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Considering that men and women actually do wind up with a variety of nonreproductive physiological differences (unlike many fantasy worlds which ignore them), among them:

  • Men wind up with more skeletal muscle mass than women, on average
  • Men have more fast-twitch muscle fibers (speed), while women have more slow-twitch muscle fibers (stamina)
  • Men wind up with more upper-body strength (arms and chest), while women wind up with more of their musculature in the lower body (legs and abdominals)

how would martial arts be adapted to be more suited to one biological gender over the other? (Considering that "default male" is largely the case IRL, I wouldn't be surprised if the answers focus on women, but answers that deal with how something could specifically be adapted for men are fine too.)

Conditions of development:

  • This martial art has to be first and foremost practical -- even if warfare isn't a pressing concern at any given time, self-defense from bandits and other ne'er-do-wells is, and the ability for someone trained in this to be more useful in a battle than a completely green peasant is a plus, as well as the ability to defend against aggressive beasts and other such threats, or some utility for basic hunting.
  • It needs to encompass unarmed and armed melee combat (AIUI, ranged weapons are something of a different story), with weapons that'd be available to a large portion of the populace -- bonus points if it covers multiple types of weapons as one advances through it.
  • It needs to be something that a large segment of the population can learn -- i.e. not restricted to nobility or a dedicated class of fighters, although advanced forms may be studied/employed by such a dedicated class.
  • The people developing it are at a generally Iron Age/medieval level of technology -- farmers, herders, and/or tradesfolk, with possibly a small class of dedicated fighters. Weapons of steel (especially larger ones) are treated as valuable, albeit not restricted by law.
  • Healing is limited to basic, mundane means (such as chewing willow bark to ease pain, the dressing and bandaging of wounds, and the splinting of broken limbs).
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    $\begingroup$ Are you familiar with Wing Chun? Wing Chun would be an example of a martial art which is traditionally thought of as a more feminine art due to its strong focus on soft actions. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 19 '15 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ You use the word "gender," but you refer to biological sexes in the body of your answer. Are you looking for a martial art that takes advantage of the female body's musculoskeletal differences, or one which takes advantage of the feminine gender's mental and muscle done differences? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 19 '15 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon -- no, I'm not familiar with Wing Chun -- and the former to begin with, as the mental differences don't seem to be quite a big a gap (and somewhat society-dependent as well) $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Dec 19 '15 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon, to be fair (and mostly for those who don't know) Wing Chun was the art of Bruce Lee's most important teacher, Master Ip. It does emphasize efficiency and peacemaking over strength and dominance, avoiding long, powerful strokes in favor of maintaining stability. That and it's name being Spring Chant (alternatively Eternal Springtime) lead to the feminine perception, but internally it contains no such bias. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Dec 19 '15 at 5:58
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    $\begingroup$ As a female who did a version of western martial arts for many years I think the difference is in heads not bodies. How are the practitioners supported while they take time to train? How does a male feel when he is defeated while sparing with a woman? Does the trainer take female students seriously. $\endgroup$ – Mazel Dec 26 '17 at 23:07
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The functional movement/power differences between genders in humans are less than many other species, with more difference attributable to physical training and cultural choices. Women have always fought. These differences are even less an issue when you put weapons in people's hands. Weight class matters most in empty hand fighting, but outside of sport, people use weapons when they can.

If you look to say, traditional Chinese martial arts, you can find scholar styles which also end up being taught to wealthy women... which... you'd see would be because the lifestyles of the men and women are equally low activity. On the flipside, you have stuff like "Boat Boxing" (Zhoushan Chuan Quan) which was rumored to be developed by fishing women to fight pirates - active life style, different form.

What about the modern day? Well, you'll notice that armies around the world with women in active combat train the exact same things that they do for men. These are countries which have done intense studies into the limits of physical ability - how long you can hold your breath, how little food or water people can survive on, etc. If there was a significant combat advantage to be gained training differently, they would have done it.

The biggest things you're going to look at are reach and height differences - this changes things like your entries and takedowns, however, that's about looking to the anatomy of the person in front of you - not their gender.

If you have a species with much greater variance in body types ("One gender is twice the size of the other", "Females have 2 extra arms") then you can talk about different styles.

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    $\begingroup$ "Woman have always fought" - I cannot upscore this enough. For added bonus, read about naginata-jutsu and japanese woman. "You shall not pass" is real. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Jul 24 '17 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ ''Women have always fought''- a random blog with some drawings is not an historical source, show us proof that women had actual impact in historical battles. $\endgroup$ – user56803 Nov 23 '18 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ '' These differences are even less an issue when you put weapons in people's hands'' This only makes sense if you know nothing about actual melee combat or historical combat overall. There was a thing called armor which made most weapons useless, that's why wrestling was used to disarm, immobilize and then stab the enemy by opening gaps in the armor... because you know, swords and maces can't slash through armor contrary to what fantasy movies make you believe, and if you use lances in a formation then your body weight is the strongest factor in determining if you will survive or not. $\endgroup$ – user56803 Nov 23 '18 at 21:21
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EDIT: For a shorter version which is less divisive than my answer below, here's a summary which should be less disagreeable. All martial arts are designed for the same goal: to make you be the best you can be. If a martial art was designed to demand X pounds of upper body muscle mass, it would not be useful for any males who don't have X pounds of upper body mass. Accordingly, martial arts all use arms the best way you can use arms, legs the best way you can use legs, hips the best way you can use hips, etc. Every one of them will naturally let you tailor the style to your own body.

Also, every martial art is designed to allow technique (mental skill) to be more important than muscle. If not, why would you bother training it? You'd just go work out instead. Accordingly, every martial art is designed to support how to use the mind to overcome the body. The way to do that is unsurprisingly very similar for people with 2 arms and 2 legs.

Consider this list,* not a single one of them is a "specialized" female only martial art. They're all just martial arts, like any other martial art. They focus on mental techniques. Now some of them focus more on it than others (such as Judo, which concentrates on letting your opponent do most of the work), but its far more about how we use our mind than anything else.


In my comments, I asked whether you were looking at just the physical differences between the sexes or the mental differences between the genders. You said you were looking at the sexes.

Unfortunately, my question was sort of a trick question.

The physical differences between male and female humans is actually quite minor, when you really get down to it. Punches and kicks are far more dependent on the configuration of ligaments in the knees and wrists than they are the sex chromosomes. Sure, men have more upper body strength, but if 1st Lieutenant Kristen Griest, and Captain Shaye Haver have anything to say about it, there's not all that much of a difference in the parts that count.

While you mentioned the mental gap should be minor, it is starting to be recognized that the gap between feminine and masculine is much much larger than the gap between male and female. We've just not had many opportunities to explore the difference between gender and sex because they typically line up.

The different genders end up treating their body very differently. This is reflected in the more feminine martial arts, such as Wing Chun. A more feminine martial art concentrates on precision strikes that do massive damage from small amounts of force, not just because they might have less upper body strength, but because the social conditioning makes it easier for them to make such strikes without putting themselves in a bad position. The feminine martial arts tend to be more focused on how to achieve your goals rather than how to prevent the opponent from achieving theirs. (This sentence should be controversial. Most balanced martial arts talk about both halves of the spectrum, but the martial arts geared towards the feminine side tend to balance it differently than those geared towards the masculine side).

The number one thing I see when I look at the more "feminine" martial arts is softness. They tend not to rely on the ability to simply turn into a brick and pummel their enemy. When an opponent throws a punch, instead of violently blocking it with a spasm of muscle driving their fist far out of line with your face, the more feminine arts have a tendency to softly make contact with the opposing strike, and redirect it so softly that the opponent loses track of where their body actually is because they assume the woman's block is actually harder than it really is. It's fascinating to observe, really. In the martial arts which are more tailored for feminine approaches, combatants (male and female) simply melt out of the way of an incoming strike, only to reappear right inside their opponents defenses.

From what I have been able to glean, much of the softness comes from the use of more of the postural muscles in ways that prevent an opponent from figuring out which muscles have been used. Due to the typical gender gap, the more feminine individuals have a general tendency to have more control over these than a more masculine individual. Doubt it? Look at the ultra-pure steriotypes. The ultra-pure feminine individual carries herself with poise, and its almost impossible to capture her essence (which is why female nude paintings are so popular... the goal is to try to paint an essence which is so very hard to capture). The ultra-pure masculine individual is a bulldog, who will crush anything which gets in his way and can turn into stone if needed. Stereotypes? Absolutely. Everyone's a mix of both sides, but stereotypes are useful for trying to start exploring the differences. Its up to you to then refine this to something more realistic, with a realistic feminine character or a realistic masculine character, or something in between like an English gentleman. However, what is very clear is that it is not something decided by sex. Men are capable of learning these techniques just as much as women. The only difference is cultural: women tend to get a head start in the feminine martial arts, while men tend to get a head start in the masculine martial arts.


Razordynamics is no longer an active website. I have rescued the text, thanks to web.archive.org and reproduced it below:

When it come to self defense, there are certain martial art styles that are more effective for women than others. Many martial art styles rely too heavily on brute strength and meeting force with direct force to defeat an aggressor. While some women are big and strong, and would have no problem applying these styles, most are not. And since the majority of violence towards woman is caused by men, there are certain martial arts styles that are more effective in handling larger and stronger opponents.

Here is a list of the five best martial arts styles for women';s self defense. Note: Each of the martial art styles listed were chosen for their street practicality, directness, efficiency and ability to be pressure tested during training (all things we like here at Razor Fighting Dynamics).

  • Judo -- Thanks to fighters like Ronda Rousey and Hector Lombard, people all over the world are becoming more aware of the effectiveness of Judo in fighting. What makes Judo a great self defense system for women is its focus on throws and submissions. While some strength is needed to perform Judo moves, leverage is the cornerstone of most its techniques. In Judo, you do not have to worry about punching power or knocking out an opponent. Instead, the earth becomes your fist and slamming an attacker on the streets is more than enough to dismantle them. However, if the throws do not work, Judo has many limb breaking and dislocating techniques that will.

  • Wing Chun -- Wing Chun, is one of the most direct and effective fighting systems in China. It was also created by a woman, a nun named Ng Mui (at least that is how the story goes). While Wing Chun single punches are not necessarily known for their knock out power, the repetitive compounded punches (chain punches) the style is famous for, cumulatively, have the same effect. In addition to chain punches, Wing Chun’s eye gauging, force deflecting, knee cap breaking and elbow striking techniques make it a very effective style for any woman looking to protect herself against would be attackers.

  • Brazilian Jiu-jitsu -- Of course we cannot leave out Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ). A high level female BJJ practitioner is dangerous to any man looking to beat or sexually assault her. What makes this style especially effective for women is its focus on technique and leverage over brute strength. A well trained female BJJ practitioner can easily defend herself against bigger and stronger opponents. Through shear strength, some men have the misguided belief that they can easily take any woman to the ground and do what they want. It is this overestimation of their abilities that leave these men open and unprepared to defend against the grappling of a well trained female BJJ practitioner resulting in the would-be attackers having their limbs broken, being chocked unconscious or killed.

  • Muay Thai -- Muay Thai, especially Muay boran, is one of hardest hitting no nonsense martial arts styles in existence. What makes this style very effective for woman is its focus on using the hardest parts of the body (elbows, knees and top of head) for striking. Many martial art styles depend too heavily on the fists for striking. It takes time to develop fists to be strong enough to do damage (read: "[link]Should you punch in a street fight"). Even when they are use effectively, they are still vulnerable to breaking during an altercation leaving you defenseless. However, head-butts, knees and elbows strikes can be delivered continuously in a fight without much personal damage to you, but a lot more to your attacker

  • Boxing -- Many of you might be wondering why boxing is on this list. Boxing often gets overlooked as an effective martial arts for self defense system, especially for women. What makes boxing effective for women is not necessarily the striking, but the evasive movements and footwork. Again, we are talking about self defense and trying to survive not winning a match. Getting out of a violent situation should be the main goal. By using boxing defensive and evasive movements, a woman can slip, bob and weave herself out of harms way and flee from the situation (just watch how Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins move around the ring when they do not want to be hit).

Of course, each of martial arts style mentioned have their limitations and the advantages listed are effective for men as they are for women. The key is finding martial styles that work with your strengths, are effective and practical and fit within the [link]Scientific Fighting Method

What do you think are the best and most effective martial art styles for women’s self defense?

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    $\begingroup$ The difference in upper body strength is about three standard deviations. Few men are as weak as the strongest women (not counting steroids). That isn't changed by a general ordering the Ranger school to bend the rules to graduate women. This is why rape is a problem: the number of adult women who can physically dominate a normal adult man rounds to zero. The psychological differences are considerable as well, and independent of culture. None of this is remotely controversial among scientists who actually measure things instead of watching movies. You're basically saying the earth is flat. $\endgroup$ – Ed Plunkett Dec 19 '15 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @EdPlunkett It's not that unusual. Consider lists like razordynamics.com/2014/04/29/… . If the strength differences were such a major deciding factor in how you structure a martial art, why are none of the recommended martial arts uniquely constructed to a woman's body? Why are they all just general purpose H. sapiens martial arts which happen to focus on technique (mind) over power (muscle)? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 19 '15 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ @EdPlunkett: how is upper body strength being measured there? Punch force isn't going to correlate directly to say, how much you can bench. I mean I'm sure they are related, but a slow lift isn't the same as a fast, hard but. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Dec 19 '15 at 6:20
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    $\begingroup$ I know, from my personal anecdote (sample size N=1), I have more "upper body strength" than my wife, as in I can do a pull up and she can't. But she can punch harder than I can because part of her fitness routine is kickboxing. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 20 '15 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Mithrandir24601 Edited the text in, thanks to the Wayback machine! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 26 '17 at 20:58
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Generally the goal is to maximize the benefits of your training in comparison to people without training, not to optimize for particular gender or build. So a practical martial art for women will generally be almost as good for men even if it was designed for women. The gender difference simply isn't the priority in practice. Purely artistic forms of course might go further.

Women have wider hips and lower center of gravity than men. The weaker upper body is somewhat balanced by the upper body also being lighter, meaning there should be no handicap on the speed and precision of hand movements.

A martial art that uses stable and balanced footwork combined with deflections of attacks followed by precise counter-attacks would IMHO work well for women. So no high kicks, fancy leaps or lunges, or wide unbalanced swings or fully committed attacks. Some Chinese styles and old forms of fencing are like this, so a woman should be able to use them well without being needlessly handicapped by her body.

Balance and composure are probably the keywords to keep in mind from story perspective. Stay calm and focussed, deal with issues efficiently and one at a time. Deflect attacks, create an opening, exploit the opening. Very methodological and systematic. There might be some philosophical or even mystical elements to the style. It helps in keeping composed under pressure.

Physically the key is to avoid being out-of-balance or otherwise unable to react. A typical approach is to minimize movement and use of energy to the absolute minimum necessary.

This approach works for unarmed combat and light weapons such as daggers or fencing weapons.

An alternate solution is to use a long pole-arm, such as naginata. The pole compensates for the lack of upper body strength by supplying leverage to swings and helps keep opponents at a safe distance. Wide swings are also powered by hips and legs where women have less of a handicap. And, if you get hit by a pole-arm, it will hurt even if somebody male would have swung it harder.

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Sexual dimorphism in humans is rather slight. And combat is done mainly by men against other men.

Hence there has been little interest or reason to develop a martial art to combat a particular gender or match the particular benefits of each gender.

Women for instance have a more efficient metabolism. The muscles burn energy more efficiently, giving higher endurance. Down side there is less instantaneous power. But the difference is so very slight.

(Women have greater hip and spine flexibility but no so great that it would be fight wining)

You will only notice the difference in long distance walks. Or long distance swimming.. but the higher buoyancy due to higher body fat is the primary cause.

Also martial arts rarely aims to hit an opponent where they are strong. That is basically what martial arts is... not about blindly hitting the opponent.. but hitting and twisting the right spots on the opponent.

There are weak point on the human body where a relatively low power but precise strike is incapacitating and even fatal. And given that men and women are not that different both genders share most of the same weak points. Speed in martial arms becomes the name of the game.

That be said, I guess women would be more immune to a crotch attack than a man. But I don't think you can build an entire martial arts for women against men, based on entirely on crotch attacks.

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