The Elephant in the Dojo…Duress!

In 1996 Peyton Quinn published a book through Paladin Press called “Real Fighting: Adrenaline Stress Conditioning through Scenario-based Training.”  In this book the Bulletman training suit was first introduced to me.  If you’re not familiar, this was basically a giant suit of padded armor with a huge helmet that allowed a simulated attacker to be hit with almost full force without the risk of severe injury.  I recall asking my martial arts instructor at the time, if we could get one or something like it.  We never did, but along the way I’ve attempted to fabricate ways of taking full force strikes without injury, always to no avail.

The concept of scenario- based training was something that was never pushed much in any traditional martial arts school I’ve trained at.  The reason is twofold: One, most martial artists don’t fully grasp the effects of adrenal stress on the body.  Second, scenario-based training, if done right, is really scary.  Most recreational martial artists train as a social outlet or to get some exercise.  They simply don’t want to put themselves through the effects of adrenal stress.

How bad can adrenal stress really be during a scenario? After all, the guys who are attacking you  are your own training partners. (and friends)  First let me tell you how we set up scenarios and then let me tell you a few things about your own body under stress.


Combatives instructor Kelly McCann (Owner – Kembatives Civilian Training Center) teaching a group on how a scenario should be approached from the attackers perspective as well as the trainee.

A few years ago, our combatives group started training at a Cross Fit gym after hours.  No one was ever there so our scenarios got very ….imaginative.    For example, you sit alone in a gym with music blasting, armed only with your training knife.  Minutes go by and you begin to get a slow adrenal leek.  This is what most people call, the butterflies.  You breathing is off, your arms feel heavy and your heart rate is elevated.  Then one person (not part of the scenario) walks into the gym through the back door and says something along the lines of “in 30 seconds, walk out back to you car.”  That’s all the information you get.  Now remember, there are no rules here, none.  All you (trainee) knows is that you are to walk out the back door of the gym and get in your car. Seems simple enough.

So you leave the gym through the back door and there is your car about 50 feet away.  You begin to walk towards your vehicle when you hear two guys, standing 30 feet from your car, talking loudly about sports.  They see you and engage you in conversation.  You try to control space as they try to set up an attack, one flanks you as the other continues to talk.  Then without warning you are slammed against your car, gun under your chin with both guys in your face.  You get slapped across the side of your head and your wallet is stripped as well as your keys.  You are forced to your knees.  The trunk of your car opens and you are told “Motherfucker, get in!” 

What you do next doesn’t look anything like martial arts.  It’s a gross motor scramble for your life.  Trust me, it feels real, because it is.  You learn fast what works and what doesn’t.  That training knife you are so good with, yeah well you forgot you had it or didn’t have time to get it.  Everything slows down, you feel slow, you’re limbs feel heavy.  You fight through the moving abyss of unknown attacks and find your way clear of the attackers. Then, it’s over. Everyone needs a minute because fingers get tweaked, noses and lips sometimes bleed, and the bruises …..well, you will feel them tomorrow.  By the way, the first guy who told you to walk to your car, he was there too, but filming the whole thing for review later.   But why didn’t you see him?

You watch the video he took, and it’s as if you cant recognize who you’re looking at. It looks far faster than it felt and you see yourself doing things you don’t recall doing 10 minutes ago.  It feels like it wasn’t you.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you make mistakes that cost you.  But you always learn.  You learn what your go to strikes are under duress, and you learn to handle fear and stress.



Combatives instructor Kelly McCann (owner of Kembatives Civilian Training Center) VIOLENTLY chin ripping coach Dylan Murphy (Lead Instructor for Dynamis Alliance) during a seminar.


So what happens to your body under extreme stress? 

  • The adrenal glands: The adrenal glands release copious amounts of adrenaline. We all deal with slow adrenal leeks regularly; this is the butterflies mentioned earlier. This alone can become corrosive. But a dump of the stuff all at once can turn you to stone if you’re not used to it. The adrenal glands are also responsible for the majority of the effects detailed below.
  • The Heart: Heart rate increases to uncomfortable levels and blood pressure increases as well. This forces oxygen rich blood to muscles that may need to run or fight.
  • The Lung: Bronchioles dilate allowing greater gas exchange and flood the blood with oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.
  • The Liver: Glycogen, the bodies natural pep pills, which really are stores of starch, get broken down to glucose. The increased sugar aids in ATP production in the cells.
  • The Eye: We lose peripheral vision, this is called tunnel vision, and it’s the reason you didn’t know you were being filmed during the scenario. This is the body’s way of focusing on the threat, and only the threat.
  • The Ear:  Hearing turns off. This is called auditory exclusion.
  • The Hands: Fine motor skills are lost. Forget your complex wrist lock or disarms. Gross motor skills are all you have. Ever try dialing your phone with shaking hands after a very stressful near miss in your car?
  • The skin Blood vessels constrict, you feel cool and clammy. This allows blood to move to the muscles, heart, and lungs. You will also bleed less if injured because surface level vessels will be constricted. 
  • For more data on the effects of duress on performance, see the work of Bruce Siddle


  • So what’s the bottom line?


Under extreme stress, the feelings you misinterpret as fear are actually survival mechanisms. Use the enhanced gross motor strength to your advantage. Train to fight this way. Hammer fists, knees, and elbows all work well under stress. On the other hand, joint manipulation, high kicks and anything that requires depth perception, not so much.

Combative training groups use scenarios as a tool to accomplish several different goals.  One is to test the validly of their assumed strengths. If it works under extreme duress created by a scenario, then it has a better chance of working against a real attacker.

The second is stress inoculation.   We have all been inoculated against deadly diseases in our lives.  We receive a small, weakened portion of a dangerous pathogen in a vaccine which allows our bodies to develop immunity safely.   The same is true of adrenal stress.  We dose ourselves with stress slowly, and over time, we build up immunity to its effects.  An adrenal dump that would cripple someone unfamiliar to its effects can be used as an advantage to someone who understands what is happening within the body. This skill is extremely useful not only in a fight, but in a near car accident, a medical emergency, or even a job interview.

So how do you infuse scenarios into your training?

Don’t use scenarios every night.  Put them in strategically from time to time.  Be sure to lay out basic safety precautions, and have a first aid kit ready just in case. It makes sense to have a safety monitor as well.  This is a guy who is not in the scenario but can watch and step in to stop it if need be.

Lastly, as veteran combative instructor Lee Morrison says, be sure to tell everyone when scenario day will be.  This way they feel the effects of the slow adrenal leek all day as they think about it.   Let them worry about what may happen.  This will force them to defeat their own doubts first, and show up anyway.



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