What martial art should I learn?

The answer to the question ‘What martial art should I learn?‘ depends on who is asking, and what are their reasons for wanting to learn a martial art.

So let’s assume you’re an average Joe who mainly just wants to learn effective empty-handed combat.

Let’s assume you’re not so concerned by the other common reasons why people practise martial arts, such as socialising / making friends / comradery, intellectual stimulation, spiritual stimulation, physical conditioning (weight loss, fitness/stamina/metabolism/breath, muscular strength, flexibility, health/longevity), showing off / ego, etc.

Let’s also assume you’re particularly interested in physical empty-handed combat skill, rather than psychology or using weapons like swords, sticks, knives, guns, spears, nunchucks, etc.

Now, for pure practical empty-handed combat skill, you’ll do well to learn a range of martial arts, as follows.

Start with striking

Start with striking, because that trumps grappling. For striking, learn Wing Chun, Tai Chi, Boxing and Kickboxing – these four make a great set because they are each richly packed with great skills while also collectively possessing ingredients to cancel out the common flaws in each particular style.

Wing Chun

Wing Chun is generally most richly packed with empty handed combat skill, but it’s typically taught along with certain flaws as follows.

Problem: sloppy stances

Stances are nearly always poor because there’s so much focus on handwork, and on infighting (close range combat) which lends itself to handwork not footwork.

Solution: broader & deeper practice

Stances can be improved by broadening your familiarity with footwork, with the help of Tai Chi which has loads of different stances although they’re rarely tested, and with Boxing and Kickboxing which have less range of stances but are readily tested albeit under certain rules of sporting competition. Boxing helps you to practise moving around with two feet on the ground, for the purpose of positioning the body in and out of (and during) boxing range, while kickboxing adds footwork for kicking, which brings new challenges to the table because only one foot can be on the ground when the other is kicking, and kicks are generally done at longer range than punches but are great for bridging the gap between the ranges.  Aikido is also great for footwork, as it’s a carefully curated art, even though it’s nearly all about grappling – Aikido has a lot of stepping to achieve required range, and pivotting (like in Boxing), as well as rolls, kneeling and more. Please practise all of the above to avoid falling victim to common bad habits when learning Wing Chun.

Other problems

Many other bad habits manifest themselves in Wing Chun under nearly all teachers, and this is partly because the vocabulary of moves is so narrow (which has benefits – it focuses on the key things, but also means the whole art is easily tainted), and the ‘testing’ is fixed & limited in certain ways (Chi Sau bound by rules, half-hearted Sparring, etc) and partly due to Wing Chun’s habit of teacher idolatry (which stops people questioning the tainting).

Same solution

The cure to most of these idiosyncrasies, involves broadening your practice of different moves, trying lots of different things, pressure-testing a lot of it in different ways, and trying to ‘feel’ your own body – see what feels balanced, and learn what seems to work based on experience, etc.

Keep an open mind and keep practising – you might keep discovering new ways in which the Wing Chun you was taught is either good in a way you never realised or bad in a way you never realised before. Above all, don’t expect your teacher to teach you it all. You need to use a bit of initiative, don’t stay in denial as if you or your teacher or their teacher or Yip Man is perfect because nobody is. Yip Man himself was a bit sloppy, that’s the truth, but I wouldn’t know what I know today if he didn’t share what he knew, that’s also true, so let’s respect our teachers but not idolise them. Listen respectfully to everything they say but don’t be afraid to question it or take it with a pinch of salt – if this becomes a menace to their classroom, don’t be afraid to leave or act dumb and discreetly do your own thing until they ask you to leave (so you have more opportunity to learn new things, but can avoid drilling bad habits into your muscle memory).

Add some grappling

Learn striking, then add some grappling for less critical scenarios, because if you have love in your heart, you don’t always want to inflict maximum damage on a bully, especially when they’re not serious themselves. 

For grappling, try Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido, Wrestling, BJJ, etc – each of these have a different focus but it’s not so much a big deal as choosing the right combination of striking styles which as mentioned will generally trump any grappling art.

Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Freestyle Wrestling

Because Judo has been so popular in Japan for so long and is an Olympic sport these days, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) has been so popular around the world in recent years and is a common ingredient of UFC MMA training, and Freestyle Wrestling has always been rooted in totally practical training, and all three of these arts involve a lot of flexibility to practise freely and prove what works and what doesn’t, at the highest level these three arts at their best are on a similar level to each other. This has been proven by many challenge matches, for example the best Japanese Judo master vs the best Brazilian BJJ master, and Japanese Judo experts vs American Wrestling experts, etc. They’re all great because they’re all practised in practical ways, although Judo and BJJ are usually practised with the expectation that the opponent is wearing a traditional Japanese martial arts suit (‘gi’) and this puts these arts at a slight disadvantage to freestyle wrestling when the opponent has no ‘gi’, but has its advantages for example when the opponent is wearing a heavy coat that can be manipulated like a gi.

Aikido and Jujutsu

Jujutsu is similar to Judo and BJJ, but is usually trained being a bit less competition oriented, and Aikido is even more about discipline and grace, less about hot-headed competitivity. For this reason, the effectiveness of Aikido and Jujutsu, especially Aikido, is less consistent compared to Judo, BJJ and Freestyle Wrestling. However, at the highest levels, Aikido and Jujutsu are often able to hold their own against Judo etc – it all depends how good is your teacher, and how good are you. Meanwhile, Aikido – much like Wing Chun – focuses on a narrow selection of moves, so on balance practising Aikido may be more productive than a less ‘organised’ or less ‘directed’ art of wide vocab like Jujutsu or Judo for example. Aikido also focuses more on grace and spiritual harmony, much like Tai Chi, so offers the chance to reap a deeper level of holistic health benefits that hotly contested sport-arts generally don’t offer – this of course has its benefits (spiritual wellbeing) and its weaknesses (it’s less tested for combat).

First published: 18 May 2018

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