How 10 Different Martial-Arts Styles Kick Butt
As long as there have been fists, there has been fighting. As a result, this basic human urge has taken on myriad forms throughout the centuries and all over the world, making the simple desire to take a class in martial arts a mind-bogglingly complicated task. Below, we lay out 10 of the most popular martial-arts styles to help you make sense of it all and choose the practice that’s right for you—or your child.
Who does it: Ashley Judd, Australian cricketer Justin Langer
What to bring: workout attire, water bottle, towel; some classes may require ankle supports, boxing gloves, and headgear
Learn more: check out more facts about the styles and learn kickboxer’s great stage names
More of a catch-all term rather than a specific fighting style, kickboxing can refer to anything from a martial-arts-inspired aerobics routine to the ancient practice of muay thai. In the US, kickboxing as a sport is generally a fusion of boxing and karate that involves strikes using only the hands and feet. Unlike muay thai and other practices, elbows and knees are not allowed. Because of the sport’s murky definitions, be sure to ask for details before taking your first kickboxing class to make sure it’s the style you’re looking for.
Origins: Japan in the early 20th century
Who does it: Christian Slater, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine
What to bring: a uniform, or gi (see picture below)
Known as the art of the “empty hand,” karate was born in Okinawa out of necessity during a time when weapons were banned by invading armies. Although it includes powerful kicks, punches, and blocks, this Japanese martial art is centered on self-defense above all else. Like yoga and other Japanese physical practices, the philosophy of karate extends beyond the studio and into everyday life, working to enhance the individual through principles such as respect, discipline, and the quest for constant improvement.
Origins: Japan in the early 20th century
Who does it: Steven Seagal, Sean Connery, Joan Baez
What to bring: a uniform, or gi; some classes may require a hakama, or skirted samurai uniform (see picture below)
Rather than focusing on punches and kicks, aikido uses an opponent’s kinetic energy against them to take control. Practitioners learn to redirect the force of an attack to weaken their opponents and make it easier to complete a throw or pin. Aikido generally has a steeper learning curve than other martial arts, and many beginners may train for a year or more before they feel comfortable using the techniques outside of the dojo.
Tae kwon do
Origins: Korea in 50 BCE
Who does it: Jessica Alba, Willie Nelson
What to bring: a uniform, or gi; advanced classes require a mouth guard, headgear, and groin protection for men
In opposition to the “empty hand” of karate, tae kwon do literally translates to “the way of the foot and fist.” This Korean fighting form—one of the only two Eastern martial arts in the Olympics—is famous for its range of impressive kicks. It emphasizes power through feats such as splitting boards and bricks with the bare hands and feet. Beyond its physical aspects, tae kwon do also teaches respect, discipline, and other forms of personal strength.
Origins: Brazil in the early 20th century
Who does it: Nicolas Cage, Ashton Kutcher, director Guy Ritchie
What to bring: a uniform, or gi
Learn more: watch a Brazilian jujitsu instructor display its "gentle way"
A modified form of Japanese jujutsu adapted by Brazil’s Gracie family in 1925, Brazilian jujitsu was devised to help small fighters take down larger adversaries. Success in the practice relies on the practitioner gaining superior positioning in order to apply a range of chokes, holds, locks, and joint manipulations. While ground-fighting techniques are its claim to fame, the practice does include some standup maneuvers as well.
Origins: probably with the first human fist
Who does it: Mickey Rourke, Mario Lopez, model Adriana Lima
What to bring: workout attire, water bottle, towel; check to see if your club provides wraps and gloves
Learn more: accompany a Groupon editor on her first-ever boxing workout
Perhaps the world’s oldest fighting style, boxing dates back to long before its role in the original Olympic Games. Today’s rules are simple: two competitors wearing gloves try to hit each other and avoid the others’ fists. Using the feet and hitting below the belt is prohibited, and matches last a specified number of several-minute rounds. Because there’s no kicking, boxers develop an impressive amount of upper-body strength, and many are capable of knocking out an opponent with a single blow.
Origins: Palestine in the mid-20th century
Who does it: Daniel Craig, Hilary Swank
What to bring: loose-fitting workout apparel, athletic shoes if class isn’t barefoot
First developed in the 1930s by a Jewish boxer and wrestler as a way to defend his neighbors against violence by fascist and anti-Semitic groups, krav maga has since become the official combat style of the Israel Defense Forces. Krav maga literally means “contact combat” in Hebrew and strives for simultaneous defense and attack—that is, every defensive movement is combined with an offensive movement. Unlike the disciplined approach of Eastern martial arts, this fighting style incorporates no real etiquette or fighting patterns, instead relying on continuous motion that rarely allows an attacker to rest.
Origins: Siam (modern-day Thailand) in roughly the 13th–14th century
Who does it: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling
What to bring: workout apparel including muay thai shorts, towel, boxing gloves, hand wraps, shin guards, headgear, mouth guard, knee and elbow pads, groin protection for men
The national sport of Thailand and one of the most popular styles used in MMA fighting, muay thai’s reliance on the hands, shins, elbows, and knees has led it to be dubbed “the art of eight limbs.” As a result, the style is a full-body workout that requires fighters to maintain powerful core muscles to rotate the hips with each kick, punch, and block. Bumps and bruises, especially on the shins, are very common with beginners, though a good conditioning regimen can help toughen the more sensitive points of contact over time.
Origins: Brazil in roughly the 16th–19th century
Who does it: Wesley Snipes, Adriana Lima
What to bring: workout attire including long pants, socks, and athletic shoes if class isn’t barefoot
A Brazilian art form that combines fighting, dance, music, and constant movement, capoeira is believed by some historians to have developed as a way for African slaves to hide their combat training from their oppressors by concealing it in dance. During the practice’s traditional jogo, two capoeiristas exchange movements of attack and defense in a constant flow, often using feints and deception to control and confuse their opponent. All the while, other participants surround the fighters in a roda de capoeira, or capoeira wheel, playing percussion instruments and using call-and-response singing to produce an exciting musical backdrop.
Origins: Chinese Buddhist monasteries in the 1st century
Who does it: Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr.
What to bring: workout attire for the first few classes; uniforms differ from school to school
Rather than defining a single martial art, kung fu is more of an umbrella term that covers a range of Chinese fighting styles. The style has its roots in the Shaolin Temple around 500 CE, where a Buddhist prince developed a series of self-defense exercises to help strengthen the weak and ailing monks. Though the styles vary, most incorporate graceful, flowing movements. They also generally use both hard techniques of kicks, blocks, and open- and closed-hand strikes and soft techniques that use the opponent’s strength against them.
Watch a Brazilian jujitsu instructor display its "gentle way":
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