You probably have Bruce Lee to thank for this. If anybody brought martial arts to the mainstream, it was kung fu cinema’s biggest star – just look at Enter The Dragon or Fist Of Fury for proof. Martial arts have since become a worldwide, multi-million dollar industry, with new movies, sports competitions and training classes popping up quicker than a flurry of kicks to the face.
Ideal for maintaining self-discipline, martial arts are also fantastic for health and fitness, and many styles can also be useful for defending yourself should trouble ever come round the corner. Becca Douglas from martial arts-based workout class BodyCombat says that “with the advent of mixed martial arts (MMA), what has changed is the integration of practices. People are learning a broader style of martial arts, which has become a practice in its own right.” Even entirely fitness-based martial arts have appeared, mostly stemming from the Tae Bo craze of the ’90s.
But which style is right for you? If you’re considering stepping onto the mat for the first time, choose the one that best suits your needs. Now, FIGHT!
If you want to… Kick things
If you’re a leg man, then this is the martial art for you. Originating in the 1940s in Korea, it’s an amalgamation of numerous other martial arts, and its raison d’être is the kick. Spinning kicks, high kicks and jumping kicks are the order of the day, and according to Daniel Kobbina of New Life Taekwondo, “it encompasses high-level aerobic activity, flexibility and core training that is bound to improve your fitness”. It’s mainly a competition art though – taekwondo and judo are the only martial arts that are an official Olympic events.
How much does it hurt? Taekwondo is relatively safe, and supposedly causes fewer injuries than skiing. And you’re not scared of skiing, are you?
Where you need to go New Life Taekwondo, Camden, hwarangacademy.com
On the silver screen The Kick (2011). A family of Taekwondo experts go up against an evil gang – cue loads of kicking.
If you want to… Throw people around
You’re going to spend a lot of time on your back learning judo, as it’s based around throws. A key element of a class is realising that you are not invincible, or “learning how to fall and recover safely. Judo can be a humbling experience,” says Peter Blewett, 7th Dan Chief Instructor of Judo at The Budookwai, London, who describes it as “a totally unifying exercise of the body and mind”. It’s also great for keeping trim, due to the impact on “cardio and local muscular endurance, strength and flexibility”.
How much does it hurt? Judo translates as ‘the gentle way’ and Zen-like principles apply, so risk is quite low.
Where you need to go Budokwai London, Chelsea, budokwai.co.uk
On the silver screen Throwdown (2004). Not many films feature judo, but this film showcases it faithfully. It’s not really an action film, but more of a drama with some fights thrown in for good measure.
If you want to… Punch things
The most popular martial art in the western world (even though it possibly originated in Iraq), boxing is a huge industry at both professional and amateur levels. Classes will consist of training with bags, other strength and conditioning exercises (skipping, shadowboxing and sit-ups with a medicine ball), and of course, fighting. You’ll wear big gloves though, so it’s not quite as brutal as MMA. It’s fantastic for weight loss, as you’ll be put through your paces, and the benefit for building your arms is obvious. Boxing London is a good gym for beginners, as no real level of fitness is required beforehand.
How much does it hurt? At some point, if you take boxing seriously, you’ll end up in a ring with someone who is trying to hit you in the face. As you can imagine, it hurts if you get punched.
Where you need to go Boxing London, Shadwell, boxinglondon.co.uk
On the silver screen Rocky (1976). THE classic boxing movie (in fact, arguably the classic sports movie). Stallone was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay and performance, and it won three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Film Editing and Best Director).
RECOMMENDED: Carl Froch’s Boxing Workout
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
If you want to… Knock people out without getting arrested
MMA is hugely popular, made fashionable by the explosion of interest in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). It’s a combination of many styles (hence the name) and is the best to learn should you be looking to up your self-defence game. London Fight Factory prides itself on providing “self-control, respect, working as part of a team, and the chance to push yourself to levels beyond when your body is telling you to stop, to stay composed and control your emotions in the heat of battle.” MMA fighters are insanely fit, too.
RECOMMENDED: 5 MMA Moves Every Man Should Master
How much does it hurt? A lot. You’re going to get punched, kicked, maybe even knocked out… it’s not one for wimps. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a free-for-all, though – it’s all supervised very professionally.
Where you need to go London Fight Factory, Shoreditch, londonfightfactory.com
On the silver screen Warrior (2011). Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play brothers who face each other in the ring. Great, realistic fight scenes and a hard-hitting story.
RECOMMENDED: Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton interview
Shaolin Kung Fu
If you want to… Find something a little more spiritual/become a monk
The key here is that when you train in Shaolin kung fu, it’s less of an exercise session, and more of a way of life – something that is taken home with you once training ends. According to Matthew Ahmet, Britain’s first Shaolin monk, “the philosophy of Shaolin is to create longevity, positivity and happiness for yourself”. An offshoot of this is that it keeps you fit – you will become very lean, build strong legs, forearms and an iron core. How much you want to progress depends how much time you want to put in. It also looks very fancy and impressive, and you get to swing huge poles around, too.
How much does it hurt? Ahmet says, “If you really want to go all out and give 100%, then you’re going to feel pain, but we have a saying: pain is glory.”
Where you need to go Shaolin Temple, Cheshunt, Herts, shaolintemplecheshunt.com
On the silver screen The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978). Generally regarded as one of the best martial arts films ever and host to some of the most gruelling training sequences of all time.
If you want to… DANCE!
If you’re a lover, not a fighter, then capoeira is one to get your feet into. The Brazilian martial art can be compared to a game, in which two partners acrobatically spar with one another without actually touching. Master Silvia from the London School of Capoeira Heranca says, “It strengthens the bottom part of the body as well as the top by using unusual squatting movements and a sequence of leg kicks, rotating kicks, front kicks, flying kicks – all developing balance, strength and stamina. The top part of the body is strengthened by using one’s own bodyweight, pushing up from the floor using the hands as a base for cartwheels, balancing and being upside-down for long periods of time.”
How much does it hurt? The chances of injury are low, but your muscles might be sore after the first few sessions.
Where you need to go London School of Capoeira Heranca, Islington, londonschoolofcapoeira.com
On the silver screen Only The Strong (1993). Mark Dacascos stars as a capoeira instructor who somehow manages to use the martial art to fend off a gang. It looks very good while he’s doing it though.
If you want to… Practise solo
This Chinese martial art focuses heavily on solo work and forms, and so doesn’t really contain any actual sparring, especially at a novice level (it is possible to build to a level where this is involved, however). Derek Pearce from Mei Quan Tai Chi states that it works as an overall system to “develop physical and mental strength, and co-ordination,” as well as “develop your respiratory system through a deeper awareness of how you breathe through ‘smart breathing’”. If you’re looking solely for fitness benefits, it’s got you covered too: Pearce says it “increases lower body strength, agility and overall flexibility”. It’s easily the most calming of the martial arts, making it perfect for beginners.
How much does it hurt? “For beginners’ classes there is limited contact and it’s very gentle,” says Pearce.
Where you need to go Mei Quan Academy of Tai Chi, Hoxton, taichinews.com
On the silver screen Tai Chi Master (1993). Jet Li stars as a Shaolin monk who uses the soft techniques of tai chi chuan to defeat a monk who’s a wrong ’un. Directed by the acknowledged master of the genre, Yuen Woo-ping.
If you want to… Be the next Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee studied wing chun early on, learning from the famous master Yip Man, so those wanting to follow in his footsteps would do well to learn it, too. Sifu Leo Au Yeung from the Leo Chinese Kung Fu Institute praises the martial art for its soft technique: “It needs the practitioner to stay relaxed and not rigid and aggressive during training. After a while it creeps into your personality and when any trouble occurs you will know how to stay calm.” In a self-defence capacity, wing chun is useful “for small people to fight against bigger guys because the fighter is using his opponent’s energy against them, without having to rely on strength”.
How much does it hurt? There is a chance of injury during sparring sessions, but not to the same extent as MMA or boxing.
Where you need to go Leo Chinese Kung Fu Institute, Wimbledon, chinesekungfu.co.uk
On the silver screen Ip Man (2008). Donnie Yen stars as Yip Man, famed teacher of Bruce Lee, in this enthralling biopic – it embellishes a lot of his life story, but the fight scenes are jaw-dropping.
If you want to… Defend yourself
Originating from Japan and made famous by everyone’s favourite large hard man, Steven Seagal, aikido is great for fitness as well as coming in handy should you ever need to fend off an attacker, seeing as it focuses on throws and joint locks. Ismail Hasan from Aikido of London says that “when done correctly it improves core strength, muscle tone, flexibility and the cardiovascular system. Aikido requires a flexible and limber body to move freely and quickly, and as the training requires ‘break falls’, the falling and getting up repeatedly builds the muscles and strengthens the back and legs.”
How much does it hurt? There is a possibility – you’ll be hitting the mat relatively hard any time you’re thrown. But as with all the martial arts on this list, it’s all done under professional guidance to minimise any pain.
Where you need to go Aikido of London, Holborn, aikidooflondon.com
On the silver screen Above The Law (1988). Steven Seagal flips a load of people over and has a ponytail. It is close to being the greatest film of all time.
If you want to… Get knackered
If you were of a certain age during the ’90s, then you’ll most likely remember Billy Blanks and Tae Bo. He was a martial arts expert who created a hybrid form of aerobics and kicking and punching techniques. BodyCombat is sort of like an updated version of that. Instructor Becca says, “When you do BodyCombat, you use your upper body as much as your lower body, making it a very efficient workout. You’ll burn an average of 735 calories per class.” It won’t help with self-defence, but it’s an intense cardio workout that incorporates many different martial arts techniques and is an ideal place to start.
How much does it hurt? It’s a sweat-fest. If you count being out of breath as pain, then yes, this will hurt. You’re not going to get lamped around the head or anything, though.
Where you need to go Les Mills BodyCombat, various locations, lesmills.com/UK
On the silver screen You’re probably best seeking out an old Tae Bo VHS on eBay…