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What is Martial Arts?

What are Martial Arts?

Today, when most people think of Martial Arts it is of the traditional arts of East Asia – which were popularized in Bruce Lee movies with varieties of Kung Fu (Chinese origin), or even Western movies such as The Karate Kid (Karate = Japanese origin). Interestingly, Boxing and Wrestling are still considered forms of Martial Arts, despite not having East Asian origins. Martial Arts are systems from many different cultures practised for a variety of reasons: military/law enforcement, self-defence, competition/sport, and even spiritual development.

What are the different types of Martial Arts?

Martial Arts can be generally classified into armed or unarmed combat varieties.

Armed combat Martial Arts Include:

  • Kendo (Japanese sword fighting),
  • Eskrima (Filipino knife/stick fighting)
  • Fencing (Historical Western Fencing – today an Olympic sport).
  • There are also some styles that involve the use of both weapons and unarmed techniques:
    • for example Kung Fu, Ninjitsu, Krav Maga, etc.

Kendo competition

Kung Fu/Wushu competition: training with a variety of weapons and unarmed techniques

Unarmed combat styles can be subdivided into:

  • Grappling” orientated style (close-range, seizing of opponents),
  • “Striking” style (hitting opponents).

Grappling-based arts aim to physically control opponents, through the use of dominant positioning, takedowns and/or submissions (forcing the opponent to give up).

Grappling-based examples include:

  • Freestyle and Greco-Roman Wrestling,
  • Judo
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition: applying an armlock to get the submission.

Striking-based arts aim to inflict physical damage upon the opponent utilising a variety of weapons including punches and/or kicks (and even elbows and knees in some forms), all whilst minimizing damage taken.

Striking-based examples include:

  • Boxing
  • Kickboxing
  • Taekwondo
  • Karate.

Boxing: The “Sweet Science”

There are also numerous Martial Arts that perform both styles of techniques to an extent:

Muay Thai: which is predominantly based in Striking, but does involve clinch wrestling (Upper body grappling) and throws.

Combat Sambo: a predominantly Grappling Martial Art that does involve striking opponents whilst standing.

Muay Thai clinch: A grappling position that you can strike from.


What’s involved in Martial Arts training?

All martial arts will involve the Drilling of techniques/forms (aka “Kata” in the Japanese arts) to initially learn and hone different techniques. Repetition here is key to reinforce the neural pathways involved in physically performing a technique, till it becomes automatic. In striking-based arts – this can often be performed solo, with progression to striking a bag/pads or performing on a partner. For the grappling-based arts, techniques usually require a partner to drill them properly, with solo drills being less valuable as much..

Kata: technique drilling by young Karate students  

Most Martial arts also engage in some form of conditioning/fitness training – particularly those that have a competition/self defense element as well. This can involve stretching, strengthening exercises, and aerobic/anaerobic conditioning. The aim of this is to not only condition the body for the movements involved, but to condition the mind to deal with stress and persevering through pain.

Skipping rope: classic method of conditioning the calves to encourage boxers to stay on their toes.

Some Martial arts engage in sparring (practice fighting), where students actively try to employ their techniques against a live opponent – at varying intensities. The Striking-based Martial Arts generally tend to control the intensity of sparring very closely (especially for beginners), due to the increased risk that comes with getting hit. Common restrictions may be elimination of head strikes, wearing of 16 oz gloves, etc.

Sparring: Two kickboxers engaging in light sparring.

Grappling-based Martial Arts generally allow for close to full intensity sparring (or “Rolling” as it is known in BJJ) as the risk for injury is relatively lower compared to striking. The martial arts that involve submissions also practise “tapping out”, where an opponent can submit/yield to a submission hold before an injury occurs. It is also common courtesy in training to not overly force a submission, and to give your opponent time to submit.

Rolling: Woman on the bottom setting up a “Kimura” shoulder lock on her partner 


Which is the best type of Martial Art for me?

The best martial art for you is all dependent upon your goals, your age and training background, and of course, whichever one you find most enjoyable! As mentioned previously, you can generally narrow down your options into either armed vs unarmed, and furthermore into more grappling vs striking styles.

You will find many different training philosophies and training methods amongst the various disciplines, so it is important to find one that matches your personality and needs.

Some Martial Arts advocate an aggressive approach – where the goal can be to strike first, and incapacitate your opponent (e.g. Krav Maga, Lethwei).

Conversely, there are some that advocate a more passive approach – where the goal is to counter your opponent’s offence by using their own force/momentum against them (e.g. Tai Chi, Aikido).


Aikido throw: redirecting opponents incoming force by manipulating the opponents wrist

If your goal is to improve your physical fitness, I would suggest picking a Martial Art that promotes a high workload and emphasises physical conditioning. Generally, the competitive “Sport” Martial Arts tend to display these kinds of qualities.

The most popular of these include: Boxing, Kickboxing/Muay Thai, BJJ, Judo, and Wrestling.

If your goal is to improve your Self-Defence skills, there are a few specific traits I would recommend in a Martial art to defend yourself on the street:

  • Sparring – it is one thing to drill a technique against a static, yielding opponent, and another thing to perform a technique against a live, resisting opponent that is trying to do the same to you. Sparring not only improves your skill proficiency, but also your ability to deal with the mental stress of the situation.
  • Drilling of “taboo” techniques – especially important for women or those with a significant size disadvantage. These include striking or targeting vulnerable areas (e.g. groin strikes, eye gouging, hair pulling, finger manipulations, etc), or using whatever objects are at hand against the opponent (e.g. sticks, bottles, etc). These can be the most effective techniques for street defence as they can temporarily incapacitate an opponent to allow you the chance to run away or call for help. Remember – there are no rules in life or death situations.
  • Encouraging Situational awareness – being aware of surroundings to look for escape routes, number of attackers, or even objects to utilise against the attacker/s.
  • Incorporating Weapons training: being familiar with different weapon types and how to evade/or even disarm an attacker.

An example of a Martial Art which specifically trains the above is Krav Maga – an Israeli art that was originally created for military use in the Israeli Defence Force. It is an amalgamation of a number of different techniques from other disciplines e.g. Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, etc – with added weapons disarmament training.

Krav Maga: weapon disarmament and targeting vulnerable areas i.e. eyes


Are Martial Arts safe?

Training in Martial Arts, just like any other type of contact sport, inherently comes with risk of injury, to varying degrees. The Martial Arts that practice sparring tend to carry more injury risk due to there being a resisting opponent. Each category of Martial Arts carry their own unique sets of injuries:

Generally Striking-based Martial Arts carry more risk of contusions (bruises) and cuts due to the traumatic nature of taking a strike. There is also risk of concussion from head strikes – though most styles will incorporate strict guidelines to minimise this i.e. utilising strikes to the body only, “play/flow sparring” (lighter intensity sparring), limiting sparring only to intermediate/advanced practitioners, etc. Most styles will also place age restrictions on when head strikes are allowed.

Head strikes are often restricted for kids/teens, or head gear may be used.

Generally the Grappling-based Martial Arts carry more risk of joint sprains and muscle strains, due to the nature of applying submissions and performing takedowns. All styles promote strict guidelines on immediately letting go of a submission once the opponent has tapped out, and some styles, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, restrict beginners from engaging in more high-risk submissions or positions as well to minimise chance of injury.

Leg locks: often restricted to advanced practitioners due to the higher risk of injury 


How long does it take to be proficient? How long till I am “black belt” level?

Every individual Martial Art has its own rate of progression. And not all martial arts use belts for progression either. The East Asian styles tend to use belts as a progression (e.g. Karate, Taekwondo). South-East Asian styles (e.g. Muay Thai) and most Western styles (e.g. Freestyle Wrestling) don’t utilise belts, and instead students often utilise years of training as the measure of experience.

Unfortunately the road to reaching “black belt” level proficiency is a long and hard one, regardless of the martial art. All require consistent training, effort, and dedication to master the art. Generally, most martial arts require at least 4-6 years of consistent training to become proficient. This can vary depending upon your age, your own individual learning curve, and your teacher/sensei (their teaching methods and grading expectations). There are some Martial Arts that can take even longer – for example: the average time it takes to receive a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is 10 years.


Final thoughts

When choosing a Martial Art to start training in, remember what your goals are and choose one that aligns the closest. Do your research before starting and get to know the basics of what the Martial Art entails. Don’t be afraid to trial out different disciplines – a lot of gyms will offer trials for beginners. If you enjoy it, and it aligns with your goals, then perfect! There are many different styles out there that will cater to most people’s needs so don’t be afraid to try, be safe and have fun!