When you attack, you might only get one shot, so you’ll need to make it count. This means not only knowing how to hit but precisely where to hit your attacker for maximum effect. The human body has several critical systems that are vulnerable to attack.
Since extreme stress causes a loss of fine motor control, you should target large vulnerable areas that affect specific, critical body systems. These include the visual system (eyes), circulatory system (neck), respiratory system (solar plexus), nervous system (face, groin, spine), and locomotor system (legs and feet).
By far the most important sensory organs are the eyes. In fact, the average person perceives up to 80 percent of all external input by means of their sight.
The eyes also happen to be especially vulnerable targets. They are very sensitive to contact of any sort and susceptible to attack from virtually any angle. Striking the eyes with sufficient force will result in the attacker turning away as he covers his face with his hands. In addition to a great deal of pain, trauma to the eye can cause involuntary tearing, effectively blinding your attacker temporarily.
The head contains the brain and primary sensory organs, making it a prime target for self-defense. Besides the eyes, the human face is literally covered with sensitive tissue. Striking the nose can cause pain, bleeding, and tearing of the eyes resulting in temporary blindness. The bottom of the septum, located just below the nose, is very sensitive to upward pressure, and can be used to tilt the head back with just one finger. Striking the jaw or temple can render your attacker unconscious but requires that you strike with sufficient force from the correct angle. The cheeks, lips, and nose are vulnerable to hooking and ripping from the inside, while the ears can be slapped, twisted, and pulled.
Self-Defense Story: The Karate Kid
It was 1994. My girlfriend, Kathy (later my wife) and I were at a karate tournament in Richmond, Virginia. It was almost time for me to fight, so I went to the men’s locker room to suit up. Suddenly, a student from another school burst in holding his face with his head tipped back. He hurried to the sink and started grabbing paper towels. I asked, “What happened to you?” At the sound of my voice, he looked sideways out of the corner of his eye, noticing me for the first time. We knew each other, and he rolled his eyes at me as he responded dejectedly, “Your girlfriend broke my nose.”
Post-encounter Analysis: While not a real-life self-defense situation, this is an example of combat between a man and a much smaller woman. Since there were not very many competitors that day, the tournament coordinators combined divisions. My wife and this other gentleman were both brown belts, advanced rank students, so they were grouped together. Even though she was smaller, with one well-timed and well-placed punch to the face, she was victorious. Actually, she was disqualified for excessive contact, a breach of the tournament rules, but I think you get the idea.
It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. —Mark Twain
The neck is vulnerable to strikes from almost any angle. In the front of the neck, the wind- pipe, or trachea, is exposed. Blunt force trauma to the trachea is a direct attack on the body’s respiratory system that can result in difficulty breathing and possible death by asphyxiation.
Pressure to the side of the neck affects the circulatory system. When the blood vessels are squeezed shut, a special pressure receptor called the carotid sinus registers the increased blood pressure in the vessel. This triggers a reflex called a vagal response that causes an abrupt drop in blood pressure and a sudden reduction in heart rate. The resulting reduced blood flow to the brain causes lightheadedness, stunning or even knocking out your attacker.
The celiac plexus is a complex system of radiating nerves located deep within the body. Often referred to as the solar plexus, this spot is located just below the sternum; however, it lies too deep within the body to be vulnerable. A strike to this area actually attacks the diaphragm, a thin band of muscle that controls your breathing, contracting to inhale and relaxing to exhale. A forceful blow to the abdomen can cause the diaphragm to spasm, temporarily paralyzing it and making it difficult for your attacker to breathe.
The male genitalia are very sensitive. Striking the testicles can temporarily debilitate even the largest attacker. Common responses include increased heart rate, sweating, and a sudden rise in body temperature. The abdominal region shares pain receptors with the groin that can make the person involuntarily grab his stomach, bend over, or drop to the ground in the fetal position. This rush of severe pain and endorphin release can cause inner ear swelling, resulting in dizziness. The combination of abdominal pain, nausea, and dizziness can lead to vomiting. In extreme cases, part of the brain called the cervical sympathetic ganglia may activate, resulting in involuntary crying.
That said, men are notoriously good at instinctually guarding this vulnerable target. And, even if you do manage to score a solid shot to the groin, it can take several long seconds for the full effects to set in.
There are five sections of the spinal cord: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, and coccyx. Each section of the spine protects different groups of nerves that control the body. The types of spinal cord injury depend on the section of the spine that is injured. Injuries located higher up on the spine are usually more severe. The top seven vertebrae make up the cervical spine. Cervical injuries can result in full paralysis or even death. The next twelve vertebrae make up the thoracic spine. A sharp blow to the middle of the back, targeting the thoracic spinal cord, will cause pain to radiate into the arms, legs, and around the rib cage. It can also cause temporary leg weakness. From the lumbar down to the coccyx the spine becomes larger and not as vulnerable to attack.
Legs and Feet
The knees, shins, ankles, and feet are all vulnerable to attack. The knee is one of the most commonly injured body parts. A direct blow to the knee can cause an acute injury, often accompanied by an audible pop and intense pain that makes walking or weight bearing very difficult. The shin can be kicked or scraped with the edge of your foot. The ankle and foot are susceptible to blunt force trauma when attacked with a stomp.
Self-Defense Story: Stamping Out Predators
My cousin, Jenna, was in sixth grade when I decided to test her self-defense skills. I snuck up behind her at a holiday gathering and grabbed her in a bear hug, pinning her arms tightly against her body. I challenged her, “What are you going to do now?” I didn’t even see her lift her right leg, but I sure felt it when her heel crashed down squarely onto the arch of my right foot. Not only was I caught by surprise, but it hurt! I immediately released her, asking, “Where did you learn that?”
“Gym class,” she responded. “Some karate guy came in and taught us self-defense.” I was impressed. Good job, karate guy!
Post-encounter Analysis: While I’m not sure that Jenna’s foot stomp would have been enough to completely thwart a committed assault, it was certainly a step in the right direction.
Since a violent assault is a physical confrontation, your physical fitness level will play an important role in determining your success or failure in a self-defense situation. Muscular strength in your legs helps you to stand strong, kick hard, and run fast, while a strong core and arms will lend power to your strikes. The most common method for developing muscular strength is through a weight-training regime.
Likewise, a high level of cardiovascular fitness may be required. This is your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles to keep them from burning out so you can stay in the fight and survive it. Regular participation in aerobic activities such as jogging, cycling, swimming, hiking, soccer, basketball, or tennis will help you improve your cardiovascular fitness.
The above is an excerpt from The Art and Science of Self-Defense: A Comprehensive Instructional Guide by Joe Varady, Publication Date June 1, 2022, YMAA Publication Center,