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How Effective Is Karate? Facts + Comparison With Other MAs

If you’ve grown up in the era of Karate Kid, Mortal Kombat, or Tekken, chances are high that at some point in life, you went through a ‘karate phase’, where all you wanted to do was yell ‘hi-yah!’ while karate-chopping the air.

But have you ever wondered whether knowing karate is even relevant when it comes to real-life situations where you need to defend yourself?

Well, the short answer: yes. 

Is Karate Effective?

Karate is very effective because it covers everything: it’s a form of self-defense, a form of martial arts, and a great method of exercise.

And if you’ve been on the fence about whether or not to take it up as your next new year’s resolution, I am here with a full, expansive guide about everything karate to help you make up your mind!

I’ve practiced karate for about seven years now, and I’ve seen the effectiveness from a range of angles.

I’ll go through the many reasons why karate is highly effective, some comparisons with other well-known martial arts, and finally some areas in which it possibly might not be so effective just so you’re aware of those as well.

Karate preparation for sparring

The Philosophy Behind Karate

Like most other forms of martial arts, karate is based on having a peaceful way of living. The karate master or practitioner doesn’t just train for karate in order to learn to fight, but also uses it to develop their mind, body, and soul. 

The essence of karate lies in fostering a sense of physical and mental strength, all while practicing self-control over that strength.  

Techniques Used in Karate

A lot of karate is made up of your footwork technique.

What karate teaches you is to work quickly to put an end to a fight or battle, rather than focusing on hurting your opponent.

When you’re in a fight using karate, your aim should be to avoid damaging your opponent as much as possible. You want to stun them momentarily and win the fight, instead of harming them.

Simple movements learned well are highly effective in defending yourself

Does Karate Actually teach you Self-Defense?

Now, I’m sure that if you’re reading this, there’s a chance that you’re trying to figure out whether learning karate is worth your while.

Will you become a master of martial arts?

Will you be able to defend yourself against any form of harm, like muggings or real-life tussles? 

Let’s find out.

Karate is pretty useful and functional when it comes to self-defense. The low stances, the rigid footwork, and quick and flexible movements all play a big hand in making it an excellent form of self-defense when you find yourself in a situation where you have to fight in real life.

Karate was initially designed for self-defense and personal protection.

When you’re being taught karate, pay attention to the techniques and you’ll find out that as a form of martial arts, karate doesn’t just focus on self-discipline and developing mental strength, it also places a lot of emphasis on combative methods of fighting.

But if you learn karate with all the rules of martial arts and try to maintain those rules in an actual fight in the real world? Don’t be surprised if your attacker doesn’t care about illegal strikes or wrong footwork. 

The strict rules of karate, and any martial arts, should remain in the practice rooms, not real life.

There is a huge difference between learning karate and studying it as a form of martial arts, versus learning karate and using it as a form of self-defense. 

Some teachers might feel that teaching combative methods isn’t conducive to the practice, and might just adhere strictly to teaching you the rules and regulations of what makes up karate. 

So if you’re joining a class to learn it as a form of self-defense, make sure you ask whether you will be taught self-defense techniques that can be used in street fights and real-life situations. 

Ask them: are they planning to teach you how to deal with an attacker who comes at you with a weapon? Will you be taking part in daily sparring sessions to strengthen your senses, as well as your reactions to them?

You need to be able to be quick on your feet, and get back on your feet quickly! 

Sparring with an attacker means that you learn how to strike a moving target, respond to unexpected situations and movements so that you can train yourself to have quick reactions.

Another way to ensure that you’re trained in using karate in realistic situations is to spar with a partner whose aim is to win the fight, rather than fight fairly.

This will give you a realistic scenario of a street fight, and your skills and ability to practice karate in a reactive manner will strengthen. 

This way of working with a partner whose aim is to resist will be much more beneficial than you might realize.

Modern karate techniques tend to focus more on striking your opponent, whereas the older, Okinawan style of karate methods put a lot more emphasis on grappling as a core technique of combative fighting. 

Various techniques which are at the heart of grappling, such as throwing, joint locking, and grabbing, may not be at the top of the list when it comes to the philosophy behind karate, but they sure are effective when it comes to self-defense, especially for women (Source). 

Think about it like this: in a real-life fight, the chances that either you or your attacker end up falling to the ground are more towards the higher side than the lower. You can trip, fall, or be thrown down without a moment’s notice.

And then what do you do? 

Well, if you trained yourself in grappling techniques, then there’s actually a lot of things you can do. Basic ground grappling comes in very handy in these kinds of scenarios, and you don’t need to be a professional at it to make effective use of it.

Learn a few basic things, like how to get back on your feet or how to tackle or flip the attacker, and you’ll find yourself protected.

If you want to prepare yourself just a little bit more, I suggest putting in some effort to learn the katas. As choreographed moves within karate, kata movements consist of a vast array of tips and techniques that aid your movement in combat, such as grappling, choking, throwing, or joint locking. 

Don’t make the mistake of overlooking them just because they require a bit more practice: they’re known to be brutally effective.

If you’re willing and able to improvise in the moment, whatever the situation may be, and pay no heed to illegal spots and strikes, then you’ll find that actually, karate is pretty amazing, useful, and effective. 

Comparisons: What’s the Most Effective?

As much as I love karate, I can’t pretend that there aren’t other forms of martial arts and street fighting out there. Here are some comparisons to help you make the right decision when deciding what works best for you and your self-defense journey!

1. Karate vs. Muay Thai

In a real-life street brawl, Muay Thai has a fairly clear advantage over karate, and I’ll tell you why.

During a street fight, no matter how well trained you might be in the art of self-defense and martial arts, and self-control, the main thing your brain wants you to do is to release the fear, nervousness, and anger you might be feeling. 

Muay Thai uses a singular form of sparring, while karate teaches you a wide range of sparring and kicking techniques. 

Your mind doesn’t care how much you practice mindfulness. When it comes to a scary situation, your basic instinct is to fight.

While Muay Thai is probably the fastest way to get yourself street-ready, with training that focuses on hitting moving targets with your fist, elbow, knee, and shin, karate has a slightly stricter regimen.

Muay Thai has devastating grappling techniques, which can stand next to karate’s grappling techniques quite easily, but there’s a reason that Muay Thai is called the art of eight limbs. 

When you’re taught karate, there’s a striking difference between what you’re taught by your trainer, and what you do in a street fight; in muay Thai, the difference between the two is very small to none, making it a form of martial art that can be practiced easily in real-life situations without worrying too much about doing the wrong techniques.

2. Karate vs. Brazilian Jui Juitsu

When it comes to real-life street brawls, there is a slight edge that Brazilian jujitsu has over karate that might be the winning factor.

Brazilian jujitsu involves a fair amount of ground grappling and takedowns where the aim is to leave your opponent incapacitated.

With leg sweeps and lightning-fast attacks, it’s normally not possible for your opponent or attacker to remain fully standing at all times.

Also, people of all weights and heights learn the same techniques, making it a bit fairer than karate, where you slowly go up the ladder by belt to learn new things.

Whereas karate is an incredibly self-sufficient form of martial arts that has plenty of advantages, compared to the real-life training that takes place in Brazilian jujitsu, it falls a little behind.

Boxer hitting punch-bag in gym

3. Karate vs. MMA

Mixed Martial Arts is a fairly new player in the game. Some might wonder whether it’s fair to compare it to karate, whose origins are deeply embedded in a peaceful way of living, whereas MMA focuses on purely fighting in a closed arena.

And yet, since both are still a form of martial arts, it’s fair game to see it as a self-defense technique.

Even though your average MMA fighter spends his or her time training to fight in a closed arena with rules to abide by, you have to take into account the fact that for MMA, there are actually a lot fewer rules.

But is it better than karate? Well, depends on how you look at it.

MMA restricts illegal strikes in a manner similar to karate, but it does train you to repeatedly hit your opponent in order to incapacitate them, while karate just trains you to stun them long enough for you to make your escape.

4. Karate vs. Boxing

Let’s get down to brass tacks: who’s going to win in a fight between a boxer and a karate master?

Boxing as a sport and a form of self-defense is very similar to karate. You are trained to hit your opponent in clean, non-lethal ways that stun them without causing any lasting or unnecessary damage to their body. 

However, I can’t ignore the fact that boxing as a form of violence can be pretty lethal.

If you’re not being trained by a master, chances are that you’ll spend the majority of your time learning how to hurt your opponent to the point of unconsciousness, rather than how to win in a fight. 

Your reactions to real-life situations will always be to exhibit what you repeatedly train in, so whether it’s MMA, Muay Thai, Karate or Brazilian jujitsu, it all just depends on what you repeatedly do.

Drawbacks of Karate

As an all-rounder, karate is a great option when you want to pick up martial arts for learning self-defense.

However, everything has its weakness, and as cool as it is, karate is no different.

When it comes to technique, karate fails its practitioner in the sense that it leaves many of your vital parts open for your attacker. You’re exposed, and that’s not a good place to be when you’re trying to fight off someone who’s trying to harm you.

Another drawback is that combat sports like karate and other forms of martial arts are not the same as real fights. No matter how much you practice and train and spar, there’s nothing that can quite mimic the adrenaline rush and fear that grips your body during a real fight. 

When you train for a particular sport, you do it keeping in mind the philosophies and techniques that it’s based on. Many of them ask you to do repetitive, non-lethal, and sometimes impractical techniques that are not going to help you out in a real fight.

With karate, as with most martial arts, the aim is not to maim and hurt your opponent; that’s just not practical in a real-life situation.

For example, the ‘distance’ that you must keep from your opponent in karate is not a given in real-life fights. In fact, the chances are very small that your attacker will respect the boundaries of martial arts rules.

Another is that, while you’re fighting in an arena, your confidence levels tend to be much higher. Who can blame you? You’ve practiced for it, you know your opponent, and oftentimes you’re surrounded by people you trust. 

Not so in real life.

What karate does, and what most fighting sports do, is teach you how to protect yourself in a very manicured situation. You are on the defense, your opponent in on the offense, and you also always only have one opponent, never more than that.

Unfortunately, in a more realistic scenario, you never know just how many attackers you might have to fight off. 

So when you practice all that self-defense, perfect all the moves and techniques and footwork, there’s still something left that you need to do: practice with more than just one attacker coming at you.


Alright, so how do you feel about karate?

For me, karate is still my top choice. No matter what the situation, whether I’m in a dojo or a street fight, I know that the practiced, repeated movements that I’m taught during my training are going to come out by instinct, whether I want them to or not, so I don’t necessarily have to worry about fight or flight, getting panicked and freezing. 

There is no sense of having to will yourself to defend yourself.

If you’re trained properly, and if you practice regularly, and you build up your confidence by sparring with attacking opponents, weapons and, just to be on the safe side, more than one opponent then karate is an excellent choice; it is effective and incredibly useful in street fights or any other situation that might require you to protect yourself from someone else. 

You’re able to fend off an attacker without seriously hurting or maiming them or yourself.

The impulse of fighting off an attacker is embedded in the teachings of karate, as well as any other form of combative martial arts or sport. 

Combine it with the footwork, high-intensity kicks, and punches, and no one will ever confuse you for a damsel in distress again. 

You’re ready to take on the world, to protect yourself, and to get in a healthy amount of exercise, all in one go!