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Definition and Kinds of Martial Arts

Updated on February 20, 2020
NateB11 profile image

I've been training in martial arts since the 1980s and consistently since the '90s. I am a 2nd-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.

Martial arts are systems of fighting and self-defense. They involve the study and practice of defensive and offensive moves and the study of position andtiming. They include blocks, parries, body movement and position, and footwork as defensive movement and technique. They include strikes, punches, throws, locks, restraining moves as offensive moves and technique. The effects of these moves on an attacker include lacerations, shock, contusions, unconsciousness, breakage of bones, dislocation of joints, sprains, muscle strains, ligament and tendon damage, spasms to internal organs and muscles, and nerve damage leading to pain or numbness in different body parts.

The general practice of martial arts can be divided into three fields of study, all combined to complete the Art. These are basics, techniques, and sparring. All martial arts include these three elements, more or less.

Martial arts basics are single moves.
Martial arts basics are single moves. | Source

Martial Arts Basics

Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate, likened martial arts basics to the alphabet. You learn single moves, which is what basics are, just like you learn individual letters of the alphabet. Each letter can spell a word: Therefore, you learn the letters C, A, and T. Put together, they form the word, "cat".

So, basics are single moves: Punches, strikes, blocks, kicks, throws. You learn to do them properly, using correct form, so that they are effective when used. You put them together to form techniques.

As the word implies, basics are the base of an art, the foundation. Everything done in the art are basics, combinations of basics. You must know the basics first, before you can practice the art effectively.

Almost algebraic, the martial artist looks at "what if's" and proceeds to study how to move from such possible positions.

Martial Arts Techniques

As stated, techniques are combinations of basics. To form words, you combine letters. So, too, when you combine basics, you form techniques. For instance: Block, kick, punch; you block a punch (so you don't get hit), kick the attacker in a vulnerable area (so you stop him from continuing his attack), then add a punch as extra insurance he's no longer frisky. In this sequence, you will have combined three basics. However, in the first move, more than one basic might occur. For instance, a foot maneuver (stepping back), a stance (getting into a defensive posture with a good base to work from), and the block. Those have to occur at the same time. So, as you can see, combinations of basics can get rather sophisticated, though one sophisticated move can occur in a split second and probably needs to.

Furthermore, just as letters can be combined to form words, words can be combined to form sentences and sentences combined to form paragraphs. This, essentially, is the same with martial art technique.

Techniques are practiced as a way to burn them into brain and muscle memory and neural-pathways. Problem solving is also involved, as the practitioner studies various possibilities, positions and actions. Almost algebraic, the martial artist looks at "what if's" and proceeds to study how to move from such possible positions. The more sophisticated the martial art, the more this kind of thing is explored.

What is a Martial Art?

Single moves
Combinations of single moves
Spontaneous application of basics and techniques with a partner
Combining moves to have a desired effect makes up a technique. For instance, stepping back and pulling the opponent's arm and locking it up to gain a position for further moves is a way to combine moves and also open up routes to further action.
Combining moves to have a desired effect makes up a technique. For instance, stepping back and pulling the opponent's arm and locking it up to gain a position for further moves is a way to combine moves and also open up routes to further action. | Source

How important do you think sparring is to martial arts training?

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Sparring is the spontaneous application of technique with a partner. In other words, it's a controlled fight. Protective equipment is often worn and partners know they must control their technique and bodies to minimize injury. Though, injuries do occur.

However, sparring is necessary to understand how to apply technique and principles spontaneously against a resistant, live opponent (your friend). Really you are not going to have a deep understanding of your martial art without sparring. You learn to apply moves extemporaneously. And in a real situation you must be able to do so.

Non-classical systems of martial arts emphasize principles over set patterns.
Non-classical systems of martial arts emphasize principles over set patterns. | Source

Classical Vs Non-Classical Martial Arts

Traditionally, martial arts have been set moves and forms, without much emphasis on principles involved in the moves and without much exploration outside of the fixed patterns. In more modern times, at least since the 1960s, there has been a movement toward emphasizing principles in martial arts rather than fixed techniques. In addition, there is more of an emphasis on understanding why techniques are performed certain ways and, conversely, why they are not performed certain ways. So, the mind is more engaged in these non-classical martial arts.

Bruce Lee might be the best know advocate for non-classical martial arts with his famous critique of the classical mess and the mechanical man; terms he used to denote the lack of understanding and spontaneity in classical martial arts training that emphasized fixed patterns without understanding of principles or even application.

Kenpo Karate, founded by Ed Parker, is another example of non-classical martial arts. The emphasis is on principles and techniques are really designed to convey principles. There is an emphasis on scientific laws of motion and body mechanics and practical means of covering yourself in a fight. It is based in realism.

Mixed Martial Arts are also non-classical, a combination of Jiu Jitsu and Kick Boxing, using the effective elements of each and putting them into practice in competitions.

There are also various purely combative, self-defensive militaristic arts such as Krav Maga, combinations of various arts and application of practical principles of self-defense.

Good Explanation of Principles in Martial Arts Techniques

Some martial arts emphasize grappling, some emphasize striking, while others involve both.
Some martial arts emphasize grappling, some emphasize striking, while others involve both. | Source

Striking Vs Grappling

Some martial arts emphasize grappling, some emphasize striking. Ones emphasizing grappling, focus on throws, joint locks, chokes, pins, off-balancing, and direct contact and control of the opponent. Striking arts emphasize punches, strikes, and kicks and doing quick damage to the opponent to end the fight as soon as possible.

In addition, there is a current movement, particularly in Mixed Martial Arts, to emphasize the importance of knowing both grappling and striking. Proven in no-holds-barred competitions, it seems knowledge of both striking and grappling is necessary for self-defense.

Kinds of Martial Arts

Classical or Non-Classical
Striking or Grappling
Hybrid Arts
Classical martial arts emphasize fixed patterns. Non-Classical martial arts emphasize principles
Striking arts emphasize strikes, kicks, punches. Grappling arts emphasize throws, locks, and chokes.
Some arts are a combination of striking and grappling and these are also typically non-classical arts which emphasize principles over tradition.

So, while martial arts all have a fundamental similarity--the learning of basics, techniques and the practice of hands-on sparring--there are various different kinds of martial arts. There are arts that focus on wrestling, those that focus on striking, those that are a unique blend of both grappling and striking, and there are hybrid arts that are eclectic and borrow from whatever is useful. In addition, some arts are traditional, commonly referred to as "classical", while others are more modern, and referred to as "non-classical". Either way, you have a wide range of choices when it comes to martial arts and can pick and choose according to your own inclinations, body type and preferences. If you are big, you might want to wrestle. If you like standing and striking, you might pick a striking art, or you might want to be very practical and pick a very well-rounded art with which you can fight at all ranges and use either grappling or striking.

Since the spread of martial arts across the world we have had more and more choices when it comes to fighting arts and systems of self-defense. All of them at their core involve hard work that develops refined skill.


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