What training with a male Krav Maga partner can be like for a woman

Every once in awhile I have a night that transcends a typical class and I leave feeling buzzed.

I arrive at the 6pm class just as it’s starting. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder to bow in and I look down the line at the other trainees… all men.

Let me just take a little detour here to say I’ve noticed a lot more women doing Krav Maga in this gym compared to seven years ago. I would be the only lady in a lot of classes back then. Nearly every present-day class has at least two girls. It’s not that uncommon for half the class or more to be women. It’s an exciting transition and I appreciate the effort my gym makes to introduce more women to these self-defense techniques.

Anyway, it’s rare to be in a class with 100% dudes.

After we bow in, I look to the guy on my left. He’s roughly my height, but significantly more muscled. I point to him and he nods silently acknowledging our new partner status. One of the other instructors, Drew, asks if he can partner with us too.

I put on my 16 ounce boxing gloves and insert my mouth guard. Matt, our instructor, tells us to start shadow boxing and then light sparring for our warm up. The sparring is fierce. Usually, it starts off light. Guys will go a little easy on me to start. These two don’t give me a second to breathe.

We transition into a defense with sparring. As two of us spar, the third partner tries to put the sparring partner of his choice in a head lock. Your job as the defender is to recognize a headlock as it’s coming on and slip out of it. Since the person who tried to put you in a head lock has just attacked you, you start sparring them.

I can feel my arms start to windmill. I have to pull my chin back down and focus on the balance between shooting in and letting my feet do some of the work, and using my long arms to my advantage. Some days it feels like I’m fighting myself as much as my sparring partner.

Some days it feels like I’m fighting myself as much as my sparring partner.

My chin juts up as I swing wildly at N’s head. He blocks and—seeing the opening—clocks me in the jaw. It doesn’t really hurt since we’re using 16oz boxing gloves, but it doesn’t matter either way. No time to apologize or stop or think. I swing my arm up in a fast hook and catch him in the chin. We break apart briefly and then Drew is on me with a head lock.

We’re a swirling mass of arms, trying not to get pummeled in the face, trying to get out of head locks. It’s exhausting.

After the first two minutes of this, my high pony tail has transformed into a rats nest at the base of my neck. My face is beet red, a sure sign I didn’t drink enough water today. 30 second rest period is over. Back to it.

When I have to exert more aggression than usual, when I’m pushed to my upper limit and I have to dig deep to channel my inner warrior princess, I have so much more fun. I discover what I’m made of and I see my (current) limitations. It’s a different kind of training. Less technical. It’s a training in permission. I give myself permission to fight hard.

We work on defending head locks from the ground and the guys continue to push me. They put their full weight in each attack. They pretzel me and twist me up. They force me to try hard. I challenge them too. I lock my wiry arms around their necks, sink my weight, and pretend my lady arms are more powerful than reality. While I’m waiting for my turn to attack or defend, I think of ways to make it more difficult. I watch how they defend and I look for weaknesses.

The positions we defend from still feel scary sometimes. I trust these guys, but when I get flipped onto my stomach and their weight is baring down on my back, my lizard brain pumps extra adrenaline into my system. Get out of this! Get out! 

In those moments, I stop thinking about the defense and I just defend. It doesn’t even have to be what we’re practicing. Sometimes, what you’re doing doesn’t work anyways and you have to try something else. You might get a couple tries or you’ll get approximately one second and one shot before the moment has passed and you have to adjust your strategy.

This is one of the beautiful things about level two classes compared to level one. In level one, you’re learning the basics of throwing strikes and defending attacks. When you get to level two, you have the human component. You’re working against someone else. Someone who has a smart brain and wants the same thing you want—only for themselves.

I took some licks tonight, but I gave some too. There’s power in training with guys willing to push you. You can more easily see where you need work.

This is why I go to Krav Maga. To learn something useful and to have my ass handed to me, but to leave feeling a safer.

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