Category Archive: Health and Fitness

How to Avoid Injury

Training for physical self defense is harsh. There’s just no easy way around it. If you want to learn how to deal with a fully resisting opponent who is trying to take your head off, then you have to train against a fully resisting partner who is trying to take your head off. Anything less will not prepare you for the brutality of a real attack. But you don’t have to train 100% intensity all the time, and you should do it as safely as possible.

The purpose of self defense training, other than for enjoyment and exercise, is to develop the skills to avoid injury in an assault. So it certainly makes sense to train in such a way that minimizes the chance of injuring yourself and your training partners.

I’ve definitely had more than my share of injuries over the years, from bruises and sprains to broken bones and torn ligaments. And I’ve also unfortunately injured numerous training partners. In my teens and 20’s, my biggest concern with injuries was that they limited my ability to practice and teach. But in my 30’s and now 40’s, the injuries from my past have added up, and these days if I do get injured it takes far longer to heal than when I was younger. At this point in my life, avoiding injury is probably the most important consideration in my training. I wish it would have been the same when I was younger, and I highly recommend you make it an important consideration in your training. Below are several concepts you can use in your training to minimize injury.

Progressive Resistance

One of the best ways to avoid injury is to train with progressive resistance. When you begin with any technique or training method, you need to start slowly and with low intensity. As your skills increase, when you feel safe and comfortable at a given level, you can slowly increase the intensity. The key is never to increase the intensity too far beyond the limits of your skills.

This not only decreases your chance of injury, but it also leads to faster learning. Training too far above your skill level teaches you nothing, because you’ll tend to fail in ways that are hard to learn from. Training right at the border of your skill level, pushing past it just a bit, will cause you to fail. But the failures will be small and much easier to learn from. At this level, your partner should also be able to use better control to avoid injuring you even when you do fail. You do need to get to the point where you and your training partners are really trying to take each other out, but doing so with progressive resistance, moving forward only as you can safely do so, is crucial.

Protective Gear

I prefer to train with as little gear as possible, and I’ve read about studies that have shown that protective gear actually increases injuries, particularly brain damage, because people think they can go harder and less safely than they should. Boxing gloves for example lead to boxers ending up with much worse brain damage than if they had practiced without gloves, as the gloves cause boxers to take thousands and thousands of punches to the head. Without gloves, punches would have to be thrown softer or with the open hand to avoid hand injuries, and fights would probably be over quicker as strikes would do more surface damage than with gloves.  In any case, boxing is one of the most brain damaging sports there is.

With that said, in certain situations protective gear just makes a great deal of sense. When training with eye strikes, protective goggles are a necessity. I was once accidentally hit by a student with an eye strike, and his finger nail went into my cornea. Due to both the strike and the treatment, that was one of the most painful injuries I’ve ever had. If you’re training eye strikes, wear goggles!

If groin strikes are a possibility, purposefully or accidentally, wear a cup. I was once kneed so hard in the groin that it hurt to walk and sit for many months. Trust me, it’s not something you want to experience.

A mouthpiece is also a necessity for harder training. I’ve had ligaments in my jaw torn that made me unable to eat for two weeks, and led to repeated pain for years. If I would have been wearing a mouthpiece, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have been injured, or less severely. I’ve also knocked out training partner’s teeth, which could have been prevented if we had been wearing mouthpieces. And this doesn’t only go for stand-up/striking. When grappling it’s easy to get an accidental foot or knee to the face/jaw, so a mouthpiece is a great idea for almost any type of training.

I’ve also gotten hit and hit training partners in the hand with sticks, causing various hand injuries. These days whenever I spar with sticks I wear hockey gloves. There’s just no good reason not to considering how bad and lasting hand injuries can be.

I generally prefer not to wear head gear. Not only does head gear tend to restrict your vision, but like with boxing gloves I feel it causes practitioners to take too many head shots. The exception I make is when stick sparring. For stick sparring it is safer to wear head gear with a face cage. However, padded sticks are an option that I prefer for most stick sparring.

Don’t Do High Kicks

For the first 10 or 15 years of my practice and teaching, high/head kicks were a part of my training. They not only destroyed my hips and lower back, but also did the same to my primary training partner and another person I taught with. For about the last 3 years I’ve had nearly constant pain in my right sacroiliac joint, which my doctor has said was most likely caused by high kicking.

I know high kicks can be fun, and they’re a big part of many martial arts. But our bodies were not meant to be used that way, and if you practice high kicks hard and long enough there is a pretty good chance that you’ll wreck your joints. You might not feel it now, but you probably will later. Take my advice, and forget about the high kicks!

Lower Intensity Training

Again, you do need to train hard in order to learn how to deal with a full power attack. But you don’t need to train as hard as you can 100% of the time. Use progressive resistance to safely get up to your max level, but only train at that level occasionally. Most of my training now is probably between 50-70% of max intensity, and I only train at 100% with certain drills that are safer than sparring or completely random/uncooperative practice.

If you have any additional ideas for training safe and avoiding injury, please leave them in the comments below!

You Need to Fail



In one of my recent posts, Is Your Training Realistic, I mentioned two important aspects of functional training. First, if your training partner isn’t really trying to stop you from succeeding with your techniques then you need to tell him “don’t let me do this”. And you need to hold him to it. Second, you need to make sure the techniques you’re using in sparring are the same as those you are using in drills and other training methods. If your training partner isn’t trying to stop you by any means, and if the techniques and applications you’re drilling are not what you’re using in sparring, then your training is not realistic.

The Value of Failure

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: You need to fail. If you’re not failing in your practice, then you are not realistically training and you are not maximizing your ability to learn. If you’re not failing, then you’re not pushing to your limit. If you’re not pushing to your limit, then you don’t know where your limit is, or where the borders of your skills are.

You need to know where your limits are in order to most effectively work on extending them, on increasing your skills. You shouldn’t be training to fail, but you should be training until failure at least some of the time. When your partner attacks, resists, or fights back more than you can handle, causing your defense to fail, it provides the best opportunity for you to learn. At which point did you fail? Why did you fail? Repeat it again. Slow it down or lighten up just a little until you no longer fail, and then gradually increase the intensity to extend your skills. If you need to, break whatever you were doing down into different components to figure out exactly where your problem areas are. Focus on the problem area until you’ve solved it, put the parts back together again, and repeat.

Continuously training above your level, where your instructor or opponent is always beating you, is not productive at all. But training well below your level, where you’re always winning, is equally unproductive. The ideal place to train is right below the edge of your skills, having your partner push just beyond them to gradually extend your limits.

Strength Training

If you’re doing strength training, and you should be for health reasons, this same principle applies. The growth of muscle and strength is a biological adaptation. Your body is not going to adapt unless it thinks it needs to. You have to send the signal to your body that it must adapt. How do you do that? With failure.

If can lift 100 pounds ten times, and you continuously go to the gym and lift 100 pounds ten times, you are never going to increase your strength. If you want to increase your strength, you need to fail in your workouts. You need to attempt to do more repetitions than you can, or more weight than you can. When you fail, it will send the signal to your body that it needs to adapt. Otherwise, your body will have no good reason to add strength or muscle.

Failure In General

Anyone who has ventured out and tried new things will fail. I’ve certainly failed a lot more than I’ve succeeded! But failure should be the best lesson you can learn. It’s a step on the path to success. Failure may teach you that something is harder than you thought. But it shows you where your skill or knowledge gaps are, which allows you to fill those gaps. You may also learn that whatever you were trying to do isn’t worth the risk or the effort. That’s ok too. But if you’re never failing, then you aren’t really trying. Look at failure as a positive sign, and use it to grow. It’s a sign that you’re pushing into uncharted territory, an opportunity to learn or move forward.

Self Defense & Physical Fitness

68 Year Old Iban Man

68 Year Old Iban Man

I’m currently working on the second to last chapter (Physical and Mental Fitness) of my book, and wanted to post briefly on that topic here.  This week, like almost every week, I received an email from someone asking about self defense techniques for people who are not fit.  The fact is, physical self defense (vs. prevention, implied in the question by the use of the word techniques) is hard.  Physical self defense is like a full throttle sprint in most cases.  Not only is your heart rate and breathing likely to be raised, but you’re going to be exerting near or at 100%.  It’s far harder than boxing or grappling in the training room.  So, unfortunate as it may be for many people, physical fitness is a requirement for physical self defense, at least if you want to have greater than minimal chances of success.

I recently read an excellent and very interesting book that highlighted the main cause of so many people being out of shape today, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.  I’d highly recommend reading it.  The author, Daniel Lieberman, uses the term “mismatched diseases”, explaining that our modern lives are a mismatch for our bodies.  We did not evolve to be inactive, to sit at desks all day at work, to come home and sit in a chair for dinner, and then to sit on the sofa until bed time.  When you add modern food (specifically sugar, see here) to modern lifestyles, you end up with a very unhealthy combination.

The book reminded me of people my wife and I have seen on our travels, particularly tribal people who live a life closer to what our human bodies were designed for.  In 2008 my wife and I hired two brothers from an Iban tribe living deep in the jungle of Borneo, through another Iban man who had moved to the city of Kuching, but still had contact with communities in the jungle, to take us on a trip up a remote river.  We stopped at the last longhouse on the river, where no one was living beyond.  There were only two people left living in it, and elderly couple.  My wife took the picture above, of the man.  (If you’d like, you can see more pictures from the trip on my wife’s much neglected photography site, here.)  He was 68 years old, and had just returned from killing a wild boar…with a spear.  He cooked up the heart for us.

How many 68 year old men do you know who look like that!?!?  Yet, most of the tribal people we’ve met look similar.  Why?  Because their lives match what our bodies evolved for.  They’re very active.  And they eat natural food rather than processed trash loaded with sugar.  It’s a good reminder of what our bodies are capable of.  And, staying in such shape is a necessity if you want to maximize your chances in physical self defense.

STOP: Become Aware, More Skilled, and Happier by Reducing Distractions

Texting While Eating

Unaware & Distracted

Now more than ever, we are bombarded with disruptions that keep us unaware.  If continuous mental chatter isn’t enough, we’ve got tweets, text messages, emails, phone calls, and urges to check this or that on our internet-connected devices.  The pace for many people is fast and continuous.

Humans are wired to pay attention to disruptions.  For most of our existence as a species, these disruptions were extremely important.  They were usually created by something living, and very often potentially one of two things: food or danger.  It makes sense that we paid attention to them.  But today, more often than not these disruptions are addictive, trivial, and rob us of awareness, skill, and maximum enjoyment.

One At A Time

Thinking is linear, and we can’t think about more than one thing in any given moment.  Although many people think they can multi-task well, they cannot.  In study after study, attempts at completing A, B, and C are degraded by mixing them…in everyone.  Both the time it takes to complete the tasks and the quality of the work is decreased when the tasks are mixed.  The best way to complete A, B, and C, is to do them one after another, with no disruptions.

In addition to humans being unable to do two things at once, at least things that require concentration or focus, it also takes our brains time to switch to being fully involved in one task to being fully involved in another.  Even if you only stop what you’re doing to glance at a tweet, text message, or email, you’ve just degraded your concentration.

How To Cultivate Awareness

Real awareness requires effort.  Try for just a moment to focus only on your breath.  Right now:  Breath in, and feel it without thought.  Breath out, and feel it without thought.  Do that 4 or 5 times in a row.  If you’re aware of what’s going on inside your head, you’ll quickly realize how difficult it is to silence your thoughts.  Your mind will continuously bombard you with this and that, often unnecessarily.

The next time you’re eating, don’t watch TV, read the paper, work on a computer, talk on the phone, send text messages, or surf the web on your smart phone.  Just eat.  Empty your mind, and really taste the food you’re eating.  If you’re eating good food, you’ll enjoy it many times more.  If you’re eating bad food, you’ll realize it.  Without being mindful and aware of what you’re doing in any given moment, you’ll miss out on the good and be unaware of the bad.

These days, it’s common for people in the middle of a real conversation to pull out their phone to read and send text messages or answer a call.  It distracts both participants of the conversation, and degrades our ability to be fully considerate, active, and present.

Whatever you’re doing, be mindful of it.  Eliminate disruptions.  You’ll notice how much richer your experiences become, and those you live and interact with will also benefit.

In the Zone: Active Non-focused Awareness

Eliminating technological disruptions, by giving yourself time to specifically return your messages for example (but not while you’re doing anything else!), would be easy if we weren’t addicted to these disruptions.  But many of us are.  However, eliminating them is worth the effort.  You’ll find yourself able to better focus on whatever you’re doing…to be present in the moment and maximize your experiences.

Eliminating mental disruptions, your own thoughts, is a lot harder.  It takes practice.  Find a quiet place to sit comfortably, feel your breathing, and quiet your mind.  Sit in awareness of the present, with nothing else.  With practice, you’ll be able to do it.  And you’ll start to notice things.  You’ll notice sounds and smells you didn’t notice before.  You’ll see things in a new light.  Quieting your mind is the key to being fully present.

The longer you practice this active, non-focused awareness, the more it will spill out into your everyday life.  Instead of walking to your car while checking your text messages, unaware of what’s around you, you’ll notice both the good and the bad (if it’s present).  The world will open up to you.

I used the phrase “non-focused awareness”.  It takes focus to achieve it, and that’s what initially makes it hard for everyone.  First, you’ll have to focus on quieting your mind, and you’ll have to maintain that focus to keep it quiet.  With that focus in place, you’ll have achieved a non-focused awareness.  It may be more accurate to call it a “focused, non-focus”, or a focused non-attachment.

Becoming More Skilled

Highly skilled practitioners, of anything, are fully aware and hard to distract.  Cultivating an active, non-focused awareness is the key to noticing what’s going on within and around you, and acting/responding efficiently and effectively.  With awareness, you’ll be better able to notice and correct your own mistakes, and to counter your opponents actions.  It’s no surprise that many martial arts place emphasis on meditation, and most high level athletes have some form of mental training, even if that’s done through the practice of their sport.

Start Today

Stop.  Regularly take time to sit in the present.  Eliminate distractions both internal and external.  You’ll become more aware, better at everything you do, and more skilled in your art.  You’ll also be able to fully enjoy the good in your life, and see and eliminate the bad.

Review: Self Defense in 30 Seconds

Self Defense in 30 Seconds

Self Defense in 30 Seconds

I recently read a book that came out toward the end of last year, Self Defense in 30 Seconds, and highly recommend it.  It’s less than $4, so based on the price alone you really can’t lose.

When I saw the title I was a bit skeptical, as you obviously can’t learn to defend yourself in 30 seconds.  However, the title is in reference to something Rob Redenbach mentions on the first page: “In a real self-defense situation, once conflict becomes physical, you have, at best, thirty seconds to save yourself.”  And 30 seconds may be stretching it.

He goes through the anatomy of an attack, what fear means and how you should respond to it, confidence, self defense assumptions, your options in an attack, and concepts for unarmed, armed, and multiple attacker scenarios.  It’s a short book, and it’s all about concepts rather than techniques.  At points I found myself wishing the author would have written more.  But the concepts were both important and solid.  And, they were described with unique terminology and valuable points of view.

Probably my favorite chapter in the book was titled, “Your Options”.  Rob explains that even in an assault, you always have options.  I won’t list the way he breaks these options down (into six choices), as you should read the book yourself.  But I will say that one of them is to comply with what the attacker wants, in the event of a threat or request for something you have.  While this may sound obvious, realizing that you have a choice, and that compliance is one of them, keeps you in control.  If you determine that compliance is your safest choice, it’s a strategic choice in line with smart self defense.  Of course in some situations compliance is not an option, and Rob explains that as well.

I also appreciate that there’s a chapter titled “Fighting Fit”, where Rob begins: “Physical violence is, of course, violently physical.  Astonishingly, some people seem oblivious to this fact.”  I’ve seen plenty self defense and martial arts practitioners, both instructors and students, who are extremely out of shape, but put all their emphasis on “deadly” techniques or weapons.  The more physically fit you are, the less likely you’ll be successfully attacked.  It’s great that Rob makes that point as very few self defense instructors do, and he breaks it down into aerobic, anaerobic, balance, coordination, strength, etc.  Good stuff.

You can purchase the book at your preferred source on this page.  And FYI, I do not know Rob, and am not making any money if you buy his book.

Martial Arts Are Not Self Defense

Functional martial arts are systems that train practitioners to injure or kill people. Functional self defense is about avoiding or surviving an attack. The two are substantially different.

Martial arts can be used when all else fails in self defense, but the goal in self defense is not injuring or killing an opponent. The goal is to survive and prosper. Even in martial sports, from boxing to MMA, the goal is to beat your opponent by fighting. In self defense, the goal is not to fight.

Martial Arts Are For Killing

Most martial arts have roots in military combat or war, and many of these original systems placed more emphasis on armed rather than unarmed fighting. In war, participants are obligated to fight, and killing your opponent isn’t legally punishable in the country you’re fighting for. But in nearly every country, there are self defense laws that limit your use of force. You can’t whip out a sword and decapitate someone who threatens to punch you…at least not without severe consequences if you’re caught. And you can’t pull a gun and shoot a guy for mouthing off without risking going to jail for the rest of your life.

Self Defense Is About Prevention

98% of self defense is about awareness and prevention, and although some martial arts emphasis this, the vast majority of training time is spent on taking out an opponent. Of course, training to avoid or prevent an attack takes far less skill and training. And that’s a good thing! Learning to successfully stop, injure, or kill a larger, stronger, potentially armed attacker, one who has chosen you and initiated the attack, is hard. Really hard. So it does take much more training to physically beat an opponent. But that’s not the main reason most martial arts spend so much time training physical techniques and so little on avoiding or preventing an attack. They do so because martial arts are not self defense.

Why Train Martial Arts

If you’re not going to war and/or don’t plan on assassinating someone anytime soon, why practice martial arts at all? Training martial arts only for self defense is likely a waste of time, since avoiding and preventing an attack is relatively easy and highly effective. If you do understand violence, why people use it, where they use it, who they use it against, and how they use it, and you put that knowledge to use, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be attacked. And if you are, you’re likely to be out-gunned or out-numbered. Escape or compliance is probably going to be your best bet for survival.

The best reason to train martial arts for most people is enjoyment. They’re a great deal of fun. And, functional martial arts are great exercise. No other sport or training method puts you in touch with and works your body like martial arts. They’re outstanding for balance, coordination, speed, and strength, and you can train them for your entire life. Since there are no rules in functional martial arts, anything is possible.

Functional martial arts training can save your life if you do find yourself under attack. They’ll be tremendously useful for those in combat or in law enforcement. And, understanding how to manipulate distance and position will tip you off to when a potential attacker is attempting to set you up. Martial arts may be a useful part of self defense, but the best reason to train is for enjoyment.

Vibram Five Fingers: Best Martial Arts Training Shoes

Vibram Five Fingers

Vibram Five Fingers

Some of you may have noticed my unusual shoes in many of the pictures on my site. I’ve been meaning to post about them for a year or so now but keep forgetting. For the past 2+ years I’ve been wearing Vibram Five Fingers.  I’ve got 3 pairs at the moment, and these are the only shoes I wear 99% of the time, for everything from martial arts training and casual wear to mountain trekking and kayaking.  They’re the best shoes I’ve ever had in my life, and I can say with certainty that I’ll never wear a pair of tennis/running/hiking shoes again.  You can find many more enthusiastic reviews of Five Fingers here at

Vibram Five Finger KSO

Vibram Five Finger KSO

My preferred model is the KSO (Keep Stuff Out).  These are minimalist shoes with VERY thin bottoms.  They allow you to grip the ground like no other shoe.  Wearing them is like being barefoot, but with protection for the soles of your feet. You need to take some time to adjust to wearing them, as the muscles in your feet are likely to be unnaturally weak due to common shoe designs (a real disaster for your body).  The other thing about Five Finger shoes is that they tend to bring you back to walking and moving as your body was meant to.  Because there is no padding in the heal, you’ll quit doing a “heal strike” when walking or running, which will dramatically decrease stress on your knees, hips, and back.  Most people who wear these shoes not only report stronger feet, better balance, etc., but also knee, hip, and back injuries that disappear.  Here’s a great video on the science:

The only time I don’t wear KSO’s is when I’m hiking on steep and rocky mountains.  In those cases I wear Treks, as they have better grip for such situations, and a slightly thicker bottom to protect against bruising from sharp edges.  The black leather is also a bit better for nicer clothes.  🙂

Ditch whatever shoes you’re currently wearing for martial arts/self defense training, and get yourself a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.  You’ll probably end up wearing them all the time, but they’re the best shoes for martial arts training you’ll ever wear.

Defense Against Sugar

Self defense shouldn’t only be about protecting your physical body from an external attacker.  I’ve written a bit on digital defense in the past, and after reading this  excellent post on Jarlo Ilano’s True Aim Fitness blog I thought I’d also share the video below on the dangers of sugar.  I consider myself to be pretty healthy, but this video was a shocker.  It’s going to change the way I eat and drink, and it should change the way you eat and drink too!  It’s a long video, but highly worth watching, especially if you have children: