4 Key Principles for Defending Against Larger Sized Attackers

Being a smaller woman, I’ve had to practice my Jiu-jitsu/self-defense techniques with a different mindset throughout my martial arts career of nearly 20 years. I’ve had to learn to compensate for my inherent physical disadvantages while making the most of my advantages. When it comes to self-defense though, I’ve identified 4 key principles  that help provide the greatest efficiency when defending against larger sized attackers with greater strength when unarmed.

1. Evasion. When I say evasion, I don’t simply mean running away, while this isn’t a bad idea if you have the option. What I mean by evasion is using body movements to minimize the impact of your assailants attacks. As one of my old instructors used to say, “What do you do when a train is coming straight for you? You get off the track!” This means getting off the line of attack of strikes, whether you’re blocking them or not. In striking arts like boxing, this is known as slipping, as featured in the video below. It can also be reacting to a body grab before it’s fully applied, by staying on step ahead of the attack and getting your own back before they can restrain you.

2. Well-Targeted Striking. All technique being equal, someone stronger with a lot of body mass usually hits harder. And while it’s important for smaller people to develop great technique, making full use of body mechanics to get the most power they can from their strikes, targeting is even more important. A strike is more likely to affect an attacker if made accurately on a point that is known to have greater effect. You could aim generally for the head area and end up hitting them in the forehead for little effect. Or you could hit them square in the nose, breaking their nose causing sever pain and blinding them temporarily as their tear ducts let loose. If your power is limited, it’s a good idea to train yourself to strike out at the most vulnerable targets of a larger attacker as accurately as possible. The video shows how targeting can give a person the edge in the fight (in this case, targeting the brachial plexus origin causing knock-out).

3. Redirection of Energy. This point follows from evasion, but goes further by using your attacker’s energy against them. This is especially useful against someone who is committing to their attack completely. If someone much larger is charging at you with all their force, you are better not trying to meet them with force. Their momentum combined with their larger size will probably take you down. The use of evasion at just the right moment combined with a redirection of the attacker’s energy is a safer option. Techniques like the sprawl or the rice bale throw are examples of this. Or you could just side-step their all-out attack and let them run into your arm like in this crazy MMA fight:

4. Intention. When you’ve got no other choice but to use force to defend yourself, you want to make your intention to do so stronger than your aggressor’s intention to do you harm. You want to have a positive mental attitude, a form of spirit that’s also referred to as the ‘will to win’ as referenced in my blog post ‘How Will to Win Affects Martial Artists‘. In my post, ‘The Power of Intention in Self-Defense, I used the following analogy: “A doberman is a big dog that could easily rip a cat to shreds in terms of a physical contest. But have you ever seen an alley cat fight? An alley cat also hisses and squeals an awful high-pitched noise while it fights. So sure, the doberman could make short work of the cat, if it wanted to. But the doberman isn’t stupid. It realizes that if it did go in for the kill, it would take many scratches in the process. It could lose an eye or it could take one on the nose, damaging its sense of smell that it relies on for survival. Seeing the risk, the doberman shies away, because it simply isn’t worth it.”

In addition to the above 4 principles involving technique and spirit, there are a number of other factors that affect your ability to practice them if you spend time developing them, things like speed, reflexes, timing, sense of distance, etc. What would you add to the list of things that help you overcome size disadvantages?

Comments (10)

10 thoughts on “4 Key Principles for Defending Against Larger Sized Attackers

  1. I would add “willingness to cheat” to the list. My demonstration uke is 8 inches taller and 100lbs heavier than I am (we’re both male), and almost every self-defense technique I teach comes with the caveat, “Of course, if somebody Dave’s size attacks you in real life, just kick him in the shins and run away.”

      • Alright, if we assume that the situation is already in “risk of grievous bodily harm or death” territory, there are no rules. Otherwise, proportionality of response is relevant.

        That being said, I would like to amend my above comment to posit that “Effective Threat Assessment” is an invaluable skill for everyone, but especially smaller people.

        • Yep, threat assessment is invaluable, for anyone really, not just smaller people. This post was written in the context of a physical confrontation, but it’s good to always remind yourself about the other levels at which a situation can be nullified before resorting to combat (which should be a last resort). Thanks Jon! :)

  2. Excellent post. Not being that big myself, I agree with your well laid out principles of self defense. One addition that I would make to the list (and I realize that the list may have been in the context of an actual physical confrontation) is “verbal de-escalation.” That can be awful handy when it comes to dealing with larger people and help to avoid a situation in the first place. Outstanding blog!

    • Thanks Brian! You’re correct in your assumption that it was written in the context of a physical confrontation. That being said, I teach my students that avoidance and de-escalation tactics are always safer than physical engagement. Thank you for pointing out its importance though! :)

  3. For smaller individuals it’s of the utmost importance to avoid or negate the opponent’s (presumably) superior strength and size: this means superior training focusing on speed, accuracy and efficiency so basically all the things you can actually develop to a level that (hopefully) will be above that of your attacker. When teaching I emphasize striking with intention, proper bodymechanics (so no flailing wildly) and most of all accuracy: just last night I was training with a small woman and the difference between my reach and bodymass and hers was quite obvious. For her it’s important to make the most of what she has and strike in such a way as to cause maximum damage since it’s rather unlikely there’ll be a second chance. In the techniques we trained I emphasized that she’d strike at least a fist behind my hand (just touching someone face or throat will accomplish little) and immidiately move in with overlapping techniques using the same principle (striking with all of the bodymass, strength and intention aiming beyond the actual target). Since I presume most attackers will not expect a hard target (someone who actually can and is willing to fight back) I believe she has a real chance of escaping the kind of nasty situations SD-training is aimed at(owing to the element of suprise), at least when she keeps up the good work and stays in training.

    I think you pretty much summed up the most important points in physical self defense (which is or at least should be based on the notion of dealing with bigger, stronger people), in my view intention is the single most important element since the rest of the principles rely on the will to fight and survive, even against impossible odds and facing one’s worst fears and dangers. This is why the mental element becomes more important as one advances through the ranks: techniques remain important of course aswell as maintaining a decent physical condition but training with intention (the beginning of the higher mental states) is something that does not come naturally to most people so it does take time and effort.

    One last comment: hopefully it will never come to that but in my view weapons training (stick, knife and everyday objects primarely aswell as handguns in areas where it’s legal to keep and carry them) is the single best garantee of survival in the most dire situations. It doesn’t matter how good you are unarmed: if you’re up against a weapon or a group you are at a disadvantage so the ability to wield a weapon effectively may very well mean the difference between life and death. While it’s perfectly true the body and limbs are always available as weapons and should be trained to a high degree there’s nothing better than a weapon (whether designed as such or an object fulfilling the same basic function) since it gives you superior reach and/or strength that simply can’t be matched by unarmed arts and techniques. I’d rather fight a superior unarmed martial artist while in possession of a weapon than facing someone who doesn’t know anything but with a weapon in his hand and the will to use it to maim or kill. In theory negating the advantages of a knife, stick or similar weapon is doable but in actual practice it’s probably a whole different ballgame.

    • I agree that intention is the most important point. While this post was more about unarmed combat, I would definitely say that weapons have their place in self-defense against much larger attackers. I tend to encourage weapons of opportunity over carrying actual weapons (i.e. using items you carry on your person or items in your surroundings as improvised weapons). An umbrella or a steel water bottle are great options because they are carried quite commonly. A rolled up magazine or newspaper can also pack a whallop. We actually train in the use of improvised weapons as part of our style. Thanks for commenting! :)

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