12 Problems With Knife Defense Training & How To Fix Them!

Those familiar with the blade –  even in a controlled environment – will know how frightening and humbling a knife can be. Like a lot of martial arts training, there is an over-abundance of “Safe” drills that make the learner feel good but actually have little basis in reality.

12 Knife Defense Problems
Don’t get me wrong, there is some great knife defense training out there. Unfortunately, there’s also a shit-ton of stuff that will either get you killed or incarcerated for a very long time.

Here are 12 common problems with knife training and tips on how to avoid them.

1. Little Connection To Reality

The biggest problem with knife training is there is little connection to reality. As I see it, this all arises from the “attack”. To form an realistic defense, you need a realistic attack. It really is as simple as that. To paraphrase the venerable Master Ken, “Everything else is Bullshit!”.

Sometimes, I think I must be in the minority though. Dozens of half-assed “attacks” from people who are seemingly high on ketamine and valium cocktails dominate my facebook feed. Endlessly practicing a five-count-combo is useless if a realistic attack doesn’t precede it.

This fine video from Jerry Wetzel and Red Zone Knife Defense defines the problem perfectly (click thumbnail to play).

The Assumptions of Instructors

Instead of basing knife defense on what really happens in the street, instructors base it on their assumptions on reality. Which is fine if they used to be in the military or perhaps in law enforcement.

What is not fine is ignoring common attacks you can easily find on Youtube, or news channels because they go against what your fixed perception of reality “is”. Or worse, go against what you consider your particular brand of Martial Arts “to be”.

Even the South-East Asian arts which specialize in bladed weapons have this problem. Rather than examining how people are actually stabbed, they often adapt a striking system based on a stick to the knife.

Yes, I know….it’s all about “Angles” and “Concepts”….which is great. To a point. If little time is spent defending against what somebody “untrained”  with a lot of bad intent would do (i.e the person you are most likely to encounter) I humbly suggest you find something else. Besides, it’s always good to get another perspective on training.

2. Lack of Intent

People seem to forget we’re training for situations where somebody is literally trying to kill us.

It’s going to be hard to replicate this in a sterile training environment at the best of times. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try.

Most martial arts training follows the form of an “Attacker” and a “Defender” being pre-selected. The moves are then choreographed to a certain degree to let the defender win. And then the roles are reversed.

Just check out the first 5 seconds of the following video. Now, there’s 100s of such knife defense videos and the aim of this article is not to bash any particular style or instructor. But you can clearly see if the defender didn’t move, the knife would miss. Then the “attacker” leaves his arm out there to disarm, providing no resistance at all.

Furthermore, the “Defender” in such videos always moves 2* / 3* faster than the attacker, whose seems to have developed some form of paralysis. Maybe it’s the downers he took before deciding to stab someone. Click to check it:

For maximum training benefit, your partner should be trying their best to “kill” you.  You need real speed and real intent.

Yes, it is damaging to the ego and you’ll need to re-evaluate certain things. Training is the best time for any holes in your game to be exposed. A good training partner is essential to this end.

If such things are frowned on by your training group (and you’d be surprised how often this happens) meet with your partner in private away from class. If there is nobody in your class or group that share your willingness and training goals, find something else.

3. Too Many Techniques

Don’t be this guy…

Some knife defense systems have far too many techniques. 100 different knife attacks and 50 different responses for example.

The cynic in me will add that each group of attacks are attached to a certain level or grade. To train them – you need to pay more money! It also pads out the system and curriculum.

This kind of training is to be avoided. Sure, it can be true that having more options is a good thing, but in times of stress, we hope to rely on our training.

To quote from a great article in PoliceMag:

“When somebody attacks you suddenly and at close range with a knife then you will need techniques that are proven to work under extreme stress and can be executed without a lot of complicated movement.”

Having too many techniques can create a mental log-jam. If they’re not familiar enough they will not become unconscious movement. In short – you think, you die! As you may be aware, the mind does a run through of a movement pattern before actually executing it. This is where the term “Second-Nature” comes from and why practicing until you can’t get it wrong (all things considered) comes into its own.

Let’s also use some simple Math. If you’re training knife defense for say 10 hours a week, how much time is devoted to each movement? 5 hours of “defense”, 50 kinds so that’s 6 minutes for each one. A simplistic example, but I hope you get my point. And I didn’t even factor in the time and importance of reviewing previous material…

Seek training that provides as few movements as possible that can be adapted to a variety of situations.

4. “Grab & Stab” Is Ignored

Instructors ignore how people are actually stabbed and quite often take the easy (i.e “unrealistic”) option to help make their shit fly. The fact is, “Grab and Stab” is hell-on-wheels to defend against. That’s why it’s used a lot by the bad guys. Consider the following video (click to open):

There are many take away points from it.

1. The knife was concealed.

Seems strange to not see it either being waved about or in an “en garde” position like in many gyms, eh?

2. The attacker came in at an angle

Many attacks will try to “blind side” someone this way. If you always practice eye-to-eye you have a problem.

3. The attacker grabbed and stabbed. Repeatedly.

The victim sure had a lot of heart and that’s another thing to notice. He kept fighting on for a long time. Sometimes it isn’t the first wound that is fatal.

Back on the topic of “Grab and Stab”. Ever wonder why their’s a preponderance of wrist grabs in Japanese Martial Arts such as Aikido, Karate and the like? It comes from the feudal past when everybody was carrying blades. Grabbing the wrist stops them getting to a weapon.

Naturally, this was bastardized and the grabs started showing up (stupidly I might add) in hand-to-hand techniques. However, the original concept is sound. It’s in many martial arts so it can be adapted to knife defense with focused training.

If your training is always “open range” and doesn’t include clinching, grabbing and stabbing, you need to consider the realities of the situation further.

5. You Know It’s Coming

This one isn’t just a problem with knife defense, but a lot of Martial Arts training. It usually takes the form of one guy being “ready” and the practitioners role-playing “Attacker” and “Defender”. If only real life was like this. Most of the time the poor sap is ambushed, or they don’t even see the knife until it is too late.

There are some good drills designed to combat this. One is going along a line of people, shaking hands and greeting them. One of them will try to stab you. Another more common drill is being in the center of a group and they attack randomly (or together for multiple training).

Ex-correctional officer Rory Miller has a great book on these kind of drills. Be warned though, there’s no illustrations so it’s probably better if you’re a verbal / linguistic type of learner, or some way into your training.

Trying to get as much randomness and unpredictability in training is a must. Studies show that this the brain will actually learn better with better recall from random practice training.

6. Getting To A Weapon Is Not Practiced

Here’s something else you’ll see and experience with many knife defense programs. The material will be split something like “Knife v Knife” and “Unarmed v Knife”. Seldom is there anything in between.

Instead, the training will begin with both of you magically having a knife in your hand. How did it get there? Let’s ignore the fact you’re holding an 8” fixed-training blade but don’t have a rig and are wearing shorts. Perhaps you “kiestered” it 😉

Realistic training should be in realistic settings, too. Examples of good training are simulated bars, clubs and alleys. Some instructors have props like tables, bar stools and even strobe lights to add authenticity.

Grabbing the nearest thing to us and using it as a weapon, or pushing the attacker into the nearest hard surface should be ingrained. It’s hard to do this if you’re on a mat in a gym or the middle of a park (though trees can and do make good substitutes for walls). It also closes your mind to using things in your immediate environment.

7. Little Knowledge Of The Law

If I had a buck for every-time I saw a video where one guy throws a weak-ass jab and “Our Hero” fillets him with a knife he’d been flashing around for the last 30 seconds. Or a group of camo-clad civilians are being shown how to castrate and perform multiple tracheotomies at the speed of light…

Any good knife training or self-defense course should always be based with “Reasonable Force” in mind. Oh. And yes it is better to be judged by 6…but the risk of being gang-raped by 12 in jail should be negated as much as possible.

This is a good video on how force must equal the perceived threat.

This might just mean you need to adapt your training slightly. For example, if you’re always training in overkill, are you sure you’ll break from this pattern of learned behavior should you need to? That’s also why “pressure testing” and training with as much intensity as possible is such a great idea.

And lastly, you need to be aware of the State and City laws for blade carry. It’s hard to convince a jury of “Self-Defense” if your EDC knife is illegal to carry in the first place.

8. Lack of Basic Anatomy Knowledge

If you’re serious about knife training, it’s a good idea to know where the main veins and arteries are located in the human body. The depth of the arteries is also pertinent as it gives you an idea of what a small knife can do. It also shows you why stabs are more effective than slashes. And also the reasons why people twist the knife.

William E Fairbairn (founder of “Defendu” and trainer of the Allied Forces during WW11 – for more) created this “Timetable of Death”. It has come under a great deal of scrutiny these last few years as gender, alcohol in the blood and other factors could affect the numbers. It’s still useful as a rough guide.

fairbairn knife

For training purposes, there are lots of cool things you can do to increase your anatomical knowledge.

Having a “life-sized” target on the wall of your training space with the diagram and info is useful. You can practice strikes at the same time. There are free websites that blow-up images into posters. Or, if you’re artistically inclined you can paint it on the wall / canvas.

Anatomy Coloring Books are also a great way to learn anatomy. They’re fun, cheap and make good gifts if you’re uncomfortable asking certain people for more knives 😉

9. No Basic Training To Stop Bleeding

There’s a lot of throw-away comments around knife training. “Expect to get cut” is one that you’ll hear from the majority of instructors. However, the majority don’t address what to do AFTER you (or a friend) get cut.  The good news is providing you reach an ER in time, a lot of knife attacks are survivable.

The Dog Brothers really are pioneers in this field of Martial Arts study. On the “Die Less Often 4” DVD they have a section on Emergency Trauma care.

If you’re really serious about “Self Defense”, then learning how to keep some alive until the professionals arrive should be high on your list of priorities. You never know when you could make a difference.

10. No Consideration of Blood

What happens after you (or they?) get cut – blood! If you’ve trained with a sweaty partner you’ll know that it’s much harder to grab hold of the wrist / arm. It’s a useful training exercise to use something like theatrical blood, grease or oil and see if your techniques will still work.

This is a great video from “Code Red Defense”.

11. No Mental Training

Very seldom can you find instructors who discuss the mental aspects of before, during and after a violent confrontation. You might argue that it’s not their job and that’s valid. However, to not consider it in any form would be a bad idea.

Sure –  shit does happen when you least expect it. As most know, your more likely to killed by somebody you know than a random stranger. Learning how to not be a dick and walk away from dangerous situations beats having a “knife fight” any day of the week.

Secondly, in common with a lot of martial arts training, we are taught techniques in relatively sterile environments. We are often not trained in the mindset needed to actually use those techniques.

You have to understand even if you get to a weapon, the odds are incredibly stacked against you. The attacker has chosen the time, the place, and the victim (i.e “You!”), is armed and probably has the element of surprise.

On the face of things, these are pretty insurmountable odds. To stand even a remote chance of making it out the other side, you need to be as violent and as ferocious as hell. Do whatever it takes to survive. In much the same way Marines are conditioned in Boot Camp, you’re going to need “A switch” and be able flip it in need.

The youtube series on “Emergency Mindset” by British Martial Artist Steve Morris is essential study material.

Lastly, having hopefully survived a violent encounter you’re going to need some form of PTSD counseling. Again, this is probably not within the remit of many martial arts instructors, but they should at least be aware of it.

12. Training Knives Mostly Suck

In a lot of knife classes, the training knives mostly suck. There’s a lot of rubber knives, wooden knives and the popular knives with many holes.

Whilst these will all do a job – let’s be honest. They’re not that effective or realistic.

The rubber doesn’t have the characteristics of steel. The wooden knives are thicker and it’s hard to work on edge awareness. The aluminum ones are pretty good but if this is the only knife you train with you need to mix it up.

If you’re serious about your training or have progressed beyond the basics, you should invest in some good training knives.

Kitchen knives are a common murder weapon and easily accessible. You can train safely with them by getting the edges ground down. Less safe is wrapping tape around the edges, but this can be done depending on your level and how much risk you want to tolerate.

Indeed, some people train with “Live” blades, usually at a reduced speed. In terms of weight and heightened concentration (shit gets real pretty fast) it’s useful. However, if you’re not making mistakes you ain’t learning. And live blades takes the fun right out of that.

Folding trainers are a great idea. Many people have folders as their EDC, but a lot of training is done with fixed blades. Even if you don’t personally carry one, you’d be surprised how certain techniques vary against different lengths and types of knives. If you only train with one type of knife you won’t be aware of this.

You can get some great training folders pretty cheaply, like one from Kershaw. Hoffner knives also sell a “live” and “trainer” set a lot cheaper than Spyderco do. So it’s really worth shopping around.

Also, the bad guys don’t all carry the same knife. Whilst you can’t train with every knife, you can train with different types of knives. For example, fixed, folders, Butterfly Knives, Double-Sided, Single-Sided, knives with and without guards…

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe we can stop time and see what knife is in play and then react accordingly. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. What you should find is some things won’t work against every knife (certain disarms and strips) but some things work well against the majority of them. These are the things you want to concentrate on.


Well, this article certainly turned out longer than I intended! I firmly believe “Nobody has all the answers” – and this applies double to knife defense training. It always pays to seek out those with experience and also experience different approaches.

Unfortunately, the Martial Arts world has an element of “Cultism” about it. Some instructors will subtly try and prevent you from looking elsewhere and penalize your standing in “The Organization” if you do so.

It is therefore vitally important that you keep an open mind and always examine your training methodologies and material critically.

Thanks for reading and by all means leave comments 🙂

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