Fitness Conditioning

(Gershon Ben Keren - Wed 28th Dec)

I was recently asked to write an article on physical conditioning for Krav Maga; and with people beginning to think about making New Year’s resolutions, which usually include some health/fitness goals, etc., this is perhaps the best time of year to be writing such an article. I believe that it is necessary to have two types of fitness, which are in fact inter-related: you need to have a certain level/type of fitness that allows you to take part in classes without succumbing to exhaustion, and another type/level that allows you to survive a real-life violent confrontation. The two are of course similar, however they are not the same; one must allow you to complete an hour-long class, and the other to survive 5-15 seconds (the average length of a physical encounter), and in certain cases longer if it’s a prolonged ordeal – your fitness in such a case should reflect all the “dimensions” that such longer fights tend to, and may be, composed of e.g. grappling and ground, etc.

One of the best things that distance running taught me (as well as getting me a solid cardio base), was how to regulate and set a rhythm for my breathing rate. This is an extremely useful skill to have when you start to grapple and/or go to ground. If you consider the amount of physical work that you are doing in such situations – moving another person’s resisting body – even when employing leverage, etc., it is still significant. Preventing yourself from becoming exhausted, through controlled breathing, gives you a physical edge over your assailant, who is likely to be panting and exhaling with little or no control. Maintaining an aerobic, rather than anaerobic, breathing rate will ensure that you don’t build up an oxygen debt, which would end up crippling you. I have personally found that putting a 3-5 mile run somewhere into your fitness program helps accomplish this. It’s also a good foundation on which to build and develop your other energy systems.

This type of fitness, will also help you in regular classes and training. If you find your normal classes generally over-exhausting, to the point where you spend more time catching your breath than you do learning and practicing/training, then you will not be able to get the most out of each training session. There are of course moments and times in a class, where the point of the training is to tire and exhaust, however if you’re continually exhausted when you take a class, you need to address your general fitness level, and/or control your breathing so that you maintain an aerobic rate throughout, and can concentrate on learning and practicing technique, as well as improving skills and abilities. This can also be a problem created by instructors where they feel/believe that a class should be perpetually exhausting for the students, which gives students an aerobic high afterwards, along with the sensation of training hard etc. However, being tired is not a good state in which to learn/practice techniques or to try to improve/work on skills, such as controlling range, developing striking power, improving movement, etc. A Krav Maga class should have elements of a work-out and help improve general fitness, but the overall goal of a class should be to develop and improve fighting/survival abilities.

In most physical altercations I have been involved in, or witnessed, everything is over within about 15 seconds. Training to be able to work at maximum intensity for this period of time, recover quickly, and then work again at this rate for this duration, and repeat, is the type of fitness you are generally looking for. When I trained competitive Judo, we used to train for 5 minutes of sustained high intensity, with a 10 second break, followed by another 5 minutes, another 10 second break, with a further 5 minutes. The idea was that you might take the full 5 minutes (the length of a match) to win your contest, and then have the next two fighters end their bout immediately, and be called back to fight again, etc. In short, if you were unlucky enough to see a full contest go this way, you may have to fight for 15 minutes in a row – unlikely, but something we prepared for. Unfortunately, real-life confrontations aren’t as predictable, however training in a similar manner for 15 seconds of maximum output will allow you to perform this way.

One of the best ways I have found to develop this intensity is hill sprints. Find a hill that takes you 15 seconds to sprint, and run it as fast as you can. After sprinting it, jog down, and repeat – not sophisticated but very effective. I have generally found that combining this type of training with running distances of 3-5 miles at medium intensity got me into the best shape.

I have also found that lifting weights has helped my overall fitness, especially when it comes to working explosively for short periods of time. For me, the Power Clean, is one of the best exercises to develop composite overall explosive strength. Not only does it improve your strength and power, it teaches you how to chain muscle groups together, which is extremely useful in educating the body as to how to perform a similar action when punching. Just like a Power Clean, a punch starts at the ground, and works its way through the muscle groups. In recent years, I have combined Power Cleans with lifting Atlas Stones, to both vary my workouts, and put emphasis on the development of different muscle groups. I have found that I have benefited most from these exercises when I perform them as either single individual lifts, or in sets of 4; lifting heavy when I do. When this is combined with pad and bag work there is little risk of becoming “heavy” or “muscle bound”.        

In my younger days, I used to use extremely complex workout routines, with on days and off days, splitting muscle groups, weights and running, etc. As I’ve become better educated and trained, I have recognized that general fatigue of the nervous system is the biggest inhibitor of training. This has led to me training on the days when I feel I have the energy to train, and resting when I don’t. This does take a level of discipline, and the need to resist the tug of laziness, however it has resulted in me being able to train injury free.

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Predicting Violence Through Movement

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 19th Dec)

I’ve written about Synchronizations of Movement before, however I want to put these pre-violence indicators into the context of victim selection and being targeted for surveillance (themselves pre-violence indicators that can help us predict violence). This week, CCTV footage of a woman being kicked down a flight of stairs in a Berlin subway started to do the rounds on social media (N.B. the man responsible for the attack has now been identified), and there are several personal safety and self-protection lessons that can be learnt from this. This article is not attempting to blame the victim in any way, but to illustrate those of her actions and behaviors that helped facilitate the assault.

Victims are not selected at random, and violent crime is not purely opportunistic. When making a risk assessment, whether personal or professional, one of the areas I must look at and consider are the vulnerabilities that exist to whatever asset I am trying to assess, and ultimately protect; an asset could be myself, somebody I am protecting, a building and its contents I am looking after, etc. Opportunities are periods of time, moments when/where vulnerabilities can be exploited, however opportunities don’t exist unless there are prior vulnerabilities. At first glance, this may seem a matter of semantics, however there is an important difference between the two. If there are no vulnerabilities, there are no opportunities – and no risk. The violent criminal in the video was looking for opportunities to cause harm to someone, and the reason he chose this individual was because she had several vulnerabilities that he could exploit.

One was her clothing. Her hood was up, both obscuring her vision and her hearing. Even by turning her head, her large and expansive hood, would have prevented her from looking behind her. Her attacker understood that he could gain access to her without her being aware of his presence. A 1984 study by Grayson and Stein, where they showed film of people walking along a New York street, to convicted felons and asked them to select potential victims, revealed that people walking with their heads towards the ground were much more likely to be selected than those looking ahead. None of the felons interviewed consciously recognized this vulnerability, and verbalized it, they simply knew – like the attacker – that if a person’s sight lines will not pick them up as they approach/synchronize their movements to them, then they will have a much easier time making an assault (attackers will always try to deny you time and distance to react and respond). If the woman who was targeted had pulled her hood down whilst she was in the subway, she would have gone some way to hardening herself as a target – we know that subways attract different types of criminals due to the large number of potential victims; whilst it may be impractical to suggest that people walk around in the winter time without wearing a hood to keep them warm, when we enter known locations that criminals select for their crimes, we may want to take them down – or perhaps choose headgear that doesn’t obscure our eyes and ears so greatly.

The fact that she had her hands in her pockets – again it may be safer to wear gloves, than walk around with our hands in our pockets – also made her vulnerable to this type of attack. In the video, you can see her attacker hold on to the hand rail as he kicked her. He understood, that the environment compromised a person’s stability (made them vulnerable), and this was something that he could exploit. Within an environment, an assailant/criminal, will chose or exploit a location, that compromises our ability to respond. I personally, never stand on an escalator, I walk it, holding on to the hand rail. Being stationary on a platform where there is only just enough room to stand, makes you vulnerable, as you have no room to physically respond to any threat or danger e.g. if a person puts a knife in your back on an escalator, think about how your “traditional” knife controls and disarms would work (have you even considered that this is an environment where you may have to physically defend yourself, and do you have a plan for doing so? The woman who was targeted had probably never thought about the possibility of being assaulted as she walked down a flight of stairs).

Walking in a straight line, made it very easy for her attacker to synchronize his movement to hers. Imagine if instead of walking straight down the stairs, she walked down them diagonally from right to left, and then changed her movement back to right as she descended. How difficult would it have been for her assailant to have followed her and correlated his movement to hers? He’d been drinking (evidenced by the bottle he had in his hand, and the one that fell out of his pocket), and may well have needed to hold on to the hand-rail to stay upright as he kicked. Trying to launch an attack on somebody whose direction is not predictable and changes complicates matters; it also gives the observant person a chance to see who is carrying out surveillance on them, and moving into a position where they can make an assault (synchronizing their movement).

One of our primary senses that our fear system utilizes is sound. Historically, when our predators were more likely to be wild animals that would ambush us, we would more likely hear the danger before we saw it – this is why we often flinch and freeze when we are startled by loud noises. Her attacker was part of a group who had been and were drinking – groups of drunk men, make noise. It maybe that she didn’t hear them, or heard them and tried to ignore the potential threat/danger, discounting it, hoping/believing that if she hurried away they’d leave her alone (staying in a state of denial and not acknowledging potential threats, isn’t just a vulnerability, it’s something that stops us even making a risk assessment of our situation). It may seem paranoid to “always” walk down a flight of stairs diagonally, changing direction, but in the presence of a group of drunk, young men who are moving behind you, this may be the time that you want to consider putting such a preventative measure in place. I know some people who will make the argument of “why should you have to do this”, or that “you shouldn’t do anything which lets a potential assailant know that you have identified them and are making a response because of them”, etc., however these thoughts and ideas are motivated by ego, and not by survival.

If the woman’s hood had been down, her adrenal system would have been alerted to the sound of her attacker’s footsteps behind her. In 1884, William James changed the way we understand the process of fear, and how we are alerted to danger. He postulated that you see a bear, you start running, and because you are running you realize that you’re afraid – this was contrary to the established view, at the time, that you saw a bear, became afraid, and then ran as a result of understanding the danger. As her attacker broke away from the group he was with, sped up, and synchronized his movement with hers, the woman’s fear system should have recognized the movement as containing harmful intent, and started to adrenalize her; at that moment, she would have become conscious of the threat, and could have done something about it e.g. turned round, reached for the handrail, changed her direction, etc. - as long as she accepted that her adrenalized/emotional state was telling her to act. Two things would have needed to happen for this to have worked as nature intended:

1. She would have needed to be able to hear the footsteps (something her hood, earphones or anything else that covered her ears would have prevented her from doing),

 2. She would have needed to accept that becoming adrenalized meant there was danger in the environment.

Unfortunately, many people deny and discount what becoming adrenalized means, and try and explain away the possible reasons why their emotional state has changed. If you could never imagine and accept that somebody might attack you in a relatively populated place, on a stairway, accepting what your emotions are telling you will be difficult, even if your auditory senses pick up the movement.

The clearest warning sign that you will have in the moment, that somebody means to harm you or somebody else (if you’re working close protection), is their movement – even a shooter who can cause harm at distance needs to move to a position where they can make their shot. Be interested in who around you, has interest in you – the drunken group may have selected the target together, talking and laughing about her, on the subway or as they walked behind her – and especially when they change their movement to match yours; her attacker sped up to catch up with her. All your senses are required for this to happen, along with a curiosity about what is happening in your environment.        


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Unsettling People

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 12th Dec)

One of the lectures I remember most clearly from my university days, was by a professor who was explaining how the human brain operates, if you were to view it as a computer e.g. what algorithms, sorts etc. it uses to manage information. The reason I remember it so vividly, is because I came away from it going, “Is that it?” I was sorely disappointed that the actual underlying operations that the brain uses to manage the information it stores and recalls was basically very simple – almost simplistic. Obviously, the inner workings are more complex than this, but at the crudest level, the brain uses categories and scripts to manage its information; what it knows is labeled into a category for recall, and may have a script of behaviors/actions attached to it. The brain is basically a giant filing cabinet.

Sometimes the categories (or drawers of the cabinet) get confused and/or things get incorrectly filed. This can be seen when people develop a phobia. If a person has a phobia of snakes, they will start to identify and react to things such as electrical cables, pieces of rope, etc. - as snakes. These things bear a close enough resemblance to a snake, that they get categorized as being snakes. We also develop and have pre-written scripts that inform us as to how we should act and behave in certain situations; these could be referred to as rituals. When we are involved in non-predatory aggressive conflicts, we by default, follow these scripts or rituals – no differently to any other species; we shout, we posture, we push and shove, a punch gets thrown, a person goes down, etc.

In last week’s blog article, I talked about the differences between fear and anxiety; fear being a fear of the known, and anxiety being the fear of the unknown. One of the reasons we are so uncomfortable with anxiety is that we can’t categorize what is unknown, or apply a familiar script to it. Our brain’s computer can’t handle these exceptions well – in fact, we will often try to imagine what it is, or come up with a reason for what is causing us to be anxious, so that it can be filed away neatly. Our emotional state is satisfied regardless of whether the categorization is correct or not, it just needs everything to be put in a drawer. We may turn the reasons for anxiety into a known fear, because at least we can manage that, and/or apply a script to it, even if the outcome envisaged is not a positive one for us e.g. we will willingly make a bad choice if that allows us to understand/categorize the situation we are in.

One of the most effective doormen/bouncers I knew, like most effective security personnel, hardly ever had to use physical force. He also never said much during a verbal altercation, and ended disputes and arguments that had every appearance of turning nasty, very quickly. He had a simple trick for unsettling aggressive people which was to smile warmly at them – an action/behavior that is hard to categorize in an aggressive altercation, and one that doesn’t have any familiar scripts associated with it. His response to aggression caused anxiety, and people don’t like to be anxious. They may be comfortable managing their fear, but the unknown makes them feel extremely uncomfortable, and this leaves them floundering. If he had responded aggressively, posturing back, to their posturing, they would have been on familiar territory – they may have felt fear, but it would be known, understood and could be managed. The unknown is different, it is unsettling, it causes doubt and in extreme cases, panic. If you can unnerve a person, the fight is already over.

Now, I’m not saying that smiling at an aggressor is a solution that can be rolled out in every instance, and it takes a certain personality to pull it off convincingly i.e. it must be a genuine smile, not a put-on one. When we are looking at emotional interpretations of body language and behavior, fakers are easily spotted, however there are other ways to unsettle and unnerve aggressors, which are easier to make work than smiling. The goal here is to make an unfamiliar/unknown response, that can’t be categorized and processed, and/or misdirects the aggressor to interpret it in a way that they are familiar with.

I often hear people talk about fighting stances. Fighting stances don’t exist in real-life confrontations; fights are dynamic things, that should involve movement – you should be striking, moving, blocking, etc., not standing stationary with your hands up; that just lets your aggressor know what you are up to, and gives them a piece of information they can categorize (clenching your fists and holding your arms up is familiar to them). However, most fights and conflicts are preceded by some form of verbal exchange (the Pre-Conflict Phase of the fight), and the stance you adopt in this phase can be used to unsettle your aggressor, and in some cases, cause them to walk away. An aggressor involved in a verbal confrontation will expect you to either act submissively or posture back to them – responses that follow an understood script and can be easily categorized. Not responding in either of these ways, can unsettle an aggressor causing them anxiety (fear of the unknown).

If you stand upright and tall with a straight back you are posturing, however if you put your hands out in front of you with the palms loosely facing your attacker, your hand gesture is submissive i.e. this is the international body language for, “I don’t want any trouble”. When an aggressor meets your eyes, and is met with this confident/posturing but submissive stance, they must try and put this information into a compartment, and find an associated script to interpret your actions/behaviors. When they can’t do this, they will be unsettled and anxious. If in this moment you ask them, “what can I do to sort this out?” you are now giving them a “familiar” script for them to interpret – that of the helpful person looking to assist them in finding a solution to their situation. They are likely to trade the unknown, for the known, and treat your question as a life-line to help them from experiencing the anxiety they are currently feeling.

Is this approach guaranteed? Of course not. There are individuals who may react to uncertainty by fast forwarding themselves towards physical violence, but in truth, such individuals usually find themselves heading there anyway, regardless of how you act/behave. Even if unsettling an aggressor, doesn’t allow you the chance to de-escalate, a hesitant and unsure attacker is easier to deal with than a decisive and committed one. Unsettling somebody is a set up for de-escalating the situation, and not an end solution.  

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Fear Versus Anxiety

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 5th Dec)

I am a big believer in people making personal risk assessments for themselves, and where appropriate, for their families. I have written before about what risk is: the intersection between assets (things, persons you want to protect), threats (those things which could harm your assets), and vulnerabilities (those things which a threat could exploit, inadvertently or deliberately, to harm an asset). One of the reasons I believe it is important to make such assessments – and regularly update them – is that it forces you to consider the potential threats your assets face (you are also an asset), which in turn reduces anxiety. Anxiety and fear, are often talked about as if they are the same thing, however they are not, and it is important from a personal safety and self-protection standpoint to understand the differences.

The easiest way to understand the differences between the two is to define fear, as the fear of the known, and anxiety as fear of the unknown. From a practical standpoint, you would be anxious walking into a bad neighborhood, late at night, where you know that you’re potentially in danger, but you don’t know exactly what the danger is, or what form it will take; it is unknown and unforeseeable. Anxiety is a type of fear that we don’t cope well with, and that we’ll do almost anything to avoid, even making potentially bad choices in the process e.g. if a car pulled up to us as we were walking through that neighborhood, and a friendly voice told us to get in quickly because we’re in danger, there’s a good chance that we might do this, as this known fear (getting into a car with a stranger), trumps the unknown fear(s) in our situation/environment. We will trade anxiety for fear, even when we consciously know it is to our detriment. By making risk assessments – even dynamic ones, when we are in a situation – we are forced to acknowledge the dangers and threats that we face; this is how to turn anxiety into fear, and fear is good because that is something we can work with.

Many people become confused when a woman who has been in a physically abusive relationship, ends up with another abusive partner, then another, and another, etc. Whilst there are certainly character traits and behaviors that certain people give off, which abusers are quick to pick up on, it is also true that women (and men) who have been in abusive relationships, subconsciously and emotionally seek such relationships in the future, because they are familiar with how they work and operate – they know what to expect. To be in a different type of relationship, would/could cause anxiety e.g. how are they expected to behave and act, or respond in certain situations, etc. Human beings are creatures who crave familiarity, we are not good with change, and we seek to avoid it, even when that change is for the better. Change takes us into the unknown, and in the unknown exist “fears” that we don’t know how to control and manage.

This week I was on an Active Shooter/Killer course put on by A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate). There are many similar courses, such as “Run, Hide, Fight”, which are trying to move schools – and other institutions – away from the historical concept of the “traditional” lockdown. In a traditional lockdown, when a rampage or spree killer enters the building, the response is to lock the doors (if possible) and hide under tables, etc., and wait for Law Enforcement to arrive and deal with the killer. This is an outdated and ineffective method for several reasons, one being that most active shooter incidents don’t last longer than 5 minutes (there are of course exceptions), and it usually takes law enforcement 8 to 10 minutes before they are on site and able to initiate a response i.e. it’s all over before they begin. The current thinking is to empower individuals to choose different survival strategies and solutions, such as running/evacuating, barricading rooms and physically countering the killer if there is no other option. In light of all the statistics and facts, as well as taking into account our natural responses to danger (freeze, flight or fight), sitting under a desk waiting for law enforcement to turn up and save the day, is not a good solution. The problem is that it is a familiar one, and people/institutions/organizations are unwilling to move away from it.

When you make a risk assessment, you look directly at the threats you face, and consider the vulnerabilities, that these threats could take advantage of, to cause harm to your assets. If you are a school principal, one of your assets is your student body, the individuals who attend your institution. A potential threat is an active shooter/killer. The issue is that most people, in considering the risk of such an incident, look first at familiar and known solutions (such as law enforcement turning up and dealing with it), to deal with their anxiety over it, i.e. reduce it to a fear, rather than first considering their vulnerabilities e.g. they don’t have looking doors, that their doors could easily be breached with a single round, etc. Once you consider each vulnerability that a threat could take advantage of, you start to turn your general anxieties into specific fears, and this is a much more productive means of reducing risk, than running ahead and bypassing this step in order to get to the solutions (risk is the intersection of assets, threats and vulnerabilities – you reduce your vulnerabilities, you lower your risk).

When we recognize that anxiety and fear are not the same thing, and that by making risk assessments, we can turn the unknown into the known, we not only make ourselves safer, but give ourselves the ability to manage and control our fear emotion. The only way to deal with anxiety, is to turn the unknown into the known, and this means ascertaining and managing risk.

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