Are Self-Defense Classes a Waste of Time? | Can They Be Effective?

The average person is unlikely to end up in a situation where they need to use self-defense techniques to protect themselves. With that said, we must acknowledge that danger is part of life, and taking the proper precautions can end up saving your life. For this reason, people often enroll in self-defense classes to maximize their safety — but is this just a waste of time?

Self-defense classes are effective and worth it when courses teach de-escalation tactics, legalities of self-defense, and the importance of physical fitness first. Then, classes should focus on physical defense techniques. Advanced training may include live sparring and firearms basics.

As you search for self-defense classes, evaluate the different types of approaches, including seminars and physical classes. Each can provide a basic understanding of the psychology of self-defense, but long-term in-person classes equip you with more in-depth practical training when it comes to dealing with violent opponents. Read on to learn more.

Are Self-Defense Classes Worth It?

According to the University of Washington, self-defense classes do more than teach women how to defend themselves — the training techniques boost confidence and positively impact their lives. Moreover, a sociologist from the University of Oregon reported that women who participated in a ten-week self-defense training class were far less likely to experience unwanted sexual advances than those who didn’t.

However, women aren’t the only ones who benefit from self-defense classes. The University of Missouri-Kansas City claims that self-defense training improves self-discipline, boosts physical fitness, and enhances danger awareness — and these positive aspects are beneficial for everyone looking to protect themselves.

Based on that information alone, one could argue that self-defense classes are absolutely worth it. However, not all self-defense training programs are effective — you have to know how to choose the right one.

Self-defense classes are worth it if they teach verbal, mental, and psychological techniques to avoid confrontation alongside ways to deescalate and protect yourself. Classes should focus on conflict avoidance before fighting skills. Avoiding an altercation is the best way to defend yourself.

The effectiveness of self-defense training depends on your personal goals, the class you choose, and how much time and effort you’re willing to put in.

Self-Defense Workshops vs. Long-Term Classes

As mentioned above, not all self-defense training is equal.

There are short self-defense seminars and workshops, online classes, and long-term self-defense training. The basic aim of these workshops and programs is to teach students how to remain calm, use strategic responses, and, if necessary, how to thwart a physical attack.

Each type, of course, provides some benefits — even a two-week crash course could have you feeling better prepared than if you’d not attended any classes altogether. However, the more time and effort you dedicate to your self-defense training, the more prepared you’ll be.

Keep in mind that there are some shady programs out there that attempt to capitalize on vulnerable people looking to protect themselves. They may claim that you can learn how to protect yourself in “as little as two days” or that you can master advanced techniques in a short period of time. These programs are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

Additionally, avoid programs that make claims such as, “you’ll never be afraid to walk alone at night again,” or “you can handle yourself in any situation after taking our class.” Life is unpredictable, and no one can make such claims with 100% confidence.

Ensure that you’re getting the most out of your self-defense training by seeking out in-person physical courses taught by experienced instructors. It’s best to opt for a class that is endorsed by professionals or backed by credible organizations.

Let’s take a look at the differences between self-defense workshops, seminars, and long-term courses.

Seminars and Workshops

Self-defense seminars primarily involve discussion. They might touch on the statistics regarding assaults, sexual attacks, and other situations where one might need to defend themself. Often, these seminars discuss de-escalation and other psychological self-defense techniques.

Workshops may involve some physical training, focusing on specific self-defense moves (i.e., attacks from behind, being knocked to the ground, etc.) and when to apply these techniques.

Seminars and workshops are best for those looking to learn the basics of self-defense but who don’t have much time to invest in training. They’re also a good choice for people who’ve never participated in any kind of contact sport.

If this is your first time attending these types of workshops and seminars, focus on learning how to deescalate and avoid conflicts in the first place, since it is both the most valuable part of them and also because it requires less practice to execute than focusing on building the physical skills to fight off an assailant.

Even if you’re looking to eventually enroll in a long-term self-defense course, small seminars and workshops are still a good starting point.

Long-Term Classes

Like seminars and workshops, long-term self-defense courses begin by focusing on the basics of self-defense, including de-escalation and other psychological techniques. As the classes progress and students grasp the basics, they move on to mastering physical self-defense tactics.

Long-term classes are ideal for those looking to become more confident in their ability to defend themselves and are especially beneficial to those living or working in high-crime areas. People who’ve been victims of assault may find courage and self-assurance by partaking in long-term self-defense courses.

The major benefit of engaging in long-term self-defense classes is that you have the opportunity to regularly practice the learned skills and techniques. You’re able to dedicate the time necessary to develop those skills by practicing with a partner or instructor. As a result, your responses become more natural, putting you at a significant advantage in real-life self-defense situations.

With that said, you shouldn’t expect to learn everything about self-defense within several months or even a year of long-term classes. It takes regular repetition and a long-term commitment to learning advanced techniques. Even basic fighting competency takes time and lots of training.

Eventually, at higher levels (which are impossible to master in short workshops, seminars, and online classes), you’ll learn fighting techniques to immobilize, disarm, and disable opponents. However, reaching this level of mastery requires hundreds of hours of work.

For people that are serious about building self-defense skills in terms of physical combat competency, it is a good idea to supplement your training with a martial art like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai.

Most average adults will get the most benefit from training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. If you are thinking about getting started in BJJ I’d recommend checking out my post What Should I Expect in My First BJJ Class? for more.

What Makes a Good Self-Defense Plan?

Most organizations, schools, and trainers develop self-defense programs primarily to help people learn how to avoid dangerous situations. After all, the best way to defend yourself is by not getting involved in an altercation in the first place.

If you find yourself in a self-defense class that’s heavily focused on physical defense or engaging in combat with no regard for de-escalation, it’s best to supplement this class with de-escalation training and conflict avoidance tactics.

A good self-defense training plan should incorporate an understanding of dangerous situations and how to avoid them, de-escalation training, and a basic range of self-defense techniques that are effective to create an opportunity to disable your opponent or allow you to escape the situation.

In self-defense, the end goal is to avoid the fight or defend yourself if necessary. There are many techniques to use to deal with common situations and ways you could be attacked, but it all starts with effective de-escalation and escape tactics.

It’s critical to develop a good self-defense strategy to prepare yourself for a real-life dangerous situation — but these are often dirty, messy, and unfair so finding a way to avoid them is far better than trying to fight your way out.

Psychological Aspects of Self-Defense

The best self-defense plans start with de-escalation, conflict avoidance, and training the mind, spirit, and body to prevent yourself from being an attractive target. All of these aspects are vital when it comes to avoiding dangerous situations or getting yourself out of such a situation.

Good self-defense classes teach students how to deal with the stress of a possible self-defense situation and think on their feet when normal interactions might fail.

The very first concept that self-defense instructors should teach is psychological awareness. This includes the following:

  • Maintaining full awareness of your surroundings.
  • Knowing how to recognize a threatening situation.
  • Preventing an attack from occurring.
  • Remaining calm in adrenaline-fueled situations.
  • Negotiating with agitated people.

The main objective should be to teach de-escalation, and each of the above psychological aspects plays a role in de-escalation techniques.

Conflict Avoidance and De-Escalation

Most spontaneous conflicts or verbal altercations result when an agitated person feels as though they’re not being heard. Escalation can happen through yelling, name-calling, or attempting to engage in a physical confrontation. Simply acknowledging their point of view often goes a long way toward de-escalating this situation, this does not mean agreeing with them but simply letting them know they’ve been heard.

Self-defense classes should teach what to do (and what not to do) in these volatile situations. Knowing how to respond could turn a potentially dangerous situation around.

The majority of human communication is non-verbal, so it’s imperative that self-defense classes teach people how to use their voice and body language to communicate. You want your body to convey the message that you’re not a threat but also to be prepared in case a physical threat is imminent.

Deep breathing is another important part of conflict avoidance and de-escalation. It ensures that you remain cool, calm, and collected in a dangerous situation, preventing panic.

The main goal of de-escalation is to defuse one’s anger and avoid escalating the situation, therefore, you should never:

  • Threaten
  • Challenge
  • Argue

Throughout the entire de-escalation phase, keep a neutral stance and voice volume. Disengage when possible, but remain ready for any physical confrontation.

Knowing When To De-Escalate

The police use de-escalation tactics to avoid physical altercations with citizens, but they also know when the tactics are effective and when they’re not. Normally, de-escalation tactics are effective when dealing with a normally peaceful person who’s currently dealing with an extreme situation. These techniques are also useful when dealing with an otherwise non-violent individual who may have an unpredictable personality.

De-escalation is not as effective in situations where a stranger has already initiated sexual assault or in attack situations where someone’s obvious intent is already to do harm. In these cases creating space to get help or get away is the best option, followed by physically defending yourself if you cannot do this.

A Focus on Physical Fitness

Comprehensive self-defense plans should include focus on physical fitness. If you can get space and escape from a fight in which you are outmatched you have way more agency in keeping yourself safe.

Staying physically active and being in good shape gives you a significant advantage in self-defense situations. Being stronger or more cardiovascularly fit will allow you to do more effective self-defense technique execution and makes you less of a target overall.

Understanding Self-Defense Legalities

When building up your self-defense competency, you need to be aware of the laws in your area. Self-defense is not about attacking someone first because they somehow insulted or threatened you. In the eyes of the law, you will usually be in the wrong. There are stringent laws surrounding self-defense, so it’s imperative that you educate yourself, especially in places where you spend the majority of your time.

Different states have different policies regarding the legalities of self-defense. Several states maintain that you have a “duty to retreat” in potentially dangerous situations. By escalating a situation instead of disengaging, you could find that your actions were unlawful (another reason why de-escalation and conflict avoidance are so important).

Research the laws in your area or attend a class on the legalities of self-defense. Know how much and what kind of force is legally acceptable to protect yourself in certain situations. Determine if you have a duty to retreat (even if you don’t, you should still do everything you can to avoid a physical confrontation).

Physical Aspects of Self-Defense

After a self-defense class has taught the psychological techniques, including de-escalation, as well as physical fitness and legalities, it should teach you how to use your body to prevent or escape an attack.

Not everyone responds positively to de-escalation tactics — some people may become even more violent in response to verbal de-escalation. This is precisely why physical techniques are taught in addition to the psychological aspects mentioned earlier.

However, you should never move on to physical self-defense tactics unless you’ve first exhausted every possible non-violent way to avoid conflict (always, unless you’re in a situation involving sexual assault or someone who has no other intention other than to inflict harm).

Physical Self-Defense Skills

Once you’ve learned the basics of psychological self-defense, de-escalation, and conflict avoidance, you can move on to learning basic physical skills.

These physical self-defense basics include:

  • Body positioning before or during an attack.
  • Defensive strikes to thwart an attack.
  • Where and how to strike an opponent.
  • Blocking strikes.
  • Takedown defense and offense.
  • Establishing grappling position and control.
  • Breaking free when restrained.

The above techniques will take time to master. The more you train the better these skills can be, but training these skills is easier to do within the context of training a martial art instead of going for self-defense classes only.

Training Judo or wrestling, for instance, will do way more to build takedown competency than any self-defense class can. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can do a lot to establish positional dominance on the ground. Muay Thai gives you the most well-rounded striking capabilities etc.

Some classes may even teach you how to handle situations with weapons, but these are usually reserved for long-term, fully comprehensive self-defense courses. When weapons are involved de-escalation is far more important since the involvement of weapons makes getting into the fighting situation way more dangerous.

Rendering Basic First Aid

If de-escalating does not work or fighting back results in injuries understanding how to render first aid is invaluable. This is just a good basic life skill to build if you can, but it has a bit more relevance if you are thinking about self-defense situations.

Medical personnel may not make it to you immediately, so learn the basics of dressing, treating, packing, and wrapping wounds. Self-defense classes don’t really provide this type of training so getting some basic first aid and CPR training can happen relatively easily locally.

Are Combat Sports Better for Self-Defense Than Self-Defense Classes?

Self-defense classes and combat sports are not the same — each involves a different style of teaching and learning. Self-defense classes focus on survival, personal safety, and defense, whereas combat sports involve more physical fighting in specific rulesets. As a result, combat sports may better prepare you for real-life fighting situations since they simulate combat with more intensity and greater frequency.

Combat sports can be better for self-defense than self-defense classes because students engage with resisting opponents. Training includes timing, footwork, distance, real-time reaction, full-contact combat, resistance, and live sparring, all of which can be applied to real self-defense situations.

It’s difficult to portray realistic fighting or life-threatening situations in a simulated setting. Of course, you can learn to knock a knife out of the hand of an “assailant,” but the circumstances aren’t necessarily the same as if you genuinely had a blade pressed to your neck.

However, in combat sports such as MMA, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Judo, you’re involved in live combat against resisting opponents, which is closer to the situation of a real fight in a self-defense context. This will help you be able to apply techniques under the stress of a real self-defense situation since you have been in that level of stress before through your competitions and training in combat sports.

How Long Does It Take To Learn To Defend Yourself?

It takes around 20 to 30 hours to learn the basics of defending yourself if you’re in good physical health. To master full competency in combat and physical self-defense, expect to train for hundreds or thousands of hours. It can take many years to master combat techniques for self-defense.

It takes hundreds of hours of repetition and practice to master techniques in martial arts and apply them holistically to combat situations.

Don’t fall for programs that claim you can learn every self-defense technique within a few weeks of training. That’s simply not the reality, and it’s dangerous to instill a high level of false confidence in unsuspecting students.

Can You Learn Self-Defense at Home?

You can’t learn self-defense at home as efficiently as you would through the practical expertise and guidance that you’d receive working with trained self-defense instructors or martial arts instructors. Live sparring is important, and regular live training is a must to master self-defense.

Videos and online classes can only teach basic strategies. You can watch dozens of videos on physical training, but without actually practicing the technique consistently over time, you’ll never master it.

Additionally, if you want to be confident in your ability to ward off attacks and physical threats like armed robberies, assault, or sexual attacks, you must attend a formal gym or training studio. You cannot learn these tactics without participating in group classes or one-on-one sessions with a qualified self-defense instructor or martial arts instructor.

It’s absolutely crucial to engage in live sparring regularly and to participate in simulating real-life combat situations in person.

Final Thoughts

Self-defense classes have a lot of variability in value depending on the specific class structure and the instructors involved. There are many self-defense seminars and classes that instill confidence in their students as a marketing tactic that does not reflect the seriousness of the reality of self-defense situations. However, doing some due diligence and knowing what to look for can help you find good classes for these purposes.

Generally speaking, it’s going to be way more valuable to build up your awareness of situations and de-escalation skills alongside your fitness and ability to escape. If you want to also be able to physically defend yourself you will need to create combat competency which is usually easier to do by practicing combat sports like Muay Thai, Boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, and Judo.

For more check out How Important Are Women’s Only Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Classes?


Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but supplement with other grappling martial arts as well as help to coach my kid's blended grappling program.

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