I have heard this sentiment a handful of times before, and most recently when I was reading "The truth about Violence" by Sam Harris.

The gist is that real world violent attacks happen with absolutely no prior warning, and are brutally finished usually before the victim is even given a chance to realize how bad things are (there was an example knife attack video linked). Since martial artists are trained and practice fighting in controlled environments, and they have plenty of warning before the fighting begins, this does not help them and stand no chance against real criminals.

Is this true?

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    I would like to add that I am not practicing any arts at the moment, please forgive my ignorance.
    – Aditya M P
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 7:09
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    This answer is relevant, as are several of the others. The short answer is that martial arts, trained correctly, increase someone's hand-to-hand combat ability. That's not useful in all scenarios. Whether that makes it "inadequate" is a fuzzy question. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 16:09
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    Sam Harris is a bit of a doom-and-gloom author; a bit negative. Self defense training is about increasing your odds of survival; on a long enough timeline, survival rates all fall to 0.
    – stslavik
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 19:08

6 Answers 6


Yes, depending on your definitions of martial arts, inadequate, and real world.

No, depending on your definitions of martial arts, inadequate, and real world.

Surviving an attack (or combat) is all about stacking the deck in your favour: martial arts (arts of Mars, the God of War) do help, so do guns, team mates, artillery, the police, not being there, body armour, etc...

There is no such thing as a typical real world violent attack. For example, urban warfare is not the same thing as a bar brawl and both require very different skill sets to survive. The no prior warning is utter rubbish. There are always signs that something is about to happen. Sure, one may not notice those and a skilled attacker will be trained in camouflaging those signs but they always are. Police officers, body guards, soldiers, etc... are all trained in recognise those signs.

Making general sweeping statements about violence and how to survive it generally indicate either bad research or an agenda.

For a good site about self defence, especially the section on martial arts, see MacYoung's no nonsense self defense. But this is about civilian self defence in a stable country. If you were in a civil war zone, the advise would be very different.

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    +1 "There are always signs that something is about to happen." Every time I've been attacked in the street I've seen it coming based on body language and knowledge of the local culture and behaviours. Fights can be explosive and fast but they're seldom, if ever, spontaneous.
    – Rushyo
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 14:12
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    @Rushyo: "Every time I've been attacked in the street" ... does that happen to you a lot? Never happened to me yet. Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 15:44
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    @TorbenGundtofte-Bruun I live in a notoriously rough area near the center of an affluent city. I have a very slim build and walk home alone every night in the dark. Clear target for a mugger or just drunk yobs. I am, however, a security consultant/hacker. So far, I've always managed to defuse the scenarios, without violence, using social engineering and threat management. Plant & reinforce the idea that fighting you is a bad idea and opportunists will retreat.
    – Rushyo
    Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 0:09
  • @Rushyo: Good job keeping the bad guys at bay! You seem well suited to handle it. Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 7:08
  • @Rushyo: I like your method of self defence. Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 7:33

I fully agree with Sardathrion that there are almost always signs before actual violence, because violence is almost always an escalation. Even when there are no signs of the attack itself (e.g. a drive-by shooting), there is an history of violent escalation (insults, threats, etc.).

As for the inadequacy of martial arts with the real world, I'd first say that the many successful fights many of my martial arts practitioners friends got into are a strong body of evidence, if not conclusive proof, that martial arts "work". And some of these friends are lanky skinny geeks. In one instance, a 11 years old weighing 30kg wet defeated two seemingly brawny 13 years old (they were racketing an even smaller kid in an alley). Which goes to show that good technique goes a long way.

But having tried a few martial arts (karate, judo, ju-jutsu, iaido and aikido), I must admit that they are not all equal in this matter, and appearances may be treacherous. First, the more sport-like an art is, the less easy it will be to apply in a real fight. In this sense, Ju-jutsu, being the most versatile one, may offer you the most: whether you kick, grapple, or get on the ground, you'll be on familiar ground (no pun intended). Judo would be the opposite, being very much a sport and less a martial art. But even being good at Karate would be enough to get the upper hand in many real fights: a good efficient punch or kick is often all you need to stop the fight (contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, most people stop fighting quite quickly; it hurts like hell, after all).

As for appearances, I sometimes wonder if this is not the source of this myth: many martials arts, when observed by a non-practitioner, seem fake. Heck, even me, when I practice Aïkido, sometimes feel like the sensei's assistant willingly went the way he was supposed to, to make the demonstration better. And my feeling is strengthened when I try the technique and it has no efficiency on my partner or me. But then I practice the same technique with a seasoned aikidoka, and I'm flying each time he applies only the most subtle pressure in the right direction. And some of these impressive techniques take a few years to fully sink in enough to be used both correctly and instinctively.

So I can understand why someone that only observed or quickly tried a martial art would think they could never apply in a real fight. But it's clearly an uninformed opinion.

And I don't wish 5 of my worst enemies to try and fight the more experienced martial artists I know… (well, actually, it would not be that bad, many of them are very level-headed in a fight and would probably try to end it with the least amount of violence).


Ultimately, you get what you train for. Some martial arts training is not appropriate for a violent encounter, some is. It really depends on the training you do.


Is your martial art teaching you archery? Are you likely to use a bow and arrow in a street encounter? Probably not. Is your martial art focused on guns, knives, clubs and multiple attackers rushing you from behind? On dealing with both strikes and grappling? Probably more useful.

It's important to realize that a lot of martial arts are taught these days for very different goals than self defense: health and fitness, cultural preservation, a fun activity for kids, etc. Training that isn't aimed at combat, is probably not going to give you combat skills.


It helps to be fit. Now, this isn't the end-all-be-all, but it never hurts to go faster, harder, stronger than the person trying to hurt you. There's a lot of schools with effective methods...but if the practitioner isn't fit enough to use them, it doesn't matter.


The last part, and what really determines whether a training methodology is going to be "real world" or not, is how well it brings up stress and less controlled training. You need to be able to act when the adrenaline is flowing, you're scared and angry and freaking out. This kind of training is not fun. It's also the training that get you better able to deal when the stuff hits the fan.

The fact is that we can see folks like the US military forces regularly pulling in martial artists as consultants - and they've been doing so since WW2 - so we know at least some of these methods have applicability to the real world use. You can't really throw a blanket statement that martial arts are useful, or useless in combat - it's all over the board and really depends on what teacher and style you're looking at.


Answering your question unfortunately yes they are not good for self defence. Saying that people who do MA have more chances to survive but not in all situations.

To make it a bit clearer:

  1. MA teaching reiho that was a way of behavior in old times and in diferent culture. So it is not really a proper sets of skills on the street.

  2. MA teaching soldiers not a indyviduals. I terms of sets of orders and gradation in belts. Listen to sensei.

  3. The MA teaching obedience not rebellious mind.

  4. The MA not teaching about the violence detection and deescalation.

  5. The MA teaching sport not self defence. Different tactics and aproach.

  6. The MA waisting time in teaching not usable perfection.

Not all martial arts are the same. Not all points are related to all of them, but the answer is martial arts are not preparation for self-defense unless there is a wise instructor who is incorporating good things into the training. Not many of them are there though. Some of the instructors think that they do self defence. Unfortunately for a long time I was one of them.

The violence is not about pride winning but surviving. Social violence you can avoid by putting your pride on the side and the violence deescalates. It is a bit more complicated. The predatory violence is nothing like training in the dojo or even in the cage. Predators do not fight people, they hunt.

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    I would be very interested to hear the comments of those who downvoted... A radical opinion, no doubt, however the arguments seemed all pretty valid to me, though I hate having to admit it. His arguments might indeed hurt many people's feelings, but it does not seem like he is saying that MA is completely ueless; rather addressing the issue of whether MA is useful on (targeted?)self-defence. The answer is no. The following are my own words: Still MA is the closest most people have to approach this issue under a learning perspective. With this plus all other side benefits MA are still useful.
    – Lex
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 6:33
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    I downvoted because I've learned de-escalation and violence detection and modern etiquette (not reiho) in karate, my judo dojo is decidedly not militaristic, I've learned self-defense in every art I've trained, and I don't understand #6. He also admits that knowing how to fight helps the odds. He is also perpetuating this tired "martial arts is a sporty sport that can't be used to defend yourself because it's so sporty that you'll only use sport techniques" myth. He also perpetuates this strange (but common) fear of the mostly mythic hyper-predator. Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 2:30
  • Point taken. @Rafal Burchard: would you be kind enough to expand on #6, please? I have to agree to certain extend to the 'sporty' thing. BJJ for example is very efficient on a one-to-one only for example if you don't consider biting, eye poking. If someone takes me in side-control on a street for example, I would probably end-up with half of his throat in my teeth.
    – Lex
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 10:19
  • Plus, I believe Rafal does not make explicit which type of self-defense we are talking about. Defending yourself against an old, drunk homeless is different than from a 'predator' like, who might be specifically targeting you. In this case, traditional MA is not as useful as it should, only if they 'modernize' themselves as it is the case with the training you mentioned, @Dave Liepmann. Very debatable, as we depend on defining the different instances that 'self-defense' might appear under properly. Perhaps another question?
    – Lex
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 10:26
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    @Lex, why do you think that as the person on the bottom, you'd have an advantage in biting a BJJ practitioner? Is there a reason he would be unable to bite you beyond "sport sport sportists never think of such things"? And how do you you think someone on top of side control would respond to being bitten--by being nicer to you, or with strikes or a choke? Have you ever tried, say, purple nurpling an unfriendly BJJ brown belt while rolling to see whether it would result in a reduction in the beat-down you were already receiving? Commented Apr 12, 2013 at 1:48

I see lots of people are offended by my previous answer.
I understand your feelings I felt that myself. My background is Kyokushin karate it is a tough system full contact no protection hard trainings and so on. I started in 1990 and reached 3 Dan. I spend some time on tournaments as well achieving 2nd place in international tournament 2003 in Poland.

The way to recognize things took me a bit of time and I do not want to offend people but show what is reality. MA are a great tool for character building, toughness, drive for success. But as they are now they are not for true self defence. They are sport systems. Of course we have some MA that do not have sport competition like Aikido but that system has no additives like the rest.

Before you stop reading we have two broad kinds of violence: social and predatory.

Social there a few sub divisions that now are not important as such. The social violence is about domination, position within group, status, or punishment. Example in the bar standard "what you are looking at!?" Is a status and domination game. Your reaction for that with force is not really self defence but mutual fight and status / domination game. As such not a self defence. In that situation all self defence is verbal and giving the monkey his banana. Frankly social violence is legal on tournaments and on trainings "sparring" we all respect people who can kick us not necessary hard. Status? All dominance game is outside self defence and defence against the social violence outside trainings is verbal. Of course there are times where verbal de-escalation might not work that depends on what kind of social violence we are dealing with but that is a deep subject. Is your MA system teaching how to not fight during the social violence? And not giving second cheek?... Myself I was told do not use karate outside the dojo... That was it. Maybe my instructors were not well educated... Maybe it is hard to think that person with 10th Dan is not well educated. That part is not in the system it is just like that.

Now predatory violence. Predator is after your wallet, phone, body, life... Predator is usually that depends of what he wants not much educated in MA... Surprise, surprise. This is not a golden rule. The predator will choose the target accordingly to his abilities and way to execute the attack. Now small Q and A.

  1. The predator will attack you in well lit street from the front from the distance shouting to you give me your wallet, I want to rape you, give me your phone?
  2. The predator will attack you in dimly lit area far from people, from behind preferably with weapon that depends on resources available to predator and his intentions.

I suspect you all have picked answer 2. So where in that attack is place for you to use all the tactics used in sport? How the training will prepare you for faster than you expect, closer than you expect and harder than you expect? And the best at the end all martial arts were preparing people for self defence in the past when the masters had to survive in hostile times so what happened time changed the MA in sport... Or just tradition... You Martial artist it is you who can rediscover your system and think what and how your system could be a self defence system. But you need to step back and see on what you are doing with objective critical aye.

And at the end if you are good looking MA in terms of better do not mess with me you outside the predatory violence. But good target for status seeking show. And vice versa if you are small person it is you who will be picked by the predator and you are a small target in social violence.

Be safe and good luck with your journey to the core of your system.

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    People are not offended with your previous post, they simply disagree with your answer to the question (which could also be because of the original formatting you had or they may simply not understand what you are saying in the way you expected).
    – slugster
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 22:26
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    One or two downvotes do not represent a majority of people here, only one the one or two who casted the votes. Likewise, people can also upvote your answer. In the future, you can edit your own answer and add on to it if you have something to add rather than post multiple answers. This site is not forum so I suggest starting with the faq and the about page to get a better idea of what the site is and how it works.
    – user15
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 0:02
  • Thanks for the wisdom Rafal. I was born in 1990, you were already starting MA! Also, imagining 'Option 1' was initially hilarious, but imagining that freaked me out xD
    – Aditya M P
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 1:28
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    -1 Both answers are the same: myth of MA being sports thus useless, over simplification of violence, and oversimplified sociological arguments. A factual error: Aikido does have sport competition. Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 7:41

First thank you for all the answers and question they are verry interesting and will gladly move forard with some answers. First how to train to defend the predatory attack. The key is how the predators attack. Harder quicker and closer than we can imagine. They will seek for opportunity to do it. The best self defence is to predict and not to be there but let's put that on the side and for what eve reason we are in wrong place and time. Sudden attack is causing freeze always, even the trained ones freeze this is natural reaction to adrenalin kick. As everything adrenalin might have less efect on some of people. With sudden adrenalization humans are loosing all complex movement abilities as body is preparing to minimase losses due injury. That means blood is taken from outside body into inside. And tunnel vision occurres. Now before the adrenaline kicks in we have one chance to do it and do it fast. So answer is train one reaction very simple and aggressive no complex movement, and learn how to use it in all possible situation. There are lots of good techniques but what ever you use stick to it and train it a lot. Do not dwel much on what is the attack as this is not verry important as you will get the first one a d train being hit (but with common sense ). Sequence attack (dom the back or side close fast hard) Defence your technique. If your defence kicks in the predator will freeze, and the chances are equal. Now who first get over the freeze will be in better situation. There are techniques how to overcome freeze but this is a ocean subject itself. And about point 6 and military. History is MA were used in military that is background. MA took as well military reiho, talkin about Japanese MA it is verry visible. Bow when entering dojo, standing in nice rows, orders from sensey, answer to the orders (commands), ... Every instructor is different and the reiho might be different and I see it as positive. I you have pleasure to train with instructor who is not blandly following strict reiho good for you.
And about unusable perfection ... Kata- For a very long time I was the first defender to protect kata as usabl form of studying self defence and MA itself to get to the core. Do not make me wrong there are systems that have usable kata that very practical. I will give example of karate kata. I was waiting time to learn all the kata in my system, additionally I spend even more time to do them in other way. Additionally I waisted more time to make them look LOOK good in order to go to tournament. Nice movement, nice presentation, perfect. What that had in common with self defence ... Nothing... Kata are perfect tool to get control over your body, get coordination in place, but not to fight and defenetly not for self defence. I do known that people trying to find in kata self defence forms I did the same, and things look very good, thought the best self defence is straight forward self defence as you will loose complex movement ability. And once you regain your full abilities it will be over anyway. MA in present times and lots depends on the instructor have lots of blind spots ... I will repet myself I do think that people doing MA have higher chances to survive. But I you thinking about self defence doing only MA it is risky. Next question BJJ is grate MA as lots of others. The judo, wrestling, BJJ and all systems who work close infighting are good for lots of things, as the attack is close it is natural distance for them. There are two main points one what if there are more than one and you start to wrestle with one ... Dangerous thing is to say I will do one and next. Secound is the lack of self defence tactics in the system... The self defence against Homeless killer and a pedophile is not much different. All of them will seek pray week enough for them to hunt Will pick place, tool, time to suit them. It is just mater of how tough is the pray. Homeless will seek small week target but his attack will be equal fast hard as the rest of others. It is mater to behave in the way to be outside the the predatory range of victim

The funny thing is that we are closer to the apes than we think... The social aspects and predator victim aspects are hard wired to us.

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    Rafal, please do not post multiple answers unless each one is fundamentally different. If you have something to add or edit, please update your other answers or respond to others in comments. The Q&A model of Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum.
    – user15
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 2:34
  • Thanks, good reading. Isn't it weird how as humans, we've progressed to very high levels of civilization, but we still have to worry about 'predators' and 'areas where you might be hunted' and so on... just like apes or wild animals :/
    – Aditya M P
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 3:32
  • Wow, that's a load of misinformation here. No, adrenalin doesn't trigger freeze, certainly not on everyone. I have personnally experienced how years of training can actually kick in so fast that you sometimes have to stop afterwards and think to gather everything that happened. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 22:25

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