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Important Muscle Groups to Train for Self-Defense

Important Muscle Groups to Train for Self-Defense
by J. R. Workman

Every muscle group can be useful in a self-defense situation, neglect of any of them is highly discouraged. To condition the body for self-defense it is useful to know what muscle groups are used the most and thus are the most beneficial to develop for self-defense situations. Down below is included a list of some of the most important muscle groups used in self-defense situations and reasons why they are so important. 

The fight or flight response has been present since the dawn of humanity. Stress hormones, rapid heartbeat, an elevated stress level, and the choice to stay around and fight or to get lost. Knowing what muscle groups to develop for self-defense will help prepare you if you ever do have to stay around and fight. Self-defense training is the best conditioner for the human body. It includes strength, power, speed, agility, and even flexibility training. Conditioning workouts are a huge part of self-defense training as your level of metabolic conditioning can determine how well you do in a fight and whether or not you survive. 

"Discipline in war (combat) counts more than fury." ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Art of War

1. Shoulders

Shoulders are the start of your punch. A lot of the power in your punch is generated from your shoulders. 

It is highly important to train the Anterior or Front Deltoid, the Lateral or Medial Deltoid, and the Posterior or Rear Deltoid. You want to train the deltoid muscles as a whole. The Lateral or Medial Deltoid is the largest of the deltoid muscles and special emphasis should be placed on it during training. 

The shoulder muscles are also used to hold your hands up (in the guard position) and they are also used a lot when punching continuously; so training your shoulder muscles for endurance helps you to be able to hold your hands up longer and to punch longer in self-defense situations. The shoulders are one of the most crucial muscle groups used in combat:

"Shoulders (Arm Endurance)

The shoulders are most important for punch endurance. Yes, the shoulders do generate power and snap for the punches but to me, they are most important for endurance. Typically when boxers’ arms become too tired to punch or hold up to defend their head, it is usually because the shoulders that are tired! Think about it: when your arms get tired, it is usually always the shoulder that is the first part of the arm to get tired. From a physical standpoint, it makes sense since it’s a relatively small muscle on the edge of the arm that has to hold up the entire arm. From a physics standpoint, it’s not hard to see why the shoulder can get tired so fast.

So if you want to be able to throw more punches and hold your hands up for a longer amount of time, you better start training your shoulders for endurance. Don’t worry about making the shoulders stronger, they only add small amounts of punching power compared to the leg muscles." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

2. Lats (or Latissimus Dorsi) and Lower Back

Lats are the muscles that power or move your arms from behind and create the thrust at the end of your punch. They are the back wheels of the car driving the car forward from the back. When you throw a hook or an uppercut your lats are the support for your shoulders (which are the base of your punch)—without your lats and shoulders driving your arms outwards your punches would carry no force and produce no impact. The more powerful your lats are the harder you will be able to punch. A strong lower back is going to create more stability in your body than just about any other muscle you could train; the lower back muscles are much larger and stronger than the muscles in your abs. Having a strong lower back is also going to help with grappling because it is going to make it easier to resist takedowns and stay on your feet. The back is one of the most critical muscle groups utilized in combat:

"Back (Rear Body Core & Punch Recovery)

The back also functions as a total body core muscle by holding your body together and combining the power generated by all your limbs. Another little known (BUT VERY IMPORTANT) fact is that the back helps a lot in punch recovery–which is the speed of how fast you can pull your hand back after a punch.

Many fighters are too busy building the front of their upper body through push-ups and punching at the heavy bag but very few of them focus on building up the back of the upper body like the rear shoulders and the back. I’m going to explain something very important when you spend all your time hitting the heavy bag, you may not realize that the heavy bag is bouncing your hand back at you on the recovery phase. By neglecting to workout your back and rear shoulder muscles, you will have weaker punch recovery muscles. The moment you start missing punches during a real fight, your arms will tire very quickly because your gloves become very heavy as you have to pull your punches back with your own muscles instead of having them bounced back at you." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

3. Legs

Legs especially the large muscles in your legs (quadriceps and hamstrings) will help add more drive to your techniques from the ground up and will make your kicks and knees more powerful. Training your legs to be stronger will also improve your balance and increase the power in your legs. Training your calves is also important; they are a commonly neglected area that few people train. Having strong calves helps with agility and power in the legs and also helps improve balance. Conditioning your legs also helps to improve the quality, agility, and speed of your footwork. Having flexible legs is also beneficial for kicking and grappling and the stronger your legs are the more difficult it will be for someone to take you down to the ground. The legs are one of the most significant muscle groups employed in combat:

"Legs (Power)

By “legs”, I’m referring specifically to the quads and the calf muscles. This is something that should be ingrained into anybody ever wanting to learn how to do anything powerful with their body. ALL power comes from the ground, nowhere else! Because your legs are connected to the ground, they are most responsible for pushing off the ground to generate power throughout your body. Your legs also happen to be the biggest muscles in your body, which is why all proper boxing punches are typically thrown with the legs pivoting and rotating.

Again, the legs generate the most power! Not the chest and definitely not the triceps. If you look carefully at many of the most dynamic and complete punches or boxers in history, you will see that they have great legs more often than great arms or big chests. Look very carefully at the typical boxer’s body and you won’t find over-developed pecs or huge triceps. Marcos Maidana, Manny Pacquiao, Thomas Hearns, Julian Jackson, and Felix Trinidad are some names of guys that immediately come to mind. These guys did not have big upper-bodies but they carried HUGE power in their fists. Even Mike Tyson, as dynamic a puncher as he was, was still more muscular at his legs than his arms!" (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

4. Hips

The hips add torque to your punches and kicks and help strengthen balance and mobility. The hips are one of the most serious muscle groups involved in combat:

"Hips (Balance & Lower Body Core)

The hips hold your lower body and legs together. They also generate a huge amount of power by pivoting your whole body when you need. Another important function is that your hips have to do with how well you are balanced. Since your hips are very close to your body’s center-of-gravity, stronger hips would mean that you have better control of your balance. I shouldn’t have to stress that balance is definitely one of the most important factors in boxing. Balance essentially determines the effectiveness and efficiency of your offense, defense, movement, and overall fighting ability!

You can also think of your hips as your body weight. By using the muscles in your leg to move your hips with every punch, you will be able to put your entire body weight into each punch maximizing its power." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

5. Hands, Wrists, and Forearms

Forearms are the end of your punch. Having strong hands, wrists, and forearms will ensure that the end of your punch packs a lot of power. Having strong hands and forearms also helps increase grip strength which is useful for grappling and using self-defense techniques against weapons that require you to use your hands. The forearms are one of the most pivotal muscle groups essential to combat:

"The forearm muscles are for tightening your fist harder when you punch. A tighter fist means your hand will hit with a more solid punch. At the same time, a tighter fist means your hand is less likely to be injured since the bones don’t have much room to move around and get misaligned." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

6. Neck and Traps

Strengthening the neck and trapezius muscles will reduce and help with the recoil of your head during its impact with a strike, this will make it harder for you to be knocked out. The neck is one of the most important muscle groups to train for combat:

"The neck is for punch resistance. You’ll see many fighters strengthening their neck so that their head doesn’t get whip-lashed and left in a more vulnerable angled position when it gets hit by punches." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

7. Abs and Obliques

Strengthening your abs and obliques will help you be able to take more punches to the body and it will also help you with balance, stability, and mobility. The abs are one of the most vital muscle groups to develop for combat:

"Abs (Frontal Body Core & Snap)

The abdominal muscles are a very powerful set of muscles that hold your whole body together. Every limb in your body generates a certain amount of power individually but it is your abs that allow you to combine the force generated by every limb into one total force. Simply put, your abs allow you to connect the force generated by all your limbs into one powerful punch. Aside from connecting your whole body together, the abdominal muscles help you breathe and allow you to take frontal body shots." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

8. Chest

Increasing the strength in your chest will help you to be able to pull your punches in harder from the outside and center and it helps especially to improve the power of your hooks. The chest is one of the most central muscle groups engaged in combat:

"Chest (Upper Body Core)

The chest muscles are your upper body core muscles. Their most important functions are to connect your shoulders, arms, and lats into one combined force. They also generate the most punching power out of your upper body muscles." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

9. Triceps and Biceps

The triceps are the most important muscles in your arm for extending the punch and your biceps are the most important muscle in the arms for pulling in your punch; if you increase the strength of these muscles you will also increase the power of your punch. The triceps are used for the speed of straight punches and the biceps are used for the speed and snap of hooks and uppercuts:

"More specifically, the triceps are for speed of straight punches. The biceps are for the speed and snap of your hooks and uppercuts." (Most Important Muscles For Fighting by Johnny Nguyen)

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N, Johnny. “Most Important Muscles For Fighting.” How to Box | ExpertBoxing, 30 Jan. 2011,