What are the Different Kinds of Martial Arts?

by admin on April 19, 2010

The term “Martial Art” literally means the “Art of Warfare” and is derived from Mars, the Roman God of War.  In common usage, it refers to different systems of combat originating in East Asia, Europe and the Americas; with the main bulk originating from East Asia. The body and mind are the main weapons of choice in most martial arts, but some employ swords and sticks. In addition to basic defense and offense, most types of martial arts embody self discipline and spirituality.

East Asian martial arts are all heavily influenced by each other, often when a practitioner of a certain style traveled to another region to share teachings. Borders and sovereignty influenced the spread of dominant martial art styles and the Japanese occupation of Korea, China and the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) had a profound affect on the spread of popular styles. Almost without exception, all martial arts have strikes, grabs, holds and traditional forms of movement (poomse in Korea, Kata in Japan, and Taolu in China) and employ some system of spiritual philosophy.

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive history of all martial arts, but rather a summary of the different styles designed to help you decide which sport works best for you.

Korean Martial Arts – in Korean, “do” as in “taekwondo and hapkido” means the “art or method of”.

Taekwondo – Translates into the method of striking with hand and foot. Taekwondo uses both the upper and lower extremities but its main focus is on kicking. Taekwondo is a Summer Olympic Sport and is governed by the World Taekwondo Federation, headquartered in Seoul, South Korea, although formally, there are two branches of taekwondo world wide; the WTF and the International Taekwon-Do Federation. A student of taekwondo can expect to be trained in kicking, punching, open hand techniques, blocking, self defense, sparring and forms (poomse). The Korean military trains their soldiers in taekwondo and it is the national sport of South Korea.

Hapkido – Roughly translated, means the “way of coordinating energy”. Hapkido focuses on self defense, and using the  opponent’s momentum against them in a circular technique. This sport uses pressure points, joint locks, striking, throwing and pinning techniques. Like taekwondo, Hapkido places a strong emphasis on kicking; focused mainly on unbalancing your opponent with strikes below the waist. Hapkido practitioners may also use swords, staffs, ropes and nunchaku.


Kung Fu – In Chinese, Kung Fu literally translates as “human achievement” and doesn’t have to be specific to martial arts. People in the west – for want of a better term – understand Kung Fu to be the Chinese style of martial arts popularized by Bruce Lee who taught his own form of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. Like most martial arts, Kung Fu employs kicks, punches, grapples and weaponry with a strong focus on self defense. There are literally hundreds of different styles taught throughout China and beyond, the most famous being the Shaolin style. Shaolin monks combine mental and physical conditioning with spiritual practices to attain mind-body balance.


Sumo – a grappling martial art where two wrestlers in a circular ring win a bout by either forcing their opponent out of the ring, or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. Although considered by some to be a modern Japanese martial art, Sumo dates back to the Edo period in Japan; roughly 1603 to the mid 1800′s. Sumo is linked also to the Shinto practice of ritual dance whereby a warrior wrestled with divine spirits.

Karate – at the risk of sounding repetitive, Karate is the art of using open and closed hand strikes, kicking, knee and elbow strike, pressure points and grappling. The Chinese and Japanese martial arts developed simultaneously and heavily influenced each other. Karate originated in the Ryukyu Islands; now known as Okinawa, Japan. Historically, the Ryukyu Islands had sovereignty separate from China and Japan; maintaining prosperous trade relationships with both countries. Fighting techniques and spiritual practices associated with Chinese martial arts heavily influenced the development of Karate and its spread to the main islands of Japan in the early 19th century.

Aikido – a grappling, defensive martial art designed to use the momentum of the opponent’s attack to throw them off balance; thus neutralizing the attack without causing great damage to the attacker. Aikido is based on the philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation and heavily influenced by the Omoto-Kyo religion where its practice seeks to show compassion and understanding to the attacker by inflicting minimal or no damage thwarting the attack. The modern practice of Aikido originated in the early 20th century and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world in the early 1950′s when Minoru Mochizuki traveled to France and taught Aikido to Judo students.

Judo and Jiu-Jitsu – both are grappling martial arts designed to subdue an attacker using a joint lock, hold or choking maneuver. Striking and weapon usage is not permitted in judo competition, but are used in katas. Judo’s main focus is in throws and ground fighting, and like many of its sister martial arts, focuses on using the momentum of the attacker to thwart the attack. Both Judo and Jujitsu are prefaced by “ju” which means “the soft method”, or indirect application of force. Judo’s signature moves are the floating hip and the shoulder wheel, developed by Kano Jigoro. It is important to understand, however, that Judo was born out of Jiu-Jitsu and despite their similarities, are separate martial arts. In the simplest terms, Judo is Jiu-Jitsu without the strikes.

Kendo and Chanbara – sword fighting martial arts that use a shinai (Kendo) or foam boffers (Chanbara) – shinai are woven bamboo practice sword to represent a katana – a single bladed, Samurai sword. These sports of Japanese fencing train the mind and body in one on one combat.


Capoeira – combines dance, acrobatics and martial arts for use in self defense. Capoeiria began in Africa in the Congo and Angora but came to South America with African slaves who were brought to Brazil who used it as a means of self expression and defense in a “Dance of War”. Since arriving in Brazil over 400 years ago, Capoeira has become richly woven in the cultural fabric of Brazil. Capoeira martial artists traditionally form a ring of people who take turns singing, playing drums, and sparring. The sparring incorporates leg sweeps, kicks, strikes and throws. Sadly, and ironically, this martial art was banned in Brazil until the 1930′s and didn’t become popular until the 1970′s.  Up until this point, it was mainly practiced by the poor population in Brazil.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – combines Japanese Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. Japanese Jiu-Jitsu’s rules have changed over the last decades; with less focus on groundwork.  Since these changes took place after Mitsuyo Maeda brought Jiu-Jitsu from Japan to Brazil, BJJ followed along more traditional lines of Jiu-Jitsu sparring – lots of groundwork and take downs. Carlos Gracie was Maeda’s first Brazilian student and his brother Helio is known as the father of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. BJJ permits more types of take downs and joint locks than Japanese Jiu-Jitsu – of particular note is the Flying Arm Bar popularized by MMA fighters. BJJ is largely responsible for popularizing ground fighting and submission holds and is the martial art of choice for fighters wanting to compete in Mixed Martial Arts competitions.

Other Martial Arts

Gatka – an Indian martial art of the Sikh people that uses swords, shields and other weapons to train the body and mind in discipline and self defense. It was originally taught the Sikhs by the Hindu people in the 1500′s, but has been preserved, despite the growing cultural invasions, as a martial art.

Bando Thaing – a Burmese martial art employing striking, kicking, grappling and fighting with different weapons.

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