The Art Of Teaching Womens Self Defense Less Is Best

domestic violence
self-defense for women
kelly muir

July, 2014,

In an age when the crime rate seems to be climbing out of control, it’s no surprise women are attending self-defense classes in record numbers. Self-defense instructors often assume that participants absorb all the information taught in a course, but the unfortunate reality is that many self-defense class participants are receiving something far more frightening than a confrontation with an assailant; they’re getting a false sense of security. 

Keeping in mind that the average woman participating in a self-defense course falls between the ages of 30 and 50 and has a minimal physical-fitness background, instructors take on a tremendous amount of responsibility whenever they attempt to teach hand-to-hand combat skills in such a setting.

There is, however, a way to teach a self-defense course that’s effective, as well as fun, simple and realistic. I call this method the Five Point System because of the five areas of instruction that need to be covered.


Because many self-defense instructors have an extensive martial arts or combat background, they often lose touch with the viewpoint of their students. Instructors must remain aware that most participants are apprehensive about attending the course.

The instructors’ primary goal should be to eliminate the students’ fear by providing them with an easy-to-understand class overview on paper. This should include a class schedule, course format, class-by-class itinerary and workbook. When the participants have been given a clear understanding of what they’ll be taught and have been told what’s expected of them, instructors and students can work together to achieve maximum results.

During the first class, small details can make a big difference. Instructors should provide name tags for the students, allow them to interact with one another and encourage a sense of purpose for them. This is a great time to discuss individual goals. Instructors should be personable and answer any questions participants may have. Women are not there to be impressed by the martial arts, so instructors need to be cautious about being too harsh, too stern or too commanding.


Many self-defense courses are ineffective because the material is taught from a technical, rather than conceptual, point of view. Most students can mimic a technique they learn in class, but if they don’t fully understand the reasoning behind it, they’ll have trouble recalling it exactly if they need to use it.

A more effective method involves teaching basic concepts rather than specific techniques. Obviously, at some point participants must learn techniques, but when they understand the reasoning behind a defense, they can create endless counters rather than the few they practice in class.

Instructors can begin by introducing two basic principles. The first is the principle of the centerline. Participants need to understand that speed, power and focus are most easily attained through the use of the centerline theory.

The second principle involves rotation, torque and pivoting. Many women have no idea they can double or triple their striking power through body movement. Good self-defense instructors will take the time to show them how a simple rotation can produce maximum force. 

Another vital concept is explosiveness. While martial artists are accustomed to yelling during workouts, most self-defense course participants would rather do almost anything than make those noises in a room full of people. Instructors need to take extra time to explain the necessity of the kihap.

Lastly, students need to understand the relationship between their breathing pattern and state of mind. They should practice slow, controlled breathing that will help them stay calm and, therefore, remain more effective in making rational decisions.


By the third class, participants should have a clear understanding of breathing patterns, body mechanics and explosiveness. It’s now appropriate to begin teaching the physical aspects of self-defense.

Before instructors begin reviewing techniques with the class, though, they need to point out the most effective targets on the body. A good teaching aid during this section of the program would be a page in the course manual illustrating the most effective targets on an attacker.


Teaching combative techniques can present the greatest challenge for instructors. To surmount this, a few rules should be followed to ensure students aren’t learning ineffective skills.

The first rule is to keep techniques simple and to the point. The second is to use realistic techniques so the participants don’t develop a false sense of security.

One of the greatest errors for instructors is making the material overly complicated. Many teachers want to show the most impressive techniques of their art rather than the most effective ones. Effective techniques have one word attached to them: basic.

Some of the most devastating strikes are by far the easiest to do. Examples include the palm strike, fingertip strike, knuckle strike, knee thrust to the groin and elbow to the chin. Women attending a self-defense course need to learn that a simple movement, such as a kick to the shin, can produce blinding pain for an attacker. Participants need to be constantly reminded that their goal will never be to stay and fight an attacker but to divert his attention and get away.

Just as some techniques are appropriate for self-defense courses, others should be avoided. Techniques involving multiple strikes should be discarded. Before instructors teach a multiple-strike series for use in defense, it’s important to remember the emotional circumstances involved in a confrontation. Quite often there’s the element of surprise, and there definitely will be paralyzing fear and loads of anxiety. It’s dangerous to assume that a person with limited self-defense training can fend off an attack; it’s ridiculous to assume that under all that pressure the person can execute multiple strikes in a specific order. It just won't happen.

When teaching a short-term self-defense course, certain techniques should never be taught, including kicks to the head, wrist locks, armbars, throws and sweeps. Again, while students may be able to perform these moves in a controlled environment, their chances of succeeding under pressure are slim. Instructors need to remember that teaching impressive techniques may be appealing in the classroom, but it could cost students their life in a real confrontation.


Assuming that a self-defense course consists of eight classes, instructors can use the last class to review the many steps people should take to reduce their chances of having to use their physical skills. They include parking in a well-lit area, walking with confidence and being assertive. It’s unlikely any of these tips will be new to the participants. However, repetition is the key to learning and success.

At the completion of the course, award certificates to the participants. The women who attend will be grateful for the acknowledgment of their effort, and the fact that they received a certificate will reinforce the importance of the material they’ve learned.

The methods for teaching dynamic self-defense are the same as for virtually any endeavor: Instructors need to be professional, organized, personable and, above all, patient. Self-defense is the study of reality, and the reality of teaching self-defense is simple: Less is best.

About the Author: Kelly Muir has been involved in the martial arts as a practitioner and instructor for more than 30 years. In 2012, she was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Woman of the Year.


Login or Register to comment

Lynn Feb 2018
Great article! So true. The sudden attack will catch them by surprise and they have to have the mindset to react instantaneously. Each attack that happens calls for a different technique even if you haven't taken a martial arts self defense class.Most will freeze. A law officer recommended to our WAW group that we seek out some sort of self defense. I went to a martial arts academy to take a couple classes and then became hooked on the art. I've been in it for two years now and two belt tests away from my Black Belt. I am in my 60's. If I was ever attacked in any way, it would depend on the situation as to what response I would have. It would be quick though. Yes, most of what I've learned in class I may not use against my attacker. Run rather than hurt, hurt rather than maim, maim rather than kill, kill rather than be killed.
Kelly Muir Dec 2011
Wow! I have to be honest, I was a little nervous when I saw that Black Belt had posted an article I wrote in 1996! It was interesting, however, to see how my thoughts (and training methods) have changed in the 15 years since that was published! Interestingly, there were many areas that are exactly the same. The idea that instructors need to teach self defense from a conceptual, rather than technical, standpoint is still an active part of my belief and my program. As in all areas of education, however, there must be growth and evolution. I would have been very concerned if I hadn't changed my mind about something in nearly two decades! How does my current material vary from the way I was teaching when I wrote this article? I have filtered out defensive techniques that I have found to be ineffective. Knee Strikes to the groin, for example, are no longer a technique I support as "effective". (I have watched men continue an assault long after being struck ) Other strikes , such as the palm strike, have fallen by the wayside; being replaced with more aggressive defensive measures that focus on the attackers eyes and the airway. Rather than spend much time telling women to "park in lit areas", I now spend 25% of course time teaching about intuitive decision making and predatory behavior. While I still spend the greatest amount of time (50%) on physical skills that can be utilized "within two arms reach", I have added education about defensive tools. (Tasers, Pepper Spray, Firearms, etc) as the final 25%. When a woman graduates from my self defense fundamentals course (Wrong Woman Self Defense) now, she will have received exposure to the emotional, intellectual AND physical approach to defense. Rather than a one time class where she learns to knee strike somebody, she will have a fundamental platform on which she can build more skills. At Wrong Woman, we call this "Integrated Self Defense." I will say that regardless the small differences, there is one consistent thread between the manner in which I taught 15 years ago and the "Wrong Woman" Courses I teach now - "Less is STILL Best"!
Raymond Horwitz Dec 2011
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment/reply, Ms. Muir! It's great to see that your training and instruction have continued to evolve, and that you took the time to share *how* with us and our audience!
Chris Washington Aug 2014
Great information! Conceptual theory... I love it! I'm going to put together a self defense program with all those suggestions in mind Thank you!
Ben Gedalecia Apr 2018
Dear Kelly, While I fully commend you on your intentions to teach women how to protect themselves, I take a VERY different approach. As a martial art practitioner for many years, I can honestly say that most of it is totally useless in a truly violent fight situation. Fighting is NOT sport, and 99% of martial arts is sport. A woman about to be raped/killed needs to know fighting techniques, and they are NOT pretty. Below is a message I wrote to 120db.info, the group of women in Europe currently standing up for their dignity and survival. I would gladly work with any group to help women learn self defense. I try to keep it simple: #1. Hyper-alertness. The ability to identify and closely monitor a potential threat. #2. Weapons. Especially firearms. #3. If 1 and 2 have failed, an extremely fierce capacity to inflict violence, including death. Only a few simple techniques need apply to this. Here is my off the cuff remarks to the brave women of 120db.info. I believe they fit the "conceptual" approach you advocate: I am a HUGE advocate for women’s self defense. EVERY woman should receive training, starting at about 12 years old (earlier if there are Muz-slimes about). #1 rule is awareness of every situation. Being naive WILL cost you, horribly. Clearly identify potential perps. Watch them like a Doberman. DO NOT be taken by surprise! If a Muz-scum or other perp gets his hands on you, you have already failed rule #1. #2. Learn to use weapons. Firearms are best. A 2 shot Derringer is easily hidden. If you are in the US, get a CC permit if at all possible. If not, get and CONCEAL CARRY a handgun, anyway. OPEN carry if the law allows. You will need training, so that innocents aren’t hurt. Carry a knife – open carry, as big a knife as the local law allows. (I was pleasantly surprised to see a beautiful hippie girl in my local supermarket with an 8″ Bowie knife on her belt!) Buy mace or pepper spray, and practice with it. A 50,000 volt taser can be carried in a purse. Keep a weapon with you at all times outside of your home. Other weapons include Mag type flashlight, or a cane, preferably with a retractable spear point. You MUST practice using these! With a knife, don’t wait for a good body thrust. The perp will likely have his hands out in front – SLASH THEM FIRST!! Cut up his arms and wrists, he has 3 minutes before he passes out from blood loss. Forget 95% of unarmed martial arts techniques; that takes years of practice which you don’t have. The one good technique to learn from martial arts is the finger break. If the perp is wagging his finger in your face or jabbing at your chest, QUICKLY grab it, pull down while stepping back and break that thing completely by turning it upward across the back of his hand. (practice this using sticks with a friend). This will buy you maybe 5 seconds to hit the 3 targets, explained below. If a Muz-slime or other perp gets his hands on you, you have already failed #s 1 and 2. This IS a life/death situation, so let adrenaline take over, and put EVERYTHING you have at 3 targets: eyes, throat and groin, in that order. You should have fingernails at least 1/2 inch long. Tear his eyes out, or push deeply into the eye sockets. Grab his throat and rip it out, yes , literally. Then a groin kick, if possible. Once the perp is on the ground, stomp HARD on his knees or ankles and BREAK them, else he might come after you. If there is more than 1 perp, which is how Muz-slimes operate, you MUST be extra vicious to the first one! The others will be less inclined to attack when they see their leader’s eyeballs dangling. Awareness of the situation is essential.To re-cap, weapons are your best bet, especially firearms. You MUST practice. Whenever you are in a public place, scan the area for anything that can be used as a weapon; even a pen is good. Practice all weapon techniques. Stay alert at all times.