Achieving a black belt in a martial art can be hard and is a significant accomplishment, but some martial arts are harder than others for various reasons. In order to compare black belts across disciplines, I did some research to understand which martial arts are the hardest to earn a black belt and why.
The 5 hardest martial arts to get a black belt in based upon a combination of the time requirements, the difficulty of training and the difficulty of testing for belt grading are:
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Read on to find out specifics about these martial arts and what makes each one difficult to earn a black belt. We will evaluate them through time investment, physical training difficulty, and difficulty of testing and grading. Also, we will see how the belt rankings work in each one and what needs to happen to progress through the ranks.
Which Black Belt Takes Longest To Achieve?
It takes the longest time to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with the time frame ranging from 8 years to 12 years. The speed with which a BJJ black belt is earned has to do with a combination of the individual BJJ school, the frequency of training, and the talent and dedication of the athlete.
Let’s now take a deeper look at the above martial arts to understand how they work and what is involved in attaining a black belt.
1. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
While most BJJ black belts get awarded in a time frame averaging about 8 to 12 years, this is just an estimate and black belts can take significantly longer to earn or be awarded much more quickly.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the hardest martial arts to master due to the depth and complexity of the positions and techniques covered in modern jiu-jitsu grappling.
Another reason that it is so difficult to get a black belt in BJJ is that the timeline to get a black belt is just so long. With a timeline of around a decade, many life changes can happen that stop people from training.
I have never personally trained at a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school that does testing for belt levels or stripes at the adult level. I am sure that there are some out there, but it isn’t that common for most jiu-jitsu training environments to be tested.
Generally speaking, BJJ athletes will progress more quickly towards their black belt if they attend classes more frequently and compete more often. This is not required, nor is it always the case, but in my conversations with black belts, this seems to be pretty typical for jiu-jitsu.
For a casual, non-competitive athlete, this period can go all the way up to 15 years of training, especially if they train twice a week or less. People who don’t train as often will take longer to progress toward a black belt.
Additionally, many people give up way too early when they get impatient and if they stay on a plateau for too long. This happens in all martial arts, but is particularly common in BJJ, as there aren’t as many belts, so you stay on one for a long time.
Staying on the same belt for a long time might feel like you’re going nowhere. Just because you feel a lack of progress since you’re not moving through the belts that quickly doesn’t mean you’re not making any real progress. Trust the process, be patient, and you’ll reach your goals.
How Does the Belt System Work in BJJ?
The belt system in BJJ for adults progresses from white belt to blue belt, purple belt, brown belt, and black belt. The requirements for these belts aee not standardized or tested in most situations and are promotions are up to the individual schools.
Let’s briefly explore each of these levels.
For adults, the ranking system starts at the white belt. This is a belt worn by beginners, and it has no prerequisites. A white belt usually focuses on defensive techniques since they typically fight from submissive positions due to their lack of experience. White belts advance in 1 to 3 years.
The next in line is the blue belt, which signifies that a practitioner has learned the basics well and has a basic understanding of positions and fundamental techniques. Typically blue belts stay here for at least two years.
The purple belt is an intermediate rank. It signifies that a student has attained a good amount of knowledge and is also often considered good enough to teach lower levels. It’s mandatory to have the purple belt for at least 18 months before becoming eligible to progress to the brown belt.
To become a brown belt, one must be at least 18 years old and have spent at least 18 months as a purple belt. As a brown belt, one is expected to refine their technique before becoming a black belt.
The black belt is an expert level in BJJ. To become a black belt, a practitioner must be at least 19 years old and spend a minimum of a year. Black belts are often referred to as professors or coaches, although that’s not the case at all schools.
Black Belt Levels
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has 9 additional black belt levels, similar to the dan system in traditional Japanese martial arts. The colors of the belt change based on the level one achieves.
When one reaches the 7th level, they are awarded a red and black alternating belt, referred to as the coral belt. Only those who have a great impact on the sport are awarded this level and are often referred to as masters.
On the 8th level, you can get another coral belt, this time a black and white one. After spending ten years of training and teaching on this level, you’re eligible to progress to the next level, the red belt.
The red belt is reserved for 9th and 10th-degree practitioners, and only for those who have immense influence and fame in the sport. There are actually no living tenth-degree practitioners of BJJ; all the grandmasters are 9th-degree practitioners.
Getting a black belt in judo can take between 4 and 6 years, depending on how much time and effort you put into it. Some manage to do it in a shorter time, but these judokas put in a lot of mat hours and invest much of their time and energy into the art.
Judo is the most physically demanding martial art on this list since it involves a lot of throwing and level changes.
Judo only takes a moderate amount of time to reach the black belt but is one of the more grueling martial arts to pursue a black belt in because of the sheer physicality of the martial art compared to some of the other ones on the list. Personally, I find Judo training to be more exhausting than any martial art or sport I have trained in, including my season of wrestling.
Judo schools often have a more rigorous testing routine than many of the other arts, often being pretty rigid in terms of demonstration of knowledge and techniques. Check out this syllabus from Cal Judo and open up the PDF to get an idea of what kind of requirements must be achieved to progress through Judo belts. In my experience, this seems to be how most Judo schools are run.
Due to the physicality of Judo, it will be easier to progress if you have good basic fitness and strength. You don’t have to be fit to start Judo, but you will probably get fewer quality reps if you are a complete couch potato until you adapt to the hard exercise.
How Does the Ranking System Work?
Judo has a ranking system that involves both numbered kyu and dan rankings. As the student (kyu) progresses the belt colors change from white to green, blue, brown, and eventually black belt. The shift from kyu (learner) to dan (teacher) happens when a judoka is promoted to 1st dan black belt.
There are six kyu ranks that go in numeral descending order from white belt, green belt, blue belt, to brown belt. Between these ranks and the following 1st through 10th dan rankings that occur starting at black belt you get the overall idea of how the ranking systems work.
The table below will make this a bit clearer.
|Kyu or Dan Level||Belt Color Worn|
|6th Kyu (rokkyu)||White Belt|
|5th Kyu (gokyu)||Green Belt|
|4th Kyu (yonkyu)||Blue Belt|
|3rd Kyu (sankyu)||Brown Belt|
|2nd Kyu (nikyu)||Brown Belt|
|1st Kyu (ikkyu)||Brown Belt|
|1st Dan (Shodan)||Black Belt|
|2nd Dan||Black Belt|
|3rd Dan||Black Belt|
|4th Dan||Black Belt|
|5th Dan||Black Belt|
|6th Dan||Red and White Belt|
|7th Dan||Red and White Belt|
|8th Dan||Red and White Belt|
|9th Dan||Red Belt|
|10th Dan||Red Belt|
For more about what the rankings mean check out this article at DC Judo, which did a great job explaining the rankings and expectations.
Aikido awards a black belt in approximately 4 or 5 years if the student trains 2 to 3 times a week. Black belts can be awarded sooner with increased training frequency.
Aikido black belts do happen in a relatively short time, and the physical requirements can be demanding depending on the school that you attend. Aikido can be hard due to the complexity of the techniques alongside difficult grading processes that are not necessarily that standardized and can vary across schools.
Aikido also emphasizes mental calmness and spiritual growth which can set it apart and make it more difficult depending on the student.
Aikido is a relatively unique martial art and somewhat less popular than some of the other martial arts on this list. If you want to know a little bit more about practicing Aikido to evaluate it to see if it might be something you might want to train I wrote an article on what to expect in Aikido that you can check out.
Having a competent coach also helps, so make sure to research your instructor well before you embark on your aikido journey.
The Ranking System in Aikido
Traditionally, aikido ranks are divided into the kyu/dan system, much like in many traditional Japanese martial arts. There are six kyus and three dans, but you can find some variations. Even though nowadays we associate aikido with a colored belt system, this was not always the case.
Originally, there were only black and white belts in aikido. All kyu levels were white belt levels, and all dan levels were black belts. The white belt indicated that the student was still progressing and learning, so there was no need to assign them a belt.
The kyus progress from larger numbers to smaller numbers. The lowest-level students are 6th kyu students, while the highest-level students are 1st kyu, from where they can progress to the dan degrees which then progress from smaller numbers to larger numbers.
The colored belt system became commonplace in western schools of aikido but isn’t the norm around the world. Typically, each kyu corresponds to a belt, while the black belt is still reserved for the masters.
How the belts work largely depends on the coach or organization to which a certain school belongs. Quite often, these things are decided on a national level by a national federation and vary from country to country.
So, if you end up in Japan as an aikidoka or are in a particularly traditionalist school, you might run into different belt systems and standards.
On average karate black belts take between 5 to 7 years in more strict schools for adults. This can vary greatly from school to school as well as from one karate style to the next.
Different schools often adhere to different rules, and different coaches have their own takes on the ranking system. Some will be more rigorous, some less. That being said, good karate schools do not give out black belts easily and students will need to earn their black belts.
Karate curriculums can cover a wide variety of techniques that can make karate a somewhat difficult martial art to completely master. Physically, karate is not the most intense form of martial art and is not nearly as physically intense as judo or BJJ.
Testing difficult for karate can be higher than in other martial arts based on the school giving the tests, especially if the school covers a wider variety of techniques to a high standard.
You definitely do not need to be fit to start Karate but it can help you learn more quickly if you are not physically drained from practicing techniques. In fact, fitness can up your ideal training frequency for karate and allow you to progress to a black belt faster than somebody who is severely out of shape.
There are people who simply pick up the skills and techniques very quickly and thus can progress through the ranks just as fast. This is also influenced by how often and how hard you train. If you train more often and put in more effort, you’re, of course, going to progress much faster.
Your progress will also depend on your school and federation. Karate is fragmented into many different federations, each of which has its own tweaks and its own vision of how things should work. Some are laxer, while some are more strict.
The same goes for coaches. Some coaches are very lax and will let you speedrun the process. On the other hand, some coaches are extremely rigorous and will demand perfection before letting you move on to the next level.
The Ranking System
There’s no standardized belt order that goes across all karate disciplines, however, the belt colors do go from light to dark with beginners wearing white belts and masters wearing black belts.
There is variability in how the belt systems work between disciplines, schools, and organizations, but the most common belt orders are shown in order below.
- White Belt
- Yellow Belt
- Orange Belt
- Green Belt
- Blue Belt
- Purple Belt
- Red Belt
- Brown Belt
- Black Belt
In some cases, schools will use stripes on the belt to indicate differences between the kyu, while in some cases, there will be a different belt for each kyu.
There is no standardized testing across the sport. However, students typically take exams in which they have to show their prowess in kihon, kata, and kumite to progress to the next rank. The 10th kyu and first shodan (the lowest black belt degree) are usually awarded by the governing body in the country.
Out of all the martial arts listed in this article, taekwondo probably takes the least amount of time to get a black belt. Most often, it takes between 3 and 5 years to get a first-degree black belt. This fact, however, doesn’t mean that it is easy to get a black belt in taekwondo in well-respected schools.
When you are training in a competitive or serious taekwondo school environment there can be an expectation to be mobile and flexible in order to execute advanced taekwondo kicking techniques and movements.
The high level of mobility and flexibility required in taekwondo can make achieving a black belt in the martial art difficult for some students.
Taekwondo has the greatest mobility and flexibility requirements of all the martial arts on this list. That being said, the physical training intensity is not extreme and you don’t have to be fit to start Taekwondo. Additionally, you can tweak your training frequency for taekwondo to make progress towards your black belt at an accelerated pace if you so desire.
Taekwondo testing requirements and rigor are all over the place and depend wholly on the school that is attended. They can either be quite difficult or incredibly easy depending on the school or instructor in charge of the testing.
The Ranking System in Taekwondo
There are two main taekwondo organizations, ITF (International Taekwon-Do Federation) and WT (World Taekwondo), which have different ranking systems.
The belt rankings in the ITF Taekwondo ranking system are the following in ascending order: white, white with a yellow tip, yellow, yellow with a green tip, green, green with a blue tip, blue, blue with a red tip, red, red with a black tip, and black.
The belt rankings in the WT Taekwondo ranking system are the following in ascending order: white, yellow, orange, green, purple, blue, blue and blank, brown, brown and black, red, red and black, and black belts in increasing rank order.
These five martial arts are some of the more difficult martial arts in which to get a black belt. Depending on the individual student certain martial arts might be much more difficult to get a black belt in and has a lot to do with circumstances surrounding each student including the specific traits of the student and the individual schools that they might attend in their local area.
With my limited mobility, it might be more difficult to get a black belt in taekwondo as opposed to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but somebody who only has a limited amount of training time or needs to travel a lot for work might struggle with getting a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but do quite well in getting a black belt taekwondo because of the shorter amount of time needed to get a black belt and perhaps having better basic mobility.
For more check out 8 Easiest Martial Arts To Get A Black Belt