What is the Best Martial Art for Self Defense?

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This has got to be one of the most popular questions I have ever seen on forums regarding martial arts. It seems that many people are interested in either self defense or combat sports when it comes to martial training and everyone want to know what the best systems are. Well, that makes sense.

I mean, who would ask, “What is the worst martial art for…?” Well, since I know VERY little about the martial sports world and have devoted the majority of my life to the study of self defense, I will be addressing that side of things. So, what IS the best martial art for self defense? Let’s investigate.

What is Martial Arts?

The word, “martial” stems from the Roman god of war, Mars. Anything pertaining to that deity would be referred to as “martial”. The definition of “art” is the expression of one’s self in the form of some type of medium. It makes sense then that the term “martial arts” would refer to the expression of one’s self through the application of war-like activities.

Every martial system was originally created for a populace to prepare for some type of conflict; whether it is warring nations, protection from bandits and pirates or preparing to protect themselves tyrannical governments bent on controlling the populace. Some martial systems focused on weapons combat, some on empty-handed combat and still others combined the two purposes. Almost every culture on the face of the planet has some form of martial system geared for the needs of the culture that created it.

Where does martial arts come from originally? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. It’s everywhere. It makes as much sense to ask where air comes from. Who originally created martial arts? That’s an easy question to answer: The people who felt they needed it. I’m certain the original systems were crude and maybe even focused on the usage of rudimentary weapons; spears, clubs, etc. Through the later centuries, practitioners have refined martial arts into purpose-specific systems.

What is Self Defense?

The second part of the original question needs to be looked at as well. It seems that the definition of “self defense” is kind of hazy when asking different people. Some people seem to think that self defense means stopping someone from attacking them as quickly as possible so they can go home to their families. Others indicate an opinion that martial arts is for either beating an attacker senseless or rendering them unable to attack further. Still, others describe what is known as street fights. For more information regarding the difference between self defense and street fights, read “Street Fights vs Self Defense“. There is a LOT more detail there than is covered in this post.

The basic definition – as we understand it – is the ability to counter the activities of a would-be or current attacker through the application of superior intellect, superior strategy, superior negotiation skills and superior martial skills with the intention to return home as safe as possible to our loved ones.

Martial Arts has been Distilled into Categories

Over the centuries, people have assigned arbitrary functions to martial arts systems. For example: Judo is for sport, Penchak Silat is for self defense, Tai Chi or Wushu are for the preservation of tradition and Krav Maga is for battlefield combat. This is where things get a little muddled as far as the way people think about martial arts.

To help clarify the way to look at martial arts, I have put together a list of important factors that make a martial system great or horrible.

  1. Ability to be applied to the environment and needs of the practitioner: One martial system specifically designed to be used in urban terrain would be rendered useless in a jungle environment. People trained in a desert-specific system would have a hard time operating in the muddy environment of Malaysian river banks. At the same time, a person training for a sport would have a hard time handling a group of people or someone armed with a weapon. Additionally, someone trained to operate alone would be a burden in a group battle environment where many people are fighting at the same time in a close environment. Just try strapping a 50lb backpack, a utility belt and give a rifle to a cage fighter and have them try to compete in the ring and see how they do. The idea is laughable, but I think you get my point.
  2. Quality of the Instructor: Regardless of the effectiveness of any specific system in its original form, a horrible instructor is going to pass either inaccurate information or bad practices to an innocent and unsuspecting student who blindly trusts someone they believe has more experience and knowledge than they do. The flip side of the coin is an instructor or coach who can spend minimal time with a student and help the student grow to amazing heights in martial skill.
  3. Application of skill in the category a person chooses: If a person is training for the ring, they need to practice the application of their chosen system in a ring. That means constant shadow boxing, sparring of different levels of resistance and engaging in ring-based competitions. If the person is a traditionalist, he/she needs to spend years perfecting the forms and techniques as they were originally created. The self defense specialist needs to practice in an environment of being attacked from various angle, on variable terrain and by multiple armed and unarmed assailants. The combat specialist needs to train in environments – with and without equipment strapped to them – associated with battlefield conditions.
  4. Amount of Training Time the Practitioner Puts In: I don’t care what system you associate yourself with or what school you attend. If you don’t put in the time and effort to learning your chosen system, you will NEVER be good at it. It will never function the way you want it to at the time you need it. In that case, you cannot rightfully blame the system. The martial system didn’t fail you. You failed the system. Let’s face it. There is NO martial system EVER created that will magically turn a person into a super warrior after a few lessons. It takes YEARS – if not decades – of constant and consistent learning and practice to achieve ANY level of proficiency or mastery in your chosen system. A two-week course at the YMCA isn’t going to cut it.
  5. Common Practices in Areas You are Trying to Use it in: Aggressors familiar with Tae Kwon Do because of the popularity of the system will know how to counter the techniques associated with Tae Kwon Do specifically. If there are a lot of Aikido schools in an area, you can pretty much bet on the attackers knowing how to cancel out Aikido techniques. Every system has inherent strengths and weaknesses and you can guarantee that attackers (in and out of the ring) are going to learn how to invalidate the strengths and capitalize on the weaknesses of popular systems.

Martial Arts is a Toolbox

Martial systems of ANY kind were developed for one (1) purpose. They are ALL designed to teach the student to operate and position their body in the most efficient way possible to survive or dominate in some form of combat conditions. Some focus on principles and others focus on technique. The ONLY difference there is that those who focus on technique have structured the principles into predefined movements under specific situations. The principles are still there.

Almost everyone trying to learn a martial system has something in common. They all have a body, head, two arms and two legs. The special cases learn how to use what they have despite the loss of limb(s) so this applies to them as well. There are only so many ways an appendage can move or so many positions a body can be in and still maintain stability. In the martial world, hands, feet, arms, legs, head and body are known as tools. Each martial system teaches how to use these tools in different ways and for different purposes, but the principles behind almost all systems are essentially the same.

For example: If you are working on a screw that requires a flat-head screwdriver and you don’t have that screwdriver, you can substitute with a butter knife. Why? It is because both tools are made of a flat hard metal and fit the slot in the screw. Is one more efficient that the other? Yes, but they both work. The same thing goes for martial arts.


EVERY martial arts was created to protect someone in a combat situation. Are some better at using efficiency than others? That depends on what you are trying to accomplish. A true self defense system concentrates on putting a potential or current attacker in a position that they either cannot attack someone or no longer want to and then get away from danger as fast as possible.

Is this system better for the ring or for the street? That depends on how you train to use the principles and tools of martial arts. If you train for the ring – regardless of the system you use – you will be good in the ring but not on the street. If you practice for real-life attacks – regardless of the system you learn – then you will be able to handle if someone attacks you on the street, but will quickly be dominated in the ring.

So, let’s go back to the original question. What martial art is best for self defense? The answer: all of them and none of them. Can you use Judo for self defense? Yes; if you train to use Judo (known for sport applications) in a self defense situation. Is it possible to use Wushu (a traditional system) for self defense? Of course; if you train to use Wushu if you get attacked in a street environment. Can you use rope jumping (no official martial application) as a self defense? Yes; if you train getting attacked while jumping a rope.

It really doesn’t matter which martial system you choose. It’s the WAY you train that matters. If you want to train for self defense, train for the environment you are in. Train against multiple armed and unarmed attackers at various levels of resistance. Learn to improvise weapons at a moment’s notice; i.e. using a shirt to tangle an arm or leg. Practice in variable weather conditions. Research, train and practice and do it some more.

Find an instructor who will teach you how to be environmentally aware so you don’t get attacked in the first place. Either learn or teach yourself negotiation tactics that will get you out of a sticky situation. Then practice with a purpose of escaping the conflict. Whatever system you choose, learn its strengths AND weaknesses. Find out what the tools of that system are and then learn ways of applying those tools in way NOT taught by your school or instructor.

Make it part of you; not just something you do. Take me, for example. I have been studying and training for just under 40 years. I don’t just practice self defense. I am self defense. However, even if someone practiced the same system I use for the same amount of time but just “did” or “practiced” martial arts, they would not fair nearly as well and would probably get attacked a LOT more than I do.

One final thought: If you have anything you want to add or have any questions, please leave a comment (the link to comments is on the left). I will gladly open dialog with anyone willing to have an intellectual conversation regarding martial arts.

Author: Brent Duncan

8 thoughts on “What is the Best Martial Art for Self Defense?

  1. That was a very interesting article. I have always found martial arts to be very cool. I never went to school for it, though I kinda wish I did.
    I also never knew where the word “martial” came from. Really great article, thanks so much for sharing!


    1. Martial arts are a far cry from what a person sees on TV or in the movies. Yes, it is cool, but the coolest part is having the martial skill enough to know that you don’t have to it. Winning over an attacker without ever having to fight is the greatest reward.

  2. Hi Brent, thank you for this information. I’m one of those people that probably needs to learn how to avoid the situation in the first place because when it comes down to having to defend myself, well, I have no experience there…. yet.

    1. Learning to detect possible dangers is an important step to keeping yourself safe; but it is only one step in a 5 stage process. Learning how to progress from one stage to the next as the situation warrants gives a person the upper hand in potentially dangerous situations.

  3. Really great article and I need to up my self-defence training as things can be not ok if you are in danger and can’t see your way out so knowing some really great skills would be awesome

    1. True self defense takes a LOT of study and practice, but the first step is to learn how NOT to be attacked. That requires environmental awareness and the willingness to do what it takes – imagination permitting – to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

  4. Great article. I am starting to search for an instructor, and I think this statement is key “find an instructor who will teach you to be environmentally aware so you don’t get attacked in the first place”. I’m going to ask them about it to start. And you’re right, they all are good and aren’t. I’ll see which fits me the best.

    1. Finding the right system for you is going to take a bit of research and you may not find the right one immediately. Learning martial arts is a give-and-give relationship; you give the time and dedication, it gives you back a new way of looking at things, skills that will last you a lifetime and a healthier body. I would say that’s a fair exchange.

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