I'm looking for self-defense martial arts that will be effective for me. I've taken a few classes and they seemed geared more towards the average man.

What are effective martial arts for a smaller woman looking to learn self defence?

Also I'm over 40, but still in good shape as I play a lot of soccer and run. Thanks in advance!

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    What about the classes you tried made them seem geared towards the average man? Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 9:32
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    Thank you all for the answers! As I'm looking for real-world scenarios, I'll definitely look into Krav-Maga as well as BJJ. I didn't really want to post it but the previous training I got was in the police academy,, where it was 95% male and definitely focused more on subduing your opponent than GTFO of a bad situation, which is what I want now as I probably won't be in a position to call for backup! Nor will I be open-carrying weaponry). So I will go look into those two disciplines, keeping in mind a good instructor will make the difference.
    – Webgoddess
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 23:19
  • This was one of the most informative articles I’ve read on the yet. I’m very happy with everything that I’ve read; it’s given me a lot to think about. It was especially helpful due to the info on women (& smaller-weaker part! lol) I’m over 50 but I’m in good shape thank, due to weight training, now I know what I need to do prior to finding a class. Thank you so much
    – Magic Girl
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 21:37

9 Answers 9


I will suggest some martial arts that use the opponent's strength against him; martial arts that have simple and easy to learn moves (not in order of importance):

  • Aikido
  • Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
  • Jeet Kune Do
  • Krav Maga
  • Wing Chun
  • Wu Shu (some styles)

In my case, I practice Krav Maga and I like it.

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    Krav Maga uses the opponents strength against him? When does that happen? Also have you considered how long you need to train for Aikido, Wing Chun even Wushu and BJJ to be able to use it effectively in a stress situation - some of the moves from those martial arts are highly technical and are only usable in a training atmosphere for the purpose of training - the same applies for Kali ;-) .. but if time is not important i agree.
    – mitro
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 14:41
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    @Freedo Gosh that's weird, I work on self-defense scenarios in BJJ class every week: defending against punches, distance management, controlling a striker, getting up from the ground, escaping positions where the opponent can strike... Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 11:15
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    @DaveLiepmann BJJ is not really for self-defense, no matter how hard you want to say you train for it in your bjj class. in any real street fight, one of your top objectives is to never go to the ground. if you are on the ground, you are in extreme danger from a number of unknowns that you will not have time to think about nor take precautions against when fighting for your life. Yes train it, but you should not rely on you having time to perform your controlling techniques because there will be another guy there to stomp your face in when you stay still trying to control a guy for too long.
    – Zero
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 20:51
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    @Zero You don't always get to decide where the fight goes. BJJ is the best way to train to escape a bad position one is unwillingly put into. Plus, the idea that BJJ is all pulling guard and fighting from the bottom is a fallacy: the better grappler is more likely to be on top, in control of the situation. Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 7:03
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    The degree to which you simply ignored the specific things I said I train regularly as part of BJJ is kind of mind-boggling, actually. Note that I didn't mean "defending against punches" and so on from the ground, I meant from all positions including standing. Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 7:04

First, let me begin with "What do you mean by effective?" In this case, there is enough context that I think I know, but it can matter a lot. Very few martial arts are truly ineffective, but all of them are products of their environments and the needs of their founders. Muay Thai is brutal, and thus probably not the best choice for someone that needs to subdue their opponent with minimal damage. BJJ is largely focused on ground fighting, so not the best choice if you need to face multiple opponents at once or retain the option of running away.

Next, let me question the frame of your question, if I may. If you are worried about actual self-defense effectiveness, are you sure a martial art is the way to go? Take a look at this: http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/AreMASD.htm page from a self-defense expert about martial arts for self defense. Depending on your particular situation, you might be better off finding ways to avoid the need for self-defense fighting than you would be learning to fight. It's a bit flippant, but people have semi-seriously said the best martial art for staying safe is sprinting / parkour and there is some truth to that.

Now, with all of that in mind, if you really want a martial art for self-defense, then I recommend Krav Maga, but with some big caveats. My wife does Krav Maga and it is entirely focused on self-defense techniques with no worries about competition or defending against tournament style techniques. She both enjoys it and has learned a lot of solid techniques.

But there are caveats: the school matters more than the art. If I need to find a new martial arts academy, I'd rather have a great teacher in my second or even third choice art than I would have a mediocre teacher in my first choice art. The other big one is that no self-defense techniques are perfect, especially against an attacker who is bigger, or stronger, or armed.

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    As a teacher of Judo I take my time to make self-defense lessons from time to time and my first points are always that the best self-defense is being able to stay out of a fight and the legal definition. And I often have to point out that even if we train certain techniques thousands of times, there is no certainty whatsoever that I have covered the abilities crucial to that specific situation one might get into. The main point in learning MA for self-defense is therefore my appearance. To learn the "formless" needed in-fight you have to do "it" (whatever it is) for years either way. Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 12:16

What you should be learning

First, I'll point out factors you want in any training aimed primarily at self defense. This is because there are schools, programs, workshops, etc. that claim to be about self defense and don't cover these things, and there are schools for sports martial arts or traditional/cultural martial arts that DO, and this is really the determining factor above all else.

Live Training

Sparring, working against live opponents. This may not be the thing you do right away, however, it's something you should do before long and it should something that is a regular part of training.


Around the world people use weapons because they work. This should involve dealing with people with weapons, as well as using weapons yourself, including improvised weapons.

Multiple Attackers

Assaults aren't fair. Being outnumbered is a reasonable possibility and you need to train for this.

Environment Training

A clear, empty room with a flat floor makes training easier. However, self defense rarely happens so easily - you should train to deal with fighting in enclosed spaces, with obstacles, uneven ground, falling on the ground, being seated, all kinds of weird positions, just so you can learn how to find your options while under less than optimal situations.

Time to proficiency

You should have some solid skills within 3 months of training going 1-2 a week. This is "proficiency" not mastery. If a school is telling you it will take a year, or years, before you can hope to defend yourself, they're not teaching self defense.

Common styles which teach these things

Modern self defense systems

Krav Maga, Systema, and there's a variety of smaller systems usually using the words "tactical" or "combative" in the name or advertising that usually covers a variety of stuff. Controlled Chaos, Tony Blauer's "SPEAR" system and so on.

Traditional self defense systems

A lot of the styles which focus on weapons do pretty well here. Kali/Escrima classes are pretty widespread and cover a lot of good material. Some schools of Penjak Silat as well. More defense focused Jiujitsu schools also incorporate a lot of the principles above.


Any art where you train vigorously and practice applying your techniques against a moving, unpredictable, uncooperative partner will develop self-defense skills and attributes. Judo, BJJ, boxing, kickboxing, SAMBO, MMA, and other arts are all reliable styles for finding that kind of training. The goal is to regularly practice sparring in class in order to develop your practical, applicable skills.

But that doesn't really matter, since the determining factor is what schools are around you. Try a class at each one, be clear about your goals, and don't believe anyone's spiels about how they're the best "for the street".


You're a female, and you're mostly interested in self-defense. Presumably this is because you just want to be able to defend yourself in common real-life situations women might find themselves in. And you're worried that the class you enroll in will only teach things that are useful for much taller men.

Briefly, my recommendation for you is to look at Brazilian Jiujitsu. Specifically, if you can find a Gracie style BJJ school, that's where you should go. Gracie Jiujitsu has a long track record of success with regards to training women. So does Judo, but Jiujitsu is more oriented towards practical self-defense.

Regarding physical attributes (gender, height, weight, strength, and athleticism) and how it affects your ability to defend yourself: Generally if all of physical attributes are equal, the person with the most skill will have a better chance of "winning" in a physical confrontation. When there is a physical attribute disadvantage, greater skill is required.

Keep in mind that those physical attributes do matter. A black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu or any martial art will have a harder time winning against a 200 pound white belt than a 150 pound white belt. Size does matter. There are even cases where BJJ black belts lose to beginners, just because the beginners are able to use their overwhelming strength and weight to their advantage.

But skill also matters. Skill can make up for size disadvantages. And generally speaking, the more the size disadvantage, the more skilled you have to be to overcome your opponent.

What that means for women who want to learn self-defense in preparation against men is that they will need to train for a longer period of time to be able to reliably defend themselves against larger men. So the average man starting Brazilian Jiujitsu training may only take a year to reach the point where he's skilled enough to reliably defeat other average sized men. But the average woman starting BJJ may need two or three years to reach the point where she's skilled enough to reliably defeat an average sized man. It just takes longer.

This physical attribute disadvantage is inherent in any martial art. If you find a martial art that tries to tell you size doesn't matter in a fight so long as you're using their martial art, just walk away. They're either very delusional about their martial art or are trying to sell you on it. Don't waste your time or money there.

If you have a choice of BJJ schools in your area, go to each one and check them out. You should make sure the school has women already training there. Many schools of BJJ actually have a separate women's-only class and allow those same women to participate in coed classes as well if they want. Make sure whatever school you choose, it places self-defense higher than the sport aspects of BJJ. That's why I say I prefer Gracie Jiujitsu for this, because they try to ensure that self-defense is their core material, and sports is secondary.

I wrote a lengthy answer in the past that describes exactly what "realistic" self-defense practice should look like and why. It was to a question about someone asking if Taekwondo was good for self-defense. I think I'd just be repeating most of it to explain to you what you want to be looking for, so please read my other answer at the link here:

is Jun Chong TKD a legitimate TKD dojo for self defense?

(Skip to the part which begins with "Moving right along...".)

Alternatively, I'd suggest looking into Krav-Maga. You can take a small course about 3 months long usually, and they'll cover a lot of practical topics. It gives you a good introduction to what it's like to punch, kick, elbow, and knee people. It teaches some throws, some grappling techniques, situational awareness, and maybe even some weapons stuff. Its ground fighting training will be pretty minimal, though. All of that will be in the first 3-6 months. It's designed to kind of give you a crash course on unarmed combat. So from that perspective, I like it. It doesn't have all the extra baggage that comes with traditional martial arts training (there are no kata / forms, no meditation, no bowing, no yelling kiai, etc.).

But personally, I think you'll be able to take more from Brazilian Jiujitsu that you can actually remember and use successfully. I say that because of the way BJJ schools train people: with fully resisting partners (but with safety as the highest concern) that don't let you fool yourself into thinking you're able to use it for real. Krav-Maga might give you a small taste of that kind of training, but it's not done nearly as often.

That's the thing that really counts when learning realistic self-defense, more than anything else in my opinion. You have to know it can work on a fully resisting larger man first, in class, before you'll ever have the confidence that it will work for real outside of the class. Most martial arts schools don't give you that. Instead, they give you a false confidence, which can get you killed, or at the very least, it will waste your time and money.

Hope that helps!


There are several things to consider.

  1. What weapons are legal where you live? Which of these do you intend to carry?

    In some states of the USA you can carry a gun. This makes military styles such as Krav maga much more useful as they teach you to make space to draw a gun.

    Where I live in the UK weapons are illegal; no guns, no blades, no sticks. As a result Krav maga is perhaps less useful, though still not at all redundant.

  2. How long do you plan to train? Some styles take a lifetime to learn. Others will teach you to defend yourself in months. The more complex styles may well pay off in the long run, but if you don't make training part of your lifestyle they will be of little benefit.

  3. How much are you willing to risk to learn? Some jujitsu styles carry high risk. I have seen people with broken arms or punched in the face. Always something to consider.

So, with these in mind:

  • Krav Maga : Lots of weapons training, quick to learn moderate risk.

  • Aikido: Weapons but no guns. Slow to learn. Usually low risk.

  • Shorinji kempo. No weapons, medium speed to learn. Low risk.

  • Judo. No weapons, medium to learn, medium risk.

  • Muai Thai, no weapons medium to learn high risk.

  • Karate. Depends on style.

  • SPEAR. Weapons, quick to learn. Low risk.

I'm not going to talk about other styles. Because I don't know a huge amount about them.

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    In the UK walking sticks and umbrellas are legal and can be used as weapons with the correct training. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 16:23
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    You are only allowed a walking stick if you need one due to disability. Or if you are going somewhere in the mountains or similar. You can't carry a walking stick for fashion alone. Yes, umbrellas are legal though, you can even buy a combat umbrella for about £100.
    – Huw Evans
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 16:58
  • "You are only allowed a walking stick if you need one due to disability": rubbish ;) I know plenty of people who go walking with them. Not one arrest. And they are not classified as offensive weapons. See gov.uk/guidance/import-controls-on-offensive-weapons Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 17:05
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    It's not as simple as that. Anything is an offensive weapon if you are carrying it for that purpose. You are not permitted to carry anything for self defense purposes. Literally not anything. However if you use something you happen to be carrying for self defense you are fine. It's a grey area, but I would hazard an umbrella is easier to get away with. Taking a walking stick to a club is probably a bad idea even if it goes with your outfit.
    – Huw Evans
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 17:22
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    I give up. Just carry a rolled up newspaper then. You can take one of those into a club. Along with a can of hairspray, a cigarette lighter and a nail file. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 17:33

For smaller, weaker people going up against bigger, stronger opponents in a self-defense scenario, the best martial arts rely on using your opponents energy against them and utilizing your body structure (not your muscles) to generate force against your opponent.
I personally believe that the following martial arts are the best:

  • Krav Maga - designed for quick brutal crippling attacks within confined spaces (like compact alleyways from where the art originates). Quick to learn and be effective.
  • Kali or FMA - designed for knife fighting. great movements and effective for street fights. may take years to be effective.
  • Wing Chun - designed for the smaller, weaker person (first used by and named after a woman) going up against multiple assailants with quick brutal attacks. utilizes the centerline philosophy and body structure. Easy to learn some basics to start using the principles but will take many years to master and be effective.
  • Aikido - manipulates your opponent's energy with locks and throws. May take years to be effective.
  • Judo - learning throws and joint locks can be very effective for getting yourself out of situations. May take some time to become effective.
  • Systema - System with no real techniques. Designed to get you to think and react quick and instinctively. Good for weapons like knife fighting. May take years to be effective.

I do not recommend the following for self-defense, but they can help:

  • BJJ - designed to use leverage and body structure. excellent for 1 on 1 but not really for all street encounters (it only takes one bad encounter to end up dead). very good to train and condition for the times you are on the ground.
  • Muay Thai - strong and direct but requires a lot of body conditioning/hardening (& pain management) to be effective. So unless your already a pretty tough cookie (if so then you might not really need much martial arts to handle yourself in the streets or self-defense might come naturally to you), will take years for conditioning. Dangerous for untrained bones in the street.
  • Sports martial arts like TKD, Muay Thai, BJJ, etc. will lend a lot of athleticism and ability to a street fight scenarios, but ultimately, they are designed for sports (unless you practice combat or self-defense variants like combat Muay Boran in Thailand (Muay Thai) and others).
  • Any Showy martial arts (like most Wu Shu's) will likely get you killed in the streets, but nevertheless can lend you some level of athleticism.

Many martial arts can take many years before you are able to effectively use it in a street fight scenario. Depending on the amount of time you are willing to spend/wait before being effective, you may have to choose differently.
Krav Maga would be my current favorite suggestion for learning to be street effective as quickly as possible. They do use very harmful and devastating attacks, especially to soft targets (like many real self-defense martial arts) so you need to be careful on when and how to apply those techniques.


Nobody here has given a bad answer yet, but here's my buck-20.

Mostly it's the artist, not the art. Someone who is aggressive, ruthless, fast and initiates OVERWHELMING violence right up front will beat someone with mad skillz, but who isn't aggressive and ruthless. Ultimately (for self defense) you need to find that aggression. Massive aggression and a bic pen will get you a LOT further than no aggression and lots of training.

Be clear (with yourself) about your motivations, commitment, current physical fitness, threat model and patience.

Motivation--are you mostly worried about self defense, or do you also want physical fitness and other stuff?

Commitment--how many hours a week are you going to train, and will you be doing this for 6 months, a year, 10 years, the rest of your life?

How fit are you currently? Can you do a "ass to ankles" squat w/out losing your balance and do the splits? Do you need a cane to get around? Heart disease?

What are you worried about? Do you live in a small town where you are mostly worried about a rapist climbing in your window at night, do you live in a violent city where getting beat or shot is a reasonable probability?

Are you just afraid of rape/sexual assault?

Do you travel to countries where kidnapping and such are common?

And finally how long are you willing to train before the art/school starts to genuinely become useful? Some schools you'll gain significant defensive abilities in 6 or so months. In other schools you'll still be learning how to fall down properly (hey, don't knock it. You may go your whole life and never get attacked, but you WILL fall down).

These are all factors.

Find a school of almost any art that fits into your schedule, focus on learning the art and training moderately hard and you'll be better than not being able to make it to class for the "perfect" art. Being present might not be half the battle, but it's hard to learn if you're not.

After you've trained long enough to think about what you've learned, do the thinking and evaluation, and if where you're at isn't right for you, find something else, but you'll have some experience and more understanding.

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    I respectfully disagree with much of this. I have been in both military and tournament scenarios, and I would generally favor the more skilled person over the more aggressive one in both of those scenarios. I have won sparring matches entirely because the other person was too aggressive and gave me openings to calmly exploit. In the military we are taught that aggression certainly has its place, but it needs to be done tactically, not wildly. In self defense, I suspect it is even more true. Being too aggressive can wind up escalating a situation that could have been prevented. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 21:44

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu no question about it. It allows people to submit their opponents with minimal effort (that is if you can get them to the ground - which almost always happens in a fight)

EDIT: Ok let me elaborate on my answer. If you look at any other martial art it requires plenty of strength and or size advantage. Been doing MMA for a few years now and wrestled all throughout school. Here are a few popular martial arts and why they won't benefit a smaller woman like op.

  • boxing = chances are if you're fighting a bigger opponent, their punching power is going to be a lot greater than yours. In a real situation you rarely jab your way out of a fight
  • wrestling = requires a lot of strength, conditioning and athletic agility
  • judo = allows you to use your opponent's weight/momentum against them but they don't teach anything in regards to defending strikes
  • aikido = a lot of aikido moves only work in the movies, which is why it is not a practiced martial art in MMA
  • karate = this is mostly for sport and will not subdue an attacker unless you aim for the groin or something like that

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not perfect by any means but it allows smaller/skinnier opponents to have an advantage over their larger opponents. By being smaller you can be more nimble in the ground game and if you're bony then your submissions tend to be more effective (you don't cramp up when applying triangles or going for mission control). They also teach you to close distance and how to fight from disadvantaged positions such as bottom guard or bottom mount. It also teaches you the reality of fighting - its not like karate or aikido where a lot of moves are preplanned (ok grab my arm THIS way...) and doesn't account for a lot of real life situations.
This is in no way disrespect to any other martial art (in fact I prefer wrestling) but if you are small and not very strong I would recommend Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - and if you can, add Judo to your training so you can learn to take your opponent down with more ease!!

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    For this to be a good answer, you would need to justify your claims. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 8:06
  • Disparaging lots of martial arts does not improve the question. All original claims and most, if not all, of the added ones are still unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 16:03
  • Of course it does because they are all options for OP. I also explained why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu benefits smaller/skinnier opponents. No need to write a whole book to answer the question. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 16:27
  • If you need evidence just look at some of the greatest grapplers/fighters in the world that use Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Marcelo Garcia, Nate Diaz, Shinya Aoki, Jake Shields, Kyra Gracie, Royce Gracie are all very small and or skinny yet are high ranked players. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 16:32
  • All your examples but Kyra Gracie are men and thus are hardly good evidence of women's prowess. Whether you take on my criticism or not is up to you. I am just trying to tell you how to make your answer better. 'Nuff said. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 9:21

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