Choosing a Martial Arts Style

Karate - One of Many Styles
Karate - One of Many Styles

Martial arts are a great way to get fit. Almost all styles have an strong focus on physical fitness, flexibility and strength. Also, classes often provide a fun and interesting environment in which to exercise. With many styles you can also learn to defend yourself and fight competitively. The one question that most people ask though is “what martial arts style shall I do?”.

The only answer is for you really to decide for yourself. No one style is the best. Even trying to decide if you want to learn a traditional style, competition style or modern MMA style may not actually help you find the school of choice. The quality of the instruction and the atmosphere of the school is also important. Friendly students and professional instructors are more important that style, as without these you will struggle to learn and find motivation very difficult.

You may consider yourself a puncher but find that you love ground work. You may wish to do acrobatic stunts like Jackie Chan but find that competition kickboxing provides you with much better mental focus and physical conditioning. You may even find softer styles like Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido more appealing. Then there are the weapons to play about with. The choice is of course yours. Here is a list of the most notable styles of martial arts with a few links to pages with further information.

A Good Instructor is Hard to Beat

A good instructor is often much better at motivating you to keep working that an aerobics instructor. Also much of the exercise is done with a partner, and students help motivate each other while training, which is really a unique way to exercise. However, there are many different styles of martial art available, and not all styles are suited to all students. So how do you chose? The simple answer is to stay close to home and find an instructor you like. A close location and a good instructor will keep you interested and inspired more than the style will. With that said, here are some tips to help you find the right style for you.

Really the best option is to locate all the martial arts classes within your catchment area and try them all. Only then will you know what is right for you. Find a school nearby with classes to fit your schedule. Some schools offer more than one style, and some single style schools also teach some freestyle, self defense or MMA styles. Finding an instructor your like who creates a calm atmosphere in the school is more important than the style.

Decide why you want to learn a martial art. The four main reasons to train are:

  1. To compete – e.g. kick boxing, Judo, Taekwondo
  2. To learn to defend yourself – e.g. kung-fu, Krav maga, Ju-jitsu, boxing
  3. To get fit – most hard styles will get you fit, however Tai Chi and Aikido may not be so effective
  4. To learn a traditional style – e.g. specific kung-fu styles like Southern Mantis and Wing Chun, Iaido, authentic Tai Chi Chuan

Most styles have one or more of these components, just be sure to look for a class that either focuses on your purpose or gives a general overview.

Visit schools in your area to see if you enjoy the atmosphere and instructor along with the style. Even though two schools both teach Karate, the way in which they teach it and the sub-styles of Karate may be completely different. Also, pay close attention to the instructors and use your gut feeling when evaluating them. Are they someone you can get along with? Are they someone who you will respect and listen to? How do the other student behave? Are they relaxed, tense, aggressive? Is the club clean? Are there male and female changing facilities? Does it feel safe?

Work Within Your Limitations

Know your physical abilities and limits. As you are visiting schools, be sure to check with the instructor about any limitations you may have before signing up. You’ll also get a really good feel for what you’re in for by observing a class or two. Most schools offer the first class for free, so take advantage of this to try out as many as possible before signing the membership forms.

If you have friends already practicing a style, think strongly about learning the same style. Having others to practice with and to encourage you helps a great deal in the long run and makes it even more fun.

As we said before, your instructor will make all the difference in the world. A good instructor is like a good teacher in that they can take the most daunting and boring tasks and make them exciting! Once you’re excited about martial arts, you’ll find that training 3 days a week is not even hard work, as it becomes something you truly enjoy doing.

Bear in mind that it is only when you start training that you will really know if it is for you. Once you start improving in your chosen style, you may get the competition bug, and want to train harder to compete in tournaments. Or you may discover an interest in learning traditional, authentic training methods. The most important thing though is to enjoy yourself. We believe that there is a martial art for everyone, however it is up to you to find it.

We shall  be exploring the most popular styles in forthcoming issues, so come back soon! For now see our list of martial arts styles.

A Selection of Popular Martial Arts Styles

  • Adithada, an ancient Tamil Nadu martial art which is a form of kickboxing. Disciples of Adithada are trained in using bare knuckles, feet, knees, elbows and forehead.
  • Aikido is a Japanese martial art which is based on Jujutsu and Kenjutsu.
  • Amateur wrestling emphasizes throws and controlling opponent’s movement, both while standing up and on the ground, and positioning. Notable styles are Greco-Roman wrestling and Freestyle wrestling.
  • American Kenpo is a martial art developed by Ed Parker from Chinese and Japanese styles he studied in Hawaii.
  • Baguazhang is an internal Chinese martial art that trains in distinctive circular footwork patterns and is also known for training with unusually large weapons at advanced levels in some schools.
  • Bando is the official Burmese Fighting System that includes techniques of throws, holds, locks, chokes, foot-sweeps, etc. Several Bando sub-systems include Lethwei, Naban and Banshay which includes stick fighting, sword fighting, knife fighting, spear fighting, etc.
  • Bartitsu is an eclectic self-defense system combining the basics of Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu Jiujitsu, Shinden-Fudo Ryu Jiujitsu, early Kodokan Judo, the Vigny system of stick fighting, classical boxing and savate.
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a much modified version of some original Japanese jujutsu schools, based on and closely related to Judo but with strict emphasis on ground fighting. Sometimes referred to as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu after its founders.
  • Capoeira is a survival-oriented dance-fight-game originally developed in the 16th century by Angolan slaves in Brazil. It emphasizes kicks, dodging, take downs, and mental training. This mental training can include trickery, an awareness of the opponent, and understanding of rhythm.
  • Catch wrestling forms the base of many modern martial arts including shoot wrestling, shootfighting, shooto and Japanese professional wrestling style of puroresu. This form of wrestling emphasizes ground fighting, submissions, throws and fighting from multiple positions based on Judo.
  • Chow Gar is a Close in fighting system from the Southern Shaolin, and is a form of Southern Praying Mantis (martial art)
  • Eskrima / Escrima, a Filipino Martial Art that focuses on blunt and bladed weapons.
  • Fencing (the European Olympic style), exists now almost entirely as a sport.
  • Hapkido is a Korean martial art with kicks, punches, joint manipulation, locks, and throws that is said to have developed from Aikijutsu. Many of its techniques, as well as the characters used to write the style’s name, are similar to those of Aikido.
  • Hung Gar is a southern Chinese style made famous by its usage by many well known Hong Kong film actors and directors. It is a form of
  • Shaolin martial arts with strong stances and rooting in the ground.
  • Hwarangdo is a Korean martial art that was created in its modern form by Dr. Joo Bang Lee and his brother, Joo Sang Lee. This martial art teaches and encourages fighting and defense techniques, religious training, intellectual enhancement, and artistic pursuits. It has an extensive history, and a very involved technique structure.
  • Hybrid martial arts, systems which combine multiple arts: military combatives, Jeet Kune Do, and Har-Ki Martial
  • Jeet Kune Do, meaning ‘Way of the intercepting fist’, was developed by Bruce Lee, one of the most famous martial artists of the 20th century. This is not actually a specific martial arts style, but a collection of concepts from arts such as Wing Chun and other styles that focuses on constant adaptation.
  • Judo means gentle way, (‘Do’ means ‘Way of’), a practical martial art and sport that consists of techniques from many jujutsu schools. Striking (atemi-waza) and some dangerous throws are forbidden in competitions, but are still present in training and sparring.
  • Jujutsu is a general Japanese term encompassing mostly unarmed martial arts with strikes, throws, grappling and locks and those using small weapons.
  • Kajukenbo a combination of Karate, Jujutsu, Kenpo, and Chinese Boxing founded in 1947 in Oahu, Hawaii by a group of instructors.
  • Kalari Payattu, a martial art from Kerala, South India. It combines self defense, religion and elements of “martial dance”, and has a strong association with the Ayurveda healing system.
  • Kandoshin is a freestyle fighting arts system which unifies many modern and ancient martial arts from four major continents, namely; Africa, Asia, Europe and America.
  • Kapap is a modern martial art, derived from the distinctive fighting style of the Israeli Haganah and the modern day IDF. The style is purely focused on practical combat skills and eschews competitions beyond occasional ‘fight club’ nights, wherein practitioners can free-form spar with protective padding.
  • Karate meaning ‘Empty hand’ (originally called Te meaning ‘Hand’), is perhaps the most popular martial art in Japan and the West. It is Okinawan in origin and has several sub styles including Ashihara karate, Kempo, Kyokushin, Shorin-ryu, Shotokai, Shotokan and Wado Ryu. Depending on the style, a full range of combat tactics may be taught. Techniques include: striking, blocking, kicking, joint-locks, throws and submissions.
  • Kateda is a martial art which claims ancient Tibetan origins, but may be a more recent variation of Indonesian Silat and/or several Kuntao arts. It employs unarmed punches and kicks and has features in common with Sindo, Yoga, Qigong and possibly Shaolin.
  • Kendo is the Japanese sport of sword fighting, using bamboo swords (shinai) and protective armour made almost purely by bamboo and heavy knit cotton.
  • Krav Maga is not a martial art, rather a self-defense (due to no reliance on physical fitness), and military hand to hand combat system developed in Israel. It came to prominence following its adoption by various Israeli Security Forces; now more widely in use including by the special forces of other countries.
  • Kuk Sool Won is a systematic study of a variety of traditional Korean fighting systems. It is known for its wide variety of techniques and weapons.
  • Kung Fu, or more precisely “wushu”, refers to the many hundreds of diverse Chinese martial arts (some estimates at greater than 400), some of which include: Shaolin, Shuai Chiao, Wing Chun, Zui Quan, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Yiquan, Lau Gar, Hung Gar and many more. The Chinese words kung fu can be used to describe one’s skill in any discipline, not just martial arts.
  • Kuttu Varisai (empty hand combat), an ancient martial art from Tamil Nadu, South India. The fists, elbows, feet and knees are used, as well as various animal forms, including tiger, elephant, snake, eagle and monkey stances. Grappling, throws, hits and locks are also used, as well as
  • Luohan techniques, breathing exercises and pressure point attacks.
  • Mixed martial arts or MMA, the combat sport which combines practical aspects of many (or all) useful martial arts, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and wrestling, among others. The emphasis is on actual combat and freestyle competition with few rules, as opposed to theoretical philosophy. Well-known MMA organizations include PRIDE and UFC. The term MMA may also refer to the fighting style associated with MMA competition.
  • Muay Thai, a Thai martial art, a famous style of kickboxing.
  • Ninjutsu is a Japanese style said to have originally been practiced by Ninja; this martial art combines traditional attacks with scout style survival and elusive moves.
  • Pradal Serey is the Cambodian style of kickboxing.
  • Sambo is the wrestling form developed in Russia. Sambo is deeply influenced by judo, catch wrestling, jacket wrestling, collar and elbow wrestling etc. Sambo allows joint locks, though chokes are not allowed in sport Sambo wrestling.
  • Shaolin Kung Fu is a Martial Art which combines the use of unarmed fighting, various weapons and use of “Animal Forms”, fighting styles copied from animals in nature, such as tigers, snakes or cranes.
  • Shorinji Kempo is a Japanese martial art emphasizing Buddhist principles of self-reliance and the use of force only as a last resort. Students learn both hard techniques (strikes, throws) and soft techniques (joint locks, holds).
  • Silat is an art from the Malay World and has regional variations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, among others.
  • Sindo is a modern variation of Indonesian Silat, which combines Western practical self defence with combat martial art, Silat and internal martial arts.
  • Sipkwondo is a modern hybrid martial art based off Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing and Grappling.
  • Southern Praying Mantis is related most closely to fellow Hakka styles such as Dragon and more distantly to the Fujian family of styles that includes Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Wing Chun. Southern Praying Mantis is a close range fighting system that places much emphasis on short power techniques and has aspects of both the soft and internal as well as the hard and external.
  • Systema is an art of Russian origin. This style employs no pre-defined moves, kata, rankings, or sport application. Rather, Systema works from the basis of breathing, relaxation, posture, and movement, utilizing all aspects of human ability.
  • Tai Chi Chuan, the different styles of which are a Chinese martial art practiced nowadays by many people for health maintenance.
  • Taekyon, a traditional Korean martial art, probably stemming from Subak.
  • Taekwondo is a modern Korean martial sport, with literal meaning “the way of the hand and foot”. Along with Judo, one of only two Asian martial arts to make it into the Olympic Games.
  • Tang Soo Do (also “tangsudo”, which means ‘way of the Chinese hand’) is a traditional Korean martial art descended from Karate, which remained outside the merging of Korean styles into a national sport in 1961. Its most famous proponent is Chuck Norris.
  • Vajra Mukti (diamond fist), grappling style in North India.
  • Varma Kalai (the art of vital points), an ancient martial art from Tamil Nadu, South India. Though it emphasizes self defence, it also emphasizes targeting various vital points throughout the human body. It has a strong association with Varma Cuttiram (the Tamil science of medicine).
  • Western martial arts (WMA) or “European martial arts” consist mainly of fighting techniques developed in Europe. They include everything from unarmed combat and grappling (kampfringen) to weapons practices with a great variety of weapons such as the longsword, various types of staves and polearms, daggers, sword and buckler, to more specialized weapons such as the rapier.
  • Wing Chun (Ving Tsun or Wing Tsun), a Chinese martial art known for its no nonsense effectiveness made famous by its legendary student, Bruce Lee.
  • Xingyiquan (Hsing I Ch’üan), Form Intent Boxing, a Chinese internal martial art famous for its fighting prowess.

4 Comments on “Choosing a Martial Arts Style”

  1. nino montalvo says:

    i was just wondering, i’m taking muay thai and jiu jitsu, and almost everyday a different part of my body is sore, i do these classes 2 times every week, 1 hour each class back to back. plus, some cardio on the remaining days, i work there so it’s all free hah. my question is, is it normal to feel very sore all the time? like the neck, arms, and abdominal areas. i talk to other students, and they say their body gets used to it after while. thanks for any answer!

  2. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Nino, it is normal, especially when you are starting. In time your body will become fitter and stronger and the soreness will be less severe.

  3. What martial art is best for an out of shape 65 year old who was sedentary for 8 years, has some emphysema, and works with inmates, for self defense and control of any attacking inmates.

  4. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Robert, you need something that is very much self defence orientated, with no high kicks etc. so a short kung-fu style (southern mantis, wing chun), some karate styles, some jitsu styles may be good too, but training does involves falls and throws in jitsu styles. Things like krav maga may also be worthwhile. Best is to see what clubs are local to you and speak to the instructors to ask what their focus is – if its sport or doing high-kicks for most the lesson, then of little use. What is also needed is training to be assertive and confident, as that is probably going to be as important as self defence skill.

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