Self-defence class basics and cheatsheet

Self-defence basics for all from a 2nd dan karate blackbelt, including a cheatsheet and everything you'd learn in class

In an effort to do something of some use, where I can, against the ever-present threat of violence against women and “non-normative” people, I’ve put together a brief cheatsheet of basic self-defence moves that will undermine most threats against any person, of large or small build.

I’ve been practicing martial arts for most of my life at this point, with a 2nd dan blackbelt in karate to show for it (Wado-Ryu style - involves much of the Jiu-Jitsu used by the Suffragettes). I also have an interest in mixing styles for further efficacy, as did Bruce Lee, as well as the new wave of “Mixed Martial Arts” fighters. For me martial arts is a very mindful pursuit, with much meditating on detail, awareness training and body control involved. But after 20+ years of training, I hope I’m qualified enough to offer a list of basic moves that anybody of any size can train with their friends and family, to go from uncertainty to a base level of confidence in how to fend off escalating threats.

As mentioned on the sheet, I think it is deeply sad that we’ve come to this. This is not a solution to what is happening on the streets and in homes around the world. Yet it is happening, and if you are able and confident enough to train a little, you can create a last line of defence that may well save your or someone else’s life.

You may take and share freely a copy of this self-defence PDF, with the only caveat being that any commercial publications should include credit and a do-follow link back to this web page. Educational and private use of the original file is completely fine.

Download the self-defence PDF

Both include links to the Reclaim These Streets crowdfunding campaign as well as the legal basis for self-defence from the Crown Prosecution Service.

Further detail on the moves

I’ve broken the basics down into stages, which can be loosely mapped to escalating threat levels:


First is Distance. This is for when you have spotted the threat before any physical approach is made. The goal in this case is to keep distance between you and the threat and to counter their element of surprise with your own. In this case I do not recommend weapons, as they can be used against you and are typically illegal to carry, but I do recommend:

  • A 1000+ lumen torch or strobe light, charged to full
  • Pepperspray or a hot drink if you have one to hand
  • Your voice, shouting “HELP” as loud as possible

Ideally we’d be able to agree on a global “safe word” for attacks, that people would be able to discern from children playing, etc., but that would take a campaign of its own and is beyond my capabilities. At least with “HELP” people nearby can note the time, investigate and are witnesses.

This is a chance to thwart the threat before it becomes physical. Any concern for escalating the threat unnecessarily should be overcome. If somebody has threatened you in any way, the risk of escalation is already high. You don’t know what they have in mind, and no “safe” person would threaten you for any innocent reason. But we don’t want to hang around to find out if we can get away. Plus you can always apologise later if you were startled innocently.

The torch, light, spray or drink should disorient, temporarily blind and buy you precious seconds to make a break. The torch being especially effective if the attacker’s eyes have adjusted to lower light levels. If they are close, you may have to move onto the next threat levels and strike through a guard, otherwise run and call for help as you do.


The next threat is an imminent physical attack. For this you need a Guard. This readies your body for their attack and will show that you are ready to counter their strikes with your own. If they have any martial arts training, they are likely used to being cuffed and knocked, even punched, quite frequently. They’re likely confident in their physical abilities if they are trying something like this. So we’re not going to try and exchange blows with them. We’re going to take a boxer’s guard, chin down to ready the neck and head, arms out, one slightly futher than the other, to deflect punches and grabs away from their targets. Our stance is wide and can be tilted slightly sideways, reducing your body’s exposure. The guard needs to be relaxed, but ready to tense as soon as required.

We must be prepared to strike if they come within range or attack, or strike first if they don’t back off straight away. This needs training to build confidence. The strikes I will show you won’t hurt you, but can land very hard on them.


Now the attacker is within range, too close to not be a threat, and a strike is fully justified, even if you are striking first. The open palm, fingers up, to the nose or eyes is very effective. You can hit a wall this way and do no damage to yourself. You can’t do that with a fist, and throwing a fist risks catching your thumb if done wrong, and the fragile hand bones can break easily. So from your guard, step forward (same foot as hand ideally) and twist your body behind the palm to the nose. If it lands, this is your chance to run. Let’s assume it doesn’t land with enough force to stop them.

You can throw your elbows, with the same body/hip twist, to catch their head and do a fair bit of damage, at any size. This is for very close range, or if you’re grabbed, you can learn to throw elbows forwards and backwards behind you. Elbows are like hammers and are very effective. This is why they are banned in so many martial arts competitions. That doesn’t stop us training them, however.

Next we have the head, especially if you end up with restricted arms. You can headbutt behind you, as with the elbows, to break their nose. Don’t be afraid to give it some, it hurts them far more than you. You can of course headbutt forwards too, again to the face. If you catch them, this is another chance to break free.

Finally feet, often hard to see coming and very quick to use, they have a high success rate for landing on target. Aim for shins, the weak point for even the tallest and broadest of people, kicking hard with the tip of your shoe. Stomp the feet if your arms are restricted, heels into their toes ideally, kicking with the heel to the shin also. Then you have the knee, which is not made of a lot, surprisingly, and can be rapidly destabilised by a stomping kick from the front or side.

If none of your strikes landed and you’re now being grappled or grabbed from any direction, the next response level should give you some ideas to train for that.

Escape from grabs

Grabs from either front or back to your upper body can be easily broken by raising an arm, hand up high, and twisting 90 degrees through their arms. This can break throttles around the neck, shoulder grabs, head grabs and anything in the upper body.

The alternative if grabbed around your arms, not currently on the sheet, is to drop down, bending your knees and raising your arms upwards to break their grip. It has to be done fast and in one motion, but can break grips very effectively.

For grabs from behind you can do the same drop and raise technique. You can also headbutt backwards to the face or twist your upper body and swing elbows hard to their head.

If able to bend at the hips, reach through your legs to find one of their legs, pull it through and towards you to upend the attacker. Keeping hold of the leg for stomps to the groin are a distant option, but just running is the better bet once you’ve got them down.

Throws and unmentionables

I didn’t cover throws as it feels like these require a different level of training. They can often be countered and force you to a ground fight, which is no simple feat. The simple throw model is to disrupt their balance by pivoting them around unusual areas. So your leg behind their legs, pushing and twisting the throw with a grapple. In Judo, even small practitioners can throw much larger people with the right technique. But again, this is an avenue for further study.

If a lot of this sounds unpleasant, it’s because it certainly is. Sometimes it’s not quite as bad as folks unaccustomed to it might think; the adult body is remarkably robust. But when done with a little training it can indeed be incredibly effective in its purpose, often causing bleeding or broken bones. In the context of an attack, however, this is legally and morally justifiable for most people. It’s a little like this in other areas of life, where nurses, doctors, farm workers, meat producers, sewage workers all see the uglier side of life, normally hidden far away, becoming desensitised to it and accepting it as a part of life.

I shy away from the groin kick advice often given, as there is a small risk that kicking legs can be grabbed, and this is very hard to escape from, even with training. But if a chance presents itself to get in and out cleanly with a swift kick, it is not entirely off the cards.

The best martial arts and self-defence classes to start

I recommend drilling the above basics with a friend of family member, being careful to just simulate the moves rather than go 100% into each one. As training progresses you can step up the simulation realism. This should be done in a clear, preferably carpeted or matted area.

After a few dozen repetitions of each you would be familiar with the feeling and variations possible in the moves. After a few hundred your basic self-defence level will be workable and useful. This is if you have drilled realistically with strikes and grabs worked to near realistic speeds and strengths.

If you’d rather train with a professional in an art that is quickly practical, I can recommend a few options.

  • Muay Thai Boxing is a truly effective form of boxing from Thailand which involves elbow, knee strikes and “clinch” training, a form of standing grappling. The skills from Muay Thai are heavily used in the modern MMA, which seeks the most effective moves from all martial arts.
  • Boxing is great for strength, accuracy and distancing, while limited to fists and constant exchange of blows, it does wonders for footwork and positioning and keeping an opponent at bay.
  • Karate is often shrouded in layers of traditional forms, but the moves underneath these are as effective as any and can confuse even trained fighters. Often used in MMA, it teaches good distancing, effective blocking and solid striking.
  • Judo lets you learn how to throw people twice your size with minimal effort, lock joints and pin people down using the ground itself as your weapon. An olympic sport with a rich history. Judo skills, often in the form of its cousin “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu”, or BJJ, are frequently on display in MMA bouts.

There are also masses of videos on Youtube offering free, virtual, introductory lessons to a range of martial arts. Also of interest would be Krav Maga, kickboxing, Taekwondo and Kung Fu. They all share principles and it really just depends on the school you attend as to the level of realism and practicality involved. You will soon get a feel for this.

So grab a heavy bag, some gloves and Youtube to get a taste of all these worlds, all of which are screaming out for more practitioners, young, old, any gender. When you’ve had a good look, sign up to your favourite local option and give it a try. There’s always fitness and peace of mind to be had from any form of sport. Just train carefully and mindfully.

Failing that, you have this list of basics to train from and increase your confidence in your ability to walk safely and potentially turn the tables on any attacker foolish enough to try it on with someone who fights back. Not that we should have to fight, but if there are no other options, it would be better to be prepared. There are no guarantees, but it’s about stacking the odds in your favour and making the most of your most precious last line of defence; your body. Your life.

May nobody reading this ever need to use these techniques in anger.

I dedicate the piece to the memory of Sarah Everard.

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