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Martial Arts for Weight Loss

Updated on December 8, 2013

Olympic Taekwondo

Why Choose Martial Arts?

There are myriad forms of exercise out there that are outstanding for weight loss, so why should martial arts even be on your radar? Well, besides the obvious benefit of self-defense, martial arts in general lends itself to flexibility, balance, body control, rhythm, and plenty more. So, what martial arts are the most effective for weight loss specifically? Here, we will take a look at a few options and analyze the benefits.

As a long-time martial artist (I started my first classes over 20 years ago), I have a fair bit of experience both in the practice and philosophy in a number of martial arts Additionally, as someone who once was nearly 100 pounds heavier who got into shape without the benefit of fad diets, DVDs, or drugs, I will be dealing with weight loss as my experience dictates.

It may not be right for everyone, but if you're healthy enough to get up and move, then perhaps this is a good place to be. As always, before leaping into any radical changes to diet and physical activity, if you have health concerns be sure to consult with your doctor.

Muay Thai
Muay Thai | Source

Making Weight Loss Fun

Weight loss is achieved through the burning of calories and fat. Engagement of larger muscles for extended periods, then, is logically the most effective course of action in order to lose weight. That is why running and cycling are so often preached as good exercises for people looking to reduce total body fat; the leg muscles are among the largest in the body. Martial arts, with it's emphasis on full-body engagement in stances, striking, and kicking, can be an excellent alternative with both practical benefits as well as plain old entertainment.

Patterns and bag work, if you are so inclined, can be a lot more engaging and fun than plodding along down the road. No offense to the runners of the world, of course, but it isn't for everyone.

I'm going to get a bit personal for a moment. I learned quickly in the military that I despise running. Even in a group, with cadences, I find it to be tedious and uninteresting at best and painful at worst thanks to a knee injury I sustained a few years ago. I can, however, get the same overall benefit from working the bag and practicing forms with proper intensity and do not find it nearly so boring or taxing on my joints.

Hard vs. Soft martial arts

In short, Hard "external" martial arts:

  1. Meet force with force, whether through blocking or opposing strikes
  2. Require more physical strength and durability to perform
  3. Tend to be more explosive in nature.

Soft martial arts, however:

  1. Emphasize using the attackers own force against them.
  2. Minimize force expenditure on the part of the defender.
  3. Focuses heavily on the manipulation of balance and momentum.

Hard Martial Arts vs. Soft Martial Arts

Typically, martial arts are divided into two categories: Hard (external) and Soft (internal) martial arts. This division is based in the fact that some styles tend to be more aggressive and linear in comparison to more flowing, circular forms. Think of the difference between taekwondo and t'ai chi ch'uan, for instance. Taekwondo is a sport martial art developed in the 1940's, characterized by punches and kicks delivered from a mobile stance, while tai'chi is an "internal" martial art emphasizing development of inner power through softer, flowing movements.

While both examples are equally valid martial arts, external styles lend themselves better to calorie-burning exercise. If weight loss is a goal of yours, this is a factor that is not to be overlooked and you may want to focus your attention on external arts when choosing a style to practice.

Popular Martial Arts by Type and Origin

Hard Style
Soft Style
T'ai chi
Muay Thai
Modern Western Boxing
Wing Chun
Southern China
A few hard and soft styles for consideration

Choosing your Style

First and foremost, I always emphasize that formal training is the ideal. That being said, take a look at what reputable schools are nearby and within your budget. In most cases, you would be surprised to find out just how many schools ranging from kung fu to MMA are in your area. If for some reason this isn't an option, then I advise that you be very wary about using the internet as a learning tool. Books are preferable, as they at least have some degree of accountability. You really don't know what you're getting into with the internet.

Secondly, consider your goals. If weight loss is your top and only major priority, then perhaps consider Tae bo or one of the other varieties of programs designed specifically for that purpose. If you want to develop flexibility, balance and overall health, consider an internal martial art like t'ai chi. If you want a bit of everything, perhaps look to karate, taekwondo, aikido, or a similar hard style with some internal elements.

Short version, do your homework. Know what you want, and make sure you can reasonably obtain it before you make your final decision.

Taekwondo student breaking boards with a side kick.
Taekwondo student breaking boards with a side kick. | Source

Taekwondo for Weight Loss

Let's take a look at taekwondo specifically in terms of weight loss benefits, since it was my first martial art and it is a fine example of a very active style. Taekwondo training emphasizes strength, flexibility, balance, and speed, lending itself to both aerobic and anaerobic applications. Typically training includes a very thorough stretching routine, practice of prearranged movements called "hyeong" or "forms", sparring, throwing and falling techniques, as well as self-defense and meditative considerations. Assuming that you want to both learn self-defense and lose weight, this is a good combination of qualities.

Learning forms is best done in a formal setting with a qualified teacher, but as a generalization this is the practice of movements specifically designed to enhance coordination, muscle-memory, and overall fitness for the martial art. An intense hour of pattern training is good to burn anywhere from 600 to 1000 calories depending on your body weight, and will also serve to improve your balance and coordination at the same time.

It is difficult to learn forms properly on your own, though with adequate determination it can be done. There are a number of quality websites and books available from which you can learn the proper patterns and reap at least some of the benefits. Without an instructor to correct the subtle imperfections in your technique and ensure safe practice, however, it can be far less beneficial to try and teach yourself. It is strongly advised that you seek out a school. Odds are, there are a number of options within a reasonable distance.

Your Opinion

Would you consider martial arts for weight loss?

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In Conclusion

As always, weigh the health risks and potential benefits of any exercise routine. If you have health concerns, be sure to consult your physician before beginning any new program and make sure that you are healthy enough for the types of strenuous activity that martial arts entails. I am not a doctor nor a trainer, and will not be held responsible if you tear, pull, sprain, strain, or get kicked in anything.

That being said, martial arts can be a great way to both get your exercise as well as reap the benefits of self-defense training. The potential for both weight loss and overall fitness is there for the taking if you have the interest as well as the necessary dedication. Additionally, martial arts is a path to self-improvement, discipline, and a sense of empowerment that I cannot overstate the value of. Whether you're looking to learn how to fight or just for a way to make your workout more fun, martial arts may just be the answer.


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