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Cover image for An interview with Krav Maga expert Michael Hartl

An interview with Krav Maga expert Michael Hartl

lee profile image Lee Updated on ・7 min read

About the cover photo: Michael writes, “The cover photo with the black eye is from my Level 5 test (which was brutal—ten hours over two days). I actually got the black eye in a non-contact drill, but an accidental strike still sent me flying across the room. I iced my eye down for a few minutes and then got back in there (and then went through like five rounds of sparring before the test was complete). Later that day I had developed a nice shiner, which under the circumstances I considered to be a badge of honor.”

Hey Everyone!

We caught up with a very special individual recently, whose commitment to the open-source Internet has reached far and wide, even into the bare-bones code of this amazing open source community platform.

It feels like we have come full circle interviewing Michael Hartl and we were delighted to hear that he practices Martial Arts, in the devastating form of Krav Maga

Krav Maga is a military self-defence and fighting system developed for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli security forces derived from a combination of techniques sourced from Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, Aikido, and Karate. Krav Maga is known for its focus on real-world situations and its extreme efficiency. It was derived from the street-fighting experience of Hungarian-Israeli martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld, who made use of his training as a boxer and wrestler, while defending the Jewish quarter against fascist groups in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, during the mid-to-late 1930s. In the late 1940s, after his aliyah to Mandatory Palestine, he began to provide lessons on combat training to what was to become the IDF.

Hey Michael!

Please tell us a little about yourself, your background and what first got you interested in Martial Arts?

I’m a tech author and entrepreneur with a background in theoretical physics. In the tech world, I’m best known as the founder of Learn Enough and author of The Ruby on Rails Tutorial.

Among math nerds, I’m infamous as the founder of Tau Day and author of The Tau Manifesto. I grew up in Southern California in the ’80s, and the martial arts scene here was hugely popular—especially Bruce Lee, who was a god to me and everyone I knew.

I eventually took karate for a couple of years at the local YMCA, and I even won a big trophy for placing second in a local sparring competition, but overall it was fairly tame compared to real self-defense.

Who introduced you to Krav Maga?

Around ten years ago, after launching the first edition of the Ruby on Rails Tutorial, I took a little time off and was looking for a new challenge. I wanted something physical, and I decided to focus on martial arts because I was interested in understanding violence better and in being able to control my fear in violent encounters.

Several friends, knowing my interest in practical self-defense with a minimum of ritual, suggested checking out Krav Maga.

Was it easy finding the right gym?

Luckily, it was. As you may know, Krav Maga (“contact combat” in Hebrew) was originally developed for use by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The person who brought Krav Maga to the United States, Darren Levine, lives in Los Angeles and headquartered his company (Krav Maga Worldwide) not far from where I live. As a result, signing up at KMW was a natural choice. I’ve even had a chance to train with Darren himself a few times, which has always been a thrill.

Darren R. Levine is a martial artist, an entrepreneur, and a prosecutor for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. He is best known for helping to popularize Krav Maga, the official hand-to-hand combat system of the Israel Defense Forces.

Were you nervous on your first visit? What was your experience like?

I was incredibly nervous. I actually found it frightening just watching a class while I was filling out the signup paperwork. Then, in the early days, I realized I didn’t really know how to punch—karate air-punches had done very little to prepare me, and punching with boxing gloves is a completely different experience.

Hitting a stiff pad as hard as you can with a bare fist reveals and amplifies any defects in your mechanics, and it took a while before I could consistently punch without my wrists occasionally buckling.

What were your initial biggest barriers for learning?

The biggest barrier was accepting that it would take a lot of practice to get all the details right, especially with the more intricate defences like knife and gun. There’s no substitute for being patient and getting in your reps. It’s also good to learn that even an imperfect defense can still be highly effective, especially when paired with high levels of aggression.

michael hartle krav maga black eye

After learning Krav Maga, what do you think makes it different that other martial arts?

The biggest difference is that Krav Maga is a self-defense system, not a sport. Among other things, this means techniques that are illegal in MMA or BJJ are not only allowed, they’re required.

For example, one KMW instructor, who also has a black belt in BJJ, says that his favorite Krav Maga method for getting out of guard is to “press the easy button”—i.e., punch your opponent in the groin. Krav Maga also teaches you how to defend from positions of disadvantage (e.g., a surprise bear hug from behind), against multiple opponents, and against weapons like knives, sticks, handguns, and long guns—not the kinds of things you’re likely to run into in the Octagon.

Krav Maga borrows heavily from other martial arts, such as boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but at the end of the day it’s designed for real-life street encounters. That means everything is on the table.

michael hartle krav maga comparison

krav maga gun attack

Have you ever had to put it into practice?

Luckily, I’ve never had to injure anyone, but I’ve been in several situations that could easily have gone sideways, and I’m convinced that Krav Maga played a role in keeping everyone safe. For example, a few years ago my brother-in-law and I were accosted by a tall, fit panhandler holding a large staff. Since I had someone with me, I couldn’t just flee, but because of my training I was able to handle the situation confidently—secure in the knowledge that, if I saw any intent to use the staff, I could burst in and execute the Krav Maga stick defense I’d practiced hundreds of times before. The panhandler perceived this confidence and decided it was best to leave us alone.

Do you follow mixed martial arts in general?

I don’t follow MMA closely but do enjoy watching occasional bouts, as well as compilations on YouTube.

As a programmer, do you find that martial arts gives you a release valve? Many people who do jiu-jitsu for example explain how it allows them to problem solve at the physical level rather than the mental level.

Yes, it’s great to have an outlet to punch, kick, and basically beat the stuffing out of your opponents (usually pads, occasionally people). It’s also a humbling reminder that it’s OK not to be great at something right away.

Do you have a role model within Martial Arts (such as GSP, Bruce Lee, anyone within the Krav Maga community)

I’m definitely a fan of GSP (one of my favorite fights was his 2012 title bout against Carlos Condit), and I’ve already mentioned Bruce Lee. Another favorite is former UFC Heavyweight Champion Bas Rutten, who lives in LA and has befriended a lot of the Krav people, including KMW founder Darren Levine.

I’ve never met Bas myself, but he recorded the audio for some of our exercises, so in my head I can hear his Dutch-accented voice saying “straight, hooook, hooook!” By the way, if you ever want to hear a great story, google “bas rutten interview where he explains his fight with brian urlacher”.

Do you teach Krav Maga? If so, what are the core principles that you teach to your students?

I’m not a KMW instructor, but I have done quite a bit of informal training with friends. One thing I emphasize is not to rush things, in the spirit of the phrase “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” attributed to Navy SEALs. I also take care to focus on safety in training; it’s important not to get ahead of yourself and end up injuring yourself or your training partner.


krav maga gun defence

About the pictures: Michael drills gun defence, Krav Maga focuses on real street defence.

Is there a grading scheme for Krav Maga? If not, how do students within the community know how to gauge a fellow students experience?

Krav Maga isn’t a competitive sport, so there’s no one-on-one competition, but (as in many martial arts) there is a belt system. The belt levels also correspond to different levels of classes, which range from 1 to 5. Level 5, which I reached in 2018, is the main advanced belt, though it keeps going pretty much forever after that. No matter how good you are, you can always get better.

Krav Maga uses an internal color-coding system for the belt levels, but it doesn’t mean much. For example, Level 5 is technically a “blue belt”, which also happens to be the lowest belt level (above white) in BJJ. As a result, the instructors sometimes refer to Level 5 as a “black belt in self-defense” to emphasize that it’s the equivalent of a black belt in most other systems.

What value has martial arts added to your personal life? Has it made you more observant of your own behaviour? More spiritual, calmer, more tolerant etc?

I definitely carry myself more confidently knowing I can defend myself and the people I’m with. I’ve also developed keen situational awareness, including the ability to size up a group of people and do a threat assessment in just a few seconds.

Finally, understanding violence and how to control my fear has definitely made me calmer. Among other things, I find it easier to avoid fights, both because I have nothing to prove and because I know how dangerous a real fight can be—a punch alone can be deadly, and you also never know when someone might have friends around the corner or a concealed knife ready to go.

I think that is about it Michael, again really appreciate it! Weird how this has come full circle, from learning about software development from your books to then interviewing you on a platform I have helped launch that has been built on Rails!


Discussion (3)

Editor guide
ben profile image
Ben Halpern 🦁

Small world 😄

lee profile image
Lee Author

I'll say!

taylorray_420 profile image
Taylor Ray

Can you imagine if they allowed Krav Maga in the UFC. Most of it is illegal