Which Martial Art Should I Learn?

You’ve decided to start practicing a martial art but have no idea which one to pick? I’ve compiled a list of the most popular martial arts TODAY.

The idea of paying a monthly fee to get choked and beaten every couple of days might sound like madness to some people. But, it will probably be one of the best investments for your physical health and mental wellbeing in the long run. 

The martial art types covered in this guide are mostly full and are split into general categories like kicks and strikes and grappling and throws

Choosing the right martial art is crucial if you want to enjoy yourself and reap the benefits.

Types of Martial Arts

This list of martial arts is a mix of some I’ve tried and consider to be relevant today. Hopefully, the information presented here will help you choose an art that you will enjoy learning.  

Striking and kicking

MMA

What is it?

Mixed Martial Arts, also known as cage fighting, is based on striking and grappling and is made up of various other combat systems including (but not limited to) Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and Wrestling. 

MMA got widely popular after UFC 1 when the Gracie family tried to prove that BJJ is the most effective martial art. The beginning was quite wild and had no rules. Today, however, it’s one of the most popular martial arts even though officially it’s not even 30 years old. 

Where have you seen it?

Unless you lived under a rock, you’ve heard of UFC and it’s stars like Chuck Liddell, Gina Carano, Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, and Conor McGregor. 

Fighting (2009) and Warrior (2011) are probably the most drama movies that are related to MMA.

What to expect?

A training session usually consists of a stand-up part and grappling. In general, you’ll have muay thai and boxing for striking and Brazilian jiu-jitsu with wrestling for ground fighting. This is a full-contact sport and you can expect to go home exhausted.

Is it right for you?

First realize that you’ll need to get grappling AND striking gear (rashguard, mouthguard, different types of gloves, shin protection, etc.) on top of your monthly fee. It might not be the cheapest one up front, but definitely one of the most rewarding ones.

Boxing

What is it?

A combat sport that can be traced all the way to the 3rd millennium BC, boxing is considered to be one of the toughest and most effective combat sports in the world. It teaches you footwork and head movement (besides punching) and translates well into any other hand to hand combat. Boxing is the base for sports like MMA and kickboxing and also an Olympic sport.

Where have you seen it?

Unless you lived under a rock, you know the likes of Mohamed Ali, Mike Tyson, and the more recent MMA star, Conor McGregor, who has a famous karate stance with an outstanding boxing technique. You can watch boxing in action in movies such as Rocky, Creed, and Southpaw.

What to expect?

Boxing is famous for its intense workouts and is not to be taken lightly. A session usually consists of mitts, shadowboxing, double-end bag, jump rope, ab work, and sparring. Your training will vary from day to day and consist of speed and strength work, shadowboxing and mitts, etc. You won’t ever get bored and will stay in shape.

Is it right for you?

You will improve your reflexes, footwork, and head movement and get a good workout. Also a very effective art for self-defense, boxing is something that everyone should try once in their life.

Muay Thai and Kickboxing

What is it?

Also called the “art of eight limbs”, which include, fists, elbows, kicks, knees and the clinch. Muay Thai is centuries old and became famous when Westernized practitioners of the art started competing. 

Where have you seen it?

Jean Claude van Damme in Kickboxer, or more recent and with less awkwardness: Ong Bak. If you’re watching UFC, you’ve probably heard of Edson Barboza and his devastating leg kicks. 

What to expect?

First, you’ll start with pad work and lots of drilling of different combos. Once you’re good to go, you can move to live sparring. You’re also going to be kicking the bag a lot until your shins become conditioned. On the highest level, muay thai is brutal in terms of conditioning and is heavy on the shoulders and hips. Expect lots of calisthenics too.

Is it right for you?

There’s a joke that “everybody and their mom does kickboxing” because it’s a very available sport for every age and weight category as well as gender. You don’t have to spar, in fact, some people go there instead to have a fitness workout and kick a heavy bag in a friendly environment. A great option for self-defense, but not many techniques are defensive, more likely offense is the defense. If your goal is to become an MMA star, muay thai is a good base.

Krav Maga

What is it?

Probably the only outlier on this list, Krav Maga (translation: battle contact) is a Hebrew self-defense and military fighting system that was developed by the Israeli Defense Force to be used in real-life combat situations. You will learn how to throw punches and kicks, throws, and joint locks, but also how to disarm an attacker who may have weapons. 

Where have you seen it?

Fight Science has an episode on Krav Maga. You won’t see Krav Maga used in mainstream sports because of a difference in application and the fact that eye-gouging and groin stomps are illegal in all sports and will get you banned.

What to expect?

Intense workouts, lots of drills, and fighting when you’re tired is a key element in Krav Maga. All banned techniques are a part of the game: joint locks, throat punches, eye pokes and kicks to the groin. Types of martial art with military or law enforcement origin are not about sparring and scoring points, but about winning any way you can OR avoiding a potential physical confrontation. Situational awareness is a huge component of Krav Maga. 

Is it right for you?

You are not going eye gouge, hook the mouth, and rip at someone’s ear when doing BJJ or any sports listed above (and nor should you). The majority of techniques will get you disqualified in a competition (similar to Wing Chun Kung Fu), so it might not be the best choice for MMA. However, various practitioners report that cross-training Muay Thai is extremely effective.

Karate

What is it?

An art that has been developed in the 15th century and will debut in the Summer Olympics 2020. There are different styles of karate taught around the world, but I’ll focus on Kyokushin. It’s a “full-contact, knockdown karate” style that can be compared to kickboxing. The sparring is done bare-knuckle and doesn’t allow strikes to the head, but does allow kicks. It’s a traditional art which means you’ll have to study katas, a choreographed pattern of martial arts movements.

Where have you seen it?

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is probably the most famous karateka in MMA. There are lots of movies that have karate fighting scenes, but it’s often a mix of different styles. Fight Quest has an episode on Karate which probably the most interesting one.

What to expect?

My experience with Kyokushin was a shortlived one but very satisfying. The sparring got very intense, but I never sustained damage to the face. Katas got quite boring at times and felt like a waste of time. Karate teaches you to kick and punch, use your elbows and various punched to the body, but also improves your conditioning, puts you in the ring, and keeps the traditional side of things.

Is it right for you?

Karate and other martial arts like Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, and Kung Fu are traditional and might not be suitable for everyone who seeks to be a badass MMA fighter or wants to compete at a high level. Karate is great if you want to learn self-discipline and controlling your emotions. Also a very popular choice for children.

Throws and Ground Fighting

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

What is it?

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu or BJJ is a combat sport which consists of grappling, ground fighting and submission holds like joint locks and chokes. BJJ is based on the idea that a smaller person can beat a bigger, stronger, and more aggressive opponent without striking. The sport has seen a huge growth spurt over the last couple of years and doesn’t seem to be slowing down, It also has a whole self-defense component to it which some schools do practice. 

Where have you seen it?

If you’ve watched the first UFC events, you probably remember Royce Gracie and how he dominated. Today, you won’t see much BJJ in movies, although there is some BJJ in John Wick, you can watch a video with an explanation on Youtube.

What to expect?

A usual training consists of a light warm-up with specific techniques like “shrimping”, lots of technique work with a partner and live “rolling” which is basically wrestling in a gi at the end of the session. Rolling is the core component of BJJ is and absolutely exhausting and hard on every muscle in your body. Looking from the side, it might seem that they’re just laying there, while in reality, someone’s trying to choke the other.

Is it right for you?

If you value personal space, this might get very uncomfortable. Self-defense seems quite weird because taking someone to the ground and laying on your back doesn’t sound like the best idea. In reality, though, a blue belt can easily beat the majority of live opponents in a controlled and safe environment.

BJJ is physically demanding, you learn important self defense skills and it’s the staple of Mixed Martial Arts together with Muay Thai. 

Judo

What is it?

Judo is one of the oldest martial arts on the list and also an Olympic sport. A martial art that consists of throws and jokes and no kicks or strikes. Judo has directly influenced the creation of BJJ and has greatly influenced Sambo.

Where have you seen it?

You can’t talk about Judo and not mention Ronda Rousey, as she was by far the most popular UFC star and Olympic medallist with a judo background. Fedor Emelianenko is a Russian Sambo martial artist but showed lots of Judo throws during his fights.

What to expect?

Like Tae Kwon Do and Karate, Judo is a traditional art. An average Judo session consists of throws, lots of them. No striking is done unless you’re reenacting a self-defense scenario where you defend against strikes with throws.

Is it right for you?

If you want to learn how to throw people without taking much damage, this is the art for you. Even though BJJ has surpassed Judo in popularity, it’s still very effective in MMA and gives you a killer of full-body workout and will strengthen your grip.

Wrestling

What is it?

Another Olympic sport, wrestling involves lots of grappling-type techniques, throws, and takedowns, as well as joint locks, pins, and other holds. Essentially, it’s a very physical match where one person tries to dominate the other.

Where have you seen it?

Vision Quest (1985) is the king of all amateur wrestling movies. If you’re watching the UFC, you’ll know that wrestling produces the most champions of any fighting discipline: Khabib Nurmagomedov, a Dagestani wrestler beating for his notorious win over Conor McGregor, is probably the most famous wrestler in MMA today.

What to expect?

Expect a lot of repetitive drills and basic fitness before you learn any actual moves on a partner. If you’ll be doing techniques with someone, they probably won’t be fighting back. Actual wrestling bouts can be quite explosive, depending on who you wrestle with, and definitely a test of your strength.

Is it right for you?

Some people get it right away, where others have to work hard to get better. It does take a while to become good at wrestling because it’s not an easy sport. You will learn the importance of hard work and to overcome the challenges life throws at you. Wrestling is also a very respected art between all martial artists. 

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