Difference between martial arts and self defence?

Difference between martial arts and self defence

Short answer

Martial arts and self-defence are two interchangeable terms for the same thing; to protect yourself and your loved ones against an aggressive force. Which ever term you like to use, we have fantastic sessions for everyone; just browse the menu or get in touch below.


Longer answer

Martial arts is an art of fighting and warfare. There are many martial arts styles and many of them span over centuries! Most modern martial arts styles have some sort of lineage and heritage going back in some way or form to these ancient martial arts. Martial arts has a rich heritage in many countries and as such, has their own unique flavour.

Martial arts, being an art, allows the practitioner (known as martial artist) to express themselves in pursuit of developing the skills needed to repress violent aggressive behaviour and action they may face. 

Martial arts can be broadly categorised into three areas; 

  • Striking
  • Grappling 
  • Weapons

Striking arts- tend to use the human limbs to protect themselves against aggression and violence. They may use the hands to punch or slap, legs to kick and use elbow and knees. Example of striking arts include Karate, Boxing, Taekwondo, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Wing Chun etc 


Grappling art - the aim of grappling is to maneuver and control the aggressive force. They achieve this by using a variety of techniques such as throws, trips, takedowns, gripping, pinning and limb manipulations. Examples of grappling arts are Wrestling, Judo, Sambo, Jujitsu etc.


Weapons arts are those that favour the use of weapons. These can be bladed ie knife/sword and unbladed, such as nunchucks and sticks.


There are several martial arts that combine the above two or all three. These are called hybrid arts or mixed martial arts. Some arts, like Karate actually have all three, but Karate emphasis more on striking and less on the other two.

To make things more interesting, the above three are divided further;

1. Sports based . 

2. Self defence based.


So what's the difference ?


Martial arts based on sports are designed to fit around sets of rule like any sport. This would include the rules of engagement, the scoring of points, a referee to ensure the safety of the competitors and that the rules are not infringed. Your training will revolve around the rules of the competition favoured by the club. They may include a set of safety equipment to wear during the bout. To win, you outscore your opponent effectively or another means of scoring a victory.

Since these arts are based on a specific set of rules, they mean little elsewhere outside of the club and that ecosystem. An example would be boxing - the rules do not permit kicks, but in Kickboxing, kicks are allowed. So your training will revolve around what you decide to do. 

Martial arts with the primary aim of self defence is somewhat different. They tend to learn techniques that are suited to a hostile environment ie the road. 

Since the aim is to protect and defend, they will do what it takes to achieve the aim. There are no rules of engagement and their training is reflective of this to a certain degree. There's no competition as such and the techniques used are limited to the given situation, ie you wouldn't really find these practitioners doing anything fancy like you would see in a sports based martial arts club.

In conclusion, both self defence and martial arts are the same. Self defence comes from martial arts can be used to partake in sports and also in self defence situations. Just because a boxer can not punch in boxing, it don't mean he or she will not be able to effectively defend themselves in the street. A judoka may not throw punches , but you can bet they have the skills they use in training to effectively be safe in the street, all being fairly equal, ie the aggressor not having a weapon. The same can be said of any of the martial arts listed above and beyond.

You only have to be careful that those martial arts based on sports with no contact sparring, as these have little to zero effectiveness on the street.

(Sensei Arif Kassam 17.11.2021)

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