Everyone interested in self-defense wants to focus on dealing damage: punching, kicking, grappling. We naturally want to be proactive and be the one handing out the beating, not receiving it.
The best defense is a good offense, after all! But the kind of fight we all want to have, the one where we whip the other guy without taking so much as a bump is basically a fantasy.
As much as we wish it wasn’t so, a garden-variety punk or serious bad guy will not stand there like a punching dummy and let us tee off on him to our heart’s content.
He gets a vote in the proceedings also, and I will guarantee you his vote is going to be “punch the shit out of this guy.” That means
Knowing how to defend against a flurry of punches is an essential element of hand-to-hand training and so is knowing how to take a shot that you cannot avoid or block.
In this article I share various tips, techniques and procedures to help you weather a solid punch, maintain your bearing and carry the fight back to your attacker.
First Things First
Invariably, the best single piece of advice when it comes to getting punched is “don’t.” Laconic, pithy, appropriate.
While consistently following the Five Ds of Dodgeball and dodging, ducking, dipping, diving and dodging again will keep your award-winning good looks intact and your teeth straight and in place there is just one minor and often overlooked detail with that plan of action.
It is not reality.
In a physical fight, you have to plan on getting hit. End of story.
Yes in a boxing ring or MMA cage there may be some fighters who so outclass their hapless opponents they appear to be constantly one move ahead of them, feinting, dipping, slipping and weaving in a display of dazzling ability and technical skill that keeps their mugs unmarred and provides plenty of openings for return fire.
Chances are that isn’t you, even if you have significant pugilistic practice or training.
So while your skills will certainly give you an edge, especially against a like-minded “practitioner” you must assume the wild and wooly scrum of a street fight will see you taking a shot or three. The best remedy is to accept it and plan accordingly.
Some of these preparations will be physical and others will be mental (just like everything else we do to prep!) but if you are serious about acquitting yourself well in a real-deal fistfight you should be treating all them seriously.
And the fight will be serious: sure, you might simply need to bust some deadbeat low-level dirtbag’s nose one good time with a hard straight to send him scurrying home with tail tucked, but you may also need to withstand an assault from a jacked and seasoned hardened con, a real killer who is as comfortable in a brawl as you are in the shower.
One last thing before we get to the list. Assume nothing.
If you have never been in a real fistfight and I am not talking about a middle school slapfight, either, then you won’t quite have your own measure of what you are capable of, how you’ll react, and what kind of blow you can withstand before you are hearing bells ringing.
I am of the opinion that every, single man on Earth thinks himself a peerless fighter with catlike reflexes and the speed of a mongoose. Furthermore he is beyond assured of his own innate capability to take a falling grand piano on the chin with no ill-effect.
This is understandable, but foolish and very misguided. Tough talk and banter is fine but will not cover your shortcomings in the brutal arithmetic of a fistfight.
Train hard, practice accordingly. It is the only way to know for sure.
Ways to Minimize Damage from a Punch
Keep Your Chin Down
A surefire way to increase your chances of getting knocked out is to keep your chin up.
As I discussed in my companion article to this piece, the chin and mandible is a priority target since a solid punch to either will “hit the buzzer” and set the recipient wobbling on his feet or heading to the pavement all ready to get tucked in for night-night.
Don’t let that be you! And it will, too, if you keep your chin up and begging to be picked off. The jaw thrusting, chest bumping come-at-me-fu that most dipshits and frat bros engage in is not a strategy. If it is time to fight, fight: don’t talk, don’t posture and tuck that chin!
There is actually something worse that getting punched in the chin and that is getting punched in neck.
A shot to the neck will be, of course, extremely painful, but damage to the larynx, nerves and major blood vessels located therein can also see you knocked out cold on your feet, or even killed. Tucking your chin down allows more bones to protect this softest of targets in nature.
Clamp Your Jaw.
Remember what I said about shutting up in #1, up there? It isn’t just allegorical: close your mouth! Clamp your teeth together firmly to prevent broken chompers, a sliced tongue and increase your knockout resistance.
If the jaw is moved sharply in a lateral direction too quickly it can dislocate or fracture, neither of which are going to feel as pleasant as your momma’s kiss.
Experiment with the fine positioning and fitment of your teeth against one another, and try to ensure that they are as centered and secure as possible.
Your teeth will always suffer when you take a punch to the mouth or jaw, but having them resting askance against one another will make for more damage come impact.
Lacking a mouth guard, this is the best you can do to protect and reinforce structures in your mouth. Talking, mouth breathing and leaving your mouth hanging slack is a no-no, one you’ll be punished for.
Move, Move, Move!
A moving target is always harder to hit. Since your face and head are the targets, keep them moving in a fight. Pay attention to any professional fighter in any discipline next time you catch a bout. Notice how they bob, sway and shift?
Part of that is for rhythm but most of it is for defense. Even a move as small as a few inches can rob a punch of much of its impact, saving you a ton of pain and potentially keeping you on your feet.
When moving in this way, don’t lock into a pattern that a savvy opponent may recognize and exploit to deliver a powerful blow where you will be.
Instead make your movements- distance, depth, speed, etc.- random and let that be part of your defense, as well as sowing a little doubt into your opponent’s mind at the same time.
If an opponent moves to strike you, and you bob out of the way while delivering a counterstrike, that will start to corrode their confidence in short order.
After all, the best defense is always a good offense! Don’t leave your head hanging there like a piñata!
Focus on the Fight
Keep your eye on your opponent. An old boxer’s maxim goes something like the punch you don’t see coming is the one that knocks you out.
There is a lot of wisdom in that one! If you see an incoming punch, or at least are only able to read the signs of your opponent “chambering” it, you will be able to (hopefully) react in time and defend appropriately to lessen the damage.
This takes practice and training to learn how to read the ebb and flow of the fight. You aren’t just looking into his eyes, and you aren’t just watching his shoulders, or hands or belly or whatever.
All of those things in totality will usually betray intent and preference, so take the time to learn the “sweet science”.
Reacting with the incorrect countermeasure to a feint or an actual punch will set you up for more harm.
Likewise if you learn to read an opponent’s range, moves and intent you won’t be jumping at attacks that cannot harm you but could get you to cover up or overreact.
Keeping your hands between an opponent’s punches and your body will lessen the severity of impact drastically and also affect their targeting.
Blocking is not just throwing your hands up or wrapping your arms around your head, as improper blocking is less effective and reduces your visibility, making you vulnerable to follow-on punches.
Unless you have to weather a storm of powerful blows by tucking tail, you want to block and return your hands to your fight stance.
Skilled fighters will use a flurry of attacks to send a defender into their shells, using the opportunity to setup an all-powerful blow, pull a weapon or something else equally nefarious.
By learning to block properly and briskly, you can stuff a punch, deliver your own and maintain awareness of your foe and the area around you.
Don’t just stand there and take it: block incoming punches that you cannot dodge and rob your assailant of the satisfaction of landing one squarely.
Roll With It.
Rolling with the punches is not an admonishment to just accept whatever comes your way. Not this time!
Rolling with a punch that would otherwise connect squarely will rob it of a good bit of power if your other defenses failed or if you simply did not see it coming until it was too late.
To roll with a punch you start shifting your body/head in the direction the punch is moving when you see it coming or feel it.
This serves to do two things: one, it aligns your body in a way that is applying a load consistently with the pending impact and two, it robs the punch of power.
Think of it this way. A speeding box truck travelling at 60mph smashes into another car parked in an intersection and another, identical truck travelling at the same speed smashes into another car travelling in the same direction at 50mph.
The second truck would deliver a bump to the car whereas the first smashes the car to pieces.
That is the difference in comparative impact. Rolling a punch correctly confers the same benefit to you, the punchee. Rolling a punch takes practice and skill, so make sure you are working it alongside your footwork, blocking and other defensive HtH skills.
A most important tip. When you tense up, every muscle in your body tightens including the ones in your face.
This makes you more rigid and easier to injure because you will absorb more force on impact, which will result in more damage.
A good way to relax is to let imagine yourself going limp for a split second before getting back into a fighting stance. You only want to tense up when it is necessary to generate power or absorb a punch to a “soft” part of the body, see below.
Also, bend the knees a bit to stay lose, not at the waist! When you bend over at the waist, it takes away from your ability to generate power when you throw a punch and also leaves your head out there ripe for the taking.
Bending your knees allows you to lower your lower center of gravity, making you harder to knock over, and also primes your body for explosive movement.
A rigid, stiff fighter is never going to be at his best. Relax, stay loose, stay in the zone.
Take it on the Forehead
There are several ways that you can minimize the damage inflicted by a punch, and it is important to understand them all and know which one will work best in any given situation.
The first line of defense against a powerful punch is to move your head out of the way. This may seem like an obvious solution, and it is, but sometimes you cannot get clear of incoming fire.
In that case, you’ll want to lower or dip your head enough that a straight or jab crashes into the crown of your forehead instead of your eyebrow, cheek or chin.
This does two things. One, it will help to diffuse the force of the punch, protecting you from serious damage and keep you from getting knocked out. Two, it will usually do serious harm to the attacker’s hand.
The human skull is one of the toughest and hardest structures found in nature, and it is the hardest part of the human body, a veritable dozer blade of bone! The delicate, tiny, wimpy carpals of the hand will easily crumple against it.
It’ll cause pain for you, no doubt, but the kind of pain that doesn’t mean serious harm, if you take my meaning. A strong neck helps significantly with this technique. See below.
Develop Your Neck Muscles
The neck is more important to preventing serious injury and knockouts from impact than most people give it credit for. I especially like Pat McNamara’s take on this.
The inimitable PatMac describes the head and brain as the body’s command center, and all good attacks will target the enemy’s command and control faculties. Ergo, we punch each other in the head to knock them out.
The only way to prevent this is to prevent an attack on the command center entirely, or harden the command center’s defenses.
The neck supports the command center, and by strengthening the support structure the command center is hardened.
This is easy to understand when you understand how brain injuries happen. A concussion occurs when something moves the head so violently that the brain, sloshing around wetly inside, is slammed into the interior wall of the cranial vault.
These nasty concussions come in two flavors: coup and contrecoup. A coup injury happens when the brain hits the wall of the skull at the point of impact.
A contrecoup injury happens when the brain smashes into the wall of the skull opposite the impact as a result of momentum carrying it on when the head comes to rest from the initial blow.
A real haymaker or frying pan swung by your ex has enough force cause a coup-contrecoup injury, or as you have doubtlessly surmised, both in one go. Any of them are serious injuries and can easily result in a knockout and lingering ill-effects.
You can prevent the rotational or lateral movement of the head that may result in one of these brain injuries by strengthening the neck to resist impact.
Most people won’t need to be told about this one. Anytime something is heading for your soft middle, what do you do? Most people clench and brace for impact! And so you should: abs will get you dates and whistles on the beach but in a fight abs are armor.
One way to take a punch without getting seriously hurt is to absorb the impact with your body. Tanking it, if you will. This can be done by tensing the muscles in your belly area and shifting so you wind up taking the punch on your side or hip.
This will help to dissipate the energy of the punch and prevent it from causing serious damage. This is why training for core strength is so important to fighters; abs are armor!
Strapping on slabs of abdominal muscle will help protect you against body shots, low hooks and other punches coming off your primary line, i.e. straight ahead facing your main antagonist.
Getting hit in the stomach area is never pleasant, but it does not have to be crippling if you can harden your body to protect against it.
Even if you have more a dad bod than hard bod, you can still reduce damage by bracing your core muscles in preparation to soak up damage.
Failing to do so is much more likely to result in you getting the wind knocked out of you (that pesky celiac plexus again!) or result in serious harm to your delicate internal organs.
There is a fine line on technique here: most folks “bottle” when they brace, meaning they hold their breath in their lungs while clenching their core muscles as hard as they can.
This is not ideal. A better technique is to clench the core muscles in isolation; you should still be able to breathe.
This takes practice, but the results are worthwhile as your diaphragm will be under less stress load and less likely to spasm, resulting in the aforementioned loss of breath. If you do get punched hard enough to lose your wind, don’t hold your breath; blow it out!
This sounds a little esoteric, and it is, but if you get drilled in the belly you’ll be left gaping like a fish on the shore. Don’t do that!
If you are able blow out hard immediately after impact. This will help you recover faster and get oxygen moving back into your body.
Also, beware of dropping your hands to help ward off body blows; clever fighters will be waiting for just such an opening to deliver a killer shot to your head or neck.
Shield Your Ribs with Your Elbows
Another way to take a punch is to use your elbows to shield your ribs. This is especially effective against hooks and uppercuts, which can do serious damage if they land flush on your ribcage.
The lower ribs, particularly near the ends, are vulnerable to damage and will fracture easily if hit squarely. This will cause searing pain, obviously, but will also begin to hamper your breathing and may even result ina punctured lung!
By tucking in your elbows and keeping them close to your body, you create a barrier that will help deflect punches away from your vulnerable ribs or fend off at least one angle of attack.
This is not a perfect solution, however, as accurate punches can still slip through and do damage, and without curling up for more coverage you won’t have total protection.
But even though it is important to maintain good posture and be ready to move your head out of the way if necessary keeping your elbows in the right position will afford you some protection which is often enough when combined with a good offense.
Keep Vital Anatomical Targets Protected
There are certain areas of the human body that, when hit, will cause serious damage, incapacitation or even death should they be struck with enough force. Many of them are vulnerable to powerful punches.
These are called “vital anatomical targets” and include the temples, base of the skull, throat, solar plexus, kidneys, liver, groin, floating ribs and so on.
It is important to keep these areas protected at all times, no matter what, because a direct hit can mean serious injury, blinding pain or maybe even knockout or death. Lights out!
Now, most in combat sports the majority of the most important targets are off limits for obvious reason, but you won’t have any such guarantees in a street fight, even one that is a matter of social violence where both parties have, ostensibly, agreed to fight “fair.”
Keep in mind this task is further complicated by the fact that your opponent could have backup waiting to dogpile you or get in cheap shots from any direction, or an opportunistic little weasel could do the same for no reason.
You will be hard pressed to protect yourself, and these vital targets, in a worst case scenario when you are surrounded and badly outnumbered, but it is still important to try.
Putting all your defenses together is the best you can do: Tucking your chin helps protect the throat, keeping your back to the wall will shield your kidneys and skull, keeping your elbows close in will help shield your ribs and solar plexus.
Bobbing, weaving and moving while you take opportunistic shots will hamper the opponents’ targeting and disrupt them.
Groin shots are notoriously difficult to defend against, unfortunately, especially from a lowline attacker who is kneeling or knocked down.
Twisting into the attack will move your groin further from them and block the offending arm, but make sure you get back on line and attack to keep the pressure up.
Say what?! You are probably thinking I have suffered one too many sharp blows to the noggin myself, eh? I am not espousing the mythical and forbidden Their-Fist-to-Your-Face style of fighting, but I am suggesting you go get hit more often in practice.
Especially for the ever increasing number of boys who were never in fights who then grow up to be men who were never in a fight this is essential homework. If you have never been full on punched before you don’t really know what kind of mettle you have.
Learning how to deal with the pain, mental fallout and other physiological effects of getting socked in the head or punched in the gut is invaluable. You sure don’t want to be doing the same for the first time in the middle of a real-life fight with real life consequences.
The only way through this door is walk through it. See the elephant, as it were. Join a boxing or MMA gym with a serious emphasis on sparring, and real sparring, not half-ass katas.
Start off with headgear and heavier gloves and then progress down to no headgear and lighter gloves. You might think those big, marshamallowy boxing gloves would not hurt that much if you have never been hit with them, but you’d be wrong.
What you’ll notice once you’ve been starched a few times is that it does not hurt as much as it used to, all things being equal. It is surprising what the body and mind can adapt to given time.
Part of this is getting over the “novel pain” effect, where anticipation and a new negative stimulus serves to magnify the effects in the recipients mind.
Once you have greased that particular groove a few times, nothing short of a properly damaging punch will move you off your bearing.
Wear a Helmet!
Hey, this is a prepping site, not a boxing site, what did you expect? In seriousness, if you are worried about getting punched in the head, be it from a rapid mob or just a few random assailants you can give you noggin maximum protection by donning a helmet.
Most helmets rated for sporting and workplace safety all afford good protection from impacts to the head delivered via fist.
The king by far is the common motorcycle helmet with whole-head protection. This makes it essentially impossible for the attacker to even reach your head with a punch, and will easily stymie all but the most powerful or accurate blows.
One major word of caution, especially with full-face helmets or ones with shields, masks and similar accoutrement:
A canny attacker will use the helmet against you by grabbing it to either twist it around and blind you or in an attempt to move you or take you down (where the head goes the body follows).
If you decide to wear a helmet you must be alert to this risk and pay extra attention if it limits your field of view.
Ready For Some Pain?
Taking a punch is not something that gets any easier or more enjoyable the more often you do it, but it is something you must prepare for.
Physical fights are far more common than any weapons-based confrontations, and knowing how to both dish out a beating and just as importantly absorb or avoid one is a fundamental prepper skill.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.