Do Traditional Martial Arts Really Work Under Pressure?

This is an old chestnut that keeps going around every now and again; do traditional martial arts really work under pressure in the street?

Many people argue that they don’t, after all, we’ve all heard of a story where a black belt in whatever style ends up getting beaten up by a street fighter. There are also lots of stories of martial artists, some even quite low grade, who have used their martial arts to successfully defend themselves. Which story you quote depends on which side of the debate you’re on.

Now when you consider that there are literally millions of people around the world who practice martial arts, just by the law of averages there are bound to be some who are successful in defending themselves and some who are not. So until somebody can come up with some studies and statistical data (I’m not aware of anybody doing so yet) I think we have to be careful how much we read too much into such stories.

This kind of debate has so many variables in it so as usual, I’m going start by making some assumptions to narrow the field a bit before continuing.

Firstly, I’m going to assume that we’re talking about a proper bonafide martial art system; not one of the watered down, money making franchise McDojo’s that have become all to common today.

Secondly, I’m going to assume that we’re talking about people who train regularly and train hard, not those who turn up once a fortnight and expect to be Bruce Lee!

Thirdly, this will mainly focus on arts that are considered primarily striking arts (such as Taekwondo, Karate, Kung Fu, etc); though much of it will also apply to other traditional arts as well.

Training can vary a lot from club to club or association to association, even within any given style. Some are geared mainly to the form and performance of the techniques and kata/patterns/forms, with little interest in the practical application. Practitioners can become very fast and powerful, but limited in their knowledge of applying it in a real situation. For ease, I shall refer to this as “form-based” for the rest of this post.

Traditional martial arts were designed so that you learn the correct body mechanics and body structures first to develop speed and power and to efficiently transfer that power into the target. Then you learn how to use those principles of movement in a more practical combat application. Form-based training often teaches only the first part, the efficiency of developing power and transferring it to the target, but often falls short of learning to apply it in a practical streetwise manner! Some modern martial arts, such as Krav Maga, appear to go straight into the practical streetwise application without much development of the structures and body mechanics first (or at least, they do so to a much lesser extent). So with respect, I’d say that both forms of training are incomplete.

Some martial arts focus on the sporting aspect and training is geared largely to scoring points in competition. They do develop some relevant street self defence skills like speed, timing, accuracy and most of the time - power. However, the range that they fight at is different to most street fights, safety rules bar the more dangerous techniques so they don’t get used to using them or defending from them and under many traditional martial arts competition rules you score a point by quickly moving into range, striking and jumping back before the opponent gets chance to counter attack which again is not a good policy in a real fight when you’d want to hit and pursue your advantage. So sport-based training can be limited in a real life situation.

Many martial arts have moved into a more practically applied stage, looking at the movements and how to actually use them, taking into account a more realistic range and how people are actually likely to attack you in real life rather than just learning to defend from a sport technique. For example, take the “Rising Block” used in Karate and Taekwondo, traditionally it is taught as blocking a punch to the head. However, it’s not very efficient for this application and there are much for practical ways of dealing with head punches. But it can be used as a strike, like an uppercut but using the forearm rather than the fist. The Karate and Taekwondo “Outside Block” is a bit slow for the usual explanation of blocking a punch to the body. However, it can be very efficient when used as a strike to say the jaw line, or arm lock or even an elbow break. Many movements would not work effectively the way many of our Oriental masters originally taught us. But as many people studied other arts, such as Ju Jutsu, Aikido, Kung Fu and others, some of the movements in the katas/patterns/forms started to give up their secrets and we could see how to use to them more more effectively. If you look at the list of categories on this website and go to BUNKAI, you’ll find a lot of examples or practical applications that may not have seemed obvious at first. For ease, I shall refer to this as “practical-based” training for the rest of this post.

Others have embraced the more modern reality-based training which can be incorporated into any style of martial art. This drills realistic scenarios taking into account pre-fight strategy/positioning, assertive behaviour to de-escalate, actual range that a real fight might start at, strikes and targets with a high probability in finishing quickly, lining up the opponent for a pre-emptive strike without them realising, effects of adrenaline and legal consequences. I’ll refer to this for the rest of this post as “reality-based”.

So lets start with clubs that train primarily in form-based or sport-based. If you take 2 twins identical in all aspects, train one in form/sport based martial arts and other does nothing; then I’m sure the martial artist will have the advantage. If one is taught to punch and kick with more speed, power and accuracy, then of course he’ll have an advantage.

However, if you take the same 2 twins and train one of them in form/sport-based martial arts and get the other one to join some street gang and get into real fights most weekends, then after a while I’d expect the one with the street fighting experience to have the advantage. He’d know for sure (not just in theory) what does and doesn’t work in a real fight, he’d be used to the raw aggression of the situation and he’d know what it is like to feel the adrenaline rush and operate with it and it’s side-effects. Many martial artists, even high level, are taken aback by the shear aggression and nastiness of a real confrontation and sometimes freeze. This is why so many people say that traditional martial arts don’t work in a real situation.


So I think it’s fair to say that form/sport-based traditional martial arts can work in the street, but are limited. They will definitely give you more tools to work with than you had before, but not necessarily enough to deal with an experienced street fighter who is of similar physical capacity to yourself. That super powerful, fast, crisp reverse punch won’t work so well up really close when the other guy is trying to put you into headlock or similar as you’re not used to working at that range or against that type of attack. Your accuracy may well be impaired by the effects of adrenaline, which an experienced street fighter will be more used to.

Then we come to the practical-based training. This will have some advantages over form/sport-based training as now we are actually used to working at more realistic range and training against the type of attack that is coming at you and using counters that will actually work. So if the martial artist in question has some experience in the real world street defence and is able to cope with the negative effective effects of adrenaline, then his chances of successfully defending themselves have greatly increased. They are however still vulnerable to negative effectives of adrenaline (the worst being simply freezing with panic) if they have never been in such a situation before.

Now we come to reality-based training. This is often combined with form-based and practical-based training where you develop the speed, power, timing and accuracy; with high probability techniques, correct distance, functioning with adrenaline and more. This is a really powerful combination. You will know what to expect, the psychology of the aggressors threatening behaviour, their tactics, you will know how to neutralise his/her threat before they move, how to position yourself to hit them first and you’ll know what that adrenaline rush feels like.

Although reality-based training is so effective and takes the rest of your training to a higher level, the irony of it is that you don’t need an awful lot of it to become effective. You always learn much more quickly in a heightened emotional state. When done right, the scenario training raises your adrenaline and emotional state, so that you absorb very quickly. This side of training is therefore absorbed and hardwired into you much more quickly than any form of training.

The combination form-based, practical-based and reality-based training will give you a much higher likelihood of success. I think it’s fair to say though that no matter how good you become, there will always be somebody better than you, that’s just the law of averages. No training will ever make you so good that you become immune to ever being beaten. But I think it’s fair to say that traditional martial arts training does work to a degree (bearing in mind the parameters at the beginning), but with some adaption to include practical-based and reality-based training it can be very seriously enhanced!



Multiply your effectiveness with more impact for less effort and where to hit for best effect.

Bonus: Historical look at Bassai Dai, one of Karate’s most pivotal katas




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