How to use a preemptive strike for self-defense

Last week I asked on my Facebook Page if there were any topics you wanted me to cover on my blog. To put it mildly, I received a ton of great ideas. So in the following weeks I will work on writing those posts, starting with this first one on “How to use a preemptive strike for self-defense.

This is a controversial topic. Over the years, I’ve seen people claiming all sorts of things about preemptive strikes and a lot of it is accurate in some way or another. But that doesn’t make it self-defense. Much of their advice goes along the lines of the old cobra Kai creed of “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” which is all fine and dandy but this attitude, if used in isolation, eventually gets you sent to prison for assault or worse. For those who don’t remember where that comes from, here’s a reminder:

Using a preemptive strike for self-defense is what I talk about in this article. Not using it in a “fight”. Not using it to sucker punch somebody. Not for anything like that. It’s not about how effectively you can hit somebody first, it’s about doing so while defending yourself.

Let me phrase that a bit differently:

Just because you can make a preemptive strike work, doesn’t mean you know how to use it in self-defense.

For that strike to be self-defense, certain criteria need to be present, which I’ll discuss in a bit. Yes, that strike needs to be effective, but just because you can knock a guy out in one move that doesn’t mean you automatically did so in self-defense. If you don’t regard the legal issue, the justice system might view you as the aggressor. So before you start practicing, look up your national laws, state laws, case law and talk to police officers and lawyers in your area. Don’t just read some blog or forum post and accept that information as fact. Go talk to professionals who handle self-defense cases for a living.  They’ll have more accurate and more up to date information and also tell you how things happen in the real world as opposed to text books.

I’d like to add another caveat:

Just because you are legally allowed to use a preemptive strike , doesn’t mean you are legally justified to do so.

Let’s say you do your due diligence and are happy to find your legal system allows you to strike first in self-defense. Woot! Awesome! You can start kicking some ass, right?


First, you need to be in a situation where you are legally justified to defend yourself. This is where laws will vary depending on which country or state you live in and why you absolutely need to look up that information. Otherwise, you’re just guessing. A guess, if proven wrong afterwards, you might pay with a hefty fine and/or a prison term. Neither of which does much for your quality of life so it is in your best interest to know these details.

Overall, there are some consistent elements you’ll end up finding. Some of these are:

  • A clear threat. Your attacker needs to display or verbalize a clear threat of bodily harm. For instance: he’s either coming at you or saying he’s going to kick you to death and then steps towards you. Or he reaches for a weapon, etc. You can’t hit him just for looking funny at you.
  • Ability. Imagine a smurf suddenly walks up to you and says he’s going to kick you to death. Then he proceeds to kick you in the toe with his little white boots while shouting “Crivens! Die, you big job!” No matter how much he means it, he doesn’t have the ability to actually carry out his threat. So you can’t speak of self-defense here either.
  • No escape. In general, the law looks at what a “normal” person would do. In the eyes of the law, a normal person doesn’t fight when there is another option to solve the conflict. That option is typically leaving. If a guy says he’ll kick you to death but you can just step back and walk/run away, then that’s what the law wants you to do. Only if you cannot de-escalate or leave then you’re engaged in a self-defense situation.
  • Imminence. If he says he’s going to kick you to death one day when you don’t expect it and does nothing right then and there, you are not legally in the clear to hit him. No matter how much you want to. If you do hit him, it won’t be in self-defense.

This is not legal advice by any means. These are rules of thumb to start getting a handle on how the law sees it all. You still need to do the research tough, as some factors may not apply in your neck of the woods and others I haven’t mentioned might. But you’ll see these four factors coming up a lot.


When to use a preemptive strike for self-defense

Now that we have the legal aspects squared away, let’s look at the practical aspects. The first one is critical:

When do you use a preemptive strike for self-defense?

I don’t think there are easy answers here. There are an infinite amount of possible situations in which a preemptive strike is the best idea and just as much in which you better not use it. Violence being what it is, situations can flow from one into the other in a heartbeat, depending on too many factors to list. In other words: I don’t believe there are rules set in stone on this topic, just guidelines. But first and foremost, you need to asses the situation to know if there is an actual need for striking in the first place.

Here are some things you might want to consider:

  • Scan your environment. You should have been doing this anyway but in case you haven’t, take in your environment in a quick scan to figure out your options. What’s around you? Any improvised weapons you can use? Obstacles you can put between you two or use as a natural defense? Where can you run to? And so on. This is a skill you should practice way before you ever need it.
  • What’s his motivation? Depending on the aggressor’ motivation, you might be able to get away from him or not: A guy sticking a knife to your throat demanding your wallet is unlikely to let it go, no matter what you say. A guy you bump shoulders with might do just that if you apologize right away and mean it. So try to assess the reason your aggressor is coming at you. Easier said than done though…
  • Can you de-escalate the conflict? Is your aggressor in a total frenzy, ignoring anything you say or are you reaching him with your words? Remember last time you were so pissed off, you wanted to break something? How reasonable and logical were you  then? Exactly. If your aggressor is in such a state of mind, de-escalation likely will not work. If he isn’t and you get the impression the situation is cooling down, stay alert but try to keep doing just that: cooling it down so you can avoid violence.
  • Does the conflict escalate rapidly? If no matter what you say or do, he becomes increasingly agitated then he’s probably pumping himself up until he’s ready to attack you. This might go real fast, so pay attention; your window of opportunity to strike first will be small.
  • Are there tell-tale signs? Often people betray they are about to attack with their body language: they turn their body (slightly) sideways so they can attack easier and with more force, their pupils dilate, they clench their fists, they clench and unclench their fists in succession, they go pale, etc. There are a bunch more signs but if you see one or more of those, your aggressor is very likely ready to use violence.
  • Do you have an open escape route. If you have a direct escape route available and you think violence is unavoidable, then take it the first chance you get. Perhaps you distract him first, perhaps you toss something at his face, whatever it takes. But if you can run, run because most legal systems will expect this from you and lawyers will nail you afterwards if you didn’t when you had the chance.
  • Is he actively blocking your escape route? If he actively maneuvers and positions himself to block your exit, then violence is probably unavoidable.
  • Is he trying to close the distance? If somebody tries to stand closer than is comfortable and reasonable given the context, alarm bells should go off in your head. If you reposition to create more distance or call him on it and he ignores it or moves closer again, things are looking grim. He might just be messing with you or come from a culture where closeness is allowed but the odds of violence happening just increased tremendously.
  • Are you 100% or not? Are you fit and in good health? Can you run? If not, then you might have to take the initiative and make sure he can’t get back up and catch you. And by that I don’t mean that you had a cold. You can still run like hell, even if the snot is dripping from your nose. There needs to be a definite hindrance to your mobility or physical capabilities that prevents you from making good your escape.
  • Are you alone? If it’s just you, you should always try to get away. But what if you’re with your kids, wife or grandmother? You can’t just take off and leave them there, which means you’ll have to stop the aggressor in his tracks, cold. Because you can’t take the chance of losing and leaving them vulnerable to reprisals. Most legal systems recognize the need for defense of others so you might be justified in using a preemptive strike here but check up on this first.
  • Is he alone? If it’s just one guy in front of you, that’s one thing. If there are multiple opponents and you have no other choice than to defend yourself, striking first can be the right option. It’s not a given but it can be in some cases.
  • Can you get to safety? If striking the guy first doesn’t allow you to get to safety, then it doesn’t do much good. Depending on the context, you might need more time to maneuver yourself into a position where you can run away. Or you might want to stall for time a bit if you know help is on the way.
  • Can you take him out? If all you can accomplish is piss the guy off with your preemptive strike then it won’t help you much. Either you will immediately have to follow up with more effective techniques or formulate a better plan. Remember that you only get one shot at a preemptive strike so don’t waste it.

This list is not exhaustive, there are more factors you can add to it but it’s a place to start.

It’s easy to list these factors but thinking them through by running through scenarios is more difficult. When you are in an actual confrontation, it’s even worse because now you have to pull it off on the fly. Make one mistake in how you judge the situation and it can all go to hell in a fraction of a second. There are no guarantees in a self-defense situation, not even if you hit first.

How to use a preemptive strike for self-defense

Me, showing a preemptive strike for self-defense.

Which technique do you use?

Let’s assume that you can’t de-escalate the conflict and escape is not an option. You have decided to use a preemptive strike for self-defense to make sure you get home in one piece. OK, which strike do you use? There’s an easy answer to this:

The one that gets the job done.

This answer is easy but it doesn’t help you much. It does bring forward a critical aspect though: the technique you select must be one you are confident is the right choice in that specific context. Regardless of which technique you prefer, pick one that solves the specific situation you are in at that point in time. Not what worked in a radically different context for different reasons. Not what your buddy once said worked for him. But what you believe is the best choice for you, right then and there.

Here are some points to consider when you select a technique.

  • You have practiced the technique extensively for this purpose.  Now’s not the time to try that spinning back kick you once saw in a movie. Select a technique you have trained specifically as a preemptive strike. It will not only be more effective than picking one at random, you’ll be more confident in using it and therefor increase your odds of success.
  • How far are you willing to go? Are you willing to injure, cripple or kill if the situation demands it? If not, then don’t even try going there. Throwing a half-assed preemptive technique because you don’t want to hurt the guy bad is a recipe for disaster. Instead, make sure you have trained different levels of force in your repertoire: soft, medium and hardcore techniques. That way you can pick one that is appropriate for the situation at hand.
  • Select a reasonable response. If some 14-year old kid wants to throw down because he feels dissed, knocking him into a coma is probably not appropriate. This is just an example but try to select a technique depending on the level of threat you perceive. This is much harder than it looks because a lot of it depends on the specific context you’re in. For instance: you might use a full-power elbow to knock him into next week if you have a bad knee and can’t run. You can hit hard (once, at the minimum) but getting away is difficult. If on the other hand you’re in great shape, you might just do an explosive double hand push to his chest to send him flying backwards as you sprint in the opposite direction. By the time he regains his balance, you’ll have a huge head start. Which exact technique you use depends on an assessment you make on the spot, taking into account all the variables you see at that time.
  • Committed versus uncommitted preemptive strike. You can use a preemptive  strike to cover your exit and get away from the guy or as a set-up for follow-up techniques to take him out or do more damage. Techniques that work for the first goal don’t always work well for the second and vice versa. So determine which goal you are going for first and train accordingly.  There are two critical elements to make this work: types of impact and target selection. Those two are beyond the scope of this article but I’ll link to some additional information in the resources section.
  • Non-telegraphed movement. If you can’t do the technique without a wind up or any other form of telegraphing your intent, pick another one. You need the ability to explode without the need for any sort of preparation. Anything else gives him time to act and hit you first or make you miss.
  • My personal preferences. To each his own but here are some of the techniques I personally like to use in this context: finger jab, raking eye swipe, forearm rush, double hand push, skip kick, looping palm heel and straight palm heel. There are reasons I prefer them over others for each one and some might be valid for you too, or not, so think things through before choosing one of these. If you’re interested in how I practice these, I’ll add the videos in the resources section below. For a (rather extreme) example of a preemptive strike for self-defense, I wrote this article a while ago and this video goes along with it:

Please do read the article that goes with this video. I go into detail there about all aspects of this technique and it answers most questions and remarks.


Timing with a preemptive strike for self-defense

A final aspect to the successful use of a preemptive strike in self-defense is the timing: when do you strike? This is another of those tricky questions that don’t have black or white answers. Perhaps you’re tired of hearing me say that by now but I believe it is true: if you’re looking for easy answers, self-defense isn’t the right subject for you. That said, here are some factors and concepts I believe are useful to figure out the right timing:

  • Crossing the line. Establish an imaginary line between you two, preferably just outside the distance where he can reach you. Keep on maneuvering so he stays behind that line. If the situation escalates to the point where violence is inevitable, hit him as soon as he crosses that line. Preferably, you step into him as your technique lands.
  • Hit him while he’s talking. Preferably while he’s in the middle of a word. It’s hard to react to a sudden attack if your brain needs to switch from one scenario (intimidating your victim) to a radical different one (making sure your victim doesn’t kick your ass.)
  • Hit him while you’re talking. The same goes for you. Hit him in mid-sentence while he’s listening to your words.
  • Misdirection. Hide movement with movement.Point to one side and as he tracks your hand hit him with the other. Talk with your hands and use that movement to bring your hands closer to your target. And so on. The only limit here is your imagination.
  • Work from any position. Practice striking from your de-escalation stance but also with your hands down by you sides, from a crossed arm position, from an open arm position, etc. That way, you can hit him whenever an opportunity presents itself instead of having to wait until you are ready.



Using a preemptive strike for self-defense is more complex than it seems at first glance. Aside of the legal issues, it becomes a lot more difficult once you have to pull it off when you’re scared and under adrenal stress. Then you’ll realize why all that preparation, thinking, planning and training was necessary. In this article,  I tried to give you the basics to get started with those things. As always, use what you find useful and adapt it to your own specific needs.

In parting, there are a couple more issues I need to mention:

  • Distance is key. Don’t let people come too close or they’ll be able to use a preemptive strike on you. The closer they are, the less time you have to react. When they get close enough, it becomes next to impossible to defend against their sudden attack. So control the distance at all times.
  • Assume everything you do will be on video and scrutinized later. Think things through before you ever need to use a preemptive strike for self-defense purposes. There are CCTV cameras everywhere nowadays and everybody has a camera in his cellphone now. If you strike first in a confrontation, it can go live on Youtube a minute later and you can’t take that video back, ever. So  don’t let your emotions get the better of you and make sure you only use preemptive strikes in self-defense as the law sees it. If you use it in any other way, don’t complain when you get arrested. You knew upfront it was your responsibility to use this tool correctly.
  • Don’t fake it. A key component of making this all work is the seconds right before you strike. An experienced thug will spot a set up right away if you don’t do it right. He’ll see you’re getting ready to hit him and he’ll act accordingly. You can’t fake this stuff and expect it to work because it will show. So practice doing all the things I mentioned in a convincing manner. Spend plenty of time practicing in front of the mirror, videotaping your performance, role playing  and so on.
  • Stay on mission. What is your mission? To get away from your attacker and run to safety. Do your actions achieve that goal? If yes, great. If not, do they  bring you closer to it? Yes? Awesome. Anything else doesn’t help you in your mission so don’t do it: don’t insult the guy. Don’t keep kicking him when he’s down. In other words, don’t do stupid things that are not part of the mission.

I hope this article helps you get started with your own training and as the saying goes: may you never need this information but if you do, use it well.

Special thanks to Dave and Tomas for suggesting this topic; I hope you enjoyed my take on it.



As always, some resources for you if you’re looking for more information and training on this topic.

Street E&E by Marc MacYoung. A great book on how to run away if you’re in trouble. Sounds simple, right? But it’s more complex than you might think.

Combat Sanshou: The Punishing Chinese Fighting Art: Part One. In this video I show many of the strikes I mentioned and also explain the five types of impact in detail.

Combat Sanshou: Tiger and Snake. This one shows several preemptive strikes, including the forearm rush.

The Fighter’s Guide to Hard-Core Heavy Bag Training. Here I also demonstrate the five types of impact and show how you can train them in all sorts of ways on the heavy bag.

Vital Targets by Loren W. Christensen. If you need more information on how to attack vulnerable targets (prime targets for a preemptive strike) then this video has it all.

Timing in the Fighting Arts. Timing is a critical component of preemptive striking. In this book, Loren and I go into extreme detail on how to improve your timing. There is still no other book out there that covers this topic like we did.


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  1. This is particularly timely, with the Zimmerman trial in the US finally reaching a verdict. This is quite a controversial topic indeed.

    • I stayed well clear of that just because it’s so controversial. People are going apeshit over the verdict. Especially those who think their opinion is more important than things like, oh, I don’t know, the law.
      That verdict must have triggered some miraculous event in that all of a sudden, all those people have a law degree and comment on the case as if they have been pleading cases for decades. I just shake my head and walk away.

  2. Charles James says

    Thanks for this. It amazes me that every-time I think I might have a good handle on things folks like you set me straight with such good, solid and relevant information.

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