Hand-To-Hand: 8 Best Martial Arts For Self Defense

No matter which way you spin it, the only self-defense tool you’re going to definitely have on you at all times is your own body. And while that might be a hard pill to swallow for some die hard tactical gear heads out there, it’s an unfortunate truth. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that you need to be completely defenseless if caught without your gear. You can turn your own body into a weapon by learning a martial art.

Through the Olympic Games, films (especially kung-fu movies), intramural sports, and the ever-pervasive internet – martial arts have become a well-known part of popular culture. But, some forms of it are better for self-defense than others. That’s not to say that they are not effective forms of exercise or even combat when practiced by devoted experts. We just know that one, the average person doesn’t have a lifetime to dedicate to a fighting style, and two, most self-defense situations call for a quick no-nonsense response in which disabling your attacker as fast as possible is the end goal. With that in mind, we’ve put together the following list of the best martial arts for self defense. Remember, these are not your only options, but we believe they are the most ideal to protect yourself in a worst-case scenario.

Aikido

History: Originally developed in the late 1920s and ’30s by founder Morihei Ueshiba, this Japanese martial art is a synthesis and continuation of another ancient fighting system known as Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu. In conjunction, much of this discipline’s principles, philosophy, and practices are heavily influenced by Ueshiba’s love of the teachings of a neo-Shintoist religious leader (and diehard pacifist) by the name of Onisaburo Deguchi, who ran the Ōmoto-kyō religion out of Ayabe, Kyoto in the early 1900s. Aikido was introduced to the world at large in 1951, when its founder traveled to France to teach his techniques to Judo students. This martial art is still widely practiced the world-round, although it does not have the same following as many of the most striking-oriented fighting systems out there. Nonetheless, it is still formidable in the hands of a practiced student.

Principles: Aikido hinges on the founder’s dedication to universal peace and reconciliation. That is, to say, that this martial art is about as close as one can get to a peaceful fighting system.This martial art is about as close as one can get to a peaceful fighting system. Like Judo, it focuses on a combination of grabs and throws designed to both protect one from attacks and disarm and incapacitate opponents swiftly and efficiently as possible – with as little injury as conceivable sustained by all parties. That being said, there are still strikes incorporated into Aikido, and (depending on the school one attends) there is also a component of weapons combat, including sword and knife fighting, though this is more typically used for the purpose of teaching students how to disarm attackers.

Learn More: AAA Aikido

Boxing

History: Boxing as a sport dates back nearly as far as humanity, with the earliest depiction being found on an ancient Sumerian relief (a flat-background sculpture common throughout the ancient period) dating as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. As such, it became one of the most commonly practiced forms of recreational hand-to-hand combat in the western world pretty much throughout the entirety of recorded history. The first rules weren’t introduced to sanctioned boxing, however, until 1743, when champion Jack Broughton realized that boxers needed some measure of protection to keep them from dying in the ring – a fairly common occurrence. To this day, boxing is still one of the world’s most popular sports, both for recreational viewing and exercise. And, with the looming matchup between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather now a real thing, it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Principles: While it’s no secret that boxing focuses almost exclusively on punching, this fighting system is actually far more nuanced and complicated than simple fist swinging. In fact, there are several sub-styles beneath boxing which dictate how a fighter handles himself in the ring. This fighting system is actually far more nuanced and complicated than simple fist swinging.They include the classic boxer out-fighter (long-range jab-focused), boxer-puncher (all-around close quarters fighter), counter-puncher (defensive bob-and-weave), brawler/slugger (fighter relying on pure power), and swarmer/in-fighter (fast close-quarters fighter). Great boxers, however, can incorporate several of these styles into their repertoire. While boxing lacks the versatility of some other fighting styles, in the hands of a capable striker, the limitations are hardly a drawback.

Learn More: ABA Boxing

Jeet Kune Do

History: If you’re wondering why, on a list of self-defense martial arts, we’ve got a big picture of Bruce Lee, it’s because he is the creator and founder responsible for the fighting style known as Jeet Kune Do. July 9th, 1969 is JKD’s birthday, but it’s roots actually date back a bit further. Specifically to Bruce Lee’s mentor, Ip Man. It was through his teachings of Wing Chung kung fu that Bruce Lee learned the founding skills and principles that would lead him to become one of the world’s most famous and most accomplished martial artists. Today, there are number of JKD schools around the world, some of which with instructors who learned from Bruce Lee himself. Similarly, there are a few examples in popular culture of practitioners of the martial art – including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Brandon Lee (his son), and Nicolas Cage.

Principles: It’s hard to pin down the technical aspects of Jeet Kune Do because, frankly, they are constantly in flux. You see, it’s less an organized style and more a fighting philosophy. Bruce Lee didn’t believe in “forms” or “disciplines,” but rather in the practicality of his philosophy in real-world survival situations. As such, it’s hard to say what physical principles JKD adheres to because the answer is – so long as it effectively applies to real-life combat – just about anything goes.So long as it effectively applies to real-life combat – just about anything goes. What JKD does offer, however, is ways of adapting to any combat situation. For instance, it is held in JKD that straight punches are the systems backbone, there’s a focus on explosive unreadable attacks that throw off your opponent, fluidity in any situation is a necessity, and that the simplest least wasteful movements are best. In can be argued that JKD is the most adaptable form of martial art on this list, but it is also the most formless – which has both benefits and drawbacks if you are seeking to learn it.

Learn More: World JKD

Jiu-Jitsu

History: Also known as jujutsu, jujitsu, and pretty much every other phonetic variation, this is one of the oldest surviving forms of Japanese martial arts. Dating back to the late 1400s, this fighting system was actually developed for battlefield use, to be brought into the fray when weapons were unavailable or ineffective. Relying heavily upon throws, immobilizing, choking, and joint locks, Jiu-Jitsu became an especially important and effective form of combat as armored battle fell out of favor in the 17th century. This fighting style would go on to become one of the all-time most popular martial arts in the modern day, thanks in large part to the Brazilian style, developed by the Gracie brothers, and its use in Mixed Martial Arts around the world.If you’ve ever watched a match in the octagon and saw someone win by submission, chances are they are using Jiu-Jitsu. If you’ve ever watched a match in the octagon and saw someone win by submission, chances are they are using a skill honed through the practice of Jiu-Jitsu. The two main surviving forms now are Japanese – which is geared more toward unsanctioned self defense and has many sub-styles – and Brazilian – which is much more competition-focused and nearly entirely based on the Gracie method.

Principles: While other Japanese practices such as Judo and Aikido focus most heavily on redirection and throwing, Jiu-Jitsu (while still having some of the same basis), is much more closely related to wrestling. Yes, Jiu-Jitsu still incorporates throwing as a base fundamental, but it is more a means of getting your opponent into a position in which you can get them into one of the fighting style’s many forms of grappling. Primarily a one-on-one system, Jiu-Jitsu relies on choke holds, joint locks, and immobilization to stop an assailant, rather than striking techniques common throughout karate-related martial arts. But don’t let the lack of punches dissuade you, as this form of combat is widely considered by expert fighters around the world to be one of the best of all time.

Learn More: USJA

Judo

History: Translated from the Japanese, Judo means “gentle way,” which might seem a bit oxymoronic when you consider that it is a fighting style. That is, until you understand it’s roots. Kanō Jigorō, the fighting styles founder was the grandson of a Shinto priest and had an academic upbringing. When he was just fourteen years old, he was sent to Japan for school where he sought out a Jujutsu teacher to help him defend himself against bullying. Struggling to find a teacher and jumping from school to school over a period of years, Kanō Jigorō instead decided to start his own practice that more closely incorporated his peaceful philosophy and would, at the time, be more accepted than Jujutsu by a more westernized Japan. His system would go on to be incorporated into the Olympic Games in 1932 as a competitive sport and would remain popular through today, even being used by famous MMA fighters like Ronda Rousey and Rick Hawn.

Principles: As the name might suggest, the “gentle way,” is intended less as a means of attacking and more as a means of redirecting and disabling opponents. It also hinges on the principle of ‘maximum efficiency, minimum effort’ – meaning the user will ideally waste as little energy as possible in self defense, instead using the momentum of an attacker against themselves.the “gentle way,” is intended less as a means of attacking and more as a means of redirecting In general, Judo is almost entirely free of striking when used by itself. It instead relies heavily upon a combination of throwing and grappling to disarm and disable assailants. It was, however, developed with real-world practicality in mind and is actually intended to be used in worst-case scenarios. So, if you’re worried that this is a form-over-function martial art, think again.

Learn More: Jujitsu America

Krav Maga

History: As a martial art, Krav Maga is one of the most unique in terms of its origin story, philosophy, and real-world application. While many other self-defense forms were developed over a course of sometimes hundreds of years to the point at which they could be considered an actual art, Krav Maga has only existed since somewhere between the ’30s and ’40s and serves what might be called an inelegant purpose. You see, Krav Maga is designed to disable attackers as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was created by a Hungarian-Israeli man named Emrich “Imi” Lichtenfeld as a means of defending the Jewish quarter from fascist groups in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in the time leading up to World War 2. Eventually, Imi emigrated to Israel, where he began teaching combat classes to what would eventually become the Israeli Defense Forces. Now, it is taught around the world, both to members of the Armed Forces and to private citizens looking to expand their fighting and self-defense abilities.

Principles: As with most martial arts, Krav Maga encourages avoidance of conflicts first and foremost. If that is impossible, however, this form of self-defense hinges on quickly and efficiently disabling opponents.This form of self-defense hinges on quickly and efficiently disabling opponents. Translated from Hebrew, Krav Maga means “contact combat,” a term reflexive of the art’s hard lean toward aggression. That’s right, this martial art is the epitome of the phrase “the best defense is a good offense.” Having drawn bits and pieces from boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, Jujutsu, Aikido, Judo, and a good deal of raw street-fighting, Krav Maga focuses on fast and continuous strikes. It also encourages preemptive striking and a barrage of blows using everything from limbs to items grabbed from one’s surroundings to disarm and/or incapacitate an opponent. It is an especially effective self-defense method against multiple attackers.

Learn More: USKMA

Muay Thai

History: This fighting style traces back as far as the 16th century during the conflict between the Burmese of the Konbaung Dynasty and Siam. And while it was definitely intended as a form of combat to be used in battlefield situations, it quickly became a competitive recreational sport. Also known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” or the “Science of Eight Limbs,” Muay Thai became famous for its unique combination of and expansion upon boxing and kickboxing, in which users don’t just strike with their hands and feet, but also their elbows and knees.…Famous for its unique combination of and expansion upon boxing and kickboxing. In the early 1900s, Muay Thai would begin to become integrated into western fighting schools and, eventually, would develop its own federation (IFMA) and would become integrated inexorably into MMA, with some of the top combatants in the world ranking amongst its students – including Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Michael Bisbing, and Cris Cyborg.

Principles: Muay Thai is divided into two main categories, mae mai (major techniques) and luk mai (minor techniques). These include jabs, cross punches, hooks, uppercuts, superman punches, a whole complement of elbow strikes, straight kicks, roundhouses, shin kicks, a series of knee strikes, and more. It’s construction of nearly entirely offensive techniques makes Muay Thai one of the most formidable forms of combat when practiced by an expert, but it can be somewhat risky for amateur use, as it requires a lot of constant motion and, therefore, a lot of energy. It does have defensive techniques – like the “wall of defense” concept – but the focus is certainly more upon aggression than evasion or avoidance. Coincidentally, Muay Thai is also one of the best self defense methods for exercise, if you’re looking to get into shape while you learn how to fight.

Learn More: Thai Boxing

Sambo

History: Sambo is distinct from all other eastern martial arts for one major reason: it was actually developed in the USSR. The term is actually an acronym, which translates literally to “self-defense without weapons” and was first used in the 1920s by the Soviet Red Army to train their troops in hand-to-hand combat. This martial art can be divided into three categories. The first, Combat Sambo, is the type used in military applications. The second, Sport Sambo, is used in competition similarly to the Japanese martial arts Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. And the third, Freestyle Sambo, was crafted by the American Sambo Association and allows for more MMA style applications. In the 1980 Olympic Games, Sambo was demonstrated in the opening ceremonies by the USSR, but was never formally introduced into the Olympic catalogue of sports. Today, Sambo is recognized by FILA as the third form of international wrestling, though it is still in the infant stages of worldwide popularity.

Principles: Like a combination of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, Sambo hinges on a combination of take-down throws and ground grappling, with joint locks and choke holds being incorporated into it or not depending upon the individual style. That being said, Sambo is one of the more aggressive forms of grappling and/or wrestlingSambo hinges on a combination of take-down throws and ground grappling – likely a result of its origins as a military hand-to-hand combat system. As such, this form of martial art requires a good deal of strength and is less effective if the user is notably smaller than his opponent. All the same, when used against a similarly sized fighter or an off-guard opponent of slightly larger build, Sambo can be an incredibly effective means of defending oneself against assault.

Learn More: Combat Sambo

Honorable Mention

Mixed Martial Arts

History: If you are looking for a little bit of everything, then you can’t go wrong with Mixed Martial Arts. While MMA is hardly a new concept (people have been combining different fighting systems into more fluid forms of martial arts for centuries), the modern concept as we know it has only been around since about the 1920s, when Carlos and Hélio Gracie (the brothers who founded the famous Gracie school of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) issued a series of challenges to prove that their fighting system was, simply put, the best out there. Over time that evolved into sanctioned matches and began to spread around the world. This type of competition was first introduced to the U.S. in the early 1980s, but it wouldn’t be until the mid ’90s and the emergence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship that it would evolve into the massive sport we know and love today.

Principals: While there are many martial arts which contain multiple styles to be used on a case-by-case basis, none of them are quite as comprehensive as MMA. This single-combat focused fighting system encourages both users and teachers to incorporate the best of literally every single other martial art…Incorporates the best of literally every single other martial art. into their style, to be used as the situation calls for it. This can often be seen in the training of professional-level fighters, who – like playing a game of chess – will attempt to focus their styles on techniques that directly counter those of their opponents. For instance, if you are up against a championship boxer, a good MMA fighter would suggest taking the fight to the ground and counter their striking with grappling. Every MMA gym is different and they all have their own focus, as do individual instructors, so it’s fairly easy for any student to find a version they like and double down on it.

Learn More: MMA Fighting

Non-Lethal Home Defense Tools

If martial arts aren’t really your thing, but you still want to be able to defend yourself and your family, check out our list of the best non-lethal home defense tools.

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