Capoeira is a standing martial art that employs a variety of kicks, dodges, and sweeps to stop an opponent in a self defense setting. For self defense, Capoeira is an effective way to defend ones self against another unarmed opponent. The strongest tools a Capoeira practitioner has when defending themselves is the use of dodges, sweeps, powerful kicks, and open palm strikes.
The discussion of Capoeira as an effective martial has often come under question either due to pop culture references or a mistaking of Capoeira as a dance. There are dance elements in Capoeira, some of which do not have a place in the world of self defense, but so does Muay Thai and Senegalese wrestling. The question is “capoeira be an effective for self defense”, and the answer is, “yes”.
Does Capoeira work in MMA
There are several examples of Capoeiristas (capoeira practitioners) who’ve competed in various mixed martial arts tournaments. Nobody has represented Capoeira and reached the level of success as someone like George Saint Pierre for Karate. But there are many Mixed Martial Artists who have either trained pure Capoeira as their base, or supplemented their training with Capoeira.
Mixed Martial Artists who use Capoeira
Some of the biggest mixed martial artists who’ve trained Capoeira include:
- Andre Gusmão
- Marcus Aurelio
- Connor McGreggor
- Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos
- Anderson Silva
- Cris Cyborg
- Thiago Marreta
Of this group, Elizeu and Andre Gusmão are the two names who have their base in Capoeira and have made appearances in the UFC. Elizaeu uses Capoeira mostly as a supplement to his MMA base. Elements like his ability to easily switch his stance (orthodox to south pau) is one hint of his experience with Capoeira. As of right now (2021) Elizeu’s record in the 170lbs division is a respectable 22-7-0.
How to incorporate Capoeira into your MMA
The best way to begin incorporating Capoeira into your MMA arsenal if you are an adult is to begin with isolated movements such as Meia lua de Compasso. This kick has been used in several mixed martial arts competitions and is proven to be effective at delivering damage. Other examples are the question mark kick and tesoura (flying scissor leg). Other ideas like kicking confidently with both legs and using esquivas (dodges) are other Capoeira skill that you may want spend time learning.
Although the use of Capoeira is a Mixed Martial Art sport setting is hotly debated, there is a growing consensus that Capoeira is at a minimum, a great supplement to a mixed martial artist. This is similar to Taekwondo, Kung Fu, and Judo.
Children who train Capoeira have the most to gain in terms of the martial art’s soft skills. These include agility, coordination (most mixed martial artists are surprisingly uncoordinated), and creativity/improvisation. Yes, children will learn to defend themselves just like any adult would, however the sheer years of studying a single martial art for many years will make them experts in the subtleties of that art.
Adults can still benefit greatly from Capoeira. However the way they choose to apply their training to MMA will need to be much more targeted.
How to use Capoeira in a fight
The ginga is the best place to start because it is the most basic Capoeira movement, and it is often portrayed as a joke in popular media.
The ginga a moving stance
The ginga is a moving stance. In a real fight you would never ginga in the way you would during a Capoeira game. The ginga trains foot work and the ability to react from either an orthodox and south paw position. Having the ability to dodge a strike from many positions is a strength.
Use evasion instead of blocking
Grappling in fights often happens when one person clumsily charges in only to find they’ve crashed into their opponent and are now in a grappling match. It happens very often, and the emphasis on evading strikes rather than blocking can help in this regard.
Evading strikes, as opposed to blocking protects from a fight going to the ground. In a case where someone has a knife or there are multiple attackers, the last thing you want to do is grapple. If your opponent does try to take you down, Capoeira does have some take down defenses, such as a sprawl. If you opponent does successfully take you down, beware because this is not where Capoeira’s strengths lie.
A full arsenal of kicks!
According to a study by the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department), of 867 police altercations, the most common way an officer received an injury was from a kick (65.8% of total altercations). Kicking is a proven way to deal damage. The study is also looking at (most likely) untrained kickers. For someone who trains their kicks, it’s likely that they would be able to deal a lot more damage to the ribs, legs, or head.
One major advantage that Capoeira does have is the ability to kick from any position. Capoeira as a martial art is always moving, meaning that any strike must be done correctly whether you are on or off balance. This is a great advantage in a real fight where you will seldom be in a “prepared” position.
Although Capoeira gets a reputation because of having large and round kicks, basic push kicks and roundhouse kicks are extensively trained.
For a list of kicks in Capoeira, check out the post below.
Why Capoeira doesn’t work
Every martial art has disadvantages and advantages. The disadvantage in Capoeira is that there is no comprehensive ground game, hand striking is limited, and there few full contact Capoeira competitions.
Capoeira has limited grappling
This is an issue with most standing martial arts, including Capoeira. The grappling and ground game is limited. The same study by the Journal of Non-Combatives showed that A large percentage of street fights end up on the ground. Capoeira does have some take downs and take-down defense. However, the lack of an integrated ground game means if someone heavier or more experienced in grappling takes you to the ground, they will have an advantage.
Less than 28% of fights are deliberately taken to the ground
According to the same LAPD study,
“nearly two thirds of the 1988 altercations 62% ended with the officer an the subject on the ground with the officer applying a joint lock[cuffing]”
Of this 62% of altercations that took place on the ground, 45% were due to the subject attempting to take the officer down. Meaning that about 27.9% of police altercations took place on the ground because the subject tried to take them down. The remaining 55% of altercations that take place on the ground happen either by accident, or because the officer intentionally takes the subject to the floor. Police officer almost always take subjects down in order to arrest them. This is common practice and skews the total number of fights taken to the ground (62%).
The study further shows that when officers received ground combat training (like basic BJJ or Judo), their injury rates went down. Someone like an officer who is forced to subdue a subject grappling will be greatly beneficial. This is especially true in the approximate 1/4 of physical altercations where subjects try to take the officer to the ground. That being said, most fights stay standing up and basic striking should not be ignored.
Flashy movements may not work
Large movements are difficult to apply in a real fight. In MMA, you see spinning heel kicks and tornado kicks landing impressive knockouts, but in reality, it’s the basics that win the day. Jabs, crosses, dodges, push kicks, and martelos (roundhouse kicks). As mentioned, Capoeira has several kicks that are very versatile, strong, and direct. These are the kicks you would be most likely to use in personal defense, as opposed to something like a parafuso.
Capoeira has a variety of strikes with the palm, fist, and elbow, however the system of throwing hand strikes and blocking/evading the strikes of your opponent does not go into as much depth as other martial arts like Boxing or Muay Thai. This is not to say that someone who trained Capoeira will not know how to strike with their hands, however the level of sophistication is lower the the other martial arts mentioned.
Capoeiristas do not compete in full contact tournaments.
There are very few tournaments in Capoeira. Competition is often looked down upon in the Capoeira community because it takes away from the traditional aspects of Capoeira. This is an intense debate within the Capoeira community. Competition is great for generating attention, however the attention garnered is not always the kind of attention Capoeiristas want to be associated with.
For example, a spinning heel kick knockout would be great for viewership, but would make the game of Capoeira rigid and lack creativity as everyone looks for a highlight-reel knockout. Some tournaments have introduced a point system, however this has the danger of converting Capoeira into a point centric sport like Taekwondo or some styles of BJJ.
Many would argue that the above game is much less interesting than the one below. There is something to say for the benefits of both settings, however for self defense a full-contact or near full contact setting is important.
Is Capoeira “non-resistant”
There is a myth that Capoeira is a “non-resistive” martial art. This is the same criticism given to Aikido. Being non-resistive means opponents allowing you to take them down or block their strikes. In Capoeira training session, there are many instances where you need to resist your partner in order to help them train.
Training methodology for strikes
Let’s say you are training a particular esquiva (dodge). If you can successfully use the dodge 100% of the time, then your partner made it too easy for you. Failing to dodge does not mean you will get kicked in the face, it means your partner will need to have sufficient control of their attacks to pull back.
The concept is to slowly ramp up the resistance so that your reactions and ability to deal with new scenarios increases over time. If you never encounter resistance, then your ability to throw strikes and evade them will be poor.
Take down training
In Capoeira, there are many sweeps and take downs. The only way to properly practice a take down is to practice against a resisting opponent.
The way you practice a take down is to slowly increase the amount of resistance by your partner. In the beginning they let you take them down so you can work on your technique. Next, you work with some resistance, until at the end you’re training near full power.
Is there contact in Capoeira
There is contact in Capoeira. Contact comes in several flavours. These include:
- Take downs
- light grappling.
Not every Capoeira game has contact. The level of allowed contact is determined by the person leading the Capoeira games. In some cases, the amount of contact allowed is zero, and other times there is no limit. This will ranges wildly by groups, by region, and by teacher.
Understandably, this fact can frustrate many martial arts enthusiasts. There are several reason for this. One reason very physical Capoeira games are less common in the United States is the prevalence of lawsuits from students who get injured during Capoeira games.
Here is a demonstration with light contact in Brazil. There are plenty of videos of people getting kicked and knocked out with Capoeira on Youtube. A good teacher will know how to include contact in a way that is safe and prepares their students.
Basic movements in Capoeira general fall into four major categories. Below are the categories in Portuguese. Note that Desequilibrantes (take down/sweeps) are usually trained later on as they can be difficult to train safely by beginners.
- Golpes (Strikes)
- Esquivas (dodges)
- Movimentos (movements)
- Floreios (acrobatics)
- Desequilibrantes (take-downs)
In Capoeira, floreios are the only Optional category of movement. Acrobatics are fun to do, but not necessary in the game of Capoeira. The movements most beginners will start learning are:
- Golpe: Meia lua de frente
- Golpe: Queixada
- Golpe: Armada
- Golpe: Meia lua de Compasso
- Movimento: Ginga
- Movimento: Role
- Floreio: Au
For a more in depth look at basic Capoeira movements, check out our blog on Basic Capoeira movements for beginners. There we give explanations on how to do the movements and a movements sequence that you can try on your own.
How to get started with Capoeira
For some people, Capoeira can be a little intimidating. For them, and for everyone else, the best advise is to start by finding a school and attending classes. Although many schools have deals for a single free class or a reduced first week of classes, your best bet is to attend class for four weeks. After four weeks, you’ll have a good idea if you want to continue with that school. If not, then feel free to attend class somewhere else and repeat the process.
To attend our classes, click on the link below to fill out our interest form.
You don’t need to workout before starting Capoeira
One of the most common insecurities people have when starting Capoeira is that they are not in shape. In principle, getting in shape before you start Capoeira would help. However, you probably don’t know what you should be working out, making it not the best use of your time.
A major reason why you should not try to workout before coming to class is because Capoeira is a very skills oriented activity. Skills like handstands and cartwheels (to give examples) take practice on those specific skills. It doesn’t matter if you are “in shape”, if you don’t practice a skill, you won’t learn it.
Things like strength, mobility, and coordination can be learned on your own. However, the best way to build strength, mobility, and coordination for Capoeira is to do Capoeira.
If you’re still not convinced. Here are a few exercises you should focus on that will help you improve in Capoeira. Remember that these exercise will benefit you, but are not as efficient as training Capoeira movements. For example, the best way to get good at kicking is not to dead-lift. It’s to kick and kick often!
Here are a list of exercises I recommend:
Split squat – Unweighted is good. Weighted is better. An ATG split squat is best.
Assisted handstand pushups – Start with knees on floor and progress to feet on a chair.
Dips – On gymnastics rings or on the edge of a chair works well.
Cossack Squats – Unweighted is good and weighted is better.
Was Capoeira created as a fight?
Yes, Capoeira was created by enslaved Africans in Brazil as a form of self defense. This martial art drew upon several traditions brought over by the African slaves. This includes their music, movements, and rituals. For a in depth look at the origins of Capoeira, you can check out the post below.