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Getting in Shape with Martial Arts: 19 Styles for a Better You

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Exercise With Martial Arts
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Get Fit with Martial Arts

If you’re trying to get in shape, martial arts can be a fun and dynamic way to lose weight, build muscle and develop good habits like self-discipline and self-restraint. But which style is right for you? Here are just a few martial arts from around the world.

1. Muay Thai
(Thailand)

Muay Thai is one of the best martial arts for fitness. In fact, you might’ve already seen variations of “Thai kickboxing” at your local gym. It uses fists, elbows, legs, knees and shins, so it provides a full-body workout, and it also improves overall strength and stamina in core muscle groups. Once you’re an accomplished kickboxer, a treadmill will be a piece of cake!

2. Karate
(Japan)

Karate is the most popular martial art in the world, and it’s great for both physical and spiritual wellness. Not only will it get you in shape with its energetic strikes and blocks, but it will also discipline your mind as well as your body. Karate is known for its emphasis on peace, positivity and self-control, and it’s only supposed to be used as a last resort in a fighting situation. A genuine karate fighter is both powerful and moral.

3. Taekwondo
(Korea)

It’s a common misconception that taekwondo is for kids. While it’s true that the colorful belts and points-based sparring systems are fun for young practitioners, people of all ages can learn taekwondo, and most dojos offer adult classes right alongside kids’ ones. The strikes and kicks will build your muscles; the breathing exercises will help you achieve inner harmony. You might even learn how to bust open a cinder block with your bare hands!

4. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
(Brazil)

Brazilian jiu-jitsu takes place on the ground. It’s a grappling art that involves a lot of wrestling with your opponent and forcing their body to submit to yours. As you might imagine, it’s quite demanding in terms of physical fitness, so it isn’t recommended for couch potatoes who have only recently ventured into the gym. Once you’ve built up some muscle, however, there’s no better way to condition your body than with sweaty, hands-on practice. BBJ will give you a workout for sure.

5. Aikido
(Japan)

If you’re looking for a “gentler” martial art, consider aikido. It’s a popular style for women and children because it’s almost completely focused on self-defense. Rather than aggressively attacking your opponents, you wait for them to act against you, and then you re-direct their movements by using their own force and momentum against them. Aikido is perfect for folks who want to try a martial art without having to break wooden boards or beat up punching bags.

6. Wushu
(China)

Wushu literally translates to “martial arts,” but its modern form is closer to a competitive sport. It teaches all kinds of jumps, punches, sweeps, stances and throws, and sparring is common between practitioners. You can sign up for many different wushu contests and championships to test yourself against others. It’s a fitness regime that won’t even feel like a fitness regime.

7. Silat
(Indonesia)

Silat is a broad term that covers many different fighting styles from Indonesia. Its most distinctive feature is its use of weapons; you haven’t mastered silat unless you’ve trained with knives, daggers, staffs or swords. Working with these weapons will develop both your reflexes and your joints as you train with them until they’re a part of you. If you’re looking for fun and unusual ways to work up a sweat, consider silat!

8. Krav Maga
(Israel)

You’ve probably heard of krav maga. It’s a brutally effective combat system that’s been utilized by armies and police forces worldwide. That said, you don’t have to have a badge to learn a few tricks: One of the tenets of krav maga is drilling. You’ll spend hours practicing its movements over and over, and once you’re done, your rock-hard body will look just as powerful as it feels.

9. Capoeira
(Africa-Brazil)

Created by African slaves in Brazil, capoeira is one of the most unique martial arts that you’ll ever see. It combines singing, dancing and drumming with aerobic exercise and boxing techniques, so the end result is a performance just as much as a fight. It’s even played as a game sometimes in the streets of Brazil. It’ll help you lose weight while also teaching you new things about culture and combat.

10. Sambo
(Russia)

Sambo is the short version of samozashchita bez oruzhiya or “self-defense without weapons.” It utilizes a lot of throws and grapples, so it’ll build those biceps until they’re bulging. However, there are both hard and soft versions of sambo. One of its most famous practitioners was injured in WWI, so he modified its techniques to be less strength-based. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to get started with sambo; you just have to be willing to try something new.

11. Wing Chun Kuen
(China)

Another “soft” martial art is wing chun kuen. Its name translates to “beautiful springtime,” and it’s centered around relaxation and controlled breathing during the execution of its signature moves. Make no mistake, it can be deadly, and it will require just as much self-discipline as other martial arts. It’s just a nice option for beginners, especially out-of-shape beginners who want to ease into physical activity.

12. Savate
(France)

Savate doesn’t allow you to skip leg day. Also known as “French boxing” or “French foot-fighting,” it centers around kicks and sweeps made against an opponent in the ring. It’s been called “the world’s most dangerous ballet.” Despite its unusual look, it’s a full-contact sport, and it’ll whip you into shape from your thighs to your toes.

13. Kendo
(Japan)

There’s more to mastering the sword than just waving around a big blade. It requires true self-discipline in the form of breathing the right way and applying specific amounts of force to your opponent as you hold tension in your body and strike. It isn’t nearly as easy as it looks, but kendo will show you how it’s done. As a bonus, it’ll train your muscles like you’re a master samurai.

14. Vovinam
(Vietnam)

Vovinam is another broad-spectrum martial art that can be hard or soft or practiced with or without weapons. It can teach you everything from escaping a chokehold to slashing an opponent with steel claws. Depending on the skills that you devote yourself to, you can develop things like strength, endurance, flexibility, stamina and improved hand-eye coordination.

15. Tai Chi
(China)

Many people think of tai chi as an alternative health practice like yoga or pilates, but it’s actually an ancient martial art from China. You can learn how to defend yourself from violent attacks even as you stretch and breathe. Additionally, tai chi has many documented health benefits, including better balance, improved circulation, improved cognitive function and pain relief for common ailments.

16. Kalaripayattu
(India)

Also known as “kalari,” this fighting system from India is considered by some to be the oldest martial art in the world. It hardest forms can involve whip-fighting and shield-blocking; its softest practices are done with stretched poses and aromatherapy oils. Not every city offers kalari classes, so if you’re lucky enough to have them near you, take advantage of the opportunity while you can!

17. Judo
(Japan)

Judo can burn anywhere from 700 – 1,000 calories per hour, so it’s an excellent martial art for losing weight. It involves a lot of throws, grapples and takedowns, so you’ll be in constant motion as you move up and down from the floor. You might need to work your way up from beginner’s classes to more advanced lessons, but your waistline will thank you for it.

18. Taekkyeon
(Korea)

This fluid and beautiful martial art is considered one of the hallmarks of Korean culture. It was even placed on the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List” by UNESCO. It takes a lot of practice to get right, and it isn’t always available in smaller or more remote cities without a lot of martial arts options, but it’ll be a meaningful art to learn if you can.

19. Mixed Martial Arts
(varied)

Like its name implies, mixed martial arts (MMA) draws from many different countries and practices. It’s a tough, full-contact sport, but the good news is that you can start small. You don’t have to step into the ring right away. Your gym probably has MMA classes for all skill levels, so you can start with a beginner’s boot camp to get in shape before moving on to grappling or kickboxing lessons.

These are just a few different types of martial arts and how they can help you with your fitness goals. There are many more, so don’t feel limited by the suggestions on this list. You haven’t even heard of Irish stick-fighting yet!

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