How Do You Decide Which Martial Art to Learn?

Dayne is a white belt at Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu in Canberra, Australia. When he's not on the mat, Dayne spends his time building Karma — an online platform for writing and sharing open letters. 

Check out Dayne's Karma profile here, and shoot him an email if you'd like an invitation.

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I remember watching The Karate Kid as a youngster. Inspired by the protagonist’s transformation from nerd to ass-kicker I coerced my parents into taking me to a local karate gym for lessons. I remember being taught to perform a series of choreographed attacks against imaginary foes, and to yell out “HA-YA!” with each strike.

Making myself an unenticing target of violence: an endeavour I appear to have failed catastrophically.

Making myself an unenticing target of violence: an endeavour I appear to have failed catastrophically.

I abandoned the practice after a handful of lessons, and having gained little more than a healthy scepticism of martial arts. It seemed to me that—Hollywood notwithstanding—the bigger, stronger, more aggressive opponent was going to win 99 fights out of 100, and I'd be better off just making myself an unenticing target of violence.

About 5 years ago I found myself reading Sam Harris' blog, and I remember feeling my views on martial arts being challenged. In The Truth about Violence, Sam argues for the value of self defence:

"Just as it is prudent to wear your seatbelt while driving, it makes sense to know how best to respond to violence. In fact, it is overwhelmingly likely that some of you will become the targets of violence in the future. The purpose of this essay is to help you prepare for it..."

And in The Pleasures of Drowning he recommends a particular martial art called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ):

"To study BJJ for self-defense, therefore, is to prepare for the worst-case scenario... the difference between knowing what to do in this situation and merely relying on your primate intuitions is as impressive a gap between knowledge and ignorance as I have ever come across...
Each increment of knowledge imparted in this way is so satisfying—and one’s ignorance at every stage so consequential—that the process of learning BJJ can become remarkably addictive...
Training in BJJ offers a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns—truth v. delusion, self knowledge, ethics, and overcoming fear... "

Grand claims of this type usually trigger my bullshit detector, but having spent hundreds of hours reading Sam's books and blogs, listening to his podcast, and watching him debate, I'd come to know him as an incredibly smart and meticulous thinker—hyperbole just wasn't his style.

Even so, it was hard to reconcile something described as ‘a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns’ with what looks a lot like wrestling in pyjamas.

The apparent contradiction piqued my interest; and once I was aware of BJJ I started seeing it endorsed everywhere, and by a variety of impressive people:

"BJJ is one of the best ways to keep delusions in check"
Peter Boghossian (philosopher & author)

It’s made me a better man. It’s made me understand myself, my weaknesses, my strengths, the shit I need to work on. Jiu-jitsu has been one of the most valuable tools I’ve ever had in my life”—Joe Rogan (comedian & podcaster)

There’s so much to be learned from Jiu Jitsu about leadership and about life”
Jocko Willink (retired navy seal & author)

Six months ago I decided to find out what all the fuss was about, and I signed up for a 3 month subscription at a local martial arts gym called Dark Carnival. The gym is styled like a grungy ninja bootcamp: the walls are covered in graffiti, gym rules like "YOU BLEED, YOU CLEAN" are written up in chalk, heavy metal blasts through the speakers, and the sessions are hard—I can feel my chest hair growing just thinking about it.

Dark Carnival offers classes in BJJ, Muay Thai, self preservation, knife defence, and fitness, and I tried them all.

Muay Thai is a striking art like kickboxing. I was taught the basics of how to stand and move during a fight, and how to throw and block punches. The sparring sessions were surprisingly confronting—even with the other students being gentle with me, getting punched in the face was a jarring and disorienting experience (not a discovery you want to make during a street fight).

The self preservation classes were also referred to as ‘jits with hits’ because they combine BJJ’s wrestling techniques with striking—simulating a street fight more closely. While there is obvious value in training this way, I found it difficult to practice the movements while dodging and defending blows. I feel that this type of training might be more valuable to someone with an established foundation of basic grappling skills.

I only attended one knife defence class, but I found it useful as a reminder of how quickly a situation can turn deadly, and as an opportunity to consider how to behave in life and death scenarios. Hot tip: run away.

My favourite classes though, by far, were BJJ. Each session taught a new series of movements which were practiced in pairs, and ended with about 10 minutes of rolling (BJJ’s term for sparring). Rolling is great fitness, it’s mentally challenging, and it’s competitive. Because striking (punching, kicking, etc) is illegal in BJJ you can roll as hard as you can with relatively little risk of injury. This feature allowed me to test the techniques I’d learned in a way that closely resembled a real fight, and it’s satisfying when they work against a fully resisting opponent.

However, my schedule dictated that I was only able to attend a couple classes per week, and by spreading my focus across the variety of classes I found that my progress in any one discipline was slow. My brother's girlfriend Bec—also new to the sport—had joined another gym that specializes in BJJ: Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu. Bec raved about the friendly, professional culture, and about her instructor, Renato. When my subscription at Dark Carnival ended I decided to try it out.

Plus I get to dress up and look cool a couple times per week... ladies

Plus I get to dress up and look cool a couple times per week... ladies

My first impression of the gym was just how unfamiliar it was. Renato, the owner, is a young Brazilian guy; he's unassuming, laid-back, friendly, and small - all qualities that his gym has inherited. The gym offers BJJ classes 6 days per week, and they’re taught with lot of structure and safety. Renato is incredibly skilled and knowledgeable (he has a black belt in BJJ, and he’s competed in BJJ and mixed martial arts), and he exudes passion and joy in his teaching. I’m still a lowly white belt, and I’ve only been training under Renato’s for about a month, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it—read my Karma letter about Renato here.

So, how do you decide which martial art to learn? If your goals are to “learn self-defense, improve mental discipline, and build core strength”, I’ll lend my voice to the chorus of recommendations for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. However, I think that martial arts like Sambo, Muay Thai, Boxing, Kickboxing, etc will produce similar outcomes, and that it’s equally important to find a gym and trainer that suits your personality and style.

What’s most important, perhaps, is to avoid the ‘bullshido’ martial arts like SystemaAikidoKarate, etc. These disciplines have the compounding problems of being ineffective in real combat, and of giving their practitioners false confidence in dangerous situations. An acquaintance of mine is a Systema instructor, and I’m concerned that he’s going to get himself stabbed or shot in a fight one day. If the techniques you’re being taught aren’t used by mixed martial artists in competitions like the UFC, you’re probably learning nonsense. Here’s a good guide on how to find a good martial arts school.

What do you think? How did you decide on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, versus everything else? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to join the conversation on Facebook!