Martial arts disciplines can vary widely in the types of techniques they focus on and need to be split into different categories to understand them. Sometimes, it can be difficult to acquire a holistic understanding of this topic as a beginner. In order to understand how martial arts fit together in modern times, let’s categorize them to make them easier to understand.
Martial arts can be roughly divided into six categories: striking, takedown-oriented grappling, submission grappling, martial arts with weapons, low-impact meditative martial arts, and hybrid martial arts.
In this article, I’ll outline the main types of martial arts, their main characteristics, and some of the most recognizable martial arts that fall under those categories. You’ll get a thorough and detailed overview of the topic, which should help you choose the right martial art for you.
The Types of Martial Arts
Martial arts can be divided into different types based on their main focus, which refers to the kind of techniques or situations that they are based on.
Following this, we end up with six categories:
- Takedown-oriented grappling
- Submission grappling
- Martial arts with weapons
- Low impact/meditative
- Hybrid martial arts
You should note that this is just a rough overview, and there can be many overlaps between different types. Furthermore, within a single martial art, you can find various styles that focus on different things. For example, Karate is a striking martial art, but some styles will also incorporate elements of grappling.
This means the systematization that is provided here is just a simplified overview meant to give you a general insight into the topic. If you’re interested in a specific martial art, the best thing to do is to research it thoroughly and inquire about it at their gym or dojo to see exactly what they teach.
Another factor that might complicate things further is that some schools occasionally teach things that fall outside the regular curriculum for their martial art. Coaches do this to shake things up, broaden the students’ knowledge, or collaborate with someone from a different discipline.
The point is that martial arts come in many variations, so it’s impossible to cover every one of them in a single article.
Striking martial arts obviously include striking and are the easiest for people who are unfamiliar with martial arts to understand. These martial arts focus on hitting your opponent with fists, elbows, knees, and legs. Some exotic martial arts, like lethwei, even allow unusual strikes, such as head strikes.
There’s a lot of overlap between striking martial arts, especially among the most widespread ones. After all, there is only so much you can do with the human body. The main differences usually lie in the rules and small twists to techniques.
Some martial arts with more unusual techniques, like Krav Maga, will add some twists to the typical arsenal of strikes. However, it may be best to see them as hybrid martial arts.
Some of the most recognizable striking martial arts are:
- Muay Thai
Some less common choices include:
- Wing Chun
- Krav Maga
- Kung Fu
Boxing is probably the most popular striking martial art there is. It’s ancient in origin and focuses on exchanging punches to the body and head.
Boxing is generally divided into amateur and professional boxing. In professional boxing, the bouts are longer and the competitors don’t wear any protective headgear. Knockouts and knockdowns happen much more often, and winning a match often depends on them.
In amateur boxing, the competitors get points based on clean strikes and good technique, so the goal is not necessarily to knock out the opponent.
Muay Thai is famous for its use of knees and elbows, hardcore training and fighting styles, and often brutal matches. It’s well respected, and its knee and elbow techniques are often used in MMA. Also known as “the art of eight limbs”, it was first developed as a fighting discipline for the Thailand army during the 16th century.
Kickboxing is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses all full-contact martial art that combines boxing with some type of kicking. In the stricter sense of the word, it refers to K1, which uses a full range of punches and kicks, but no elbows or knees.
Karate refers to a wide range of different styles, all of which stem from the island of Okinawa. Its beginnings lie in the early 20th century when martial arts masters from Okinawa spread their skills and knowledge around Japan. It has since evolved into many styles, with varying degrees of intensity and different focuses.
Tae-kwon-do is a Korean martial art that focuses on lightning-fast kicks with a limited range of punches, which are always very light. It focuses on tournament-style fighting, which means that every strike brings you a point, but there’s no full-contact fighting. Perhaps the most recognizable element of Tae-kwon-do is its sweeping, powerful kicks.
While all grappling martial arts are going to teach both submissions and takedowns/throws, we can see a major difference in their focus. Some grappling martial arts tend to emphasize submissions, while some pay most attention to throwing and takedowns.
Some disciplines that focus on takedowns and throws are:
- Shuai Jiao
Aikido focuses most on throws and takedowns, which one carries out utilizing the momentum created by the attacker. Some categorize it as a grappling martial art since it includes joint locks and manipulation, but it contains no grappling on the floor, which is what most people refer to when they talk about grappling.
Judo and Shuai Jiao
Judo and Shuai Jiao are rather similar. Both martial arts aim to throw the opponent out of balance and bring them to the ground, where the fight can be continued. One major difference is that Shuai jiao doesn’t allow sacrifice techniques, which are common in Judo.
Wrestling has a deep history and has been seen in some form in many cultures around the world. The wrestling disciplines that have become the most popular in the modern world are primarily Greek in origin and wrestling is even included in the Olympic games. Wrestling revolves around taking down your opponent and pinning their back to the ground.
Submission grappling includes martial arts in which you aim to force your opponent to submit. Of course, these martial arts have some takedowns and throws, but they are not the primary.
For example, in Judo, which we have classified as a takedown-oriented martial art, you can win a match by performing one good throw. This isn’t something that you can see in wrestling or BJJ.
Some of the most representative martial arts in this category are:
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Luta Livre
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is probably the most recognizable submission grappling martial art in modern times. It has become increasingly popular in the last couple of decades due to the wide adoption of its techniques by many UFC competitors.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is derived from its parent art Judo and focuses primarily on the ground-fighting and submission aspects of grappling unlike Judo, which focuses on the takedown aspect of grappling but still includes submission grappling in the martial art.
Luta Livre is an interesting off-shoot of grappling martial arts. It also originates in Brazil and has come about as a mix of Kosen Judo and catch wrestling. It has had a lot of influence on modern grappling martial arts. It focuses on submission, but it also contains strikes.
Jujutsu has fallen out of favor in many places, but it’s still a very important martial art. It spawned many different styles, such as Judo and Aikido.
Jujutsu incorporates a wide variety of techniques, including joint locks, grapples, pins, and takedowns. It was developed as a way to neutralize armored opponents without weapons or with small weapons.
Martial Arts With Weapons
The world of martial arts that utilize weapons is incredibly difficult to summarize in a single article. The reason for this is that pretty much every corner of the world has spawned some type of martial art that uses weapons.
Some of these martial arts have been sidelined and are now practiced only by select groups of devoted individuals, while some of them have been gaining in popularity in recent years and show no signs of stopping.
Some of the most recognizable weapon-based martial arts are:
HEMA has steadily gained popularity as a weapons-based martial art. It is essentially a reconstruction of traditional European fighting styles, particularly those from the Medieval period and the Renaissance. This includes a wide variety of weapons, including swords, spears, glaives, pikes, daggers, and many more.
Fencing is probably the most prestigious weapons-based martial art, even though people don’t often discuss it in martial arts circles. As an Olympic sport with a long tradition, it still draws the attention of many people. It’s practiced with three kinds of thrusting weapons: the foil, the épée, and the sabre.
Ninjutsu is not the most common martial art and is very hard to define. It’s supposed to be a reconstruction of the skills and techniques used by the shinobi—that is, the ninja. It’s questionable to what extent we can see it as a martial art since the ninja used a myriad of different techniques and combat styles.
Kendo is a martial art that focuses on using a bamboo sword called shinai. The practitioners wear protective, full-body armor. It enjoys widespread popularity in Japan, but people all around the world practice it as well. The martial art is based on the fighting styles of samurai.
Eskrima, known also as Kali or Arnis, is a martial art from the Philippines which focuses on using sticks, blades, knives, and improvised weapons. It also includes some weaponless techniques, such as joint locks and grappling. It remained obscure outside out the Philippines until it became an official sport in the 21st century.
Low Impact/Meditative Martial Arts
Low impact or meditative martial arts don’t focus on fighting, but rather on achieving a state of calmness and promoting health and a good balance in the practitioner.
As such, they’re not the best tool for someone who wants to learn how to fight, but they can be great for staying in shape and achieving greater mental health. This is especially true for the elderly or people whose physical health and flexibility are compromised.
Granted, all the movements practiced in low-impact martial arts stem from actual combat techniques. However, they have, through time, become symbolic representations of those movements, rather than something you can use in combat.
Some popular low impact martial arts are:
- Tai Chi
Tai chi focuses on slow and gentle movements with an emphasis on maintaining a good posture and calm, even breathing. Today, it is thought of more as a rehabilitative method rather than a martial art.
It is often used in the rehabilitation of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, as well as people who need help with maintaining their balance in general. It is also used for meditation, which can be beneficial for mental health.
Qigong is rather similar to Tai Chi and is even more removed from its martial arts roots. Its goal is also to align the body and mind in order to improve mental health and general well-being. Some small-scale studies have shown that Qigong may play a beneficial role in reducing pain.
Iaido is most often grouped with weapons-based martial arts, and this isn’t necessarily a bad classification, as it is indeed a sword-based martial art. However, it is not focused on fighting, but rather on practicing calm, fluid movements, which promote mental clarity and overall well-being.
Hybrid Martial Arts
Hybrid martial arts combine elements of both striking and grappling to create a holistic and adaptable discipline.
The roots of hybrid martial arts go all the way back to Ancient Greece and their art of Pankration, which allowed most striking and grappling techniques and only excluded eye gouging and biting. Modern Pankration is more restrictive in terms of allowed techniques.
Today, there are many hybrid martial arts.
They’re gaining popularity, probably due to the proliferation of mixed martial arts, which has pointed towards the need for more diverse fighting styles. However, MMA can’t really be seen as a proper martial art—rather, it’s a blend of different styles and not a centralized art with a formalized curriculum.
Other hybrid martial arts combat systems include the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) which covers a variety of martial arts in the curriculum.
Hybrid Martial Arts include martial arts such as:
- Jeet Kune Do
- Krav Maga
- Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
There are almost countless hybrid martial arts. Many martial arts masters like to invent their own arts and combine different styles, but they often don’t spread very far and stay confined to a single school or a local area.
Hapkido is a Korean self-defense martial art that focuses on joint locks, grappling, throwing, kicks, and punches. As it rarely includes any real sparring, it might not be the best way to defend yourself, but it can provide a groundwork on which you can build by cross-training in other martial arts.
Jeet Kune Do
Jeet Kune Do is closer to a philosophy than a martial art. It was created by Bruce Lee, and it focuses on using quick attacks, intercepting the enemy, and using the techniques that suit you best. It’s generally hard to make any generalizing comments on it, as it depends from practitioner to practitioner.
Kajukenbo is a hybrid martial art developed in the 1940s in Hawaii as a combination of Karate, Judo, Jujutsu, Kenpo, and Boxing. It has a great advantage in that it encourages students to develop their own styles after they master the fundamentals of the art.
Krav Maga has seen a lot of growth in the last decades. It was developed for the Israeli military and security forces but a version of Krav Maga has been modified and become popular among civilians for self-defense applications. Its effectiveness varies from school to school, but one common downside is that it often includes no real sparring.
With so many different martial arts disciplines out there it can get confusing to pick and choose the right one. Being able to look at martial arts a bit more holistically and pick one to train within a category to pick up the skills and training that you are actually looking for can be helpful to reach your goals for martial arts training.
In general blending martial arts training from within a category can make you a more complete fighter within that category and picking up martial arts from multiple categories can help you understand fighting better as a whole.
For more check out Why Do Martial Arts Exist? From Origin to Modern Day