How do I choose a martial art?

an opinion

A friend recently expressed interested in joining a martial arts class and asked for my opinion on which style would be best for her.  It can be a very difficult decision and several factors may come into play.   Styles differ greatly in their philosophies and movements and there are literally hundreds of styles to choose from, each with possible branches within them. 

 My personal belief is that all martial arts are different paths to the same goal.   That goal may never be obvious to the martial arts practitioner but all styles strive to a common objective of perfection of mind and movement. 

Choosing a style and school should not be taken lightly.  While  logistical issues (location, cost, time, availability) will inevitably be a part of one's decision-making, one's decision should be based more on the characteristics of the school, teachers and style.  You may not find a fit the first time around and an experience with one style or school should not disuade one from trying another or several others.  There will likely be a school that will meet your needs and inspire you to go further. 

The choice of a martial arts style can be broken down into several factors:

1) Goals of practice:

   a) Self-defense vs. martial arts:  While all martial arts are methods of self-defense, you may be seeking purely combative skills or effective life-saving street skils rather than the traditions, philosophies and formalities that accompany traditional martial arts.  If this is the case,  self-defense classes may be more appropriate.  Most martial arts require a lifetime to perfect and their goals are somewhat loftier than just techniques of self-defense. Martial arts styles may also differ in their "effectiveness" on the street.  While every martial art practicitioner likely believes that their chosen martial art is the most effective, it would be true to say that certain schools  and styles will focus more on the "martial" aspects of fighting while others will focus more on the "art".  Ultimately, martial arts were developed for the purposes of defense and one cannot be a master if what he or she practices is not effective.

   b) competition and sparring:  Certain styles or schools may focus more on the potential competitive aspects of "sport" martial arts.   Tournament fighting may be a large component of certain schools and can be an interesting means of testing one's skills against others.  Tournaments are not reality however, and one should be wary that tournament skills are not necessarily "effective" skills of self-defense.  The amount of time devoted to sparring and combat may differ greatly between styles and schools. 

   c) fitness: all martial arts likely promote some level of wellness and physical fitness.  The cardiovascular, flexibility and strength demands of fighting styles differ because of the nature of their movements and the types of attacks.  Harder striking styles tend to have more vigorous practices than softer styles.  

2) Purely defensive vs. offensive/defensive styles:  Certain styles are entirely defensive in their style.  Aikido for example employs the art of channelling an opponent's energies and movement against themselves, resulting in takedowns and pins (which can be devastating).   There are no "attacks" or strikes in Aikido however.   Other martial arts such as kung fu, karate and tae kwon do divide their time between techniques of blocking attacks and countering with kicks, punches or other means of subduing the opponent.  

3) Types of movement:   There is a continuum of the style of movement associated with different martial arts.  Some are considered hard and more linear in their movement, like muay tai or karate while others are considered softer or more circular in their movements, like aikido or kung fu.  Furthermore, the types of attacks or defense may differ greatly.  Kung fu, karate and muay tai all focus on striking and or blocking attacks.  Tae kwon do involves mostly kicking techniques with much less upper body movement.  Judo is an art of throwing.   Jujitsu focuses on grappling techniques that emphasize close contact and leverage against an opponent's joints.  Capoiera is a Brazilian martial art that uses music and dance-like and acrobatic movements.  The types of movement most suited to you depend on personal preference, muscular build, flexibility and physical abilities. 

4) Weapons training:  Several styles of martial arts offer some weapons training with bo sticks, swords, numchucks, etc.   Kung fu has some weapons training.   Aikido does too.  Some martial arts are purely sword training (Iai and Kendo).  Ask yourself if this is something that might interest you.

5) Choosing a school: Once you have decided on a style, there may still 4be several schools one could choose from.  While this is where logistical issues may sway a potential student in one direction or another, be careful to evaluate each school on a number of different criteria.   A school is only as good as its teachers and it is important to determine the quality, experience and compatibility of any potential instructor.   The quality of instruction is far more important than the facilities of a school and one should be wary of schools that are more interested in profit-taking than the art itself.  Schools are best judged by their practitioners and their leaders.   Pick schools with leaders that you yourself would want to emulate.


The choice of style or school may indeed be complex or difficult, but ultimately issues of compatibility come down to a gut-feeling and your comfort within any particular atmosphere.   No one style is any better than another, they just differ in their goals and appeal to different individuals.  Be sure to check out more than one school as your likelihood in succeeding in a martial art is completely dependent on how much you enjoy its practice and the people you practice with. 

- Ian Gan -