No matter how you look at it the only self-defense tool you have at all times is your body. Thanks to martial arts, it means you don’t have to be completely defenseless if caught without any gear. By training in a particular discipline you can turn your body into a weapon. But, before you begin you need to understand which martial arts are the best for self defense.
Not all martial arts are equal.
Self-defense is a countermeasure that involves defending the health and well-being of oneself from harm. It’s important to note the right of self-defense as a legal justification for the use of force in times of danger is available in many jurisdictions.
But the interpretation often varies by state.
Self Defense can be broken down into Physical, Mental, Avoidance, De-escalation and Personal alarms.
Physical self-defense is the use of physical force to counter an immediate threat of violence whether unarmed or armed.
Mental self-defense is the ability to get into the proper mindset for executing a physical self defense technique. If you’re skilled in the physical aspects of self defense but lack the mental fortitude to execute then you won’t be able to perform under pressure.
Self defense also takes on other forms as well.
Avoidance. Being aware of and avoiding potentially dangerous situations is one useful technique of self defense. Attackers will typically select victims they feel they have an advantage against, such as greater physical size, greater numerical size or sobriety vs. intoxication.
De-escalation. Verbal Self Defense, also known as Verbal Judo or Verbal Aikido. This is defined as using one’s words to prevent, de-escalate, or end an attempted assault. It’s a way of using words as weapons or as a shield.
Personal alarms are a way to practice passive self defense. A hand-held device that emits strong, loud, high-pitched sounds to deter attackers because the noise will sometimes draw the attention of passersby.
There are hundreds if not thousands styles of martial arts out there. But we’ve put together a list of the best and worst martial arts for self defense. Being proficient in any one of them can give you confidence to protect yourself.
Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that can trace its roots back to a battlefield art of the Samurai of Japan. These warriors were armoured and on horseback. Thus Jiu-Jitsu was developed for the samurai to fight if they found themselves disarmed while in combat. Jiu-Jitsu later evolved to include throwing, joint-locks and strangles. Alongside various striking moves found in other combative arts. Jiu-Jitsu focuses on grappling with an emphasis on ground fighting.
Jiu-Jitsu has a variety of core principles that are woven into the fabric of this martial art.
Relax. This is paramount because without the ability to relax you become exhausted quickly and the risk of injury or submission increases.
Submission before position. Another focus of Jiu-Jitsu is movements, specifically bridging and shrimping. These two critical movements will sew together all your moves.
Flavio Canto, Judo Olympian and BJJ black belt, once said ‘Practise movements, not only moves.’ Movements are versatile and can be woven into other techniques.
Escaping bad positions. Another core principle is escaping bad positions. And you will find escaping side mount is one of the most important defensive aspects of any grapplers arsenal.
Engage your hips. Sometimes it won’t always be possible to move your opponent so you need to learn how to engage your hips to move your body. This becomes clear when trying to escape precarious situations like from the bottom of side control. You won’t be strong enough to lift your opponent with your arms so you will need to engage your hips.
An inescapable fact of day-to-day life is that you might end up in a self-defense situation when you least expect it. Rener Gracie says, “It’s an optimistic assumption that your BJJ skills are directly transferable to a self-defense situation, or a real fight,”. Many people learn the “sport” version of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
However, there are many self-defense aspects of the martial art. To remain safe in a self-defense situation, BJJ practitioners look to either keep the attacker far away so they cannot engage or eliminate enough space so there is no room for them to attack. Jiu-Jitsu is great at managing distance and nullifying would be attackers. But it’s important to note that, “Whoever manages the distance, manages the damage that can be done,” Gracie explains.
Boxing is a combat sport that focuses exclusively on throwing punches at your opponent. The earliest evidence of fist-fighting contests date back to the ancient Middle East in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. But the earliest rules of boxing date back to Ancient Greece. This is where boxing was established as an Olympic game in 688 BC.
Boxing requires endurance, power, nerve, durability, strength and superb hand-eye coordination.
Boxers work to master stance. The basic stance has the chin tucked into the chest and shoulders hunched. The lead hand is generally kept extended in front of the body while the other hand is tucked near the chin for protection.
Blend offensive and defensive tactics. An effective offense involves throwing punches quickly and placing them strategically to neutralize the opponents guard. Boxing stresses being flexible in your attack to incorporate deceptive tactics like feints and being able to adapt to changing conditions.
Boxing is just as effective as any combat sport that focuses on full power striking, defending against attacks and sparring hard to simulate a fight. Those components make boxing an effective tool for self-defense.
Additionally you learn to:
Muay Thai or Thai boxing is a cultural martial art of Thailand. The origin of Muay Thai dates back several hundred years and was developed as a form of close-combat that leveraged the entire body as a weapon.
Muay Thai uses the body to mimic the weapons of war. The hands become the sword and dagger; the shins and forearms were hardened through training to act as amour against powerful strikes. The elbow was used to fell opponents like a heavy mace or hammer. The legs and knees became the axe and staff. The body operates as a single unit looking for openings while grappling and trying to ground an opponent for the kill.
The fundamentals and principles of Muay Thai are obvious and easy to adhere to but the simplicity of these concepts make it difficult to follow.
A strong defense makes a good offense. You can be the best striker, but without a solid defense, you won’t have a well rounded game. That will put you at a disadvantage and leave your opponent lots of openings to attack. The worst part is you’ll get hit, over and over again.
Dedication. You need constant focused practice in order to improve your skills. If you are dedicated to making your thai kicks powerful, improving your agility and footwork you will succeed in whatever you put your focus and time into.
Technique always beats strength. Sure Muay Thai strives to cultivate knockout power. But without the right technique, chances are you won’t achieve your desired outcome, even with speed and power.
Heart and passion. In Muay Thai you need heart and passion or you will not succeed. Without the will to take punishment in order to come out with a win, you’ll never win. In Muay Thai, you have to appreciate and love the journey that muay thai is taking you through.
Since Muay Thai places an emphasis on close quarter combat and maintaining distance it is valuable for self defense. Muay Thais close quarter combat strikes of elbows and knees are very brutal and can easily incapacitate would be attackers. Also Muay Thai emphasis powerful rounded kicks that are very applicable to self defense scenarios. And since you get ample practice during live sparring rounds it makes for a good martial art for self defense purposes.
Krav Maga is a military self-defense fighting system that was developed for the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli security forces. It is derived from a combination of techniques sourced from boxing, wrestling, Aikido, judo and Karate with realistic fight training incorporated.
It was derived from the fighting experience of Hungarian-Israeli martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld. Lichtenfeld drew on his training as a boxer and wrestler to defend his community on the streets from fascist groups during a period of increased anti semitism. It was from protecting his community with a crew of fellow Jewish boys he acquired hard won experience and the crucial understanding of the differences between sport fighting and street fighting.
Krav Maga has a philosophy of emphasizing aggression. In addition to simultaneous defensive and offensive maneuvers. This philosophy can be summarized by the sentence: “Do whatever is needed to cause as much damage as possible to your attacker and get away safely”. It is as simple and ruthless as it is efficient.
Unlike traditional martial arts, Krav Maga makes no attempt to transform you into spiritually enlightened warrior. It’s sole purpose lies in self defense in street applications.
Krav Maga is amazing at taking untrained individuals and turning them into competent unarmed fighters in a short amount of time. Krav Maga also proves helpful in street scenarios where the assailant is armed and in numbers.
However, there are downsides to Krav Maga. For example, their flashy techniques are scripted and can have unrealistic sparring sessions. Krav Maga has certain “foul tactics”, but are never able to execute them in full-contact sparring. They focus more on no-contact or limited contact which creates a false sense of distance, timing, power and sense of confidence.
The same can be said for weapons disarms. You see them in static training, but never full contact. Still, Krav Maga can be a very effective martial arts for self-defense in a street application.
Buyer beware! It’s important to understand that not all martial arts are created equal. Some emphasis the spiritual side to martial arts while others are more focus on being combat ready.
Aikido can trace its roots back to Japan. Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, created the modern art of Aikido by combining his martial arts training in jiu jitsu, fencing, and spear fighting with his religious and political ideologies.
Aikido is rooted in several styles of jujitsu, in particular daitoryu-(aiki)jujitsu, as well as sword and spear fighting arts.
In an essence, Aikido takes the joint locks and throws from jujitsu and combines them with the body movements of sword and spear fighting.
Aikido signifies “The Way of Harmony With the Spirit”, and is rightfully recognized as a peaceful and non-aggressive form of martial arts. Aikido is described as the peaceful martial art.
Aikido Principles: Basic Concepts of the Peaceful Martial Art states that: “It’s defense techniques should be so gentle that also the attacker is delighted. And that there’s no competition, since each participant should be considered a winner.”
1. Aikido is the path that joins all paths of the universe throughout eternity; it is the Universal Mind that contains all things and unifies all things.
2. Aikido is the truth taught by the universe and must be applied to our lives on this earth.
3. Aikido is the principle and the path that join humanity with the Universal Consciousness.
4. Aikido will come to completion when each individual, following his or her true path, becomes one with the universe.
5. Aikido is the path of strength and compassion that leads to the infinite perfection and ever-increasing glory of God.
Aikido is not as effective compared to most other popular martial arts. It has too many weaknesses to be considered an effective martial art for self defense purposes.
Unrealistic attacks. Attacks in Aikido don’t resemble attacks you’d normally see in a self defense situation. A common attack scenario in Aikido training is the wrist grab usually done with one hand. Most attacks won’t involve wrist grabs or continued holding like is practice in Aikido.
Partners are too compliant. Training with fully compliant partners give you a false sense of confidence in your abilities and doesn’t prepare you for a self-defense situation. You will have to deal with opponents who resists everything you do and doesn’t throw himself into your throws.
Training partners don’t go “live” – no actual sparring. Most training partners in Aikido are trained to act more robotic and static. They drill the technique and simply stop. It’s predictable and you know what’s coming.
No practical ground-fighting or practical striking.
Kung Fu, is an ancient martial arts with strong roots in China. Originating from the hunting and defense needs in the primitive society that included basic skills like cleaving, chopping, and stabbing.
Later it developed into a the fighting skills from the Xia Dynasty (21st – 17th century BC)to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) and reached its peak during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1911).
Chinese Kung Fu started to form during the slavery society (around 11th century BC – 403 BC). Under the Xia Dynasty, it developed to be a more practical martial art and better served battles.
The concept of Kung Fu revolves around three basic principles motivation, self-discipline and time.
Motivation is the fundamental driving force. According to experts, the real motivation behind learning Kung Fu is inspiration and not force. This is said to come from an inner craving to learn and develop the mind and body.
Self-discipline is complementary to motivation. Discipline puts motivation into deed and action. A learner has to make an effort into what he has been motivated for, and self-discipline helps him get started and guides him to achieve that goal.
Time is the path to perfection. Once motivation and self-discipline have sent in, the student has to commit a significant amount of time putting mind and body into practice.
Kung fu looks good in dojos because students are compliant. However, a lot of their techniques won’t work against a fully resisting attacker. They also have outdated forms of training. They rely on techniques and training that may have worked in the past but aren’t applicable to many altercations that take place today.
In its modern form, karate is less than 200 years old. However, this martial art has roots that date back thousands of years.
The art first originated in Okinawa and its early form was influenced by ancient Chinese martial arts systems known as Kung Fu. The earliest surviving evidence of karate in Okinawa was a mention of the word Tode (Okinawan name for art) in the late 1700s.
This was a reference to a martial arts trainer from China who taught a form of kung fu and is believed to have introduced the first version of the Shotokan kata kanku dai.
From there karate began as a common fighting system among the Pechin class of the Ryukyuans. Each area and its teachers had particular kata, techniques, and principles that distinguished their local region.
Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957), known as the father of karate, once said “the ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.” The father of karate, would go on to stress spiritual considerations and mental agility over brute strength and technique.
Karate practitioners should not rely alone on striking, kicking, blocking, but should focus on the spiritual aspects of their practice.
When it comes to self-defense there are far better choices of martial arts available.
Karate is a great martial art when used in combination with other disciplines. However, more traditional techniques and ways of training haven’t been modernized. While karate is one of the most popular martial arts it’s been watered down. Now it’s not too uncommon to get your black belt in 6 months if you look hard enough.
Expert martial artists, retired Navy Seal and current UFC Fighter weigh in to give their opinions on the best martial arts for self defense.
Ryan Hall is a BJJ black belt and a professional mixed martial artist currently competing in the featherweight division of the UFC.
Ryan Hall goes on to give some insight into what he believes is the best martial arts for self defense against untrained assailants.
The first thing he mentions is that the best weapon is using your mind. He then goes on to state that the average person can’t fight and can become scared. And depending on your surroundings, environment and the number of assailants your approach will alter. Therefor your mental awareness is your most important weapon in self defense scenarios. Situational awareness is key to understanding what’s around you.
Ryan Hall then goes on to say the best thing for defending yourself in real life is probably Jiu-Jitsu or Wrestling. The reason for this is anyone can get lucky throwing a punch and hurting someone in a self defense situation.
However, unless someone is experienced with grappling they won’t be able to engage in any ground fighting. In general, the average person can’t wrestle.
Black Scout Survival is a lifestyle – to be prepared for any situation no matter the environment. SCOUT is an acronym that encompasses their ideology (Survival Concepts in Outdoor and Urban Terrain). BlackScout Survival is a Veteran owned company and their products come from Veteran owned manufacturing.
Blackscout says that it isn’t soley about learning a particular martial art for self defense. But they stress physical fitness as a key to self defense. But first and foremost getting a concealed carry. They go on to say it’s not simply enough to go to the range and shoot static targets but take tactical marksmanship training.
Blackscout recommends a good ground game and Jiu-Jitsu for self defense but also acknowledges not all self defense situations should go to the ground. They recommend Jiu-Jitsu up to blue belt along with other striking based martial arts. They recommend Boxing and Muay Thai for self defense purposes.
All in all they recommend staying in shape and be open-minded when it comes to self defense.
Ramsey Dewey is a former professional fighter with a record of 3 wins and 4 losses. In 2009, he moved to China and started teaching MMA in Shanghai as well as competing across China, Mongolia and Singapore. He has over 20 years of martial arts competition experience including combat sports like: MMA, Muay Thai, BJJ, K-1 Kickboxing, Karate, Catch-Wrestling and more.
Ramsey recommends trying a variety of martial arts training for self defense. He then goes on to say it’s not so much about the style as it is about the gym or facility, training partners and instructors. Remember not all martial arts gyms are good.
Ramsey says a lot of Krav Maga schools suck. Not all but a lot tend to suck because they are more focused with upselling rather than training to win fights.
It’s important to learn how to fight first before going into more esoteric martial arts.
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Jocko Willink is an author and a retired United States Navy Seal with numerous awards and service medals to his name. He was a commander of Seal Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi. Willinik served eight years on active duty and was part of the SEAL team that seized Russian Tanker Volga-Neft-147 in the Gulf of Oman which was carrying Iraqi oil in violation of a U.N. economic embargo.
Jocko says when it comes to self defense a gun along with a concealed carry trumps everything else. He also recommends going to the range and taking tactical training. The important thing to remember is in a self defense situation other people will have guns, knives and can possibly be psychotic and or on drugs.
When it comes to martial arts training for self defense Jocko recommends starting off with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He believes it’s important to learn how to handle yourself if you encounter a grappling scenario if you fall onto the ground.
Next, he recommends western boxing to learn how to punch properly and maintain proper striking distance.
From there, he recommends learning Muay Thai for self defense purposes for its close quarters striking, clench work and maintaining striking distance.
Finally, he believes integrating some amount of wrestling to learn how to execute takedowns and avoid ending up on the ground in a self defense situation.
Basically, there isn’t a magical instructor to allow you to defeat multiple attackers. But Krav Maga touches on it and is probably better as an augmentation.
We recommend you start with a base in Jiu-Jitsu and branch into other martial arts like Boxing, Muay Thai and incorporate Wrestling into your arsenal. Find a martial arts gym to get started today.
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