The Best Martial Arts for Every Goal
By The Editors

Want to bring a higher level of fitness to both your body and your mind? If so, here's how to choose a martial art that will give you greater control, greater confidence in a fight, greater balance — and maybe even give you the thrill of breaking a few boards.

The Best Martial Arts for Every Goal


The retro charm of old-fashioned self-defense in an age of cyber- and bio-warfare can't be denied.

Going face-to-face with your adversary is oddly humane in comparison.

“Martial arts” is a big category. It includes everything soldiers and civilians have historically done to defend themselves or attack others since the beginning of time. 

  • Striking and grappling.
  • Standing up or on the ground.
  • Unarmed or with swords or sticks.

The many different styles developed over the centuries reflected the unique needs of different people in different times. 

Today, martial arts are less about self-defense and more about fitness, self-control, and competition.

They were all potentially life-or-death skills for their practitioners. But times have changed, and today, what used to be feet-and-fist combat relies instead on bullets and viruses, weapons that are beyond the reach of your hands and feet, or a stick or a sword.

That’s why, today martial arts are less about self-defense and more about fitness, self-control, and competition.  

Here are the best ones to pursue for your goals:

Best introduction to martial arts: Karate

Karate is probably the first martial art you learned about, and even today is usually the most accessible. 

It teaches you to strike with hands and feet, and to defend against someone trying to do the same to you. In the process of learning the basic skills, you’ll improve your flexibility, balance, coordination, hand and foot speed, and reaction time. 

The belt system rewards you for staying with the program. At a typical studio you can earn a new belt every three months, and a coveted black belt in three years.  

Just don’t expect to go all Karate Kid and get revenge on the neighborhood bully with just a few months of training—especially when he can surely kick your ass in a real fight.


Best for overall fitness: Muay Thai

As you would know if you saw Jean Claude Van Damme in Kickboxer, Muay Thai involves fist, foot, elbow, and knee strikes; kicking, punching; and stand-up grappling. 

It’s also a hell of a workout, challenging your strength, power, flexibility, and endurance. 

Best for low-risk sparring: Taekwondo

Taekwondo has the most adherents of any martial art, even though it didn’t exist until the 1940s. That’s when Korean martial artists pieced it together from older Japanese, Chinese, and Korean practices.  

It’s been an Olympic sport since 2000.

If your goal is to mix it up with your fellow students, you’ll get a lot of that in taekwondo. But first you’ll have to purchase a lot of protective gear. It’s expensive, but it also protects you and the person you’re trying to kick, punch, and throw to the mat. 

Best for focus and stress relief: Tai Chi

If all you know about Tai Chi comes from a group of seniors practicing in the local park, you’d be surprised to learn that it began as a Chinese martial arts system, albeit a defensive one. The goal is to avoid pitting force against force, to deflect an opponent’s strikes until you find an opportunity to use force of your own.

But as it’s practiced today, as a series of slow, ritualistic movements, it offers genuine health benefits.   

Best for competition: The one on the corner

The best martial art for competition, in our view, is the one with the strongest local community and culture. That’s where you’ll find safe, fair, and well-organized contests. 

It might be karate, judo, taekwondo, or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The latter is relatively new in many communities. But ever since Joyce Gracie won the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, it’s been the preeminent grappling and ground-fighting discipline for MMA athletes. (They often combine it with Muay Thai for striking and stand-up fighting.) 

Best for self-defense: Krav Maga

Let’s return to where we started:

In a world where a person threatening you is likely to be armed, it makes little sense to think of any martial art as a self-defense system. 

And if someone comes after you without a gun or knife, you can be pretty sure that person has enough fighting experience to see you as a soft target. No amount of striking or grappling in the controlled environment of a martial arts studio can prepare you for a street fight. 

Your only hope, as Clint Eastwood once explained, is to get plumb mad-dog mean

But if you have to choose just one to save your life or protect a loved one, make it Krav Maga

Developed by the Israeli military and law enforcement, it teaches quick and efficient attacks and defense. You hit hard and fast with the goal of inflicting maximal pain on your assailant with minimal damage to your own body. 

The system’s creators set it up so new recruits with no fighting experience could learn it quickly and be ready to use it within weeks, rather than the years it takes to master a conventional martial art. 

Assuming you aren’t a young soldier, an aspiring policeman, or Andrew Cuomo’s secretary, the best you can realistically hope for from Krav Maga, or any other discipline, is to buy yourself enough time to escape. 

Which means the ultimate martial art isn’t one that teaches striking or grappling. It’s the one that helps you get away from danger as fast as possible. 

Too bad you can’t get a black belt in running-for-cover.