Krav Maga Principles

Krav Maga was developed in an environment that showed no mercy. The brutal reality of street fights and battlefield operations led to the no-nonsense approach the style is known for.

The principles of Krav Maga are simple. There are no rules and no limitations.

Page content:
  • The Krav Maga Philosophy
  • Core Combat Principles
  • Training Principles
  • Technical Principles of Defence
  • Technical Principles of Attack
  • References

The Krav Maga Philosophy

Krav Maga is a self-defence system developed by the Israeli army. Although it integrates elements from a number of combat sports and martial arts, Krav Maga was, from the very beginning, rooted in real life situations.

Become proficient, so you do not have to kill” -Imi Lichtenfeld

The history of Krav Maga is closely linked to the lives of its founder Imi Lichtenfeld and the first generation of instructors he trained, who first opposed the Nazis in the 1930ies and 40ies, and later fought in the Israel Defense Forces.

Krav Maga Principles

With its focus on real-world situations, Krav Maga philosophy rests on the pragmatic approach of “this is the problem – what is the solution?". The absolute priority being survival.

The brutal circumstances that saw the creation of Krav Maga highlighted several core truths about violence:
  1. There are no rules in a street fight, i.e. aggressors don't follow some sportsman’s code of chivalry, they're trying to hurt, maim, or possibly kill you.
  2. Noone is coming to save you. You can only rely on yourself.
  3. There will be multiple aggressors.
  4. They will be bigger and stronger than you.

This leads to a number of combat and training principles.

Core Combat Principles

Krav Maga doctrine emphasises brutal counterattacks based on simultaneous defensive and offensive maneuvers with continuous motion ("Retzev") in order to stop the assault and neutralise the threat as quickly as possible.

1- Finish the fight as quickly as possible

In a fight, you're All in or All out, i.e. you get to contact or disengage/escape.

While the safest option is to avoid violence, it is not always possible to do so. And if you have to fight, you must neutralise all the threats as quickly as possible in order to prevent or minimise any risk of injury.

"Inflict maximum damage to your enemy, with minimum time spent, while sustaining minimum harm to yourself" -Eyal Yanilov

The longer a fight goes on, the more likely you're going to get hurt so it's important to counterattack as soon as possible (or even attack pre-emptively) in order to turn the tables quickly, disengage and get back home unharmed.

With the idea to move swiftly in order to overcome resistance, the importance of speed in warfare was already highlighted by Sun Tzu in the 5th century BC (The Art of War).

Armies must move quickly to secure ground that favors them in battle, maneuver rapidly around the enemy to hit his flanks, exploit breakthroughs, and pursue enemies in retreat.

"Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness" -Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

In war as well as at the individual level, speed provides four advantages:
  1. it is a substitute for resources
  2. it shocks and surprises the enemy
  3. it is critical to exploiting weaknesses and opportunities
  4. it builds momentum

Finishing the fight as quickly as possible is the overarching goal that governs all the other principles of Krav Maga.

It comes with two important corollaries:
  1. A counterattack should be decisive: i.e. immediate/sudden, quick, ferocious and overwhelming.
  2. Threats should be dealt with in order of priority:
    • Stop the most immediate threat first: i.e. the first aggressor has to be stopped first otherwise you'll have to fight two attackers at the same time.
    • In case of simultaneous threats, prioritise the one that poses the greater risk/problem: e.g. a punch in the face vs a grab.

It is useful to reflect on these issues during training as some situations are counter-intuitive.

2- A good defensive action doesn't go without an offensive motion

The idea is to combine defensive and offensive moves into one action instead of treating them as distinct phases (i.e. 1-block, 2-retaliate).

Simultaneous defence/counterattack will disrupt the attack, force the aggressor on his backfoot and help to rapidly neutralise the threat.

In the 19th century, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz stated:

"defense is nothing more than a means by which to attack the enemy most advantageously" -Carl von Clausewitz (Principles of War)

When this is not possible, you must switch from defensive to offensive maneuvers as soon as possible.

The principle of simultaneous defense and attack goes hand in hand with the principle of continuous motion ("Retzev").

3- Continuous Motion (Retzev)

Mobility is one of the main tactical functions in military theories where it refers to how quickly a fighting force can move.

"A fundamental principle is never to remain completely passive." -Carl von Clausewitz (On War)

More recent military doctrine holds that an effective counterattack should disrupt the ennemy's thought process and decision making capacity (i.e. the OODA loop).

This is true on any scale. Whether a one-to-one duel or a large battle, fast-paced sequences of strikes will create much disruption and confusion because they are hard to defend.

That, in essence, is Retzev (or Retzef), "continuous motion" in Hebrew.

The idea is to apply relentless forward pressure on the aggressor with series of rapid and uninterrupted defensive and offensive movements using all bodyparts available to strike (i.e. head, fists, elbows, knees, feet).

"In both the early modern and World War II examples, the cumulative psychological shock effect on the enemy was often greater than the actual casualties incurred." -Holmes & al. (The Oxford Companion to Military History, pp. 895–896)

The limitations of your own movements along with the aggressor's response to your counterattack imply that specific strikes are situationally dependent.

Leveraging natural movements, the techniques used in a Retzev sequence should be smoothly strung together and the process should be prolonged until the threat is neutralised.

At the heart of Retzev is the optimisation of movement and it requires to take into account a number of factors:
  • balance
  • weight shifting
  • coordination
  • power
  • speed
  • timing/rhythm
  • distance
  • angle

The importance of mobility -and mobility training- in fights has been highlighted by a number of incredibly successful UFC fighters such as Conor McGregor, Lyoto Machida or George St Pierre.

"The way to win in a battle according to military science is to know the rhythms of the specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect." -Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings)

While the notion of "continous motion" exists in other martial arts, it is one of the core principles of Krav Maga.

4- Look for weapons of fortune

One of the premises of Krav Maga is that there are no rules in survival. And no limitations either. So pretty much anything goes in Krav Maga.

Consequently, everyday objects such as keys, pens, belts, chairs, broomsticks, can be used as improvised weapons to help neutralise an aggressor as quickly as possible.

In certain situations such as multiple aggressors or armed aggressors, odds are massively stacked against the victim. So the use of environmental weapons can provide the necessary leverage needed to escape safely.

5- Avoid Strength, Attack Weakness: Focus your attacks on the most vulnerable body parts

Striking where the ennemy is most vulnerable is an old military axiom and one of Sun Tzu’s central principle in his The Art of War .

"in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak." -Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

There are two important elements in Sung Tzu's thoughts: Attack the ennemy where he is weak, never where he is strong, and do so with speed.

This principle is true at an individual level. You should never try to match an aggressor strength ("they will be bigger and stronger than you"). Instead target their weaknesses and focus on the body's most vulnerable points, particularly soft tissues:
  • eyes
  • face
  • throat
  • groin
  • knees
Attacking the opponent’s weak points is a much more effective and efficient use of resources and time.

6- Scan for the next threat

Remember, there will be multiple aggressors. So, always scan (and be ready) for additional threats along with escape routes and potential weapons.

Physically scanning around will also help overcome tunnel vision that is induced by stress, and help reactivate peripheral vision.

7- Escape as soon as possible and check for injuries

Removing yourself from a violent situation is a priority because you can't know for sure if more violence is not going to erupt.

Checking yourself for injuries (particularly knife or gun wounds) is critical for survival because you can lose a lots of blood very quickly.

Krav Maga Combat Principles

Training Principles

Research on the psychology and physiology of combat (i.e. David Grossman, 2004, On Combat), shows that when heart rate increases rapidly due to psychological stress (e.g., fear in a deadly force encounte), motor skills and cognitive ability degrade rapidly too:
  • 115 BPM (moderate-intensity run) - fine motor skills deteriorate
  • 145 BPM - Complex motor skills and cognitive functioning diminish but gross motor skills remain
  • past 175 BPM - most people experience total physical and cognitive breakdown

This is known as Performance Degradation.

Data taken from 6-12 round spars with professional boxers show that 65% of the time is spent at 90% max heart rate (MHR), that is well above the 145 BPM threshold.

This means that in a typical violent confrontation you will be able to rely solely on gross motor skills and limited cognitive functions.

Similarly, decrement in cognitive performance has been noted for Navy SEALS and Rangers during stressful combat-like training (Lieberman et al, 2005, The fog of war).

 "combat stress will result in extensive and severe deficits in cognitive performance" -Lieberman et al. (The fog of war)

If highly trained professional fighters and elite military unit personels are so acutely impacted by combat stress, we can assume that everybody will be too.

This has important implications in terms of training and techniques:

1- Techniques should be kept as simple as possible

In the grand scheme of things, you want simple techniques and the smallest collection of techniques possible to deal with the margest amount of situations.

Self-defence techniques should be simple and draw mostly on gross motor skills.

 "Fear makes men forget, and skill that cannot fight is useless." -Brasidas of Sparta (422 BC)

In that view, Krav Maga was ahead of its time. And it was designed so that it could be put to use as soon as possible and regardless of size, gender, body type and physical abilities.

This was particularly important for the Israeli military because they could not devote many hours to hand-to-hand combat training for their personel.

2- Techniques should rely on the body's natural reactions and reflexes

To avoid technical block, motor skills deficiency and "freeze" responses, techniques should rely on the body’s natural reflexes and gross motor skills.

Similarly, to ensure maximum effectiveness and efficiency, techniques should make sense from a bio-mechanical point of view.

There again, Krav Maga was ahead of its time. The focus is on instinctive movements, practical techniques, and realistic training scenarios which makes it one of the most efficient self-defence system in the world.

3- Use the body’s natural weapons as well as ordinary objects

Your body comes with a number of weapons you should know how to use: the fists, obviously, but also the elbows, the knees, and the feet. Being proficient with these natural weapons is key.

Any improvised weapon such as a belt or a bottle can also tip the scales in your favour.

4- Be aware of your surroundings

Since relatively simple cognitive functions such as reaction time and vigilance are significantly impaired during stressful combat situations (Lieberman et al., 2005, The fog of war), insistance on awareness is key.

Situational awareness along with a good understanding of the dynamics of a street confrontation can go a long way in keeping you safe because it allows you to identify potential threats before an attack occurs.

This is why Krav Maga instructors insist on scanning and evaluating threats before, during and after a violent encounter.

Good awareness of your surroundings while dealing with the threat will help you to localise escape routes, to spot further attackers, or potential weapons.

5- Understand the psychology and physiology of violence

A good understanding of the dynamics of a street confrontation can go a long way in keeping you safe because it allows you to identify potential threats before an attack occurs.

Similarly, developing an awareness of the physiological effects of stress should be an important part of the training. 

Krav Maga Training Principles

Technical Principles of Defence

In terms of defence, speed and technique are key and more important than strength. Reaction/response time is crucial which is why repetition is so important (the pianist fingers go faster than his eyes; that's muscle memory gained through repetition).

The second major point is to acquire skills for real-life situations. Violent encounters would come in a variety of situations (including adverse circumstances) with a variety aggressors (different sizes, speed, body types, etc) who would use a variety of attacks (every person attacks in a different way), so you have to prepare accordingly, be able to improvise, to quickly adapt to any situation and to perform under stress and fatigue.

"The more we train, the more tools we gain."

According to Eyal Yanilov (Krav Maga Global), the following points should be taken into account in regard to defence:
  1. The 3 types of dynamic defences:
    • Lateral and horizontal moves (8 directions on the compass rose)
    • Torque, pivot and turn
    • Change of height
  2. The defences that stop, deflect or redirect an attack
  3. The releases related to ground self-defence and grappling

It is also essential to remember that ground is not your friend. You have to have a strong ground fighting game. Most fight end up on the ground and you need to get out of the situation as soon as possible. But you also want to avoid getting there as much as possible. Stay on your feet or get back on them quickly.

Technical Principles of Attack

When it comes to attacks, the Krav Maga mind-set is to focus on the vulnerable points of your opponent's body such as head, eyes, throat, groin, knees, etc.The rational behind that is that these soft spots offer you the most leverage regardless of your opponent's strength and size, and regardless of your own strength and size. No fat or muscle protect these weak points.

The response to an attack should be quick and intense.

The counter attack should be a full out move. The threat must to be neutralised as quickly as possible because:
  1. You might not have another opportunity: if you got to this point, it means you survived the initial attack. You might not get through the second round so your counter-attack has to be decisive.
  2. There might be multiple aggressors: You can fight only one person at a time. So, if there are multiple attackers, you have make sure each one of them is neutralised as quickly as possible and before they all make contact.

The counter-attack should be carried with "violent intent". That is, you have to have the deep and unwavering determination to hurt your aggressor more than he/she is ready to hurt you.

Eyal Yanilov highlights 6 principles of attacks:
  1. Understand the hierarchy "tool", "technique", "principles", "variations", "simulations" and "role-play"
  2. Understand the importance and the effects of recoil
  3. Understand the importance of speed and mass in the increase of kinetic energy and pulse/momentum.
  4. Understand the kinetic chain and the principles of biomechanic
  5. Understand the 5 ranges:
    • XS: grappling
    • S: head-butts, elbows, hooks, knees and hammer strikes
    • M: Punches
    • L: Kicks
    • XL: Advance, weapon, force multiplier
  6. Understand the 6 directions:
    • 2 horizontals
    • 2 verticals
    • Straight in / straight out

Want to Learn more about Krav Maga?

Read some of our articles on Krav Maga


Aviram, Boaz (2014) Krav Maga: Use Your Body as a Weapon. Skyhorse Editions.

Aviram, Boaz (2009) Krav Maga - Use of the Human Body as a Weapon: Philosophy and Application of Hand to Hand Fighting Training System.

Green, Thomas A. , and Joseph R. Svinth (2010) Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO.

Kahn, David (2019) Krav Maga Combatives: Maximum Effect. YMAA Publication Center.

Kahn, David (2016) Krav Maga Defense: How to Defend Yourself Against the 12 Most Common Unarmed Street Attacks. Griffin Publisher.

Kahn, David (2012) Krav Maga Weapon Defenses: The Contact Combat System of the Israel Defense Forces. Ymaa Publication Center.

Kahn, David (2008) Advanced Krav Maga: The Next Level of Fitness and Self-Defense. Griffin Publisher.

Kahn, David (2004) Krav Maga: An Essential Guide to the Renowned Method--for Fitness and Self-Defense. St. Martin's Griffin.

Katz, Moshe (2016) Footsteps from Judea: My Journey in Krav Maga and Life. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Levine, Darren, and John Whitman (2016) Complete Krav Maga: The Ultimate Guide to Over 250 Self-Defense and Combative Techniques. Ulysses Press.

Levine, Darren, and Ryan Hoover (2009) Black Belt Krav Maga: Elite Techniques of the World's Most Powerful Combat System. Ulysses Press.

Levine, Darren, John Whitman, and Ryan Hoover (2009) Krav Maga for Beginners: A Step-by-Step Guide to the World's Easiest-to-Learn, Most-Effective Fitness and Fighting Program. Ulysses Press.

Lo Presti, Gaetano (2015) Imi Lichtenfeld - The Grand Master of Krav Maga. Youcanprint.

McNeilly, Mark R. (2015) Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare. Oxford University Press.

Sde-Or, Imi, and Eyal Yanilov (2001) Krav Maga : How to Defend Yourself Against Armed Assault. Dekel Publishing House.


Human Weapon (2007) S1.E7: Krav Maga. The History Channel.

Fight Quest (2008) S1.E9: Krav Maga. Discovery Channel.

Fight Science (2008) E3: Special Ops. National Geographic Channel.

Fight World (2018) S1.E5: Israel: Masters of War. Netflix.

Dziewonski, Greg (2018) Krav Maga - the way of life. Vimeo.

Hackel, Jack (2012) Krav Maga Israeli IMI System.

Kleinman, Yoav (2016) The history of Krav Maga. Krav Maga Global.

Yanilov, Eyal (2014) Interview of Imi Lichtenfeld. Part 1. Part 2. KGM.

Yanilov, Eyal (2014) Remembering Imi. Krav Maga Global.

History: Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga.Lorrine Suder.


Cossar, Vicki-Marie (2013) "Krav maga: Why women are taking on the brutal Israeli army self-defence technique". Metro, Monday 28 Oct 2013.

Lavelle, Anthony (2009) "Krav Maga, the Israeli art of self-defence". FT Magazine, April 18, 2009.

Kershner, Isabel (2017) "Battle Royale Over Rightful Heir to Israeli Self-Defense Discipline". New York Times, Dec. 30, 2017.

Moss, Stephen (2016) "Krav maga – from Bratislavan streetfighting to Westminster". The Guardian, Wed 17 Aug 2016 (Last modified on Sat 25 Nov 2017).

Rousseau, Daphne, and Sara Puig (2016) "From the IDF to Hollywood: Krav Maga’s meteoric rise". Times of Israel, 19 May 2016.

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