some insight directly from a Grand Master of Kenpo and that’s a pretty special thing.

I’ve seen Mr. Gilbert, who is in his sixties now, punch so quickly I could barely see his hands move. That’s what a lifetime of practice looks like. But, for all his training and stories about people walking into his school trying to cause problems, it’s his reactions that will always stick with me. Bear in mind, this is the same man that once taught me “luck is the intersection of skill and opportunity”. If you’ve ever wondered where I got that phrase from, it would be from Mr. Gilbert.

People sometimes wonder what the Martial Arts is. What does it entail? What do you have to do? What does it all mean? Pure and simple, no bullshit here; the Martial Arts (all of them) are about learning to inflict the maximum amount of damage on opponent in the smallest amount of time without getting hurt yourself. In other words, once you boil away all uniforms and mottos and rigamorale, learning the martial arts is about learning to beat the snot out of someone.

Of course, the best martial artists don’t have to rely on their fists to win the fight. One of Mr. Gilbert’s many stories that stuck with me was one I heard for the first time this morning. It’s an apt story, especially given the caustic environment in this country right now.

It would appear, back when Mr. Gilbert was running a school on Central in Albuquerque, that a guy came in looking for trouble. “I’m gonna kick your ass!” he screamed.

This wasn’t an entirely uncommon event. We even had a loon wander in off the street during a pretest and try to cause some problems. A couple guys and I escorted him out and convinced him this wasn’t the best place to cause problems. No one got hurt, so it was all good.

Anyway, the guy on Central was probably one of the run-of-the-mill nutters down there that lives to look for trouble. Mr. Gilbert looked up from whatever paperwork he was working on and calmly asked, “What’s your name?”

This threw the bad guy for a loop. Here he was trying to look tough and this Karate dude just asked for his name. “Why do you need my name?” he asked.

“Well, I need to make sure you’re on the schedule. If you’re not on the list you’re going to have to come back later.”

Talk about defusing the situation. The underlying statement was there were so many guys looking to kick Mr. Gilbert’s ass that he needed a list and a schedule to keep up with them. In the end, the angry guy wound up walking out of the school with a brochure about learning Kenpo and all of Mr. Gilbert’s contact information.

I gather he never took a class, but no fight broke out and no one got hurt, so it was all good.

Those are the kinds of stories that will stick with me. Punching is punching and kicking is kicking, but learning how to avoid the fight entirely is priceless.

Now, since the school is going away, I finally got around to taking some pictures. These are paintings of the animals (Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Dragon, Snake, and Monkey) of the style. Each of the animals represents are certain movement forward in Kenpo understanding. The paintings were made directly on the walls of the school sometime in the 80s by a former student.

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Tiger and Leopard. Tiger is the first animal and represents beginner understanding. Push a button and three attacks come out. Tigers are linear and power-oriented. The Leopard combines the power of the tiger and the ability to move of the Crane.
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Crane. The second level. Cranes start to change from linear movement to what we call point and circle defense. Moving around the opponent and firing quick, precise strikes. The Crane actually comes between Tiger and Leopard.
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Dragon introduces twisted stances and more movement. This falls at the Green belt level, the last belt before someone hit expert level at Brown.
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Snake and me taking a picture. The snake has two components: constrictor and viper. Constrictor elements of Kenpo include methods of coiling around arms and bodies. Vipers introduce very precise shots to small targets like eyes. The three Brown belts compose snake techniques.
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Monkey is the Black Belt element. Monkey can use any and all of the other animals and the Black Belt is, at least partially, about learning to combine the elements together.

Mr. Gilbert will still be around, so it’s not like AKKA is losing him forever. And also, as he pointed out, Bill Packer died and the system kept going. Thomas Connor died and the system kept going. Ed Parker died and Kenpo lived on. It’s not an easy change to swallow since I left the system once before and came back primarily for Mr. Gilbert.

Happy New Year, everyone. It’s a time for change and renewal. You can either approach the problem head-on and beat your fists against the wall or you can use a bit of trickery to turn the problem to an advantage.