Man in white outfit doing a flying high kick on his own against a grey background

A Guide to the Most Popular Martial Arts


The modern term ‘martial arts’ comes from practicing and perfecting skills of combat.  Martial comes from ‘Mars’ who was the Roman god of war.  Learning to be proficient at fighting in combat is the ‘art’.   All forms of martial arts owe their roots to a combative fighting system.

Wherever ancient men lived there was a need to defend against and defeat enemies.  Martial arts sprang from the need to have better trained fighters.  Hence the reason we have seen different styles of fighting emerging from regions of  prolonged warfare.  Some of the earliest recordings of martial arts describe the training of entire armies.

Hwa Rang soldiers on horseback

Over the years many martial arts developed into sport.  One reason was to encourage soldiers to keep fit and to maintain their skills during times of peace.  Often these displays were entertaining to watch.

The establishment of rules help protect participants from serious injury (usually).  Rules also made it easier to appreciate competitors’ skills and enhanced the entertainment for spectators. 

There are over a hundred different types of martial arts practiced around the world.  There are similarities between different types of martial arts, particularly those that share common roots.  However, each one has developed its own unique style and techniques.

Martial arts fall into a few categories.

Sport or self-defence

Today there are two ends of the spectrum to martial arts.  On one end there are  martial arts that are ‘sports’.  On the other end there are martial arts for the sake of ‘self-defence’.  Contrary to what you might think most martial arts today are practiced for sport.

It is true that the origins of martial arts come from self-defence systems.  This remain the basis of the martial arts techniques still taught today.  Learning self-defence is all part of the training.  This is particularly true when the discipline of martial arts involves sparring. Some people do gravitate toward martial arts because they want to learn self-defence.  But self-defence is often not the key driver.

Martial arts are definitely not equal when it comes to self-defence skills in an uncontrolled situation, such as a street brawl. Saying that, most of us would be wise not to provoke a proficient boxer or a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (much less a black belt).

Today most martial arts are sports.  Many people practice martial arts because of there many physical and mental benefits.    Boxing and kickboxing clubs offer contact-free training sessions aimed at personal fitness.  There is plenty of personal gains for those that train in martial arts.   See our article, ‘Martial Arts Training: What are the real benefits?

Young man in karate outfit concentrating

Many martial arts today are performed as a sport with spectators.  Established bodies govern the training and particularly the one-on-one competitions.  Think of boxing, wrestling, Tae Kwon Do, and Jiu Jitsu.

There are also demonstrations by individuals to show off their skills.   The standards for these skills are also carefully governed.   Think of any style of Kung Fu.  The performance of Shaolin Monks today is a good example.

Of course there are martial arts whose sole aim is to teach effective, if not brutal, self-defence.   Some go as far as teaching how to physically subdue and restrain anyone that is a threat.   Krav Maga is a good example.

Stand-Up versus Ground Fighting

Some styles involve individuals remaining on their feet. These styles involve striking an opponent with punches or kicking while defending against the same.

Some forms of martial arts allow only fists, such as boxing, while others allow fist and feet.  Some even permit fist, feet, elbows, and knees. There is usually a continuous space between opponents except during striking and blocking.  There is little or no holding onto each other with these.


Ground fighting, often called grappling, is another form of martial arts.  A good example is Greco Roman wrestling which is a sport in every high school in the United States.   Grappling typically starts with competitors standing up and attempting to force the other person to the ground.  Once on the ground opponents attempt to subdue each other with a variety of joint locks and holds.

One man in blue attempting to arm bar a man in white gi

Some martial arts are ground based grappling, but with the considerable emphasis on throwing or take-down techniques to overcome an opponent.  Judo is a good example.

If the martial art is a competitive sport then governing rules will determine the fighting style. This in turn influences the precise skills and and techniques that define each martial art.

Weapons Based

As the name implies there are styles of martial arts that rely on the use of weapons.  Going back in history this would have included bow and arrows, spears, poles and swords.  It would have included anything else that would make a practical weapon.  Today some martial arts include the use of weapons.  Some martial arts focus entirely on becoming proficient with a single weapon.  Kendo is a good example of this.

Low Impact

Not all martial arts today rely on intense physical exertion for sport or self-defence.  Some martial arts involve little or no physical impact.  This is not to say that they do not have physical and mental benefits.  There is still a gentle exertion that is still effective. These forms of martial arts are often meditative.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

In short this means that the style of martial art is not dictated.  In other words, all martial arts styles and techniques are permissible.  In single martial art competitions strict rules prevail.  For example, a boxer would fight another boxer complying with boxing rules.  A wrestler would fight another wrestler complying with wrestling rules.  Judo, Tae Kwon Do, etc. all have their own competitions with their own rules.  With MMA there are fewer rules so competitions can be brutal.

MMA has risen in popularity since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight in 1993.  In the early days there were almost no rules at all.  Today, there are more rules because of pressure to introduce safeguards for competitors.  Yet, the style of fighting and most techniques are not dictated.

Today MMA competitions involve both stand up fighting, takedowns and grappling on the ground. Kickboxing and grappling are typical examples of martial arts skills an MMA fighter would need.

Popular Martial Arts today

The following is a list of the top 13 most popular martial arts.   These martial arts are accessible to most people today.

1. Boxing

Boxing is a stand up style of fighting.  Two opponents throw punches at each other with gloved fists.  This is a hugely popular sport around the world.  It might be surprising to think of boxing as a martial art.  But it is one of the oldest combative disciplines in human history.

Two boxers with headgear one striking the other

Boxing might appear to be a simple technique but it is a physically demanding and punishing form of martial arts.  Opponents attempt to punch each other in the head and body until someone is knocked to the mat.  Like all martial arts it has very technical techniques that take years to learn well.

2. Karate

Karate is a Japanese stand up fighting style. Karate means ‘empty hand’ hence it is not a weapons based martial art.  Karate originated in Okinawa when weapons were not allowed yet common people still needed to be able to protect themselves.  Karate involves striking with open and closed hands, knees and elbows and leg kicks.

Karate competitor from Germany kicking an opponent

The origins of Karate are self-defence and it is still useful for self-defence today.  But it is generally practiced as a sport.  Karate develops good physical and mental conditioning.

3. Kung Fu

Kung Fu has developed many centuries ago in China.  The Shaolin Monks developed the earliest styles. Kung Fu is a stand up style of fighting with varied techniques for defending and striking with punches and kicks.  Its original purpose was for mortal combat and training included a wide variety of weapons.

Dispersed Shaolin Monks began teaching the different specialist styles of their Kung Fu. As a result different fighting styles emerged.  Many of these styles are taught today and each has its own techniques.  Wing Chun is one such style and it happens to be the martial art that Bruce Lee first learned.

B&W of solo man doing Kung Fu

The term Kung Fu means to perfect a skill with dedication and hard work over a long period of time.  Today Chinese governing bodies use ‘Wushu’ as the term for Chinese martial arts.

4. Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do (or Taekwondo) means is a Korean stand up style of martial art.  Tae Kwon Do means ‘the way of the kicking and punching’.    It emerged from earlier styles of Korean martial arts to become a competitive sport.

Although there is punching and throwing this style is known for its diverse and elaborate kicking techniques.  It has grown into a popular sport involving international sparring competitions.

Two competitors kicking each other

Tae Kwon Do has been an Olympic Medal sport since 2000.  It is one of only two Asian Martial arts with competitive events (the other is Judo).   An estimated 70 million people around the world practice Tae Kwon Do.

5. Aikido

Aikido is a modern Japanese style of martial art.  It teaches self-defence but with minimal injury to the attacker. It is a throwing style of martial art with grappling locks to neutralize an attacker without causing serious harm.

Some schools incorporate weapons training into their programmes.  Even this training emphasise a moral understanding of the consequence of using weapons.  The training teaches compassionate use against an assailant.

One man throwing another man to the ground in Aikido

Aikido incorporates spiritual harmony.  There is emphasis on physical and mental health, and striving toward spiritual harmony.  It is not a competitive sport.  Instead it encourages self-awareness and self-improvement.

It can take a long time before someone is proficient enough to use the self-defence techniques in a real-world situation.

6. Silat

Silat is a modern martial art that comes from the Southeast Asian region of Malaysia, Indonesia and surrounding areas. It is an aggressive style that teaches self-defence with offensive attacks.

Silat relies on stand up striking, but also throws and grappling with quick joint locks to submit an opponent.  It includes a wide range of weapons training but the early emphasis is on ‘open hand’ fighting.

The origins of Silat are self-defence and fighting techniques intended to have serious consequences for an adversary.  There is less emphasis on internal spiritual development.  The emphasis is on dominating an adversary with fast and unforgiving violence.

This is a martial art that has been growing in popularity around the world in recent decades.  Organised competitions have made it a sport and this has further increased its popularity.

7. Tai Chi

Tai Chi was originally a style of self-defence that emerged from Kung Fu.  Today it is a graceful exercise that brings mind, body and soul into harmony.  There is no contact or sparring.  Instead it is gentle means of maintaining mental and physical wellbeing.  Because of this Tai Chi has grown in popularity around the world.

Women doing tai chi on in white and another in pink top
BANGKOK, THAILAND – FEBRUARY 13, 2016: Unidentified group of people practice Tai Chi Chuan in a park

The nature of Tai Chi is slow, continuous movements that are meditative in nature.  This makes it ideal for helping older people to stay fit and healthy.  However, it is beneficial for people of all ages.  Nearly 250 million people around the world practice Tai Chi. Because of the healthy benefits it is not unusual for Tai Chi sessions to be provided for company workers as a way of promoting wellbeing.

8. Judo

Judo is a modern Japanese style that evolved from the martial arts of the Samurai Warrior. This style starts upright with the aim of throwing an opponent so that they land on their back.  If on the ground Judo becomes a style of grappling with the aim of applying joint locks or choke holds. In its purest form Judo involves strikes, punches and kicks although these are not permitted in competition.

Judo involves very quick and dynamic moves which makes it a good form of self-defence.  Interestingly, Judo actually means ‘gentle way’.  It relies on power and fitness from rigorous physical training.  It also requires considerable mental discipline.

Blue and white Judo opponents throwing each other toward ground

Judo is one of two Asian martial arts with medal events in the Olympics (the other being Tae Kwon Do).  The men’s competition has been in place since 1969 and the women’s competition since 1992.

9. Kendo

Kendo is another sport that owes its beginnings to the Japanese Samurai Warrior. Meaning ‘way of the sword’ it is a weapons based style of martial art.  Two opponents attempt to strike each other with large bamboo swords.  This is a martial art that has continued in one form or another for hundreds of years.

Kendo embraces a mental discipline as well as lightning fast reflexes. It teaches unity of mind and body.   Those that train and compete in Kendo are expected to show the utmost respect.  This comes from the very moral codes of the Samurai Warriors.

White dressed kendo competitor striking a black dressed opponent

The practice of Kendo may seem simple at first glance.  But it actually requires complex skills that are intricate and precise.

10. Muay Thai / Kickboxing

Muay Thai is a stand up sport that involves punching and kicking. It is the national sport of Thailand.  Muay Thai is like boxing but with some powerful kicks to the head, body and legs of an opponent.

Sometimes Muay Thai and Kickboxing are used interchangeably.  While they are similar (and Muay Thai falls under the loose term of kickboxing) they are not the same thing.  Both rely on boxing style of fighting and kicking.  However, Muay Thai uses elbows, knees and more clinching.  Both involve sparring and they have their own rules for competitions.

Two Muay Thai kickboxers one with blue shorts kicking one with red shorts in outdoor ring

Besides training you to spar many Muay Thai (and Kickboxing) centres will provide classes to improve physical fitness.  This type of training provides a good workout of the whole body without the need for contact. Techniques are taught with punching pads and bags.  This makes it much more appealing for many people and it is growing in popularity as a result.

young lady in black clothes and blue hand wraps kicking pads

11. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is a ground based grappling martial art. Opponents start on their feet and attempt to take each other to the ground and secure a dominant position.  From there the grappling continues with attempts at joint locks, holds and chokes. As far as self-defence goes, many altercations end up on the ground and this is when Jiu Jitsu techniques are effective.

Jiu Jitsu is a Japanese style of grappling introduced in Brazil around the 1920s.  A small framed man named Carlos Gracie developed Jiu Jitsu into a martial art whereby technique was more important than strength and size.

Two men practicing BJJ one in white on the bottom of one in grey

The Gracie family went on to establish BJJ in the United States.  Japanese Jiu Jitsu is still practiced today.  But it is now overshadowed by the huge global popularity of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The effectiveness of BJJ was later proven by Royce Gracie when he won 3 of the 4 first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitions.


The sport of Sambo is a takedown and grappling form of martial art developed by the Russians. Sambo is actually an acronym for the Russian words meaning, ‘self-defence without weapons’.   Japanese Jiu Jitsu appeared in Russia about the same time that it appeared in Brazil. While the Gracie family was developing their style of Jiu Jitsu the Soviet Union military was developing SAMBO.    There are similarities between BJJ and SAMBO but they each have their own unique rules.

SAMBO as a sport continues to gain popularity and there are now two SAMBO organisations in the United States.

There is an extension to the sport of SAMBO called Combat SAMBO. This style allows striking with punches, kicking and kneeing, head-butts and even kicking opponents on the ground.  Combat Sambo is like MMA today, but with fewer restrictions it can be more violent in comparison.

13. Krav Maga

Krav Maga is first and foremost a means of self-defence and fighting system. The sole aim of this martial art is to defend oneself from attack and to neutralise an adversary if necessary.

Krav Maga was developed by the Israeli army in the 1950s.  It means ‘contact combat’ in Hebrew.  It’s reputation for being a brutally effective combat system has grown over the years.  It is still taught to the Israeli Defence Forces as a combat system.

Civilians can learn Krav Maga as a self-defence system.  Law enforcement agencies learn it as a means to subdue and detain a person.  Specialist military forces learn it for effective hand to hand combat.  Krav Maga also includes good physical conditioning.  This training will boost anyone’s increased self-confidence.


There are many other martial arts that exist around the world but these are the most recognisable and popular.  Because of their popularity it is more likely that you will find an instructor and centre close to you.  Likewise there is greater opportunity for competing if this is an aim.  Finally, these popular martial arts provide something for everyone.

These popular martial arts offer something for everyone. Whether your interest is to improve your fitness, or to take up a new sport, or to learn a self-defence these popular martial arts cover it all.

And of course there is no reason why you must limit yourself to training in just one martial art.