Picking a Fight: How to Choose the Right Martial Art for You



The idea might sound insane to some people: You’re going to pay money so you can go to a class every few days and get beat up. But that’s just what it looks like to outsiders. There are many types of martial arts, and training in one is about much more than dealing out (and receiving) punishment. It can be highly rewarding, both for your fitness and your overall well-being.

For beginners, the hardest part of martial arts might be choosing one to start with. Picking the right one for your goals is crucial if you’re going to enjoy yourself and stick with it. To help with that decision, we’ve put together this guide to some of the main types of martial arts out there (classes for the seven disciplines below are generally easy to find). Choose one that matches your preferences, and get ready to experience a whole new way to stay fit, build mental toughness, and more.

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How to Choose From the Many Types of Martial Arts

1. Muay Thai/Kickboxing

What is it? The term kickboxing has become a blanket term to cover anything that involves punching and kicking, but Muay Thai has a few distinct features. It’s a centuries-old practice that comes from Thailand. In addition to fists and feet, it also involves knee and elbow strikes as well as a form of stand-up grappling called the clinch.

Where you’ve seen it: One of the most famous big-screen representations of Muay Thai comes from none other than Jean Claude Van Damme in Kickboxer. But if you want something more recent—and with less awkward dancing—you can check out the Ong Bak movies starring Tony Jaa. The techniques are also commonly used in the UFC.

What to expect: Techniques are learned through drilling combos on pads called Thai pads. Once you’ve learned to properly throw the strikes, you’ll move into real sparring. The sparring is mean to your shoulders and hips, but the clinch is a particularly brutal test of your core endurance.

Is it for you? If you have dreams of competing in a martial art, this is a good way to go. Many MMA fighters use Muay Thai as the basis for their striking game, and amateur kickboxing matches aren’t hard to come by. If you’re already flexible, you’ll probably have an easier time at the start, especially with the kicks. From a self-defense standpoint, Muay Thai is in the middle of the pack in terms of practicality.

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2. Wing Chun Kung Fu

What is it? One of the close-range types of martial arts, Wing Chun comes from China, and it has a strong focus on balance and a fairly rich traditional history. It also involves relaxation techniques meant to keep the body in top shape.

Where you’ve seen it: If you’ve never seen the classic martial arts flick Ip Man, it’s worth checking out. You’ll also see Wing Chun thrown into action sequences in more mainstream movies, too. The rapid punches make for exciting on-screen combat.

What to expect: There’s a lot of visualization in Wing Chun. In order to keep the body in balance, the practice teaches the idea of a center line in the body that guides every action. The attacks consist mostly of rapid strikes performed while moving forward into the opponent. The stance is also quite different from those used in other martial arts, so be prepared to be sore in odd places.

Is it for you? Wing Chun is a close-combat system, so if you have issues with personal space or slow reflexes, this might not be the martial art for you. There are very few kicks involved (most of the time), so if you’re looking to use your legs, you’ll likely be better off with something else. Many of the forms are extremely tough on the forearms—some moves involve practicing on a wooden dummy—so be prepared for bruising. But if you’re trying to improve your balance and concentration, Wing Chun is a great choice.

3. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

What is it? This ground-based grappling technique broke off from judo in the early 1900s. It rose to mainstream prominence more recently: Royce Gracie used it to dominate the early UFC tournaments. In BJJ, the object is to put your opponent in a submission hold that either knocks them out or inflicts so much pain that they have to submit.

Where you’ve seen it: If you’ve ever watched a UFC event, you’ve definitely seen BJJ in action.

What to expect: At the core of most jiu-jitsu training is what’s called “rolling,” which is basically wrestling. You’ll either be rolling gi—in which you wear a traditional uniform—or no gi, which usually just involves a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. To the untrained eye, students who are rolling might sometimes look like they’re just laying there, but it’s a very intense full-body workout. (Think Pilates in attack mode.) It’ll also give you an iron grip.

Is it for you? If your primary goal is self-defense, this isn’t the best choice, since taking a guy to the ground on the street is a bad strategy. If you have personal space issues, BJJ is your worst nightmare. But if you’re in it for sport, this might be the best martial art. BJJ tournaments are becoming more common, and you (usually) won’t end up with a broken nose if you lose. Be prepared to wear headgear, though, so you can avoid cauliflower ear.

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4. Krav Maga

What is it? The literal Hebrew translation of Krav Maga is “contact combat,” and we can’t think of a better description for this martial art. It was developed by the Israeli Defense Forces to be used in real-life combat situations. In addition to punches, kicks, and throws, it teaches you how to respond to real-life scenarios like how to disarm an attacker. Rubber knives and guns will make appearances in training.

Where you’ve seen it: Elements of Krav Maga have made their way into many action movies, especially ones about spies.

What to expect: Most Krav Maga programs involve intense workouts with lots of drills. Fighting when you’re tired is a key skill in any discipline, but most Krav Maga programs are adept at honing that ability. In addition, some of the main techniques include moves that are flat-out banned in other arts. Kicks to the groin? Eye pokes? Throat rakes? Joint breaks? All part of the game in Krav Maga—a big part.

Is it for you? If you crave contact, this is the martial art for you. There’s a lot of twisting and striking, so it’s great for your core and requires strong joints. On the flip side, all of that contact means you’ll be leaving class with bruises. When you get to the higher levels, the tests are like real fights, though don’t expect to find lots of Krav Maga tournaments to compete in. Of the martial arts on this list, it’s the most practical for self-defense, and it involves very little ground game.


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5. Taekwondo

What is it? Hailing from Korea, taekwondo is one of the broadest types of martial arts. Statistically speaking, it has more followers than any other martial art, and it’s even an Olympic sport. Attacks include punches, kicks, and throws.

Where you’ve seen it: It’s one of the most entertaining events at each summer Olympics. The discipline’s flying kicks have made their way into popular video games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

What to expect: Most taekwondo programs include a wide variety of activities. You’ll do a lot of drills and a fair bit of sparring, but training also involves learning relaxation techniques, standard cardiovascular exercises, and breaking objects like boards and bricks with your hands and feet.

Is it right for you? Because the programs can vary so much, it’s important to really check out classes in your area and observe a bit before committing. Since much of the sparring is done in full gear, there’s often a lot of stuff to buy. (That means more protection for you, though.) Because of taekwondo’s Olympic status, finding opportunities for competition should be easy.

6. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

What is it? Mixed martial arts hasn’t been in the U.S. for long, but it sure has changed a lot since the early days of the UFC. What started as a collection of fighters facing off Bloodsport-style has evolved into a mature sport with a large following and lots of nuance.

Where you’ve seen it: Aside from the UFC, MMA was also given the big-screen treatment in the movie Warrior starring Tom Hardy.

What to expect: Most MMA programs consist of several parts, including a standup element and a grappling element. They usually draws on Muay Thai techniques for striking and wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu for building up the ground game. Contact will be very common, and you can expect to leave class exhausted.

Is it for you? Because there are so many aspects to MMA, it usually requires a bigger time and money commitment than some other martial arts. But because you’re doing so much work, it usually offers a superior workout. It’s not meant for self-defense, but it isn’t the worst discipline for protection—it teaches fighters to handle a wide range of situations. It’ll also make watching the UFC a lot more exciting.

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7. Judo

What is it? Developed in Japan in the late 1800s, judo concentrates on throws and chokes and almost totally lacks strikes of any kind. Other types of martial arts, like Russian sambo and jiu-jitsu, are actually offshoots of judo.

Where you’ve seen it: There are plenty of judo elements in MMA. If you’ve ever seen the legendary Fedor Emilianenko fight, you’ve seen him use judo to dominate opponents. Also, like taekwondo, it’s an Olympic sport.

What to expect: If you want to learn strikes and how to hit, this isn’t the best choice. The only time strikes are thrown in judo are during kata or forms, which are pre-arranged fight scenarios designed to practice defending against strikes and show off the capabilities of the discipline. You can also expect to get thrown on the ground—a lot. In fact, it’s likely that every session, or at least most of them, will include practicing falling (so it’ll hurt less when you get taken down for real).

Is it for you? While it has lost some ground to jiu-jitsu, judo is still extremely popular for competition. There’s no striking, but there’s plenty of impact, and if you’re in it for self-defense purposes, it’s more practical than BJJ. If you sign up for judo, expect a full-body workout with a strong emphasis on developing your core and grip strength.

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