by Mike Janich

As a personal defense instructor, one question that I get a lot is “How do I choose a good self-defense system?” Interestingly, this is both a tough question and an incredibly easy one. Ultimately, the answer depends a lot on your actual training goals and the physical attributes you have to work with.

As far as deciding which systems are best, you should first understand that in a real fight or when defending against a real attack, your body will revert to “caveman” mode. The physiological responses to the fear and anxiety of the event will cause your body to change temporarily. Gross motor skills will override fine and complex motor skills, so complicated, finesse-based movements will not be a viable option. As such, when evaluating a personal protection system, look for those that emphasize simple, gross-motor skills that you can learn reasonably well in a short period of time and be able to apply effectively if you are attacked sometime soon. The tactics of the system should also allow you to immediately understand the function they provide. If you’re spending your time practicing the “Flying Lotus,” “Gargling Badger” or some other esoteric movement that doesn’t immediately conjure up vivid visions of pounding the snot out of someone, you’re not on the most direct path to learning how to defend yourself on the street.

That doesn’t mean that traditional martial arts cannot be effective combat arts; they certainly can. However, to be effective, you have to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. A good instructor will explain that clearly and provide a means for you to practice it so that you actually hit things. This way, you not only know what you’re supposed to be doing, but you also have the confidence to know that if you do it right, the bad guy will feel it.

In evaluating systems, you must also consider your physical attributes, limitations, and build. Sumo is a lousy art for a guy that’s 6′ 2” and weighs 160 pounds. Tae Kwon Do doesn’t work well for someone that’s 5′ 2” and 250. That doesn’t mean that ALL of the techniques of those arts are inappropriate for those people, but enough of them are inconsistent with their physical statures to make them poor choices. Do the research, watch several classes and ask questions. If you’re concerned about a particular type of attack, tell the instructor and ask him what type of defense his system would use against that attack. When he demonstrates the preferred defense, consider it objectively and ask yourself, 1) Would it really work? and, 2) How long would it take you to learn that technique well enough to make it work? Be realistic and honest with yourself. That’s the only way to determine what will work for you.

Are there generic arts that offer a good body of technique for MOST people? Yes. That brings us to a related problem that is just as important as choosing a system: Finding an instructor that’s willing to cater to YOUR needs.

The problem with any institutionalized martial art or self-defense system is that it survives by making people fight according to that system. It creates a progressive structure that you are supposed to navigate through to develop proficiency in the system. Ideally, those goals are consistent with your goals and you learn stuff that’s actually relevant to keeping yourself safe. If those goals are geared more toward fitness, competition, cross-cultural experiences, or other directions that do not directly support learning how to hurt your attacker and get away, you’re not taking the shortest route to developing the skills you need.

For example, Brazilian Jujitsu is an awesome art that has much to recommend it. As a competitive art and a basis for developing combative skill, it has a lot to offer. However, if your biggest fear is going to the ground in a street fight on concrete, learning any tactics that emphasize grappling on all fours (knees and elbows on the ground) may be very counterproductive. When you fight the way you train, you stand the chance of destroying your elbows and knees on the concrete. Similarly, although the “guard” position (legs wrapped around your opponent’s waist) can be a powerful tactic when you know that the other guy is playing by a set of rules, purposely opening your legs to anyone on the street is an invitation for him to use your testicles as a speedbag.

Please understand that this is an example used to illustrate a point–not an attack on BJJ. It was based on actual experiences with one of my private students during a training session that “went off the mat.” He was curious to see how I approached groundfighting so I let the scenario go. Although he fought well, when he became aware of how painful some of his favorite ground techniques were to him when he tried them on concrete, he hesitated. When I ended up in his guard, he arched to keep me away from his head—and gave me the perfect opportunity to punch him in the groin with impunity.

So how do you get what you want? First, define a clear set of goals for your personal defense needs. Then start visiting different schools and discuss your goals with the instructor. Tell him that you respect his art and his approach, but you want to focus on your  specific goals. If you see his students doing something that you feel is impractical (i.e. jumping, spinning kicks), tell him that’s not for you and see what he says. If he’s not willing to work with you and your goals or tries to lead you off into the martial arts weeds, walk away. After all, this is America. Although it is perfectly acceptable to use a martial art from another culture as a framework for learning respect and discipline, when that cultural context becomes an excuse for an instructor’s ego trip and he’s unwilling to meet your needs as a consumer, you’re in the wrong place.

For practical self-defense, some arts are definitely better than others. Unfortunately, as we say in Martial Blade Concepts, “If you try hard enough, you can f__k up anything.” You may find a great kung fu instructor that meets your needs better than a Krav Maga instructor that isn’t representing the full potential of his system.

Ultimately, it’s your ass on the line, so you get to choose. Do the research and choose wisely based on your needs and physical abilities. Stay safe.

About Mike Janich
Michael Janich has been a student and teacher of the martial arts and practical self-defense for more than 30 years. The author or co-author of 9 books and 9 instructional videos on personal defense, combat shooting, and other topics, Janich has also been published in more than a dozen magazines, including Black Belt, Inside Kung FuTactical Knives, Fighting Knives, Combat Knives, American Handgunner, Guns Combat Annual, S.W.A.T., and many others. He has also been featured numerous times on radio and national television, including appearances on Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (demonstrating the use of the blowgun) and the Outdoor Channel’s popular Shooting Gallery series.

A decorated U.S. Army veteran and former DoD intelligence officer, Janich served with the National Security Agency (NSA) and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). He was also a team leader for the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA), investigating the fates of U.S. POW-MIA in Vietnam and Laos.

Janich is the founder of the Martial Blade Concepts (MBC) system of edged-weapon tactics, as well as the related systems of Counter-Blade Concepts (CBC), Damithurt Silat, and Sobadiwan Eskrima. Janich was one of 12 subject-matter experts selected for TSA’s air crew self-defense program and continues to teach seminars and training courses around the world. As a partner in Stay Safe Media, Janich is committed to applying his decades of experience and critical analytical skills to the task of offering only the best, hand-picked instructional materials and training resources to Stay Safe’s customers.

Reach Mike for more information on any of his courses at 303-995-8848 or

  1. kravlady says:

    Well written, sound advice. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

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