What is the Best Martial Art for Self-Defense?

There are many recurring questions that come up in the discussion of martial arts. The three most common are:

  1. What Martial Art Should I Learn First?
  2. What is the Deadliest Martial Art?
  3. What is the Best Martial art for Self-Defense?

Answering the first one is straightforward: learn whichever style you want, and don’t let people get you down about it. If you like Tai Chi, great! Learn that. If you like karate, fantastic! Go for it. The second question is subjective and depends on a set of criteria that will vary from one person to the next. The third and final question is something of a proverbial thorn in the side of many martial artists, particularly in traditional disciplines. Why? Because (a) it’s a bit more complicated than it initially appears, and (b) the answer probably isn’t what you’re thinking or what you want to hear.

Now, those aren’t the only reasons that martial artists dislike this question. Another reason is that it tends to start fights. Whether we like it or not, there is a fair amount of ego in martial arts, and nobody enjoys looking like a fool. Some people sink their entire lives into a particular discipline, and it becomes part of their identity. So, they don’t like it when those beliefs are threatened or contested. Whenever this question comes up, people start throwing out styles that they think are good, and this isn’t a problem until you notice that they’re not explaining why they think their selections are good.

I want you to think about this question: what is the best martial art for self-defense?

Firstly, how do you define ‘best’ when it comes to self-defense/combative training? Is it the aesthetic value? Well, not if you’re training for self-defense. Is it lethality? This would make more sense, but the concept of ‘lethal techniques’ is a given considering that you’re training to protect yourself and your loved ones. What about the learning curve, is ease of use a factor?

A Difference between Martial Arts and Self-Defense

To me, and this is probably going to ruffle some feathers, the question of which martial art is best for self-defense is a terrible question in general. It demonstrates a lack of understanding, both of martial arts and of real-world violence and self-defense.

Difference between Martial Arts and Self-Defense

Let me explain why.

Martial arts and self-defense are closely linked, but there is a key difference between the two. Martial arts (i.e., karate, taekwondo, etc.) are heavily technique-oriented and very sequential: “Your partner’s going to do X and you’re going to Y.” The idea is to put on a bit of a show.

On the other hand, self-defense is more unpredictable and, when done right, it’s more practical. The idea is that you can survive a violent encounter with a bad guy in the street. Now, I’m not saying you can’t learn self-defense in a traditional martial art (karate), it’s quite possible. However, the training is not likely to be very practical in terms of execution.

The Problem with Self-Defense Training in Traditional Martial Arts

The primary issue or criticism that many traditional martial arts face is that they don’t teach realistic self-defense. This is something to which I can attest, and it’s something I’ve openly discussed with my instructors. I mentioned before that the self-defense training in traditional styles is very sequential or scripted. The reason for this is that the self-defense is kept separate from main training techniques. Why’s that a problem? Well, let me show you the curriculum where I train:

  • Forms
  • Sparring
  • Weapon Forms
  • Combat Weapons (weapon sparring)
  • Self Defense

The bulk of the training is on forms, sparring, weapon forms, and weapon sparring. Self-defense is hardly done and often feels more like an afterthought. So, you’re learning two types of complicated sequences (forms and weapon forms), each with different requirements. Weapon and hand-to-hand sparring are completely different. You’ve got all these forms to remember, and then you still have to learn something completely different for self-defense.

Self-defense sequences also become progressively longer and more complex the closer you get to 1st Dan. This problem is not unique to one style, it’s found in most, if not all, traditional, and even some modern, martial arts styles.

Additionally, all self-defense work is done from a ‘worst case scenario’ setup where the attacker has either gotten hold of you or has pulled a weapon. The focus is on the physical aspect of disabling the attacker and taking his weapon (i.e. you’re going to punch here, kick here, and run). The fact that there’s little to no resistance from your training partner doesn’t help matters either. Skills like de-escalation are often not taught at all. It’s not really necessary, but it would be good to learn as a part of any and all self-defense systems. Unfortunately, this approach also extends to systems that are built specifically for self-defense (i.e. Krav Maga).

Styles for Self-Defense

So, the answer to the question is: ‘none of them,’ isn’t it? Well, no, not necessarily. There are some martial arts systems that are good for self-defense. There are five that I can think of that are decent when it comes to self-defense.

Styles for Self-Defense

Krav Maga

Krav Maga is probably the best-known ‘self-defense’ system on the market. It’s a system that was developed for the Israeli Defense Forces, and it is known for its realistic approach to violence. With that in mind, the movements and techniques are usually short, sweet, and simple – the way they would be if you were fighting for your life. Additionally, the style adopts an ‘anything goes’ approach in training, meaning that things that would be illegal in taekwondo or karate are perfectly legal in Krav Maga (within reason, obviously you don’t want to kill your training partner). Striking at the groin, eyes, throat, and other vital areas is allowed.

Training in Krav Maga tends to provide both the skillset and mindset to deal with real-world violence. It also provides you with a realistic understanding and appreciation for how dangerous a street fight can be.

All that said, the style is often marketed – quite aggressively – as one of the best systems for self-defense, which can lead to some unrealistic expectations.


The US Marine Corps originally trained in a system called LINE which lasted a good 20+ years. The LINE system eventually fell out of favor with the United States Military for being too rigid and difficult to adapt. It was replaced with the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP). This system draws on a variety of different styles, including: aikido, taekwondo, eskrima, kali, and others.

Marines train in striking, grappling, joint locks, and weapon works. In terms of lethality, MCMAP provides a level of situational flexibility. Techniques vary from restraining someone without pain or damage, to choking, and, in extreme circumstances, killing.

Muay Thai

A national sport in Thailand, Muay Thai is also called the ‘art of eight limbs,’ and it is a rough sport to get into. In addition to the use of your hands and feet, you can use your knees and elbows to damage your opponent, hence the name ‘art of eight limbs’ – hands, feet/shins, knees, and elbows.

The use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet makes Muay Thai a fantastic style that’s great for physical fitness, and it has clear self-defense applications. The training matches are done with light contact, and the competition matches are done with full contact. This obviously brings certain risks to the competitive scene. Soft tissue damage, sprains, fractures, and concussions are common injuries in the sport of Muay Thai.

Some of these injuries can be quite severe and, if left untreated, can lead to serious problems down the line. Skull fractures can cause brain, and fractured ribs can puncture vital organs, leading to a rather unpleasant death. The worst is that often injuries aren’t reported because the fighters don’t realize how badly injured they are until later, which only further complicates the problem.


Lethwei is a Burmese style of bare-knuckle boxing, and it is also called the Art of 9 Limbs. As the name suggests, the fighters use bare fists when they fight. They also employ the use of their knees, elbows, feet, and, unlike in Muay Thai, they are allowed to head-butt their opponents. This is a combat sport in Myanmar, and it’s a very dangerous style of martial arts that often results in serious injury.

Fighters wrap their hands in gauze and tape and fight in a boxing ring with a limited rule set. The fight is won if your opponent is knocked unconscious or is too badly injured to continue. In addition to the usual sprains, dislocated joints, and brutal fractures, there’s a serious mutual risk of severe brain trauma.  This is what makes Lethwei so dangerous for both practitioners. Your brain is floating around in your skull, so if you’re getting your head slammed around, your brain is getting slammed around the interior of your skull. Severe brain trauma can be fatal, which results in shorter careers.


If you’re looking to do a bit of everything and fight professionally in the process, then MMA is for you. Additionally, you develop a versatile skillset that you can use for self-defense situations. You learn striking, grappling, takedowns, chokes, and ground fighting in addition to learning about distance and timing.

To compare UFC fights to street fights would be comparing apples to oranges; both are unpredictable, but there are rules in the UFC. As far as self-defense goes, the ability to punch, kick, and choke an attacker are all helpful skills to have.

Final Thoughts

Self-defense is a sensitive topic in the martial arts community. Everyone has their own views of what’s good for learning self-defense. The best fight is the one that doesn’t happen.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it enjoyable and informative. I’ll see you for the next one.