5 Rules of Street-Oriented Ground Defense

I was recently asked what my general rules that I apply to all ground defense (for street application as opposed to sport). It’s pretty straight forward. I’ve laid them out in this post.

Rule #1: Protect your head and neck. If an attacker is trying to immobilize their victim and eliminate their defensive capabilities, the most dangerous targets are the head and neck. While defending from the ground, the forearms should be kept up close to the head (when possible) to protect it and the chin should be tucked with the shoulders raised to prevent strangulation.

Rule #2: Keep your elbows and knees tucked close. On the ground, an attacker will try to immobilize your limbs to keep you from fighting back. When your arms are straight and spread out away from your body, they are easier to control. If your attacker knows joint lock submissions, they will more easily be able to apply them too. Keeping your elbows tucked close to your body prevents this and also allows you to use them to protect your head and neck. Keeping your knees bent allows you to kick out and hides your kicking reach.

Rule #3: Create and use space. When defending from the ground, the more space you have the better. This is particularly important when your attacker has the size/strength advantage. Space opens up more defensive options. Use whatever attacks to vulnerable targets you can, in combination with whatever body shifting you can manage to create more space. Then use the extra space to apply more powerful defenses. Another good use of space is to try and ward off an attacker with kicks and takedowns from the ground before they get on top of you.

Rule #4: Watch out for other hazards.
The ground can present a number of hazards that you need to watch out for as you defend yourself. The attacker may produce and use a concealed weapon. If you see them reach back for something, assume it is a weapon and take the necessary measures to defend yourself. You also have to watch out for environmental hazards like glass or other debris/obstacles on the ground that could cause you harm.

Rule 5: Get off the ground! The ground is a dangerous place to be (See my article on the dangers of ground defense). You greatly increase your ability to protect yourself and escape by getting off the ground as soon as you have the opportunity to safely do so. As such, all defenses should end with the student getting back to their feet.

For more information about practical, street-oriented ground defense, check out Lori O’Connell Sensei’s book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground.

Comments (9)

9 thoughts on “5 Rules of Street-Oriented Ground Defense

  1. A great theme which you really are delivering excellent posts on.

    Some great simple points here that does not need much training in order for one to become efficient in utilising them.

  2. A reply the very same day I posted the question, that’s what I call quick service 🙂 Not to mention a whole post dedicated to an inquiry by little old me, I’m flattered. It’s a good set of rules, I especially like nr 1 and 2, keeping the arms and legs in is very good advice for novices or martial artists not used to ground fighting. Keeping your arms extended just makes it too easy for him to control them while you basically have no leverage to push him off and it does leave you very open to strikes. There is one potential problem with keeping the forearms in front of your face, in my sparring sessions with my sensei I found that if I do that it’s usually fairly easy for him to get high mount on me and then it’s basically game over. Any suggestions on that? The problem with nr 4 (the debris on the ground) is that usually you’re the underdog when it comes to ground fighting, assuming the opponent got the jump on you and you didn’t voluntarily go to the ground. This means he’s basically running the show and you’re forced to react to what he’s doing (at least until you’re able to turn the tables), with that in mind I don’t see how you could avoid glass or other objects on the floor (especially if he’s got you in any type of hold). The advice on watching out for hidden weapons is sound and equally applicable to tachi-waza as it is to ne-waza: if I see someone who’s hostile towards me reach in their jacket, pocket or behind their belt I’d kick them in the groin and make a run for it. Nothing good can ever come of it and I’m pretty sure he won’t be reaching for the peace-pipe.

    On the ground weapons are even more dangerous because of the mobility problem: when you’re in a superior position it’s not too bad (you can see what he’s doing and you’ve gravity on your side) but when has you in a holddown and then reaches for a weapon it’d be very, very hard to defend against that. In any case, whether it’s a knife or a gun, it would make sense to control the weapon-arm with two hands, pull it towards you and try to bridge or shrimp to get out. When you’re mounted and he pulls or a knife or a gun (normally a situation that’s pretty much lethal, especially for you) there’s a change of survival if you immediately control the weapon arm: when you have a firm grip on his hand you can use the weapon to your advantage. With a knife you cut or stab his other hand, assuming he’ll try to punch, or you jam it in his torso and then bridge. With a gun I’d aim the barrel towards him and start squeezing the trigger. In any case weapon-defense on the ground is one of the most advanced and most lethal area’s of SD and not one I’d like to ever find myself in but you never know. Nr 5 clearly is the cardinal rule and one I impress on any student I’m training with: don’t get in the habit of going nuts with the punches on the ground (I call this having a good time) or play the submission-game (unless you’re very, very good and very, very quick) if you value your life and you don’t want to end up a plant (getting hit hard in the neck with a boot or barstool tends to do that to the human body).


  3. Thanks for the comments guys! You definitely keep me motivated to continue writing. 🙂

    Zara, as for defending against the high mount, when I say to keep the arms up to protect the head, this should be done in combination with the concept of keeping your elbows tucked. The head should also be tucked in to not only protect the neck but also so you don't have to keep your arms as high to protect your head should the need arise. Your body should basically be in a crunch position so that your arms cover more ground.

    In this position, you can use the elbows to either prevent an attacker from taking the high mount or to push him down out of the high mount if he has already managed to take it. If your arms are kept too low, there is the risk that a mounted attacker can pin your arms to the ground with his knees. It's kind of hard to describe, I hope this helps. Maybe I'll have to do a video to explain that one.

    As for the environmental hazards, you're right in that you may not have any control over where you get taken to the ground, or where you have to fight from. But there is a chance that the attacker may try to use environmental hazards against you. Whether it's picking up a broken bottle or trying to smash your head into a brick wall. As you say, you may not be able to do anything about it, but being aware of these things at least gives us the opportunity to do damage control.

    Thanks for your questions. They definitely help me think things through. I'm actually planning to write a book on ground defense for the streets some time, so anything that pushes me to analyze these things is good. 🙂

  4. I think I understand where you’re going with it yes, a video isn’t absolutely necessary but it couldn’t hurt. If you could do a video on weapon-defense from the ground I’d certainly be interested, if you could find the time that is. A book is a good idea, it’d be a good way of getting your expertise out there. Naturally an explanation in person or through video is even better, perhaps you should consider making a DVD? Too bad you live so far away or I would certainly suggest a guest-lesson or seminar. You’re obviously a good teacher and I like your method of stringing together defenses & breaking techniques down in their respective parts.

    I’ve compiled my own list of principles on SD on the ground, what do you think of it? For some reason I usually end up with a list of 8 (regardless of the subject), must be the aesthetics and symmetry of it (8 = 4×2, 4 = 2×2). Since you’re writing a book perhaps I should get this copyrighted, lol.

    1. Try to avoid going to the ground at all costs, unless you’re certain he’s alone and you posses considerable skill in that area or you know his weakness lies in groundfighting (e.g a boxer with no experience in grappling).

    2. Counter before he has a solid holddown or lock, don’t wait for him to complete his attack and try to achieve a superior position yourself.

    3. Use combinations of deflections, body shifting & attacks to vital points to create distance and escape. Primary targets in groundfighting are the eyes, throat and groin. If you can’t hit because of lack of space, press, pinch or rake.

    4. Given the greater danger involved in groundfighting, especially when he’s larger and/or stronger than you, a greater degree of violence is excuseable. Locks should be applied fully (break or dislocation) unless you’re certain you can control him, watch out for multiple opponents though.

    5. Create distance, do damage and get back up asap. Winning or taking out the opponent on the ground is not the primary objective, it’s about survival and regaining mobility and overview of your surroundings and potential threats.

    6. Beware of hidden weapons, seize the weapon-arm with both hands and counter violently. Glass, sand or other debris commonly found on the ground may be used to your advantage.

    7. Keep your elbows and knees close to your body: never give him your extended arms (danger of locks) and make it difficult for him to control your body. Keep your forearms in front of your face to ward off punches. The whole body should work as a unit, in both offense and defense (emphasis on correct use of bodyweight and hipmovement).

    8. Try to avoid placement of his hands on or near your face or neck, if he can control your head it’s easy for him to choke you or attack your eyes.

    Good job,


  5. Zara, all the information is about right in your personal list. Joint locks and submissions on the ground should only be used in very specific situations though so I keep them out of my main rules even though I still teach them. But then my list is the core self-defense curriculum comprised in our system and in our style we discourage the use of submissions on the ground as a primary tool of self-defense because it keeps you on the ground. But if someone were to use them on the ground, the way you described it is the way I would use them.

  6. I didn’t advocate the use of locks as a primary means of defense in a SD situation, my main point was that it’s permissible to use more force and do more damage than you would in a standing setting. This includes damaging his eye if that is what it takes or slamming his head in the pavement and if you do use locks, which shouldn’t be the first techniques taught in any case, you must realize you can’t just stay there indefinitely and the fight doesn’t stop just because he tapped. Breaking or dislocating usually disables the opponent, then you kick him off you allowing you to get to your feet safely. I’ve always considered locks to be higher order techniques (it takes way more skill to do an armlock than to clock someone on the nose) and they aren’t easy to do, especially in a high stress situation. That being said what we teach and practice is still a combination of self-defense and ju-jutsu, meaning both simple strikes & higher order techniques like locks, throws, strangulations & restraints so locks should be taught to more advanced students and for use in a sparring-context (especially on the ground). If our curriculum merely consisted of striking & kicking it might as well be krav maga. Pure self-defense, meaning strikes & escapes, while certainly very effective would become rather tedious after a while. Certainly there’s more to the martial arts than that & (at least standing) locks do have the distinct advantage that they can be used to exert control over someone without necessarily damaging them. The problem with locks on the ground is that they usually involve getting entangled with the opponent, clearly this makes escaping without breaking first a rather dangerous exercise. In any case if you want to prepare yourself for a confrontation with a trained grappler (certainly an advanced stage of training, 99% of people on the street know squat about grappling & grapplers tend to make very dangerous opponents) you first have to know at least the basic options in terms of locks on the ground in various positions, another good reason to practice them. If you teach people these techniques you should also tell them how they should be used in a non sports context lest they condition themselves too much to let go every time someone taps out. They certainly wouldn’t be the first people who lost a streetfight because of this, oftentimes with grave consequences.

    I’m glad you agree with the list, to me this is confirmation the advice is sound and won’t put people in even greater danger when used. It’s always wise to seek the council of a specialist, or at least someone who’s better at it than you are.


    PS: what’s next on the agenda in terms of video-posting?

  7. Naturally your list provided the inspiration for mine, especially with respect to nr 2. I just don't like to merely copy people but add my own ideas and twists & phrase it in my way.

  8. I also believe in combining the art with the straight practical self-defense as students get more skilled. It provides more room for long term development. I love training locks and restraints on the ground even though it's highly impractical for me to use them against a much larger attacker. It's fun! 🙂

    I'm going to try and do a compilation of clips in which I am doing live ground defense. I just have to put aside some time.

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