Combat Fit: Krav Maga and CrossFit Cross Paths

In the 1990s, a new category of martial arts emerged: reality-based self-defense. It was spearheaded by systems such as krav maga, Tony Blauer’s Tactical Systems and senshido, along with padded-assailant programs like Peyton Quinn’s RMCAT. The emphasis on practicality and real-world applications was also fueled by the rise of the mixed martial arts, which took off around the same time.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the development of conditioning programs that mirror, in the world of fitness, the results-oriented nature of RBSD. The best-known one, called CrossFit, has made great headway among MMA fighters, military personnel and law-enforcement officers. CrossFit is booming; it hardly needs this article to act as its advocate. However, it’s interesting to note how quickly RBSD teachers have adopted it and to explore why that’s so.

Tony Blauer recalls how he first discovered CrossFit: “[Creator] Greg Glassman and I consult for many of the same clients in the special-forces and law-enforcement communities. We both had been hearing about one another’s programs for several years. At a certain moment, we made contact. He invited me out to Santa Cruz for a cert, and I was officially hooked.”

A number of schools in the krav maga community teach CrossFit. One of the first instructors to adopt it was Jeff Martin, the owner of a facility near San Diego. “I had always thought I was in shape, but I was amazed at how fast I became exhausted doing stress and fatigue drills,” he says. “More important, I realized my technique suffered. I started upping the training I was doing—tried to do more cardio and spent more time in the gym—but nothing made a significant impact on my abilities under stress. There seemed to be little carry-over from my efforts in the gym to the stress and fatigue drills we were doing in krav maga.”

In trying to simulate real-life violent encounters, RBSD systems react with high-intensity, short-duration bursts of energy—complete with adrenalization, unsustainable levels of exertion, and the recruitment of multiple muscle groups and bodily systems for punching, kicking and running. Traditional cardio workouts are not so relevant because the training focuses on quick bursts, while the typical cardio workout involves long-duration, steady-paced exertion.

At first, Jeff Martin attributed his exhaustion to his age, which at the time was 43. “Then it dawned on me that the current model for training wasn’t really helpful in preparing me for a fight,” he says. “I could run forever but got winded after a few minutes of drills. I was pretty strong, but again after a few minutes of drills, I was weak as a kitten. So in 2003, I started Googling different ways to work out and ran across CrossFit.”

CrossFit, as it turned out, had a fitness approach that matched krav maga’s approach to self-defense. “In my first certification,” Jeff Martin remembers, “coach Glassman said, ‘Strive to blur the line between cardio and strength training—nature has no regard for this distinction.’ That makes sense to a fighter. When you’re attacked, you don’t get to say, ‘Today I’m going to punch a little.’ Chances are you’re going to have to lift, throw, punch, run, grapple and kick. You move from one thing to another, yet when they work out, most people segment the training.”

Tony Blauer makes a similar observation: “CrossFit is the only organized functional fitness program that consistently prepares its athletes for the unknown and unknowable. The workout of the day is always varied, and it challenges and conditions the athlete from head to toe. I can’t think of a more dynamic and complete program to prepare the warrior athlete.”

Specific Combat Fitness Techniques, Generalized Approach

This broad approach to fitness mirrors krav maga’s jack-of-all-trades approach to self-defense. Like many other RBSD systems, krav maga strives to be comprehensive by incorporating defenses against guns, knives, sticks and other weapons, as well as empty-hand techniques, stand-up fighting and ground work. Obviously, efficiency is a prime concern. That’s why the movements you learn to use against a standing choke, for example, also apply when you’re defending against a mounted choke.

CrossFit eschews isolated muscle movements in favor of multi-joint compound body movements. Some traditional exercises are adapted for whole-body recruitment. For instance, in CrossFit, you don’t always do traditional, military-style “dead hang” pull-ups. You’re allowed—and, in fact, you’re encouraged—to do gymnastics-style kip-ups that involve an explosive upward swing. That emphasis on practical, whole-body movement is mirrored in krav maga, which avoids techniques that use fine-motor skills and sticks to the gross-motor functions that are more available under stress.

Fighters, whether they’re preparing for self-defense or the ring, need explosive power. Some of it comes from training and timing: You build muscle memory to deliver the “oomph” of the punch or kick the moment you make contact. The rest of …