workout fitness health push up
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision for Gillette/AP Images)

By George Zener

The fight-or-flight response is “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.” Lots of people who are reading this article likely have plenty of training to ready themselves for a fight.

Many People of the Gun have spent hundreds of hours sending many thousands of rounds downrange. Many of us have practiced our draw until it is butter smooth. We have pored over scenarios and given careful thought to how we might react in a fight.

What most of us have not done, however, is to prepare ourselves for flight. How do we break contact and run away? How do we win in the face of brain-melting fear that arises from a sudden attack?

Before we begin, I have two disclaimers to share. The first is that this article is NOT for experienced martial artists, Navy SEALS, high speed low drag operators, or even LEOs. If you are one of those fine folks then you can spend the next few minutes flexing in front of a mirror. This advice is for ordinary people who, like me, want to be able survive an attack without the use of ballistics, if at all possible.

The second caveat is that you should see a doctor. The drills that I am going to recommend are pretty intense. If your heart isn’t up for this, you need to try something else that’s more appropriate for you.

Breaking Contact

People who want to steal your wallet, your girlfriend, or your life don’t generally announce themselves from a distance. If your situational awareness is switched off for whatever reason (as in buried in your phone) then attackers prefer to get up close and personal.

If you want to run or even draw your weapon, you’ll need to be able to break contact and get some separation. At that point, your adrenaline will spike and your brain will turn to mush. You’ll lose fine motor skill. That weekend self defense seminar that you took? Gone. The Jason Bourne-like elbow strikes you always imagined yourself throwing, but never quite had the time to learn? Good luck.

Unless you train regularly, your arsenal is going to be limited to some very basic actions. One of the most basic and instinctive is to push the threat away from you.

The only time that I have been attacked on the street was when I was out running in the early morning. I was in the UK so I had no weapons. Three youths stepped out of the shadows, blocked the sidewalk, and tried to grab me. I have had some martial arts training and still hit the heavy bag regularly.

However, the best that my fear-addled brain could come up with at the time was a hard stiff arm to the chest of the closest attacker. That was enough to break his grip and give me about two feet of space. I was able to generate enough power to do that because I still had forward momentum and because I do lots of push-ups.

The push up is one of the best upper body exercises you can do. There is a good reason that your old, polyester shorts-wearing football coach used to make you do so many of them. They simultaneously build both striking power and core stability. Do at least some push-ups daily (or, if you’re middle-aged and out of shape like me, start with every other day).

Set a goal number of total push ups and try to get there by the end of the day. Start at 50 and work your way up from there. You can do this during the course of a workout or bit by bit throughout the day.

Once you can do 25 in one set, substitute some clap (or plyometric) push ups. This is where you push off the ground with enough explosive power to allow you to clap your hands together and recover in time to prevent an embarrassing face plant.

 

Pro tip #1 – Do this on a mat or soft carpet the first few times.

Pro tip #2 – Wear your holster with an UNLOADED weapon. After you finish a set, spring up, draw, and dry fire (again, make sure your gun is clear and your muzzle is pointed in a safe direction). Over time, this will build a reservoir of strength that you can call on if needed.

Running for Your Life

In the story above, I didn’t stop with a strike to the chest of my attacker. I ran like a scared little girl. I had no weapons and, as I am not an action hero, stood no chance against three attackers. I would like to say that this reaction was the product of careful thought, scenario planning and a review of all available tactical options at the time. But if I said that, I would be a lying POS.

I ran because I was scared for my life. There were no other considered actions in those circumstances…only a reaction. Fortunately for me, I can run really fast so these guys didn’t catch me.

Even in middle age, you can train yourself to run fairly fast for a short amount of time. Try the following training program. All you need is a stopwatch and the great outdoors.

➢ Warm up and stretch thoroughly.
➢ Run like you are being chased for 30 seconds.
➢ Walk at an easy pace until your heart rate comes back down out of the stratosphere. Your walking time will be a function of your beginning fitness level. Start out with 60 seconds and see how it goes.
➢ Repeat until you are too tired to sprint anymore.

Stress Shooting

Running isn’t always an option. Maybe there’s nowhere to go. Maybe your family is with you. How do you fight effectively when adrenaline turns your mind into Jell-O and your hands into flippers? Practice, practice, practice.

The first step is to train regularly, which most readers of this blog already do (right?). Drawing your weapon, acquiring a sight picture, and putting rounds on your target needs to be instinctive. That comes with repetition.

However, an actual fight is nothing like a visit to the range. Try the following drill to simulate your body’s reaction to a stressful encounter.

➢ Do some arm circles to warm up your shoulders.
➢ Set your loaded gun on the shooting bench in front of you with the muzzle pointed down range.
➢ Drop down and do enough push ups to elevate your heart rate and make your shoulders burn with lactic acid (make sure the range safety officer knows what you’re doing).
➢ Spring up as fast as you can, snatch the gun off the bench, and try to put a fast double tap on target.

You will find that getting a good sight picture and a controlled trigger press when you’re breathing hard and your is heart pounding is very difficult. The first time I tried it I was so amped that I pulled the trigger when I picked up the gun. While this was no big deal (thank you, four rules of gun safety) it let me know how just a little bit of stress will mess with your mechanics.

You will learn fast, though. It didn’t take too many times through this drill before I was putting out accurate fire.

Pro tip #1 – Try this drill with an unloaded gun a few times before using live ammo.

Pro tip #2 – People are going to look at you funny. Own it.

For bonus points, try doing the push ups on your knuckles. It will make your hands feel like you just threw a few punches and will make getting a good firing grip even more difficult. That’s good practice.

Conclusion

These are just a few of many things that you can do to prepare yourself for a hyper-stressful personal defense situation. No matter the training program that you choose to follow, make sure that it has elements that make breaking contact, running away, and shooting under stress as key components.

48 COMMENTS

    • He does make some great suggestions. I’ll have to give them a try. You mentioned adding deadlifts. Practicing draw and dry fire after doing deadlifts or squats might be a great idea. I feel a bit “trembly” after doing a hard set of deads or squats.

      I also need to add the sprinting exercise for a bit of high intensity cardio. The only cardio I do are biking and jump rope. The article also talks a lot about pushups. I only do each weight training movement one day a week. Monday, its benchpress, overhead press, and squats. Tuesday’s are chin-up day. Wednesday is for pushups. Thursday is deadlift day, and Friday is pull-up time. Monday’s are rough.

      I didn’t start lifting until I was about forty. Several years later, and I love it. Now, in my 40s, I’m in the best shape of my life.

    • In general, everyone should just powerlift. Getting good at squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press will give you strength that is superior to most of the general population considering that “average” is now obese. Throw in a little bit of cardio and dry fire practice and you’re good to go.

      • Good article about staying fit. I see too many guys at the range (including instructors) with big bellys and spindly arms.

        However, I’ll have to disagree with the comment about powerlifting, if you mean going through the basic four with very heavy weights. I’ve been lifting weights since I was a teenager in football (50 years). One thing I’ve learned over those years and in talking to several doctors is that lifting very heavy weights is bad for your health. (And of course never use anabolic steroids – they are bad also, and the guys that use them develop all sorts of health problems later in life, with their once “pumped” muscles generally looking bad – seen the picures of Arnold lately in a swimsuit?)

        The doctors I have had over the years have said that lifting heavy weights repeatedly spikes your blood pressure to very high levels, far above the normal resting 130/80. Over time that is very bad for your blood vessels, and can cause permanent damage to them, especially if your normal blood pressure is high (many men have high blood pressure, and don’t know it or don’t treat it.) There have been several cases of power lifters DYING due to aortic anerysms during lifts. Just search the topic – for example “Fears Mount Over Dangers Of Hoisting Heavy Weights – WSJ.com.” Blood pressure spikes over time can lead not only to anersysms of the aorta, but also in the brain, causing stokes. I saw a middle aged powerlifter collapse at the gym, and he had to be rushed to he ER to to a brain anerysm – never was the same again. Lifting heavy weights can also obviously cause an inguinal hernia.

        The people who live longest and look the best in old age use light or moderate weights. Jack LaLanne lived to be 96, and was always an advocate of light/moderate weights. And he didn’t die of old age, he caught pneumonia (he just didn’t go to the hospital with the bad cough). He was working out a week before. I believe his wife is 94 and still works out. (They did some of the TV shows together – always using light/moderate weights). Bodybuilding as well as powerlifting only became popular in the 1960s. I think the guys that fought in WWII and Korea were probably fit. There is no need for them to be in good shape.

        Also, the same doctors have told me that they see MANY runners in their 50s and 60s with bad hips, knees, and feet, particularly women for some reason. An Orthopedic Surgeon told me “running keeps me in business.” He said that our bodies did not evolve for long distance running, and that it always eventually damages the joints (bone and cartilage) and causes arthritis. Aerobics should be done by brisk walking, hiking, biking, cross country skiing, swiming, etc. – activities where you are not pounding the joints. (Lifting heavy weights is also hard on your joints.)

        In basic training (long ago) we didn’t do ANY weight lifting with plates/barbells/dumbbells. Except for carrying logs and some other nonsense, mostly what we did is what young people have rediscovered as “bodyweight training.” We geezers still called them calesthenics.

  1. I’ll do things like this during a dry-fire practice at home – some pushups, some squats, and then access the firearm and do dry-fire with a thought toward combat accuracy only. Pieplate groups within realistic self defense ranges. And when I do live fire at the range, I start with dry-fire before picking up an unloaded firearm from the table, loading, and firing. Our range, like many, does not allow for presentation from a holster, nor does it allow loaded handguns to be placed on the table. And there’s nothing wrong with practicing loading techniques while ramped up a bit.

    I like how Mike Janich and Mike Seeklander on “The Best Defense” phrase it – you need to “earn your draw” and having a basic idea of how to push off/shove off / strike / get some distance, before executing a draw stroke, is something we all need to think about.

    I think it was a writer here years ago talking about fitness who pointed out that we’re more likely to have a heart attack or be hit by a car than to be involved in a DGU so don’t forget to be careful and active in everyday life. Thanks for providing some tips, a real-life experience, and a reminder that we need to have a bit more “doing” and a little less “reading about doing” sometimes.

  2. I prefer bench press to push ups but they certainly will do. I’ve also been doing fartleks, when my gumption isn’t up for a good solid run.

    People my age are well-served by being physically fit. It ain’t easy, sometimes…

  3. At least Uncle paid me to bust my ass. I’m retired now, I’ll stick with the 12oz curls. Hopefully one of you sheepdogs will save me if I ever need it, but I’ll be going with with age and treachery.

  4. This is pretty good stuff. I’d add in rifle PT. Never seems like it’s that hard when you see another platoon doing it. Then yours does it, and it seems like it just doesn’t end…

    • Also carrying the weight of another human, even dragging them 50 feet can make or break some folks.

      Then again… Adrenaline is a helluva drug.

  5. One of the better articles on here as of late. I do similar type exercise/shooting drills. Having my own range allows me to do so. However, I doubt most on this board train regularly. All you have to do is read a few of the comments for most articles to remove any doubt.

  6. I’m 65 and run a 5.5 mile course with my GSP almost every day, winter included. Keeps me in decent shape, I can still ski the advanced slopes and the blood flow every day keeps the mind thinking. While I carry every day as well, I’d much rather just run off if confronted by some thug- the paperwork would be a bitch if I even cleared the holster on someone and usually they wouldn’t be worth it if I could just hoof it off- I think I could likely outrun most cretins with knives, clubs, etc. If my wife or friends were with me it would be another matter, however.

    Jeff Cooper always thought everyone should have to run for their lives at least 3 times. I wonder in this chickafied society how many of us have even done it once. I haven’t, not yet.

    • I hate running, always have. At 66 I surf everyday or if the waves are no good I swim at least a k. No big deal. That’s after 2 back surgeries and a dozen others for assorted injuries. I’ve always enjoyed stuff like that. I feel for folks that never experienced how much fun it is to move a little. Really. I gotta admit it does leave me feeling a little self righteous. I’m just happy to still be alive.

    • This is a brilliant article, I hope it wins. I don’t hate running but I got a new hip and Doc said no more. I still do daily nordic track ski machine (Dad’s, he bought it in 1994 and I reconditioned it), and 5 days of weights (less weight, more reps). Also “hike” obstacle course races. I ran the Spartan Trifecta in 2016 before the new hip. If you want a heart raising challenge and feel your capacity, do an OCR.

  7. Good list for sure. I’m 63 and am in the gym 5 days a week. I would add situp’s and burpee’s (I know, no one likes burpee’s). For wind, I do run-cross; 2 mile run followed by suicides, followed by running stadium stairs.

    Am doing a GoRuck tough next month and would advise everyone to push limits every day.

    • little horn,

      There is another compelling case for serious physical fitness which the author did not cover: significant physical fitness greatly increases your odds of survival if an attacker imparts a serious wound (e.g. stab, slash, or gunshot) to your body.

  8. Being in shape and not a shape is needed regardless. Things happen in life and more often than not being in shape helps the situation.

  9. Personally I go with lifting, martial arts and swimming. Destroyed my knee in my teens and twenties so no more serious running for me.

    Fortunately swimming gets it done.

    • “Destroyed my knee in my teens and twenties so no more serious running for me.”

      Cycling. Low-impact cardio in the saddle of a bike…

  10. I’ve never forgotten what the sergeant teaching hand-to-hand said in our training before departing for Vietnam. “When fighting for your life, there is no such thing as fair. The ONLY thing is winning. Biting, gouging eyes, throwing dirt or anything (to make an opponent hesitate) should be near the top of your list. There are no style points. Use anything you can to defeat your opponent.” He was so right; few perps expect someone to IMMEDIATELY try to bite their nose off or take a huge chunk out of their arm, neck, etc. Obviously, the foregoing is just another “tool in the bag” among others. THE most important thing is avoid being in “Condition white”. (Oblivious to surroundings) As we age, this becomes critically important.

  11. “your brain will turn to mush. You’ll lose fine motor skill.”

    That’s odd, because when I was in a bad spot, neither of those things happened. During the events, time actually seemed to slow down, I had clarity of thought and my motor control was normal. And I’m no operator.

    Afterwards, though, I needed a couple of six packs just to calm down.

    Everybody is different and will react in different ways. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

  12. Not in great shape at 66. I WAS for 40 years. Or why I have guns now…no excuses. I’ll shoot yer azz.

    • Right there with you. I’m old and too many surgeries. I’m not going to roll around on the ground with anybody if I can help it. I would like to learn/practice more in disengaging and firing from retention or from laying on back/side after some young thug knocks me down. I’ve shot from being on my back and it’s actually harder than it looks. Heck, just getting up after the string is hard..lol.

  13. Glad to see so many of us are dedicated to fitness!! Best improvement I made to my routine was 4 years ago, when I began charting all my workouts in a spreadsheet. Keeps me focused, keeps me motivated. How much iron did I lift last year at this time? Compare the aerobic minutes year-over-year. Compete with myself. I always win that way!

  14. great article. but I will disagree on one point, even seasoned martial artist can learn something from this. this is good info. I might suggest, a rings blue gun and even a airsoft replica ( unloaded and maybe even loaded for some drills). there is no way to fire off a real round with them accidently. and the blue gun can be used at first until you get used to the drill and the airsoft gun can be used for actual firing. ( BUT WEAR EYE PROTECTION, I spent a week in the hospital when I was a kid and I was blind, it was not fun). and as far as the situation described above , I would have to say the author did pretty well defending himself, he got away, and was not harmed, that is a win.

  15. I’m not 21 and in the army. Like I use to be. So I ride a bike and do rifle PT. Yes I still do rifle PT. At the pace of a person in his 50’s. And I just added some whiskey to my OJ.
    (smile)

  16. For those that can’t get a gun. It’s not called a cane. Call it your “medical Device”. This way the government can’t ever take it away from you. video 39 minutes long.
    There are many video’s about “stick” fighting out there. This marital art is several hundreds of years old. And in many different countries. And you can exercise with it.

    Cane Masters – Circle of Masters 10-16-2015

  17. Ordinary people have access to these things called gyms; likewise, calisthenics which can be made harder by decreasing leverage and of course, the old pig-eggs and ammo cans. Don’t half-ass it, if you want to get into fighting shape then get hot on the compound lifts, deadlifts, squats, pullups, etc.

    Pushups are great for beginning strength and therapy but you need to add weight or graduate to the weights. Explosive power, speed work, and good technique. Embrace the pain, you enter the gym to WORK, and SWEAT; embrace the pain of being tired. You only need 45 minutes 4-6 days a week to achieve good physical strength.

    I was hot stuff in my 20s but I got soft and lazy afterwards. Now, I’m in my 30s, I picked back up earlier in the week after I setup all my equipment and wiped all the dirt and rust off of it. No issues except the usual rust that forms on any skill due to lack of use. If I want to start dating, I need to restore my body to a status of power and elegance; combat fitness for SHTF is a bonus. I was one of the slowest men so I favor strength and power over speed; yeah, I was the very much beloved mule. I don’t expect to be able to outrun anyone so I better be able to overpower them.

    Pro tip from a retired grunt:
    Want to train for stress shooting? Run up a 1/4th mile hill with two ammo cans full of sand and full kit, then run the drills. Fun times going up that hill in Hawaii, then sprinting from the 500 to the 200 while doing stress shooting. Thank you Gunner Brown + your IAR course; I still want my 72!

    Some simple hill running will work as well, or just take a stress shooting class if you can find one.

  18. In my 20s & 30s I did a lot of running and martial arts. I could have taken on 3 guys and survived for 3 or more minutes, or disengaged and probably gotten away. That was 30 years ago. I now have bad knees, shoulders, back and hands (maybe from the running and martial arts plus 30 additional years of wear & tear). I don’t think I could do those things anymore. Or return to that shape, despite being in pretty good shape “for someone my age” (hate that phrase) according to my doctor and trainer. Staying in shape is harder the older you get, and getting back in shape is even harder. I, like a lot of guys, tend to push myself too hard and end up injured and losing progress.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is you do have to know what you can do and more importantly, not do. Competition is a great place to find some of those things out. You have to draw from a holster, shoot under pressure outside of your comfort zone. Some involve running and gunning. From there, work on your weaknesses, within your physical limitations.

  19. Wind sprints are your friend. I have been in a few sketchy places/situations in my time on earth and the ability to create some distance cannot be over emphasized. I would just add try sprinting at 95% speed. It takes some discipline and knowing your body but that extra 5% is really “expensive” and will mess up your cognitive ability and motor skills. Great article.

  20. Too old to fight and too slow to run. At 72, I still try to do curls and modified push-ups several times a week. It has helped my endurance at the range, the ability to hold a sight picture and keep the firearm on target for longer.

    • Gary – I know this isn’t really the place to discuss this, but curls are too old school.

      In the time you spend doing a curl, you could pick up a dumbbell from the ground , curl it to your shoulder, then press it over hour head. (clean and press) You use a lighter bell, but you get MUCH more exercise overall and you work your legs, core, back, bicep, tricep, and shoulder.

      This is one of the best overall strength exercises if you don’t have much time.

      If you worry about picking up from ground level, just do a curl to press.

  21. I don’t get my gun advice from my trainer. Curious that some would seek fitness advice from a gun website.

    If you want to get fit and are young. Go to a gym. Do push ups, chin ups, run, including surges. Take some classes and stretch.

    If you want to get fit and are older or really out of shape, start with a trainer who can help you to not injure yourself. If you are injured, you are out. Better to go a bit easier and not get injured.

    Either way, being fit requires much more time and commitment than being a good shot does.

  22. Exersice builds mental fitness, Resistance training and Cardio. Sparing, standup or ground fighting, conditions your mind, like building a mental stamina. No sparing partner, hitting a bag is better than nothing. I workout regularly so I dont have depression or anxiety. Those mental issuse can mess with you ability to have SA, good judgment, and fast reaction to possibly bad situations. You don’t have to be a mentally and physically fit warfighter but always work towards it, it’s about staying on the journey and keep it part or your lifestyle.

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