Do Self-Defence Classes Really Work? [Pros & Cons]

Do self-defence classes work? -

If you are considering taking self-defence classes, you might want to wait a few minutes before you sign up. There’s quite a lot of controversy around these classes and many people say that they just don’t work. So, it’s best to know why and what to do about it.

Do self-defence classes really work? Self-defence classes absolutely can work if you choose the right course and instructor. Short, quick self-defence courses given by inexperienced instructors don’t work. Self-defence classes require a long-term commitment to be effective when it matters.

So, this is what you need to know in order to really benefit from a self-defence class.

What Do Self-Defence Classes Teach?

A self-defence class has the objective of providing someone with the basic skills to resist being attacked in any situation. It is not designed to make the person become an effective fighter, but rather to incapacitate their opponent or give them space to get away and seek help.

This means that you are unlikely to be spending much time on learn specific moves and then perfecting the techniques involved. Instead, you will focus your attention on methods that do not require much, if any, precision to fend off a mugger, rapist, etc.

In theory you should learn some physical discipline such as:

  • Where to move your body to when an attack takes place
  • Some different techniques to allow you to strike your attacker
  • Some different techniques to block your attacker
  • Some methods to break free when being held or choked

You also ought to be given some grounding in mental tactics to go alongside the physical side of things such as:

  • How to be better aware of where you are and what’s going on
  • How you might be able to recognize a potential threat and take action to minimize it
  • How you can prevent or reduce the risks of being attacked
  • How you might negotiate with an attacker to reduce the chances of being harmed
  • How you can stay focused when you are attacked in order to make rational decisions with your best interests at heart

There is no official “self-defence curriculum” and it’s important to note that this also means there is no basic standard of self-defence that a “self-defence instructor” is required to be able to demonstrate before they start holding classes.

Assuming they are competent in self-defence they will be looking to teach you the bare minimum of how to survive an attack from a single attacker. They will begin by walking you through some basic concepts of how to clear you mind and stay calm, so that you can think about the way you will respond.

Then depending on the length of the course- it’s important to acknowledge that with no standard curriculum, self-defence classes can be very variable in their content, we’ve seen some that last as little as a couple of hours – they will try to teach you a range of physical techniques designed to shore up your personal safety in certain situations.

Self-Defence Classes: The Good And The Bad

There are two camps when it comes to talking about the effectiveness of self-defence classes. The first is highly enthusiastic about their utility and the other very negative about them. For the sake of balance, let’s explore these viewpoints here and see what we might conclude after.

10 Benefits Of Self-Defence Classes

There are 10 main benefits that proponents of self-defence classes say that they believe participants get out of it.

A Sense Of Confidence

There is quite a bit of research that says that assaults and unprovoked attacks often occur because of a misunderstanding of another person’s intent. This is often because one party lacks the confidence to make it clear what they find acceptable or not.

Many participants in self-defence classes say that the experience makes them feel more confident in themselves. Not just to protect themselves but also to articulate the things that they want to say. Students often say that this is one of the main motivational factors in taking a class.

In particular, those people who find themselves bullied on regular occasions say that this makes it much easier for them to find the courage to stand up for themselves and to feel that they can protect themselves against harassment.

Better Balance

Human beings aren’t built by the best biological design. Where some creatures seem to know instinctively how their bodies work best, we don’t seem to and while many people gain a sense of balance naturally, many others do not.

Self-defence lessons can help with this by teaching the right way to stand and to position the body to reduce the risks of being pushed or knocked over. This can have particular benefits for the elderly for whom falling over can result in terrible injuries or even death.

For everyone involved, being better able to control their balance ought to provide them with a better footing to defend themselves if the chips are down.


There’s a lot to be said for self-discipline, it’s the driving force behind many successful lives and if you want to be able to grow and develop in any area of expertise then you will need to have some level of self-discipline.

When participants see self-defence classes as a beginning to their ability to defend themselves rather than an end in itself, they are likely to continue practicing and doing what they’ve studied over and over again. This develops self-discipline.

It also, as importantly, helps the individual to develop muscle memory which means that they can execute the moves that they need to execute with less conscious thought, this is very useful when you are defending yourself.

Improved Overall Physical Fitness/Conditioning

When someone is attacked, their base level instincts of “fight, flight or freeze” kick in and this can make it very challenging for them to deal with their attacker. What happens from a biochemical point of view is that your body is flooded with adrenalin which causes this reaction.

Adrenalin is very useful; it gives us extra power and speed to defend ourselves with but only if we learn to use it effectively. A good self-defence regime should help a person develop the right level of physical conditioning to call upon this natural resource and put it to good use.

Greater Street Smarts

This is a big deal. A lot of attacks that take place late at night could be avoided if the person being attacked had been better aware of their situation, that doesn’t mean “all attacks are avoidable” just that some are.

Self-defence classes are very focused on helping you to be better aware of your environment and how to make quick decisions. Often, the best thing to do before someone attacks is to run, shout for help or seek help.

You will also learn how to spot potential hiding places that attackers could use and places that you, yourself, might hide to prevent being attacked too.


When you practice the techniques that you learn in your self-defence classes, you will practice them with a partner. This means that you will need to develop a level of mutual trust and respect in order to do this safely and in a way that enables you both to achieve your objectives.

This will help to nurture your own self-respect and when you respect yourself, you will be less open to allowing others to harm you either through their actions or with words. This is a very basic platform for self-defence.

Gives You A Warrior Spirit

Some proponents of self-defence say that the classes give you a “warrior spirit” that will be prepared to fight hard enough that you can’t be dragged down or seriously hurt.

This is potentially a dangerous belief and that sometimes, it’s better to submit than it is to escalate a situation and get yourself even more hurt.

Improves Reflexes

There’s no doubt that any kind of set of self-defence moves must be executed quickly in order to help you get out of the trouble that you find yourself in. If they take too long, your attacker will work out what’s happening and take steps to avoid your counter which could be a serious problem.

So, practice makes perfect and practice also helps you to build up reflexes. You’re unlikely to become much faster from a single 2-hour training session but if you spend time practicing what you’ve learned on a regular basis – you might become more than fast enough for when it matters.

Helps You Learn To Set Goals

There is a huge correlation between success in every part of life and learning to set goals. Self-defence classes can help you break down an encounter and set objectives for each part of it – goals that are focused on your safety not on “winning” a fight.

By learning to plan and execute a plan with your objectives in mind, you are learning a very useful transferable skill for the rest of your life. That seems to be a huge advantage of self-defence classes and if it’s true, it might justify the effort you put in all by itself.

Positive Influences On Life

Many students say that they found their learning to have positive influences on their whole life and that they faced the world with greater confidence and happiness.

Given that there’s no way to measure these things or evaluate them, the students are best placed to decide how they feel following self-defence classes. Thus, there may be a real benefit to self-defence classes even if the naysayers are right and that self-defence classes are fundamentally flawed.

10 Dangers of Self-Defence Classes

In the other corner there are a lot of valid criticisms of self-defence classes and they are worth thinking about before you decide to take up a class or ten.

You Learn Poor Techniques

Most self-defence classes are short courses designed to give you options in a situation. This, out of necessity, leads to a situation where you don’t get taught techniques often enough and nor do you get a chance to practice them a lot and get feedback on your execution.

Critics say this leads to a strong chance that when you employ your chosen tactic when you need it most – it just won’t work. Sloppy execution will lead to the attacker either being unharmed or easily countering it and that will probably make them angrier and more violent.

This is important and even practicing after the event won’t correct any problems that you might pick up in your technique and you won’t be able to get feedback to ensure that you’re doing things correctly either.

You Don’t Get A Thorough Work Out

A self-defence class isn’t a form of physical fitness training to be fair, but it’s worth noting that you won’t get a thorough work out at one of these classes. You are unlikely to be even asked to warm up or cool down at the end of the session.

There tends to be a lot of focus on scenario planning followed by brief bursts of resolving a specific scenario and this isn’t terribly energetic stuff. This doesn’t matter greatly, mind you, but it does mean that if you were hoping to keep fit through self-defence, you probably won’t because that’s not how these classes are meant to work.

Classes Are All Talk, No Action

Self-defence classes tend to involve a lot of talking. In fact, more than 80% of the instruction time is often made up of talk. This can help people feel more confident and energized about themselves, but sadly, it does nothing to teach you how to defend yourself.

Self-defence is a practical issue not a theoretical one. You can’t learn to throw someone from an instruction pamphlet. You can’t break someone’s hold based on what you read last week. You have to do these things to get good at them, instinctively. Talking about them, just won’t give you any kind of competence.

That’s not to say there’s no value in theory at all – of course, it’s helpful to know when a technique should be used, why it was designed, the history of the technique, etc. but the primary objective should be a practical one – how to stop yourself from getting hurt and talk won’t accomplish that.

The Instructor Sees No Benefits Of Other Fighting Disciplines

This comes up a lot. Self-defence instructors are often very dismissive of other martial art forms. They say that they don’t believe that they are valuable in self-defence situations and that their approach to protecting yourself is the only thing that will work.

Now, this is clearly untrue. Can you imagine what would happen if Bruce Lee were walking down the street and a guy tried to karate kick him? You wouldn’t expect to find Bruce cursing his luck and wishing he’d taken a self-defence class, would you? You’d expect him to kick the ruffian down the street a few times and that’s exactly what would happen.

You should always be a little nervous of people who dismiss the competence of others based on “I do it differently”.

The Instructor Has Never Used Their Techniques In Real Life

This is huge and it’s all too common. Many self-defence instructors have never done much more than taken a few self-defence classes themselves. They have no idea if their techniques work in practical situations because they’ve never been there themselves.

This can lead to a lot of impractical techniques (as we shall see shortly) and also to a misplaced sense of effectiveness without very much evidence to back it up. That doesn’t mean all self-defence instructors have no experience in the real world, but many don’t.

There’s A Lot Of Emphasis On Eye Gouging

OK, let’s imagine this situation. You’re in a bar one evening and a rowdy gentleman tries to grab you and force you to dance. You don’t appreciate this, you didn’t ask for his attention and frankly what he’s doing is unpleasant and tantamount to assault. What are you going to do about this?

Well, a lot of self-defence instruction would lead you to believe that you should try and gouge the guy’s out. OK, firstly – this is a bad idea, it’s completely disproportionate to many situations, a minor inconvenience does not merit the partial blinding of a stranger.

Secondly, even if it was a good idea, it’s often much harder to gouge someone’s eyes than they make it out to be in self-defence classes. In fact, you rarely read of someone having their eye gouged even in serious assaults because it’s not something that’s easy to pull off at all. Eye gouging isn’t a technique that adds much value.

They Talk Too Much About Personal Safety

Personal safety is very important. Understanding that you should lock your car doors, walk down the well-lit side of the street, choose to avoid groups of drunken youths, etc. will all improve your chances of not being assaulted. However, none of this is self-defence. It’s common sense practical living tips, instead.

A lot of self-defence classes seem to forget about self-defence which is what you do when you are attacked by someone and focus entirely on the idea of not being attacked in the first place. Sadly, while precautions are a good idea – you cannot guarantee to avoid being attacked and if it happens, self-defence is what you will need.

They Talk About Attacking People’s Genitals

If your attacker happens to be male, the idea that you can administer a swift, kick, punch, etc. to his nether regions and the fight will be over is very appealing, indeed. Sadly, it’s not in the remotest bit true.

Most of the time, if you hit someone in that area – you will not incapacitate them, you will just make them very, very angry and that means they are much more likely to try and do extreme levels of violence to you, in return. That’s precisely what you’re trying to avoid by taking self-defence classes.

They Can Encourage You To Fight Instead Of Run

If somebody comes at you with a knife, what do you do? If you started trying to run through self-defence moves in your head, stop now. The appropriate answer is “run away if at all possible”. You’ll find a lot of “how to defend against a knife” videos on YouTube and they’re all a bad idea. Even the most experience martial artists are liable to get stabbed in this situation – your few hours of self-defence lessons do not qualify you to take on someone with a knife.

In many situations, the best answer in a fight is to run like the wind and don’t look back. Sure, there is a time to fight occasionally but most of the time, if you are somewhere that your attacker is not – you can’t get hurt. It’s as simple as that.

They Make You Overconfident

All of these minor issues can add up to a serious problem. Instead of gaining useful self-confidence, many self-defence class attendees may end up feeling massively overconfident when it comes to a real-world attack.

This can lead to them taking risks and making moves that they would better off not be doing.

Do Self-Defence Classes Really Work?

OK, so we’ve looked at the good and the bad: Do self-defence classes really work? The answer is that they can but that you’ve got to be careful about what kind of class you take and the instructor you choose to work with.

You want to find a slot that offers regular practice, more practical work than theory, with an instructor with some real-world experience. If you can get those things, then there is no good reason that your self-defence instruction shouldn’t be hugely beneficial.

What you should try to avoid is superficial 2-hour courses in which less than 10 minutes is spent teaching you to defend yourself. Those courses are very unlikely to work and may even lead to you putting yourself in danger.

The Difference Between Martial Arts & Self-Defence

You may be wondering at this point what the difference between martial arts and self-defence is. Well, it boils down to the fact that most martial arts are fighting systems with a philosophy that you are meant to live your life around.

They provide a set of consistent tools for fighting (not all martial arts are designed with defence in mind, some like Muay Thai, for example, are very much offensive) and they take years to learn and master. You can’t become a karate black belt in a 2-hour class talking about Bruce Lee and The Karate Kid.

Do Martial Arts Classes Work?

Yes, though it may take months or years before you would be 100% confident to use martial arts skills to defend yourself in a street situation. It is also worth noting that you will not learn the “personal safety” aspects of self-defence on a martial arts program. So, it might be worth investing in that separately.


Do self-defence classes really work? They absolutely can work if you choose the right course and instructor. Be very wary of ultra-short courses and instructors with no real-world experience, they may do more harm than good but otherwise, if you’re not ready to commit to martial arts training, a self-defence course can be a useful thing to do.

Scroll to Top