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Traditional Martial Arts vs. Combat Sport vs. Self-Defense Training

Although martial arts is one large umbrella, it's important to understand your purpose for training before you join a dojo and begin your martial arts journey. Do you want to improve overall health and wellness. Are you seeking to enter the ring and put your training to the test against an opponent? Are you looking to learn all the skills to protect yourself from an attacker? Are you looking to gain fitness levels and skills like Baki Hanma for your own personal heatlh but not competition? Some skills and techniques from various martial arts training styles may cross-over but based on your priorities, training execution and outcome can differ.


Defining Martial Arts

Traditional Martial Arts

Combative Sport


Factors to Consider

Final Thoughts

Defining Martial Arts

If we break down the two words separately, "Martial" is defined as relating to war or combat and "Art" is human creative skill or expression. Martial Arts are codified systems of combative training for a variety of goals such as fitness, competition, self-defense, mental health, spiritual health and overall well-being. Keep in mind, there are over over 100 martial arts training styles but for this blog, I will be only listing 15 of them.

Traditional Martial Arts

Typically, traditional martial arts will have a belt ranking system, focus on technical knowledge for mastery and focus on elements outside of fighting techniques such as philosophies, rituals, human development and betterment of life. Traditional Martial Arts training styles can include:

  • Taekwondo

  • Karate

  • Kajukenbo

  • Judo

  • Jiu-Jitsu

Combative Sport

Although traditional martial arts includes some combat training, combative sport is more physically demanding and focuses more on performance compared to betterment of life. The purpose of combat sport is to test fighters and determine who is the best within a set of rules. Combative Sport training styles can include:

  • Muay Thai

  • Kickboxing

  • Boxing

  • San Shou (Sanda)

  • Mixed Martial Arts


Self-Defense training teaches you to defend yourself in life-threatening situations and there are no rules. Compared to combat sport, students practicing self-defense training will practice skills that would be considered illegal in competition such as striking the groin region, striking the neck, gouging eyes, biting and pressure points. Additionally, most self-defense programs will offer training to defend against armed attackers. Although, almost any martial art or combative training style can teach some unarmed, self-defense essentials, some specific Self-Defense training styles can include:

  • Krav Maga

  • Arnis (Eskrima)

  • Silat

  • Wing Chun

  • Jeet Kune Do

Factors to Consider

Before starting your journey, here are some factors to consider and my personal thoughts that may help you determine which type of training style suits you and your goals best:

1. Do you want to commit to and master one specific style to improve your overall health?

Any style would be best excluding mixed martial arts due to the fact that mixed martial arts will require you to train in multiple training styles which can prevent you from "mastering" one training style or elongate the process to mastering one specific practice.

2. Do you thrive off structure and external motivation?

A traditional martial art may be best for you due to the belt ranking system. However, you will need to determine if you are more interested in learning stand up martial arts such as Karate and Taekwondo or ground martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

3. Do you want to learn a style without the highly combative and competitive environment?

Traditional dojos tend to have less combative and competitive environments however, it is all dependent on the instructors and school of choice. Self-defense may also be acceptable for you but understand that self-defense training does include combat training but from a different non-sport perspective.

4. Do you want to put your skills to the test and be a top fighter?

Although, traditional training styles can also be competitive, combative training styles tend to focus more on the physical and sport aspect of training and can include high intense sessions in not only fighting but also weight-training, HIIT training and cardiovascular training that can push fighters beyond normal limits.

5. Do you want to learn how to defend yourself from unarmed and armed threats by all means necessary without any restrictions?

Although almost any martial arts training can teach you the essential strikes and defense skills, you won't learn the skills that are considered "illegal" in sport, skills to handle common weapons and the defense skills against armed attackers. Self-Defense training will teach you to de-escalate a threat and the skills and techniques to remove yourself from an attack by all means necessary without any limitations.

Finally, you need to determine if you want to learn stand up fighting, ground fighting, locking and throwing, weapon training, or all of it?

Final Thoughts:

Keep in mind that all dojos and style of training execution are different. A Taekwondo studio may be more competitive than another traditional Taekwondo studio. A Boxing class may be more for fitness than sport competition. A self-defense training program may focus more on unarmed self-defense rather than weapon training or maybe not even offer any type of weapon training. Every program is dependent on the instructors and its team so do your due diligence and do your research. Additionally, remember that you can also join a combative sport gym, follow a fighters training program and not have to compete at all. Most combative sport gyms these days include more general population simply looking to get fit than fighters looking to compete.

With that said, after practicing martial arts for over 20+ years, I've learned that taking concepts from all three training systems can crossover. You can take the technical knowledge from traditional martial arts into sport competitions. You can transfer explosiveness, power and endurance gained from combative sport into traditional martial arts. You can take some self-defense tactics into the ring. Finally, combining both trainings from traditional and combative sports can give you the higher ground in a self-defense situation. No matter which training style you choose to practice, remember this famou quote stated by Bruce Lee "Adapt what is useful. Reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own."

So, what type of warrior will you be?

Disclaimer: All information presented and written within this article are intended for informational purposes only. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you should choose to follow or participate in any workout, program or practice, you do so voluntarily and do not hold Initial Mile and it's founder responsible for any cause of injury or death. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional.

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