What is the Best Martial Art to Learn?

21 Mar 2023

So you’re interested in learning a martial art. Which one should you learn? Follow these steps and you’ll find something for you.

Every Group is Different
What Do You Want From a Martial Art?
What Is Available Near You?
Try As Many Gyms As You Can
Which Place has People You Enjoy Being Around?
Which Skill Do You Find the Most Fun?

READING TIME: 7 minutes

Every Group is Different

Teaching styles, culture, and sports paradigms change from gym to gym, dojo to dojo, and instructor to instructor. While the more physically combative sports tend to be a little more uniform in response to sports competition, they can still vary wildly from place to place. Just as you might want something different from your sport than the person you’re sparring with, an instructor or owner might want something different from their organization than another person, and this tends to be reflected in how they teach. A gym that focuses on a particular competition will differ from a gym that focuses on the traditional culture, and those in turn will differ from one that focuses on self-defense. A gym without local fight competition may focus on certification, exhausting exercise, and perfection of form instead of fighting. Many gyms that focus on self-defense are there to impart a sense of confidence on their members, rather than teach them to fight. Understand that if you want to learn to defend yourself in a fight, you will want to join a gym with a lot of sparring and live interactions. A live interaction is one in which either side can win, rather than one that is scripted and pre-determined. On the other hand, if you want to learn a cool butterfly kick or break some cinder blocks, there will be dojos that are awesome at that.

What Do You Want from a Martial Art?

People seek out the Martial Arts for many reasons. Figuring out why you want to learn a martial art or combat sport will help you pick one that fits you. Like, do you want to learn a martial art or a combat sport? What’s the difference? A martial art often has a traditional lineage and philosophy packaged with it. A combat sport tends to focus on winning a fighting game within a particular ruleset. Some styles like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Taekwondo involve both Martial Arts and Combat Sports elements.

So, why do you want to learn a martial art? Do you primarily want a way to exercise? Is it just so you can move more in a fun way? Were you bullied? Robbed? Do you want a spiritual practice? Do you want to experience a culture that is not available outside of a martial competition? Do you want to be part of a storied lineage? Do you want to be flexible? Do you want to learn discipline? Do you want to fight? Do you want to be tested to your limits? Do you want to be like John Wick?

Note the MMA fighters Georges St. Pierre and Zhang Weili, who were inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Donnie Yen characters respectively. In both cases, they did not pick the styles of their preferred characters, but they did learn to do some things those characters could do. They fulfilled the spirit of those characters, rather than pursuing the art of the actors.

Now, take five minutes to list out everything you want from a martial art.

Knowing what you want from a martial art will also determine the level of risk that you’re willing to take on. If you primarily want a martial art for Spiritual Development, you know you don’t need to do anything that reliably results in concussions. If you really want to learn to fight, you will have to account for that risk.

For some common reasons people want to learn a martial art or combat sport, and examples of styles that are most commonly suited to that reason, scroll to the very bottom of the post.

Bruce Lee Graffiti in Penang

What is Available Near You?

Search out every possible martial art or combat sport within the distance you’re willing to travel. There are dojos, gyms, academies, non-profit collectives, and clubs that meet once a week in other gyms, recreation centers, and parks. Look on Facebook, Meetup, Craigslist, Google, and the relevant subreddits. Check out organization lists on the websites and forums dedicated to a particular art. Ask around. If you see someone training in public somewhere, ask them what and where they train.

When you find a gym, call and ask that gym about the other gyms in the area. They’ll be happy to tell you about their competition, if they’ve got a welcoming culture.

Make a list. Be as broad as possible with your search. Even if something doesn’t sound interesting to you or it’s something you’ve never heard of like Canne de Combat or Light Sabers, note it down.

Try As Many Gyms As You Can

Now that you have a list of all the options near you, contact them and ask them if they have trial classes. If they don’t have free trials, that’s a good sign that their primary purpose is getting money or status from you while giving you as little as possible. Or it’s an invite-only club that you were not invited to. Either way, cross them off your list. The same is true for gyms that want to lock you into a contract.

Take your time. You don’t have to try out all the gyms in one week. You can try one a week and see how each sits with you.

Before class, check your list of reasons you want to learn a martial art. After class, rank how well the class seemed to fit your goals on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is right on target and 1 is not even close.

Ranking Value from 1 to 5

If you have three goals, then rank the class in all three goals and divide by 3. For example, you go to ‘Roy’s Slapfight Dojo’. Say your goals are Cultural Appreciation, Personal Confidence, and Discipline. You then rank the gym a 1 in Cultural Appreciation, a 5 in Personal Confidence, and a 3 in Discipline. You add that up and divide by three:


So you rank ‘Roy’s Slapfight Dojo’ as a 3.

If Fitness is your primary goal, ask yourself if you got a comfortable workout. If Fighting is your primary goal, ask yourself if you got the chance to fight (even if it is a light, constrained sparring). If Spirituality is your goal, ask yourself how the training session impacted your contemplative practice outside of the gym.

Think broadly about this. Say ‘Humility’ is your goal. Just because a gym talks a lot about respect, discipline, and humility does not mean it teaches humility. To learn humility, you would need to lose in a struggle every time you train. This means you’d need a style that has a big pool of people to spar with in your area. In a big enough pool, there is always someone better than you. Then, you’ll be reminded of your place every time you train.

Which Place has People You Enjoy Being Around?

Among the gyms you’ve visited, which ones had people that you’d like to talk to again? Which ones could you see yourself hanging out with? Most importantly, which instructor could you see yourself learning from?

A good thing about martial arts gyms is that you often learn you can get along extremely well with a wide variety of people. There’s something about the ring, the mat, the cage, the pit, that does not see politics or creed- especially if they’re more about fighting. However, having people you enjoy will motivate you to advance in ways you wouldn’t if you hated everyone you trained with. The most important matches are your prospective instructors and whoever the lead competitors are. They tend to set the culture for the entire gym.

Which Skill Do You Find the Most Fun?

Now that you’ve tried all the gyms in the area, which one did you have the most fun with? What did you expect from each gym? What surprised you? This might overturn your earlier ranking, if you had so much fun with a skill that it blew your mind.

Which brings us to the end of your search. Check your list of gyms and add up the ranking for each one. Looking at the ranking should help you make your final decision.

Your journey has just begun!

There’s little stopping you from exploring other martial arts later, when your opportunities change.

List of Common Reasons People Learn Martial Arts

Self-defense: Boxing, Judo, Wrestling, MMA, MilSim, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Fitness & health: Capoeira, Group Boxing/Kickboxing Classes at a Fitness Gym
Discipline & Focus: Karate, Taekwondo, Kenpo, Wushu
Cultural Appreciation: Silat, Shaolin Kung Fu, Kalaripayattu, Kendo, HEMA, Eskrima
Personal confidence: Krav Maga, Aikido, Self-defense Dojos
Sport: Fencing, Taekwondo, Judo, Karate, Wrestling
Spiritual growth: Tai Chi, Systema, Aikido, Baguazhang
Fighting: Muay Thai, Wrestling, MMA, Dog Brothers, Bareknuckle Boxing, Combat Sambo

Of course, Every Group is Different. You might find a Kendo club better suited to fighting in your area, or a Boxing gym with a heavy emphasis on spiritual growth.

Thanks to @highstrider2254 for test-reading.