Which martial art is for me?
November 28, 2010 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Based on my physique and specific desires, I'm wondering which martial art would be best suited for me?

Basically, I'm looking to use a martial art as a form of exercise for both my body and mind. A way of keeping in shape and relieving stress.

I've been thinking about taking a martial art for a long while now, but never got around to it. I've had some pretty shitty back problems since about 2003, which only kick in when it's cold out. I decided to preempt them this year by seeing my RMT and acupuncturist, as well as doing various stretches, before they actually reared their ugly head. Based on my lack of exercise, my RMT felt a martial art would be perfect for me. I'm 5'6" short and I weigh just under 150lbs. I'm fairly strong and pretty flexible. I also have very good discipline. Not sure what other attributes would help in this decision making, but please let me know if you need any other information.

Not that it's really important, but I did this online quiz which told me that I'm most suited for Tai chi.

Also wondering how often I should be attending classes? I can probably afford to give up only one or two nights a week.

Thanks very much.
posted by gman to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Fencing, although not technically a martial art, is a great workout for both the body and mind. 1 or 2 nights a week is the normal practice schedule for a competitive recreational fencer. Plus, you get to play with swords.
posted by COD at 6:57 AM on November 28, 2010

Quite a few friends of mine here in Germany do capoiera, a Brazilian martial art. It's pretty cool-looking, and one of them has back problems that she says capoiera helps with.
posted by naturalog at 7:04 AM on November 28, 2010

I might suggest Tai Chi. It's certainly meditative, and relatively low-impact at the start. But if you're interested in it as a martial art, rather than a flowing series of stances, you'll have to find a good teacher -- it's mostly taught as a sort of very slow exercise. Properly, it is Tai chi chuan you'll be looking for, rather than Tai chi chih, which is a modernized American form that uses 19 movements as an exercise. Chuan is the martial form of it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:06 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think aikido is the one for you. It has some great stretches which should help your back. Two nights a week is said to be the amount you need to do to maintain your current level, but as an absolute beginner you should still be able to get quite a lot out of it.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 7:15 AM on November 28, 2010

My experience with martial arts (shotokan karate) has been very positive because I'm at a great dojo that suits my interests, goals and personality. They push me hard but they're not mean; they notice if I'm not in for a week; and they're very positive. This makes going to karate a stress-relieving, rather than a stress-inducing, experience. I'd consequently suggest putting as much time into finding the right place to practice martial arts as you do into finding the right style.

My body is nothing like yours (big, tall, inflexible), but my dojo has all shapes & ages. They recommend going 2-3x/week at a minimum.
posted by monkeymonkey at 7:30 AM on November 28, 2010

Best answer: There are lots of Tai Chi (Chuan) forms, as many as there are instructors, really. There are standardized forms used in modern China as the "official" form(s), but there are also many traditional and composite forms around too. Tai Chi is not for people who want contact or self-defense training, it's about flexability, core-body strength, but most importantly meditation. For stretching and lower back issues, Tai Chi would be ideal.

There is a particularly Canadian form that's extremely popular here, Taoist Tai Chi. Developed by a taoist monk, Master Moy, who emigrated to Toronto. It's an amalgam of older styles, some tai chi, some kungfu. While not "pure" tai chi, it's probably the most popular and well supported form in Canada.

The Toaist Society classes are typically twice a week, for 1.5 to 2 hours/class. It takes about 3 months to learn the set. You don't pay for lessons, you join the society on a monthly or annual basis. I think a year cost about $120, which gives unlimited access to classes. There are retreats you can go on as well, but they cost a bit more. The society is a non-profit, so members usually pay their on way, but at close to cost. They allow free drop-in too, for beginners.
posted by bonehead at 7:38 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I started with Tai Chi following a motorcycle accident. This was at the local Y and wasn't presented as a martial art. After about a year or so I had gained about as much as I was going to and started looking around for something more active. I ended up in Isshin Ryu (Okinawan) karate. The stances are more upright that some other karate styles and work a little better for westerners.

But rather than recommend any one art, I would suggest going around your town and observing classes in different schools. Arts and styles vary from school to school and so do instructors. What really determines your success in the martial arts is your personal attitude, if you don't like the class, you'll never do well.
posted by tommasz at 8:20 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

You really need at least two days per week to develop any real gains in skill or fitness. (If you're doing other forms of exercise throughout the week, you might be able to get by with one day a week from a fitness standpoint, but your skill development will be really slow.)

Beyond that, you've got a lot of choices, especially since you're more concerned with the exercise aspect rather than the combative aspects of the martial arts. Probably the most important consideration is how much you enjoy the style of exercise that a particular martial art gives you. If you don't enjoy it, you won't stick with it very long.

I'd recommend checking out the available schools in your area and trying any free classes that are offered to get a sense of which art would be the most fun for you.

Here's some thoughts on specific arts that people have mentioned above.

Tai Chi is ideal if you enjoy slow, meditative motion. It will help develop strength, endurance, and flexibility in your lower body. It is unlikely to aggravate any pre-existing injuries like your back condition. It will not do much to work your cardio or your upper body. It will not give you the bursts of adrenaline excitement that some people enjoy for relieving stress. If you have limited evenings available to attend classes, it has the advantage that much of the art involves practice of a solo form. As you learn the form, you will be able to practice at home on days when you don't attend class.

Aikido is a very skill-intensive art. It will not give you as much physical exercise as some other arts. Training requires another practitioner to rehearse your techniques with, so you wouldn't be able to practice much at home. Unless you try a class and fall in love with the art form, I wouldn't put it near the top of the list for your needs.

Capoiera is a very physically demanding art - it's like martial arts, dance, and gymnastics all mixed together. If you have a teacher in your area and enjoy that sort of workout, it might work for you.

Karate could be a good fit or not, depending on the style and the instructor.

Some additional possibilities:

Tae Kwon Do will give you a good cardio workout and some good stretching for your back. Be careful, though, all the kicking could aggravate your back if your instructor or your own ego drive you to push too hard and not respect your body's boundaries.

Any of the grappling arts (judo, BJJ, sambo, wrestling) will give you a fantastic whole body workout (strength, flexibility, endurance, and cardio) and will deeply involve your mind as well. The danger is that you could aggravate your back problems if you push too hard. If you pursue one of those arts, my advice would be to a) practice yoga on your days off to keep your back loose and b) give yourself permission to back off the intensity of your training when you feel your back start to twinge. I have intermittent back issues myself and practice BJJ. I find that supplementing my training with yoga makes all the difference in avoiding injury. (Note - all these arts also require a training partner to practice with.)

If you can post a list of the available arts and schools in your area, we might be able to provide some additional feedback on your options.
posted by tdismukes at 11:24 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

as someone who was once a competitive fencer, I wouldn't recommend it for you as a solution to back problems. the way that you use your body when fencing is ridiculously asymmetrical -- you only ever use one arm, your torso is always turned slightly to the left or right (depending on whether you are left or right handed) and your front leg sees way more use than the other -- and that makes for some odd problems with posture and uneven muscle development that you would need to compensate for by doing something else on the side.

I would recommend tai chi as well, and add qigong, yoga, pilates and Alexander technique to the list. none of which are martial arts, but each offers the kind of physical and mental discipline you're after.

also, I would say that it's not entirely a question of finding the right style of martial art to practice. it is as important to find a teacher you like and get along with and a good bunch of people to train with.
posted by spindle at 11:38 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: tdismukes: "If you can post a list of the available arts and schools in your area, we might be able to provide some additional feedback on your options."

Aikido & Iaido Toronto Aikikai
High Park Martial Arts Academy
Black Belt World
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu & MMA Toronto BJJ
Ky Young Tae Kwon Do
Wu Xing Martial Arts
Taoist Tai Chi Society Of Canada

and while not a martial art, this Boxing place is near me.
posted by gman at 12:00 PM on November 28, 2010

Go for the Brasilian Jiu Jitsu. Your local place is Saulo Ribeiro school - who's top notch - and they even offer free introductory classes.
posted by the cuban at 12:45 PM on November 28, 2010

Best answer: Aikido & Iaido Toronto Aikikai - As I noted before, aikido might not be the ideal art for your needs. However, it looks like a good school and they allow you to try a beginners class for free. I'd give one of the free classes a shot, just in case you fall in love with the art form.

High Park Martial Arts Academy - I noted the benefits/limitations of tai chi above. This school also offers goju ryu karate, which might give you some cardio and upper body exercise to balance out the tai chi. My biggest concern is the woo-woo new age therapy and multi-level marketing scheme/scam that they are promoting on the side. If they keep that strictly separate from the martial arts instruction, then this might be worth trying.

Black Belt World - As previously mentioned, TKD can give you a great cardio workout and will help develop your flexibility. There is a potential pitfall in that TKD has been one of the most aggressively commercialized martial arts out there and so there are a large numbers of dojangs out there that are set up to extract the maximum amount of money from students, while offering substandard instruction and making extravagant claims about the art's effectiveness and history. There are also good schools, of course, but I can't tell for sure which category this particular school falls into from their website. (They do seem rather commercialized, but that doesn't necessarily mean the instruction isn't good.) If you're considering this school, be sure to try a class and find out about all the fees they charge (membership fees, belt testing fees, contracts, etc) before signing anything.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu & MMA Toronto BJJ - This looks like an excellent school. See my notes above concerning BJJ. They offer two free classes for prospective students, so I'd suggest trying them out to see if you like the experience.

Ky Young Tae Kwon Do - The link you provided is not to the Ky Young school, but to an organization for promoting TKD competition. They do have a extensive club listing, so if you decide you're interested in TKD but don't like the Black Belt World dojang, you can check out other instructors.

Wu Xing Martial Arts - They teach tai chi and kung fu. I'm not familiar with the style of kung fu that these folks teach, but from looking at some YouTube videos, I'd say it would provide much of the same exercise benefits as tai chi. (You would probably get some faster moving practice, which would be nice if you're not temperamentally inclined towards the slow motion practice of tai chi.)

Taoist Tai Chi Society Of Canada - If you find you like the experience of tai chi, this might be wort checking out.

and while not a martial art, this Boxing place is near me - Boxing is absolutely a martial art, just not Asian in origin. Western boxing can provide an excellent workout, but the experience is almost the antithesis of tai chi. There's lots of cardio and explosive movement. Once again, you've got to try it to see if you're going to like it.
posted by tdismukes at 1:28 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tdismukes lays it out really well! The only thing I'd add is to try go get into an art that you can take time to practice on your own, since you can only do class twice a week at most. If you have exercises and training you can do on your own time, you can still get a lot of conditioning or meditative benefit. Not only that, if life gets too busy for classes, or you simply can't afford to pay for classes, you can still practice on your own.

The other thing to be aware of is that while any given style has strong points, it's also highly dependent on the quality of the instructors.

A good tai chi teacher will give you exercises and training to really work your core muscles and stabilizers along your spine along with body alignment. But there's a lot of tai chi classes that simply show the form, in which case, you don't get the serious benefits. (Likewise, other martial arts have specific things you get when you learn from good teachers, that otherwise don't happen with mediocre or bad teachers.)
posted by yeloson at 3:36 PM on November 28, 2010

I used to train at a wing chun/kung fu place where we did occasional tai chi alongside the striking, kicking, grappling etc. Some of the forms were pretty tai chi-like and there was also a graceful, flowing sparring style (called, um, "sticky hands") which could be almost like two-person semi-competitive tai chi depending on who was doing it. It was a lot of fun and the more kickboxy/grapply classes made up for what the more meditative classes lacked in terms of self defence training. Your list has one kung fu school on it; I'd give it a try, although it may or may not take this approach.

On aikido, this comment from a previous thread suggests no.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:52 AM on November 29, 2010

Kyokushin karate practitioner here. Not a high-ranking practitioner (yet), but a serious one.

I highly advocate Kyokushin karate. You mentioned that you're disciplined, so this is the perfect martial arts for you. Here are some things to look forward to in Kyokushin karate:

* Heavy-duty cardio workouts. They're all in here, in every class. You'll do the whole set of running, jumping, squatting, punches, kicks, et cetera in every class. And that's only what you begin with.

* Kumite (full contact sparring) -- there are only a few basic rules for sparring: (no punches to the face, as the fighting is bare knuckles), no groin kicks; but other than that, anything and everything else goes. You're supposed to use whatever you've learned during the classes in kumite, against an equally able, and more importantly, mobile opponent. (Believe me, no matter how good you think your punches or kicks are, they're ten times more difficult to execute against an intelligent and moving opponent.) Kumite is a huge aspect of Kyokushin karate, and you can look forward to the Kyokushin shuffle, where you fight one guy for 2-3 minutes, then rotate to the next opponent for 5 or more consecutive rounds. (The higher your belt, the more people you'll have to fight in a row. It's not just about physical endurance, but also mental endurance -- if you think you have the energy, you will have the energy.) I can personally attest to the fact that whenever you survive those kumite rounds, it's one of the times you feel the most alive in this world. It's the best feeling ever.

* Body conditioning. You get used to being in pain. It's not that being in pain is good, but it's that you learn how to take punches and kicks and blast through them, instead of being immobilized for split seconds. Occasionally too, we'll have sessions where you just stand and take punches or kicks from your opponents, or where you lean against a wall and take the other guy's full-weight punches (and later, thank him for it, which I admit, is kind of funny, though very respectful) to help you get used to pain. Still, after some days of rest, when you've recovered from the pain and come back to class, you'll feel tons stronger.

* Pushes you to the limit. If you've got a proper Kyokushin karate sensei/shihan, he's the guy who will ask you to run until you're out breath, then ask you to run some more, then as you stand up he'll ask you to work the punching bags, then the kick bags, then do pushups, squats, running squats, jumping jacks, and after a minute of rest, it's back to kata practice, then more running, then a 5-round kumite session, all without stopping. You'll feel like vomiting, you'll feel like giving up, but if you just stay on and push yourself, you'll discover as time goes on how you can just take more and more because your threshold is continuously being raised. It's really awesome. You'd be surprised at how much you (and the human body in general) can really take, and your stamina will just shoot up.

* Practicality. For what it's worth (and I'm not dissing any other martial arts here, I respect all martial arts and martial artists equally), Kyokushin karate is really practical. There aren't any flashy moves. There are a number of basic moves, and everything develops from there -- which is great, because in street fights, the basic moves are all that you need. Though there are the various kata, those have different applications that you'll really have to know inside out to be able to use in fights, but even without them you could be a good fighter for self-defense purposes. Furthermore, you learn a lot about weak points and about your own body strength in Kyokushin karate, so you know how to avoid danger; and even if danger still strikes, how to get it done and over with as soon as possible. (E.g. No one in real life, non-MMA or ring situations expect low kicks, or that they'd be so freaking paralysis-inducing, so if you're in a bad situation, distract them and get a good low kick in and you'll get to run away easily. Similarly, knuckle-to-throat punches, knee to thighs, heel to ribs/thighs, etc.)

* Courage and personal growth. If there's anything I've gained from Kyokushin karate that's just so useful, it's courage. Though I wasn't so much of a coward before, it would have scared me to take on any guy one-and-a-half heads taller than me. Now, I know that's that's still a ticket to death, but I wouldn't be scared of taking him on and dying if I have to (and I'd at least hurt him a fair bit before he kills me anyway). All the fights, and of you pushing yourself to your limit, will really help you grow as a person. And it tells you that nothing will stand in your way if you put yourself to it. In your daily life, you'll find yourself walking with a more confident gait, and just feeling more upbeat in general.

* Humility. Cocky people are cocky because they fantasize of themselves as legendary beings, without realizing that tons of other people out there could be and are better than them. (The Dunning-Kruger effect, if you will.) In Kyokushin, once you get beaten up by younger guys, or get trashed by someone half your size (but with double your speed and power), you'll realize that it's actually pretty easy to die and that it doesn't take someone your size or bigger to do it. This makes you more humble, in my fair opinion. You'll just be a better overall person, and you'll not want to show off or be cocky (even though you could jam in someone's teeth and eat his/her tonsils for breakfast if you wanted to), and be respectful of others.
posted by wz at 8:20 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, forgot to add this:

* Belts. Belts don't come cheap -- i.e. you don't go up a rank automatically -- you'll have to fight for your felt. No McDojo instant-promotion, essentially. The higher your belt, the more people you'll have to fight in a row. The last lower belts have to fight 5-6 full contact fights in a row; the last time someone did a black belt in my dojo, he had to fight 15. (Short story: By the end of the fight, his chest was completely red, his knuckles were all red and bloody, and he wasn't walking properly (some shin clashes during the fight). However, no permanent damage was done: I met him 2 days after the fight and he was in slight pain, but generally alright, and now that it's been months after he's completely fine, so there's nothing to worry about. Also, I'm pretty sure that martial arts practitioners in general suffer less joint injuries than, say, football.) In other words, you have to show that you deserve your belt. And when you do get your belt, you'd be proud to know that you deserved it.

* Joining in. Find a dojo that allows you to test the class for free (twice, at least) to see if it's right for you. If that's not a choice, don't join, because there's a a chance that it might just be a McDojo. At least, the guy should let you observe the training. (And that should be enough for you to evaluate the intensity of the workout and sincerity of the instructor.)
posted by wz at 8:32 PM on December 17, 2010

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