Krav Maga – Characteristics and Principles


There are no rules in Krav Maga, anything goes.  There are no forms or katas to memorise or repeat.  Krav Maga is designed to protect the user; to finish a fight as quickly as possible.  Other characteristics include striking before your opponent can; simultaneous defensive and offensive manoeuvres; aggression; responding to hostility with an unbroken stream of attacks/counter strikes, takedowns, and joint breaks.  Attacks are directed at the most vulnerable parts of the body.  Indeed, some techniques in Krav Maga are designed to even permanently injure or cause death to the opponent.  It is encouraged to target the body’s most vulnerable points (eyes, jaw, throat, groin, knee etc).  The aim of the game is to incapacitate your opponent as quickly as possible.   

In Krav Maga, there are no rules, no holds barred, anything goes. Valid targets include the eyes. (Relax you won’t be doing this in sparring practice!)

Training also covers situational awareness to anticipate threats before attacks occur.  Situational awareness while dealing with the hostilities looking for escape routes, further attackers, potential weapons to use etc.  Krav Maga training tries to create situations relevant to a real-life street attack to prepare for ‘unfair’ encounters on the street, being outnumbered, attacked by weapons or fighting from a disadvantage (on the ground etc).  Ultimately practitioners are taught to defeat threats and escape harm by any means necessary. A rigorous training regime drills into them never to give up and to keep fighting no matter what the odds.

Being able to defend yourself from any position is a key element in Krav Maga training.

Despite its brutal-sounding style, much of Krav Maga’s mindset is to avoid combat altogether if possible.  Escaping a situation before it can escalate or at the first opportunity; using verbal prompts to stop fights and even walking away from a situation. Discretion is the better part of valour to the Kravist (Krav Maga practitioner).  They will fight when it is the last possible option and a physical attack is inevitable.

For the military, it became clear that the Israeli soldier’s needs were different from those needed by classical martial artists.  Consequently, Krav Maga incorporated new and relevant techniques such as defence against pistols, guns and hand grenades.


In Krav Maga, a heightened awareness is always the first line of defence. This translates as being present (particularly whilst on the streets/unfamiliar territory).  In modern society, many become victims of robbery simply because they are distracted (on their phones/headphones).  Since they are not observing where they are, and for threats of danger.  Krav Maga tries to instil practitioners to maintain a higher level of observation. Strive to be in the present moment, rather than constantly distracted by the latest tech.



This awareness continues even in the possible outcome of you getting into an actual fight.  Considering your environment, how can you take advantage of it? Possible escape routes. Obstacles to your escape routes, does your attacker have backup? Are there any weapons available to use? A kravist will always be considering these things in any environment.

Once a threat is identified, the primary goal in Krav Maga is to neutralise it as quickly as possible. Since the aim is to dominate and incapacitate the attacker as soon as possible, Krav Maga advocates using any and all means to achieve this**.  Ultimately in a life-or-death situation, you have to use all means at your disposal to save your own life. The rule book is out the window.

** In many Krav Maga schools they will advise you to keep self-defence within the realms of the law i.e. ‘to use reasonable force with minimum restraint’.  However, they also put it to you that in a life or death situation you have to make the call on whether to do what it takes to leave the fight alive.

As any of us who have been in street fights will appreciate, encounters are often sudden, the attacks come fast and in flurries.  You will have to defend yourself on the spot, and you will not be able to start over if you get the technique wrong.  There often are no warnings or no time to prepare.

One of the problems with the translation from martial arts schools to the streets is the lack of realism.  In the class, someone will attack, the defender will block and then counter-strike.  If only attackers on the streets were that courteous, to wait for you to counter.   Another issue with this is that the attacker already has you on the back foot, they have the advantage.  The effort you have put into defending an attack allows your aggressor to consider their next move.

To level the playing field and put you in an offensive position, Krav Maga emphasises combining defensive and offensive movements.  You block a strike and at the same time will lash out at a vulnerable exposed part of your opponent’s body. 



This flips the script and puts your attacker on the back foot.  It enables you to go on the attack instead of having to deal with further attacks. The objective here is to disrupt the attack and simultaneously counterattack. For example, if an attacker throws a punch at you, intercept the blow with a block, whilst simultaneously counterattacking at the eyes, groin, or throat.

This is especially important when you’re using an empty hand defence against a weapon such as a knife. Merely trying to block the blade without disrupting the attacker’s flow, means he can continue delivering deadly cuts.

Related to the principles of simultaneous defence and attack is Retzev, a Hebrew word for ‘continuous motion.’ Retzev can be described as an extreme but controlled flow of high aggression. The aim of this is to neutralise the aggressor with a chained flow of defensive and offensive moves. The idea is to give the aggressor no time to respond to your attacks and counterattacks (since they are made simultaneously). The aggressor attacks and you defend and counter at the same time. The gained advantage is then capitalised on with further vicious strikes.  This continues until the attacker is no longer a threat or is incapacitated enough to allow an escape from the situation.



Retzev is instinctual so does not rely on a pre-set routine. A Kravist is required to be creative and strikes in vulnerable areas that present themselves.  A well-trained practitioner of Krav Maga will know how to instinctively react to any type of threat without hesitation.

Regardless of how or where the attack takes place, the Krav mindset is to turn that attack around. Whether you are fighting at close quarters, on the floor, outnumbered or attacked with a weapon the Krav mindset allows you to think creatively, on the spot.  The response is violent and intelligent, using your body’s natural movements and your opponent’s weaknesses.

A well-known principle of Krav Maga is its emphasis on attacking vulnerable soft tissue and pressure points. Many counter attacks involve eye gouging, groin attacks, and strikes to the throat. Although perceived by some martial arts purists as ‘unsporting’ that’s exactly what it’s meant to be!  An attacker is not considering your well-being, they don’t care whether you make it home or see your family again.  And they will certainly not be following the rules.  It is more likely they will be using every advantage available to defeat you, using weapons, sudden and violent attacks, and multiple opponents. 



To this end, Krav Maga encourages and prepares its fighters to take every little advantage they can get, to exploit weak areas. 

Defensively, Krav Maga enables its fighters to consider protecting their own vulnerable areas.  Good use of stance allows the fighters to avoid the groin.  They keep their chin down and jaw clenched to absorb knockout punches.  And they protect their eyes with their guard up. 

In addition to striking attacks, Krav Maga also utilises subduing techniques in order to de-escalate a violent confrontation. Perhaps the confrontation is not so serious as it requires complete incapacitation of your aggressor. Joint locks and various grabs are used to exert control over your attacker and put you in a position to end the threat. Breakaway techniques are taught, along with de-escalation techniques (walking away with hands raised).

A good self-defence system must look for reliable and simple solutions to solve a variety of problems. Self-defence instructors don’t have time to teach numerous options and it’s highly unlikely that the majority of us could learn them anyway.   More importantly, during the stress of a violent encounter, you have no time to sort through numerous options to find the appropriate response. Research shows that even when the average person is limited to only two options, their reaction time slows dramatically.  Therefore, the more techniques we know the slower our response time can be.



There aren’t katas or patterns in Krav Maga. Just strikes, holds, and blocks. Krav Maga was designed so that it could be put to use as soon as possible.  In Krav Maga, it is preferable to learn common principles that apply to a variety of situations. Effective techniques will then work despite minor variations.  Krav Maga teaches that techniques based on the body’s natural movements are easier to learn and remember under stress.  Knife and punch defences are patterned on your natural tendency to send your hands to the point of perceived danger or pain.  Designing techniques according to such natural reactions reduces training time.  It also better prepares you to confront the stress of a violent encounter.



Another consideration of Krav Maga is employing techniques that anyone can use. Self-defence techniques should also be adaptable enough to adjust to the reality of our physiques.  Movements that require extreme flexibility and physical conditioning are fine for professional martial artists but impractical for the average person. For example, not all of us can pull off kicks higher than the waistline. The average woman’s build is generally slighter than that of a man so men generally have the advantage when it comes to grappling.

(Left) Targeting vulnerable areas, in this case the knee joint. (Right) Turning the tables, becoming the attacker.

Krav Magas’s moves are energy efficient and accessible to the majority of people. I have in my time witnessed a wheelchair user Kravist. This chap had experienced abuse in the past and had decided he wanted to be able to defend himself if threatened.  Although he did not have the use of his legs, he had compensated by developing tremendous upper body strength.  He was literally able to throw himself out of his chair onto an attacker and smother them with rapid blows and chokeholds.  During my time training with Kravists I trained with many different sizes and type of people.  From highly aggressive petite women (that could bring you to the floor in an instant) to overweight guys who learned to use their weight to their advantage. The point here is that anyone can utilise Krav Maga techniques regardless of ability, size or sex.

Reality-based training methods are the only way to build good fighters and prepare people for the street.  In Krav Maga, you must learn to instantly go from a passive state to an aggressive state at any time.  This means learning to push forward despite stress, fatigue or injury.  Krav Maga has many drills that bring out controlled aggression and push you beyond the point of exhaustion, all while maintaining a safe training environment.  In even the simplest versions of these drills, you learn to continue punching, kicking or responding to an attack despite muscle fatigue and shortness of breath.  


Krav Maga episode from US TV show ‘Fight Quest’.


An example of this type of training was demonstrated on the US TV show ‘Fight Quest’. The presenters trained with Krav Maga experts for weeks and then had to undergo an endurance trial at the end of it.  This trial involved them having to defend themselves against 10 consecutive opponents for 15 seconds each.  The 15 seconds involved ‘all out’ attacks with no rests or stoppages. 15 seconds doesn’t sound like much but when you give everything you have it is utterly exhausting.

Krav maga training can be very intense (depending on which school you train at).  Most aim to make training as real as (safely) possible. With any practice at more advanced levels, you can expect ‘attackers’ blows to be at least half power.  There are no kid gloves at this stage.  In practice at most levels, a protective helmet, gloves, and other protective gear are used when practising this way. The way you practice is the way you will perform. The aim is to build full-force muscle memory reactions into all of your defences and attacks.

A very important principle in Krav Maga is environment and training from positions of disadvantage.  Techniques and responses should be determined by the situation and not by preferences. Kravists train to become accustomed to training from uncomfortable positions.  For example when they are off balance, or their movement is restricted.  Other examples might be escaping a tight choke grip or being attacked by weapons. 



Some Kravists are also taught to fight blindfolded or disorientated to get them used to defending in those states. Good techniques and training methods must allow for limitations created by the attack or the environment.  If you are slammed against a wall or into a corner, you should be able to defend yourself even with those restrictions.  To train realistically you must let yourself be taken completely off-guard, and then respond to the situation when you are late. 



If you can defend yourself from the worst possible situation, you will know you can defend yourself from better positions.  However, if you train merely from stable, comfortable positions, you may be surprised on the street and feel unable to perform against a sudden attack that is frightening and unfamiliar.  Training this way allows us to evaluate how good a technique would work in certain situations both advantageous and disadvantageous. For example, if you can’t use your legs or arms, or you find yourself on the ground.

As well as using and defending against traditional weapons (knives, bats, firearms etc), there is much weapon improvisation encouraged in Krav Maga.  Krav Maga also teaches its practitioners to improvise and use any object at their disposal as a weapon. Keys, pens, belts, fire extinguishers, glasses, umbrellas, bags and chairs can all be incorporated into Krav Maga techniques.  If your life is threatened, you are encouraged to use anything and everything at your disposal to make yourself safe.  Almost every environment offers something that can be turned into a shield, a weapon or both.

This may sound more like common sense than an actual principle.  Give your opponent credit.  It should be noted that the average person you face will be able to take more than a few blows.  If their adrenaline is flowing they will come right back at you with a response.  Therefore to guarantee your safety, Krav Maga emphasises executing multiple counterattacksContinue the attack until your opponent is overcome or an opportunity to escape presents itself.

This is possibly the prime directive in Krav Maga. That you should seek to make yourself as safe as possible as quickly as possible.  Much of this is directed at the Kravist, to read the situation and make a quick decision to commit or disengage.  Sometimes the required response means a highly aggressive pre-emptive attack. Charging in and finishing an opponent with elbows, knees, head butts, bites and scratches. 



Sometimes it means running away at the first opportunity.  Most Kravists are aware that no matter how competent their skills are that they are not invincible. Any physical or technical advantages they have can be quickly neutralised in an aggressive street encounter.  Weapons could appear, reinforcements could arrive, and the danger level can escalate very quickly.  Even if you study a tested highly effective system, you should have no interest in testing yourself against an aggressor. 



Your prime interest should always be in getting home safe to see your loved ones.  If you have avoided the fight you have followed the primary rule.  If you have to deliver a kick to the balls, strike to the throat, stun an opponent and then get out of there, you have still followed that basic rule.  However, if there is no option but to plunge in to protect yourself and/or others then you do it with an aggressive spirit, sound tactics and every weapon at your disposal. This is pretty much the spirit of Krav Maga.

(Left) Developing physical and mental toughness. (Right) Utilizing everything around you to defend against attacks.

Summary of principles

  • Being aware of your surroundings. Being present in the moment.
  • Simultaneous defence and attack.
  • Developing physical aggression (not to be confused with emotional aggression or anger), with the view that physical aggression is the most important component in a fight.
  • Continuing to strike the opponent until they are completely incapacitated.
  • Attacking preemptively or counterattacking as soon as possible.
  • Weapons use. Using any objects at hand that could be used to hit an opponent.
  • Targeting attacks to the body’s most vulnerable points, such as: the eyes, neck or throat, face, solar plexus, groin, ribs, knee, foot, fingers, liver, etc.
  • Using simple and easily repeatable strikes.
  • Natural movement. Recognizing the importance of and expanding on instinctive responses under stress.
  • Developing muscle memory for quick reaction in fight.
  • Maintaining awareness of surroundings while dealing with the threat in order to look for escape routes, further attackers, or objects that could be used to strike an opponent.

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