Is Self-Defense Muscle Memory Training BS?

Mar 3, 2020

Violence loves this self-defense myth, but we at SAFE International do not. Self-defense instructors commonly tell their clients that if they practice a self-defense technique thousands of times, they will remember it if attacked. Many self-defense instructors put the focus of the training on this aspect. Not on how to avoid the attack through awareness or conflict resolution training. No significant time on pre-contact cues of assaults, but train the defense to an attack over and over and over to where one cannot maintain any realistic mindset.  It becomes monotonous and robotic but looks beautifully choreographed.

And the defense to any attack like a punch, choke, tackle, Etc, is trained in a sterile environment. Which means they are practicing the movements with no context of why it is happening, where it is happening, who else may be there, or the environment. It takes away the value of the drill by focusing just on muscle memory. I think there is much more value in self-defense drills that are muscle memory confusing, but more on that later. So, will you remember your defense to a particular attack if you practice it thousands of times?

Sure, you will recall it, well maybe, if the attack comes at you in a very similar manner to how you have practiced it and engrained it in your memory. But remember, it will have limited value in what you will face. And you will remember it the way you have prepared or trained it. In the same setting, you consistently practice it. That is with a partner who comes at you the same way, with the same attack, with limited aggression based in reality. Sure, you might have other partners with various energies and sizes, but you still practice your defense based on the rules set within the drill. Violence loves people who train like this. Violence loves people who think all it takes is muscle memory from thousands of repetitions. And you have the instructor going around the room offering their critique on how you look, how well you executed the technique yelling things like, “I want to see more intensity!”, but the intensity with what intention or understanding behind it? Then worse than that is when you screw up your defense in a drill, so the instructor has you stop mid-drill and begin again, which cheats you of any solid education to this monotonous way of training. 

So, you have trained it thousands of times, assume you would remember, and part of you even hopes you can use what you have learned, which is stupid. Who the hell with any rational mind would want to engage in violence unless they are so naïve or a sociopath looking to start a violent encounter?   


Imagine one night you are going home alone. Some guy finds his way into a fight with you. He is standing a few feet from you as you expected, so great. Sure, you get a bit of an adrenaline rush, but you have practiced defenses to punches, chokes, tackles. Etc. Whatever he throws at you, you are ready. But then you realize you can’t ask this guy in front of you which attack he is planning to use or when he will begin his assault. And he does not appear as if he gives a shit on letting you show your perfect defense. He is in your face, advancing, lacking the respect your training partners give you. He even spits in your face. You are thinking, why won’t this guy let me assume a position where I can best use my memorized techniques? And why the hell does he appear so crazed compared to my training partners? This anger seems different from the manufactured anger my partners give me.   

Then he launches his attack, but now you are not defending against just a punch, but his intention to land it on your jaw, knocking you out so he can jump on top of you and pound the shit out of your unconscious body. A little late to answer or address all those issues now. Geez, the velocity of this attack is coming is different than anticipated, and the angle is not quite what you trained. You flinch backwards, avoiding the blow, which is excellent, but out of your built-in survival mechanisms, not out of strategy. In class, you never had to go back retreating when you were perfecting your self-defense dance, and he is still coming at you. In the frenzied seconds, you search your mind how to handle this, but you never had to react from a position where your balance was compromised, going backwards with a guy charging you. Your instructor or training partner never gave you this much intensity. Then shit, you slip and fall to one knee, but you cannot restart the “self-defense drill,” and as he is charging his knee accidentally smashes into your head by accident, not strategy sending you to the ground entirely. Are you done? No way of answering that. Perhaps you turn the tables, but high probability it gets worse. Do they continue the assault, do they have friends, do you have anyone to assist you? 

Let me begin by saying over the past twenty-five years, I have been guilty of training like this, but year to year, I kept searching for the best education on how to train for real violence. A few critical things to bring up are. 

  •  Most self-defense videos online teach how to defend against a particular attack or move like a choke, punch, lapel grab, tackle, Etc. But you are not defending against a move, but rather the intention behind the attack. The intention is much more difficult to defend because it could be the intent to murder or assault backed by rage, anger, jealousy, racism, or any other emotion. If you imagine any of those, do they not seem a lot more intense than defending against a move? No, you can never make your training as intense as the real one will face, but your practice should do its best to come as close to that reality as possible. I am not suggesting you start there with beginners, but the goal is to get there and be honest long the self-defense training journey about where someone is at in training.  

  • Next, if the self-defense drills are live and dynamic to create realism, the students should and will screw up, but never stop the exercise and start over. When one screw up, stop and analyze from there, what the obstacles are, what are the best opportunities from that limited position, test them slow or fast if you know how as an instructor, but problem solve from there. To go back to the beginning of the drill robs the student of the most valuable parts of the training. Why will they screw up? Just one example might be the environment. What is someone slips and falls, or has barriers like walls, other people, or physical limitations like injuries, Etc? Rarely will someone face an attack in a wide-open environment like a training facility with mats, perfect footwear, and a clear mind knowing the exact offence, and when it is coming? Bring in different challenges to the drill that one might face and have the student’s problem solve from all the different potentials. 
  • Another critical consideration is if the student has expectations which training solely for muscle memory does. If you train a self-defense technique hundreds of times, you begin to have expectations of how the person is going to react. And the drill gives you those expectations, so it is easy to keep flowing to your next move. If you train like this, but find yourself in a real scenario, and the expectations you have are not met, you may be worse off if that expectation is not presented; you freeze or, at a minimum, hesitate. That hesitation can be the difference between life, death, or severe injury.
  • Richard Dimitri explains it best, and when we conduct self-defense seminars, we tell people that in a general one on one conflict that goes physical, people will generally have one of five possible reactions. Take, for example, the punch. When a blow strikes someone, they might 
  1. Take a few steps back, creating distance to either reengage or not.
  2. They may clinch automatically with their aggressor, which is the opposite of number one. 
  3. They may be knocked out, which is usually the desired result by the aggressor. 
  4. They may once struck, immediately strike back being tough, or they may strike back quickly out of reaction, not a strategy. 
  5. The strike may not affect the person standing in the same spot because they took your best punch.

To me, these five different reactions are the most significant argument against training for muscle memory with the same defense and expectations of how your aggressor will react. If you understand people respond in these five different ways, train for all these possibilities, not in a memorized fashion but a principle and conceptual manner. By self-defense training this way, having no expectations, you open your mind to all options, and you can flow from there if you have prepared to understand ranges, best tools around the closest weapon, closest target, Etc.

Why do so many people teach self-defense around muscle memory? I think because it is easy to teach a systematic approach which appears to be easier to learn. If the student can practice the same thing over and over, they think they are developing confidence which is empowering, feels good and gives a sense of accomplishment. But if the goal is to provide realistic training, the principle and conceptual approach will shine through in drills if we teach them in an honest, practical manner on how violence presents itself.  

One has to decide if they are more interested in their students feeling good about their training to keep them coming back, building a false sense of confidence or providing the best tools to survive a violent encounter. Trust me, your students will feel outstanding if you teach honestly, especially if they ever have to use the principles and concepts.

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Keep SAFE!

Chris Roberts

Managing Director, SAFE International

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