How effective is Aikido for self defense in real life?

Aikido has been around for over 50 years and has spread to most of the developed world.  It’s a dramatic martial art to watch with practitioners seemingly able to counter and throw multiple attackers at will.  Despite these first impressions it’s worth considering whether Aikido is effective for self defense in real life.

History of Aikido

Aikido was founded by Morihei Ueshiba (December 14, 1883 – April 26, 1969). 

Ueshiba had studied a number of martial arts in his youth but had gone on to study one particular style called  Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, under the master Takeda Sōkaku. This art focussed on throwing techniques and joint locks.   However, one of its core concepts was the timing of defensive techniques either to blend or to neutralize an attack’s effectiveness and to use the force of the attacker’s movement against him.

Ueshiba had a number of spiritual experiences which profoundly influenced his martial art practices.  

After his third, he stated:

“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love”.


Ueshiba was profoundly influenced by the Ōmoto-kyō religion (a neo-Shinto movement), particularly its philosophy of extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others. 

Indeed, in Aikido, the ultimate aim is that not only is the receiver unharmed, but so is the attacker.

The name Aikido translates to mean “Way of be one with the Universe” or “Way of love”.


How did it spread?

Aikido was first taken outside of Japan in 1951 by Minoru Mochizuki with a visit to France where he introduced Aikido techniques to Judo students.

In 1953 another Japanese practitioner took the martial art to the United States.The United Kingdom followed in 1955, Italy in 1964,  and Germany and Australia in 1965. 

It has since spread the world and continues to be a very popular martial art.

What it entails

This martial art focuses on the following techniques:

  • Knifehand strikes
  • Punches to the head and torso
  • Wrist grabs
  • Shoulder grabs
  • Chest graps
  • Wristlocks
  • Various throws

If you watch two practitioners (Uke and Tori) in action, then their movements very much flow together.  Uke will apply the technique against Tori, who will initiate a counter attack.

One of the most noticeable aspects of this martial art, is that Tori will frequently step into the attack before turning and redirecting the force of the movement.  


Famous Proponents

Perhaps the most famous practitioner of Aikido is Steven Seagal.  Here’s a great clip of the man himself in action:

Steven is a 7th Dan in Aikido and was the first Westerner to operate an Aikido dojo in Japan.  

He was born in Lansing, Michigan and after teaching in Japan, moved back to Los Angeles, California.

Seagal made his acting debut in 1988 in the film ‘Above the Law’ and subsequently went to star in a number of films, his best known being Under Siege, in which he played a Navy SEAL. 

In many of the fighting scenes in his films, he demonstrates various Aikido techniques.

Warning: there is violent content and bad language used.


Before we get side tracked, let’s return to our original question.

Is Aikido effective in real life?

The answer really depends on what your looking for from your martial art.

Many practice martial arts simply for the health benefits.  The regular practice of Aikido is a viable exercise option and you’d certainly get fitter by practising this martial art.

Typical training sessions involve the Sensei demonstrating a number of specific techniques,  which are then practiced by the students. It may also involve a randori session such as the one below.

Each training session is quite energetic and would result in some cardio-vacsular benefits.  

The question, is this the best way of increasing your stamina?  Arguably going for a run would do just as much for your stamina, if not more.


What about strength benefits?

Well the whole point of Aikido is to use an opponent’s strength against themselves by directing them off balance.  There is very little emphasis on developing strength. In fact, when strength is used in Aikido it’s often said that you’ve failed to perform the technique correctly.  

If you’re looking to develop strength, then practising Aikido is not for you.

What about co-ordination and flexibility?

Aikido has a series of techniques (Suwari Waza) that are performed from the seated position.  This develops excellent hip flexibility and mobility.

Physical co-ordination is developed and needed in order to successfully perform the throws and break falls correctly and without injury.  

In this respect, it’s a good way to develop your balance, spatial awareness and co-ordination.

What about Self Defense?

This is the all important question.  After all, Aikido markets itself as a martial art and by its own definition experienced practitioners should be able to defend themselves if attacked

However, this is the area where Aikido is most heavily criticised.

Aikido practice does feature Randori where a student is ‘attacked’ by one or more of their fellow practitioners.

The problem is that these opponents are far too compliant and, not only do weak or non-existant attacks, but also allow themselves to be thrown.  Many times they actually throw themselves.

If you watch an Aikido demonstration the actual skill is shown not by the person who is doing the defending by the people doing the attacking.  They spin, tumble and brakefall with great skill.

This is clearly demonstrated in the following video:.


In Aikido, there is no real sparring where each individual is genuinely trying to better the other.  Arguably this is the only way you can see if your techniques work, allowing you to actually be effective in your fighting style.

It is the combative nature of fighting styles such as wrestling, bjj and judo, that make them so effective.  Poor techniques fall into disuse, or are refined over time. In this sense they almost evolve over time in Darwinian fashion where only the strongest fighting moves survive. 


Is aikido real?

If you watch an Aikido demonstration, you’ll notice the sheer number of wrist locks involved in the martial art.

In fact,  you’ll see these executed one after the other.  

There’s a problem with this from a self defense perspective.  

If you’re attacked on the street in the real world, you’ll experience a huge adrenaline dump in your body as the flight or fight reaction kicks in. 

When this happens your fine motor skills go out the window.  You’re left with only gross movements. The blood flows to the large muscles of the body in the arms and legs allowing you to either run away or batter your attacker.

When the adrenaline’s pumping, the chances of being able to get a wrist lock on your opponent are slim to none. 

For starters, you’re not going to have the control necessary in this pressurised environment.  In addition, your attacker is simply not going to stand there and allow you to put a wrist lock on them.

One other aspect of the fighting style of this martial art is the lowered hand position of the defender.  They are often lowered at the practitioners waist height.

Anyone who knows anything about fighting knows that you never lower your hands from the guard position.  To do so, to put it simply, puts your head at risk from being punched.  

To think your reactions are going to be quick enough to be raise to block any incoming punches is simply living in fantasy land.  You may be able to block one or two like this but a well timed combination punch is likely to make connection with its target.

At the very heart of the problem of Aikido is its philosophy of not wanting to harm your opponent.  Whilst this aim might be considered very worthy from a philosophical standpoint, I’m afraid it falls rather short when it comes from a self defense perspective.

If I’m attacked by a crazed maniac determined to do harm to me, the last thing I’ll be concerned with is ensuring that I don’t harm my attacker.  I’d want to know how to counter any attack and put myself in a position where I could make my escape.

I think that Aikido has transitioned from a genuine fighting style to more of a spiritual endeavour.  

The sad thing is that individual’s spend years studying this art thinking they’re becoming effective fighters.  I just hope they never experience a street confrontation otherwise they’re in for a world of pain.

Just look at the example below and say whether you think any of this would be effective in real life.


In conclusion, I have to think whether I would want my daughters, to spend time learning this martial art. 

Whilst it might have limited physical benefits, such as improvements in flexibility,  I wouldn’t want them spending time learning this ineffective fighting style.

I’d much rather they spent time learning how to avoid being in dangerous situations (becoming street wise I guess) and practicing something like Krav Maga – a no-nonsense combat style.

I’d been interested to hear your views in the comments below.


Happy training!