Until quarantine ends, we are left picturing what physical endeavors we might embark on: working out at the gym, playing on a competitive sports team, swimming, biking, or rock climbing. However, we don't often think of about martial arts as a possible activity; instead, we rule it out because we think it's dangerous, uncommon, and even, impossible. Martial arts isn't considered a sport, right?
Well, here's some good news: you're wrong! Martial arts is much more common than people think, and you can start learning at any age. Practicing martial arts is a great was to keep in shape (both physically and mentally). And it's much less scary and much less difficult than it's usually portrayed as in movies, so worry not, you don't need to be the karate kid to have a blast! Here's a few of the best reasons to try out martial arts as a teenager.
There are literally hundreds of different kinds of martial arts worldwide, but most styles all share the same basic benefits. I’ll get into more detail about the specific benefits of the most common styles later, if you’re still curious. But let's look at what you can usually expect from a martial arts class of any style.
Focus, Precision, and Meditation
First, what do all martial arts have in common? The answer isn’t exercise; it’s focus. Exercise is important, but the thing that makes a class feel like a workout its concentration aspect. Think about it: when you leave the gym, your mental state has improved and you are much calmer. This is because you’ve solely paid attention to one activity. Martial arts classes can provide that same level of mental exhaustion through concentration.
Good martial arts generally requires you to focus on the position and movement of every one of your limbs, sometimes even your breathing too. This is a great way to clear your head, and practice can help you learn to stay more focused in general (say, when you start your schoolwork afterwards).
Long series of choreographed moves (including when to inhale and exhale) called forms are often described as “moving meditation;” they’re meditative in the same way doing reps is, but much more so. Martial arts practice can be as slow or as intense as you want, but it’s always extremely engaging.
Martial arts also improves your coordination, and greatly improves your posture. I have personally seen students go from slouching and knocking things over to walking tall with their shoulders back in just a couple of months.
Exercise, Relaxation, and the “Spirit Shout”
All that talk about focus makes martial arts sound a little dry, if not boring, and very tense; well don’t worry, it’s not! Martial arts class can be a wonderful and constructive way to blow off steam. It’s literally the art of yelling and hitting things, after all.
Along with the classic striking practice on punching-bags and catcher-mitts, many martial arts styles also teach how to use (or sometimes “unlock”) your kiai, or “spirit shout”. Let me tell you, there is almost nothing more viscerally satisfying than producing a perfect kiai. Think about it: when was the last time you really shouted? It's a great way to channel stress constructively.
And of course, martial arts can be a great workout. Instructors (and eventually students) learn some sports medicine, and are good at giving you a satisfying workout without getting you too sore. Though the workouts of each style vary a little, almost all kinds will deliver a very well-rounded full-body workout. Kicking, punching, and fast, controlled breathing work your fast-twitch muscles all over your body, while low, stable stances and slow, precise full-body movements create a surprising challenge for your slow-twitch muscles.
Martial arts are also a surprisingly safe sport, with much lower rates of athletic injury than almost every competitive team sport. If you do get injured, it will probably be from an overextended limb or joint ache, and you can still practice if you're careful. I know many middle-aged women who have very bad shoulders and can't do push-ups, but who can still hip-thrown me across the room. Martial arts are not just a sport for the young and healthy.
Social Climate, Collaboration, and Working With Friends
Most martial arts also allows you to work with a partner. This is a surprisingly great way to make friends, or bond with the ones you already have. It’s a focused, non-competitive physical activity with professional instruction. And don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe; dojos always teach control, how to fall down, proper joint-lock safety, proper stance, and athletics safety like when and how to stretch. With a little practice, you and your friends will be judo-flipping each other into the ceiling and standing back up without a scratch.
I've seen a lot of families practice together like this. Often one of the kids started first, and then the adults got interested, and you often see the fourteen-year-old correcting their mom! Lots of married couples practice together too, which is oddly cute (and terrifying, if they're high-ranking).
You’ll also get to work with many kinds of people. Sure, there are usually a fair few young sporty guys, but there are also middle-aged moms, cool dads, and even the occasional buff grandpa or grandma. Anyone can reach any rank, since most martial arts rely more on skill and technique than physical strength or stamina. If you see grandma in a black belt as today's instructor, you’d better listen up! Most martial arts have enough content that even after years of practicing you’ll still be able to find something new to learn every day, so it’s worth you while to stick with it.
If you stick to it long enough, many dojos eventually recruit skilled students as instructors or assistants, even if they're fairly young. If you stick with it, teaching other students is a rare and unique job opportunity among teenagers, and is one of the rare non-manual-labor jobs that teenagers dominate. It also doesn't hurt that it looks good on a college application or resume.
Self Defense, Safety, and Self-Confidence
For all the fun that the practice is, it’s useful too. Many people start out in martial arts just wanting to learn self-defense, and though they usually learn to love the aforementioned benefits and art style too, practice does pay off. Even a small amount of martial arts experience can help you stay safe and protect yourself in a nonlethal manner. Many self-defense oriented dojos also teach conflict deescalation and avoidance as well.
It's also a major confidence-booster, knowing that you can protect yourself and others (including your attacker), a benefit which should not be overlooked. Similarly, if you stick with it and reach a high rank, that is something to be legitimately proud of, and is a skillset which will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Different Styles of Martial Arts
Workout intensity, self-defense effectiveness, and practice tradition varies from style to style. Let’s look at a list of the most popular martial arts in the United States, and look at each of their unique benefits. Some are listed as competitive, but that only suggests the preferred and common style. You can practice any of these competitively or just for fun.
Keep in mind that there are many subsets of each of these styles, so you’ll have plenty of options with any one you choose!
Karate is a generally well-rounded martial art, covering a bit of everything, and is generally practiced for competitive sport or recreation. Its primary focus is on deflecting attacks and incapacitating an attacker by either putting them on the ground or in a joint lock. Karate involves lots of full-body technique, and while classes might have extra workouts added in, the sport itself is not particularly physically taxing.
Judo is a competitive sport martial art, where one throws or takes down one’s opponent for points. Its focus is on “maximum efficiency, minimum effort”. Judo, unlike karate, is not often practiced for self-defense (though it certainly can be) due to a lack of strikes, and is a little more of a physical workout.
Taekwondo is a well-rounded Korean self-defense martial art focused on using kicking to keep one’s attacker at a distance. It is a wonderful form of exercise, and is used often as such.
Kung Fu is a set of flowing Chinese styles of martial art based on circular motion. It’s effective and very beautiful (though difficult), but workout intensity varies depending on the sub-style. It should be noted that kung fu is much more common in China than the United States, but definitely worth looking into if there’s a dojo near you.
Kickboxing is a fast-moving martial arts style focused on defeating one’s opponent swiftly, with a versatile set of techniques using strikes from every part of the body to be effective at any range. Practice is very safe, of course, but it can still be quite the workout.
MMA (Mixed Martial Arts):
MMA is one of the most modern and continuously evolving martial arts, including practices and techniques from all the other styles on this list. Some date MMA’s founding principles back to ancient Greek Pankration hand-to-hand combat, but most of the style’s contemporary development comes from the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) tournaments. Though MMA classes vary, most are intense and technical, and create great workouts and good self-defense techniques.
Aikido is a Japanese self-defense martial art focused on repelling any attack without harming one’s opponent at all. It is often called the most peaceful martial art, but is still a very effective self-defense style. Like Judo, it uses low-effort throws and redirects, but is a little less of a (physical) workout.
Traditional Western Boxing:
Boxing (yes, the one with the big red gloves) is a quick, offensive martial art focused entirely on upper-body strikes, defenses, and reaction time. Because of its limited range of techniques, boxing is not usually considered a self defense style, but it is certainly a workout, and requires just as much focus and practice as any of the others on this list.
The Art of the Eight Limbs is a Thai martial art similar to (and often combined with) kickboxing. It uses punches, kicks, knees, and elbows to create a fast, aggressive, effective fighting style which is sure to be a workout!
Wrestling is a competitive sport martial art focused on on-ground locks and positioning, quite unlike most of the others on this list. It’s not a great self-defense style, but it can deliver a unique workout, and has the added benefit of being a sport option in most schools.
An Israeli martial art invented after WWII, Krav Maga is a unique martial art focused entirely on being as effective as possible. It combines techniques from Karate, Jiu Jitsu grappling, traditional boxing, and many other styles to create a uniquely effective self-defense style and incredible workouts.
Jiu Jitsu / Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:
Jiu Jitsu is an old martial art focused on escaping grabs and grapples and getting your opponent on the ground. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the most common form, invented in (you guessed it) Brazil around 100 years ago. BJJ is notoriously rough, though also precise and technically complex. While it makes both an awesome workout and self-defense style, it’s difficult and very hands-on.
Tai Chi is a unique traditional self-defense martial art which is practiced in slow motion. Though not as brutally effective as MMA, BJJ, or Krav Maga, Tai Chi places more focus on mental health, meditation, focus, and precision. Though you probably won’t walk away from a Tai Chi class with sore muscles, you might just find yourself feeling much better!
There are many, many other styles, and countless other subtypes and mixups (yoga poses can often sneak into Karate and Tai Chi forms), but these are the most common ones in the United States. Whichever one appeals to you, know that all of them are good choices, competitive or not.
Whether you decide to check out martial arts or not, at least now you know more about the sport.