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What’s the best martial art for self defense?

January 26, 2013

In the mind of a criminal, you are prey.

Just like a cheetah crouching low in the brush eyeing the gazelle, a criminal stands back and watches you walk to your car, or jog onto the wooded path or fumble with your keys at your front door. When he senses the time is right, he pounces, covers your mouth, threatens your life and pulls you out of site … into the brush.

big cat searching for prey

Photo by Jim Bender

It happens in less than 10 seconds. Maybe less than five. And you have the same amount of time to get away. If you can’t do it in those first few seconds, you’re going to need more than skill to survive unharmed. You’re going to need luck.

I don’t count on luck.

That’s why we train in self defense. And that’s why so many people ask, “What’s the best martial art for self defense?” The question, as we shall see, is the wrong question to ask if you want to survive.

The Stun and Run Self-Defense Plan

You have only two steps in your self-defense plan: stun and run.

To stun someone is to shock them, to render them momentarily unable to think straight. It has two components: surprise and pain.

The criminal has chosen to attack you because he believes he can overpower you. He believes you are a “good victim.” Just like the cheetah zeroes in on the gazelle with the injured leg, the criminal senses something about you that will make his job easier.

He is not expecting you to put up a strong fight. That’s why YOU have the advantage of surprise.

When he pounces, you don’t hesitate. You attack.


But you just don’t attack. You attack to cause pain. You drive a knee into his groin. Or you crush his nose with the heal of your palm. Or you scratch his eyes. Or bury an elbow into his solar plexus. Or you throw him over your hip to the concrete. Or wrap your fingers around his trachea and squeeze with everything you’ve got.

The criminal is momentarily stunned, his grip on you loosens, and you run as fast as possible to a lit, crowded or otherwise safe place.

He’s going to get his senses back in two or three seconds, but you? You’re going to be out of reach.

Which martial art is the best for self defense?

shadow illustration of front kick

Now which martial art is going to teach you how to do all that?

Is it karate? MMA? Tae kwon do? Krav maga? Boxing? Kung fu? Judo?

Wait … it’s coming … just another second … the answer is ….

They all do.

That’s right. Every legitimate martial art, all the traditional Asian arts, western boxing, all the integrated components of MMA — they all teach you at least a few ways to escape an attack. And that’s all you need.

Remember, you’ve got about five seconds to get it right. That means you have time to throw two, maybe three techniques.

After that, the criminal is on to you as a fighter and you’ve lost the element of surprise. If you haven’t gotten away, things are going to get ugly.

So the question to ask is not which martial art is best for self defense. The question is which martial arts school is going to give you the opportunity to train regularly in an effort to develop your self defense skills.

To protect yourself during an attack, the most important thing is not what techniques you use, but how well you use them.

As some of the more intelligent martial artists say, it’s not a martial art that wins the fight, it’s the fighter.

Do not be distracted by martial art schools that claim to be “the best.” It’s nothing but marketing hyperbole. Do not be distracted by “what works in MMA.” (Self defense is not MMA … although I pity the criminal who attacks an MMA fighter.)

Clear the grime from martial arts marketing and martial arts culture and make a choice not on martial art styles, but on the simple idea that you must train, train regularly and train hard to develop effective self-defense skills. And you must train even more for those skills to become second nature.

From Tae Kwon Do to Krav Maga (and back)

I learned this lesson personally over the last couple years.

I started my training in traditional tae kwon do. Not the tae kwon do you see in the olympics … that school of tae kwon do has evolved into a sport that looks more like a high-energy kicking contest than it does a martial art.

tae-kwon-do-board-breakingMy tae kwon do is the old-fashioned martial art — lots of kicking, of course. That’s what separates tae kwon do from other striking arts. But we also spend a respectable amount of time training boxing skills, forearm and elbow strikes, knee strikes, a few joint locks, takedowns, even a couple nasty bone-breaking techniques. We also spar full contact and work a lot on footwork … something that many martial arts schools don’t do, and something I think is invaluable.

Even though I had a good thing going, I was seduced by krav maga. I LOVE krav maga. It’s relatively simple, brutal and perfect for self defense. So after I took a few krav maga classes, I decided I would switch my primary art from tae kwon do to krav maga. Here’s the post that explained my intentions. That post has become one of the most popular posts on this blog.It was published a little less than two years ago. You know how many times I’ve been to krav maga since then? About once a quarter. The class days, the times, the location — they just didn’t fit my life.

I was seduced by a martial arts style, when I should have been evaluating my choices on more practical criteria.

The most important qualities in a self defense school

My old tae kwon do school is less than 10 minutes from my house. The krav maga school? About 25 minutes without traffic, 45 during rush hour.

My old school offers nine classes at different times throughout the week, offering lots of flexibility to fit into my schedule. The krav maga school only offers two classes per week I can attend, and neither is convenient.

I’m now back to my old tae kwon do school, I train two to three times per week … and I’m much more prepared now for an attack than I was in the 18 months I was a “krav maga student.”

The difference in my ability to defend myself now is not the martial art I’ve chosen as my base. It’s the smooth integration of a specific school — location, dates, times — into my life.

I will continue to cross train — krav maga, a little western boxing, hopefully some muay thai — but those are just periodic visits to learn the very basics of a new martial language. My native language will continue to be tae kwon do — not because I believe it’s a superior style, but because I know I can make it to the school to train on a regular basis.

Even if there was such a thing as the best martial art for self defense, you’re still an injured gazelle if you can’t make it to class.

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