Originally published in Fit Life magazine
‘Is it like muay thaI?’
‘So, you're a ninja then?’
‘Are you trying to say baklava?’
If I had a rand for every time I've heard questions like these since I started learning Krav Maga ... well, I’d probably only be able to buy a cappuccino. But you get the point – misconceptions about this form of training abound.
What Krav Maga actually is, is a close- combat self-defence system influenced by a number of other fighting styles and martial arts. It has a reputation for being fast, brutal and effective, and requires a high level of physical fitness. Originally a closely guarded secret of the Israel Defence Force (IDF), Krav Maga is now becoming popular with anyone who wants to learn self-defence while getting a high-intensity workout at the same time.
80 years old and still kicking
While Krav Maga’s popularity in the fitness world is relatively new, its roots as a combat method date back to before the Second World War. It was originally developed by Emrich ‘Imi’ Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian- born wrestling, boxing and gymnastics champion in the 1930s. Imi was Jewish, and when anti-Semitic riots began to break out in his home town, he took to the streets with his fellow boxers to keep the peace. However, Imi soon discovered that street-style brawls are very different to organised boxing or wrestling bouts. To keep the upper hand, he began to develop a fighting method that drew on his various professional skills, while still being quick and dirty enough for the streets. He dubbed it ‘Krav Maga’ – ‘contact combat’ in Hebrew.
In 1940, Imi fled what had become rampant Jewish persecution in Europe, eventually settling in what would be the independent state of Israel in 1942. In 1948, he started training the IDF in his unique combat style, and it’s a method that the IDF and other Israeli security forces follow to this day. After serving for about 20 years, Imi retired from the military, at which point he began adapting Krav Maga for civilians as a form of self-defence.
Not a fair fight
Krav Maga does not have the usual trappings of a martial-arts class. There are no uniforms, no coloured belts, no organised competitions, no certificates of mastery. In fact, there are no rules, strictly speaking.
Krav Maga is purely a self-defence system. A good training school will coach you in defending yourself effectively against an armed or unarmed attack by a criminal or terrorist. Sports such as mixed martial arts or Muay Thai may look pretty tough in the ring, but – just as Imi discovered – things are much different in real life, when there’s no referee and your attacker isn’t limited by a list of illegal moves.
‘We don’t treat training as a competition – it’s about survival,’ says Etienne Ferreira, the founder of Truekrav Training in Cape Town. His facility trains men and women to deal with real-life situations including knife attacks, hijackings and rape. ‘In real life, you live or you die, and no belt or certificate can ever guarantee survival – only applied skill under pressure can give you a fighting chance.’
‘Applied skill’ is the key phrase there. As Etienne constantly reminds his students, in real life, you won’t have time to stop and think carefully about what ‘move’ to do. In fact, you’re unlikely to be able to think at all. It’s nearly impossible to remain calm when, for example, someone has a knife to your throat. What’s more likely to happen is your heart will race, you will get tunnel vision and your mind will go blank. This is why Krav Maga is considered such an effective self-defence method – it trains you to react instinctively under pressure to a wide variety of situations.
Krav Maga may be more about safety than about #summerbodygoals, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hard-core sweat session too. ‘Condition is important in self-defence, but we focus on explosiveness drills rather than endurance,’ says Etienne. Explosiveness is your ability to move quickly and with strength from one position to another, which helps with the element of surprise and with keeping the upper hand. ‘Shuttle runs, burpees and body-weight exercises (such as box jumps, pull-ups and clap push-ups) are all excellent.’
A good Krav Maga instructor will have you practise a specific defence until the movement feels like a natural reaction, then they’ll exhaust you physically with drills and cardio before testing your defences. Classes often leave you sore and sweat-soaked, and if you are not exhausted and a little bruised by the end of one, you’re probably not training hard enough.
‘Krav Maga helps you push your limits and discover your true strength,’ says Sané Tsana, 27, a network planner who trains with Etienne at TrueKrav. ‘When you train at a normal gym, you tend to stop when you start feeling tired, and don’t really push yourself. Krav Maga teaches you how much more you need to train to stand a chance of surviving.’
‘I’m definitely the fittest I’ve ever been, and it’s thanks to Krav,’ says Simone Le Roux, a scientific equipment rep who also trains at TrueKrav. ‘This is not only because the classes are physically intense, but because Krav gets you into a headspace where you genuinely want to improve your physical fitness so you can be better at it. I find it more motivating than just working out for a f lat stomach or toned arms (which have been a fun by-product of Krav).’
So women can do Krav Maga?
Absolutely. In fact, some might say it’s almost more necessary for a woman in South Africa to learn to defend herself than it is for a man (that’s not victim- blaming – it’s just the sad state of our country’s crime rates.) And while no amount of training can ever 100% guarantee your safety, it’s empowering for a woman to know she has a fighting chance should the worst happen.
‘I’m not walking down dark alleyways by myself or anything, but I definitely feel more confident in the knowledge that, if anything does happen to me, I’d at least know what to do and have a fighting chance,’ says Simone. ‘I’ve noticed little ways I’m more empowered, too. For example, I’m less nervous to tell a guy who’s bothering me in a bar to leave me alone, whereas before I would have just done the nervous laugh and said I have a boyfriend. I’m also more likely to stand up for my friends in the same situation.’
Sané agrees: ‘It’s increased my confidence, which ultimately increases my sense of security,’ she says. ‘I walk taller and am more aware of my surroundings. Confident women are targeted less often by criminals. They’re more likely to give you your space because you just look like trouble for them, and they’d prefer a weaker, more unsuspecting person – sad but true. So I definitely feel more empowered.’