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Types of martial arts


Martial art styles are like the childhood game "Rock, Paper, Scissors" where the scissors may cut the paper, the paper may cover the rock, and the rock may smash the scissors. Each has some advantage over the other while also having some vulnerability to the other.

There are hundreds of martial art styles throughout the world. Some countries have developed their own unique martial art, while others adapted other martial arts to fit their own situations. All it takes to "found" a martial art is to give your way of fighting a new name and make yourself the "master."

For this reason, new martial arts and "styles" of existing martial arts appear all the time. A style may refer to a specific martial art or a variation of an established martial art. Some martial arts have been in existence for centuries, some for decades, and others for weeks.
Many oriental martial arts have religious roots, while most occidental martial arts have no relation to any metaphysical or religious system.

Oriental martial arts move with the adversary, amplifying his movement, and using it to defeat the opponent. Occidental styles move against the opponent, blocking attacks, and then counterattacking.
Some martial arts specialize in tournament competition, some in street self-defense, and some in combat fighting.

Hard vs. soft

Most martial arts fall into one of two categories: hard (external) styles, such as taekwondo and most styles of karate, and soft (internal) styles, such as kung-fu. This hard/soft characterization relates mainly to the way blocks are used.
  • Hard styles use direct techniques. They use forceful blocks to stop attacks, powerful, linear attacks, and they use angular movements. The advantage of a hard style is that there is direct feedback to the attacker; they feel pain when their attack is blocked and they may even be injured. The disadvantage is that hard techniques require a lot of strength and energy, may result in injury to the user, and they may appear extremely violent to outsiders.
  • Soft styles use indirect techniques. They use sweeping, circular blocks and attacks, such as pushing, deflecting, and twisting. The advantage is that the opponent may be neutralized with little effort, without injuring the opponent or yourself. The disadvantage is that soft techniques require a lot of skill and practice to master them.

Linear vs. circular

This distinction refers to lines of movement, during attack and defense.
  • Linear styles. These styles use direct, straight-in movements, blocks, and attacks; they usually meet attacks head-on./li>
  • Circular styles. These styles use circular movements to block, attack, or move; they usually attempt to deflect attacks.
  • Mix. Some styles mix circular blocks with linear attacks, or vice versa, so this distinction is not absolute. 

Internal vs. external

  • Internal styles. These styles emphasize the non-tangible elements of the arts. They utilize the flow of chi/ki/qi, rooting, and other elements which some people may consider "mystical." They tend to emphasize meditation, body control, perception, mind control, and pressure points. 
  • External styles. These styles emphasize body mechanics, leverage, and applied force. They tend to use weight, strength, positioning, and anatomy to again an optimal advantage. 

Classic vs. mixed

The "classic" or "traditional" martial arts may be grouped by countries of origin, such as Japan, Korea, and China, but there are many other eclectic arts from other counties. These arts may cling to the "old" way or they may have adapted to modern times.

Early Japanese combat arts were known as bugei arts; they had no philosophical or spiritual side. Later martial arts that were developed with a spiritual side are known as budo.

The word bushido (way of the warrior) is used when speaking about the martial arts. Bushido is not a martial art; it is a fighting philosophy, a system of combat ethics. bushido incorporates Shinto and Confucian ideals. By following bushido, warriors could apply their combat skills in strictly defined right or wrong ways.

Mixed martial arts claim to be "complete." They include strikes, kicks, throws, grappling, pressure points, and joint locks. Although some arts contain more techniques than others, no art is "complete" just because it includes important techniques from other arts.

Sports vs. realistic

Some martial arts claim to be the best for real-life situations in the street. They claim to be more realistic than the other arts that are too sport oriented.

As with the traditional martial arts, a new version of a realistic martial art pops up every day. Some become the latest fad and flourish for a while, and then they fade away and another one becomes the latest fad.

Participants in realistic martial arts training must train the way sport martial arts train; they cannot use full power kill techniques in class, it tends to limit student participation. Likewise, sports techniques may be adapted for use in the street just as street techniques must be adapted for use in training.

Other classifications

  • Martial sport. A martial sport is a fighting game played for competition. Participants pretend to fight but every precaution is taken to prevent injury. Just as with playing paintball, participants like to think of themselves as actual warriors, but they do not have to deal with any of the emotions or physical dangers that an actual warrior may face. This is pure sport, with no relation to combat. Martial sport is mutual fighting with no intent to harm the opponent. Example: sport taekwondo.
  • Combat sport. A combat sport is a more physical version of a martial sport where participants fight using full-power physical contact. To enable the participants to able to keep competing, there are strict rules to prevent injuries that may cause serious injury or preclude future competition. Therefore, while the fighting is physical and painful, it is still not realistic combat. Combat sport is mutual fighting with the intent to harm (though not seriously) the opponent. Example: boxing.
  • Martial art. A martial art is the way of the warrior; it is a system of study where participants learn the ways of the warrior. Being a warrior means learning to avoid combat, being mentally and physically prepared for combat if it is inevitable, having combat skills, and being able to apply these skills if necessary, and being able to deal with the aftermath of having to use, or not use, these combat skills. Being a warrior is a way of life, not a sport to be played periodically. The reward of a martial art is not the winning of the fight, but the enlightenment that comes from preparing for the fight. Depending on the style, a martial art may be as close to actual combat as possible without being in combat. A martial art is unwillingly fighting for self-defense. A martial artist does not willingly enter a fight; a martial artist fights because he or she is attacked or is about to be attacked. Depending on the martial art, there may be no sparring, no-contact sparring, or sparing with some level of contact. Example traditional taekwondo.
  • Commercial martial arts. These are martial sports that are taught as businesses. Their primary purposes are to obtain and retain students, and to extract as much money from them as possible. Example: sport taekwondo.
  • Combat martial arts. These are the combat sports that are used in professional, semi-professional, or amateur fighting. The primary purpose of these arts is competitive fighting. Example: MMA
  • Traditional martial arts. These are martial arts that are taught in ways that are as near as possible to the original arts. This is the 21st-century so martial arts cannot be taught in the same way as they were originally taught in the past. However, rather than being watered down to something other than a true martial art, they have just adapted to the fit modern threats and the time constraints on students’ time. Sometimes traditional martial arts are taught commercially, but the schools still try to maintain the integrity of their martial arts and they usually struggle just to break even. Example: traditional taekwondo.

Which is best?

All martial arts have their good points and bad points. With the Americanization of the martial arts over the last 50 years, it has become difficult to categorize many martial arts because of the mixing of the different styles.

In the past, taekwondo schools only taught strictly taekwondo techniques. Now taekwondo schools teach grappling, weapons, jujitsu, etc. Muay thai boxers were known for keeping their hands very high and outwardly extended. With their circular fighting style, this worked well as a defense strategy. Now, as kickboxers are infiltrating the sport using their straight-line techniques, muay thai boxers are bringing their elbows in like a boxer. They have also started using their hands more like a boxer to generate more power.

Martial art students and instructors are becoming more open-minded about other styles and they tend to use what works. Not everyone is built the same nor may they perform all the techniques the same as the next person.

Each martial art has its own attributes that do not necessarily make the art better or worse than other arts. If you do not enjoy full-contact fighting, do not join a kickboxing school. If you do not enjoy physical contact, do not join a judo or grappling school.

Most martial arts instructors respect other arts and do not badmouth them. They will tell you the good and bad points as they understand them, give you their opinion as to which one is best for you, and then let you make your own decision as to which one you want to study.

It's not complicated

It seems that to be different from the competition, some martial art styles try to make the simplest of things seem complicated and mystical. For example, they take a high block/reverse punch combination and turn it into something called "tall dragon whips its tail."

Each technique, each sequence of combinations, every movement, every stance, etc. is given some mystical terminology. When an attacker steps forward with a punch, instead of instinctively reacting with basic techniques you have perfected, now you must think whether the situation calls for a "tall dragon whips tail" or a "cow jumps over the moon" or a "mace from hell." Then, in addition to all this mumbo jumbo, some styles add more gibberish by inventing new terms to make simple actions or concepts seem complicated and scientific. For instance, here is a quote about kenpo that explains how to fight multiple opponents:
"...the key to multiple opponents is both the Gaseous Expansion of Motion-Kenpo, and the Control manipulation as found in Sublevel Four Kenpo. However, because of the methods utilized in the teaching of Sublevel Four Kenpo, the base or Default Technique encompasses all the tools necessary to affect Gaseous Expansion as well. In most instances, an alteration of timing in conjunction with minor orbital, and angle adjustments is all that is really necessary, with a contraction or change in the utilization of Destructive Sequencing Timing."

As children, we invented secret words and other nonsense to make ourselves seem important amongst our peers. Most of us grew out of this, but some of us did not.

Do not be misled by a lot of nonsense. The martial arts are not complicated or mystical; boxing has survived for centuries with only five simple punches.

Some martial arts specialize in one aspect of fighting, such as weapons, grappling, kicking, etc., and some use combinations of fighting methods, but they are all simple to explain and understand. The confusion comes from self-centered instructors who think they have some special insight into empty hand fighting that no one else has noticed in the millions of years of hand-to-hand combat.

You do not need pompous “masters” expelling pseudo-intellectual gibberish to become a great martial artist. All you need is an instructor who teaches you good techniques and basic concepts of fighting, a lot of hard work, and experience. It is not that complicated.

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