Is there a concept or a theory to define how to measure the practicality of a martial art?

For example, is there a measurement, dimension or a rating method to check how effective BJJ or any other grappling techniques against a knife wielder or how effective karate against 2 unarmed robbers?

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    An interesting questions and I think certainly on topic. However, I do not think there is such a thing nor am I certain what one would look like due to the skill differences involved… Nov 2, 2016 at 12:08
  • Even I thought so.. I just wanted to make sure such a thing doesn't exist. I guess, the answer for my question is situational. (Not sure though) So let's see what our fellow MA users have got to say. Nov 2, 2016 at 12:21
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    @SahanDeSilva I am pretty sure "effectiveness" is situational as well. I'm also not sure how anyone could objectively measure "effectiveness." Time to disarmament? Time to incapacitation of one party? Relative damage (and then how do you measure "damage" on a person)?
    – PipperChip
    Nov 2, 2016 at 14:14
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    You would have to also assume a certain level of proficiency by the person employing the art. Hard to quantify.
    – JohnP
    Nov 3, 2016 at 17:38

7 Answers 7


No absolute measure

I do not think an absolute measure can be determined as the skill, training, and physical differences between participants in addition to local environmental factors would make any measure meaningless.

However, I have a few ideas…

Woolly Measures

If those were more woolly, they would baa…


The martial art needs to be simple, to have simple rules and movements that can be taught easily. Bruce Lee famously said that

I fear the man who practised one kick a thousand times, not the one that practice a thousand kicks once.

If a style has 3000 techniques and takes twenty years to learn the basics, then the style is not practical. It is easier to train someone to use a rifle than teaching them to be a swordsman to the same level of competency -- however you measure that: kills per minute?

A simple style does not mean it has no depth, just that simple principles that can be applied to many situations.

A collection of techniques, however simple is worse than a system taking basic ideas and expending them.

Ease of equipment

You need to be able to carry practically whatever you need to defend yourself. Sometimes, this is nothing; sometimes, it is a weapon. Carrying a potentially lethal weapon has legal implications beyond this question and as I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV I will not expend this beyond saying: Talk to a lawyer before doing something dumb.

Now, in a war zone, I want a rifle with grenades and a hand gun and bullet proof gear; while walking in Manhattan, I might get into some trouble wearing those. This is a situational consideration.


The longer the better: if you can reach your enemy but the enemy cannot reach you, you are safe while they are not. Thus, you win. So hands are worse than knives are worse than swords are worse than bows are worse than rifles are worse than ordinance are worse than orbital bombardment.

Testing against a resisting target

No falling for sensei here! This is where sport and competition comes in naturally. However, there are rules in sport which might distract from the effectiveness, as no one wants to lose an eye in a normal class. Also one on one is not how most fights happen, so training against multiple attackers is good.

The old adage of train as you want to fight applies here: in a fight, one falls to the level of their training.

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    Great answer! Love that Bruce Lee's quote and it's true. A 1000 time practiced kick is way more efficient and effective than 1000 different kicks practiced once. Nov 3, 2016 at 8:56
  • What does "If those were more woolly, they would baa…" mean?
    – Ooker
    Jul 10, 2018 at 16:03
  • @Ooker Woolly means Vague or confused in expression or character or Made of wool. I am making a pun on both meanings as sheep baa: If those were more woolly (read: vague and confused), they would baa (read: be like a sheep who baas). Does that make sense? Jul 11, 2018 at 6:54
  • so if the measurement is vague and confused, they should be like a sheep? I thought "sheep" is more alluded to stupid, not vagueness?
    – Ooker
    Jul 11, 2018 at 12:38
  • @Ooker It's meant to a funny word play. Jul 11, 2018 at 13:05

Short answer: MMA.

Long answer follows...

What we've learned about martial arts in the past two decades is that what matters most is how you train, not what you train. Style and techniques are unimportant. So long as your training involves sparring against "live" and "non-compliant" partners, the techniques you use and how you use them will be honed to fit that situation. And that situation, by the way, most closely approximates a real fight.

What does it mean to have a "live" opponent? It means that your partner isn't a robot. He's not going to tell you what he's going to do. He gets to decide that. And he doesn't stop once he completes what he was doing. He keeps going, reacting to what you're doing. He's alive.

What does it mean to have a "non-compliant" partner? It means that your partner is actively resisting everything you do. He's not letting you do stuff to him. He's trying to win against you. He is doing what he can to stop you from doing whatever you're trying to do.

So long as you have live and non-compliant partners, you have the basic recipe for success. Your techniques may be limited and ineffective to begin with. But over time training the right way, you will learn what works and what doesn't. And more importantly, if you have a hole in your game, you'll go out on your own to figure out how to fill that hole.

For example, if in sparring your partner is repeatedly able to shoot in and take you down right as you're beginning to punch at his head, you'll learn to adjust your stance so that you're not quite as open for that shoot. And you'll learn how to sprawl from that stance.

The techniques follow directly from that practice as a matter of necessity. So style doesn't really matter. What matters is how you train.

As for your question about how to "measure" the effectiveness of a martial art, we have a method, though it might not be what you're really asking for. It's called MMA.

In MMA, people from any martial arts background can spar or compete against people from other backgrounds. From these matches and from MMA training, we can see trends. We can see which styles are, on average, producing better MMA fighters.

The styles that, on average, seem to produce the most winning MMA fighters are: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Thai Boxing, Wrestling, Boxing, Sambo, and Judo.

At least that was true in the early days of MMA fighting competitions. Back then, in the early 1990's, people weren't training in multiple martial arts. Most were "pure" stylists. And those that did the styles I just listed tended to do better, on average, than all the other styles. It's because of the fact that these styles train people using live, non-compliant partners who are actively trying to win against them.

Later on, people realized they needed to train in those styles. So they all went out and learned stuff like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Shootfighting, Pankration, Sambo, and so on. And that became MMA.

Now here's the interesting part. There have been some noteworthy MMA competitors who had training in martial arts that don't make that list, however. And they did extremely well. So what does that tell you? For example, Lyoto Machida and his Shotokan Karate background.

The thing to keep in mind is that, once again, it's not the style but how you train that matters. Lyoto Machida wasn't just a karate practitioner. He also has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And he practiced MMA fighting. But he was able to bring some of his karate techniques and strategy into his MMA game. The result wasn't a combination of karate and MMA. It was just MMA.

MMA training is like a crucible. It burns away the ineffective elements. What remains just works.

So then your question about how to measure the practicality of a martial art is answered: Find out how people from that martial art do, on average, against others in MMA style fighting competitions.

This has to be relative, not absolute. And you're not comparing the martial arts against each other. You're actually comparing the people who have trained in those martial arts. And you can use averages or take the best. That's up to you.

Of course, this is really hard to do nowadays. It's because in MMA, the level of skill and knowledge has increased tremendously. Nobody goes into MMA competitions these days without first learning some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai at least. So when you're trying to see how a martial art does against other styles, it's really hard, because you can't find pure stylists in MMA these days. And there's a reason for that.

Now, as for weapons, there are some MMA groups that add weapons to their sparring. For example, Dog Brothers. They also do MMA without weapons, but they'll tell you that they had to modify what they do to deal with knives and sticks more effectively.

Sorry if you're looking for something more analytical and objective. If you want some kind of a number representing the practicality of each martial art, you're really not going to find anything useful.

You could count how many techniques a martial art has, but as I said above, it's not the number of techniques that matters. It's how you train them. Most techniques are ineffective anyway and will just be thrown out when you go to MMA.

Or maybe you could look at physical qualities like mechanical advantage, leverage, speed, and power. That would just measure the effectiveness of each technique in isolation. It wouldn't tell you how useful or how practical those techniques would actually be.

You could argue that the more useful techniques are indeed the most direct, fastest, most powerful, most leverage providing techniques. Still, it's not obvious that the one must follow from the other.

And consider techniques like the back flip. You can make a perfect back-flip that's really fast and mechanically efficient. But is it practical to use in a fight? Probably not.

So I'm back with one answer: It's how you train that matters.

It's very simple. You could take two martial arts styles that each have exactly the same techniques in them. But maybe one style emphasizes body conditioning and spends most of the class doing strength training, cardio, and so on. And the other one instead uses the time to do martial arts training with a live, non-compliant partner. Which one will produce better fighters, on average? My feeling is the second group would come out ahead.

It's how you train that matters. Not the style. Not the techniques of the style. Not how many techniques you have. Not how strong or fast those techniques are.

Hope that helps.

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    While I really like a lot of points in this answer, MMA fails the test of weapons: it uses no knives, shives, knuckle dusters, and so on. It is a one on one sparing sport (no disrespect meant or implied here, quit the opposite) so rules could possible get in the way. Nonetheless, it is a good answer. Nov 3, 2016 at 8:06
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    Nice work, but I do disagree with the answer. Any sport application is not going to be an accurate measurement of "real life." If I have a system where I have the best and easiest methods of defending against an attack, but those techniques wind up doing catastrophic or lethal damage to an attacker, then all those techniques would not be allowed in an MMA setting. Repeatedly kicking a man in the testicles is a great and effective technique. Doing so in MMA makes you the automatic loser. Nov 3, 2016 at 16:16
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    The "sport vs. reality" debate has been decided. The sport argument won. People who train in arts that do NOT involve actively resisting, live, and non-compliant partners fail. They aren't even in the same league as MMA people, and it's because they have never been in a position where they have to struggle against an opponent hell-bent on winning against them. That's what MMA training (and BJJ, Judo, Wrestling, Thai Boxing, etc.) give you that arts like Kung-Fu, Ninjutsu, and Aikido don't. It allows you to keep practicing without injury, allowing you to come back tomorrow and keep going... Nov 3, 2016 at 17:24
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    ... It is actually that fact, that you can keep training while fully resisting but without injury, that gives MMA, BJJ, and so on the advantage over arts that don't do that kind of sparring. Yes, of course kicking to the testicles is wonderfully effective, but only if you're able to deliver it safely. There are many examples of competitions where the rules were so limited that it allowed kicks to the testicles, eye pokes, fish-hooking, nerve strikes, etc. Yet, the same styles came out on top. People from the other arts generally weren't able to even get in position to apply those techniques. Nov 3, 2016 at 17:29
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    As for weapons, though, they need to be trained the same way MMA trains, with live, non-compliant, fully resisting partners in a way such that injuries are minimized. The Dog Brothers do that. And if you listen to what they say, they're not telling to go back to kata and traditional methods. They're actually saying that they make MMA training their core, but they do modify some of their stances, their strategies, etc. to deal with knives and sticks better. They usually wear armor to protect themselves while practicing. It allows them to use harder contact and go all-out with less injuries. Nov 3, 2016 at 17:45

I've decided to post my guide to qualitatively determining practicality, but we first must separate effectiveness and practicality. Effectiveness helps determine practicality, but effectiveness alone is not enough. Therefore this answer has two parts: determining effectiveness and determining practicality.

Determining Effectiveness

The basic criteria to determine the effectiveness of a martial art 1 are:

  • On average, how quickly can the practitioner inflict harm, to the point of neutralizing any threats? (Or "How quickly can I stop them?")
  • On average, how much risk or harm does the practitioner take on while achieving this neutralization? (Or "How bad will I hurt?")

Throw a martial art vs another martial art in lots of situations and ask these questions. Finding out "the most effective" would require the largest, most crazy accumulation of knowledge from tournaments and case studies ever assembled by mankind.

Determining Practicality

As if determining effectiveness is not complicated enough, practicality adds another layer to this. I'll define practicality as "the amount of effectiveness per daily effort in maintaining combat-readiness."

For an example, let's go out on a limb and say that armed martial arts (those that use knives, swords, shields, and other weapons) will generally be more effective than the open-hand martial arts (such as tae-kwon-do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and so on).2 Let's also say we all do lots of research and tournaments and find out that the most effective martial art is, for the sake of argument, armored German Longsword.

For armored German Longsword, you need a full suit of plate armor, hand-and-a-half sword, and a dagger. Wearing this every day takes significant effort. Try to pull a knife against such a person, and if you don't immediately die from shame, you'll very likely lose that fight. But how much daily effort does it take to have all this gear?

Compare this to, say, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner. How much daily effort does the BJJ practitioner need to be ready to perform their martial art on a moment's notice? I'm no BJJ expert, but I'm pretty sure they don't require equipment to employ their techniques. So when a guy pulls out the knife with the intent to harm, the a proficient BJJ practitioner may suffer some cuts but stands a reasonable chance to neutralize the knife guy.3

So compare the "some cuts, almost no daily preparation" outcome vs "no damage, lots of daily preparation" outcome and you see that BJJ is a more practical martial art. The main point is that one must examine the "effectiveness per effort put in" of a martial art to estimate relative practicality!

In Summary

Sort the relative practicality of martial arts by asking the following questions:

  1. On average, how quickly does this martial art turn enemy combatants into non-combatants? More speed means more effectiveness.
  2. On average, how much damage does this martial art expose the practitioner to? Less damage means more effectiveness.
  3. On average, how much daily effort goes into being "combat ready"? More effort means less practicality.
  4. Compare the effectiveness to the daily effort. The thing which provides the most effectiveness per daily effort is the most practical.

This is just a general guide. This could change based on personal preference. For instance, one could alter the measure of effectiveness by asking "how much effort did I expend neutralizing the opponent?". This could change the relative ranking of some martial arts.

1. I should note that I'm coming from a Historic European Martial Arts background, so I have a fairly broad notion of what a "martial art" is. I'm going to think of "martial arts" to include the use of any non-chemically based weapon to inflict or prevent bodily harm. So no bullets, but archery and the use of other weapons are fair game.

2. Not that an unarmed person can't ever overcome an armed person, but that the armed person is at an advantage and is therefore more effective. If open-handed martial arts stood a reasonably high chance against all armed martial arts, why did people bother outfitting armies with weapons?

3. I actually have my doubts about BJJ vs. Knife. I'm only mildly familiar with BJJ, so maybe one can weigh in and let me know if BJJ can handle knife attackers reasonably well. For the sake of my argument, I'll say they suffer some damage, but don't outright lose to knives.

*Disclaimer: Actual milage may vary. Consult a doctor before blithely assuming one martial art is "better" than another. Do not use this guide if you have a history of ignoring the effects of culture, individual ability, and situational variables on martial capability or don't understand averages. Side effects include, but are not limited to: misinterpretations or misuse of averages, differences of opinion, and getting beat up by a practitioner of a "less effective" or "less practical" martial art than yours.


Unfortunately there is no such measurement. Although I don't think it's impossible, one would have to take the following things into consideration:

Martial arts are usually created for a certain purpose in a specific context. Thus, to compare two arts you'd have to compare them in a specific context, otherwise it makes no sense. One of these special contexts is MMA with its specific ruleset and other situational components, like a certain number of rounds, an octagon and so on. If you want to know which art fares best under these circumstances, you can test them against each other.

Does that mean these arts are also the best in another context, for example military missions, street-fighting, fighting against multiple adversaries? Likely not. While grappling is great against an adversary who is not versed in grappling himself in a one-to-one confrontation, it may be a bad idea to roll on the ground with someone who has a knife or his friends standing by.

It's also important to note that each rule in a fight profoundly influences the way techniques are done and how one protects itself. If head butts are encouraged, like in Lethwei (Burmese bareknuckle boxing), fighters adopt different stances than, say, in Muay Thai where these techniques are forbidden. The same applies to attacks to the groin: if they are forbidden by the rules, there is no more need to protect oneself against them. This gives the fighter new opportunities in a competition but may prove a problem in a fight with no such rules.

One could argue that death matches as they have been common in Asia and also in Europe some 100+ years ago are way more "realistic" than MMA and that's probably true, but even these are situations where you need different skills than in the midst of the chaos of a battlefield or fighting in a crowd.

Many martial arts have evolved (or devolved, depending on the point of view) from a self-defense centered-training to a competition-centered training. Some call this "watered-down", but in fact it's the adaptation to another environment. You lose some self-defense-skills and you gain skills in the specific circumstances of a competition.

Also, many arts have lost their edge because they didn't have to stand any real tests or challenges for a long time. They just "believed" in their deadliness and didn't bother come out of their comfort zone anymore. Some have lost their inner secrets, some have just neglected the practical side of training: sparring. No wonder their proponents fail miserably when challenged by modern MMA fighters.

Nonetheless I think it would be great to define certain circumstances (such as a knife attack in the street, fighting in narrow space or in the dark, fighting against multiple armed or unarmed attackers, etc...) and evaluate what different arts have to offer and which one fares best.


There's no one rating/scoring system out there.

However, there are ways to look at more/less effectiveness - which is testing your skill against conditions as close to the actual situation that you can do within safety and reason.

A broad set of factors that need to be tested against if you are considering effectiveness within combative situations: live opponents who are actively resisting with force, stressful situations, different terrain/environments, weapons, ambush, unfair odds, etc. This is what military and high-risk police forces utilize in their training (this also parallels the sort of stress testing first responders, EMTs, or firefighters go through with their own training as well.)

For any form of training, the conditions which make it reasonably safe (reduced to minor injuries and pain, and greater injuries rare or non-existent), are the conditions which limit the combative reality you get from the situation. Too much, or applied incorrectly, and people don't learn effective methods. Too little, or applied incorrectly in a different way, and people get to spend the rest of their lives learning how to defend themselves on blown out knee ligaments or slipped vertebral discs.

So how do you measure the effectiveness? Figure out a safe way to "spar" the situation. Find a way to test it under as many close conditions as possible within reasonable levels of risk and safety and see if it works pretty well. Look for videos or personal testimony from other people who have had to really use those methods to help guide you in setting up, analyzing and seeing why it's working (or not working) for you in the process.

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    A coworker's wife took a krav maga weekend intensive a few weeks ago, he mentioned how day 2 involved having a couple of guys snatch up the participants, individually, by surprise when they first walked in, to see what they had retained from day 1. Obviously, this has potential risk, but at the same time, it is much more controlled than getting jumped in the street.
    – Bankuei
    Nov 3, 2016 at 3:04
  • Well explained.. I know the best way to test the effectiveness of a martial art is to let it face the worst situation. So we'll have to find a way to do so. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions on this. Nov 3, 2016 at 5:34
  • The question is still looking at measuring the practicality of a martial art, not just which one is most effective. For instance, if I choose to say that "Kenjutsu is the most effective martial art" (which is silly), is it practical to carry around a katana all day?
    – PipperChip
    Nov 3, 2016 at 5:45
  • The practicality is contextual. What is the most practical thing when you work in a 10 man team armed with rifles is not the same practical thing when you are a 60 year old person using a cane with a bum knee. However, both types of training can take advantage of training with force, resistance, under duress and appropriate bad conditions, within the limits of safety. What's "practical" is vastly different based on what you are likely to face, what you can (practically or legally) do, and what your own body allows.
    – Bankuei
    Nov 3, 2016 at 20:29

Everyone makes claims about that, regarding how their own art is the best. It would be difficult to assess because so much depends on the competency of the person performing the skills. Any martial art is useless in the hands of a poor practitioner. Almost any martial art would seem bullet-proof (figuratively speaking) when performed by a practitioner at the highest levels of skill and competency.

  • So it seems situational, but how about the strength of the bullet proofing? For example, how practical it would be for a 'professional' boxer to fight against a 'professional' MMA fighter or a 'professional' grappler or vice versa? Nov 3, 2016 at 2:14
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    This seems to be a non-answer. Yes, competency in a martial art is important, and I'm glad you made that point, but you don't put forth any recommended measurements for measuring "practicality" or "bullet-proof"-ness.
    – PipperChip
    Nov 3, 2016 at 5:40
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    @PipperChip - It absolutely is an answer. I'm saying there is no way to objectively measure that, because it's entirely dependent on the skill of the practitioner. You weren't asking for a system of measuring, you were asking such a system existed, so saying that it can't accurately be measured is an answer. Nov 3, 2016 at 16:13

You can come up with lots of theoretical arguments based on techniques/historical development etc. IMO the most objective measure is practical experience. I.e. one should compare different martial arts by interviewing its trainees after they had been in a self-defense incident on the road. Of course to be accurate in comparing different martial arts through this method, one would have to reduce statistical bias and e.g. normalise by training level of the particular participants (so that you don't compare a master to a newcomer).

I am not aware of any such comparative studies, however intriguingly one self-defense system employs this method to check and improve their own techniques. The system I am talking about is Krav Maga. I am not claiming it is the best system out there, however the OP asked about a measurement system and the method suggested in this answer would most certainly be most objective if applied to more martial arts.

Sidenote: There are other reasons why Krav Maga is really a benchmark in terms of self-defense. Often people confuse the martial arts or combat sports with self-defense. E.g. MMA is a devoted combat sport, it has artificial rules that you have to obey that do not apply on the road. A self-defense system by definition does not have such rules and focusses on how to defend.

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