Martial arts is an excellent route for how women can protect themselves, should a dangerous situation arise.
Not only that, but the best martial arts for women will create confidence, more freedom and autonomy in your life.
I’ve pulled together eight women’s martial arts options that I think are both the best for self-defense—highlighting their best attributes that will help them overcome a stronger opponent.
Table of Contents
Boxing is likely the most well-known form of martial arts in the West and the most widely available with gyms in every town/city, making it at least a good option to consider for getting started.
Learning the skills of boxing will help any woman improve their fitness level, throw punches with accuracy and establish the foundations of good movement around an opponent.
But there are drawbacks to using boxing as a sole method for self-defense, especially for women, as it doesn’t highlight a woman’s most natural qualities to benefit them.
For a start, women typically have a much lower overall mass and muscle ratio in their upper body which can be very helpful in boxing.
While most of the technique and power in boxing is generated from torque at the feet, it doesn’t mean that women will have more power than a man—which is the main threat for most situations.
In most scenarios for women, they need to protect themselves from a man who has much greater strength and weight.
Getting into a fist-fight with another man, outside of the controlled environment of a boxing gym, won’t end well for a female in 95%+ of these situations.
After all, it only takes one accurate and powerful punch to get knocked out and be in even more danger. This is why boxing comes up last in my rankings.
Continuing with the kicking styles, Taekwondo enters this list because it teaches some of the most aggressive kicking of any martial art.
Taekwondo/Tae Kwon Do excels for creating a fighter that is incredibly light on their feet, fast, unpredictable and dangerous with a head kick.
Students of this fighting style engage in sparring regularly since it has a large competitive nature and is even an Olympic sport.
That means Taekwondo practitioners know how to counter opponents with amazing precision, often waiting for their enemy to engage before striking with a knockout blow to the head.
And their methods of kicking are varied and complex to the casual viewer. Their skills include all kinds of spinning kicks, side kicks, and leaping kicks.
There’s also punches in this martial art, though usually to the body in most practice.
With the huge focus on kicking flexibility and strength, this martial art can be highly useful to women who most often already have these qualities.
The real problem with using it for self-defense is that there is little to no grappling taught which makes it pretty useless once an attacker gets either too close or grabs you.
Karate is another option that is so well-known and widely available that it appears next on this list.
There is a dojo, often several, in every major city and many other smaller towns and suburbs across the USA/UK/etc.
The art of Karate is also somewhat designed around being a self-defense form of combat.
A lot of the techniques and skills you will learn in the more advanced classes of Karate are to disorient, disarm and eliminate the threat quickly.
It’s also a martial art that uses a lot of kicks, which benefits women since they typically have greater lower-body power and flexibility.
Karate can also include punches, throws, and even submissions at the highest tiers of belt rank.
Some of the high-level attacks are incredibly violent that involve throat strikes, eye gauges and groin attacks—especially from a style like Kenpo Karate.
These are all very effective in a moment of self-defense, so it can be useful when you have no other choice to have these techniques learned.
I’ve included Karate in this spot since it includes a few lethal techniques and incorporates a lot of kicking which benefits women.
Judo is the first martial art to introduce that focuses almost entirely on grappling techniques as it involves grabbing your opponent and throwing them to the ground.
This is what primarily makes Judo a potentially effective tool for women to defend themselves.
You will learn how to use technique and angling your body positioning to be able to throw opponents to the ground even if they are stronger and heavier than you.
You’re also going to learn how to use the momentum of your enemy against them as you’ll practice throwing them off-balance as they attempt to approach and landing your throws from a variety of angles.
There’s also some submissions taught in Judo but they are usually for intermediate to advanced levels and it isn’t a primary part of the art.
The main downsides to using Judo as self defense for women is that it’s not a perfect solution to dealing with stronger and heavier attackers with many things that could go wrong.
If your attacker is significantly heavier or stronger than you then you may not be able to complete a throw at all.
Since Judo relies on getting up close and getting a hold of your enemy, it also means they can grab a hold of you, too. So a strong opponent could mean you’d want to avoid getting close altogether.
With Judo, you would learn plenty about balance, momentum and completing throws that could all be useful to get your attacker on the floor and allow you to escape. Some submissions involved might also encourage them to disengage completely.
But I can’t rank Judo any higher as it doesn’t enough needs and scenarios in defending yourself.
6. Muay Thai/Kickboxing
Muay Thai is known as “the art of eight limbs” because of its highly perfected use of feet, knees, elbows, and fists to deal considerable damage to your opponent.
It’s an excellent fit for female martial artist who wants to learn how to deal damage in close quarters.
In the last few years of training Muay Thai, I’ve noticed how it is a popular choice for many women learning self-defense as the blows are very effective.
With practice, women can learn to strike accurately and lethally with elbows and knees on top of the clinical heavy kicks and punches used in the art.
Elbow strikes across the temple can knock out the enemy in one well-placed hit, removing the threat immediately—something that your average attacker wouldn’t expect.
Knee strikes to the body can cause immediate discomfort to any attacker, hurting their organs so much that they might fall to the floor and opening an escape opportunity.
Muay Thai would give you an excellent base in a Thai boxing style.
Add on the heavy kicks to the body and legs which can disable your attacker, the elbows and knees, and you have a strong fighting style to defend yourself.
It even teaches some level of stand-up grappling (the “clinch”) and leg trips/sweeps to throw your opponent off-balance and create immediate distance for getting away.
I genuinely believe Muay Thai is an excellent martial art for women to learn to defend themselves and actually become a badass lethal weapon in the process.
3. Krav Maga
Krav Maga originated from the Israeli army and focused on causing the most violent damage to your attacker as efficiently as possible.
This could be a smart martial art to learn because it doesn’t have any cultural traditions as other martial arts and exists only to be effective in self-defense.
This martial art borrows techniques from the entire spectrum of other martial arts for women to find the most lethal methods of stopping an attacker, eliminating the threat and escaping.
Krav Maga doesn’t shy away from using techniques like groin strikes, eye gauges, and throat attacks to forcefully defeat the opponent or at least make them reconsider their life choices.
I’m including Krav Maga in this list because it does have specific effectiveness that will help women to defend themselves, but it’s not my absolute top pick because it’s hard to say it’s “proven.”
One of the issues is the potential for a poor reputation. Krav Maga has been used to form many gyms that are with the intention of helping women, but actually teach watered-down classes that are more like an aerobic fitness class.
Depending on the teacher, Krav Maga can sometimes be comparable with self-defense “gurus” who haven’t actually been in a fight in their life and share hazardous advice.
This isn’t an attempt to completely discredit Krav Maga, but a warning to be cautious about finding only a very reputable school with highly experienced teachers.
You’ll know it’s trustworthy by visiting a trial class and seeing how involved the classes are. If they don’t make you a little nervous, then it probably isn’t teaching you anything useful.
Krav Maga has the potential of being the best self defense for women if you can find the right school, the right teacher, and apply the techniques rigorously.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) combines the most effective striking and grappling martial arts into one.
It’s used as the basis for modern combat sports like the UFC, Bellator and ONE Championship.
By learning MMA, you’d be increasing your knowledge across fighting as a whole and become advanced in both grappling and striking disciplines.
That means you wouldn’t be reliant on any one martial art to defend yourself, but there are drawbacks.
The main drawback is that you won’t learn eye gauges, fish hooks, groin, or throat strikes. These are all illegal moves in the sport of MMA, so they’re not actively taught.
In fact, they’re only taught in self-defense focused arts like Krav Maga.
MMA teaches an entire selection of effective techniques from the most impactful fighting sports:
- Muay Thai
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Other martial arts could be combined within MMA training, depending on your school and coach, but not any prohibited strikes under the Unified Rules of MMA.
Putting lethal and illegal strikes aside, mixed martial arts teaches strong techniques and skills like:
- Have an elevated awareness of your opponent’s movements
- Predict attacks before they happen and react counteractively
- Shoot for the legs of your attacker and take them down to the ground
- Trade strikes with your attacker on the feet and choose when to trip or throw them onto the ground
- Open up many opportunities for escaping
MMA gives you plenty of skills to deal with a constantly changing situation that any sole martial art might not be able to provide you with, making it so beneficial for self-defense.
I’m not ranking mixed martial arts higher because it can be much more challenging and slower to learn many martial arts simultaneously to the point of making it useful for the street or self-defense.
But if you want to learn how to fight no matter where the situation leads, then you can’t go wrong with learning MMA.
1. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) offers a unique self-defense system for women because the entire art teaches students to use technical movement patterns that don’t rely on force or brute strength.
Many women can learn BJJ and use it effectively against almost any attacker, regardless of weight or size.
I’ve decided to include Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the number one spot because I have personally seen many women become highly proficient in this grappling art and use it effectively against men twice their size.
They can quite easily beat a man on the ground by having more technical skills.
I have rolled (play-fighting or sparring) with both men and women of different sizes and strengths.
And I’ve felt the lower-body advantage women can have over men by using their natural flexibility and strength in their legs to their benefit—having strong legs really counts for a lot in BJJ.
Men usually have the upper body advantage, but women can nullify this inside of Jiu-Jitsu by being the more intelligent or more skilled grappler and using their legs efficiently.
Although BJJ doesn’t teach any kind of striking, fighting on the feet is often not the best route for women in a street fight.
Attackers are most likely to be male and have a greater natural upper body strength, making them more dangerous to take on when standing.
Which is why women actually have the better chance to take the fight onto the floor, with the skills that BJJ teaches to nullify their opponent’s advantage.
Jiu-Jitsu teaches something entirely different from striking. It mainly involves taking your opponent to the ground, controlling them, and submitting them from the floor.
BJJ borrows shooting (attacking to grab them), trips, throws, and submission techniques from Judo and wrestling to make it as effective as possible in bringing down an opponent and landing in an advantageous position.
The submissions can be so effective that they can inflict incredible amounts of discomfort, pain, and even muscle tears and dislocation mostly from technique rather than brute force.
When you get more advanced in BJJ, this martial art also includes jumping variants that enable you to lock an opponent into a submission position before you even land on the ground. E.g. the “flying armbar.”
I think this makes Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu extraordinarily helpful for women to nullify any attacker.
Grab a hold of a wrist or an ankle and you can start working your skill, wrapping around the attacker like a monkey and turning the danger onto them.
If you were to get your enemy into a submission, they’ll literally be begging to tap out and leave the conflict.
BJJ is also a great workout that will develop a high degree of core strength and cardiovascular ability, which becomes very important when fighting off an attacker.
So, for me, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is still my number one as the best martial art for women.