Under: karate
10 Sep 2009


You’ve started to take karate lessons from your local school for some reason. Perhaps you have had a run in at the local pub or you have been mugged. Whatever the reason you have decided to learn how to defend yourself. You want to become the next Ninja Warrior! You do not want to be a MMA star but you just want that highly respected Black Belt.


You went with a reputable school that has been recommended by one of your buddies and have had your introductory lessons. The school is one of many that teach basics, self-defense techniques, katas and sparring. If you are really motivated you can do some semi or full contact sport karate tournaments later.


In this post I will focus on self-defense techniques, what they are, how long it takes to learn them well and do they work. I will also speak about beginning students with the goal of self defense and how realistic that is learning a traditional martial art. Here is a demonstration of some American Kenpo and Tracy’s Kenpo Karate techniques.



This demonstration is from a couple of different flavors of Kenpo (Parker’s and Tracy’s). So you have seen what is considered a self-defense technique but simply put it is one set of moves in defense of an attack.

The first technique is called Kimona Grab, I learned back in Orange Belt. It is one of my favorite moves for it simplicity. An antagonist aggressively grabs your shirt. You pin the arms and step back. You break up with an upward block and then circle and sweep down – chop the adams apple. You follow up with a horizontal elbow, soft bow stance and reverse hammerfist to the groin, and finish up with a rear kick (that you are already in position to do).

The question I am most often asked over the years since students are taught a defense for each type of an attack is, would I have to remember and launch into a self-defense technique for each attack? How could I remember everything in a stressful situation. What if I flubbed the move up?

Whenever I get these questions I smile. We have 240 self-defense techniques and 17 katas in Dick Willett’s American Kenpo Karate style (the school where I learned karate). To start to answer this question we have to consider what karate is and how many different ways it is practiced effectively around the world.

You see many styles of formal karate do not have self-defense techniques at all but rather they practice drills, roughly based on their katas and basics. That works well for them and they are albe to defend themselves very well. Some reality based martial arts do not have any katas at all but rather have various self-defense techniques for attacks they say people are likely to encounter in real life. These systems work well without katas so these are effective as well.

Freestyle, or MMA types of systems do not have any defined self-defense techniques or katas but focus on incorporating various types of fighting skills from other martial arts. For instance some MMA schools might teach BJJ and Muay Thai  but many combinations of martial arts are possible.

So how did I get so lucky to pick a style that had 240 self defense techniques and 17 katas to get a Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt)? Well I wanted to learn how to fight and when I went into the school, Dick Willett explained how he would teach me not only how to kick and punch but also how to connect the kicks and punches in a real fight! You see if it did not work, I would not have been interested!

So far I have explained that even traditional martial arts (TMA) are all over the map so getting back to the question; Would self-defense techniques work? Would you have to remember the technique instantly in a given attack? What if you messed up?

Yes, No, No Problem.

When a beginning student starts any system of karate, he or she learns the basic stances, blocks, kicks and punches. These are the foundation of all of your karate training. In American Kenpo Karate your private lessons are roughly 33% basics, 33% self-defense techniques, and 33% katas.

The belt system is based on White, Brown, and Black Belt ranks. White rank has Orange, Purple, Blue, and Green Belts. Each belt rank has about 40 techniques and 2 katas required as well as basic and sparring proficiencies are tested. Sparring is generally required at green belt (I started at blue belt).

So the question should not be if the self-defense techniques would work but more so if everything would work! I as a black belt would not ever use a self-defense technique unless an attacker got inside my critical distance.

Back when I was a orange belt I relied heavily on basic kicks, punches, self-defense techniques and kata if I had to fight! What? I know you must be thinking I just said that I would not use self-defense techniques normally?

Well here is the deal. As a beginner one learns to fight the way our masters did before they had competitive boxing, sport karate, kick boxing, or MMA. Early practitioners of karate and kung fu fought very will with close in fighting moves. There were claws, chops, gouges, stomps, knees, spear hands as well as kicks and punches. Some of the karate styles focused more on simplicity and power while others such as kenpo devolved into mostly a standing, close in fighting system (originally jui-jitsu was part of Kempo in Japan).

So one of the points I am trying to make is self-defense techniques really work well but they do not represent the most modern approach to karate. These techniques are a stepping stone (at least to me) in my martial arts walk to even greater fighting techniques.

To me self-defense techniques are what you teach beginners who do not really know how to fight fight yet. In American Kenpo, these self-defense techniques are important to eventually learn a mastery of kenpo. Parts of these techniques are very well suited for short-term self defense classes.

Self defense techniques are akin to teaching blocks instead of covers. Blocking is a primary basic move taught in all forms of karate. However when was the last time you saw an inward block thrown in a full contact or MMA match? Never because it is the kind of move that you fall back on if everything else fails you!

In a real modern fight, one must use distance, timing, covers, and a few favorite moves to win. It does not matter if it is a kick boxing match or self-defense. People fight the way they train so if you end up fighting some street muggers, you just adjust your targets to where they will do the most damage. For instance you would not use your side-kick to the ribs but rather adjust it to the knees!

It takes three to four years to get a Shodan in American Kenpo Karate. You will not be a great fighter (if all goes well) until you are a 2nd degree brown belt so you will have to rely on self defense techniques to save your ham if you get in an altercation (as well as blocks). Say you get into a fight as a blue belt. You will have already learned 120 self defense techniques or ways of defeating an antagonist!

This leads me into the next question – do you need to do a whole technique?  As I said before – No. As you are learning how to do the techniques, your muscles are learning how to do various strikes and blocks. All you have to do is just let your body react because while in the fight – you will have already practiced a lot of possibilities from each position. You will have some favorite moves. For me it was elbows, knees and stomps.

You will not be pretty in a fight but at a basic level, you should be able to take care of yourself. Just don’t hang out in dive bars or walk the city streets alone at night and using beginning moves – you should be fine.

Now I think I have already addressed what to do if you flub up? No matter just strike with what will work. Your body will already be used to fighting in close quarters.

I would like to say that I really enjoy Kenpo Karate self-defense techniques and I could as a Godan (5 degree black belt) fight with them. I choose to not use the basics but more advanced fighting techniques that Bruce Lee, Joe Lewis and many top rated black belts have developed over the last 40 years. That way if I end up fighting a mugger that knows a thing or two about fighting – I will have a chance (I think I would have a good chance anyway).

Now in closing I would like to present a snippet of one of my favorite martial arts movies, The Perfect Weapon with Jeff Speakman. I confess that I love to see the Kenpo self-defense techniques in action! :)

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7 Responses to “Self Defense Techniques; Will Your Karate Work?”

  1. Martial Arts News 9.11.09 « Striking Thoughts Says:

    […] Zimmer wonders if your karate will work. In this post I will focus on self-defense techniques, what they are, how long it takes to learn […]

  2. David Hays Says:


    Good post. This subject comes up a lot, especially the question of why do we teach so many techniques and do they work. I answer the question this way; we teach the techniques as learning modules. This is a creative way to teach, and have the student practice and remember a sequence of moves that will enable them to defend themself. Techniques teach you balance, timing, how to create power by learning to use torque, and how to control an opponent.

    When Ed Parker was asked about techniques he said the following; “I teach Kenpo, not for the sake of teaching the techniques, but for the principles involved in them. And even then, these principles must be altered to fit the individual.

    The reason I give my techniques names is because there are certain sequences associated with these terms. If I told a student tomorrow that I was going to teach him a counter version to a double hand grab, it’s not as meaningful as when I say I’m going to teach him Parting Wings.

    You’ve got to know how to vary things. A lot of the techniques I’ve worked with, they’re ideas, they’re not rules. At any given time, any of my moves can change from defense to offense, offense to defense.

    Martial artists and Kenpo people especially, become so involved in doing the techniques exactly right in such and such amount of time, that they get caught in a pattern that they can’t break. That’s not what they’re for. Specific moves, specific techniques are based, like the ABCs in the English language or standard football plays.

    You have to have a point of reference and from there the combinations are endless and limited only by universal laws, laws that you can’t change”

    I was privileged, as was John Zimmer, to come from a school based in the reality of self defense. We not only had to learn the 240 self defense techniques, 17 Katas and countless basics to get our Black Belt, we had to understand the principles involved in them. We also had to do a lot of sparring. I believe the combination of the techniques, basics and sparring has made me a great all around martial artist.

    Those of you who say that self defense techniques do not work need to spend some time with an instructor that can help you learn the principles involved in them vs. taking them literally.

    Just my opinion.

    David Hays

  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Dave,

    Excellent point about learning modules and they are principals more so than hard and fast rules. I know I learned how to do knees and elbows before I ever heard of Muay Thai because of these techniques.

  4. Zara Says:

    Interesting movie, I’ll check if they have it in the nearest video-store. I won’t comment on the specifics of kenpo self-defense techniques since I never trained them but from what I’ve seen and (mostly on youtube and descriptions or videos on other sites) they seem to be overly complicated (alot of different moves for different attacks, sequences of 10 techniques or more in a row) and in a number of cases overkill. Chopping someone’s Adam’s apple in respons to a shirtgrab will likely result in his windpipe being crushed and this cannot possible be construed as legitemate self-defense (more like manslaughter). I suppose certain principles will cover alot of techniques and this might simplify things (an explanation on this would be most welcome and informative) but I still wonder how you’d be able to identify the attack in time and retrieve the necessary information from your brain (handgrab, technique nr 4) while still reacting instantly, effectively and naturally.

    If you are going to use strikes as your primary defensive tool you might aswell throw a boxing combination (followed by a knee, elbow or kick) after every defense, that way you don’t have to think too much about where to hit with what weapon. In our style of JJ we have certain entry-techniques against certain types of attacks (whether you’re grabbed by the shirt or choked from the front, the defense remains the same) and they don’t change with the different follow-up. For every attack you should identify primary danger (for a cross it’s the line going straight to your face, for a bearhug it’s being lifted and thrown or taken away) and counter that with proper body-mechanics. After that you give a few atemi (three at most) to soften him up for a lock, throw or choke. If they happen to fail you trap his arm(s) and hit again, flowing into something else. The technique itself is not important (a wristlock can be used in a wide variety of situations), stopping the attacker is and after a while you begin to see what would be most appropriate in a certain situation and what techniques flow easily and naturally into others. This is the beauty of the MA: after years of training you begin to absorb the techniques into your subconscious mind and they become automatic, just like driving a car or a bike. Before that point you need to keep things as simple as possible (less details to remember, making for faster learning) and hitting a man 10 times in a predetermined order (which will probably fall apart pretty quickly: battle-plans rarely survive even first contact with the enemy) does not seem to be very simple. I do like use of critical distance and counter-punching though: with sparring and plenty of exercise this will work for sure (maintaining distance is easier than letting the enemy dictate the range and having to act accordingly) and it’s probably more natural than doing kata or practicing formal techniques.

    These are just my thoughts on the subject, I could be wrong but these are my impressions on the art of kenpo (being a non-practioner). I would say kenpo is alot more effective than your standard run-of-the-mill karate (shotokan, wado…) since it’s actually meant for self-defense and not for sport-fighting and is alot more fluent and especially fast. Fast combinations thrown at vital-points is a very good strategy for winning fights and it’s still better to hit him three times with less power but fast and in places where it’ll hurt than trying to hit him once full force but failing because you’re too stiff and predictable (you just know a karateka will most likely begin with an oi-tsuki for example).

    In any case if there’s ever a seminar on kenpo in the neighbourhood I’ll be sure to check it out, it seems like a most interesting MA and if it kept you safe during .

  5. Zara Says:

    your many fights its bound to be effective, unless you’re a naturally gifted person of course. I still wonder what makes a good fighter: technique and practice or natural ability (more or less comparable to athletics: you can train all you want but if you don’t have a certain body type and appropriate genes you’ll never be a champion at the sprint for example). Ah well, another topic entirely.

  6. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Zara, One difference between JJ and kenpo is the techniques I learn are mostly to guide beginners how to do various moves and combinations of moves. Unlike JJ, we don’t have to memorize the moves for attacks because when practiced – we get muscle memory.

    One difference between white and black belt is what I call fluidity. Under belts do things mechanically but black belts should just think of a move and be able to perform it.

    No need to practice exact combinations because each attack will be different with different possible openings and attack opportunities.

    To me fighting is simple anyway… using critical distance and take advantage of opportunities. I would not ever do a pre-set technique.

  7. Bill @ Self Defense Says:

    Kenpo seems to be a very effective method of self defense. I would definitely like to start training with this method.