This article is an updated version of an older post.
If you study any martial art long enough, it should serve you well in a hand-to-hand type of self-defense situation. But from a prepping point of view, you don’t want to spend 20 years practicing before your chosen martial art is useful in a real world situation. So this article will review various martial arts, to see which ones provide the most useful skills and knowledge, in the least amount of training time… in my not-so-humble opinion.
I’ve taken classes in various martial arts — a very long time ago. I tried Shotokan karate, Chinese kung fu (taught by a city cop), Ki-Aikido, some Tai Chi, and a single “non-violent self-defense” class. I don’t have a belt of any degree, and am far from an expert. So take my comments with more than a grain of salt.
Karate: a Japanese martial art emphasizing power and short direct movements. In Japanese martial arts, precision reigns. You put your foot exactly here, exactly at this angle, and you move your hand and arm along a very precise path, turning your fist just so. Then you practice each movement with that same precision many times over. There are relatively few techniques. There is no individuality.
My take: Japanese karate has some effective techniques that would be useful in self-defense, especially direct low to medium height kicks and powerful direct punches. And you don’t need a black belt to achieve real world effectiveness. But the emphasis on precision and repetition makes the learning process not a whole lot of fun. Also, the number of techniques is limited. Good for some situations, not so much for other situations.
Kung Fu: kung fu is a term referring to a skill obtained after much study and practice, in any discipline. It’s also used to refer to Chinese martial arts. The Chinese approach to martial arts is the opposite of the Japanese approach. You put your foot more or less here (or maybe there). The angle and movements are permitted to vary. You may add some of your own style to the practice. And there are very many techniques and styles (and sub-styles). It’s more interesting and fun, and less precise, than karate.
However, the number of techniques means it takes longer to learn. Some of the techniques are a little esoteric, to my mind, and perhaps less useful in facing a real world threat, until and unless you have many years of training. Despite its difference from Japanese karate, Chinese martial arts are, similarly, useful in some situations, but not in others.
Aikido: Amusingly and affectionately termed “combat yoga” by its practitioners. Depending on the instructor and the sub-style of aikido, it can be half philosophy and half martial arts practice. Half of one class might be devoted to learning how to walk “with ki”. Self-defense is not the primary purpose of aikido. Some of the techniques are literally called “20-year technique”, meaning that you don’t really understand the technique until you have practiced it for 20 years. I’m not kidding or exaggerating.
In Aikido, there is a lot of what I’m going to term “tumbling”, and quite a few of the techniques only apply if the attacker is using one specific martial arts type of attack. One style of aikido is literally a type of dance; it’s a hybrid between dancing and martial arts. Do I need to comment on the real world practicality? If you study aikido for many years, you have some self-defense skills. But before that point, you really don’t. It’s not “combat” or “yoga”.
Chin Na: Well known in China, but rarely heard of in the West, chin na is a set of techniques using joint locks and pressure points to manipulate and control an opponent. Some of the techniques have a certain practicality, if you wish to put your attacker in some type of martial arts hold, while you wait for the police to arrive (I suppose). It would be very difficult to find an instructor or a class this side of the Pacific, though. And mistakes made in practice can result in strains, dislocations, and other injuries. I’d like to learn a few of the more practical techniques, but that’s about it.
Kickboxing: Quite a few years ago, kickboxing began to rise in popularity within the martial arts community in the U.S. And it caught the fancy of some of the top karate-ka, who were skilled at competition fighting involving points for getting past your opponent’s defenses. But when they tried to translate those skills into competitive kickboxing — which includes full-contact punches and kicks — they got knocked on their asses. Repeatedly. Then they went back to no-contact point competitions.
My take: To be good at kickboxing, you need power, speed, and lots of youth. Things I don’t have. Kickboxing is not for me. Maybe it’s for you. If you are young, strong, and fast, you could benefit from kickboxing. I would say, though, that like the martial arts mentioned above, kickboxing has a narrower scope than you might need. Self-defense situations vary greatly.
Boxing: Useful for self-defense with a relatively modest amount of training. But you do need speed and power. I would say, you might want to add some boxing skills and training to your arsenal of martial arts training. By itself, boxing is useful, but has some limitations — especially the fact that, to learn boxing, you need to get hit it the head many times.
Krav Maga: was developed for the Israeli military to use against vicious opponents, including those armed with a gun or knife. This is some serious shit. Very practical for soldiers.
But I think that some instructors in the U.S. have failed to adapt the techniques to more common self-defense scenarios for civilians. Let’s say some guy pushes you and says something vaguely threatening. Well, you are not thereby justified in treating him like an armed terrorist and beating him to a pulp with krav maga. Force used in self-defense needs to be proportionate to the threat. So if you go the Krav Maga route, you need to find the right instructor, one with some discretion in the use of force.
Also, some of the krav maga techniques are designed for an armed attacker. Unless absolutely necessary, you should not be trying to use a martial arts technique against someone armed with a gun or knife. The skill level needed to successfully defend yourself is high, and there’s always that “anything can happen in a fight” factor.
Sumo Wrestling: great for self-defense — if you weigh 500 lbs and are attacked by another 500 lb guy trying to push you out of a circle drawn on the ground. Nooo! Don’t push me out of that circle!!! Hilarious to watch on TV though.
Real Wrestling: as in Olympic wrestling, college wrestling, or even high school wrestling. A good companion sport to boxing. Not every fight is an exchange of punches (or kicks). Grappling is a part of many street fights and many physical attacks. So wrestling offers some practical skills.
One problem with wrestling: multiple attackers. While you are grappling with one opponent on the ground, his buddies can kick and beat the crap out of you. The “take the fight to the ground” advice does not apply with multiple attackers.
Tai Chi: I’m not sure if this is a martial art or not. It’s that slow-motion highly-stylized sequence of movements you sometimes see in movies (like that old Patrick Swayze movie Roadhouse). I suspect that it’s of very limited use in a real world fight. It’s a good pseudo-martial art for old people and pacifists. Moving that slowly annoys the hell out of me.
Self-defense Classes: I’m talking about the type of class that is a short course in supposedly practical self-defense, several weeks and then you graduate. The classes are highly variable in techniques and quality, depending mainly on whatever the instructor decides to teach. Some self-defense instructors also teach one or another style of martial arts. They then adapt some martial arts techniques to a course designed to impart useful skills in as few lessons as possible. It could be a good starting point. But the limited time and lack of a set format should give you caution not to expect too much.
Taekwondo: the real serious form of taekwondo is a Korean martial art that draws techniques from many other martial arts. It’s what MMA would be, if it were designed by traditional martial arts experts. The discipline involves various strikes with the hands and feet, from a mobile stance. There are also some take-downs, holds, and joint locks. However, the emphasis on speed and high kicks might keep some older and slower would-be martial artists from pursuing the discipline.
However, the black-belt factory type of taekwondo is not so versatile. Relatively few techniques have real world usefulness. You can also tell a taekwando hack from a real martial artist by his excessive reliance on the turn-around kick. In my obnoxious opinion.
Iaido, Kendo, and Kenjutsu: These martial arts all use some type of sword.
For Iaido, the sword is a “live blade”, a sharp metal sword. Here’s my take on this martial art: WAY TOO DANGEROUS!!! One wrong swipe and you or your practice partner needs a new limb (or a funeral). And in what real world scenario is someone going to attack you, when you happen to be carrying a sword?
Kendo has the opposite problem. The sword is a flexible bamboo stick, and you fight while wearing protective plastic armor. OK. I’m sure it’s good exercise. You can use your high level of fitness, when faced with a real world attacker, to run away. Not practical.
Kenjutsu uses a wooden sword. The lethality is not so different from a well-swung baseball bat. But in a real world situation, you need that wooden sword or bat. Of the three, kenjutsu is more practical, but it’s far from the ideal self-defense training.
Doggie-do: A new marital art that I just invented in my brain right now. You buy a couple of well-trained dogs, friendly to your family but also very protective. And if attacked, you release the hounds. You let slip the dogs of war. It’s less work for you. And most bad guys are more afraid of dogs than they probably should be. It’s a good martial art for the very old, the very young, or the very lazy (two of which apply to me).
Judo This martial arts is based on throws and different types of holds. I once worked with a nun who knew judo. I watched her throw a couple of her co-workers once. Not sure what they did to piss her off. Probably nothing.
Some of the individual Judo techniques are useful. I just think that you need too many years of training in these techniques to defend against a strong attacker who punches and kicks. Like many martial arts, Judo works in some situations and not in others.
Jujutsu: By comparison, Jujutsu has more grappling and holds, while Judo has more throws, as far as I can tell. You would do well if you had an instructor in some other martial art, who would add some jujutsu techniques … or you could practice jujutsu as part of MMA (see below).
Brazilian Jujutsu is a sub-style which is very popular. And the most revered version of BJJ is called “Gracie”, after the last name of a family of Jujutsu instructors in Brazil, now in their third (maybe fourth?) generation. They have a good Women Empowered® self-defense course that applies Jujutsu to real world situations for women. It’s a nice program in that they apply techniques that are effective without requiring a lot of training, speed, or strength. They should offer an “Old Folks Empowered” version of the course, that I could take.
Mixed Martial Arts: MMA competition fights have become popular in recent years. The sport developed in reaction to the lack of real world practicality of many individual martial arts. Attacks and defenses are taken from different martial arts disciplines, and include strikes with the hands, elbows, knees, and feet, as well as grappling techniques. It’s also very aggressive martial art.
The main sources of MMA techniques are Boxing, Muay Thai (kickboxing), Brazilian Jujutsu, and Wrestling. That’s a good combination. It address my main concern with almost any individual martial art — limited application to real world situations. And a good MMA instructor will not hesitate to add some techniques from other martial arts, like Krav Maga.
If you are good at MMA, I think you will be pretty good at self-defense in real world scenarios. However, MMA classes are highly variable in quality and in the techniques that are taught. Since it is an amalgam of different techniques and styles, there is no set format. You need the right instructor. But I suppose that is true for any self-defense class.
Notes and Cautions:
Black Belt Factories: Some martial arts studios are “black belt factories”. They can tell you how long it will take to obtain a black belt, often only a year or so. You learn a series of techniques and take belt tests frequently, going up the ladder of belt colors until you reach brown and then black. If you take the classes and the tests, and are not a complete klutz, you’ll get the belt.
A less expensive and less time-consuming path to the same end would be to watch a bunch of Hollywood martial arts movies, and then just buy a black-colored belt. Your level of training will be about the same.
Black belt factories are for-profit companies, whose main interest is in stroking your ego in exchange for money. Then when you are faced with a real self-defense situation … well, they’ll have to find another student to replace you. Having the designation of “black belt” doesn’t mean much.
A long time ago (too long to be of use to me today), I took some martial arts classes. They had a different attitude toward belts. You could take classes without ever testing for any belt. Once the instructor decided you were ready, you would move up from the beginner classes to the intermediate and then advanced classes without needed a particular belt level.
If you did decide to test for a belt level, they had the strict policy of letting some time pass before you would be informed whether or not you passed. And the higher the belt level, the longer they would wait. This was done to keep the emphasis on learning, and away from “leveling up”. Getting to the first degree black belt level took many years of training.
I recall one instructor who, after many years of training and teaching, tested for his second degree black belt. The testing instructor came from Japan to give the test. The black belt candidate was not informed as to whether or not he passed. About a year later, he happened to see the testing instructor at a martial arts event. At that time, he was informed that he had passed and now had a second degree black belt. So … not a black belt factory.
Martial arts versus knives and guns: Consider this scenario. You have much martial arts training. You are confronted by a determined attacker with a knife. “No problem,” you think to yourself. “I’ll just use my many years of martial arts training to defeat him.” You beat the crap out of him using every technique you can think of, and he falls unconscious to the ground. You feel elated, having prevailed victorious.
Then you start to feel a little dizzy. There’s a loud sound in your ears. You drop to your knees, and everything starts to go dim. You look down and notice that your attacker got in one lucky stab with his knife. You are bleeding out. When the ambulance arrives, they revive your unconscious attacker, who is lying next to your dead body. I don’t care how many years of training you have in martial arts, a knife fight is extremely dangerous.
As for gun fights, you know what they say. The first rule of a gun fight is “bring a gun”. Preferably a long gun. That’s also the first rule of a knife fight, by the way: bring a gun.
No matter which martial art you learn, you are unlikely to prevail against an attacker armed with a gun. If your martial arts instructor spends any time teaching you how to kick a gun out of an attacker’s hand, find another instructor.
From a prepping point of view, it would be good to have some self-defense training. You can’t be armed 24/7 in every location. And some situations just require less force than firing or even brandishing a firearm. On the other hand, you might not want to spend too much time acquiring those self-defense skills. If a particular martial art interests you as a hobby, and self-defense is a secondary consideration, that’s fine. But if you want the most practical skill set in the least time, I’d suggest finding an instructor who can bring together useful techniques from several martial arts, with the primary purpose of teaching self-defense.