So you've seen Enter the Dragon twenty times, and think you've got what it takes to be the next Bruce Lee (or Jet Li). Or maybe the film oeuvre of Steven Seagal is more your cup of green tea (we're sorry); nevertheless, you know that the martial arts are for you. Maybe you're just fat, lazy, and bored (again, we're sorry) and think perhaps it might be time to do something about it. Well, whatever your reasons for coming here, young disciple, you have come to the right place (as always, when you come to us first). And guess what? We have an opinion! We believe that the martial arts can enable you to accomplish these goals, and many more, while looking damn good doing it. So read on, and become the next Karate Kid, or at least the next Next Karate Kid.


As when you begin any new physical activity or exercise regimen, you should first visit your doctor for a complete physical check-up. Let him/her know of your plans so that he/she can specifically check for any health problems that might affect your selection of a discipline and your training. Any problems with your cardiovascular system - your heart and blood circulation - will be a concern for any martial art. Other problems, such as with your back, joints, or limbs, may also influence your choice of a martial art. A low impact discipline such as tai chi may enable you to acquire physical and mental strength without putting undue stress on your feeble body (and/or mind).

If you're smoking, stop now - you're going to need that extra oxygen. (By the way, you may not have heard, but there have been a few reports that smoking may be hazardous to your health.) True, many of the activities involved in martial arts training are anaerobic - meaning "without air." But any routine that you repeat, or any activity that involves prolonged rapid movement, will quicken your heart and breathing rates, thereby providing aerobic ("with air") benefits such as improving your circulatory and respiratory health. (No, you do not get to wear leg warmers and a ripped T-shirt for the aerobic activity.)

Finally, you'll want to consider your diet. If you want to have sufficient energy to bring full intensity to your training, you'll want to cut the junk food out of your diet (that's right, no more Ding Dongs). Instead, make sure that what you do consume consists of a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats (in minimal but sufficient quantities), and possibly vitamins and supplements. Them's fightin' foods. Consult your doctor, a dietician, or another source of dietary information to get the details as to what diet will be best suited to your training. Your martial arts instructor may also have some suggestions, once you begin training. (We advise that you ask him personally however, and simply take his word for it when he tells you what he eats. No using your ninja skills to follow him or dig through his garbage to see what he really eats.)



The first purpose of most martial arts training is self-defense, to prepare you to defend yourself or your loved ones from danger. This does not include the defense of your possessions. For that, a pointy stick will do quite nicely. Anyway, the use of force solely to protect one's property is not excused by the law - except, of course, near the Bayou. And besides, think about it: Are you really willing to risk your life over even your most valued possessions, like your complete collection of Baywatch, including the Pamela Anderson years? (All right, don't answer that.)

As you become a more effective fighter, you will take on the added responsibility of avoiding situations that may lead to physical conflict. The study of martial arts is as much about learning how to predict and avoid conflict as it is about reacting once conflict has begun. Hence the quote by the great Sun Tzu, sage advisor to ancient warlords and contemporary "pop-business" strategists, from his Art of War: "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the greatest skill." Remember also the maxim of the samurai: "The greatest warrior is the one who need never unsheathe his blade." A side note for the guys out there: showing off for the ladies is not a suitable reason for getting into a fight - impress her later, when you can draw your sword in private.

Physical fitness

The second purpose for studying martial arts probably comes before self-defense among your daily priorities (unless you live in Bosnia or South Central L.A.): physical fitness. A physical attack is just a future possibility; looking good for the ladies or gents is a full-time situation. All of the martial arts we discuss below will contribute to your level of physical fitness. You'll want to be clear, however, on which physical qualities you want to improve. Many disciplines provide a mix of anaerobic and aerobic exercise (exercise that revs up the heart and breathing rate). You'll also want to consider whether upper body and arm strength is a priority - some disciplines focus primarily on kicks and flexibility. Many of these disciplines may not focus on particular muscle groups or concerns such as cardiovascular fitness, so you might consider cross-training - such as running, swimming, or weight-lifting - as a supplement to your martial arts studies.

If physical fitness is the predominant reason you're interested in martial arts, you could think about just getting a gym membership, or trying out one of the more exercise-oriented programs. The seemingly ubiquitous TaeBo is such a program, the absurdity of its infomercials notwithstanding ("Thank you, Billy Blanks! You've changed my life and tightened up my glutes!"). While these other options may offer great opportunities to improve your health and fitness, they will be less likely to give you the sense of being part of a community with a long and distinguished history, and to provide the mental and spiritual advantages discussed below. (Besides, let's face it, if you have a black belt in any martial art, everyone will know you are a bad-ass. Who are you going to impress by telling them you're an expert in TaeBo?)

Mental and spiritual focus

The third purpose for studying martial arts is possibly last in your mind right now, but will become more important as you continue your martial arts (trust us): the mental and spiritual focus that will result from your study and practice. As you become able to free your mind of outside influences, and achieve the goals you set within your program of study, this focus will translate into other areas of your life. You'll find yourself better able to relieve stress and manage anxiety. Others will recognize your newfound confidence, and this will increase your leadership abilities (and, of course, your ability to get nookie). For another activity that nicely complements martial arts, take a crack at learning the basics of yoga. Yoga focuses on flexibility, which will improve your martial arts, and it's also pretty damn spiritual.


The guide to the martial arts that we provide here is by necessity very general and incomplete. You'll want to seek out more information, in books, magazines, and on the Net, before making your final decision. Many of the general features attributed to each martial art will vary among styles and schools within that discipline. Further, many of the skills emphasized in one discipline will also cross over into another. Modern instructors are likely to incorporate additional skills into their teaching that they consider important. They will still, however, maintain the central emphases of their chosen discipline.

Tae Kwon Do
Other popular forms: Kung Fu, Jiu-jitsu, and Aikido
The cost of studying martial arts


Overview: Karate is the descendant of very early martial arts styles. In the tenth century an ancient art called Te, from the island of Okinawa, was unified with Chinese and Japanese combat styles to create what would become Kara-Te, commonly translated as "empty hand." The name "empty hand" signifies the discipline's emphasis on self-defense without weapons, although karate students do not reject weapons altogether (that would be the "empty head" style of martial arts). While there are many styles of karate taught worldwide, one of the of the most popular styles in North America is the Japanese Shotokan style, which emphasizes low stances, open movements, and powerful thrusting kicks. And yes, you really do get to break boards as an advanced karate student. Big deal. As martial arts superstar Bruce Lee once remarked, "Boards do not fight back."

Physical emphasis: Karate is a very energetic martial art, focusing on strikes and kicks. These will strengthen both upper and lower limbs. Karate also improves strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

Availability: School availability is high, in urban centers as well as in suburban and rural mini-malls nationwide.

Tae Kwon Do

Overview: Tae kwon do, or the "foot hand way," derives from ancient Korean combat styles, and began to evolve into its modern form when the Korean government encouraged its development following the nation's liberation at the close of World War II. (This is why your instructor will probably hang a Korean flag over your training floor - not because he has mistaken Chicago for Seoul.) Developed originally for the purposes of self-defense, tae kwon do has further gained renown as a competitive sport, and in the past ten years has become a medal-status Olympic event.

Physical emphasis: Tae kwon do emphasizes impressive high kicks while including hand techniques in its arsenal. It therefore promotes cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and muscle strength, with an emphasis on the lower body.

Availability: School availability is high, in urban centers as well as in suburban and rural areas.


Overview: Judo, or the "gentle or soft way," is a modernized, more practical form of jiu-jitsu, created in the nineteenth century. In judo, competitors learn to use leverage to throw an opponent of any size to the floor. In 1964, the discipline gained the legitimacy of acceptance as a medal-status Olympic sport.

Physical emphasis: The objective of a judo technique is to throw your opponent off-balance, using skill rather than strength to take him/her down. It is therefore in many ways more of a mental than physical discipline. Having said that, a judo student will find that his/her general health, strength and flexibility will improve moderately with regular training.

Availability: Generally high, though schools may be somewhat easier to find in urban areas.

Other popular forms: Kung fu, jiu-jitsu, and aikido

Kung fu, meaning "skill" or "art," is a Chinese discipline that had its origins more than two thousand years ago, and was shaped over many hundreds of years in the legendary Shaolin temples. Kung fu focuses on strikes and kicks, as well as developing balance and speed. Training in kung fu improves health and self-discipline. Fitness demands are moderate to high, depending on the intensity of your training regimen. Availability of schools is moderate - they're more likely to be found in urban centers than in outlying areas.

Jiu-jitsu, the "soft or gentle art," evolved from combative methods employed by ancient Japanese samurai, most likely in combination with techniques practiced by Chinese monks and Japanese commoners. This discipline favors strikes and throwing or grappling techniques to turn an opponent's own strength against him. There is little focus on flexibility, but may be an excellent activity to improve cardiovascular conditioning. Availability of schools is moderate.

Aikido, "the way of the harmonious spirit," is a Japanese style of self-defense developed in the nineteenth century. Aikido techniques rely on using the opponent's own momentum and force against him, through coordinated movements like holds, throws, and locks. Aikido is largely a mental art of nonresistance - the fitness benefits of its study are outweighed by the mental and spiritual benefits. Availability of schools is generally high, but they are more likely to be found in urban than outlying areas.

The cost of studying martial arts

Oh yeah. . . paying for it. . . Well, many universities offer classes for free or at a relatively low cost to students. But what you gain in affordability may be at the cost of convenient class times, contact with instructors, and the ability to advance in rank; check with the class's organizers to find out what the details are. If such a program doesn't appeal to you, or if you're a productive member of society (i.e., a non-student), you'll have to add cost considerations to your decision.

A private school's introductory course may run from $20 to $100. The white cotton uniform used in karate or tae kwon do, also called a gi, will probably run you around $40, but may be as much as $100. The heavier uniform used in judo, jiu-jitsu, or aikido will have a higher price, upwards of $50, while the cotton or satin uniform required by your kung fu program may range anywhere from $40-$300. For lessons or classes, you may pay $40 to $100 a month, and more if a regular individual lesson is included in your training (a great advantage if you can find such a program and can afford it.) Some schools will include fees for belt testing with the tuition, while others may charge between $20 and $40 per belt test. Participation in tournaments may command an additional fee. As you advance in rank, you can expect to spend another few hundred dollars on protective gear for sparring, and more for traditional weapons, if your program includes these activities.


Know what to look for

Some of the factors you'll be looking for in evaluating a martial arts school, or dojo, are the quality of the school (based on its reputation and longevity) and the location and quality of the physical premises. You'll also want to find out the ratio of students to teachers - if your sole means of training is through large classes taught by a single instructor, it may be more difficult to achieve your own personal goals; there's no substitute for individual attention. Also, try to get a sense of how long it takes in the school to learn the basic skills and to advance in the martial art you have chosen.

If competition is a concern for you - either positive or negative - find out how much emphasis the school puts on inter-student competition, such as tournaments. If sparring - trying out your offensive and defensive skills one-on-one with a fellow student - is or is not your thing, find out what the school's position is on this. In some schools sparring is a prominent element throughout your training; others restrict it to a small part of intermediate and advanced training, while some do no sparring at all (we'd call them sissies, except they might find out where we live and come break boards on our heads).

If you are a woman, you may want to know what the gender ratio is at the school. While a few schools may have a fifty-fifty split, many may not. Some schools offer additional all-female classes - such an environment may be a good place to develop your confidence. These should probably be balanced with co-ed classes to offer a more realistic setting - after all, an attacker is far more likely to be a male.

You also want to make sure that there are classes for people in your age range. If all the classes are for 5-year-olds, you'll want to get out of that class fast. Those kindergarteners are tough!

While some schools offer a great place to meet new friends, others may take a more stern view of fraternization, in the belief that the study of martial arts is a serious matter, and should be your sole reason for attending the school. (Party poopers - now how are we supposed to introduce ourselves to that hottie over there in the white gi-top?)

So how should you go about obtaining this information? First of all, don't be afraid to ask friends and acquaintances about their training experiences, although keep in mind that one person's experience may vary greatly from another's, and that there are far more master liars in the world than master black belts. The following sources may provide a more reliable gauge.

Check the Yellow Pages

That ancient and revered text known as the Yellow Pages is probably your best bet for tracking down the schools in your area. Many local schools probably do not yet have web sites, except for those that use the new but increasingly popular Matrix style of training - downloading martial arts skills directly into your brain. The size of the phonebook ads and the promises made within them may not reflect the actual differences among the schools; you'll have to visit or at least call the school to get some sense of whether it's a good fit for you. Don't be swayed by boasts of "masters" and "champions." While such claims will probably be legitimate, they may have no bearing on whether the celebrated master will be a regular instructor at the school, or whether such a title means that he or she will be a great teacher.

Visit the school

Drop by the school itself so you can check out the physical premises. Does the building provide adequate space and safety equipment? Does it have a padded floor? A roof? Make sure that the location is convenient for you. If you have to drive four hours to get there, take a plane, or cross state lines, then you'll be unlikely to get over there regularly. When you get there, talk to as many instructors and students as you can, and try to get a sense of how involved they are with the school. Find out if the classes offered are frequent or flexible enough to accommodate your own schedule. You may also get a sense of the general spirit of the school - whether students are happy there, etc. Note: when looking for someone to talk to, we advise you to choose someone who is not engaged in an activity that might easily segue into bonking an annoying person on the head.

Attend a lesson or class

Most schools will offer an introductory lesson or set of lessons for a price ranging from a nominal fee of $20 to a less nominal one of $100. If you're lucky, you might find a school that gives you a free first lesson. Take advantage of these offers to get a sense of the quality of teaching in the school and of the particular emphases of that dojo. Also, if possible, try to arrange a visit during a group class to get a sense of the content and pace of an average class at the school.


No martial art will offer you the benefits you seek, whatever they may be, unless you attend classes regularly and come with a commitment to work hard and do whatever your instructor tells you, short of drinking the Kool-Aid in the little paper cups. You'll want to establish a regular schedule so that conflicts involving work and social events can be scheduled around your training sessions. Attend classes or lessons at least two to three times a week if you expect to see measurable results. If a vacation, business trip, family matter, or Doobie Brothers reunion is going to take you away from your training, make sure you let your instructor know ahead of time so you can reschedule makeup lessons or find other ways to stay on track. Finally, have fun with your martial arts. Don't get down on yourself if you're not making the progress you'd hoped for - remember, the journey is as important as the destination (particularly when you are traveling to Cleveland).

And that's all there is to it! Before you know it, you'll be screaming Miss Piggy-esque "hi-yah!"s and scaring children by telling them you can kill them with the fearsome Pinky Death Grip of Confucius. So go ahead. . . have fun!