Have you decided to enroll in martial art training but can’t choose the types of martial arts that suit you best?
The first step in choosing the right one is to understand the different martial art styles. After that, picking a suitable style is easier since you know exactly what you want.
In this article, you will learn about the concepts and emphasis of the most popular types of martial arts.
How Many Types of Martial Arts Are There?
Throughout history, humans have created over 190 different types of martial arts. However, out of all the different martial art styles, only a handful have become popular and practiced by millions worldwide.
One could categorize all of these martial arts styles into the following five groups:
- All around (hybrid)
- Low impact styles
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the 15 most popular types of martial arts and see what each one brings to the table.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brazil)
Type: Grappling and ground fighting
BJJ is a grappling martial art developed on the judo base by the famous Gracie family in the 1920s. Thus, the entire concept focuses on grappling and ground fighting.
The main goal is to take the opponent down, secure one of many positions, and finish the fight with chokes or joint locks. There is no striking, which on one side limits BJJ in certain areas, but on the other, makes it very safe to train in as the injury rate is 9.2 per 1000 exposures.
Despite the lack of striking, BJJ remains one of the best martial arts for self-defense. Just look at how big of a role it plays in MMA and how well it matches against other styles.
Above all, BJJ allows you to neutralize the threat without causing any injuries, making it almost perfect for self-defense. People call it a “human chess” match because of the numerous variables and the importance of strategies.
The focus is on leverage, technique, balance, and coordination, not sheer power and strength, and on average, it takes between 10-15 years of practice to reach a black belt.
Wrestling is one of the oldest forms of combat that has been around since ancient times. It has been a part of the Olympic Games since day one and is very popular both in the eastern and western world.
Though it is considered a martial art, wrestling is a sport where people train how to obey the rules and win matches. So do not sign up for the wrestling classes thinking you will do many self-defense drills.
Wrestling is about taking the opponent down in the fastest and most powerful way possible. Wrestlers use different takedowns and throws depending on the style and are all very explosive in their approach.
There are many styles of which the most popular ones are: Folkstyle, Greco-Roman, and Freestyle.
Despite being a sport, wrestling is very practical in real life and superior to most other styles. For instance, wrestling has produced the most UFC champions in history, which shows you how valuable it is in freestyle combat.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
MMA is a hybrid mix of only the most practical and advanced techniques from various grappling and striking martial arts. It is the fastest-growing combat sport and works well in real life.
MMA covers most scenarios – a fight on the ground, on the feet, or in a closed or open space.
However, all of this comes at a price, as MMA is quite hard to learn. You have to be an expert in at least two separate martial arts to cover all the aspects of the sport.
Each week is a grueling mix of grappling, striking, strength and cardio workouts, and sparring, which is why the injury rate is so high and why cage fighters are among the toughest people on the planet.
Training is a mix of techniques from the following four martial arts:
- Muay Thai
Type: Hybrid (all-around)
Sambo is a Russian martial art developed for military purposes in the 1920s. It is one of the best types of martial arts and has two main styles:
- Sports Sambo – Similar to Judo, the emphasis is on throws and leg locks. There is no striking or and you are not allowed to use chokeholds.
- Combat Sambo is an all-around mix of grappling and striking techniques, similar to modern MMA. It teaches dirty tactics and brutal moves such as soccer kicks and headbutts.
Overall, Sambo is an aggressive and violent system whose primary goal is to finish the fight as fast as possible:
- Students learn how to use all limbs as weapons to strike with kicks, punches, knees, and elbows.
- They learn all types of wrestling takedowns and Judo throws.
- Once the fight hits the ground, the emphasis is on pins rather than positions and finishing the opponent with chokes and joint locks.
Muay Thai (Thailand)
Muay Thai emerged from “Muay Boran” in the 19th century in Thailand. It is often considered as the one of the top martial arts in the world, teaching its students about the mental and physical aspects of real combat. Also, Muay Thai classes are very popular among amateurs who want to get in shape as each class burns up to 600 calories.
Students learn how to strike with kicks and punches and with knees and elbows inside the clinch. It covers all the ranges on the feet, emphasizing powerful kicks and dirty fighting inside the clinch with elbows and knees.
Training also covers the basics of grappling, like trips and throws, which is always good to know in a fight. The goal is to push for a finish and throw each strike with full power to inflict as much damage as possible.
In some way, Lethwei is a more brutal version of Muay Thai. Though its roots go back to the 12th century, the modern form emerged in the early 1990s in Myanmar.
Since then, Lethwei has been, perhaps, the most brutal combat sport that is not legal in many countries outside of Myanmar.
Regarding techniques, Lethwei is very similar to Muay Thai. But what makes Lethwei so brutal is that the fighters compete bare knuckle.
They strike each other with kicks and punches without the gloves, and like that’s not brutal enough, the rules enable them to use other brutal moves such as headbutts.
It visually may look barbaric and too violent. But bear in mind that this is an advanced striking system, and this realistic approach has many benefits when it comes to real combat.
One thing is for sure, not many people can handle the intensity of the classes and competition. However, the biggest downside is that you might have difficulty finding a gym to train in.
Judo is a grappling type of martial art created by one of the most influential martial art figures, Kano Jigoro, in 1882. Judo’s origins go back to Japanese jujutsu, and the two systems share many similarities.
However, Judo was created as a “safer” or “sport” version of jujutsu.
Though practical for self-defense, modern practice orients towards competition and rules. The main objective is to secure a firm grip on the feet and execute a powerful throw to take the opponent down.
Apart from throws, judokas also use all types of trips and sweeps. Once on the ground, the key is to subdue the opponent with a pin or submit them with a choke or joint lock.
Students can only throw strikes when doing katas, but not in sparring or competition.
Krav Maga (Israel)
Type: Hybrid (all-around)
Krav Maga is a hybrid martial art style developed by the Israeli military in the 1950s. It is often seen as the best and most popular option among people who want to learn self-defense.
The reason is quite simple: Krav Maga is all about real fighting. There are no competitions, rules, or katas, just real combat.
The only main objective is to neutralize the enemy and threat in the fastest way possible. The system is a mix of wrestling, jujutsu, Judo, boxing, karate, and many other styles put into one system.
Training is very realistic and mentally intense, so much that it might feel scary.
Students learn how to deal with multiple attackers, handle basic weapons, and overall, do anything in their power to stay safe.
Krav Maga encourages you to do anything, legal or illegal, to protect yourself and the life of your loved ones. If that means you need to hit the attacker in the groin area or blast them with the glass bottle, Krav Maga instructors are fine with that.
Boxing is one of the most popular forms of martial arts that first appeared in the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BC in Greece.
In some way, it is a one-dimensional martial art style as it focuses only on mixing punches with footwork and upper body movements. But it is the simplicity that makes boxing so effective.
In terms of striking, it is one of the best when it comes to timing, distance, and automatic reactions, essential skills for any fight.
Boxing trains you to deliver fast and powerful punches in the most efficient way possible.
If you combine this with the fact that most street fights begin with one person throwing a punch, you get why boxing is so good. Each gym includes an amateur and pro group where you can learn according to your abilities and goals.
Sanda is also known as “wushu” and “sanshou.” The final version of the system emerged in 1949 as a unified version of Chinese traditional martial arts. Or in other words, Sanda is a versatile style that, at least on paper, covers all the elements of fighting.
Sanda emphasizes striking using all limbs, which makes it quite similar to kickboxing and Muay Thai. But on top of that, Sanda adds trips, throws, and sweeps from Judo and wrestling takedowns.
One important thing to note is that Sanda is a sport, and training does not include advanced self-defense drills.
Still, the skills you develop in Sanda are up there with the most effective martial arts. The only problem is that it is not as popular as Muay Thai or kickboxing in the western world.
Wing Chun (China)
Wing Chun is a style of Kung Fu that focuses on intercepting the attack with a quick, direct hand and leg strikes.
The main goal is to learn how to stay relaxed in an intense situation and maintain high awareness and self-control. This allows you to make rational decisions, apply techniques the right way, and escape unhurt.
Unlike a lot of other styles of kung fu, Wing Chun is quite practical when it comes to real fighting.
Though not as advanced as some other arts, it gives you a solid understanding of how to mix stances, punches, kicks, and various other strikes together.
The principles of stances, lines of attack, hand positioning, blocks, and use of force are very useful.
But, remember that the effectiveness and teaching methods vary too much between dojos. So before signing up for the classes, do deep research on the dojo where you want to enroll.
Type: Striking (traditional)
Karate emerged in the Okinawan Islands in the 19th century, and it is practiced by millions of people worldwide. There are many different types and forms of which the most popular ones are:
The emphasis and training methods differ greatly between the styles and, with that, the overall effectiveness. Most styles focus on mixing kicks and punches with fast footwork, and students also do a lot of katas.
Each dojo embraces strict discipline, hard work, and respect between the students.
The focus is on light contact, speed, precision, and beating the opponent without causing injuries. The only exception is Kyokushin, which is a brutal full-contact style.
Read: Karate Belt Order
Type: Striking (traditional)
Taekwondo is a Korean striking martial art that puts a lot of emphasis on fast and powerful kicks. It emerged in the 1940s, and in its initial form, it was designed with self-defense in mind.
But over the years, the emphasis has moved from real fighting to competition, which is why its reputation is on the decline.
Still, the skills you develop are very practical in real life. In training, students learn various jumping, spinning, and all other types of flashy kicks.
Punches are seen as a secondary choice as, according to the idea, kicks are longer and more powerful weapons. There are also a lot of katas, and the key is to master each move to perfection.
Type: Traditional (low impact)
Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art practiced in over 140 countries all around the world.
The concept revolves around different martial art techniques, philosophies, and religious beliefs. Thus, the main goal is not learning how to fight but how to overcome oneself through martial art practices.
That said, Aikido training does not prepare you for real combat as there is no real sparring. The entire focus is pre-arranged forms of attacks, acrobatic throws, wrist locks, and many other techniques.
Students also do a lot of breathing exercises to relax and perform different katas to perfect and memorize the moves.
On top of that, the main idea is to use these skills to defend without being violent and causing injuries. Though the concept sounds nice, fighting in the real world is a bit different. But no one could argue against the fact that Aikido has lots of health and fitness benefits.
Thus, Aikido is very popular among kids as their first and safe introduction to the world of martial arts or among elderly people looking for a low-impact workout.
Tai Chi (China)
Type: Traditional (low impact)
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art where the focus is on performing a series of martial art moves in a slow, focused, and relaxed manner.
Students learn different stances, hand and leg strikes, blocks, and movements. They do a lot of katas where the key is to focus on deep breathing, stay relaxed, and perform in a flow.
On one side, this type of martial art practice won’t prepare you for intense combat (obviously). But on the other, Tai Chi has many health benefits, both when it comes to physical and mental health.
It is a great way to reduce stress anxiety improve the range of motion and, balance, and coordination. Classes are intense enough to give your body a solid workout and improve strength and stamina.
Final Thoughts on the Different Types of Martial Arts
There are many different forms of martial arts, with each one including unique methods of teaching and techniques. The best type of martial art for you depends on your personal preference and many other factors.
Here are some final thoughts that might help you make the right choice.
If you want to develop proper fighting skills that work in real-life situations, then pick full-contact martial arts. Hybrid and striking martial arts such as MMA, Sambo, Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and Boxing teach you about real-life circumstances. These martial arts also have many fitness benefits and will quickly get your body in tip-top shape.
Conversely, you should pick martial arts like Aikido and Tai Chi if you want a low-impact workout. These won’t adequately prepare you for intense combat but are safe and have many benefits in terms of physical and mental health.
Last but not least, traditional styles such as Karate, Wrestling, Taekwondo, and Judo are great options for beginners. Training is safe, playful, and teaches proper fighting skills, which makes these styles close to perfect for kids as their first introduction into the world of martial arts.