Self Defense Training

You’re a nice person, but someone’s giving you a hard time. Not just a hard time – you’re being threatened, or even attacked. Knowing how to throw a punch or a kick isn’t good enough, you’ve got to know where to hit someone to make it count.

We’ve all seen a boxing match, or watched Fightclub, but the targets that people pick when they’re throwing a kick or a punch on screen or in the ring aren’t always the most effective targets for practical applications. So, how do you know where to hit someone in a self defense situation?

A note on responsibility

This isn’t an ethics article, but there are some things that we should talk about before we dive into talking about where to hit someone.

The goal of the targets that we’re going to talk about are to protect yourself from physical danger – not to hurt the other person. We’re going to start off with safe but effective targets and move onto some more serious options bordering on disabling an attacker. 

If you’re going to use this article in a more than academic sense, you need to use discretion. You could do serious harm to someone else and if you’re going to hit someone you need to know where to hit someone to de-escalate rather than escalate a dangerous situation. 

My own martial arts instructors put his thoughts on where to hit someone this way: “You want to put the other person on the ground. That’s it. If you put them in the hospital, they might put you in jail.”

We’re not going to tell you how to rip out someone’s esophagus or stop someone’s heart. This isn’t an action film; it’s real life. Act accordingly.

Solarplexusdiagram

The “solar plexus”

Have you ever” had the wind knocked out of you”? Maybe you fell from a short height or were in a minor accident at work but you know the feeling. Like you couldn’t breath or like your breathing didn’t have the rhythm it usually does. It doesn’t do lasting damage, it doesn’t even hurt, but it’s scary and it can leave you on the ground for a moment.

You can do this on purpose to someone else and it’s one of the most safe and effective ways to floor an attacker. 

You can do it by aiming for the gut. However, if the person isn’t in great shape, this area has a lot of give and if they are in great shape it can be like punching a wall. Either way, it takes a very strong punch or kick to do the job – and it can do them some serious damage.

However, there’s a specific area – think of it as where the gut meets the chest – that is a much more effective target. It’s identified by different names in different martial arts but it’s the region that is associated with the solar plexus in anatomy circles.

The solar plexus is actually a structure deep in the body but it’s located behind a point just below the sternum where the rib cage separates. That’s where you want the blow to land.

Effectively landing a blow here will force the air out of a person’s lungs without actually doing physical damage, giving you time to escape. Be aware, however: too low and you could damage the sensitive organs of the abdomen. Slightly too high, and you could damage the xiphoid process – the bottom tip of the sternum (Derickson & Tortora, p. 224).

Anatomical Weakness Points

Targeting joints

A more aggressive but potentially more effective way to deter an attacker is to target a joint.

Many of the largest joints in the body are only meant to work in one direction. Think of your knees, which can go forward and backward but don’t really do side-to-side motions. The same goes for the elbows. The more degrees of freedom a joint has, the harder it is to effectively immobilize.

Your instinct may be to target a joint by trying to bend it the wrong way. However, this requires greater force – you’re unlikely to immobilize the joint and if you do it’s more likely to do serious damage.

Instead, try to target the joint from the side.

Joints are held together by ligaments – thick bands of connective tissue. If you’ve ever stretched, pulled, or even torn a ligament, you know how it feels – and what it does to your body. Ligaments are thickest along the axis that the joint is meant to work. Ligaments along the sides of the joint are usually longer, narrower, and thinner – making them better targets.

In addition to being fairly resilient, the joints of the body have two reflexes – the stretch reflex and the flexion reflex – both of which are in place to prevent injuries to the joints (Abernathy et al. p. 231 – 233). Ideally, these protective mechanisms will cause the joint to give way before the attacker suffers any actual damage.

So, how do you know where to hit someone to manipulate joints in this way?

The previously discussed elbows and knees are both susceptible to this form of counter attack. However, catching the arm to attack the elbow is more difficult and does not allow escape. On the other hand, a targeted strike to the knee can give you at least a few moments to escape.

Disarming an attacker with a gun

What not to do

We’re going to end this article with discussions of common cinematic targets that shouldn’t enter your mind as you calculate where to hit someone when necessary.

The first of these is the mouth. The mouth is a dramatic target. However, it’s more likely to damage your hand than it is the other person. It’s more likely to anger the other person and hamper your ability to defend yourself than it is to do any good in letting you get away.

The next, as discussed above, is the stomach. A number of ways that a strike to this area can go wrong, whether it does too much damage or not enough. Like a punch to the mouth, it’s more likely to anger your opponent than it is to incapacitate them.

Finally, another practically ineffective movie classic, is the nose. Like the stomach, a shot to the nose will either do too much damage, or not enough. Self defense should be walking that fine line between making you the villain and allowing yourself to become the victim. Aiming for the nose is choosing one extreme or the other.

training martial arts

Internalizing where to hit someone

When someone is attacking you, time can move pretty quickly. It can be hard to think through where to hit someone when they’re trying to hit you. 

Hopefully, this article has given you some food for thought, but the best way to learn and internalize where to hit someone who is attacking you is through training with an expert.

Abernathy, Bruce; Hanrahan, Stephanie J.; Kippers, Vaughan; Mackinnon, Laurel; McManus, Alison M.; & Pandy, Marcus G. “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement” 3 ed. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL. 2013. 


Derickson, Bryan & Tortora, Gerard J. “Principles of Anatomy & Physiology.” 14 ed. Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2014.