With so many different martial arts in the world, how can you know which ones are the best for self-defense? Let’s break it down and see which ones are best and why.
The best martial arts for self-defense are those which provide hands-on training experience and are proven to work in combat sports like MMA. For example, BJJ, Muay Thai (Kickboxing), Judo, Wrestling and Boxing are all used by professional MMA athletes and are also the best for self-defense.
Warning: Not every martial art is good for self-defense.
It is essential that you chose a martial art that works in real-life self-defense situations.
So you do not find out the hard way (when it is too late) that your chosen martial art does not stand up against a full-force attack.
(trust me, I made the mistake, and paid the price)
This article is designed to help you understand what qualifies a martial art as a good form of self-defense. So you can make the right decision – and be safe should you need to defend yourself one day.
First, we will look at each of the 5 best martial arts for self-defense. Second, you will learn how to question what makes a martial art good for self-defense so you’re able to choose the right one for you to learn.
Three of the most popular martial arts for self-defense are Boxing, BJJ, and MMA. If these are your top 3 too, check out my article for a complete guide on Which to Learn: Boxing or BJJ or MMA.
The 5 Best Martial Arts for Self-Defense
It is important to say, right from the start, that the best form of self-defense is to avoid the fight at all costs.
However, this is not always possible, so your two best options are:
- Learn a mix of striking and grappling – or
- Learn a single discipline (as listed below)
Mix of Striking & Grappling Martial Arts
To be fully prepared for self-defense, and how to fight in any scenario that the fight may end up in, it is best to learn a mix of both striking and grappling.
- You need to know how to use strikes including kicks, punches, knees and elbows, how to use head movement to avoid strikes, and how to keep your hands up to protect your chin.
- You need to know how to grapple if someone grabs a hold of you and takes you to the ground, how to use takedowns, trips and throws, and how to use joint locks and choke holds to finish the fight.
Discover more about striking and grappling – check out our article:
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the discipline of learning a combination of martial arts and their most effective techniques.
Learning a mix is the best preparation for self-defense.
Single Discipline Martial Arts
Learning a single discipline means learning one martial art which offers effective training and has been proven to work (more on this in the ‘Why’ section below).
The 5 best martial arts for self-defense:
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Muay Thai (Kickboxing)
However, these martial arts do have their limits. For example:
- Judo teaches some of the most effective throws out of all martial arts
- Wrestling teaches some of the most effective and solid body-lock takedowns
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaches the most in-depth ground fighting system
But all three of these neglect striking techniques.
- Boxing teaches effective footwork, head movement and punches
- Muay Thai (Kickboxing) teaches the most effective elbow, knee and kicking techniques
But neither of these teach ground fighting or submissions.
- Style: Grappling
- Main Focus: Ground Fighting & Submissions
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) teaches you how to close the distance between you and your opponent, and how to use grappling techniques to defeat your opponent; including, takedowns, ground fighting, joint locks and choke holds.
To learn more about BJJ – check out our articles:
- BJJ for Self-Defense: Good or Bad
- Does BJJ Teach Striking?
Muay Thai (Kickboxing)
- Style: Striking
- Main Focus: Punches, elbows, knees, kicks & clinch fighting
Muay Thai and Kickboxing are technically different martial arts, but both teach you how to use a variety of Boxing and kicking techniques to defeat an attacker.
Discover more about the striking world of Muay Thai (Kickboxing) – check out our articles:
- Kickboxing Vs Muay Thai: 5 Key Differences
- Muay Thai for Self-Defense: 7 Key Benefits
- Muay Thai: What Does It Teach You?
- Style: Grappling
- Main Focus: Standing Throws & Takedowns (With Some Ground Fighting & Submissions)
Judo’s main focus is on how to throw your opponent onto the ground from a standing position; including hip throws, trips and sweeps. And has a limited focus on ground fighting techniques and submissions.
- Style: Grappling
- Main Focus: Body-Locks, Takedowns & Slams
Although there are many styles of Wrestling, they are all extremely effective at teaching you how to close the distance between you and your opponent, before securing a solid body-lock and finishing with a takedown or slam.
To learn more about grappling and striking for self-defense – check out our article:
- Style: Striking
- Main Focus: Punching; Both Offence & Defense
Boxing teaches you how to use punches to both the body and head of your opponent, and how to use footwork and head movement in order to move and avoid strikes.
For more on Boxing, check out my other articles:
- Boxing Fitness: What to Expect (Complete Guide)
Which martial art is the cheapest to learn? Check out my other article: The Cost of Learning Martial Arts (with the cheapest).
What Makes a Martial Art Good for Self-Defense (Why)?
When trying to determine what qualifies a good martial art for self-defense, there are three main questions you need to ask yourself:
- Does training give hands-on experience at all levels?
- Are you tested against increasing levels of resistance?
- Is this martial art proven to work in high level full-contact competition?
To understand why these questions are important to ask, let’s look at each one in more detail.
1. Does Training Give Hands-On Experience At All Levels?
When you start learning a marital art, it is important to first understand the theory of what you’re learning.
Then from there, to progress onto practical hands-on training.
Some martial arts require less theoretical understanding – others require a lot, but both are important.
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The Theory In most martial art classes, you will first learn the principles on which the martial art and its techniques are based on, and go through the motions of each technique at a slow and controlled pace.
This type of training is to learn the theory of each technique and should teach you:
- How the technique works
- Why the technique works
- How it can be used
- When it can be used
This training can be done in a number of ways, including:
- Kata forms (a sequence of moves, rehearsed and performed in a predetermined order)
This type of training is like saying “In theory, this is how this martial art (and its techniques) can be used in real life”.
The Practical This is where you build upon the theory of what you have learned and put into action the actual doing and use of the theories and techniques of the martial art in the form of hands-on training.
The practical training can be:
- Hitting pads or a bag
- Drilling with your training partner (one-for-one, taking it in turns)
- Sparring with your training partners
The problem is that some martial arts spend too much time on the theory, and neglect practical hands-on training.
Some martial arts require you to spend years of theory training before being allowed to do any hands-on practical training.
This means that in some martial arts:
- You may be required to first earn a black belt before ‘real training’ begins
- You could go years without any practical hands-on training
- You may never actually learn how to fight and defend yourself
This does not prepare you for self-defense – and is dangerous for new students.
Think about when we learn to drive a car – in nearly every country in the world you are required to complete both a theory test and a practical test.
Because theoretical learning only partly prepares you for success.
Practical experience is essential for true learning – especially with martial arts!
The sooner you’re able to get practical, real-life hands-on training – the sooner you will be prepared for self-defense.
Whether you’re a beginner – or a black belt – martial arts training should provide hands-on practical training.
For every student, at every level, as soon as possible.
The best martial arts for self-defense (as listed above) do not neglect practical training.
“Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous”Confucius
2. Are You Tested Against Increasing Levels of Resistance?
Learning the theory of a martial art and being allowed to get hands-on practical experience from day one, is a great place to start.
But what happens if you need to use it against an aggressive, non-compliant, fully resistant attacker?
- Has your training prepared you for this level of intensity and aggression?
- Will your martial art still work?
To combat this issue, it is important that your chosen martial art offers alternating levels of resistance and compliance from your training partner.
Two important factors to your training:
- Resistance: The level of force that your training partner uses to fight against you – making you work harder to overcome it.
- Compliance: The level to which your training partner works with you and allows you to do things – how much they go with the flow.
This can be broken down into three levels of intensity:
Low Without training partner No resistance Medium With training partner Resistant, but compliant High With training partner Fully resistant & non-compliant
When you’re just starting out as a beginner and learning the techniques of your martial art, training on your own with no resistance, offers you space to practice without someone trying to stop you in anyway.
No resistance training includes:
- Kata forms (rehearsing sequences of moves)
This is where you are able to learn the theory of your martial art and its techniques on your own with no training partner.
Once you have practiced the fundamentals and are able to perform the techniques correctly, it is time to introduce some resistance into your training.
Resistance training includes:
- Hitting pads or a bag
- One-for-one drilling with a training partner
- Flow rolling (Grappling)
- Touch sparring (Striking)
During this sort of training, it is important that your training partners put up some resistance against your techniques for you to overcome.
But are still compliant in allowing you to complete your moves and techniques (going with the flow, we are still just learning).
At this point, training can be as close to real-life as you want to make it – with maximum resistance and non-compliance from your training partner.
Fully resistant training can include:
- Live free rolling (Grappling)
- Full-contact sparring (Striking)
- Competition training
In this sort of training, your training partner will not go easy on you, if you’re not effective with your techniques and your skills aren’t up to it, then you will soon find out.
This is most like real-life and therefore, is the best preparation for self-defense.
- Training doesn’t always need to be high intensity
- You can dial the intensity up or down with your training partners as you need to
- Maybe sometimes only work at 50-60% effort
However, for you to be equipped with basic self-defense principles, your training needs to provide increasing levels of intensity to prepare you for real life.
Just in case you ever need to use your martial art for real.
3. Is This Martial Art Proven to Work in Competition?
If self-defense is your main objective for learning a martial art – then wouldn’t you first want to know that the martial art you’re learning has actually been proven to work in real-life conditions outside of just the training room?
Luckily, competitions offer us a great insight into just how effective a martial art and its techniques work when put under the pressure of real fighting conditions.
You may be thinking, “surely all martial arts will work in a real fight” – but as mentioned before, not all martial arts are effective forms of self-defense.
Fake Martial Arts
Throughout history, from all corners of the earth, different forms of martial arts have been developed out of a necessity to defend against attackers.
Unfortunately for a long time, there have been some suspicious-looking ‘cult-like’ martial arts out there too.
These fake forms of martial arts were irresponsibly manufactured to simply get people to buy into a lie and part with their money.
For example, if your instructor is demonstrating how to knock someone down with an unseen powerwithout even touching their opponent (we’ve all seen it)– then that’s a good indication that the martial art definitely will not work in real life – and should be avoided.
YouTube has many examples of these fake martial arts being exposed when tested in competition, under real fight conditions.
MMA Exposed What Works & What Doesn’t
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has proven which martial arts work best under real-life fighting conditions – meaning MMA has also exposed the most effective forms of self-defense for us to learn.
MMA was built out of the age-old debate of ‘which martial art is the best?’
- Karate Vs Kickboxing
- Judo Vs Jiu-Jitsu
- Striking Vs Grappling
For more on Striking Vs Grappling – check out our other article:
Since then, MMA has grown and propelled itself into the mainstream, and has developed into its own form of fighting.
Nowadays, MMA athletes use a combination of martial arts all mixed together.
Although MMA is strictly governed by rulesets and by athletic commissions, when it comes to combat sports, MMA is as real as it gets.
Meaning, MMA offers us the perfect insight into which martial arts work in a real fight, and which martial arts don’t.
And we can use this to measure how effective each martial art is for real-life self-defense.
Think about a professional MMA fighter who dedicates their lives to training and to becoming an effective martial artist so they can compete at the highest level.
Why would they focus any of their energy on learning an ineffective martial art?
They are only going to focus on the most effective forms of fighting and techniques.
The martial arts and techniques that are proven to work.
Because these are the tools of their trade which they will use to win and propel themselves up the ranks.
For these athletes, any time spent learning ineffective martial arts would be time wasted, and dangerous.
Just as a builder needs to know many different trades to be able to do their job properly, an MMA fighter needs to master only the important aspects of the most effective forms of martial arts.
If your intention is to learn self-defense, but you’re considering a martial art that has no place in MMA – it does not mean it is completely useless.
However, it may be worth questioning – why does it have no place?
Single Discipline Competitions Vs Self-Defense
Single discipline competitions are competitions in which only one discipline (one martial art and its techniques) are allowed.
These competitions have been around for centuries.
We even see them in the Olympics.
However, with each single discipline competition, comes a unique set of rules which governs the fight.
Some single discipline rulesets allow the use of techniques which in others, would get you instantly disqualified.
For example, most of the things you can do in Muay Thai (Kickboxing) are illegal in Boxing.
Therefore, it is important to ask – how much do the rules affect the realism of the fight?
- In Boxing if one fighter holds onto the other, the referee will step in and break them up – because there is no grappling allowed
- In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Judo, you don’t need to think about defending against punches and kicks – because there is no striking allowed
In real life though, anything goes.
In a self-defense situation, there is no referee to break you up.
If your training is purely focused on a single discipline and a single set of rules – you may be forming bad habits or neglecting fundamental self-defense principles.
- Is your training preparing you for a real fight, where no referee can step in?
- Are you relying on a set of rules to protect you?
“What might be okay within the rules of a competition, may put you at risk in a real fight”
Unprepared for Self-Defense
I personally experienced how it can all go wrong when I was 13 years old.
I began learning my first martial art.
But after 18 months of training, I had still not yet done any practical hands-on training.
All my training had been theory, in the form of Katas – which are a sequence of techniques, which have to be remembered, rehearsed and performed in the correct order (but require no hands-on training with a partner).
As far as I was aware, I was learning self-defense.
But, on a rainy night in the local park, I got attacked and beaten up.
As I lay there on the park’s cold wet concrete (with the rain and kicks showering down on me) – I couldn’t help but wonder what had those Katas actually taught me about self-defense.
I told my instructor what had happened, and he explained that at my level (after 18 months and two belt promotions) I hadn’t yet started ‘real training’.
He then said that I would not start ‘real training’ until I get a black belt.
Clearly, anyone who dedicates decades of their life to mastering a martial art (getting a black belt) will have a substantial advantage over an untrained (or lesser experienced) attacker.
However, most of us are not planning on dedicating our lives to mastering a martial art.
What if you’re just learning in your spare time?
Time to effectiveness (TTE) means – how long it takes a person to become effective at doing something they are learning to do.
In terms of martial arts training, TTE can be measured by how well you’re able to use your martial art in a real-life situation like full-contact training or self-defense.
How Long Before You Can Defend Yourself?
There’s no magic rule-of-thumb when it comes to training. No, one-size-fits-all.
However, 18 months of effective training – is usually enough to begin to see real improvements.
But more importantly:
- Have you received enough hands-on practical training?
- Have you been tested against increasing levels of resistance?
These two questions will directly determine whether you can defend yourself – and your Time to Effectiveness.
Consistency is important too:
- 1 Day a week: You will begin to learn the basics of your martial art.
- 2 – 3 Days a week [Recommended]: You can expect to increase your rate of learning, improve upon the techniques you already know and sharpen your response times.
- 4 – 5 Days a week: At this level you will further increase your rate of learning and start to form instinctual responses – meaning you’re able to react without thinking.
My 18 months of ineffective training did nothing to prepare me for self-defense – and left me completely exposed to my attacker.
That realization hit me along with every punch and kick I received in the park that night.
But what if I had done 18 months of effective training – in one of the five martial arts listed above?
With the same amount of time invested into training, I would have been better prepared for self-defense.
- Had my training given me hands-on experience at all levels? No
- Had I been tested against increasing levels of intensity? No
- Was my martial art proven to work in high level full-contact competition? Yes, by some Black Belts
In my case, the martial art was not the problem.
The problem was the ineffective training which I received.
Be aware – this could happen to you too.
But not if you follow what has been discussed in this article.
Start learning one of the five martial arts listed above.
- Each of them offers hands-on training experience
- Their training provides increasing levels of intensity
- And they have all proven their effectiveness in competition
And remember – mix it up.
“Discover how martial arts could help your state-of-mind in our article: “
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
- Muay Thai (Kickboxing)
Judo. Judo is one of the best martial arts for self-defense because it focuses on grappling techniques. While it might be preferable to defend yourself without coming into close contact with an opponent, many real life situations turn into grappling eventually.
1. On a collision course: Krav Maga. This martial art originates from Israel, where it is taught in the army and Mossad (Israel's national intelligence service), and many believe that it is the most effective way of defending yourself against an attacker.
The different categories of self defense include using weapons, striking arts, joint lock arts, throwing arts and hybrid arts.