Choosing a Martial Arts Style

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In Choosing a Martial Arts School, I stated that the instructor may be the single most important of the variables in choosing a school, and the quality of the Students is a reflection on the teacher. But they are not the only factors. Here is some information on what to expect from different styles, cultures and arts. This information can help you choose a "style" as well, and maybe give you a starting point.

Choosing an Style

You should decide what you are looking to get out of the Martial Arts, and do not be afraid to ask the instructor about those points. There are Sport Arts (Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Tournament Karate), Striking Arts (Karate, Chinese Boxing, Tae Kwon Do), Grappling Arts (Aikido, Jujutsu, Ch'in Na) and Weapon Arts (Kyudo, Kendo, Escrima). Arts have different philosophies and goals, you need to pry a little to learn what those are. You should decide which one interests you, and then look into the schools that teach that style, in your area.

Cultures effect the arts, so we look at "Style" and origin of an art to see what its influences and philosophies are likely to be. Many arts are effected by the culture they are taught in, and the beleifs of the instructors. So if you get an American Instructor there is a good chance that he will teach a more Americanized version than an instructor from somewhere else. This can be good or bad depending on what you are trying to get out of the Art. It is easier for people to understand people of their own cultures -- but if you are trying to get the other culture out of the art, then you should make sure that the instructor knows that culture well.

Over-generalizations on styles, cultures and schools

Chinese Schools

The Chinese arts are the most difficult to classify because China is the largest of the countries, and has great varieties of people, climates, terrain, philosophies, and so on. About the most consistant thing in chinese arts is that the Chinese are a people who value their mystacism and secrets. But we can break the Chinese arts into some sub-catagories to understand them better.

  • Internal Arts[1] tend to be very "soft" and relaxed (such as Tai Ch'i Ch'uan). These can be good exercise, especially for the physically unfit. It usually takes more time for an Internal Art to be applicable in a self defense situation, than an External Art. But there is a lot of value to the "peace" learned, and the concepts of internal power (Ch'i)
  • External Arts[1] are more "hard" and physical (Ch'uan Fa's). External arts are more likely to show immediate self defense application. But the External Arts can also be broken into two groups:
  • The Northern Chinese Arts evolved using many kicks, and often high kicks. The stances tend to be tall (upright), and use long range attacks. These arts are ofen a bit "flashier" in their movements -- definitely good looking stuff for forms and movies.
  • The Southern Chinese Arts use low, powerful stances. The length of the attacks varries greatly between schools. These can varry in look -- and are often sort of "small" in movement, and kind of choppy compared to the Northern Arts, but they can pack a deceptively powerful punch.

Because of the Mysticism in the Chinese Culture, they tended to do things like observe nature, and try to harness the power of nature, by mimicing movements (force) in their arts. So many Chinese Arts have an influence of some Animals (or nature) in their name and in the motions. But because of the size and history of wars, people moving, and systems being taught across borders, none of the generalizations are 100% applicable, any more than trying to generalize about the south and north in the U.S.

Japanese / Okinawan Schools

Japanese Arts in general tend to be very disciplined and formal. If you are looking for a "laid back" class, with a relaxed atmosphere, this is probably not it. These classes tend to be structured to ritualism. The Okinawans don't always appreciate being grouped with the Japanese -- but stylistically, they had a lot of influence on many Japanese Arts, and this is reflected in the similarity between the styles.

Japanese schools have "hard" and "soft" (external or internal) arts, like the Chinese. But the breakdown is sometimes hard to fathom, and less clear. Often the weapon arts, and most schools of Aikido, tend towards "soft" (internal) -- and in fact permeate the art with the philosophy. But even many of the "hard" styles (like Shotokan) work on the philosophy as well (in a slightly different way).

In Japanese schools it is sometimes important to know whether a school teaches a -DO art or a -JUTSU art. Since this is usually a suffix on the art taught, this is not difficult to find out (examples: Aiki-DO or Aiki-JUTSU, Ju-DO or Ju-JUTSU).

  • The DO arts tend to teach a philosophy involving their beliefs in the art. These DO arts tend to be more formal, and modern. Sometimes this modernization affects the teachings. Judo is a modern form of JuJutsu emphasizing competition; even though this was not the founder, Jigori Kano's, intent. Aikido is a modernization of AikiJutsu towards shinto philosophy; "blend with the opponent (and his force) and nature". Some people value this added "WAY", while others find it hindersome to their goals (especially if that goal is only defense).
  • The JUTSU arts tend to be the "older" styles, and more traditional. These arts tend to be less formal, and less modern. Sometimes these arts have a greater risk of injury, due to their traditional training methods. Many times these training methods are more practical for defense and worth the risk of injury -- especially if we are living in a feudal society (or inner-city, which is the same thing). These arts tend to focus on using techniques for knowledge and self defense.
  • The Weaponed Arts are in their own category. They are usually DO arts (KyuDo, KenDo), but not always. 'DO' schools teach self discipline, patience and philosophy, by learning a particular (archane) weapon. Their application in self defense, in modern society, is limited; but the philosophy and character learned in class, can be applied through out ones life.

Korean Schools

Korean Arts in general work on high kicks, spinning techniques, and usually require some "breaking" (destruction of wood or bricks). Their classes are usually very disciplined (lightly militant). There is usually a lot of sparring in many Korean Schools. They are favored among competitor types, people that want to go to tournaments (and win), or people that want to be able to "show" what they have got. For children these arts are usually really good for discipline and for "bringing out" shy kids (self confidence).

Tae Kwon Do, Hwa Rang Do, Tang Soo Do, Kuk Sool all tend to work on the more flashy parts of the arts (relative to others). They work on power, discipline and competition. These are striking arts, but most also teach some grappling techniques. But for every rule in life their seems to be an exception. And some Korean schools don't fit the stereotype. Some HapKiDo schools can be far more like an Aikido Class (where the art derived from) than another Korean school.

One of the hardest things in the martial arts to control is ones own ego. Competitive arts (like most Korean Arts) tend to do the worst job at this because they are have to inflate the ego enough that the student makes a good competitor. I have met many excellent Martial Artist from Korean and other competition oriented schools, but sadly I have also met the worst from them as well. There is a balance that must be maintained and weighted at all times. Competition and Korean schools are perfect for some kids (and Adults). But for those with too much ego, it can also be like throwing Gasoline on a fire.

Filipino Schools

Escrima, Arnis and Kali are becoming more common. These arts are generally taught in a relaxed atmosphere, with an emphasis on drills. The majority of the time in class, will be spent practicing with a partner using stick(s) or empty hands. Knives (wood or dulled) will probably be added later. Sparring empty handed and with sticks or other weapons may also be taught. These arts are useful for close in fighting with empty hands, and they also work well against opponents with sticks or knives.

The classes are usually extremely informal, and if you are striving for external discipline these schools are unlikely to meet your needs. Because of the more casual nature, there is often not as much seperation between ranks -- and it may be more possible to make "friends", even being more friendly with the instructor (in other arts a student must be far more aware of his place). Even though these arts are based around weapons, they are amazingly practical in the modern world (far more than say archery or a long sword).

American Schools

This is deceiving, there are no "true" American Arts, other than ones practiced by the American Indians. However Americans are known for putting their stamp on things, and the Martial Arts is no exception. If you or your child is studying with an American, he is probably putting an American influence on the art or in the way he teaches. It is easier to understand commands called out in our native tongue, and understand moves given americanized names. If you or your child are American (or Americanized) this might aid in your learning. If you have a real tough time understanding an instructor or his teaching methods, you might want to find one you are more compatible with. Understanding what is being taught is probably more important than the cultural loss.

Traditionalist argue that the arts are products of a country and should retain that countries names for everything. I agree that a little added culture can't hurt, but it doesn't make a significant difference either. MacDonalds in Japan renames items on the menu (Bigu Maku) and this does not detract from the experience of eating a burger.

One branch of American schools that has become popular is MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). Since this is very competition oriented, it can draw from the far more aggressive of the teachers/student pools. There's nothing wrong with getting into very aggressive competition like Boxing and MMA, if that's what you want. But know what you're getting in for. On the other hand, the competition arts can also be much more conditioning focused, so there's some fantastic exercise and fitness.


Something else that is becoming common, are schools that teach different things on different nights. They mix it up, and you can go for different things based on what days you go and study. (Or you can do the same things at some gyms/etc). I don't snub the part-timers like some do. Again, if you enjoy the classes, then you'll get something out of it. And some really good instructors studied more than one art. (Ahem, I was one that did many different arts and systems as well as my primary -- though I chose to teach only one, I could have easily taught more, quite seriously). So again, pick the school based on the quality of the instruction and students first: the rest will work it's way out. If in 5 years you want to go off and specialize, the training will mostly apply, so you'll be fine.

Choosing a System

Remember it is you (the student) that will dictate what you are to become, not the art; "it is the artist more than the art itself". Only you can choose what is best for you. If however you are looking for a self defense system, and you are a person in relatively good health, here are some guidelines to follow when choosing to study.

I prefer students to practice something that is easy in the beginning, that they can learn and use to defend themselves quickly. This instills confidence in their abilities, and backs up that confidence with some ability. Later, as the student progresses he can be challenged to learn more complex systems and movements.

The closer in to an opponent you get, the faster things will move. This is the same principle that causes liquids, gases and solids to get hotter (more excited, at the molecular level) as they are put under pressure (closer together). Applying this principle to people, the more distance between two fighters, the slower the fight. Since the beginner needs time to react, the slower (longer) the art, the easier to learn. Realize that most arts overlap, and they work at multiple ranges and techniques, but on the whole they can be roughly categorized.

People are dynamic (ever changing), and as your wants and needs change, so will your interest in different arts. Don't be afraid to try something new! But don't get flighty because the grass looks greener in some other pasture. Balance is the key. However, if you are not getting what you need out of the Martial Arts, then perhaps it is time you tried a different Martial Art. (Eventhough many instructors will try to convince you that this is not good).

The following are modifiers or qualifiers for different schools. Some arts do more than one of the following, but they all have to put a focus somewhere -- as do you. Here are some modifiers:

  • Long Range arts tend to be the easiest to learn (Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Northern Kung Fu's etc.). These arts tend to defend themselves at long range (kicking and striking). Since the distance is further away, a student has more time to react, and he can learn how to see attacks and read them. These distance arts also tend to teach maximizing power. (Overcome power with power.)
  • Short Range arts -- Southern Kung Fu's (Wing Chun, etc.), Filipino Arts, Kempo, etc. These arts often require a great degree of proficiency before a student is capable of defending himself. As the range closes the speed increases. Also because of the shorter reaction time, students are required to learn more complex moves; blocking, striking and leg checking simultaneously. This added complexity can make the advanced practitioner of these arts more capable of defending himself in the long run, but the trade-off is the time required to reach this level of proficiency. These arts tend to teach maximizing speed. (Overcome power with speed.)
  • Grappling -- The closest range arts are the grappling arts (Aikido, Judo, Jujutsu, etc.). These art are very close range, and that causes danger. It also requires a high degree of proficiency before it is truly useful against a fast bludgeoning attack, or dirty tactics (eye pokes, bites, etc.). These arts are very useful, almost immediately, against many types of grabbing or holding attacks but sometimes less so against a fist fight. These arts tend to teach maximizing technique. (Overcome power with proper technique.)
  • Specialty Arts - The specialty art may teach a sport/competition (Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Boxing), it may teach a weapon (Kyudo, Kenjutsu, Escrima), or it may be a form of exercise and meditation (yoga, Tai Chi Ch'uan). If you are going into one of these arts, realize that you are specializing. Understand what you are, and are not, going to get out of that particular art -- and if you are benefiting (which you are almost garanteed to do), then by all means do it!
  • Combat Arts - this is a little different. Some systems like Krav Maga, or the Pilipino Arts can be a little so focused on combat techniques that they give up on a lot of other stuff (forms, etc). They're really a different kind of system. There's nothing wrong with them at all (I loved my Kali classes and instructors) -- but the schools can vary wildly and feel a lot less structured and formal. Less art, are more practicing how to keel. (The Pilipino pronunciation of Kill).


There are no shortcuts to chosing the right school or art. Every instructor beleives his Art is the best -- if he didn't beleive so, he would not have put decades of effort into becoming an instructor of that art. The students of those schools are also being programmed with the schools dogma. This is not as bad or as harsh as it might sound -- it is just a form of enthusiasm.

The Martial Arts are good for most people. I recommend them for almost everyone. But take your time, and choose the right school -- that will greatly effect your experiences with the martial arts in general, and probably define how long that you stick with it.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Internal/External: Internal and External terminology also holds true for some Japanese Arts as well, and even the Korean arts (the Arts do tend to be more external).
  • When an art is categorized that is does "a lot" of something, that is only relative to other arts (and it varies by schools in that art).

Written: 1987.04.03