5 Best Martial Arts for Self Defense (And the ones to avoid!)

People often live their lives oblivious to the threats that surround them. This occurs because the people who want to harm you aren’t always identifiable.

Nonetheless, at any moment you may find yourself in a situation that requires you to act to save yourself or others, you’ll need a solid martial art that can be used for self-defense.

In this article, we reveal what the best martial arts are for self-defense and the ones to avoid.

best martial arts for self defense

Martial Arts and Self-Defense

Let’s start with a definition. Most people only associate martial arts with east Asian sports, like karate or taekwondo. However, a martial art is actually any art of combat and self-defense that is practiced as a sport.

A good martial art is one that can be used for practical purposes.

It’s nice that all of them provide good exercise and in some cases have meditative properties. But if all you are using your martial art for is to stay in shape, then you might as well be taking a spin class!

Real-world self-defense should be the goal of any martial art. It should teach you how to win in a fight when there are no referees, no rules, and when it could be a life or death situation.

Ancient cultures from all over the world have understood the real value of practicing martial arts as they struggled for survival.

Because so many different peoples learned the value of fighting early on, many martial art forms developed in the world.

Martial Arts to Avoid If Your Goal Is Self-Defense

Sometimes, a modern martial art can fall short when it comes to self-defense, for differing reasons. Here are just a few of the martial arts out there that are popular but don’t adequately provide you with the tools for self-defense:

  • Aikido
  • Tai Chi
  • Arnis

These are unique in what they teach and where they come from. Aikido is Japanese but Tai Chi is Chinese in origin. Arnis comes from the Philippines.

Let’s talk a little about Aikido

While it does involve some minor striking moves, Aikido primarily teaches students to use their energy to throw opponents away.

Further, the training in this martial art is done by the attacking student (uke) allowing themselves to be manipulated by the student applying the technique (tori).

So, we can see that the first problem with Aikido is the lack of a resisting opponent. In the real world, your enemy isn’t going to just allow you to throw them around.

This leads to the second problem.

Throwing your opponent away, just so they can get up and come back, doesn’t put an end to any fight!

What is Tai Chi?

Moving on, Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that focuses on internal benefits. Because of this, some modern Tai Chi is taught as a gentle exercise to reduce stress. However, some Tai Chi classes teach striking movements.

Even in combat form, this martial art uses gentle movements and simply cannot be as effective as other martial arts for self-defense.

One element of Tai Chi practice is the solo form. This involves “fine tuning” the body without having an opponent. As with Aikido, you simply cannot practice self-defense effectively without having a sparring partner.

But Tai Chi also falls short because of the way countermoves are taught. Students are taught a method called push hands, which involves yielding to an opponent’s attack and redirecting their energy.

This is great, unless you are attacked from behind unexpectedly and therefore unable to redirect the attack.

What is Arnis?

The last martial art I’ll review here is Arnis. If you haven’t heard of it, this is an ancient art that developed in the Philippines but is still practiced around the world to today.

Arnis emphasizes the use of weapons, such as batons and various edged weapons, but has a minor role for empty hand techniques.

No one can doubt the brutality of Arnis. If you are the type to carry around a large knife or baton on your person, perhaps this would be the martial art for you.

But most of us don’t, and without the weaponry Arnis simply does not have the same appeal.

In fact, it is quite difficult to find information on about Arnis that does not involve weapons of some kind. 

The Take away

At this point I should note that these martial arts have other tremendous benefits.

The takeaway here should not be that Aikido, Tai Chi, and Arnis are somehow useless as martial arts. Rather, these were used to make the point that there are less effective martial arts out there when it comes to self-defense.

The 5 Best Martial Arts For Self-Defense

Now you want to know about which arts are most effective. Out of the thousands of martial arts in the world these five are the best that you can use to defend yourself, should the need arise:

  • Boxing
  • Muay Thai
  • Judo
  • Wrestling
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

I’m going to delve deeper into each one to show you why these five are superior to all others. 


What it is

Boxing has a long history in the world and can be found across nearly every culture in one form or another. Though the rules can vary slightly, boxing is generally accepted as a sport that involves punching the opponent with a clenched fist for a predetermined amount of time, or until one of the competitors is knocked out. Read more about boxing rules here.

What it teaches

Boxing stands out as an exceptional martial art to learn because it teaches you how to throw an effective punch, how to block or evade an incoming punch, and how to take a punch should your opponent land one. During a sparring match, students utilize protective gear on the head but take full strength attacks.

Using it in self-defense

Because you are actually taking and throwing punches, boxing prepares you for a real-world fight in the best way possible. The techniques you learn won’t go out the window once the real fight gets going. Learning this martial art can give you a significant upper hand, especially when facing someone who doesn’t have a boxing background.

Muay Thai

What it is

Thailand has the privilege of claiming this martial art as their own. Muay Thai literally translates to “Thai Fighting.” This brutal martial art uses the full body by incorporating punches, kicks, elbow strikes, and knee strikes along with several blocking techniques.

What it teaches

In a Muay Thai match, the fighters compete until one of them is knocked out, or until the end of three rounds. Points are given in a round when one fighter is able to stop the other. You can read more about Muay Thai rules in detail here. Like boxing, Muay Thai teaches you how to strike while also showing the proper way to protect yourself by blocking.

Using it in self-defense

Muay Thai training places emphasis on sparring. This means that you can practice your skills on a real opponent rather than some hanging heavy bag. When you use Muay Thai in a fight, you’ll be ready to dominate an opponent who isn’t prepared for the devastating knee and elbow strikes this art teaches.


What it is

Though it’s not as old as most other martial arts, Judo is still a very popular and effective martial art today. Judo means “the gentle way” in Japanese but make no mistake, this technique is far from soft.

The goal in competitive Judo is achieving the “ippon” by throwing the opponent, which results in immediate victory, or the submission of an opponent through joint locks and chokes. You can read more about judo rules here.  

What it teaches

So many fighting styles rely on strikes as their primary starting move. Judo generally prohibits striking or kicking. Therefore, the fighter must learn to rely on throwing or taking their enemy to the ground and forcing submission.

Using it in self-defense

We often think of using self-defense against some fully coherent, malicious enemy. However, you may find that you need to use self-defense while minimizing physical damage.

Consider coming across a person with mental challenges or someone on drugs who is out-of-control and a threat to others. Here, you wouldn’t want to cause undue damage, but rather gain submission until medical intervention can occur.  

You can read more in detail about why we think judo is good for self defense here.


What it is

When you hear the world wrestling, you probably think of John Cena jumping off the top ropes. The wrestling I want you to think about here is what you would see in the Olympics. This is without a doubt a martial art that outdates almost all other martial arts and focuses on grappling and joint locks to overcome adversaries.

What it teaches

Wrestling teaches you take opponents to the ground using various takedown techniques. Along with takedowns, escapes are awarded points in wrestling matches, which may determine the winner if neither fighter gets pinned during a match. These takedowns and escapes are invaluable lessons to learn for a fight.

Using it in self-defense

To win a fight in some situations, you are going to have to get your enemy to the ground. This is why wrestling is one of the best martial arts to learn, because takedown skills are an integral part of wrestling’s effectiveness. Once you use a leg sweep or double leg takedown to get your opponent at a disadvantage, you can apply one of several joint locks to gain submission and end the fight.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

What it is

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) evolved from traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu early in the twentieth century. BJJ does not focus as much on striking and throwing as its predecessor but rather it emphasizes ground fighting through leverage, joint locking, and chokes. This means that size differences in fighters don’t determine who will win.

What it teaches

There are many similarities between BJJ and wrestling. However, wrestling requires a lot of strength where as a BJJ fighter need only the right technique to overcome another fighter. BJJ practice, also known as rolling, includes a resisting partner. This is a crucial element that allows you to translate BJJ skills into a real street fight.

Using it in self-defense

Overall, BJJ may be the best martial art for self-defense. If you end up being the smaller of two fighters, BJJ’s techniques ensure that you have a fair shot at winning. Another positive aspect of BJJ’s style is that you close the gap between you and your opponent taking their away their ability to deliver effective strikes.

How About MMA and Sambo for Self Defense?

With MMA being one of the fastest growing sports, and with Russian Sambo being recognized more around the world due to the success of undefeated former UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, many people probably wonder why MMA and Sambo are not on this list.

To start with, both MMA and Sambo are some of the best form of self defense, period. The reason they are not listed in this article is simple – they are not individual martial arts, but modern combat systems that are made up of multiple forms of martial arts, including all the martial arts included in our list above.


Having some martial art skill in your repertoire is a lot better than having nothing at all. If you are just beginning to explore which method to study, there is a lot of information out there about every single martial art style. Consider these five styles and how they are superior to all other martial arts for a real-world fighting situation.