There are many reasons to begin martial arts training, at any age. Martial Arts of all styles offer many benefits such as exercise, improved balance and coordination, endurance, and confidence. However, depending on your reasoning for starting a martial art, the style you choose can have a significant effect on your experience.
Self defense is a major reason people choose to study martial arts, and it’s a very good reason. In America particular, there is a mentality that one does not need to study a martial art in order to protect oneself, all you need is a quick course in self defense training. While a self defense course is better than no knowledge at all, there are a few flaws with that type of reasoning. Many self defense tactics rely on pressure points and pain to escape an attacker. Unfortunately, these techniques do not always work effectively on an opponent, especially one who is very large or who is under the influence of any drug or alcohol. Martial arts, on the other hand, will teach you a variety of tactics, from defensive to offensive. More importantly, simply because you attended a class and even practiced the self defense tactics on your well protected opponent does not mean that you will be able to draw upon that knowledge in a real life-threatening situations. Only through regular practice and repetition will the techniques you learn become reflexive, and allow you to act without thinking first.
Exercise is another reason for martial arts training. Even attending class once a week will provide you with an entertaining cardio and strength training work out that should not get boring. (If it is boring, consider switching instructors.) All martial arts will provide some degree of exercise, and you should consider other factors such as your age and fitness level when choosing a style.
Competition is a less common reason, though with the popularity of UFC and other combative sports the reason is growing. Particular martial arts are geared towards competition more than others, and the type of competition varies greatly as well. If this is your goal, decide first what kind of competition you wish to enter, and that will direct you to the style.
With these reasons in mind, here are a list of popular types of martial arts and their strengths and drawbacks.
Karate: There are many forms of karate, but for the most part they have these things in common. Karate tends to rely on strikes, both punches and kicks, primarily, and it is a martial art that relies on strength, both of the body and the mind. It is also typically a tenet of karate to block or absorb your opponents blows rather than avoiding them or deflecting them (yes, a block is different then deflection). Because of this, karate is a great choice for people who are not necessarily fast or agile (though both are great assets for a karate student) and might not be the right choice for middle aged or small people. However, Karate is also a great basis to begin ones martial arts training, providing an excellent place to begin a martial arts study.
Tae Kwon Do: The Korean equivalent of karate, it is different enough that it is worth mentioning separately. Tae Kwon Do focuses on kicks a great deal more, and is an excellent choice for long limbed, agile people. Also, if part of your desire to study the martial arts stems from a desire to look like an action hero, (even if won’t admit that to anyone but yourself) Tae Kwon Do can teach you to do some pretty neat aerial kicks. If you are a parent looking for a martial art for your child to study, Tae Kwon Do is a popular choice since children tend to love the jumping and kicking, and have a much easier time learning than most adults. Conversely, Tae Kwon Do can be very challenging for someone who is not already flexible and agile. Tae Kwon Do does have a very active competitive circuit, but it tends towards the “point system” competitions, which accentuate speed and accuracy over strength.
Tai Chi: Made popular by David Carradine in the old TV show Kung Fu (yes, he wasn’t doing kung fu in Kung Fu. That’s Hollywood.) Tai Chi is a much “gentler” style that is excellent for people of all ages looking for a low impact workout. This does not mean Tai Chi is easy, in fact a thorough Tai Chi work out is very similar to a yoga session. Like yoga, its slow easy pace encourages practitioners to adapt a more meditative outlook to their martial arts training. Tai Chi improves circulation and balance, and can be another good choice for someone who wants a less aggressive introduction to the martial arts. However, while a Tai Chi master will have no difficulty protecting themselves, the lack of focus towards offensive techniques does not make Tai Chi a good choice for self defense.
Brazilian Jiu jitsu: A martial art that has become very popular in recent years, Brazilian Jiu jitsu is an off shoot of a Japanese form of grappling. BJJ falls into the category of submission wrestling, and the vast majority of BJJ takes place on the ground. Proponents of BJJ argue that this makes the style the best choice for self defense, as most street fights end up on the ground. Unlike Judo, BJJ does not rely on using your opponent’s clothing for leverage and holds, which makes it a more practical form of grappling. If you are interested in UFC style competition, then any training you undergo will have at least a component of BJJ, since without it you are leaving yourself very vulnerable if your opponent can get you on the ground. BJJ is also an excellent supplement to self defense training, especially for women, as there are many techniques that do not rely on size or strength that can be used against a large attacker. Some self defense experts have criticized the BJJ craze, saying that it encourages you to take the fight to the ground when that may not be your best choice. Additionally, BJJ does not teach you how to deal with multiple opponents, which is an admittedly rare, though possible, occurrence. However, if you combine BJJ with any form of striking martial art such as karate, you will find yourself equipped with an excellent knowledge base for martial arts.
Aikido and Hapkido: Two martial arts that are similar enough to be grouped together. Both focus on the concept of turning your opponent’s energy against him, using techniques such as circular movement, throws, joint locks, etc. What sets the two styles apart is that Hapkido utilizes some striking whereas Aikido does not, though they both offer weapon training at higher levels. Both are exceptionally good choices for self defense for people of all sizes and ages, but are excellent choices for smaller or weaker people. One of the favorite demonstrations of Aikido enthusiasts is the diminutive sensei tossing multiple larger opponents over and over again. Both styles are also very spiritually focused, which might be a plus or a minus depending on the type of martial art you are looking for.
Kung Fu: Arguably the most ancient martial art, an entire article could be devoted to choosing the right kind of kung fu style for you, as there are many variations of this classic style. Most importantly, kung fu is considered to be more than a martial art, it is a way of life, and as such it is rather hard to become a true student without a complete upheaval of one’s personal life. Kung fu is very spiritual, and the benefits of mastery are great, however, for a normal American the amount of dedication required to give this art the respect it deserves would be very hard to come by.
Krav Maga and other fighting systems: While not technically a martial art, Krav Maga is still worthy of a mention for the purposes of this article. Developed originally for the Israeli Defense Forces, Krav Maga is a very effective system of combat that has its basis in real life combat situations. It is an ideal style for someone interested in fitness and self defense. However, because Krav Maga is a fighting system, its focus is purely on the physical, and the added benefits of studying a martial art such as spirituality are not incorporated. Some might see this as positive rather than a negative, and the arguments constantly go back and forth between proponents of both types of styles. Another drawback worth mentioning is that Krav Maga is proprietary, which means that the right to teach it is actually sold and regulated. This means you will most likely be paying premium rates for instruction, though for many this is a small price to pay for a style that provides such high levels of fitness, confidence, and skill.
There is no rule that says you can only study one martial art, and many masters will have multiple styles under their “belts.” This article only touches on a handful of the hundreds if not thousands of martial arts styles, but hopefully it will provide you with a basis of knowledge that will allow you to choose a style that is right for your size, ability, age and goals.