Muay Thai or Krav Maga: Which Is Better for Self-Defense?

Muay Thai or Krav Maga: Which Is Better for Self-Defense?

Continuing our series of articles comparing Muay Thai with other combat sports and martial arts, today we are going to compare it with the Israeli technique of Krav Maga. We’ve already talked about Krav Maga, which you may remember; if you do, you’ll instantly know that these two disciplines have very little in common, at least nominally. Well, in today’s article, we’re going to try and show you how you could compare them, what some common points are and – simply put – how Muay Thai fares against Krav Maga. 

In general, Krav Maga is better for self-defense than Muay Thai simply because it was invented for the sole purpose of defending yourself. But, having knowledge of either of the two will help you a lot when it comes to self-defense.

Why exactly is Krav Maga better than Muay Thai, or any other martial arts when it comes to self-defense? What are the differences and similarities? We shall answer any doubts you may have in this article. So, let’s start.

Muay Thai and Krav Maga: Historical Development and Generalised Differences

Muay Thai (Thai: มวยไทย), literally “Thai boxing”, is an Oriental martial art and combat sport that originated in Thailand somewhere during the 18th century. It is a full-contact discipline that is also known as the “art of eight limbs” and is heavily reliant on the use of fists, elbows, knees and shins. It originated as a fighting technique to be used in wars, Muay Thai soon became a fighting sport used outside its original setting.

After more than a century of development in the Far East, Muay Thai became extremely popular in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries, when Western practitioners that came from Thailand started using the discipline in kickboxing and MMA competitions, thus introducing and popularising Muay Thai in the West. Muay Thai is, today, a global combat sports practiced around the world and is internationally governed by the IFMA. 

The term “Krav Maga” (Hebrew: קְרַב מַגָּע) literally means “contact combat”, so you cannot give points to the Israeli for originality there, but – the story of how it all began is both terrifying and commendable at the same time.

Krav Maga was founded by Imre Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian-born Jew who grew up in Bratislava. He was a sports enthusiast, but during his youth, he spent most of his time practicing combat sports, even becoming a local wrestling champion. When anti-Semitic riots began in Bratislava during the 1930s, Lichtenfeld joined a group of street fighters organised to protect their Jewish friends from the rioting idiots. 

Although successful, Lichtenfeld soon realised that street fighting was very much different than competitive fighting, which inspired him to create a specific style that would be better in street fights than in competitive fighting.

While developing his ideas, Lichtenfeld managed to escape Europe in 1940, finally arriving in Mandatory Palestine, the predecessor of the modern state of Israel. There, he joined a paramilitary organisation and started teaching his self-defence techniques to soldiers and fighters. 

In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, Lichtenfeld became the official instructor of the newly-founded Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Although he had already developed a basic system, Lichtenfeld continued to improve and upgrade his techniques during the 20 years he was in charge of instructing Israeli soldiers. He developed Krav Maga, which taught the soldiers both self-defence and hand-to-hand combat. 

Comparing Muay Thai and Krav Maga

As we’ve stated in the introduction, it is very hard, if not impossible to compare Muay Thai and Krav Maga. Why? Well, Muay Thai is a martial art, a very sophisticated system of combat that includes both offence and defence. It is a fighting system whose main goal is to prepare the fighter for a one-on-one fight in a ring.

Krav Maga has none of that. Krav Maga is a self-defence technique, it can hardly be described as a martial art or combat sport at all. It consists of a series of exercises that are aimed at teaching you how to defend yourself in real life situations. Certainly, Krav Maga has its share of offensive moves, but the fact is that it’s predominant focus is on self-defence. 

So, how do you compare two things that are essentially very different? Well, since we had a difficult task in front of us, we decided that we won’t be comparing them exactly, but rather present both disciplines to you separately, so that you can see how they function, what they each and everything else you need to know.

Finally, after explaining that, we will compare one aspect of these two disciplines – the only common point they have – and that it self-defence. Now, let us continue with our analysis. 

The Basics of Krav Maga

Like most martial arts and combat sports, Krav Maga encourages students to avoid actual fighting. If, on the other hand, you cannot do that – either because it’s impossible or unsafe for you – Krav Maga will teach you how to finish it as quickly and as aggressively as possible.

Krav Maga’s offensive techniques are focused on your opponent’s most vulnerable body parts (e.g. the groin era and genitals) and are seldom restrictive, i.e. they don’t teach you how to go easy on your opponent. On the contrary, they teach you to be strong and efficient, and there are a lot of moves that can seriously injure or even kill your opponent. 

Students learn to defend against all variety of attacks and are taught to counter in the quickest and most efficient way.

Some of the basic principles of Krav Maga are:

  • Simultaneous attack and defence;
  • Developing physical aggression (not to be confused with emotional aggression or anger), with the view that physical aggression is the most important component in a fight;
  • Continuing to strike the opponent until they are completely incapacitated; 
  • Attacking pre-emptively or counterattacking as soon as possible;
  • Using any objects at hand that could be used to hit an opponent; 
  • Targeting attacks to the body’s most vulnerable points, such as: the eyes, neck or throat, face, solar plexus, groin, ribs, knee, foot, fingers, liver, etc.;
  • Using simple and easily repeatable strikes; 
  • Maintaining awareness of surroundings while dealing with the threat in order to look for escape routes, further attackers, or objects that could be used to strike an opponent;
  • Recognizing the importance of and expanding on instinctive response under stress. 

Training can also cover the study and development of situational awareness in order to ameliorate your understanding of your surroundings (so you can utilise them to your advantage), learning to understand the psychology of a street fight, and identifying potential threats before they actually occur. It may also cover ways to deal with physical and verbal methods to avoid violence whenever possible.

It also teaches mental toughness, using controlled scenarios to strengthen mental fortitude in order for students to control the impulse and not do something rash, but instead attack only when necessary and as a last resort.

Some of the techniques taught are:

  • Strikes – as per karate, and boxing;
  • Take-downs and throws – per judo, aikido and wrestling;
  • Ground work – per judo and wrestling;
  • Escapes from chokes and holds – per judo, aikido, wrestling;
  • Empty-hand weapon defences – per aikido.

The Basics of Muay Thai

We’ve already shown you the historical development of Muay Thai and how it functions. Now we are going to present some of the basic aspects of Muay Thai. 

Traditionally, the stance in Muay Thai – one of the basic aspects of the discipline – is straightforward; the hips and the torso are completely straight, the chin is tucked in and the posture is completely straight. Because it depends on kicks, the stance in Muay Thai puts more weight on the back foot than the front foot; that is to enable for a faster and more powerful shot. This is important because Muay Thai fighters fight at a close range.

A fighter tends to stick close to his opponent and just linger around, waiting for his turn. They don’t jump around and rarely retreat, which why such a stance is both practical and practically necessary. As for the footwork, we can only say that Muay Thai is an art that requires patience. Thus, a fighter has to adapt his footwork to patiently follow the opponent and his movements in order to find the right moment to strike.

The defence in Muay Thai is based on block as retreating is generally frowned upon and considered as being against the spirit of the art. Also, since there are no ground moves in Muay Thai, there are no ground techniques when it comes to defence. Some of the basic defensive tactics in Muay Thai are:

  • Blocking with shins
  • Leaning back from kicks
  • Block with high guard
  • Clinch when in range and stop strikes

Muay Thai’s offence is based on utilising four parts of your body – the elbows, the knees, the fists and the legs. Let us see how each of them functions:

  1. Elbow shots are very important in Muay Thai. Muay Thai has a lot of very elegant and effective elbow strikes that you won’t find in any other martial art, which means that Muay Thai’s elbow tactics have a lot of benefits for the fighters. This is where Muay Thai can help you overcome the difficulties and become even better. 
  2. Muay Thai is very practical and beneficial when it comes to knee techniques, better than most other combat sports (except maybe kickboxing, but kickboxing stems from Muay Thai). Why is that? The knee is an essential weapon in Muay That; the fighters approach the fight with a number of different types of knee shots thrown from the leading leg or back leg. You can fire a leading leg knee shot from a stance or incorporate knee strikes from the clinch. 
  3. Although Muay Thai is actually ‘Thai boxing’, punches are very underused in this martial art simply because they are scored less than successful kicks; the goal is to win, so the fighters chose shots that can give them more points. Muay Thai fighters will stand firmly in front of each other and trade shots, be they punches or kicks. Muay Thai boxers tend to “gather” shots and block them, waiting for their turn to fully explode with a good counterattack.
  4. Muay Thai is a martial art where kicks are essential. In fact, they are so essential that one could say that Muay Thai completely depends on kicking. As such, Muay Thai emphasizes the usage of kicks in a fight. Common kicks are the body kick and the leg kick. Teeps (the push kicks from front or rear legs with the foot in a vertical position) are also heavily utilized as are side teeps (teeps where you step aside and push out with your body in a horizontal side stance). Head kicks are also thrown, although not as much as in some other Oriental martial arts. You typically don’t see much variation beyond the Thai round kick. 

This covers the essential elements of Muay Thai. You’ve seen how it functions, what it focuses on and how its offence and defence work. As you can see from these two short summaries, Krav Maga and Muay Thai are really very different and it is difficult to compare them in these aspects, because their approaches to the discipline itself are completely different. 

But as we’ve promised you – we will compare one common point of these two disciplines – the self-defence. 

Conclusion: Which Is Better for Self-Defense?

Self-defence is the art of using specifically taught moves to defend yourself from an unwanted attack on your person. Although there are arts and techniques that specifically teach self-defence, most combat sports and martial arts include some degree of self-defence courses, Muay Thai included. So, how can Muay Thai benefit your self-defence? 

Muay Thai has a more balanced approach than most other combat sports and a more complete one as well. Namely, Muay Thai utilises all extremities, meaning that the disadvantages other sports and arts have when legs are concerned are annulled in Muay Thai, which relies mostly on legwork, while – at the same time – using punches.

Muay Thai is also specific because it requires patience, meaning that it will teach you endurance, which can be essential when defending yourself. Muay Thai focuses on waiting for the right moment to attack and that can prove to be essential in a tight spot.

To conclude, Muay Thai will certainly help you with self-defence, but the fact is that its overly specific approach to fighting might influence your techniques and your approach to a real-life threat.

Thus, some other sports and arts (such as boxing, for example) might be better if you want to learn the basics of self-defence and practice it short-term, but if you have any long-term goals and wish to improve on what you have already learned, there is absolutely no doubt that Muay Thai is a good choice for you. 

So, where does Krav Maga come into this equation? If you remember, we’ve already discussed the best self-defence sports and approached it in a previous article.

But, if you’re really interested in self-defence more than anything else, we’ll be brief – there’s no better thing than Krav Maga. Krav Maga started off and developed as a self-defence technique and its whole concept is based on practical defence. It teaches you everything, it teaches you how to adapt, but also how to be quick and effective.

There is no sport or art that offers a more complete approach to self-defence. So, if you’re really wondering what to take up for your self-defence – Krav Maga is the best choice you could make. It’s demanding and hard, but it’ll prepare you for what’s out there better than any other discipline. 

And that’s it. That covers the basic differences between Muay Thai and Krav Maga, but also the one common point they gave – self-defence. If you want to train to become a fighter, you’ll certainly want to pick Muay Thai, while Krav Maga is the best option you could choose when it comes to self-defence.

The final decision is yours and we hope we’ve helped you at least a bit in making it. Follow us for more of the same and we hope we’ll see you back very soon. Until next time!

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
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Vladimir Vladisavljevic

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He has been training in kickboxing for over seven years and holds a Taekwondo black belt. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. Vladimir is a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster. He was known as The Bulgarian Cowboy in the Western world. In addition, he has a YouTube channel where he talks about his love of esports, one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. Our testing and reviewing method.
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