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What Every Woman and Parent Needs to Know About Women’s Self-Defense

Let’s face it, you could be the target of physical violence…  It happens all the time in our society.  It could happen while you’re commuting, walking down the street, at your place of work, or even in your own home.  

And yes, statistically speaking, you’ll probably never have to defend yourself or your loved ones over the course of your life time.  But you don’t ever want to be put in that position and realize you don’t know what to do.  That’s why self-defense is an integral part of mastering personal resilience.

Not surprisingly, self-defense is of even more concern for women than for the guys.  So if you’re a woman trying to figure out the best way to learn self-defense or if you’re a parent wondering where you can send your daughter, what should you do?  The array of options out there is bewildering. 

To help you out, I’ve rated most of the readily available alternatives for you here.  Keep in mind that there’s no way I could cover every possible style or system, and that one of the most important variables is the one you’ll have to rate for yourself – the quality of the instructor(s).  

The Rating System:



The most desirable rating under each category is 5.  Just think of it as a “5 star” rating šŸ˜‰


Availability: this refers to your chances of finding competent instruction in this style/system in an average major city.


Speed: 5 stars here means the style will make you genuinely effective at defending yourself in the shortest possible time.


Sophistication: The less sophisticated systems may give you a baseline self-defense capability, even quickly, but may keep you from progressing beyond that level.  The most sophisticated styles, on the other hand, have incredible potential.  Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a trade-off between speed and sophistication, and a less sophisticated system may serve your immediate purposes.


Grappling / Striking: This refers to the style’s preference, since almost all of them prefer one or the other.  While ideally you want a mix of both, striking (e.g., punching, kicking, elbowing, etc.) is certainly the more important, especially in the early stages.  


Applicability (to women’s self-defense): Does the style / system leverage a woman’s natural abilities and take into account her physical characteristics?  


Martial Art: Karate
Country of origin: Okinawa, Japan
Availability: 5
Speed: 3
Sophistication: 2
Grappling/Striking: S
Applicability: 2
Overall Rating: 3
Karate is often taught as a sport, rather than for self-defense.  If taught specifically as self-defense, it could bring you to a reasonable level of competence in a short time.  However, it has stylistic elements that can inhibit further progress.


Martial Art: Taekwondo
Country of origin: Korea
Availability: 5
Speed: 3
Sophistication: 2
Grappling/Striking: S
Applicability: 2
Overall Rating: 3
Same comments as for Karate.

Martial Art: Jiu-Jitsu
Country of origin: Japan
Availability: 5
Speed: 3
Sophistication: 3
Grappling/Striking: G
Applicability: 3
Overall Rating: 3+
Although primarily a grappling system, jiu-jitsu verges on a “mixed system”.  It may lack the sophistication of more “internal” arts, but it can be learned to a basic level quite quickly.  Particularly worthy of a look-see is modern “Brazilian Jiu-jitsu”, which has made a name for itself in the martial arts world. 

Martial Art: Judo
Country of origin: Japan
Availability: 5
Speed: 1
Sophistication: 1
Grappling/Striking: G
Applicability: 1
Overall Rating: 1
Judo is solely a sport.  Anyone telling you they teach “combat Judo” is out to lunch – the combat version is jiu-jitsu, from which Judo was explicitly constructed as a sport.  You’ll never learn to defend yourself competently through Judo.  

Martial Art: Aikido
Country of origin: Japan
Availability: 4
Speed: 2
Sophistication: 5
Grappling/Striking: G
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 3+
Aikido is one of the world’s top martial arts, no doubt.  However, it takes quite a while to reach competence.  Note that some Aikido styles are combat oriented, while others are not much more than an elaborate form of exercise.

Martial Art: Ninjutsu (Tai-jutsu)
Country of origin: Japan
Availability: 2
Speed: 4
Sophistication: 4+
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 4
This is the martial art of the Ninja.  It’s far more sophisticated than all later Japanese martial arts, with the exception, perhaps, of Aikido.  Competence in a short period of time is easily possible with good instruction. 

Martial Art: Shaolin
Availability: China
Speed: 3
Sophistication: 4-4+
Grappling/Striking: S
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 4
The catch here is that the Shaolin systems (northern and southern) and their off-shoots are sometimes taught more as aesthetic practices than as martial arts.  Authentic Shaolin instruction from real Shaolin-temple trained instructors has become easier to find in recent years. 

Martial Art: Wing Chun
Country of origin: China
Availability: 4
Speed: 5
Sophistication: 5
Grappling/Striking: S
Applicability: 4+ to 5
Overall Rating: 4+ 
Wing Chun is a superbly designed system and was invented by a woman, Yim Wing Chun, explicitly to defeat the greatest martial art of the time, the Shaolin system.  This was also Bruce Lee’s primary style.  A competent Wing Chun practitioner will defeat most comers quite easily. 

Martial Art: Jeet Kune Do
Country of origin: Hong-Kong / USA
Availability: 3
Speed: 5
Sophistication: 4+
Grappling/Striking: S / Mixed
Applicability:  5
Overall Rating: 4+ to 5
Bruce Lee and his senior student, Dan Inosanto, developed this from Wing Chun, Kali/Escrima and other martial arts.  It’s extremely effective, easily learned and takes the best of everything.  Highly recommended.

Martial Art: Tai Chi Chuan
Availability: 4
Speed: 1
Sophistication: 5
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 2
Overall Rating: 3
Tai Chi is one of the most sophisticated martial arts in the world.  In China of old, to challenge a Tai Chi master to combat was regarded as a one-way ticket to the after-life.  Now, however, Tai Chi is usually taught for its health benefits and few instructors can teach the combat aspect.

Martial Art: Bagua Zhang (Pa Kua)
Country of origin: China
Availability: 2
Speed: 2
Sophistication: 5+
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 3
Overall Rating: 3+
Bagua is at least as sophisticated as Tai Chi and high level practitioners are nearly unbeatable.  It just takes a while to become competent.  It’s also hard to find good instructors. 

Martial Art: Xing Yi (Hsing I)
Country of origin: China
Availability: 2
Speed: 3+
Sophistication: 4 to 4+
Grappling/Striking: S
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 4
Xing Yi is the third major “internal” style from China (after Tai Chi and Bagua), and is extremely direct and effective.  In 19th century China, many body guards were trained in this style.  Finding good instruction would be the key here. 

Martial Art: Krav Maga
Country of origin: Israel
Availability: 3-4
Speed: 5
Sophistication: 2-3
Grappling/Striking: S / Mixed
Applicability: 4+
Overall Rating: 4
Krav Maga was developed to train people quickly.  So if you want to become dangerous in a short time frame, this is for you.  For women’s self-defense, it’s hard to argue with the idea that becoming effective quickly is the primary criterion. 

Martial Art: Haganah
Availability: Israel
Speed: 5
Sophistication: 3
Grappling/Striking: S / Mixed
Applicability: 4+
Overall Rating: 4
Haganah is based on Krav Maga and two other Israeli systems.  Its virtue?  An extremely well-designed curriculum where you, the defender, terminate all encounters in one of three ways.  Whereas some martial arts bombard you with hundreds of possible techniques, Haganah simply shows you the best response to the most common attacks.  From there, it’s all downhill for your opponent – you either take him down, break his ankle or send him to the afterlife – your choice!

Martial Art: Thai Kick-Boxing
Country of origin: Thailand
Availability: 2-3
Speed: 3-4
Sophistication: 3-4+ (depending on the style)
Grappling/Striking: S / Mixed
Applicability: 3-4
Overall Rating: 3+
Thai kick boxing (not to be confused with generic “kick-boxing”) is a very effective and practical system and is usually taught for real combat, although there are sport variants too. 

Martial Art: Silat

Country of origin: Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia

Availability: 2
Speed: 4
Sophistication: 4+
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 4
Some of the Silat systems are among the world’s most sophisticated martial arts.  Yet, unlike the Chinese internal systems, these translate into real-world effectiveness quite a bit faster.  They also teach a very sophisticated defensive method against knife attack. 

Martial Art: Kali / Escrima

Country of origin: Philippines

Availability: 3
Speed: 4
Sophistication: 4+
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 4 
Kali / Escrima is a grouping of systems that, like Silat, strike an ideal balance between grappling and striking, and between weapons and empty-hand applications. 

Martial Art: Systema (pronounced siss-TYEH-mah)

Country of origin: Russia

Availability: 2
Speed: 5
Sophistication: 4+
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 4
Overall Rating: 4 to 4+
An extremely sophisticated use of body mechanics, coupled with internal power generation and economy of movement, this continually updated method has been routinely taught to Soviet and now Russian special forces. 

Martial Art: “Women’s Self-Defense” courses

Country of origin: N/A

Availability: 4
Speed: 3
Sophistication: 2-3
Grappling/Striking: Mixed
Applicability: 2-3
Overall Rating: 3
Okay, a rating of 3 is generous, but here’s why I’ve given it: these courses are often a good first exposure to basic martial arts techniques, they tend to cover the legal issues surrounding self-defense, and they teach women how to make use of items readily at hand for self-defense.  These courses, frequently offered to the public through recreation centers or colleges and usually with accredited martial arts instructors, are however usually too short in duration to bring you to the desired level of effectiveness.  You’d have to continue with something else. 

There you have it – a basic once-over of what’s out there today and how likely each of these styles / systems is to get you where you want to go.  

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger 




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