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The Most Effective Martial Arts Styles for Self-Defense

 The Most Effective Martial Arts Styles for Self-Defense
by J. R. Workman 

It is the skill of the participant in the martial arts style that is the most important factor in a self-defense situation, not necessarily the style itself; although some styles do have certain advantages over others. The amount of sparring that the style encourages as well as the quality of the sparring i.e., how accurately it mimics a real fightare all important factors in assessing the overall effectiveness of a particular style. Also, the usefulness of the techniques in the style during self-defense situations is an important consideration as well. 

"The more physical the activity, the less the difficulties will be. The more the activity becomes intellectual and turns into motives which exercise a determining influence on the commander's will, the more the difficulties will increase." ― Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Boxing and Muay Thai should be the stand-up base styles for self-defense. In other words, they should be learned first or before practicing other stand-up styles because they are the most foundational and essential. 

Boxing, although limited to punches, is a fundamental style to learn for self-defense because in a self-defense situation punches are both easier to land than kicks and are also easier to land and more effective to use against multiple attackers. In fact, punches are actually the easiest attack there is to land. Therefore, mastering the art of punching is the most fundamental aspect of stand-up fighting. 

Freestyle Wrestling and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu should be the base styles for grappling and ground combat. MMA is the best style for learning how to combine the different martial arts in a self-defense situation and should be learned next. After that, a street-based self-defense system that is designed to help you learn how to defend against multiple attackers and weapons should be learned; Combat Sambo is excellent for this. 

Sanshou and Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist) are both phenomenal complimentary styles to learn for self-defense. These complimentary or extra/bonus styles will broaden your already comprehensive arsenal gained from the base styles, combination style, and street-based self-defense system. 

Stand-Up Base Styles 

1. Boxing

Boxing is the greatest punching art. It is excellent for learning defense (learning how to not get hit or avoid an attack) because it teaches head movement, footwork, parrying, and blocks, it is also exceptional for conditioning the arms for punching. Since punches are easier to land in a real fight than kicks are, punches are the most fundamental offensive stand-up technique to master and there is no better style for mastering the art of punching than boxing. 

Punches are also effective against multiple attackers since they are easier to land than kicks and outstanding at keeping an attacker at bay (creating distance). You are much less likely to be taken down to the ground while punching than kicking. Hand attacks (punches, ridge hands, backfists, hammerfists, hand chops, finger jabs, palm strikes, etc.many of which Combat Sambo teaches) are much easier to land than foot attacks (kicks) are but out of all of the hand attacks, punches are the easiest to land and generate the most force. Therefore, punches are even the most fundamental hand attack. 

Also, there is no better art for learning how to defend against punches than boxing. The emphasis on head movement found in boxing is not presentat least not to the same extentin many styles, but will give you a tremendously lower chance of getting knocked out in a fight.

Unfortunately, there is a serious problem with sport (competitive) boxing and many of the other full-contact, competitive combat sports. Most physicians today admit that the dangers involved in sport (competitive) boxing (and several other full-contact, competitive combat sports such as Kickboxing and MMA) have been criminally downplayed in the past. 

It can lead to multiple concussions and brain injuries which have caused insanity and even murder before (Chris Benoit, a Canadian professional wrestler is the most famous example of this; he murdered his family and killed himself after suffering from numerous concussions). According to an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, no less than 659 boxers died of brain injury between 1918 and 1998: 

"A total of 659 deaths from boxing between 1918 and 1997 have been recorded, with an average of nine a year." (Fatal Head Injury from Boxing: a Case Report from Greece) 

For these reasons, fighting for sport (unless the sport does not cause serious (grave) and/or unnecessary damage/injury) is immensely discouraged by the majority of physicians. Even the World Medical Association called for a ban on the sport of boxing in 1983 at its World Medical Assembly

This was not the only condemnation of the sport of boxing from physicians either. The Journal of the American Medical Association posted an article in 1989 entitled Why physicians should oppose boxing: an interdisciplinary history perspective

It is not only boxing that is opposed by physicians either the British Medical Association released a report entitled Boxing, an update from the Board of Science back in 2007 that extended its ban on boxing to also include a ban on sport (competitive) mixed martial arts. 

One can still train in boxing or any of the other combat sports mentioned in this article, but sticking with sparring instead of competitive sports fighting is much less of a risk to your health. Sparring is a magnificent way to acquire self-defense skills, but due to the moderation generally practiced in it and the supervision of the instructors, it is much less dangerous than competitive sports fighting is. 

Since sparring takes place in a highly controlled environment (you can alter the intensity of it all you want) it is an ideal and safe setting for improving your self-defense skills. 

Private lessons that include one-on-one training and a sufficient number of high-quality sparring partners are to be preferred to gym classes or group lessons since it allows you to do the training at home (which is ideal because the home is the most convenient and comfortable training environment in existence) or any other suitable location and it also provides you with more customized/specialized instruction and individualized attention from your trainer than you would normally receive in a gym or with a group (which is ideal for developing self-defense skills). 

Gyms are distracting and in the gym, the trainer's focus is usually divided among several of his clients rather than being focused solely on you. As long as you have a sufficient number of high-quality sparring partners to train with then the private lessons will work even better for developing your fighting skills than the gym classes will. Most athletic trainers today admit that private coaching has many advantages over group training sessions: 

"...private coaching allows the player to receive instruction in the most conducive way, so that the directions really stick. At the end of the day, no two players have the same specific needs for increasing their skills -- some players are more visual and others respond better to spoken word -- so why settle for just one? With private lessons, athletes are able to get the most out of their coach’s instruction and work directly on what they need to improve." (Elevate Your Game With Private Coaching)

For these reasons, private lessons should always be preferred to gym classes as long as you have a sufficient number of high-quality sparring partners to train with. 

2. Muay Thai

Muay Thai is one ofif not the mostoffensive and powerful martial arts styles in existence; it is an offense and power-based self-defense system. Muay Thai teaches a fair amount of effective offensive techniques (punches, kicks, knees, elbows, throws, sweeps, takedowns, clinching, etc.) as well. Knees and elbows like punches are much easier to land than kicks are making them extremely effective offensive techniques to add to your arsenal. Also, backfists are an important hand attack which boxing lacks and Muay Thai hasMuay Thai also allows hammerfists as well; another important hand strike which boxing does not have. 

Muay Thai's emphasis on the clinch gives it an advantage in close quarters against other fighting styles. The Muay Thai clinch allows you to control your opponent in a special way not found to the same extent in most other styles. In fact, Muay Thai's emphasis on the clinch is actually one of its advantages over Sanshou which although it shares many of the same offensive techniques as Muay Thai does not have as strong of an emphasis on clinching. 

Muay Thai also includes leg kicks unlike many other martial arts styles and kickboxing organizations which only allow for kicks above the belt (like ITF Taekwondo, WTF Taekwondo, and PKA Kickboxing). Leg kicks are much easier to land and much less risky than above the waist kicks are which make you more open to takedowns, sweeps, and throws (due to balancing being more difficult the higher up you kick). Kicks, although being riskier, more difficult to land, and making you more vulnerable to takedowns, sweeps, and throws, than punches are, are much more powerful than punches and your legs have a longer reach than your arms do so they can also be used to create more distance between you and your opponent than punches can. The Karate Kid (Daniel LaRusso played by Ralph Macchio) himself could benefit from the power and strength of the Muay Thai style. 

Muay Thai mostly emphasizes roundhouse kicks, front kicks, and leg kicks and does not emphasize sidekicks, axe kicks, hook kicks, and several other types of kicks as highly as Sanshou, Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist), and other stand-up styles do. Muay Thai has a wider variety of offensive techniques than boxing does and is more well-rounded offensively. 

Muay Thai does a superb job of mimicking the stand-up present in a real fight and is, therefore, an incredibly effective stand-up martial arts style for self-defense. Muay Thai lacks many important self-defense techniques that other martial arts styles possess and thus cannot be considered a complete self-defense system in and of itself but should be combined with other martial arts styles in order to be made complete. There is also a militarized version of Muay Thai used by the Royal Thai Army that is known as Muay Lerdrit. 

Grappling and Ground Combat Base Styles 

3. Freestyle Wrestling

Freestyle Wrestling is one ofif not the beststyles for learning how to take someone to the ground. It is a terrific style for learning how to dictate where the fight is going to take place (on the ground or standing up). It is also excellent for learning takedown defense. Unlike Greco-Roman Wrestling and the sports version of Judo, Freestyle Wrestling allows attacks (takedowns, throws, and sweeps, etc.) below the waist and unlike Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle Wrestling allows the use of legs in attacks (throws, sweeps, etc.) making it a more versatile grappling art to learn for self-defense. 

Ground fighters always have an edge over stand-up fighters in one-on-one fights because it is much easier to take someone down and ground and pound them or submit them than it is to knock someone out (just look at how well the Gracie family has done in MMA and how well Royce Gracie did in the early UFC against stand-up fighters; Royce dominated most stand-up fighters in the early UFC with his Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the Gracie family ruled MMA for years in succession just like a dynasty)

The Gracie Challenge was an open invitation issued by the members of the Gracie family to martial artists of different styles to challenge them in a Vale Tudo (one of the precursors to MMA) match. Carlos and Helio Gracie defeated martial artists from many different styles such as boxing, judo, karate, and wrestling and lost few matches, therefore, validating Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as a self-defense system that works well against many stand-up and ground fighting arts. 

However, stand-up fighters always have the edge against multiple attackers because fighting on the ground against multiple attackers is a worse disadvantage than fighting against them while standing up. It is easier to defend yourself against multiple attackers standing up/on your feet than on the ground. 

Learning takedown defense will help you learn how to stay on your feet and learning wrestling will also teach you how to get up more easily if you do get taken down. Learning submissions and how to defend against punches while on the ground and learning how to throw strikes while on the ground (like Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teaches you) will also help you to survive against multiple attackers and finish some of them off if the fight ever does get taken to the ground. 

4. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is one ofif not the mostwell-rounded ground fighting arts. It has the most submissions, teaches defensive techniques against punches and kicks while on the ground, it teaches submissions and attacks from the bottom position, it even teaches punches, elbows, and other offensive strikes (such as knees and kicks) while on the ground. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is distinct from the sports version of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in that it is combat rather than sport-based and is hence more effective to learn for self-defense. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu even teaches weapon disarming techniques and defense against multiple attackers making it an excellent grappling-based martial art system to learn for street-based self-defense. 

Combination Style 

5. MMA

MMA is the best way to learn how to mix all of the other base and complimentary styles together. To be outstanding at MMA it is not only best to be top-level at all of the different martial arts styles individually or separately, but it is even more important to be skilled at being able to put all of them together as a whole. MMA, being a combination of many different martial arts styles (in theory and idea), becomes the style or art of combining them all together into one (in practice and application). 

Street-Based Self-Defense System 

6. Combat Sambo 

Combat Sambo was originally used by the military and police force in the Soviet Union. Combat Sambo is designed to help you learn how to defend against multiple attackers and weapons (it even teaches gun disarming techniques). It is also one of the most effective styles for real fighting because it teaches groin techniques, throat techniques, eye gouging techniques, and other techniques that are not taught or permitted in many purely sport-based martial arts styles. 

The sparring in Combat Sambo is also relatively realistic and mimics a real fight reasonably well (the sparring in most Combat Sambo classes generally takes place more often and is usually of better quality than most Krav Maga and other self-defense classes). Krav Maga classes have a reputation for lacking high-quality sparring. Even Kurt Coplan the owner of says that many Krav Maga classes lack high-quality sparring: 

"Yet, what we’re often lacking in our training is the backbone of what Krav Maga is. It’s ‘CONTACT COMBAT’ and in order to be true to its core we must realise the importance of sparring..." (Sparring. Are You Serious? by Kurt Coplan) 

For this reason, Krav Maga should be rejected in favor of other self-defense systems which incorporate better quality sparring. Combat Sambo incorporates the high-quality sparring that Krav Maga lacks and is the best choice. 

Combat Sambo is the best gi wearing take down art, it is also an excellent style for learning ground and pound because it teaches punching techniques while on the ground. 

The sports version of Combat Sambo allows punches, kicks, elbows, and knees just like Muay Thai does but also allows headbutts and groin strikes which Muay Thai and even MMA do not. Like Muay Thai and Sanshou, the sports version of Combat Sambo also allows leg kicks. The sports version of Combat Sambo even allows leg locks, which are illegal in the sports version of Judo and unlike Sport Sambo, the sports version of Combat Sambo allows chokes as well. Combat Sambo is an excellent style to learn leg locking techniques from and also teaches arm locking techniques too. 

Like wrestling, Combat Sambo is phenomenal for learning takedown defense and how to dictate where the fight will take place (on the ground or standing up). Wearing a gi mimics the feeling of grappling with someone with conventional clothing on (similar to most real fights), making the gripping aspects of it more realistic than in grappling sports where less clothing is worn. The combination of strikes with grappling techniques present in Combat Sambo makes it a well-rounded self-defense system similar to MMA. 

When it comes to female participation in self-defense training practices (such as Combat Sambo and the other martial arts styles mentioned in this article) there are a number of concerns proposed by medical professionals. Women engaging in rigorous exercise training (as is done in self-defense practice) is highly discouraged by the majority of physicians. According to an article published in the Pediatrics journal entitled Medical Concerns in the Female Athlete female children and adolescents who play sports are at a risk for developing various types of medical conditions such as menstrual dysfunction and decreased bone mineral density: 

"Female children and adolescents who participate regularly in sports may develop certain medical conditions, including disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction, and decreased bone mineral density." (Medical Concerns in the Female Athlete by Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness) 

According to an article published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism titled Role of Energy Balance in Athletic Menstrual Dysfunction infertility in female athletes suggests that strenuous exercise training (as performed in self-defense workouts) is not beneficial to women's health: 

"The cessation of menstrual function in the female athlete may reflect her inability to adapt to the environmental and lifestyle stressors associated with training and competition. As society's emphasis on thinness, dieting, and exercise continues to increase, so will the incidence of menstrual dysfunction in active females." (Role of Energy Balance in Athletic Menstrual Dysfunction by Christine A. Dueck et al) 

For these reasons, arduous exercising and self-defense training should be avoided by members of the female sex. 

Complimentary Styles

7. Sanshou 

Sanshou includes punches, kicks, sometimes knees and elbows (depending on the competition), and throws, sweeps, and takedowns. Sanshou includes more kicks, throws, sweeps, and takedowns than Muay Thai does but doe not emphasize the clinch as much. 

Like Muay Thai, Sanshou also allows leg kicks or kicking below the belt unlike ITF Taekwondo, WTF Taekwondo, and PKA Kickboxing which only allow for kicking above the waist. Unlike Kyokushin Karate (which like Sanshou, Muay Thai, and Combat Sambo also includes leg kicks) in Sanshou punches and kicks to the face are also allowed. 

Sanshou is extremely versatile when it comes to kicks (it has leg kicks, body kicks, head kicks, sidekicks, axe kicks, spinning back kicks, wheel kicks, etc.). Like Muay Thai, Sanshou also allows backfists and hammerfists. There is also a militarized version of Sanshou used by the Chinese military that is known as Jùnshì Sǎndǎ

8. Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist)

Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist) is one of the most versatile foot kicking arts (it includes almost every kind of above the belt foot kick), it teaches excellent footwork and it also emphasizes punches more and has more realistic sparring than ITF Taekwondo does (and ITF Taekwondo emphasizes punches more and has more realistic sparring than WTF Taekwondo does) and hence is more effective to learn for self-defense. 

Another advantage of Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist) over ITF Taekwondo is that it teaches better boxing skills and punching techniques. 

Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist) also teaches head movement and other defensive techniques which ITF Taekwondo lacks. No leg licks are allowed and all punches and kicks must be above the belt making this style an excellent style to learn for mastering kicks above the waist. 

Like Muay Thai and Sanshou backfists are allowed in Full-Contact American Kickboxing (Above The Waist)

Read my articles on health:


Constantoyannis, C, and M Partheni. “Fatal Head Injury from Boxing: a Case Report from Greece.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, British Association of Sport and Excercise Medicine, 1 Feb. 2004, 

“Elevate Your Game With Private Coaching.” CoachUp Nation,

Colpan, Kurt. “Sparring. Are You Serious?” Your Krav Maga Expert, 20 May 2014,

Sports Medicine and Fitness. “Medical Concerns in the Female Athlete.” Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Sept. 2000,

Christine A. Dueck, Melinda M. Manore, and Kathleen S. Matt. “Role of Energy Balance in Athletic Menstrual Dysfunction .”, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 1996.