What is the Most Effective Style of Martial Arts?


1. Introduction

For many years, martial artists and non-martial artists alike have fought, argued and debated over one question: ‘What is the most effective style of martial arts?’

While there is no obvious right or wrong answer to this question, we can offer discussion on the topic by comparing martial arts based on their specific approaches and focus. These include:

  • Weapon-based martial arts: Systems that use battle tools or rudimentary items to injure, maim, or kill an opponent. Although, often now practiced in sporting competitions.
  • Striking-based martial arts: Those that highlight punches, kicks, elbows, knees, palms, shoulders, head butts or other attacks aimed at an opponent, over other techniques.
  • Throwing-based martial arts: Systems that focus upon throwing, tripping, pushing, pulling an opponent, and/or using locks and manipulations, usually from a standing position.
  • Submission-based martial arts: Styles that using joint locks, chokes and pressure points with the purpose of making the opponent ‘tap-out’ or submit, usually on the ground.


1.2. Defining Effectiveness

Although there are a number of variables that account for the effectiveness of any particular martial art, it is widely acknowledged that key components to efficient self-defence are speed, strength, accuracy, and the ability to act quickly and improvise.[1] Therefore, in the coming article we will consider how one style from each of the aforementioned martial arts categories relate to these criteria.

As many consider the basis for proof of an ‘effective’ martial arts style is its utilization in live combat scenarios, I have selected one of the most well-known arts in each of the four categories above that has been utilised within military training repertoires and/or warfare. Those selected are:

  • Weapons: Arnis/Kali – Utilised in Filipino military training and whilst aspects of it are used by other nations.[2]
  • Striking: Tae Kwon Do – Utilised by South Korean and DPRK Military.[3]
  • Throwing: Judo – Utilised by Japanese, Russian, Hungarian and other militaries.[4]
  • Submission: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – Utilised by Brazilian, British and other militaries.[5]


2. Comparisons

2.1. Weapons-based Art – Arnis/Kali

Arnis/Kali is a Filipino martial art that has been referenced in historical texts as far back as the 1500s. It is said to have developed from native fighting styles incorporating Spanish, Portuguese and other European influences over time.[6]

Arnis features various weapons including, sticks, swords, knives and other blades (such as machetes and karamibts). Although Arnis does incorporate some unarmed combat elements, typically weapons training is considered to be the core of the system.

  • Speed: This is trained in Arnis to great effect through the use of two-person drills that simulate attacking and defensive positions. As stated by Paman ‘Arnis uses drills to train students to react instinctively to an attack’.[7] Similarly, the whipping motion of a stick or sword enables the striking point of the weapon to move at a much faster speed than a hand or foot strike may in comparison.
  • Power: Is considered a fundamental aspect of the style, however the use of short sticks and blades, rather than larger weapons, as well as the close-range nature of the style does limit the power utilised in a typical Arnis strike when compared to other weapons-based arts.
  • Accuracy: Arnis strikes are often taught utilising a numbering system for pedagogical purposes and schools typically utilise between eight and twelve key strikes. These attacks are drilled repetitively both in pair training and solo practice; the limited number of strikes trained alongside numerous repetitions, enables students to develop a high-level of accuracy.
  • Adaptability: As learners develop speed and accuracy with pair-drills using sticks, knives and other weapons, free-flowing movements are gradually incorporated until free-sparring is practiced. By utilising safety gear such as gloves, chest-protectors and helmets to ensure strikes are trained with realism, students quickly learn how to adapt to different scenarios.


2.2. Striking Art – Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do is a martial art from the Korean Peninsula, and one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world, practiced by an estimated seventy-million people across the globe.[8] It is primarily a striking art, using the feet and hands as weapons, but typically emphasising kicks. However, there are also applications of locking, submission, and weapons hidden taught by some schools. Although there are various organizations teaching Tae Kwon Do around the globe, it can be roughly provided into the Olympic (TF) and Traditional (ITF) organizations of the style.

  • Speed: Particularly within Olympic (TF) Tae Kwon Do, speed is the main component of the martial art.[9] The normal fighting range of Tae Kwon Do, due primarily to its emphasis on kicking, is further than other martial arts styles. Therefore to execute a kick to the head or torso of another individual without it being blocked or avoided, fast movement is key. Drilling of footwork and reaction times makes up a large proportion of fight training in this style.
  • Power: Utilising the legs as the main attacking tool rather than hand strikes has been proven to provide more power within attacks.[10] Outside of kicking, Tae Kwon Do sparring utilises relatively simple straight-arm strikes (such as boxing jabs and crosses). Research has shown that such techniques from even a relatively un-skilled practitioner may have the ability to cause significant injury or concussion to the recipient.[11]
  • Accuracy: Whilst the training for competitive Tae Kwon Do includes a great deal of focus on specific ‘scoring’ targets, these areas are not always the most likely to subdue an attacker (e.g. kicking towards the head versus kicking towards the groin or punching the solar plexus versus punching the throat). Therefore, accuracy training in Tae Kwon Do may offer less efficiency within self-defence scenarios.
  • Adaptability: By training within a specific set of rules, a typical Tae Kwon Do fighter, may find themselves bound by their practices and may be unwilling or unable to utilise strikes that do not coincide with their training (e.g. improvising a weapon). This could negate some efficiency of the style in this respect.


2.3. Throwing Art – Judo

Judo is a sport based around grappling and throwing; although it does allow submissions in contest, Judo famed for its throws, sweeps and trips of the opponent. It is an official Olympic sport with more than twenty million practitioners across the globe.[12]

  • Speed: Within Judo, speed is an important feature utilised once a throw begins. However, due to the techniques that begin from a starting position (i.e. one in which the attacker has already grabbed you), this can be identified from a self-defence perspective as ‘slow’. In an ideal self-defence scenario, speed would prevent us from ever being grabbed or grappling with an attacker.
  • Power: Within Judo training and competition, weight-classes are used. To some extent this negates the need for extreme power-training, while technique is considered more important than pure physical strength.[13] However, by utilising physics and rotational force against an opponent Judo throws are innately powerful.
  • Accuracy: Within the style, accuracy for the proper execution of throws and grabs are crucial. Kata and two person drills are widely practiced with numerous repetitions moving from slow to fast, to ensure this accuracy is developed among Judokas.
  • Adaptability: Randori or free-sparring, is a key aspect of Judo training and competition. This is done by the Judoka ‘develop(ing) a feel for opponents weaknesses’ by pushing and pulling until ‘there is a state of imbalance’.[14] This non-fixed approach to fighting combined with a wide arsenal of sixty-seven throws provides a Judoka with a highly adaptable approach to self-defence scenarios.[15]


2.4. Submission Art – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an offshoot of traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu. Although its beginnings were solely for battlefield and self-defence purposes,[16] the recent competitive adaptation that was pioneered by several generations of the Gracie Family, has become one of the most popular combat sports in the world.

  • Speed: The Gracie family states how speed and mobility are requirements of any great BJJ fighter. Due in some part to the sporting aspects of the style, explosiveness and smooth-flowing techniques are pre-requisites to success. As a result, explicit focus on speed is regularly drilled in training of takedowns and posturing.[17]
  • Power: BJJ utilises positions and angles to ensure that techniques are effective, specifically avoiding pure-force/power-based attacks. In fact, Israetel, Case & Conley conclude that ‘strength-power varies between 5% and 15% percent of the total determination of BJJ performance’.[18]
  • Accuracy: With such a large emphasis placed upon technique in BJJ, accuracy is essential. Training consists of numerous repetitions and drills of techniques alongside technique-based warmups, activities etc. to ensure accurate muscle responses technique (and therefore accuracy) can be considered to make up at least ‘70% of BJJ ability’.[19]
  • Adaptability: Despite highly disputed claims from members of the Gracie Family that ‘90% of real fights go to the ground’. Other studies however, concluded the number may be closer to 60%.[20] Therefore, the most common fighting positions of BJJ (full-mount, half-mount, guard) which are predominantly played out on the ground may not be particularly suitable for self-defence. Similarly, the lack of practice time and attention placed on standing submissions/attacks may not to provide varied and adaptable skills for fighters to utilise in real-life combat.


 3. Conclusion

In reference to our criteria of speed, strength, accuracy, and the ability to act quickly and improvise for defining an ‘effective’ martial art, we can draw some conclusions based upon the types discussed.

  1. Each martial art has different strengths and weaknesses; the most useful will depend entirely on the specific scenario. Therefore, it is unrealistic to claim any is outright ‘more effective’ than any other.
  2. For realistic self-defence, a martial artist should have at least a working understanding of weapons, striking, throwing and submission arts. However, it is better to have strong fundamental skills in one area, rather than weak skills in several.
  3. Traditional training methods that highly emphasise repetition and drilling are likely to be more beneficial than short burst courses (e.g. weekend self-defence seminars). This is because traditional martial arts training takes the time to embed fundamental techniques as automatic responses to violence.


What kind of martial arts style do you practice? Is it the most effective in your opinion? Why? I’d love to hear your answers in the comments section below.




If you wish to read more about the founding and history of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Tae Kwon Do and others, please see my latest release ‘Legendary Masters of the Martial Arts: Unraveling Fact from Fiction. Available here:






[1] Angleman, A. J., Shinzato, Y., Hasselt, V. B., & Russo, S. A. (2009). P91.

[2] GMA News Online. (2009, October 10). RP martial art ‘arnis’ gains foothold in Russia. Retrieved June 15, 2019, from https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/content/174287/rp-martial-art-arnis-gains-foothold-in-russia/story/

[3] Gillis, A. (2016). A killing art: The untold history of Tae kwon do. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ECW Press.

[4] Messner, N. (2018, March 27). Army and Police at the judo pace. Retrieved June 15, 2019, from https://www.ijf.org/news/show/army-and-police-at-the-judo-pace

[5] AMAA. (2019). Army Martial Arts Association. Retrieved June 15, 2019, from https://martialarts.armysportcontrolboard.com/

[6] Paman, J. G. (2007). Arnis self-defense: Stick, blade, and empty-hand combat techniques of the Philippines. Berkeley, CA: Frog/Blue Snake Books.

[7] Paman, J. G. (2007). P159.

[8] Gillis, A. (2016).

[9] Savoie (in MacKay, J. (2014). Taekwondo. Farmington Hills, Mich: Lucent Books. P50.

[10] Pilewska, W., Buśko, K., & Nikolaidis, P. T. (2017). Measuring the force of punches using an accelerometric punching bag – Relationship between force of punches and power of jump – An example of application of the modern information technology in sport. doi:10.1063/1.5012456

[11] Walilko, T. J. (2005). Biomechanics of the head for Olympic boxer punches to the face. British Journal of Sports Medicine,39(10), 710-719. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2004.014126

[12] International Judo Federation. (n.d.). What is Judo. Retrieved June 16, 2019, from http://www.worldjudoday.com/en/WhatisJudo-57.html

[13] Takahashi, M. (2005). Mastering judo:. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. P45.

[14] Inman, R. (2008). Martial arts: The judo handbook. New York, NY: Rosen Publishing. P29.

[15] The 67 Kodokan Judo Throws – Nagewaza. (n.d.). Retrieved June 16, 2019, from https://judoinfo.com/gokyo

[16] Skoss, M. (1995). Jujutsu and Taijutsu. Aikido Journal, 103. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from http://www.aikidojournal.com/article.php?articleID=17

[17] Gracie, R., & Danaher, J. (2003). Mastering jujitsu. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[18] Israetel, M., Case, J., & Conley, T. (2015, January 19). The Sport Science of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Juggernaut Training Systems. https://www.jtsstrength.com/sport-science-brazilian-jiu-jitsu/ . P.1.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Green, T. A., & Svinth, J. R. (2010). Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation. ABC-CLIO Interactive. P35.


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