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Most of what people know is not
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Which Martial Art Is Best for Self-Defense?

On this page:
Self-Defense vs. Personal Safety | Why Is This Bad? | So Which Martial Art Style Is Best for Self-Defense? | In Conclusion

Let me state it bluntly: This is a BS question.

How can that be? It seems like such a simple, straightforward question. Well, the problem isn't with the question per se, the problem is with the thinking that framed it.

Specifically, the problem is twofold.
    1) What is behind the question and
    2) What the question is asking about.

What is behind the question are too many false premises, flawed assumptions, misunderstandings, fantasies and -- most importantly -- a way of thinking that has unwittingly replaced actual knowledge with advertising claims. The very assumption that there is a "best" shows the influence of marketing on your thinking ('best' applies to laundry detergent, not martial arts).

What the question is asking about is a hugely complex and ever changing topic. A topic that not only defies simple answers, but that is so big that an answer that is right in one context is wrong in another.

And to really muck things up, it works both ways. The right answer for the second context would be wrong in the first one.

How complicated is this subject? Try this:

  • Self-defense is about on-the-spot assessment of many variables, in mutable, unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances.
  • Doing this under immediate threat.
  • Not only coming up with an appropriate answer, but being able to effectively implement it in time.
  • Being able later to explain why you felt that was the right response.
  • AND doing this ALL without crossing certain lines and boundaries that would turn what you are doing into assault or excessive force.

Complicated isn't it? Now the bad news: That IS a simplified summation of the entire subject(1). In fact, we recommend you take a trip to the intro to self-defense page because the EXACT same punch can be a) self-defense, b) a fight or c) an assault depending on when and under what circumstances you threw it.

The reason we say that simple question of 'what style is best' is BS is because it assumes there's some kind of Wal-mart Supercenter of self-defense training. A magical system/martial art that addresses all of those elements of self-defense. One that not only will allow you to easily defeat slavering hordes of Uzi carrying ninjas but automatically downloads critical thinking, threat assessment, a legal understanding of use of force laws, social dynamics, human behavior and the nature of violence directly into your brain...

And all of this by studying one system.

If any of this were true, then yes, just knowing the 'right' system would give you everything you need. Unfortunately, even though the offer of a one-system -does-all is appealing, reality doesn't work that way.

Dangerous subjects -- and self-defense is a dangerous subject -- especially don't work that way. That's why they're dangerous.

Having said all of this, can self-defense be narrowed down to specific issues that you are most likely to encounter? Yes. By doing this it becomes a far more manageable and understandable idea.

However, this too is a complicated process that entails a lot of introspection, analysis, critical thinking and threat assessment. It is not something that you walk into a strip-mall dojo and buy a prepackaged wonder system.

Self-Defense vs. Personal Safety
To explain why "which martial art is best for self-defense" is an erroneous question, look at the subject of personal safety as a pie. A pie that is sliced into distinct and different sections.

At best, physical technique is only one slice of that pie. Other slices of personal safety include legal issues, social skills, deterrents, psychology, knowledge of how crimes occur, mental preparation and awareness of what you are facing. In short, self-defense is only one small part of the much bigger issue (The analogy we use is a pyramid of personal safety). And even though it is a subset of personal safety, each of these components must be included in effective self-defense training. The hard part isn't snapping someone's neck. That's actually rather simple. The hard part is knowing when and why it is time to do it OR -- more importantly-- when it isn't.

And the number of people who end up in jail for violence tells us that isn't as cut and dried as they thought it was.

In a similar vein, violence can be looked upon in pie fashion. There are all kinds of violence. The different ways that it occurs are almost countless. "Fighting" is only one of the many ways violence can manifest.

Many people, upon reading this, will immediately think to themselves, "That's why you have to cross train in different fighting styles. So you will be able to fight under different conditions."

NO, this misses the point of what I am saying.

What I am saying is that there are different types of violence. What you think of as a 'fight' is such a minute number of these incidents that it hardly qualifies as a slice ... it's more like a sliver. Two equally matched opponents slugging it out or rolling around on the ground is the exception, not the rule of violence. Within those different types of violence are many different levels and participants can range from an upset person to a quarrelsome drunk, to a dangerous criminal to an insane person(2). While most incidents of violence are not intent on death and destruction, any number of them are ... and that intent affects how they happen.

There is no way you can train for all of these contingencies. For example, I know of no martial art style that will teach you an effective technique against someone, who is waiting with a shotgun in the shadows, near where you park your car. And yet, that is a reality of how violence happens. As such the possibility of it happening must be factored into 'self-defense' strategies. And no, not even training in firearms is going to save you in such a situation. What can possibly save you is knowledge, awareness and appropriate habits.

However, fantasy ideals about "real fighting" abound in martial arts schools and reality-based self-defense circles. While we are on the subject, a vast array of misconceptions about violence also exists in many women's self-defense programs. Instead of taking a huge subject (personal safety/self defense) and narrowing it down to
   a) what is germane to the person's needs
   b) what this kind of training is best suited to handle,
they take the opposite approach. They take an extremely narrow focus (often sport based) and try to conceptually expand it to cover ALL the different manifestations of violence, self-defense and personal safety.

Equally out of touch is when some military combative system or a so-called "reality based self-defense" system claims that's all you need. That's just as unrealistic as saying a martial art is all you need.

Why Is This Bad?
So you might ask yourself, "Why is this bad?" After all isn't a little bit of knowledge better than no knowledge at all?

Not necessarily...

In fact, it is not uncommon for a little bit of training to be worse than no training at all. Ever heard the old saw about: A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, in this business it is true. Quite often people with no training do not have the overconfidence common among those with a little training (or a lot of training in a bad system). As such, realizing that they have no hope of 'winning' a physical conflict they do a lot more to avoid one -- including running away before the situation can become physically violent.

Due to the instructor's lack of either experience, research or both into the complexities of violence, students are given a false sense of security and an overblown belief in their ability to handle themselves in a violent situation. It's easy to believe you're "tough" in the training hall, but that isn't enough to save you when it comes to actual violence. This is why many programs are in fact more dangerous to the student than no training at all. Students, believing that they can handle themselves, will attempt to fight instead of run. One of the saddest examples we know of is when a young 'star' of a commercialized dojo encountered a mentally ill chemically addicted person with a knife. But before he was ever wounded the young black belt had violated every awareness and avoidance principle in the book. His training actually interfered with his threat assessment ... because "he knew karate."

The bottom line is that physical self-defense is a last-ditch option when other -- more effective -- strategies have failed. It isn't something you do because you're afraid of being thought a wimp. These other options having been tried first, however, give you points and standards you can articulate to any responding law enforcement officers to show you were engaged in legitimate self-defense. Because you need to know officers hear the self-defense plea all the time. And what it turns out to be is what is legally considered a "fight" and both parties claiming it was self-defense.

If you have participated in the escalation of the situation, you are not defending yourself, you are fighting, and you will be held legally accountable for it.

All of this is why we consider "personal safety" to be a much more useful concept than "self-defense." Personal safety includes self-defense issues and training, but by being broader in scope it addresses issues that are not in the purview of either martial arts OR self-defense training. Return to top of page

So Which Martial Art Style Is Best for Self-Defense?
All of them and none of them. Simply stated: ANY martial art system can be used for self-defense.

Provided you know what self-defense is...

Most commercialized systems tend to fall apart, however, when you attempt to fight using them.

The problem is that most people do not differentiate between self-defense and fighting. And this is a critical distinction. Our definition of self-defense is simple. Any physical/mechanical means you use to get away from immediate danger and escape to safety.

Self-defense does not mean standing there and attempting to engage an attacker. It especially doesn't mean attempting to defeat someone in a physical altercation. It means you only engage long enough to be able to remove yourself from danger and to get to safety.

Our definition of fighting, however, is the willful engagement with an opponent to either gain something or engaging rather than losing something less important than your life (e.g., pride, face or personal insult). The last part is where we differ from the legal standards you will be held accountable to. They don't care about the "why," people are fighting, we do. In short, fighting is a consensual conflict both parties have actively engaged in. More importantly, fighting is about winning.

That last statement is why so many people end up losing a fight.

When you laser in on "winning," you leave yourself open to lose. If for example your goal is to win a fight using your martial arts, you will actually end up lengthening the time of the engagement, increasing the chances of losing. You not only boost the chance of your opponent coming up with a more effective strategy, but you also increase the length of time you are in his "line of fire." This also increases the time during which you can make a mistake when countering his offensives.

If your defensive strategy is oriented on deflecting the immediate threat and escaping before another threat can be offered, then ANY martial art system and training will be effective for "self-defense."

If, however, your goal is to "win" then you seriously run the risk of
     a) extending the altercation, thereby greatly increasing your chances of  
         losing or
     b) going "over the top" and using excessive force.

Either will get you in deep legal trouble, but the second one more so. This is why we have a saying training to fight only has two problems. One is if you lose. Two is if you win. Often with you "winning," the once-upon-a-time aggressor has now become the legal victim, and you have become the aggressor. Not because he didn't start it, but because you crossed the line from defending yourself to attacking him. Often this line is crossed because your training taught you to behave this way "in case he doesn't stop attacking"
Return to top of page

In Conclusion
There are no simple answers. Every martial art style has value. The question is: Does it have value for the situation you are most likely to find yourself in?

 The next question is: Is what they are teaching self-defense or fighting? Are they encouraging you to engage an opponent rather than get to safety? These are critical questions.

The bottom line is this: Martial arts are not self-defense. Self-defense is not personal safety. Fighting is neither self-defense nor personal safety. While martial arts training can be used in a self-defense context, it is a far better idea to create a much stronger alloy of personal safety instead of any single "fighting" system. Martial arts are part of complete personal safety regime, they are not the sole answer.

And no martial art style or self-defense system will ever be able to teach you everything you need to know about the complexities of violence ... especially if you are in either a high risk situation or profession. And if anybody tells you differently, they are selling something. Maybe not to you, but then at least to themselves. Because in their minds, they want it to be as simple as "which martial art is best for self-defense?"

But that's not how the world -- or violence -- works. Return to top

1) Even after a collective 65 years of studying the issue, sometimes it seems to us that self-defense is like trying to juggle nitro-glycerin while tap dancing across a hardwood floor covered in marbles. It seems that the more you know, the more simple answers just fade further and further into the distance. Every time you think you've found a reliable answer a "what about...?" shows you where it won't work. Return to Text

2) These types are defined not only by how they occur, but also by intent, intensity and strategy. Someone who is intent on killing you is going to attack differently than someone who is attempting to punish you. Those are going to be different than how an argument escalates into violence. A "professional" will attack you differently than an amateur, a pack will attack differently than an individual. Also your ability to defend yourself will often determine how you will be attacked (e.g. head on or shot in the back). A sane person will attack differently than a crazy person. These are very real and distinct differences. Differences that have incredible influence over whether or not you end up gushing blood in the ER. Return to Text

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