Deciding which martial art to learn first can be a daunting task.
There are so many arts to choose from that making the decision can feel paralyzing.
Every martial has its pros and cons. In this article we will give you a flavor of the most popular martial arts to help you decide which one might be best for your situation. With this guide, you can start your journey to becoming a martial artist.
Types of Martial Arts
Martial arts can be categorized into different types depending on how they approach fighting, training, and philosophy. Let’s explore a few examples…
Striking vs Grappling
Martial arts are often broken down between two camps: striking based and grappling based. Striking martial arts, such as boxing, Muay Thai, and kickboxing all involve kicks and punches. These sports will involve you getting “hit,” sometimes even in the face. Other striking arts, like Karate, may involve punching, but may ban face strikes.
Many people dislike getting hit, and if that is the case for you, consider a grappling based sport, such as wrestling or judo. In these martial arts, you will spend a lot of your time pushing and pulling your partners, either standing up or on the ground.
Self Defense Focus vs Combat Focus
Many martial arts are structured around self defense principles. Others take a more combative approach within a certain rule set. The difference between these two camps is how they are practiced.
Self-Defense martial arts are usually practiced in simulated scenarios. Props (guns, knives, etc) are often utilized as well. Protective body equipment is often incorporated when performing a technique or scenario.
Combat arts are focused on letting participants challenge each other in a sporting context. Combat focused martial arts ensure safety for the participants by banning certain techniques and controlling the pace of play. Within these structures, participants are allowed to truly perform techniques against each other because they will not cause long term damage. Appropriate protective gear is usually worn as well.
Traditional Martial Arts
Traditional mart arts (TMA), such as karate or taekwondo, are steeped in tradition and ritual. They often have kata forms that are part of their curriculum. They also have highly formal ranking systems and belts to show one’s skill level and experience. TMA schools will also have strict rules on how to practice while inside the dojo. If you like structure and ritual, consider a traditional martial art school.
Other martial arts are much less formal. For instance, wrestling has no formal rank system and classes are usually conduced in a free form way.
Factors to Evaluate which Martial Arts is best for you
There are a variety of ways to figure out which martial art you should learn. Consider the following factors in your decision….
The training regimens of martial arts vary greatly. Some martial arts are laid back, while others are very intense. Even within styles, one instructor may be training his or her student with more physical exercise and calisthenics than others.
What do you want to get out of martial arts training? Is your focus to get in shape, improve confidence, or kick butt? All martial arts are not created equal in this regard. Some are great for building confidence, but will lack intense training in fighting scenarios (Tae Kwon Do, for example). Others will push you to your limits and will have you coming home bruised up (MMA and boxing).
You should practice a martial art because you enjoy it. Just because one art is good for someone, does not mean it’s best for you. Try out a few classes to find the best fit. A martial art is not an obligation like joining the army, find what you like and stick with it.
Who should train a martial art?
Do not let “who” you are now prevent you from starting to learn a martial art. Martials arts are generally accessible to everyone. However, as discussed in this article, some arts are more brutal or intense than others. A child should not necessarily be practicing MMA, nor should a frail elderly person. Nonetheless, most gyms will find a way to incorporate your physical ability and age into their program.
Tips for your first class
Your first martial arts class can be daunting. We recommend that you do your research before you step on the mat, but do not overthink things. Your instructor will tell you what to wear and bring. Normally, you will wear loose clothes to your first class. Do not eat a large meal before your class. Likewise, keep an open mind and be friendly to your fellow students.
Now that we’ve explored martial arts in general. Let’s look in depth at some of the most popular arts that you can consider training…‘
This chart will help you explore the strengths and weakness of popular martial arts.
|MMA||All around utility||Self Defense|
|Muay Thai||Kicks and Punches||Grappling|
|Karate||Punching / Self Defense||Grappling|
|Tae Kwon Do||Kicks||Self Defense|
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
What is BJJ?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (or BJJ for short) is a martial art established in Brazil in the early twentieth century. It is primarily a form of grappling that has its origins from Japanese Judo. The history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is complicated, but the Gracie family, including brothers Carlos and Helio, helped to propagate this martial art form. BJJ gained acceptance in America in the early 1990s after Royce Gracie successfully showcased the style in the early UFC.
Brazilian jiu jitsu is a type of grappling that contains body submissions (arm and leg locks), throws, chokeholds and to a lesser extent pin holds. Brazilian jiujitsu can also be learned for self defense purposes.
What is the training like?
Training BJJ can be physically demanding, but it is not necessarily the most intense of martial arts. Since the sport emphasizes unlimited time when sparring, there is a relaxed element. When compared to judo or wrestling, the intensity level is not so extreme. However, at minimum, you will break a good sweat after a practice and more than likely will be physically tired.
Because BJJ involves chokes, throws, and arm bars, physical injuries are common. Participants usually wear a uniform (known as a gi) or if there is no gi worn, then usually tight fitting rash guards (aka “no-gi”). Your training partner (or opponent) will “tap” you to indicate when to stop a certain technique should it be inflicting too much pain. The tap shows one’s acceptance of the submission and is a way to establish that the other person has won.
Who trains it?
Jiu Jitsu is trained by all people and ages. Many MMA fighters have Brazilian jiu jitsu as their base style that they first learned before entering the cage. The list of jiu jitsu players is long, these include Xande Ribeiro, Roger Gracie, and Marcel Garcia. Famous MMA fighters who are jiu jitsu black belts include BJ Penn, Demian Maia, and Nate Diaz.
How do you start learning BJJ?
Brazilian Jiu jitsu is usually trained at a dedicated BJJ gym. Finding a gym can be easy. There are dedicated BJJ gym finder websites and apps. However, your best bet is to simply search “BJJ gym near me” in a search engine.
If you are not sure which bjj gym is right for you, hop on to the r/BJJ subreddit and see if there are any posts about your local area gyms. Jiu Jitsu tends to be a more expensive sport compared to others. Almost every gym will offer you a free practice to try it out. Just be careful you understand if there are monthly contracts or not.
Is JiuJitsu right for me?
Jiu Jitsu will be a good fit for you if you don’t mind being physical with others. Jiu Jitsu is an effective martial art because you will use the techniques resisting opponents. Jiu Jitsu can also be useful in self defense situations because you will have practiced techniques in real life settings before.
Jiu Jitsu is safe and there are no strikes to the head, however it might not be for you if you do not like the idea of getting injured by other people (even if unintentionally).
What is Boxing?
Boxing is a striking sport between two opponents that fight each other in a ring. Boxing is an ancient martial art that has been around for thousands of years. In modern times, the fighters wear padded gloves and try to hit each other during several rounds. Boxers are not allowed to grab each other or wrestle. Only punches are allowed (i.e. no kicks, arm bars, or chokes).
What is training Boxing like?
Boxing involves punching and lots of movements while on your feet. To practice, you will be hitting a large punching bag a lot. You may also be going up against your training partner to spar (with proper protective gear on most often). Boxing is an intense sporting activity. There is little room for error in boxing. You either hit or get hit.
Who trains it?
Boxing is very popular among celebrities and average joes wanting to learn how to fight. Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson are famous boxers who made large effects on culture. Similarly, many successful MMA fighters such as Junior Dos Santos and Ramone “Rampage” Jackson were originally boxers.
Boxing is also an Olympic sport, so it is often supported at the national level in many countries, such as Cuba, the USA, Italy and Great Britain.
How do you start learning Boxing?
Boxing training starts at a boxing gym. It is also possible to just start learning in a garage with a punching bag, but you should have someone show you the ropes. Finding the right boxing gym and coach are keys to your success. You should know whether you want to just learn the basics or become competitive. There are also training programs for “white-collar boxing” which is a form of boxing for those who want to fight but with more protective gloves. Many MMA gyms usually offer a basic boxing or striking class that you might join.
You will need some basic equipment to start boxing. These include boxing gloves, a mouth piece, head gear, and hand wraps.
Is Boxing right for me?
Boxing can be a brutal sport. You will be getting hit in the body and head. Boxing shows you what you are made of because there is so little room for mistakes. Boxing teaches discipline and self confidence. It is also a great adrenaline rush. If you want to learn how to push past your pain, boxing will give you the ability to do that like no other sport. Of course, you can train boxing purely for fitness if you do not want to get hit.
What is Krav Maga?
Krav Maga is a martial art tailored for self-defense situations. The Israeli Defense Forces developed this fighting system to prepare their operatives for the dangers of combat. It incorporates several martial arts styles and it uses strikes, chokes, pins, and weapons disarmaments. Krav Maga is a response to extreme situations.
What is training Krav Maga like?
Krav Maga training can vary from moderate to intense. You will study how to respond to various self defense situations. The training can be fast to simulate actual life. For instance, you might train how to defend against someone attacking you with a knife, or how to take down multiple attackers.
Krav Maga training is scenario based. You will study basic techniques that teach you how to respond under stress and improve your situational awareness. You will also do drills common in other martial arts, like hitting punching bags.
Who trains it?
Civilians and law enforcement train Krav Maga. Law enforcement professionals study it for its application to making arrests and detaining suspects. The general public practices it to improve their self-defense ability. Krav Maga practitioners are not typically interested in fighting in MMA, however, Krav Maga is often combined with other grappling sports like Jiujitsu or Judo to complete one’s overall martial art ability and knowledge.
How do you start learning Krav Maga?
Like most martial arts, you need to find the correct gym. Krav Maga instructors are a little harder to find compared to most traditional martial arts. Fortunately, Krav Maga is gaining in popularity and most major areas have a place to study it.
Before you begin training, make sure you understand the particular style of Krav Maga and the instructor’s background. Is this for self-defense? Is this for sport? Is the instructor certified in a legitimate organization, such as KMW (Krav Maga Worldwide) or IMA? For more information (read this article).
There is no essential equipment needed to learn Krav Maga. Wear loose, comfortable athletic clothes to your first class. That said, there is a lot of supplemental equipment for Krav Maga that can be purchased.
Is Krav Maga right for me?
If your primary concern is learning how to defend yourself, then you should check out Krav Maga as an option. The training is more intense than some other traditional martial arts, but Krav Maga can also be more realistic. If you are less interested in sport and more interested in personal defense, then give Krav Maga a try.
Mixed Martial Arts
What is MMA?
MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts. MMA is a fighting style that combines several martial arts styles, principally boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, and jiu jitsu. Unlike traditional martial arts it rarely has a structured curriculum. In the modern area, the style developed in the early 1990s with the advent of the UFC and other no holds barred fights. However, it has existed in other places earlier, such as brazil’s vale tudo fights.
What is training MMA like?
MMA training involves a combination of punching, kicking and wrestling. It is like how a boxer trains. You will strike others and take hits. The intensity level is high. Interestingly, because of the strong sweat factor, many exercise programs are molded like MMA training programs, without the actual punches and kicks. Thus, MMA can be akin to super workout.
Who trains it?
MMA has grown in popularity over the last few decades. It is now reasonably common. Fighters such as Connor McGreggor, Anderson Silva, and Khabib Nurmagomedov have become household names. There are many celebrities who train MMA as well.
How do you start learning MMA?
If you want to begin your MMA journey, you need to locate a gym. These days you can find MMA schools relatively easy. There are even branded UFC gyms where you can go to learn. You will learn striking, grappling, and submissions.
In terms of MMA gear, you will need a mouth guard, a rashguard, shorts, and a cup (if you are male). You will also need a pair of MMA gloves, which are smaller and lighter than boxing gloves.
Is MMA right for me?
MMA is an intense fighting sport. If you like the concept of boxing and grappling mashed together, then MMA may be your cup of tea. It is not necessarily the best sport to learn “self defense” concepts. But you will learn how to beat the crap out of someone, if that is what you want to do.
What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is an ancient striking and kicking martial art originating from Thailand. Known as the “The Art of Eight Limbs” because of its focus on using fists, elbows, knees and feet. Muay Thai has a long and interesting history and has gained international popularity in the last 25 years.
What is training Muay Thai like?
When you train Muay Thai, you will be working hard and getting hit. It is very common to spend hours hitting bags and your training partners. You will develop a strong stand up game that can translate well into other martial arts. Muay Thai training is much like boxing, you spend time sparring and working with your trainer practicing punches, clinches and kicks.
Who trains Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is popular in Thailand, with kids as young as 5 training the sport. Outside of Thailand, Muay Thai is often trained by people wishing to specifically become Muay Thai fighters or who are cross training for MMA purposes. Notable MMA fighters who trained Muay Thai include Bas Rutten, Edson Barboza, & Valentina Shevchenko. Muay Thai is also popular with people who want to visit Thailand and train for several months on a vacation.
How do you start learning Muay Thai?
Muay Thai can be a little hard to find depending on your location. In fact, it’s common for people to go to Thailand directly to find the best Muay Thai training locations. Usually, a MMA gym will have Muay Thai class for their fighters, but instruction quality may vary.
To start training Muay Thai you will need to get a pair Muay Thai shorts, gloves and hand wraps.
Is Muay Thai right for me?
If you like boxing, but want to add kicks, Muay Thai is the perfect balance. Muay Thai is great physical exercise and is also a practical martial art. Like boxing and jiu jitsu, you will face real live resisting opponents. This means it will be a genuine test of self ability and a way to build confidence.
What is Judo?
Judo is a grappling martial art developed in Japan in the late 19th century. Its founder was Jigoro Kano. Judo combines throws, pins, and submissions. There are no strikes. Participants face off against each other standing, but play can go to the ground. Each player attempts to throw, pin, or submit the other for victory. Players wear a judo gi as a uniform. Judo has been an Olympic sport since the 1960s.
What is the training Judo like?
Judo training involves a lot of throws. There are some 67 official throws in the Kodokan syllabus. Throwing a resisting opponent to the ground is harder than you think, but it can be great fun. Judo training is an excellent physical exercise.
Who trains it?
Kids and adults train judo. Known as the “gentle art” is truly accessible to people regardless of age, sex or ability. There is even a judo for disabled players. Judo is very popular in Europe and Asia. It was popular in the United States at one point, but has since lost steam to sports like BJJ and MMA.
Rhonda Rousey was an Olympic judo silver medalist before she transitioned into MMA. Other MMA legends such as Fedor and Karo Parysian had judo backgrounds.
How do you start learning Judo?
Find a Judo club. They are often found in YMCAs or other martial arts clubs. They are pretty easy to find, albeit not as popular as BJJ these days.
Is Judo right for me?
Judo is an excellent way to improve your physical fitness, have fun and throw people around. Because it’s a grappling sport with real resistance, it can also be adapted to self-defense contexts.
Another significant benefit of training judo is that it tends to be cheaper to train than most other martial arts (especially BJJ). If you are on a budget, Judo is a good option.
What is wrestling?
Wrestling is a combat sport involving grappling with an opponent. Wrestling is perhaps the oldest of all martial arts and a near universal among all cultures. Wrestling is an Olympic sport and practiced throughout the world. There are many forms and styles of wrestling, including Greco Roman, Catch, Folk style, to name just a few.
What is training wrestling like?
Wrestling is known as one of the most physically demanding sports/martial arts. Wrestlers never stop in their pursuit to be the best, and this shows in how they practice. Wrestling practices are relatively unstructured. There might be a few basic techniques shown or drills with partners, and then it is off to open mat sparring with your partners. It is a trial by fire approach to learning.
Who trains Wrestling?
Just about everyone at some point in their life wrestles (whether it’s with an older brother or parents). Wrestling is a common athletic sport for school children in the United States, but it is less common for adults to pick it up later in life. With the growth of submission wrestling (aka no gi jiu jitsu), wrestling is now becoming more popular among adults who never trained it in their youth. Former wrestlers are some of the most successful MMA fighters, these include Randy Couture, Matt Hughes, and Dan Henderson.
How do you start learning wrestling?
If you are an elementary or high school student, you will typically learn wrestling as part of a school program. There are also many school aged wrestling clubs that are common to find in communities. If you are an adult, you will probably need to identify a catch wrestling or submission wrestling club to learn wrestling. It’s hard to find folkstyle or greco wrestling clubs for adults, but they exist. Some college wrestling programs will let the general public train with them.
Is wrestling right for me?
If you want to push yourself to the max, wrestling is your sport. Wrestling is also an exceptional base style to train for MMA. Even if you did not have the change to wrestle in high school, there are lots of opportunities to take it up as an adult.
What is kickboxing?
Kickboxing is a martial art that is what its name suggests: boxing + kicking. It has its roots in style of karate, but has now incorporated many styles like boxing, among others. Kickboxing involves strikes and kicks, just like Muay Thai, but it does not allow types of strikes that Muay Thai does (for more on the differences, read here). These days, it’s common to find kickboxing available as a cardio exercise program, besides a fighting system.
What is training kickboxing like?
Kickboxing Is similar to training boxing or Muay Thai. You will spend your time learning how to properly jab and uppercut while also learning how to kick. You will expend a lot of effort hitting heavy bags and sparring with your partner. Like boxing, you will hit others and get hit, with protective gear of course.
Who trains kickboxing?
Famous kickboxers include Ernesto Hoost, Semmy Schilt, Buakaw Banchamek and Giorgio Petrosyan. Kickboxers have had some limited success in mixed martial arts as well.
How do you start learning kickboxing?
Dedicated Kickboxing gyms are more difficult to locate in the United States. More often, they are of the cardio kickboxing variant. That said, reputable MMA gyms or boxing gyms usually will have a kickboxing class.
Is kickboxing right for me?
KIckboxing is a solid martial art. In some ways it’s a substitute for Muay thai if that is not available in your area. Kickboxing is physically demanding. If the sound of punches and kicks sounds appealing, then you should try kickboxing.
What is Karate?
Karate is a Japanese martial art with origins on the island of Okinawa. It is primarily a striking art, but it has some limited grappling. Like other traditional martial arts, Karate also has several kata (pre-arranged) forms.
Karate is what most people in the West think of when you say “martial arts.” Karate gained immense popularity in the United States after WW2 veterans returned from their overseas time in Japan. It exploded in the 1960-70s and gained prominence in film in culture since then.
What is training Karate like?
Training Karate can vary from intense and physical to relaxed. There are styles of karate that emphasize real fighting while others are more about self-control and discipline. Your average dojo will probably be more about the latter than the former.
In Karate you will follow your instructor’s lead, much link in Tae Kwon Do, or other traditional arts. You will practice various punches, kicks, forms and other arrangements. You may have limited contact sparring too.
Who trains it?
People train karate all over the world, both young and old. A handful of MMA fighters have had a base Karate Style in MMA. THe most famous karate fight in MMA is probably Lyoto Machida from Brazil. Stephen Thompson is also another karate fighter with MMA success.
Who do you start learning Karate?
Karate is relatively easy to train. You just need to find a local karate dojo. Like Judo, Karate can often be learned at community centers and local churches. Do your research on the style of Karate the dojo teaches as there are some differences in karate, but mostly it should not matter.
Is Karate right for me?
If you are looking for a traditional martial art, then you may want to consider Karate. Karate offers a structured, balanced way to approach learning a martial art. You will improve your self-confidence, and learn some basic self-defense and fighting techniques. You will not get bruised up like in boxing or Muay thai, but you will still learn important striking concepts.
Tae Kwon Do
What is Tae Kwon Do?
Tae Kwon Do is a kicking based martial art from Korea. It is an Olympic sport and enjoys tremendous popularity around the world. As far as techniques, it involves kicks, some punches, and basic throws. Participants learn to spar against each other, usually on a point based system.
What is training Tae Kwon Do like?
Tae Kwon Do involves learning kicks and more kicks. There are also a lot of pre-arranged kata forms to study. While Tae Kwon Do may not be as strenuous as other martial arts, it still can be a significant challenge. As a traditional martial art, there is a lot of structure in the classes. You may learn relaxation techniques, katas, or do kicking drills with a partner. There is also light sparring (with padding) done in Tae Kwon Do.
Who trains it?
Tae Kwon Do is a sport enjoyed by both kids and adults. Tae Kwon Do is a great confidence builder for kids and for adults. Because it is an Olympic sport, it is trained by high level athletes across the globe. There is also an impressive list of celebrities who have studied Tae Kwon Do at some point. A few MMA fighters have used Tae Kwon Do style kicks in the ring, such as Anderson Silva and Anthony Pettis.
How do you start learning Tae Kwon Do?
Tae Kwon Do can be learned at your local dojang (school). Since Tae Kwon Do is relatively popular, most communities will have a school. Remember that formal procedures and etiquette are very common in Tae Kwon Do. As a visitor or a student you will need to be respectful and follow the rules closely.
Is Tae Kwon Do right for me?
Tae Kwon Do is a great athletic sport. If you care less about fighting or self-defense and more about finding an excellent program to challenge yourself athletically, then Tae Kwon Do could be what you are looking for. Like other traditional martial arts, Tae Kwon will give you discipline and self-confidence.