What kind of martial arts should I do?
June 21, 2005 8:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in adding a martial arts class to my workout routine. Help me pick a style.

I am specifically looking for something that would actually come in handy in case I ever got attacked in the street. However, I'm also looking for something graceful and stylistic, like capoeira. I've done yoga for 3 years, and I'm looking to add to my routine, not replace yoga.
Extra points if you can recommend me a studio or dojo or whatever that's located in or near Newport Beach, CA. Thanks!
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
(Disclaimer: I have been doing Judo for over 10 years) Just think of every fight you have ever seen at bars and schoolyard. How many of them have had the two fighters standing apart and taking kicks and punches at eachother from a distance? I would suggest you learn a grappling art. My personal favorite is Judo because of the competitive sport aspects of the art, but there are others like Jujitsu and Aikido that can give you a good sense of grappling and body control.

If you are looking for something stylistic and graceful I would recommend Aikido. Not quite close to you, but if you can get up there I recommend visiting Pol Stafford's dojo in Ojai, CA (quite a drive from Newport, I know). My sister is a dan in Aikido and Pol is one of her good friends in the Aikido world (they studied Aikido together up in Sacramento) and if you are into the graceful/stylistic stuff you would really like his style.

Otherwise as I said above I am partial to Judo since that is what I have done for so long. I really enjoy the sport aspect of Judo where you compete against another "expert" who doesn't want you to throw, pin, choke, arm-bar them and they are trying to do the same to you. If you could handle yourself in a Judo competition I have full faith that you can handle an attack on the street. Aikido to me is more staged and choreographed but would also be helpful in case of attack.
posted by jduckles at 8:51 PM on June 21, 2005

Apropos capoeira: I play, I enjoy it very much, and it would definitely complement the yoga. (It's odd, but there seems to be some sort of demographic overlap between yoga practitioners and capoeiristas).

Capoeira probably evolved as a way for slaves to practice self-defense moves covertly, and it certainly served as a pastime for gangsters and hard men (in fact capoeira was outlawed in Brazil for quite a while, so by definition it was both a criminal pastime and the pastime of criminals). But it wasn't explicitly developed as a disciplined fighting style. If that's what you want, you might want to look elsewhere.

Capoeira will give you aerobic fitness, it will make you stronger, and it will develop your sense of physical tactics and strategy. It also has elements of music, performance, and even mysticism (specifically, candomble).

What it does not have is a really practical set of self-defense techniques. Capoeira's contribution to self defense is it teaches you to dodge, weave and escape; it teaches you to fall; it teaches you trickiness ("malicia"); it has some good and surprising take-downs; it teaches you to see the blow coming; and it makes you hard and fit. That's it. I would say capoeira is an art, or a practise, with martial elements, but it is not a martial art like, say, tae kwon do or wing chun.

(YMMV depending on the nature of the people you play with. There are flavours of capoeira regional that borrow kicks from Japanese arts and have grappling elements as well. On the other hand, there are some very traditional forms of capoeira angola, which are more like physical chess than anything else.)

If self-defense is your main aim, then yeah, aikido or jujitsu. Consider brazilian jujitsu: scary effective.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:38 PM on June 21, 2005

Brazillian jujitsu - yeah that is some nasty stuff. If you have one near you, try going to a Gracie gym. Expensive, but it may keep you motivated.

I would suggest Wing Chun kung-fu. It is not a distance martial art, but it is also not a grappling martial art.

Speed is a critical characteristic of Wing Chun, for both attack efficacy and reducing exposure. Wikipedia has a much better description of Wing Chun than I can provide.

As a last note, Bruce Lee derived a lot of Jeet Kun Do from Wing Chun.
posted by gnash at 10:09 PM on June 21, 2005

Fencing. I could drone on about how fantastic it is, but googling will reveal plenty of that. Fencing is like chess at a lightning pace (actually, Go would make for a better simile). Incredible bursts of activity, and a fine balance of the mental and physical.
posted by phrontist at 10:49 PM on June 21, 2005

Cross training is the way to go.

I'd recommend Muay Thai or western boxing for stand-up stuff & BJJ for groundwork. For weapons, FMA (filipino martial arts) is hard to beat.

Avoid Capoeira, TKD and fencing if you want to learn to defend yourself. These arts have their worth and can build attributes like fitness & agility - but for a street encounter they are, in my opinion, next to useless.

Find a JKD gym where you can cross train in a number of arts - the Inosanto Academy in LA is world renouned. An instructor accredited here knows their stuff.
posted by the cuban at 3:08 AM on June 22, 2005

For a good practical martial art, you can't go far wrong with Gracie ju jitsu, kickboxing (the styles based around Muai Thay, not the sports-related styles where the kicks are only to be delivered above waist height), western boxing, or a "mixed" martial art like jeet kune do.

For something that is graceful, then aikido or capoeira will give you plenty. You might also want to consider t'ai chi, or qi gong (various spelling variations such as chi gung, etc). You could also look into stick fighting.

If you're looking for something "practical" then you've really got to think about what you mean here. If your job puts you in harm's way, then you will probably benefit from some very comprehensive "restraint and control" type training. Ju jitsu will defintely help here, as you are trained to use technique over strength, and to immobilise an assailant on the floor. Aikido may not be quite right, since it's all about throwing people onto the floor until they get bored of attacking you - and quite possibly breaking their wrist on the way. In a work-related situation, that be a little too much. However, aikido is 100% "defensive", so it might be what you're looking for.

But, if you're talking about learning to hit people hard, fast, and effectively, while avoiding their attacks, then we're obviously getting more into effective self-defence on the street. I'd recommend western boxing, or Thai-style kickboxing. These will get you fit and tough very quickly, and give you simple, highly effective means of evading and delivering attacks.

It's a good point that "most fights go to the ground". I think this is probably true, although fortunately I haven't been in one since I've been learning martial arts. So, I'd agree with jduckles that you need some groundwork. Judo will be good for that, or again ju jitsu. However, if you're learning this for the street/bar, remember that you want to get the hell of the floor ASAP. Trying to put someone in an arm-lock is next to impossible when his 3 mates are kicking you in the head. The point being that judo or ju jitsu are often taught as one-on-one or ring sports. That's fine, and very valuable, but personally I emphasise the escaping and striking elements of groundwork.

You may want to shop around for a good gym. Find somewhere that doesn't intimidate you, where you can chat with the instructors and pupils. The many "boxercise" or "Thaibo" (whatever it's called) type classes you'll find in your local gym are pretty good for cardio, but they're likely to be next to useless for self-defence. Make sure the teachers are at pains to explain how and why the moves work, how your fist should be clenched when you strike, how to turn your hips, etc. I've seen "kickboxing" classes that make me wince at the lack of detailed training - it's a recipe for injury.

The "internal" arts such as t'ai chi or qi gong are wonderful. I've rarely experienced such a clean buzz as you get from taking an hour's t'ai chi class. Everything in t'ai chi is based on a fighting form, but slowed to meditative speed. Personally I very much doubt its value for self-defence, but it is unbeatable for grace. Qi gong is similar, but the movements are "harder", and they stimulate acupressure points. Also, you'll learn breath control, which is vital for focusing your strength. Western weight lifters and martial artists are only recently starting to understand this.

A lot of good gyms today will teach a "mixed martial arts" (MMA) syllabus. Usually, this will be the sort of stuff that you'll see used by the UFC/cage-fighting guys. It's hardcore, and very effective. But again it will only be taught for one-on-one situations. There are arts that work multiple assailant scenarios - aikido, judo (I think?), kung fu (possibly only in higher grades). Some others I've heard of but know very little about are systema (Russian for "The System") and krav maga. Krav maga is brutal and effective, and should cover nasty stuff like knife attacks, etc. If you want something that will work on the street, this is probably it.

Which brings me to a question - what are you expecting? It will take at least 2 years of dedication for you to become proficient in any martial art. Maybe treble that time to get to black belt or equivalent, maybe longer. However, it is highly unlikely that you will become indestructible, and capable of defending yourself against anything and everything. "Graceful" and "practical" don't go together in my opinion. If you want grace, fitness and strength, do capoeira. If you want effectiveness, try krav maga. If you can't find a KM class, try combining Muay Thai and judo/ju jitsu.

If you're prepared to spend some time learning a single MMA, you should definitely check out jeet kune do. Bruce Lee put JKD together to be a single, ultimately effective system. The teaching approach has fractured since his death, but you're lucky enough to live in the same state as one of the greatest martial artists on earth (IMHO), Dan Inosanto. I've been to seminars given by Dan, and he's an incredible man. His academy should cover just about everything I've mentioned - stand-up, groundwork, weapons - and more.

Good luck! You'll know within a few weeks if you've made the right decision. And it has to be right for you - just because someone else thinks their fight-fu is stronger than yours, doesn't mean it is, and doesn't mean you'd be happy doing it.
posted by ajp at 3:19 AM on June 22, 2005 [2 favorites]

Re: my post - the bit about Bruce Lee, JKD and Dan Inosanto doesn't read very well. Bruce Lee permitted 3 of his students to teach JKD, Dan Inosanto being one of them. After Lee's death, JKD teaching basically split into 2 schools - one based on the JKD teachings of Lee ("Original JKD" or "Jun Fan gung fu"), one based on "JKD concepts". The "concepts" school believe that JKD should evolve. Dan Inosanto follows this line of thought. He is of Fillipino decent, and trains in Fillipino knife-fighting, and the empty-hand art "kali". Kali and JKD are often taught together. Wikipedia has a basic article on jeet kune do.
posted by ajp at 3:51 AM on June 22, 2005

I haven't been in one since I've been learning martial arts.

Also worth noting. I'm 35. Despite having spent a lot of time in bars, out late at night, and hanging with disreputable people, the last time I exchanged blows with anyone I was 12. That's 23 years of no fights, excluding sparring.

Perhaps I live in a less violent society than you do, but in my experience self-defence is *highly* overrated. Unless you have real reason to fear getting the shit kicked out of you, you might be better off having fun. Also, it will take years before you are competent to reliably kick the shit out of someone else. Again, you could be taking dance lessons instead.

It was this thought that propelled me toward capoeira rather than BJJ.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:46 AM on June 22, 2005

I'll recommend my own form, Hap Ki Do ('harmonized-energy-way'), since it's what I know, and I think it fits your criteria. It's a Korean form, with many defense techniques (aikido-style flow techniques, joint locks, pressure points, throws), but also with "yang" aspects, i.e., kicks, strikes, sparring, forms, weapons, etc. Personally I find it a great mix of beauty / cool looking performances, and actual useful skills. The philosophy also really appeals to me; it's focused on being relaxed and aware, and understanding your options realistically, without unnecessary fear or brutality.

The most important thing, really, is to find a master you want to work with. It is also cool if you can find a school that has guests, conferences, or cross training of any sort - we had a judo sensei visiting for the better part of a year, and have had seminars with jujitsu masters, e.g. There are different ways to do things, and you have to find the form that fits your body, personality and expectations, but it is also good to be reminded of alternative approaches once you've chosen something, to keep you on your toes.
posted by mdn at 4:50 AM on June 22, 2005

Tae Kwon Do doesn't suck.
posted by Doohickie at 5:03 AM on June 22, 2005

Aikido is a good recommendation (personal bias here) but it takes a long time to become proficient, because it isn't about brute force but precise holds and pivots. For that reason -- be as realistic as you can -- if you want something that you can walk away from in a year or two and use practically, aikido won't be the one.

Re: fencing. Good sport, also did some. But if you're looking for a street variant, I would suggest the Phillipine martial art Arnis -- it's a stick-fighting technique but you can use it barehanded. Very good for disarming, since drills often involve fighting an opponent who is armed with a knife. Very dangerous.

Tae Kwon Do doesn't suck.

Depends on what you're using. In our cross-art expositions at our U, TKD always, always did the most poorly, and Judo and Aikido practitioners just destroyed them. Not efficient.

I second a recommendation for Judo (very practical) and jujitsu (very dangerous), but do consider Arnis.
posted by dreamsign at 5:28 AM on June 22, 2005

Good advice here.

Tae Kwon Do doesn't suck.

Tell me why? :)
posted by the cuban at 6:17 AM on June 22, 2005

If you think you'd like Capoeira, go check out Capoeira. Aside from everything else, the Capoeira players I've know get tons of chicks. No lie, man.

As general commentary, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu really is the short route to learning how to effectively hurt people very quickly, as Thai Kickboxing, and the lesser known Krav Maga. It looks like there's a couple San Shou schools near you, which is competitive full-contact kung fu and akin to boxing. Grappling players will tell you that strikers can't get out of a good lock, and strikers will tell you grapplers can't get near you with a broken kneecap. This is tedious ideology, and doesn't matter for health or self-defense (SD). If it's really SD you're after, don't worry about styles or schools that are top heavy with weapons.

Speaking in tiny practicalities, if you decide on a style that teaches takedowns or throws, they absolutely must teach you how some basic gymnastics well in advance of your first flight: rolling and breakfalls. If its suggested that you can just pick up the landing techniques while you're being thrown, run away. Uniforms can be expensive; high quality judo (or other grappling art) gis can run $200 or so, but are designed to take a ton of wear and tear. Karate (striking) gis tend to be lighter weight, but will still cost as much. An instructor should let you work your way from your sweats (for the first class or three) to an 'introductory' uniform ($50 or so), to something more expensive as you start up the ranks. I don't trust any place that offers a free uniform for joining, or any place that tries to front load you with equipment when you first join. Some instructors will demonstrate a few simple moves gently (joint locks, hold breaks or grabs) as part of a sales pitch. This is the martial equivalent of pulling a quarter out from behind your ear. Watch a few classes, and check out the progression of the students. Black belts (or equivalent) should be self-aware, and motions should be precise and consistent (do strikes land in the same place all the time? are holds and locks applied immediately, without fumbling?), regardless of style. Be highly suspicious of anyone who has many multiple black belts, especially if they're in very disparate styles. I've known just two people who had multiple BBs who could still be judged by review boards as masters of their respective arts. One was an honest to god 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know' Martial Artist, and the other started training with his parents at 5.

Ignore any my-style-can-beat-up-your-style talk unless you're going to dedicate all your time to one art. Seriously. Tae Kwon Do doesn't have to suck, but a lot of schools are geared towards the business of martial arts, rather than fighting efficacy. If you're really looking to find 'effective' TKD, look for an instructor who served in the South Korean military. They're less likely to teach competitive, points based TKD, and more likely to spice things up with hapkido techniques. Arnis and other Filipino arts are the reason why so many Spanish conquerors found their horrible end in the Phillipines, and practitioners tend to be very serious, nearly fanatical, in their study.
posted by boo_radley at 6:32 AM on June 22, 2005

A vote here for Kenpo Karate. Very practical and scientific. Kenpo's strengths are modularity, economy and how well it lends itself to improvisation. Lots of emphasis on breaking holds and soft tissue strikes. Being able to kick someone in the head may look cool, but is of little practical use in a street fight. The feet, knees, groin, solar plexus kidneys are all shorter distances to cover with one's feet. Kenpo teaches you to think in three dimensions and will make you a master of motion.
posted by Scoo at 6:54 AM on June 22, 2005

Don't worry about the particular 'style' you'll be learning. Honestly, it isn't that important, since any training will be useful to you if you're ever attacked, despite claims of one style being 'better' than another for self-defence. Keep in mind that unless you're a bouncer or a cop, you're not likely to need to defend yourself in a real fight anyway. It's far more important to focus on finding a good instructor. There are many kooks out there in the martial arts world, and many very good instructors. Focusing on a particular martial art is probably going to limit you to one or two possible instructors, who may royally suck.
posted by gwenzel at 8:56 AM on June 22, 2005

I personally don't think traditional styles are the most effective. They seem to teach their "system" (exercises, kata, sparring, etc.), with less emphasis on real-life application. The exceptions seem to be Gracie ju-jitsu and the like.

Coming from an Aikido guy of 18 years... Aikido is very much not based on "effectiveness", but rather on techniques and concepts such as being centered, "extension", relaxation. I think it is effective, but I think most people that study it can come away with a false sense of security. Throws aren't choreographed, but I've seen too many people who "jump" at the slightest provocation. This causes the thrower (nage) to assume the throw (or lock, or pin) should work even when not applied properly. Very often, new students "try out" techniques on friends and family, and are disappointed by the results. And I've seen high level students (black belts) fail to apply a technique, and chastise the partner (uke) for resisting or failing to "follow".

When I used to work in a martial art school/supplies store, people would ask for the "most effective form of self-defense". And I would reply, only somewhat kidding, "Buy a gun". Bottom line; if you want to be good at something, do that thing. If you want to be an effective fighter, get into fights.

Good luck!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:26 AM on June 22, 2005

Aikido sucks as does Tae Kwon Do and Karate, I'd go with 1) a judo or jujitsu that focused on ground work sparring and 2) Boxing conditioning (as opposed to boxing sparring). Those two will do excellent things for your upper body, great cardio, and give you a little reflex and self defense edge.

Avoid anything that doesn't emphasize sparring over drills, avoid anything where there are too many students.

Injury in practice is as bad as injury from a fight. So avoid anything with throws, kicks, punches, chops, weapons, or guys yelling.

The boxing conditioning thing falls outside this, because it's basically hitting things that won't hit back and skipping alot of rope. But boxing conditioning does offer the nice benefit of developing good punching muscles. 90% of the guys I've seen in Akidio-Karate-Ti places couldn't take a middle weight jab. They don't practice it, they haven't taken it, but they have a nice cloth belt.
posted by ewkpates at 10:34 AM on June 22, 2005

One more thought about grappling vs. striking, and this applies to Aikido holds as much as Gracie jujitsu, etc: it seems to me that a majority of street fights do not give you the assurance of a single opponent. You are not going to be wrapping someone up in a hold if a second potential attacker is nearby. You may prefer to study one of the more "defensive" martial arts, but you need to have an instructor who will show you at least a few damaging moves, or you won't be an ounce safer on the street.
posted by dreamsign at 12:58 PM on June 22, 2005

Previous discussions here,here, and here. I have comments in each of those threads which might be relevant. (Especially in that last link.)

I'll agree with what others have said that "handy in case I ever got attacked in the street" and "graceful and stylistic" are inversely correlated. Of course, a master of a practical fighting discipline may look pretty graceful based strictly on pure body coordination. Likewise a master of a more artistic style may have some fighting ability based just on fitness and athleticism. In general, though, if you want the most practical techniques, you have to give up some stylistic artistry, and vice-versa.

If you're primarily interested in a martial art as an additional workout, rather than for self-defense, you may want to visit a few schools and see what the workout intensity levels are like. Two teachers of the same art may teach with very different levels of intensity, depending on their training philosophies and the level of the students in their classes. Besides the intensity of the workouts, you have to consider whether the type of movement they're doing is something you would enjoy. If you don't enjoy it, you're not going to show up and do it regularly.

With regards to some of the arts which have already been mentioned, I'll list the ones I have some experience with from low to high in terms of typical workout exertion intensity levels.

wing chun, aikido
kenpo, arnis
tae kwon do
western boxing, muay thai, judo, brazilian jujutsu

(By workout intensity, I'm referring to cardio & muscular endurance. Some of the arts which are less intense as workouts can still be intense in terms of pain and bruises.)

Bear in mind, as I said, that the above ranking could vary quite a bit due to the inclinations of the teacher.

I've never done capoeira, but it looks like it would be quite a workout.
posted by tdismukes at 2:41 PM on June 22, 2005

Capoeira is fun! Can't speak for its effectiveness, but like many in this thread I have to agree -- you need to know what you are really looking for. Also, the school/instructor you select makes a huge difference in your "effectiveness".

Tae Kwon Do doesn't suck.
Tell me why? :)
-- the cuban

How about you tell me why it does? Oh, I'll agree that there are a BUNCH of McDojang's out there teaching utter crap. Dojang's that will sell you a blackbelt in two years/eighteen months/a minute and a half. The same is true for any traditional art that has hit the mainstream (see: Karate, Kung Fu, etc).

This fact, however, does not invalidate the art itself.

Taken as a whole, traditional ITF taekwon do (as taught in the US by the USTF under Grand Master Seriff) is a comprehensive, complete martial art. The key phrase here is taken as a whole. Similar to karate, the emphasis in the lower belt levels is on kicking and punching. Good schools also teach effective self defenses (usually incorporating elements taken from ju jitsui/aikido/etc) including locks, takedowns, and throws.

So. Where is the suck?

Feel free to contact me (email in profile) if you don't want to pollute the thread further :)
posted by coriolisdave at 3:14 PM on June 22, 2005

Tae Kwon Do doesn't suck.

Tell me why? :)

I'm not qualified to compare, since TKD is the only martial art I've tried. And while I don't think TKD sucks, *I* kinda suck at TKD, owing to a bad knee on one leg and a bad hip on the other.

And coriolisdave, I don't think the cuban was implying TKD *does* suck; he was just asking for more information. You must admit, I didn't give out too much. Don't be so touchy.

What do I get out of TKD? Well the school I go to has monthly rates and daily classes, so it is easy to go as much or as little as you desire. I've been busy and/or injured for much of this year, so as a physical workout it hasn't been that great for me, to be honest. On the other hand, when I can go 3-4 times a week, I think it definitely improves my cardio conditioning. I lost about 2 lb. tonight during my TKD class.
posted by Doohickie at 8:26 PM on June 22, 2005

Doohickie - looking at my response, I realise I left out the ";)" I meant to have after my first sentence - that'll teach me to post before coffee in the morning. Sorry if it came across as being touchy :)

If you don't mind the question, with whom do you train?
posted by coriolisdave at 8:36 PM on June 22, 2005

He is a 60-something year old guy from Korea that taught in England for 15 years before moving to Texas. His school is sanctioned by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF).!

Wish me well, by the way: I test for my Green Belt tomorrow (Saturday).
posted by Doohickie at 10:20 PM on June 24, 2005

Well, I'm a Green Belt now. ;- )
posted by Doohickie at 11:43 AM on June 25, 2005

Well done! Testing's are fun -- just wait 'till your black ;)
posted by coriolisdave at 3:38 PM on June 26, 2005

Congratulations on your grading.
posted by the cuban at 1:43 PM on June 28, 2005

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