Best Martial Arts for Self-Defense

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I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to protect myself. I know what it’s like to be defenseless and inexperienced. I’ve also seen how big a difference it can make when you actually know how to fight. Not everyone has this knowledge, and that’s why I want to help.

One of the martial arts’ greatest benefits is knowing how to defend yourself if you ever need to. On the other hand, one of the martial arts’ greatest faults is that most styles are marketed as useful in self-defense when in reality they’re not.

When I first became keenly interested in martial arts as a whole, I was surprised to learn that not every style is effective in real-life self-preservation. The best martial arts for self-defense weren’t at all what I thought they would be.

Choosing the wrong style could put your life in danger. I want to help you make an informed decision so that you can effectively protect yourself if you ever need to.


Things to Consider When Choosing a Martial Art for Self-Defense

There are a few factors you should think about before you commit to any style, especially when it comes to self-defense. Although all martial arts can teach you how to fight, one problem is that most of them teach you how to fight other martial artists.

Real-life attacks are unpredictable, and I hate to say it, but most fighting styles won’t teach you that. You can be a black belt in karate, and it might not make any difference if you’re ganged up on or shot at. The martial arts have been highly exaggerated and romanticized in modern media.

So how do you know which martial arts you should contemplate if effective protection is what you’re after?


Different Styles Have Different Strengths

Let’s start by learning about the different styles. There are three types of martial arts: Striking, weapons-based and grappling.



Striking martial arts are those that are practiced on your feet; upright, with the goal being to strike your opponent in the offense. Examples of this are karate and boxing. Most people are inclined to believe that the striking forms are the best for self-defense, but this isn’t necessarily the case.



Then, you have weapons-based, which sounds effective because weapons are powerful. The only problem is that in traditional martial arts (like kendo, fencing or even stick fighting) you’re being taught to wield unrealistic weapons.

Think about it, unless you carry a sword with you everywhere you go, kendo isn’t going to help you in a life or death situation. You’re also taught to spar with opponents who wield the exact same weapon as you, and this can leave you wildly unprepared.


Grappling (And Why It’s the Best)

Then there are the grappling forms, which are the most effective in real-life street fights. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that with striking forms, like karate, they can be predictable. Even someone who knows a little bit of karate could fight you, and if they’re faster or stronger, they could overpower you.

In grappling, however, you use specific techniques that your attacker probably won’t have any training in. Therefore, they’ll find it hard to stop you. Their weight or size won’t be an advantage and will actually work against them.

The other benefit is that it’s almost inevitable a street fight will end up on the ground. Striking and weapons-based martial arts don’t accommodate for this scenario.

It’s not to say that grappling is perfect. There are drawbacks too. If your fight doesn’t end up on the ground, you might be powerless. You also have to be close to your opponent to defend yourself, and they could make it more difficult to escape. Grappling doesn’t prepare you for more multiple assailants either.


Pick a Realistic Martial Art

It’s best to choose a martial art that has been specifically designed for self-defense, rather than for sport.

Muay Thai, for example, is an improved version of boxing, where you use your legs to strike as well as your hands. This is very useful in a street fight. Also, jiu-jitsu developed as a means of defense for samurai outside of their weapons-based assault techniques.

Others, like MMA, might not have developed to teach street fighting techniques but have proven to be a realistic fighting style outside of lessons and competition. These are the styles that you should pay attention to. They’ll teach you to attack and defend, both in lessons and on the street.

You’ll find that another fault of traditional styles is that in lessons, you’re often taught to hold back and won’t be shown how to properly incapacitate someone. It’s a cruel reality, but often in an attack, your only option is to resort to violence, and if you’re not taught how, you could land in a lot of trouble.

I’m not endorsing violence, but the following styles are the ones that will teach you how to use self-defense, should you need to. They’re excellent in offense and defense and are the most useful in real-world scenarios.


Muay Thai

Muay Thai, which translates as “Thai boxing,” originated in Thailand as a more evolved form of boxing. It’s also sometimes called “the art of eight limbs” because fighters are taught to use their feet, knees, elbows, and fists to attack.

Muay Thai is praised for being one of the most effective styles for self-defense that you can learn, as it teaches you to fight with most of your body—something you’ll do on instinct in a street fight. It’s also versatile, incorporating striking and submission; a vital combination in self-defense.



  • Use of your entire body can benefit you greatly in a street fight.
  • It’s one of the most powerful striking forms.
  • It’s rising in popularity, so lessons are abundant.
  • It’s often revered as the most useful martial arts in a real-life situation.



  • It’s quite physically demanding, and may not be suitable for certain body types or ages.
  • You will use gloves in classes. This is an extra cost, and won’t prepare you for a bare-handed fight.
  • It’s not the easiest martial art to learn.
  • Though you use your entire body, illegal moves are regulated, and won’t be taught.
  • You’ll learn a sport, not self-defense.



Boxing is one of the oldest and most recognized sports in the world. Before the rise of other styles like Muay Thai and MMA, there was a belief that boxing was the best for self-defense. While this is no longer true (because boxing does have its limitations), it’s still an effective method of protecting yourself.

As a sport, boxing is a striking martial art in which you can only use your fists (under boxing gloves), to punch your opponent above the belt. Clinching is allowed as well. It’s the original prototype from which kickboxing and Muay Thai evolved.



  • Will teach you how to both throw and block a punch.
  • One of the best ways to stay fit and strong.
  • It’s widespread, and you won’t have any trouble finding a gym that will train you.



  • Limited to teaching you how to fight with your fists.
  • It’s intense and even dangerous.
  • Since you make use of specialized equipment, it’s not the most affordable option.
  • It’s a sport designed to teach you how to fight, not escape or protect yourself.


Krav Maga

Krav Maga is often labeled as the most effective method of self-defense you can learn. It’s also developed a reputation for being somewhat controversial, due to its emphasis on real violence, to the point of learning how to kill in defense.

Krav Maga originated as a fighting system for the Israel Defense Forces. It was created in 1930 and designed by Imi Lichtenfeld—a boxer who used his martial arts training against fascist attackers in the Jewish Quarter. It’s tailored to be a mix of the best and most brutal moves in other fighting styles. This includes boxing, karate, aikido, judo, and wrestling.

When discussing self-defense, there is always a light shone on Krav Maga because it stands out from other techniques in a significant way. Other martial arts focus on sparring and are designed to teach control, flexibility, and power. Krav Maga was specifically developed as a defensive style that could save your life.

Its purpose is to teach fighters how to get out of real-life danger situations as quickly as possible, even if the way to do that is by using unforgiving aggression.



  • One of the only effective martial arts to focus on defense.
  • A realistic martial art that considers weapons or multiple attackers.
  • Places emphasis on ending or escaping a fight as fast as possible.
  • Weight, size, and age don’t affect your training.



  • Due to Krav Maga becoming overhyped, many false institutions exist.
  • It’s unregulated, and there are divided opinions on which techniques are correct.
  • It’s aggressive and is not for the faint-hearted.




Although BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu) has seen a recent boom in popularity, its history stretches far back in time. BJJ began as an evolved form of judo, which in turn started as an updated form of Japanese jiu-jitsu.

BJJ came to be thanks to a man named Hélio Gracie, who modified what he learned in judo to accommodate his physical weakness, unexplained illness, and small stature. To this day, BJJ remains a martial art that doesn’t discriminate when it comes to size or strength. For this reason, it’s a favorite in self-defense.

Since it’s a grappling form, BJJ can give you a massive advantage in a street fight. Most aggressors won’t be prepared to be taken down, and you could easily subdue an untrained opponent using BJJ techniques.

What many people don’t realize though, is that BJJ is a sport. Gracie jiu-jitsu is a means of self-defense. Technically, BJJ and GJJ are the same styles, though they differ in their focus and method of operation.

If you want to learn how to fight, choose BJJ. If you want to learn how to defend yourself, choose a Gracie school.



  • A grappling form that is highly advantageous in street fights.
  • Regarded as one of the most effective fighting styles you can find.
  • It’s Gracie discipline focuses on self-defense.
  • BJJ is a highly popular martial art, making it highly accessible.
  • Apart from your gi, costs are low and no special equipment is required.



  • Grappling can slow you down in an emergency.
  • It’s not effective against armed opponents or groups.




As mentioned above, judo stems from jiu-jitsu, which is the reason why martial arts are taught the way they are, and most traditions are borrowed from it. Judo started out as a specialized form of jiu-jitsu; one that focused on its most effective moves. Judo was also the first style to incorporate the traditional gi.

Judo’s story is similar to that of BJJ, just further back in time. Judo was founded in 1882, by a man named Jigoro Kano, who was a frail, sickly and small man looking for strength and a means of defense.



  • A highly effective grappling style.
  • An excellent choice for fitness.
  • It’s a popular martial art so you won’t be hard pressed to find a school that will teach you.
  • Judo is easy to get started in.
  • No special equipment needed, apart from a gi.



  • As with other grappling styles, its use is limited.
  • Using it in defense might slow your escape in an emergency.
  • Though revered, it’s losing popularity in favor of BJJ.




Last, but certainly not least, is MMA (mixed martial arts). Though many believe this is a relatively modern sport, it actually dates back to ancient Greece. It began as a gory, yet entertaining, sport, and subsequently evolved into a favorite in fitness, competition, and defense.

Unlike the other martial arts I’ve featured, MMA in and of itself is not a martial art. It’s actually a combination of any, and all, martial arts. In MMA, you can utilize moves from judo, karate, Muay Thai and capoeira… or any other arts your fighting spirit desires.

For this reason, it’s often considered the most effective method to use in a street fight. You get the best of all the others, right? Not quite. While MMA is a well-rounded sport with many useful qualities, it’s still disputed as to whether MMA should be classed as a form of self-defense.

For one, some MMA fighters are jacks of all trades, yet masters of none. Being well versed in a specific martial art might just be more powerful than dabbling in all of them. For another, MMA is still a sparring sport that might not be much good if you’re assaulted with a weapon or confronted by a mob.



  • It’s the most versatile and will give you the best of other fighting styles.
  • MMA is one of the most popular sports of our time. Finding a gym won’t be difficult.
  • No special equipment is required.
  • It’s excellent for fitness.
  • It’s highly realistic in a street fight or brawl.
  • It doesn’t follow one single discipline so you can learn a style that suits you best.



  • As with others, MMA might prove ineffective against armed aggressors or gangs.
  • A lack of specialization could work to your detriment.
  • It’s more a sport that teaches you how to fight, rather than a martial art that will teach self-defense.



Are Self-Defense Classes Better?

You might not realize it, but there is a difference between a self-defense class and one of martial arts. If none of the martial arts styles appeals to you, but you’d still like to learn how to protect yourself, a few lessons in self-defense may suit you better.

Martial arts are physically demanding disciplines that take a long time to master. They can be competitive or spiritual and usually teach control and restraint. They’re highly ceremonial and somewhat formal and are, as their name implies, exercises in combat.

A self-defense class, on the other hand, won’t necessarily have the beauty or education of the martial arts. But the class will teach you how to save your own life quickly and without fuss. They’re designed for those who may feel vulnerable. They won’t turn you into a kung-fu master, but they will teach you a technique or two that you can use to escape dangerous situations.

Is one better than the other? No one can say. What matters is what you are comfortable with, and what will give you the power to protect yourself. If Krav Maga appeals to you, go for it. If you’d rather take up BJJ, then follow that instinct instead.



The Decision

When things become too real, confidence and quick thinking make all the difference in the world. In self-defense, it’s all about practicality. You don’t have to become a black belt in any of these styles, but they’re recommended if you want peace of mind.

Have fun in whichever form of the best martial arts for self-defense you choose. If you’re not enjoying the training and the journey of your chosen style, then consider switching to a different one.

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