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In the case of studying martial arts for the purpose of self defense, I am often asked which martial art is the best to study. This is a bit of a loaded question, as I truly believe that studying any art correctly is going to make someone more equipped than not studying an art. I find it much more important to choose a proper school and instructor. Much like choosing a proper BJJ school, there are a number of aspects to consider (see my previous article Your Gym or Mine? for some insight—much of which can be applied to this same question at hand). However, there are some considerations to bring to the forefront and address specifically as it relates to self defense. I will also do my best to discuss these in some level of importance, or at the very least to point out the reason of importance in each consideration.

1. Exercise – Plain and Simple

First and foremost is what your body is getting out of it. There is little point to studying self defense if you are not exercising to increase stamina, strength, and body movement. Yes, this can be accomplished as a supplement. If you have a regular workout routine, and are looking for technique to be a supplement to already staying fairly fit, that is a fine way to go about it and the sections following will become the more important details. However, for most, there is a limited amount of time in a busy week to allot towards activities outside of the regular routine of work, life, and family.

If one physical workout a day (barring rest days) or multiple workouts a week is not regular routine for you, then I consider this imperative. Adding in another activity that you cannot consider a legitimate workout (sustaining an increased heart rate, warm-ups and warm-downs, cardio and sweat, strength training) simply doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

If you do keep a fairly regular routine, your self defense training should be an aspect of it. If you do not keep a regular routine, your self defense training should become it. Along with the physical aspect (let me be frank – if you get winded during technique practice, it will fall apart when you truly need it), there is a mental aspect (confidence is an excellent mindset in any threatening situation), and a social aspect (poise is an excellent deterrent to attack).

A subset to consider is what type of workout should be expected for proper self defense training. I would place an emphasis on cardio, core strength, movement and balance, endurance, and finally pure strength. Ideally strength will come in explosive strength and functional full body strength training, along with isolated strength training.

For a fairly balanced view, check out THIS ROUTINE from Muscle and Fitness

This is just my opinion of what is most applicable to performing fighting techniques. The bottom line is that if you aren’t fit enough to keep a regular workout routine, this lack of fitness will be compounded in a real world situation—when your heart rate shoots through the roof, you have shortness of breath, adrenaline is spiking and/or dumping, and your muscles are draining oxygen faster than you’re used to. In true self defense training, if you aren’t sweating, you aren’t training. Choose a school and art that understands this.

2. Self Defense Schools Should Require an Actual Attack

This naturally flows into my thoughts on active high-intensity sparring or applied technique training being an absolute must in self defense training. Any self defense school that does not force its intermediate and advanced students to apply these techniques in some type of sparring should be considered a danger to its students. Thinking you know how to fight your way out of a threatening situation can sometimes be more dangerous than complying (depending on what the goal of the threat is). Technique alone will not guarantee clear thought in a scary and threatening situation. Our minds and bodies simply react differently, go blank, and make mistakes when our stress levels are high, adrenaline is pumping through our veins, and our sense of fear is real. This reaction to fear and intensity truly needs to be practiced in order to keep these mental and physical reactions under control when it is needed most.

I’m not suggesting every proper self defense school should have its students strap on four-ounce gloves and get in the cage for a full contact battle, but, some level of sparring should take place. Perhaps the more important distinction in self defense sparring is that it must include the attacker continuing to attack with the same goal of winning the situation (whatever it may be) that the defender has. It’s just like the famous Mike Tyson quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” If you do not know the hard truth of this, then guess what? You’ve never been punched in the mouth. This does leave you ill-equipped to fight on the street. It will all change when you realize this is more than a training partner. Other methods of self defense preparation were discussed by Coach Mikal here in this  FREE 30 minute mini video course on escaping bondage and less-than-awesome situations anyone hopes they are never actually in!

The type of sparring can vary greatly (review a few different styles here that can be effective in giving the student an upper hand without the level of intensity in the video below) but should be directly related to the type of self defense you are training. Boxing in a ring will definitely make you considerably better than the average person in a fist fight, but it won’t necessarily matter much against an attacker with a weapon. Sport grappling will make you considerably more effective one-on-one, but may not give you all of the answers against a group or in an unknown environment or crowd. Which brings me to the next consideration…

3. You Fight How You Train, so Train How You (intend to) Fight!

If you are looking for a full spectrum of self defense, this training must cover all of it. Since self defense, in most cases, is intended for the unknown; this means training for everything. Now, for some, self defense training might be specific: crowd control, military, law enforcement, security, overpowering a larger stronger attacker. If so, it makes sense to lean heavily to the most likely situation. There are always unknowns, but, for example, if it most likely that a student will be utilizing the techniques in a real world situation where he/she will be wearing a law enforcement vest and belt with a specific set of tools, place the emphasis there. This article from Breaking Muscle discusses these differences in detail. If there is a personal goal of just being able to escape the grasp of a larger unarmed aggressor, place the emphasis there. If the goal is all around self defense, choose a school (or schools) that will cover the larger spectrum (and expect it to take years of study):

  • Situational Awareness
  • Demeanor and Self Presentation
  • Deescalation and Diffusion
  • Escape
  • Misdirection and Movement Manipulation
  • Degrees of Violence (control to destruction to legal ramifications)
  • Striking (hands, elbows, knees, kicks, head)
  • Dirty (eye gouges, biting, hair pulling, pain compliance)
  • Throwing, Takedowns, Takedown Defense
  • Grappling (standing and groundwork)
  • Range (long, medium, close)
  • Weaponry (empty hand versus, weapon to weapon, versus empty hand, sticks, blades, firearms, etc)
  • Multiple Attacker
  • Multiple Defender
  • Surprise Attacks
  • Riot, Crowd Control, and Crowd Violence

This is a good, but probably not exhaustive, list of true self defense training. So, if the goal is self defense consider what the school covers throughout its curriculum. If the school and instruction you choose does not cover all of this, make sure it covers your intended or most likely scenarios. Depending on how your whittle down or expand on this list, you will now need to consider…

4. Commitment to Your Self Defense School

The final piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one that can help you select a particular art and certainly a particular school (if the options of excellent training and instruction are extensive). Combining everything I’ve touched on above with the amount of commitment you are able to extend, will allow you to truly zero in on the training that you would like to engage in. How many hours, days, and weekends can you reasonably put into training? Equally or more important—how many years? Will you be able to get everything you want by committing to a single school, or in your area, will this require multiple schools (concurrently or over time)? What do you want to gain first and foremost? There are great schools that can rather quickly guarantee you will be safer and more confident on the street. Certainly against the vast majority of likely scenarios. Picking what those may be depends on who you are, where you live, where you frequent, the circles you travel in, etc. Just remember, if your goal is to develop effective self defense, skip the schools and instruction that will offer little in the way of exercise, high-intensity sparring (no it does not need to reach the level in the video above, but it does need to reach some level), a range of training that covers your intention, and true commitment on both your part and the instructor’s. Shy of meeting those requirements, you will simply be studying an Art or a sport, not Self Defense.

John Bishop

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