The martial arts are literally the “arts of warriors,” but they’re not only for summoning your inner Chuck Norris. They can be a great way to get fit, stay that way — and learn a little self-defense.
Programs like the Ultimate Fighting Championship have brought an explosion of energy back to the martial arts that we haven’t seen since we all practiced Bruce Lee moves in the living room. The mixed martial arts perfected by the UFC’s professional fighters, including jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling, have also created a new wave of wannabe warriors.
If you want to get involved in an activity that strengthens your body and your attitude, it’s easy to get started in a martial art.
Step 1: Find your reason
Frank Shamrock, a seventh-degree black belt and a five-time undefeated UFC middleweight champion, is the author of Mixed Martial Arts for Dummies. He sees a lot of people just starting out.
“The goals of my students are always the same: to get in shape and build confidence,” Shamrock says. “But there are misconceptions; this is not an entertaining hobby. It’s making personal sacrifice and learning about yourself from fighting.”
Whether you’re looking to drop a few pounds or set an example for a child, there can be myriad reasons to take up a martial art.
Mark Howard, a National Academy of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer who owns martial arts studios in Tucson, Arizona, says that if you come in for the wrong reason, you won’t last long.
“Have the right attitude when you start. Nobody expects you to be in top shape right out of the gate,” Howard says. “And don't come in thinking that you are going to kick everybody's ass. Just come to class on time, learn everything as quickly and thoroughly as you can, and sweat just like everyone else in class.”
Step 2: Find your art
Each martial art has a distinct technique, and there are hundreds of styles practiced around the globe. These are the basics:
Ju jitsu: This art does not use weapons and teaches you to use your opponent’s strength and force of attack as a weapon against him. You’ll learn holds and attacks that can stop a stronger or bigger attacker in his tracks. Hopefully.
Kung fu: This art teaches how to strike opponents from a low stance and uses powerful blocks. This is the martial art of China and was perfected by monks at the Shaolin Temple for both health and self-defense.
Judo: This art is a grappling style that teaches you how to wrestle and throw opponents. You’ll learn to force an opponent into submission by techniques like joint-locking the elbow or executing a choke. A focus is also on kicking and punching and how to use various weapons. Somehow, judo translates from Japanese to English as “the gentle way.”
Muay Thai: This is not a drink with an umbrella. This art originated in Thailand and Southeast Asia and is the great grandfather of kickboxing. It teaches a discipline of kicking and is referred to as "The Art of the Eight Limbs," as the hands, shins, elbows and knees are all used.
Karate: This is Mr. Miyagi’s art. Like that star of the Karate Kid movies it originated in Okinawa and teaches striking through kicks, punches, and blocks. You’ll use a number of muscles and get an all-around workout while gaining coordination and agility.
Tai chi: This art utilizes slow and flowing movements. You learn to use your body weight to your advantage, as well as relaxed and deep breathing for overall balance. But don’t let that crouching tiger fool you; as a martial art, Tai Chi is essential for building stamina to stay on your feet.
Tae kwon do: The world's most popular martial art (in number of students), this Korean fighting art is characterized by graceful and powerful movements. This discipline places a great emphasis on offense and teaches kicks and a system of blocks, punches and open-handed strikes.
Step 3: Find your school
“A good place to learn will understand your physical needs and your goals,” Shamrock said. “But you need to see if the place looks and smells good, because if the community isn’t looking after itself, it won’t look after you.”
You’ll most likely attend a class at the same time every day or week, so choose a location nearby so you won’t be tempted to skip class. Before signing up, try to attend more than one class at each school to get a good feel for the environment. After you join, you’ll be shelling out a monthly fee or club dues. Prices vary, but generally they are under $50 a month. You should also ask about additional costs for things like belt test fees or club tournaments.
Most important is the instructor, Shamrock says. Check the instructor's teaching style and how he berates or coaches students. In many schools, the beginners' classes are taught by junior instructors, which isn’t a bad thing if you can deal with a teenager who knows he could round house the taste out of your mouth.
Step 4: Make it through day one
Michael R. Berger, a sixth-degree karate black belt and author of Masterclass Karate: Kicking Techniques, has taught martial arts in San Pedro, California, for more than 30 years. He sees a lot of first-day jitters.
“Most people think they’ll be thrown into a fight on the very first day,” Berger says. “This will never happen. You’ll start with the fundamentals, and this will go on for weeks or months before you come close to anything like fighting.”
On day one, you can expect to learn how to make a fist and stances. Your instructors should walk you through stretching and proper breathing. Most classes focus on conditioning drills, reaction drills, and when you’re ready, sparring.
Step 5: Reap the health benefits
“Numerous benefits can be obtained from training. Not only physical strength, but flexibility and aerobic conditioning,” Berger says.
Berger says he’s seen countless students become leaner and stronger as they've learned skills that are fun and challenging. Beyond that, he says a session of martial-arts training can help you develop bone, tendon and ligament strength and increase your coordination and balance.
Step 6: Get your gear
You'll need a uniform eventually, but the school may let you go a few classes in your sweatpants. Not many are going to let you get serious without safety equipment, however.
What you need depends on the art. Get familiar with terms used to describe your style of uniform. For example, karate gear is called karate gi, and judo uniforms are called judo gi. In tae kwon do, your uniform is known as your dobok.
You’ll quickly learn the uniform basics, such as how drawstring waistbands are better than elastic as they’ll cinch tighter during training. A "traditional cut" training uniform is long pants with long sleeves, and a "tournament cut" has no sleeves and shorter pants.
Your instructor will let you know exactly what you need and may sell all the equipment at your new dojo, the Japanese word for martial-art school. Your school should at least require a mouthpiece and a groin cup, gloves, shin pads, and headgear, which together could run you $100 to $200.
Step 7: Going the distance
Andrea Wieland, PhD, is a sport psychologist, Olympian, and former CEO of the Denver-based International Center for Performance and Health. She trains executives, elite athletes, and sports teams in healthy lifestyles. She says if you start in the martial arts, stay in it to win it.
“Sometimes improvements come in millimeters that you can barely notice in the short-term,” Wieland says. “Your training has to continue with an optimistic attitude toward the fun of having a challenge where you can push yourself without being overwhelmed. Momentum is a motivating factor, as success breeds more success.”