So you've decided you want to be a martial artist. Maybe you saw that new martial arts movie and want to be able to do all that fancy stuff. Maybe you've been bullied a little too much, and want to defend yourself. Maybe you want to better yourself, physically, mentally and spiritually. Maybe you just want to get a balanced workout. Whatever. So you look in the phone book for a martial arts school in your area. And then you stop. There's a lot of them isn't there? Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Karate, Capoeira, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, and so on. How on earth are you supposed to choose one thats right for you, one thats going to give you what you want? The first thing you have to do is sit down and think about why you want to train in a martial art in the first place.


"I want to be able to do the stuff they do in the movies"

This is a very common reason. My suggestion to you is Tae Kwon Do. A Korean martial art that concentrates on kicks, Tae Kwon Do's popularity has exploded in recent years do to the fact that it does, in fact, look very cool. It's all high, fast kicks, and has even become an Olympic sport.
Another possibility for you is Capoeira, or Brazilian Combat Breakdancing. Less mainstream than Tae Kwon Do, which is good for those of you who pride yourself in going against trends, Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art, developped by slaves who had to disguise their art as a dance to keep their overseers from figuring out what they were doing. Due to its dance foundations, it is a very graceful and flashy style, although it lacks the combat effectiveness of other martial arts. Breakdancing is a direct descendant of Capoeira.
The third option for someone who wants to be able to do the things they see in the movies is Kung Fu. This is actually the style in which almost all major martial arts film stars are trained. Jet Li, Jackie Chan are both practitioners of Kung Fu, and Bruce Lee was originally trained in Kung Fu before creating his own style, Jeet Kune Do. The only problem with suggesting Kung Fu for someone who wants to look cool, is that it has a very strong internal, or mental foundation, which tends to be frustrating to people who only want to learn how to kick ass with style.

"I want to be able to defend myself / beat people up"

Yet another common reason. My suggestion for anyone who falls into this category depends on the nature of their desire for fighting prowess, and their general body shape/size.
One of the most common demographics to fall into this group are women who feel vulnerable, and want to be able to protect themselves. The most obvious suggestion is a women's self-defense course, which will teach anyone the basic tricks to get away from someone who is holding you, and how to do quick immobilizing damage to an attacker to give them a chance to run away. Groin kicks, eye gouges, wrist locks, and ankle stomps are trademarks of womens self-defense classes. For a woman who want more in depth training, I would suggest someting like Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Aikido, and other arts that specialize in throws and using an attackers force against them. The simple fact is that the average woman is not as physically powerful as the average male, so it's best for a woman to choose a martial art that negates that disadvantage, instead of one that overcomes it.
The other main group is the group of people who want to kick ass, for whatever reason. They want to learn how to beat someone into the ground, and they don't want to bother with any spiritual shit. They want to fight. If you are one of these people, fear not, there is a martial art for you. It is called Krav Maga, and it was created by the Israeli military. Practitioners of Krav Maga don't even consider it a martial art, instead calling it a unarmed combat style. Its is a brutal, ugly way of fighting, concentrating on winning at all cost. It also includes improvised weapon fighting, teaching its practitioners how to use almost anything as a weapon. Fun stuff.
If you're having trouble finding a Krav Maga school in your area, your next best bet is to go with the old standby, Karate. While some styles of Karate are every bit as mental and spiritual as any other martial art, some of them are exactly what a wannabe ass-kicker is looking for. The best alternative for Krav Maga that I can think of is Uechi-Ryu, an almost masochistic style in which the practitoners spend almost as much time learning how to not feel punches as they do learning how to not get punched.

" I want to better myself physically, mentally, and spiritually"


Now you, my friend, are my kind of person. You also have the most selection available to you. For sheer martial arts purity, nothing is better than Tai Chi. One of the oldest martial arts, Tai Chi appears to be slow and graceful, an exercise routine for old people who want to stay flexible. And it is. But sped up, that gracefulness and flexibility become dangerous and very effective. Tai Chi was designed to imitate the fighting style of a striking snake. It is a very internal, or mental martial art, and is what most of todays martial arts evolved from.
Another possibility for someone looking for a pure martial art is Kung Fu, a first generation descendant of Tai Chi, which can be looked at as Tai Chi with an attitude. Made famous by David Carradine, Kung Fu is the most represented martial art in Hollywood. It includes various animal stances and styles, such as tiger, dragon, snake, and monkey, as well as the ever impressive Drunken Boxing style.
Moving away from the Chinese martial arts, we come to the Japanese / Okinawan styles, most famous of which is Karate. Karate comes in many different flavours, from the aforementioned Uechi-Ryu, to Shotokan, to Tsuruoka. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages, and its difficult if not impossible to choose a good school based on the style it teaches (Master Lee's School of Samurai Ninja Asskick-Ryu Karate should probably be avoided). Your best bet is to look into the school's history, see how long they've been around, and to watch a few classes before commiting yourself.

I just want a balanced workout
Now you are easy to please. Depending on how athletic you are, and how much your body can take, just about any martial art would be good for you. Some styles, like Krav Maga and Uechi-Ryu might not be the best idea though, as frequent minor injuries tend to interfere with regular workouts. Tai Chi would be a good one if you want to take it easy on your body, and Tae Kwon Do is on the opposite end of the spectrum, and is good for anyone who wants a high-impact aerobic workout. The rest of them fall somewhere in the middle. If its a balanced workout you want though, maybe the martial arts aren't the best thing for you. Another alternative, that gives as good, a workout, or better, without as great a risk of injury is the Pilates system of stretches.

Thats all for now folks. I know I couldn't have possibly covered all of the reasons to learn a martial art, so if you're having trouble deciding, /msg me with your reason, and I'll add it to this writeup, along with suggestions.

In my experience, the dojo or club at which you choose to study a martial art is as important as the style you choose. If you get into a good dojo or club, you'll learn more and probably stick with the style longer, thus gaining more benefits from your study. A bad club or dojo can discourage you from studying martial arts altogether; poor instruction can mislead students into thinking that they can handle fighting situations that they cannot, with injury or worse the result.

How do you choose a club? The best tactic is to select a group of styles that will likely benefit you, then narrow your choices down by dojo. As the writeup above states, the first step in this is to know what you want to gain from your martial arts study. Fitness? Competiton? Self-defense? Spirituality? Flashy moves? All these are possibilities.

The second step is to know your own physical limitations. If you're young and in good athletic condition, you can take your pick of styles. However, if you're older or out of shape or have a lingering injury, you need to investigate how the styles will affect your health. For instance, an out-of-shape 35-year-old probably shouldn't dive right into a strenuous karate class dominated by energetic 18-year-olds. Someone with a back injury should stay away from arts that focus on throwing and ground fighting like judo and jujitsu. Likewise, if you have wrist or finger problems, hapkido's focus on small joint manipulation would make it a bad choice for you.

The third step is to know your financial limitations. Arts like krav maga that have gained media attention or are otherwise experiencing a boom in popularity will often be more expensive to study than other arts. Conversely, more affordable clubs may be found at local colleges and universities. You also have to consider the indirect cost of taking a martial art, such as its effect on your health insurance. If taking karate is likely to raise your premiums, you might want to try tai chi instead (which is really kung fu slowed way down; the martial art aspects of the style become more evident at higher levels).

Every martial art (but not all sport forms) should:

  • Improve your physical fitness. After a few weeks of martial arts training, you should have better flexibility, coordination, balance, strength, and cardiovascular conditioning.

    But you shouldn't be beaten up. If you're hitting bags or practicing partner punch-and-block drills, you may be bruised up a bit -- toughening your hands and learning to take a punch is part of the conditioning process with some styles like karate, hapkido, and kung fu. Being a "uke" and practicing throwing and being thrown by your partner is par for the course in judo, jujitsu, and hapkido, and bruises come with the throws. But if you find yourself constantly injured, or if you feel you're being coerced into exceeding your body's safety limits, something's wrong.

  • Provide you with useful self-defense training. Practical styles like hapkido and Krav Maga get down and dirty with a "whatever works" approach to defending oneself. You'll learn to gouge eyes and break arms. Aikido is a highly self-defense oriented form that helps you use your attacker's momentum against them. In karate and kung fu, you'll learn to hit and kick; in judo, you'll learn to use Mother Earth as a deadly weapon.

    But self defense training goes beyond learning to maim an attacker -- your instructor should cover basic safety precautions to help you stay out of bad situations in the first place.

  • Teach you the appropriate use of your new skills. As Prophet4's writeup amply displays, a lot of people are attracted to martial arts because they want to be like Bruce Lee. They want to be badasses. While that's totally understandable, a good instructor will do his or her best to dissuade students from such notions. The instructor should teach respect for the potentially deadly power they can wield -- and they should also teach them to realize that someone's always going to be a little better, a little bigger, better armed, or simply a little more vicious than they; that special someone will hand them their asses on a dented trash can lid if said students go around picking fights at bars or schoolyards. Students should have respect for their fellow humans drilled into their skulls so that they don't go around acting like thugs and get themselves pounded, stabbed, or shot -- or hurt someone else, and end up at the receiving end of a lawsuit or jail sentence.

  • Give you a sense of camraderie and/or a social outlet. Socializing certainly should never come at the expense of learning your art; if people are standing around gabbing when you should be getting to work, that's time (and money) wasted. But if the people are cold or unfriendly and you yearn for a sense of belonging -- it may be time to seek a different club.

Some martial arts will:

  • Contain a spiritual or philosophical aspect. Many of the Chinese styles incorporate elements of Taoism or Buddhism. Some Americanized styles have grafted Christian beliefs onto the arts.

  • Involve board breaking. The point of board/brick breaking is to make sure you're striking with proper focus and force. The idea of breaking inanimate objects is appealing to some; others would rather not risk breaking their hand. This is often a dojo-dependent activity.

  • Enable you to compete in tournaments against others. Sport styles like judo and taekwondo and some styles of karate are very likely to participate in tournaments. Others do not. The more a dojo focuses on tournament competition, the less it tends to focus on real-world self defense.

  • Involve learning katas or other forms. In karate and kung fu, you will likely be tested on how you do certain forms, which are stylized attack and defense drills. Some find learning katas quite appealing; others dislike them. If memorizing moves frustrates you, you might seek out styles that do not emphasize katas. If beautiful movements appeal to you, try kung fu or tai chi or (if you're particularly athletic) capoeira.

  • Involve weapons training. To a certain extent, this will be very dojo-dependent, since some dojos may be limited by local weapons laws. It's generally a bad sign if you find a dojo willing to teach illegal weapons.

    Different styles teach different weapons:

Once you've got a handle on the types of styles you think would suit you, start visiting the dojos and clubs in your area. They should at least let you observe a class or two; some might let you try a session for free. Here are some things to consider when checking out a dojo or club:

  • Do the students seem enthusiastic and disciplined? Or are people sloppy or just "going through the motions"? Are there too many students for the number of instructors?

  • Is the students' age and size/gender range appropriate for you? Can you see yourself working out with these people? Some adults may feel awkward in a class full of teenagers, and vice versa. Likewise, a small woman may feel uncomfortable in a class dominated by large men, and vice versa. There is a safety/learning factor at work here; a strong, overenthusiastic teen can easily (and unintentially) injure an older adult whose joints aren't as flexible. Conversely, large person in a class full of smaller people may never feel that he/she can adequately practice his or her skills in partner drills. On the other hand, having a wide range of ages and body types in a class is good, because it gives students far better practice in partner drills. One will quickly learn that self-defense techniques that work on a large, muscular man will need to be modified to deal with a speedier, more supple attacker.

  • Talk to some of the students after a class. How do they like it there?

  • Are the facilities adequate and in good condition? Do the practice mats seem adequate cushioning for the amount of tumbling or throwing the style involves? Are the changing areas clean and do they offer sufficient privacy for you?

  • Do they have first aid kits and neck/backboards ready in case of accident? Are the instructors trained in first aid? Are their certifications up to date?

  • Talk to the main instructor when he/she has time. What are their credentials? What are their philosophies? Do you get the sense that you could comfortably learn from this person?

  • Does the dojo seem to focus a lot on belt tests and selling extra stuff? Too many dojos are really "belt farms" that focus more on tests (and making money off those tests) and selling cool "extras" to the students than on giving the students a solid martial arts education. If the front of the dojo seems more like a store, you might be in the wrong place.

  • Get to the nitty gritty of how much the dojo/club costs. Can you sign up for a relatively inexpensive trial period, or do you have to make an expensive commitment? If the instructor's sounding more like a high-pressure salesman, you might be in the wrong place.

One final note about choosing a club or dojo: beware of places that center on a cult of personality. Lots of dojos cultivate a sense of mystique and take an "Our art is the best! Our instructor is the best!" attitude. This can go too far, particularly if you're dealing with a smaller club/dojo that is run by a skilled, charismatic master who's on a power trip.

This happened about a decade ago at Indiana University. A jujitsu club there was run by a local man who encouraged fierce, unquestioning loyalty in his students. They accepted physical abuse from him, and he encouraged student instructors to abuse newer students. It was all justified on the grounds of "toughening up" the students. He eventually beat up and forced a female member to perform oral sex on him during a private training session. She went to the police, the instructor was convicted of sexual assault and sent to jail, and the club disbanded for several years.

The dysfunction in a bad club isn't often that extreme, but that kind of thing can happen. If you see an instructor using violence to "discipline" a student, or if club member are being pressured to live, worship, or spend their money in a certain way in line with the club's "philosophies", that's not a dojo you should probably be a part of.


References:

"Introduction to the Martial Arts" booklet. Collegiate Copies. 1997.

Burns, Donald J., An Introduction to Hapkido: A Teacher's Manual. Collegiate Copies. 1994.

Burns and Thompson, An Introduction to Judo for Student and Teacher. Kendall/Hunt, 1976.

Assorted experiences in hapkido, judo, and karate classes and conversations with practitioners of other styles, including the girl who was sexually abused, and with a housemate of 3 years who was a karate instructor.

Introduction

The write-ups in this node are great, but I thought I would add my input which presents different focus and organization. I write this to target those people who are seriously interested in practicing the martial arts but have no significant previous experience. Furthermore, this document is intended to guide someone in selecting an art, not a school. As you are likely aware, there is such a thing as a crappy school that teaches a great art. While some issues require some overlapping between art choice and school choice, I will try to avoid it when possible.


Research, Research, Research

It is simply dumbfounding how different some martial arts are from each other. This makes it very important to do a lot of research on the different arts so that you can make a good decision. If you end up choosing at art that doesn't fit you, it's likely you'll give up and never try again. But if you find something you love, it can completely change your life.

This article outlines many things you should know about each art you look at. I can't provide lists of arts, their ideas, their concepts, et cetera because that's simply not feasible.

I think that it's also important for the potential martial artist to know that most martial artists try more than one art. Even if it sounds perfect, you may try it out and find that it doesn't quite fit your taste. No big deal, just renew your research and try something new!


Availability

Obviously, you are going to need to choose an art that you can be trained in near your location. You may do your research and say, "Eskrima is definitely the art I want to practice!" but then much to your dismay, you discover there is no place to learn it within 500 miles.

Location may also help you practice more often. It's a lot easier to make up excuses for missing a class when you have to drive an hour to get there.


Physical Limitations

If you have a bad knee from an old football injury, then I wouldn't suggest something with a lot of low stances and focused footwork like capoeira. It should be pretty easy to determine which arts to rule out because of your own physical limitations as long as you learn about the styles (see below).


Safety

Some arts are more prone to causing injury than others. A huge consideration here is that of sparring. Do you want to regularly fight other students? If so, what rules are you comfortable with? Also keep in mind that the more physically intensive arts are generally more conducive to injury. Most other safety considerations are school-specific as opposed to art-specific, so I won't go over that here.


Current Body / Desired Body

What kind of body do you have? Know that many martial arts were developed in locales where race was mostly homogenous and diet was limited. This is especially true in many Japanese arts. What this means is that the art was developed by and for specific body types. As such, you may want to throw this into consideration, although honestly, it isn't much of a factor these days.

What kind of body do you want? Do you want to be large and powerful, or lean and limber? While you can always do your own body conditioning outside of the school, know that many arts are likely to build your body in a specific way.


Practicality

This is a highly argued topic, so I'll try to present this in a noncontroversial manner.

The one binding attribute of all martial arts is that they have some focus on fighting. As such, I believe that if you study any art hard enough and long enough, you will have skills applicable to real world situations.

However, I cannot deny the fact that some arts have more focus on taking techniques to the street than other arts. So really the question here is "how soon do I want to be able to fight effectively on the street?" Most arts these days provide some quick and easy self-defense techniques early in training, but after that things vary greatly.

This is another category that relies highly on what you want out of the martial arts. If real world application isn't something you desire, that is completely acceptable.


Weapons

Do you want to learn weapons? What kind of weapons? Do you want to learn modern weapons, or weapons from ancient China? Would you like to focus on swordsmanship? Or stick fighting? How about archery?

Find your answer to those questions, and then research the different arts to find what they focus on in relation to weaponry.


Style

What do you want your martial art to look like? Do you want it to be fast and fierce, or slow and graceful? Maybe you desire no aesthetic appeal whatsoever. Find high-ranking people who study whatever particular art and watch them -- see if that's what you want to look like once you reach that level.


Formality

Different styles range in formality from "very traditional" to "don't give a fuck". Some people won't be comfortable in a formal situation whereas others demand it. The best way to determine how formal an art will be is to look at its lineage, or better yet, watch a class.


Lineage

It is important to research the lineage of whatever art you may be considering. The most important reason for this is determining its credibility. Many arts will claim that their lineage is some 2,000 years old but when you actually read about its history, things seem sketchy at best.

Another important reason to look at lineage is so that you can get an idea of the conditions in which it was created and for what purpose. Was it developed in prisons to avoid getting shanked? Which part of which country was it developed, and what was going on there at the time? What kind of body type did the practitioners of that art have? What kind of diet were they on?

Also know that just because it's a "traditional" Chinese/Japanese/wherever martial art, doesn't mean that it's old. Aikido, Taekwondo, and many styles of karate aren't even close to being 100 years old. So, if you're looking something that's been in development for at least 100 years, look elsewhere.

These things can tell you a lot about the art and whether or not it will fit your desires and needs.


Spirituality

Some people seem to be under the impression that the martial arts will make you "one with yourself" or "one with the universe". This is a difficult subject, so I will tread lightly . . .

One difficulty about this subject is defining what is meant by "spirituality". You might think of it as having to do with the supernatural, or you may regard it as a word to describe our internal emotions and thought patterns. As such, I'll try to be really generic about this. Let's do this in a negative/positive format:

Mastering a martial art won't make you Buddha. Yes, there are fighting arts that will have you do various meditative exercises. But remember that these are fighting arts. Meditative practices in such cases exist to improve your fighting skills. That's a shortsighted statement, but it's important to not get ahead of yourself. What binds all martial arts is that they center around martial conflict resolution. Even if you're doing Tai Chi Chuan, which seems nice and calm, the fact remains that its real world application involves violence. You are directly or indirectly (depending on the martial art) spending a lot of brain focus on violence. It doesn't seem very conducive to enlightenment when you think about it. However, read the next mini-section and see the paradox . . .

Following the martial way is nearly guaranteed to enrich your spirit. Note how I carefully worded that last sentence. I didn't say "doing martial arts" or "learning self-defense". If you allow it to, the martial way will help you learn focus and discipline if nothing else. These are essential to a strong spirit. So in this regard, the martial arts may indeed help you find some sort of spiritual goal. But also keep in mind that it's all up to you. After all, you can find spiritual epiphanies in a bowel movement if you really want to. It all has to do with your perspective and willingness to commit.


Cost

Actual monetary cost is really more school-related than it is art-related, but I felt it was necessary to include. A lot of people don't think about the money it may cost and they often don't think about the time it will cost them.

If you don't have the time to train in the martial arts, then you won't be able to reach proficiency as quickly as you'd like. You can either wait until you have more free time in your life, or better yet, you could make some free time.

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