“All fights end up on the ground” is right, but for the wrong reasons.

We just completed our 53rd biannual testing cycle — yeah, we’ve been doing this a long time — where a bunch of people leveled up, including three new Instructor Candidates and several Instructors picking up degrees in the march toward Master. The day was a veritable soup-to-nuts display of humanity’s predatory birthright.

After six hours of teaching, testing and training I was exhausted… but lit from within by the afterglow of the pure, unfettered freedom of it — mat time is the only place we can shrug off civilization’s straightjacket, Houdini-like, and vanish from polite society, if only for a brief lung-filling, horizon-striding moment before returning, resigned to buckling ourselves back in so we’re fit to order a burger at the drive-thru.

And this time I kept enough man in the human to remember to take pictures and video.

That night I settled in front of the screen, drink in hand, to scrub through the day’s good work, to find those moments in the vacation slideshow worth sharing, the ones that might let you feel the thing, a call from twilit woods you just might answer…

But instead of the drama of the hunt there was just the curl of bodies, a recursive infolding, each turn a crumpling of the human frame into a ball like the final page of an unfinished manuscript. Again and again they met and folded, half of them in the way it was built to go, the other half in the completely wrong direction. The video was a banal scrum of clumps of people oscillating open and closed in this fashion. To the initiated, there’s information in there — a finger in the eye, a fist in the groin, a wrist broken just so to chain up into the rest of the skeleton to put the throat at risk — but to everyone else it’s just the static hum of rolling bodies. Practice, it turns out, is not nearly as interesting as performance.

So I switched over to pictures. Surely the camera caught some kinetic moment, a frozen hurling, a brain inches from the deck after an accelerated fall, the face registering the power of what that might mean outside on concrete — but no. The pictures — all of them — showed half the class lying on the ground, the other half wound up over them, the cocked harbingers of busted ribs and cracked skulls.

And that’s it. Every. Single. One. Someone stomping, someone getting stomped.

What would have been more affecting? Combatants standing, brandishing tools, lighting up your brain with possibilities: “Who will prevail?” And your armchair quarterback pops the popcorn.

Real violence is boring — it’s not the back-and-forth drama of the fight, but the unidirectional gut-sick crunch of pedestrian-vs.-truck. There’s a moment as the parties vector for each other, lining it up, and then the brief flurry of action that makes us think fight and piques our interest, but as soon as something horrible happens we’re no longer titillated. The sane and socialized aren’t going to stick around while the loser gets set on fire, and even psychopaths are bored by inevitability.

Indeterminate, non-specific trauma and struggle — the fight — is a dominance display that speaks to deeper brain structures in the language of dance, whereas one animal destroying another says capital-N Nothing.

That’s why the four-year-old said of our training, “They knock people over.” The five-second sequence of any given turn looks like this: lance your skeleton through their soft tissue to pop it, foul their stagger to put them down, then the real work begins.

That’s what I’d do to me.

The needs of injury — catastrophic volume change in critical anatomy (you have to smash it faster, harder, farther than it can stretch) — are always at odds with dominance games. The body’s evolved penchant for yanking things away (organisms move away from negative stimuli) reduces pressure and gives ribs and spleen the best possible chance of mitigating the damage. (Eyeballs can only stand the massless feather-dusting of photons, after all.) Combined with the compromise of bipedalism — people who have their balance taken from them fall away, further reducing pressure — means that the calculation for the standing man is a full-throttle overrun of three feet, three inches. Inches for the amount ribs can flex before breaking, feet for the off-balance travel from the collision. This is why stuff socked at arm’s length sometimes breaks, sometimes doesn’t. But a spleen socked squarely 3’3” blows a gasket.

Ah, but on the ground…

The ground is where both of these incidentally protective mechanisms fail. The body is stuck flat, it can’t move appreciably when intersected at speed, and it’s done falling away, every piece of anatomy firmly fixed to the anvil of Earth. Now the falling hammer is all of you, accidentally, your entire mass jacked through the superior leverage of your leg, shod at the end in something sturdier than flesh. Your feet bear your weight effortlessly; now they will transmit it just as easily.

The goal of all violence is the offlining of the brain — whether by triggering hopelessness through attrition, or physically tripping the off-switch — and the easiest way to do that is with sudden, sharp acceleration, flooring the accelerator so hard the passenger slaps the seat, or angling the car into the bridge abutment so the passenger tries to flee through the windshield. And nothing romps an accelerator like a boot. When you lay him out, he lays his brain on the starting line. All you have to do is punch it to turn his consciousness into a rooster tail of smoke.

This is why bar fight fatalities spike when someone hits the ground — they strike their head at the end of the fall, and then they get the boots put to them, greatly enhancing the physics of the untrained drunk. All they have to do is accidentally line up the anatomy and their amateur efforts are magnified into professional results. “The ground is where you die” has to do with the fact that while most people can’t Bruce-Lee a standing man to the head, everyone can punt a brain laying on the ground.

And so in our attempts to make our practice jibe with reality it ends up looking like nothing more than a couple of thrown punches, a serendipitous trip-and-fall, and a gasp-inducing news clip of full-bodied stomping. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t look cool, and there are no bragging rights — everyone you meet has a frame that can knock you out — but isn’t that exactly how you’d want your attempted murder to go? I’ll take the boring, five-second physics and physiology workshop over the multi-minute fight to the death any day. Even if it won’t look good on social media.


— Chris Ranck-Buhr

The Law of Self-Defense

What you want to know vs. what you need to know.

In my previous blog I showed how the law is irrelevant to someone involved in a violent encounter; in this post I’d like to talk about how the legal system can be just as scary as a violent encounter.

Two of the most common questions I field as an attorney who teaches hand-to-hand combat are:

“When can I use this training?”


“What if someone does [insert questionable, at best, reason to injure someone]?”

To the first question my answer is, “Rarely, if ever — hopefully never,” and to the second I laugh and say “Nice try.”

Under the criminal code — the regulator of intentional violence — the general rule is that you may NOT use, or threaten to use, violence against other people. Period. The very narrow exception to that general rule — self-defense — ONLY justifies a particular use of violence against another human if that violence was used to prevent imminent or ongoing violence directed toward the user or others. Shorthand: you can only hurt someone if they are trying to hurt you.

Most people phrase their questions about the use of violence in permissive terms, looking to justify, in advance, the application of violence in emotionally uncomfortable, but probably inappropriate, settings: a bar fight, an argument, a rude driver in traffic, etc. In reality, you just can’t intentionally injure people, and if you do, you rarely get a hall pass. The legal system asks, “Why did you?” after violence has occurred and does not delineate “When can I?” before violence happens.

Seems clear enough, right? But this is where lawyers on both sides muddy the waters of legal clarity. Remember, “pleading self-defense” means that the police did not believe that your use of force was justified and thus arrested you.  Moreover, the prosecutor failed to believe that the facts at hand required you to use violence the way in which you did, or even at all, and has brought criminal charges against you before a court of law.

Your freedom is now at the whim of a judge or jury while two attorneys (at a minimum) make a Tolstoy novel out of a very precise and clear idea. Your attorney wants to show that you used violence to avoid imminent injury or death by responding to violence in kind. Meanwhile, the prosecution wants to show that you had a choice not to use violence but nevertheless did, or that you used violence in a prohibited or excessive fashion, and thus should be removed from society via incarceration.

In order to bolster their relative positions, these lawyers will pick apart, word-by-word, some version of the following sentence:

“Self-defense is the use of force in response to an honest and reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury or death, so long as that use of force is in parity with the threat and the person using such force is not purposefully engaging in mutual combat.”

Was there a use of force at all? Was there a threat or were you the instigator? Were you honest about that perceived threat or were you feigning fear to justify hurting someone? Was your perception of the threat reasonable in relation to the force you used in response? Was the threat imminent or avoidable? Was there potential that the threat could even cause bodily injury, let alone death? Was the responding violence proportionate to the threat? Did the response go beyond what was necessary to dissipate the threat? Did you willingly join the interaction as a mutual combatant?

Intentionally using violence to injure a person for any other reason than to prevent that person from using violence to injure you or someone else is criminal, not “badass.” The degree to which you injure a person will determine the possible criminal and civil liability you will face if your actions are not justified. And never forget that The System is loaded against you: Cops want felony arrests and prosecutors want felony convictions.

However, if you can prove your actions were necessary to prevent injury or death to yourself or another, you will be absolved from a sentence for what otherwise would have been criminal conduct. Caveat emptor: those who willfully engage in violence against another person (read: who get into fights) when a choice existed to do otherwise are “mutual combatants,” and may not claim self-defense in the face of criminal charges, and thus, can receive no absolution.

If you were not justified in using the tool of violence, the greater the amount of injury you inflict, the greater the crime. Assault begat battery begat aggravated battery begat mayhem begat manslaughter begat homicide begat first-degree murder begat capital murder.  And be sure to tack on some bonus time if you use a firearm during the commission of a felony, make any terrorist threats, use violence in connection with gang- or narco-related activities, and more.

Moreover, civil liability is always available to a victim of criminal violence. If you are found guilty of a crime, the victim may also sue you in civil court for damages. If the jury cannot unanimously find you guilty of a criminal charge because there was “reasonable doubt” in the minds of the jurors, the victim may still obtain damages in civil court if they can show by a preponderance of the evidence that you harmed them.  Only a properly asserted claim of self-defense will clear you of potential civil liability.

If you reserve the tool of violence for those rare moments where you face imminent injury or death at the hands of someone who has resorted to the laws of the natural order, you just might be greeted with questions about your well-being and a “thank you” from law enforcement for diligently executing a community service. If you engage in risky behavior or just have no problem injuring other people for no good reason, well, the quagmire that is the criminal justice system loves fresh meat and is open 24/7/365.


— Matt Suitor

Naked Ape Kung Fu

I did not enter this monastery by choice — I was born as another twist in the labyrinth, a monument to the winners who at one time had their hands around throats as a matter of course.  We are all of us the spawn of killers.

As predators we have “theory of mind,” the ability to construct simulacra of our prey inside our skulls, to intuit how they will behave — essentially running their behavior-set as a simulation so we can plan on how to zig when they zag.  We can think like an animal, communicate with them (especially fellow mammals), and even put the construct in the driver’s seat briefly in order to experience “being” that animal.  This ability gives rise to things like shamanism and domestication.  When the topic of how a person should fight comes up, there are, inevitably, references to much more powerful predators, e.g., “like a tiger.”  Big cats are impressive, terrifying, and ferocious — all aspects we’d like to take on when circumstances revert to a state of nature.

So, which animal should you fight like?

Being civilized and embedded in modern humanity, we forget that we’re the top predator on the planet, and that we long ago solved the equations for the intersection of hominid skeletons at speed.  We had the solution before we had the language to describe it:  all the ways you can line up ramrods of bone through an eye socket, all the ways he might move to prevent it, a possibility space of geodesics.  (Imagine the human form waving all its limbs around to describe a shape, DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man rotated in three dimensions, if you will.)  Before language, formal society and civilization, this solution set had but one outcome:  your genes went forward in time; the losers, not so much.

Now, raw survival is one thing, but nature prefers that we not murder ourselves out of existence (animals that do are just proof that the system works); this necessitates some kind of formalized, non-lethal competition.  If we can assume the loser doesn’t get eaten, then capitulation becomes an option.  Add language, formal society and civilization — dimly understood conventions giving rise to rules and laws — and you take the geodesics of the solution set and weave them into the Gordian Knot of fighting.  We all agree to agree that while fighting like hell is human, treating each other like prey is verboten.

And so the modern human is stuck in a state of perpetual competition — touching the blurred surfaces of those possibility spaces (the slapping of hands, the imposition of artificial rules) instead of striking at the heart of the thing as Alexander the Great might, cleaving through the tangle with a single stroke to render it undone.  At Injury Dynamics we go straight for the heart of it because what you are facing is the planet’s most potent nightmare — the species that brought you genocide and nuclear weapons, with a natural propensity and hunger for organized warfare; have you met humanity?

Don’t get me wrong:  I would love for this discipline to be rendered unnecessary — for there to never again be cause for a human to kill another human — but unilateral disarmament is only possible within the make-believe confines of polite society, and even then it turns out to be a terrible mistake when you meet the ape who revels in his authentic self and honors the ancestors at your expense.

In the end this thing is quintessentially human, as important to wholeness as spirituality — and it is in denying what we are that gives rise to the deadly stresses of modern life.  What we have to offer is more than a mere survival skill:  training is the experience of feeding what you are, leashing the beast, letting it out of its cage and taking it for a walk on the mats.

With that handled, you are free to be the one who does everything in their power to prevent violence (knowing its true face, and where even the mildest of provocations can go) — knowing full well that should you ever meet that fellow ape who lives and takes as our crude ancestors did you can remind him (if only briefly) that you remember where you came from, too.


— Chris Ranck-Buhr

It’s Different for Me: A Woman’s Perspective on Hand-to-Hand Combat Training

Note:  The following was sent to us by a female client who wanted to share this on our blog, but wishes to remain anonymous.


People who don’t know me well would never imagine that I know anything about or have any interest in hand-to-hand combat training and I like it that way. It isn’t comfortable social conversation to talk about what that really means and I don’t want to defend what I know, why I know it, and what that means for me. People take a step back and wonder about you when you admit, with conviction, that yes, you would jab your thumb into someone’s eye socket or stomp their knee to render their leg useless if necessary. If it is their life or mine, I will always choose mine.

I have trained with men—big men, who far out-muscle and out-weigh me. I have been fortunate that they are some of the best trained instructors in the world and they care about my safety and well-being. They train hard and when they pin me against a wall with their hands on my throat or grab me in a bear hug and lift me off my feet, they will not release me just because I tried. They will let me go only if I hit my targets and they are forced to let me go by the laws of physics and human anatomy.

During training you move slow, slower than a violent confrontation would be if this were real. I know it is to keep everyone safe and to pay attention to targets, but for me there is another reason for going slow—to connect with the fear. When a man who is taller than you by at least a foot, with biceps as big as your thighs, pins you against the wall, hands on your throat, make no mistake about it, there is fear. I must drink in that fear—I need to feel it and pay attention to it. I have known my instructor for years and I trust him, so my feelings of fear are less pronounced than they would be in a violent situation with a stranger; therefore, in training I must tap into that fear, feel it, focus on it, and pay attention to how my body and mind respond in a fear state. It is a gift to be allowed to train slow, to be able to pay attention to your physiological responses to fear, and to figure out how to stay focused on targets. I have learned what it feels like to stay focused on targets that cause injury to another human being when I am pinned against a wall with hands around my throat, my heart racing, and my mind consumed by the need to survive.

Early in my training I had not yet learned the value of paying attention to how my brain and body respond to fear. None of my instructors talked about it and I did not admit that I felt fear—we were only training after all, what was there to be afraid of?  I honestly do not know if my instructors didn’t talk about paying attention to your fear response because they didn’t experience it during training or if it is one of the subtle nuances of training that you don’t realize is valuable until someone points it out to you. I still vividly remember learning this lesson. It was early in my training and I was doubting my abilities. I decided that to build my confidence I needed to put myself into a situation where I knew my fear response would be triggered, so I asked my training partner to sit on my chest and pin my hands to the ground. It was at that moment that I learned not only to pay attention to how my mind and body reacts in a fear state, but I learned an entirely new lesson—the dramatic increase in the intensity of both my fear and other emotions that are triggered when violence and intimacy intersect.

The intensity of the fear response at the intersection of violence and sexuality is an aspect of training that I believe may be unique to women or at least much more prevalent for women. It is not something my instructors ever talked to me about, and honestly I am not sure that I would have welcomed the discussion because it is deeply personal and difficult to express. Prior to training I did not engage in any co-ed contact sports that required close physical contact with men. However, during training there are times when I find myself in positions with my training partner that I had previously only experienced in non-violent, consensual, intimate relationships. It is in these moments during training that my brain will sometimes trigger the recognition of the potential for a situation to be sexual and because I am a socialized and decent person who respects her training partner, my first response is to ignore those thoughts. However, I believe for women to get the most out of their training they need to tune in to these moments when they occur and place them squarely in the context of violence. Women must seize these moments and become fully present in their thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses associated with sexual violence so that they can understand how their mind and body might respond in similar situations outside of training. I will admit tuning into these moments during training is a terrible feeling wrought with intense emotion and a feeling I would much rather avoid all together, but I know I am not taking full advantage of my training if I ignore these moments and turn away.

Our male training partners and instructors need to know how valuable these moments are for us. These situations provide us with valuable opportunities to push back on a lifetime of teaching that reminds women and girls that we are vulnerable to violent confrontations in everyday activities like jogging along a path or walking through a parking lot. To further compound this narrative, historically women in our society have not been trained to respond to violence with effective techniques using our own bodies as weapons. Instead we are reminded frequently through media and social stories that we are not capable of effective response to violence and that in order to be effective we need to use devices that someone, somewhere thought would help us feel safer such as carrying a whistle or mace. However, these tools and devices so often pitched to women promote the narrative that women are not capable of inflicting debilitating injury on attackers who are bigger and stronger than they are, but effective training changes all that. After all, a crushed windpipe from a knee drop to the throat is still a crushed windpipe no matter who delivers it.

It has been several years now since I first learned the value of leaning into my fears and walking along that dark edge of intimacy and violence. I think it is one of the most important aspects of training for woman. The sessions on grabs, holds and chokes can really surface these fears and emotions, and for women who are rape survivors the intensity of the response to this aspect of training is even more pronounced because of their ties to a history of sexual violence. Over the years I have also watched and listened as the instructors have learned more about this aspect of training and how it is experienced by their female students. I am impressed by the compassion the instructors show in these moments as they continue to teach, but lean into the fears and emotions of their female students and encourage them to pay attention to their emotional and physiological response while also channeling their energy and strength to continue fighting. It has truly been a gift to be trained by and to watch these instructors. They are fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands and they care for their students like family and give generously of their time to ensure that every student succeeds. In all of my training I have always felt that my instructors believed in my ability to deliver a crippling injury to an attacker and that my knowledge of effective techniques was the most important tool they could give me for my own safety.  They train me with a level of intensity that communicates to me that my life depends on it because the reality is that someday it might.


— Anonymous

You Weigh the Same When You’re Scared

Your skeleton is just as hard, his eye just as soft — regardless of how everyone is feeling.

In the human world — the one that only exists inside our skulls — emotion is power.  As we might use a hand to grasp an object so we use emotion to grasp other people’s minds.  It lets us reach out and affect behavior; we read it in others to intuit their motives.  It’s absolutely necessary for effective communication — without it any message comes across as stilted, creepy, inhuman.

But when we’ve moved beyond communication and into a state of nature where the only thing that will be measured is how physics affects physiology we need a cold, impartial focus because emotions are weightless — they don’t make you heavier, they don’t make you fall any faster in the gravity field, and they don’t make his anatomy any more vulnerable.

Which is to say that a 45-pound Olympic plate dropped awkwardly onto an ankle can break it — and that means you can, too, regardless of how you feel at the moment of impact.

The reverse is also true: His emotional state does nothing to protect him.  Personality is not a force field — who he his and what he knows do nothing to shield him from physics. Everyone is susceptible to injury, and those who claim to be immune believe that their ego makes a difference. If they can get you to believe it too, then they win.

While extreme emotion can drive intent to do work (you can “get mad” at a weight or kill someone in a “crime of passion”) it’s a rough, inefficient way to drive effort — like burning an explosive all at once instead of injecting refined fuel into the engine to make diamonds in the exhaust.  It’s the difference between a bomb and a rocket.

Intent and intensity ultimately come down to focus, the mind driving effort through the body to wield it as a tool.  But emotion can be decoupled from that — you don’t need to get angry at a stalled car to push it as hard as you can.

When thinking about how emotion can drive or hinder effort it’s important to differentiate between biological fear and psychological panic.  Fear is the body preparing itself for action — fight or flight — while panic is what happens when the brain goes looking for information on what’s unfolding in front of you… and comes back empty-handed.  For example, if you know how to swim and find yourself suddenly dunked into a drowning situation you will feel fear — the adrenal dump, heart racing, changes in perception — and then your brain will go looking for preprogrammed schema (“Is this similar to experiences I’ve had before, either live or in training?”) and you’ll start swimming like an adrenaline-pumped superhuman.  If, on the other hand, you don’t know how to swim, your brain comes back with OMIGOD WE’RE GONNA DIE and you start drowning like an adrenaline-pumped animal.

This idea that the brain can only go where it’s gone before is why training matters — you need to practice for the outcome you want so when you find yourself there, literally scared shitless, you sidestep useless panic with actionable information.  (Think about it this way:  you practice “swimming”, not “drowning”, right?  This is why we don’t do “self-defense”.  Defense is the drowning of violence.)

Ultimately, all useful interactions in violence come down to pure physics and physiology — and while how you feel about it can alter your ability to act earlier in the chain of events, and affect how efficiently you apply your physics to his physiology, emotion doesn’t change anything at the most fundamental level:  you weigh just as much, your skeleton is just as hard, his eye just as soft.  Feeling the sudden jolt of biological fear — which, if you’re sane and healthy, you will — can only stop you if decide it can.

I say choose resolve, choose training, cleave into biological fear and wreck him while you’re terrified.


   Chris Ranck-Buhr