Are you’re exploring what’s the best martial arts to learn for self defense? To be successful, first you need to discover why you want to learn it.
Are you looking to learn how to fight better or do you want to learn how to defend yourself?
The martial skills you learn training for self defense will help you in a fight. However, fighting and defending yourself are two different things.
A fight at its core is a mutual engagement. You’re taking part in a violent struggle or confrontation. Even if your opponent has instigated it, once you put your hands up and engage with them, you’re in a fight.
Self defense is a countermeasure to a real or perceived threat. Surviving is the goal, the action to accomplish this goal can vary.
The best martial arts for self defense should have a high emphasis on awareness. Understanding your surroundings and being able to quickly evaluate the situation to apply the correct counter measure for survival.
- Can I simply avoid this threat by moving to the other side of the street, or just ignoring it?
- Can I verbally deescalate the situation, or does it require a physical response?
Often overlooked, understanding and awareness of your situation is the most important skill for an individual learning martial arts for self defense. The best chance of survival is to know how to avoid the situation and not put yourself in danger in the first place.
If a physical confrontation can’t be avoided, I feel there are a few martial arts that emphasize and train properly for self defense better than others.
THIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS. PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE FOR MORE INFO
I use Jiu-Jitsu and grappling as a blanket term here. This includes forms of Japanese Ju-Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I also incorporate Judo in this category as well, as Judo is an offshoot of Ju-Jitsu and the root of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Formerly known as Ju-Jutsu, Ju-Jitsu was created in the early 1500s for close quarter combat on the battlefield. The earliest form was called Takenouchi-ryū. This was a combination of various martial skills into one form of practice. In contrast to other arts that were being taught at the time which focused on striking, Ju-Jutsu emphasized the grappling aspect of a fight. Ju-Jutsu aimed to immobilize an opponent with throws, joint locks, and chokes.
The original practitioners of Ju-Jutsu trained to fight in armor against weapons on the battlefield. As this type of engagement became less common place and practical, Ju-Jutsu evolved.
Now there are various practices of modern Ju- Jitsu that focus on the practicality of its usage. Taiho-Jutsu as an example, is a form of Ju-Jitsu developed for police officers to subdue and arrest criminals.
There are also some more famous offshoots of Ju-Jitsu like Judo, Sambo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which we’ll talk about next.
Ju-Jutsu had a period when it was looked down upon in Japanese society. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo struggled for many years to find a teacher. Eventually he was able to find a willing instructor to teach him in the art of Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū Ju-Jutsu. Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū is also the same Ju-Jutsu that Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido studied.
Kano’s original school of Ju-Jutsu focused heavily on randori practice. Randori roughly translates to free practice, or live sparring. During this time in Japan the few teachers of Ju-Jutsu that were left primarily focused on katas.
When Kano eventually opened his own school and began separating his art from other Ju-Jutsu forms, a heavy emphasis was placed on randori and applying techniques versus a resisting partner.
The concepts of Ju-Jutsu were still heavily ingrained within his art. Seiryoku zen’yō, “maximum efficiency, minimum effort“, and jū yoku gō o seisu, “softness controls hardness“, are concepts born from Ju-Jutsu. Essentially, stating the push and pull techniques in Judo.
Not to resist against a more powerful opponent but rather evade and steer your opponent’s momentum. Thus, allowing a Judoka or Judo practitioner to defeat much larger men. Maximizing efficiency in movement and execution of technique instead of relying on power. Kano rejected techniques that did not follow to these principles.
One of Kano’s black belt students Vasiliy Oshchepkov, pioneered another one of the best martial arts for self defense.
Vasiliy, along with Viktor Spiridonov were the early pioneers in creating what would become Sambo. Although the two names are often intertwined regarding the development of Sambo, they rarely collaborated. In fact, they each developed two different styles that would eventually merge into one art.
An acronym, Sambo comes from the Russian words samozashchita bez oruzhiya. Which translates to “self defense without weapons”.
Sambo is a hybrid martial art. Combining concepts from Judo, Ju-Jutsu, catch wrestling, Chidaoba, and the various grappling arts found in Central Asia like Kurash.
With infrequent collaboration between the two pioneers, what became Sambo began developing among their students. While their students began cross training and practicing with each other, the concepts and formula for Sambo took root.
Anatoly Kharlampiyev, a student of Vasiliy Oshchepkov is considered the father of Sambo.
Although through multiple resources in my research, this seems to be only semantics. As the “birth” of Sambo is considered to be 1938, Anatoly was perhaps the only long-time developer still in the system to receive the honor. Oshchepkov who has since been posthumously pardoned, was accused of espionage and executed the previous year. Why Spiridonov was not considered or when he left the development, I couldn’t find an answer.
My understanding is that Anatoly had a strong political influence. Perhaps he wanted the honor himself, or perhaps in respect to his teacher he did not want to share it with Spiridonov.
Sambo from its conception was designed for unarmed combat. Once again you see an emphasis on live sparring and practicing against a resistant opponent. These factors help make Sambo one of the best martial arts for self defense.
Judo had an impact on another martial art that has rose in popularity over the last 30 years. With its impact in “no rules” fighting sports and emphasis in training for real life encounters. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has emerged as one of the best martial arts for self defense.
The foundations of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or BJJ directly come from Judo. Mitsuyo Maeda who was student under Jigoro Kano arrived in Brazil in the early 1900s. Maeda was an expert grappler and extremely proficient on the ground. At the time Maeda went to Brazil, Judo was still known as Jiu-Jitsu or more specifically, Kano-Jitsu.
Carlos Gracie was fascinated by a Maeda demonstration he witnessed. Maeda was willing to accept Gracie as his student. After a few years of studying Carlos began passing the knowledge onto his brothers. Most notably Helio who is credited as continuing the development into what would become BJJ.
One of the strengths of Kano’s teachings that Maeda passed on to the Gracies was a concept about phases of combat. Maeda taught that you could simplify combat by viewing each of these phases separately. The striking phase or the ground phase as examples.
Where BJJ finds its strength is in it’s almost single-minded focus on newaza or ground fighting. Even among non-trained combatants most fights will end up in a grappling match and on the ground.
BJJ focuses training on that phase of the fight. Looking to bring the fight to the ground as quickly as possible.
By name and emphasis BJJ has become it own martial art. It can be argued however that nothing new has been created within BJJ. Techniques do not differ or any new developments from the Jiu-Jitsu that came before it. Only the emphasis on the phase of the fight and the system of how it’s taught and trained.
In discussing what’s the best martial arts to learn for self defense the grappling arts will be at the forefront.
Grappling allows the ability to practice your technique against a resistant opponent. Simulating as close as possible to an actual confrontation in your training is a huge advantage for a martial art.
Finding a good grappling school should be high on your list if you wish to learn martial skill. You will learn how to defend yourself in a 1 on 1 physical confrontation.
Not Every Fight Is Going To Be 1 on 1
The unfortunate reality of surviving an attack is it might often be by more than 1 individual.
I believe one of the biggest myths that surround martial arts is that you can learn to fight multiple people unarmed. There are skills that you can learn however, that will help you survive that situation.
In any self defense situation and especially fighting multiple attackers, the goal is to survive, not to win a fight.
Normally, being proficient in a grappling art you’d want to take your opponent to the ground as quickly as possible. This allows you to engage within the “phase” of combat that is your strength.
Now, when facing multiple attackers these same skills can help you stay on your feet and avoid the ground. If your attackers are trying to get you on the ground, there isn’t a much worse scenario then being on the ground with multiple people hitting and kicking you. Hopefully, your “take-down defense” can allow some freedom to separate yourself and run from the situation.
This is where a striking art like Muay Thai or more traditional for westerners, boxing can be a great skill set to have. Much like the benefits of good grappling arts, with boxing and Muay Thai you can spar and train your techniques against a resisting opponent.
You’ll learn how to properly strike and develop great footwork. Honestly, just being able to take a punch and not panic is a huge asset for surviving a violent confrontation. You’ll learn that as well from sparring and training in the ring.
Use grappling skills to avoid being taken down, then footwork and striking skills to create space, RUN from the situation.
In researching this article, I contacted other martial artists to see how they felt on the subject.
In researching what’s the best martial arts for self defense I felt it was important to reach out to other martial artists as sources. Both martial artists I reference in this article have years of experience and involvement in martial arts.
Jason Pietz, is a former professional fighter who started training at the Lion’s Den back in the mid 90’s.
If anyone remembers the early days of MMA in America, the Lion’s Den were a premier school at the time. Ken and Frank Shamrock, Pete Williams, and many other world class fighters were a part of the Lion’s Den. From America to Japan, Lion’s Den fighters were on most major cards and events.
Jason now owns and operates Standalone MMA Gym, which he started back in 2007.
When I asked Jason about the difference between fighting, self defense, and training for combat sports he shared these thoughts.
“What I think about when looking at training systems are my goals compared to the discipline I’m considering.
Self defense arts need to be looked at for vital attacks combined with the realism in efficiency in training. Self defense is not about squaring up with someone, nor testing out the jab cross you’ve been working on.
At the same time, it can be extremely difficult training vital attacks realistically in practice without injuring your partner. Money definitely needs to be spent on safety equipment and used constantly with high intensity drills if it’s going to be taken seriously.
This is one reason Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been so successful.
Your able to train as hard as you will fight, it focuses on control and submission and it has great community.
It’s also in my opinion the best style for women learning to deal with male assaulter’s. A male attacker will look for a female that they consider a soft target. Smaller and weaker. Not a great moment for her to try and box. Using leverage and using chokes with the closes from inferior positions are great advantages.
Now there IS a double standard there. In a self defense situation, the objective should be hit and run.
So, avoiding the ground can be pretty important, especially if there are multiple attackers. But if it hits the ground, BJJ all the way!
Hence the realism in self defense drills. If you leave your class without a drop of sweat on you then find a new school!
Boxing has a great foundation for the hit and run aspect, because it deals with footwork and evasion.
Muay Thai and MMA training are good, but they deal with more of a ‘I’ve made the decision to square up and fight with someone aspect’.
You will fight how you train, so if you train to punch someone in the face then you will try and punch them in the face. If you train to punch someone in the throat, then you will try and punch them in the throat.
That’s why it’s important to understand what you are looking for and how much time your willing to commit.
If it’s purely self defense then arts with short intense repetitious hit and run training supplemented with some BJJ training is in my opinion the best way to go. If you want to get in shape, learn fun, realistic, and efficient useful techniques, then Boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ and Wrestling can be extremely useful.
Just know that any training is better than no training as long as you practice.”
To get another perspective I also spoke with Andrea Harkins about this. Andrea is an inductee into both the U.S. and Canadian Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Featured in many Martial Arts publications and podcasts. She is also a successful author and motivational speaker.
I asked Andrea the same question in regards to the difference between self defense, fighting, and training for combat sports. This was her response:
” As a woman who has been involved in martial arts for 31 years, I see a difference between self-defense, fighting and training for combat sports. The biggest difference is that each of these components are unique, autonomous and diverse.
Self-defense is about survival.
Martial art training provides techniques and tools that can be used to protect yourself. But, so does common sense, understanding awareness, and practicing techniques in various scenarios where self-protection is needed.
Self-defense is defensive, meaning you use it when you must. Fighting is more offensive. In the ring, it is about winning.
This means understanding how your body reacts to an opponent and using conditioned training to understand scenarios and circumstances that are unexpected. Training for any combat sport, however, has similarities, whether defensive or offensive. It requires focus, precision, commitment, practice, endurance, persistence, and perseverance.
A person only becomes stronger, more confident, and more aware of their own abilities whether they train for self-defense, fighting, or any other combat sport.”
Defending Yourself Means Surviving, Not Winning A Fight
In this article we explored what’s the best martial arts for unarmed self defense. I wanted to make that very clear as a conclusion to this article.
If you can’t avoid a confrontation, weapon or firearm training is realistically the best form of self defense you can learn.
I remember when I first began studying martial arts. I asked one of the black belts about what’s the best form of martial arts for self defense. His response was, “20 yards and gun”. Almost every community in the U.S. will have groups people can join to learn how to properly use a firearm. As a martial artist I certainly would recommend familiarizing yourself with firearms as a part of your martial skill training.
It can’t be over emphasized that awareness and avoiding a situation that can lead to a violent confrontation is the best form of self defense. For the purpose of this article however, we’ve assumed that the confrontation couldn’t be avoided.