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The "Collapsing Startle Response" aka "Protecting the Core"

2443 Views 17 Replies 12 Participants Last post by  KenpoTex
I first used the term "Startle Response" on the net on 7-12-2004, 12:02 PM in a post on another forum after a defensive edged weapons class I held in NYC the weekend before.

I have used the term since at least 1997 in my defensive edged weapons classes. By the time I was given the role of adjunct defensive edged weapons instructor at S+W's training facility in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1999 I was using the term regularly to describe ones initial reaction to perceived danger.

What is the "startle response"?

In a nutshell, it's the O' sh*t mental feeling one gets and it occurs when they are behind on the reactionary curve and taken by surprise by something that might be as simple as a car backfiring, or a baloon popping, or in the worst cases, possibly being physically attacked without warning/notice either from behind or a frontal assault, or maybe attacked by someone who has just produced a knife or gun from nowhere with no apparent prior intent to harm you, no "preassault bahavioural pattern" detected.

By the time one can say O' sh*t and your brain has the time to comprehend thinking it, it could be too late to prevent physical contact with an aggressor/assailant. It may only take a split second for the brain to think it consciously, but in the time it takes the brain to realize there is potential danger and get the muscles moving in some form of reaction, potentially fatal damage can be taken.

How do people normally react to being startled under perceived imminent danger of taking some type of physical damage? In the same way people who see imminent danger coming like a knife attack, by raising their elbows up and away from the body, extending the one or both forearms out to meet the threat along with the hands with palms facing outward.

Why do people react this way? It most likely is a natural response our ancestors developed in an attempt to keep the danger initially at some greater distance to us if possible. Animals do the same thing if they have limbs. They reach out with their claws extended like cats will do when threatened, in an attempt to keep the danger from getting any closer.

Is our natural response at using our arms and hands something we should be doing to protect ourselves when startled? Does our natural startle response to danger help us or leave us open to fatal damage to the body?

It can go both ways at times, so there is no right answer and it becomes situationally dependant on the circumstances as well as what the immediate danger is [ which we may not be able to recognize before our startle response kicks in subconsciously.

Ever seen photos of a victim who was attacked with a knife? Lots of what are known as "defensive wounds" to the forearms and hands. We use our limbs to protect us from danger, in attempting to keep the danger away from us naturally. It's the natural response damage seen in victims of this nature.

Most will move their arms and elbows away from their body to keep that danger farther away in an attempt to protect the head and body from any damage using their natural startle response.

In unarmed defensive edged weapons training, if we use our natural startle responses to danger, we are giving the aggressor targets of opportunity that are closer to hit [ the outstretched arms and hands ]. At the same time we are opening up the body's core and risk getting nailed where the real immediate life threatening damage occurs. It's obvious in class that if we extend, we take damage to the core more often than not.

If that extension occurs due to our using the body's natural startle responses, and thats a bad thing, the next question would be, what can we do to train that natural reponse of extending out of the startle response.

Good unarmed defensive edged weapons startle [ or otherwise ] responses will make use of the arms and hands to "protect the core" at all times. That requires the mind to ignore the natural response to extend, and instead endeavor to protect the core by collapsing onto itself and keeping the limbs close to the body.

One can train their startle response to use this collapsing upon itself with the forearms and hands staying as close to the body's core as possible [ from the belt to the head ] while under imminent danger and a response to being startled.

In doing so one has accomplished a few things, all beneficial to surviving the first second of an attack. First we protect the body's core immediately with the arms and hands as shields that have to be breached; second we do not give aggressor targets of opportunity [ the hands and arms ], and the third real benefit is that by collapsing/retracting the arms and hands into to the body we have made the attacker have to extend his own arms/hands further which then takes more time to get to us, but at the same time makes the power of the attack when it does connect less effective.

How does it make the power of the attack less effective? I'll use an example I use in classes which is readily apparent to everyone. When you pick up a 5 gallon bucket of paint, do you pick it up with an outstretched arm or do you pick it up and keep the bucket and arm retracted and close to your body? The answer is the latter, and it's obvious now why and it is becuase the arm loses power the further it gets from the body.

So, the power of the attack is less when it reaches us if the aggressor has had to extend his arm further and conversely we retain our power in the arms by keeping them closer to the body at the same time. More power to defend and less power from the attack when and if contact is made. Makes sense right?

It goes against our natural startle responses but it keeps our core better protected from taking damage. Learn the "collapsing startle responses".

The article wasn't written with the intent to explain how the collapsing startle responses are used, the techniques if you will. It was to get people to understand that if they only use their natural startle responses they give the aggressor advantages that are unnecessary.

It doesn't have to be used just against a knife and you'll likely not have time to determine what the aggressors intentions are or what he holds in his hand. It may be just a punch coming in, or something else held in the aggressors hand.

If you don't survive the initial second of the attack, if you didn't protect the core in that startle response of yours and took real damage, then even if your subsequent actions get the aggressor to cease and desist afterwards, you have not won at all.

Here's a few pics of what the collapsing startle response would generally look like. The first picture is for incoming limb from a right handed person and the second from a left handed person.

The face, neck and upper chest are protected by the one and the abdomen by the other. These are not blocking, they will deflect incoming from the bodies "core".

If it comes in low, the body can turn deflecting anything to the side. If it comes higher, the upper hand swats/deflects in a movement like you would swat a fly from your face, also while turning the upper body in deflecting the incoming.

How to determine which position to get into under startle? The side the attack comes from gets the upper arm/hand naturally. We are prone to get that side up to protect, the other arm just falls into postion.

The still pics can't show the movement here, but suffice to say you are not just standing around as incoming arms/hands with or without weapons are presented. The head and body are moving while the arms/hands deflect and we go from there.
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Outstanding treatise of an important subject and I agree with you 100%. I too have come to see that often and many of those "natural" or "instinctive" responses we have been told to work with are less than optimal responses. You give some excellent examples and reasons why.

I think one of the issues that is very pertinent here, and you mentioned it, is the degree of training one is willing or able to take. It seems to me that it takes substantial, consistent training to over-ride less than desireable natural responses with far better trained responses.

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Great article and very informative. Thanks for posting it.

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AzQkr, Way back when during some of my first "gettin' trained" daze, we trained using some of the principles devised and/or used by Applegate and endorced by Randall(knives)and some of his buddies. These principles were NOT high tech.

With blade in strong hand,the hand arm was kept close to the body with the thumb on top(double edged blade). The off hand outstretched somewhat to parry the slashes and stabbing movements from your adversary. Your body was in a crouched position,waist bent,knees bent. Stomach sucked in and chest in, with chin somewhat down.

We were taught that if we got cut(as we would) on the parry hand it was still somewhat useable. The blade hand/arm was different. Protect that and it would protect you. It would protect your body core (neck,stomach,liver,kidneys,intestines,and somewhat,upper thighs)as would your defensive position.

If anyone still has their Knife Fighting Manual that came with the older(late 60's) Randall fighters, it shows the position in that little book.

Nothing high tech about this but it seemed to make sense to me. I was lucky enough that I never was envolved in a toe to toe knife fight but had an instructor that was in 3 during his tour in Korea.

He only would state,"it wasn't pretty". ---------

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Thanks to everyone for your thoughts on the CSR.


The CSR is to be used before you can get to a weapon to defend yourself.

As to protecting the blade hand ala Applegate, there are two thought processes here. Jim Keating prefers to use the blade to protect, and having trained with him extensively over the years I use that method as well in my courses.

Neither theory is right or wrong or etched in stone though.


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Please allow me to play devil's advocate and (hopefully) pose a few thought provoking & interesting questions.

I am just wondering how much of a permanent learned override is really being done of the natural ingrained human defense posture.

The human mind is a pretty amazing machine in its ability to store subconscious information.

The mind is also great at association. AKA associating a training session or even multiple training sessions with a learned conditioned response.

In a training setting/environment ~ Are you TRULY being startled if your mind subliminally expects to be startled within the next few hours or even the next few days?
Or even on the way to & from training?

I am just wondering if "pre~conditioned" and "trained" Uncle Ned in Condition White...attending a Family Club Picnic...having just finished his second ear of corn & his Hot Dog...were suddenly violently attacked ~ and that attack evoked a TRUE Absolutely Unexpected Startled Response ~ Would he "remember" that training ??? or would he auto~revert back to the "normal" ingrained hands/arms position & response?

That response & momentary freeze has "been with us & part of us" since Cave Man Days. It is highly built in.

Because....I would love to see an actual slow motion video of that in order for me to believe it. I would have to see it in the circumstance described above or very similar.

A "months later" total surprise unexpected instantaneous truly startling violent attack with the "test subject" relaxed and in Condition White.

I would love to see where those hands and arms go in that scenario...on video. I'll believe that you can override that when I actually see it on video.

The reason I a am saying this is that I worked closely with large predatory animals for just enough years to know that there is some ingrained reactive behavior that absolutely & guaranteed cannot be "trained out" of living creatures.

Your thoughts on the above...greatly appreciated.

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
If you look at the pictures, they show that the natural human response is close to what is being done here. One of the reasons I developed it is that it works from ones natural reaction to being startled.

If you are truly startled from in close, you will put your hands up to protect the head, neck and face. You are more than likely to move the elbows away from the body, use the forearms and hands to block incoming.

The only difference in the pictures is that the elbows stay close to the body instead of reaching out, opening the core. The hand is up as would be expected [ no change there ], and if one gets a torso strike threat, the natural response is to get the arms to the center to block [ same with the picture ].

People collapse into themselves under attack if startled and the brain perceives real deadly threat. They may turn away from the danger and raise the elbows and hands, hence the defensive knife wounds seen on victims who have been attacked with blades, hatchets etc.

People "cringe" naturally. They "buckle" to unexpected attack unless they have experience and training. The CSR allows that natural phenom to occur with only slight modifications and protects the core much more so without getting too far away from the bodies natural reactions to attack/danger due to startle fear while it tries to sort out what is happening.

This is for very close range reactions to attack. If you are startled AND in the white, you have probably made a fatal mistake. Letting someone that close to you [ your inner circle ] and being totally oblivious to people around you and where they are in the picture is not conducive to ever surviving an attack.

The CSR is when you know where people are in your immediate area, you are not in the white [ and if you are, nothing will save your butt for being a dumb arse ], but all of a sudden you come under attack and may only have seen movement in the peripheral vision.

I don't believe Uncle Ned would be using the CSR, or have enough forethought to even be concerned with someone attacking him, like most people in the world, let alone training to use a natural response in a way that protects the core.

It takes forethought for anything to work well, and the closer we stay to our natural reactions the better.


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This is all extremely interesting to me and that is why I'm poking and prodding.

Animals including humans seem have some reactions that are so extremely instinctive, "basic" & totally primal.

It's an interesting topic (to me) that concerns the adapting and the manipulation of ingrained "normal/natural" automatic response.

So...I am just trying to understand if it's "real world possible" in actual Bam~SHTF self~defense situations.

A true startled response just auto~happens with no conscious forethought.

In other words...that is what the human body does BEFORE any conscious reactive thought has time to take place.

Thus the immediate momentary freezing of all conscious thought processes ~ until the "senses" sort things out.

For instance you will never train a cat to land on its back (even if you started training that cat from the time it was a newborn kitten) you could never train it to land on it's back when it's suddenly tossed of the top of a 8' wall. Landing On Its Feet ~ that is an ingrained survival instinct.

Ever notice that when any person gets off of a helicopter and the blades are still spinning...that person will ALWAYS duck matter on how many previous occasions that person has ever exited a helicopter with blades still spinning?
Even though the conscious, logical, mind knows that the blades are located too high up to lop off their respective heads.

Now I'm sure that you could probably easily train a person to exit a chopper while standing completely erect with some conscious forethought but, in a SHTF Unexpected Emergency Exit from a helicopter would they still Exit erect or would they auto~revert back to normal protective stooping down.

Maybe not the best example but, I'm tired right now.
My body is telling me to get some sleep.

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
Animals including humans seem have some reactions that are so extremely instinctive, "basic" & totally primal.

Like flinching?:congrats:

The CSR works with that natural response mechanism in humans pretty well.

Ever seen anyone swat at a bee when their mind perceived danger [ bee sting in the face area ]. It's reactive, not something they were trained to do. Most will get that hand up and protect the face and attempt to swat it away from them.

The CSR works on that premise, incoming danger to the head, neck. Even with no perceived danger, like a fly buzzing around your face, is treated the same way, hand/s up, head moving away from the problem and swatting it away unconsciously.

An incoming hand/punch/knife can be treated the same way. I agree with the premise that if you are totally oblivious and in the white, you'll get clocked likely, but as I mentioned before, the CSR works within the startled response if you see something coming without the time and distance to do anything else.

It's reacting to stimulus, which you can't do if you are not aware of that stimulus to begin with.


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That was great reply.
You're forcing me to think deep...I like that.

Credit where credit is due...You are on top of the ball pal. :yup:

It's interesting that a Mother will Auto Override her natural instincts (to protect her own body) when she is holding her baby in her arms. She will auto~protect the child rather than herself.
I think that is possibly a chemical change in the brain that takes place either during pregnancy or after the birth of the child ~ or during the early bonding process.

A Mother under attack will never instinctively throw her baby at the attacker in order to facilitate her own Fight Or Flight response.

OK I'm off to bed in a few minutes as soon as I quick scan the forum.

Congrats on posting one of the most interesting threads I've read on the web (in general) in quite some time.

Thanks also for letting me pick your brain a bit.

I'm sure you already have guessed that I have a great deal of respect for your training methodology.
That is for certain & you can take that to the bank. :yup:

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·

Likewise, your questions get me to thinking deep about the subject matter, I like that as well, otherwise I can fall off that ball like anyone:danceban:

I have a mutual respect for your opinion as well here sir.

Have a great holiday weekend.


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Having train H2H and knife with Azqker I can assure you that the pictures do not do the technique justice. It is a free flowing technique that transitions from defense to brutally deadly offense, extremely well.

I need to get back out to the Superstition Mountains.:comeandgetsome:

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Great thread!

I'm a huge fan of training in methods that compliment the body's natural response to a threat. Other techniques are fine if you have time to see the threat coming but you definately need something for those Oh S**t! moments.
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