What is Martial Art – What is it Good For?

Share this with your friends

Many people have asked me over the years, “Is (insert martial system here) good for (insert activity here)?” It’s a good question especially when someone is wanting to learn a specific system for a specific purpose and doesn’t want to waste their time, effort and resources on something that does not fill their needs.

I have a better question, though. What [exactly] IS martial art? Is it a way of fighting? Is it a way to get yourself in shape? Is it a form of self defense? Is it a sport? Is it a combat system designed to keep soldiers alive in close quarters on the battlefield? Is it a way of life designed to promote harmony within one’s self and with the environment? Is it a form of self control? Is it an outlet for aggression?

The answer – simply put – to all these questions is, Yes. Martial art is all these things and more. In this article, we are going to delve deeper into the types, purposes and effects of martial art and hopefully shine a light on all these questions.

Martial Art Categories – You Mean, There’s More Than One?

Martial arts come in four (4) distinct categories complete with strengths and limitation. They are Martial Athletics, Self Defense, Traditional Martial Arts and Combat Systems. Let’s look at each of these closely and see where they differ and are alike.

Martial AthleticsMMA Example

This type of martial system usually includes some form of combat sport – like boxing, wrestling, judo or some form of competition combat – but can also include exercise programs like Tae Bo or other martially oriented calisthenics.


  • Getting into shape – some people just don’t like their body type and want to make a change. Martial systems provide strength, cardio and endurance training unlike any other known. They work almost all the muscles in the body and teach you kinetic linking, basic physics properties for the purpose of endurance and keep you moving even after oxygen deprivation sets in.
  • Grace under pressure – Having someone come at you with the intent to knock you down can cause a lot of stress, but martial sports teaches you to remain calm and in control of yourself while being attacked.
  • Self Discipline – This teaches you to keep going regardless of challenges, frustration or obstacles like pain, damage, etc.
  • Gives you a healthier respect for violence – A martial athlete is less likely to begin a fight because they know what the possible outcome is. They are simply prepared for it if/when it comes.
  • Semi-realistic training – Martial athletes practice their systems against live, resisting opponents on a regular basis; whether in training as spar or in the ring during a match. They seek to be more effective in a real-time environment under extreme stress.


  • Rules – What you do in practice, you will do in reality. If you train never to hit in the face, never to kick or only to grab, that’s what you are going to do if you find yourself in a real-life situation. The rules of engagement in martial sports are clearly stated, followed almost religiously and enforced by referees or judges.
  • Definite ending point – Martial sports end only in knockout, submission or by point system after a certain time limit. There is no such thing when attacked on the street. Even after a knockout, the “loser” might come back and seek revenge. In sports, that’s called a rematch, but the person challenged has the right to refuse. There is no such thing in real life.
  • No weapons/Clean environment – All sports matches happens in a litter-free and stable environment; normally flat and delineated by either marks on the floor or by ropes. There is no such thing in real life. You use your skills at your present location using everything around you to your advantage. Weapons are the same way. In sports, weapons are not allowed and the participants are severely repremanded if a weapon comes into play.
  • Single opponent – Though there has recently been talk of multiple opponents against a single competitor, there – to my knowledge – has not been a competition set up for it yet. In real life, you can’t dictate how many people you will be facing against.
  • Time Limits/Limited Number of Rounds – Most matches have a time limit. That means the practitioners training to apply full effort within that time limit because they know a short rest period will separate the rounds. Some competitions also have a specific number of rounds the competitors are allowed to go. They know when time runs out, they can walk out of the competition area safely and leave. This is not true for real life situations.
  • Protective equipment – Mouth guards, and gloves are almost always found in martial sports. There is also the option of further PPE (personal protective equipment) in tournaments; including headgear, chest protectors, chin and instep guards, rash guards, groin protection, etc. None of that exists on the streets and the person doing the punching, etc, has as much a chance of damage as the receiver of those attacks.

Self Defense TrainingSelf Defense Example

This is – in a nutshell – surviving aggravated assault, plain and simple.The individual may or may not have some device designed to aid in protecting themselves. The attacker may or may not have a weapon with them. Attacks are usually made in a surprise fashion and rarely come from in front of the defender. Multiple attackers are common because the attacker wants to increase his/her chance of success.

Benefits –

  • Environmental awareness – The practitioner learns to be aware of their surroundings. This not only includes possible attackers and threats to their well-being, but also possible immediate weapons or environmental objects they can use to their advantage. The martial protector learns to take wide angles around blind corners or to stop and evaluate a room before entering fully. They are aware of out-of-place actions, objects and events. Depending on the level of their training, a protection specialist can even tell where a weapon is on a person – if it is hidden – and what general type it is; knife, firearm, etc.
  • Confidence – Because of their training, a self defense practitioner knows his/her limitations and strengths. They play to the strengths and control situations within them. This gives the person confidence that they can handle the situations they decide to be part of.
  • Endurance – Though they try to end a conflict as fast as possible and by any means necessary, the practitioner never knows how long a battle will last. For this reason, they train long and hard to increase their endurance and stamina with the thought of outlasting their opponent. Also, they will work to expend as little effort possible to achieve the maximum amount of results.
  • Weapons/Environmental Objects – The self defense practitioner will use ANYTHING at their disposal to accomplish their goal; which is to either stop or get away from the fight. For that reason, they learn to use, phones, clothing, or even pieces of paper or rolled up magazines as weapons. Because of the training, they also know how to defend against these objects and are aware of their strengths and limitations.
  • Versatility – The nature of self defense training makes it applicable to almost every aspect of life; opening doors, carrying objects, recovering from trips and falls, dealing with upset customers and WHOLE LOT more.

Drawbacks –

  • Competition fighting – Self defense strategies and techniques are ill-suited to ring or cage-based tournaments and matches. The rules and time restrictions will have the self defense practitioner over-thinking what they use and will not respond organically to what is happening in the ring. They will – by nature of their training – also be looking around and scanning for an unknown attacker. They will be monitoring their footing. They will be unfamiliar with the safety equipment. Even the crowd can become a distraction.
  • Battlefield Combat – The self defense artist will want to get AWAY from the danger. They have less of a desire to win and more of a desire to survive. They will habitually put themselves as far from danger as possible. This type of psychology will get the practitioner and his/her fellow soldiers, officers or co-workers injured or worse. In self defense, there is no “confront and control”. It’s more of an “escape and evade” type of martial philosophy.
  • Lack of Quality Instructors – As great as a good self defense program can be, there are a LOT of instructors out there who claim that unrealistic techniques will help a person survive an actual attack. Many of these faux-instructors are mostly concerned with how much money they can make than how many lives they can help save. There is a LOT of misrepresentation in the martial training world.
  • Learning Curve – True self defense training is extensive and takes years – if not decades – to master. The concepts that make self defense so versatile also makes it the hardest category to master. You learn martial applications to all sorts of fields and sciences; psychology, philosophy, physics, biology, kinetic linking, bio-feedback and MANY more.
  • Lifestyle Change Requirement – Self defense isn’t something you DO. It is something you ARE. That doesn’t mean that you have to change your personality, but it does require a change in methodology. This does not mean you have to be paranoid, but the training – if it’s quality – does make you prepared and adaptable. Some people just aren’t willing to make those changes.

Traditional Martial Arts

Traditional Martial Arts
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

This category of system focuses on primarily two things. First, the practitioner works to improve his/her overall health and their harmony within themselves and their environment. Secondly, it is about preserving systems that can be centuries – if not millennia – old and the traditional martial artist wants to pass on and practice the teachings of the ancient masters. Traditional masters are not concerned with points, trophies, acknowledgements or defending themselves from attackers. They are in it for the intangible benefits and the beauty of the art.

Benefits –

  • Self-fulfillment – A person training in the traditional arts gains a personal peace and internal harmony that promotes good health and overall wellness. Heart rate slows, flexibility increases and internal organs seem to work better. That peace and harmony extends to everything around them and effects their environment for the better.
  • Honoring the Masters – There is something to be said for honoring your teachers, their teachers and their teacher’s teachers.  There is a personal gratification that comes from respecting and learning from the past.
  • Body Conditioning – Most traditional martial artists (especially the Shaolin priests) have incredible body conditioning and control.

Drawbacks –

  • Not reality-based – This type of practice is not for the ring OR the streets. The traditional practitioner would get creamed in both settings. I’m not even certain if they would know what to do with martial PPE.
  • Too fancy for reality – The high, languid kicks, body posturing and hand flourishes are not practical in any setting except in training or on display. They take too much time to complete, they are telegraphed and most of them lack power.
  • Lifestyle Requirements – Many traditional schools ask the students to change the way they live. Some go so far as to ask them to give up their worldly possessions and live a life of poverty. They have their reasons and the students agree for reasons of their own. This isn’t a judgement and we have no right to make one. It simply happens. There are few willing to make that sacrifice, though. Are they the elite or are they just gullible? You are welcome to share your thoughts.

It’s a Toolbox, Jim; Not a Mandatory Practice!!

Most people – with a few exceptions due to birth or accidents – have one head, two arms, two legs and a body. There  are only so many ways a person can move before one system starts looking like another.

ALL martial systems have value. It only depends on what you want to do with them that makes the difference. They all require:

  1. A specific mindset.
  2. Physical Conditioning
  3. Practice to hope for any degree of proficiency
  4. Adaptability after a certain level of skill is achieved.

Any forms or katas – with the exception of possibly SOME of the traditional martial systems – are NOT combat strategies. The are only used to teach the body and build muscle memory for movement flow and correct posture and structure as the action commences.

Forms and katas are a toolbox; a set of collected tools to use to get the job done with the most efficiency possible. They can be mixed and matched at will and as the situation requires. Combat is fluid and unpredictable. We should be as well.





Author: Brent Duncan

2 thoughts on “What is Martial Art – What is it Good For?

  1. I really enjoyed this post and do believe that martial art training will help with self-discipline. I’ve seen a huge difference in the kids that have started out in martial arts and those that have not. thanks for the very informative article.

    1. Thank you for the compliment and kind words, Stephen. My own son and daughter have increased in self discipline and self confidence since they chose to commit themselves to training.
      As a parent, I can honestly say that martial arts has been a parent’s best friend when it comes to reinforcing the values I want my children to have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *