Which Martial Art Should You Learn? The Top 5 Ranked
With the rise of mixed-martial-arts (MMA) men are becoming aware of the amazing mental, physical and even spiritual benefits of self-defense art forms, yet many aren’t sure where to start, well this piece offers a definitive guide for you and answers which martial art should you learn.
Every martial art is unique, with some requiring decades of practice, dedication, and spiritual learning, while others are less intensive emotionally and focus more on physical dynamism.
This is why this piece reviews which martial art should you learn via three key criteria so you can find the right balance you’re looking for.
The three criteria are:
- Exercise Value
- Difficulty, and
- Mental & Spiritual Growth
You may be looking for one of these, two of them, or perhaps all three, and this piece is intended to offer you an insight to each, as well as outlining the balance between the above criteria by offering a point-scoring system with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest.
Below are the 5 techniques that outline which martial art should you learn:
1: Kickboxing/Muay Thai
Now while kickboxing and Muay Thai are technically different sports, with kickboxing focusing on the four-point striking system (punches and kicks) and Muay Thai having eight (punches, kicks, knees and elbows), at beginners levels the two are often conjoined.
Kickboxing/Muay Thai provides excellent aerobic exercise which can be exhausting for beginners, yet knocks you into shape quickly.
After only a couple of months, with a weekly practice, your endurance and general fitness levels will have dramatically increased.
In fact, of all the martial arts, kickboxing/Muay Thai is the one that’s probably most-utilized for purely fitness purposes.
The reason why it’s great to start with Kickboxing/Muay Thai is that it doesn’t require years and years of practice to become half-decent.
Naturally, to actually fight it would take a great deal of time and dedication, but as a beginner/intermediate, with commitment, you could look at having a black belt within as little as three years.
This is the case for kickboxing at least, as Muay Thai doesn’t have a belt grading system – however – the speed at which you can advance shows you the accessibility of the sports.
With a strong emphasis on developing fast, powerful and tidy punching and kicking, ‘the science of eight limbs’ is a great place to start if you’re wondering which martial art should you learn and want to learn some moves fast.
Mental & Spiritual Growth
While the foundations of kickboxing lay in Japan, being influenced by karate, as well as Western boxing, it doesn’t carry the spiritual depth and rich history of other martial arts such as karate as an art form.
Similarly, Muay Thai, while having a rich cultural background in its eponymous Thailand, isn’t known for its spiritual foundations in the way a technique such as Shaolin kung-fu is, which is heavily grounded in Zen-Buddhist philosophy.
Henceforth, these two martial arts will provide mental health benefits, yet these are more likely to come from the physical exertion and involvement in a community than from the innate philosophies of the techniques themselves.
Hence, if you’re looking for a martial art that offers a deeper, richer spiritual experience and way of life, kickboxing and Muay Thai will come lower on the list of which martial art should you learn.
Karate is the master of martial art forms in many ways, it’s what the layman thinks of when first considering which martial art should you learn as well as when thinking of cliche martial arts in general.
Karate was developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom (which is now present-day Japan) in the 17th Century, meaning it has deep cultural roots and has been perfected over centuries.
Striking is the predominant method in karate, with punches, kicks, knee strikes, elbow hits and knife-hands all utilized often.
However, grappling is also part of many modern styles of karate.
While the aforementioned Muay Thai focuses more on all-out explosive power, karate introduces a much more ‘aesthetic’ method of self-defense.
Springing from its cultural and spiritual roots (explored below), the physical movements and techniques in karate are heavily drilled, with a strong focus on slick execution.
However, as the movements required to be capable of pulling off karate techniques demand an agile, malleable frame, the practice will get you in shape, yet this will be more akin to the way yoga sculps your body than out and out strenuous exercise.
Estimates state you will burn about 500 calories during a one-hour karate session.
While karate takes dedication, practice and letting yourself un-learn to learn new techniques, it’s not as rigorous as one might think.
If you attend classes twice a week for around 5 years, you could be in with a shot at a black belt.
This is, of course, a big dedication, but not exactly a lifetime’s work if you’re committed.
To get to black belt and the famous ‘Dan’ gradations, you must first pass eight stages of belt colours, learning techniques and building upon them as you go.
Mental & Spiritual Growth
With its strong association with Buddhism, largely stemming from the influence of Gichin Funakoshi (b.1868) who created Shotokan karate-do, the most famous style of karate, ethics and spirituality is central to the art form.
With a heavy focus on never being the aggressor and trying one’s utmost to never use karate in real-life combat, karate offers its practitioners a way of life, a spiritual foundation as well as a way of understanding and harmonizing with the laws of the universe itself.
3: Krav Maga
Krav Maga is one of the world’s more recent martial arts and is seeing growing popularity worldwide.
In many ways, Krav Maga isn’t as much a martial art as a hybrid self-defense system, taking influence from karate, wrestling, boxing, judo, and most famously, street-fighting.
The aim of the game here is to destroy your opponent by whatever means you can.
One may think this is against the ethos of martial arts, however, given Krav Maga’s origins, it is understandable, if not desirable, why it’s taken this route.
The style was developed by Hungarian-Israeli martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s when the Nazi’s began their rampage across Europe.
Lichtenfeld found he and other Jews must defend themselves at all costs, and therefore the guiding principle of the technique became one of ‘anything goes so long as it works’.
As Krav Maga is multidisciplinary, it requires its practitioners to be in peak physical condition so they are capable of executing a variety of maneuvers.
Given Krav Maga is used by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), it is clear that to be a practitioner you need to be in military-level physical shape, with the attendant endurance capacities too.
This is one of those annoying answers where I have to say ‘it depends’.
As there are so many techniques and styles in Krav Maga, the reality is that you’ll be able to learn some basic striking and street-fighting techniques quite quickly.
This is why you find many teachers offering 12-week Krav Maga self-defense classes in major cities, the idea being to teach you the basics so you’re capable of not just defending yourself, but actively attacking your opponent.
Krav Maga has a belt grading system with seven rungs, and a rough estimate to get to black belt level would be about two years – provided you’re training regularly.
After achieving the black belt, there is an ongoing and more rigorous development structure in which you can go from Dan 1 to Dan 5, which can take around 15-20 years.
Mental & Spiritual Growth
While Krav Maga doesn’t exactly follow the rigid ethical framework of karate and henceforth lacks a sense of spiritual depth, it does ensure to prepare its students in hostile environments.
One of the reasons it’s used by authorities is the focus on staying cool in high-stress situations, with training including staying calm and focused when surrounded by a large group of angry men screaming at you.
Clearly this has been designed to enhance mental strength and fortitude, so what you lose in the spiritual dimension, you gain in the mental.
4: Wing Chun
Wing Chun is martial arts at its most artistic.
Renowned for its emphasis on ‘softness’, yet devastating and powerful attacks, it is one of the most impactful and visually impressive martial arts in the world.
The name derives from its first student, Yim Wing Chun, who according to legend was taught the style by the legendary Ng Mui, one of the Five Elders of Shaolin who survived the Qing dynasty’s attack on Shaolin Temple in the mid-1600s.
However, Wing Chun is more famous for its popularisation under Ip Man and his most famous student, Bruce Lee.
Do not be deceived by Wing Chun’s focus of softness, that approach is intended to help the practitioner in utilizing the opponent’s power against him and to conserve energy throughout a potentially long fight.
Wing Chun demands a solid fitness level, however classes focus more on acquiring the correct technical knowhow and relaxed combat manner.
Wing Chun is notoriously hard to become advanced at, with an estimated 10 years before reaching Sifu (the equivalent of black belt status).
In many ways, Wing Chun is the purist’s martial art, it requires strong dedication, patience and humility to learn, taking the student on a journey of self-discovery and growth.
In essence, Wing Chun is for those who are very serious about developing an advanced practice that not many can match, this may take time, but you end with the finest results.
Mental & Spiritual Growth
As alluded to in the last point, Wing Chun requires a high level of dedication and discipline, so in order to progress, you must implement mental endurance and patience.
Surprisingly, Wing Chun doesn’t exactly have a core foundational spiritual narrative running through it, but given its foundations in Shaolin, it does have an ethical framework similar to that of karate.
Further still, links have been made to Confucianism, the philosophy of perhaps China’s greatest son, Confucius.
Confucian philosophy focuses heavily on practical wisdom, order and harmony within the state.
5: Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ)
Here we are with the most popular martial art of today, which has grown hugely in the last few years, largely due to the popularity of MMA, as well as world-famous advocates such as podcast giant Joe Rogan and ex-Navy SEAL and all-round badass Jocko Willink.
There’s no getting around that BJJ is an intense and highly demanding workout.
In grappling you are using every fibre of your body to defend, attack, grip and twist in and out of your opponent.
Therefore, it demands and develops a high standard of fitness and it will test you on every level, so expect knocks, cuts, bruises and, with time, cauliflower ears.
BJJ is a grappling sport that has been shown to be the most effective in ground-fighting in the UFC, so in theory, you can train a striking discipline alongside BJJ.
However, for anyone who’s not a pro-fighter, that is obviously a huge time commitment.
BJJ, while accessible for beginners, takes a great deal of dedication, sparring experience, and even real-life competition experience to advance to the highest levels.
That’s a lot of rolling around on the floor.
Given BJJ is a tough, demanding and difficult sport, a rough estimate for the time it takes to reach black belt level would be ten years+, with an estimated 2-3 years per belt iteration.
Despite this, BJJ is famous for being demanding, yet fun and excellent in building social bonds.
Mental & Spiritual Growth
While BJJ doesn’t have a de facto spiritual practice, it does offer huge mental benefits, many of which professed and popularised by the famous Joe Rogan.
Rogan has commented several times on how mastering an art as difficult as BJJ has given him an improved quality of life, as well as stating:
“By putting yourself in that intense form of stress, it makes regular life more peaceful.”
What Rogan seems to be alluding to here is an ethic which is very popular here at Recovering Man, and that is to face adversity before it finds you.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction into which martial art should you learn, if you’d like to check out more content from Recovering Man, why not consider downloading the free Recovering Man e-Book containing six transformational lessons to optimize your life below: