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What is the best martial art to learn for self defense?

Updated on August 9, 2015

Note: I use the term 'martial art' as a shorthand for 'martial arts and combat sports'.

Ignore the fans and fanatics

Judging from Youtube comments you would believe martial arts are practised by loud fanatics that believe that 'their' art is the one and only true way of the warrior. Fortunately Youtube comments are not a very reliable source of information and anyone who thinks there is a single 'best' martial art should basically be ignored.

Of course most martial arts practitioners are actually reasonable people with nuanced and realistic opinions on the value of their art. This article discusses some of the factors that determine how effective you may expect a martial art to be in 'real' fights and what you should consider before choosing which martial art you are going to practice.

Defending against a knife attack
Defending against a knife attack | Source

The difference between training and a real fight

The point of most martial arts is not to teach you how to fight. They are sports that prepare you for 'fights' that are subject to a strict set of rules or are truly arts that are more concerned with principles and aesthetics than effectiveness. Some characteristics common to most martial arts training sessions are:

  • there are restrictions in the techniques that practitioners are allowed to use. Forbidden attacks are not taught, nor do you learn how to defend against them
  • you rarely execute a technique at full speed or full strength, nor do you experience techniques at full speed or full strength. This is sensible, because you want to be able to continue exercising for an hour or two and you do not want to disable your training partner if he happens to be late with his defence.
  • you train the same technique many times in a row. During such a sequence the attacker is predictable and the defender already has a predefined defensive technique in mind, that he will be able to execute in a timely manner
  • special clothes are worn
  • you are sober and emotionally neutral

On the contrary, in a real fight:

  • there are no restrictions. You may be hit in the face, kicked in the groin, poked in the eyes and taken to the ground. You may be thrown, arm locked or choked.
  • attacks are unexpected and as fast and hard as possible
  • you will misjudge some attacks and choose the wrong defensive technique
  • you will execute a defensive technique sloppily
  • you and your opponent will be wearing clothes that make some techniques you learned hard, while it enables new techniques you haven't trained
  • you or your opponent may be under the influence of drugs or hormones. You may be slowed down by having had a drink, your opponent may be supercharged on adrenaline
  • all manner of improvised weapons are available: sticks, rocks, belts, chains, bottles, ...
  • you may face multiple opponents
  • you may discover that taking damage hurts far more than you expected
  • the fight is short, but you may be more spent than after an hour of hard training.

Even martial arts with plenty of alive training, that are seen as the closest to 'real fights', do not necessarily prepare you for an actual (street) fight. For instance, while MMA seems the obvious answer to the title question, it just isn't. MMA has a long list of forbidden techniques, many of which are useful in a real fight and which may be used against you. During MMA training you never train to defend against weapons or against multiple opponents. Ultimately, even something as seemingly violent and 'real' as MMA mostly prepares you for competitive fights that take place under strictly controlled conditions.

It's very important to fully appreciate these differences between martial arts training and real fights. They are key to remaining well aware of the limitations of your knowledge and experience and to never overestimate your abilities.

Bartitsu, the martial art of gentlemen
Bartitsu, the martial art of gentlemen | Source

Different kinds of martial arts

When you're looking to practice a martial art, you will find that there are many martial arts to choose from and that the differences between them aren't always clear. Fortunately most of the differences don't matter when it comes to the usefulness of the art for self defense. For that purpose, a few rough distinctions are all that matter:

  • does the style include techniques useful at different ranges, standing as well as on the ground?
  • does the style include (defending against) realistic attacks?
  • does the style include live training?
  • does the style include defense against multiple opponents?
  • does the style include defense against weapons?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no' for a certain art, then the usefulness of the art for practical self defense is limited relative to arts that answer 'yes'.

This is mostly fairly obvious, once you take a few moments to think about it. If you choose an art with only standing techniques, you will have trouble if a fight goes to the ground. If you choose an art that assumes a certain distance between opponents, you will have trouble when the distance closes. If you haven't ever taken some hits, you'll be in trouble if the pain surprises you. If you haven't ever fought multiple opponents, then you'll be in for a nasty surprise if you automatically take an opponent to the ground. If you haven't ever defended against a knife, you're going to bleed if you try.

Choosing your poison

Everything that was said in the previous two sections seems to suggest that choosing anything other than a fully rounded martial art that addresses all the points that were made is not a smart thing. There is however a problem: there is (almost) no such thing.

Some of the martial arts that address most of these points are: jiu-jitsu, sambo, krav maga, hapkido, jeet kune do and pencak silat. However, these have other downsides:

  • they are relatively obscure, which means it may be hard to find a gym/dojo nearby where you can train.
  • an art where you train in a greater variety of techniques will result in less progress on each individual technique.
  • some of these are more 'collections of techniques' than a martial art with some principles behind it. It is easier to remember techniques, learn new techniques and improvise when there are common principles behind all the techniques. That makes progress harder, as it is more about remembering than about understanding.

If there is no clear answer to the title question, how do you choose which martial art to start training in?

In practice, the most important consideration is: any training is better than no training and more training is better than less training. Possessing the skill to perform something as simple as a decent right hook will already put you ahead a bit against someone untrained. The right question is not 'which martial art is the best for self defense', but rather 'which martial art is most likely to teach me some decent self defense skills'?

There is no martial art that will turn you into an unbeatable human weapon, let alone in a short time. Whatever martial art you choose, after 100 hours of training you will be fitter, stronger and more agile, but you are still very likely to lose an unexpected fight outside of the gym/dojo. After 1000 hours, you may expect to win the part of the fight that you've trained for, but who knows if it's going to be that kind of a fight?

The only thing that you can do is to start training and keep training. This will only happen if you enjoy the training, so choose something that you enjoy doing. Once you've achieved a certain mastery over a single art and feel you lack certain practical self defense skills, you can always take up a second sport or switch to another art to fill the gaps. Becoming trained in self defense is not something you do in a week or a year: it is something in which you can continue to improve yourself for the rest of your life.

Fighting is risky
Fighting is risky | Source

Knowing when to fight

Being able to defend yourself is a good thing. Being able to decide when to fight is even more important.

When viewing boxing, K1 or UFC matches, you may come away with the impression that it's normal to walk away from a fight relatively unscathed. It seems the worst that can happen is a knockout, some bleeding and perhaps, if you are unlucky, breaking something. This is dangerously far from reality. These are fighters that have often trained full time for years to be able to prevent, and be capable of withstanding, damage being done to them.

Real fights between mere mortals are much more grim affairs. Reading a few police reports is a better way to get an understanding of the risks of fighting. People involved in fights, both attackers and defenders, get seriously injured in street fights. People get infected wounds, break joints in ways that take a long time to heal, lose teeth, eyes, testicles or organs, get brain damage and regularly die. The damage done in real fights is much larger than most people think, because the damage is done in ways that are simply illegal in any organised fight and medical assistance is not as immediately available.

Being trained in martial arts increases your odds, but that's it. Even the worst fighter can be lucky enough to push you, make you trip over some loose brick and subsequently kick you in the head while you're lying on the ground. An experienced street fighter may simply be better than you: never underestimate the skinny deadbeat trying to rob you. Many attackers are also armed: how often do your defensive techniques fail when you practice them? If you receive a small cut from a knife, you lose.

The advice in this section is simple: even if you've trained for years and feel like an agressor should be afraid if you, you should back away from a fight if you can. If necessary: run. You should only fight if there is no other way to resolve the situation, because fighting is a risky business where your life is on the line. The $100 in your wallet is never worth the risk.


The best martial art that you can choose to learn to defend yourself is one that you enjoy performing. Choosing a martial art that is less ideal for self defense, but that you really like and enjoy, is far wiser than training in MMA because you feel like you must to achieve your goal. If you can, choose one that addresses what happens in real fights. Just remember to never overestimate your abilities and experience, understand which aspects of a real fight you've got covered and which you don't and only fight when there really is no other choice.

© 2014 Inspired Iguana


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