How to Choose a Martial Arts School
The process of choosing a martial arts school involves visiting as many different locations as is convenient for you and using a combination of intuition and specific criteria to judge which one feels most attractive to you and suited to your needs.
One consideration supersedes all others, though: go to the school with the people you like the best. If you like the people, you’ll keep training hard and often. If you don’t like the people, you’ll have no motivation to study, nor should you bother. I’d rather learn karate with nice people than capoeira with jerks. On your visits, get a sense of which students and teachers you’ll look forward to seeing week after week. This point is as important as the entire rest of this article put together.
Beyond geniality, we can evaluate schools on such grounds (in loose descending order of importance) as …
Clarity of instruction
Curriculum breadth and depth
Athletic demands and development
Lineage and authenticity
I’ll walk you through these subjects to show you how and why each of them is important in your review.
I wish safety required no explanation, but some schools pride themselves on how hardXcore and x-treme!!!11!!11!1oneone!!! their regimens are. You probably won’t have to deal with students giving each other concussions and broken finger bones … probably … but keep an eye out for training practices which seem unremarkable in the short term but may cause unhealthy stress and strain in the long term. Even soft stylists will have to deal with knee and back problems eventually—all athletes will—but it still helps to avoid jumping up and down on concrete floors or lifting heavy objects without using your knees, even while you’re young and invincible.
Also pay attention to warmups. Some schools expect students to warm up before class starts, a reasonable expectation when you’re paying $10+ for a two-hour class. Others incorporate a warmup into the first few minutes of the class. Warmups should lightly engage your muscles and respiratory system, and probably emphasize range of motion rather than extreme stretching—and never heavy exertion. The scientific community is still arguing about whether stretching before exercise is helpful or counterproductive, but concentrating on range-of-motion and staying warm before practice, then saving stretching to improve your flexibility for after practice, are pretty safe practices.
Finally, keep in mind the distinction between pain, which is annoying but often necessary, and injury, which is very bad. I am not warning against throwing hard punches, here: it’s difficult to use an enemy’s strength against them when they attack you with no power and flop over like an unsupported vine at the slightest hint of pressure. Getting hit a bunch of times in the chest might hurt or raise bruises, but unless you’re getting knuckled in the solar plexus or xiphoid process, in the end you’ll probably just learn how to take a punch. When in doubt, though, it never hurts (or injures) to ask.
Clarity of Instruction
Different people learn best from different kinds of teaching. During your observation, see if the didactic methods will work for you. How much time does the head instructor spend teaching personally? How much time do senior students teach? Can you imagine yourself learning from either?
Of course, good teaching in an unfamiliar discipline is often hard to evaluate; and many martial arts have a long tradition of coyness or mystery in their transmission. I do not think this tradition is necessarily a bad thing; while it may seem pointlessly obscure at first, holding back select information can encourage students to pay sharp attention and think in unorthodox ways. Think of the good teachers you have or had in school: they often ask students questions whose answers they could certainly just divulge. But puzzling your way through an idea yourself is often valuable.
In my experience, one quality unites all the best martial arts and athletics instructors I’ve ever had. They have emphasized the basics and spoken even to advanced students and about advanced concepts as if to beginners or children. Strong, simple mnemonics, like those we speak to the young to teach them important concepts, work well even on advanced students. Assuming everyone has your talent or sophistication with a complex and scary subject like combat will prove far less efficient. I advise you to look for instructors who can teach students of many levels with a similar voice. Adjustments must of course be made for differently advanced students, but the core principles of the style—and of teaching—should in most cases remain the same.
Curriculum Breadth and Depth
The martial arts of the world teach a staggering variety of individual concepts and skills, including hand-to-hand combat with and without weapons and armor, ranged combat with thrown projectiles or tools such as bows and firearms, crafts and repair of arms and armor, medicine, herbalism, athletics, conditioning, stealth, dance, music, tactics, strategy, meditation, mounted combat with animals such as horses or elephants, etiquette, social engineering, leadership, teaching methods, history, philosophy, foreign languages, and even magical or religious practices. They make different assumptions about their enemies’ level and nature of combat training, and they also emphasize different intents, for example: kill or maim your enemy, disarm and neutralize your enemy without inflicting permanent harm, escape unharmed yourself, protect one or more third parties, and win at sporting events.
Possibly your needs and interests encompass all of these items; more likely they don’t, and so you’ll have to determine which ones a school leaves out and which it includes, as well as how deeply the school delves into each topic. Even within the scope of hand-to-hand combat, your options far exceed what you could master during one lifetime: striking or grappling, blades or clubs, blocking or parrying, etc. Try out different stuff and see what you find enjoyable and intriguing, what you’re naturally talented at, and what needs work. You should ask the teacher about this subject, as a particular class may focus on a small slice of the style rather than being representative of the whole thing.
I also want to make a point about subjects outside the scope of just winning fights. You might think a style which only teaches combat techniques the most efficient use of your time. But martial artists rarely get in fights; they tend to excel at avoiding trouble, and are less likely to have self-esteem issues which would get them into pointless violence. Even if your profession is more violent than most—you’re a bouncer or a security guard, for example—social skills should be your first recourse when confronting trouble on the job. If you spend most of your life not fighting, you probably want to learn a martial art which has something to offer you every day, not just in those nightmare situations when you have to hurt another human being.
Athletic Demands and Development
Martial arts attract many people because they combine intellectual and physical exercise. You may want to find a physically demanding school to keep you in perfect shape, an easy and relaxing one to help you unwind after work, or a graduated system which will start you out easy and build you up towards the most taxing maneuvers. Whatever your preferences, the unfamiliar movements you will see while visiting a class may seem much more or much less demanding than they actually are; so you should ask the teacher what kind of athletic expectations the school has.
All martial arts are at least somewhat athletic, though their demands on the student are particular to each style. Some styles, like Thai boxing, fall flat without great strength, speed, and flexibility. Others, like aikidō, prioritize energy conservation, only applying strength and speed at the moment of truth. As with curriculum, the style’s history generally informs these differences: was the style developed in a secluded environment like a monastery, which afforded ample time for athletic conditioning? The Shàolín styles fit this description. Was it taught to soldiers, who are physically capable but have to absorb a vast diversity of information during training? Krav maga is just such a style, with easy-to-learn motions which tired soldiers can absorb and use quickly.
But any new style will require acclimatizing to new movement vocabulary. Capoeira Angola, for instance, is quite energy-efficient and well suited for weak or elderly practitioners; but its movement vocabulary is so different from that which most of us use during our daily lives that learning the movements for the first time is excellent and strenuous exercise for the muscles and joints.
Personally, I figure attackers are likely to pass me by if I’m young, strong, fast, and alert, so I like to study styles which will still work if I’m old, drunk, weak, sick, or otherwise impaired.
Lineage and Authenticity
A handful of military history’s great prodigies—Imi Lichtenfeld, Miyamoto Musashi, etc.—were self-taught. Most were not; so we can often learn a little about who a teacher is by asking about their lineage. If a martial artist can recite who taught them, who taught their teacher, etc. etc., we might draw these assumptions about them:
The martial artist respects teachers and teaching.
The martial artist is, if not well-known, well-liked in their circles.
The martial artist is interested in the style’s history.
The martial artist can effectively transmit historical as well as physical knowledge.
Curious students might also want to know something about the style’s history; so a competent teacher will often be able to answer questions about how and where a style developed. You shouldn’t demand encyclopedic knowledge of military history of your teacher, but understanding the context in which a style developed informs how its techniques were used, and is therefore at least somewhat useful. Knowing your style’s history, as well as how to use it, shows good attention to detail.
You should beware of teachers who know too little about their style’s history, as well as of teachers who pridefully extol or mythicize their martial art as the greatest of all human endeavors. Within the history of every martial art hides at least a little doubt and mystery as to the truth; good historians will remember this.
Questions of lineage or authenticity do not, however, tell us whether an individual is good at fighting. I can tell you the history of loads of martial arts styles because I’m a huge nerd, not because I can make you submit in the octagon.
Figuring out which martial art is the most deadly or the most invincible or whatever misses the point. Concerns about efficacy should really socket into questions of curriculum. Most teachers outside of sport styles will tell you their style is combat-applicable. The more important question is, in what situations is this style useful? In what situations is it lacking?
Find a teacher who can speak frankly, concisely, and without ego about this topic. Your concern should not be the style’s relative strength, so much as the teacher’s attitude towards efficacy as a concept. Avoid teachers who seem to have something to prove, who describe their class’s concerns in extreme terms such as life or death, who are afraid to admit to shortcomings, or who mythologize their style’s so-called secrets.
You should keep in mind that the idiosyncracies of your own personal training and mindset will have much more impact on whether or not you fight well than your stylistic choices. It’s like choosing a university: others may judge you based on whether you went to Yale or a state school, but your education’s actual quality depends much more on who you are and what you bring to the school, not vice versa.
The cheapest martial arts school I’ve ever attended is the Muzosa Dōjō in New York City, which charges about $2.85 per class. In Manhattan. The most expensive class I’ve ever attended was Master Rèn Guǎngyì’s Chén style tài jí boxing class, also in Manhattan which came out to about $35.00 a class. Master Rèn is a total badass but yeah, the class is expensive. In the Northeast, I consider $10-$15 for a class to be normal, with $20 on the higher end of things.
So let’s go over the process once again. When you choose a martial arts school, you should visit many different classes in your area to determine the best fit for you, through a combination of observation and inquiry.
Answer these questions through observation:
Is the class safe?
Is the instruction clear, informative, and engaging?
Answer these questions through inquiry:
What is the style’s history and the instructor’s lineage?
What kind of athletic demands and development are involved?
Does the style emphasize skills which suit your needs and interests?
Can the teacher explain the class and the art’s strengths and weaknesses?
Will your budget allow for the fees?
And most importantly …
Of the classes you have visited, which people do you like the best?