7 Essential Books for Beginners

Whether you’re just starting out learning about self-protection or you’re already a seasoned cognoscenti in the field, a little reading never goes amiss. Particularly if you’ve done a decent amount of training in a martial art – perhaps you’re a black belt looking for new avenues of knowledge to devour –  but you haven’t received any training specifically tailored towards self-protection, it is beneficial to read around the subject. If you’re an instructor or are considering going down that route, it’s essential.

For those of us without experience who are beginning their training, these books will give you a significant head-start. More than that, they will help you to not train in any “bad habits” or misconceptions that are so prevalent and easily taken on. They are all written by knowledgeable and well-respected authors in the field and while nobody’s words are above question (Never stop asking questions!), the advice in these pages is sound.

Here are 7 books that have been influential on my learning journey, taken from our recommended reading list which is full of excellent books. All the publishing info so you can find the right books is included at the bottom of the page.

7) Dead or Alive: The Choice is Yours

The perfect general starting point by Geoff Thompson

doa.PNG(I believe my copy is the 2010 edition, which I think had seen a few revisions). It is exactly what it says it is: a great resource for basic techniques that, really, everyone should know about. They’re all very simple and can be employed by people with minimal or even no training – the real effort is in drilling them intensely and realistically enough so that they can become instinctive and actually useful for you as an individual.

There are lots of photos and it’s all split up into logical chapters. No jargon and associated rubbish in this – it’s just simple and useful stuff that anyone can understand. Seasoned self-protectionists might find it a little too simple in places, but it’s a great resource regardless.

Chapter 21 is particularly valuable: it has a series of case studies from the research Geoff did, with transcripts of interviews with offenders, etc. It’s an awesome resource, and I recommend everyone have a good look through it. Accessible and easily digestible, it’s the perfect starting point.

6) Understanding Reasonable Force

Staying on the right side of the law by clearing up misconceptions by Mark Dawes

urf.PNGThis is a truly fantastic book, and I highly recommend it for anyone in the UK, whether trained and interested or not. Not just a statement of what the law is, it’s a great guide for people unsure of how to interpret the ambiguous terms ‘reasonable force’, ‘necessary’, etc that crop up in discussions of this nature.

Without an understanding of the law, there’s a real danger that we could train in such a way that we’re going to get ourselves into serious trouble.

Simply put, if your training doesn’t include any understanding of the force continuum, reasonable force, etc then it just isn’t self-protection.

It’s written in such a way that people without law degrees can understand it fine, and isn’t dry and boring while still being packed with useful information. There are plentiful case studies and real examples, with references for you to do your own research. It clears up a lot of issues and leaves you equipped to clear up any remaining ones for yourself.

5) Empower Your Kids to be Safe … For Life

How to safeguard children and teach them to protect themselves by Phil Thompson

eyktbsfl.PNGAnother often-neglected side of self-protection is how to protect others and how to teach them to protect themselves.

When it comes to children, it can be a difficult subject to broach. Safeguarding children, however, is perhaps the most critical element of self-protection in today’s world. The aware children of today will become the aware parents of tomorrow, so if we’re ever going to make a difference in the world and make it a safer and more pleasant place to live, it’s through children that we’ll accomplish that.

This well-thought-out, well-written book is invaluable for anyone responsible for children. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a carer an uncle, instructor or older sibling, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

With more people thinking along the lines presented in this book when it comes to children, the world will be a safer and happier place. There are fantastic ideas in this that I definitely recommend everyone take a look at.

4) Let Every Breath…

How to achieve true control of your breath and your body by Vladimir Vasiliev and Scott Meredith

leb.PNGAs well as accumulating knowledge about crime and its prevention, it’s important that we don’t begin to neglect the physical side of things. Physical fitness and conditioning is a hugely important part of an all-round approach to self-protection as without it our physical skills will be ineffective and our ability to escape from bad situations will be similarly compromised.

Aside from this, however, many fall into the trap of not paying much attention to what’s going on in their body when they’re exercising and, crucially, when dealing with fear. The most beneficial practices I’ve found for both enhancing our training and for dealing with fear are outlined in this little book. The relationship between breathing and other physical and psychological processes is fascinating. Read it with an open mind, try what it says, and you’ll be surprised how much of a truly profound impact it can have.

If you want to achieve mediocrity, you can safely ignore this information. If you want to achieve mastery then you need this understanding. Effective breathwork is especially helpful when you start working on the material in our next book on the list…

3) Convict Conditioning

Gaining mastery over your own body and building extreme strength with progressive calisthenics by Paul Wade

cc.PNGToo often, calisthenics are done mindlessly just as a warm-up. Many often perform them with poor form and too quickly, relying on momentum and elastic recoil to fling themselves into the next rep. Those who can perform, say, a pushup well will often fall into the trap of staying with that movement long after it stopped challenging them and thus do not incorporate logical progression into their training. As a result, they plateau and stop making progress. Others focus on pushing or pulling increasingly heavy weights with unnatural movement patterns, ruining their joints in the process.

This is hands-down the best exercise approach I have ever encountered. At the time of writing this review, I have been following the six paths of exercise progression for a year and I have been noticeably and demonstrably stronger week on week, month on month, throughout. The progression of increasingly challenging movements in the six different exercises is not only enjoyable and motivating, but ensures that you build real, functional strength with natural and healthy movement patterns. This means your joints are looked after as well as your muscles. It’s accessible to people of all levels of fitness as the first steps in each exercise path are incredibly easy. You don’t have to be able to do a single pushup or leg raise to start this, but you’ll end up working towards feats of strength far beyond these standard movements. I cannot recommend this approach highly enough: it is now the cornerstone of all my strength training. It’s all I need.

2) A Woman’s Toolkit for Recovery from Violence and Trauma

How to cope with the aftermath of traumatic events by Anna Valdiserri

awtfrfvat.PNGIt’s easy to focus so much on preparation, prevention and protection that we forget to deal with the remaining facet of violence: what comes after.

This book is comprehensive without being overly wordy or weighed down with excessive jargon and case study after case study as many such things are. It’s a step-by-step, well-considered look at how to deal with the aftermath of a violent encounter. While its intended audience is women, there’s nothing that isolates men from benefiting from its guidance. It’s a very useful resource for men and women alike to understand the often complex psychological, emotional and social processes that go on after violence occurs. I would recommend this not only as a valuable exercise in understanding your own recovery but as guidance in helping others through the same. True justice is often not done to this aspect of violence by self-protection instructors, or may even be completely omitted from their training and study, and this book can assist very effectively with that shortcoming.

1) Meditations on Violence

The game-changer by Rory Miller

mov.PNGThis has stood the test of time and is on the shelf of every well-read instructor I know. It stands out as the authoritative text on the matter, and is perfect both for beginners and for those with some training under their belt who want to ensure they’re on the right track.

It is a truly invaluable insight into the difference between martial arts training and real violence, from an author who is talking from experience, not theories. It’s a rare thing to find an author on this topic who simultaneously knows what he is writing about and can write about it well, but Sgt. Rory Miller certainly can. It’s full of detailed information on the physical and psychological sides of violence, and is expressed in such a way that it’s easily understood.

If you’re not entirely sure your training is up to the demands of real violence, give this a read. If you are entirely sure your training is up to the demands of real violence, give this a read anyway. I can’t recommend it enough.


As you can see from our recommended reading list, there are a great number of excellent books to choose from on any of these subjects. These seven were chosen because they will give you a broad and often in-depth understanding of many of the most important aspects of self-protection study. By following their advice, you’ll build an understanding of:

  • General self-protection concepts:
    • Threat awareness
    • Threat evaluation
    • Threat avoidance
    • Communicative strategies
    • Force deployment
  • UK law, “reasonable force” and the Force Continuum
  • Safeguarding children (and others who you’re responsible for)
  • Breathwork for increased effectiveness in exercise, increased effectiveness of force deployment and for mastering fear to avoid panic
  • Efficient and effective strength and conditioning that looks after your overall health as well as the strength of your muscles
  • How to cope with the aftermath of traumatic events and how to help others who have gone through them
  • How to ensure that your training serves you well, is relevant and is efficient.

Happy reading!

– Josh Nixon


Book List:

Thompson, Geoff. Dead or Alive: The Choice Is Yours: The Definitive Self-Protection Handbook. Summersdale. 2004. ISBN 978-1-84024-279-9.

Dawes, Mark. Understanding Reasonable Force. NFPS. 2006. ISBN 1-84667-012-8.

Thompson, Phil. Empower Your Kids to be Safe … For Life: Vital information every parent must know to keep their kids safe from child predators and violence. BookPal. 2009. ISBN 978-1-921578-31-1.

Vasiliev, Vladimir and Meredith, Scott. Let Every Breath…: Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters. V. Vasiliev.2006. ISBN 978-0-9781049-0-0.

Wade, Paul. Convict Conditioning: How to Bust Free of All Weakness – Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength. Dragon Door Publications. 2009. ISBN 978-0-938045-76-2.

Valdiserri, Anna. A Woman’s Toolkit for Recovery from Violence and Trauma. A. Valdiserri. 2015. ASIN B00WQ376TW.

Miller, Rory. Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence. YMAA. 2008. ISBN 1-59439-118-1.

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Review: ‘Systema Basics’ by Cutting Edge

Review: ‘Systema Basics’ by Cutting Edge

While it is of course true that one cannot endeavour to effectively learn a martial art or combative system from videos and books, such material can prove invaluable when supplementing existing training, or if you just want to learn a few new concepts to add to your training. This was precisely my aim when buying the ‘Systema Basics’ set from Cutting Edge (you may know them as Perten from YouTube). You can buy all of the DVDs here.

So what is Systema?

(Information from here and here.) Systema (Системa, to write it properly) literally translates to ‘The System’ in Russian. It can be thought of as a general title, similar to the Chinese Kung Fu in that it encompasses multiple different styles and systems. It has been adopted for some high-risk Special Military Operations Units in the спецназ (Spetsnaz) and the ГРУ (GRU) among others after Stalin’s death. Its more extended history and roots are unclear, and multiple conflicting theories exist as to where it came from and what its influences are. Its general characteristics that seem to be consistent throughout different practitioners’ styles are ones that are integral to my teaching in the CSPS; some of which I implemented before knowing about Systema and others I adopted to my training and teaching after finding out how effective Systema is. Here are a few main ones:

  • A profound appreciation of the importance of breathing
  • Abstract, concept-based training rather than technique-based training
  • A lot of emphasis on understanding tension and relaxation
  • An appreciation of the body as a whole system, and a holistic view of training and health in general
  • Psychological training pertaining to fear and relaxation
  • Flowing motion and the resulting efficient transfer of kinetic energy

Robert Poyton of Cutting Edge states that Systema is, in its purest form, ‘a system of breathing and movement’.

In the following sections I have included links to the pages on their website where you can purchase the DVDs, and embedded their trailers from YouTube.

Systema Basics Volume 1 – Falls and Rolls:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=B001

This DVD covers one of the most important aspects of training – how to safely fall over without injury! I don’t need to tell you why this is essential knowledge, whether you train combatively or not – consider falling off your bike, or tripping over, or even falling down the stairs! With the right approach to training, all of these can be much less dangerous events than they would otherwise be, which can never be a bad thing! According to this DVD, rolling also teaches us to work against impact (with the floor), how to move safely in dangerous situations while helping us to overcome psychological barriers like fear. There’s also an introduction to takedowns and throws. I thoroughly enjoyed the approach this DVD has to mobility techniques like these, and the mechanics of rolling exemplified in this video are both tactically sound and biomechanically viable. I completely agree with their teachings in this DVD, and you know that means a lot coming from me, because I am extremely picky.

Systema Basics Volume 2 – Ground Mobility:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=B002

Building on perfectly from the previous DVD is this one on ground mobility training. Aside from the obvious tactical benefits in a combative situation, the kind of mobility training in this video offer phenomenal core strength training, and are very fun too. When I’m bored at home (which isn’t that often these days – always something to do…) I often have a roll around just because it’s so fun! I get funny looks from people at home, but we shouldn’t let that bother us! A note to parents and instructors – kids love this stuff! I have the honour of co-instructing at PHDefence, and I often get the kids there flopping around on the floor like this, and they absolutely love it! I would recommend that everybody, whether you’re interested in combat and self-protection or not, give this kind of training some thought, as it’s invaluable and highly enjoyable.

Systema Basics Volume 3 – Wave Movement:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=B003

Wave moment, a key theme in Systema, allows for a ‘free and natural response’, allowing for both the absorption of and delivery of powerful strikes. This DVD goes through all of the basic concepts necessary to assimilate wave motion to your own movement – breathing, tension and relaxation. In addition to this, there are drills to aid with achieving a full range of motion in your joints, which is of course essential. There is work on using the hips to increase striking power, and also an introduction to what Cutting Edge call ‘Figure-Eight’ striking, which is (as with everything in Systema it seems) both effective and fun. Basically this DVD is about the effective coordination of the different parts of your body which allows for a much more natural motion in combat and training. I have yet to find an aspect of training or combat that the wave motion is not useful for, and that includes rolling, headbutts and even weapon work – it’s an extremely powerful concept to play with, which I would recommend everyone take a look at.

Systema Basics Volume 4 – Health:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=B004

Don’t skip over this one! If you’re extremely pragmatic in your training mindset, it’s perhaps understandable to think: ‘What’s this got to do with self-protection?’ The answer is that it has everything to do with self-protection! If you’re ill, or have a weakness in your body or even your mind, then you are unable to defend yourself effectively. Consider this – how much thought do you give to self-protection from pathogens and infection? If not, why not? Is it any less an assault on your person than a human attacking you? This DVD covers use of sticks, concepts regarding posture and balance, cold water dousing (very good stuff) and massage. Take it from me – this is fantastic information that you will regret missing out on.

Systema Basics Volume 5 – Groundfighting:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB005

More fun stuff! Working on principles instead of the more standard MMA-style techniques, Robert Poyton’s different approach is both refreshing and fascinating. Breathing, movement, striking from the ground and escaping compromised positions are all included on this video. I’ve found their approaches to be very useful concepts that are worth assimilating into any training system or martial arts style.

Systema Basics Volume 6 – Takedowns:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB006

This DVD’s pretty simple to explain – it’s stuff you’ll find useful if you’ve got someone standing up, and you want them on the floor! Systema takes a very efficient approach, concerning itself with the structure of the opponent’s body and how to break it rather than set throws and takedowns. An understanding of posture, support and how to work against tension is what you’ll get from this video, which is fantastic knowledge for beginners and experienced combatants alike.

Systema Basics Volume 7 – Movement:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB007

Posture, footwork and movement in general is the focus of this DVD, and it is a sound addition to any training you already do. The drills in this video will help you get yourself in the right place at the right time much more readily than one without this understanding of how to move would be capable of. Again, I heartily recommend it as a great addition to your combative collection!

Systema Basics Volume 8 – Breathing:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB008

As you all know, breathing is central to everything in Systema, as it is in ESP. It underpins literally everything you do, whether it’s exercises, striking, dealing with being struck or anything else. The particularly interesting section of this for me was breathing through physical discomfort, which I have found extremely useful – using these concepts, whether it’s stubbing your toe or accidentally letting a punch slip through your guard, you can make things a lot better for yourself through simply being aware of your breathing. If you’re into meditation (I am) then this DVD will be especially interesting.

Systema Basics Volume 9 – Biomechanics:
Please note that this title is no longer available (as of 29.10.2013). 
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB009

‘The body is a marvellous machine and in some ways can be manipulated as such.’ This quote from their website speaks for itself! Paul Genge in this one explains how the principles of levers, cogs, spindles and wedges can be used in combative situations. An awareness of these principles is extremely helpful in all situations, and this DVD could well be the most important of the lot if you’re new to this kind of training. The mix of diagrams and examples works especially well for the left-brained among us, but the way it’s all explained makes this an extremely accessible and yet highly informative video.

Systema Basics Volume 10 – Kicks:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB010

It is what it says on the tin really – a DVD about how to apply Systema principles to kicking! After going through some stretches and exercises, the DVD shows how to deal with kicks as well as dish them out, which was the particularly interesting bit for me. Sometimes training can focus too much on kicking pads, and not enough on what to do if someone else is kicking you – don’t let this happen with yours!

Systema Basics Volume 11 – Solo Training:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=B0011

This is the first one I saw, and it was a great place to start with this series. The DVD goes through a wealth of information regarding exercises you can do alone, working with sticks and knives, breath work, ideas for ground mobility and how to adapt the basic exercises to develop new ones. At the end is a guided breathing exercise which takes you through a tension and relaxation routine, which is great for those who are interested in stress relief or meditation. This DVD is the perfect one to get if you’re not sure whether you want to commit to buying the whole set in one go, and want to get an idea of what’s in it first as it gives you a great introduction to what Systema is. This one might be my favourite DVD of the set because it’s so useful, whether you want general fitness and health benefits or combative training. If you get any of them, make sure you get this one.

Systema Basics Volume 12 – Drills:
http://www.cuttingedgeshop.com/proddetail.asp?prod=SB012

Similar to the previous volume, this is another ‘bits of everything’ video. The last in the series, it draws together all of the concepts from the other DVDs and expands on how to develop your own drills while also developing natural movement. It explains abstract ‘no technique’ learning, how to structure a training session (useful information that all instructors in particular should consider) and sparring drills, among other things. It’s a brilliant ending to a brilliant series.

The Bottom Line – Pros:

  • An extremely informative and detailed introduction to Systema training.
  • Concepts anyone can take on board, adapt and use for many aspects of life.
  • Informal and entertaining delivery.

The Bottom Line – Cons:
In all honesty I can’t think of any! I thoroughly enjoyed this series and though I wasn’t completely new to Systema, I learned a lot from it. I was going to say I would like more elaboration and depth, but then I remembered the title – ‘Systema Basics’.

The Bottom Line – Conclusion:
I would recommend that everyone with even a passing interest in these topics would benefit from this set. It works. That’s all I have to say really! Enjoy.
Don’t forget – there’s a discount for buying in multiples. Check out the Special Offers section for full information.

Josh Nixon
Founding Instructor, ESP

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