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5 Best Martial Arts for Self Defense

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Before I inadvertently anger some people, I want to make a small disclaimer. Everything in this article is an opinion based on 39 years of martial study and experience. I have seen what works and I have seen what doesn’t. I know that in many cases, all martial systems are useful as self defense tools.

The primary difference between all the systems isn’t what is trained but how it is trained. Only through pressure testing, active usage of the lessons learned in class through sparring or dynamic exercises with resisting opponents of varying levels of skill and continuous practice can a person prove to themselves that a system works for them.

There are some criteria which is most useful for the average person to learn to be safe as they progress through their daily lives. The qualifications of what makes the “best martial arts for self defense” is evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Movement efficiency.
  • Lessons to deal with sudden or “hidden” attacks.
  • Lessons taught handling multiple attackers.
  • Lessons teaching what to do before the attack.
  • Reality-based methods handling attackers with weapons.

Each system will be graded on a one (1) to five (5) scale on each matrix and will receive an overall average score based on those results. After investigating hundreds of potential candidates, here are the top five (5) that we found will provide the most benefit to the average person.

You will find that some of the most effective martial systems which focus on self defense will not be thousands or even hundreds of years old. Since the concept of sudden attacks or individualized personal attacks are relatively new, the methods which to hand them will be as well.

Number 5 – Krav Maga (Circa 1940)

Krav Maga 6 DVD set
Krav Maga 6 DVD Set Available at Price: $59.99

Krav Maga was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld while associated with the Haganah, a paramilitary group within the Jewish community of Israel. While playing a very strong role in the Israeli military system, he was asked to develop CQC (Close Quarters Combat) and defensive tactics. Thus, Krav Maga was born.

Though Lichtenfeld’s primary clientele were mainly special unit leaders, professionals in the armed forces and police officers, Krav Maga has gained an avid following – especially in the United States – in the area of self defense over the last decade. Popular or not, let’s see how it measures up to our criteria.

Movement Efficiency: Rating 5

Practitioners of Krav Maga practice methods of using the whole body to support their movements. Though they are striking out with hands, elbows, knees, feet and head, the weight of the whole body is used.

Kinetic linking (transferring kinetic energy from the ground to the striking point) is used, creating the opportunity to use the least amount of effort to create the biggest result.

Combat drills and lesson to teach how to flow from one movement to the next in a non-stop onslaught of attacks until the attacker is neutralized is a bonus to the efficiency of the system.

Sudden or “Hidden” Attacks: Rating 5

Krav Maga – created handling attacks from all angles – assumes that the attacker is taking every opportunity to take you “off guard” and will capitalize on that lapse of attention.

Surprise attacks and how handling them are the specialty of this system. They do this by triggering the “fight” aspect of the fight or flight instinct; teaching that an attack should be met with immediate and sometimes lethal responses.

Multiple Attackers: Rating 4

From the onset of an aggressive encounter, Krav Maga teaches the practitioner to position themselves so they can monitor and control the position of multiple attackers.

At the end of almost every technique, the student learns to instinctively look to see if there are other attacks incoming. This allows the practitioner to prepare for the next attack.

In the middle of dealing with an aggressor, however, the techniques take a long time (relatively speaking) and allow attackers from the sides and back to take advantage of the defender while they are dealing with the person in front of them.

The techniques as taught have a lot of moving parts and the students are often led to believe that they must perform the techniques as they learned them in class rather than allowing the situation to develop organically.

Attack Prevention: Rating 2

The main premise of Krav Maga training is what to do when you are attacked and how handling yourself during that situation. There is very little conversation – if any – as to what you can do prior to an attack to prevent it in the first place.

While it is important to know how handling yourself responsibly and with confidence in that situation, “becoming the danger” (Krav Maga’s reported mantra) is more like talking about how to solve the problem of being bitten by a mosquito and little to nothing about repellents.

Reality-based methods: Rating 3

What you do in practice, you will do in reality. There are three details many of the Krav Maga instructors today fail to cover, though there are a few who do.

First, during a crisis situation, the heart rate increases and fine motor functions become less accurate or unable to be used at all.

Many of the techniques used in Krav Maga are focused on aiming for specific targets while defending or attacking. They will not work because of the loss of fine motor control.

Some methods taught are damaging or lethal. This may be the desired result if actually attacked, but how do you train that? If you damage your training partner, you don’t get another.

A student, therefore, must take the instructors word that the technique practiced actually works. This does nothing to bolster the student’s confidence or teach them how to use the technique in the dynamic environment of combat.

The attacker is not going to just stand there and let you gouge their eyes or attack their groin as they try to get what tthey want. It’s not that the techniques do not work; many of they actually do. There is just no way to effectively practice them so there is no way to prepare to use them.

As far as weapons training is concerned, there are few that are better; as long as the attacker is within grabbing range. Geared initially for the battlefield, Krav Maga trains extensively on how handling weapons and defend against them.

Overall Rating for Krav Maga: 3.8


Number 4 – Japanese Jujitsu (Feudal Japan)

Japanese Jujitsu Price: $67.99

The progenitor of systems like Aikido, Judo and Brazilian Jujitsu, Japanese Jujitsu was once practiced by the Japanese soldier elite (the samurai) for the event that they found themselves without their weapons during battle.

The system first showed up in the United States; taught in Hawaii by Professor Henry S. Okazaki. Professor Okazaki taught Kodekan Jujitsu (a style found within the system); the style that is most prevalent in these modern times.

The system focuses on joint locks, throws, bladed and bludgeoning weapons use and defense and body structure through movement. Eventually, the system was combined with other systems such as Filipino knife fighting, Hawaiian Iau, knife throwing, boxing, wrestling, Okinawan Karate and Kung Fu.

Though much of traditional Japanese Jujitsu is limited to and is found only in Japan, Kodekan Jujitsu has become very popular in the United States as a self defense system.

Movement Efficiency: Rating 5

Kodekan Jujitsu uses the whole body as a weapon. The traditional system focused mainly on joint destruction, throws and ground grappling because of the armor worn by Feudal Japanese warrior prevented strikes from being effective unless it was against a joint or to the throat.

Because of that the practitioner learns to use the whole body as a type of antenna to feel what the opponent is doing and act according to what they feel. This leads to rapid and fluid movements, little wasted energy and rapid dominance of the opponent.

Sudden or “Hidden” Attacks: Rating 5

Because the system originally was taught to the warrior caste of Japan for battlefield operations, the system recognizes that attacks can come from any direction at any time. They, therefore, train for that eventuality.

Learning to use their entire bodies as a type of antenna, the Jujitsu practitioner teaches themselves to be aware of air current changes around them and respond to them with little to no conscious thought; allowing training to take control and respond to the moment.

This ability is trained through rigorous methods and constant conditioning.

Multiple Attackers: Rating 5

The battlefield can have thousands of people attacking and defending each other at the same time. Awareness of immediate surroundings were, therefore, necessary and handling multiple opponents simultaneously was common. The warrior trained for that.

There is nothing “fair” or “nice” about combat and the Jujitsu practitioner knows that the opponent is going to do anything it takes to defeat you; even if it means bringing friends.

Attack Prevention: Rating 3

The almost supernatural way a proficient Jujitsu practitioner seems to sense an attack coming is legendary. Unfortunately, the system teaches little as to how to prevent the attack in the first place.

As an older system and geared for the battlefield where attack was almost certain, there was no need to learn how to prevent it from coming.

The system, though, gets as high a rating as it does because of the training a student gets on how to sense an imminent attack and the situational awareness training handling multiple attackers bleeds over to peaceful times as well.

Reality-based methods: Rating 4

Weapons in feudal Japan were common on the battlefield, but firearms were not. Today’s world incorporates firearms as a primary method of an attack to try to gain control.

Since Jujitsu is an ancient and mostly traditional system, reality-based training against a person with a firearm close enough to grab does not really exist in this system.

Dealing with blades or bludgeoning weapons, however, the system is second to none. From dealing with wielded weapons to the possibility of a knife being thrown at you, the system trains heavily on how to avoid the weapon and close in to gain control.

Overall Rating for Japanese Jujistu: 4.4


Number 3 – Wing Chun Kung Fu (c. 1661-1722)

Wing Chun 12 DVD Set Amazon.comPrice: $199.95

Though the system has a colorful and legendary history, there are a few things we do know for certain. Originally created by a former Shaolin Master after the Honan Province Monastery was burned to the ground some time in during the Ching Dynasty (circa 1662-1722), Wing Chun was passed from person to person in a closely guarded circle until it reached a traveling opera troupe called the Red Junk Opera Company.

The opera company used Wing Chun to keep themselves safe from pirates and corrupt officials. The primary weapon used was the butterfly sword because of its short length and the ability to use the Wing Chun methods in tandem with the weapon. Eventually, the Red Junk Opera Company incorporated the long pole they used to push and steer the boats as a weapon into the system.

Since the time of Ip Man and his fellow students, Wing Chun has gained popularity as a simple, straight-forward method of personal protection with a scientific foundation. Renowned for it’s lightning quick attacks and angular positioning and entries, Wing Chun is one of the most effective and devastating systems available.

Movement Efficiency: Rating 5

If we could give this system a higher rating in the realm of efficiency, we would. The concept of no resistance in the defensive movements and relaxation in attacks lends Wing Chun and efficiency of movement not seen in any other system.

The “Goat Clamping Stance” used by Wing Chun practitioners first allowed the performers of the Red Junk Opera to stand firm on their boats while defending themselves. Today, it is used as an effortless way to maintain a strong structure and stil retain mobility if needed.

The system incorporates absolutely no movements that are not strictly needed to defend against an attack. It is streamlined, straight forward and a no-nonsense method quickly dispatching an attacker and ending a fight. Speed and power are no strangers to Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Another aspect of Wing Chun that makes it efficient is the concept of defending and attacking at the same time. At times, the attacking limb defends against an attack and at others, the practitioner uses arms and legs in tandem to defend and attack.

Sudden or “Hidden” Attacks: Rating 4

Wing Chun’s greatest asset is after they touch the opponent. Before that, they have to see the attack coming and that drastically slows them down. A sudden attack from an angle they are not looking will usually land, but after the first engagement, the proficient Wing Chun practitioner can usually gain control quickly.

Another of it’s greatest strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses; the “Goat Clamping Stance”. The practitioner practices so much in that stance that it almost becomes necessary to be in that posture to be effective.

Therefore, a sudden attack on the street while walking will require the Wing Chun operator to take that stance before they can effect their devastating methods. This gives a person intending to “sucker punch” them a split-second of time to try to take control and keep the practitioner off balance.

Multiple Attackers: Rating 5

China is a densely populated area and gangs of neer-do-wells are common. It’s was very common – even during Yip Man’s (the most famous Wing Chun practitioner) time – to be set upon by more than one person meaning to do you harm.

For that reason, multiple angles of attack and defense in all four directions was included in the basic Wing Chun forms. Not only does Wing Chun handle multiple opponents well, it was designed with that in mind. Wing Chun practitioners automatically assume that they will be outnumbered and act accordingly.

The sensitivity training a Wing Chun student recieves allows him/her handling the opponent facing them while scanning visually for other incoming attacks.

Attack Prevention: Rating 4

Modern Wing Chun schools add in philosophy and psychology with the physical training as passed down by the Shaolin progenitors. The premise is to defeat your enemy by making him/her your friend. This prevents the attack in the first place.

Add that to the teaching that Yip Man passed along – through teachings and example – regarding treating others with respect, humility and being good-natured and you have a system that can defeat an attack long before it ever shows.

The concept goes along with the idea that the best way to not get hit is to not be there. There is two ways to do that. First is to prevent the attack by not becoming a target. Second is to know an attack is probable and finding somewhere else to be.

The issue comes with the practitioners. Many of them practice long hours and want to prove themselves in the ways of Kung Fu to themselves to make sure it actually works. They, therefore, go seeking ways to test their abilities against others and that mean finding trouble. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

Reality-based Methods: Rating 5

Quality schools have frequent sparring. Some have rings in them where practitioners can go full speed and full power against each other.

Weapons-based defense is a little different from any other system I’ve seen, but it is still there. Wing Chun’s version of weapons defense is to ignore the weapon and address the truy dangerous variable in the equation; the person holding the weapon.

Their standpoint is that if you remove the person, the weapon will not jump up and attack you on its own. This works whether they are going against a person with a knife, bat, gun or wet noodle. Control the person and you control the weapon.

Overall Rating for Wing Chun Kung Fu: 4.6


Number 2 – Systema (c. 900 AD)

Systema 6 DVD Set Amazon.comPrice: $179.95

Among the martial community, Systema has got to be the most misunderstood system extant. Based in relaxation and natural movements, Systema looks – from the outside – like it should not work as a viable self defense system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Systema was originally created sometime during the 10th century because the country was under almost constant attack from all directions; North, South, East and West.

The system had to defend the country against all types of fighting styles, manyn different weapon types and took place in rough terrain and in unforgiving weather conditions. The Russian people were often outnumbered and faced well-trained, armed attackers.

Still, they survived. Later, as the Communist Party banned all traditional fighting systems, Systema went into hybernation for the public but was still practiced by elite special operations units.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., Systema was reintroduced to the public by Mikhail Ryabko and later taken out of Russia by Vladimir Vasiliev.

According the Mikhail Ryabko, ” [It is]a way to improve the function of all seven physiological systems of the body and all three levels of human abilities – the physical, the psychological and the spiritual.” (“Russian Martial Arts – Systema”, n.d.) Let’s see how it holds up to the criteria set by this research.

Movement Efficiency: Rating 5

Based in natural and relaxed movements, the practitioner wastes little energy, can operate on any terrain and can respond instantly to the tactics of the aggressor. All at once, Systema is an internal and external martial art that focuses on relaxed power, fluid stability and scientific action.

Based in strong bio-mechanical structure, the practitioner has almost preternatural control over his/her body and can isolate any portion of it to move separate from the rest of the body and perform a specific function. This prevents the rest of the body from expending unnecessary energy to maintain the actions of a single part.

Sudden or “Hidden” Attacks: Rating 5

The proficient Systema practitioner can respond almost instantly to an attack from any direction including odd angles and from “unnatural” positions. The philosophy behind this is that the “enemy” is not going to wait until you are ready; so be ready at all times and in every position.

Multiple Attackers: Rating 5

Ancient Russians were almost always outnumbered so they had to learn how to survive attacks from multiple attackers. The training carries on today with exercises designed to teach the student to track multiple actions simultaneously and respond appropriately to prevent harm to themselves and control the situation as it unfolds.

Attack Prevention: Rating 4

As a country that was almost always under attack, Russian warriors learned to expect an attack at all times; not attempt to prevent it from coming. The instant way Systema practitioners can respond to incoming attacks, though, precedes the need to be watchful or take actions that discourage aggressors from attacking.

The basic mentality of the Systema practitioner is, “Do what you are going to do. I will respond anyway.” That calm confidence naturally keeps most predators away, but – in the case some don’t get the idea – they are ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

Realistic-based Methods: Rating 5

Systema practitioners train with live blades and real – though unloaded – firearms. You can’t get more realistic than that. They encourage those who challenge them to try their hardest and don’t hold back in power, speed or aim.

While it is true that beginning student practice slowly and methodically, the more experienced operators practice and spar at full speed and without any protective equipment. They trust solely in the scientific design of their system and the body’s natural ability to protect itself.

Overall Rating for Systema: 4.8


Number 1 – Kyu-Jitsu Ryu (1979)

Created in California by a young man simply interested in martial arts as a whole and dissolutioned with the systems he was offered, Kyo-Jitsu Ryu (The School of Passive Resistance) focuses on the basic principles of Newtonian Mechanics, Psychology, Philosophy and is a culmination of the teachings from many ancient martial masters; Miyamoto Musashi, Moriehei Ueshiba, Sun Tsu, Lao Tsu and Mahatma Gandhi just to name a few.

The creator of Kyo-Jitsu Ryu got his start in Southern Mantis from the Shaolin teachings and studied other systems such as Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Muay Thai, Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, Kempo Karate, Ed Parker’s American Kenpo and Kokondo Karate; reaching high rankings in some and not so high in others.

Though he was convinced the systems he studied were valid, he knew they were not for him and he proceeded in creating a system that fit his personality, character and value system. The result was Kyo-Jitsu Ryu.

Until recently, the creator has only taught privately to a select few and primarily because he was constantly looking for people to practice with and test his methods in real action. Now, after almost 40 years of development, testing and proving the system is valid, Sensei Brent Duncan is ready to share his system with the world in an effort to help people improve the quality of their lives and stay safe doing it.

Let’s see how his system measures up to our criteria.

Movement Efficiency: Rating 5

One of the tenets of the system is, “Do only that which is absolutely necessary but don’t leave a task unfinished.” This pretty much sums up the epitome of efficiency. In a martial viewpoint, it means don’t move unless you are in danger, but if danger exists, make only the movements necessary to either remove the danger or remove yourself from the danger.

In Kyo-Jitsu, a person that is hit stays hit. The methods of attack are such that they don’t stop at the outside of the body, but bury deep inside so the receiver of said attack feels it sometimes hours after the person has left. The power of the strikes are such that they penetrate past protective equipment and the receiver still feels hit; all with very little effort from the practitioner.

Sudden or “Hidden” Attacks: Rating 5

Anther philosophy of Kyo-Jitsu Ryu is that a martial artist should know when there is potential danger and have something better to do elsewhere. The training reflects this philosophy.

Students are taught and train to know what is around them – in detail – within thirty (30) feet of their current position at all times and in all directions. They are taught to scan their environment and recognize telltale signs of possible danger in the interest of avoiding it.

Threat recognition is the first step in practicing Kyo-Jitsu Ryu. For that reason, it is very rare for a proficient practitioner to ever be caught off guard or surprised by sudden or “hidden” attacks like sucker punches. If they are – everyone is human – the response is instant and appropriate for the situation.

Multiple Attackers: Rating 5

Jyo-Jitsu Ryu instructors teach that the best way for an attacker to ensure they are successful is to come armed and bring friends. Practitioners prepare for the possibility that every potential attacker is armed and not alone; even if they don’t see a second or third person right away.

During almost every practice, time is set aside so every student is allowed to practice against multiple attackers and at a rate and power just above what they can handle. That way, they are constantly improving and striving for greater skill in such situations. The average Kyo-Jitsu Ryu student of three or more years can handle up to six (6) attackers at once.

Attack Prevention: Rating 5

In Kyo-Jitsu Ryu, the belief is that the best way to survive an attack is to not be part of one. They believe that if a person winds up in a situation that they have to lay hands on another human, they have missed four (4) opportunities to ensure their own safety. They have a process for preventing attacks and call it the “Conflict Progression”. The progression is as follows:

  • Threat recognition – Environmental and situational awareness
  • Avoidance – Wherever the threat is, we are not.
  • Negotiation – Words are tools for safety.
  • Indirect Physical Manipulation – The environment is my friend and – if used properly – will keep me safe.
  • Finally, Direct Physical Contact – This is where the martial training comes to bare.

The first and last elements are always first and last, respectively. The other three are interchangeable and can be used in conjunction with one another as the situation warrants.

Realistic-based Methods: Rating 5

Training is done in street clothes and with shoes on. No attacker is going to wait for you to change clothing or take off your shoes.

Though beginning students train with blunted weapons and dummy firearms, the training is there from the outset; after the basics are mastered.

Advanced student train with “paint blades” or shock blades and air soft weapons. In the event the student gets “shot” during training or trying to perfect timing, distance and other principles, there is no lasting damage but the “hit” is definintely felt and leave a mark.

Sparring is done at the speed and power of the least experienced student. If the speed and power get past the point that the student is not performing in a confident manner with accuracy and efficiency, the sparring is slowed down so they can work with skill and not be reactionary.

Sparring can be one-on-one or – if the situation allows and the student’s skill level warrants – many-on-one; depending on time and the availability of participants at the time.

To maintain reality and the practicality of the system, the head instructor is constantly researching and testing new methods and updating the system to account for modern practices.

Overall Rating for Kyo-Jitsu Ryu: 5


Final Thoughts

For your convenience, I have provided access and links to training in all of the previously mentioned systems with the exception of Kyo-Jitsu Ryu. To date, there are no training videos or even book on the subject; having only been passed by oral tradition from master to student. As that changes, I will update this post.

Every system on this list is good for self defense training. The systems are sound and have good practices when it comes to keeping a person safe; if practiced correctly.

There is the rub. All martial systems need to be practiced correctly to be of any use. If a person doesn’t train for the situation they find themselves in and they wind up getting hurt or “losing”, then the fault is not in the system. The fault is in the way the system is taught, trained and practiced.

You can not buy a full set of tools and fancy tool box and call yourself a master mechanic. Nor can you look at something, practice it for an hour or two each week and believe you are proficient.

If you want to keep yourself safe and have a martial skill in case you need it, you have to practice every day at least thirty (30) minutes to an hour or more. The responses you are training need to be automatic.

You only get that through constant and consistent practice; much like playing an instrument. You should be able to think what you want and your body should deliver it to you without any further concentration required.

For further discussion on Kyo-Jitsu Ryu – if interested or if you have any questions – you can either use the comments section (link is at the top of the post near the title), the messenger link on the right, or you can email the head instructor at

If you want to comment on the post or have any questions, please use the comments section or the messenger function only. Thank you.