What is the Best Martial Arts Style for Self Defense?

Tae Kwon Do, two women in mid-air jump kicking each other
Mike Powell / Getty Images

What is the Best Martial Arts Style for Self Defense? Great question. The reality is that nearly every style espouses itself to be great for real world self defense. Are they all? No way. That said, it is true that the majority of individual styles do lend to certain self defense situations well.

Yep, the situation is key. Along with this, check out our breakdown of the applicability of several individual martial arts styles to self defense by following the links below. That said, please remember that style by itself never tells you the story on a school or its ability to help someone defend themselves. In other words, not all Taekwondo schools are alike; nor are all Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools; nor are all 3rd grade math classrooms. The teacher makes a huge difference!

Self Defense and Striking Styles - Karate

Self Defense and Striking Styles, Karate - styles Taekwondo

Of course, the fact that most fights go to the ground is not a strength of this style. In other words, the karate based martial arts types are highly limited in their takedown defense instruction and grappling, so practitioners need to keep some level of distance in an altercation.

On the flip side, since karate is a striking style that focuses on incapacitating strikes, it can be used against multiple attackers with a level of confidence. Also, street combat can often mean the use of weapons or dealing with them. The karate based styles do tend to teach practitioners how to both use weapons and defend against them.

Finally, the sheer amount of karate styles make it hard to talk about the generalities of instruction. For example, some schools may do full contact, which arguably readies a practitioner more for street combat, than let's say a school that does this more infrequently. Kyokushin karate, for example, is a full contact art.

And as will be said multiple times throughout this article, the instructor makes just as much of a difference as the style in terms of self defense applicability.

Self Defense and Striking Styles- Kicking Based (Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do)

Self Defense and Striking Styles, Kicking Based (Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do, etc.) - In self defense, one wants to move in and out of harm's way quickly, incapacitating an opponent along the way. This is especially true when going up against more than one opponent, as grappling would leave one in a very tough position. One also wants to inflict damage and not be hurt; taking chances isn't always a good thing.

Some of the Korean striking styles like Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do, both of which are kick heavy, teach practitioners to do just these things. Further, they teach very powerful strikes designed to incapacitate. Beyond the kicks, which let's face it are stronger than punches, are strikes that hit vital organs with the hands.

That said, if we believe the old adage that most fights end up on the ground, than the kicking based styles have a significant weakness. Further, such styles are great from a distance, but in close, though they certainly teach the use of punches, etc., they do not tend to focus on this type of striking as much as karate or especially Muay Thai, for example, where inside clinch work is key.

So the strength in self defense via the kicking styles can be found in being able to keep a good distance from one's opponent. I have also come to realize that the kicking styles are not like Krav Maga, for example, which teaches how to survive in the street from day one. In other words, in order to be able to use such instruction in the street, one must be very, very good. But when one is, the kicking styles are difficult to deal with because they are so athletic, powerful, and uncustomary.

In addition, since the kicking styles primarily involve standing up with an opponent, they are more applicable in a self defense situation against multiple attackers than let's say a grappling based art. You do not want to go to the ground when faced with multiple opponents. They also teach the both the use of weapons as well as defense against them.

And finally, yes, Tang Soo Do usually uses their hands a bit more than Taekwondo does, but that's not what this article is about. And remember, the teacher, as much as if not more than the style, is key.

Self Defense and Striking Styles - Kung Fu

Self Defense and Striking Styles, Kung Fu - martial arts Chinese martial arts substyles

First, kung fu is primarily about striking. Thus, the majority of styles within this realm teach incapacitating strikes to vital areas. This is a good thing in a self defense situations, as speed is key. What's more, kung fu does teach a lot about distance control and moving in and out of harm's way effectively, which limits the damage that can be done to YOU, the practitioner. Striking tends to be diverse; lots of kicks and punches, including unorthodox ones.

In terms of grappling, most of the kung fu substyles tend to be meager in their teachings. And considering that ground fighting is important in self defense, this is a noteable flaw. Further, kung fu stylists have had significant difficulty in major sporting events like MMA. This has left many wondering about its effectiveness in self defense.

That said, there are A LOT of practitioners out there that sing kung fu's praises. Further, high level practitioners are difficult to deal with in part because their striking is somewhat unorthodox.

And like every other style noted in this article, the choice of instructor is just as important, if not more than the style.

Self Defense and Striking Styles - Muay Thai

Self Defense and Striking Styles, Muay Thai - mixed martial arts kickboxing striking clinch

That said, Muay Thai is not a grappling art, per se. And since the majority of fights end up on the ground, this is a weakness.

Muay Thai has morphed into a sport for the most part. This is good in that practitioners are constantly going full go against one another, albeit with gloves, so a self defense situation that involves practitioners going against one another in full combat won't be surprising. Then again, when something is sports oriented with gloves, it doesn't perhaps focus enough on avoiding damage, or at least not as much as karate where every strike that lands is frowned upon. Also, weapons based work, which is applicable in self defense situations, is not focused on as a result of the sports concentration in this art. Finally, since Muay Thai focuses on striking it can be at least somewhat effective against multiple attackers. But dealing with such situations is not practiced to the same extent as it is in the karate world.

Again, as is the case with all styles, the instructor makes all the difference in the world. And certain things may be focused on more depending on the teacher.

Self Defense Styles and Krav Maga

Self Defense Styles and Krav Maga - martial arts style

That said, it's not unheard of for Krav Maga schools to bring in people with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu background, in that they are an evolving art.

Simply put, Krav Maga practitioners tend to practice against weapons to a great extent, prefer incapacitating strikes to vital organs, and look toward simplicity in movement.

What about weaknesses in regard to self defense? Well, there's not a lot. That said, groundwork, though improving within the art, is still a relative area of weakness. Further, given their focus on simplicity and self defense, higher level techniques (side kicks, things that are unusual) are not very focused on. So they may have trouble surprising a high level practitioner in the street.

Self Defense and Throwing Styles (Aikido, Judo, Hapkido)

Self Defense and Throwing Styles (Aikido , Judo, Hapkido) - takedowns clinch

Along with this, however, none of these are striking based. Thus, the throwing stylists can find themselves at a disadvantage prior to clinching with their opponent. These styles are also not necessarily great at dealing with multiple opponents.

Of course, putting aikido, judo, and hapkido in the same category of self defense isn't really fair. Aikido works a lot on wrist locks and would be good against weapons. That said, it is soft on ground submissions and may be the weakest against striking of all the throwing styles. Judo as a whole can be the strongest with ground submissions, depending on the teacher and style of judo. Hapkido is an evolving art. With the advent of Combat Hapkido and lots of subsets, the style can be heavy into submissions and self defense, or much lighter in these arenas, depending.

And as much if not more than the other styles noted in this self defense piece, the teacher matters. Style by itself is never enough to tell you how good a school is in terms of teaching self defense.

Self Defense Styles and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Self Defense Styles and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - MMA Royce Gracie Helio Gracie catch wrestlers karate taekwondo Tang Soo Do

In the end, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does not teach a fighter how to be a good stand up fighter. It does, however, teach people to avoid being hurt on their feet, take others to the ground, and then apply a submission. Further, through the use of leverage, it also teaches practitioners to take on bigger opponents and fight from their back via the use of the guard position.

From a self defense perspective, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has proven very, very strong in one on one fights. That said, there are self defense situations where combatants will not want to go to the ground, such as when facing the possibility of multiple attackers. Putting yourself purposefully on the ground under such circumstances isn't very appropriate, which is a weakness. Beyond that, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be somewhat slow moving towards a submission, which could be viewed as a weakness depending on the situation. Though the style can be very effective versus weapons, as the art it emanated from, Japanese Jujutsu is great under such circumstances, this is usually not an intense focus of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

In the end, as usual, the instructor makes a world of difference.

Self Defense and Japanese Jujutsu

Self Defense and Japanese Jujutsu - submissions

Japanese Jujutsu practitioners do practice a level of striking to vital organs as well as defense on their feet. That said, their striking skills are not on the level of a karate practitioners, for example, so that could be viewed as somewhat of a weakness. Along with this, Japanese Jujutsu is not necessarily great against multiple attackers, as it is primarily a close contact art.

Again, the instructor makes as much of a difference as the style does. Choose carefully.