My Top 5 Favourite Stand-up Strikes for Self-Defense

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

Every so often a someone asks me that if I was only going to learn one strike for self-defense, what would it be? I don’t really have an answer for this, because I don’t believe that there is a magical strike that will be all things to all people in all scenarios, even if they practice it 10,000 times. I think Bruce Lee would probably agree with me, despite the evidence to the contrary above. When you take the concept to the extreme, the point becomes that much more plain, like in Episode 2, Season 1 of Enter the Dojo (below).

That being said, there is benefit to focusing on fewer strikes that are useful in a wide range of circumstances, rather than over-diversifying to the point that you’re not really good at any of them. This is especially true if you’re only taking a short-term self-defense class. There are 5 strikes I think cover a fairly wide range of circumstances, all of which we teach in our women’s self-defense classes, as well as part of our Jiu-jitsu curriculum. They follow the tenets of Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu in that they are simple (the fundamentals of each strike can be learned in 3 minutes or less), they utilize gross motor skills (why they are easy to learn), and they can be applied in a variety of situations (allowing for commonality of technique).

1. Palm Strike to the Nose. A hard strike to the nose is very painful for most people, even if it doesn’t break, due to the cross-section of nerves that lie around the cartilage. It causes the tear ducts to empty, making it hard to see. Even if your attacker is not feeling pain in the nose, whether it’s because he’s drunk, high or experiencing an adrenaline dump, there’s still a good chance they will be distracted by an attack to the nose. They are likely to still experience a flinch reflex that is ingrained in most people, and the eyes will still tear up from a solid strike, obscuring their vision.

2. Shin Kick. The shins make for great distraction strikes. A strike to this area can be quite painful and can even cause a person to lose their balance and/or footing depending on your timing. It’s faster and easy to land because it comes in below a person’s peripheral vision, making it hard to see coming. It’s also really great as a low-level force solution because it’s not likely to cause permanent injury.  If the situation warrants a higher level of force, a slightly different version of this kick can be used in which you lift the knee up and stomp through the knee rather swinging through the shin.

My Top 5 Favourite Stand-up Strikes for Self-Defense3. Finger Whip to Groin. The groin is a good target on the ground because it doesn’t take much force to cause a reaction. Even just the threat of a strike to the groin can be enough to make an attacker shift his hips away to defend. Most attackers will experience great pain when their groin is struck. The finger whip in particular is useful as a strike when your arms are pinned, say underneath a bear hug attack from the rear. It is an easy movement to shift your hips to expose the groin then whip your finger tips up into the testicles to get the desired reaction.

4. “Gerber” Slap. This is a fancy name for a big, ol’ power slap to the head (sometimes called the ‘Gerber slap’ named after a cop who used it frequently). An open hand strike is an effective way of getting the desired concussive effect on the brain that stuns the target, possibly even knocking them out. It is better than a punch in the sense that you don’t have to worry exactly where you hit the head for fear of breaking knuckles (the skull is 40x denser than concrete – not ideal for punching).

5. Knee Kick. The knee kick is quite versatile when confined in close quarters. It is powerful, using all the strongest muscles of the leg, and can be used on a variety of targets, including the groin, motor points in the legs (i.e. lateral femoral, anterior femoral), solar plexus (when the target is bent over), etc. Below is a self-defense technique I teach against a side headlock using the knee kick.

*Bonus: 6. Elbow Strike. Though I didn’t include this in my top 5 (mostly because it’s not as quick and easy to learn to use effectively as my other choices), it is still one of my favourites to use personally. Like the knee kick, it is versatile in close quarters and powerful, allowing the user to coordinate all their body mechanics into one bony strike. It can be used in a variety of angles, making it practical for use on a wide variety of targets such as the head, ribs, nose, groin (in some cases), as well as a variety of motor points (i.e. brachial plexus origin, solar plexus, lateral femoral, etc.) Definitely one of my go-to strikes.

In my next blog post, I’ll be discussing my top 5 favourite vital target attacks for ground defense featuring material from my newly published book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense.

What are your favourite striking techniques for stand-up self-defense? Please share in the comments. 🙂

Comments (14)

14 thoughts on “My Top 5 Favourite Stand-up Strikes for Self-Defense

  1. I’d preferably direct the palmheel under the chin as opposed to the nose: this’ll likely generate wiplash and/or knockout (as opposed to a broken nose which, in itself, is not likely to be a fightender), plus it’s much harder to see coming. For smaller individuals the fingerstrike or clawhand to the eyes or throat is also a great option (standing and on the ground), aswell as the stompkick to the knee. To gain a basic understanding of SD there’s really not much you have to know: with enough practice of these strikes and basic releasing techniques most situations can be solved fairly easy, especially if the attacker isn’t expecting much resistance.

    What Bruce Lee (likely) meant by that quote is that it’s better to have a few proven techniques in your arsenal (trained to perfection) than a plethora of moves that are half mastered. He basically argued against complicated,stylized techniques & arts and for simplicity and practicality.

    1. All the strikes you mentioned are also good ones,and I do use them too, but personally because I’m shorter I find I have to be really close up in order to use the palm strike to the chin (also why it’s not taught as one of the primary choices in our women’s self defense class). Eyes and throat attacks are effective too, but not scalable for low-level force encounters (you pretty much have to be able to justify deadly use of force to use either, or at least in Canada anyway). But then that’s why it’s good to have variety. Different strikes for different situations and different people.

      Oh and I do agree with the probable intention behind Bruce Lee’s statement. Thanks for commenting!

      1. It depends on how you execute the above mentioned attacks to the eyes and throat: they can be lethal or maiming but it can also be a gentle poke in order to release chokes or get his head to move back in order to set up other strikes. The fingerstrike (nukite-tsuki) is often used in the context of knife defence when you really need to do maximum damage, it’s also great for smaller people fighting overwhelming attackers (hitting the most vulnerable targets). Obviously it’s not the first choice for solving minor nuisances (not full force anyway) but if it’s your life on the line it’s one of the best methods. One of the worst applications of this technique that I’ve ever seen was from a karate-manuel where it was taught to strike the midsection with the nukite: this is a great way to break your fingers, that is unless you’re willing to spend at least an hour each day thrusting your fingers in rice, sand or glass.

        On the ground it can really give you an edge, even against an experienced sports-grappler, and I believe it makes for quick escapes which is exactly what you need when you find yourself in such dire situations. If you’re in a crowded enviroment and you find yourself on the ground with an attacker on top of you I believe it’s one of the few sane options you have left and surely it can be justified to a judge (even if you damage his eye) in the context of the added and very real danger of bystanders kicking your head in… That’s if you were smart enough to make it clear you really didn’t want this fight so you’d be the defender and not the other way around.

  2. Interesting to realize that your typical martial arts strikes are not always the best strikes to use in a self defense situation.

  3. Zara says:
    January 22, 2013 at 11:36 am
    I’d preferably direct the palmheel under the chin as opposed to the nose
    I like this as well, in an arc motion which allows a follow-up elbow strike to the head as you rechamber. Now palm-strike with the other hand.

    Stay right up on the person and repeat that combo as many times as needed.

    1. Not only that: you can actually make this a four part combo… First you hit the chin with the palmheel, then you follow up with the elbow, then you thrust the elbow forward into his nose and finish with a hammerfist to the bridge of the nose. This combo’s from panantukan (Filipino boxing) and it’s a great tool if you need to completely overwhelm the attacker. If that doesn’t knock him out or down I don’t what will and you can always follow up with the other hand or a kick/knee.

  4. Headbutts, IMO, are really under rated. Bullies who control peoples arms/bodies, generally think about hitting the victim in the head, they aren’t prepared for the head itself to be the weapon.

    Pinching too. Grabbing a handfull of someone’s inner thigh, can be incredibly painful. If nothing else, it can give you time and space enough to either follow up with a strike, or to just run.

    1. I’m not a big fan of the headbutt since it can lead to damage to yourself if aimed and executed wrongly: I’m not saying it can’t work but for close in work I generally prefer elbows and knees, or attacks to the groin to release holds. A lot of people will headbutt downwards which will likely lead to breaking one’s own nose if the opponent is smart enough to just lower his head slightly (presenting his own forehead): much better to butt upwards into the chin or nose to avoid damage to your own person. What I do like a lot is the backward headbutt (assuming the opponent’s grabbig you in a bearhug from behind) since it’s safe and packs quite a whallop but since I’m quite tall it’s unlikely I’ll ever have to use it and there are of course other methods to achieve the same result.

      I wouldn’t rely on pinching too much (mere pain may not impress a committed attacker) but to each his own.

    2. Headbutts definitely have their place as they can be unexpected. Same with pinching, though it may not work on someone who is adrenalized or intoxicated. I’ve used it effectively before though.

      1. That’s probably because you’re of small stature: being tall makes it much harder to use the headbutt effectively, plus I don’t like a technique whereby you lose visual contact with the attacker. As to pinching: this may be a good technique to use in low level confrontations but I’d rather use strikes to be on the safe side. Pinching, even if it works, only produces pain aslong as you hold on to the skin and it doesn’t do damage whereas a strike to the groin for example causes both damage (when hard enough) and the pain endures at least some time after contact. It’s for the same reason s I’m not a fan of pressure points in general: often they don’t work (I’m fairly resistant to them myself and my reaction would be to get angry and fight harder not give in), you’ve got to be precise, clothing could get in the way… Just my opinion.

  5. j’ai bien aimé votre blog sur les 5 meilleures frappes pour l’auto défense. On remarque que les techniques sont axées sur la motricité global (cross motor skill), ainsi que sur des cibles vitales très vulnérables ou affaiblissantes.


  6. The finger whip to the groin is probably the greatest assault or defense move.
    I’ve administered this sort of technique to several guys, and it’s the most painful way to destroy a guy. Slap a guy with your fingers to the base of his scrotum, focusing on his left nut. On average a mans left testicle is about 5-10% larger than his right, so the left testicle has more nerves and will cause greater pain. Once you’ve slapped his scrotum immediately wrap your fingers over his testicles.
    My Kung fu master taught me three ways to grip a mans testicles, and the most painful technique is to push your thumb into his left testicle as you squeeze his epidiymuos the rear most and most sensitive part) of his nut with your fingers. Another technique insists you grab both his balls, but don’t get greedy, one testicle is all you need to squeeze to give him mind binding pain.Once your grip is solid and the pressure on his testicles is increasing your enemy will probably lose consciousness from the pain within about 6-7 seconds.
    Once he’s unconscious deliver a straight punch to his right testicle.
    He’ll survive your assault but also experience the most painfull attack ever.

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