martial

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I just came upon an interesting article from the BBC about how men and women respond differently to danger. Nothing new here, women are more emotional than men, and that’s fine. Like we say in France, “vive la différence.” Our physical differences are obvious, and most martial arts consider them in training, more as precautions to be taken for either gender than anything else. Styles too rigid in their form unfortunately most likely cater to men. As a rule, women are not as physically strong as men. Training that relies on force only serves a small group of people, excluding women, children and elders. I can only think of Aikido and Systema as not relying on force but momentum and body mechanics. Force helps, but you can’t count on it. The strongest fighter can be injured or sick, thus losing most of his abilities if trained to win by force only.

The emotional response difference is what in my opinion constitutes a good argument in favor of a slightly different training approach, which actually can also benefit men. The Polish study I mention above found that a different area of the brain is triggered for men and women when they encounter danger; the left thalamus for women, the left insula for men.

Researcher Dr Andrzej Urbanik said: “This might signal that when confronted with dangerous situations, men are more likely than women to take action.”

The Biography channel has a great show called “I survived,” where people tell their stories of survival. The accounts are incredible. The men and women who make it through those horrendous life-and-death situations have a strong will to survive. You can however see a different pattern between sexes. A woman’s first response is more emotional while a men’s is immediate action. A man will not wonder why something is happening to him or if he is somewhat to blame. After a few seconds or minutes, it all comes down to survival and fighting. This emotional delay however can cost women precious seconds that might make a difference. Note that this can happen to men too, and that women do not ponder and waste time when it comes to defending their children. Training should take this difference into account. I have been a “bad guy” in a couple of women’s self-defense seminars, and we had to charge them yelling obscenities, which was hard enough for me to do! None of them could at first handle the pressure. They could take a man down if he just attacked them, but start yelling and be aggressive, and they could not. The motion was the same, but the emotional assault was too much. Eventually, they all got over it and performed well. This is where I believe training for the physical part of the assault is as important as getting used to the emotional one. This can be important for men too, as the “fight or flight” symptoms can be quite overwhelming. Rapid heart rate, shaking knees, tension, tunnel vision, the effects of adrenalin might be good in general for the survival of a specie, but not for the individual in our modern settings.

Another thing to consider is women’s reticence to hurt people. In training, I always have a hard time getting women to hit me hard enough. It takes a good amount of coaching to convince them that, no, it doesn’t hurt that bad, if at all. Most men without training can not strike hard enough to cause any significant injury, practically no women can do so. No offense intended here, it is simply a fact. It takes a lot to injure someone if you don’t know how. I heard so many times things like “Oh, I would just hit him in the nuts.” Sorry to disappoint, but first, what makes you think you will be able to strike that area? Assaults are not agreed-upon events. Most often than not, they will happen from the back. Kicking a man in the groin is certainly extremely painful, but it will not cause injury that can physically stop someone, like a broken knee. And boy, will that guy be pissed-off. Moreover, alcohol and drugs can dull the pain quite a bit. Real self-defense training should get women used to the idea of causing injury to their attackers, not only “hurt them.”

Men, while they have no problem hitting each-other, have a hard time hitting women. That is, the men I know anyway. Domestic abuse statistics prove that there are too many exceptions. I have a very hard time doing so myself in training. It is kind of going against a hard-wired directive. I have heard a few women complain about not getting a good enough training because the men in their classes barely hit them. I am not suggesting men to hit the women in their class as hard as their 200Lbs male buddies.. However, one has to be realistic to make training effective. The Yale University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Health Care System have a study reported in the New York Times suggesting that women can take pain better than men. I am not surprised, as I can’t imagine going through the pain of giving birth, and wanting to do it a second time!

I will conclude by saying that the specific areas that women should assess in training would probably benefit men as well. I believe that it is important to consider the emotional part of violence when preparing for it, not only the mechanical aspects. Any real-life combat system should.

Having a good opinion of yourself is great. An inflated ego in martial arts however will hamper your training. Sport-based martial arts (I just called them sports), do use ego as a driving force, pushing competitors to train harder and perform better. In that sense, it works, as long as nobody’s life is in the balance. I am not an instructor, but I have taught a few Systema classes while my instructor was away, and of course, we get the occasional new student. I can classify students in two groups: Those who want to learn and are willing to let you show them, and those who, although they also want to learn, are very reticent to let you take them down or strike them, even just as a drill or to show them a move. They usually are very tense, which in itself slows their progress. It is the job of the instructor to make them realize that it isn’t about who can kick who’s ass.

Let’s look at this latest statement. We are dealing here with survival, not a competition or simple bar-fight where one opponent has to achieve control of the other, thus increasing his social position, to the detriment of the other. A simple premise like “I can beat that guy” makes no sense. You can beat him when? When you had a good night of sleep and he didn’t? When he had a nice breakfast and your stomach is bothering you? Or simply when it’s your lucky day and not his? There is no point in wondering about anything like that, because you can’t know the answer all the time, and really, it doesn’t matter. When a beginner slugs me in the face nicely because I failed to move, I laugh and congratulate him/her. I can hit my instructor too, he finds it funny as well. We do have a lot of fun in class, because we don’t care. We have no belts or ranks, and that makes training much more relaxed. Being worried about your group social standing puts too much pressure on you. In many martial arts, high-ranking students do not even practice with beginners. Would a white-belt take-down a black belt, oh my God, how could he dare do such a thing! Ranks give a false sense of superiority and breed contempt for lower-ranking students. It is often all about testing fees, selling ego-boosts for money. That’s how you get ten-year-old black belts anyone can beat-up.

What matters most is increasing your odds of survival.

Ego or should I say insecurities, can get you in trouble faster than a chameleon gobbles a fly, and you can end-up just as dead. You must recognize what’s important to you, physical integrity or perceived social standing. You can insult me as much as you want, I don’t care. As long as you are not threatening me physically, there is no need for me to “teach you a lesson.” My social standing might go down in the minds of whomever witnesses the incident, but the victory is mine, having shown self-control and avoiding possible injury, or worse. It might be more difficult when someone insults your wife, girlfriend or other family members, but the problem is the same. You need to be ready to defend their lives, not their ego or yours. I am not talking about a simple argument here, but an escalating situation when violence becomes likely. After all, that is why we train, so that we can go back home with our families after a violent encounter. Get used to defend your ego in training, and you might be inclined to do as well in real life, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons!

Insecure, competitive, or ego-centered students usually realize early that their weaknesses will be exposed in training (nothing wrong with that, that’s the goal of training), and will soon leave. I can spot them immediately. I had new students try to teach me on their first class, when I have been training for years. I always welcome feedback and suggestions, but the intention here is misplaced. Those who stay will be a challenge for the instructor. They will try to teach other students their “own things,” or simply do what they want and miss the fine points of learning that the instructor might pass down to them. They’ll say things like “Yeah, yeah, I know,” or always try to have the last word. They’ll try to fight you when you show them something, resist take-downs, put a lot of tension in their work. I am not saying that they are bad people. I have seem very motivated students, great individuals, missing the point, so to speak. It is often the result of many years of competitive mindset beset upon them, or insecurities that have not been dealt with. A good martial arts training is probably the best thing for them, but they will have to check and change their premises to get the most out of training.

Here is an excellent introduction to Systema posted on my instructor Marc Bresee’s site systemasarasota.com, and reposted here with his permission. We have a great class here in Sarasota. In my opinion Systema is one of the very best self defense systems out there..

Systema is a Martial Art with roots in ancient Russia. It is in active use in top levels of modern Russian special operations groups. We teach Systema as taught by Vladimir Vasiliev and its founder, Mikhail Ryabko. This Style encompasses every aspect of conflict, from the psychological aspects of conversation and posturing, through all aspects of hand-to-hand fighting, grappling and groundwork and group attacks, and weaponry, including firearms. We also study these aspects of combat at different levels (lying, kneeling, standing) and environments (in the dark, against a wall, in a chair, car, stairway or in the water.) You name it, we work with it: It is a big world for self-discovery.

Our practice sessions are usually is a mixture of exercises, drills, and freestyle work. Most drills are done at a slow speed to create a fear-free environment so the body and mind can learn thoroughly. Speed becomes less relevant when the body understands the movement and can comfortably match the speed of an incoming event. Systema uses training in breath, movement and proper posture to achieve a relaxed state. Work can then be free flowing with no need to stop and try to apply a ” technique”. We train to move more from what we feel than what we see: this process is much more subconscious and doesn’t choke or waste time while the brain tries to figure out what to do. Analytical thought is usually too far behind the moment – especially if one is surprised. Systema methodology encourages instinctual work: the learning curve is shortened and a person can more easily maintain strength and manage fear. This provides an energized and creative state that allows free flowing and appropriate work. Unlike sport fighting, life is vastly more unpredictable and may demand effort for an extended period of time. Systema is designed to work when one is tired, injured or weak. This unfortunately leaves little excuse for those who think they need to get in shape before starting to train with us.

Almost anyone will benefit from regular Systema training. It is good for both men and women that want to learn to protect themselves and their families and gain better understanding and control of violence and fear. It is even good for older people that want to gain health and decrease injuries: Systema has students in their 70s. And it is appropriate for professionals because it can be applied judiciously according to the needs of a situation. It is in essence “professional work”. Training in Systema will give a professional more insight into controlling opponents while keeping ones on psyche calm. Really, it is for anyone who wants to strengthen his or her mind, body and spirit in an honest and real way.

It is really easy to fit in. Training is fun, good-spirited and cooperative. There are no belts or ranks. There are no traditions or cultural routines (well there is on: we meet in a circle at the end of training to share insights and then roll out backwards). Systema is universal: there aren’t even named techniques. And you don’t have to fight your way through a hierarchy of individuals who want to challenge you at the door. We are all adults and work with a fun but professional demeanor. It is physically reasonable to start learning. Extreme flexibility is not required: we all must come to the fight “as we are”. Whatever your condition or attributes, that is what you have to work with. Great strength is not required: We use manipulation of form rather than brute force. Systema promotes health: It strengthens and does not injure the body. You will learn proper breathing and relaxation and see a decrease in injuries and huge gains in stamina. Your posture will improve. You will learn to relax –even in a chaotic and dangerous environment. Systema is like a movement therapy that removes fear from the body. Fear is both our biggest ally but also one of our biggest enemies in life if not controlled. Fear management has very widespread daily benefits.

The best way to see what Systema is about is to train regularly for at least month. You can’t really get a good taste in a single session or even a week. If you come once it may be too brutal, or it may be too mundane. There are so many things to study and train that the content of training varies immensely. One time we work on sensitivity, another receiving strikes, then fighting in a crowd, or work against a knife, stick, or gun. It is always different so a commitment to a block of training and tasting will serve you better. I do promise you that it will be worth the experience whether or not you decide to continue training with us.

Read more at systemasarasota.com.

Well, that’s a bit of a pompous title for such a simple routine. I am not a fitness (nor combat) expert, mind you. The question everyone should ask themselves about exercising is “why?” Aside from the obvious health benefits. Knowing why, you can find out how.. My goal is to improve my Systema, and of course, looking better naked wouldn’t hurt. I have learned that there are three important exercises related to martial arts: Push-ups, abs and squats. You can find a flurry of great drills online to build muscles, some pertaining to strength building, others to looks, but those three are the strict minimum. I would even add pull-ups to the list, if I was doing them, but I still need to set-up a bar somewhere in the back yard.. By the way, follow my advise at your own risk.. As I said already, I am no expert, and I might be wrong. Advise from professionals is welcome by the way..

Push-ups: Are great to build your shoulders, arms, and strenghten your wrists, if you do them the right way, that is. They also can teach you to relax muscles that are not necessary to hold your position or go up and down. Breathing properly is of the utmost importance, as with any other exercise, your immediate strength comes from oxygen. Food energy gives you endurance, but in martial arts or dealing with violence (I mean civilian), you most likely wouldn’t be engaging long enough to deplete those resources. Not breathing properly though will bring you to your knees fairly quickly. So, get into your push-up position considering it mostly a breathing and relaxation exercise. Keep your body straight, but do not tense up too much. Muscles burn oxygen quickly, and you need to conserve it. Besides, tense muscles when hit will get damaged, and we want to avoid injuries when training in martial arts. Remember that drunk drivers often don’t get hurt in accidents, because they stay loose. You want to keep just enough tension to keep things in place, no more. That by the way includes your face muscles. Squinting, puffing and grunting won’t help you. Just keep breathing slowly in through your nose, out through your mouth. These principles hold true for the other exercises by the way. One last thing to consider is your wrist position. Bending your wrist ninety degrees is not a natural position. It might be less painful to have your hands flat on the ground, but there is nothing to gain from it, and it isn’t good for your wrists. In Systema, as in many other martial arts using strikes, we do push-ups on our fists. Make sure you leave your thumb ‘outside’. You will strengthen your wrists that way, which is great for striking. Do your push-ups slowly. I start by doing as many as I can, then rest a couple minutes before the next drill. I repeat the operation between all my other exercises, and one last time at the end of my session.
Holding a push-up position is also a great way to gain core strength. I like to stay in push-up position, elbows unlocked, relax and breathe with my eyes closed, listening to a song on my Ipod. You might only be able to hold one minute at first, but ten minutes is an attainable goal. I am now up to nine minutes, when I can relax enough. That’s two songs.. Knowing how much time is left seems to make it harder, so listening to songs allows you to forget about the time and concentrate on the music. You should try not to feel sorry for yourself and just keep going. You can always do more than what you think is possible. The mind quits first, not the body. If you can reverse that, you’re doing better than me.

Abs: Everyone wants a sixpack.. However, nutrition plays a big role here, and you won’t get one eating ‘normal’ meals. The goal in martial arts is core strength, which helps you keep a good form while moving around, and is also very important for ground fighting. I start by laying on my back, and doing a hundred crunches, looking up, lifting my shoulders off the ground. You don’t need to go all the way up, just rise straight up a few inches. Keep breathing, and use only the necessary muscles. After resting a couple minutes, and doing a series of push-ups, I repeat the operation, but with my left arm along my side, and my right hand behind my head, lifting my right shoulder up and to the left fifty times. Rest, push-ups, rest, and I repeat on the other side. At last, I put both my arms along my sides, straigthen my legs and do fifty leg raises up to ninety degrees (straight up), and down an inch from the ground. That works your lower abs. The numbers here depend on you. Do as many as you can, and that will be your starting numbers. As it gets easier, you can add weight by holding something heavy behind your head or on your chest. I use a cannon ball.. If you do so however, you will have to rest your muscles for a few days between sessions. Otherwise, you can do it without weight every day.

Squats: This one is very simple. Keep your back straight, heels on the ground, and slowly go down while trying not to bend forward. Breathe, relax. Repeat as many times as you can, then do a few more (good general policy ;-). In a fight, real or training, you don’t want top bend over or backwards, too dangerous. Someone can easily grab your head then and smash it on their knee, ground, or whatever other hard surface might be around. When you go down, you should keep your form and use your legs, just like you should do when picking up something on the floor. I do fifty squats, but again, that depends on your level.

Pull-ups: One thing I learned about pull-ups is to do them with the back of you hands facing you, not the other way around, which is pretty useless. Imagine having to go over a wall.. You can’t grab a wall palms up.. I am pretty bad at pull-ups, so I will probably start with a low bar, hanging at an angle, so that I can do more than one. As I get better, I will keep raising the bar until I can hang straight from it and do at least a few pull-ups. If you think about it, you really should be able to pull up your own weight, at least a couple times to go over an obstacle.. Sometimes, you might need to climb to safety. Accidents happen, you never know..

Cardio: Don’t forget to exercise your heart.. Running is good, but I can’t run with that titanium rod inside my femur, the impact hurts my hip, where the screws are.. So, I decided to try rope jumping. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but it seems to be a great workout and very popular with boxers. Right now bicycling works fine, although it isn’t quite intense enough, but it’s almost July here in Florida, and the temperature is in the high nineties. I wish there was an Olympic pool nearby, that would be great.

Right now, I exercise two to three times a week on top of my one or two Systema classes, and one Yoga class a week at Rosemary Court. Yoga helps my back tremendously, and I need to be more flexible. Not that I need to be able to kick high, we don’t really do that in Systema. I kick knees.. If I want to kick someone in the head, I’ll put him down first and kick his head then, much safer that way.. I will work my way up to a daily routine. It is hard to find motivation at home, but I am seeing some results, and that makes me wanting more. When the going gets though, just remember: “Pain is weakness leaving the body!”

Violence against women and girls is widespread; one woman in three will experience violence during her lifetime, most often at the hands of someone she knows. Don’t crucify me about the title, I just wanted to get your attention, because if you are a woman, what you will read here, and what you do about it might help you. Of course women don’t want to be victims! A few years back, my Systema instructor organized a free self-defense seminar for women. I participated as a “bad guy.” Around twenty five women showed-up. The seminar was great, but you really can’t learn enough life saving skills in four hours.. Not one ever came back to class for training!

Amazing, considering the statistics: Every day four women die in this country as a result of domestic violence. Conservative estimates indicate two to four million women of all races and classes are battered each year. Every year approximately 132,000 women report that they have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

I know a woman who lives with her young child but would never lock her door, even at night. With a double murder two blocks away, I know that door is still left unlocked (she no longer lives alone). Yet, she shops for organic food and is a health-conscious mother. How can you conciliate the two?

The idea of violence is not a pleasant one. Women do not want to think about being assaulted, even if preparing themselves could potentially save their lives and the life of their children. The “It won’t happen to me,” “won’t happen here,” or “I’d just [insert kick-ass TV-kung-fu move here]” mentality prevails over reason. It is a great example of self-deception.

Being ready doesn’t mean becoming a Cynthia Rothrock or emulate Jennifer Lopez in “Enough”… Prevention and awareness is your best tool. By awareness, I don’t mean marching in the streets with a sign to end violence on women; that does as much as pissing in a violin. I mean awareness of your surroundings and listening to your intuition. I read an excellent book on the subject, see below:


Every woman should read this book. I remember one story from it that really drives the point home: A young girl was hitchhiking when a couple stopped. They had a baby with them. For some reason, the girl had the urge not to go with them. She reasoned that a couple with a baby couldn’t be of any danger to her and climbed in the car. Later, at a rest stop, she again had the urge to run away, but could not explain it, and decided that it was silly, and again, went along for the ride. It turned out to be a seven year ride as a sex slave to the couple.. You have to listen to that little voice. We humans are the only animal capable of self-deception. A wild animal would never stop at a suspicious noise and think “it’s probably nothing.”

Prevention is not enough. After all, it is a sad truth that women are most often attacked by people they know. If a boyfriend hits you, leave now, don’t hope it will never happen again, because it will, guaranteed. That first time though could be much more than a slap in the face. There is always the possibility of an unforeseen random act of violence, like a mugging, or rape attempt. Criminals attack women because they either do not resist or do not know how to resist. Even if they do, they lack the physical strength to do so. Strength can be replaced by skills. Unfortunately, there are a lot of martial arts out there that are not worth a dime for self defense. There are also good styles but bad teachers. I would suggest trying to find a school or style that emphasizes principles over form and techniques. Avoid styles that are too stiff in their movements or teachings, and promote violence or aggressiveness. Going nuts in a fight won’t help you. Emotions won’t help you. Also avoid styles that use excessive protections, have too many rules (like not hitting the face, etc.), or simply avoid contact. The style you choose must also consider multiple attackers, armed or not, and fighting on the ground as well as on your feet. If you see twelve-year-olds with a black belt, run! If they promise you a black belt next year, run! Actually, be suspicious of belts altogether. My favorites are, almost in order: Systema, Bujinkan, Penjak Silat, Kuntao, Kali, Wing Tsun, Aikido, Krav Maga, Boxing, and I am sure I am forgetting some. I would not suggest TaeKwonDo, traditional Karate, and other styles based on outdated forms of combat, geared towards competition or dancing, like Capoeira. Some combinations are good, like boxing and JiuJitsu for example. Shop around before you sign-up, and don’t bother spending time on martial arts forums on the web, there is nothing to learn from them. If you don’t have a good school nearby, get the DVD below and start a study group in your town (also available at russianmartialart.com):


Your group should not be comprised of women only. You need to face a screaming angry large man (acting for training) to have a glimpse of what you might face. Getting comfortable with the idea is am important step in your self-defense system. I suggest that you visit Marc MacYoung’s site: nononsenseselfdefense.com. He has great articles on the subject. If you live in Sarasota, visit: systemasarasota.com, tell Marc I sent you, and I’ll see you in class.

Guns are the great equalizer. They instill fear in many women, but it does come from ignorance. I once accompanied a girlfriend to a gun store. Shee looked a different models and finally said: “I want something I’m not afraid of.” To which I replied “If you?e not afraid of it, a robber certainly won’t either.” The salesman laughed.. A gun is only a tool, an assembly of metal parts that alone, couldn’t hurt a fly. Contrary to the common misconception, guns don’t just “go off” they only time we hear of guns going off by themselves is in courtrooms. Sure, some dingy Saturday-night-special could have a defective safety, but modern guns are impervious to accidental discharge. Gun manufacturers have too much to lose in lawsuits to be casual about safety. If you decide to buy a gun, and I can only encourage you to do so, you have to consider a few things before you spend your hard earned money:

You will need training. Not just a few sessions at the range, but consistent training, at least two or three times a month, and start with a knowledgeable instructor. Learning gun safety will be your first objective. If you have kids, buy a safe! They make small ones that can be opened very quickly by a combination of finger-pressing. Then you should move on to shooting immobile targets at about fifteen feet. Gunfights rarely happen any further. Actually, most gunfights take place with the opponents only ten feet apart. You will then practice on moving targets, which is another ball game altogether. Finally, you should practice on moving targets while moving. Believe it or not, it is easy to miss ten feet away in those conditions, with the added stress of a real situation.
The most important aspect of your gun training however won’t be shooting, but gun handling. Bringing the gun into action, drawing, moving around with it, rolling, taking cover, reloading, gun retention, etc. Finding an good instructor for this is not easy. Even Law Enforcement Officers are often not trained properly with their weapon. Do not copy anything you see on television, most of the time, it’s awfully wrong.
The last, but very important aspect of owning a gun is to know the law. Study concealed carry laws in your state and self-defense laws, castle laws. If you shoot an attacker, DO NOT talk to police, even if you think it will clear you of any wrongdoing. Ask for an attorney right away. If you don’t know what gun to buy, get a Glock model 19. Don’t listen to anyone telling you not to get one…
There is great book by Massa Ayoob you should read:


Are you willing to set aside a couple hours a week for your self-protection studies? Honestly, it is a small price to pay, even if you get a few bruises occasionally. It can even be fun, and training will keep you in shape. Actually, don’t forget about running, it should be your first option! I am thinking about mothers in particular. It is one thing to disregard your own safety, but if you have a family, or plan on having one, you have no excuse. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below (you must register for free). If I can’t give you a good answer, I know people who can. Be safe!