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I'm in below-average shape and thinking about taking up the study of a martial art for a handful of reasons:

  • I want to get in shape but need external "guilt factors" to motivate me not to skip sessions (other people expecting me to show, money spent, etc.)
  • I want more to show for time spent getting in shape than just a flat stomach or other vanities.
  • Most importantly I'm drawn to the sense of self-awareness and focus that martial arts seems to impart.

Basically I'm looking for a work out regimen that is interesting, challenging, and teaches me about my mind as much as about my body. I have very little interest in competitive sparring or progressing quickly through the levels just to be able to say "I'm a black belt". Learning how to defend myself is an added bonus.

Based on these factors what should I focus on while researching the various schools of training to find the one that might be the right fit for me? I know that individual instructors will all have their own teaching styles and specific dojos (pardon my generic use of the term) will have their own cultures, but right now I'm more concerned with the martial art itself as it relates to my goals.

Suggestions are more than welcome.

Edit: I am overwhelmed at the response I've gotten here from you all, both in terms of quantity and thoughtfulness. But despite the wealth of advice in your answers and comments (which I will absolutely put to good use while I'm auditing schools) I still don't really have an answer that addressees why I originally posted this question.

What I was trying to get at was this:

How do I determine which kind of martial art will suit me best?

It isn't practical for me to check out every single school in town to see who has the best teachers so I want to narrow my search by deciding on a few styles that I'm interested in.

For example, based on JohnP's comment I know I'm probably not interested in TKD because of the general focus on competitive sparring which holds almost no interest for me. I've done some reading on a few different styles and I think Tai Chi and Jeet Kune Do seem conducive to my personality and my goals, but I'd obviously need to audit classes to really get a proper feel.

I guess another way to ask what I really want to know is: is there a common pattern to the kinds of people who practice certain kinds of martial arts, and how do I determine what kind of person I am to find the right match?

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Are you willing to relocate so you can join a dojo which has the right teacher teaching the right martial art? –  Sardathrion Feb 17 at 8:44
    
I'm not, but there are dozens of schools within a half hour drive from both my home and work. –  newuser Feb 18 at 0:01
    
Your latest edit changes the scope of the question. It would suggest asking a new question based on your last paragraph. –  Sardathrion Jun 20 at 9:49

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

How do I determine which kind of martial art will suit me best?

Unless you are willing to relocate to be nearer to the right teacher teaching the right martial art for you, you must look at schools which are within an hour or so commute from where you live/work. Because otherwise, you will not make it to the training session(s). All the martial arts that I know of should satisfy your goals provided you get the right teacher. You say you dislike competition but competition can be one of the most effective tool in learning a martial art. Just because Judo and TKD are Olympic sports does not make them bad martial arts. A good teacher should be able to teach you to do competitions to enhance yourself.

With that in mind, my answers, and those of others, on the questions How to select the right Aikido dojo? and What are the signs not to train at a specific school? are well worth reading.

But to re-iterate:

  1. Find out all the clubs around where you live and work. Travelling more than an hour to train is a sure way to find an excuse not to train.
  2. Watch a class and talk to the students and teacher. This should tell you if you will enjoy being there for five to ten hours a week.
  3. Beware of McDojo. There is nothing worst than being conned... This means that you should look at the costs of training there as well. If the costs are muddy, that is a bad sign.
  4. Pick the right teacher for you and ignore the style. This is the most important point.

The latter is really important: a good teacher in any art is better than an average teacher in your favourite art.

Note that "style" refers more to the style of a martial art than the art in general. You will find that any martial art splits into hundreds of styles. For example, Aikido has Yoshinkan, Shodokan, Aikikai, Ki, Iwama, and countless others. Added to that, some specific teachers will emphasis different aspects of the style they study. What makes one style/school better than the others in your area if not the quality of the teacher? Thus, the teacher is more important than the art.

That said, if medieval two handed sword really do not appeal, there is little point in seeking out the local medieval guild. But even so, watch a session. It takes a few hours at most and you might learn something new even if that is to confirm that you dislike the art as taught by said school. Besides, you might suddenly discover that whacking people with a two handed sword really is fun!!!

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Agree with all, but really want to emphasize #4. Also, check into the pricing carefully. Some places (many which would fall into "McDojo" but not necessarily all) will wind up far more expensive than they sound at first when you need to buy equipment, "promotion testing", seminars, etc. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 13 at 16:47
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#4 is wrong I think, or at least its soft advice, and not necessarily true. I know this because I actually did this, I did an art because I liked the instructor, and he was great, but it wasn't really the martial art I wanted to do. –  Keith Nicholas Feb 13 at 20:56
    
@Keith Nicholas - Thank you for adding this comment. I was quite surprised when so many of the answers here focused so heavily on teacher and school over style, though I do appreciate the point of all of the advice I've received so far. Perhaps it's my own ignorance but I assumed that finding an art which follows a philosophy that I find attractive was where I should start my search, which was my original point when asking for help here. At least now I'll be sure to consider both aspects. –  newuser Feb 14 at 15:59
    
Mark C. Wallace's answer does a good job of describing why a teacher is more important than a style. –  Sardathrion Feb 14 at 17:04

I think rather than going into it with all these ideas about what you want to get out of it, just go and try some martial arts. Try multiple before you choose one, most allow a week or two of free training. I'll re-emphasize that, try multiple before choosing one.

I suggest trying ( if available )

  • kicky punchy ones, karate, tkd, kickboxing
  • a grapply one, Brazilian Jujitsu, Judo
  • a soft / artistic one, Aikido, kung fu
  • then maybe some other things that are a bit specialist like Kali Escrima, Krav Maga, Bujinkan, Kendo, MMA

Then I think you'll have a really good idea what works for you. It will help with any preconceptions you have with what martial arts will give you.

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+1, but want to mention that "kung fu" is a generic term used by westerners to describe many Chinese martial arts, and there's a huge variety of such styles - some definitely fall into the "kicky punchy ones" category. "Wu shu" might fall more cleanly in "artistic" - it tends to be quite acrobatic. –  Tony D Feb 14 at 4:22

If anyone was to ask me that question without supplying any context, my answer would be:

  • What do you expect to get out of it?

To answer that, you need to consider things like:

  • do you want to train long term, or are you looking for quick results?
  • do you want to learn skills that will see you through lots of different scenarios, or do you just want to learn to fight all gangsta ninja like?
  • are you looking for a self defense system?
  • are you looking to compete? If so,
    • are you looking for something a bit more full contact, like the MMA you've seen on TV?
    • are you looking for something exhibitiony and showy, like the US Karate tournaments you'll see on some sport channels?
    • or something inbetween?
  • are you looking for a fitness regime?
  • are you wanting to train your mind in some currently unquantifiable way?

Fortunately you seem to have already established the answers to some of these - many people don't, and just launch into martial arts with no real idea of what they ultimately want.

Based on these factors what should I focus on while researching the various schools of training to find the one that might be the right fit for me?

I would suggest that you find a bunch of options in your area, and visit them all not once, but twice, preferably on different nights each time. You are looking for intangible things like the instructor's capability and communication skills, the atmosphere at the training hall, the attitude of the students and the attitude of the senior students. Whittle that list down to one or two options that you are happy to try immediately. And be prepared to "shop around" for a bit.

You should re-evaluate your expectations after a while at a school:

  • has your time there delivered what you expected?
  • do you think the school will continue to deliver to your expectation?
  • did you choose the right art, or do you want to try something different?

Nobody should ever make you feel guilty for trying different schools or for training in multiple schools at the same time. It's your choice, you need to find what suits you.

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I was going to enter this as a comment, but I think it will be too long for that.

First, the other answers as a collective are all excellent, and taken as a unit could almost be a FAQ on how to select a school/art.

However, the one statement that you put in your question that concerns me is:

I want to get in shape but need external "guilt factors" to motivate me not to skip sessions (other people expecting me to show, money spent, etc.)

There is NO external guilt factor that will get you into class on a consistent basis in the long term. Short term, yes. But over the long term, if you aren't in something just because you WANT to be there, then you won't show up, won't practice, etc. Martial arts is definitely something where you get out of it what you put into it.

I strongly encourage you to try multiple arts, and multiple schools within the same art. If you don't find an attraction, then I would urge you to try multiple different sports/activities. Yoga is a good exercise that also teaches meditation, etc. Bottom line is that if you don't enjoy it, you won't keep going over the long term.

I'm not trying to discourage you in any way, but I've been in martial arts since 1988, and sports in general since 1971, and one thing I've seen over and over is people or kids that are there because their parents brought them, or it's something they feel they "need" to do rather than want to do, and they never last. It's kind of like the definition of hardcore porn from the Supreme Court ruling "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it". When you find "it", you will know it.

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I respectfully disagree with your thoughts on "guilt factor", though I do prefer the term accountability. I'm much more reliable about getting to the track or gym when I have a workout partner that is expecting me to be there. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 13 at 16:50
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Everyone is more accountable with a partner. But I have seen it time and time again in students and workout partners, unless you truly have an internal desire, external motivators eventually fail. –  JohnP Feb 13 at 16:58
    
In general: excellent point. Specifically for me: I wouldn't be considering something like this if it wasn't intended to be a long-term investment of my time and energy. Part of why I haven't joined a sports team of some kind is because of my previously stated lack of competitive interest; the focus on individual/personal achievement in martial arts is a huge draw for me. –  newuser Feb 13 at 17:21
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@JonnyP - Excellent information. I would encourage you then to find a more traditional based school then. For example, many TKD schools (Such as WTF and ATA) are very heavy into the competition aspects and do not do as much internal emphasis (YMMV, every school is different). –  JohnP Feb 13 at 19:01

Learn to love Grappling.

You want to get in shape. You think you have low motivation, but once you start to love grappling you'll want to pick up a better diet and life regime because you know that's going to help you grapple better. Once you start to love grappling, you'll want to get into a better shape, and you'll have people who can help you, and you'll stop making excuses because you know you're getting better.

Why do I say grappling? (I mean any full spar grappling art; Wrestling, BJJ, Judo, Sambo, etc)

Because it is a great way to build real confidence, not get the brain damage from striking arts (and if you don't strike to the face, you're cheating yourself in the real confidence part as well as in the real skills part.). When you grapple another you can go pretty much 100% live, unlike in striking arts. There's never that mystery of I could've but I held back my power... This lets you not only learn how things can feel for real, and will let you go all at it as a workout. You'll rarely do something harder than wrestle another grown man.

When it comes to selecting a place to train, make sure they train live, as in, everyone pairs up to try and submit each other and tries not to get submitted in return. There are other posts here that explain How to spot Bullshido or McDojo's; search for those terms and read up on that when it comes time to pick a place.

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I find that the physical exercise derived from grappling cannot be matched. I do not know a single sport more exhausting than 5 minutes of wrestling –  Vass Feb 14 at 1:20
    
Let me see if I understood you correctly - striking arts that don't strike to the face are cheating themselves, but with a grappling art where you will "not get the brain damage" because you're not striking to the face either isn't cheating yourself...? ;-. –  Tony D Feb 14 at 4:28
    
@TonyD I don't know what Thomas intended, but for me it's that I know whether what I'm training works in grappling because I can apply it 100% even in friendly training. That's not possible with striking; you need to compete for that perspective. One could argue that 100% application in striking training is possible if you just don't punch the face/head...but then you're cheating yourself of real confidence and skills. I've found that to be true and I think that's what Thomas meant. –  Dave Liepmann Feb 14 at 12:12
    
@DaveLiepmann - that's half a story at best, as knowing your offensive technique works is different from knowing someone can't punch you in the head while you're trying to apply it. Again, in as much as not having contact to the head is unrealistic, it applies as much to one art as another. If Thomas believes his grappling defense neutralises punches reliably, he wouldn't care whether he trained in a system that allowed that attack. –  Tony D Feb 14 at 14:43
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DaveLiepmann was correct with his first post about my intentions. This guy was training to get in shape and to have fun and be able to stick with the sport. So, self defense is secondary. Besides, any grappling school worth their salt will do some self defense vs strikes; e.g. how to close to the distance safely against a puncher and to bring him(her) to the ground. –  Thomas Denmark Uylenbroek Feb 14 at 21:30

I'm going to be repetitive, because some things are worth repeating. @Sardathrion pointed you at two answers to prior questions that you'll cheat yourself if you don't go back and read. I might also recommend Eric Raymond's shopping series (even if you don't share Eric's politics or limitations, the series is a good one; he talks about how to evaluate a school.)

Remember the old saw about the three most important things in real estate are "location, Location and Location"? The three most important things in choosing a martial arts school are "Teacher, Teacher and Teacher". But perhaps I'll unpack that a bit.

If you're not comfortable with the teacher, if you don't respect the teacher as a person, as a teacher/instructor and as a martial artist you won't go back. Might not be the first week, or the second but eventually you'll quit.

The teacher is more than the highest ranking person in the room. Every person senior to you is your teacher. (and eventually you'll learn that every persion junior to you is also your teacher, but that's a different question). Are you comfortable with learning from these people. (My daughter evaluated a school where the teacher had a good reputation, but delegated day to day duties to a mid ranking belt (Green if I recall), who knew less than my daughter did. I understand why the situation exists, but it was a deal-breaker for us). Do you feel safe with these people? Do you feel comfortable? Are they the kind of people who will incentivize you to come back?

One other comment that I can't really articulate well, but after years of doing demonstrations to attact new students and designing those demonstrations to illustrate that the art is easy to learn and very achievable, I sat down with some of my training partners and discovered that most of us were drawn to our art because of the stuff that is fiendishly difficult to do. The high flying breakfalls, the effortless throws, the full speed, full contact weapons work. When you go out shopping for a martial art, evaluate BOTH whether you'll feel comfortable with the stuff you'll be doing first, and the ultimate goal. That huge flying breakfall will draw you back on the day when it is cold and wet and you'd rather stay in bed.

Others have commented on injuries; it is a good criteria to evaluate, but be careful. My primary dojo is a filled with over 40 students; most of us are at least a little bit injured. If you practice your martial arts sincerely and you age, you will be injured. (We've got one student who is so old that you can rip his skin just by gripping him too tightly). One of my other pratice halls is a mix with most students under 30. None of them are injured. The young don't just think they're immortal, they are (at least from my perspective). In my opinion, the important question is not "are there injuries here", but "are injuries respected?" If you are ever pushed to do anything that your body doesn't feel comfortable with, walk briskly to the door and leave. I may ask you to push the edge of your comfort zone as a learning technique, but I will do my best to prepare you and I will completely respect your decision if you feel you're not ready. We've got students who are too obese to do breakfalls, and students who have no cartilege in their knees. Students with pulled muscles and strained tendons and other problems. Each of them makes the decision whether they will participate in each technique. I'm not sure I'm saying this well, but the key is whether you feel that the teacher and students respect your perception of your limitations. If they don't, you shouldn't go back.

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I'm going to offer a second answer because last night my girlfriend made another point that is very relevant to your question. Pick a school filled with welcoming people who you can imagine hanging out with. I train at three different schools.

  • At my primary school, we wind up going out for lunch most days after class, and we get together for dinner once or twice a year. That school is nearly an hour away.
  • At the second school I wind up hanging out and chatting with the teacher and his wife before or after class, and he comes to watch when I test in the first school.
  • The third school hasn't made that effort - they are all nice people, but they don't have the same social glue. The teachers are nationally known, their technique is fantastic, they are very charismatic and nice guys.

I hit the first and second school about 90% of the time. The third school is over 50%, but it is tough on nights when it is cold, or I am tired.

Pick a school where you feel like the people will be your friends. Where you feel welcome. Where the connection goes beyond martial arts. That is part of the motivation for going back; I don't want Eric or Greg to think I'm a slacker.

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