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10 Self-Defense Tips That Could Save Your Life

When the unthinkable happens and you're faced with an attacker, knowing the right moves ahead of time could be key to escaping safely.

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Look like a tough target

Before an attacker even thinks about striking, your best self-defense is to look as strong and confident as possible. “People trying to attack or rob you generally are not looking for a lengthy encounter or a problem,” says Ross Cascio, expert-level instructor for Krav Maga Worldwide at headquarter training centers in Los Angeles. “They want an easy target.” Have a buddy walk with you when possible, but keep your eyes up and alert when you’re alone. Even if you’re nervous, try not to let it show. It sounds weird, but walking in the middle of the street instead of a shadowy sidewalk could help too, says Cascio. Learn more about body language that can protect you from theft.

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Make yourself hard to hold

If an attacker comes from behind you and traps you in a “bear hug” with arms wrapped around your body, the key is to make yourself difficult to deal with so the person can’t carry you away. Think of how toddlers or dogs plop down when they don’t want to move, says Cascio. “You want to drop your weight and lower your base,” he says. “Bend your knees and drop your butt so you become heavier and more difficult to move around.” Thrash from side to side while you do it to make your body harder to grip, and try to hit your attacker in the groin—one of the few places you’ll probably be able to reach if your arms are pinned down. Check out these other 11 self-defense techniques everyone should know.

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Target a choker’s thumbs

When you’re being choked, aim for the thumbs (not the fingers), because the thumbs are what give an attacker grip. Bring your thumb to the side of your index finger so it forms a C shape, then slip that hook as deep as you can through your attacker’s hands, says Cascio. “Pull down against their thumbs and back with your elbows,” he says. Kicking the person as you rip their hands off your neck will help you break free. If your partner is your attacker, read these 23 eye-opening things to know about domestic violence.

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Aim for the hands in a headlock

In a headlock, the attacker has an elbow on one side of your neck and a hand on the other. The side you choose to rip from could make or break your chances of escaping. “You want to go to the side where the hands are,” says Cascio. “On the other side, there’s nothing to break apart.” Use those C-shaped hand hooks to tear the attacker’s hands away from your neck so you can breathe safely. Check out these other martial arts moves that can save you during an attack.

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Hit the most vulnerable areas

Don’t just punch someone in the chest or arms if you need to fight back in self-defense. People can strengthen their abs, legs, and other areas to offer protection from a hit, but there are some body parts they just can’t reach. “Aim for anything that’s made for breathing or breeding,” says Cascio. The groin, nose, and eyes will be equally vulnerable on anyone, so those are your best bets for doing damage.

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Hold your body ready to punch

Your attacker probably knows about the “breathing and breeding” rule, too, so be sure to protect your face if you’re forced into a fight. Bring your hands up, with your fingertips in line with your eyebrows or the tops of your ears, says Cascio. Also, be sure to keep your chin down. “It’s very easy to get knocked out being hit in the chin or jaw,” says Cascio. “Think of how much tougher your forehead is.” Don’t miss this heroic story of a woman who was almost killed saving a stranger’s life.

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Know how to defend a punch

Punches can come from two ways: straight at you down the center or hooked from the outside. If a fist is coming straight on, the best self-defense is to redirect it away from your body with your hand, says Cascio. It’s harder to change the direction of a hooked punch, so your arm can act as a barrier to keep the fist from getting close. Wait until you hear how this man single-handedly brought down a bank robber.

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Flatten your foot to kick

Your instinct might be to kick with your toes facing up, keeping your ankle neutral. But that position means you’re only hitting with the length and width of your five toes, says Cascio. Instead, flatten your foot so your shoelaces face the ceiling. “Putting that up presents my foot as a longer and flatter striking surface,” he says. For a groin kick (remember, breathing and breeding!), drive up and through.

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Know when to give up

Don’t try to be a hero if someone wants your purse or wallet, especially if the person has a weapon. “My instinct is to say ‘let them have it’ if there’s nothing in there that can’t be replaced,” says Cascio. You can always replace your credit cards and phone—and no possession is worth risking your life for. Still, losing those items could risk your privacy and security, so never, ever carry these 12 things in your purse.

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Practice, practice, practice

Reading tips is one thing, but practice is key to successfully escaping a life-threatening situation, says Cascio. Taking a self-defense class can train your reactions. “You don’t have to be a champion fighter,” he says. “If you just want to be a little safer or understand a little more about fighting back and what you’re capable of, get in and make it a part of your life.” Check out these other 9 tricks for outsmarting criminals.