Trying to choose a martial art to train in when you're just starting out can be daunting. Just here in the Cincinnati area there are so many to choose from with such a wide variety of backgrounds, structures, and goals - how can you know which is right for you?
One thing that can help you make an informed decision is knowing the five basic types of martial art. Once you understand those and where different arts fit in, you can decide what classes to take or arts to study based on your own goals.
What Are the Five Types / Categories of Martial Art?
While there are a lot of different ways to categorize and group different martial arts, we're going to look at the five groups you can use to sort different arts by focus. Those five categories are:
Eclectic / Hybrid
These categories aren't in any way exclusive, and many arts span several with one being the primary category but with elements of others. Each category also exists on a gradient, and different schools or instructors within the same art might emphasize different categories more. Rather than divide things up by striking art vs. grappling art vs. weapon art or criteria like that, these categories sort the different martial arts out by their goal or focus.
Let's look at what each one means and give some examples.
Traditional Martial Arts
Traditional martial arts put a heavy emphasis on passing down the traditions or culture of the art and its place of origin.
These arts often have a number of etiquette and cultural rules, use a lot terminology from the primary language of the art's place of origin, and involve a sense of ceremony. Due to having to learn and adhere to new rules of behavior - such as when and how to bow, how to address instructors and students of varying rank, how to sit or stand at attention, etc. - Traditional arts often wind up incorporating a lot of discipline and character building aspects.
These tend to be good arts for people who want to experience new cultural traditions, experience a strong sense of community, be introduced to new philosophical concepts, or improve their discipline. They also tend to be good for younger children because of the emphasis on rules and proper behavior.
Some examples of arts that are often categorized as Traditional martial arts are: Shorin-Ryu Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Hung Gar, Capoeira, Aikido, Wing Chun, & Kendo
Restorative Martial Arts
The next category, Restorative martial arts, are arts whose primary goal is to improve the health of the practitioner above all else. This includes both physical and mental health, and arts in this category may work on improving strength, mental focus, flexibility, breathing, cardiovascular health, and more.
Many of these have a meditative aspect to them, although that's not necessarily required. They also range in how strenuous they might be, with Tai Chi being an example that usually falls on the more gentle end and fitness kickboxing being an example that nearly always falls on the higher intensity end. Regardless all of these arts are concerned first and foremost with making you a healthier person rather than preparing you for a competition or giving you the tools to destroy an enemy.
Restorative martial arts are great for people who care most about getting healthy. If the thing you want most out of your training is to learn to focus, calm your mind, or improve your overall wellness, then arts which fall primarily in this category will be a perfect fit.
Some examples of arts that are often categorized as Restorative martial arts are: Tai Chi / Taijiquan, Some Forms of Silat, Fitness Kickboxing, Baguazhang, Aikido, & Capoeira
Eclectic or Hybrid Martial Arts
The third category, Eclectic martial arts or sometimes called Hybrid martial arts, are martial arts that make it a main focus to take elements from a wide range of other arts and incorporate them into a unified system.
Arts in this category tend to have strong secondary categories that inform the types of things they adopt from other arts. What sets arts aside that can be called a primarily Eclectic martial art over one of the other categories is the emphasis on changing, testing, and openness to the incorporation of new ideas.
Eclectic or Hybrid martial arts generally make a great fit for people who want to get exposure to a variety of training methods and styles. If you prefer the idea of testing, changing, and improving over the idea of continuing a long unchanging tradition, then martial arts in the Eclectic category will be a good fit.
Some examples of arts that are often categorized as Eclectic or Hybrid martial arts are: Jeet Kune Do, MMA / Mixed Martial Arts, Kajukenbo, Hapkido, Krav Maga, Pencak Silat Mande Muda, & SPEAR
Sportive Martial Arts
The Sportive martial arts category encompasses all of the arts whose foremost goal is training a student to win in a competition.
Sportive martial arts often, but not always, have a smaller range of individual techniques to learn and instead spend more time drilling specific aspects, simulating competition events through things like sparring, and improving the physical attributes that will most benefit an athlete in that sport. There may also be more strategic learning like analyzing other competitors or figuring out how to utilize competition rules to your advantage.
People who want to compete - whether in actual tournaments or just unofficially with other students - will fit best in one of the Sportive martial arts. If you have a strong desire to test yourself and use your martial art against someone the Sportive arts are often the best option to do so.
Some examples of arts that are often categorized as Sportive martial arts are: Boxing, ITF Tae Kwon Do, MMA / Mixed Martial Arts, Wrestling, Muay Thai, Fencing, Brazilian Jiujitsu, & Savate
Combative Martial Arts
The final category is that of Combative martial arts. What places a martial art in this category is a primary focus on dealing with a sudden, violent, potentially fatal attack - often though not exclusively as part of your career or position.
What sets Combative martial arts apart from the 'combat sports' styles of Sportive martial arts is the lack of an agreed upon location, rules, or initiation of combat. In a Sportive martial art such as MMA both combatants know what rules they and the other combatant must operate under, they know where the encounter will take place and what type of terrain to expect (generally a flat, well-lit, clean ring with clear boundaries), and they know the encounter has begun because its start is designated by a bell, referee, or other indicator.
Combative martial arts lack all three of these. There are no limitations on what can be done, you don't know where the encounter will happen or the conditions of the location, and the start of the encounter might be getting a knife placed at your throat or getting hit in the back of the head with a bat. These arts often train students ways to kill or maim, and often incorporate or even focus on some type of weapons training.
It's important here to make the distinction between self-defense and fighting. Self-defense is when a person is attacked with no means for escape or deescalation. A fight is the opportunity to leave or deescalate is present but a person makes the decision not to take it.
Two men arguing in a bar who square up and come to blows are in a fight, because one of them could have chosen to walk away, and this situation actually more closely resembles what Sportive martial arts prepares people for. A man coming up behind you with a knife while you're at an ATM and telling you to get into his van is in a self-defense situation, and this more closely resembles what Combative martial arts train for.
Combative martial arts are an excellent fit for people who work in dangerous professions - such as law enforcement or military personnel - or for those whose primary concern is being assaulted by someone with the intent of murdering, raping, or kidnapping them or a loved one.
Some examples of arts that are often categorized as Combative martial arts are: Krav Maga, Pekiti Tirsia Kali (as well as other Arnis / Escrima systems), MCMAP, Silek Harimau Minangkabau, & SPEAR
Final Considerations on the Five Martial Art Categories
These categories should be considered as general guidelines as there is always going to be a lot of overlap and variance between instructors. There are also some that overlap more commonly than others. For example, Eclectic tend to overlap with Combative and, to a lesser extent, Sportive arts but very rarely with Traditional or Restorative arts. Similarly Restorative and Traditional martial arts can often be found with a lot of overlap, but rarely do Restorative martial arts coincide with Sportive or Combative arts.
There can also be a range of different areas of focus with an art depending on the instructor. Some Muay Thai instructors for instance may focus more on the cultural heritage and traditions of the art and be less concerned with prepping students to compete placing it more in the Traditional art category. Other Muay Thai instructors may work more with athletes or MMA fighters to perform better in competitions and downplay traditional elements like the Wai Kru or other Thai customs removing the Traditional art elements entirely.
As another example the Jeet Kune Do classes at our Academy here in West Chester are structured in a way that places it solidly in the Eclectic category (we make a point of including elements from a variety of arts and helping students what works best for them). However, we teach with a very strong secondary element as a Combative martial art since we include many elements from Krav Maga, Kali, forms of Silat, and other primarily Combative arts and we approach our training through the lens of an unexpected violent assault.
Other JKD instructors may emphasize different training goals, such as training with MMA fighters to improve their performance, or passing on the philosophies and traditions of Bruce Lee. None of these approaches is inherently better or worse than the others, but it makes it important to know where each instructor or school fits in relative to your goals when you're choosing an art and where to train.
When you understand these categories relative to your goals, and how different arts can fit into them, it makes choosing a martial art to study a much easier process.