Is Karate Good for Self Defense? Best Styles, Techniques & More!

Karate is one of the most popular martial arts ever. Many people train in karate to improve their self-defense capabilities. But is it all that effective in a street fight scenario? What about a situation where you’d have to fight multiple assailants at the same time? In this article, you’ll learn the pros and cons of karate for self-defense.

Traditional Karate vs Sports Karate

We need to make an important distinction between traditional and modern karate.

Traditional karate is effective for self defense. It involves plenty of hard sparring with hits being taken and received. You learn how to deliver painful and debilitating blows to the opponent, and you also learn how to receive them. So you build up pain resistance and can handle yourself better in a real fight.

In comparison, modern karate trained as a competitive sport prohibits many techniques that would be useful in a self defense scenario. For example, there are no techniques allowed below the belt, no grabs and no throws. 

Many modern styles also prohibit hard strikes and fighters are awarded points for striking precision instead. It becomes sort of a fencing match, where the goal is to simply execute a movement correctly within inches of the opponent to receive points, instead of actually hitting them effectively.

It’s easy to see why this sports style of fighting wouldn’t be of much use in a real fight, especially in comparison to boxing, kickboxing and other full contact martial arts where this distinction isn’t as pronounced.

Effective Self-Defense Karate Techniques

Original karate techniques can be very useful in a street fight. Of course, some more than others, and depending on the specifics of the situation.

For example, you should always be aware of your environment, whether there is just one opponent, whether he is armed, is there enough space to execute kicks and is there a way out of the situation or will you have to go all in. But with all that being said, here are some useful techniques:

1. Groin strike

The fact that there is a groin strike in karate shows that it was originally created for self-defense. The groin strike is meant to paralyze the opponent with a single blow. The rising front kick is also taught in the modern Kenpo version of karate, and you can see its execution in this video.

2. Straight punches

Straight punches are very often used in sports karate, and they can be very effective in a street fight. Basically, the idea is to attack the enemy with a flurry of straight punches while advancing towards him.

3. Long distance punch (Oizuki)

This is a great technique taught by Sensei Chinzo Machida. The idea is to close in on the opponent fast from a longer distance and deal a knockout blow. This can surprise and overwhelm the opponent, especially if they don’t suspect you know how any karate. Here is a video tutorial.

4. Open hand strikes

The danger of punching with bare knuckles is that you can break your hand in the process. If you hit the opponents head with full strength, your hand will likely suffer a great deal of damage as well. This is where open hand strikes come in handy as a safe alternative.

If you think that this isn’t effective, don’t confuse it with a slap. These are very hard strikes and you can do some real damage with them. All karate styles teach them, except for their sports versions. Here is a great video tutorial.

5. Elbow and knee strikes

Elbows and knees are very powerful weapons in close courters. For example, if you were attacked in a crowded night club. One precise knee strike or elbow strike to the head can transport your opponent to another dimension.

The Best Karate Styles for Self-Defense

Karate officially became a martial art in the 1930s, and since then, many different styles have sprung up. The best style for self-defense is the one you’re able to train with a fully resisting partner and spar with on a regular basis.

It’s of paramount importance that you research the karate schools that are available to you and whether they train their students mainly for sports or self defense, and opt for the latter.

Many styles are used for both purposes, so deciding purely by style without researching the school can be a mistake. Having said that, these are the four main karate styles, and there are important differences between them that you should be aware of.


Shotokan originates in Tokyo, and it was established by the founder of modern karate, Master Gichin Funakoshi. It’s the most popular style and originally it was intended for self defense.

The focus of this style is on defending properly, avoiding the opponents strikes, and ending the fight quickly with straight line strikes instead of exchanging blows until the harder head prevails. While sparring is part of Shotokan training, there is often a greater emphasis placed on form and technique training, especially for beginners.

Goju Ryu

This style is focused on short-range combat and it’s considered by some practitioners as a better option for real life fights than Shotokan. This opinion stems from the observation that street brawls typically devolve into close-range punching and grappling scenarios where long and linear movements of styles like Shotokan fall short.

In comparison, Goju Ryu revolves around grappling, sweeping, close-range strikes and effective blocks, while shying away from elegant high kicks that require a lot of space to execute properly. There is also a lot of body conditioning in Goju Ryu training. It’s considered to be the “tank of the karate styles” because it’s focused on winning, rather than being a “beautiful loser”.


This style is considered to be very practical because it involves a lot of sparring and body conditioning. There is also an emphasis on fighting at close distance, which is a common situation in self defense scenarios.

The main problem with Kyokushin training in most gyms is that head strikes, punches in particular, are not allowed. It’s because protective head gear is typically not used. However, in some gyms they do wear it and they allow head strikes. This is an important factor because knowing how to block head strikes and execute them properly is a key feature of any self defense strategy.

Wado Ryu

This style is gentler than the three previously mentioned. You could call it the Aikido of Karate styles. The primary aim is to dodge incoming attacks, instead of blocking them. Therefore, emphasis is placed on positioning and playing with the opponents balance. It includes joint locks and chokes from Jujutsu along with many techniques that are taught in Shotokan style.

The training overall is easier on the body, as it generally lacks tough sparring and body conditioning. That does make it less effective than other styles but its still a viable option. Here is a video demonstration of some popular Wado Ryu techniques.

Final Thoughts

Karate is definitely an effective self defense martial art. Especially so when hard sparring is introduced. The most practical style for the most common street fight scenarios is Kyokushin due to its emphasis on close range combat and sparring. The least effective, at least in theory, is Wado Ryu.

However, there’s no point in being dogmatic about any style, because when trained and applied properly, each of them can work well. So instead of focusing on the style, research the karate schools you can join and whether the emphasis is placed on self-defense or sports. Also make sure that the teacher is reputable before becoming his or her student.

Peter Jerome

A seasoned MMA practitioner and an intermediate in BJJ and Krav Maga. When I'm not knocking heads with someone in a dojo, I like chilling out with my girlfriend and our adorable pug Betsy.

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