Martial arts for thin newbies
July 18, 2022 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I've never tried anything like this before, and I'm also barely above featherweight. Where to even begin?

About me: tall, but thin. Also with no experience at choosing a martial art, or even choosing a reputable place to learn one (but I've heard stories of people ending up at the wrong place, and getting useless results).

-Are there any kinds of martial arts that are a good match for my height/weight? Assume that all I care about right now is effectiveness (not that I have any plans of getting into fights in the foreseeable future, but still).

-How to find the right teacher? Again, zero experience over here.

-I live close-ish to a major city, close enough that there are options within driving distance. I just don't know which of them are worthwhile.

-I do distance running already, so stamina should not be a problem (I hope?).

-The real problem would be timing/scheduling, but I can make room (within reason). One or two days a week would be ideal.
posted by queen anne's remorse to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total)
Best answer: For striking martial arts I'd say Muay Thai - I don't have personal experience, but from observation it's dominated by tall skinny people. It's all knees and elbows and distance management, so length is ideal.

For grappling I'd say Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ). I do have personal experience here. If you have long arms and long legs you've got an advantage for a whole bunch of submissions; it will take you a while to develop a personal style to take advantage of that but you absolutely can.

If you don't have a strong preference between striking and grappling I'd try both of them out at a couple of local gyms that focus on them and have good reviews and see which place / style speaks to you. I'd also make sure there are enough people who are similar in weight to you to that you're not always getting smashed by larger people - height and age matter much less less.
posted by true at 8:27 AM on July 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Long limbs give you potentially useful leverage.

How does Aikido work?
Amazing! Aikido - Big Man VS Little Woman
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 AM on July 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've done this stuff my whole life and most of my time at it has been wasted. Here's what I wish someone had told me:

Muay Thai, Kyokushin, Judo, Brazilian Jiujitsu (never Japanese jujutsu), wrestling, boxing. These are the martial arts that have competitive sport aspects whose rules resemble actual fighting. There are a few exceptions, but most people who claim they're doing one of the exceptions are wrong. For instance, Aikido. Oh, there's Tomiki Aikido, but it's essentially bad Judo, so why not just learn good Judo?

You cannot learn self defense without learning to fight. You cannot learn to fight without fighting. Any martial art that is practiced exclusively with compliant skits, defined roles, or in slow motion will never teach you how to fight.

And after all that, you'll probably lose any fight to someone who weighs or can lift 20% more than you. You'll definitely lose any fight with two or more people or with an armed assailant. Mix in some sprinting and weightlifting with your distance running.

Your teacher should either have a verifiable fight record or preferably have trained people with verifiable fight records.

I'm sure I offended most people who read this post. I understand. Twenty years ago I wouldn't have listened to me either.
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 9:58 AM on July 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Naw, my academy is non-competitive and I agree with you completely The Monster at the End of this Thread. If you want something that you can use to be prepared to fight-fight, you need to fight regularly. Muscle memory on individual releases and holds only gets you so far; if you want to be able to deal with the speed and irregularity of real fighting you have to do that lots.

I agree with Muay Thai or BJJ as the most generally useful martial arts that way.

It sounds like you have a good idea of what you want and that's fighting ability. So you may not care about this part but I will add that for me martial arts has always been about self-discipline more than fighting, as well as having a safe space to train in.

I have better control of my responses and I am less afraid, and so since starting my martial arts training I have (once) stepped in between people about to fight and I have (several times) faced down people in situations I would have backed off from prior to that. For me that's "working." Good places will be explicit about their goals. It's really worth taking some time to try different organizations to find the one that meets yours!
posted by warriorqueen at 10:53 AM on July 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you are not focused on a specific art, finding a good school and a good teacher is more important than whether its kung fu or karate or BJJ, etc. Also define your goals - are you looking for fitness and self-defense or do you actually want to fight?

Find places that are nearby your home or work, so that you will reliably make it to classes. Visit each studio, and take a free intro class if they'll let you. See what the instructors and classes are like. Are they friendly and welcoming - or are they running class like a drill sergeant? Are the people in the classes having fun? Are they smiling and talking to each other? Are the other students welcoming to you as a newbie? Basically just perform a vibe check on several different places and go with the classes that have good energy, feel like a good fit, and match your goals.
posted by gnutron at 11:37 AM on July 18, 2022

Best answer: +1 all of warriorqueen’s comments. (I enjoy martial arts but my main goals in my practice have always been internal.)

For how to pick one, many places will do a free session or reduced-cost trial week or two, which would give you a sense of how you like the vibes. A question that might be helpful would be to ask why people stop training there and why, or about injuries. (You can’t fight if you get hurt, and a lot of these disciplines are hard on the body, especially if you start super-intense.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:41 AM on July 18, 2022

Best answer: Here's my perspective from 41 years training and 20 years teaching a variety of martial arts:

Your physical frame really doesn't matter significantly in your choice of martial arts. It may affect your personal approach to sparring, but any style that works can work for any body type.

If being able to fight effectively is a primary goal for you, then you want a school where a significant portion of the training involves sparring under rules which significantly resemble actual fighting in some way. There doesn't have to be an officially sanctioned competitive sport aspect, but that certainly helps with quality control. Systems which consistently have such an aspect include Muay Thai, Boxing, Bando, Lethwei, Kyokushin Karate, Savate, Judo, Sanda, Sambo, Wrestling, MMA, and Brazilian Jiujitsu. You can find schools for other systems which meet this criteria, but it's more hit or miss.

If you are smaller, weaker, and less athletic than your training partners, then you will find yourself at a significant disadvantage when you start sparring. Over time, your athleticism will improve and you will start to develop technique to help balance things out with larger opponents. You may encounter other systems where they claim that size, strength, and athleticism don't matter. This is a delusion which is fostered in an environment where all the training is cooperative. You can learn the skill to overcome larger, more athletic opponents, but there are no shortcuts to getting there without going through the process where they have an advantage for a long time. Some instructors will tell you that their techniques are too deadly to allow sparring. These people are fooling themselves.

The arts that I (and other people) listed above are all primarily unarmed systems. There are also weapon based martial arts. In weapon based arts, size and strength are not quite as important, because weapons are force multipliers. However, you still need regular sparring to develop reliable skill and most weapons arts which include consistent sparring/competition are considerably removed from any modern self-defense context. Examples would include Olympic fencing, Kendo, HEMA, Bohurt, and SCA heavy weapons fighting. Other weapon arts may include applications more relevant to modern civilian self-defense, but lack the sparring/pressure testing element. If you can find a Kali school which includes regular sparring (for example a Dog Brothers affiliate), that would be good.

Getting back to unarmed arts, a few of us have mentioned BJJ. I'm a BJJ instructor myself and I can say that the art has a well earned reputation for producing capable fighters. However - in recent years there has been a trend in many school towards focusing on a certain type of sport competition rule set which is just about submission grappling on the ground. If you want to be able to fight, then this sport specific training isn't enough. You have to practice sparring starting on the feet and dealing with strikes. If you check out a BJJ school, pay attention to whether they have a significant percentage of classes working on that aspect of fighting rather than just grappling starting on the ground.

Even martial arts which don't devote much or any time to realistic sparring can still potentially improve your capacity for fighting if they work to develop relevant physical and mental attributes. (To understand this in a simplified fashion, consider American football. Football is not a martial art and they don't practice deadly moves "for the streets". But you still wouldn't want to get into a fight with an NFL linebacker.) Almost any martial art (even the least realistic ones) will help you improve attributes like general fitness, balance, coordination, pain tolerance, and mental toughness compared to where you would be if you spent that time sitting on the couch. Some arts aren't the most realistic or effective from a combative perspective, but they will develop your physical attributes to a very high level and those attributes will be nothing but helpful both in a fight and in the rest of your life. Capoeira would be a good example of this.

No martial art, even a theoretically perfect art taught by the best instructor in the world, will give you good results unless you show up and train regularly. You won't show up and train regularly unless you find the art personally rewarding and you enjoy the training environment. Suppose that you could rank all martial arts on a 1 - 10 scale of effectiveness. You'll get better results from an art which is a "5" that you love and train consistently than from a "10" that you hate and quit showing up after the first week.

Along the same lines, you won't get benefits from a school where you don't train regularly because the commute is too long or the fees are too expensive or from an art which just isn't available in your area.

Here's my recommendation: Start by making a list of all the martial arts schools in your area which are close enough that you could comfortably commute to at least twice weekly without feeling stressed about the time involved. Check their class times to see whether they work with your schedule. Check their prices to make sure you can actually afford them. Check their websites to get an idea of which schools look most interesting and then pay them a visit. Many schools will give you one or two free trial lessons without obligation. If so, try those classes out. Other schools should at least allow you to watch a class. Do that as well. Talk to the instructor about their focus and approach to training. Ask about how they do sparring. Make sure you get full details of any costs. Some schools will quote you one price for monthly dues and neglect to mention additional signup fees, affiliation dues, frequent belt testing fees, etc. Do not sign up for a school which requires a long term contract. I don't care for those anyway, but they definitely aren't the way to go when you don't have the experience to know if you will still want to train at that school a year in the future. Pay attention to the atmosphere and get a feel for whether you would enjoy regularly hanging out and training with the people there. I would recommend that you observe the skill level of the senior students, but as a total beginner you won't really have the background to judge that.

Finally, if you have any school in your area that you are strongly considering, you can post links to their website in this thread and some of us with more experience might be able to take a look and point out any red flags or good signs. (If you get to that stage after this thread has ceased being active, feel free to send me a private message and I can take a look.)
posted by tdismukes at 12:43 PM on July 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, I just noticed the part of your question where you say "One or two days a week would be ideal." I strongly urge you to aim for at least two days per week. Two classes per week is enough that your body can start making adaptations and you can start to retain information and improve skills. Once per week is really only enough to help maintain skills that you have already acquired. It is possible to make progress in some arts by attending one class per week and then faithfully practicing what you've learned throughout the week on your own. However this is really hard to do as a beginner. You haven't yet learned the training skills and mental habits that are necessary for this sort of solo practice.
posted by tdismukes at 12:56 PM on July 18, 2022

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