We take up martial arts for different reasons. Some of us are interested in getting fit, others in self-defense, and some fight for sport. I’ll admit that as a child I was drawn to the martial arts because I wanted to learn how to fight in tournaments—and look really cool doing it.
Are you intrigued by martial arts, and want to find out what is the best martial arts to learn? Whether it’s from the recent popularity of UFC/MMA competitions or the classic martial arts movies of the past, you’re contemplating on stepping into the world of martial arts. Before deciding which discipline may suit you the best, let us consider both the benefits and caveats of training martial arts.
Benefits of Training Martial Arts
As we will soon discuss, the benefits to gain from training martial arts, regardless of your age and skill level, are far beyond the physical. Martial arts were created for many reasons, including self-defence in times of war, for greater spiritual enlightenment, and cultural exchange of knowledge.
- Fun: we humans love to play. This very idea of physical play is deeply ingrained in our human nature and is reflected by children’s games, such as tag, hide-and-seek, and hopscotch, as well as millions of professional sports fans, such as NFL, NBA, and MLB. Our human body functions through complex processes of chemical and hormone signals with exercise and competition to produce great enjoyment from physical activities. Martial arts training is not an exception. The rewarding sensation you will achieve by accomplishing goals through the control of your own body is not only exhilarating, but it’s also a great motivator to develop a healthy lifestyle/hobby.
Physical fitness: this is an obvious benefit from engaging in any physical training, including martial arts. Physical fitness is a major necessary component of developing and maintaining good health. Regular martial arts training consists of cardiovascular and strength training. The importance of physical fitness cannot be underestimated for any age, from childhood to adulthood. Human bodies are incredibly complex and resilient, so regardless of your initial skill level, fitness, or knowledge you can always adjust your training accordingly!
Discipline: Among the many lessons to learn from training martial arts is the philosophy of discipline. It is a common practice for many forms of martial arts to start a bout and/or a training session with a bow, a handshake, or even a ceremony. This emphasis on the value of humility and respect also applies to the mentality you should take in training. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned veteran in a form of martial arts, being humble and always open to learn new techniques and skills will only serve you well. This is also a noteworthy life lesson, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.” Mahatma Gandhi
Attitude: Another valuable skill you will develop by training martial arts is mental toughness. “A journey of thousand miles starts with a single step,” is a Chinese proverb that reflects this approach of calm attitude in the face of challenging situations. The road to obtaining a black belt or a master level in martial arts is long and difficulty – there are rigorous testings, facing advanced opponents, and it requires your personal efforts to improve. Frankly, this may seem like an far-fetched dream initially. However, solutions to every hardship can be formulated in smaller and more attainable goals. With consistency and dedication, you will develop psychological skills to manage your physiological responses to stress. Now that alone sounds like a worthy cause for getting into martial arts training!
Work ethics: Perhaps the most famous martial artist of recent times Bruce Lee famously stated “You must formless, shapeless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Be like water, my friend.” These few sentences reflect so much about the teachings of martial arts. When training martial arts, as well as going through your life, nothing will go exactly as you planned or hoped it to. Whether it’s sparring with a partner or choosing the next important step in life, these lessons in critical thinking, problem solving, and strategy will certainly serve you well to be more adapt and flexible.
Self-defense: Not only will you improve the physical techniques of striking and/or submission, but you will also develop the self-confidence.
Social network: Martial arts classes are usually in group settings. In addition,
Caveats to Consider
- Medical conditions: It’s always advised to seek medical clearance/approval from your medical doctor prior to starting a physical program. Especially if you have medical conditions or existing injuries, such as high blood pressure, previous concussions, or joint problems, you definitely want to discuss your plans of starting martial arts training with your medical doctor.
Budget: Unfortunately, there are costs involved in starting martial arts training. Fortunately, you have options to control the associated cost, depending on what discipline of martial arts you decide to train and what equipment you decide to purchase. Also, keep in mind that many gyms offer their own equipment to use during classes!
Available classes/training facilities: This factor is highly individual and location specific. Most commonly people join a martial arts gym for the personal attention and individualized feedback from an instructor. This provides face-to-face interaction with your instructor and lessons catered to your learning speed. Metropolitan cities with a large population generally offer more options for martial arts gyms. However, even if you don’t have any available gym for the discipline of martial arts of your interest, there’s another option! The age of Internet has given us the option to train at home, with quality lessons provided by highly qualified instructors. World renowned athletes and instructors are available online and many of them offer programs and coaching that you can follow online in the comfort of your home – or anywhere!
Now the question remains, which martial arts will you train in? This list below should help you figure out which are the best martial arts for you to learn.
Martial arts are heavily influenced by the media as an Asian practice, that some people aren’t even aware that boxing is considered as one. Granted, it may be considered as one of the simpler forms because of its focus only on punching and clinching.
Boxing is not only one of the most widespread sports in the world, but also one of the oldest! Fist-fights have been a sport since the dawn of modern humanity. Boxing’s rules originated in Ancient Greece, where—as far back as 688 BC—it became an Olympic sport.
Of course, it was much different back then and with time it evolved into the sport we know today. This is in part thanks to Great Britain, who embraced the sport wholeheartedly and bolstered its popularity. It’s also an excellent form of self-defense, where most of its appeal outside of athletics lies.
How Boxing Works
A boxing match is won if the fighter’s opponent is “knocked out” and cannot stand for a count of ten, by points, or by your opponent’s disqualification or forfeit. Fighters are not allowed to hit anywhere below the belt, and only punches and clinching are accepted. Fighters are classed by weight, from light flyweight to super heavyweight.
Common boxing gloves are filled with foam and have a leather outer skin. Training in boxing might not be the most affordable option. More often than not you will need access to a gym and equipment, including punching bags and protective gear.
Pros of Boxing
- It’s an excellent way to stay fit.
- Its rules are simple to understand.
- It’s a go-to for self-defense.
- It combats stress and is good for your mental health.
- It’s a popular martial art and finding a gym or instructor should be easy.
Cons of Boxing
- When taken seriously, boxing can be a very strenuous combat sport.
- There is a risk of serious injury to your brain, eyes, and wrists.
- There is no grading system, competitors are grouped by weight.
- It’s a controversial (and violent) sport, and many are calling to have it banned.
Consider Boxing If You…
- Are looking for an effective way to defend yourself.
- Want an intensive way to stay fit.
- Don’t mind investing in equipment.
- Have a high tolerance for pain.
- Aren’t concerned with graded combat sports.
2. Muay Thai
Muay Thai, literally translated as Thai boxing, has increased in popularity in recent years and is described as “the art of eight limbs.” Fighters can use their fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet to strike. And, like boxing, it makes use of clinching.
Muay Thai evolved in Thailand as a more versatile form of boxing. It’s suspected that it originated as a mixed-rules form of kickboxing—in which blows below the belt were accepted. It’s now recognized as an official sport worldwide.
How Muay Thai Works
As with boxing, Muay Thai matches take place in a ring. Fighters must wear gloves—that are often tougher than boxing gloves—and spar for a predetermined amount of time. Victory is gained by knockout, points, or by the forfeit or disqualification of your opponent.
Also similar to boxing, there is no grading system. Fighters are grouped by weight class. It differs from boxing (and kickboxing) though, because blows below the belt are acceptable, with some conditions, and fighters are not limited to striking with their fists.
Pros of Muay Thai
- Is less limiting than boxing.
- Isn’t as violent as boxing.
- Has more of a ‘martial arts’ feel, since you make use of your whole body.
- Is a fun (and effective) way to stay fit.
- It’s considered safer than boxing.
Cons of Muay Thai
- It’s not as popular as boxing or kickboxing, so an instructor might be difficult to find.
- There is no grading system.
- Although praised for its strikes, it is an unrealistic fighting form of self-defense.
- There is still a risk of injury, mostly to the hands, neck, and head.
Consider Muay Thai If You…
- Want something a little more versatile than boxing.
- Can invest in equipment.
- Are more interested in recreative fighting than self-defense.
I don’t have to tell you that Karate is one of, if not the most, well-known martial art form in the world. Even though it’s so widespread, not much is known of its origins. There’s speculation that it is an Indian invention, but records show that the karate we practice today originated in Okinawa, a small island off the coast of Japan.
Karate is an open-handed striking martial art in which the fighter—better known as a karateka—utilizes various hits from the hands and legs as both an offensive and defensive method of combat.
How Karate Works
For both hobbyists and competitors, karate grades are represented by belts of varying colors. Most commonly, white amounts to no grade for beginners and black shows competence or mastery.
A common misconception is that karate is one style of fighting. In reality, there are various schools of karate, that differ in their methods and training.
Karate strikes are taught through sets of movements called katas. Unlike boxing, the objective of competitive karate is not to knock your opponent down or out. It’s to score points by landing hits on your opponent.
Pros of Karate
- Most karate schools only require the karateka to invest in a gi (uniform) so it’s an affordable option for most.
- It’s a popular sport and so should be easy to find an instructor.
- A graded system makes it rewarding, whether it’s competitive or recreational.
- It’s an excellent choice for fitness.
- Far less violent than other combat sports.
Cons of Karate
- Contrary to popular belief, karate on its own is not a realistic method of self-defense.
- It requires commitment and dedication.
- Rigorous and intensive training is involved.
- Common injuries include sprains, fractures, and damage to the head and knees.
Consider Karate If You…
- Want to take up a classic and graded martial art
- Are willing to commit a lot of time to it.
- Want an unconventional way to keep fit.
- Understand it’s not effective for real-world self-defense.
4. Tae Kwon Do
Early Tae Kwon Do, or Taekwondo, traces its roots to Korea thousands of years ago, but its modern form is far more recent. It can be traced back to the 1940s as an evolved form of its predecessors: karate and kung fu.
It stands out for its emphasis on flexibility, high kicks, and rapid attacks. It’s been an Olympic sport since 2000.
How Tae Kwon Do Works
Tae Kwon Do follows Choi Hong Hi’s theory of power: The power of a strike increases with speed, therefore, speed is more important than size or mass. There are various styles of Tae Kwon Do, but most, if not all, follow this ethos.
As with karate, Tae Kwon Do uses sets of movements, called hyeong, to perform various strikes from the arms and legs. Fighters wear a uniform similar to the gi, called a dobok.
Similar to karate, Tae Kwon Do is graded and skill levels are represented by colored belts. In competitions, it is points-based.
Pros of Tae Kwon Do
- Focuses on speed instead of strength, which could be to your advantage.
- Improves flexibility.
- It’s a graded, rewarding martial art form.
- One of the most practiced martial arts in the world, making it easy for you to find a school to train with.
Cons of Tae Kwon Do
- It’s an ineffective means of self-defense.
- It requires commitment and patience; progress could take years.
- Since it places emphasis on speed and flexibility, it may not be suitable for all ages.
- There is a risk of serious injury.
Consider Tae Kwon Do If You…
- Want a similar alternative to classic martial arts.
- Want to improve your flexibility.
- Are looking for a fast-paced martial art.
- Want to take up a graded sport.
- Can commit time and patience to it.
5. Krav Maga
Krav Maga has a reputation for being one of the most brutal and effective martial arts you can learn. It originated as a self-defense system for the Israel Defense Forces. Its style is derived from a mix of other forms, including aikido, boxing, karate, judo, and wrestling.
Krav maga is said to have been created by Imi Lichtenfeld in 1930, who used his boxing experience to fight fascist groups while defending the Jewish Quarter. Realizing its effect, he began teaching his new style to the IDF.
The purpose of krav maga is to learn self-defense that is applicable in real-life situations.
How Krav Maga Works
Krav maga is a rounded fighting style that uses strikes, throws, takedowns, grapples, and groundwork.
Krav maga is not intended as a competitive martial art, but there is a grading system similar to that of judo and karate. It’s perhaps the most realistic fighting style for self-defense and is taught as such.
Pros of Krav Maga
- It’s an extremely effective method of self-defense.
- Teaches defense against various weapons, including guns.
- Self-defense can be learned quickly in this martial art.
- Uses a mix of styles (strikes, grapples, throws).
Cons of Krav Maga
- It isn’t competitive.
- One of the most violent martial arts.
- It is often taught incorrectly, particularly in the USA.
Consider Krav Maga If You…
- Are looking for an effective self-defense method.
- Want to learn a versatile fighting style.
- Have no interest in competitive fighting.
- Want an unconventional rather than classic skill set.
- Are looking for a graded martial art.
6. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a system refined by the Gracie family, with its fundamental teachings based on Jiu-Jitsu and Judo from Japan. Essentially, the class of Jiu-Jitsu (also known as jujutsu) is a Japanese martial art, designed and employed by the Samurai, as far back as the 17th century. It was used as a means of defense if the warriors were disarmed or grounded. It’s a martial art that teaches defense against open-handed and armed attack.
How Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Works
Although there are different schools of jiu-jitsu, its basis lies mostly in grappling, with some variations in style. Common moves in this martial art include throws, traps, locks, and holds.
It also makes use of weapons (depending on the school) and is meant to defend against both armed and open-handed attackers. It uses a grading system and is considered a competitive sport.
BJJ is a highly technical and scientific in nature, as it uses the physics of fulcrum and leverage to disengage and disarm the opponent. BJJ entails mental aptitude and physical fitness to carefully plan, assess, and readjust. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to consider BJJ as a chess game, where you anticipate, test, and refine your moves according to how your opponent responds.
Pros of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- An efficient and effective means of self-defense.
- It’s graded.
- Can be competitive.
- It is a well-rounded fighting style that teaches grapples, strikes, and weapons (depending on the school).
Cons of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Although similar, it’s not as modern as Krav Maga.
- Places more emphasis on defense than offense.
- Could become obsolete in the wake of updated defensive systems.
Consider Brazilian Jiu Jitsu If You…
- Want a defensive style that is not as brutal as Krav Maga.
- Are looking for a versatile fighting form.
- Want to learn a classic martial art.
- Are interested in being graded or fighting competitively.
Speaking of the Samurai, kendo is closely associated with them and is perhaps the reason why so many are drawn to this martial art. Although Kendo’s exact origins are unknown, it’s suspected that it followed a form called kenjutsu—Japanese sword fighting.
How Kendo Works
Modern kendo makes use of protective armor and bamboo swords (shinai). Unlike other martial arts, kendo incorporates shouts into its practice as a means of expressing fighting. It is a striking form.
Kendo is practiced competitively and is a graded martial art. Although it stands out as the most popular weapons-based martial art, special equipment is required to participate in it.
Pros of Kendo
- Its appeal lies in its use of weaponry.
- A traditional and classic martial art.
- Since it is weapon-based, it is suitable for almost anyone.
- It’s less violent than other martial arts.
Cons of Kendo
- It’s ineffective for modern self-defense.
- Specialized equipment is required.
Consider Kendo If You…
- Want to learn a weapons-based martial art.
- Can invest in the necessary equipment.
- Aren’t interested in self-defense.
- Are looking for a traditional, perhaps even spiritual experience.
Capoeira gained popularity in recent years, due to its unconventional and acrobatic style, but it has a significant history. It was created by African slaves in Brazil as far back as the 16th century.
It was protected by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage” in 2014.
How Capoeira Works
Capoeira is far more acrobatic than other martial art forms and stands out because it makes use of music. It’s typically a passive and defensive fighting style in which violence and aggression are frowned upon.
Capoeiristas usually spar in a circle, to music. Moves are performed fluidly, with one of the objectives being to keep the fighter in constant motion to better evade attack or strike.
Capoeira is graded, and although they differ to Asian martial arts, colored belts represent rank and honor. Although capoeira is competitive, it’s seen more as a game than a sport.
Pros of Capoeira
- A passive fighting style and is rarely violent.
- Versatile and improves flexibility and agility.
- An excellent choice for fitness.
- High-spirited and can be more fun than other styles.
- It’s graded.
Cons of Capoeira
- Not a realistic means of self-defense.
- Unconventional and may be difficult to find a trainer.
- Lost popularity due to more fighters favoring Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
- Not considered a sport.
Consider Capoeira If You…
- Are looking for a different way to keep fit.
- Want to improve your rhythm and flexibility.
- Want to learn a passive martial art.
- Are not looking to learn self-defense.
Judo is one of the most widespread martial art forms in the world. It began in Japan in 1882, and due to its intent as a means of education, gave rise to many other martial arts as we know them today. With its emphasis on using momentum and leverage to subdue an opponent, it is very similar to the mechanics of jiu-jitsu, and in fact stems from the principals of jiu-jitsu!
How Judo Works
Judo is a graded sport which, like so many others on this list, denotes skill by colored belts. It’s a grappling form that rarely makes use of strikes or weapons. Its objective is to incapacitate an opponent by throws or takedowns, or to force them into submission using pins, holds, and locks.
Pros of Judo
- One of the most effective forms of self-defense.
- A great choice for fitness.
- It’s widespread, so finding a school shouldn’t be a problem.
- A traditional martial art, inclusive of cultural practices.
- It makes a good supplementary martial art.
Cons of Judo
- It’s more commonly taught as a sport than for real-life application.
- Weight and strength can factor into your training.
- It is losing popularity in favor of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Consider Judo If You…
- Want to emphasize a traditional, grappling martial art form.
- Are looking to learn effective self-defense.
- Want to spar competitively.
- Want to be ranked and graded.
The martial arts listed above are some of the most popular and effective ones, but there are many, many more out there for you to look into.
The best martial art for you is dependent on what you will use it for. There is no ultimate winner here as each of these forms each has its own significance, worth, and application.
Do you still feel overwhelmed and undecided on which martial art to train in? The beauty of martial arts training is that you don’t need to be confined to one discipline! Consider MMA, where the martial artist incorporates many different aspects of various martial art disciplines to become a well-rounded (and more effective) practitioner!