Is Martial Arts Bad for Your Body? (It Depends)

Whether or not practicing martial arts is good or bad for your body can be unclear. After all, you are practicing combat which comes with injury risks alongside fitness benefits. So I wanted to dive into the details to determine if martial arts are a net positive or a net negative for the average martial artist.

Practicing martial arts is good for your body. Martial arts provide aerobic benefits alongside building flexibility, mobility, and some strength. In most martial arts, the risk of serious injury is low if you train in a safe environment with good training philosophies and proper safety equipment.

We will explore whether the potential health benefits of practicing martial arts outweigh the risks. By the end of this article, you should be armed with enough information to help you decide whether or not pursuing martial arts is the right choice for you.

Is Martial Arts a Good Way To Get in Shape?

Practicing martial arts is a good way to get in shape. Martial arts are enjoyable and do not necessarily feel like exercise and require you to move your body in a way that can build basic strength, flexibility, and mobility alongside significant cardiovascular benefits.

There are over 190 specific types of martial arts. With so many choices you will find different levels of effectiveness based on the form of martial art that you decide to practice.

On the tougher end of the spectrum, you have judo, wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing. These martial arts are almost always tougher to practice in terms of physicality, but with that difficulty comes greater fitness gains.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is another martial art that can either be just as hard as those branches of martial arts or significantly gentler than them. I’ve personally trained in schools that had different training philosophies and effective fitness requirements and benefits. So this will vary a lot based on what kind of BJJ school you attend.

Other martial arts that are “gentler” can have a fitness slant or be quite variable in difficulty, especially among more traditional martial arts like karate and taekwondo. Combat systems like Krav Maga also have similar levels of variability.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have martial arts that are designed to be gentle and meditative like Tai Chi. Tai Chi still has plenty of benefits to offer and is akin to gentle yoga. For people that are significantly out of shape, this can be a great option.

Can Martial Arts Tone Your Body?

Alongside a healthy diet with appropriate calorie intake, martial arts can tone your body. Toning your body is a function of bringing down your body fat percentage and building enough muscle. Martial arts can build some muscle and provide valuable exercise to be a part of that toning process.

While weightlifting can strengthen muscles and increase muscle mass, aerobic exercise is often better for those looking to lose fat. Ultimately, looking toned is about having a low body fat percentage with at least modest amounts of muscle. 

Martial arts require you to keep your body in motion and provide cardiovascular exercise varying in difficulty that moves along the spectrum from a walk to HIIT exercise.

It’s important to keep in mind that exercise from martial arts is only a part of the equation, reducing the amount of fat you are carrying on your body and building some baseline muscles requires that you have a reasonable caloric deficit and a plan to build at least some muscle mass.

Can Martial Arts Build Muscle?

Martial arts can build modest amounts of muscle mass for untrained athletes. This is especially true of the more physically intense martial arts like Judo and Wrestling. After these beginner gains calisthenics or lifting weights becomes necessary to make significant progress.

Is Training Martial Arts Better Than Going to the Gym?

Training martial arts is an engaging form of exercise that can be better than getting exercise at a gym. Martial arts provide physical and mental benefits alongside a new set of skills that a gym cannot provide. If your goal is to build muscle you will need to complement it with lifting weights.

If your primary motivation for getting started in martial arts is to build self-defense skills or compete in martial arts competitions, then there is no substitute for simply training in martial arts. You may want to skip the gym membership and join a martial arts class, especially if they have any resistance training equipment on site for members.

If you’re looking for mindfulness training or meditative exercise, then there are definitely martial arts studios or schools that do this. Picking out the right fit for you is personal, but you don’t usually see these types of activities in a conventional gym setting.

Either practicing martial arts or working out at the gym are valuable activities. Getting exercise is a vital part of living your best life. Martial arts (at a good school) can help you burn fat, build some muscle, and get cardiovascular conditioning, and improve your mental well-being and emotional health. 

In my opinion, most people will get more benefits out of taking up martial arts than doing a conventional gym. Ideally, you still want to get at least some progressive resistance training into your life for overall health, but it isn’t mandatory if you have to choose one.

Are Martial Arts Dangerous?

Martial arts are typically not dangerous to train. There is a degree of danger involved if competing in martial arts as a combat sport, but most students never do this and you never have to compete. Injuries in most martial arts are minor and recoverable when practiced mindfully.

Most injuries resulting from practicing martial arts are not serious. Furthermore, a teacher will generally avoid training someone in advanced martial arts techniques if they feel that the student isn’t physically prepared to handle those techniques.

Something to keep in mind is that the instructors have a vested interest in keeping their students healthy. This means that they will do their best to scale difficulty and risk to individual students and make sure a proper progression happens.

As a student, you can also stay mindful and significantly influence the risk factors associated with training in martial arts, even if you are training for combat sports competitions. Mindfulness and decision-making that can reduce risk range from picking safer training partners to moderating your recovery and training intensity levels.

Additionally, a core principle for most martial arts is respecting your opponent and following proper etiquette. Proper training ensures that students rarely cause or suffer from injuries. 

Still, some types of martial arts are more dangerous than others. Generally, the most dangerous form of martial arts is mixed martial arts (MMA). But even in that environment, it is possible to pick safer schools to train in as well as keep yourself safe with good personal decision-making.

Are Injuries Common in Martial Arts?

As with most forms of exercise, there are risks of physical injury involved in practicing martial arts. 

Minor injuries like strains, sprains, bruises, and sometimes minor dislocations can happen in martial arts. Other more serious injuries do happen but can be mitigated with safe and proper training methods. Wearing safety gear also decreases the risk of injury.

But because there are so many different types of martial arts, it’s essential to examine each kind separately, as certain forms tend to lead to more injuries than others. 

A study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined martial arts injuries are determined by the “percentage of participants sustaining an injury that required time off training a year.” They found the following percentages:

  • Taekwondo: 59%
  • Aikido: 51%
  • Kung Fu: 38%
  • Karate: 30%
  • Tai Chi: 14%

As you can see, there’s a vast range of differences depending on the style practiced. Taekwondo can lead to far more injuries than something like Tai Chi.

You can expect minimal injuries if you’re engaged in meditative or low-impact martial arts. However, martial arts that include a live sparring component will come with increased injury risk, but these are usually quite minor injuries and happen infrequently.

The factors that tend to increase injury risks are as follows:

  • Training environment: the most important factor in terms of personal safety in martial arts is training at a school that emphasizes safety for its students.
  • Level of contact: full contact martial arts are more dangerous than light-contact martial arts which are in turn more dangerous than no-contact martial arts.
  • Technique types: takedowns and strikes come with a bit more injury risk than other martial arts techniques. Joint locks and other submission grappling techniques also have a degree of risk, but that risk should be minimized if you selected a safe school.
  • Combat sport ruleset: any martial art that has a combat sport element that people are training for come with additional risk because it adds urgency to training. Also, combat sport rulesets that include a wide variety of techniques and situations are more dangerous than a narrow set of safer techniques, especially when you factor in higher levels of contact.

In my personal experience training martial arts, I have mostly run into minor joint sprains once or twice a year. I have only had one moderately serious injury, a dislocated rib in about 5 years of training.

After the fact, I realized that most of these injuries, including the dislocated rib were events I could have prevented. This is honestly pretty similar to my experiences when lifting weights so I would consider martial arts to be relatively safe.

However, it’s still important to be mindful when training to reduce injury risk as much as possible.

Which Martial Art Has the Most Injuries?

Mixed martial arts (MMA), a hybrid, full-contact combat sport, has the most injuries compared to other forms of martial arts. This is due to being full contact and having a wide ruleset for allowed techniques. Both MMA fights along with live training come with higher injury risks.

Ultimately when you are thinking about what martial art is going to have the biggest injury risk you have to consider both the ruleset for competition as well as the types of techniques that are commonly used in the martial art.

A study published by The Sport Journal indicates that many forms of Karate and Judo resulted in similar amounts of injuries as soccer, ice hockey, and volleyball. 

Still, you can reduce your risk of injury by wearing the appropriate safety gear and practicing martial arts mindfully in a safe training space.

Does Martial Arts Cause Brain Damage?

For most martial arts, brain damage is not a relevant issue. Brain damage usually occurs through hard strikes to the head or an irresponsible takedown where you land on your head. Both hard striking to the head, as well as dangerous takedowns, are almost universally banned in martial arts training.

Unless you are training in an unsafe martial arts school, you really are not going to run into issues with getting brain damage, especially if you are mindful when you pick your training partners so that you can maximize your personal safety.

Other things that you can do to mitigate the chances of brain damage are purchasing simple headgear if you are practicing a striking martial art that has a sparring component. Properly fitting protective headgear like this one that I own (Amazon link), can help to mitigate impacts from striking.

This foam-filled, helmet-like piece of gear absorbs shocks from impacts, protecting the wearer’s head and ears from serious injury. The adjustable straps help keep it in place, even during physically strenuous matches.

Final Thoughts

As a whole, when practiced deliberately and with an eye on safety, martial arts are a safe form of exercise that is a net positive for your body. It is not a completely safe activity, but most physical activities do come with some kind of risk associated with them.

There are many reasons you should train martial arts.

For most people adding in martial arts will benefit their fitness as well as physical and mental well-being, so I typically encourage people to try out martial arts for themselves and see if it feels like a good addition to their lives.

For more check out How Can Martial Arts Improve Your Life?


Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but supplement with other grappling martial arts as well as help to coach my kid's blended grappling program.

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