Many self defense systems teach that if you get knocked down to the ground you should get into a defensive position on your side. From there you should then lash out at your opponent with sidekicks to keep him away.
In this article and video I’ll show how staying on your side when you’re knocked down is mostly an outmoded technique and that there are much better options available to you.
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Many martial artists feel most comfortable on their feet. This is the range where they can punch, kick, elbow, knee and – if it all goes to hell – run away in.
I read this in books, was taught to do this in Kajukenbo class, and drilled it with training partners wearing shinguards. It seemed a reasonable thing to do, and it was a good technology for it’s time.
However people get knocked down, tripped, slipped or taken down to the ground all the time, so every standup martial artist needs to be able to survive on the bottom for long enough to get back to his feet (I’ve got 3 free PDFs on basic groundfighting that do a pretty good job of breaking this down for you).
Decades ago – before the popularisation of BJJ basically – the best strategy that most was available to most martial artists was to stay shelled up on your side and lash out with your sidekick.
But technologies evolve. New techniques and approaches get introduced. And lying on your side in a defensive position is no longer the best way to deal with having been knocked down to the ground.
Here’s a video I shot on the topic with a further breakdown below…
What’s Wrong with a Defensive Position on Your Side?
If you test the classic on-your-side defensive position against someone who is really trying to get past your legs and pound you then you’ll quickly find out that there are a few things wrong with it.
First of all, it’s very tiring
To keep your opponent away you need to kick him. But if you’re on your side you can only kick with one leg – your top leg. This makes your attack predictable, your opponent knows where the attack is coming from, but it’s also incredibly tiring to kick, kick, kick with one leg.
Soon your leg will be exhausted, and if you just switch from side to side then both your legs will be exhausted.
Also the ground sidekick isn’t nearly as powerful as you think.
The sidekick can be a very powerful weapon, but only when you’re standing and can use footwork and bodyweight to put some oompf behind the kick.
When I drill this with people the most convincing proof I can offer is to circle them and let them kick my bare, unprotected shins. So long as I keep my lead knee bent (so it can’t get hyperextended) I find that they get tired long before my shin snaps in half. Yes, it’s a little bit painful (especially since I don’t condition my shins with rattan sticks Thai-style anymore), but in a real fight my adrenaline would be more than enough to allow me to totally ignore the pain from these kicks to the shin.
Furthermore in the ground sidekick position it’s hard to pivot fast enough to stay lined up with your opponent. And if he circles behind you, past your legs, then you’re really screwed.
Finally in this position your legs can’t help each other. If your opponent grabs your foot, controls your pant leg, or forces your knees together, then your bottom leg isn’t really in a position to kick him somewhere else, strip the grip, or apply a sweep.
It’s worth mentioning that this strategy of lying on the side and kicking with the top leg has been tried in the UFC by Fred Ettish (UFC 2 in Denver Colorado).
Fred Ettish was a 180 lb karateka brought into UFC 2 at the last minute as an alternate when another fighter dropped out. His sidekicks and round kicks from the ground weren’t enough to to protect him when he got knocked to the ground by 210 lb Johnny Rhodes, and he ended up taking an absolute beating.
Now it MUST be pointed out that this was back in the era when fighters really didn’t know if they would live or die if they entered the octagon. This was the bleeding edge of sport at the time. Fred Ettish proved that he as as brave as brave could be by agreeing to fight.
When it came to surviving on the ground long enough to try and get back to his feet Fred Ettish was using the best technology he had. But it wasn’t enough.
In the decades of stylistic mix-and-matching in MMA events all over the globe a better way of doing things quickly became established.
What’s a Better Alternative?
OK, let’s make something clear…
If you’re in a real fight (or an MMA match) I’M NOT ADVOCATING BEING ON THE BOTTOM AND LET YOUR OPPONENT KICK YOU!!!
That’s a really bad idea. If you have to be on the ground then you want to get on top and stay on top.
But let’s say you’ve been knocked down by a punch, tripped over a curb, or slipped on some ice. Now you’re on the bottom. What do you do?
Your best strategy has been refined in the Octagon of the UFC and in the countless rings and cages of other MMA organisations.
- If your opponent is far enough away to stand up safely, then get back to your feet while in good base. From here you can punch, kick, get a weapon, go for the clinch, run away, etc.
- If your opponent is at kicking range then stay flat on your back, chamber both legs, kick him until he backs up, and only then stand up.
- If your opponent drives in regardless then tie him up with one of the forms of guard that works well in self defense (those covered in The Self Defense Guard, for example) and work for the sweep, submission, or standup.
If you’re flat on your back with both legs chambered then you can kick powerfully with the heel of either leg, targeting the shin, knee, gut, face, and groin (in a real fight).
The heel stomp is using the leg press motion with the hardest part of the foot, so it can do some real damage when it lands.
(At 1:50 in the video close to the top of this page I show a very cool trick to land a heel kick to the face that I learned from Erik Paulson, so make sure to check that out).
You can kick a wider variety of targets with two different weapons, so it’s much harder for your opponent to anticipate your attack.
In this position your legs are also free to help and reinforce each other. If your opponent grabs one of your ankles, for example, then you can kick or strip his grip off your leg using your other foot.
It’s also much easier to use the standard BJJ guard retention and leg pummelling movements to stop the other guy from running past your legs if you’re lined up with him.
I like to think about this position like a World War 2 anti-aircraft machine gun. Two different weapons, mounted together on a pivoting base, ready to shoot down threats in the air above…
If you want to see some knockout kicks delivered from the recumbent guard position then check out this video. Most of the successful kicks are heel stomps with a few axe kicks and round kicks mixed in for good measure (and absolutely zero side kicks).
But What About Getting Kicked in the Groin?
If you go through the comments in the video at the top of this post on Youtube itself (click here for that) then you’ll see no end of armchair martial arts experts saying that the groin is vulnerable in this position.
But this misses the critical point that your position needs to be adaptive and respond to incoming threats.
Look, there is no 100% safe position in fighting. Let’s take boxing as an example…
No matter how you hold your hands, no matter how you drop your chin, there is ALWAYS an opening somewhere.
If you could enter the ring against Mike Tyson and stop time, freezing him in place, then there’s a 1000% chance that you could find a vulnerable point somewhere on his body to land your own shot.
But fighting isn’t like that. Stance is fluid in boxing, adapting to the opponent’s attacks and your own goals.
The ground is like that too…
If you just lie flat on your back and let your opponent punt you in the balls then you’re doing guard badly.
Your legs and feet are active participants in your guard. That’s why they’re forever out there, kicking shins, picking off shots, blocking his kicks, hooking his legs to interfere with your movement.
The benefits you get from having both legs up and ready to go like that WW2 anti-aircraft gun far outweigh any downside of your groin being slightly exposed.
Go Test It For Yourself
There’s a ton of data from MMA on my side. And I’ve tested it extensively enough to know that if I had to face someone looking down on me in anger that there’s zero chance I would be spending significant amounts of time on my side.
But I could still be wrong. Which is why I encourage you to go test it for yourself.
Wear a cup and a mouthguard. Find a few willing partners with shinguards (and preferably a little bit of grappling training). Then lie down on the floor, set a timer, and have them try to pass your guard for a full minute.
You’re allowed to kick them in the legs if they’re wearing shinguards, or just push them away with a more controlled movement if you’re going without extra protection.
If they pass the guard and pin you for 3 seconds then stop, reset on the feet, and continue.
Then switch roles and do unto others as they have done unto you.
I’m very interested in hearing about what you find out from this exercise!
Want More Opinionated Martial Arts Advice?
You can’t talk about defending yourself without at least addressing groundfighting.
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- The 5 Most Important Self Defense Lessons from Jiu-Jitsu
- A Roadmap for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- The Ground Strike Defense Book.
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