What Self Defense Styles can Learn from Traditional Martial Arts

Semper Fi!

This article will be an expansion of some of my thoughts in “Is Karate Good for Self Defense?“. In it I will point out some of the ways that the style-divide has specialized Self Defense styles too much and how they can improve by adopting some training methodologies from Traditional Martial Arts.

First, though, let’s get clear on the terms we’ll be using. So what defines a “Traditional Martial Art” and a “Self Defense” style from one another? Speaking broadly, a traditional martial art has certain common characteristics such as distinct uniforms, bowing, kata, rituals/customs, classical weaponry and stricter hierarchy. In terms of it’s training you will often see “low” or “stylized” stances while performing drills and basics. Traditional systems also tend to lean toward a longer learning curve, as many of these styles had historical and practical reasons not to show everything right up front.

Self Defense (an industry umbrella term which is not style-specific) is often found claiming itself as more “down to earth” fighting. In schools that teach these systems you will often find more relaxed hierarchy, a complete absence of kata, many emphasize “soft skills” such as conflict deescalation and awareness, modern weaponry, and drilling of a smaller set of techniques from a “natural” fighting stance. Sparring focus varies here as well and often focuses around specific, “every day”, scenarios.


Now that we have these terms categorically defined let’s get to the heart of this article: how Self Defense styles can improve their training by going back to their roots.

(And before you read on, know that I am not talking about YOUR style, of course. I know that yours already does all of these things and more. I’m talking about that other style. Yes, that one. The one you’re thinking of right now. So there’s no need to write me any hate mail. Comments are welcome, though! ^_^)


1. Fitness – Now this isn’t something that Traditional Martial Arts has a monopoly over (and there are exceptions abound on both sides). However, a recognizable pattern can be observed when comparing the waistlines of exponents of Traditional Martial Arts verses those of Self Defense practitioners. Because many, if not most, Traditional Martial Arts have a strong focus on aerobic drills it has the pleasant side effect of trimmer bodies. Inversely, due to its emphasis on technical skills and reduction or elimination of more aerobic drills many Self Defense guys must adjunct their martial arts training with a separate fitness program.

2. Flexibility – I don’t necessarily mean being able to perform full splits. But being able to move your body through full range of motion has many benefits, not only in a fight, but for your overall health as well. One need only look at the positive physiological effects brought on by yoga to see that increasing and maintaining one’s flexibility can have many beneficial effects; including longer life! And living longer IS what defending yourself is all about.

3. Deep Stances – Deep stances while going through drills is an excellent way to improve your muscles through isometric stress. This method however, is all but extinct in SD schools – seen as, at best, as an inefficient way to train.

4. ‘Training as a way of Life’  – Self Defense courses teach many good techniques that can devastate an attacker. Many do this over a short term period of usually a few weeks or less (sometimes just a few hours). The most probable reason why is because their target market is often busy adults who do not possess the inclination to rearrange their schedule to accommodate long term training.

The problem with these short term courses is that by its very nature the training doesn’t continue, and when skills go unused they languish and die. The importance of this cannot be overstated as the life threatening situation a person may face could be a decade away. What good are the five “thug-stoppers” they picked up in a 7-day course if they cannot remember how to use them effectively?

5. Humility -

  • DVD Programs: “Fear no one”, “Strike terror in common thugs”, “Strangle a bear with your c*ck”, etc. Advertising statements like these attempt to instill the notion that all one needs to do is buy the purported training program and instantly become 10 Bruce Lee’s all rolled into one. This notion, in a foolish or inexperienced mind, can cause someone to take certain chances they might not otherwise; which can be more dangerous than not having any training at all.
  • Schools: Many of them get caught up in their own marketing and branding and begin to look down on other arts. This is folly not only because it ignores that their own arts were not born in a vacuum in their current form as result of divine inspiration, but also instill illusions of superiority in many of their practitioners. And who wants to hang out with someone like that?

6. Application – This may sound counter-intuitive, but one factor that I have seen among some schools that bill themselves as ‘strictly self defense’ is that they will teach techniques and then drill the hell out of them. This is a good thing and extremely valuable in establishing muscle memory and smooth execution. However, some of them will not go beyond and use these techniques in even the most controlled sparring or non-compliant flow drills. The end result is theoretical self defense and that simply isn’t good enough.


The good news is that several of these issues (particularly fitness, flexibility, and application) are being addressed in the current evolution of many Self Defense course’s curriculum. This, I believe, is due strongly in part because of the public’s changing expectations coinciding with the growth of MMA. Personally, I find it ironic – and highly encouraging – to see that a sport oriented fighting system has helped to draw closer together these until recently entrenched dogmas.


So, what would you add to this and why?(And don’t worry, you SD guys will have your turn next week.)




2 thoughts on “What Self Defense Styles can Learn from Traditional Martial Arts

  1. Pingback: What Traditional Martial Arts can Learn from Self Defense | Kyokushin Karate Blog

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