What’s the best martial art to learn for self defense?

Training in an effective martial art is a very useful skill in your defensive skill set.

While I believe that weapons are more effective with the proper mental and physical training. Sometimes you might not have your weapon on hand, and need to use only the tools you were born with.

The only problem with learning a martial art? Choosing the best martial art to learn for self defense.

The best martial art for self defense 1

This is because there are hundreds of martial arts to choose from all over the world. The choice is a difficult one, if you don’t know what to look for.

Fear not – this guide will give you suggestions on what to look for in a martial art, a few good martial arts that I personally recommend, and some martial arts that are not ideal for self defense.

photo credit: parhessiastes side control via photopin (license)

Traits to look for in a martial art

Avoids the ground

Going to the ground looks cool and is fun in tournaments. However, in a self defense situation going to the ground is ill advised. You could have other attackers kick you in the head and it makes making an escape more difficult.

For those reasons avoid picking a martial art that emphasizes the ground. Martial arts that focus on standing are better suited for defensive purposes.

Designed for self defense

Contrary to popular belief, not all martial arts are developed for self defense. Many martial arts are more practical for regulated competitions with little to no direct real world application. Granted, an expert at any martial art will fare well in a street fight. It just takes many years to become an expert.

We want to focus on martial arts that teach you defensive skills from day 1. Martial arts that were designed with self defense in mind from the beginning are ideal.

Avoids kicks

Kicks look cool and they can do lots of damage. However, a weak kick that a beginner will throw is very easy to defend against for even the most average fighter. On top of that, a beginner will most likely telegraph their kick to even the most unaware assailant. This eliminates your element of surprise. Your most important element in fighting.

This is why we try to avoid martial arts that focus on kicks.

Teaches mental clarity

Every martial art will teach mental clarity since it is an important factor in fighting on the street or in a tournament.

Contrary to popular belief, your biggest mental obstacle to overcome will not be striking another person. Rather, it is getting physically assaulted and being able to effectively handle yourself.

In other words, the only way to get used to getting punched in the face is to actually get punched in the face (under training conditions, of course).

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photo credit: parhessiastes looking for the takedown via photopin (license)

The best martial arts for self defense

Jeet Kune Do

This hybrid martial was heavily influenced by Bruce Lee. Its origins are in Kung Fu, however Jeet Kune Do emphasizes little movement and maximum effect. This makes it a rather effective self defense martial art compared to regular Kung Fu.

The martial art also was basically invented by Bruce Lee. That should be more than enough to prove the merits of it for a self defense scenario.

For a taste of the type of training that JKD offers, check out this video:

Filipino martial arts

The Filipino martial arts refers to a parent category of martial arts commonly found in the Philippines. The great thing with the Filipino martial arts is you can’t really go wrong in choosing one for self defense since they all have a focus on self-preservation.

They tend to focus on using improvised weapons, knives, and sticks. In addition, they use open hand techniques since you will not always have access to a weapon.

The most common types in this expansive category are Arnis, Eskrima, and Kali. The names are used somewhat interchangeably to describe the same martial art, so no need to worry about which particular one is better.

Curious about what FMA looks like? Check out this video:

Krav Maga

A martial art designed by and for the Israeli military, Krav Maga was designed with practical defense in mind.

This martial art has recently seen a boom in popularity throughout the United States and Europe for good reason. The reason? It just works.

Krav Maga has a high focus on quick hand movements that can quickly incapacitate attackers and allow for a speedy getaway. It also teaches you how to rapidly disarm an attacker with a gun and defend against knife attacks. This is, obviously, a useful skill to learn in the modern world.

Check out this YouTube video for a look at Krav Maga training techniques:

Martial arts to avoid for self defense purposes

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

This Brazilian martial art is a staple within the mixed martial art (MMA) world. It has grown in worldwide popularity ever since Royce Gracie, one of the best BJJ practitioners of all time, used it do decimate MMA fighters in 1993.

Known as an almost exclusively ground based martial art, BJJ uses various techniques to submit an opponent. Including an armbar (opponent’s arm is bent until it breaks or they give up) and various chokeholds. BJJ has little to no focus on effective striking or standing based combat.

The submission based focus of BJJ makes it an effective martial art in a sanctioned fight with rules. However, no rules exist on the street and there may be more than one assailant, so willingly going to the ground is not recommended.

I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but it’s my feeling. I do believe, however, that having a good knowledge of grappling is helpful – I just don’t think it’s the best way to go in a self defense scenario!


Another Brazillian martial art, Capoeira is amazing to watch as it draws influence from music, dance, and performance.

The fighting usually involves spinning kicks and it almost looks like a dance. All of that is very cool, but as a practical defensive martial art it falls short compared to other more effective martial arts due to the theatrics and heavy kicking focus.

Regardless, I just love watching Capoeira in action. Check this out:


This Korean-based martial art focuses exclusively on kicks.

Kicking is certainly not the worst thing you could do in a defensive scenario. Krav Maga even teaches some kicks.

However, primarily using kicks is probably not a good strategy. The kick may be grabbed, you could miss, or you might lose your balance.

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photo credit: parhessiastes Arm bar via photopin (license)

Overall, none of the martial listed here are inherently bad.

An expert in any of these martial arts would likely do well in a defensive scenario. However, for our purposes we want to stay with martial arts that focus on real life and practical defensive techniques.


Learning a martial art is important in your self defense career.

Even a non defensive martial art is still better than a no martial art. The mental fortitude and body control that martial arts teach come in handy for not only defense, but also for everyday problems in your daily life.

Got a favorite martial art for self defense? Post it in the comments.

Comments 2

  1. Hi,

    With regards yoir Taekwondo comment. It needs more of a broad explination. TKD has many styles so cant be all put under one explination. What you are describing is WT Taekwondo (Olympic style sport TKD) which I agree with you mostly on your assessment for self defence, however also acknowledging some great speed,power and cintrolled aggression in many of their techniques . In fact the original founder of Tkd also said that WTF at the time bears no resemblance to Self Defence and never acknowledged or approved its development. The original style (ITF Taekwon-Do) originated in the military and was known as the killing art at one point. It now is one of the largest martial arts in the world also considering all its organisations. It is all round if taught correctly with syllabus aspects including Self defence(Hosin Sul, eclectic effective techniques aimed at self defence), traditional and combat sport( which includes sparring which differs from the wt style, in otherwords it also includes punches to the head and other kicks aswell as the spinning ones in competition etc). Perhaps better to clarify. It would be like saying Kung Fu is not good for SD, not taking into account the major differences between styles within it. I hope that explains it from my side. All the best.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I think that most martial arts which are now primarily “sport” martial arts started out as serious self defense arts. It’s a matter of how they’ve evolved over time. If you change the mindset and dig deep into the possible “self defense” aspect of every technique, I’m sure you can find one. Even if it seems to be more for competitive use. It’s an interesting way of thinking about martial arts, and it has made me realize that no martial art should be dismissed as “not real self defense.”

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