If you have made the decision to start training in martial arts, you’ve made a wise decision. However, unless you have something already in mind an important decision to make next will be which martial art to start training in.
There are hundreds of martial art styles to choose from. Each one has something unique and positive to offer and will differ in terms of history, philosophy, credibility and size.
When making your choice you should factor in who the martial art you are choosing is for. Are you looking for yourself or for a child? Either way you will have different criteria and goals in mind. In some instances your options will be limited by your location, your budget and your personal schedule. You may choose a martial art based on recommendation, school location or an individual instructor. We will discuss choosing a school in another article.
When choosing a martial art you should firstly work out what’s most important to you and what your training goals are. Are you looking to participate in competitions, do you want to use weapons, are you looking to go to ground and grapple or are you looking to simply kick & punch. With these questions answered you will be in the position to narrow down your style of choice.
Let’s look at some of the type of martial arts out there. Please note that the lists below are by no way comprehensive as there are just way too many martial art styles and derivatives to name…
Styles: Karate, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Boxing, Krav Maga, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Choi Kwang Do…
Striking arts (also known as standing martial arts) are styles which use kicking, punching and striking techniques while standing. The application and form of these techniques will vary between styles and the instructors abilities and teaching style.
Some styles will have a bias towards kicking techniques where others may focus on hand techniques. The majority allow for a combination of both and will possibly incorporate some form of patterns/kata’s which are a predefined sequence of techniques which increase in complexity and difficulty to measure ability and often used as a marker for progression.
Grappling / Wrestling Arts
Styles: Judo, Jujitsu, Brazilian Jui-Jitsu, Sambo, Sumo, Wrestling…
Grappling arts are often referred to as ground fighting styles and focus on practitioners taking their opponents to ground. Once this fight ‘goes-to-ground’ the primary objective for either practitioner would be to achieve a dominant position or apply a submission hold which would ultimately end the fight.
Throwing / Takedown Arts
Styles: Judo, Aikido, Hapkido…
These styles will almost certainly start with opponents facing off in a standing position with the goal being to take the fight to ground in the form of a takedown or throw.
There is some element of overlap here with grappling arts which also extensively make use of throws and takedowns. Again this overlap extends to throwing and takedown arts which commonly will also make use of grappling techniques.
Weapons Based Arts
Styles: Fencing, Kendo, Kali, Escrima, Fencing, Gatka…
As the name describes, these arts go beyond using the human body as the primary striking tool and make use of physical objects as weapons. The majority of these arts use swords, knives and sticks with defence being a strong component of the art as well as attack.
Styles: Tai Chi, Chi Gong, Baguazhang…
Meditative arts are considered low impact with focus aimed at breathing, fitness and spiritual enlightenment over combat. However, it should be noted that these styles originate from combative styles and can still be used in a combative form in some aspects.
Combination / Hybrid Arts
Styles: Mixed Martial Arts, Jeet Kune Do, Ninjutsu…
Many modern day styles utilise the techniques and teachings from other arts to form hybrid arts, mixing and matching what some feel are the best components to form a superior style. Whether the style in question can be considered superior is very much a matter of opinion and conjecture.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a recent revelation and very much popularised by the UFC phenomenon. MMA is very much a competitive style and uses standing art techniques, grappling, throws, takedowns and submission, as the name describes a real mix of martial arts.
Once you’ve decided on the type of martial art you should consider other factors which may help you narrow down to a particular style. Remember, all styles will differ in terms of history, philosophy, credibility and size.
Traditional vs Modern
In your research you are very likely to find that some martial arts are considered fairly traditional and steeped in history while others are relatively new (modern) and will boast about using modern methods and learnings.
It’s important to establish the history of a martial art, even if it’s only to determine whether it stems from another style or a culmination of different styles.
All martial arts evolve in some way or another and whether you prefer a traditional art over modern is really a personal choice.
The most important point to consider is whether you are comfortable with the roots, the basis and the style that has evolved. This is particularly important if you choose a style which has a small following/student base. In these instances it’s likely to be a break-away art developed following some political / structural disagreement and/or the product of one individual (or a group of individuals) desire to create something new for the masses.
In no way am I trying to belittle either modern or traditional martial arts but I think it’s important to know what the history of your style of choice is.
For parents looking to make a choice for their child, the philosophy of a martial art has great importance. Adults too will attach great importance to this where they have specific goals or aspirations in mind.
A common expectation for most martial arts is that they will instil values and skills which would be considered beneficial and which can be applied to all aspects of an individual’s life. These can include but are not limited to respect, discipline, integrity, perseverance and hard work. You can very much expect to be taught that avoidance is much preferred over actual engagement which should only be considered as a last resort.
All this said, some arts may employ different attitudes and give less importance to some values or skills. If these teachings and values are important to you, do your research and determine for yourself the philosophy of your art of choice.
There is a common misconception that to progress in a martial art you need to participate in and win competitions. This is not the case, near on all arts have some form of hierarchical system in place which requires constant assessment of progression but they do not necessarily require participation in a formal competition.
There are differing views on competitions and the credibility of any art which does or doesn’t endorse and use them. Some feel the competitive element of an art is akin to life where you win some or you lose some. Others feel competitions provide an element of realism, similar to an actual fight or self defence scenario.
Based on my research and experience, I feel it’s impossible to create a scenario where a competition fight will mirror a real ‘no rules’ fight. There is however valid logic to indicate that these competitions could better prepare an individual for the fight and possibility of both taking and delivering a punch, kick or strike.
Many styles are popularised through good marketing, a competition craze or just because they are household names (Karate/Kung Fu).
However, many arts have their fair share of critics and this could be for valid reasons. Often these negative comments can be down to an individual (or group of individuals) who have an axe to grind or have a polarised view. This is where Google can either be a god send or your worst enemy.
The best way to determine whether a particular style is for you is to conduct research and actually take part. Whether what you find on the internet impacts your decision is very much down to your personal views.
Does Size Matter?
I should firstly clarify that I’m referring to the size or following of the style/art. Does it matter? For some it will, a large following equates to status and prestige where others will prefer to experiment or follow an art which is less well known to the masses.
Martial arts with a larger following are generally well established. These arts will generally have an organisation in place ensuring members adhere to their rules and standards preserving their status and standing. No doubt, these organisations will be supporting their affiliates providing guidance and in exchange for a membership fee.
Smaller arts or styles may or may not have an organisation or affiliation in place. This doesn’t necessarily indicate anything negative, some styles prefer to stay small with their own goals and philosophy.
Some styles can be considered to be relatively young, slowly growing in size and status.
There are so many martial arts to choose from and the one you choose will very likely be based on a number of factors. The most important factor will be what’s accessible to you, from there you can start narrowing down your choices.
Like with most things in life, if you are planning to make a commitment to something you should really do your research. Determine whether the style meets both your requirements and training objectives, beyond that consider whether there is an accessible school that can meet your expectations.
Good luck with your research and I hope you find an art which is right for you!
Author: Chandresh Lad
Chandresh Lad is a Sixth Degree Black Belt and Master Instructor of Choi Kwang Do.
He has over 20 years experience in martial arts and instruction, runs a professional Martial Arts
school in North West London.