Training your body for a street fight

Written by Deane Lawler

It’s a question that many who train in a martial art want answered: how do you train your body for a street fight, as opposed to a competition bout?

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'Righto, mate. Get ready!'

After training for so many years and competing in anything I can get my hands on — sometimes winning, sometimes losing, sometimes injured — a question I keep being asked at every seminar is, ‘How do I train for a street fight?’

This is a subject I’ve gained a little knowledge on over the years. Unfortunately it goes with the territory when working in security. Of course, that doesn’t mean I advocate violence, but I also wouldn’t call it violence when it’s self-defence — I call it necessity. And out of that necessity come necessarily intense actions and reactions, driven by an equally intense focus on survival.

To prepare for this intensity, our conditioning training should imitate, as closely as possible, an actual attack.

Here is where the confusion starts. Most of us train like professional fighters (or at least, we try to); we warm up with half an hour of stretching and limbering exercises, and footwork or some kind of movement. We throw in some rope-skipping, numerous rounds on the bag then maybe a little sparring or rolling around the mat. Finish off with some weights and a 20-minute run, and we’re done.

Sadly, this doesn’t even bring you close to how your body will feel or react after a street encounter, where your goal wasn’t to beat the clock, pump those biceps or develop speedy hip-escapes, but to survive physically and psychologically, usually while copping a beating. The only small part of such a training session to give even a hint of real survival-stress would’ve been the sparring, but only if it was fast and furious, giving you no time to regulate breathing or get a rhythm happening, and with a bit of pain.

Unfortunately, we can’t spar to the death every day — well, I suppose you could but you’d eventually run out of sparring partners, your modeling career would be on the rocks and the onset of Parkinson’s disease would surely be on its way.

So, how do we shake up our body and psyche every now and then to better prepare us for real combat?

First, let’s look at the cardiovascular side of things. A violent encounter is at its peak within the first 10 seconds; in that time, you’ve either been verbally or physically assaulted and the fight-or-flight response has set in. The feelings of panic, breathlessness and maybe pain have started and the make-or-break mark has been reached. So, my first recommendation is HIIT or high intensity interval training, which consists of short, intense bursts of anaerobic exercise coupled with less intense recovery periods. A basic formula to follow is a 2:1 ratio of work to rest periods; for example, 20 seconds of hard running or punching/kicking, alternated with 10 seconds of walking or jogging in the rest or recovery phase. This is really similar to a street confrontation, where madness can erupt extremely quickly.

Second on the list is power and strength. For this, stay away from bodybuilding programs. Keep the reps low and the weight heavy at the beginning; a guideline is two-to-six reps for about three-to-four sets to develop ‘base’ strength, then move on to power training (lifting lighter with speed) after the initial three or four weeks. For this, I use the Olympic-style lifts — the clean and jerk, the snatch and their derivatives — which are explosive, whole-body or ‘compound’ exercises. The load is kept light enough so you can move the bar (or dumbbells or kettlebells) with speed and explosiveness.

Third is reaction training. A pad-holder throws a strike and you defend and respond with a counter — and not just one but numerous hits. Practise a blitzkrieg attack (‘machine gun’ fighting); once you start, don’t stop until the altercation is finished, or you are. Use a kick-shield so you don’t have to worry too much about accuracy at first — that will come as your body becomes accustomed to the stress. Also try this with eyes shut, opening them on your partner’s command just before they strike.

Remember, as Malcolm X said, “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today”.

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