The idea might sound insane to some people: You’re going to pay money so you can go to a place every couple of days and get beat up. But, joining up to study a martial art can be extremely rewarding for your fitness and your overall well being. Picking the right system to study is crucial if you’re going to enjoy yourself and, ultimately, stick with it. Here’s a quick guide to help you figure out which one is right for you. And this list is just a start. There are plenty of other areas of study out there to explore, but these seven are likely the easiest to find.
What is it? The term kickboxing has become kind of 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, predictably, 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 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 extremely common 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 some 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 any dreams of competing, 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, it’s in the middle of the pack in terms of practicality.
WING CHUN KUNG FU
What is it? This close-range martial art comes from China with a focus on balance and a fairly rich traditional history. It also often involves relaxation techniques meant to help keep the body in top performing 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 it thrown into action sequences in movies, too. The rapid punches make for exciting on-screen combat.
What to expect: There’s a lot of visualization to be done when it comes to Wing Chun. In order to keep the body in balance, it teaches the idea of a center line in the body, which guides every action. The attacks consist mostly of rapid strikes performed while moving forward, into the opponent. The stance is also different from other martial arts, so be prepared to be sore in odd places.
Is it for you? It’s a close-combat system, so if you have issues with personal space or slow reflexes, this will be a particularly bad choice. There are very few kicks involved (most of the time) so if you’re looking to use your legs, you’ll likely be better somewhere else. And many of the forms are extremely tough on the forearms—especially the ones with the wooden dummy—so be prepared to wear a long-sleeved shirt to work for a while. But, if you’re trying to improve your balance and concentration, it’s a great choice.
What is it? This ground-based grappling technique broke off from Judo in the early 1900s. It really started to come to prominence when master Royce Gracie used it to dominate the early UFC tournaments. 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. And while some of it may look like they’re “just laying there,” it’s extremely fatiguing on just about every muscle in the body. 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. Also, if you have personal space issue, this is your worst nightmare. But, if you’re in it for sport, this might be the best. BJJ tournaments are getting easier to find all the time and you won’t end up with a broken nose (most of the time) if you lose. Be prepared to wear headgear, though, to avoid cauliflower ear.
What is it? The literal Hebrew translation of Krav Maga is “battle contact” and we can’t think of a better description. It was developed by the Israeli Defense Force to be used in real-life combat situations. In addition to punches, kicks and throws, it teaches real-life scenarios like how to disarm an attacker. Rubber knives and guns will make appearances.
Where you’ve seen it: Again, elements of Krav Maga have made their way into movies, especially ones about spies. Discovery’s Fight Science series also has some great demonstrations of exactly how burly Krav Maga practitioners can be.
What to expect: Most Krav Maga programs thrive on intense workouts with lots of drills. Fighting when your tired is a key skill and most Krav Maga programs are extremely adept at getting you to that point. Also, some of the main techniques involve stuff that’s flat out banned in other arts. Kicks to the groin? Eye pokes? Throat rakes? Joint breaks? All part of the game. A big part.
Is it for you? If you crave contact, this is for you. There’s a lot of twisting and striking, so it’s great for your core and requires strong joints. But, all of that contact means you’ll be leaving classes with bruises. And when you get to the higher levels, the tests get to be fights. But, on the list, it’s the most practical and involves very little ground game if that’s not your thing. Just don’t expect to find any Krav Maga tournaments to participate in.
TAE KWON DO
What is it? Hailing from Korea, Tae Kwon Do is one of the broadest forms of study. 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. There are also probably plenty of gyms in your area that teach the techniques. The flying kicks make their way into may video games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, too.
What to expect: Most Tae Kwon Do programs include a wide variety of activities. You’ll do a lot of drills and a fair bit of sparring, but there are also other things like relaxation techniques, standard cardiovascular exercises and the ever-popular act of breaking crap 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 the gym 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. And because of its Olympic status, finding opportunities for competition shouldn’t be tough.
What is it? Mixed Martial Arts hasn’t been in this country for long, but it sure has changed a lot since the early days of the UFC. What started as a collection of fighters from strict background facing off Bloodsport-style has evolved into a mature sport with a huge following and lots of nuance.
Where you’ve seen it: Aside from the UFC, which will be making its way to Fox in early November, it was also given the big screen treatment in the movie Warrior starring Tom Hardy. There are also plenty of “cage fighting” scenes in movies that should be totally ignored if you don’t want to sound like a jerk.
What to expect: Most MMA programs consist of several parts, including a stand-up element and a grappling element. Muay Thai is common for striking and wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are extremely common for the ground aspect. Contact will be very common and you can expect to leave exhausted most nights.
Is it for you? Because there are so many aspects to MMA, it usually requires a bigger time and money commitment than some other schools. But, because you’re doing so much work, it usually offers a superior workout. It’s not meant for self-defense, but isn’t the worst since it teaches fighters to handle a lot of diverse situations. It’ll also make watching the UFC a lot more exciting.
What is it? Hailing from Japan in the late 1800s, Judo concentrates on throws and chokes, almost totally lacking strikes of any kind. Other marital arts like Sambo and Jiu Jitsu are actually off-shoots of Judo.
Where you’ve seen it: Again, there are plenty of Judo elements in MMA. If you’ve ever seen the legendary Fedor Emilianenko fight, you’ve seen him use Judo and Sambo to dominate opponents (at least until recently). Also, like Tae Kwon Do, it’s an Olympic sport.
What to expect: If you want to hit people, this isn’t the place to be. The only time strikes are thrown are during kata or forms, which are pre-arranged fight scenarios designed to practice defending against strikes and show off the capabilities of Judo. 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 be spent practicing falling so it’ll hurt less when you get taken down.
Is it for you? While it has lost some ground to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo is still extremely popular when it comes to competition. While there’s no striking, there’s still plenty of impact and if you’re in it for self-defense purposes, it’s more practical than BJJ. It’s a full-body workout, but your core and your grip will get the worst of it.