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

12 Knife Defense Problems

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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5 Better Alternatives to Self-Defense Classes

self defense classes
self defense classes
BOB watches on in silent disbelief

Millions of people across the world take self-defense classes every week. But are they just wasting their time and money? Wouldn’t you rather spend this with your friends, family or go out on a date instead?

And after all this sacrifice – does it even work?

No-one can deny that there are a lot of charlatans involved in Martial Arts. Instructors with fancy names who ensnare students with belts, grades, titles and certificates.

Maybe self-defense classes aren’t necessary at all. Maybe you can greatly increase your odds of survival without bowing down to an instructor with a funny name in an even funnier uniform.

Here are 5 effective alternatives to self-defense classes:

1. Get Fit, Stupid!

Being physically fit has so many advantages and is vital to your survival. The best form of “Self-defense” is literally not being there.

“Running” is a great solution, and is always put forward by the more sensible instructors. Yet, the waistlines of many “Masters” show the last thing they ran for was ice-cream in fifth-grade. Sure, maybe they can show you how to rip a throat out like Patrick Swayze in “Roadhouse”. What good is that if you’re waddling towards the real killer, “Master Cardio-Vascular Disease“, one cheeseburger at a time?

So first and foremost, being physically fit will help you live longer. It reduces stress – another “Master Killer“. It also increases your mental acuity. And let’s face it. A lot of self-defense situations are caused by stupid people making stupid decisions.

There’s also many fun, inexpensive ways you can get fit. By and large, they’re all good. For our purposes, focus on exercises that will increase your short, explosive power and stamina. Check out “Pylometrics” for some great ideas on this. Tabata training is another good option for those wanting the maximum results in the shortest amount of time. And who doesn’t, right?

Finally, another benefit of getting fit is you look and feel fit. This is very important when thinking about why people are targeted for violence. They are not picked out at random. Usually, predators are looking for those who won’t fight back. Looking fit and strong can make them think twice. Which brings us nicely to our second alternative…

2. Hit the Catwalk Instead!

Research shows that walking shows how vulnerable we are to an attack By changing our walking style we can significantly increase our personal safety.

Self Defense WalkingInmates in a large East Coast prison were shown quick slices of a typical New York street scene. They were asked to assess each person on an “ease-of-assault” scale. A later experiment in New Zealand using a “point light walker” technique. This only showed reflective tape on body parts and removed the effects of features or clothing.

Here are the take-away points from the experiments:

Walkers rated “Easy to Attack:

  • Had Short Stride Length relative to height
  • Had a “Gestural Walking Style”, a low-energy style with limited
    arm swing and lifting of the feet.
  • Weigh relatively little
  • Wear restrictive clothing like high heels and skirts

Walkers rated “Difficult to Attack”

  • Had a “Postural Walking Style”
  • Has Long Stride Length with Swinging Arms
  • A Swinging Foot Position
  • Energetic, Fast Walk
  • Weighed More

What the would-be muggers were looking for were snapshots of powerlessness. A victim. Somebody who offers sufficient reward for relatively little effort.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. One sample group was given a short self-defense course and filmed again. Their odds of being selected did not change. However, another sample group received tips on how to improve the synchrony and energy of their walk. Their odds of being selected significantly decreased.

So in the grand scheme of things, walking lessons could well be more effective than self-defense classes.

3. Learn How to Back-Down and Say “I’m Sorry!”

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Jesus did teach “Turn the other cheek”. He also ended up nailed to a cross with a big spear in his sidself defense alternativese. So blindly following “What would Jesus do?” is fraught with difficulties when contemplating self-defense solutions.

That doesn’t mean losing one’s ego and saying “Sorry” (or pretty much anything that allows you to walk away) is a bad thing.

For further example, we can look to the work of former correctional officer and violence expert Rory Miller. In his book Facing Violence he sequences how social violence usually starts. He outlines “The Monkey Dance” theory, which has the following order:

  1. An aggressive, hard stare
  2. A verbal challenge, e.g “You got a problem with me?!”
  3. Closing to within arms-reach with increased signs of Adrenalin (arms gesturing, chest puffed out, face turning pale)
  4. Escalating Violent Threats which are usually monosyllabic.
  5. Eventually, one of the participants will make contact with their index finger on the other’s chest. This can rapidly escalate into pushing and shoving
  6. Finally, one of the participants touches the other’s face, usually the nose with an index finger. This leads to a large, looping overhand punch being thrown, and the fight begins.

Sound familiar? If you’ve not been in one, you’ve probably seen plenty in the school-yard, outside bars and clubs or most places where alcohol’s consumed. And sadly, most men (and due to the differences in how adrenaline affects the sexes it’s almost always men) haven’t progressed emotionally beyond the school gates.

It’s not all our fault thought. The “Monkey Dance” is hard-wired into us. We also find it difficult to say

“You’re right. My bad. I was being an asshole.”

It’s really hard when we ARE actually being an asshole. Close to impossible when you’re “In the right”. Being “right” offers scant consolation if you’re beaten right into the local ICU…

By being submissive, you’ll be able to back out of the “Monkey Dance”.  It’s possible to avoid a fight all the way to step 6. Yes, it may not seem “Manly”. You may well get called a few less-than-savory names on the way out. There are other bars, clubs and nights to be had.

Never underestimate the power of good people skills. 99.9% of the time you won’t develop them inside a self-defence class.

4. Be Careful Who You Get Intimate With

Violence between partners is that bad, the CDC has called it “A serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans “.

On average, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 10 million women and men.

The statistics say that around 15% of the victims are men. This figure could well be understated. Men are slightly less reluctant to report wives and girlfriends beating on them.

Now, everybody likes a bit of crazy now and then. Sometimes it’s the spice of life (well, the make-up sex part anyway).

When your friends and family start telling you “They’re no good” you should start to listen. When a pattern of habitual violence starts forming, you should leave. The earlier the better. Easier said that done.

Here are some signs to help you spot if your relationship could turn violent:

  • Does your partner respect you?
  • Does your partner always blame you for everything that goes wrong?
  • Does your partner make all the decisions in the relationship?
  • Are you ever afraid to tell your partner something?
  • Have you even felt forced to do things you didn’t want to?
  • Have you done anything sexually with your partner you didn’t want to?
  • Does your partner promise to change but keep repeating their behavior?

You can find more online resources about Intimate Partner Violence from the CDC here.

5. Learn How to Box

O.k, I’m getting off on a “Technicality” here. Boxing is a “Sport”. It’s not a
self-defense class per se.

Learn BoxingIt does offer a great alternative to self-defense classes.

  • The training alone will get you fit
  • It will improve your movement and co-ordination
  • You get to deal with adrenaline in a reasonable safe environment
  • It’s reasonably cheap
  • You can get to a reasonable level inside of a few years
  • You take your hands everywhere (see: “I have a gun / knife / for self-defence)
  • It will help develop “Warrior Spirit”

The last one does sound funny. But consider this. Self-defense classes are often sterile environments where lots of scripted techniques or “Scenarios” get rehearsed.

There’s probably not a great deal of resistance going on (I.e “The Bad Guy” is not going all out to actually hit or hurt you). Take female self-defence for example. Who usually gets to wear the protection? The instructor.

To get good at empty-hand fighting, you need reasonably hard sparring. You also need to get used to taking a shot and continuing on. It’s imperative that you train with people who provide as close to “live resistance” as possible in a training context. Boxing has all this in spades.

There’s an argument that “I’m too old for boxing”. To this I’d say:

Most violent attacks happen on people between the ages of 18 – 24. The threat of being attacked goes down considerably after 40. If you’re really too old for boxing, chances are you are also pretty low on the risk scale for even needing self-defence training.

Check this old geezer out. He certainly wasn’t too old for boxing.

And finally…

“I have a gun / knife / spray for self-defense”

Well, that’s just super. Where is it? Sure, I’ll wait while you go get it. Said no attacker ever!

Have you actually practised retrieving and using your “equalizer” in a highly adrenalized state? Or do you just start practising when it’s already in your hand and ignore that part?

It’s hard to “equalize” anything if it’s stuck in your bag / pocket / truck. Near impossible if you’re already taking blows.

Good empty-hand skills can allow you to create space to either get to a weapon or get the hell out of there. It also easier to prove “reasonable force” in a court of law.

If you shoot or stab somebody (even in “Self-Defense) there’s a good chance that’s where you could end up. Again, this is something that is rarely considered in self-defense classes…

The Bottom Line

Remember, the best defense isn’t a good offense. The best defense is not being there. Period.

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