I personally started martial arts to defend myself, but between grappling and striking, I wasn’t sure which type would be best for self-defense. Here’s what I learned.
Both grappling and striking martial arts can be very good for self-defense. But they each have their pros and cons. Grappling is very good against a single opponent, but less effective against two or more. Striking is more suitable against multiple opponents but has limited use on the ground.
It’s tough to simply judge a martial art based purely on whether it’s grappling or striking – because, not all martial arts are as good as each other, but may still be in the same category.
However, to give you the best overview of each, I’ve split this article into two general categories – grappling martial arts and striking martial arts – with the pros and cons of each.
“Discover the 5 Best Martial Arts for Self-Defense & Why in our other article“
Grappling for Self-Defense: Pros & Cons
Grappling martial arts use body locks and grips to grab a hold of an opponent and use throws and takedowns to get the fight to the ground.
Most grappling martial arts also use some form of submissions with either joint locks or chokes to finish the fight.
Grappling martial arts rely on leverage and energy efficiency to counter the balance and motion of an opponent – in order to be effective.
Some famous forms of grappling martial arts are:
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Pro 1. Grappling enables you to control your opponent and dictate where the fight goes
When you learn to do a grappling martial art, you’re learning how to effectively control an opponent with hands-on techniques which are designed to manipulate the mechanics of the body and move your opponent the way you want them.
This means that you’re actively grabbing a hold of your opponent and – by using the techniques taught – you’re able to control your opponent in ways that striking martial arts don’t allow.
For example, in Judo you’re taught how to get grips on your opponent before using either leverage or timing, to throw them to the ground.
In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you’ll learn how to use the body’s natural biomechanics to either off balance an opponent, or to lock in submissions.
For more on how Jiu-Jitsu can help in self-defense – check out our article: BJJ for Self-Defense: Good or Bad.
Pro 2. Grappling gives you a substantial advantage over an untrained opponent
If you’re relying on striking alone to defend yourself, then you need to stand within striking distance of your opponent. Meaning that either one of you could get hit with strikes.
Most people – whether trained or not – will have some sort of an ability to throw punches in an attempt to hit you. This means that in a self-defense situation you may be at risk of getting hit with a lucky punch by your attacker.
In grappling however, you are taught to close the distance and initiate a clinch – before taking your opponent to the ground and finishing the fight with a submission or holding them down until help arrives.
By training in a grappling martial art rather than a striking martial art, you will instinctually close the distance and grab a hold of your attacker – meaning you eliminate the risk of getting hit by one of their strikes.
This can be better explained by imagining three distances between you and your attacker – or zones – from which you are at risk of being hit with strikes.
Green Zone 1: Within the first green zone, neither you or your attack are within striking range of each other – and therefore, you’re both safe.
Red Zone: Within the red zone, both you and your attacker are within striking distance of each other – and therefore, you are both at risk of being hit with strikes. Within the red zone, your attacker could knock you out with a lucky punch.
Green Zone 2: Within the second green zone you’re hands-on with your attacker in a grappling battle – now the grappler has a substantial advantage.
Once you and your attacker are engaged in a grappling battle – unlike a lucky punch – it would be very unlikely that an untrained opponent could land a lucky choke or submission on you.
Pro 3. In grappling you can train at 100% effort with less risk of head injury
In grappling martial arts you’re able to train with all your strength and go 100% – but with less risk of causing head injuries to yourself or your training partners.
This allows you to train at a much higher level of intensity which is much more realistic and is better preparation for a real-life self-defense situation – and all without taking any strikes to the head.
Alternatively though, let’s say you’re learning a striking martial art. Now, in order to replicate a real-life situation, you need to do sparring – but this means that you’ll be receiving a lot of shots to your head throughout your training.
Pro 4. Grappling enables you to adjust the level of force needed
The final benefit of grappling is that it enables you to adjust the level of force you need to use against an attacker which puts you in control of the situation.
For example, the level of force needed to take someone to the ground is pretty high – and again, the force needed to grapple with them on the ground is high too.
But once your attacker calms down and realises they’re unable to escape or fight against your grappling – then you’re now able to adjust your force and avoid injuring your attacker – keeping you on the right side of the law.
Con 1. Grappling can be less effective against multiple attackers
In a one-on-one situation, knowing how to grapple puts you in a much stronger position to be able to defend yourself. But what if you’re faced with two or more attackers?
Against multiple attackers, grappling can have its limitations. Let’s say for example you take one attacker to the ground and start working your submissions. Now you’re left exposed to the second attacker who can strike you while you’re on the ground.
But grappling is not completely useless against two attackers. For example, a solid Judo throw onto a hard floor can be more than enough to instantly remove one attacker from the fight – leaving you to face the second attacker one-on-one.
Con 2. You can’t grapple if you can’t get hands on your opponent
The second limitation of grappling is its useless if you’re unable to close the distance and grab a hold of your opponent.
As mentioned above, to be able to use grappling effectively you need to move through the ‘red zone’ and into ‘green zone 2’ in order to start a clinch and work your grappling.
But what if your attacker is able to strike you on your way in, and keep you in the red zone and continue to land strikes on you? In this situation, grappling is worthless until you can close that distance between you and your attacker.
However, you have two options – either stay out of range of their strikes and escape (green zone 1) – or move your head and charge in through the red zone and into your grappling to dominate the attacker.
Striking for Self-Defense: Pros & Cons
Striking martial arts use a variety of techniques which mostly consist of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. Striking martial arts rely on accuracy, speed and power – generated through motion, acceleration, and the velocity of each strike – in order to be effective.
Some famous forms of striking martial arts are:
- Muay Thai
Pro 1. Striking keeps you on your feet
Unlike some of the grappling martial arts mentioned above – which teach you to throw your opponent to the ground and engage in hand-to-hand grappling – striking martial arts teach you to stay on your feet and within striking range.
This means that if you’re faced with more than one attacker, you’re able to stay on your feet, and use your strikes from at least an arm’s length from your opponent – and avoid the need to get too close to them or grapple.
However, as well as teaching you how to use striking, some striking martial arts like Muay Thai, also teach you how to defend yourself from inside the clinch by using strikes, trips and throws.
For more on Muay Thai and self-defense – check out our article: Muay Thai for Self-Defense: 7 Key Benefits.
This means that Muay Thai prepares you to stay on your feet and use striking from long range – but also from close range from within the clinch – meaning you’re more effective and better prepared to defend yourself.
To learn more about what Muay Thai teaches you – check out our article: Muay Thai: What Does It Teach You
Boxing however, although it does teach you how to stay on the outside and land your punches – it does not teach much clinch fighting.
Let’s say for example, you’re faced with two or more attackers. If you’re relying on grappling alone, then as soon as you grab a hold on one of the attackers, you’re left exposed to the others and at risk from their attack.
However, in the same situation but using striking, now you’re able to:
- Stay out of range of their strikes
- Use head movement and foot work when closing the distance
- Land strikes on one attacker – move out and reset
- Land strikes on another attacker – and so on, until you’re able to escape
Pro 2. Striking improves your distance management
In striking martial arts, you are taught how to effectively manage the distance between yourself and your opponent and to recognize when someone is about to throw a shot.
When you learn a striking martial art, you will become experienced at moving just in and out of striking range – either to avoid your opponent’s strikes, or to land your own shots and move back out.
In grappling however, it can be easy to form bad habits such as keeping your hands low and just walking towards your opponent to get grips – this is because in purely grappling based martial arts, striking is not allowed.
For more on striking used in grappling – check out our article: Does BJJ Teach Striking?
Con 1. Striking can cause unintentional injury
As mentioned above, striking martial arts rely on the accuracy, speed and power of each shot to be effective. And throughout your striking training you’ll be taught how to strike to all parts of your opponent’s body – including the head.
However, there is no way of knowing the sort of damage even a single strike can cause to someone. Meaning once you land a strike on your attacker, you have little control over the level of force or possible damage caused.
Force control can be used in striking though. If you know you out-match your attacker, you may choose to only strike them with 70 to 80% of your power. But for most of us, we’ll be swinging for the fences and fighting for our lives.
Unfortunately, there are many examples of people receiving serious injuries from even just a single strike – meaning you may potentially find yourself on the wrong side of the law if you cause an ‘unjust’ amount of damage with your strikes.
Con 2. Striking is less effective if on the ground with a grappler
The final thing to be aware of with striking, is that its much less effective if you’re taken to the ground by someone who has at least some grappling experience.
This can be seen time and time again in the UFC. Regardless of striking experience, once the fight goes to the ground the striker is unable to generate the motion and velocity needed to make their strikes effective.
However, your opponent doesn’t even need grappling experience. Most fights start with a flurry of strikes before ending in some sort of grappling battle – and usually end up on the ground.
As a striker only, once you get on the ground a lot of your weapons become much less effective. Whereas, for a grappler, the ground just opens up a whole world of new opportunities that the untrained attacker will be completely defenseless against.
As you can see, the benefits of grappling do seem to outweigh the negatives and is great preparation for self-defense – especially against a single attacker.
However, this does not mean we should avoid learning striking for self-defense, striking still teaches some key fundamentals that should not be neglected.
For anyone who is serious about learning self-defense though, having a solid mixture of both grappling and striking is the best way to be able to safely defend yourself – because this mix means you’ve got experience, no matter where the fight goes.