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Boundary Setting in Training

In self-defence we talk about boundary setting a lot - it’s a key life skill, that empowers you to take control of how you relate to other people, be that in relationships (with a partner; with friends; with colleagues) or with people we don’t know. Boundaries draw a line that says here, but no further. They help us keep ourselves safe.

Whilst it is an essential skill to master, we have to acknowledge it’s hard to set boundaries - particularly with people we see all the time.

We practice boundary setting in class with physical and verbal drills - however much of the time we are role-playing and practicing setting boundaries for a personal safety context.

What we want to talk about here is boundary setting in the specific context of training. (We are a krav maga school so that is the context we’ll be referring to, but it will be relevant to other training modalities).


Training is weird. We meet with people that become our very good friends, and we do things to each other that would be absolutely unacceptable anywhere else (groin kicks, eye pokes, hair grabs, chokes, and lots of getting punched in the face). Then we all leave sweating and smiling and delighted to come back for more next week!

For this to work we need to have a clear idea of what we can and can’t do. It can’t just be a free-for-all. Many clubs and instructors have their own set of rules or a code of conduct for training (written or unwritten) and that informs the training culture. The instructor in a class upholds these values and rules and keeps the students training safely.

Not everyone has a shared view of what is acceptable automatically so we need these rules as a starting point.

It’s often said there are no rules in krav maga, but we do need rules in training to train safely and so our training partners keep coming back - the first of these being “Don’t get hurt”

We train and simulate violence with consent in a specific context. So if the instructor gives the class a drill to run through, your partner is agreeing to train that drill - they are not giving you a blanket consent to do whatever you like. Let’s say we are working on defending straight punches, and you start going for takedowns - that was not part of the drill. That is an example of a boundary in the group context - the instructor sets the boundary for the group by giving the parameters of the drill.

In that situation if you go beyond those parameters you have to ask yourself: has my partner consented to this? Will they be ok with this? (you can’t assume - you would have to ASK) Could this hurt my partner? Has the instructor asked me to work on this specific thing for a reason?

There’s nothing wrong with takedowns, but they are an example of techniques that have a higher chance of injury if you don’t have appropriate safety measures in place.

“But in reality we need to be prepared for anything at any time” Sure. Non-consensual violence is chaotic, and we want training to go as far as it can to prepare us for that. But being injured is not a good preparation for defending yourself. Refer back to the first principle of krav: Don’t get hurt. Boundaries help us achieve both of those.

We do also want to be clear that boundaries in training are not an alternative to tough or challenging training - rather they allow us to push ourselves within our own limits while giving us the agency to choose how we train.  If we look at a UFC fight, we see that there are a lot of rules and limits in place before fights even go ahead - fighters know who they will be fighting, the exact location, even what they will be wearing and what their opponent will weigh. There have been a couple of high profile cases recently where a fighter hasn’t made weight, and the fight doesn't go ahead. No-one is questioning that these men and women fight hard, but they still have rules and expectations to be met or they won’t take part.

With these rules and values as a baseline we also need to understand that our training partner is an individual that has unique capabilities and limits, as we do ourselves.

Individual boundaries VARY and that is okay.

Some days we can come to training stressed, or physically or mentally tired - on these days we may choose to push through if that works for us, or possibly take it easier if that’s what we need on that particular day. Training has to be a place where it’s acceptable to say no, and equally where people feel comfortable enough to say no.

It’s important to communicate with your training partner about any limits that you need on training before you start a drill, so you both are clear on what’s about to happen. If you know there is something you can’t handle today, you need to tell your partner as you can’t expect them to know automatically. Most decent people don’t push and cross boundaries intentionally, but because they aren’t clear on where the line is - it’s up to us to communicate that for ourselves.

For example: you agree to do some light fighting with your partner and you agree to kick boxing only - but you’re recovering from a shoulder injury so you ask for no high kicks on your right side. Your partner understands and agrees to that.

This is one example of boundary setting in training - we both agree what is acceptable and the limits we are training under.

One of the most common things we need to communicate with our partner about is the level of impact. We train with contact and we hit each other - we need to have an agreement on where that line is - particularly for impact to the head.

One of the best ways to agree that is by calibrating how hard we are hitting before we begin the drill - usually with a strike to the targets we’ll be aiming for - and your partner gives feedback on the impact. The key thing for agreeing impact levels is the person getting hit decides the level. They are the one experiencing the impact - they set the boundary.

We know that boundaries should be respected, and not negotiated.  This is especially true when setting the level of impact, and it’s one that can become a little contentious!

If someone tells you you are going too hard, you are going too hard. It may be light for you, it may be the right level of impact for the person you were training with two minutes ago, but it’s too hard for your current partner so you need to adjust.

Let’s quickly look at the stages of boundary setting and how it could look in this context.

  • Define the boundary
  • Communicate the boundary
  • Re-state the boundary
  • Set consequences - and follow through as required

I’m sparring with my partner, they land a punch to my face, it’s too hard for me. I need to recognise that that is where the line is for me (boundary), and then communicate that to them.“Can you go lighter?” (or whatever phrase comes to mind - we’ve just started introducing very simplified commands in sparring “less”, “good” or “more”)

Partner agrees, we get back to training, I get hit hard again.

At this stage I need to be very clear and re-state my boundary.

“That’s too hard, go lighter” Maybe our partner was gradually getting harder and they weren't aware of it, or maybe they disagree - but now I need to move from a polite ask to a firm telling of our boundary. We need to bear in mind that often people are not actively trying to up the power - controlling impact is a skill that is harder to manage when stressed, and adjusting power is part of the learning process. People do make mistakes, they may need reminders, and we have to allow for that, but you still get to say when is too much.

If it continues happening, or if they dispute it (which can happen), then we may need to change tack. Perhaps they feel I should be able to take more, maybe they think they were going light, whatever it may be, there is a difference of opinion. This is difficult because nobody likes arguing over this, and nobody likes feeling like they are being rebuked, HOWEVER only you get to decide YOUR boundaries. On the other hand often they are genuinely trying their best to adjust but it’s still too much, there’s no bad intent but it’s still an issue.

We have already communicated and re-stated our boundary. We need to move to setting a consequence. “You are still going too hard, if you aren’t able to go lighter, I’m going to need to switch partners”.

Awkward? It shouldn’t be, but it can feel like that. Switching partners is a normal part of training. People have different intensities they like to train at, different technical capabilities and different styles of communication. Sometimes it just isn’t working, and it’s better to acknowledge that, switch and find a new partner. It’s not a judgment or a punishment, it’s you taking control of your training boundaries, no big deal. You can train with them another day.

Don’t feel like you just need to take whatever your partner is throwing at you - it’s not good for training and it is certainly not conducive to good self-defence.

You are allowed to say when you have had enough, you are allowed to decide the level you are comfortable training at, you are allowed to stop training.

This is not only beneficial to you, it will be a useful learning experience for your partner. Often people struggle to gauge how hard they are hitting and if nobody tells them - they don’t know to adjust. We can’t expect people to know unless they are told, they aren’t mind readers. We also need to remember that control comes with skill and sometimes for people with less experience it is difficult to adjust and go lighter. It’s not bad intent, but equally it’s still your head and you get to say how hard is too hard.

This is boundary setting in action. Simple but not easy.

Training is a space where we want to push and expand our comfort zone - so by its nature there will be uncomfortable moments and we don’t want to avoid those - but you should always have a choice. Being able to set and communicate boundaries is an empowering skill. Enforcing boundaries is hard work, but it’s so important.

Get your boundary setting reps in at training!

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