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Photography and GIFS by RC Rivera

Walking home alone and feeling uneasy? Getting a weird vibe from a stranger on the bus? Many of us have been there.

In a January 2018 survey of 1,000 women nationwide, 81 percent reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, assault, or both in their lifetime.

Verbal harassment was the most common form, but 51 percent of women said they were touched or groped in an unwelcome way, while 27 percent of women survived sexual assault.

Even if you’ve personally never felt yourself in a situation that made you feel physically unsafe, having reassurance about your next steps (and what you can do to help yourself should the unfortunate circumstance ever happen) can make all the difference.

A study from the University of Oregon found that women who participated in a self-defense class felt they:

  • had better safety strategies in place
  • were more equipped to deal with strangers, and people they know, in the context of potential assault or abuse
  • had more positive feelings about their bodies
  • had increased self-confidence

Below are our top eight self-defense moves for women — complete with instructions — to help you feel empowered to defend yourself in any situation.

Focus on your attacker’s vulnerable places: eyes, nose, throat, and groin. Aim all of the moves below at one or several of these areas to have maximum impact.

Avoid the chest and kneesDon’t aim for the chest, as that tends to be ineffective. Aiming for the knees requires a specific kick that can be too risky for the average person.

Use all of your force and aggression during execution. Make it known that you’re a powerful lady. Use your voice, too. Be loud to intimidate the attacker and create attention in case somebody is nearby.

1. Hammer strike

Using your car keys is one of the easiest ways to defend yourself. Don’t use your fingernails, because you’re more at risk to injure your hands.

Instead, if you feel unsafe while walking at night, have your keys stick out from one side of your fist for hammer strikes.

Another way to use your keys is to click them onto a lanyard to swing at your attacker.

To perform:

  1. Hold your key ring in a tight fist, like holding a hammer, with keys extending from the side of your hand.
  2. Thrust downward toward your target.

2. Groin kick

If someone is coming at you from the front, a groin kick may deliver enough force to paralyze your attacker, making your escape possible.

To perform:

  1. Stabilize yourself as best you can.
  2. Lift your dominant leg off the ground and begin to drive your knee upward.
  3. Extend your dominant leg, drive hips forward, slightly lean back, and kick forcefully, making contact between your lower shin or ball of your foot and the attacker’s groin area.

Alternative: If your attacker is too close, thrust your knee toward the groin. Make sure you’re stabilized and not at risk of falling over.

3. Heel palm strike

This move can cause damage to the nose or throat. To execute, get in front of your attacker as much as is possible.

To perform:

  1. With your dominant hand, flex your wrist.
  2. Aim for either the attacker’s nose, jabbing upward from the nostrils, or underneath the attacker’s chin, jabbing upward at the throat.
  3. Make sure to recoil your strike. Pulling your arm back quickly will help thrust the attacker’s head up and back.
  4. This will cause your attacker to stagger backward, allowing you to escape their grasp.

Alternative: An open palm to the ears can be very disorienting.

4. Elbow strike

If your attacker is in close range and you’re unable to get enough momentum to throw a strong punch or kick, use your elbows.

To perform:

  1. If you can, stabilize yourself with a strong core and legs to ensure a powerful blow.
  2. Bend your arm at the elbow, shift your weight forward, and strike your elbow into your attacker’s neck, jawline, chin, or temple. These are all effective targets.
  3. This may cause your attacker to loosen their grip, allowing you to run.

5. Alternative elbow strikes

Depending on how you’re standing when you’re initially attacked, you may be in a better position for variations on the elbow strike.

To perform from the front:

  1. Lift your elbow to shoulder height.
  2. Pivot on same-side foot and allow your hips to rotate, creating more momentum into the front part of your elbow when you strike.

To perform from the side and back:

  1. Make sure you see the target.
  2. Bring your elbow up and pivot your opposite foot, rotating your hips and turning into the target, making contact with the back part of your elbow.

6. Escape from a ‘bear hug attack’

For cases where the attacker is coming from behind, you’ll want to use this move. Focus on getting low and creating space to free yourself.

To perform:

  1. Bend forward from the waist. This shifts your weight forward, making it more difficult for your attacker to pick you up. It also gives you a better angle to throw elbows from side to side to the attacker’s face.
  2. Turn into the attacker with one of your elbows and continue counterattacking.
  3. This should give you space to turn fully, using another move to injure the face or strike the groin. With the space these moves have created, you may be able to escape and run away.

7. Escape with hands trapped

If your attacker comes from behind and traps your arms (this is similar to a bear hug, but you won’t be able to move as freely), here’s what to do:

  1. First reaction should be to stop your attacker’s arms from going higher into a headlock. Shift your hips to one side. This gives an opening for strikes to the groin with open-handed slaps.
  2. Bring your hand back up to your arms and raise your opposite elbow to turn into the wrap. Keep your arms tight to your chest as you’re turning in.
  3. Stay aggressive with your knees and other counterattacks until you can disengage.

8. Escape from side headlock

When the attacker locks their arm around your head from the side, your first instinct should be to avoid getting choked.

To perform:

  1. Turn into the attacker’s side as much as possible to avoid being choked.
  2. With your hand that’s furthest away, strike the groin with open-handed slaps until you have enough mobility to turn your head all the way out to disengage.

However, if you don’t feel confident you’re able to physically handle an attacker, take these precautions:

Safety tips

  1. Stay in a well-lit public area. Don’t go home or turn away from crowds. Walk into a store or a coffee shop and ask for help.
  2. Call the police. Find a well-lit public area and dial 911 or your local emergency services if you feel you’re in danger.
  3. Carry protection. Whether pepper spray, a personal safety alarm, or a lipstick taser, self-defense tools can help you feel more at ease.

If you’re carrying self-defense tools, make sure to get training on how to use them. You can also use more common objects as weapons, including a purse, briefcase, umbrella, phone, pencil, book, or rock.

Anything blunt that can be used to hit, throw, stab, or swing can be very effective.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that 70 percent of sexual violence cases aren’t committed by random strangers in a dark alley, but by people we know: friends, family, partners, co-workers, etc.

This can cause us to let our guard down. We might be too embarrassed, too shy, or too scared to hurt others’ feelings that we don’t always think about ourselves.

Some essential principles of prevention also include:

  • Awareness. Make sure you’re aware of your environment as much as possible. Limit distractions when walking from place to place or other public settings. Don’t constantly stare down at your phone. Make sure you can hear around you. Have keys ready. Walk with a purpose.
  • Boundaries. Make it a point to ask yourself why somebody makes you uncomfortable. Be verbal with them. No matter how much you want a friendship or relationship to work, if they can’t respect your boundaries, they’re somebody you shouldn’t have in your life.

Whether someone is coming at you from the front, side, or back, basic self-defense knowledge can put you in a spot to properly defend yourself.

If Krav Maga or muay thai classes are offered in your area, consider signing up. Muay thai is a combat sport in Thailand that uses stand-up striking techniques. Krav Maga is a modern self-defense system.

If you want to build strength in a high-intensity situation and learn self-defense moves, check out your local kickboxing or any other martial arts courses, like karate.

When equipped with some basic self-defense knowledge, women young or old, city dwellers or country residents, can have confidence in their personal safety and protection. No matter what type of combat or self-defense class you take, practicing can help you develop muscle memory. In a flight-or-flight situation, this muscle memory can be key to helping you escape from an attacker.


Nicole Davis is a Boston-based writer, ACE-certified personal trainer, and health enthusiast who works to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. Her philosophy is to embrace your curves and create your fit — whatever that may be! She was featured in Oxygen magazine’s “Future of Fitness” in the June 2016 issue. Follow her on Instagram.