Self-Defense as a Form of Fitness

How learning self-defense skills can help you get in shape

When we talk about functional fitness, it’s usually a reference to exercises that improve movement in everyday life; creating ease in tasks like walking up stairs, sitting down and standing up, or carrying grocery bags.

What if you could train to get “functionally fit” on an entirely different level, though? What if you could get in shape while also mastering a specific task that you don’t likely use often, but that your life could very well depend on?

According to Jarrett Arthur, Krav Maga—the official self-defense system of the Israeli Army (IDF)— makes this possible not only because it's an extremely effective self-defense system, but also a great way to lose body fat, improve cardio fitness, and gain muscle.  

Arthur is one of the highest ranking female Krav Maga black belt instructors in the U.S. and the founder of M.A.M.A.® (Mothers Against Malicious Acts).

“Krav Maga is an extremely effective way to get fit,” she said. “You don’t have to be in shape to start training, but you’ll certainly get there quickly. You train your whole body when you practice Krav Maga.”

She explained that upper-body strikes work to strengthen the arms, shoulders, chest, back, and core, while lower-body moves engage everything from the calves and hamstrings to the quads and glutes.

“You’re pretty much guaranteed to get a whole body workout in each class,” Arthur said. “Because the moves utilize your entire body in explosive, high-intensity applications, students gain muscle, improve cardio capacity, and lose body fat very quickly. And it’s also a wonderful way to relieve stress.”

But perhaps even more importantly, Krav Maga teaches effective and functional self-defense tactics.

“Krav Maga is only about effectiveness and functionality,” Arthur said. “The techniques are based on instinctive responses already hardwired within us, and are meant to work for any size defender against any size attacker.”

She describes it as a tactical system that involves straightforward and aggressive “no-nonsense” striking to vulnerable areas and says that it’s relatively easy to learn, which is why she feels it should be a clear choice for anyone who wants to learn how to defend themselves—especially women.

“It’s easy to learn, easy to retain, and effective regardless of the size, strength, or gender of the defender,” Arthur said. “It’s straightforward, uncomplicated, and realistic.”

Because it’s fairly simplistic Arthur says that anyone can acquire Krav Maga skills. You don’t have to be an athlete, in shape, coordinated, or flexible.

Another reason why Arthur found that Krav Maga has become such an important part of her life is because of the empowerment she found in the practice as a woman.

“From my own personal experience and from my 10-plus years of training women, I’ve come to terms with the fact that all women share the experience of feeling vulnerable—walking the dog at night, the creepy guy staring at you on the subway, in the airport, or in the elevator, waking up to a noise in the house at night, leaving work after hours and walking through the parking garage,” she explained. “Typically men don’t understand that feeling vulnerable is just a part of what it means to be a woman. It’s sad and I wish it weren’t so, but it just is.”

This is part of the reason why Arthur suggests that at the very least, women learn two foundational defense moves: how to throw a punch and how to send a kick to the groin.

“Simply fighting back aggressively will dramatically increase your chances of getting away safely,” she said. “The vast majority of criminals want easy, compliant targets so that they can execute their crime quickly, successfully, and without getting caught. Just struggling and yelling for help is better than freezing and remaining silent, but learning these two foundational moves can seriously improve your effectiveness, not to mention they are fun, empowering, and a great workout.”

Arthur says that punching and kicking are moves that are instinctive to humans and they’re more likely to be called upon when our adrenaline kicks in.

“A solid punch to the nose or throat—both vulnerable areas, coupled with a front kick to the groin—a very vulnerable area, and making contact with your shin is a foundational striking combination essential for women to know,” she said.

She also explained why including high-intensity interval training or sprint intervals in your regular workout routine can help to better your chances of getting away should you ever encounter an attacker.

“The average length of a physical confrontation on the street is 30 to 45 seconds,” Arthur said. “That’s pretty short, although it feels like an eternity when you’re fighting for your life. Effective fighting back requires very high-intensity, extremely explosive movements. Punching, kicking, elbowing, kneeing as hard you possibly can, then sprinting to safety as soon as you get the chance.”

She suggests incorporating what she calls “flight functional sprints” at the end of your regular workout routine two to three times per week.

“Do whatever it is you’re doing—swimming, biking, rowing, running, stairs, elliptical—as fast as you can for 15 seconds, then rest for 30 to 60 seconds,” Arthur explained. “Aim for five sets to start out with. As you get more comfortable, you can increase the sprint length, decrease the rest period, or a combination of both.”

Ultimately, the most important aspect of Krav Maga, according to Arthur, is that it teaches "truly powerful skills."

“Krav Maga doesn’t turn you into a fearless badass, it teaches you how to welcome the fear as a necessary mechanism to stay safe, and it gives you the confidence to know that if the unthinkable were to happen you’d have the skills and the mindset necessary to survive,” she said. “[Those skills] changed the entire direction of my life and I’ve seen them transform countless students, who experience improvements in their relationships, careers, and wellness because of the personal power they were able to uncover through the training.”