This is a common question, albeit complicated, question. When it comes to training in martial arts, selecting a style is a major step in the process – it’s also the most daunting part. The problem is that there is no right or wrong style to learn. Why is that a problem? Well, it makes the question of which to learn first a bit more difficult.
The first thing to look at is the price and location of each class. Martial arts classes are expensive. This is a sad reality, but your instructors have to pay for the utilities (electricity and water), buy new equipment, repair existing equipment, and handle the occasional event (tournament). The money for these things has to come from somewhere, and it can result in high financial investment in classes. Obviously, if you can’t afford the classes you’ll have a bit of a problem. Additionally, you want the classes to be as close to your home as possible so that you save money on gas. Start by looking for places close to home.
Depending on what you want out of training, your options may be slightly different. So, what are you looking for? Is it self-defense training? Are you looking for physical fitness and mental health benefits? Do you want to be a professional fighter? Depending on your answer to this question, your options will be slightly different.
Why Train in Martial Arts?
Training in martial arts – in any discipline – is great fun. Yes, there are health benefits (both physical and mental), but at the end of the day it’s a social experience. Physically, you improve your balance, your flexibility, strength, and endurance. Mentally, it’s a huge motivator. Your confidence and self-confidence improve significantly along with your concentration and control.
The Difference between Martial Arts and Self-Defense
Martial arts and self-defense are closely linked, but there is a key difference between the two. Martial arts (i.e. karate, taekwondo, etc.) are heavily technique-oriented and very sequential: “Your partner’s going to do X and you’re going to Y.” The idea is to put on a bit of a show.
On the other hand, self-defense is more unpredictable, and, when done right, it’s more practical, the idea being that you can survive a violent encounter with a bad guy in the street. Now, I’m not saying you can’t learn self-defense in a traditional martial art, such as in karate – it’s quite possible. Although, the training is not likely to be very practical in terms of execution.
So many options, so little time
There are so many options available that it’s hard to choose, but we have listed 12 which we think would be good options for self-defense, sport, or fitness.
- Krav Maga
- Muay Thai
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Tai Chi
Boxing is probably not what you’re expecting to see on a list of martial arts, but it is one of the best arts if you want to learn striking. It’s a relatively simple style when compared to many of the others on this list. Boxing is a style frequently recommended for people looking to learn self-defense, and it’s easy to see why.
Your sparring is done with light to medium contact, but your competitive bouts are all full contact and last anywhere from 27 to 36 minutes (9 – 12 rounds of 3 minutes each). As a result, you get used to taking hits to your face and body, your endurance and stamina improve. Additionally, you learn about range and timing, which improves your ability to fight.
Health and Safety
Boxing provides a number of health-related benefits to athletes, including improvements to your core strength and stability, co-ordination, and endurance. You develop a sense of body awareness (i.e., you gain a better understanding of your body and its limitations). Your confidence and self-esteem get a nice boost – particularly considering the development of muscle tone.
There are, however, some pretty significant risks with boxing. In addition to the usual risks of sprains, torn ligaments, and dislocated joints, concussions and brain damage are also a serious possibility.
I’m not a huge boxing fan, but I can name a couple of boxers.
- Muhammad Ali
- Mike Tyson
- Floyd Mayweather
Krav Maga is an Israeli martial art that takes techniques from wrestling, boxing, judo, aikido, karate, and others to provide a well-rounded self-defense system. It was developed for the military and has been adopted by security forces and law enforcement. The style was founded by a man named Imre Lichtenfeld in the mid-1930s to defend Jewish neighborhoods from anti-Semitic attacks. He trained residents in boxing (he was a boxing champion) and wrestling. The combination of these styles was the starting point for what would become Krav Maga. In 1940, he fled Europe and went to Palestine where he joined the military and, in 1944, he started training people in the use of knives, knife defense, fitness, and wrestling to develop a strong system for self-defense and close-quarters combat.
This is a system that is known for its realistic approach to training for real-world violence. The techniques used are typically very simple and, more often than not, reasonably effective. One of the benefits of training in Krav Maga is that you develop a realistic idea of what real-world violence is like. You also develop the right mindset and skillset for dealing with real-world violence.
Issues with Marketing and False Confidence
There are problems with Krav Maga, and one of those problems is the marketing. I don’t think I’ve seen a style marketed as aggressively as Krav Maga. It’s always marketed as “used by military forces worldwide,” “the ultimate self-defense system,” or something similar. This leads to another big issue pertaining to the training – false confidence. Armed and unarmed combat are both practiced in Krav Maga and the aggressive marketing setup can lead to some pretty serious misconceptions and false confidence.
False confidence is the idea that you can handle a situation after just a little bit of training. This may not seem like a big deal, but consider this: what happens if you go to disarm a gunman and do it wrong? You get shot, right? This is, admittedly, a possibility even if you are confident in your abilities. The difference is that those who know what they’re doing will typically just comply and avoid getting shot. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t know but THINKS they know what they’re doing will make mistakes from the outset and cause more harm than good. I’ve also heard that the training is focused too much on groin strikes which isn’t conducive to a good self-defense system.
Unlike most styles of martial arts, Krav Maga does not have a competitive circuit. There are no tournaments for medals and awards. The reason for this is that the system is geared towards real-world situations and many instructors feel that adding a competitive element may dampen the style’s efficacy.
Notable practitioners of Krav Maga include:
- Jason Chambers
- Jennifer Lopez
- Bas Rutten
A national sport in Thailand, Muay Thai, is also called the ‘art of eight limbs,’ and it is quite a rough sport to get into. In addition to the use of your hands and feet, you can use your knees and elbows to damage your opponent; hence the name ‘art of eight limbs’ – hands, feet, knees, and elbows.
You may have seen this style used in Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak movies and, if so, you have an idea of how it looks. With that in mind, you may think this isn’t a good style to start with, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. In the early days of Muay Thai, fighters used banana trees to practice kicks, knee strikes, punches, and so on. Why banana trees? Well, because banana trees were hard enough to enable solid strikes and kicks but soft enough to not damage their bodies.
Since its inception a few hundred years ago, the sport has seen an extensive evolution. Today it’s practiced with the use of modern equipment (i.e., heavy bags, focus mitts, etc.) which makes things much safer training-wise. That said, some teachers prefer the older, traditional training methods. Fighters start training (in Thailand) around 8 years of age and start competing by age 10 – the Thai authorities are trying to raise the age of competition to 12. They typically fight several times a week, making a few hundred dollars per fight and retire when they hit their early twenties. This isn’t a surprise considering the amount of damage that fighters take in their fights.
The use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet makes Muay Thai a fantastic style that’s great for physical fitness. The training matches are done with light contact and the competition matches are then done at full contact. This obviously brings certain risks to the competitive scene. Soft tissue damage, sprains, fractures, concussions, and so on are common injuries in the sport of Muay Thai.
Relatives of Muay Thai
Muay Boran is sort of like the older sibling to Muay Thai. It’s an unarmed hand-to-hand system that was practiced before the introduction of modern training equipment.
Krabi Krabong is another Thai style that helped the development of Muay Thai. This one is built around weapons. Practitioners use a variety of blades, staffs, and clubs as part of their training.
Tony Jaa is perhaps best-known for his jaw-dropping stunt work in films like ‘The Protector’ and the Ong Bak trilogy. He trains in the older variant of Muay Thai called Muay Boran.
You could make the argument that Krav Maga is a mixed martial art. After all, it draws from multiple disciplines. The key difference between Krav Maga and MMA is that MMA encourages competition and Krav Maga does not. Now, if you’re looking to do a bit of everything and fight professionally in the process then MMA is for you.
You learn striking, grappling, takedowns, chokes, and ground fighting in addition to learning about distance and timing. There’s a good career in the UFC and mixed martial arts in general, and you could make a pretty good income out of it. It’s also a great social experience, MMA fighters are (in my experience) some of the nicest people you can meet. Fights are largely unpredictable as you never know what you’re up against in the cage, and your opponent may do something outside of the tried-and-true strategies (i.e., sprawl and brawl) for cage fighting.
Safety: High Injury Rate
Considering that this is a full contact combat sport, you can expect injuries to happen. With that in mind, the statistics are rather shocking – at least to me. The sport has become significantly safer since the early days of the UFC, but the average rate of injury is 229 injuries per 1000 athletes. This is much higher than judo, taekwondo, or even professional boxing, and it may be something to consider when deciding which to train.
There are many well-known practitioners of MMA, including:
- Ronda Rousey
- Holly Holm
- Stephen Thompson
- Connor McGregor
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that focuses on grappling, and it is a fantastic starting point for an aspiring martial artist. Once again, you’re learning about chokes, but you’re also learning about submissions and joint locks – always useful tools to know. BJJ is also one of the only styles where you can go all-out on the mat right from the start with minimal risk of injury to yourself and your training partner. This makes it a great style for those who want a challenge but are worried about damaging another person.
The types of injuries that you can get aren’t any less severe than what other styles will give you, but you’re not likely to go home with a serious fracture and a months-long recovery period. This is largely due to the fact that you repeat the same techniques at full resistance every time you step on the mat.
The best-known BJJ practitioners are the Gracie family, Rickson, Helio, George, Carlos, and Oswaldo – among other members of the family. Other notable BJJ practitioners include:
- Keanu Reeves
- Robert Pattinson
- Ashton Kutcher
- Mel Gibson
- Henry Cavill
- Demi Lovato
Judo is a Japanese style that, like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is heavily focused on the use of gravity – that is to say, throwing and grappling. The idea is to combine the force of gravity with momentum (handily supplied by a training buddy or opponent). The training is divided into forms (Kata) and Free Practice (Randori). Each of the katas focus on a particular skills, there are 10 recognized forms of competitive Judo, some focus on throwing and others on grappling.
The style was founded by Jigoro Kano in 1882 as a derivative of Jujutsu, the founder having studied under a few different instructors over the preceding years. Kano focused on the use of energy: maximum efficiency with minimal effort.
Outside of the mainstream, Kodokan Judo, there are a few variants of judo including:
- Kosen Judo: a competitive variant of judo that focuses largely on ground techniques (called ne-waza in judo).
- Sambo – a Russian combination of judo and wrestling
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is also considered to be a variant or offshoot of Judo.
The Practicality of Judo
One point that doesn’t really get much attention when looking at styles like Muay Thai or MMA is the practicality of the style for self-defense. The reason for this is that, while these are combat sports, they are very easily applied to self-defense situations. MMA, as I’ve said, teaches chokes, submissions, grappling, and striking which provides a skillset that you can use to protect yourself. Of course, if you take a flying knee from a Muay Thai fighter – well, you get the idea.
Traditional styles typically have the exact opposite point. With that in mind, how practical is judo for self-defense? Grappling is a great self-defense tool because being able to control a confrontation and restrain an attacker. Considering that, this is a style that’s built around patience, feeling out your opponent, and taking them down at the right time. Patience is, unfortunately, not always a virtue in cases where your life is on the line.
Notable judokas (judo practitioners) include:
- Jigoro Kano
- Vladimir Putin
- Majlinda Kelmendi
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that got its start in the 1950s and has been an Olympic sport since 2000. It has since become one of the most popular martial arts in which to train. There are numerous organizations and variations of taekwondo in which you can train and compete and each one is slightly different, which makes training with other practitioners from different schools and organizations an interesting learning experience.
There are numerous organizations through which taekwondo is practiced and most fall under the banner of the Kukkiwon or World Taekwondo Federation (now called World Taekwondo). Other organizations include:
- The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)
- The American Taekwondo Association (ATA)
- The Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA)
Taekwondo is an interesting style in that the bulk of the technical focus is on kicking. You have more reach and muscle in your legs meaning you can generate more powerful attacks with your legs than with your hands. These kicks range from simple front, side, and roundhouse kicks, to spinning, jumping and jump-spinning kicks. They’re very flashy and super cool to watch, but they definitely can do a number on your balance and co-ordination!
The use of sparring to see what works makes it easy for taekwondo fighters to see what they can or can’t do in a sparring match and why. It also provides a couple of interesting ways to surprise your opponent. As a side note, don’t try something crazy at a tournament unless you’ve tested it on the mat in training first!
In point sparring, the object of the game is to score more points than your opponent. Points are assigned based around the area of the hit:
Taekwondo sparring matches are decided either through points, submission (i.e., one person gives up), a knockout, or a technical knockout. There are two types of sparring of which I am aware: point sparring and continuous sparring.
- Punch/kick to the body: 1 point
- Kick to the head: 2 points
- Jump kick to the head: 3 points
Every time a punch/kick connects, the match is stopped, and a point is awarded before the match starts again. If that sounds tiring, it is. Continuous sparring can also be won on points, the difference being that you won’t be stopped every time you land a hit. That said, knockouts and technical knockouts are pretty common ways of winning in continuous sparring.
Punches/kicks to the face, head, neck (anywhere on the neck), back, and below the belt are illegal in tournament play.
Self Defense Application
As far as self-defense goes, the possibilities are available, but they aren’t all that great. There isn’t a lot of focus on striking with your hands, and, unless you’re really, really good, your kicks will be seen a mile off. That said, if a kick does get through, you can do a lot of damage. Unfortunately, apart from the technique-related difficulties, you have a problem with the training of the techniques to deal with as well.
This is very dependent on the organization in question, but, in my experience, the self-defense stuff is taught separate from the forms and sparring. This means that you’re learning the two sides separately and keeping them separate instead of integrating them together into your training. Why’s that a problem? Well, it can lead to some confusion as to what should be done in a given situation. Additionally, the self-defense stuff we do learn is highly sequential: “He’s going to do A, and you’re going to do B. He’s going to do C and you’re going to counter with D.”
With all that said, you do have the ability to play around a bit and see what you can adapt and make practical, so it’s not all bad.
- MMA commentator, Joe Rogan, trained in taekwondo in his teens and eventually became an instructor.
- Micah Brock, YouTube personality Kwonkicker does taekwondo-related content.
- Scott Adkins has studied multiple martial arts styles including: taekwondo, krav maga, ninjutsu, karate, muay Thai, and capoeira.
Karate is usually considered to be a Japanese style but this isn’t quite accurate. In actual fact, karate is an Okinawan style that was brought over to Japan in 1922 and has since become one of the most popular martial arts styles to practice. It was supposed to be a part of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but the outbreak of COVID-19 obviously led to a drastic change in plans.
Similarities to Taekwondo
Like taekwondo, karate is a striking art which uses kicks, punches, knee and elbow strikes, in addition to open handed techniques. Also, like taekwondo, there are multiple organizations behind karate, and not all of them practice the same setup. You start out with basics (kicks, stances, strikes, etc.) and then you have forms (katas), and sparring (kumite). The levels of contact will vary depending on which organization you’re with.
Benefits and Popularity
Karate has several benefits including better balance, core strength, improved speed, and reflexes among others. It has also enjoyed enormous popularity over the years thanks to films like 1984’s The Karate Kid. Its most enthusiastic students are often children who enjoy training for the social aspect and making friends with people their own age.
Notable Karate practitioners (karatekas) include:
- Michael Jai White
- Stephen Thompson
Aikido is a Japanese style that is built around the concept of defending both yourself and your attacker or opponent. The style was founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the mid to late 1940s, with the Aikikai (the big aikido organization) being established to promote the discipline in 1948.
Like judo, aikido utilizes joint manipulation, pins, and throws to handle an opponent, using their own momentum against them in the process. The use of joint locks, throws, and pins can lead to serious injuries if a practitioner (aikidoka) isn’t careful. For this reason, students typically start out by learning to fall or roll through a technique safely before moving on to basic attack and defense sequences.
The philosophy behind aikido centers on the idea of protecting yourself and your opponent simultaneously. This makes it a popular style for those who want to learn self-defense but aren’t exactly on board with the idea of hurting someone else. That said, this has led to some pretty serious controversy about how applicable aikido is in cases involving real-world violence.
Controversy Surrounding Applicability
A few years ago, an aikido instructor sparked some heated debate over how practical his training was for a self-defense situation by filming and uploading a video where he took on an MMA fighter – yes, you read that correctly. The video, Aikido vs. MMA, demonstrated some serious flaws with the idea behind aikido as a practical self-defense system and caused quite a stir.
Some aikidokas were quite impressed and praised the guy for stepping out of his comfort zone. Others were outraged that he’d dared to question the validity of aikido for self-defense, often relying on anecdotal evidence to show that it was practical (i.e., “my sensei’s friend used aikido when….”). This obviously didn’t go over well with martial artists in general, and it didn’t do aikido any favors either; however, if you’re looking for something interesting to do and you want to learn aikido, then learn aikido and don’t let anyone talk down to you for having fun.
- Morihei Ueshiba
- Steven Seagal
Tai Chi is a style that I can personally recommend to people who are looking for a non-violent martial art. I trained for about 2 years when I was a kid.
The practice of Tai Chi nowadays is more for stress relief, fitness, and socializing. This is literally perfect for anyone of any age to practice because it’s almost exclusively form and pattern work.
There’s no hard-contact sparring, and the focus on mental and physical wellbeing is fantastic. The physical benefits include improved core strength, flexibility, and balance. The mental and psychological benefits include better concentration and a calmer mind.
Now, as weird as it sounds that you’ll have a ‘calmer mind’ while practicing, it’s not a lie. Spending a couple of hours doing the same movements repeatedly aids in concentration, but it also allows you to relax and think a little clearer – hence: a clearer mind.
Should my Body Type Influence which Style I Choose?
Do not let your body type influence your choice in style. Your age, weight, and height shouldn’t factor into which style you choose. The only time your weight and/or height will matter is in sparring practice where being taller, heavier, or stronger is an obvious advantage.
Other than that, your body type isn’t something that should dictate what you do. If you want to train in judo, then train in judo. If you want to do karate or taekwondo, then do it; have fun and don’t let anyone make fun of you for it.
There are many different styles of martial arts in the world and each one has its own challenged to learn and overcome – but it’s worth every second. Martial arts training is like a drug – in a good way. Once you’ve had a taste of it, you’ll want more. As far as which art you should learn first, well, that’s up to you. I can only make suggestions. At the end of the day it comes down to what you, as a student, want out of training.
In closing, let me give you some advice: try everything. Try as many disciplines as you can until you find one that you enjoy doing, and then train proudly in whatever style you choose.
I hope you found this article informative, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you for the next one!