Are Traditional Martial Arts Useless for Self-Defense?

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me but I’m crazy about martial arts, and have been training in Taekwondo for the last eight years – finally achieving my 1st Dan (1st Degree black belt) in December last year.

Over the course of my training, I’ve had to answer a couple of different questions and most of the time I’ve got no problem with that but there are some questions which I, and many other martial artists, just despise.

One such question is: Are traditional martial arts useless for self-defense?

Martial arts aren’t as useful to self-defense as you might think – though this is debatable. Though there are usable aspects to traditional styles which can be applied to self-defense, martial arts aren’t always useful in real-life situations.

Martial Arts vs. Self-Defense

There is a profound difference between martial arts and self-defense.

Martial arts training is very choreographed and highly focused on techniques and, in some cases, competition. You learn patterns/forms – both armed and unarmed, sparring, and yes, some self-defense stuff.

Unfortunately, the self-defense aspect is often approached from a worst-case scenario, and is very sequential; your partner will do something specific, and you react/counter with a specific move or sequence of moves.

Self-defense training is a bit more… practical. The training is similar in some regards, and different in others. One key difference is that, in some classes, you learn to de-escalate a situation which adds some context to your scenario.

You’re still learning techniques, but the techniques are much simpler to use and adaptable to any and all situations. This simplicity – when done right – reduces and/or eliminates a huge problem in martial arts training: information overload.

There are Usable Aspects to Traditional Martial Arts, but…

Let me ask you something, what are some of the common things you see in a fight? In actual fights you see guys using anything and everything that they can use. You see punches, kicks, knees, elbows, and headbutts to name just a few techniques.

Having been kicked in the head and throat many, many times I can tell you that it’s not pleasant. Taking knees and elbows to the head and face will do plenty of damage; being thrown around like a ragdoll can lead to some nasty injuries and joint locks – if you can pull them off – can be extremely painful.

With that said, there’s a pretty big ‘but’ at the end of it all because there are several issues with traditional martial arts and self-defense. The first one is a doozy: information overload.

Information Overload in Traditional Martial Arts

What do I mean by information overload? That’s quite simple, the self-defense stuff is kept separate from everything else.

The curriculum where I train includes:

  • Forms
  • Sparring
  • Weapon Form
  • Weapon Sparring
  • Self-Defense

Now, the self-defense stuff that we do is only an occasional thing rather than a regular part of practice.

Additionally, every part of the curriculum is different, and none of the self-defense stuff appears in the forms or other aspects of training which means we can’t practice and pressure-test what we’re learning.

The regular forms and the weapon forms are completely different, and the sparring and weapon sparring are also different – working on different rules.

So, now you have to remember the two different forms (note: you have to remember ALL of your previous forms as you go through the black belt levels) and different rulesets for sparring.

With the self-defense sequences being different for each level from white through the black belt levels you have so much to remember.

Impractical Training

The training methods are very impractical. When it comes to the training, it’s largely compliant in nature.

What do I mean by this? Well, there’s little to no resistance in how the techniques are executed. You are being allowed to complete the movements/techniques; your partner is not really trying to prevent you from pulling them off.

This poses an obvious problem when you’re in a self-defense situation because you’re not used to people trying to prevent you from managing to pull off a joint lock, throw, or fancy sequence of movements.

Little or No Realism

On a related note, there’s very little realism to the training. Self-defense training in traditional arts largely unrealistic; approaching a situation from the worst-case scenario i.e. your attacker has already got hold of you or has a weapon in your face.

There’s no real context to the scenario, and the violence of the encounter is completely ignored.

We talk about awareness frequently but there’s little/no emphasis on the training and/or use of awareness and we don’t do de-escalation and/or prevention drills at all.

Little to No Practical Weapons Training

We do have weapons training, but we train with weapons which, apart from the long and short sticks, are largely impractical.

Nobody carries or uses nunchakus, scythes, and/or swords anymore. In terms of practical weapons, the only ones that I can think of are the cane, short stick, and knife, and we don’t train with those weapons beyond a form. The knife is the only weapon without a form, and we hardly touch that one as a result.

Charlatanism and Fakery

Every article I’ve read touches on this aspect so it’s kind of like beating a dead horse at this point – if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase – but there’s a reason this is always brought up.

There are so many different martial arts styles and so many different schools/organizations out there that it’s difficult to determine what’s good and what’s not. This makes it surprisingly easy for someone to teach absolute garbage and get away with it.

These fake, or unlicensed instructors can cause very serious problems for martial arts in general but they can cause even worse problems when it comes to self-defense – teaching things that would never work and putting your life or the lives of those you care about in jeopardy.

The Final Verdict

So, what’s the final verdict?

It depends on the school, but martial arts in general is full of problems. With that said, there are usable aspects to traditional styles which can be applied to self-defense situations.

There are also many ways for average Joes to learn how to fight and defend themselves with Krav Maga and MMA classes being readily available – most self-defense / combatives instructors will recommend MMA over Krav Maga due to the more consistent quality control.

The age of the internet has given rise to online learning – a neat little thing which received a nice boost thanks to the pandemic. This means that you can learn martial arts online from the comfort of your living room. With that said, however, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Not all styles are created equal – some will be more practical than others.
  2. Quality control is all over the place when it comes to self-defense and martial arts classes so do as much research as you can before spending $300 or more on a course.
  3. The online route is great but it’s better to have an instructor physically present to help you address any issues you may have.

I’ve loved every minute of the training from the last eight years and I’m going to keep going for as long as I can just for the fun of it. In closing, I wish I could say that this would end the debate on whether traditional styles are useful in self-defense situations, but I doubt it will. The debate will rage for as long as martial arts exists.

In closing, I’d like to say thanks for reading. I hope you guys enjoyed this article and that it gave you something to think about. I’ll see you soon but in the meantime train hard, kick high, and stay safe.

5 thoughts on “Are Traditional Martial Arts Useless for Self-Defense?”

  1. As a retired police officer and having grown up in Detroit, real fights are no joke and most martial arts will not see you through a real fight successfully. Martial arts, as practiced today are sports, not combat arts. I have been in fights with martial artists and they were very surprised when their skills didn’t work on me. Yes, I’ve been trained in police defensive tactics, some of which are useless, some are not. The Marine Corps also taught me some useful skills (mainly mental skills) as did growing up in Detroit. I remember our close combat instructor in boot camp. He was a huge Hawaiian. He told us that he had black belts in karate and judo, but if he was in a real life or death fight, he wouldn’t hesitate to pickup a 2×4 and club his opponent to death. And nor should we hesitate. Sometimes, in the immortal words of Josey Wales, “Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean.” BTDT.

  2. Matt in Oklahoma

    TDA by itself is not good. Different TDAs combined into a MMA is best. Fighting is complex and also requires thinking. Fighting is not a sport. There are sports with fighting but it’s not the same.
    Think of it like a mechanic who uses different tools for different applications. You don’t use a hammer on a headlight or a spark plug gap on a transmission. Size matters in how you approach it. In sport fighting these days they make it even. In real fighting especially in professions like corrections, police and military you don’t get to choose. You don’t get “feel out” time and there’s only one rule and that’s to survive. Many times you’ll hear comments like “you only need BJJ” right up until your opponent introduces a knife. You’ll hear “devastate them in one move” which I’ll fight anyone doing that one move because it’s bullshido. Learn TDAs but incorporate them all.

  3. “Dear Charles Atlas I have completed the course, now please send me the muscles”. Comes to mind! Any training is good, however its function is to impart some ability to the participant as the primary objective, there again it is up to the individual to further develop the skill, body conditioning, mindset and situational awareness that make a person capable of effective self defense and this is for life not just for Christmas! Regards

  4. It depends entirely on what you study, how you study it and from whom you learn.

    I’ve seen a “black belt” lose a bar fight in under a minute. I’ve also seen a “veteran cop” lose an MMA fight and get choked unconscious by a 14 year old girl in under 90 seconds. I’ve also personally been attacked with a knife twice. I’m here, one of the attackers is in prison and another went “home” in the meatwagon. Got a scar the chicks love from that second encounter.

    McDojo is as useful as McDonald’s. It’s poison.

  5. Some boxing, some Brazilian Ju Jitsu, and a bit of stand up grapling from Greco Roman wrestling and you’re all set. Done.

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