How Quickly Can I Learn To Defend Myself?

How long should a beginning student train, before he/she is considered able to defend themselves adequately?

This question I have been asked many times over the years.

It is impossible to say and dependent on many things as to how soon a person may be deemed able to defend his/her self adequately. Firstly, what is he/she defending themselves against?


The translation of the word martial in the term martial arts is "to stop swords or cease battle" - the battle stopping arts. Rather than using a set of fighting skills to attack a weaker person or party, it is to defend oneself against aggressors. This is why the term self-defence is used so often and the fundamental ideal behind this phrase is to end the fight as quickly as possible.

To be battle-ready is clearly worlds away from being ready to spar a partner in a hall. In a training hall against other students, the time it takes to become adequate can be quite short. After all, the training environment is controlled to an extent. The objective must be to train in a realistic combative manner but when a beginner is sparring the tendency is not to be outrageously violent. Compare this to the extreme brutality of being mugged or attacked in some other way on the street. Maybe, a multiple person attacks on an individual. Most people are oblivious to the possible dangers in environments such as pubs, clubs and more importantly on the street or even their own home.


Fitness is a primary factor in the early stages of one’s training. How quickly a student becomes fit is dependent on them. Obviously, if a student is very unfit it will take more time for them to become efficient in basic techniques but the two aspects can be developed together.

Some people enter into martial arts training from a very subdued and combat free life. They have no real concept of what it is to fight. Possibly, they have never personally witnessed violence of any description, either in a controlled environment such as a training hall or even worse the viciousness of a fight in a pub for example.

Other people may well have been involved in one type of violence or another all or most of their lives. Therefore some people will be more familiar and understand the nature of such hostile occurrences.

With regards to the former, to be able to accept and deal with a good hard punch in the face is not only terrifying to some people but also totally unacceptable.

How then do you explain to people from that type of background that it is a necessary requirement of learning to defend oneself? It is common for people who have trained in a martial sport environments with too much padding etc that when punched in the face with a bare fist they go to pieces from the shock. To condition someone to this can be very time consuming. It requires courage and a willingness to learn and understand on behalf of the student.

Some people may want to train in martial arts and not wish to experience this at all and that is perfectly OK so long as they do not become egotistic as to how tough they think they are. Also, children should certainly not be trained in this way.

Once the shock of being hit has been assessed and familiarised through sparring, most people come to accept the sensation of impact and can progress in their chosen art. It is very often the fear of being hit that is actually worse than the actual blow itself. Once this bridge is crossed through experience a persons courage is enhanced and they are to a point already well on their way to being capable of defending themselves.

That said, in my own experience you can teach most people to be able to punch and kick up to a reasonable standard within a few lessons, sometimes much less. However, this is dependent on a number of points.

Undoing Bad Form

If a student has been taught badly for any length of time, it is necessary to undo the bad form with proper instruction. This can be somewhat harder to do than teaching a person who has no knowledge at all. To undo bad technique is also time consuming, and often difficult for a pupil to accept. Poor basics have often become ingrained within them. Usually they have been brain washed into believing that what they have learnt will be effective in their own self defence. To take away that misplaced feeling of competency can have an initial detrimental reaction from the student. To then have to start at the beginning can have the effect of them feeling inadequate, until such time as they begin to see the error of their ways. With proper teaching and demonstration from the instructor, the students’ previous misinterpretations can be undone in a relatively short space of time.

Offence & Defence

In proper traditional martial arts it is fundamental to teach offense and defence simultaneously. A practitioner in these styles is taught that as they attack they must be aware of their defence as well as their offence and as they defend they should be conscious of possible counter strikes. It’s not about relying on an undefended one shot wonder; this is unrealistic for any student especially a novice.

When a strike is thrown, either a kick or punch it reveals a gap in the persons defence. It is imperative the student be made aware of this fact from the outset and how to cover that gap with correct placement and positioning. This doctrine goes a long way to making a the student more likely to be able to defend themselves efficiently in a shorter space of time. Many modern styles wrongly teach that one is either in a defensive position or in an offensive position never the two combined. This is wholly wrong and furthermore dangerous.

Another important issue is where to strike.

A person can have hundreds of different flashy looking moves in his/her armoury, but it is often the simplest techniques that win the day. This comes from being taught good basics from the outset. Armed with good fundamentals most people will have a solid base with which to work from. Consequently, be adequate in defending themselves. The onus here is to pin-point selective areas to aim for when striking. It’s one thing to be able to execute a powerful punch or kick but entirely another to land it accurately. The student must be aware of the varying degrees of effectiveness that striking different parts of the body has on a person.

For example, the eyes, throat, chin and groin when considering real self-defence are generally the most effective areas.

If a student can learn this capability quickly they will be competent in defending themselves in many circumstances.


There are other aspects that come into play when talking about proficient self defence. For instance awareness, not only of themselves but as importantly their environment. To become aware of and read into a potentially violent situation before it erupts can go a long way to upgrading ones self defence skills through avoidance. By avoiding dangerous circumstances and environments in the first place, which surprisingly most people give no consideration to, can save a lot of potential problems.

Nevertheless, violence can occur in the most unlikely places. Thereby, people must take on the responsibility of arming themselves with good martial art skills and awareness training if they have doubts about their personal safety.

In my opinion, most people can become proficient enough to be able to defend themselves in some situations within three to six months. However, some people are prone to over confidence and this should be kept in check by the instructor. Without proper teaching and guidance they can become a danger to themselves through over confidence and inflated ego.

Given the right coaching a beginner will have some idea of how to defend his/her self with a good guard and positioning and be able to execute a relatively sound punch and or kick. High kicking can take a little longer to become skilful in but effective low kicking, which is far more effective in real situations, can be taught in a very short time. Kicks to the groin are extremely effective but can never be relied upon.

What must be recognised in these instances is that every man on this earth is fully aware of the vulnerability of his groin area. Therefore in many rape and sexual abuse cases the offending man rarely leaves this area open to attack.


For men or woman, when they are either being attacked or in fear of an impending physical attack it is imperative that they understand the effects of adrenaline on the human body.

The release of adrenaline can be devastating to a person if not understood and harnessed. The good part about adrenaline is it’s a natural human response designed to heighten the senses in order to aid awareness of impending threat and to charge the muscles for fight or flight. A cocktail of chemicals mainly glucose are released, this in turn starts the heart pumping at a faster rate. The racing heart rate quickly moves more blood to the muscles and away from areas not needed for fight or flight. This is why when under stress the body begins to shake as the muscles are charged up ready for what may come.

Another interesting point is it can also anesthetize the body until after the effects wear off usually some time after the altercation.

Unfortunately, because the effects of adrenaline are often not understood this chemical reaction is mistaken for fear and it can have serious adverse effects. From mild shaking of the hands and body to being absolutely frozen to the spot unable to move or respond at all.

The symptoms can be - tunnel vision, loss of hearing and unable to speak. One can be nauseous or actually sick and wet or mess themselves. In these circumstances, no matter what martial training he/she has had, if they are not familiar with either adrenaline or violent behaviour they will be extremely unlikely to carry out any of their techniques in order to defend themselves.


To summarise, it is vitally important that people when looking to study martial arts/ self defence, first find a good school and a good teacher. It’s crucial to learn all the various aspects involved and not all schools concentrate on some of these. Not only must one develop a good basic fundamental structure that is proven to be effective. They must learn about self awareness and environmental awareness.

It is important to have an understanding of simple yet efficient techniques and accurate targeting. He/she must be familiar with what it is to be in a violent situation and how it feels to have adrenaline racing through their body and to experience a measure of pain through hard physical exercise and sparring. That is not to say that everyone wants to train in this way and that is fine. I would never force someone into a situation they weren’t comfortable to be in until they felt ready.

With all this in mind, we can see just what a difficult question this is to answer. A great deal is dependent on the willingness to learn and dedication from the student. With proper teaching anyone can be proficient in self defence; the time it takes to be so is another matter entirely.