Two days ago I posted, "Which martial art to study?" - a reader asked me which I'd recommend. I shared my experience, but also reached out to the crowd here since I know we've got some martial artists who stop by.
Some fantastic replies.
I would tend to agree with Sebastian, it depends more on the teacher and your connection with him or her than the actual art, though some arts will be easier than others to master (depending on your body type).
There are only a few things I would add. First, Systema is not only an amazing fighting art, but actually can teach you how to be calmer. There are no forms or formal meditation or exercises, but the way it is taught and its focus on introspection achieves a lot of the same things. I have many years of kung fu and meditation experience and can tell you that it can give you amazing access to these spaces in a very short amount of time.
In addition to krav maga, I would suggest Kapap, which is related and even simpler. Also, it might be good to look into JKD (Jeet Kune Do), Kali and Penjak Silat, as they all do striking and grappling at many ranges.
If you are looking at more traditional forms that might require time, then I would also recommend Tan Soo Do, Hapkido, Brazilian Juijitsu, Hsing-I and Martial Tai-chi. They are all quite devastating, but will require a bit of time to master.
Can Sar wrote -
It really does depends on what you want to do with them but there’s definitely some good guidelines. I’ll start with my personal background on this so you have some context on where I’m coming from. I started boxing in June 2009, did about 2-3 months of that and then started Muay Thai and did that for about 2 weeks until I had to move cities. I then did Eskrima (Fillipino Martial Arts) for about 6 months (had to stop after another move) and added Krav Maga starting in November of 2009 and have been doing Krav Maga for about a year and Muay Thai (again) for about six months (currently on break). I’ve also researched this a lot when I was starting.
If you want to defend yourself in a real life situation, learn quickly, and get into great shape, Krav Maga is probably the best bet. It’s specifically designed to be effective and as easy as possible to learn. There is no flourish, no style, just raw and simple techniques for defending yourself. The teaching levels are roughly ordered by how likely you are to encounter an attack (the other part is by difficulty) so you start with learning simple (but correct) punches and kicks (to the groin) and basic choke defenses and move through knife defense to gun defense to crazy things like machine gun and hand grenade defense. A good Krav place will make do a lot of repetition and lots of drills to simulate real attacks (exhaustion, surprise, lack of light, disorientation, etc.) so that you can actually automatically perform when you are attacked. Krav does not have uniforms or other flourish but it is focused on teaching you to keep going now matter how tired or exhausted you are and react quickly.
These 2 videos will give you a great idea of what advanced Krav Maga looks like (the first one looks a little Hollywood but the techniques are right):
I don’t know a ton about Systema but if you can find a place that teaches it is probably quite good too though not nearly as widespread in the US as Krav Maga is. If you want to be able to defend against a knife attack these and Eskrima (see below) are definitely your best bet, if it’s gun defense these are probably the only game in town (disclaimer: all responsible coaches will tell you that these defenses are last resorts only and that it’s much smarter to comply whenever possible – if someone wants your wallet or your car, give it to them).
If you are interested in something that is more like a sport but still very practical or just want to improve your fighting ability I would recommend both Boxing and Muay Thai. Muay Thai (Thai boxing) is effectively boxing with kicks, knees, and elbows thrown in so it is in a sense a superset of boxing but specifically training boxing will definitely help you improve your hand work (boxing is extremely simple but getting those basics perfect makes a huge difference). Both of these generally heavily focus on sparring after a while (though if that’s not your thing you can probably opt-out at many places) and there is no better way to learn to actually fight than actually fighting (in a controlled environment, with protective gear, and with reduced force). If you want to fight in a ring do one of these or both. In Muay Thai traditional places will focus more on kicks and less on strong punches while american/dutch places will also have heavy emphasis on strong punches.
If you’re at all interested in ground fighting I would definitely throw in some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Krav Maga teaches some but is focused on keeping you on your feet (since you really don’t want to be on the floor when your attackers friend could join and stomp you on the head while you are doing your moves) and with the popularity of MMA more and more people know at least some ground fighting so it’s useful to know how to defend against it. It’s also very chess like with lots of moves and countermoves and planning ahead and one wrong step can more easily end a fight (tapout) than even in boxing.
All of the above should be widely available in any big city and also many smaller cities and decent boxing gyms probably exist in most places in the world.
If you want to learn weapons fighting on focus on that I would definitely also recommend Eskrima. It teaches knife and stick fighting from day one (knife vs. knife, hands vs. knife, hands vs. hands) and you’ll spend lots of time practicing these. The only downside is that depending on the Eskrima system there is a LOT to learn which can mean that it’s difficult to get enough practice of each technique to really be able to do it with confidence (compared to Krav Maga).
I have no personal experience with the things below but I think they are probably still roughly accurate:
If you want something more traditional that has punches take a look at the different Karate branches, if you want something traditional with throws and ground fighting look at Judo, and if you want something more traditional that’s more like a sport check out Taekwondo (especially if you want to learn lots of kicks). Kenpo Karate has more complex moves while Shotokan is more focused on hard punches and kicks but there are lots of other branches too and the gym probably matters more than the exact branch. I don’t know enough about how applicable these are in MMA style fighting to make firm statements but if you are interested in using these in real life I would try to find a gym that emphasizes sparring.
Kung Fu is a very broad term but overall has a very steep learning curve but if you like the idea of something with a lot of tradition and form behind it may be a great match.
As far as I know the focus in Capoeira is more about a mixture of art, fun, and fighting and if that is something you want to do it’s probably a great match and also a good way to get in shape. I have heard some reports of Capoeira masters being competitive against other martial arts (due to very quick movements) though if ring fighting is your goal this is probably a bad match.
As Sebastian said picking your gym is important. I drive an hour to get to mine because we have (among many other amazing people), a 10 time Muay Thai world champion, a 5 time Muay Thai world champion (both of these numbers will probably go up pretty quick), a head trainer of the US Muay Thai National Team, a US womens boxing Olympic team coach, etc. etc. Picking carefully is probably even more important in Karate, Judo, Taekwondo, and Kung Fu since these have been popular in the US for a long time and there are a lot of gyms and because of that potentially also many bad gyms.
Finally, if you want to see more about each of these you can watch Human Weapon and Fight Quest which will give you a fun overview of each. Don’t necessarily trust everything they say but I really enjoyed watching it.
Can Sar added -
A few more comments (can I edit my post?):
1) Definitely join a gym. DVDs and books are GREAT for additional review and practice but a gym will help motiviate you, meet great like minded people, teach you proper technique and give you feedback, and will be a MUCH better use of your time than self study.
2) I forgot wrestling, another great no-nonsense thing to practice. In general everything that is used in MMA is great for full contact sport fighting and is also (with some modification/additional skills) useful for self defense.
3) I forgot Aikido which is also very common in the US and is focused on redirection instead of direct force. I did 3 weeks of it in a college martial arts sampling course but don’t know a lot about it. I’ve heard varying things about it’s usefulness in self defense (grabbing someone’s arm is really hard if they continuously try to pummel you and properly recoil) but if it sounds interesting to you learn more about it since I don’t know a ton.
4) If any of these sound interesting, definitely try them and don’t let mine or anyone else’s comments discourage you. Also, even if you aren’t in good shape don’t let that stop you, the first few classes of the real physical ones will be tough but your body adapts extremely quickly. We have had people you weighed 250+ pounds in Krav class and they definitely had a hard time at first but are doing incredibly now after a few months.
Josh wrote -
Nice comment, there’s some real good advice in there.
I don’t think you’ll find a single martial art which addresses everything you’re after. Possibly prejudiced opinion: BJJ might, if you train in the right place and for long enough.
Some background: I’ve trained a couple years in Muay Thai and around three years in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I quit training MT because I felt that there simply wasn’t much more to learn, aside from just doing lots of sparring, which felt pretty tedious to me. Not a problem with BJJ, and I find sparring BJJ (‘rolling’) to be a lot more fun and inherently interesting. If you want to be effective (at any martial art), you must spar a lot.
MT and BJJ are sportier than Krav Maga and Systema, but more practical than Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, etc. MT is more than ‘boxing with kicks’, it has significantly different stance and distancing, and a whole lot of focus on clinch work, throws/trips, knees and elbows.
BJJ is mostly done in a Gi, but a lot of places train no-gi too, which is, possibly, more practical in a self-defense context. From what I’ve heard, North American BJJ schools are a lot more physical and strength-based than schools in South America and Australasia (probably due to the high-school/collegiate wrestling attitude being brought over into BJJ training). South American and Australasian based schools seem to be more focussed on ‘play’ while rolling, less on forcing a win. The Brazilian attitude is very much about the ‘BJJ lifestyle’ and “mental discipline, relaxed awareness and control,” as you put it, although you probably wouldn’t see much of that until you’ve been training a while. BJJ is also a ‘live’ martial art, it’s constantly being reinvented, unlike Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, etc.
I think that a mix of MT and BJJ is very practical and will provide you with a well-rounded set of skills for self-defence (striking, wrestling and submission skills). IMO if someone pulls a weapon on you, you’re basically screwed regardless of wether you’ve trained disarms or not.
I would give you two cautions:
1) I have observed that if you’ve never trained in a martial art before, it will probably take you around 6 months get to a minimal level of competence (i.e., to not be a danger to yourself and others).
2) BJJ has a tendency to become a bit of an obsession for many people. I am one of those people. Not that I think that’s a bad thing, but fair warning.
Oscar wrote -
I think that while choosing a martial art with a fast learning curve is important, you should aim to find something that helps you develop your body and mind. For that reason I would do something that’s both for defense both for self defense. I did sanda, which is chinese kickboxing, but similar ones are muay thay and boxing, although I don’t like boxing because you don’t use kicks (and in a real situation you use everything). I wouldn’t do kungfu, because in order to learn self defense it would take you many years. I recently took a few classes of jeet kune do, and I liked it and I think it’s worth some exploration. That said, anything you’ll choose will require some months of hard training, don’t give up.
Rafael Santos -
I’ve been for a long time interested in martial arts and early this year I started fighting kung fu. I really disagree with this steep learning curve argument. In only 10 months of training I managed to achieve about 70% of progress from most people that have been fighting for 2-3 years. It is entirely up to you, a very difficult work of self discipline and commitment.
Gyms are important, but more important I would say it is the people that train with you. Our Grandmaster here always endorsed a family-like ambient, and I would have learned much less if it wasn’t for all the friends I’ve made that have helped and taught me alot, either by correcting, incentivating me or by kicking my ass in a fight. Most of them also had had other martial arts experiences which also adds to the fight and learning.
About what style to fight, my motivation has always been self-defense from almost any situation, so that made me chose kung fu, as it is a very complete martial art that teaches you not only to fight with your bare hands, but with pratically any weapon and even improvised ones. I’ve chosen my style (Yau-man, which is a very rare style, there are only 3 known gyms in the world) because it is prety different from most kung fu styles, focused a good deal on close combat, having less acrobatics and no animal movement inspiration, differently from other kung fu styles and it is a style that was conceived around 500 years ago and was created to specifically counter any other kung fu style. Other aspects that influenced my decidion was my Master and Grandmaster background and from trainings I’ve watched before choosing.
I think some martial arts are superior to others, and that has to be taken into consideration, for example, learning boxing won’t exactly protect you against Muay Thai kicks, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu won’t protect you from 2-10 guys or someone with a stick and experience in fighting with it, so I would take that into consideration, it all depends on your goal.
“emphasizes mental discipline, relaxed awareness and control”: I would risk to say that almost all complex martial art needs those. Also, all of them will probably benefit from raw strength, athleticism and physical toughness, but sure, there are some that require more than others. For example, I can fight kung fu against a tall and heavy person, I just need to be more careful with weigh shifting and being closer to him, so he doesn’t get space to hit me with full power, but in jiu-jitsu, it will be much more difficult to unlock myself if I get caught, needing more raw strenght to do that.
I would start listing all the gyms near you, selecting those more interesting, watching classes, asking about it and its origin, master/grandmaster’s background. Also consider the people fighting it and the complexity/purpose of the martial art.
The only martial art I have any real experience with is Aikido. I loved it; I’d still be doing it if my knees would let me. If you’re looking for ‘mental discipline, relaxed awareness and control’, it has that, in spades. I also really liked that it’s not a sport, and there is no competition (in some styles there is, but they’re a minority, and I have no experience with it).
But it’s true what Sebastian said: it’s not easy or fast to learn. It’s also usually very traditional, ritual and hierarchical, so you’d have to like/not be put off by that, and be prepared to learn some Japanese terms. I’d also like to second what other commenters have said: it’s very very important to get an instructor you get on well with, and a dojo/gym/whatever with a good atmosphere.
An advantage of Aikido is that it teaches safe falling, which can come in very useful in daily life.
I had the same question a few years ago, and had to decide between Brazilian jiu-jitsu and krav maga. After learning a bit from both, I believe that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the ultimate martial art. One will benefit immensely, both psychologically and physically: 1) the motto, at least in the original Gracie school, is that a body is as strong as its weakest link (very similar in krav maga) and 2) you will work a lot on how to stay “in the game” when under stress/aggression (unlike krav maga where the focus is on “kick and run”). The reason that people find it so addictive is that even if you are in a disadvantage against a bigger adversary, you can still manage a win. Just watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qwci1m1ztHk
Thanks for all the excellent insight replies, guys. I'm really honored to have such a cool, knowledgeable, helpful readership.