Unarmed Combative Training as a “Prep”

Author’s Note: This article was originally written for a disaster preparedness newsletter from the Arizona chapter of Zombie Squad–a non-profit focused on educating people about disaster preparedness–and I recently re-discovered it in my archives. Upon realizing that I had never publicly shared it, I decided to share it, here. Unlike most of my articles, which are geared toward martial artists, this article is intended for non-martial-artists with an interest in being prepared for disasters and severe hardships. While  these people, colloquially known as “preppers,” are often derided as being “crazy,” with people pointing to shows like Doomsday Preppers as examples, most “preppers” are down-to-earth people who simply want to be ready to take care of themselves and their families in case a tragedy happens. People like to pretend that such things will never happen, but events like the Mount Saint Helens eruption, the Northridge Earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima Disaster, and many more, prove that major disasters can affect us far more than we would like. My hope is that, in addition to promoting martial arts training to “preppers,” that this article might promote “prepping” to martial artists.

A disaster preparedness guide from famous primitive survival expert, and former host of Discovery’s Dual Survival, Cody Lundin

If you talk to people about wilderness survival, most will readily agree that you should have multiple methods of starting a fire, and should know how to start one with limited (or no) tools. If you talk to those same people about self-defense, however, you will often hear phrases like “I practice Glock-fu” or “I will just shoot them.” That mentality is not in line with the concept of preparing for the worst, and is simply foolish. Thinking that you will never need to defend yourself without your firearms is just as bad as thinking that a disaster will never happen to you. We all know that you need to know how to start a fire with limited (or no) tools is because your tools may be lost, damaged or unreachable, and we must remember that the same thing can happen to your weapons. In addition to that possibility, you could be in a situation where you need to retain your weapon as an attacker tries to steal it from you, or where you do not wish to use deadly force against the individual you are in conflict with. These are situations in which you must know how to defend yourself with your body and skills.

This article will outline some of the skills that martial arts training will develop, as well as what to look for in a martial arts school, and provide some information on training. The primary skills that should be developed in your unarmed martial arts training are situational awareness, confidence, fitness, aggression, striking skills and grappling skills. Once you understand these skills and how they relate to your ability to defend yourself, you will need to know what to look for in a martial arts school so that you can begin your training.

Situational Awareness

The most important skill for any defensive training should develop, whether it is firearms training, knife training, or empty hand self-defense training, is situational awareness. The instructor should incorporate drills that force you to be aware of everyone around you, assess who may be a threat, and how to get to the nearest escape route. In addition to this sense of awareness, there also needs to be scenario-based discussions and drills–things like knowing where to park your car, how to approach and enter your vehicle at night, how to carry things so that you are able to drop them to defend yourself, how to use everyday items as weapons, and how to know when someone is trying to distract you or get you to drop your guard. These are the types of things that will help you to avoid the need to employ force to defend yourself in the first place, which is ideal. My most important rule regarding situational awareness is this simple phrase:

“Do not do stupid things, in stupid places, with stupid people.”


Although it is most often marketed to children, the confidence and self-esteem boosting effects of martial arts are highly valuable to everyone. These benefits are not the primary goal of martial arts training, but rather a great side effect. The exercise that you get from your training will improve your mood thanks to the hormones that it releases in your brain, but there is much more to it than that. Knowing that you are getting into better shape and learning to defend yourself without being reliant on tools or other people is something that makes a person feel much better about themselves. When you learn that you can take a hit and keep going, and when you learn how to effectively escape a situation and put an attacker on the floor with your bare hands, you feel that you are more in control of your safety. This confidence helps you to stand up taller, make more eye contact and be more analytical of your situation, thereby supporting our most important benefit of martial arts training–situational awareness–and further helping you to avoid situations where you must use force to defend yourself.


Chi-ishi exercises during my shodan test

Chi-ishi exercises during my shodan test

The importance of fitness is understood by many in the prepper community, but it is also one of the most difficult things to develop in your preps–it requires a good deal of time and effort to be invested, and most people do not find it to be at all fun. In addition, some people have pre-existing health issues such as obesity, arthritis, old injuries, etc. that either prevent them from exercising or that provide them with a convenient excuse for not exercising. The ability to run away from a situation, wrestle out of the grip of an attacker, climb over a fence, swim across a river or hike to town can be the difference between life and death in a disaster, and you need to be as physically capable as you can in order to increase your chances of survival. Martial arts training should provide you with an effective physical workout, while at the same time developing useful skills. This means that your mind is occupied at the same time your body is, making it more enjoyable and, therefore, more likely for you to continue doing it. Martial arts training is a lifelong journey–it is not something that you can do a couple of self-defense seminars and have the skills for life–so it should start with training that is appropriate to your current level of fitness and skill and work up from there. This means that you can start training in a martial art, regardless of almost any pre-existing health issue, and it will grow with you, providing you with a way to maintain your fitness and skills for the rest of your life.


While the first three benefits primarily assist you in avoiding or escaping self-defense situations, the last three primarily assist you during a self-defense situation that you have not successfully avoided or escaped from. Of these, aggression will get you the furthest. Predators do not want to prey upon the strong–they would much rather target the weak because it is a much lower risk on their part. In your martial arts training, you should be developing aggression through either sparring or unscripted self-defense drills with hard contact (though not necessarily 100% full contact, which can cause injuries that prevent you from training) striking and a resistant opponent. Having trained in this manner, you will have developed the confidence necessary to be aggressive, knowing that you can take a hit and keep going, and that aggression can sometimes cause an attacker to abandon their attack as they realize you are not a weak target. In the event that it does not dissuade them, it serves as a driving force for your combative skills, because if you are not aggressive then you will end up reacting to your opponent instead of taking initiative, and reactions are always going to be slower than actions.

Striking Skills

The ability to strike an opponent effectively is vital to your success in a physical confrontation–there are very, very few fights that do not involve striking in some manner, and nearly all fights begin with all parties standing (although it is important to train for other scenarios). A good strike can break an attacker’s will to continue, and the ability to launch a variety of strikes to a variety of targets gives you a greater probability of successfully doing so. In the event that you are unable to break your attacker’s will to continue, that same ability provides you a chance to disable the attacker by rendering them unconscious, too damaged or in too much pain to continue. Striking training should incorporate the use of open handed strikes, closed fisted strikes, elbow and forearm strikes, knees, stomps, and kicks with the shins and feet. These strikes should be trained for use against a variety of targets, but always in a realistic and practical manner–a jumping spinning hook kick to the head is a terrible technique for self-defense, and a double punch to the lymph nodes in the hips may work great, but only if your attacker’s hands are occupied with something other than hitting you.

Grappling Skills

There is a common belief that “98% of fights end up on the ground.” This statistic comes from an LAPD study of physical altercations with police officers, whose sole intention of fighting with someone is to put them on the ground or hood of a car and handcuff them, and does not apply to real life self-defense situations for most people. That said, approximately half of all real life self-defense situations still do end up on the ground, either with one party unconscious or with both parties falling down. Grappling skills are crucial for self-defense, but should primarily focus on the ability to grapple and strike at the same time, avoiding being taken down to the ground, and getting back to your feet as quickly as possible if you are taken down. If you are surrounded by your friends, then you can likely afford to grapple on the ground with your attacker because you have people to watch your back, although grappling on rough surfaces with unknown debris is not terribly comfortable or safe. If there is no one around, or you are surrounded by people you do not know, then being on the ground with your attacker could very well end in one of his friends stomping your face in—the vast majority of people who die in unarmed physical altercations are those who have been knocked down and kicked or stomped on by multiple attackers.

Choosing a School

Many people get caught up in different arts and styles, but the most important thing to look for in a martial arts school is the quality of instruction. If you do a search online for how to tell a good martial arts school from a bad one, you will find long lists of things to avoid so that you do not end up in a “McDojo”–a martial arts school focused on making a profit and teaching everyone an identical curriculum, regardless of the quality of that curriculum. These lists are certainly valuable, but they can also cause you to avoid schools that may provide you with exactly what you want in terms of instruction because they have contracts, or because the instructor “made up” the style.

When looking for a martial arts school, you should write out a list of the skills you want to develop, such as the list provided above, and take it with you to every martial arts school in your area. When you arrive, talk with the instructor and ask about everything on that list–if they do not meet your requirements, or cannot answer your questions satisfactorily, then that school is probably not for you. If they do meet your requirements and answer your questions, ask to watch a few classes. Most martial arts schools will have different classes that focus on different aspects of their art, or they will be divided into rank or age groups, so it is important for you to be sure to watch the classes that you would be attending if you trained at that school. You will also want to watch more than one class, as the subject matter will tend to vary from day to day and one class may not be indicative of the entire curriculum.

When watching martial arts classes, make sure that you take notes. Write down questions you have about techniques or training methods that you do not understand, or that look impractical to you, so that you can ask about them later. Evaluate the atmosphere–are the students deadly serious, goofing off, or something in between, and how does the instructor handle the class? The environment in the school needs to fit with your personality or you will hate training there, which will hamper your ability to learn and cause you to eventually stop training. Try to talk to students before or after class (do not try to talk to them during class) to get a feel for how they like the training and what their training goals are–the more students in attendance with goals similar to yours, the more effective your training will be.

An Adult/Teen karate class at our dojo

An Adult/Teen karate class at our dojo

If you have watched several classes and found them satisfactory, then it is time for you to attend a few classes. Most martial arts schools will allow you to take one to three free trial classes, and ones that don’t will typically have a “drop-in fee” for you to pay per-class to try them out. Just like when you watch classes, you want to attend one of every class you would potentially be taking if you trained at that school. It is also valuable to take notes during and after class of any questions that you have, or observances about the class and how it made you feel.

Once you have done all of this, you can make an informed decision about the school by asking yourself simple questions about your experiences there–does the curriculum line-up with your goals, are the techniques practical, is the training effective, is the environment a good fit for you, etc.? Be aware that you may need to attend more than one school in order to meet all of your criteria, depending on the schools available in your area. It is also important to evaluate every school that you could potentially attend so that you get a good idea of what is good and what is bad in your area. Finding all of these schools can be difficult, as sometimes the best schools do not advertise, so in addition to searching the internet and looking through the phone book, it can be helpful to ask around–do not be afraid to ask instructors at the schools you visit to see if they can recommend other schools or instructors for you to evaluate.

Training and Consequences

Once you have found a school(s) that you like, and that are in-line with your goals, just start training. There is often a misconception that one must already be in shape in order to train in martial arts, and that is simply not the case. The training should be personalized to be just a bit more difficult than what you are currently capable of, and it should stay that way for the rest of your life in order to challenge you and promote growth. Supplemental fitness training, such as weight lifting, jogging, swimming and yoga can all have great value to your overall health and to your martial arts training, but is not a prerequisite.

When you first start training, you will notice that you are working muscles that you are not used to working, and because martial arts utilizes the entire body, you will likely find that you are sore all over, in addition to being especially sore in strange places. Rest and recovery are very important to any fitness plan, but also highly personal, so it is important to allow your body to recover from your workouts and learn your limits. Training lightly when you are sore and stiff is fine, but training when moving is causing you pain—be aware of the differences between how soreness feels and how pain feels to you—can be harmful. Stretching can be helpful with regards to reducing DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), but should only be done after you have finished working out. When you stretch, you cause a reduction in blood flow to the muscles, reducing their effectiveness, while also causing temporary elongation of the muscles and tendons, making you more prone to injury if you continue to train after stretching.

Staying hydrated is always important, but it is even more important when you exercise. A high-intensity martial arts training session can burn between 600 and 900 calories an hour, and you will sweat a great deal in the process. Be sure to drink water before, during and after your workouts, and eating a banana or drinking a sports drink in addition to your water intake will help prevent cramping, headaches, etc. As a general rule, it is best to drink about 16oz-24oz (two to three glasses) of water two hours before you start training in order to give your body time to absorb it, in addition to drinking when you feel thirsty, and only drink one to three mouthfuls of water every fifteen minutes during your workout to avoid upsetting your stomach.

Some teens sparring in our dojo

Some teens sparring in our dojo

Bruises, black eyes, bloody noses, split lips and sprains will happen. You will need to come to terms with this before you start training–it may not happen often, but at some point you will experience some of these minor injuries. Serious injuries like broken bones, dislocated joints and torn ligaments can occur, but they should not occur on a regular basis (ask the students and instructor about the frequency of those types of injuries) and they should be taken seriously by the instructor and other students. Concussions are a special case injury, because they are very serious but can happen somewhat frequently if you spar or drill with hard contact, so be sure that the instructor and students take concussions seriously and do not allow people to train again after receiving one until cleared by a doctor.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.