Questions and Answers About the Challenges Women Face in the Martial Arts

We’ve heard many questions over the years from women about the challenges they (might) face in karate or martial arts training, and wanted to answer a few of them below.

Should you have a question that we failed to address, or feel we could have answered any of them better, please let us know! We’re happy to answer your queries in person, and might use them, anonymously if you prefer, in updates to this post. Chances are pretty good that others have the same questions, and by asking us, you might help other women make good decisions about how and where to train.

How Can Martial Arts Training Benefit Women?

Women can enjoy the same benefits that martial arts bring men. Women can build strength, endurance, and overall physical fitness through martial arts training. Athletic competition can develop courage, independence, tenacity, and strategic insights. These qualities can foster security and personal growth in every area of a woman’s life.

Self-defense skills, however, may benefit women more than men. Women often face specific threats, like sexual assault, that men generally don’t (estimates range from about 17 percent to one-third of women versus about 3 percent of men). A woman’s physical disadvantages—the average woman is not as big or strong as the average man—can make them more vulnerable than men are to other men.

You do not have to let your physical disadvantages determine the outcome of an assault, however. Martial arts training can provide the tools you need to escape from a bigger, stronger assailant. Knowing that you possess those skills can allow you to lead a more positive, less-fearful life. Men who underestimate or devalue you for your perceived physical weaknesses will make a terrible mistake.

Are Women-only Classes a Good Idea?

Some instructors will hold classes for women only.

Without wading too deeply into the fraught waters of sexual politics, the dynamics change when men and women share martial arts classes—for better and worse. A co-ed atmosphere may make some women uncomfortable or otherwise deter them from learning and developing their skills. Women-only classes can therefore play an important role in fostering martial arts training.

At the same time, women who only train with other women will not learn how to defend against their most likely assailants except in the most abstract fashion. Women with the option of women-only classes, then, should balance their training by attending classes with men.

Are Women’s Self-defense Classes Worthwhile?

Women’s self-defense seminars can offer simple, effective techniques and strategies to address common physical assaults. Regular training, however, will better prepare you to deal with danger. If you don’t want to or cannot commit to an ongoing martial arts class, please attend annual or semi-annual self-defense seminars to sharpen your skills.

Can a Woman Beat a Man in a Fight?

Generally, men are bigger, stronger, and faster than women. That’s a lot of advantages to overcome.

One of the most dominant women kickboxers of all time (and later, the best woman boxer of all time), Lucia Rijker, once fought a world-class male opponent, Somchai Jaidee. He knocked her out in two rounds.

That’s not to say that some women cannot beat some men in some fights, however.

Light-contact American tournament karate rules deemphasize strength and power in favor of speed and skill. Women may find themselves less disadvantaged in these settings.

In full-contact or real-world encounters, a well-trained woman can develop skills and strategies to defeat, or at least escape, less-experienced men. For example, a woman with the right martial arts training can hit far faster and harder than a bigger, stronger man who doesn’t know how to leverage his advantages.

The key, as in any situation, is to make the outcome depend on your advantages, not his. Don’t engage in a contest of size and strength with a bigger, stronger assailant, for example—force your assailant into a contest of speed, skill, strategy, endurance, or whatever advantages you hold. Martial arts can teach you how to do this.

That’s why Lucia Rijker and many of her female martial arts peers would knock most men unconscious in physical confrontations. If the average man has physical advantages over the average woman, you can join a martial arts class and leave average behind. Hard, effective training can make you extraordinary.

Self-defense, however, differs substantially from fighting. The goal of self-defense for a woman is not to defeat a male opponent in a 12-round bout in a ring or a five-round mixed martial arts contest in an octagon. In self-defense, women don’t need to outfight and defeat men. They only need to create enough distance between themselves and their assailants for long enough to break away and run to safety.

It helps that men have unique anatomical vulnerabilities that women can exploit when defending themselves. Men who assault women inherently do not fight fair. Women should respond in kind. Martial arts training can teach you how to do that, too.

Men who attack women do so because they think it’s easy. Often, hurting a male assailant just enough to convince them that you’re more trouble than you’re worth will cause them to give up. You can then escape and report the crime.

Do women need special equipment to train in martial arts?

Generally, no. Some women might want to wear sports bras in class or chest protectors when sparring. Sadly, few martial arts equipment manufacturers have designed chest protectors with women’s bodies in mind. A few have: ProForce, Hayashi, and Top Ten. Talk to your instructor if you want such martial arts equipment—they may use a wholesale account to get it for you for far less than you’ll pay at retail, so you can reduce those additional costs.

What Is the Best Martial Art for Women?

Many websites purport to evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of different martial arts for women. They tend to exhibit bias toward the author’s martial art—a karate website will tout karate as ideal for women, while a krav maga website will promote krav maga.

Moreover, all of them make similar errors—overgeneralizing the different attributes and limitations of both different martial arts and women.

But martial arts are personal in nature, not general. Body types and mentalities will factor into a martial art’s suitability for an individual. So will your instructor’s teaching ability and your rapport with them. So will what an opponent brings to an encounter—each assailant may find themselves more vulnerable to what some martial arts emphasize than others.

Such websites, then, ask a flawed question. The right question is not “What is the best martial art for women?” but “What is the best martial arts program for you?

Rather than taking the advice such sites offer, women are best off exploring martial arts schools near them to determine which one best addresses their needs and which instructor creates the most welcoming atmosphere for them.