Aggressiveness is a key trait that a martial artist must possess or at least seek to acquire. Developing aggressive behavior in beginning students without discouraging them can be a difficult task for the instructor. Not just for instructors who teach in civilian martial arts schools, but for trainers like myself who instruct law enforcement and military personnel. It seems that there are a lot of people getting into these potentially dangerous careers who have never had to “fight for their lunch money.” Although one would expect a police officer or soldier to be more aggressive than the average person would, it is not always the case. As an instructor, I increasingly find myself having to build up the aggressiveness in many of my students before I can take them to the next step – learning how to fight.

Sparring too soon
Beginning students or timid students are rarely ready to just jump right into sparring (simulated combat through free style contact), even though it is a great preparatory drill for real life threats. The instructor must, therefore, have other “tools” in his instructional toolbox besides sparring to introduce students to physical contact.

Every person has the “fight or flight” instinct (actually, there are three: fight, flight, and submit), but not everyone possess the “warrior attitude” (valor, fortitude, bravery, fearlessness, courage). The instructor’s primary goal should be the development of this lifesaving attitude; more so than the mere instructions of techniques. However, an instructor who pushes a student into high anxiety situations before they are ready emotionally, such as sparring, risks the “flight” response. Usually the flight is right out of the studio as a dropped student, or in the case of law enforcement or the military, a negative attitude toward officer safety training.

Even though sparring in a studio situation is not “life threatening” per se, it evokes similar physiological responses that parallel the real thing: fear, knotted stomach, paralysis, shallow breathing, even vomiting are some of the more commons symptoms. Experienced fighters may find themselves going through the same “crisis cycle,” just like a beginner, when going up against a superior opponent. Obviously, the real concern is losing or being injured.

The beginning student may indeed give sparring a try to please the instructor or peers, but they may not like the emotional trauma or physical symptoms that it heaps upon them afterward, and they may soon drop out. To prevent this from happening there must be a step-by-step approach, with slow and methodical conditioning that reduces predictable anxieties. In other words, to get people who are generally nonviolent accustomed to violence, you must start with exercises and drills where the risks are low and increase the intensity gradually. To accomplish this I have developed a series of exercises, which I call can incorporate into your own training.

Contact Conditioners

Shield fighting is as ancient as warfare itself. By taking this ancient tactic and putting it into today’s training arenas, students will learn a variety of lessons: stay on the offensive, gain ground, and never give up. All that is needed is a little space and two kicking shields.

What to do?
1. Mark a ring, 10 feet by 10 feet, by using tape or placing a boxing glove at each corner.
2. Have two students, at opposite ends of the ring, each armed with a kicking shield.

1. The students are to force one another out of the ring by using the surface or edges of
the shields only.
2. The students may not step out of the ring at anytime, although one foot out of the ring
in order to gain balance is acceptable.
3. The first one to force his opponent out of the ring (both feet over the line) wins. There
is no time limit. It takes as long as it takes.


Although the heel stomp can be found in almost any martial art in the world it is often a neglected and unrehearsed technique. Its power can be crippling in a real self-defense situation, but it’s also a great endurance and aggression exercise. It sounds easy, but it can become quite a challenge.

What to do?
1. Two students will grab the shirt of each other’s shoulders, and get into a fighting
2. On the command of, “Go!” they will try to stomp on the feet of one another, at the
same time avoiding getting their own feet stomped on.

1. The first person to stomp both of his opponent’s feet, within 15 seconds, wins.
2. This exercise should be practiced gently to start since the bones in the foot are fairly fragile. A quick step on top of the other’s foot will suffice for the exercise.


Since most fights end up on the ground it is crucial to know how to fight from there. This contact exercise is the first step in learning to be comfortable fighting from the ground.

What to do?
1. The trainee lays down on the ground, on his side, in a fighting posture.
2. The trainer wears boxing gloves and shin pads.

1. The trainer must tap the top of the trainee’s head while avoiding being kicked or tripped by the trainee. A 15-second time limit is given. If the trainee survives the 15 seconds without being tapped, he wins. If his head is tapped, he loses and is punished; usually 20 push-ups (in my courses losing is ALWAYS punished. If my students lose in real life they are seriously injured or killed).
2. The trainee avoids having the top of his head tapped by trying to kick and trip the trainer (avoid direct kicks to the knee for safety’s sake).
3. The trainee may switch from side to side, rotate, or get on his back to defend himself.


A strong stomach is essential for a good fighter. A fighter must be able to take strikes to the stomach. More importantly, a fighter, once committed to an attack, must go with 100% determination; what the US Marines call, “Violence of Action.” This exercise combines an old karate strengthening drill with aggressive resolve (I usually save this exercise for after lunch as my courses last 8 hours per day).

What to do?
1. The trainee will put his hands on top of his head.
2. The trainer will be in a fighting stance prepared to deliver a front kick to the trainee’s stomach.

1. The trainee will walk briskly toward the trainer with the intent to walk right through them. As the trainee closes the distance the trainer will delivered a front kick into the trainee’s abdomen (half force). The trainee will override his natural instincts to stop and protect himself, and charge through anyway with tightened muscles to deflect the blow.
2. The trainer will aim for the mid section only, and execute kicks that the trainee can handle. We kick with combat boots, but you may want to use tennis shoes or bare feet. However, the trainee is very vulnerable in this position, and caution must be taken.


If somebody pulls a knife on you you’re already at a 90% disadvantage. In a real knife fight most people cannot even survive for the first five seconds without receiving a life-threatening stab or cut to the torso, head, or neck area (that includes armed law enforcement officers as well). Good luck in disarming! Rarely can it be pulled off. Your only chance is to avoid the initial attack just long enough to counter attack, go for your own weapon, or run.

What to do?
1. The trainer is armed with a rubber knife.
2. The trainee is empty-handed (wearing safety goggles).

1. The trainer tries to stab or cut the trainee (who is approximately 6 feet away) in the torso area at full speed, and never gives the trainee a chance to grab hold of the weapon.
2. The trainee keeps both hands up and slaps the trainer’s knife hand away with both hands to defend himself.
3. The trainee must move to the side or backwards to avoid getting stabbed or cut.
4. If the trainee can survive for 5 seconds, then he wins. The average knife fight (in real life) last five seconds; an eternity when you’re in the danger zone.

This exercise goes way back – to the Roman era. Although long gone are the days that two people would fight each other with knives, this exercise really instills the “Will to Survive,” and aggression like few exercises can. As a bonus, the previous exercise, KNIFE EVASION EXERCISE, is reemphasized in the students’ minds .

What to do?
1. Both students are equipped with eye protection, and are each armed with rubber knives (the soft kind that bend easily).

1. Each student will attempt to deliver a fatal blow against one another: a stab to the chest, abdomen or head, or a cut to the neck area. The one who does so, wins. Defensive wounds to the hands and arms do not count (those areas are not usually life threatening in a real knife fight).
2. If the student is stabbed in the arm or leg (a strike that would definitely render it useless) then he loses the use of that limb. If it is his arm, it must go behind his back. If it is in the leg, then he must go down on that knee. Minor nicks don’t count.
3. Even if a fatal blow is delivered, the fight continues for another five seconds to train for real life confrontations. Just because someone receives a fatal wound, does not mean that they will go down right away. They may still have enough life in them to do you in.

Nothing creates more anticipation in a student than this exercise. Going for a single weapon is a game where winner usually takes all. This exercise teaches quick reaction, speed, and of course incorporates the last two exercises: KNIFE EVASION EXERCISE and GLADIATORIAL COMBAT EXERCISE.

What to do?
1. Have both students lay in a prone position facing each other approximately 25 feet away from each other.
2. Place a rubber knife between them in the middle.

1. When the instructor gives the command, “Go!” both students will leap for the rubber knife.
2. The first one who gains control over the knife will stab the other student in the torso once then disengage. GLADIATORIAL COMBAT can be done only if both students are suited up with protective gear.
3. The winner is the one who ends up with the knife.

Putting a student in unusual fighting situations can really benefit the student by making him or her comfortable fighting in any position. This exercise accomplishes two things. One: it isolates the hands. Two: it forces the student to look over their shoulder and counter attack.

What to do?
1. The trainee places both hands on a wall, and may not remove them during the length of the exercise.
2. The trainer is behind (or to the sides) of the trainee wearing boxing gloves, chest protection, and shin pads.

1. The trainer will attempt to punch or kick (light to moderate) the trainee utilizing a half circle around the trainee.
2. The trainee will counter attack using only his legs. He may kick or trip the trainer.
The exercise will last for 15 seconds.

These exercises are just a few that my law enforcement and military students enjoy; from the most advanced, down to the beginners, and yes, even the timid. They are confidence builders that permit students to experience limited physical contact. When students “survive” or “endure” these Contact Conditioner exercises they learn a little bit more about themselves, and their own limits. It’s not long after that they are in the ring sparring with the best of them.

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Jim Wagner
Jim Wagner, one of the first self-defense instructor to introduce techniques, tactics, and training methods to survive terrorist attacks and modern crime (active shooters, criminal chemical attacks, drive-by shootings, etc.). His teaching is based on his tactical career as a U.S. Army combat soldier, corrections officer, police officer, S.W.A.T. officer, team leader of a Dignitary Protection Unit for America’s fifth largest Sheriff’s department, a U.S. federal agent counterterrorist during the Global War on Terrorism, Reserve Military Police soldier, military bodyguard, Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO), Security Forces sergeant, and a team leader of a military Special Reaction Team. He worked in the private security and bodyguarding sectors, most notably protecting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and working for the Walt Disney Company. Since 2003 Jim has been teaching his Reality-Based Personal Protection system around the world and in martial arts schools, where he offers self-defense instructors a way to increase their business by teaching Terrorism Survival, Crime Survival, and other courses. If you want to become certified to teach at your school, you can purchase the Jim Wagner Reality-Based Personal Protection Instructor Package at a discount through by using the code USARBPP1706.