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• Last updated: July 1, 2023

A Primer on Krav Maga: The Combative System of the Israeli Defense Forces

Vintage krav maga practice israeli soldiers fighting.

Note: This article was originally published in July, 2013. It has since been updated.

I can’t remember how I first heard about Krav Maga, but I do remember being immediately intrigued. All martial arts have an appeal to most men and their fighting spirit, but Krav Maga’s draw owes less to the mystique of many of the traditional disciplines and more to a distinct aura of bad-assitude. It’s a simple and effective “street fighting” self-defense system that’s more martial than art. A well-trained practitioner of Krav Maga is basically a walking human weapon.

Wanting to learn more about Krav Maga, I first looked for a reputable gym that taught the system in my area, but I unfortunately came up short. So I got a set of Mastering Krav Maga DVDs for Christmas last year to familiarize myself with some of its basic principles. Wanting to know still more, I then called up David Kahn, the badass dude who made the videos and the Chief Instructor of the U.S. Israeli Krav Maga Association, to get his insights firsthand.

What I discovered is that Krav Maga is a brutally effective tactical mixed martial art/combative and self-defense system that lives up to its reputation. If you too have ever wondered what Krav Maga is all about, here’s your primer.

The History of Krav Maga

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga israeli military.

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga.

To fully appreciate Krav Maga, David says, you need to know its history.

The origins of Krav Maga can be traced to pre-World War II Czechoslovakia (present-day Slovakia) and a young Jewish athlete named Imi Lichtenfeld. Imi was a nationally and internationally renowned boxer, wrestler, and gymnast. Beginning in the mid-1930s, fascist and anti-Semitic groups rose to power in Czechoslovakia and began inflicting violence on Jewish communities. Feeling duty-bound to protect his neighbors, Lichtenfeld organized a group of young men to patrol his community and defend against would-be attackers. He quickly learned, however, that his training in sport martial arts was no match for the anti-Semitic thugs he encountered. Fighting for points in a match and fighting for your life in a street fight require a different mindset and different techniques. To effectively defend himself and his community, Imi began synthesizing his martial art knowledge and started placing an emphasis on attacks that quickly disabled and neutralized a threat.
Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga, practicing martial arts.

By 1940, Imi found himself living under a Nazi-allied puppet regime and decided to head for Palestine to join the Zionist Movement and fight for a Jewish state of Israel. When he moved to Palestine in 1942, he joined the Haganah, a pre-Israel Jewish paramilitary organization with a mission to protect Jewish settlers from locals who did not welcome the new arrivals. Israeli military leaders quickly noticed Imi’s fighting skills and his ability to teach those skills to others. They put him in charge of training the military’s elite fighting forces, including the Palmach (elite strike force), the Palyam (marine commandos), and the Haganah.

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga practicing martial arts.

After Israel gained statehood in 1948, these separate fighting forces were merged into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and Lichtenfeld was named the Chief Instructor of Physical Fitness at the IDF School of Combat Fitness. It was in this role that he developed what today is known as Krav Maga. Lichtenfeld needed a combative system he could teach new military recruits in just three weeks — one that was simple, efficient, and effective, and could be applied in a number of lethal situations. To create such a system, Lichtenfeld combined the most effective techniques of boxing, aikido, judo, wrestling, and jujitsu into a single, fluid, fighting military discipline that emphasized continuous motion, simultaneous defense and attack, and attacks to an assailant’s soft tissue and pressure points. He called his self-defense system “Krav Maga,” meaning “contact combat” in Hebrew. It quickly became the official combative of the IDF and continues to be today.

Retired Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga teaching students.

After retiring from the IDF, Lichtenfeld began teaching Krav Maga to Israeli citizens.

Imi taught Krav Maga for nearly 20 years in the IDF. After retiring from military service in 1964, he began devoting his time and energy to modifying and teaching the self-defense system to civilians. Imi opened two Krav Maga studios in Israel where he taught thousands of students and instructors, all while continuing to add and improve upon the fighting discipline he had developed in the military. In 1974, Imi founded the Krav Maga Association, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and teaching Krav Maga in Israel and throughout the world.

1st-Commando israeli defense forces practicing krav maga.

Krav Maga is still the official combative system of the Israeli Defense Forces.

A few of Imi’s early disciples brought Krav Maga to the United States, and it quickly became a preferred close-combat system in many U.S. military and police forces. Several commercial Krav Maga organizations have formed over the years to teach and promote Krav Maga in the U.S., each with a counterpart in Israel. Each of these organizations claim to be the “true” heir and guardian of Imi Lichtenfeld’s original Israeli Krav Maga, and go out of their way to show their connection to Krav’s founder.

The Principles of Krav Maga

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga practicing moves on soldier.

As mentioned above, Krav Maga is a tactical mixed-martial art/combative and self-defense system that combines boxing, judo, jujitsu, and aikido. In recent years, other martial arts have been incorporated into Krav Maga such as muay Thai and Wing Chun.

Neutralize the threat. The primary goal in Krav Maga is to neutralize your threat as quickly as possible. This overarching goal governs all the other principles of Krav Maga. Because your aim is to dominate and incapacitate your attacker as soon as possible, pretty much anything goes in Krav Maga. You can’t worry about fighting etiquette when your life is on the line. You do whatever you have to do to preserve your life.

Keep it simple. There aren’t katas or patterns in Krav Maga. Just strikes, holds, and blocks. Krav Maga was designed so that it could be put to use as soon as possible.

Simultaneous defense and attack. Many martial arts treat defensive and offensive moves as separate and discrete actions, e.g., first you block (defensive), then you kick when you find an opening (offensive). The downside of this approach is that it’s reactive and you typically just end up in a cycle of never-ending defensive movements. In Krav Maga, the fighter looks to combine an offensive movement with every defensive movement — he wants to disrupt the attack and simultaneously counterattack. For example, if an attacker goes for your throat, you’d not only try to deflect his attack, but also simultaneously counterattack by going for his eyes, groin, or throat. The goal is to neutralize your threat as quickly as possible. (Sidenote: Wing Chun also has a similar simultaneous defensive/offensive principle.)

Retzev, or continuous motion. Related to the principles of simultaneous defense and attack is retzev, a Hebrew word for “continuous motion.” David Kahn describes retzev as a “seamless explosion of violence,” in which the goal is to neutralize your attacker with a continuous series of aggressive defensive and offensive movements. As your attacker reacts to your counterattacks, you’ll respond with more punches, kicks, and headbutts until the attacker is no longer a threat. Retzev requires a fighter to work from instinct and not rely on a pre-set routine. A well-trained practitioner of Krav Maga will know how to react to any type of threat without hesitation.

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga practicing moves.

Use of weapons of opportunity. You can easily incorporate firearms and knives into Krav Maga. Besides these traditional weapons, Krav Maga also teaches practitioners to improvise and use any object at their disposal as a weapon. Keys, pens, belts, and chairs can all be incorporated into Krav Maga techniques in order to neutralize your opponent as quickly as possible.

Weapon defense. Besides teaching students how to use weapons, Krav Maga also shows how to defend yourself from an armed attack.

Focus on vulnerable soft tissue and pressure points. A well-known principle of Krav Maga is its emphasis on attacking vulnerable soft tissue and pressure points. Many counterattacks involve eye gouging, groin attacks, and strikes to the throat. Some criticize Krav Maga for this, arguing that “it’s not manly to punch a guy in the nuts.” I brought this criticism up with David during our conversation and this was his response: “Krav Maga’s goal is to neutralize a dangerous attacker as quickly as possible. Plain and simple. Sometimes a strike to the groin is the best option to neutralize an attack. When you’re violently attacked in the street, the person attacking you isn’t following some sportsman’s code of chivalry — he wants to hurt, maim, or possibly kill you — so why should you give him the courtesy of not punching below the belt? You can’t worry about fighting etiquette or what’s ‘manly’ when your life is at stake.”

Subduing techniques. In addition to striking attacks, Krav Maga also utilizes subduing techniques in order to de-escalate a violent confrontation. Joint locks and various grabs are used to exert control over your attacker and put you in a position to end the threat.

Listen to my podcast with Krav Maga expert David Kahn:

Krav Maga in Action

How to Get Started in Krav Maga

Join a Krav Maga gym. The best way to get started with Krav Maga is to join a Krav Maga gym. “Krav Maga, like any martial art, is best learned in a group and under the guidance of a well-trained instructor,” says David. Because Krav Maga is designed to prepare you for real-life attacks, you need to have people who can help simulate those situations for you in a gym. It’s hard to practice how to defend and counterattack a headlock if no one is there to put you in a headlock.

David did have one caveat about joining a Krav Maga gym. Because of Krav’s growing popularity in the United States, there are a lot martial arts studios saying they teach Krav Maga in order to get new students, even though the instructors sometimes have little or no formal training in the system. “Do your research and make sure the instructors are legit,” David says. If the instructor has trained in Israel, that’s a good sign.

As mentioned above, there are several competing Krav Maga organizations that claim to be teaching the “true” Krav Maga of Imi Lichtenfeld. It’s a touchy subject among Krav Maga followers and there have been lawsuits between the groups. David is the Chief Instructor of the U.S. Israeli Krav Maga Association (IKMA), a non-profit formed in 1978 by Imi Lichtenfeld to govern and promote the teaching of Krav Maga. There are gyms across the country that associate with U.S. IKMA. David teaches at the gym in New Jersey. If you’re in the area, stop by and check it out. David is a super nice guy and you’ll learn a lot.

Buy videos and books. If you can’t find a reputable Krav Maga gym in your area, there are plenty of instructional books and DVDs on the subject. Watching a DVD is definitely no substitute for actually training in a gym, and you shouldn’t try out moves you’ve learned solely by video in a street fight, but the DVDs will give a basic overview of Krav Maga and its techniques. I highly recommend David’s set of DVDs, Mastering Krav Maga. They’re very well-done and David does a great job explaining and demonstrating the methods and movements.

 Learn Specific Krav Maga Techniques:

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