Natural and Devastating: Reflections on Krav Maga

By Adam J. Pearson

While taking the Montreal night bus to a friend’s house one night, I heard a man in the back of the bus talking about Krav Maga, the street-oriented self-defense style that originated in Israel. I had always wanted to experience Krav Maga in practice, so I went up to him and introduced myself. His name was Kory and he turned out to be not only a fine martial artist, but a compassionate and kind teacher as well. He told me about a seminar he was planning to co-teach along with Laurent Mougeot, the National Head of the International Krav Maga Federation. We exchanged contact information and I anxiously awaited the seminar for my first taste of Krav Maga. A few months later, the big day came.

The seminar was entitled “Krav Maga Street Fighting.” I had already experienced several kinds of martial arts classes including Kyokushin and Kentokukan Karate, Wing Chun Kung Fu, and Muay Thai, but this was different. “Krav Maga is not a martial art; it is a method of self-defense,” said Laurent Mougeot. It was more intense than any class I had ever gone through before. Little did I know for the intensity of the beating and the depth of the educational experience that awaited me.

Fighting Warm-Ups

When the class began at Montreal’s Dojo Studio, the 20 or so men and women began to walk in no particular order around the dojo. Then, we were told to randomly tap the top of each other’s heads. We were instructed to keep our arms up at all times since an attack could come from any direction. We had to be ready to defend ourselves. Next, we were told to tap each other on the back and follow the same procedure. After that, we were told to try to step on each other’s toes. Finally, we were told to do any combination of the above. Without any instruction, we were thrown into Krav Maga: realistic self-defence, in this case, from 360 degrees. We did not know it at the time, but what we were intuitively figuring out was Krav Maga’s 360 Degree Defence, which blocks attacks from any angle using well-timed forearm and open-handed parries.

We were assigned partners with whom we did most of our training for the rest of the seminar. We practiced a wide-variety of technique and application situations. What I particularly loved was the Krav Maga principle that it is better to have few functional techniques that can apply to as many situations as possible than to have many flowery techniques which may be hard to remember or prove ineffective.

With our partners, we grabbed a big pad. One partner held it over their back while the other had to run behind them while simultaneously blasting the pad with punches, hammer fists, and palm heel strikes. The partner pairs snaked around the room and then the pad-carrying partners were told to move in any random direction while the attacking partners followed and continued their onslaught. It was an intense warm-up indeed.

The second warm-up involved one partner holding a small punch-pad. The attacking partner had to attack the punch-pad, which the defending partner would attempt to rapidly move out of the way to make it harder to hit. The challenge was to adjust to the opponent’s rapid movement and calibrate your strikes accordingly. After completing this drill, we moved into our first official Krav Maga instruction.

Sucker Punch and Haymaker Punch Defense

The first practical fighting techniques we used were defenses against sucker-punches and haymaker punches, the two most common hand strikes in street fights. Both were dealt with by slapping away (Wing Chun’s Pak-Sao), deflective wrist or forearm strikes (Wing Chun’s Wu Sao), or light trapping and scooping (Wing Chun’s Fook Sao) with the lead arm (left, in my case).

At the same time as the attack was deflected, the right arm struck with a hammer fist, hook punch, cross, or palm strike to the opponent’s face. One or several kicks to the groin followed in fast succession. The right hand might throw a chop into the opponent’s side of the neck, then yank their head down while the left hand, which is still holding their arm, also pulls down. As the head is pulled down, we could deliver multiple knees to the head, stomach and groin. There would be no thinking, only reacting, only striking what is open as fast and viciously as possible. Then pushing the opponent back and scanning the area around for more attackers. Krav Maga always assumes we will be in a disadvantaged position, facing off against bigger and or multiple opponents. It is self-defence for real life.

The key thing, we learned, was to parry or trap the arm coming towards us with our own front arm (left), while simultaneously striking with our back arm (right). This is how we were taught to meet nearly any attack above the waist. A single defensive and simultaneous attacking strategy is intelligently used to cover a range of right and left attacks. Krav Maga is minimalistic at its core because it was developed at a time when Israel needed to train an army of soldiers rapidly. Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga, was very aware that people tend to forget the complicated and ornamental techniques of martial arts when in the midst of a real conflict. Therefore, he based the style on as few movements as possible, which were chosen for being the most direct, fast, and devastating strikes that could handle as many situations as possible. Krav Maga is economy of movement for maximum efficiency.

The Krav Maga Instructional Sequence

Instruction proceeded according to a predictable sequence:
(1) instructor demonstration: the instructor would demonstrate the technique.
(2) partnered practice: we would practice it repeatedly with our partner while the instructors (Kory and Laurent) circulated,  corrected us, provided pointers for improvement.
(3) application under pressure: we would form two lines, one attacking, one defending. Attackers would attack the person in front of them and the defender would defend against it, applying the technique they had just learned. The attacker would move to the next person in the line to their right and attack them in the same way, then move to the next person. Once they reached the end of the line, the attacker would run back to the first person in the defender line and repeat the cycle. In this way, we had to practice the technique under high pressure and facing opponents of varying sizes, speeds, and strengths. It was intense, but taught us a great deal in a very short period of time.

The Naturalness of the Krav Maga Fighting Stance

I love the basic stance of Krav Maga because it does not look offensive at first. The left foot is forward. The right foot is back and off at a triangular angle. The two arms are lightly up with the hands open, not in fists. It looks like someone saying “hey, I don’t want to fight…” defensively, which is the most common position people naturally get into when they are trying to de-escalate a conflict. It is wonderful that this is the basic fighting stance because we can already get into it when we are still trying to talk our way out of a conflict, and if we need to explode into defending and attacking, we are already prepared to do it.

As Laurent Mougeot said, “in most street fights, the person who strikes the first and the hardest usually wins.” Therefore, it is wise to begin in a position that will enable the highest variety of starting strikes as possible. Often, these starting strikes include kicks to the groin. The first punch defense we learned, for example, was deflecting the punch away with the left lead hand while simultaneously leaning back (to pull the head out of the hitting range of the fist) and thrusting out the hips to kick with the right leg directly into the groin. Simultaneous attack and defense once again prevail in Krav Maga, as in Wing Chun.

Calm and Aggressive

As Laurent Mougeot explained, it is necessary in a street fight to both remain calm under pressure, so as not to freeze up, and to snap into explosive aggression immediately. This was a principle that I also learned in Wing Chun. It makes sense. Relaxation and clarity of mind enable the fastest movement, the clearest vision, and the highest conservation of metabolic energy. At the same time, when one strikes, one must do so with great force, great speed, and in an explosion of strikes that end the fight as soon as possible.

However, the reality of life is that when people are first exposed to a violent attacker, they tend to freeze up. As a result, Krav Maga uses drills that are designed to make its fighters more comfortable under pressure. In one such drill, people lined up with the large kicking pads in two rows facing each other. One at a time, we had to walk through the row of pads while covering our faces with our hands while the pad-holders screamed at us at the top of their lungs and bashed the pads into our faces and shoulders. It was intense, but gave us a good sense of the chaos of a real street fight. As Laurent Mougeot said, “a real fight is chaos. You can’t expect orderly techniques to work or to get the openings you want to get. You need to simply be ready to react to whatever comes at you.”

Leg and Groin Kick Defense

We then moved on to kick-defense drills. Just as the lead left arm is used to handle hand-based attacks (e.g. punches, palm strikes) to the face, chest, and stomach, the lead left leg is used to handle any attacks below the belt. These mainly include kicks. The defense we learned involved scooping the kick away with your left leg and rushing in with attacks such as hammer fists, elbows, punches and kicks to the groin. Knees also followed if you could grab the neck and wrench down the arm as we practiced before.

Double-Lapel and Shirt Grab Defense

What if the attacker grabs your shirt with both hands to control you? The most dangerous attack they can unleash on you from this position is a vicious head-butt. As a result, the first movement you take to counter it should involve a defense against a head-butt, but it should also set up a counter attack. The Krav Maga technique we learned was to reach over with your left hand with your elbow extended out towards the opponent’s face to block a potential head-butt (if he chooses to throw it anyway, he’ll bash his face directly into your elbow). At the same time, you turn your hips to the right, powerfully winding up the counter-attack. For the counter-attack, you powerfully twist your hips back towards the left while slamming your left hammer-fist into the opponent’s nose / chin, breaking the nose and potentially unleashing a brutal knock-out.

What if the person grabbing your shirt is not a stranger, but a person who is close to you and has perhaps had too many drinks? You might not want to destroy their face (and their friendship!) in this case. In this case, the defense begins with the elbow going up to protect against a headbutt once again and the hips turning to the right. However, instead of blasting forth with a hammer-fist, you use your left hand to grab under the opponent’s left hand, grabbing your shirt, scooping your four fingers around his left palm.

Simultaneously, your right hand grabs the back of his left hand and your two hands, which have trapped his left hand in a ‘hand sandwich,’ pull his own hand tight up against your chest. You then turn your hips back towards the left while putting hard upper-body pressure into the opponent’s body, twisting their body down to the ground through the applied pressure on their wrist. Laurent Mougeot demonstrated this technique on me. It essentially wrenches the wrist down painfully and you are left with two options: (1) resist it and have your wrist broken or (2) go with the pushing and be taken down to the ground. Needless to say, I went to the ground; it was brutally painful.

At this point, once the opponent is on the ground, you can kick them in the head, or simply rest your foot on their head until they stop struggling and calm down. This technique was much more complicated than the hammer-fist defense. As Laurent Mougeot joked, “this is a problem in Krav Maga: it’s harder to subdue the opponent with less damage than it is to totally destroy the guy.”

Knife Defense and Disarming

From grabs, we moved on to knife defense. Knife attacks in the street tend to happen very fast with a knife pulled out of a concealed location and rapidly stabbed forward into your abdomen. There is little time to react. Laurent Mougeot commented on the reality of this situation by telling us: “In all probability, you will get stabbed at least once. This happened to me. One stab is not a big deal; you can still end the conflict and get stitched up in the hospital. But if you get stabbed multiple times, you’re finished.” If we can’t see both of the aggressive opponent’s hands, we need to keep our distance in case he has a knife rather than risk a concealed pull straight into a stab before we have time to react. That’s the first principle.

What if he is close enough to do a straight stab at us, though, what do we do then? Again favouring economy of movement, Krav Maga teaches us to trap the knife hand with our lead arm while simultaneously attacking with the back hand. The left hand occasionally scoops the knife hand away like a Wing Chun Fook Sao (hooking hand) while the left hand blasts a hammer-fist, upper cut, cross, or chop into the opponent’s throat. This is immediately followed up with one or more kicks to the groin, and then continued attacks until the opponent is subdued and we can run away.

At the civilian level, Laurent Mougeot told us that Krav Maga does not encourage knife disarms, since if the opponent is knocked out, there is no need to disarm the knife. However, he decided to teach us one knife disarm anyway. It involved a few basic steps:
(1) trap the knife-wielding arm with the scooping motion with your left hand while simultaneously giving a strike from the right hand to the face
(2) transfer your left hand to grab the opponent’s wrist, and grab the back of their fingers with your right hand while simultaneously delivering a kick to the groin
(3) compress both hands together and turn up your right elbow, twist your hips and apply downward pressure with both hands to the opponent’s one trapped hand to force the opponent to the floor, while you maintain hold of the wrist and hand. At this time, your hands twist their arm back slightly.
(4) now, painfully wrench their wrist forward and backward and peel the knife out of their hand
(5) back away with the knife up and scan the environment for other threats or escape routes.

Basic Krav Maga Ground Defense

Thereafter, we moved to basic Krav Maga ground defense. Krav Maga does not advocate going to the ground because in most real life situations, an opponent will have a brother or a friend or a father or a cousin with him to kick you in the head when you are down. However, if we end up on the ground, we need to know what to do. In the drill, one partner started on the ground and the other had to attack them with either a kick or a knife stab to the head or neck. The ground partner had to trap the knife hand or do a hard karate block with the forearm (hand in wrist) to deflect the kick, while turning the head and body away from the close reach of the opponent. We would then commence a flurry of kicks to the opponent’s shins and knees in stages:
(1) on your back, kicking out both feet
(2) shifting weight onto your right hand on the ground, kicking with both feet
(3) shifting weight onto one knee, continuing kicks to knees and shins and possibly groin
(4) pushing yourself up into standing fighting stance and preparing for a standing conflict or running away.

Bringing It All Together

In the final two drills of the class, we proceeded to synthesize what we had learned. “If you want a break in Krav Maga, you must earn it,” said Laurent Mougeot. And did we ever have to work to earn it!

In the first drill, we were in one of two positions, attacker or defender. Attackers had a knife and were standing. Defenders were lying on their back. The attackers could attack any defender in the class, either with a knife stab to the head or neck or a kick to the head. The defender had to parry or trap the attack and then kick their way back to standing. Then drop down to the floor and deal with the next attacker in the same way. The partners then switched so that attackers became defenders and vice versa.

In the final drill, we brought everything together. Again, the class was divided in two, attackers and defenders. Defenders stood in the Krav Maga fighting stance, with both arms up, ready to defend. Attackers could attack any defender they wished. When they attacked, they had several choices from techniques we practiced defending against in the class: straight sucker-punch, haymaker punch, kick to the groin or leg, double lapel grab, or stab with a knife. The attacker had to handle the attack and unleash a brutal combo, push the attacker away and scan the environment. This continued for several minutes of fight after fight. It was intense, but it really showed us how much we had learned in so little a time. It was Krav Maga’s “application under pressure” at its finest.

Certificates and Final Thoughts

At the end of the class, we all shook hands with our instructors and there was a brief ceremony to award us official IKMF Street Fighting seminar certificates. We all were totally soaked with sweat from the intensity of the multiple hours of fighting. But we were smiling. We felt a sense of camaraderie and our instructors expressed pride in how much we had learned. We were tremendously bruised and sore. I had sustained kicks to the groin, knees to the stomach, and punches to the face and head. My whole body was aching. But I felt really happy. I felt safer and more confident. I felt tougher and stronger. I knew that day that I had finally found the fighting style for me, a style whose principles I fully agreed with and on whom I could rely to defend my life or the lives of others. On this day, I became a member of the international Krav Maga family. And I intend to continue to keep growing and learning within this tradition for years to come. Kida!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. grimmorrigan says:

    A good firmed of mine studied Krav Maga. She loved it. It gave her confidence and was a simple but brutal art form.

  2. Dear Adam, thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts about Krav Maga. I am sure it will inspire and encourage others to try this way of self defense. – Where did you get the image used in the paragraph “calm and aggressive” from? May I ask the copyright owner for the permission to use it in a Krav Maga Flyer (with giving credit, of course)? – Thank you very much in advance for your feedback. – Kind regards, Urban

    1. Hi, Urban. Thank you for the kind words. I borrowed the image from a Google search of images of “Krav Maga.” I use it only in non-profit Fair Use terms. I’m not quite sure who holds the copyright, unfortunately. Perhaps if you do some Googling, you can either find the original image or another suitable substitute and can contact the copyright owner? Best of luck brother. Take care, Adam.

      1. Thank you very much, Adam. Have a great day!

    2. Just had another idea, Urban. You can copy paste the image directly into Google Image Search. If you search *by* the image itself, you should be able to find its original source. Hope this helps!

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