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We’ve all been through it:
You know you want to start training, but have no idea what martial art you should train in.
Or maybe you’ve already got a background in one martial art, but you’re looking to expand your skills.
I’ve got you covered!
I created a quiz that answers the question: “what kind of martial arts is best for me?”
Don’t forget to share with your friends!
So, what IS the best martial art to train?
It really depends.
As the quiz shows, there are a number of different martial arts to fit all kinds of styles and personalities. And I’ve barely scratched the surface!
If you’re still having trouble deciding, you can check out the articles I’ve written about training for a number of different situations.
- Beginners looking for something to ease them into martial arts training
- Those looking for martial arts focused mostly on self defense
- Police officers who want to enhance their training for safety on the job
- Older people who are looking for a lower impact training experience.
None of those fit?
Check out the guide below:
11 popular martial arts to train for self defense
Aikido is a Japanese martial art that focuses on redirecting the attacker’s energy using a series of throws and joint locks. You can see it in movies with Steven Seagal – the wrist locks and throws can really make an opponent fly!
- Uses the opponent’s strength against them
- Long history and tradition
- Well defined ranking system
- Great use of throws and joint locks
- Many say the training is unrealistic
- May have a greater focus on spirituality/philosophy than self defense
Judo is a Japanese competitive art that is part of the Olympic games.
As a martial art, one of its primary focuses is on throwing techniques which use leverage and momentum to minimize the need for strength. However, Judo also includes grappling and striking techniques, as well.
- Wide array of throws and takedowns
- Includes submission techniques, like chokes and joint locks
- Many MMA fighters have a background in judo
- Strikes and weapons not a focus, not allowed in sparring
- Focus more on competition than realistic self defense
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art, which is part of the Olympic games.
With its main focus on stand-up striking, Taekwondo features a number of kicking techniques to knock out an attacker. This is a great choice for self defense, exercise, or competition, if any of those are your goals.
You may find the lack of grappling techniques limiting, though.
- Variety of striking techniques, including many high kicks and jumping/spinning kicks
- Focus on speed and strength of techniques, putting the whole body into it
- No grappling or wrestling techniques
- Often focused on competition, rather than “street self defense” (no groin kicks)
Kendo is a Japanese martial art that emphasizes the use of swords for combat.
Practitioners train using bamboo swords, and wear protective armor for safety.
- Long tradition
- Full contact sword fighting
- Practice with full armor and heavy bamboo swords
- Limited to only swords
- No empty hand striking, grappling, or wrestling
- Sword techniques do not translate well to knives and other weapons
Mixed Martial Arts
“Mixed Martial Arts” isn’t really a single martial art style, though there are many schools teaching this.
It’s the kind of fighting style you see popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixture of stand up striking and grappling techniques to create a well-rounded fighter.
However, it has a focus on competitive fighting, which may not be what you need if you’re looking for a more realistic self defense or weapon-oriented art.
Filipino Martial Arts
Originating in the Philippines, these martial arts (known as Kali, Arnis, or Escrima) combine empty hand techniques with stick and knife fighting.
Seen in films like Blade and The Book of Eli, this type of martial arts primarily trains with weapons for a realistic self defense skill set.
Training in FMA will make you a well-rounded fighter ready for an encounter on the street.
The video below demonstrates some of the knife skills learned in FMA:
Jeet Kune Do
The martial art of film star Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do was born out of Lee’s frustration with traditional martial arts training.
Originally combining Wing Chun Kung Fu, fencing, and other arts, JKD has since added techniques from a number of martial arts. Its underlying philosophy is to take what works and leave the other stuff behind.
Based on the Japanese martial art with the same name, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was popularized by the Gracie family from Brazil.
It is a comprehensive ground fighting system that greatly influenced the mixed martial arts community and competitions like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
That being said, its stand-up striking techniques leave something to be desired, and there doesn’t seem to be any focus on weapons usage or defense.
Check out the video below for some footage of common BJJ takedowns against a striking opponent:
Developed for the Israeli military forces, Krav Maga is gaining popularity as a realistic self defense system.
Techniques are taken from a number of other styles, such as jiu-jitsu, boxing, and aikido.
These are combined with realistic scenario training to product a style focused on surviving a fight, either empty handed or against weapons.
Muay Thai Kickboxing
Hailing from Thailand, Muay Thai is a kickboxing style made famous by its powerful knee and elbow strikes.
While this is a great martial art for striking, competition, and physical fitness, it doesn’t have much of a focus at all on either ground fighting or weapons training.
Wing Chun Kung Fu
Wing Chun Kung Fu is a Southern Chinese martial art that rose to popularity in Hong Kong.
It is focused on redirecting an opponent’s strikes, controlling the center line, and maintaining a powerful structure while fighting.
Most famous for its “sticky hands” training, Wing Chun fighters strive to increase their sensitivity to an opponent’s movements in order to deflect and strike hard.
While a great (and often relaxing) striking art, Wing Chun does not have much of a ground fighting focus. Weapons (knives and staff) are taught to more advanced practitioners.
Check out some examples of Wing Chun training below:
What martial arts should I learn? Here’s how I’d chose
Alright, let’s take this step-by-step.
When deciding on a martial art to train in, there are a number of considerations to make. They should be familiar to you by now – I addressed each of them in the quiz above.
But we can dig a little deeper:
Sports or Self Defense?
For me, the main consideration when choosing what style to practice is whether you want it to focus mainly on competition or on realistic self defense.
While almost every martial art was initially developed to defend yourself on the street, many of them have evolved (or devolved) over time to being more of a competitive sport.
On the other hand, something like Mixed Martial Arts developed specifically to be a martial art appropriate for competitive fighting like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Each has their own advantages and disadvantages:
For sport-oriented arts:
- Focus on learning a variety of techniques
- Physical fitness and conditioning is often prioritized
- Practitioners can engage in competitions to test their skill
- Often lacks realistic weapon defenses and “killing” moves
For self defense-oriented arts:
- Focus on realistic “life or death” attack scenarios
- Often integrates weapons offense and defense training
- Can seem brutal and is difficult to have a competition for
While practitioners of each type like to look down on the other, there really isn’t a “better” type of martial art.
People train in the martial arts for all kinds of reason, not just self defense. So whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s realistic self defense or getting fit and competing, there’s a martial art for you.
Some martial arts do a great job of incorporating both, such as Jeet Kune Do.
For a good idea about the philosophy of “self defense” versus “sports” martial arts, check out the first few minutes of this knife defense video by Paul Vunak. He really digs into why more sport and traditional arts don’t really cut it when dealing with realistic situations like a knife fight:
“Traditional” versus “Modern” martial arts
Ready for more?
Many martial arts are continuations of centuries-long traditions, while others are relatively new.
For the more traditional arts, there is often a lot of pageantry and ritual included. This can be seen in:
- A belt-oriented or other rigid ranking system
- A strict master-student relationship
- Focus on “forms” or other rigid techniques rooted in the past
On the other hand, many more “modern” systems are less rigid in their implementation.
These often have:
- Little or no “ranking” systems
- A more casual relationship between teacher and student
- Less of a focus on “formal” moves, and more of a focus on just doing what “works” and adapting with the times
I know I used it in the last section, but Jeet Kune Do was literally created to bridge this gap.
Frustrated with the rigidity of traditional martial arts, Bruce Lee decided to create his own. Lee stripped away the strict techniques of older arts and opted for taking what worked from a variety of martial arts. He left anything else behind.
Even more importantly, he wanted each individual student to decide for themselves what their martial art will be. What works for one person may not be appropriate for everyone.
In many ways, this led to what came to be known as “mixed martial arts.” Before Bruce Lee, it was rare for practitioners to train in multiple styles and to mix them together.
Now, it’s extremely common!
Striking, grappling, or both
Another big difference in many martial arts is where they put their focus:
- Will you spend most of the time on your feet?
- Or will you be concentrating on fighting your opponent on the ground?
Arts like Tae Kwon Do are almost exclusively stand-up striking arts, while Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t seem to have a well developed striking game. It mainly focuses on taking an opponent down and defeating them on the ground.
Each has their strengths and weaknesses, as always.
There are other arts that seek to train both, like the aforementioned Jeet Kune Do.
Even Filipino Martial Arts, while not really a “wrestling” martial art, has lots of grappling techniques for controlling an opponent on the ground.
Check out this video for a discussion about the danger of using grappling in real street self defense situations:
Wrapping it up
Hopefully, through the quiz and the advice given above, you find a martial art that fits with your training and lifestyle goals!
Now get out there and train!
Have another idea for a great martial art?
Leave it in the comments below.