Martial Arts - A Definitive Guide

Martial Arts are complex systems of combat which have been transferred from one generation of Martial Artists to another through codified curriculums of techniques, forms, drills, and exercises.

Each Martial Art is a fighting system that reflects the ideals of its founder and is equipped with its own unique set of principles and concepts.

Martial Arts can be categorised and understood in a variety of ways:

  • Primary or technical emphasis – generally referred to as the type of Martial Art
  • Self-defence or fighting oriented
  • Sport oriented
  • Health oriented
  • Spiritual oriented
  • Internal
  • External
  • Cultural Influences


Although we seek to categorise a Martial Art according to these attributes, in reality opposing categories represent different sides of a scale, and each Martial Art exists somewhere along this scale.

Martial Arts Classification Scale


The topic of Martial Arts is an incredibly interesting one which is often filled with mythological characters and stories.  These character and stories are widely encountered when exploring the origins and history of Martial Arts as a whole.  It provides a clue to the timelessness of Martial Arts which was likely utilised well before a time where human beings even began formal thought.  It relates to an inherent need of human beings throughout the timeline of our existence to defend ourselves and our offspring against imminent threats.

However, as our needs evolved with civilisation, people found a different use for Martial Arts knowledge. It became a vehicle to connect our minds, bodies, and Spirits to form a more complete and capable human being.

There are a large variety of benefits that have been attributed to Martial Arts, including improved health, mental well-being, spiritual development, and self-defence.


List of Martial Arts

There are many Martial Arts which have been developed on a diverse set of principles and for a wide variety of reasons.  Each Martial Art is both unique and shares similarities with others.  To understand the deeper nuances of a Martial Art and what truly makes it standout from other Martial Arts, one must experience the Martial Art first-hand.  This requires many years of dedicated training.


Number of Martial Arts


View Martial Arts



It is extremely difficult to trace the roots of codified fighting systems back in human history.  The best one can do to understand the origination of Martial Arts is to look at early civilisations such as the Indus Valley civilisation, the ancient Egyptians, and the early Greek civilisation, as well as the utility that these civilisations drew from Martial Arts. 

In respect to people of the Indus Valley, Martial Arts such as Kalaripayatuu, which is a multifaceted combat art that ranges from yogic practices to yielding a diversity of weapons, was utilised by warriors to settle disputes over rights to Kingdoms, as depicted in the Indian epic – The Mahabaratha.  The art itself is said to have been passed down to the Indus Valley civilisation by Parashurama, a warrior deity and an incarnation of God.



Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the use of a Martial Art that was akin to boxing where the dominant hand was wrapped to form a sturdy and strong weapon and used to trade deadly blows with an opponent.  In addition, hieroglyphic scenes also depicted wrestling, archery and stick fighting.

Another early form of Martial Arts was Greco-Roman Wrestling.  There is evidence of wrestling competitions as an organised sport in ancient Greece.  These competitions took place in a square plethron and the contest was that of elimination where the defeated would bow out of the competition and the victor would move on to the next round.  The result would be a single triumphant contestant who would be hailed as a champion.  Wrestling was considered by the ancient Greeks as the truest measure of strength and featured heavily in Greek mythology with heroes such as Hercules.

greco roman wrestling



Primary Technical Focus

Martial Arts are often categorised based on the type of techniques that make up the primary discipline of each Martial Art.  This is largely based on the methods in which humans engage in combat and self-defence.  The 3 main disciplines are:

  • Striking – striking with different parts of the body, including head, arms, legs, knees, and elbows
  • Grappling – joint-locks, throws, takedowns, compression-locks, pins, and chokes
  • Weaponry – Stick, sword, sai, tonfa, nanchaku, etc...

Although a specific Martial Art may focus primarily on a single discipline, the Martial Art may also incorporate aspects of other disciplines.  As an example, Karate-Do is widely viewed as a striking Martial Art yet it also includes throwing and joint-lock techniques.  Kobudo, which is the practice with weapons also features amongst the training methods of Karate-Do.

View our list of Martial Arts and the primary focus for each one


martial arts types


In addition, the primary focus of some Martial Arts such as Jeet Kune Do is on more than one discipline and these Martial Arts are thus referred to as Hybrid Martial Arts.


Primary Purpose or Orientation

A practitioner of Martial Arts generally sets out to learn a Martial Art for a particular purpose.  The practitioner’s intent or goal is important and will often be the driving factor in choosing a Martial Art.  Martial Arts is as broad as it is deep and possesses a wealth of offerings for those that are driven enough to pursue it.  It is not surprising that the world of Martial Arts comprises of such a diverse range of people.  The reason for this is that there are many paths one can follow to fulfil one’s Martial Arts desires and goals.

Practitioners of Martial Arts often train in one or more Martial Arts for self-defence, sports, health, or Spiritual Improvement.

View our list of Martial Arts and find out what each one is oriented towards



Martial Arts which provide a framework for self-defence is often centered around responding effectively and efficiently to common attacks by one or more assailants.  This can be seen in the scenario-based drilling of Krav Maga or Karate kata.  Flamboyant moves that are aesthetically pleasing are not important or even the point of training in such a Martial Art.  The ability to immobilise an opponent with minimal effort is of paramount importance.

The attributes of such Martial Arts emphasise close quarter fighting, natural stances, conditioning, and opponent flow drills. The techniques employed are also understated, powerful and natural so as not to offer too many vulnerable openings to an opponent.

self defence martial arts


Martial Art as a Sport

Sport Martial Arts have become extremely popular.  Athletes now have a range of Martial Arts with which to seek sporting glory.  These include, but are not limited to, Taekwondo, Muay Thai, Boxing, Jūjutsu, Wrestling and Karate which was even scheduled to make its first debut in the 2020 Olympics.

Mixed Martial Arts has been hailed as the ultimate combat sport, allowing its athletes to combine techniques from any Martial Art into their arsenal.  These fighters have proven themselves to be very effective by gaining proficiency in a variety of Martial Arts disciplines such as striking and grappling.

sport martial arts


Health and Fitness through Martial Arts

Regular and rigorous training of Martial Arts has been proven to increase longevity by:

  • strengthening the cardiovascular system
  • increasing bone density
  • promoting flexibility and mobility
  • toning muscles
  • improving posture


In addition to improving the physical body, Martial Arts also plays an important role in mental health and overall well-being.  Practitioners report improved confidence, reduced stress levels and greater mental vitality.

martial arts fitness


Spiritual Advancement through Martial Arts

The paths to Spiritual advancement and enlightenment are numerous and they can diverge, converge, and even intersect.  Martial Arts constitutes one of these pathways.  If trained correctly, any Martial Art offers the opportunity to improve the holistic self by connecting the mind, body, and Spirit.  The individual gains a deeper understanding of themselves as well as their surroundings.  They begin to see the interconnectedness of all things.  The values of humility and respect cultivate an environment for learning, shedding the Ego and opening the mind.  Martial Artists who have achieved advanced levels in their training see themselves as an integral part of a whole.  They engage in the mundane tasks of life with enthusiasm and from a deeper part of themselves.  They embrace the genuine and discard the superficial. 

Although all Martial Arts have the potential to advance the Spirt of its practitioners, there are Martial Arts that emphasise the cultivation of Spirituality such as Aikido, Taijiquan and Kalaripayattu. 

Spiritual advancement is associated with a greater degree of control over one’s self, transcending the basic needs and shortcomings of a human being and a step forwards in terms of self-improvement.

spirtual martial arts


Internal Martial Arts

Internal Martial Arts focus on the development of the internal aspects of the Martial Artist and, more specifically, the cultivation and flow of Qi or Chi.  While Qi might seem like a mystical concept, it simply refers to energy.  Training in an internal Martial Art heightens the awareness and sensitivity to one’s own energy allowing for this energy to flow freely through the body by unblocking the energy pathways. 

Many people are of the view that internal Martial Arts have no practical application for self-defence or combat.  This could not be further from the truth.  Internal Martial Arts offer more advanced ways and mechanics to absorb force during defence and apply force during attack.  These mechanics can be observed in Aikido, where the practitioner harmonises with the opponent’s energy and momentum which is then redirected towards the opponent resulting in a takedown or throw to take control of the confrontation. 

Another defining characteristic of Internal Martial Arts is the preservation of energy by applying force in the most efficient manner possible.  The preservation of energy is also maintained through continuous movement which requires less energy than finishing a technique completely and having to start a new one from a stationary position.  This is particularly clear in the practice of Taijiquan.

View our list of Internal and External Martial Arts

internal martial arts


External Martial Arts

External Martial Arts require practitioners to be stronger, fitter and faster.  This calls for lots of strength and conditioning as force is applied in a manner that requires the use of lots of energy.  Practitioners of external Martial Arts focus on executing techniques that are fast, explosive, and powerful. 

These Martial Arts are associated with a clash of energies, where each combatant attempts to dominate the fight through superior physical strength, speed, and stamina.

Boxing, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are great examples of external Martial Arts which require high levels of agility and athleticism.

external martial arts


The Role of Martial Arts in Other Areas of Life

Training in a Martial Art not only results in the acquisition of a combat or self-defence skill.  There are many values that are imbibed into practitioners which improve other areas of life as well.  These values include:

  • Discipline
  • Awareness
  • Self-control
  • Focus
  • Tolerance
  • Humility
  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Perseverance


These values play a significant role in shaping the character and personality of a Martial Artist.  They filter down into the most important parts of life such as relationships, work, self-defence, and the protection of other vulnerable members of the community.

The values of integrity, tolerance, humility and respect help in the fostering and maintenance of true relationships.  The Martial Artist may also excel at work due to the assimilated values of discipline, focus and perseverance. 

In many cases, Martial Arts improves self-esteem and confidence which improves the overall well-being of an individual.  Due to the tactile nature of training in Martial Arts, practitioners benefit from better body awareness and fitness to perform day to day tasks with ease.

martial arts respect 


Cultural Influences

Cultural influences also play a vital role when defining a Martial Art.  The Martial Art itself is a reflection of its founder who is a product of their unique environment and cultural heritage.  The Martial Art bares the expressions of the unique perspectives and experiences that shaped its creator.

In respect to this classification, a broader view of Martial Arts classification is required.  It was thus necessary to classify Martial Arts according to their Country of Origin.

martial arts countries



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