I've recently run across several conversations where someone goes to great lengths to clarify that a certain style is not a martial art. Mitro's answer to this question on Krav Maga for example:

Is Krav Maga a hybrid martial art?

I recognize that some of this is just pedantry, but is there a specific definition of martial arts that is generally agreed upon? One that would exclude some styles of fighting? I've looked through general sources (i.e. dictionaries) but the definitions are broad enough that I couldn't imagine excluding any style codified enough to have a name.

  • Brilliant question - if it is about semantics. Of theoretical interest. But it is up to the style to decide. Impossible to imposed from without. Jan 3, 2016 at 7:33

9 Answers 9


Similar to Sardathrion's answer the definition on Wikipedia is

Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a variety of reasons: self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, entertainment, as well as mental, physical, and spiritual development.

I and several members of the MA project there spent a fair bit of thought on this and it has survived unaltered for some time so looks to be a reasonable one.


I totally agree on the pedantry stuff, and i think that it is really depending on what each person thinks about it. For me, a kind of Martial Art has a tradition, a specific form or style or is following certain rules. I believe that there is also some kind of beauty in those 'Arts'...

I personally would even go further and divide Martial Arts and Combat Sports where I would put the traditional styles that have no competing aspect in it (by that I mean competing man vs man for a championship bout, not sparring or Katas etc.) (ex. Aikido, Tai Chi, Kung Fu) and styles for competition into Combat Sports (ex. Boxing, Kyokushin, Kickboxing) and self defense systems like Krav Maga or other close combat styles from Military.

Thoughts about self-defense systems vs martial art: By that I mean that there is no beauty in anything taught there, no style, no rules, no restrictions, just simple plain action and reaction, training to save your life or the life of your family or friends or any other 3rd party. I say to 'train', because if the moment of reality comes, there is no guarantee that the things you have learned will be recalled - everybody reacts different under stress.

This leads me to the next point, a self-defense system should simulate real life scenarios, create stress weather through noise, multiple attackers, darkness ... surprises etc.to simulate an uncontrolled environment. Every day aspects should be covered, driving in the underground, bus, swimming-pool, car even picking up money from ATM should be part of it, usage of common objects like coins, keys (even though pretty dangerous for the user if not properly held), sand, chairs, jackets, Pepper spray, knifes, Kalashnikov, pistols ... screw-drivers?

A self defense system has also the responsibility to provide information about safety, law about self-protection and provide information about the correct behavior for current possible threats (Terror attacks etc.). Basically no boundaries whatsoever and that, in my eyes is no martial art.

I agree that martial arts evolve over time, we would not have Mixed Martial Arts or Daido Juku, even some of the 'modern' combat sports like Kyokushin-Karate would not exist, but that doesn´t change the fact that they still have rules, time restrictions during fights, protection gear and referees. A self defense system would miserably fail in following those approaches and would miss the reason why it exists, being close to reality.

Again it really depends what one wants to believe, my opinion on Krav-Maga specifically is based on being a Krav-Maga instructor for many years and talking to and learning from some of the main influencers of it.

Everyone is free to have his own opinion :-)


The Oxford dictionary defines martial art as

Various sports, which originated chiefly in Japan, Korea, and China as forms of self-defence or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.

Merriam Webster defines martial art as

any one of several forms of fighting and self-defense (such as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sports

And finally, Wiktionary defines martial art as

  1. Any of several fighting styles which contain systematized methods of training for combat, both armed and unarmed; often practiced as a sport, e.g. boxing, karate, judo, silat, wrestling, or Muay Thai.
  2. Military skills, proficiency in military strategy, prowess in warfare

In almost all cases, these will define thingy pretty well. My very biased and not so humble opinion tends to agree with the Wiktionary definition the most. For example, I do consider Combat reenactment to be a martial art.


Our modern definition and conception of martial arts are totally erroneous in that we are brain washed to believe in martial arts from the perspective of peace, self-defense and even religion.

If you consider any martial arts type, from the oldest to the most recent ones, there is a reality that slams our face: martial arts are a set of physical skills to improve the performance of violence. Even when we perform purely in a demonstrative goal, martial arts movements are about effective violence. Martial arts are skills with violence. This is true about all martial arts: from the oldest ones that date back to the Ming dynasty (or even earlier) to the most recent ones such as Krav Maga develop by the army of Israel, Jeet Kune Do developed by Bruce Lee to help American citizens deal with urban violence or Shotokan Karate Do where a simple direct punch (tsuki) is intended to kill and the dropping forearm block (otoshi uke) is intended to break the attacker's arm.

The religious and health-promoting techniques that are now widespread all originated from techniques of combats that were synonyms of death or survival.

A martial arts differ from the set of techniques and knowledge someone can perform a violent action in that martial arts are taught generation after generation.

Martial arts are biased through time by both the teacher's and the students own natural inclinations. Thus, even if we can not deny the cultural and even the identity aspect of martial arts, they are also a tradition, but an innovative tradition.

  • 2
    Just out of curriousity, where did you read that Bruce Lee developed Jet Kune Do for helping American citizens deal with urban violence?
    – mitro
    Dec 10, 2015 at 21:52
  • 1
    To say "we're brained washed to believe in martial arts from the perspective of... self-defense", and that they're really about the performance of violence, is laughably wrong. Many martial arts have techniques specifically for controlling an opponent without hurting them, and many more have philosophies they take seriously about minimising violence by e.g. defending so well the attacker realises they're out-classed, or showing the ability to injure without actually doing so as a form of deterrent. Some aikido styles focus exclusively on control, teaching no techniques to initiate attacks.
    – Tony D
    Dec 13, 2015 at 10:02
  • What kind of violence does 'modern' tai chi have in it?
    – mitro
    Dec 13, 2015 at 16:30
  • 1
    @mitro - modern taijiquan has plenty of violence encoded into its solo forms and paired exercises. Whether or not some (or perhaps even most) practitioners ignore it, does not make the original intent of martial arts forms, taijiquan included, less violent. Dec 16, 2015 at 19:39
  • 2
    @mitro you obviously have no idea what taijiquan is about. "Slow motion punch" would be funny if that wasn't the way many people view their taiji practice. Watered down and partial practice has hurt so many TMA styles these days it's not funny anymore Dec 20, 2015 at 22:04

If we're talking umbrella terms, I tend to think of martial arts as anything that is a codified system of movement which currently, or has roots in the past, of being used for combat.

This covers everything from currently combative focused methods, to sports, to cultural practices.

There's a lot of waving around "true martial arts" but I think it's totally fair to accept that people practicing 13th century archery are still doing a martial art, even if in our modern era, a bow is impractical for combat. What people need to be clear on, is what the martial arts focus is that they're doing, what they can expect from the training, and how they can use it.

If you're doing primarily calisthetics training using empty handed versions of forms designed to work with spear, you are getting very limited self defense value. If you are training to snatch people from behind and stick them with a knife, you're not going to do well in a ring. Everything is contextual.

Of course, there's always people who will tell you their chosen way will make you good at EVERYTHING. There's exercise fads, diet fads, and martial arts is the same way. So even if you come up with a clear definition, it won't stop people from pushing out misinformation out there.


A martial art is the practise of any exercise where the goal is to defeat an opponent through the application of physical force directed against them.

There are many martial arts, it's the very broadest of terms, but they can often be broken down further into more specific categories. Such as combat sports. They are still martial arts, but the emphasis of the training is the defeat of an opponent within a controlled (i.e. there are rules), competitive environment.

Traditional martial arts were historically practised to defeat opponents in an uncontrolled environment (i.e. there are no rules), so the emphasis of the training and types of techniques which are successful are often entirely different.

Modern martial arts are those skills, techniques, tactics and strategies practised today to defeat modern opponents through the application of physical force and usually in an uncontrolled environment. Armies and police forces the world over make use of modern martial arts, in differing contexts.

Martial arts also mutate over time. With constant usage as originally intended they remain as efficacious as they would have been in the past. However when an art becomes a combat sport, the techniques, tactics and strategies which are used to win the contest differ markedly from those needed to survive violent uncontrolled encounters, so the art changes over time. One of the best examples of this is wrestling. While within a sporting ring, wrestlers are very formidable, outside the ring in an uncontrolled environment many of the techniques and strategies used are today of dubious suitability.

Even without the deliberate switch to combat sport, when the directing influence of the violent environment is removed, the understanding of violence is eventually lost, the original art changes and so techniques are forgotten, misunderstood, poorly trained. The most extreme examples lose the martial component entirely and become traditional physical arts. You can see examples of this process in progress with various arts which are over time becoming less and less martial; Tai Chi, Aikido are examples where the emphasis is generally moving away from the martial aspect, and indeed, arts which appear to have lost all martial components entirely. Examples being Highland dancing, Morris dancing.

The efficacy of all martial arts should be considered suspect where they are taken out of context and where they are not being used regularly within an uncontrolled martial context.

Is Krav Maga a hybrid martial art? No, all martial arts are "hybrids" of earlier collections of strategies, tactics and techniques... it's not a useful term. It's simply a martial art; a name given to a collection of certain practises. A modern one rather than traditional, but one where the "use in anger" is relatively recent compared to others so less time has passed for it to mutate.


On this site, I see differentiation of self defense from martial arts, with self defense being more what I would expect in seminar classes (avoidance, understanding crime) rather than years-long study. Refer to Which martial arts focus on self defense?.

I am generally confused about the jargon applied to this classification as well.


The clue is in the term 'martial art'. Martial, relating to military and combat, art relating to its original meaning in the English language, where art was not necessarily the subjective thing it is now, art in this sense means skill set.

So 'martial art' means a set of skills used for combat in time of war.

Of course the language has changed, and how we think has changed, and most of us don't plan to use a flying side kick to remove an enemy from his horse on the battlefield. But the essence of the term is still there. If a soldier finds himself disarmed and has to resort to unarmed combat, he uses his martial arts skills, even if those skills are a modern hybrid that can't be matched exactly to any traditional style.

I think it comes down to a misunderstanding of language. Perhaps it might help if we didn't try to use English to describe oriental arts. Few would say that kung fu is not a martial art, but kung fu is not actually any style. The term kung fu is, I'm told, simply mandarin for something like 'refined skill', though according to my Taiwanese friend that told me this, there is no word for word translation to English, but great skill or refined skill is the closest he said.


There's a bit of a problem in the West that we culturally discarded our martial arts heritage. Western Europe had its own schools which were every bit as rich as the Chinese or Japanese, but the growing use of ranged weapons on the battlefield meant that close-quarters weapons became irrelevant. Various places maintained some of the weaponry traditions (middle Europe in particular had a strong fencing tradition up to WW2), but they became sports, as did the various unarmed combat styles.

China and Japan did not have the same weaponry developments as the West, which is why Western forces outmatched them so easily. The Japanese Shogunate caved to Western pressure, knowing that they had no way to resist; and China was renowned as the "weak man of Asia". On the other hand though, the fact that their close-quarters and unarmed schools had remained relevant for longer meant that those particular areas were more practical than the Western equivalents which had atrophied.

The word "sport" does have connotations of it not being "real". However remember that shooting is also a sport in every situation where a human being is not in the crosshairs. A soldier target-shooting is practising a sport; the same soldier with the same rifle and ammunition shooting at another soldier is in battle. The difference between a combat sport and a real fight is only the context, not the activity.


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