Many people decide to pursue the study of a martial art for self-defense, whether because they’re being bullied or just want to feel more prepared and confident when walking in dangerous areas. Martial arts training comes with a lot of benefits besides knowing how to defend yourself, including humility, discipline, and physical fitness. But with hundreds of styles to choose from, how do you decide which one is the right martial art for you? Any martial art can be used to protect yourself, but some are more difficult to master, slower to train, or harder to find an instructor. The best art for self-defense is the one you learn and can use, so let this article be your quick guide to selecting a style of martial art to jumpstart your self-defense training. We are going to cover the top 14 best martial arts to study for self-defense, based not only on their effectiveness but also their accessibility and simplicity of use.
Moving on, these are the best martial arts for self defense (from least to most effective):
Choi Hong Hi, together with other martial artists and army officers, invented this Korean martial art style during World War II. They intended to solidify the country’s martial arts scene and equip people with self-defense skills. This martial art has become more popular and reputable because of being a competitive sport.
Taekwondo is based on the observations and theories in Choi Hong Hi’s Theory of Power. In Choi’s opinion, an attacker’s muscle mass is not as important as the speed. This is because the power of a strike increases linearly with the mass of the moving object and quadratically with its speed.
This theory enabled him to develop a kick-based martial art since legs can make faster and heavier strikes than arms. Taekwondo teaches you to use kicks during a fight. This feature makes the martial art unique and different from other martial arts but at the same time causes it to be less effective in self-defense.
A good jab is better than a strong roundhouse kick in a street fight. This martial art style might not guarantee your safety in a hostile situation because you might not have enough space to throw a strong kick.
Additionally, you might not kick the attacker if you two are not standing at a reasonable distance away from each other. If you cannot move to a space that allows you to throw a solid kick, you will have to retreat the fight to evade the attacker’s clinch or knife. Furthermore, throwing kicks during a fight can make you unstable and give your attacker a chance to sweep you to the floor.
Another reason why taekwondo is not a very effective martial arts style in self-defense is because it is not pressure tested thoroughly. TKD competitions focus on points rather than how powerfully or confidently the participants kick. You will be more likely to lose in a street fight if your attacker is extremely violent or more muscular than you.
This martial arts style does not guarantee you safety in violent situations because it does not equip you with adequate skills for street fighting. It mainly relies on kicking. You will be less likely to win a street fight if you rely only on one style. Another reason taekwondo is a less effective martial art for self-defense is that it takes many years to learn, master, and practice it on the streets.
Taekwondo might be less effective in self-defense than other martial art styles, but it is still awesome. It is based on the idea that human legs are longer than the arms. Therefore, it is easy to hold off your attackers if you learn to throw strong kicks. This feature makes this martial art appropriate for both men and women.
Taekwondo is an effective martial art for building character, especially in children. Moreover, it facilitates the development of power, swiftness, and flexibility that can help you defend yourself against several attackers. If you want to defend yourself better, train to make your legs faster and stronger. Additionally, combine taekwondo with other self-defense techniques.
In the 1920s, Morihei Ueshiba created the art of Aikido in Japan as a combination of physical art and spiritual practice. Aikido was initially founded in the branch of Jujitsu called Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, but Ueshiba integrated that martial art with others, along with spiritual beliefs founded in the religion of Omoto-kyo. Aikido is perfectly designed as a martial art for self-defense, as it values the ultimate safety of the attacker as well as the defender, which could save on any costly legal troubles resulting from a fight. Aikido focuses on joint locks and throws to defensively redirect the attacker’s momentum rather than striking to cause injury. Another benefit of Aikido training is that it teaches students to defend against multiple attackers. If you want to train in Aikido for self-defense, then when selecting an Aikido school be sure that they focus on the physical aspect and allow for greater resistance as your training progresses so that your newfound skills better translate to real-world combat.
Jujitsu, the umbrella term for many Japanese martial arts, is the foundation upon which BJJ and many other martial arts are built. Its origin as a technique allowing disarmed samurai to continue to fight makes it extremely effective against both armed and unarmed opponents. Modern Jujitsu focuses on hard blocks and counterstrikes that either redirect their momentum or break it entirely. These blocks and counterstrikes don’t need to be performed with a great amount of strength but practiced and carried out with proper technique, they can cause a lot of pain and give an attacker pause. Jujitsu also teaches impact techniques that can be used to distract an opponent so you can prepare your next moves to get them to the ground or disable them so you can get out of the situation. It may not be as easy to find a Jujitsu school as Karate or MMA, but they are out there.
The origins of Judo go back to various forms of Jujitsu in feudal Japan. In 1882, Jigoro Kano began to refine and develop these ancient arts into Kodokan Judo, one of the first organized martial arts in Japan’s history. Judo is an excellent choice for self-defense because its techniques can be used to disable an opponent with somewhat less violence than striking-based forms of martial arts and it does train students to deal with opponents both from a standing position and on the ground. Judo only uses strikes as feints, and deals in grapples, locks, sweeps, and throws, and grappling comes more naturally than striking to most people, possibly making these techniques easier to learn. Unfortunately, this same strength makes Judo more unbalanced than many other martial arts, but nonetheless, it is an excellent skill set for self-defense. Thanks to the efforts of Kano and his students, Judo gained international popularity during the mid-twentieth century and Judo schools are readily available in many parts of the world.
10. Combat Sambo
Sambo is a martial art developed in the 1920s for the Russian military. Its creators, Vasili Oshchepov and Viktor Spiridonov, took a combination of techniques from multiple arts including several traditional forms of Russian wrestling, boxing, and judo, and melded them into a style a bit like MMA geared for street fighting. Sambists train to fight with efficient techniques at full power to force their opponent to submit, making it ideal for preparing for real-world self-defense situations. Considering that the main goal of Combat Sambo is to take down your opponent as quickly as possible, the main drawback of Sambo is not actually that it isn’t so great for self-defense; it’s actually that for most people, it is quite difficult to access Sambo training. There are very few reputable Sambo schools outside of the former Soviet Union, so chances are relatively low that a good one will be near you.
Karate dates back to 14th century Japan, and thanks to its popularization in the West, it is many parent’s go-to when they want their kid to learn to defend themselves, and there are karate dojos to be found in just about every town in America. The problem is that many of these are so-called McDojos, handing out belts for money with very little real work and progress put into earning them. One drawback to karate training for self-defense is that in a lot of schools, contact in sparring is very light, meaning that students don’t get a good feel for real combat situations. The majority of American dojos teach Shotokan karate, which is a style of hard, straight-line techniques. Unfortunately, it isn’t the best style of karate for self-defense. If you can, look for either a Kyokushin or Gojo-Ryu school. Kyokushin in particular puts more emphasis on full-contact sparring than many karate schools, making it a rather better preparation for real-world conflict than most.
Wrestling has a rich history dating back thousands of years and has been practiced in some form around the globe, and for good reason. Modern Western wrestling is based heavily on Greco-Roman wrestling. It is not just an athletic competition, but also an effective technique for self-defense. First and foremost, wrestling teaches the fighter to take control of the situation, which is of utmost importance in the context of self-defense. The wrestler learns balance, explosive power, endurance, and the appropriate amount of pressure to use on their opponent, all of which are major benefits in a fight. If it could be said that wrestling has a drawback, it is that it does not deal with strikes and kicks or longer-range fighting. To use wrestling effectively, the combat must be in close range. Wrestlers learn to defend against an attacker trying to control their body, they learn standing and ground techniques, and training in wrestling is widely available.
Boxing, with its millennia-long history and popularity as a sport, often gets ignored as a martial art for self-defense, but its usefulness should not be underestimated. Boxing’s focus on evasive head movement, footwork, and strong, fast punches makes it a highly effective self-defense style. Boxing teaches effective distance control as well as good attack and defensive skills. As most self-defense situations start upright, if you have practiced well and are attentive in the moment, you may be able to end a fight before your attacker has a chance to take you to the ground, where Boxing quickly fails. So, you could say that Boxing has the same problem as Judo, just on the opposite side. Boxing is inherently unbalanced because it completely omits kicks and grappling, leaving practitioners especially vulnerable to take-downs and leg kicks. However, its strengths generally outweigh its weaknesses and its popularity makes it easy to access good training.
This French martial art is also known as La Boxe Francaise. It originated from Paris in the early 19th century. Today, many people across France practice it.
Savate mainly involves kicks and punches. It is almost similar to kickboxing. However, there are several factors that differentiate the two. The main difference is that in Savate, you learn to strike your opponent with your foot. On the contrary, kickboxing teaches you to use your shin.
One of the factors that would cause Savate to land you in trouble in a street fight is the primary focus on kicks. Kicking your attacker’s head during a self-defense scenario is risky. You have to be standing on one leg if you want to throw a good kick. However, this is a dangerous position because the attacker can easily push you off balance.
Luckily, Savate instructors also teach their students how to punch with their hands. Learning how to use your legs and hands to guard yourself during a street fight are the two factors that make Savate a good self-defense martial art.
However, this style is not readily available. This means that you can struggle to find a training center to learn Savate. You can consider looking for an online instructor if you are interested in this art.
5. Muay Thai (Kickboxing)
Commonly referred to as Thai kickboxing, Muay Thai is another awesome martial art that you can use in a self-defense scenario. It started hundreds of thousands of years ago in Thailand. The Thai people traditionally used this style in close-quarters combat. Siamese soldiers also used it to defend themselves during battles when Thailand was the kingdom of Siam. Muay Thai became a legitimate sport in the 19th century.
The founders of American kickboxing invented it in the 1970s together with other martial arts. However, it originated from Muay Thai, and this relationship explains why it is fair to place them in the same category and give them the same level of effectiveness.
Muay Thai is an “Art of eight limbs” because it involves using your whole body as a weapon. You have to strike and throw devastating kicks and punches using your fists, elbows, knees, and shins.
During training, you will also learn the clinch technique, which applies to other martial art styles like wrestling and Judo. These features make Muay Thai a versatile, yet tough and deadly martial art. It requires you to use all the skills you might need in a fight.
It is essential to know that Muay Thai focuses on striking and stand-up fighting. This martial art style teaches you to condition your bones together and implement different striking strategies.
Another reason why people should consider using Muay Thai in a self-defense scenario is its versatility. For example, it covers various ranges, such as a kicking range, long roundhouse kick, kneeing range, or medium-distance jab. Knowing different striking ranges enables you to attack your opponent from different positions.
Muay Thai’s ability to work on the clinch contributes significantly to its effectiveness in self-defense situations. This stand-up fighting strategy has the shortest range in history. The opponents hold each other by their heads, shoulders, and hands and attempt to protect their knees and elbows.
The clinch enables you to control your attacker’s posture and prevent them from hitting you. For example, you can strike and take them to the ground. According to martial arts experts, Muay Thai is the best clinch art.
Its versatility also enables you to defend yourself in any position without having to reach the ground. Since you can use throws, this style makes it easier to define different self-defense techniques in different scenarios. Most MMA fighters use Muay Thai as a great training source because it helps them learn how to throw powerful kicks.
However, Muay Thai also has its downsides that reduce its effectiveness in self-defense. Its availability is the first factor. This martial art is relatively rare despite becoming more popular over the recent years. Finding a Muay Thai gym or training center in most towns is not easy.
Other factors affecting this art’s effectiveness include the difficulty and steepness of the learning curve. The traditional Muay Thai path involves extreme pain and conditioning. This discourages most trainees from reaching the top. Those who make it are exceptionally determined and have a lot of perseverance.
Some people argue that the lack of ground techniques is a disadvantage for Muay Thai. This martial art only teaches you sweeps and clinches and not ground practices.
4. Wing Chun
Wing Chun is one of the Chinese martial arts that falls under the umbrella of Kung Fu. Its history goes back to the seventeenth century when a monk called Ng Mui wanted to create a fighting style that was effective for anyone despite their weight or size. Wing Chun is a well-rounded style, focused on balance, and allowing its practitioners to defend and attack simultaneously. It focuses on efficiency of movement, making it particularly useful for real-world situations where flashy techniques are more likely to get a person into trouble than to prevent injury.
3. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was developed in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century by Carlos Gracie after he trained with Mitsuo Maeda in Jiu-jitsu. BJJ uses joint locks and levers to bring an opponent to the ground and force them to submit and uses the opponent’s force against them, even when the attacker is much larger and heavier than the BJJ practitioner. Using grappling techniques, a person is much less likely to injure themselves than while striking, so BJJ is helpful for defending yourself without undue injury. It is also extremely popular and easy to access, making BJJ a great choice for anyone looking to learn self-defense.
2. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
Mixed martial arts, popularly known as MMA, is among the best and most effective self-defense styles in the field of martial arts. Lately, it has become more prevalent as more people dig more into martial arts for physical fitness and self-defense. This martial arts style contributed to the development of companies like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Most schools also use it to pressure-test various arts.
Some expert fighters describe MMA as the most challenging martial art technique. It is hard to disagree with them because the art involves learning different forms of fighting, such as grappling, standup fighting, and ground-and-pound. Training in MMA equips the trainee with many practical self-defense tactics and styles from other martial art techniques, such as kickboxing, wrestling, boxing, BJJ, and Muay Thai and can involve any other combat martial art.
For example, it teaches you how to break yourself free from different holds like chokeholds and protect yourself when dealing with multiple attackers. The well-roundedness is what makes MMA an excellent self-defense style. You can use these skills and techniques in any street fight or self-defense situation involving trained or untrained attackers because it prepares you to become an all-around fighter.
MMA also boosts an individual’s confidence in real-life situations and relationships. This means that you can confidently handle any physical confrontation and stand up for yourself after completing the training. For these reasons, MMA qualifies as a tremendous workout and an excellent self-defense skill.
Another factor that contributes to MMA’s effectiveness in self-defense scenarios is its availability. You can find MMA schools in different cities. The rise in different competitions like UFC has contributed to the increased popularity of this sport. Your trainer can customize the training to meet your need. The flexibility of the learning curve makes MMA even better.
1. Krav Maga
When most people hear Krav Maga, they’re usually thinking of the Israeli Defense Force’s ultra-deadly hand-to-hand combat style, but there is also a form of Krav Maga based on the IDF’s program, but designed for civilian use. Krav Maga is Hebrew for “contact combat” and its purpose is indeed combat and not sport. The benefits of Krav Maga for self-defense are its balance and its efficiency, as Krav Maga teaches students to attack and defend at the same moment with an explosion of fast, brutal techniques. Students learn not only striking of various kinds but also chokes, locks and takedowns. Its priority is ending the threat to the practitioner, rather than mastering kata or emphasizing spiritual development.