Types of Martial Arts - Our Guide to 10 of the Most Popular Styles
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. To help you make sense of which practice is right for you (or your child), we've laid out the basics on 10 of the most popular types of martial arts—classes for which can be easily booked through our site.
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Types of Martial Arts
What is kickboxing? In the US, kickboxing as a sport is generally a fusion of boxing and karate that involves strikes using only the hands and feet.
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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. 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.
What to Bring: workout attire, water bottle, towel; some classes may require ankle supports, boxing gloves, and headgear
Famous Adherents: Ashley Judd, Eva Mendes
What is karate? Although it includes powerful kicks, punches, and blocks, this Japanese martial art is centered on self-defense above all else.
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. 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, early 20th century
What to Bring: a uniform, or gi (pictured above)
Famous Adherents: Christian Slater, Taylor Lautner
What is aikido? Rather than focusing on punches and kicks, aikido uses an opponent's kinetic energy against them to take control.
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Aikido 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.
Origins: Japan, early 20th century
What to Bring: a uniform, or gi; some classes may require a hakama, or skirted samurai uniform (pictured above)
Famous Adherents: Steven Seagal, Sean Connery, Joan Baez
4. Tae Kwon Do
What is tae kwon do? This Korean fighting form—one of the only two Eastern martial arts in the Olympics—is famous for its range of impressive kicks.
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In opposition to the "empty hand" of karate, tae kwon do literally translates to "the way of the foot and fist." 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: Korea, 50 BCE
What to Bring: a uniform, or gi; advanced classes require a mouth guard, headgear, and groin protection (for men)
Famous Adherents: Jessica Alba, Ryan Phillipe
5. Brazilian Jujitsu
What is brazilian jujitsu? A modified form of Japanese jujitsu, the Brazilian variety sees practitioners trying to gain superior positioning, from which they try to apply a range of chokes, holds, locks, and joint manipulations.
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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. While ground-fighting techniques are its claim to fame, the practice does include some standup maneuvers as well.
Origins: Brazil, early 20th century
What to Bring: a uniform, or gi
Famous Adherents: Jessica Alba, Ryan Phillipe
What is boxing? This one's pretty simple: two competitors wearing gloves try to hit each other and avoid the other's fists.
Perhaps the world's oldest fighting style, boxing dates back to long before its role in the original Olympic Games. 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: probably with the first human fist
What to Bring: workout attire, water bottle, towel; check to see if your club provides wraps and gloves
Famous Adherents: Mickey Rourke, Mario Lopez, Adriana Lima
7. Krav Maga
What is krav maga? 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.
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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. 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: Palestine, mid-20th century
What to Bring: loose-fitting workout apparel, athletic shoes (if class isn't barefoot)
Famous Adherents: Daniel Craig, Hilary Swank
8. Muay Thai
What is muay thai? 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."
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Since practitioners use so much of their upper and lower bodies, muay thai 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: Siam (modern-day Thailand), 13th-14th century
What to Bring: muay thai shorts, towel, boxing gloves, hand wraps, shin guards, headgear, mouth guard, knee and elbow pads, groin protection (for men)
Famous Adherents: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling
What is capoeira? Capoeira sees its combatants—called capoeiristas—exchange movements of attack and defense in a constant flow, often using feints and deception to control and confuse their opponent.
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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. While two capoeiristas take part in the practice's traditional jogo, 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: Brazil, 16th-19th century
What to Bring: long pants, socks, and athletic shoes (if class isn't barefoot)
Famous Adherents: Wesley Snipes, Adriana Lima
10. Kung Fu
What is kung fu? While styles vary, most versions of kung fu incorporate graceful, flowing movements. Both hard techniques of kicks, blocks, and open- and closed-hand strikes and soft techniques that use the opponent's strength against them are used.
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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.
Origins: Chinese Buddhist monasteries, 1st century
What to Bring: workout attire (for first few classes); uniforms differ from school to school
Famous Adherents: Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr.
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