The best self-defense tactic is to run away from trouble and avoid violence at all costs. However, life might put you in a situation where the only option left is for you to get into a fight. To prepare for such a scenario, consider learning one of these best martial arts for self-defense.
Combat Sambo is the best martial art you can learn for self-defense. Some other popular and practical options are boxing, BJJ, Sambo, and Muay Thai.
In this article, we give you a detailed explanation of all the pros and cons of the most popular self-defense martial arts.
In modern days, Taekwondo is a popular sport, quite limited when it comes to self-defense.
However, there are still schools that embrace traditional methods of teaching, which are more in line with the type of fighting you may encounter in real life.
The traditional style focuses primarily on striking with jumping, spinning, and roundhouse kicks.
Students also learn the basics of boxing and how to blast the attacker with elbows straight to the face and knees in the stomach.
The concept and methods of training are focused on self-defense and there is no competition or rules to follow.
- Fast and precise kicks
- Ability to fight from both stances at all ranges
- Simple but effective hand strikes
- Focuses entirely on self-defense
- Not as accessible as sports variations
- The effectiveness varies between the schools and countries
Kyokushin is the hardest karate style, with the emphasis on mixing kicks with punches at close range.
It is also a brutal style because students train and compete, blasting each other with full power without any protective gear. Even deadlier is that karatekas don’t wear gloves, headgear, or shin pads.
However, you can only throw kicks to the head as punching is allowed only to the upper body area below the neck. Though this limits your abilities in a real fight, do not underestimate Kyokushin’s effectiveness.
Each skill you learn is designed to deliver pain and damage, and unlike other martial arts, it trains you how to land and absorb strikes without protective gear.
- Embraces brutal and realistic methods of training
- Teaches you how to strike without gloves or other protection
- Highly effective at all ranges
- Powerful kicks and direct punching techniques
- High rate of injuries
- The lack of hand strikes to the head
- No grappling or ground fighting
Judo is a grappling-based martial art. It focuses on standup grappling and executing various powerful throws, trips, and sweeps. Once the fight goes to the ground, judokas utilize pins and joint locks to subdue the attacker and win a fight.
When it comes to self-defense, Judo is limited as there is no striking, and it doesn’t work well at a distance or in an open space. But judokas shine at close range, where they need to grab just a single part of your body to get you in trouble.
Like wrestlers, they are physically strong and masters in utilizing a high level of balance, strength, and technique to slam you down to the ground.
- Advantage in strength
- Close to ideal for close-range exchanges
- Works well against physically bigger opponents
- Hard to defend against judo attacks
- Lack of striking
- Not a self-defense program
Boxing is one of the oldest martial arts. And since ancient times, it has been widely regarded as an efficient martial art for self-defense. Critics would say boxing is limited as it only includes hand strikes. But they don’t realize that boxing’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity.
Although boxing is all about mixing hand strikes with footwork and upper body movements, the system fits well in any fighting scenario. The main reason — throwing a punch is the fastest and most common way of attacking in a street fight.
No one, especially people not trained in martial arts, would bother to throw kicks or go for a takedown. Throwing a punch is a natural motion and the most effective way to hurt a person in front, and not a single martial art would teach you better offensive and defensive punching techniques than boxing.
- Practical and effective
- Relatively easy to learn (one year on average)
- Conditions your body to sustain punishment in a real fight
- Trains you to deliver fast, powerful and accurate blows
- Improves fitness and endurance
- Limits as it focuses just on striking with your hands
- High rate of injuries in training
Modern kickboxing emerged in Japan in the 1950s as a mix of karate techniques and Muay Thai full-contact rules. There are many styles and variations, with the most popular being Dutch, Japanese, American, and K-1, and all of them are equally effective.
Kickboxing is a simple and brutal sport; the techniques you learn in training work well in real life. The system might seem complex at first glance as it mixes different kicks and western boxing.
However, the focus is on simple techniques that do not require much energy to execute but do lots of damage upon landing. Students learn to throw each kick or punch with full force and intention to finish the fight, which transfers nicely into self-defense.
You will have the skills to quickly read the opponent’s reactions and respond with devastating blows.
- Simple but effective techniques
- Relatively easy to learn
- Spread well worldwide
- Works well at all ranges
- It makes you physically strong and flexible
- No grappling or fighting in the clinch
- No advanced self-defense drills or fighting against multiple opponents
Muay Thai is one of the best martial arts for self-defense and a brutal one too.
In martial arts circles, it is seen as a total package for striking, as it teaches you how to use all limbs to damage.
It is praised for its effectiveness in any form of combat, notably if the fight is at close range.
When it comes to self-defense, Muay Thai is the most practical martial art for any situation you may face in real life. You will learn how to properly defend yourself using kicks, punches, elbows, knees, and even the basics of grappling, such as trips and throws.
Though Muay Thai is a sport, the emphasis is on power, damage, and finishing the fight. Hard kicks and destroying the opponent inside the clinch are the primary weapons.
The main objective is to either land kicks from a distance or secure a dominant clinch position from which they can unleash the barrage of elbows and knees to the stomach.
Muay Thai is practical but, at the same time, dangerous in a real fight. If you are not careful, you can easily cause serious, life-threatening injuries to an attacker.
- Though basic, the grappling skills you learn work well against people not trained in martial arts
- Trains your instincts to always push for a fast finish
- Very effective both from a distance and at close range
- Conditions your body to deal with aggression and hard strikes
- Brutal and intense training sessions
- High injury rate
- The lack of grappling or pure self-defense drills
Also known as “Burmese Boxing,” Lethwei is too brutal for most people and a very dangerous martial art to train in. In fact, it is so brutal that the sport variation is not legal in most countries outside of Myanmar.
However, all of this makes Lethwei close to ideal for street fighting.
How good is Lethwei for self-defense? As a concept, Lethwei is very similar to Muay Thai in terms of technique but more brutal.
Apart from striking using kicks, punches, elbows, and knees, Lethwei enables fighters to headbutt each other. Also, they compete bare-knuckle, only using hand wraps.
When you combine this with the emphasis on striking with full force and constantly pushing for a finish, you get why lethwei is among the most dangerous martial arts.
Each match features deep cuts, severe bleeding, concussions, and other severe injuries.
Though brutal, bare-knuckle striking and headbutts add to the realism of Lethwei when it comes to self-defense.
- Lethwei is more in line with street fighting than most other martial arts
- It trains you to punch bare-knuckle without injuring your hands
- Street fighting, as far as striking is concerned, will feel natural to you
- Illegal in most countries outside of Myanmar
- Too brutal for most people
Krav Maga is a hybrid combat system created by the Israeli military Special Forces in the 1950s. There are no sports variations or belt rankings, as the system is all about preparing to physically and mentally deal with any threat on the streets.
People trained in Krav Maga can fight in various places and surroundings. They all know how to:
- Strike using all limbs
- Attack pressure points and sensitive body areas
- Deal with weapons such as knives, bats, and even firearms.
- Protect their lives at all costs
Each attacking or defensive move focuses on attacking in a blitz and causing as much pain and damage as possible. Apart from martial arts techniques, Krav Maga covers other elements of combat. Students learn to stay calm in stressful situations, maintain high situational awareness, and make rational decisions in a fight.
- The concept orients toward real fighting
- Uses a hybrid mix of grappling and striking
- Includes both weapon-based training and fighting against multiple attackers
- Covers most places and scenarios you may face in real-life
- Realistic simulations
- Full-contact sparring is not a part of training in most schools
- The methods of teaching, as well as the quality of coaching staff, significantly vary between schools
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
BJJ is a grappling-based martial art, often seen as the best martial art for people who want to learn self-defense. There are a couple of styles like Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, No-Gi, and sports variation. The most effective depends on many factors, like the place of the fight, range, the opponent, etc.
BJJ is better than other combat systems because it neutralizes the attacker without causing injuries. There is no striking of any kind – the focus is on securing a solid grip, executing a takedown, getting into a dominant position, and finishing the opponent with chokes or joint locks.
The other key advantage of BJJ is that most people don’t know how to grapple. Throwing and blocking strikes are natural reactions, while grappling is all about technique, leverage, and balance. It takes years to learn how to defend against BJJ, which makes you superior to most people in a street fight.
- Enables you to build up a lot of combat experience in training
- Highly effective at close distance
- Low injury rate as there is no striking
- It takes a lot of time to master
- There is no striking at all
- Does not work well against multiple attackers
- Not effective at all against a person who knows how to keep their range
- BJJ athletes would have a hard time closing the distance or pulling guard in a street fight
You might be surprised to see wrestling taking such a high spot on this list. However, please do not underestimate the power of takedowns, top control, and wrestlers’ ability to impose their will against anybody.
It doesn’t matter if the attacker is a skilled boxer or a BJJ fighter – stopping a wrestler is tough.
Wrestling is very practical for self-defense as it is really hard to stop a wrestler from taking you down. They are among the finest athletes and capable of closing the distance, securing a strong grip, and sending you flying upside down in a blink of an eye.
On top of that, wrestling enables you to defend yourself without hurting the attacker too much or causing severe injuries. Taking them down and establishing strong top control is often more than enough to neutralize the threat.
- An explosive and aggressive approach
- Easy to apply against people not trained in martial arts or strikers
- Works well at all ranges
- Makes you physically superior to others
- The lack of striking
- Not effective against multiple attackers
- Not a self-defense program
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
In its initial form, MMA emerged as a combat sport. But it later evolved into a martial art on its own. Although complex and versatile, the concept of MMA is easy to understand. The system includes only the most effective striking and grappling techniques from various martial arts.
Despite being a combat sport, MMA is very practical for self-defense. No martial art on this list would better prepare you for freestyle combat than MMA.
Each technique students learn in training works in real life and might help them escape trouble.
The main goal in MMA is to develop all-around skills to fight in all places using kicks, punches, takedowns, positioning, chokes, and joint locks. It doesn’t matter where the fight goes – you will have the skills to deal with the attacker, even if they are physically superior.
However, this comes at a price, as training is brutal and too intense for most people.
- Teaches only the most practical combat techniques
- Covers all the elements of fighting
- Close to ideal for a freestyle combat
- Superior to most other martial arts
- Lacks advanced self-defense drills
- Not many people could sustain such an intense workout
- Takes a lot of time to learn
Combat Sambo is a Russian hand-to-hand combat system developed in the 1920s. There are two main styles: Sports and Combat Sambo. As you would assume, the combat variation is a more brutal one and, with that, the more practical choice for self-defense.
The Russian Sambo is among the best and most effective self-defense martial arts you can train in. It is an all-around system and a mix of multiple fighting styles in one, resembling modern MMA in some way.
In terms of technique, the Sambo is a mix of wrestling, Japanese jujutsu, Judo, and boxing. But through the system’s evolution, many techniques from other martial arts have been added.
What makes Sambo practical in actual combat are its brutal techniques. Students learn how to strangle opponents, headbutt them in the face, and apply various other dirty moves.
Though brutal, remember that there are no rules on the streets. Leveraging these techniques is often a difference between life and death.
- Military combat system designed for self-defense
- Students spar in just about every training session
- Develops strong automatic reactions and fighting instincts
- Trains you to handle various weapons as well as fight against multiple attackers
- Not accessible in countries outside of Russia or former Soviet Republics