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Help me decide which martial art to pursue.
March 29, 2014 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I think I'd like to take up some kind of martial art for both self-defense and exercise reasons. There are some quizzes online, but I don't really know how to answer a lot of the questions, given that I have never done this kind of thing before. I'm located in Houston, TX so I imagine I have a lot of options. More details on me and my preferences inside.

I'm 23, female, and in OK shape -- 5'7", about 165lbs and could stand to lose a few... probably pretty average body type. Not frail, not athletic-looking, not fat. I am not much of a runner/cardio person but am trying to change that (not necessarily via martial arts). I've been taking LesMills BodyPump (group barbell, high rep/low weight) and yoga classes at my YMCA. They do not offer martial arts classes for adults so I know I will be looking for a different location to practice. I don't really have any leanings toward anything at the moment. Boxing sounds kind of cool but I don't know if it's the right idea for me.

-- Would like to be doing this thing maybe 2-3 times a week.
-- Cost is not a huge issue, but I don't want to sink a ton of money in, especially before I decide I really want to get into it.
-- As stated before, would like to improve fitness as well as learn some practical self defense skills.
-- I would like to not ruin my joints, especially in my hands and wrists.
-- I'm ambivalent about also getting a history/language/religion lesson. Wouldn't mind some, would prefer it to not be a big focus.
-- I am TERRIBLE at learning choreography/remembering more than a couple new body movements at a time... this is my main worry about this whole thing. I briefly tried a kickboxing class when I was a freshman in college and had a hard time because I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be doing next! Kickboxing is not out of the question to try again, though...
-- I'm frankly not particularly competitive. I like pushing myself to improve, am fine with the idea of sparring, but I don't feel a mighty need to enter in tournaments or that sort of thing. Not against it, just not something I'm looking for.


(Have also read this thread on martial arts for weight loss, but seems to only sorta apply to me.)
posted by jorlyfish to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
so, a few questions.

Do you want to hit, strike, inflict direct damage? Or do you want to turn, circle, and throw / do indirect damage?

Do you want a 55 minute aerobic workout, or technique/skills based exercises?

How do you feel about falling / being on the ground, fighting?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:08 PM on March 29


In response to the man of twists and turns:

1. I don't really have a preference that I'm aware of. I have never done any of these things, and one side doesn't jump out at me more than the other.
2. Leaning toward skills, but ideally some of both? I do want to improve my cardio but can do this outside of this martial art. As long as it's interesting....
3. As fine with it as anyone who has never fought could be.
posted by jorlyfish at 9:24 PM on March 29


Krav Maga

One of my friends is super into it. Her job is to go into war torn nations and recover victims from genocide sites. I think it started as a practility, and she's a thinking person who genuinely enjoys the practice.

Hope that helps.
posted by jbenben at 9:31 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


To avoid repeating myself, here is my standard advice, which I gave to a similarish question a while back.

But I'll add this more specific to your situation:

I'm a 5'7 woman a few years older than you. I have a black belt in taekwondo (and was an instructor for a while), used to do Muay Thai competitively and now box competitively. I have done a smattering of other martial arts throughout the years, and I also used to work peripherally in the martial arts industry. Honestly, I am pretty dubious about how many practical self-defence skills you really learn in most of these endeavours (or perhaps I have become dubious; I thought I could beat up anyone with my jumping spinning hook kicks when I was 14). And I have met a mind-blowing number of martial arts instructors (myself included!) who have never actually been in a street fight and thus have no proof that what they are teaching really works.

Clearly I know how to handle myself against other people my own height and weight... under very controlled circumstances, but actually defending yourself in a real life situation is different and it is really hard to replicate that in a gym. If a guy twice my size ambushed me on the street and was really intent on hurting me -- especially if he was on drugs -- I'm pretty sure he still could (probably my most useful defence skill would be that I run a lot as part of my training).

So let me divide my advice into two columns:

If self-defence is really your main priority, you might like some sort of Reality Based Self Defence (RBSD) program. As the name implies, they focus almost entirely on real life situations and cover things like situational awareness, reading other people's body language, knife defence, de-escalation strategies, etc. I know a lot of people who love this stuff, but they also tend to be security guards, former soldiers, etc. Not sure how well they work for people who aren't already physically imposing and aren't used to fighting (assuming you haven't). They can also be really expensive.

Then yeah, there's krav maga, which I will admit is one of the MAs I know least about. I don't think it tends to be very fitness oriented, but that may vary by school. I do know that since it boomed in popularity, there are some sketchy schools out there and that it gets quite political, with all sorts of different groups all claiming to teach the most real/authentic version, (this is true of most MAs, of course), so definitely do your homework.

If fitness is really your main priority, it sounds like you are on the right track with kickboxing, boxing, MMA, or Muay Thai (though, in my experience, US schools tend to emphasise the language/history stuff more than elsewhere -- more than in Thailand!). These are generally going to get you fitter than most karate/kung fu schools will, and if you're not on board the history/language/spiritual stuff, you should probably avoid it anyway. They are also more likely to practise sparring that is, while still not anything like street combat, certainly much closer and more realistic than your average karate dojo. Even if you don't want to compete, if you do go down this route, I would recommend going to gyms that do train fighters, because it sounds like you still want to learn how to punch and kick properly. Boxing and kickboxing gyms will generally be much cheaper than MMA and MT gyms.

Then another option is non striking arts that are still full-contact -- Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or judo (or sambo or pankration, if you can find them). BJJ especially is very sparring (well, rolling) focused, and though they wear the gis and belts, they don't tend to dwell on things like foreign words and rituals. It can be expensive, however. Just is generally much cheaper, but often has more focus on tradition and language and such.
posted by retrograde at 10:38 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


I'm a former martial arts instructor. I studied many styles at many schools before finding one that worked for me. What made it work was the teaching method and the professionalism of the instructors. I'd suggest you look not based on style, but based on school- i.e., who's doing the teaching, and what methods do they employ? With that in mind, here's a few things I'd look for when assessing a school or teacher:

1. Constant, aggressive use of contact equipment:
Students can not learn to develop power if they are only striking air 90% of the time. Find a school that constantly employs focus mitts, Thai pads, kicking shields, and other contact equipment that allows students to feel the impact of their strikes. This will help encourage correct hand and foot position (to avoid injury on impact), fosters aggression, and is a lot more fun than yelling at the air.

2. Positive reinforcement in the teaching method:
Many martial arts are derived from systems developed to quickly train soldiers for battlefield combat. In some cases, their teaching methods have changed little from these times, and may be military in attitude and/or strictly traditional. Some may employ methods that belittle or otherwise shame students into supposedly better efforts. I believe it is possible to develop mentally-tough martial artists in time-honored styles while using a teaching method that focuses on highlighting a student's successes while still requiring rigorous, constant improvement.

3. Private lessons:
It is very hard to experience the above two points if you're stuck in the back row of a class containing 10-15 other students, many of whom have only a few more weeks' experience than you do. Most schools do not provide private lessons for everyone, but they are almost always available, usually for an additional cost. The school for which I taught assigned each student a personal instructor that would teach them one 30-minute private lesson each week. This helped me to learn the goals and motivations of each student, and gave me time to instruct them on new material that they could then practice in group classes and on their own throughout the week.

4. A realistic approach to self-defense:
It's rare to have to defend yourself from attackers that are smaller or weaker than yourself (unless drugs, alcohol, or mental instability are involved), so you can assume any potential assailant will be bigger and stronger than you are. These bad guys are unlikely to do you the favor of remaining in hand- and foot-striking range; they'll seek to bring their greater weight and strength to bear at close range. To combat these threats, you'll want to learn numerous vital targets (eyes, nose, throat, floating rib, groin, joints, etc.) and a variety of different ways to attack them. You'll also need to have at least a familiarity with grappling and groundfighting techniques; not that you want to spend much time on the ground, but you want to know how to avoid, survive, and recover if you wind up there.

Good luck!
posted by EKStickland at 10:41 PM on March 29 [9 favorites]


This is something that I've thought about in the past as well. Like you, I'm more interested in the personal fitness aspect than competition.

I dismissed grappling-heavy arts like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Aikido because, frankly, they don't seem like a lot of fun. While practical, rolling around on mats with my face in someone's sweaty armpit has never been my idea of a good time; hitting things is just much more psychologically satisfying. On the other end of the spectrum, I dismissed Taekwondo because I feel it's a silly martial art with more emphasis on looking cool than actual practicality (sorry, no offense, retrograde!). Tai Chi seems womderful, but not for fitness. Kickboxing, on the other hand, seemed heavy on the fitness, light on the martial-artiness (totally depends on the place, I'm sure). Boxing, while practical and great for fitness, seems to only be taught in dark creepy-ass gyms in weird locations and has just too high of a ratio of me getting punched in the nose. Great art, not for me. Most Karate, on the other hand, seems to ignore grappling (thus, real world practicality) and is super-focused on competition.

The winners, to me, seem like Muay Thai, Krav Maga, and Wing Chun. Personally, I find the first two a little badass for my early-30s out-of-shape self (again, probably depends on the actual place, but holy shit, both of them are no joke), so Wing Chun was the art I decided that I wanted to pursue (and then, of course, did not). It seemed like a great combination of striking/grappling, fitness, and philosophy. Also, we have a place in town that teaches it, which was important. It's not a super well-known art, but I really like what I've read about it.

You're not me, but I hope hearing my thoughts on this have helped.
posted by JimBJ9 at 11:45 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


I've done boxing, kickboxing, and krav maga. I've done a bit of jiu-jitsu, eskrima, and capoeira.

-- I would like to not ruin my joints, especially in my hands and wrists.

IMHO I would stay away from capoeira. My capoeira instructor had to tape the hell out of his wrists and knees before demonstrating moves, there were many that put your full body weight on one wrist. This may have just been a bad instructor, I've known other women who like capoeira but they all seem to be very lean, small, and flexible to begin with.

-- I am TERRIBLE at learning choreography/remembering more than a couple new body movements at a time... this is my main worry about this whole thing. I briefly tried a kickboxing class when I was a freshman in college and had a hard time because I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be doing next! Kickboxing is not out of the question to try again, though..

I would say step aerobics / zumba / fitness kickboxing classes are much worse for this than any martial arts class. Usually in a martial arts beginners class they train 1 or 2 techniques per class. Dance fitness stuff usually caters to the long term attendees who already know 40 moves and want to use them all in one class. Doing a lot of moves and not perfecting any of them is the opposite of most martial arts training regimens.

-- As stated before, would like to improve fitness as well as learn some practical self defense skills.

I'd say krav maga is the most practical for women's self defense, since it's not a point based sport. The goal is to incapacitate your attacker and get out of the situation as fast as possible. At a good gym, they should do practice drills where they match you up with somebody twice your size to see if the techniques work. They also focus early on knife/gun/bat defenses, since very few situations that don't involve male bravado and alcohol actually result in a standup fistfight. Usually in a 1 hour class they will do 15-20 minutes warm up, 15-20 minutes of learning a new technique, and 15-20 minutes of a stress drill where you have to perform the technique while being exhausted (e.g. run windsprints, then defend against bearhug/choke/etc.). Ground work is covered but is not the focus like jiu-jitsu. The point is to get off the ground, get back on your feet, and get out. A good krav maga gym should be a calm place that is free of attitude, and where student injuries are seen as a failure of the instructor. The "pedigree" of the school doesn't matter, there are a few competing licensing systems for Krav, but the quality of the actual instructors is the most important thing.

I have not tried pure MMA, it seems very similar to Krav but some techniques are banned because they end fights too quickly (eye gouges, groin strikes, kicks to the head). It is also focused on beating a single attacker in a ring, rather than an unknown number of assailants (while you're on the ground grappling, if a guy's buddy walks over and kicks you in the head, the fight is over).

Boxing is fantastic for fitness, and it's better than being untrained, but it's a sport with very defined rules. If you don't want to learn actual self-defence but want to get in shape fast 1 hour of solid bagwork with jump rope / medicine ball drills 3x a week will see results quickly. Most boxing gyms offer non-sparring bag classes. The better instructors correct your form rather than just letting you go apeshit on the bag and developing bad habits.

All good gyms should let you go to at least 2-3 full classes before forking over any cash. Signup fees are bullshit, and an incentive to get you to leave once you've paid it, the good places usually just do monthly fees.
posted by benzenedream at 11:55 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


I think you should shop around a bit and try a whole bunch of different styles to see what you actually enjoy. You might find that there are things you like or don't like about a style that you don't know about until you try it. I bet you can sit in on a class or two for free.

For instance, I did Taekwondo for a year, and discovered I didn't enjoy sparring, and I didn't like punching, but that I loved kicking and forms. So if I was going to do another martial art, I'd be looking for one that emphasised those aspects of it. It didn't take me the whole year to figure this out, by the way, but I didn't have a lot of alternative options where I was.

Also I agree with people above who said a lot depends on the instructor and the teaching style. And, I would add, on the class make up. If you are the only new person in a class of people who have been learning for several years, you might find that hard. If you are the only woman in a class of giant men hyped up on testosterone, you might find that stressful. Or not. But these are all reasons to shop around and choose somewhere you feel comfortable, even if that is in a martial art style you hadn't initially thought would be for you.
posted by lollusc at 12:36 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


On the other end of the spectrum, I dismissed Taekwondo because I feel it's a silly martial art with more emphasis on looking cool than actual practicality (sorry, no offense, retrograde!)

Oh, it's totally a silly martial art with almost zero practicality (and it should be said, I haven't really done it in almost a decade -- it was mostly my child and teen years, which is probably 90% of TKD students these days). But the thing is, that's totally OK. As I say, I don't think most traditional martial arts are all that practical (and, honestly, I would include most wing chun schools I've seen in action in that assessment). Having fun and doing cool moves and earning belts and learning a few words in another language and getting really fit and flexible and doing tournaments and kicking wood in half are all totally valid and great reasons to do a martial art. It's only a problem if you really want to learn self-defence, which, in my experience, isn't high on the priority list for most TKD students.
posted by retrograde at 12:38 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I had an one-generation-older friend back in the seventies who had studied several disciplines and he recommended taekwondo for street fighting - but he was an above-average sized guy who was unlikely to be physically overwhelmed and knocked off balance - and liked fighting. I think taekwondo is great for flexibility and coordination, but kicking, especially kicking higher up leaves you open to being tackled.

Most assaults where you defend yourself end up on the ground, and as said above the person asaulting you is rarely so kind as to not press whatever advantage they might have.

So the answer to the fighting aspect of your question kind of depends on whether you want to "win" a fight or avoid harm or feel confident or all of the above.

I would say Krav Maga or Muay Thai.
posted by vapidave at 2:00 AM on March 30


I'm going to second all the recs for Krav Maga. I completed the first level and miss it like crazy now I don't do it any more.

It pretty much hits all your points:

-- As stated before, would like to improve fitness as well as learn some practical self defense skills.

Krav was designed to be practical, developed as it was as a way of giving the people who practised it the ability to get out of bad situations quick. And it's a hell of a work-out, my two-hour session would leave me wrecked.

-- I would like to not ruin my joints, especially in my hands and wrists.

This maybe depends on the school, I have issues with my hands and my instructor was always great at showing me modified moves that would put less strain on them. That's the other great thing about Krav, it's much more adaptable than more traditional martial arts. The basic principle is that a technique should be able to be used by a small girl against a large man.

-- I'm ambivalent about also getting a history/language/religion lesson. Wouldn't mind some, would prefer it to not be a big focus.

One of my favourite things about Krav is that it's so straightforward, zero woo. Nothing about 'mind like water' or 'finding your chi' or whatever, just simple, straight up learning to defend yourself.

-- I am TERRIBLE at learning choreography/remembering more than a couple new body movements at a time... this is my main worry about this whole thing. I briefly tried a kickboxing class when I was a freshman in college and had a hard time because I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be doing next! Kickboxing is not out of the question to try again, though...

Again, this depends on the school, but. My instructor drillled us until we could do the moves in our sleep, and the emphasis is HUGE on getting the basic, building-block moves perfect. Even the most senior students in my class would practise kicks and punches every time.

-- I'm frankly not particularly competitive. I like pushing myself to improve, am fine with the idea of sparring, but I don't feel a mighty need to enter in tournaments or that sort of thing. Not against it, just not something I'm looking for.
<> No tournaments in Krav, partly because it is a combat sport in a very real way rather and the chances of something going pear-shaped in a tournament are pretty high. You mostly wind up competing against yourself and that's great.

Oh, one more thing: Krav is brilliant for both developing your situational awareness and figuring out how to not lose your head in a crisis, which I don't think is taught much at all in other disciplines. One exercise I will always be grateful to have done is having three of my (bigger, stronger) classmates hold me down while I tried to get them off; it wasn't a pleasant experience at the time, but at least if shit does hit the fan I'll be less likely to lose my head. That's more valuable than any skill I might have at actual self-defense, and Krav is about the only discipline that teaches it to you in a way that'll be useful in the real world.
posted by Tamanna at 2:56 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


-- I am TERRIBLE at learning choreography/remembering more than a couple new body movements at a time... this is my main worry about this whole thing. I briefly tried a kickboxing class when I was a freshman in college and had a hard time because I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be doing next! Kickboxing is not out of the question to try again, though..

Judo is surprisingly good at teaching coordination and proprioception. It involves a lot of partner work at various levels of resistance and body contact (which is just going to be a thing you have to get used to in fighting) so you develop a feel for how to get leverage in response to an opponent's movements, even when they're fighting hard. It's much easier for your muscles to remember than practicing against an imaginary opponent.

Boxing is very practical because everything they teach you is tried and tested. There's very few low percentage techniques. A right cross is much more likely to land than some exotic "pressure point" strike.

Both judo and boxing also involve plenty of sparring early on, which is incredibly important if you are to really understand how to apply techniques under pressure and without opponent cooperation. They're sort of like doing labs while learning physics or actually painting after being lectures about painting techniques.

They're also quite standardized and often run by non-profits, so they tend to be cheaper than Brazilian jiu-jitsu or muay Thai, which are also great.
posted by ignignokt at 6:26 AM on March 30


Thanks everyone! Looks like I'll be giving Krav Maga a shot first. Glad I asked, because I had never heard of it!
posted by jorlyfish at 7:22 AM on March 30


Most martial arts will provide at least some exercise value, however it will vary not just between arts but between different schools of the same art. Depending on where you go you may find anything from a casual easy routine all the way up to professional sports level conditioning.

The intersection of martial arts and self-defense is a big, complex topic that I'm not going to go into depth on (unless you want me to). Short version - there is a huge variation in the real self-defense applicability of what you will see between different arts and between different schools of the same art. Regardless of the art you study, you will not gain actual, reliable self-defense ability without some serious time, dedication and hard work.

Which brings me to the most important point. The best martial art for you is the one that you enjoy practicing, because if you don't enjoy it you won't consistently show up and do the hard work that it takes to reap the benefits. To get an idea of what you might enjoy, I suggest you visit as many local schools as possible - watch a class and get a sense of the atmosphere. Many schools offer a free or cheap lesson for prospective students. Try those out whenever possible.

One more thing - not every art is available everywhere. I would suggest checking out what is actually available in your area. If you can post a list of what classes are available to you (or even better, links to the websites of schools you are considering), then we can offer specific feedback on your available choices.
posted by tdismukes at 9:17 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


I came here to add to the recommendations for krav maga. I travel to some very rough places in my work and took some lessons for practical reasons, then got addicted to the pure stress release and physical challenge. One thing I would suggest is looking into one-on-one instruction, since not only can you get more attention (as pointed out above), you also avoid the risk of being injured by an inexperienced or overzealous fellow student. My school offers regular workshops and weekend sessions on different techniques to give us the chance to interact with each other if we want to.
posted by rpfields at 9:23 AM on March 30


you also avoid the risk of being injured by an inexperienced or overzealous fellow student.

This should be rare in a good gym. Usually the instructors will watch the class training and reallocate dangerous newbies to more experienced members who know how not to get hit. If somebody is really a menace (too aggressive, uncontrolled), a good instructor will take the person aside and tell them to calm down, or personally pair up to instill some humility in them.
posted by benzenedream at 2:26 PM on March 30


On the opposite end of the spectrum from ultra-aggressive krav maga, I'd recommend Aikido. I took it when I was younger. Learned a lot, and years later, when confronted with aggression, naturally used it to end the situation. It's quick, interesting in movement, centers on neutralizing threats rather than aggressive attack, and works.
posted by history is a weapon at 4:04 AM on March 31


Take a look at FMA (Filipino Martial Arts) - Kali, Arnis or Eskrima. Each school and style is different, but they tend to cover a range of skills: weapons (including defense against them), boxing, grappling. How must fitness training you get from the class will vary.

Try http://dojolocator.com
posted by 4midori at 10:42 AM on March 31


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