8 Most Popular Martial Arts, Which One Is For You?

By: Jessica Reyes |

Whether you’re new to martial arts or maybe just want to pick a new one to learn, you may be thinking: What’s the difference between them? Which one’s for me? You’ve probably seen examples on TV, maybe been given a recommendation by a friend, but what are your options? Many martial arts and sports like fencing include weapons, but we’ll be focusing on unarmed combat choices.

Here are some short descriptions that’ll give you the gist of what you need to understand about each martial art, and maybe help you pick which one is right for you.



1.Tae Kwon Do

Origin: Korea

As the most practiced martial art in the world, tae kwon do is a frequent suggestion and widely available in most communities. Tae kwon do focuses on kicks because of both the power and balance they provide to your form and attacks; they also help distance you from your opponent.  Expect many high-jump and fly kicks. However, tae kwon do also incorporates punching, blocks, and open-handed strikes like other martial arts. Better be flexible.


2. Karate

Origin: Japan

In contrast with tae kwon do, karate focuses more on hand strikes rather than kicks but still emphasizes distancing your opponent. However, as a “striking art,” it utilizes other techniques like punching, knee and elbow strikes, and open-handed strikes. Most styles also incorporate throws and joint locks, which take advantage of your opponent’s momentum and movements.


3. Krav Maga

Origin: Israel

Krav Maga was developed as a hand-to-hand combat style specifically for the Israeli military, so these are techniques that are proven to work by people whose jobs it is to protect themselves from others who want to kill them. Krav maga makes use of efficient and brutal counterattacks to incapacitate the opponent by any means. No rules, just survival. Not a choice for the fainthearted. Definitely should get a mouthguard to prevent a bloody lip.


4. Muay Thai

Origin: Thailand

Muay thai, also known as the “art of eight limbs,” focuses on sharp strikes at eight limbs–at the shins, elbows, knees, and hands. While other martial arts commonly seek to separate you from the opponent, muay thai encourages you to get up close and personal. “Clinching,” a signature muay thai technique, involves getting close enough to your opponent to grab the back of their neck and slam your knee into their stomach. Because of the focus on limbs, protective pads for both your arms and shins may be necessary. MMA fighters often are trained in muay thai.



5. Jiu-jitsu

Origin: Japan, Brazil

Jiu-jitsu was originally supposed to be a “supplement” to weapons training for samurai and other Japanese medieval warriors. The idea was that, if you were somehow unarmed, that jiu-jitsu would be the backup plan. However, jiu-jitsu is now commonly taught as a martial art by itself. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the more popular version; it’s based on the original Japanese version but simpler to learn. Jiu-jitsu is most known for its use of grappling rather than striking, and ground-fighting.


6. Judo

Origin: Japan

Judo differs from most martial arts in the sense that it minimally uses strikes and instead teaches its practitioners to anticipate the opponent’s strikes and counter them. The focus is to throw the opponent off balance so that you could toss them to the ground, leaving them at their most vulnerable. Your headgear will be more important now than ever! Historically, judo is derived from jiu-jitsu, so they use similar techniques. However, judo emphasizes standing positions whereas jiu-jitsu utilizes a repertoire of ground-fighting techniques.


7. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

Origin: Unknown, but popularized in the United States

First off, the US didn’t originally come up with the concept of MMA. MMA fights date back to centuries before the UFC coined the actual term and the first regulated MMA league was formed. Anyhow, many countries host MMA competitions and MMA classes are available nationwide.

MMA is exactly what it sounds like–a mix of various martial arts which include but are not limited to kickboxing, karate, jiu-jitsu, muay thai, tae kwon do, wrestling and judo (hey, pretty much all the martial arts on this list!). Practitioners are educated in many of these styles and are taught to adapt their moves depending on the fight. Gloves are commonly recommended because of the mix of boxing, grappling, and strikes that MMA fighters use. 


8. Kung Fu

Origin: China

Disclaimer: Kung Fu isn’t actually one martial art, but commonly refers to a group of martial arts and even things that aren’t really martial arts. Literally, the word “kung fu” translates to “acquired skill,” and could refer to any skill achieved through training and discipline. However, western cultures typically use the term to refer to Chinese martial arts. Each form of Kung Fu has its own distinctive features, and there if we filled this article up with them, this list would be at least ten times as long as there hundreds of different styles.



Although I only mentioned them for a couple martial arts, keep in mind that most martial arts classes will require safety equipment like headgear, mouthguards, and shinpads. The level of roughhousing will matter on which school you attend, so be sure to ask the instructors what kind of equipment would be appropriate. You may not use your skills to fight opponents every day, but the discipline and resourcefulness that martial arts teach us isn’t something to take for granted either. All these martial arts are a legitimate way to defend yourself from attackers and also keep active.