Is there a style of martial arts to help me get fit and defend myself fast?
May 2, 2010 1:00 AM   Subscribe

Need advice on martial arts - both for fitness and self-defense.

I need some advice on martial arts that can help me both from a fitness and self-defense point of view. I'm a 29 yo female (153cm tall, 58kg), have a reasonably healthy diet, exercise 2-3 times/week at the gym for about 45min (mainly cardio training) but that isn't making a lot of difference so far.

I would like to start on some some of martial art that would improve my fitness, boost my confidence and my stamina levels. I am also moving to a country where street violence is a concern, so self-defense is also one of my motivations.

However, I want those things (better fitness and development of defense skills) to happen quickly. I am aware that commitment is essential as well as extra exercise, but I am up for it. Can the hive mind suggest options of martial arts that can help me achieve that? Thanks!
posted by heartofglass to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A word of warning up front: learning a martial art is very unlikely to help you with self-defense. Worse, it could make you overconfident of your ability to handle a situation & lead you into trouble. Most martial arts don't teach effective self defense (in a modern context) in the first place, they teach stylised responses to telegraphed attacks.

The best self-defense is to learn to recognise potential trouble early enough to be able to get away. Awareness is 100x as important as the ability to put up a good fight.

On the MA front, I'd personally go for an art that focuses on grappling rather than power strikes. Think Brazilian Ju Jitsu rather than TKD. Getting out from a choke hold, poking them in the eyes and running away is probably going to be more valuable to almost anyone out in the real world than the ability to kick people in the head.
posted by pharm at 1:15 AM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

My family all got into doing muay thai (thai boxing training) and we found it a really great way to get really fit.
Because the training culture of muay thai is organised around a very intense competitive sport, and because the standard of training of the muay thai fighters who compete in thailand is so high, there is a strong emphasis on physical fitness.

As for self defense, I don't want to get into a 'my tiger style is stronger than your dancing cricket style' argument but people who do mixed martial arts seem to really like muay thai for the 'stand up' (as opposed the 'ground fighting') part of their training
posted by compound eye at 1:49 AM on May 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Any martial art will teach you some self-defense if your teachers teach you that you need to constantly to pay attention to your surroundings and to always trust your own instincts when something feels wrong.

Because unless you want to devote a huge amount of time towards practicing (like boot camp in the army amount of time) I don't think it's possible to pick up quickly the kind of self-defense skills you're probably imagining. It takes time for actions and reactions to become so automatic that they're actually useful when you're terrified or hopped-up on adrenaline or both, and most martial arts systems are stylized enough that they don't account for absolutely every kind of attack ever.

So, I would recommend looking around for a couple of different schools and asking if they offer free trial classes, and then seeing what, if anything, lights you up. Since nothing's perfect, you might as well find one that you have fun with. And if you're at a good school, they'll be aware of the gaps in their system and try to fill them in a bit.

Just for the sake of well-roundedness, I think everyone practicing a stand-up-and-kick art should learn how to fall and everyone practicing a lie-down-and-wrestle art should learn how to dodge.
posted by colfax at 3:20 AM on May 2, 2010

If you're really interested in self-defence, do a women's self-defence class. You'll learn a lot more about how to actually defend yourself (awareness of dangerous situations, striking at weak points, using objects you're likely to be carrying etc) than you will in the same amount of time spent doing martial arts. Then go and do muay thai or something.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:44 AM on May 2, 2010

Nthing the "it really does take time" response. My brother was a student in Hung Gar kung fu for several years before it really began to "click" for him, and to get the point where he thought he might be able to efficiently defend himself against a potential attacker (but likely not all potential attackers). As he advanced, it also became progressively clearer to him all the ways in which he was vulnerable, in ways that he hadn't thought of when he'd been a greener student.

But I think some of the things that you would want from any martial arts class would be knowing how to really throw a punch/kick so it counts, how to get out of a grab or hold, some joint locking techniques (I learned some very basic chin na moves from my brother, not sure what the techniques might be called in other styles), and how to grapple when it gets taken to the ground. And, as my brother's sifu noted, the best way to survive a fight is to never get in one. To that end, in addition to any martial art you choose, might not hurt to include some serious speed drill training in your cardio.
posted by hegemone at 6:00 AM on May 2, 2010

A good Muay Thai gym would be your best option if you can afford it. Muay Thai workouts can be brutal and will break your cardio plateau, especially when your sparring. The self defence part is tricky, avoiding trouble is the obvious choice but I believe MT will push you physically to a level that you will leave you confident that if trouble happens, you could try to give your self the best chance to survive.

If a MT gym looks too much or too expensive you could look into a varient of Kick boxing, they are generally cheaper and are cardio heavy, such as crossfit kickboxing.

two other options would be Judo and Brazillian Jiu jitsu
posted by Julio34 at 6:09 AM on May 2, 2010

Just about any martial art training will increase your fitness and stamina (with the possible exception of something like Tai Chi).

In the actual circumstance of street violence - no rules except to survive - Krav Maga is probably best. Hard to find a good teacher, though.
posted by dzot at 8:45 AM on May 2, 2010

Krav Maga
posted by ainsley at 9:02 AM on May 2, 2010

If you're really interested in self-defence, do a women's self-defence class. You'll learn a lot more about how to actually defend yourself (awareness of dangerous situations, striking at weak points, using objects you're likely to be carrying etc) than you will in the same amount of time spent doing martial arts.

find someone who does this for a living and get an intensive course for small built women. i'm 157/50 and while I've not yet gotten around to a proper course, I've had tips, tricks and lessons over teh years primarily due to hanging around the third world and lower income demographic a lot.

Most important is learning to be street smart - if you're accustomed to a safe country or locale, basics that women in far less secure places (regardless of street violence, women alone are fair game across my passport country and many others) "know" instinctively, and you may not, will end up being signals of your vulnerability. This can include awareness of anything as simple as avoiding darker corners, watching where and whom you walk with, the sense of the taxicab driver's expression if its late and you're alone to spreading money out, protecting your kit, not flashing bling and sometimes, camouflaging obvious female characteristics with loose shirts and large coats.

Depending on where you're going, find women from there to talk to about this first and hear what they may have to say. Then decide.

good luck.
posted by infini at 9:30 AM on May 2, 2010

and rule #1 - don't smile. don't meet eyes.
posted by infini at 9:32 AM on May 2, 2010

I also recommend krav maga. It was designed as a system for practical, real-life self-defense, not as a formal martial art. The classes I took were intense work outs and covered a lot of ground - breaking holds and chokes and so on as well as punching and kicking, how to fight when you're down on the ground, even correct eye-gauging technique. Here's a link, given your profile location. I took classes in the US at a school affiliated with the same group and felt they were very competent. If time is a big concern, you might also be interested in some of their more specialized seminar courses (warning - video automatically starts playing).
posted by unsub at 11:06 AM on May 2, 2010

"exercise 2-3 times/week at the gym for about 45min (mainly cardio training) but that isn't making a lot of difference so far."

And it won't. Lift weights to lose weight. Do cardio for your... heart. (And skip the jogging. You want sprints and other high-intensity cardio work.)

Krav Maga sounds like the kind of training you want.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 4:11 PM on May 2, 2010

One of the major benefits of a Martial Arts class as opposed to a gym is that it's a class - there is a social aspect that you don't get with a weight machine or treadmill. You're more inspired to go, interact with people, make friends, etc. That is usually what makes M.A. classes more appealing to people (at least it does for me).

Regardless of the style you go for, scope out any schools you are thinking about before joining. Most schools have fees - that's how they stay in business - but look out for schools that are there either to promote you as quickly as possible (thereby getting testing fees out of you as often as possible), sometimes known as "Mall Fu" or "McDojo". Schools also tend to fall into two loose categories - sports and arts. Some schools will not let you advance unless you attend competitions and spar for trophies, others eschew the sport and focus on the art. Decide which you want before committing to a school (I personally hate organized competitions, and did much better when attending the other category - this is after 4 different schools).

It's been a while since I practiced, but I can stress that Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do (both Korean arts) are very kick-oriented, as opposed to punches or grappling. Some women like this, due to the heavy use of hip & leg muscles. Also, most schools will also cover Hapkido, which is basic grapples & defense - how to get out of, and reverse, a hand lock, arm grab, hip grope, etc. Ask the teacher what additional material is covered in the class beyond punching & kicking.

Even as someone who has trained in various schools, I will echo that an actual self-defense class is better than a Martial Arts class for practical defense.
posted by GJSchaller at 6:42 PM on May 2, 2010

I would recommend Wing Chun. the system was designed initially to help train a rebellion and to be able to train fighters in a period of 2 to 5 years instead of 10 years or more. It is very direct and focuses on efficiency rather than forms. Mind you I might be biased because I helped establish a center to teach martial arts in Beijing, China which teaches Wing Chun. (but that was just because I was already practitioner of the art and I wanted to help my Shifu)

previously, I studied other arts. while I no longer practice due to health reasons, I am still convinced that for the average person Wing Chun is the fastest way to obtain a basic level of self defense if it is taught properly.
posted by chinabound at 9:11 PM on May 2, 2010

I would argue that the teacher and the atmosphere where you are learning are more important than the specific martial art. Learning a MA can be very emotional at times. I've been in dojos where emotional abuse was commonplace, especially of female students.

Visit, observe, take intro classes. See where you feel comfortable and supported. Then take a self-defense class to learn the street smarts you want.

Be leery of any dojo/class that won't let you observe (unless they have a good reason like "that class involves sharp blades, so we don't let people observe).
posted by QIbHom at 12:20 PM on May 3, 2010

Gah. Sorry I missed this. Here are my rambling thoughts. I've trained in the martial arts for almost 11 years, mostly in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I've also done Judo, Boxing, Aikido, and Muay Thai kickboxing.

Take some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and some Muay Thai (aka Thai Boxing or Thai Kickboxing). Some schools offer classes in both arts, some don't. The important thing with both arts is that they are competitive and will offer you plenty of opportunities to SPAR and test your technique against opponents who are resisting your attacks. If you aren't working with resisting partners at least some of the time, you're not fighting--you're dancing. It is really, really important that you get your hands dirty and actually spar. You can't develop the timing to apply techniques against resisting opponents without actually sparring frequently with resisting opponents.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will teach you submission holds and escapes. It's important to learn because there's a decent chance you will find yourself grappling with an opponent. Brazilian jiu-jitsu will teach you to escape from pins, chokes, and joint locks. It will also teach you how to apply joint locks and choke holds. Fun stuff.

Muay Thai will teach you how to hit people and not get hit. Muay Thai is preferable to any other striking martial art because everything you learn will be very simple and very effective. Muay Thai is sometimes called the science of eight limbs because you will learn to punch (2 fists), kick (2 feet/shins), knee (2 knees) and elbow (2 elbows). Knees and Elbows are particularly important for self defense, I think. They can be delivered from close range and even a small martial artist can use their hips to put a lot of power behind a knee or elbow.

Training 2-3 times a week is reasonable, though 3 is much better than 2. You'll need to devote time to this, though. You probably won't start to really get the feel for either martial art until you've practiced for 12-18 months; and those 12-18 months should be dedicated, consistent work.

Boxing, san shou kickboxing, or 'non-muay thai' kickboxing classes can be substituted in a pinch for Muay Thai. Judo, Sambo, or submission wrestling can be substituted in a pinch for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But if you can swing it, BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) and Muay Thai is the way to go.

Make sure to suss out the school before signing up. Try and watch or participate in a free class. Don't sign up if the instructor or students give off a weird vibe. People should be friendly, not standoffish. YOU should be polite, enthusiastic, ask questions, and introduce yourself to people. If you have questions you want to ask, jot them down so you don't forget.

Me-mail if you have any more questions.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:42 PM on May 4, 2010

Gosh darnit. Forgot a bunch of stuff.

Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will cover you for the physical techniques of self defense. Which excludes all of the non-physical stuff, much of which is important. Check out books like The Gift of Fear which discusses many of the mental aspects of self defense. You might also look into the work of Geoff Thompson or Peyton Quinn. You may decide that in addition to training in a martial art, you want to do some adrenaline based training; Peyton Quinn's RMCAT is the gold standard there.

Now I think I'm done.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:56 PM on May 4, 2010

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