The popularity of martial arts has grown exponentially in the US in recent years. The sale of the UFC for $4 billion last summer only demonstrates the huge demand for opportunities to both view and participate in competitive combat sports. And aside from the glitz and glamour of televised fight leagues, Americans are flocking to all different types of dojos, academies, and schools to train in the world’s top martial systems.
Although the names and terms that define each style can get confusing, virtually every martial art can find its roots in some ancient practice of war. Whether drawn from the combat styles of dueling tribes or inspired by the weapons fashioned in one geographical region or another, martial arts as we practice them today have been transformed through centuries from their battlefield origins.
Many of the more fluid, dance-oriented martial arts evolved to be that way because oppressed populations and marginalized groups were forced to disguise their martial heritage in order to continue practicing. Distinct geographical boundaries now separate highly detailed difference in style, for example in South East Asia, where in a way, Cambodian, Burmese, Thai, and Malaysian martial arts are unique branches evolving away from the same tree.
In this sense, the way history has unfolded guarantees certain similarities and roots that hold the world of martial arts together more generally. Here we dive into a few of the most popular martial arts practiced in the US today, investigating where each art originated and how its strengths have developed over time. Whether you’re training for fitness, balance, energy, focus, or to climb your way into a fight cage, there’s a martial art out there for you.
When I first found the martial arts academy where I still train today, I knew right away it was the one for me. New York City is filled with pretty gyms and fancy kickboxing classes that focus more on the athleisure styles of the day than actual fight technique, and this works for some people. I was looking for something truer—a martial arts school where I could train like the fighters and learn from the best without having to get my face bashed in. For almost two years now I’ve trained more arts than I could name when I first walked in the door of the school, and low-ranked as I may be, I have no qualms about calling myself a martial artist.
First, what is Kung Fu?
The term Kung Fu is fraught. In today’s American English lexicon, we use Kung Fu to point to Chinese martial arts in general. But in the original Chinese, Kung Fu referred more to the deep study or any kind of profound learning that requires a dedication of energy and time to master. In this sense, your kung fu could be anything, including but not limited to martial arts. Your Kung Fu is whatever you are learning with intensity and dedication at the time towards a goal of mastery, from patience to calligraphy to classical flute.
Originally developed in Okinawa, Japan, karate has long been known as one of the most commonly practiced martial arts in the US. Pop culture mentions of the art focus mainly on the karate chop, which, regardless of the overuse, does identify karate’s reliance on standup hand striking. Punches and open-handed striking techniques, like the karate chop, are used in karate to both attack an opponent and gain advantage by deflecting and intercepting incoming attacks.
This focus on blocking and reacting to incoming attacks has made karate, at least as it is taught in the US today, an art geared more towards self-defense than combat and competition. On the other hand, karate also employs kicking, knee and elbow strikes which make use of the entire body and prevent a practitioner from relying solely on hand techniques and self-defense strategy. This effort to produce well-rounded karate practitioners also extends to the focus on self-discipline and character development in most karate schools. As a sport, karate is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Tae Kwon Do
If Karate is the prominent traditional self-defense system from Japan, Tae Kwon Do if often mentioned in the same breath as the sister art from Korea. For over 2,000 years, Tae Kwon Do blends self-defense tactics with punching and kicking attacks to make it a useful and adaptable art in any situation. And where Karate focuses on hand techniques and punching, Tae Kwon Do is most famous for its emphasis on kicks. Traditionally, Tae Kwon Do identifies the leg as the strongest limb in the body, not to mention the furthest reaching.
This basic strategy unites the entire system of Tae Kwon Do around keeping your opponent at a distance, and doing major damage with a well-placed, well-timed, full-force kick. To date, Tae Kwon Do is commonly considered the most widely practiced art in the world. Part of its ease of entry and adaptability comes from the forms that students must learn to progress through the belt rankings. These predetermined sequences of movement incorporate attacking, blocking, placement, and movement technique to demonstrate each student’s progress in the art. Tae Kwon Do and Judo are the only two martial arts currently featured as a sporting event in the Olympic Games.
Judo was originally developed for sport and physical fitness when it originated in Japan in the late 1800s. Since Judo was not originally created as a fighting style for war, the system grew to encourage throws and takedowns in order to rack up points and eventually win a match. Over the years, judo has evolved into an effective grappling system that works best when in a close quarters environment, say for street fighting or real world self defense situations.
The motto of Judo is widely accepted as “maximum efficiency, minimum effort.” It’s in this way that practitioners learn to manipulate leverage and the natural flow of energy to get the best of their opponents. These concepts paired with techniques and traditional movements make it possible for a Judo practitioner of virtually any size overcome a bigger or stronger opponent.
While there is no direct striking in Judo, punches and kicks are replaced with submissions like chokes and joint locks. In a sport environment, one performs any of these submitting maneuvers until the opponent taps out to prevent serious or permanent injury. In prearranged practice forms called kata, Judo practitioners also incorporate the striking attacks that are otherwise prohibited in competitions.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Although Jiu Jitsu was originally developed in Japan, it is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in particular that has taken US martial arts schools by storm. The original Japanese sport was designed to enable practitioners to disarm and defend against an attacker carrying a weapon, like a sword or knife. Where Japanese Jiu Jitsu is focused on formalized movements and patterns that can often look very similar to Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu focuses on self-defense and intense ground grappling. Much like Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is also used to empower smaller practioners to defend against and overcome larger, stronger attackers.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is considered by some to be an aggressive, vicious art. Its reputation for choke holds, joint locks, and all-out ground grappling certainly makes the system seem like an intense and dangerous one. But in many of the adaptations of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that are currently taught in the US, the focus is placed more on strategy and problem solving than ultimate damage to your opponent. Of the hard and soft arts, many consider Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to be a soft art in that it relies on an understanding of the flow of energy between you and your opponent. Manipulating energy and leverage, again, like in Judo, allows for both complex self-defense techniques that are applicable in the real world and competition-ready finishes that employ submissions like locks and chokes to win matches.
As the name makes clear, Muay Thai originated in Thailand as the nation’s traditional martial art. Also known as the Art of Eight Limbs, muay thai uses punching, kicking, and knee and elbow attacks to round out its arsenal of techniques. In Thailand, children train from extremely young ages to develop and condition their bodies in order to perfectly execute the art. Those viral videos you’ve seen of practitioners kicking palm trees? That was probably some form of Muay Thai in its native Thailand.
Muay Thai can be a very violent sport, in much the same way that traditional Western Boxing often leaves its competitors bloodied and battered. As Muay Thai spreads throughout the US, many American schools teach a style of the art marked by European influence. The traditional Thai stance places body weight heavily on the rear foot and leg, allowing practitioners to launch forward with balance and precision and throw the front kick, known as a teep, to maintain and gauge distance. Dutch influence brings Western Muay Thai closer to our traditional stand-up boxing with a stance that spreads the weight between both feet and keeps a challenger bouncing from one foot to the other in order to gauge distance and plan attacks.
Part of Muay Thai’s popularity in the US can be tied directly to the huge popularity of mixed martial arts or MMA through platforms like the UFC. Many of the sport’s top practitioners through the decades have been highly trained Muay Thai fighters. Between Muay Thai’s reputation as one of the world’s original no holds barred bloody combat sports and the UFC’s Hollywood style, big entertainment treatment of cage fighting, it seems they make a perfect fit to spur on the dominance of martial arts training stateside.
Of course, as it spreads, Muay Thai is also available as a more relaxed training regimen for martial arts students looking to get in a good workout or develop their minds along with their bodies, as opposed to hardcore fight training. Many of the arts that have made their way from the ancient world to the present and from far-flung nations to the US have softened in this way. And thanks to this transformation over time, laypeople like us have the opportunity to learn the arts and philosophies of martial systems from around the world.
Jeet Kune Do
At my martial arts academy in New York, I quickly fell into the world of Jeet Kune Do. Known best as the martial system developed by Bruce Lee before his untimely death in 1973, Jeet Kune Do may be less commonly practiced because the lineage of the art is fiercely protected. And, Lee broke all the rules to develop the ultimate “no way as way” style while training and teaching on the West Coast. Lee traveled the country and the world to train with top-ranked practitioners in a variety of arts, when it was widely considered dishonorable to train at a school other than your own home dojo.
But Jeet Kune Do would not have been possible without this international exchange of profound martial arts knowledge. In the end, the system combines Muay Thai striking and southeast Asian arts known generally as silat, Filipino boxing styles (like panantukan) and weapons systems (like kali, arnis, and eskrima), Wing Chun hand techniques from the world of Kung Fu like trapping and energy training, and more. The art is as adaptable as they come, and requires the student to make decisions about what works best for his or her body, playing to strengths and advantages while discarding what works less well for each body type and ability level.
I didn’t start training martial arts to get in the ring as a fighter or even to get fit. I certainly did get fit, and my body changed completely as a result of up to three hours a day, six days a week spent rolling around on the sweat-drenched mats of my academy. But practicing Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu also trains my mind. I practice discipline and patience, self-acceptance and the acceptance of others, strategy and control, self-awareness and spatial awareness, dedication and commitment and the deepest kind of nourishing breathing. Training martial arts has made me a stronger person physically, but it has also made me a better human.