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!

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