What Every Karate-ka Should Know About Practical Ground Fighting

By Jesse | 16 Comments

“A stranded goldfish.”

That’s how I’d describe most Karate people when they get thrown to the ground.

(I know, because I used to be one of them.)

Why?

Because sadly, many Karate schools don’t teach reality-based self-defense tactics.

And reality, by its pure definition, will always involve an element of ground fighting; whether it’s you lying on the ground, or your opponent.

Hence, if you don’t know the very basics of ne-waza (ground techniques), you’ll never be fully capable of handling the inherently unpredictable nature of a physical encounter – along with the unique demands it places on you in terms of physical stress, tactical skills and situational awareness.

In other words, the ground is a dark and evil place.

So don’t make the mistake of not practicing for it.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) legend Rickson Gracie probably said it the best:

 “I am a shark, the ground is my ocean and most people can’t even swim.” – Rickson Gracie.

Amen.

Truth be told, I’m not an expert at ground fighting. I am neither a grappling wizard nor a submission artist. In fact, my first full-contact fight was actually lost on the ground, due to a basic armbar setup which I had never encountered before.

But I can’t lie:

I still secretly giggle when I see the fear in the eyes of visiting Karate-ka to our dojo, as they are thrown to the ground and outwrestled without having any experience in the realm of ground-based fighting.

The reaction is always one of the following:

  • Sprawl ‘n brawl… (panic)
  • …or ground ‘n pound (anger).
  • But usually they just lay ‘n pray (fear).

Recognize yourself?

I hope not.

But if you do, and if you want to know how to improve your understanding of ne-waza, this will be the perfect article for you. And hey, it doesn’t even matter if you consider Karate a sport or martial art.

When I recently asked Ádám Kovács, Hungarian/World/European kumite medalist and World Games Champion, what his blue belt in BJJ meant to his Karate fighting, he told me: “It definity changed my view of combat.”

So read this article closely, folks.

Although I’ve previously written a couple of articles on the topic (including The Most Effective Submission Escape Ever and How to Defend Against the Rear Naked Choke (RNC)) I’ve never gone in-depth on what knowledge you really need in order to understand the shark-infested waters of grappling.

Sensei Lori O’Connell

So, today I’ve invited my colleague Lori O’Connell, Canada-based chief instructor in jiu-jitsu, to talk a little bit about her latest work involving the use of ground techniques for civil self-defense.

Sensei Lori’s knowledge, recently published in a combined book/DVD combo entitled When the Fight Goes to the Ground, draws upon her 17 years of experience as a teacher in the martial arts, including living in Japan (Iwaki) for 3 years and training both BJJ, MMA, Western Boxing, Shotokan Karate, Aikido, Hapkido, Tai Chi, Taekwondo, FMA (Filipino Martial Arts), fencing and more. She has also been featured in several instructional videos, and is currently teaching full-time at Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu Dojo which she’s been running for over 7 years in Vancouver.

She’s also an actor, social media expert and stunt performer.

(Pretty impressive, huh!)

So let’s chat with sensei Lori about what every Karate Nerd™ should know about fighting on the ground, shall we?

Here we go:

Jesse (J): First of all, let’s begin with the obvious background question: How and why did you become interested in ground fighting?

Lori O’Connell (L): “As the popularity of BJJ and MMA grew over my martial arts career, I recognized an increased need to develop ground defense tactics to a higher level to be able to handle more skilled attackers, should the occasion arise. We have always had a ground defense curriculum in our style, but at the time, we were more focused on traditional “set defenses” to “set attacks” on the ground. We needed a develop our ground defense system further to incorporate more live training so students could be more adaptive to cope with the wide variety of circumstances one can face on the ground, so they can more effectively get back to their feet and escape.”

J: Makes perfect sense. With that being said, do you think more should people be interested in ground-based martial arts?

L: “Well, it’s important to make a distinction here: Is your focus on submission grappling on the ground for sport, or being able to get out of a ground-based attack and get back to your feet in the most efficient and effective way possible?

On the street, the ground is a dangerous place to be. Size and strength advantages are harder to deal with. You face the possibility of environmental hazards, like rocks, broken glass, or even the ground itself. You’re also more exposed to any communicable diseases your attacker may have. And you’re more at risk in multiple attacker scenarios or when edged weapons come into play. When it comes to self-defense, avoiding the ground is sensible, especially for more traditional striking martial arts in which the majority if not all techniques are taught from a standing position. But you may not always have the choice. That’s why it’s a good idea for anyone interested in self-defense to learn some form of ground combat.”

J: Exactly. But unless somebody has already experienced the humiliation of feeling like a stranded goldfish, they don’t really understand what impact even a week of basic Jiu-jitsu training might have! So, what are some common misconceptions about ground fighting that you’ve encountered?

L: “First of all, since most people refer to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) simply as “Jiu-jitsu”, the vast majority of people think that all Jiu-jitsu is about is submission grappling in a competitive context. That’s wrong. Most of the Japanese forms of Jiu-jitsu focus more on self-defense applications; some more traditional to the forms based on what was taught to samurai in medieval Japan, but some more updated for use in a modern context. I feel it’s important to make this distinction so people understand that not all Jiu-jitsu is the same.

Secondly, because most people equate ground fighting with submission grappling they think that’s it’s all about rolling around on the ground to either get a submission by way of joint lock or choke, or by gaining and maintaining dominant positioning. Many traditional striking martial arts consider this form of ground fighting to have impracticalities in a self-defense context, and this is true, if one limits their perspective of ground combat to what you see in a competition context.”

J: So true!

L: “Lastly, many people who primarily focus their training on ground fighting train under the assumption that “90% of fights end up on the ground” so if you can defend yourself on the ground, you’re in a good position. This is a widely touted “statistic” that I debunk in my new book. It’s not to say that many fights don’t go to the ground, but it’s not as many as people think. The few law enforcement studies’ statistics that are out there addressing this situation indicate that it’s considerably less than that.

Another issue is that if one is only training ground combat in a sport-oriented context, one is leaving out a wide variety of tools that can be used to enhance their ability to get out of a ground-based attack as quickly as possible.”

Never count on people to help you, even if you are losing.

J: Obviously, self-defense tactics are different for law enforcement, and those statistics (or techniques) don’t always apply to civilians. Do you think there should be a difference depending on age or gender though? Why?

L: “All ground defense systems consist of common techniques that apply to all people, but also variations that are necessary depending on one’s personal context.

No matter what age, gender, size, etc, you are, I personally teach students to create the opportunity to get back to their feet as quickly as possible. That is the goal. Men and younger people are more able to apply strength in defending themselves, and that’s not wrong if that’s what it takes in a real situation. But when I teach, I teach students under the assumption that they are more likely to have to defend against someone who has the size/strength advantage, so I place heavier emphasis on techniques that apply the most efficient use of body mechanics as possible, as well as attacks to vital targets. This makes it more adaptable to a variety of body types and sizes. But even with our system’s adaptiveness, each person may still have to further adapt their own approach in various situations, depending on their height, weight, reach, flexibility, speed, as well as those of their attacker’s.”

J: So, in your experience, what are the most common situations one might encounter in ground fighting? What should one learn first?

L: “I hesitate to say that any one position is more common than others as there a wide variety of variables and contexts that can change that situation. Are you a man or a woman? A law enforcement officer or a civilian? Are you facing a single attacker or multiple attackers? Is it sport context or self-defense context?

  • From a self-defense point of view, it’s a good idea to learn how to defend against a standing attacker from the ground, because if you get knocked down, you’ll probably be in that context first before any other ground-based attack.
  • Mounted attacks are also important to learn to defend against because they are used both by people with ground combat training and by the unskilled attacker. People intuitively recognize the positional advantage of being on top of a person like that, even without any knowledge or training in martial arts.

That being said, I wouldn’t limit ground defense training to those positions.”

J: Right. But let’s say somebody only has a limited time to practice ground techniques. If you could practice just 3 techniques for the rest of your life, what would those be?

L: “Those would have to be 1) Shrimping, 2) Bridging & Rolling, and 3) Body Shifting against a Standing Attacker. These three drills are diverse body movements that help you improve/maintain your body position so that you can better defend yourself and create the most opportunities for escape.

The descriptions below are quoted directly from When the Fight Goes to the Ground (Chapter 3: Primary Tools for Ground Defense – Body Shifting & Control):

Shrimping:

Shrimping is an important tool for ground defense. It can be used to disrupt the balance of a mounted attacker by turning on to side of your hips, which in turn creates an opening for escape or space with which to improve your defensive position. It can also be used simply to reposition your body into a more defensive position.

  1. Start on your back with your legs bent and your hands up.
  2. Pushing into the ground with the balls of your feet, lift your hips up slightly.
  3. While continuing to push with your feet, turn your body over on to its side thrusting your hips back as you push your hands toward your feet as though pushing on your attacker for leverage.
  4. Repeat on the other side.

Bridging & Rolling:

Bridging and rolling is an important tool for when an attacker is mounted on the front of your body in some way. The goal is to aggressively upset the balance of the attacker so that they have to redistribute their weight in order to stay on top. This opens up greater opportunities to strike and/or escape the mount and other positions.

  1. Start on your back with your legs bent and your hands up.
  2. Pushing into the ground with the balls of your feet, bridge your hips up explosively leaning on to your left shoulder.
  3. Pass your left leg behind the right and roll over into a plank position with the body straight supported by your forearms and the balls of your feet.
  4. To return to your starting position, pass your left arm behind your right putting your weight down on to your left shoulder on the ground.
  5. Pass your left leg behind your right, turning your body back up into the bridged position. Lower your hips to reset.
  6. Repeat on the right.

Body Shifting against a Standing Attacker:

This type of body shifting is for use when you’re down on the ground and your attacker is standing. When you’re in this position, your legs offer you the strongest tools for self-protection. Therefore, the greatest threat to you in this position is if the attacker is able to get around your legs, whether it’s so they kick your head or get on top of you. The goal of this body shifting technique is to keep this from happening.

  1. When your attacker is facing you directly, stay flat on your back facing them with your legs directly between you. Keep both legs bent to make it harder for him to determine your reach.
  2. If the attacker tries to move past your legs, lift your hips and reposition your body to maintain your original position.
  3. If the attacker tries to move more quickly around your legs, shift your weight on to your side. To keep your legs between you and your attacker, lift your body to minimize drag and walk with your legs, keeping your legs uncrossed. This keeps the attacker from taking control of your legs by pinning them together.
  4. If an attacker changes direction suddenly, they may be able get past your legs on the other side. To prevent this, push off the ground using your elbow and aggressively roll your body to your other side.

No ground defense system is complete without attacks to vital targets (i.e. eyes, nose, groin, ribs, etc), but I feel that this part of the strategy is more intuitive.

The body shifting movements described above are something you have to teach your body to do. Just training them by themselves is only a start though. One should also train applying them within the context of an attack, using them to either displace your attacker’s body or your own body in ways that give you access to better targets or in ways that allow you an opportunity to get away from the attacker and back on your feet.”

J: That last point bears repeating: Getting up is v-i-t-a-l to your survival. What are some more important points to keep in mind if I’m on the ground and my opponent is still standing?

L: “Well, in addition to keeping your legs between you and your attacker (as described above), you should be ready to use your legs to attack your attacker. The most accessible targets are usually the knees and shins. If you manage to land a good kick causing the attacker to stumble or pause, take the opportunity to get back to your feet as quickly as possible. The third most important thing is to have your arms ready to block kicks to your head if the attacker manages to get around your legs. After a well-timed block, try to wrap your attacker’s legs with your arms (and legs if possible) to take out their base then roll in the direction the attacker’s balance is weakest.”

J: Great! These exercises are quick and easy for any Karate-ka to incorporate in their training. But, just to avoid potential pitfalls, could you share the top 3 mistakes you see beginners make when they first learn ground fighting?

See those scary people in the background? They are the reason you want to get up as soon as humanly possible.

L: “The biggest mistake beginners make at first is being tense and using too much strength. They intuitively try to fight back explosively using their strength, and if they’re on the underside of a dominant position, they tire themselves really quickly. Being tense also makes it easier for an attacker to sense your movements, allowing them to more easily counter them.

The second mistake is that they tunnel vision their approach. Beginners will learn a rehearsed defense against a rehearsed attack because this is the easiest way to learn, but if there is anything different about the attack that prevents them from doing their move effectively, they get stuck because they’re so focused on the one approach. I encourage students to adapt their movements and use different tools as situations necessitate, but it takes time to be able to make these adjustments intuitively on the fly.

The third mistake is more when the students has sport grappling experience without having ever trained their movements for self-defense specific scenarios. Often times these people fall back on what they know and try to apply submissions once they’ve improved their defensive position. That’s all well and good in a grappling tournament, but may have undesirable consequences if there is harmful debris on the ground, if the attacker has friends who join in and attack while you’re prone, or if the attacker decides to pull a knife.”

J: I agree 100%, Lori-sensei. You’ve provided my readers with great actionable content thus far, but it’s time to wrap up. Let’s end with this: How can a regular Karate enthusiast, without any significant ground-based experience, practice these principles to improve his/her chances of actually surviving the ground?

L: “There are a number of simple moves a person could learn with a willing partner(s), which can be applied and combined in a variety of ground defense contexts. Of course, I highly recommend finding a qualified instructor to at least introduce you to to overall concept of ground combat. But even if the only option you have in your area is a sport oriented submission grappling school, you can still learn a lot about the foundational movements then use additional sources, like my book/DVD, to learn to apply them in a self-defense oriented context.”

J: Thanks a lot Lori-sensei – good luck with teaching, training and spreading your awesome work to the rest of the martial arts community! You are a great source of inspiration, and I wish you the best of luck with your new book.

L: “Thanks for having me Jesse-san! I appreciate the support, your website is great!”

About the author

Jesse Enkamp is a Karate Nerd™, #1 Amazon best-selling author, national team athlete and founder of Seishin - the world's first crowdfunded & crowdsourced gi. He thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

16 Comments

  1. Rae Leggett

    August 6, 2013 at 2:59 am

    Notably, there several places in kata where you “go to the ground” (Heian Godan, Kanku Dai, Unsu, probably more), and then get right back up, so it was a part of self defense training in karate.

  2. Ian

    August 6, 2013 at 4:53 am

    So … have a plan, practice a lot, and know the differences between the complimentary-but-different “sport” and “self-defence” aspects …

    … golly, how will karate geeks ever wrap their heads around this ground-fighting thing?

    • John

      August 6, 2013 at 7:58 am

      Sounds like you’re one who won’t!

      • Mark A

        August 6, 2013 at 9:32 pm

        John,

        I think one of us needs to recalibrate our sarcasm meters. Because mine reads that Ian was being facetious. And, that he was providing an example of how the grappling approach is no different than the karate approach. :)

  3. Temu

    August 6, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Include the Technical Standup in the ground skills to learn as a Karateka:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Thp7ipnjyTI

  4. Ando

    August 6, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Awesome times two! Everyone should take heed.

  5. Mark A

    August 6, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    I finally committed to learning grappling arts about 4 years ago. Like many karate dojos, ne-waza, was virtually non existent. So, I sought elsewhere to round out my skillset. Making me far from an expert either. That said, here is my take --

    like with your karate, the focus of your self defense grappling tactics should not be for use against other skilled practitioners. Our venerable host Jesse, often rails against bunkai that involves doing exactly that.

    The biggest benefit of the sport school will be that it has players of every skill level. And you will spar hard EVERY CLASS. Something I have not experienced with Japanese JJ, Aikido, and a number of other dojos that have jiu jitsu in the name of the system. I found these styles to be too static and compliant. Get them on the mat, (Those that will actually mix it up with you. Which is far too few IME) and they struggle to make anything work because they do not “battle test” it nearly enough.

    I know that was a sweeping blanket statement, and does not cover all dojos under a particular umbrella. I can only comment on my own experiences though.

    The sport schools have been the hardest, and most practical training I have done. If you can --

    Takedown, and defend and counter the takedown

    sweep

    escape

    control

    lockdown

    submit

    the big, strong, spazz of a meathead that recently joined your sport school, you are better prepared than any of those places I named will make you.

    There are also a number of systems that supplement the sport aspect. The most popular being Gracie Combatives. It offers a very good approach to self defense grappling. I suggest you combine one of these systems (I am unfamiliar with Lori Sensei’s stuff yet. Her program is probably quite excellent. And deserves consideration as the supplemental) with training in a academy with a competitive atmosphere. You will get functional skills for all grappling situations. Because if you can consistently make techniques work against the white belt powerlifters and bodybuilders going full out and trying to overwhelm you with size and strength, it is functional.

    I can only speak for myself, but I would rather as much of the “baptism by fire” as possible, take place in training.

    In the end: The self defense focused training is essential. But I think the hard sparring with many different skill levels you get from the sport focused school is equally essential, or even more so.

    .

    • Branco

      August 13, 2013 at 1:55 am

      I totally agree with the “full force” sparring. In Brazil, the BJJ sparring is for real since the beginning and you’ll experience training with people that have no idea what to do on the ground, and people that will easily submit you. And let me say that it will take some time to really take someone to a submission.
      This kind of sparring I had only in BJJ, and missed it on Aikido, boxe and now Karatê. But, I understand that you can´t have these kind of sparring on striking martial arts and Aikido, otherwise your teeth and joints would be on real danger… lol

      AND, there´s the “other side of the coin”: If one do just BJJ and no striking ever, the only chance he has is to take the fight to the ground. In this case, on a stand up fight, he would be the “stranded goldfish”. (Recently there was a case like that on brazilian news when a MMA fighter got into a fight, an BJJ specialist, and got his ass kicked real hard from some commom guys -- yes, some! lol).

  6. Cecil Ryu Martial Arts

    August 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Studying Judo would be a good idea if you want to learn ne-waza. And, Judo will be a great way to get good ideas for bunkai (Hae Sul for Taekwondo people) and ending throws for one-step sparring.

  7. Branco

    August 12, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Great article Jesse-san!

    I have some BJJ background, not a black belt, but enough to know that you really don´t wanna be on the ground for too long with these guys in a one-one fight, and HAVE to avoid the ground on a street situation unless you want to have your head kicked…
    I think a great example would be Lyoto Machida.
    Although he is a BJJ black belt, he is first a Karate-ka (Shotokan -- low stance -- for those who thing shotokan would not be suitable on real situations -- hehe!). When put to the ground (not an easy task, btw) he can defend himself pretty well, but take the very first opportunity to get on his feet. Quickly!

  8. Glenn

    August 18, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Good article -- I think as a (Kempo) Karateka who has always had some element of ground self defense incorporated into training it has been important to develop ongoing grappling skills against the BJJ style sports people purely due to the vast increases in people now grappling. Everyone (or I should say a greater percentage) of the population now grapple or have some exposure or familiarity with takedowns and ground and pound thanks to MMA/UFC exposure. Developing skills to be a good spoiler of BJJ skills is essential and when combined with ‘dirty tactics’ and effective striking (ie Karate stuff) makes for a good base self defense wise. Also the need to develop the ability to get up and away forms an essential element of that skill set.

  9. Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo

    August 18, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    AMEN.

  10. Marcelo Luna

    September 26, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    Hello Jesse san! Not suffer this problem because I am a nerd Brazilian karate! ^ ^
    Here, Martial artists of almost all types know at least the basics of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. We know for two reasons:

    First pq is easy access. In every corner u find a BJJ school (unlike a good karate dojo), and consequently, you’ll have a friend who trains BJJ.

    And second, during the 90s, BJJ practitioners have become very violent, even receiving the nickname “Pit boys”. So if we wanted other martial arts at least survive a clash against these pit boys, would have to understand a little newaza.

    Thanks for the great work you do with your blog, and sorry the possible errors, since I’m using Google translator. : D

    OSU!

  11. Jim

    February 14, 2014 at 8:30 am

    Thanks for another great article Jesse-san, and thank you for your valuable contribution Lori-san! I ran across this article in Iain Abernethy’s weekly newsletter this week, and it was a great surprise. I recently purchased Lori-san’s book/DVD, and have deemed it to be a very valuable resource for a karate nerd dojo instructor (ahem… me) who has no ground element in his curriculum. As it so happens, I’m in the middle of adding some of Lori-san’s great advise to my syllabus. Good stuff!

    Lori-san, I have a dojo in the Seattle area, and the next time I make it up to Vancouver, I’d be honored to be able and stop in to say hi. Thanks again.

  12. Rodney

    February 24, 2014 at 2:41 am

    Sprawl and brawl is one of the most effective ways to avoid being taken down by a football player, wrestler, or mma fan. Why would you discount that? It’s basically a way to continue using your striking skills. Ground & pound also has its uses. If you want reality, that’s where it’s at. Sprawling is the most important technique a karateka could use against a grappler. Otherwise, this is a good article. I encourage any karateka to learn some bjj or judo with newaza. That said, if you’re an older practicioner with frail bones, you may want to look into learning online or in private lessons with a skilled teacher. I’m young and healthy, but I tore cartilage in my sternum my first week of bjj from guys laying on me (I know that sounds awkward lol).

  13. keith Le Bihan

    July 24, 2014 at 12:48 am

    I practiced wrestling as a kid moved on and did other arts but to this day the sprawl is one of the best techniques to learn and practice(and I teach it as a warm up) so I am very surprised at that comment. In the UK your attacker is most likely to be a young male under the influence of drink or drugs or both so his skill factor (if he had any would be zero.Too many martial artists get fixated on about being attacked by an expert; 99% of your attackers will be as described above; train for the 99% not for the 1%. Because if the 1% get hold of you; you are stuffed.

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