The martial arts are among the best and most natural physical exercises you can do. They’re healthy, fun, and they teach self defense. I believe that pretty much every man and woman should be competent in martial arts and combat.
If you’re looking for a martial arts style, the most important thing is to find one that’s right for you and what your goals are.
For example, some martial arts styles are heavily focused on tradition and philosophy. Some of these may be labeled “soft styles”. Whether hard or soft, some of them don’t practice regular full contact free sparring. This may be ideal for some, but if you’re looking to get a great workout and learn how to really fight, they’re probably not your best bet.
The Key is Full Contact Sparring
I don’t care how many punches you throw, or how many bricks you can break, or how beautiful your kata is; if you haven’t been in several open fights, how can you know how effective your technique is? Does a soldier become effective through the classroom, or the battlefield? I’m sure any soldier would say that you don’t really learn until you’re in the trenches.
As far as I’m concerned, the same is true for hand to hand combat, or grappling. You learn how to fight when you start fighting. Doing choreographed responses to attacks can prepare you in certain ways, but you’ve got actually use them in random and free-flow trials.
(Ok, if you learn eye-ripping or ball-hitting in your style, I’ll grant that you don’t get a good chance to practice this and I don’t want to fight you in a dark alley. But you know what I mean.)
For example, when I was training in a combination of karate, kickboxing, submission grappling, and MMA, our progression went something like this:
1. Learn the philosophy and basics of the style.
2. Join the community and enjoy meeting new people.
3. Get solid cardio and strength workouts in high-intensity classes.
4. Start learning the basic katas.
5. Buy protective sparring gear, and start doing simple drills with a responsible partner in a safe environment to get accustomed to punching and being punched, but without any uncertainty yet.
6. Learn grappling moves and locks when your partner lets you do them to him/her.
7. Do some point-based sparring. With sparring, it means opponents try to land a “hit” on each other, and when they do, the fight is reset and they start over. It builds speed and technique. This is where some martial arts styles or schools stop.
8. Finally, do real fighting. Two people, protective gear, and go! Try to land punches, kicks, and not just individual ones. Land combos of several heavy hits in a row, knock your opponent down, get drenched in sweat, get the wind knocked out of you, and learn how to really fight. Same with free grappling; two people try to submit each other. The opponents adjust their intensity based on the rank of their opponent to ensure safety and a good learning experience. The higher the ranks, typically the more intense the match will be. And in tournaments, intensity is 100%.
Without actually being in a free fight (with reasonable protective measures like proper gear and a watchful instructor), you can’t really know how you’ll do in a real self-defense situation. Engage in hundreds or thousands of matches, and you’ve got an idea of how you can really fight.
With that being said, here are five of some of the best martial arts styles if you want to learn some good moves for self defense.
Best Martial Arts Styles for Self Defense
What does it mean to be practical for self defense? While this list is non-exhaustive, the ones here are generally rather linear and hard styles, and they’re widespread enough that one can generally find a teacher. I want to be clear that there is no “best martial arts” style. It’s all relative to what your goals are.
Kickboxing is one of the most intuitive and practical styles, and it’s widespread enough to find a good teacher. Learning how to swiftly block punches or kicks, and counter with your own powerful and quick moves, is a timeless and universal skill. Kickboxing is great for free-sparring, and is an excellent cardio workout, especially because it often alternates between rest and high blasts of intensity.
The downside is that if you get into a ground-wrestling situation, it’s not going to help much. I would have also mentioned Karate on this list, except that when Karate students put on gear and do some free-sparring, the result is pretty much kickboxing.
2. Submission Grappling
Jujitsu and Brazilian Jujitsu are excellent groundfighting styles. They focus on takedowns, controlling the opponent, and ultimately submitting him or her. Kickboxing is great, but in real life, whether it’s a high-school brawl or a bar fight, it usually involves headlocks, being slammed against the wall, or being grabbed and pulled in some way. That’s where Jujitsu really shines. You can feel comfortable to know how to avoid being taken down, how to take down your opponent, and how to safely disable him.
The key downside is that you actually have to get in close and grab the person before your style becomes effective. A second downside is that it’s not usually good for multiple opponents. If you’re fighting two people, it’s generally a terrible idea to take one of them down and get on top of him to focus on him, because the other opponent now has free range to assault you.
3. Krav Maga
In my martial arts training, there was an element of “honor” involved. No groin hits, no strikes to the eyes, knee-caps, or throat, no fish-hooking, and no direct hits to the spinal cord. In Krav Maga, the focus is on doing those things. This is because Krav Maga is designed to be a real-world combat system, and there are no rules when you’re being violently attacked. The purpose is simple: no mercy, neutralize the threat as quickly as possible. It’s used by the Israeli Defense forces, is taught around the world, and emphasizes a combination of blocking and striking, weapon-disarming, and “dirty” strikes to quickly end the fight.
There is low-emphasis on ground-fighting and complex kicks, but students are often taught to deal with such events.
4. Wing Chun
Wing Chun is a form of Kung-Fu that, according to legend, was founded by a woman. It’s a very linear style, and much like Krav Maga, the emphasis is on moves that are simultaneously defensive and offensive. No energy is wasted, and it combines a very flexible and fluid stance with hard and linear strikes. The goal is to get in close to the opponent, keep your forearms connected with him to feel his movements rather than just see them, and then to swiftly end the fight with a series of effective strikes and low-kicks.
A downside is that free-sparring is somewhat rare. However, chi sau is used as a drill, where opponents keep in contact with each other, and flexibly move their arms to try to defend and find weaknesses in their opponents defense.
5. Muay Thai
Muay Thai is a practical martial art for a very straightforward reason: practitioners emphasize strikes with the knees and elbows rather than the fists and feet, although they do incorporate both hands, both feet, both elbows, and both knees, into the “science of eight limbs”. It’s not intuitive to those that have not hit hard things, but let me tell you: striking something hard (including a skull), with a bare fist, can potentially break your fist. You can punch someone in the face, and potentially break both their face, and your fist. If there’s a second opponent ready to fight you, then you’ve got a problem! Punching in real life is a lot different than the movies, where the action hero can just keep punching things without hurting his hand.
That’s why, in Muay Thai, striking with the elbows and knees is preferred. It’s very hard to truly injure an elbow or knee when they are bent into a striking position. An elbow strike to the face can be more damaging than a punch, and it’s far less likely that an elbow will be injured from the impact than a fist. So the purpose of Muay Thai is to be able to take down as many opponents as possible without injuring your own body parts.
Bonus: Mixed Martial Arts
Some of these styles have strengths and weaknesses. For example, kickboxing is great in a stand-up fight, but useless on the ground, and Jujitsu has the opposite issue. Learning how to fight with strikes and with holds and submissions is an excellent set of complementary moves. Learning “Mixed Martial Arts” is usually a smart choice, because you can get the best aspects of multiple fighting forms.
Honorable mentions to this list include Karate (where takedowns and grabs, along with strikes, are useful, but where free-sparring often looks like kickboxing anyway), Jeet Kune Do (which was developed by Bruce Lee and is really a “Mixed Martial Art” inspired by multiple forms, including fencing, Wing Chun, and Jujitsu), Aikido (which has very fluid and useful elements but often does not do free sparring), and Kali and Keysi (which are much like Krav Maga in that they focus on real-world scenarios, but have fun trying to find a teacher for those…)
Martial arts are seriously some of the most natural and useful physical exercises you can learn. But when you pick a style, it all comes down to what your goals are, and your goals should be clearly defined. Do you want pure self defense training, a useful workout, or the whole philosophy and tradition behind it?
If you’re into the self defense aspect of it, I’d strongly recommend learning a martial arts style in a school that lets you practice freely with an opponent. This can include kickboxing, submission grappling, and other forms of open combat.