Martial Arts are “Bullshit!”

According to the famous illusionist duo Penn and Teller, martial arts are “bullshit.”  In each episode of their television show Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, they discuss their skeptical stance regarding a particular myth in pop culture, and expose the silliness (and often outright fraud) of the claims made by charlatans.  For example, in the first season, they discuss alien abductions, creationism, and talking to the dead.

I’ve actually been a fan of Penn and Teller for quite some time.  I enjoy their sarcastic (and often offensive) treatment of the egregious pseudoscience that seems to surround us.  Accordingly, I was very interested to hear their take on martial arts (you can view the episode here).

In this episode, they make several points regarding martial arts:

  • Martial arts are not effective for self defense.
  • Instructors often convince their students that they are capable of defending themselves, when in fact, they are not
  • Students are often not educated about self-defense laws in their area (and are sometimes taught techniques that would result in severe legal action if they were used)
  • The injuries martial artists suffer through training are, on average, more severe (and costly) than the injuries the average untrained person would receive in a self-defense situation

You might think I am going to take each of these points in order, and discuss why, as a martial artists myself, I disagree with them.  Quite the opposite.  In fact, I actually agree with most of what Penn and Teller have to say, and I thoroughly enjoyed their hilarious exposé of wanna-be tough guy karate instructors and woo-woo tai chi masters.

It’s true – most martial arts offer students ineffective techniques for self-defense situations.  Breaking boards and channeling your inner chi (whatever that is) will not help you defend yourself from an assailant.  Many martial arts (and martial artists for that matter) are bullshit.

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I also agree that students should be educated about self defense and excessive-force laws in their area.  Showing students how to properly curb-stomp a downed opponent is not educating them about proper use of force.  If your instructor is getting his/her material from American History X, it’s probably time to consider switching academies.

On the other hand, not all martial arts are equal.  Some martial arts are extremely effective in real-life self defense situations.  Take a look at an early video of Gracie street fights in Brazilian (or even the early UFC events for that matter), and it becomes immediately clear that some martial arts can be used effectively for self defense.  The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu developed by the Gracies can be used to humanely subdue a fully resisting opponent, without needing to resort to techniques that would cause permanent injury or disfigurement.  This is why both the military and law enforcement routinely incorporates these techniques into their curriculum.



Finally, Penn and Teller overlook a major part of why people train martial arts.  In addition to the self defense aspect (which varies in effectiveness depending on the martial art), practitioners can often expect increased physical conditioning and flexibility.  Further, martial arts offer a social atmosphere.  You’ll make friends with your training partners, and feel a sense of camaraderie as you progress together.  Finally (and perhaps most importantly for me), martial arts are fun!  I wouldn’t train if I didn’t enjoy myself.

Is there a lot of bullshit in many martial arts?  Definitely.

Can certain martial arts be used effectively in most self defense situations? Yes.

Have my instructors convinced me to attempt a flying arm bar on a gun-toting mugger?  Hell no.


About Dave

Grad student in Ecology, Blue belt in jiu jitsu.
This entry was posted in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Self Defense and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Martial Arts are “Bullshit!”

  1. slideyfoot says:

    Haven’t seen the video, but sounds like I would agree with 100%, including BJJ. Whenever I hear instructors bang on about self defence, they nearly always only talk about techniques, whether that is denigrating ‘sport’ jiu jitsu (whatever that is) or about the importance of dealing with strikes.

    What they almost never talk about is actual self defence. Techniques are one thing, but I would argue that what is in fact important in a self defence context are things like being self aware, avoiding dangerous areas, understanding legal consequences, being able to deal with chemical reactions (like adrenaline), verbal posturing, how to de-escalate a situation etc.

    Not to say that martial arts won’t help: it will get you fit, give you confidence (as you’ll be familiar with people trying to grind you into the floor) and you’ll have a viable delivery system should you be forced into a confrontation. But I have no doubts that if some big thug used to fighting on the street wanted to beat my head in, there isn’t a lot I could do about it beyond running away, despite my purple belt in BJJ.

    • Ryan says:

      You must not train at a certified Gracie school, because they cover all of those things. And if you think that a street fighter could overcome your Jiu Jitsu, your confidence in your skills must be pretty low. Street fighters have zero knowledge on ground fighting and often walk right into bad spots.

    • Ryan says:

      I do completely agree with you however that a lot of schools do NOT show these things, which is a travesty. They tend to show tournament based moves and strictly Jiu Jitsu vs Jiu Jitsu techniques, rather than an equal amount of real life street fighting vs Jiu Jitsu. I am lucky to be at a school that follows the Gracie Combatives program VERY closely with an emphasis on this. Just keep in mind, you are a purple belt in the most realistic fighting system on the planet. Believe in your system!! I can tell you that it works on the street, my line of work has required me to use it often. It has yet to fail me.

      • slideyfoot says:

        I’ve watched the Gracie Combatives DVDs (hence the long review I did), and they seem to teach in exactly the same way I mentioned above, simply providing a set of techniques rather than the kind of things I spoke about. Worse still, white belts learning Gracie Combatives are taught without resistance, so it is even LESS useful than the ‘sport’ jiu jitsu the Gracie Academy criticises. At least a ‘sport’ jiu jitsu school spars every class (though I’d also quibble with the distinction, as per this).

        Are you saying that Gracie Combatives is taught quite differently at Gracie Certified schools, so lots of discussion about legal ramifications, adrenaline, environment, de-escalation, staying self-aware, avoiding bad areas etc? As that would be surprising, given what I’ve been told about the program and seen on the DVDs and accompanying literature.

        IMO, self defence is more a matter of mindset than your understanding of technique, though the latter will provide you with an excellent delivery system. I don’t have that mindset, nor do I particularly wish to develop it: I don’t train for self defence, as I find it incredibly dull. Somebody who is used to and enjoys fighting on the street, however, would almost certainly have the necessary mindset.

        Of course, this is all theoretical on my part, as like I said, I neither train for self defence nor would I want to. 😉

      • joe ingram says:

        what about gracie police trainihg for every day confrontation with the criminal person
        or what we were trained with SAS british to kill enmy

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  3. Rudy says:

    I’ll prove you wrong Dave. there is inner power

    check and mate

  4. Lee says:

    I’m quite impressed with your thoughtful, measured reflections to Penn and Teller’s B.S. episode, as well as the intelligent responses that you’ve received. I’m currently seeking a new dojo, and I’ve been considering BJJ for some time. I’d be curious if you could tell me if it might be effective in a crowded environment such as a subway, and if it works for disarming opponents.

    Please don’t misunderstand: I’m careful not to get myself into dangerous situations, and always would favor running away if I were to be in one. If you can answer my questions, I’d appreciate it. I’d be happy to continue this dialogue by e-mail.

    • Dave says:

      Hi Lee,

      In my opinion, BJJ would be equally effective in a crowded environment as it would in a deserted one. In any self defense situation, I would be very wary of multiple attackers – and perhaps this could be more of an issue in a crowded environment.

      In terms of disarming an opponent, this is actually a large part of Pedro Sauer’s (and Helio Gracie’s) original curriculum. It is taught to a certain extent on the lower-belt curricula, but is a major component of the black belt test (defense against a club, defense against knives, defense against guns, even defense against a chair!). Still, I think that in most situations, it would be far safer to yield to an armed attacker than it would to engage.

      • joe ingram says:

        take police training with verbal commands drop the weapon or be tasered drop it
        next stage taser forget this self defence other than handcuff training taught at
        the police academy first year

  5. Lamar Namou says:

    I think you’re too uneducated in Tai Chi Quan to actually judge it. Chi just means “energy”. So it’s referring to your inner energy. Anyhow, you don’t blow back someone with energy or “chi”. You absorb your opponent’s energy and throw it back at them. That is the idea of Tai Chi Quan. Energy travels in a straight direction. When enacted upon from an outer force, it can travel in different directions.

    So, for example. Let’s say there’s a man who attacks with a straight punch. The moment he enacts the intention of throwing a straight punch, his energy is travelling through his legs, to his arm at muscular strength. Now, with little effort, you can grab his arm and turn him because his energy is travelling forward in a straight line, until acted upon by an outer force. You’re using your mind rather than muscle. Anyhow, from borrowing his energy, you’re allowing his energy to travel in a different direction. Energy is not some illusion. We use it to walk, talk, breathe, run, eat, listen. If infinite amounts of it existed and didn’t have to travel somewhere, we wouldn’t need to do some of these things or even sleep.

    Anyhow, while some forms of Kung Fu aren’t efficient, Tai Chi Quan is a different story. It, like Jeet Kune Do, is formless. You don’t think about using certain techniques, rather, get an idea on how to follow the principles of throwing someone off their center without using something as straining as Aikido.

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    • Dave says:

      Hi Provacyl. Thank you for the words of encouragement. By using a free blogging tool like WordPress (which was used to build this blog) it is extremely easy to start up a blog, since you can immediately start using existing templates. Of course you can customize certain parts of the site to make it your own, such as the banner, side bars, and menus. There is of course less freedom by using WordPress than if you built a site from scratch using HTML, but for those of us that are less code-savvy, it is a great alternative.

      Hope that helps!

  7. Joe Reynolds says:

    I just watched this episode. I usually love Penn & Teller, and find their ‘Bullshit’ shows to be largely accurate, and entertaining.
    I like to think that I have a liberal sense of humour, this, however, just made me angry.
    They just seemed to mock martial arts, giving poor, badly researched examples of the subject, and almost transposing the whole idea into that of a magic trick.
    It’s not magic, guys, it’s a tried and tested worldwide practice. Someone seriously made a rookie error here.
    So of course, it’s better to evade a fight than engage in one, this is usually the first principle of self preservation that is taught to everyone. Fight or flight. But when it comes down to it, and it’s life or death, who is going to be laughing?
    Maybe it was intended as purely an entertainment show, but all of the other episodes that I have watched have a genuine message, and some sort of positive idea.
    Mocking an art studied by millions is just ridiculous, and completely unjust.
    The benefits of practicing a fighting style are many. I myself have just started practicing Korean freestyle Martial Arts, and I don’t think that many of the other students would find this episode to be accurate, or the least bit funny, and I’m sure if Penn & Teller had any idea what they were talking about, they wouldn’t have made this episode.
    Maybe they should stick to pulling rabbits out of each others hats.

  8. Tang Soo says:

    The introduction to this episode is what I had the most issue with, as it’s the thing I hear about most when people try to talk martial arts with me (read: try to convince me I’m doing something useless). They try to act like every instructor’s gonna teach you to go toe-to-toe with a gunman, like knowing a little hapkido is going to make you invincible. That’s just not the case.

    In Tang Soo Do, we do learn a number of hapkido/aikido-based disarms for a number of weapons, primarily knives and guns. It’s good to know a few ways to work oneself out of a situation like that if it’s absolutely necessary. That said, the most important lesson they’ve taught me is when NOT to fight a gun. If the dude asks for your wallet, you give him your wallet. If he wants your phone, give him the phone. If he wants you to strip nude, you strip nude. The only time to fight back is when he says, “Come with me.” At that point, he’s probably going to kill you anyway, and only then do you try that disarm. There might be some tough-guy instructors that would fight a gunman right away, but any instructor with real talent would never teach their students that they should try to beat a gun.

    Even beyond that, assuming you’re in a situation where you’re fighting a bigger dude or someone with a knife (just to use for this example because you shouldn’t try to outrun a gun either), an instructor who actually knows self-defense is gonna tell you that you shouldn’t stick around to try and beat the guy senseless. Again using Tang Soo Do as a reference, there are a lot of techniques that talk about how to disarm a weapon, how to deal with a larger fighter, and how to fight multiple people (side note, something Tang Soo Do deals with beautifully compared to a lot of arts by using standing grappling techniques to control an opponent while still being free to deal with his buddies… but that’s for another post)… but ultimately, the application of all of those techniques should be on creating an exit path and putting yourself in a position to flee the situation. When you stay in a fight and try to brawl with your opponent (which most MA nay-sayers seem to think is what we’re all taught), that’s when you open yourself up to making a mistake and paying for it.

    I do agree with some of what P and T brought up, but to write off martial arts as a whole because there are some people who get carried away with them are, to use their own terminology, “Bullshit!” And even if they were absolutely false, I love throwing spin kicks. So whatever.

    • Lamar says:

      Yeah. The most annoying part to me wasn’t the fact that they didn’t “showcase” my martial art, like some dumbass claimed. It was the fact that this episode is called “Martial arts are bullshit” and found a Tai Ji Quan instructor who doesn’t even teach the martial arts application of Tai Ji. It’s just really fucking filthy in my opinion. Sleezy even. If you’re going to make a point, at least find SOME viable information, even if it is bias as fuck. In other words? They found something and didn’t support any claim whatsoever, by NOT proving their point and just saying “It’s bullshit. Why? We say so.”

      Also, Tai Ji Quan (This is mostly for the writer of this article) is an efficient martial art. There is no specific move that does one single thing. It’s about imagination, shadow boxing and practicality, while maintining a balanced stance. The form is just to help you get use to the idea. When you apply it, it normally looks nothing like the form. You just do whatever you can to defeat the opponent with technique. Similar to Aikido, however, different. Aikido is a little more lazed down for those that want to learn faster. (That isn’t a bad thing. Aikido is just a little more fixated). Tai Ji Quan is not so specific. You kind of do whatever you want, by manipulating your opponent’s movements. It takes much longer to learn (Especially without a partner. You see, in the real world, we actually apply these techniques and see if they work effectively.)

  9. BenWright says:

    I am also not agree with this

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