The Best Steps To Physical Recovery in Self Defense

The Best Steps To Physical Recovery in Self Defense

This week, we take a question from SOS Subscriber Fred Miller (Worden, Mt.), who asked the following question:

*Q: “I’m a cancer patient and not the same person I was before. I’m a lot smaller and I don’t have much muscle tone left after all the radiation and chemotherapy. What is my best approach for recovering (physically) and approach to self defense in a weakened condition?”

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We contacted experts in the field and included their responses to Fred’s question below:


imageedit_38_8642923623Name: Mike Campbell

Bio: Mike (RTS, CIAR, IAMD) has been a self defense teacher since 1993 and a personal trainer since 1996. He is an elite master trainer at Performance Fitness and personal fitness trainer/self-defense instructor at Mike Campbell’s Personal Fitness & Self Defense Training. His teaching philosophy is simple – start the client off with ground level basics and progress them forward as their skills and abilities are revealed. Everything he teaches is based on what is best for the individual.

Response: First of all, best wishes to you on a speedy recovery.  I applaud you for thinking about your fitness, health, and defensive skill set as you deal with cancer.  As far as exercise goes, definitely consult with your doctor in terms of exercise guidelines.  As a personal fitness trainer, I have worked with cancer patients before, and this is the first step.

Once you have doctor clearance, and they have told you what/what not to do, focus on light resistance exercises.  Do the exercises very slowly, focusing on using muscle tension to lift and lower the weights, as opposed to gravity or momentum.  As you get stronger, increase the weights by the smallest amounts possible.  This will put you on a gradual, safe path to greater strength.  You must also factor in your treatments and “current condition of the day”, and go lighter if need be, or take the day off altogether if appropriate.  You only have so much energy for recovery, be it for exercise or cancer therapy.  Consulting with a dietitian who knows about cancer treatment’s effects would also be recommended.

As a self-defense instructor, I teach a method that conserves energy, uses relaxation (not strength), and re-directs force.  I have taught this system to de-conditioned people, overweight people and even someone with cerebral palsy.  Very few people are going to win a traditional stand up fight against an attacker who’s much bigger, so you have to become their opposite and make their aggression and force work for you.  Martial arts/defense systems to consider would be Aikido, Systema, and maybe even Tai Chi Chuan.  I am a fan of some of the Krav Maga principles, but the training can be physically challenging, and possibly damaging to someone in a weakened state.  

Most importantly, whomever you train under, they need to respect your limitations.  In my 23 years as a self-defense teacher, and 20 years as a personal trainer, I have seen many people injured by personal trainers, coaches, yoga teachers, pilates teachers, martial arts instructors, group exercise teachers, etc.  The things that all of these injuries had in common were the teachers were not looking at individual student differences, and worse yet, not listening to the student’s concerns.  NO ONE knows your body better than you do.  When you find a teacher who considers individual characteristics and does listen, keep using them – they are truly a rare commodity.  

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imageedit_36_6264632664Name: Geoff Aitken

Bio: Geoff is co-director and chief instructor at the Academy of Combat Mixed Martial Arts in New Zealand. He is also owner of Academy Marketing Limited, which publishes e-learning products in the areas of management, marketing, training, writing, and product development.

Response: Let’s answer the strength question first. Your main objective in the beginning is to build your mass again. As this begins to come back your strength will grow. At this stage a basic program of free weights exercises is best. These will not only build your muscle back, but also build your connective tissue and bone strength.

Keep the reps in the 5 – 12 range, for upper body, and 8 – 15 for legs. Do 5 sets per exercise, progressively increasing the weight after each set. Work the last 2 sets to failure for maximum intensity.

Perform this program at least twice per week, concentrating on good form. Main exercises to use (in order):

  • Squats or Leg Press for legs
  • Flat Bench Press for the chest
  • Bent-over dumb-bell pull ups for back
  • (optional) You may include 3 sets of Barbell curls and 3 sets of close-grip pushups to work the arms; however, in the early stage these are optional as the chest and back sets work the arms and shoulders as well
  • Also incorporate body weight hyper extensions and incline sit ups with a weight on the chest – this will help develop a strong core
  • Dead-lifts for the whole body

Eat a good diet, with at least 1 gram of good quality protein per kilogram of body consumed per day. In particular, take in a protein drink with at least 20-25 grams of protein, within an hour of training. Space your meals throughout the day, taking in at least 20 grams of protein at a time. Complement this with fruit, vegetables and a good quality carbohydrate such as brown pasta or rice. I would also suggest taking a good multivitamin tablet and creatine to assist boosting your strength and workout energy.

Now to the self defense question. I would suggest concentrating on developing and honing a few techniques and strategies:

Develop a fence strategy, wherein you set a line at a distance that if breached, by an assailant, you will consider an act provocation and respond accordingly. A warning to back off, once given, if violated can be considered an act of provocation and allows defensive action to be taken.

Develop and train for accuracy and speed:

  • A very fast front kick, with the shin, to the groin
  • A fast, accurate eye jab to the eye or eyes; this only requires the getting a finger or fingers in the eye to impair the attacker’s vision, and sets up a stronger finishing strike
  • Develop a fast, powerful stomp (side kick) to the knee joint and a punch to the throat.

These four strikes are your bottom line when it comes to self defense striking.

Also develop a powerful non-telegraphic downward, diagonal elbow for situations where the attacker has closed in rapidly and come inside the effective striking range of the initial strikes. For situations where grappling may or has occurred, learn to get to back with such tactics as duck-unders and arm-drags. This will take you inside the attacker’s effective striking range and put you in a position, on the back, of maximum effectiveness.

If by chance, and you must always be prepared for the possible situation, you end up on the ground, train effective methods of dealing with a ground attacker. Learn to pull a tight closed guard if forced to the ground. Then train turning the opponent over with a hugging sweep (in my opinion the best and most effective sweep from the ground) or train getting to the back and the back choke. If you obtain the mount after turning your attacker over from a guard position, work the knee on belly with punching and elbows to finish the attacker. The knee on belly is the safest ground control position on the ground.

In addition, train getting back to the feet quickly and efficiently. Always try to stay on the feet in the street. Also develop a good cover strategy to take the surprise hit or deal with the wild haymaker attackers . Close in and get the back, then stomp the back of the knee to bring the attacker down for the finish. Always be prepared to use biting, stomping and eye-gouging as these are extremely effective and quickly subdue attackers.

The above guidelines will give you a simple but powerful and effective self defense game. I trust this helps you with your question, and remember there is no replacement for tenacity and commitment in anything that you do.

Analyzing the Experts:

  • Takeaway 1 – Seek out the advice of experts – fitness instructors, medical professionals and dietitians, martial arts instructors – to find the types of exercises and pace that will work for your current level of strength and recovery, but remember that you’re the one who ultimately knows whether you can summon a little more strength – or need to give your body the rest and recovery time that it needs.
  • Takeaway 2 – Find self-defense moves that work for your current state of recovery. Expert Mike Campbell suggests finding a self-defense oriented martial art that conserves and redirects energy, such as Aikido, Systema, and Tai Chi Chuan. As advised by Geoff Aitkent, training and mastering a set of core defense moves that are quick and effective – such as eye jabs and stomp kicks – can also increase your confidence and be a pragmatic skill set in a threatening situation.


*The above question was edited slightly by the SOS team for clarity.

Image credit: Brain Injury Law Center

Bosko Jenkins
Bosko Jenkins

A post from the founder and head publisher at Science of Skill, LLC. A martial arts black belt and self defense instructor, Dan has spent years training with and interviewing some of the world's best self protection experts. His passion lies in encouraging others to train smart and to improve the skills that make them safer and stronger.

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