How to Choose a Martial Art

Evaluate Your Goals
Before you begin to research martial arts styles, you first need to decide to outline a list of goals. Possible reasons for taking a martial art may include:

  • Self Defense
    Weight Loss
    Enhanced Flexibility
    Meeting New People

 

  1. Set a budget. Some arts require a significant investment in equipment. For example, Kendo armor can run up to $1,000 US for a high end set, while Taekwondo requires only a white cotton uniform. There’s no point in getting interested in something you ultimately can’t afford to do.
  2. Determine your ultimate objective. The four major categories are usually as follows. (a) Health & Fitness with martial efficacy as a subordinate benefit. (b) Martial skill as the primary concern with a nice side dish of discipline and health & fitness. (c) Being part of a heritage and cultural tradition stretching back hundreds or thousands (depending on the art) of years. (d) Winning trophies in sporting events.

  3. Decide on a martial arts style. You might choose a hard style, such as Muay Thai (Thailand) or Western Boxing, a semi-hard style such as Tae Kwon Do or Hapkido (Korea), a soft style traditional art, such as Aikido (Japan) or one of the many Kung Fu styles (China), or a grappling/ground fighting art, such as Jiu Jitsu (Brazil/ Japan) and Western Martial Arts (Europe). Do you want to compete one-on-one in the ring with opponents who use the same style as you, or study the traditions of a particular culture’s martial art, or learn to defend yourself against real-life attackers on the street? The training methods are vastly different, and most martial arts schools focus on one aspect. Any school that purports to make you the king of the ring plus a fully effective battleground warrior plus healthy and fit plus part of a cultural heritage is heading for “Jack of all trades and master of none” territory.
  4. Recognize your physical limitations. If you are older or not very acrobatic, Wushu (China) probably isn’t for you, but Tai Chi (China) might suit you nicely. Furthermore, recognize that striking martial arts like Karate or TaeKwonDo may or may not be well-suited for smaller physiques. The grappling styles of Judo, Aikido, or Jiu-Jutsu, while being close-combat styled martial arts, emphasize technique and leverage and therefore become more readily useful as you progress. Likewise the combative Chinese styles are all about technique and are less dependent on your being a particular height or weight to succeed.
  5. Consider your cultural interests. If you have a respect for or interest in a certain culture, learning more through one of their martial arts can be a great experience. If that is part of your goal, choose a school taught by a native of that culture, or someone who trained directly under someone of that culture.

  6. Consider the effectiveness of the martial art as well. For example, a modern martial art such as Krav Maga (Israeli), reconstructed Western Martial Arts such as ARMA or the AES (European) or classes led by experienced soldiers or police officers will place a greater emphasis on the “martial” aspect rather than the “art.” This is not to say that traditional Asian arts are less important; It may take longer to learn basic self defense this way as many Eastern arts are about developing more than just basic self-defense skills. If you are willing to spend the time to fully train in many different styles you will ultimately learn to defend yourself much better than if you train at a mixed martial art school. But if your sole concern is martial efficacy and the ability to defend yourself ‘on the street’, the physical and mental effort required to develop those skills have to be weighed up against the effort required to purchase a can of Mace or become proficient with a small, legally obtained, manageable weapon.
  7. Decide when to join. Sit in as a polite observer before joining a class, if you wish, although for some it is better to just jump straight in there, choose what works best for you.
  8. Decide whether or not the teaching style suits your personality. If you are looking to learn practical martial arts, does the class encourage or allow beginners to get involved in sparring or “free-play” or is this reserved for more advanced students who have spent more time and money at the dojo?
    Realize also that beginner sparring, even if encouraged, should be more restricted than the more experienced students because beginners do not usually have sufficient control of their strikes to effectively reduce the chance of injury.
  9. Take note of the students at your school, and the way they interact with each other and their seniors. Are they friendly and receptive? Are they respectful? Would you consider them to be friends? You’re going to be spending significant amounts of time with them, so it is important to understand their personality, as well. You’ll also be putting your safety in their hands; if that makes you uncomfortable, keep looking.

  10. Check the teacher’s qualifications. Don’t worry so much about degrees and certificates; there are no universal grading standards and no universally-recognized governing body in martial arts. What’s important is:
    Who did this person learn from?
    How long did he or she study with this person?
    How long has he/she practiced this art?
    Does the teacher have any experience as a teacher, or is he or she simply a skilled martial artist? Just like great football players can make bad coaches (and vice versa), great martial artists are not necessarily great teachers.
  11. Set aside a significant amount of time each week to dedicate to your training. Most arts have exercises or forms you can practice at home to keep it all fresh in your mind; if you only practice at class, your progress will probably be stunted. “We come to class to learn. We train at home.”
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