Best Martial Art For Self Defense: Find Out Why Most Get This Wrong

One misconception that many have is that dueling and self defense are synonymous. The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) brings many to the conclusion that (insert grappling style here) or (insert striking style here) is the obvious choice for self defense situations. This is simply untrue. There is value there, but there is so much more to actual self defense.

Self defense is not defined as an agreed upon sport contest between two athletes. Kali (Escrima) and other weapons based forms of Filipino Martial Arts are the best martial arts for self defense. Many FMA practitioners also add sport to their training making them hard to knock off of this top spot.

This site is designed to cut through the hype and misinformation for parents looking for martial arts for their children and/or self defense for themselves. I try to offer ways that martial arts training can be a good tool in the development of character and confidence.

So, let’s take an honest look at what self defense is and which martial art would meet its need the most. This is not to bash sport, it is an integral part of training for self defense. It is just that though, a part.

How Do The Styles Match Up In Self Defense Situations?

Because sport has a large part to play in developing effective, real time techniques we will first look at how the styles fair in categories relevant to combat sports.

Some of the reasons that this first half of our study falls the way it does is because of the laser focus of some of these martial arts. Yes they may be good at one thing, but they completely neglect other aspects which make them a more limited sport.

Many of them that have well developed international sport tournaments and competitions are able to overcome deficiencies with conditioning. Good conditioning can sometimes bridge the gap when technique fails. Then again, rarely ever does a self defense situation go over a couple of minutes. Extreme conditioning is mostly valuable in combat sport dueling.


  • 0 = Not Present
  • 5 = Passable
  • 10 = Good
  • 15 = Excellent

Sport Oriented Criteria

Arts Style
Kali (Escrima)15551035
Mixed Martial
Muay Thai01501530
Jiu Jitsu
Kung Fu555520

Note: Some may ask why the striking of styles like Karate are put on par with MMA striking. Karate styles like Isshinryu Karate specialize in groin kicks and strikes. This is illegal in MMA and you can not underestimate this as a Boxing and Muay Thai deterrent.

Many times Boxers and Muay Thai fighters out strike MMA fighters in their respective fields. As well, head butts are extremely effective and outlawed in all three of these. It is agreed that many do not train these ‘illegal’ techniques well enough, but that doesn’t mean we all don’t.

Self defense is much more than sport. Let’s see how these styles fare in a more open scenario where rules are not agreed upon and many other variables come to bear.

Non-Sport Criteria

Arts Style
Kali (Escrima)1510151050
Kung Fu05101025
Muay Thai05101025
Mixed Martial
Jiu Jitsu

*Kendo has lethality and Samurai swords can be used against multiple attackers effectively. Although, these weapons cannot be carried and Kendo practitioners do not train in improvised weapons they can carry.

Lethality also doesn’t just refer to the ability to deal lethal damage. It also refers to the deterrent provided by the visibility of this ability. Kali is excellent in this regard. A real weapon immediately stops any desire for dueling. Everyone’s a hero with a trainer (dull metal or wooden training blade) or padded up. Pull out an actual blade and delusions of heroics and cheering bystanders don’t seem so important all of a sudden.

The Best Martial Art For Self Defense

PlaceMartial Arts StyleTotalComments:
1Kali (Escrima)85Strikes included that are not allowed in sport, grappling, excellent carryable WEAPONS of all types, and integration of sport training = WINNER
2Karate60A couple of carryable weapons, includes strikes not allowed in sport, limited grappling, sport training (some karate styles integrate more weapons and grappling than others)
3Mixed Martial
60In essence, MMA is not a single martial arts style. It is a melding together of Muay Thai and Submission Grappling with sightly less proficiency in each. It also has sport rules, no weapons, and limited solutions for multiple attackers.
4Muay Thai55Powerful strikes, sport based training only, no weapons, almost non-existent grappling
5Boxing55Powerful hand strikes, sport based training only, no weapons, no kicks, no grappling
6Submission Grappling45Excellent grappling not reliant on clothing, controlling one on one techniques, no chance at mutli-attacker defense, no weapons, no striking
7Brazilian Jiu Jitsu45Excellent defensive grappling utilizing the clothing as handles, specializing in control and long confrontations, no strikes, no weapons, no muti-attacker solutions
8Judo45Excellent throwing grappling style, no striking, no weapons, small chance against multiple attackers if Judoka stays on his feet
9Kung Fu45A couple of carryable weapons, includes strikes not allowed in sport, limited grappling, lesser sport training. Though this style has weaker striking and less grappling, it does have some usable weapons which saves its ranking somewhat.
10Wrestling40Wrestling is one on one and ground based control with no real multi-attacker solutions. Due to a lack of submissions, striking, and weapons, it falls down the list.
11HapKiDo40This style is average across the board, but has usefulness in many situations. It offers basic grappling, kicking based distance striking, and semi-effective empty hand vs weapons as well as knife work.
12TaeKwonDo40Kicking based system utilizing distance, no weapons, no grappling, some chance against multi-attackers if distance can be maintained
13TangSooDo35Very similar to TaeKwonDo in self defense situations, less sport conditioning
14Aikido30Art based on large movements of Samurai wielding swords (not as practical today), less conditioning than sport styles, no carryable weapons, no real time striking
15Kendo25If we were in the time of the Samurai and could walk around with a full trio of long blades, Kendo would rock. As it is, it is a fun sport and full of cultural interest, but little usefulness in self defense.

Note: Every self defense situation is different by nature. This means that this represents the best martial art in terms of being the most valuable in the most situations. All styles were created for a specific purpose and becoming proficient in them will work for that purpose.

How Is Kali And Other Filipino Martial Arts The Best Self Defense?

There are many martial arts styles that offer advantages in self defense. Especially when someone trains in many disciplines, they could actually save your life. Yet, that is a key factor here. Self defense is not about pride, bravado, or imposing your will. What someone thinks of you is none of your business. Revenge is not a consideration.

Self defense is defined as protecting your life, yourself from gross bodily harm, or the lives and health of innocent people around you. Dominating, ‘smashing’, or giving someone a ‘beat down’ because you in your infinite wisdom deemed it appropriate is not self defense in the slightest.

The problem with many sport based styles it that they require a practitioner to force someone into their rule system and thus strength area. What they know then is to give the best sport showing that they can. This sometimes works when both people are wanting to duel, but that is not self defense.

Many styles hyper focus on a certain type of technique set in a controlled environment. Filipino Kali with bladed, impact, and improvised weapons has that within its offerings, but it is only a small part. Smaller sport defined systems exclude much of what is needed in many defense applications.

For Adults Kali Is The Best Self Defense Style Without Exception

It should go without saying, not all FMA are created the same. Some are more effective and reality based than others. Some simply rely on one weapon type to the exclusion of many others, and some neglect grappling and striking at least in part.

Kali or Escrima as it is also called, if done right adds many different types of weapons to empty handed striking and grappling. Many beginner students of Kali are taught self defense weapons based skills first and later empty handed ones. This becomes highly effective and breeds the right mindset in actual life threatening situations.

You do what you practice. If you always practice with one hand tied behind your back, that arm will be next to useless if it is needed. Kali uses weapons of many varieties and backs it up with striking and grappling. There is nothing left out.

This lends to very effective self defense practitioners as long as they don’t neglect several of the carryable weapons types, grappling, or empty handed striking. If this combination is fully developed and force on force training is utilized, Kali is hands down the number one self defense martial art.

Read my article about the best heavy bag solutions for kids and adults as they train in Kali, Escrima, and Arnis.

Self Defense For Kids Is The Same Just Slightly Modified

Naturally, most styles of martial arts have techniques that children should not be exposed to. There are always instructors who ignore the need to protect children, but the tactics they are teaching kids still should not be in their hands.

This goes for the actual use of weapons in self defense especially. The job of defending the family goes to fathers and in their absence the mothers. The most effective way to do this is by trained use of legal weapons. This is most definitely not the job of a child.

In lieu of parents protecting their children, kids should use unarmed techniques since most of the threats they will encounter will leave hurt feelings and pride rather than serious injuries. This being said, environmental non-lethal means can and should be taught to children.

What are non-lethal weapons that kids can be taught to utilize? There are things around them like books, rulers, pens, notebooks, desks, tables, etc. Using the things around them, coupled with empty handed techniques can take the air out of the bad intentions of would be bullies.

What style would teach all of these? A good Kali based kids program with elements of other styles like Judo and Karate.

We have to make sure our kids are safe, but sometimes that means saving them from themselves and the damage they can do with under formed minds and consciences. Kali in its pure form may be for adults, but it can be tailored to still be the most effective style for kids.

Kali Weapons Training – The Ultimate Self Defense

To be clear, Kali is not a weapons only martial arts system. Though it is based on weapons for self defense, it also translates these movements into empty handed striking and grappling. Other styles can do the empty handed side a step above the level of Kali at times, but the weapon proficiency sends it soaring above the rest.

Whether the weapon you are speaking of is an obvious one as in a edged weapon (ie. knife), an impact weapon (ie. retractable baton), or a covert weapon (ie. tactical flashlight/taser) Kali uses the strength of the weapon instead of the body. Then the empty hand techniques are applied to aid and supplement the weapon.

This philosophy is foreign to most other martial arts styles. Due to their overt sport based goals, the body is seen as the main instrument. Kali utilizes the body in a similar way, but in a support role. The power of the weapon becomes central and not the strength of the body

Weapons Are Force Multipliers

This brings us to how weapons are used to defend against possible life threatening situations. The weapon allows more damage output in a shorter amount of time. I term this as ‘force multiplication’. Different weapons deliver different amounts of force.

As an example, the use of a bladed weapon is termed as lethal force by most all states and local jurisdictions in the United States. This force is justified if you are in fear for you life, the lives of others around you, or even gross bodily harm that could maim. This is because of the relatively little effort needed to deliver incredible amounts of damage to an attacker.

Another self defense weapon would be a tactical flashlight/taser. Kali techniques are seamless in its use and it is covert in that it looks like a simple flashlight. It wasn’t designed to cause massive damage and the possibility of death like a bladed weapon. It was meant to incapacitate, cause minor to medium damage, or ‘scare off’ a would be attacker.

If you want to see what I use as an everyday carry tactical flashlight, just click on the picture below. Simply as a visual and audio deterrent you can’t beat it. All it takes is a bit of practice and it can stop most confrontations or self defense situations you will encounter.

In either case, Kali as a martial art for self defense utilizes the force of specially designed objects to increase the effectiveness of damage dealing directed toward an assailant. Once weapons are mastered, empty handed techniques are added to distract or cause additional damage to vulnerable areas.

This is truly how smaller people can defend themselves against larger or multiple opponents. There is an equalizing and even advantage giving effect accompanying weapons with proper training. This just can’t be said about most any sport based system. The proof: weight classes and male – female separation.

To be clear, there is no less training that is required to use and retain weapons than in empty handed techniques. If you walk into a self defense situation and are not properly trained on how to ‘hang on’ to your weapon, you are simply hand delivering it to your opponent. Yet, to those that are well trained, it can be an insurmountable obstacle for an attacker.

Weapons Proficiency Before Empty Handed Training Is The Root Of The Martial Arts

To many, starting with a weapon as a basis for a martial arts system seems a bit odd. We all know, The Karate Kid™ didn’t do this. Daniel painted fences and waxed old cars. I love those 80’s movies by the way. If you want to see my top 25 martial arts movies for kids just click this link.

If you know much about the history of martial arts, you will quickly learn that nearly all of them came from some sort of military fighting system. They were all designed with a specific purpose in mind. They work for this purpose if used the way they were intended by the military force that designed them.

So how many times do you think a military took the field empty handed and lined up to ‘duke it out’ with an opposing army? I would say that would be a big never.

All martial arts styles were based on these military fighting arts that centered around weapons. They instituted empty handed techniques to access another weapon if theirs was lost, or aid in setting up the use of their primary weapons.

Empty handed techniques were secondary. This is the original concept of most martial arts systems, no matter where they ended up today.

Even Muay Thai, which makes up the majority of the striking in today’s gladiator style cage fighting came from Krabi Krabong. It was a military system that used looping roundhouse kicks as an entry into sword strikes on the battlefield.

How Are Dueling And Sport Based Martial Arts Not Complete Self Defense?

First off, we have to define dueling and describe how many martial arts tend to shave off most techniques that do not fit within its parameters. Dueling has been around for a long time. It is essentially a one versus one fight for dominance within a predefined rule system and geographic area.

This type of sport has been around since historical records have been kept. The vast majority of these have involved rule systems, protective gear, etc. There only has to be a few names mentioned and you will get the picture…

  • Trial by duel
  • Jousting
  • Olympic Wrestling (Appeared in 1st Olympic Competitions)
  • Gladiatorial Contests
  • Boxing

Even in the vicious and bloodthirsty Gladiatorial matches there were usually some sets of rules, protective equipment, and a defined area.

Dueling is not self defense for several reasons. In a duel…

  • You know who you are fighting against
    • Special Note: This is huge today with many fighting in these events having whole teams watching past fight footage of the specific next opponent and ‘picking apart’ their style and devising strategies to exploit weaknesses they identify
  • You know how many opponents there will be
  • You know if there are weapons and what kind they are
    • Weapons based combat sports today… Kali, Kendo, Fencing, etc. Kali is one of the few that has a sport attached, but is not based on that sport
  • You know what the terrain is and it usually is specifically designed
  • You know what techniques are allowed and disallowed
  • There are disallowed techniques
  • Pressures of the crowd, referee, or judges keep rules enforced
  • There is protective gear of some kind (flooring, walls, or worn)
  • Specific weight classes exist for the protection of smaller combatants
    • Simply because these exist lets you know that the techniques are limited to the point that bigger people can simply overpower much of what is done with even much less training.
    • Weapons on the other hand are the great equalizer
  • Men and women have separate divisions for a multitude of reasons
  • There is a specific beginning, with no ambushes
    • This difference cannot be stressed enough between dueling and self defense. If you agree to a start time of a confrontation, you have agreed to many of the things in this list and are dueling.
  • Usually there is a crowd watching that helps decide a ‘winner’
  • You have had ample time to train and prepare for all of these specific parameters

It is rare in a true self defense situation that any of these will be found. Many try to claim that their agreed upon duel outside of a sport environment was an act of self defense. They will be met with the harsh reality of our legal system when standing before a judge that can see through their feeble claims of attempts at avoiding the situation all together.

The plain and simple fact is, dueling outside of specific combat sports that are regulated for at least a minimum safety standard is felony assault. If you are agreeing to a dual and not in a regulated sport environment, no matter your reason, our legal system designates you as the bad guy. The first thing that will be assessed was your ability to avoid the situation.

Did you stop your car, get out, and duel the guy who cut you off? Felony. Did you have an argument that you didn’t walk away from that turned violent? Felony. It doesn’t matter if the other person ‘threw the first punch’. You didn’t try to leave. Felony. If you end up in a duel of any kind, you wanted to be there, usually out of pride and emotion.

These Parameters Are Manipulated For Advantage In Sports

In many combat sports today, there are not just the dangers caused within the bout that must be addressed. The ability to manipulate the standards is a huge deal in most all of them. The simple fact that there are so many trying to manipulate them shows their tremendous impact on the outcome of the duel. Self-defense situations come out much different than duels in many instances due to not having these setups.

For instance, there are weight classes for obvious reasons. There are also men’s and women’s divisions for obvious reasons. Most in both of these divisions will go through great lengths of dehydration in order to ‘drop weight’ to the lowest weight class possible in order to gain an advantage. They can then show up to the fight in a much heavier ‘walking around’ weight after re-hydrating.

In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that these practices in the Mixed Martial Arts were dangerous to the health of the fighters in such a serious way that it could lead to death. Furthermore, most turn a blind eye to the practice even though all know that it is happening.

This happens in boxing, kickboxing, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, submission grappling, wrestling, MMA, etc. If you are temporarily ‘cutting weight’ as it is called, you are in a duel. There is no way to do this and actually no advantage gained by doing this in self defense. You don’t have film on the opponent, know their weight, know their ability level, etc.

Self Defense Is Usually Surprise Attacks, Outnumbered Situations, Weapons Are Likely

I won’t link to any of them here because of their extreme violent nature, but you can search Youtube and find many security camera videos of people getting ambushed in parking lots, at atms, in their homes, at gas stations, at swimming pools, etc. I am not talking about the idiots that agreed to meet in a field and duel to settle some dispute. I am talking about actual self defense that happens in an instant.

We all know that bullies in school didn’t pick on other kids with size or the will to fight back. They usually found the low hanging fruit in the form of the quiet small kids that wouldn’t put up resistance. These same bullies grew up to be the thugs and criminals we have to deal with as adults. They are not looking for ‘a good fight’. They are looking for an advantage.

What are some of the ways that Kali as a self defense martial art can combat this? For one, because Kali is not based primarily on a sport application, awareness is built into the system. When we take someone to the ground for instance, the first thing that is taught is to check the person for weapons.

There are no defined begin times or locations. Awareness of surroundings is key. Since this is a criminal trying to get your belongings or cause you bodily harm for some unknown reason, it must be part of regular training to prepare students both mentally and physically.

Want to see how this actually plays out in most sport based styles? Here is something I have regularly seen…

I have traveled the world teaching weapons based training to schools and organizations using sport systems like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, MMA, boxing etc. Whenever they would start free grappling or sparring I would throw training knifes out in the middle. You should see the untrained scramble for it. All technique went out the window.

In a good Kali program even before the altercation happens, weapons are assessed, terrain is established, and numbers of assailants with their attacking angles are defined. Grappling is eliminated from the mix if their are multiple attackers and or weapons if you have a weapon. Many of these considerations are unique to a weapons based system like Kali/Escrima and make it uniquely suited for actual self defense.

Duels Are A Helpful Part Of Martial Arts Training If Done Properly

Dueling is not only helpful in training some of the techniques in a martial arts system, it is essential for a large portion of the core elements. Without live training, which can only be done safely and repeatedly with willing partners in a dueling situation, some techniques could not be fully developed. There can be no doubt about it.

The problem that I am addressing here mostly is the fact that many believe wrongly that dueling is sufficient for a system to be considered self defense. They pin their hopes on sport based techniques honed to high proficiency levels bridging the gap they think is small between sport and self defense. This is just untrue. I am not saying dueling is not a valid training method, just that that idea is false.

I have literally trained over 10 thousand hours in dueling style situations. There is no way to get better at the martial arts at advanced levels without it. You have to do it in order to find your limits and the limits of the techniques allowed in that particular dueling situation.

One great way to utilize the power of dueling in training is to have many people at once, utilizing weapons all attack each other at the same time with large amounts of protective gear. Many variations of this as well as spontaneous attacks during a class can foster a more truthful evaluation of techniques that are allowed.

This would not work for many sports based martial art styles. They are not designed for this and their techniques would not shine in that sort of situation. This is the reason most don’t do it. Another is the fact that in that type of environment, a three quarter speed application of techniques would have to be mandated instead of full speed.

Many would decry this caution not because of its less ‘realistic’ nature, but because they would not be able to tout their domination in the training session. Don’t make the mistake in thinking that half the people training in these sport environments don’t keep track of their ‘win – loss’ records during a workout session.

The only winner in self defense is the person who caused the attack to stop. There are no judges, spectators, points, or medals. Surviving is the primary goal. The secondary is reducing injury as much as possible. Domination is not a consideration. If the one assaulting flees and you continue to attack, you are now the bad guy.

Certain Kinds of Martial Arts Techniques Are Best Practiced At Full Speed

For self defense, a student of any martial art needs to practice a base of the techniques they plan to use in a high stress, full speed environment. Your brain stops functioning the same way when in the adrenal state, and even more so when you are injured.

Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

The adrenal state is something that many people avoid like the plague. Many pursue comfort, security, and the same thing they had yesterday in order not to have any surprises today. That kind of thinking will make you a sitting duck if a criminal sets their sights on you.

Putting yourself in the worst possible situation and then having to work yourself out of it with extreme effort, now that is uncomfortable. Yet, that discomfort is what it takes to really own certain martial arts self defense techniques.

One easy way to do this is the dueling aspect where another member of your team or class tries to land techniques and combinations of techniques on you while you do the same. This has to be with at least medium contact or resistance for any gains to be made.

This doesn’t mean that all techniques can be practiced in this way nor should they be. It is mainly for the core movements and base techniques of a martial arts style. This can be accomplished in many ways.

In Kali, many either pad the weapon, themselves, or both. The higher the rank or more proficient the practitioner usually the less protective padding is used. That being said, it is not necessary to risk serious injury to get better at these basic techniques. It is important to keep students safe from others and themselves.

Most FMA programs keep this in mind and use proper protection in order to foster a long martial arts journey. This is always with the understanding that even a couple hits with certain types of weapons could be extremely serious or even fatal. “Trading blows” is never encouraged in Kali as in some martial sports. Self defense is always the central focus.

Some Sport Styles Can’t Defend Against Some Techniques So They Are Outlawed

One problem that many practitioners of the sport side of martial arts have to face is the lack of proficiency in techniques not allowed in their sport. It is not enough to say, “I will just add them back in later.” The saying is true…

You do what you practice.

It will be mediocre attempts at best to simply attempt to reintroduce techniques that have been omitted without proper training and integration in muscle memory. In the adrenal state, you just won’t be able to pull them off.

Most sports could train this and some even do. They add self defense ‘illegal’ techniques to certain training times. The problem is that it is not taken seriously enough by instructors or for many of these students that have been conditioned to be hyper focused on the sport side. There is a lipservice given to ‘knife defense’ in many styles. But this lip service will get you killed.

Many sports outlaw things from their sports that could fundamentally change strategies and negate some central group of techniques held dear by its competitors. Headbutts and groin strikes are outlawed in MMA, but there is no evidence that either pose more serious injury risk than many of the other techniques that are promoted in the sport.

What really happened with headbutts in MMA? Wrestlers were able to sit in the defensive guard of many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters and headbutt them repeatedly and their wasn’t much that could be done. Most ground games would end up being a game of headbutts.

The same is true for groin strikes. There is no evidence that any more damage will be caused to fighters than with many other techniques. It is just extremely hard for much of striking to be done as it is today with groin strikes legal. Most ground and pound and stand up games would be dominated by it. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t want to watch that kind of fight either, but that is reality. Self defense is ugly and brutal.

This doesn’t take away from the fact that sport training is a valuable part of a self defense martial art, but it does speak to the fact that many overestimate their abilities due to sport proficiency. Some styles don’t include knowledge of other techniques than those included in their sport. Others do, but don’t seriously train them.

The Best Martial Art For Self Defense Takeaway…

If we look objectively at each style and at what they offer in and outside of their sport rule systems, Kali comes out on top hands down. One of the main reasons is not simply because it is not sport based. The same thing can be said about Aikido. The principle attribute of Kali that makes it the best martial art for self defense is its exceptional use of weapons.

There is truth to the idea the Jigoro Kano stated was his purpose in creating Judo. He believed that unless a technique could be practiced at full speed, it could not be truly mastered. Yet, he was speaking mainly of throwing techniques and some submission holds.

With striking and weapons, adding more protective gear and being honest with what damage each empty handed strike or weapon connection could do is a great substitute. Though, it is true that live training has to even be done in this scenario.

A large problem many instructors and practitioners of sport based arts have is that they can be unrealistic about the universal application of martial sport technical proficiency. There is so much that can and does happen in actual self defense that can’t be replicated in a sport environment. There are some things that can, like the adrenal state, but it can’t overcome the large gulf between sport and reality based self defense.

Kali and Escrima bridge this gap and stand firmly as the best self defense martial art. No style is perfect, but with its integration of sport conditioning, Filipino boxing, Krabi Krabong, and submission grappling to its Dumag system, it can come closer than most. The expert weapons usage though, that is its thing that puts it on top to stay.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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