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Are traditional martial arts necessary for self defense?

March 20, 2011

Before the rise of mixed martial arts fighting, most people were introduced to self defense through traditional martial arts, like karate or tae kwon do or kung fu. But today we have a variety of “reality” self defense systems and mixed martial arts gyms, which are challenging the traditional martial arts with a tempting value proposition: They’ll get you in shape and develop your fighting / self defense skills without all the baggage associated with traditional martial arts.

That leaves average people like me, people whose primary interest in the martial arts is self defense, with a decision to make: Do you stick with the traditional martial arts or do you jump into the newer training styles, like kickboxing or krav maga?

self defense foot breaking boardFirst let’s deal with the “baggage” I mentioned above. You have to understand that one person’s baggage is another person’s treasure. Just because some people consider aspects of a training style “baggage” doesn’t mean that you will. But I’ll talk about my own experience, with the caveat that your experience and your perception of your own experience may be much different than my own.

Aside from a little judo when I was a kid, I didn’t train in any martial art until my young son began to show an interest. Then, like many fathers, I answered his curiosity by signing him up for tae kwon do classes. After a few months of watching him train from the sidelines, I jumped into the fray myself and began training at the age of 42. In martial arts years, that’s like 110. But aside from the inevitable sore muscles, bumps and bruises, I loved it and trained with passion for about two years.

While I was training at that school,  a local gym began to change its focus from fitness to self defense and fighting. They offered classes in krav maga — which is a martial art based on hand-to-hand military combat and boiled down to brutal, raw self defense — in addition to MMA sport training, consisting of muay thai kick boxing and jujitsu. The man who owns the gym is also the head krav maga instructor, with the additional qualification of being the lead defensive tactics instructor for the Pittsburgh Police force.

I thought the whole deal sounded interesting, so I tried a few classes and got a feel for what goes on in “reality” based systems and MMA gyms. Comparing my limited experience at the new school with a couple years at the traditional school, here’s what I can report:

Tae kwon do training vs. krav maga and MMA

  1. Physical fitness. The training in the MMA gym is just as physically demanding as the training in the traditional martial arts school. With continuous training, you WILL get into shape, probably the best shape of your life. And you will be prepared to fight for your life.
  2. Complexity. The techniques you train in krav maga are less physically complicated than traditional martial arts, at least tae kwon do. It will still take dedicated training and repetition to get them right, but they are accessible to just about anybody, whereas the complex components of tae kwon do — spinning hook kicks and such — take either exceptional talent and a couple years of training or average talent and many, many years of training. After about two years of training the basics, my middle-age body was beginning to have trouble with the higher belt acrobatics of tae kwon do.
  3. Punching. The focus on boxing in the MMA gym is invaluable. If an average person is attacked by a predator, the most natural instinct is to punch. Although my tae kwon do school placed more emphasis on punching than many tae kwon do schools, punching isn’t a big part of the game. In muay thai kickboxing, it is. Same with krav maga. You train how to punch, how to punch hard and where to punch to injure your assailant. To be fair, tae kwon do is known for its kicking, not its punching. Other traditional martial arts place more emphasis on punching, but to the best of my knowledge they never rise to the level of boxing.
  4. Self defense productivity. When you train in krav maga, you spend most of your time on direct self defense techniques. This is usually not the case in traditional martial arts because you spend so much time on patterns (called kata in karate). Patterns are choreographed martial movements strung together to form a type of martial dance, a dance consisting of kicking and punching thin air. While I have no doubt that the practice of patterns will improve technique, I prefer to spend my time learning how to hurt people, not perfecting the nuances of complex movements.
  5. Self defense scenarios. Krav self defense training covers more scenarios than self defense in my old school. In tae kwon do we trained punch defenses, knife defenses and kick defenses. However, the more likely attack on the street, especially from a sexual predator or kidnapper, is going to come from a bear hug, a head lock, a strangle hold or a wrist grab. There are also many more possibilities if the attacker knocks you to the ground. This is actually a big topic for another post, but for now, let’s just say that the more self defense scenarios you train for, the better off you’re going to be, and krav trains more scenarios than my tae kwon do school did.

Now, there are many benefits to traditional martial arts training beyond self defense. Most traditional schools stress things like discipline, respect, courage, perseverance, etc. , especially with kids. It’s all good. No doubt about it. Discussing those things with children can burn the ideas into their brains and at least get them thinking about what it means to have good character. I didn’t hear any of that at the new school. But, as an adult, I don’t train in the martial arts to build character. I train to defend myself and my loved ones should the unexpected come to pass.

Do simple but brutal techniques provide good self defense?

Finally, what about self defense? Can the fighting skills of MMA and the self defense techniques of krav maga match the traditional martial arts in self defense situations? From my limited experience, I have to answer yes.

Just for kicks, stop your channel surfing next time you see an MMA fight on television. (It’s brutal, I know.)  Watch those guys pound each other for a minute or two and ask yourself whether they could handle themselves if attacked by your average street thug. The answer is a categorical yes. [EDIT: The day after this post was published, a story broke about MMA fighter Jon Jones chasing down a thief in New Jersey the afternoon of UFC 128.  According to reports, Jones kicked the suspect’s legs out from underneath him and helped hold him down until police arrived.]

Photo of suspect who was beaten by his victim

This thug took a pounding, MMA style. Image via Fox

But you don’t have to be a trained MMA fighter to pack a brutal punch in the face of crime. Check out the guy to the left. He’s a criminal with a long rap sheet who cut the telephone lines of a house before breaking through the window last week. The homeowner came home from work and started to fix himself a sandwich when the criminal approached from behind and told him to get on the ground.

The homeowner turned and slugged the guy, and then jumped into an MMA-style ground and pound. You can tell by looking at the thug who got the better of that situation. The news report doesn’t mention whether the homeowner was trained, but I got the feeling he wasn’t. He was just a guy who knew how to use his fists.

Are traditional arts still necessary for self defense?

So where does all this leave people like you and me, average people who will probably never earn a fifth-degree black belt in a traditional martial art and will never get anywhere near an MMA cage? People who are just looking for a little insurance should we meet up with one of the many thugs in our midst?

There is no single answer. I know many good people from my old tae kwon do school who absolutely love the training and will probably do it until they are too old to drive to class. They are second, third, fourth and fifth-degree black belts who are strong, fit and more than capable of defending themselves against your average criminal attack. If this is the route you decide to go, you may love it as much as they do.

As for me … I’m convinced that the more recent self defense and fighting systems — such as krav maga and MMA — are perfectly suited for people like me. I respect all martial arts, but I think the simple, brutal and realistic techniques I see in the new gym will get me to my goal faster and more efficiently than the other alternatives.

But that’s just me ….

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