I'm trying to make sure I ask this question in a manner that doesn't make it subjective or argumentative.

While all martial arts have merit, I believe those merits lie in various areas. Which martial arts focus on real world self defense? I'm talking about something that can be applied to defending yourself in a real world scenario where there are no rules, no fair conditions, and "winning" means getting yourself and the people with you out of the situation safely.

I like martial arts for the physical and mental exercise but I have no desire to compete in any kind of tournaments. I feel like if I'm going to learn one it may as well be one that would provide real world benefit if I ever needed it.

Most martial arts seems to lean more towards the art part than the martial part. For example, BJJ is probably great for the controlled environment of a professional fight but putting someone in a hold only to have his friends start beating on me is not ideal. Obviously there are situations where no amount of training will help but what martial arts best prepare someone to handle bad situations?

  • 9
    This question is problematic; first, it's not necessarily the art but the instructors approach that makes it applicable as self-defense (Two schools of Shotokan Karate may take different approaches, one of tournament competition, and one of self-defense). Second, I already see a lot of opinion coming in from the answerers ("Jiu jitsu is probably the best", "Judo is what I recommend", etc.). I vote to close.
    – stslavik
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 17:13
  • 6
    Ryan is asking which arts focus on practical personal protection. As I outline in my answer below, there are ways to evaluate individual schools for this. I think that the question and answers below are interesting and likely to be helpful for future visitors.
    – Nick
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 18:03
  • 3
    Note: If you have questions/discussion about the legitimacy of this question, please bring it to meta. No further comment discussions here please, except to improve the content of the post. Thanks. Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 18:17
  • 1
    How can you train for self-defence if you have no desire to train in a competitive area? In my not so humble opinion, sport is one of the only safe ways to practice against full resistance. Of course, it cuts a lot from a fight -- there are rules! But what other training method can you get? I am not trying to be irritating, just genuinely curious. Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 8:33
  • 3
    @Sardathrion: Not all competition need take place in tournament format. Randori and free-sparring can serve adequately if properly trained.
    – stslavik
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 20:54

20 Answers 20


Consider learning a self defence system instead of a martial art

If getting good at defending yourself in a fairly short space of time is more important to you than long-term study of a particular martial system or philosophy, you may wish to consider a self-defense system instead of a martial art.

In an essay titled, "Are Martial Arts Self-Defense?", Marc and Diana MacYoung have this to say:

Are Martial Arts Self-Defense? The short answer is 'no.' Although what you learn there can be used for self-defense, martial arts are not synonymous with self-defense. Quite frankly, when it comes to teaching the realities of staying safe in a modern urban environment, most martial arts suck -- especially strip mall schools. Your personal safety will be far better served understanding crime, home security and avoiding high-risk behavior than being able to break a board with your big toe.

They go on to say:

...if you're only interested in learning self-defense, then save your money because long term studying isn't what you're looking for.

While I have found that there is much to be gained in long-term study of a martial art, I agree with their sentiment that the best way to learn to defend yourself is to study self-defense.

In an essay titled, "The Truth About Violence", writer and philosopher Sam Harris agrees that the study of self-defense does not necessarily mean following the path of a martial artist:

...instruction in self-defense need not consume your life. The most important preparations are mental. While I certainly recommend that you receive some physical training, merely understanding the dynamics of violence can make you much safer than you might otherwise be.

Why martial arts do not equal self-defense

To be clear, the study of self-defense and the study of martial arts are not necessarily the same thing. This is because martial arts - even supposedly more 'practical' ones such as Krav Maga - are usually constrained by the following things:

  • They are often adapted and diluted for safe civilian training.
  • They must have commercial appeal to survive and spread. (Some become more like fitness systems than fighting systems, and there will be schools who are less interested in producing students who can defend themselves than they are in making money.)
  • They often introduce a sport element with rules to ensure participants' safety and improve the experience for spectators.
  • Some arts have been known to hide techniques deliberately behind flowery or planted false movements to 'keep the true power a secret'.
  • Most arts have to balance effectiveness with tradition. Some arts still do things a certain way 'because it's traditional'. This is fine, but it can mean that applications are less effective than they could be.

Some would say that all of these things impede the study of martial arts as effective fighting systems. Of course, it depends on how you apply yourself, how hard you train, how long you study for, who you teachers are, and what their opinion is on the purpose of a martial art in modern society.

How is a pure self-defense course different?

Sam Harris recommends the following instructors for practical personal protection courses:

If you watch Tony Blauer's course videos, you'll notice that:

  • Participants are wearing a special type of full body armour that doesn't impede movement much.
  • Much more force is applied in the attacks - they are more 'real'.
  • The defences are often incredibly simple - almost to the point of appearing clumsy.
  • There is a lot of emphasis on overcoming and using the natural flinch response to your advantage.

In short, practical personal protection courses tend to teach people how to defend themselves against violent attackers and only that; martial arts training provides a more holistic experience, of which self-defense is one element.

You need to decide which is more important to you -- learning to defend yourself, or studying a martial art. Personally, I would recommend that you try both -- start with a self-defence course (or two, or three) and take up a martial art if you don't find what you're looking for. It is important to learn and regularly drill basic blocks and attacks, and you may not get this from a self-defense course alone.

Focus less on the martial art and more on the school and instructor

If training in a martial art does appeal to you, that's great too.

But I'd suggest focussing on the school and instructor more than the martial system. Visit five nearby schools that you feel are close enough to regularly commit to, watch a lesson, and speak to the instructors and students there. All of them will say that they teach self-defense, but you may notice that some of the schools are more self-defense orientated than others. Specifically, look for and ask about:

  • Pad work. (Hitting and striking pads.)
  • Light, controlled sparring.
  • Fighting at a range of heights, from ground to standing.
  • Defense against a variety of attacks, delivered with intent.
  • Use of weapons, including knives, bottles, and improvised items.
  • Training in 'normal' clothing as well as traditional clothing.

Finally, if you cannot find what you are looking for in a class environment, don't be afraid to approach an instructor for private training. Ask him or her to put together a dedicated self-defense course to teach you how to defend yourself in a short period of time. Most instructors will be very happy to help.


Self-defense Scope

Self-defense has many elements unrelated to hand-to-hand combat. Everyone interested in self-defense should wear a seatbelt, avoid smoking and addictive drugs, stay fit (in particular, capable of running very fast), and cultivate a basic knowledge of general self-defense strategies like being assertive, de-escalation, and situational awareness.

But unless you're investing serious time each week in role-playing scenarios, drilling home invasions, quick-draw tactical pistol shooting, working a Neighborhood Watch shift, or sparring with a shock knife, when you say "self-defense" you're probably talking about optimizing hand-to-hand combat abilities. We have known methods of rapidly developing hand-to-hand combat abilities, and I don't mean marginally useful tricks like hail-Mary knees to the groin or eye pokes. I mean regularly and repeatedly beating up other fit, trained opponents who are trying to do the same to you.

Sparring and Competition

Training and competing in full-contact grappling, striking, or both is the fastest method to a solid base in meaningful self-defense skills. (Your desire not to compete is immaterial and counterproductive.) If you wish to learn about self-defense tactics in addition to developing that sparring- and competition-built base, the sources in Nick's answer are excellent. But no amount of drilling or simulated ball-punching is going to provide a sufficient substitute for the enormous adrenaline dump of competition or the hands-on hand-to-hand combat experience of copious sparring.

Further, it is folly to ignore the other benefits of hard sparring and competition with regards to self-defense. As Tim Cartmell notes:

It is important to train, at least sometimes, under conditions you find stressful (hard contact sparring, competiton...) so that you can learn to manage your stress induced reactions. Many people that never condition or engage in stressful training practices believe their perfect technique and Zen-like calm will be enough to defeat the thug in a street fight. These same people will often be shocked to find they are exhausted after their initial adrenaline dump, often before a single blow is thrown.

Boxing and Muay Thai are good options for striking competition. Kyokushin or other knockdown karate styles can be good as well, but since being punched in the face is one of the primary Habitual Acts of Violence in the Western world, disciplines that involve being punched in the face are optimal.

Judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or (if you can find it outside of a high school or college) wrestling are good options for grappling competition. (Let's pre-empt the comments about grappling with this: you don't want to fight on the ground or get stuck in a clinch, but it's not always your decision. If it happens, wouldn't you want to be very, very familiar with it? Don't you want to be the thrower and not the throwee?)

Mixing grappling and striking competition might be best left for those with prior experience in the two options above, but mixed martial arts and San Da/San Shou are good options.

"Theory" Skills versus Tested Skills

Schools that talk a big game about self-defense but shortchange the hard sparring leave their practitioners with either an overconfidence in their never-truly-tested skills, or a nagging anxiety that their skills are only theoretical.

In contrast, six months to a couple years of frequent, hard training in one of the competitive disciplines listed above will give you skills that you know will work, because you will have made them work against resisting opponents. If you compete, you'll be doubly sure, because your tactics and technique will have been tested vigorously.

Why "Knees to the Balls" is A Misguided Syllabus

Critics of this approach often point out that it's quite easy and fast to teach a self-defense course consisting largely of "knee them in the balls and do this trick to escape their wrist grab" to weak, unfit non-martial-artists. Unfortunately, that approach is counterproductive.

Teaching a freshman girl (or an overweight middle-aged non-athlete) ball-kicking tells her that she knows what to do in a violent situation and that she can do it. In fact the technique will not work and she is incapable of doing it. Such techniques are overly simple, ineffective against even the most barely physically capable assailants, and may escalate an encounter that the weaker person is already losing. Faith in these techniques can be dangerous. We should be telling these people that they should either learn to fight or acknowledge that they can't.

I've taught those classes, and from that experience I think they're misguided if they don't impart actual grappling and striking skills (beyond wrist grabs and ball punches), and if they don't involve hard sparring.

What we want to avoid at all costs is leaving the sheep with the impression that it is a wolf. That's what non-sparring or light-sparring-only self-defense training does to people. Their ability to fight is still marginal, but they believe themselves to be competent or somewhat competent. After seeing it happen to dozens of people, despite my efforts to convince them otherwise while teaching groin kicks etc, I firmly believe that such an approach makes the world worse. Weak people who don't train in hard-sparring arts are at the mercy of stronger and better-trained aggressors, regardless of whether we tell them to knee them in the balls or not. Hiding this fact from weak people does them no favors.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JohnP
    Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 15:28

There are a few different martial arts that focus in that area. Some traditional and some modern. It should also be mentioned that the art you practice regularly and reliably is the "best" art in this regard: A very experienced US Tai-Chi practitioner can still be very effective in a self defense situation, simply because they know so much about how to move their bodies. Boxers may end up breaking their hands by the time the fight is over and know next to nothing about groundfighting, but are very dangerous opponents because they are trained to take a lot of very hard hits.

That having been said, what you are looking for are eclectic arts that combine strikes with locks and place a philosophical emphasis around self defense. Preferably that involve some form of weapons training around things like short sticks, knives, and possibly guns. Here are a few possibilities to look into:

  • Traditional Jujutsu and Aikijujutsu are both old self defense martial arts that make a variety of assumptions that are good for self defense.
  • Hapkido, a Korean self-defense martial art that is similar in a lot of respects to aikijujutsu (though exactly how or if they are related is debated).
  • Krav Maga, an Israeli battlefield/self defense martial art.
  • (Combat) Sambo, "self defense without weapons."
  • Systema, a set of Russian battlefiled/self defense martial arts.

Really though, the standard advice applies here: Choose based on the instructor more than the style, and talk to the instructor and see if they emphasize thinking in terms of self defense (keeping your feet, not having to adjust significantly if your opponent has a weapon, using what's around you, etc).


Krav Maga

Krav Maga is a noncompetitive martial art taught to Israeli soldiers. You learn how to defend yourself from being attacked in a variety of situations - multiple opponents, armed attackers (knife, gun, clubs, etc), surprise attacks, etc. You are taught to defend yourself by any means necessary. That means most things that are usually illegal - groin strikes, eye gouges, small joint manipulation, hair pulling, even biting, is all fair game.

You learn striking as well as how to defend yourself in grappling situations. It's a martial art for when your life is potentially on the line.

  • 1
    Krav maga isn't all that. I've seen some ridiculous techniques being taught for when a person is attempting to grapple or take down an opponent. I've also seen you can obtain a qualification Krav Maga online, that says a lot about it's legitimacy.
    – Funky
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 16:22
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    Everything I learned was always pretty straightforward. As for online qualification - that says more about the qualifying body than about Krav Maga. You can get a college degree online - that doesn't mean all college degrees have questionable legitimacy. Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 19:56

Just for completeness sake: gun fighting. Soldiers and military the world over use fire arms to defend others and themselves. Police officers in most countries (not the UK) have guns and are trained (some better than others -- see BOPE) to use those weapons to defend themselves and others. Note that in France, the Gendarmerie (see GIGN) is a branch of the military applying French laws to civilians so there is a cross over between military and policing. I am sure that many gangs have training programs for their members that could be described as martial arts. Training manuals and books are available from Amazon -- which ones would be a good question to ask here.

If you consider using a gun as self defence, I strongly recommend that you look into a reputable gun club to learn. You maybe dissuaded to use a gun by said gun club and given a whistle instead -- true story.

NOTE: I am neither a member of the NRA nor do I play one on TV. Gun control is flame war territory. I have no wish for this answer to degenerate into a flame war so please please please take what you read in the best possible light. I do believe that this answers the questions as it is currently phrased.


The "real world" as you might surmise from the "world" part is a big place, and things are quite different in one part of the world from another. There are many different situations which might call for self defense, some of which only affect some people and others which only affect different people. So for the question to really garner a useful answer you have to specify which "real world" situation you are concerned with in particular, and what type of person you are.

For example, I know in Vancouver a number of women who have been mugged, yet have never been hurt as they merely gave up their purse and whatever contents it had. That's getting out of the situation safely, and they didn't need any self defense training to be able to use good sense.

Now in other parts of the world, I understand muggings can be fatal. Simply giving up your posessions will not necessarily keep you safe. So where do you live, how do muggings play out where you live, in your neighbourhood?

In some parts of the world you have to worry about car-jackings. That's not a concern where I live, so the extent of my knowledge on that is that apparently in Johannesburg people have flame throwers built into their cars to defend against them! Clearly if you live in Johannesburg, technology is of far greater value to you than any martial art training could be.

Another situation, while living in a more rural area I had a serious concern about dogs near the suite I was renting. One of them was a Rottweiler, and while it was always on a chain, it would charge at me as I walked past on the road with so much force that when it came to the end of the chain it would swing around. Clearly if the chain broke, or the owners neglected to tie the dog up, I was screwed. I carried an umbrella with me, even on days with clear skies, as I figured it might work as a shield for me. Most importantly though, I moved away as quick as possible. No martial art I'm aware of teaches you how to fend off an attack by a Rottweiler. With trees nearby, assuming I could sprint to them fast enough, callisthenics training in the style of BarStarzz (check them out on YouTube, they're quite inspirational) might have allowed me to get into a high branch quick enough, but again, that's not a skill any martial art would give me.

Speaking of running and getting into trees, many martial arts will pay lip service to running, but how many of them even have you do sprints as a warm up, let alone play an important part of the training. You'll have to do Parkour/Free-Running for that. Many martial artists seem far more interested in talking about the importance of running while instead training to stand their ground and fight.

Are there any local combat sports that are popular? Wrestling is quite common here, so you'd better know how to deal with it. For those who would like to bring up a point that wrestling has rules, I'd like to introduce you to the term "oil check". For those unfamiliar, it involves jamming a finger into the opponents rectum to have better control of their hips. It's quite illegal in competition, but it still has a name for it. Wrestlers fight dirty, they're also very tough and headstrong.

Has MMA taken off locally? Stephan Kesting in one of his seminars brought up an rather depressing anecdote about a fight between two hobos in which one of them went for a guillotine and pulled guard on the other. Make sure you know how to fight better than someone who has just learned from watching UFC through the window of a bar. I know from experience (being the person doing it) that just knowing the strategy of taking the fight to the ground and going for a choke is enough to defeat a number of martial artists with years of training. That's also why so many TMAists will try to list a bunch of reasons why you don't want to go to the ground in a "real fight", they're unwilling to admit their style has a huge gaping hole that needs to be filled by BJJ.

What's the gun situation like? Are they commonly used in crimes where you are? If so, don't just trust any MA instructor that claims to teach gun disarms. There's a ton of useless stuff out there in the realm of gun disarms. Most of the stuff that is taught will get you shot - whether that gets you killed is a question of luck.

Is there wildlife where you are? Bears perhaps? That fish commercial from 10 years aside, no style will teach you to beat a bear. Bears also run incredibly fast, and contrary to popular belief, Grizzlies can climb trees. Not only black bears. Mace can be effective, primarily to dull their sense of smell so they can't track you as you make an expeditious retreat, but what you really want is a treeing dog, so called because it will chase bears into a tree rather than running as fast as it can to bring the bear right back to you.

If you're a woman concerned about being raped, hands down BJJ is the best style to practice. No other style comes even close in specificity of skills taught for dealing with a rape situation. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is trying to cover for their own style's inadequacy in this department.

As a bouncer I've found wrestling to be by far the most useful. I clinch and talk to the guy until he settles down. It's clear I'm trying to de-escalate, so his friends actually side with me in order to keep anyone from getting hurt. They appreciate it. One guy I had to deal with, whom I handled without throwing a single strike, taking him to the ground or causing any sort of injury actually had my back in a different fight 5 months later, which was quite welcome given we were understaffed. Does the style that teaches real world self defense teach you to consider the aftermath of the fight and use restraint whenever possible, or does it try to work you up into a blind rage where you think every altercation has to be dealt with extreme, psychopathic violence? Other bouncers who rely on boxing instead of wrestling find themselves getting dogpiled once they punch someone. In reality, it's striking that has you dealing with the guy's friends trying to kick you in. So the striking exponent who says you don't want to grapple because of dealing with some guy's friends believes so because of a self-fulfilling prophesy. His approach leads him to having to deal with multiple opponents simultaneously. My approach has my opponent's friends supporting me to de-escalate the situation.

Now if there were a culture of saving face, where someone couldn't maintain their honour, or somesuch, by walking away from a fight, then my approach might no longer be reliable. But what I have done is tailor my approach specifically to my environment to give me the best chances taking everything into account. Know your area. Know the people in the area. Know how they'll react in the short term and the long term based the actions you'll consider taking.

Based on that analysis of your particular situation, determine which styles best suit your situation, and as others have said, which instructor teaches with the best eye to dealing with your situation. And it has to be your situation, an instructor with a fondness for drinking who gets his experience from barfights isn't that great of a source of information for you if you're a sensible person who doesn't drink to excess and get into fights at bars.


Almost any martial art can be help you in self defense scenarios. Developing strength, stamina, reflexes and muscle memory will aid in any life safety situation. You should pick an art or school that makes you work with partners or groups constantly and that has a sparing class or portion of the class consistently.

For example in my MMA class we pair off every class, and work with a different partner all the time. 90% of all my classes are with somebody. Our sparring class, after a certain belt rank, is full contact 50% in gear. This is what I believe the traditional/sport/form martial arts classes miss and set up unreasonable expectations for someone when they are in a life safety situation and have never had to strike another person.

My suggestions:

  • MMA Schools
  • Jiu Jitsu
  • Judo
  • Western Boxing
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    The only complaint I have against MMA (and I am a student) is that it instills many habits that are just atrocious in a one vs many situation. I cannot help but sprawl on someone is they get low enough which will get you a solid head kick from someone else. I personally think krav maga is more practical although I would never train it myself.
    – user66
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 12:37
  • @Ginamin I think your pretty bang on. My issue that a lost of martial arts that people train in they rarely work with other people. So when they get hit for the first time in a real situation it phases them. Personally I trained in Karate when I was younger and now in West Coast MMA and BJJ and I feel far more confident when interacting with an opponent. Krav Maga is wicked and real world test, like MCMAP. But getting trained in them is probably outside most peoples ability.
    – Swift
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 18:28
  • While those are very effective fighting styles, they are primarily meant for controlled environments. The issues with using them for self defense can be found more in detail here masadatactical.blogspot.com/2011/12/… but in short, I would recommend Krav Maga or ICS (Israeli Combat System) for being much more practical on the street. Being a 3 year Krav Maga / ICS student, I can tell you it is not incredibly difficult to learn, it just requires a certain mindset that you keep fighting no mater what happens, (even in training).
    – Ephraim
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 3:57
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    IMO none of the arts listed are "self-defense" arts. If you want to learn self-defense, study self-defense. Any of the listed (and many others) are an adjunct, but the time required to build usable skills makes them inefficient if the primary goal is self-defense. Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 16:24
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    @DaveNewton I guess I should've worded my perspective more strongly. I think the opposite: six months of judo plus six months of boxing will make someone a better hand-to-hand fighter than a year of Krav Maga or similar self-defense, non-sparring-focused art. Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 0:24

As simple as you put it: look for martial arts that explicitly claim to teach their students to

defending yourself in a real world scenario where there are no rules, no fair conditions, and "winning" means getting yourself and the people with you out of the situation safely.

You'll eventually find out that most martial arts don't - officially - claim that. Some martial arts that are supposed to:

  • modern Jeet Kune Do schools
  • kali
  • (maybe) krav maga
  • some self defense systems

The above doesn't mean you'll eventually learn that, you need a good instructor (usually pretty difficult to find unless you live in a big city and are capable to distinguish one when you see him) and lots of work.

There's no a real answer to this question as the teacher's quality and method may change things sensibly.

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    what do you mean Krav maga "maybe"?
    – Ephraim
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 4:05
  • I mean "I'm not sure about that"
    – tacone
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 17:00
  • If you're a fan of MMA you'll know that the best martial arts are: Boxing, Thai Boxing, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Wrestling. Having any of these skills and being in fit shape you'll be safe as you can run like hell too!
    – Funky
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 16:24

That is a question that is very difficult to answer.

The short answer is that any martial arts school that teaches without a focus on tournaments is more likely to provide real world application. The tendency in such clubs is to learn how the techniques work and why and in what applications.

Every art will have their strengths. The key is to find the right one that focuses on what you feel suits your temperament best. Some may deride karate, for example, since there are a lot of clubs out there whose sole focus is getting their students into tournaments and bringing home the trophies. But a well trained karateka is an incredibly dangerous opponent. A well placed strike can end a fight before it starts. On the other end of the spectrum, you may look into tai chi chuan. It largely exists in North America through the Taoist Tai Chi Society. They focus on the health aspects of learning the movements, but do provide teaching of the martial form of tai chi. For someone well versed in the art, the circular defense techniques and energy redirection make it extremely difficult for an opponent to actually attack you. My mother told me about an occasion where my stepfather was attacked by someone at a party. My stepfather, a dedicated practitioner of tai chi chuan, threw him across the room. Not bad for an art that trains in such slow, easy movements.

Like some of the other training questions, it comes down to what suits you best. If you prefer something that will get you out of the way and control an opponent, a softer style would work well. If you want to know that you take someone down with the right application of force, a harder style would be better.


There are Several Problems with regular "martial arts"

Something that many people will suggest is MMA or Brazilian Ju Jitsu. While these are very effective styles of fighting, and are used by professionals such as UFC fighters, it is probably a very bad idea to learn these for self defense.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • MMA is primarily meant to be fought in a cage, with referees, and only one on one

  • MMA involves a lot of ground fighting (Brazilian Ju Jitsu is all ground fighting)

    • As an ICS (Israeli Combat System) student, I have taken ground survival classes, that have been given in the parking lot on pavement, and I must tell you, it sucks! You end up scraping and cutting yourself every time you move, and there is no padding when you fall after a take down. In addition, it becomes much more difficult to defend against weapons such as a knife when you are on the ground. The best thing to do in a real fight is to stay off the ground!
  • MMA does not teach how to address weapons or multiple attackers

    • The problem comes up when an MMA fighter tries to use his skills to defend a threat that is not subject to the rules of the ring. This video shows an individual who decides to react to a subject with a handgun. The defender uses kicks to defend himself against a handgun. End result, he is shot in the left shoulder. You can view the video here.

What you need is practical Combat System:

One of the best ones to learn would be Krav Maga, however, when it comes to things like this, you have to be careful of where you learn from. The idea behind Krav maga is based in the fact that the best defense is a good offense, and krav maga is lethal enough to make sure that if you engage an aponent, they will not be able to continue to fight, and you can walk home alive. The problem with Krav Maga in the US is that it tends to be a watered down version of what real krav maga is, and contains some moves that are American made and can sometimes end up being strength dependent. I personally learn something called ICS, which stands for Israeli Combat System. I take it at a place called Masada Tactical. The theory behind it is the same as Krav Maga, but it tends to be a more practical, less watered down as some of the american krav maga schools might be. The differences can be found here, however with both of them, the idea behind them is clear "make sure your the one who goes home alive". These are not arts, they are simply Real tools for the real world.

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    @Ginamin - "Stay off the ground" is good advice. If you "get taken to the ground or fall over" then GET RIGHT BACK UP AGAIN. Don't use a drop to the ground as strategy. HOWEVER, if you get taken to the ground (and, yes, many fights will) and you can't get up (you're pinned), then having a good ground game is very advantageous and that is where MMA/BJJ is useful - BUT GET UP AGAIN!
    – Guy
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 16:28
  • 1
    @Ginamin - Don't get me wrong, I agree that you need a wide toolbox of techniques. There are no absolutes, especially when your discussing on the internet - 'what if' is a never ending game. For my body shape (tall and skinny), I can be quite a handful when my back is on the ground (all arms and legs!), but going back to the original question, I can't recommend going to the ground as a self defense strategy. It's not about 'winning', its survival.
    – Guy
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 8:16
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    @Ephraim I never said always go to the ground. I said that going to the ground is a good idea in some cases. If an opponent has a knife, that is the wrong time to go to the ground. If I square off with you, a krav maga fighter, I can guarantee you, I'll go for a takedown.
    – user66
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 4:18
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    @Ephraim There is a time and a place for everything, as I said above. And there is definatly a time and a place for a ground-game and I think it is more often than people give it credit for. A 1vmany is not the time for one. Knife, well, that is another training regimen all together.
    – user66
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 4:21
  • 1
    I'm shy of making absolute statements, but I advise people to never intentionally end up on the ground in a self-defense situation, even if you think it's 1v1. Are you sure than your opponent doesn't have a knife tucked into his pants? Are you sure he doesn't have a mate about to show up? A good ground game is useful if you end up on the ground, but I don't think you should ever do it intentionally.
    – Rophuine
    Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 0:55

i would say traditional jiu jitsu is probably the best for self defense. In our dojo and style, 90% of the techniques are based of countering some kind of attack. which is ideal for self defense!

i agree 100% that bjj isn't the best, it's a great martial art, and has it's place, but if you were to only train 1 art, jiu jitsu would be the way to go. It covers the basics for all forms of combat without focusing to much on one particular part.

striking arts would be my 2nd vote, something like muay thai is good for self defense, but becomes much less useful when someone gets a hold of you.

  • Personally, I prefer gi-less jits over traditional. Traditional can be applied to a jacket and jeans situation (wherein one can use gi based techniques via a jacket or pants), but I prefer to not rely on clothing for attacks. I do both traditional and gi-less, but I just find gi-less more useful... especially since I live in a place where board shorts are much more common than slacks.
    – user66
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 6:03

Aesopian, BJJ black belt, has this input:

The best combination for quickly learning self defense is to train sumo and the 100 meter dash. Here's why. Most hand-to-hand assault situation against an untrained attacker would be solved by 1) having good balance so you don't fall down, 2) aggressively shoving, smacking and overwhelming they so they fall down, then 3) running away as fast as possible.

Other serious exponents have told me that rugby is the best self-defense training. Notice the themes of rough-and-tumblry and sprinting.

Self-defense might mean any of the following, which may be studied concurrently but which are not the same:

  1. "Let's assume a physical altercation; what's the best response?"
  2. "How do I avoid physical altercations?"
  3. "How do I beat someone in a physical altercation?"

If we're using the first definition, a little scuffling and leaving the scene might be optimal. (My other answer assumes the third definition, which I believe is what most people really want the answer to.)


Judo is always my advice for self-defense. It's high contact in it's training, so plenty of realism there. And most fights are either over very quickly or they turn into a robust tussle, so the Judo would help there as well.


Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu (BBT)

This is a TMA (traditional martial art) with it's fair share of 'historical context' and kata and densho etc. But when you boil it down, it can be a very effective training system for self defence.

As already stated, find a good teacher/instructor that understands your reasons for training. Some BBT instructors will stick rigidly to the historical forms/kata and will not tolerate deviation. This is a worthy path and can be very rewarding, but it will take you many years to internalise and make effective IRL (in real life).

There are many BBT instructors who use the kata as a teaching aid. Along with training your body and reflexes, they will also be able to show you how you can effectively make use of these techniques IRL, under pressure and with resistance.

It is not a sport system. There are no competitions and usually very little sparring. But it is physical, you are 'tested' (in good dojo's) and you train one-to-one and many-to-one. Weapons are also used (defensive and offensive).

As a combat system, Everything goes. Groin, throat, eyes - anything that will cause a pain response is employed. More importantly, you are also drilled to PREVENT this happening back to you (which is where the kata / waza / kamae come in).

It will still take you many years of training to become proficient. In order to make this self defence you will still need to be instructed in basic SD techniques (shouting, running, don't get yourself into situations, awareness).


It may not be one single art. Every art is going to have it's strengths and deficiencies. What you probably want to do is outline exactly what it is you feel will enable you to get out of a situation. That may include joint locks, ground fighting, upright striking, etc.

Also, your personal attitudes and preferences will dictate some of this. You may be much more comfortable using your feet, in which case an art that favors leg techniques (Such as TKD) might be more suitable, or you may like grappling, in which case BJJ, Judo, etc. may be more suitable. Hapkido is a good combination art, but there are dozens around.

Finally, when choosing a school, don't be afraid to try several different schools (Even in the same art) for a few weeks before making a choice. You may find that art A taught by instructor A is horrible, but taught by instructor B is something you enjoy.

Guns may be good, but unless you carry it in your hand with the safety off, you're vulnerable to anyone within ~ 20 feet of you.


Self Defense / Martial Arts / MMA, whatever the term people use to "SELL" themselves are meaningless.

You need to find an INSTRUCTOR, that teaches the correct mindset and that can adapt what he teaches to suit you and your strength and weaknesses.

You need to do repetitive training, no once of course or seminar will ever teach you to protect yourself.

I have been privileged to have a very practical instructor for Wing Chun and Ju Jutsu and I have had training in the Defense Force / Military. So I have seen what a good instructor can do.


One of the interesting things I've noticed here in NZ is that many of the self defense situations just required to fight back for the attacker to back off and run away. I've heard of Karate, TKD, Judo and BJJ being effectively used. But also, heard of grannys with handbags dealing out some justice also.

Having said that, most martial arts offer something you can use for self defense. Three ones that I think offer more focused self defense (depending on the school)

  • Japanese Jiu Jitsu
  • Krav
  • Escrima / Kali / Arnis

There are various other arts of course that offer similar self defense focused techniques.


It varies art to art, school to school, but generally, you want training that is going to focus on getting you trained in fighting with and against common weapons (guns, knives, clubs) and against multiple attackers. As far as civilian self defense, you should be capable within 1-3 months of training.

The styles which I've seen do better at this include: Systema, Escrima/Kali, some Penjak Silat, and Krav Maga. That said, there's a ton of instructors or systems which are not tied to a traditional style or school which simply teach "self defense" or "combatives" in some fashion and these vary from good to bad, but generally will do you better than a random school.

One last thing, which is what I consider a requirement for training - "high intensity stress". At some point in your training, you will want to do drills/sparring in which you are dealing with intense, fear/anger inducing situations. This isn't for macho reasons, this is because you need to learn how to operate during an adrenaline dump. You need to learn how well anything you learned will hold up when you're emotionally going off. You need to find a way to keep the body operating in one sector even as your mind is totally freaking out in the other.

Stats indicate most situations are an assault - it's not a stand up street fight, it's an attacker (or group of attackers) deciding when they're going to rush someone and the victims were not ready. Aside from initial awareness, there's the point that when your brain realizes things are outside the normal boundaries, the adrenaline dump leaves some people frozen or flailing around because they can't operate with it. So you have to learn to work with it before you end up in that situation.


I think that all have been said to the topic, I would just add that If I have had the chance to start all over again, I ve been boxing for years, I am a Krav Maga instructor and I've been a bouncer for a very long time, I would have chosen Daido Juku as Martial Art.

I believe that wearing a Gi is similar to people in 'real world' have cloth on, you are allowed to use headbutts, elbows, knees and grappling and throwing techniques. So a MA well suited for standing your ground in any confrontation.

For further steps I would recommend taking some Self-defense classes weather it may be a Tony Blauer, Krav Maga ... Batman-Navi-Seal-Super Self Defense system... the main point is to feel the different scenarios and to see an option how to get out of the situation. If you are able to execute it in a real world scenario is a different topic.


Bujinkan Budotaijutsu / Ninjutsu builds on about 1000 years of Japanese tradition when it comes to training for wartime. The techniques taught are meant to teach you how to survive an attack, and if necessary injure or kill the attacker. There are now rules involved, so anything goes - strikes to the throat, back of the head ,spine or groin is all fine.

Although some of the weapons training have limited use in today's society; not many people carries a sword anymore, but stick and knife fighting is still very relevant. Most instructors also talk about institutional awareness, so that you can stay out of trouble, or what to look out for.

Bujinkan is popular with certain branches of the military and police force as well.

As for jujitsu, I have limited experience with this, but know for a fact that some instructors focus entirely on self defense. i once attended a seminar with Ken Kulsho(?) from the U.K which definitely taught people how to take care of them selves. Lately it looks like jujitsu has evolved more and more into a sporting activity, at least in Norway.

Krav Maga was developed by the Israeli-an Armed Forces (although it startet in Hungary in the thirties) and is widely used in police and armed forces around the world for hand to hand combat and self defense.


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