BJJ vs Krav Maga: Sport or Self Defense?

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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Krav Maga are gaining widespread popularity across the world.  Since most of us martial arts nerds love a good style vs style comparison, we are going to break down BJJ vs Krav Maga to give you the details on the differences, similarities, and the upsides and downsides of each art.

What is BJJ?

If you are not familiar with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, we recommend taking a peek at this article breaking down the BJJ style.  To recap, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a grappling-focused martial art that seeks to control and submit an opponent on the ground through chokes, joint-locks, and other non-striking based techniques.  It was originally developed in Brazil from the ground fighting techniques found in traditional Judo and Japanese Jiu Jitsu and has evolved from there.  The founding goal of BJJ was to allow a smaller weaker opponent to defeat a larger opponent utilizing positioning and leverage on the ground.

BJJ has been successfully applied over-and-over in MMA fights as well as self-defense, “no rules” scenarios.  In fact, a comprehensive fighting system that neglects any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu based techniques is essentially non-existent.  Nevertheless, BJJ as practiced under most modern competition rulesets does not include striking techniques such as punches, kicks, knees, and elbows.  Furthermore, certain submissions and takedowns may be prohibited in the sporting context of BJJ depending on the promotion.

Although traditional BJJ rulesets ban many effective martial arts techniques, the principles and positions of BJJ are applicable to fighting in many no-rules scenarios.  Most BJJ techniques can be adapted to the context of the situation, whether sport or self-defense.

Looking to learn BJJ fundamentals?  This world-class instructional from Master Henry Akins has everything you need from white belt to blue belt.

What is Krav Maga?

Krav Maga is in many senses unlike nearly every other mainstream martial art.  Far from being a ruleset or limited-technique art form, it is more of a philosophy and collection of techniques geared specifically for self-defense and combat scenarios.

Krav Maga was originally developed by Imi Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian Jew born in 1910.  Lichtenfeld was originally trained in boxing, wrestling and gymnastics.

If you’re familiar with European history, you probably instinctively understand that Lichtenfeld faced real-world deadly threats throughout his life.

From fighting off anti-Semitic gangs in Bratislava, to fleeing the Nazis and serving in North Africa during World War II, Lichtenfeld learned his around hand to hand combat.

He ultimately served and trained with several of the elite military units that became the Israeli Defense Forces.

Krav Maga essentially focuses on the most effective, violent techniques from various martial arts in order to train individuals to effectively fight in as little time as possible.

In fact, according to the Krav Maga Worldwide, an internationally certifying organization for Krav instructors, Krav includes BJJ techniques such as the full guard.

However, in Krav Maga, the main goal of these techniques is to get up, do some damage, and end the fight ‘as quickly as possible.’

Comparing BJJ with Krav Maga

Krav Maga and BJJ do share some similarities – both arts were originally adapted from other styles and designed largely for self-defense.

Nevertheless, in the modern context, there are a few major differences between BJJ and Krav Maga.

1.    BJJ is a competitive sport

In the modern era, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is as much a sport as it is a martial art.

As such, advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques are largely designed to defeat other individuals using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the sporting context.

This does not mean that fundamental BJJ techniques do not work “on the streets.”

But it does mean that at advanced levels of BJJ you will likely practicing moves that will not actually be needed in a street fight since you will likely have already won the fight with the basics.

On the other hand, Krav Maga does not have sanctioned competitions with rulesets.  If you are at a legit Krav gym, you will be sparring live and will at some point be pushed to the limit with different attacker scenarios that require you to use the skills you’ve been training.

The techniques in Krav Maga incorporate fundamentals from many combat sports.  However, the Krav methodology is trained to be applied quickly and chaotically as opposed to the drawn-out nature of competition in arts such as Muay Thai, Boxing, and of course, BJJ.

2.    BJJ does not include striking

Here's how to improve that lousy jiujitsu game plan of yours during competitionMany gyms that offer BJJ also offer striking and MMA classes.  However, if the BJJ classes you take are focused on the pure BJJ style, you will likely not be doing much striking.

This may be okay if your goal is to just train grappling.  But if you want to be able to defend yourself, supplementing your BJJ with some striking is definitely a necessity.

If you are training Krav Maga under a real instructor, you will be doing some serious striking work.  While you will not hone the technique required for high-level grappling, you also will not be caught off guard in a situation where fists are flying

3.    BJJ does not include weapons training

Let’s face it, if you are serious about self-defense, you need to incorporate some knowledge of weapons training.

In most cases, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes will not involve any training with weapons.

Particularly, if you are in the United States, a working knowledge of firearms is a must-have if you want to have a real chance at defending yourself in a life and death encounter.

Krav Maga generally includes some form of weapons training.  This may not be live range time or live blades, but Krav Maga will generally at least show some basic disarms using plastic guns and knives.

At the very least, being able to manage distance and recognize when a weapon is in play is needed for self-defense.

However, if your goal is to get the most out of grappling in a competitive or personal context, spending time on weapons training may not be what you are looking for.

The Downsides of Krav Maga

And Is BJJ all it’s cracked up to be?

Based on the above comparisons, it may seem like BJJ is not a great option for self-defense compared to Krav Maga.  This is not necessarily the case.

While modern BJJ has its holes, the techniques still work and have been adapted to real-world violence by skilled practitioners.

‘I strangled a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’, says Paul Cale, former commando.

For example, Australian commando Paul Cale made headlines when he strangled a Taliban commander during a raid in Afghanistan.

Cale now teaches close quarters combat techniques to military, police, and civilians.  While he is careful to explain the big differences between sport and combat, in this video he can be seen teaching the details of the triangle choke – and even consensually chokes out the Vice reporter.

Although Cale is not a “sport BJJ” practitioner, he has clearly integrated BJJ techniques – and used them – in real-world violence.

Overall, the wide array of positions and submissions in BJJ are readily adaptable to different combat scenarios.  Someone who is skilled in the “sport” style of BJJ will be far more capable of adapting their technique for life-and-death situations than someone with no training background.

Overall, Krav Maga has a great case for being the “ultimate self-defense system.”  The biggest issue is the marketing you will often find regarding Krav Maga – it is frequently billed as a relatively “quick” way to learn self-defense.

You will often read arguments along the lines of “soldiers don’t have time to spend decades mastering a martial art” as justification for why you, as a civilian, should train Krav for 6 months to a year and to become proficient in self-defense.

It is true that focusing on the most effective and instinctive techniques will make training an art such as Krav ‘better for self-defense’ than mastering the nuances of something like spider-guard.

The issue really isn’t the techniques themselves – watch any high-level Krav instructor and it will be obvious they can put the hurt on you.

With that said, any physical movement pattern is still going to take many repetitions to develop and re-wire the brain to be effective.

Military units learning hand-to-hand combat are already going to be in great shape and have the time and budget to immerse themselves fully in training – a (non)-luxury that most civilians do not have.

On the same note, the marketing associated with Krav Maga often hails the masters, such as Lichtenfeld himself, as examples of why Krav ‘works.’

This conveniently neglects the fact the Lichtenfeld not only had a background in boxing and wrestling but also had decades of combat experience to hone his skills.

In a nutshell, the examples used for why ‘efficient self-defense’ is better than ‘normal’ martial arts often break the very rule that Krav marketing claims makes Krav Maga the best self-defense system.

Obviously, this criticism has more to do with the way Krav is marketed than a flaw in the art itself.  Always be wary of any “quick fix” solution offered to something as large as self-defense.

The ultimate reasons we train martial arts:

As with any major long-term pursuit, the reasons we start training martial arts are often different from the reasons we stick with it.  Many of us begin training in a system to learn to defend ourselves or fight.

However, for most of us with day jobs, family, and other life concerns, we stick with it because we enjoy the practice for what it is and how it positively impacts our life.

Whether it is the community, the instructor, or a love for the movement itself, the biggest determinant of mastery in any martial art is genuine enjoyment for training.

If your goal is to learn to defend yourself, developing the mindset and mentality is as important as the techniques themselves.

If you are committed to BJJ training for competition, you can supplement with weapons training courses, striking fundamentals, and defensive mindset training.

Having a base in a combat sport will never hurt you in learning self-defense provided you supplement properly.

On the other hand, if your primary art is Krav Maga but you want to get some competition in, most entry-level combat sport competitions only require a year or two of training to get your feet wet.  If competition is not for you, no harm no foul.

If you ultimately like the competitive aspect, the defensive base of Krav Maga will not hinder you (just don’t knee your opponent in the groin!).

With that said, try a bunch of different martial arts, pick the one you enjoy most, and embrace the grind!