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

Traditional Martial arts vs combat sports vs self-defense training

The term martial arts translates to “the art of combat”. This term is one large umbrella for hundreds of different training styles, hence it's important to understand the purpose of your training before you choose a specific training style and a dojo to begin your personal journey.

Is your goal to improve overall health and wellness. Do you want to enter the ring and put your fight skills to the test against an opponent? Are you looking to learn practical skills to protect yourself from an attacker? Do you have the desire to build advance fight skills for your own entertainment purposes but not for competition? Some skills and techniques from various martial arts training styles may cross-over but based on your goals, class formats and outcomes will differ across the board. In this article, we’ll share some common martial arts styles from each category under the umbrella and share how traditional martial arts, combat sports and self-defense schools train for different purposes.


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 a few of them.

Traditional Martial Arts

Traditional Martial Arts training styles can include but is not limited to Taekwondo, Shotokan Karate, Kajukenbo, Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. Typically, traditional martial art practices follow a structured program that has been passed down by many generations of masters. These types of programs may include a ranking system such as a belt system, incorporate Kata’s a.k.a. forms and focus on technical knowledge for mastery. Additionally, traditional martial art styles focuses on elements outside of fighting techniques such as philosophies, rituals, human development and betterment of life. 

What can you expect when choosing to train in a traditional martial art style? Depending on the type of style you choose to practice, training can include a combination of low and high intense drills. 

Stand up training styles Taekwondo, Shotokan and Kajukenbo can include low intense drills such as practicing forms, shadow drills and breathing techniques. High intense exercise drills may include striking pads, breaking boards or bricks and sparring.

Throwing and ground training styles Judo and Jiu-Jitsu can include low intense drills such as repeating single submissions and escapes, improving mobility, training breath control and resuscitation techniques.  High intense drills may include throwing techniques, breaking falls and sparring.

Combat Sports 

Combative Sport training styles are common styles we would see in the entertainment world. These styles can include but is not limited to Muay-Thai, Kickboxing, Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Traditional martial arts does include some aspects from combat training, however combative sport is more physically demanding and focuses more on athletic performance compared to betterment of life. Although practitioners in any one of these combative styles are not required to enter the ring to compete, one main purpose of combat sport is to test fighters and determine who is the best within a set of rules. 

What can you expect when joining a combative style martial art school? There’s no doubt that combative  training will be high-intense. Whether it’s Muay-Thai, Kickboxing, San-Shou, Boxing or Mixed Martial Arts, it’s almost guaranteed that you will be striking punching bags, focus mitts, thai-pads and drilling with teammates for the majority of the class time with sparring round saved for the end of class or simply offered as a whole separate class.

Because MMA includes a combination of different training styles, training can vary each day or each session. For those who are simply training for their own personal reasons but not competition, these students may train one hour of Muay-Thai one day, train one hour of boxing the second day and train one hour of Jiu-Jitsu the third day. Competitive fighters, speficially, may spend a few hours in their school a day fine tuning their skills in each craft.

First hour may include Muay-Thai training, second hour may include Jiu-Jitsu and the third hour may include MMA sparring.


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 Escrima, Silat with Krava Maga as the more popular self-defense training system.

Self-Defense training is perfect for those who have the desire to learn how to defend their self in a life threatening event such as an armed robbery, home invasion or abduction. What can students expect when attending a self-defense school?

Similar to MMA, self-defense training can include a combination of skills taken from various martial art styles but with an addition of weapons training such as knife, stick and firearms. Drilling in a self-defense school can require students to train at both low and intense levels to  mimick real-life threats. Low intense training can include drilling punches, kicks, knees, elbows, gouging and disarming weapons. High intense drills can include sparring in hand-to-hand combat, weapons combat and even sparring multiple opponents simultaneously.

Finally, self-defense training can teach students to overcome fear and build confidence to protect their self and their loved ones by any means necessary.

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 offer any weapon training. Every program is dependent on the instructors and the staff 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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