6 Popular Martial Arts For Fitness And Self-Defense

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There’s no way you will be able to say which martial arts is better than another. But what we know for sure is that they all can help us stay fit and also teach us techniques for self-defense. It also improves our reflexes and instincts.

Here are some of the best and most popular today in the modern world.

1) Muay Thai

Also known as “The Art of Eight Limbs”, Muay Thai is a stand-up self-defense program that uses the hands, shins, elbows and knees, hence the eight limbs designation. Born out of street-fighting in Thailand, participants execute a series of moves involving kicking, punching, elbowing, kneeing and clinch fighting –  a type of stand-up grappling similar to kickboxing. Many Muay Thai moves are used by MMA (Mixed Martial Art) fighters in the ring. Under its philosophy, a 100-pound woman can knock out a 200-pound man, making it a great self-defense martial art program for kids and smaller frame women. You can’t be too careful nowadays.

Clinch fighting for self-defense differs from clinch fighting in the ring in that it involves the use of “dirty tactics”, like groin slaps, throat strikes and eye gauges. Because of the intensity of training, participants typically improve their strength, flexibility and explosiveness, add lean muscle to their frame, and take their cardio training to new heights. A typical 50-minute class can burn anywhere from 350 to 500 calories depending on your weight, gender, body composition and intensity level.

Training for Muay Thai normally consists of two phases: a technical portion where the moves for that week are learned and culminate with an actual fight with a sparring partner. Each week focuses on a different set of moves.

Muay Thai is generally open to people of all ages, however, some training facilities limit their minimum age to 18. Check with your prospective gym for a minimum age before signing up if the participant will be under 18 years old.

Participants must wear protective equipment during training including head gear, mouthpiece, shin guards, boxing gloves (16-ounce for men; 14-ounce for women) and groin protection. Wearing athletic gear, like shorts and a t-shirt (or sports bra for females), along with bare feet round out the training uniform. Wear what is comfortable for you because you will get hot and sweaty during a training session.

From a self-defense practicality stand-point, Muay Thai is middle of the road. Because it is for stand-up fighting only, you’ll want to resort to a different style of martial arts once your opponent is on the ground, such as Krav Maga or Brazilian Jiujitsu.

As demonstrated, not only is Muay Thai great for self-protection, but it also makes for a great fitness program, making time spent training well spent. If this looks like something you would like to learn, search out a training facility near you by Googling “Muay Thai”.

2) Soteria Method

Born out of the martial art of Krav Maga and the need to fulfil her personal mission of self-defense after getting sexually assaulted, Avital Zeisler developed the Soteria method of self-defense in 2013. While most other forms of self-defense make no differentiation between the sexes, this method does. And it makes the connection with not only being physically safe, but mentally safe too. Anyone who has been sexually assaulted knows the value of healing mentally and being of strong mind.

Their mantra is “360-degree approach to self-care through self-defense, fitness and empowerment”. Their goal is to equip women with the mental and physical skills needed to be safe without compromising their femininity. For example, one lesson in this method teaches women how to defend themselves while wearing high heels (Stiletto defense) or when carrying a purse (using it as a weapon).

Much like C.O.B.R.A. training, the Soteria method is rooted in real-life scenarios, practicality and situational awareness, but without the paranoia – you stay in control. Situations women can encounter like getting money out of an ATM or walking in from her car to her apartment can be fraught with danger – especially if done at night. Not every situation can be dealt with a certain move or defensive measure as taught with other forms of martial art.

But having been taught to think on her feet through empowerment and self-defense training, and having the strength from the fitness aspect of being physically strong enough to fight off an attacker, she can not only survive an attack unscathed (even from someone larger than her), but put down an aggressor and hold that person submissive until the police arrive.

It is the physical strength derived from the intense fitness workouts coupled with the self-defense skills and the empowerment of knowing she apply the skills as deemed necessary to defend off an attack that makes the difference in this style of feminine self-defense.

The fitness part of the method strengthens the abdominal core, glutes and arms along with providing a cardiovascular workout that burns calories and tones muscle, so as an offshoot is good training to lose weight just from the calorie burn aspect.

In today’s world, one cannot be too careful; as a female it is even more critical to first avoid getting into situations that could end with sexual assault, but if left no other choice, having the skills and training to protect oneself using whatever weapon is available (high heels, purse, etc.) at hand or just using her body as a weapon, if left with no other choice.

3) Systema

Systema is a hand-to-hand self-defense system developed by the Russian Special Forces that uses breathing, relaxation, body position and the physics of movement and leverage to defeat a larger opponent, instead of using specific learned moves as in more traditional types of self-defense training programs. They train that a soldier must rely on himself and has to know how to survive under a variety of conditions including being wounded, facing multiple opponents and in adverse weather conditions.

Because each situation is different, what might work against one opponent might not against another. Or what might work against a singular opponent might be different than what would be used against multiple ones. That is why it is important to have an arsenal of principals based on science at your disposal. Systema teaches how to think on your feet and pick and apply the most applicable solution to the situation.

The principals include several variations of moves based on motion, such as strikes, punches, kicks, take-downs, grabs and chokes. Anyone can learn how to do Systema training as it only uses 25% of a person’s physical strength. The training teaches how to use body weight, point of support, rotation and leverage to defeat an attacker.

For example, if an attacker is going to punch you in the face or thrust at you with a knife, make sure you are far enough away that he will have to lean forward. This puts him at a disadvantage balance-wise. Grab his arm and pull him the rest of the way off balance. At that point you can either break his arm or accelerate his fall downward smashing his face on the ground or better yet concrete.

The second part of the training focuses on human psychology, breathing and meditation. In other words, learning techniques that allow you to be able to stay calm and in control of stressful situations. Learn how to predict what your opponent will do next by reading his emotions and body language, and then be ready to defend against it by using his energy against him. Not only will this part be useful in self-defense, but can be used to combat everyday stress.

As a caution, you should only use enough force to eliminate the threat. You will know how to use deadly force if necessary, but don’t use it unless you have no other means of eliminating the threat.

Because Systema is so diverse, it takes longer to learn. However unlike other forms of self-defense, once learned, you’ll have the training to defend yourself in an unlimited number of situations.

4) Brazilian Jujitsu

Brazilian jujitsu is a self-defense martial art that focuses on a smaller individual taking down a larger opponent to the ground using leverage and subduing him or her using a series of chokeholds and joint locks. Born out of the martial art judo in 1882, it differs from many other martial arts in that is also a sport and a method of physical fitness.

While there are many different moves at all levels, as a beginner, you’ll want to focus on these moves:

  • Mount
  • Closed Guard
  • Knee on Stomach

It is important to get these down pat as they are used as a base to build more advanced techniques.


With this position, you are on top straddling your opponent who is on his back. From here you can vary the basic position by leaning forward in effect making it hard for them to breathe. It is also a good move if you need a short rest yourself. Make sure your hands are wider than shoulder-width apart to give you a good wide solid base.

Other variations include wrapping one arm behind your opponent’s neck and pulling their head into your body – another smothering move. If they are bending their legs at the knee trying to buck you off, another variation is locking up their legs by moving your legs under their knees, spreading their legs wide and lifting up their legs using the leverage of your knees.

Closed Guard

In this position you are on the ground facing up with your opponent on top of you in between your legs. While it may seem you are at a disadvantage, you are not. The object is to get loose and to a more advantageous position such as the mount.

To start, lock your legs behind your opponent’s back keeping your head off of the floor or ground.  Now straighten your legs as hard as you can. This in effect crushes in your opponent’s mid-section from the sides making it very uncomfortable. Next grab ahold of your opponent’s shoulder with one arm and right above their elbow with your other hand. Push with the upper hand while pulling with the lower hand thus rolling your opponent off of you and putting you on top where you can apply the Mount.

Knee on Stomach

In this position you are on top with your right knee pressing down on your opponent’s stomach; your left knee is out to your left side to provide a solid base; your right arm is grabbing their belt; your left arm is grabbing the right side of their collar. To control your opponent, apply downward force with the knee that is on their stomach.

As a variation, grab the other side of your opponent’s collar and lock their arm under your armpit with your left arm. With direct pressure on your opponent’s stomach, this is a very uncomfortable positon.

Mastering these three positions give you a good base to start from. From here you can also learn other basic moves along with Transitions, Escapes, Locks and Chokes.

5) C.O.B.R.A

The Combat Objective Battle Ready Applications (C.O.B.R.A.) is a reality-based self-defense program that is a combination of law enforcement tactics, close quarter combat techniques, with some martial arts and criminal intent psychology thrown in for good measure. What is isn’t is a sport or match point type of competition. It is a collection of learned skills based on real attack scenarios that can save your life when survival is at stake.

Because as a victim you don’t get to choose when and where an attack will take place, you need to know how to react fast in many different type scenarios, which is what C.O.B.R.A. training teaches.

Attackers depend on the shock and awe factor to give them time to subdue you before you have time to react. With this training, you’ll instantly know what you must do and then do it to quell the situation.

What do you do if your attacker has a knife? Or a gun? Or if there are more than one of them? Or, Or, Or …. I think you get the point. There are numerous situations that can be potentially deadly for you unless you have been trained on how to react.

You’ll also learn how to control fear and panic, how to read an attacker’s body language, how to avoid conflict in the first place and what to do if all routes of escape are blocked, plus so much more.

Most courses run in length from a 1-day Protection/Security specialist survival camp to full-blown, 10-week, in-house police academy-style complete self-defense programs. Some also have options for a month-long extreme boot camp experience.

Other courses are more specialized such as Weapons Defense, Abductions and Anti-Kidnapping, and the popular Active Shooter Response training –  a topic in the news so much nowadays.

C.O.B.R.A. training can literally mean the difference between life and death and anyone can do it from kids as young as 5 years old, to senior citizens, working professionals, and stay-at-home moms.

The training is especially beneficial for those whose job it is to protect others, such providing protection to CEOs or private contractors in high risk areas. Other students benefiting from the training include law enforcement (LE) and the military.

It is training you may never have to use, but it is better to know how to react than to get in a situation and be the helpless victim.

Seek out training in your area today and learn how to protect yourself. Just Google “COBRA Self-Defense” to find a training facility in your area. They are located world-wide.

6) Krav Maga

Developed by the Israeli Defense Forces, Krav Maga is a hand-to-hand combat system from the standing position that doesn’t require any equipment and can be done wearing street clothes.

Groin Kick

From a staggered stance (your dominant leg behind you) and facing your opponent, engage your hip flexors by kicking up and out with your dominant leg. Bring your kicking leg right up between your opponent’s legs contacting his groin with your shin.

As a natural response, your opponent will bend over at the waist. Now with your dominant arm, twist and swing toward the side of your opponent’s head hitting him with your elbow using the force from the swing and twist of your body driving him to the ground.

Defending the Outside Strike

To defend against someone taking a swing at you, raise your hand to protect your face and to block the swing of your opponent’s arm, while at the same time punching him in the throat, chin or nose with your other hand.

The Bear Hug Release

This is a defense move if someone comes up from behind you and grabsyou thereby pressing your arms against the sides of your body. Once in the bear hug, drop your center of gravity by executing a squat. This makes it harder for your opponent to pick you up.

With your feet shoulder-width apart, slightly twist your hips to the side and drive your arm up and into your attacker’s groin. This should break his hold on you.

Now turn around while facing him, execute your elbow to the side of his head as explained in the Groin Kick.

Two-handed Rear Choke Hold

If an attacker comes up behind you and is choking you with both hands, execute the following movements to break free.

Take one step forward. Now turn in the direction of your rearward leg while bringing up your arm of the same side. This should break the hold. While facing your opponent, either hit him in the side of his head using the force of your elbow of your opposite arm as explained in Groin Kick, or strike him in the throat, chin or nose as explained in Defending the Outside Strike.

All four of these moves are easy to learn and as you can see, incorporate elements from one move as part of the execution of another move. This makes learning the moves easy as it reduces the number of elements that must be learned to adequately protect yourself.

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