Choosing a Martial Art for Self Defense

Choosing a Martial Art for Self Defense

When thinking about personal protection people often want to know what martial art they should study.  A lot of instructors are quick to point out the popular styles that the military and police are studying but my view is becoming more concept based.  The quick answer is to choose a martial art you will continue to practice.  All skill is developed over time.

When looking at a martial art first decide what you want to learn.  There is a difference in learning an art, learning combat with an art, and learning to compete with an art.  One is not better than the other but they are different and the effect on your present lifestyle will vary with what you decide.

I have a traditional Chinese martial arts background.  Often we would have people in class that would want to talk as much as practice and then go out for Chinese food afterward.  Then they would complain about not progressing in the system. This is a lifestyle choice.  It is born from not understanding how much work is needed to gain the desired skill…or not actually wanting the skill in the first place.  In-other-words, personal protection was not a significant reason to take the martial art.  For these students the romantic fantasy of defending themselves with kung fu became, at best, a hobby.  These students had forgotten why poor Chinese peasants learned to fight and how “Kung Fu” was developed.  They did not remember why theses first students worked hard and suffered much in class.  It was because they were suffering much in life.

Once I overheard an older gentleman ask the teacher, “How come it looks like he is actually doing something?”  The answer is that I practiced at home not just in class.  Understanding your true reasons for choosing a martial art will help you choose one you will stick with and make a part of your lifestyle, a part of you.

Considerations of what to study need to go beyond the art itself.  Time, money and distance to the school are examples.  I was present when a student was complaining about having to drive 45 minutes to class.  Our teachers response was that he had to go all the way to China for 13 years.  (Imagine being a broke white guy in China with very limited language and cultural skills trying to learn national treasures.)  The student’s complaint had a measure of validity.  He was in a difficult situation.  We shared sympathy but we didn’t share the understanding of what the teacher was saying.  Simply put, you have to change your situation to what is really important to you. You have to commit, totally and completely.  For the student, a change in strategy was the answer.  All martial arts require an appropriate body for that art.  He stopped attending for about seven months.  When he returned he was stronger, much more flexible and his basics had improved a great deal.  He remarked positively about training by himself.  Of course all of this does take us back to the considerations that are specific to the art.

Body Type

Your body type will help you set realistic expectations so listen to it.  A big-boned person is not likely to do well in a fast high-kicking style.  I tried a few Japanese arts and I found out I cannot sustain the kneeling position for any length of time.  It is just a fact of my genetics.  Running, squats, stretching or whatever else will not change that for me.  So I moved on.  When you look at a martial art look at what you will be able to do in that art.  Don’t sell yourself short.  If you are serious, you will get in shape.  You can learn to do things you never thought you could do.  Just be realistic about what that means and what you will be able to do. If you think you may be fantasizing about being able to grow into an ability or develop into being able to do a certain technique, look at yourself in a mirror for 3 minutes then sleep on it.  It has a grounding effect.


Culture is important if you are wanting to learn an art.  History, language, protocol, cultural mindset, etc. are going to require a significant portion of time.  If you are just wanting to prepare for combat it is less important.  It is a matter of degree. Some instructors understand how to teach to different objectives, others only understand the art.  Take care to understand your instructor.  In my experience looking for Chinese martial art schools I found most did not understand the combat use of the art.

Practical vs. Traditional

“Practical” or technique driven martial arts vs. “Traditional” martial arts is really an answer to a lack of understanding of the combat use of a traditional art and a lack of time to get to the point where the combat use of the traditional art can be employed.  In practical martial arts a lot of the culture, protocols, and formality are stripped away in favor of focusing on the combat use of the techniques.  Often the footwork and transitioning between combinations is more intuitive in a practical martial art whereas you have to learn to make the footwork natural in several traditional martial arts.

“Practical” martial arts are a quick way to start learning how to defend yourself. They are not systems that require a long time to learn what you need.  I am not saying they do not require time to develop skill; however, a practical defensive response can be put into play without having achieved a very high degree of skill.  Again, the movements flow with what the body does naturally as opposed to a human being mimicking a tiger or being rooted in traditional stances seen in several systems throughout the world.

In contrast, a traditional art might have an approach like this: In my first kung fu school, I was told I would not be able to defend myself for two years but at the end of two years I would be able to defeat most people. The first two things I began learning were how to avoid getting into fights…so I could make it two years.  The other thing was how to use a staff.  I practiced codified stances and transitions into other codified stances.  I was told to follow along as students practiced forms. If I got lost then I was to find a place to jump back into the form. Asking questions during class was very much frowned upon. I was to watch. I was to listen. I was to find understanding. I began to develop strength and an awareness of my body as a whole organism.  At the end of two years I felt capable of defending myself but the urgency and fear that started me there had long since subsided.  I began to see that I had not been there for what I wanted. Something else had been going on.  I punched and kicked but I had not been taught to fight with my hands and feet.  The person defends himself or herself.  I grew more as a person and learned more life lessons during these two years than I have doing anything else in my life. This is one example of a traditional art.

So what martial art should you take?  Well your will and a little luck is ultimately what stops a threat. So maybe the best starting point is to strengthen your will.

Both Practical and Traditional martial arts will have challenges.  Overcoming challenges strengthens the will.  The body can do more than the mind thinks it can.  Knowing this also means that the will can be developed through other means besides martial arts. Running an extra mile or two, running faster, challenging personal fears like public speaking, etc.

I often think about a story Tony Blauer tells: A man was fighting off a home invader who was welding an ax. The man grabbed and held onto the ax blade as it was swung at his head. He kept fighting the invader until the invader ran off.  The man fighting off the invader was protecting his family.  All of his will was focused on protecting his family. There were no other considerations.  He sacrificed his hand because instinctively he was removing the weapon from the fight. The question Mr. Blauer, the inventor of S.P.E.A.R. and founder of Blauer Tactical Systems, poses is how many martial artists would grab an ax blade, sacrificing their hand.  Since you do what you practice would a martial artist even think or respond in a way that has him making such a sacrifice.  Another way to think about this is that maybe the most extreme tactic is the correct one.  What we see here is interesting, a comparison between defense as an instinctive animal or defense as a trained disciplined combatant.

I believe some form of balance should be the goal.  Training is good.  It helps you develop a plan.  It strengthens the will. Fitness is good.  It gives you athleticism.  A solid understanding of anatomy is good.  It gives you targets to stop the threat.  However, you do not want to train out all of what the animal gives you.  A simple, solid understanding of defense concepts contribute to your tactical edge.  (In the case of the man defending his home, he unknowingly used a concept called, Investing in Loss.)

Ultimately, personal protection is all a matter of focusing your emotional need to protect.  You want a fighting style that will give you efficiency and skill in a way you may actually fight. You want an art that when it comes to its combat use, has techniques that begin at the emotional start of the defensive encounter.  The art has to have depth.  Whatever style of martial art you choose, to whatever degree you augment your lifestyle, have strength of will, develop that will and follow that will with a clarity of purpose.