Krav Maga and Brazilian jiu-jitsu may not have much in common but are often compared because they are advertised as great self-defense systems. So how do they stack up to each other?
Krav Maga is a system for self-defense without any sports element. It includes all forms of striking, grappling, and weapons use. It is a practically oriented system designed to teach you real-life hand-to-hand combat. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a grappling martial art with a strong self-defense element in its traditional form, but today it’s more popular as a highly competitive sport.
Since Krav Maga specializes in self-defense, efficiency in the real world is the most critical aspect of comparison. Still, we will look at all the important details differentiating BJJ and Krav Maga.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a grappling martial art focused on ground fighting and submissions. It has no striking in its sports version and limited striking in the original form, which was created for self-defense and no holds barred fights.
BJJ was adapted from judo, jiu-jitsu, and catch wrestling which was brought as Kano Jiu-Jitsu in the 1920s to Brazil by a Japanese fighter named Mitsyuo Maeda. Maeda started teaching, and brothers Helio and Carlos Gracie, among other practitioners, gradually focused their attention on the ground fighting element and created the style we know today as BJJ.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu rose to prominence after Royce Gracie of the Gracie family won the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, defeating practitioners of various martial arts and showing the martial arts world the importance of grappling.
Today, BJJ is governed by several big organizations with millions of practitioners worldwide and a well-developed sports scene. Some academies still teach self-defense, while others focus more on using jiu-jitsu in MMA.
Krav Maga is a self-defense system established by the Israeli Defense Forces to train military personnel in hand-to-hand combat. Krav Maga employs instinctive techniques, fierce counterattacks, and a no-holds-barred mentality.
Imi Lichtenfeld, a boxer, athlete, and martial artist born in 1910 in Bratislava, Slovakia, invented Krav Maga. As anti-Semitism grew in the 1930s, Imi headed a group of Jewish boxers who safeguarded their neighborhood from violent anti-Semitic attacks.
This battle experience taught him which martial arts methods were genuinely beneficial in a real-life fighting situation. This inspired him to create a fighting method known as “Contact Combat,” or Krav Maga in Hebrew.
Imi finally fled Europe and settled in what would become Israel in 1940. He eventually became Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) School of Combat Fitness, where he taught Krav Maga until his retirement in 1964.
Krav Maga is now taught not only to the IDF but also to law enforcement and civilians worldwide by organizations such as The International Krav Maga Federation (IKMF) and Krav Maga Global (KMG), amongst others.
Key Differences Between BJJ and Krav Maga
More than everything, Krav Maga is a set of principles rather than a regimented martial art. Here are some of the main principles as they are presented on the Krav Maga Worldwide website:
- Identify the immediate danger.
- Use your body’s natural reaction.
- Defend and counterattack simultaneously.
- When counterattacking, aggressively target vulnerable areas.
- Techniques must be effective regardless of size or strength.
All training and techniques in Krav Maga must follow these principles. The system was developed for military use, and even the civilian versions aim to deal with violent attackers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu uses the principles of mechanical advantage and leverage to assure domination on the ground. The core principle is first to obtain a dominant position from which it’s easier to control the opponent and then apply a submission. Submissions again use the principles of leverage and body mechanics.
The most important principle in BJJ is maximum efficiency with minimum effort, which loosely means technique over strength and agility.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu excels at ground fighting, and most techniques are performed on the ground. A key concept is positioning, meaning you must always aim to acquire a position from which you can control the opponent, like mount or back control.
The unique aspect of BJJ techniques are the guards, which are used to control and attack an opponent when you are on the bottom. In most grappling sports being on your back means you are losing, but in BJJ, the guard is a dangerous position offering many offensive options and is even preferred by many players.
BJJ uses submission holds to force opponents to submit or face dire consequences. BJJ submissions include chokes, joint locks, and other painful holds. Each can lead to loss of consciousness or serious joint or soft tissue damage if the opponent does not tap, so you can control an opponent or hurt him badly.
Krav Maga does not have a set of specific techniques but rather a set of principles, as I’ve already said. As a system for real-life combat, it encompasses all fighting elements, including striking with all body parts, grappling, and dealing with various weapons like knives and guns. Here is a detailed video of various Krav Maga techniques and situations.
There are a lot of familiar techniques from boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, and many others. But there are also a lot of moves like groin kicks, eye gouges, head butts, and everything else considered dirty in sports, which are perfectly usable in Krav Maga.
Krav Maga is not a uniform system, and different organizations may have different approaches, and things depend wildly on the instructor. In fact, you may get something completely different from one school to the next, making general assessments like this one impossible to make accurate.
An instructor with a complete MMA base or at least a grappling and striking sport base may blend this knowledge and skills with moves banned in sports to give you effective moves and efficient ways to train them.
But more often than not, instructors teach and drill as they do in aikido or other similar martial arts, meaning everything is pre-choreographed, and the partner is not resisting. Training in Krav Maga includes training techniques, drilling them with partners, and hitting various types of pads and shields.
The key element is whether or not there is some form of sparring. Some schools have sparring or live simulations, but most don’t and stick only to drilling.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu has a much more uniform training process, and while times may vary, in general, training looks identical in most places. The session starts with a warmup to loosen up the joints and muscles, goes to technique drilling, and ends up with sparring, or rolling, as it is called in BJJ.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an extremely popular sport with a well-developed competition scene. BJJ is primarily split into two distinct forms, gi, and no-gi, with the IBJJF being the most prominent organization hosting gi tournaments. At the same time, the ADCC is the most prestigious submission grappling tournament.
There is a separation based on belt ranks or experience, so you can start participating in tournaments after just a few months of training, be a hobbyist competitor, or even become a professional athlete.
On the other hand, Krav Maga does not have any competitions. There are some obscure videos of some competitions. Still, they are local, between soldiers, or generally unavailable for the average trainee, so we can say Krav Maga does not have a competitive element for our purposes. It doesn’t have rules for the same reason.
BJJ vs. Krav Maga For Self-Defense
Since Krav Maga is, first and foremost, a self-defense system and not a sport, the truly meaningful comparison between it and BJJ is in the domain of real-life effectiveness. But despite that Krav Maga is specialized in it, I believe BJJ is superior. Here is why.
The big problem with Krav Maga (I want to repeat this is regarding the schools where there is no sparring and drilling against resisting opponents, which is the vast majority of schools) is there is no sparring and competition.
And the ONLY real way of testing and finding out what works and what doesn’t is through field testing or, said otherwise, sparring and competition.
As you can see from the video with Krav Maga techniques, they look effective, but the problem is the opponent does not act realistically. He is not resisting in any way and freezes like a dummy after the initial “attack” and waits for the opponent to finish his techniques.
Anyone with even a limited experience in a combat sport knows this is not how things work, and people move around, squeeze harder and strike back, and generally do their best you counteract your actions.
So, the problem is not in the techniques; most, if not all, are legitimate strikes, throws, and holds. The issue why Krav Maga lacks real-world self-defense efficiency is in training.
If you’ve never overcome a fully resisting opponent, have never been hit in the face with power, and haven’t had someone squeeze your neck with full power intent to choke you out, there is no way you will be able to act appropriately when these things happen in real life.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, of course, is also not perfect for self-defense. The dominant sports version has come far from the initial self-defense version and has created some bad habits for a real fight. Many popular moves in competition are not applicable in a real scenario and can even be dangerous when strikes are involved.
In addition, BJJ does not have striking, and if the attacker has at least some grappling experience and knows how to stay on his feet, the BJJ practitioner is in trouble. And the other common problem is that going to the ground is not a good idea of there are more attackers.
But even with these problems, every move in BJJ is tested and proven countless times against actively resisting opponents and is, without a doubt, effective. There are hundreds of hours of footage of MMA fights and street fights where people use jiu-jitsu to defeat aggressive opponents. And I am yet to see a single video of Krav Maga doing the same.
In my eyes, BJJ is infinitely better than Krav Maga. But in defense of Krav Maga, some organizations and academies have regular sparring, situational sparring, and pressure-testing techniques in different scenarios. Some even try to implement competitions just for the elements of stress and pressure lacking in any gym setting.
If you can find a school and instructor doing those things, Krav Maga can be fantastic for self-defense and real-life situations.
The principles of martial art are solid; in theory, they should prepare you for everything. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of schools do not practice in a way transferable to the real world. But with the proper training, Krav Maga can be great.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, has a well-developed sports element and can work great for self-defense, especially if you attend some classes focused on it or find a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu academy. And because BJJ, in most cases, is better even for the thing Krav Maga specializes in, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is better.