Top 5 Martial Arts For Self-Defense

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Top 5 Martial Arts For Self-Defense

Any combination of standardized forms, techniques, and practices can be construed as a martial art. In this article, we’ll go over five major schools of martial arts and how they stack up for self-defense purposes.

Martial Art 1: Kung Fu

Epitomized in popular American culture from a string of very corny movies, Kung Fu is an umbrella term used in the United States for the many varied forms of Chinese martial arts that have existed for hundreds, arguably thousands of years. Kung Fu has extremely old and rich roots stemming from across the entire breadth of China. While Kung Fu gets a lot of attention in movies for fast flying hands and deft grace, it is a martial art that requires years of practice to form a basic proficiency. There are Kung Fu practitioners that have been practicing different schools of their craft for decades and still discover “something new” every time they approach it.

In the Western World, the meaning of the Kung Fu has greatly deviated from its Chinese origins. Many of the forms taught in the United States are from a limited subset of studies in Chinese martial arts. While the apprentice will need to dedicate significant amounts of time to develop the reflexes and agile nature required for a decent outcome in a hand-to-hand fight, this is probably one of the most rewarding long term endeavors.

Availability: Low/Rare

Outside of major cities, it may be extremely difficult to find a place that focuses specifically on a style of Kung Fu.

Advantage: Hand-to-hand

From little old ladies to big clumsy men, a dedicated practice to a school of Kung Fu will produce a capable defensive fighter. Best of all, most schools focus heavily on staying on your feet – so you will not have to commit to ground fighting as much.

Learning Curve: Steep

Basic proficiency can be found in as little as two years of regular practice and training. Mastery is often expected to take upwards of five to ten years with the expectation of a lifetime pursuit.

Martial Art 2: Aikido

Some fighters will argue that Aikido is little more than a very specialized off-shoot of jujitsu. There is some truth to this. Where Aikido greatly diverges is the fantastic focus in redirecting the flow of an attacker. The founder of this Japanese art form, Morihei Ueshiba, was extremely focused on preserving both the defender’s life from armed and unarmed attacks as well as allowing the defender to spare his attacker if he so chose.

Aikido does not require you to be stronger, faster or bigger than your attackers. This art form is extremely useful when dealing with multiple attackers using a mixture of melee weapons and unarmed forms. You are redirecting the force of your attacker versus attempting to block, stop, or rebuff an outright attack.

Availability: Medium

Offered everywhere from the local YMCA to dedicated schools.

Advantage: Hand-to-hand and grappling

This is another martial art that favors the disadvantaged. The old, weak, small, short can all benefit greatly when dealing with one or more stronger or taller fighters. Some Aikido techniques will delve into grappling but ultimately, the fighter is interested in redirecting rather than becoming embroiled in their opponent. After all, there may always be one more attacker lurking around the corner.

Learning Curve: Steep

Mastery of many forms of Aikido can come quicker to some than others. Regular, determined practice may yield reliable results in as little as a year.

Martial Art 3: Kempo Karate

Kenpo Karate is probably one of the most easily found styles of martial art in the United States. It is strictly a defensive school of practice. Students are taught a system of blocks and counters designed to “end the fight the fastest way possible”. Kenpo Karate instructors vary greatly in their teaching techniques but ultimately, it can been as the Swiss Army knife of fighting styles.

Availability: High

A school or version of Kenpo Karate can be found in almost any town of appreciable size within the United States.

Advantage: Hand-to-hand

Some instructors will incorporate Judo techniques but the majority of training will be strictly hand-to-hand.

Learning Curve: Mild

It is the easiest to learn in terms of blocks, counters, and strikes. Proficiency can arise in as little as three to six months. Mastery may be achieved in as little as a year.

Martial Art 4: Judo

Judo (“the gentle way”) can be boiled down to a very regimented system of takedowns and locks designed to push an opponent to submission or disable him. Judo is less hand-to-hand and more grappling. While accomplished Judo students may be able to work with multiple attackers, you will ultimately be limited and vulnerable as you are forced to dedicate your attention to one opponent at a time.

Availability: Medium

Judo is usually incorporated with any MMA school of martial arts.

Advantage: Ground fighting

Extremely useful if you want to neutralize just one opponent.

Learning Curve: Medium

Learning Judo will require a fair degree of physical conditioning before benefits will be seen. With regular practice, basic proficiency may arise within the first full year. Mastery may take significantly longer depending upon your body’s learning curve.

Martial Art 5: Jiu-Jitsu

Not to be confused with Judo or Aikido, Jiu-Jitsu is a much more offensive version of martial arts. Developed to take down armored opponents in feudal Japan, it definitely requires a high level of commitment in order for it to be effective. If you commit to a ground fight with an enemy, you are truly committed to the end. Unlike hand-to-hand martial arts which focus on striking, redirecting, and blocking opponents, Jiu-Jitsu is all about getting intimately close with your enemy and using that to your advantage. When mastered, it can truly be one of the most frightening martial arts.

Availability: Medium to Low

If you live in a metropolitan area or a decently populated region, a form of Jiu-Jitsu can often be made available to you. Check with your local MMA training centers to see if they offer any lessons in it.

Advantage: Unarmed and armed ground fighting.

Learning Curve: High

Again, when you commit to a very close range ground fight with an opponent, you are left extremely vulnerable to other attackers. Granted, with practice and proficiency, you can offset some of this vulnerability but it is definitely an art form that works best on one-to-one encounters.

In conclusion, any form of martial art must be pursued for a dedicated period of time to be reliable in any self-defense encounter. With art forms like Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, you are relatively committed to facing off against your opponent versus Kung Fu and Karate where, as a beginner, you try to stay on your feet and are pushed to flee an encounter whenever possible.

Photo by © John Lamonica


  • Wizzardly

    Your article overlooked probably the most effective practice: Krav Maga. It was designed to be taught to anyone in a short time period. Good proficiency can be realized in 10 one-hour sessions, which start with basics and build on each other. Nearly all my students over many years are capable of effective self-defense after ten weeks of classes. Many of them repeat the 10-class course several times because the techniques are within their physical capabilities and are effective and the training is enjoyable. Krav Maga is not a martial art: not martial because, although it was derived from the Israeli Defense Force hand-to-hand combat teaching, it is modified for civilian use in self-defense situations; not an art because it does not require years of training to become proficient, and it is not “beautiful” to watch as any physical art should be. It is designed for fighting in defense of your life, not for competition or scoring. In high-stress situations, you will lose the fine motor skills and higher cognitive functions that most martial arts depend on and be left with major muscle groups and gross motor skills. Krav Maga works in stressful conditions because it is based on these, which most everyone has already. In summary: Karv Maga is easy to learn, is quick to learn, and is effective in defending your life.

    • Mikial

      I was going to point this out but you beat me to it. So, I will just say . . . agreed.

  • Pistolero

    I agree that for pure street fighting, Krav Maga beats them all.