The 5 Most Popular Martial Arts Disciplines

The history of martial arts stretches back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, where the first record of simulated fighting can be found. Since that time, many societies have practiced various forms of hand-to-hand combat, with Asia being particularly well known as a center for the martial arts most commonly practiced today.

Martial arts are used to develop self-defense techniques, confidence, and physical fitness and practitioners range from the very young to the young at heart. Here are the most popular forms practiced the world over.

1. Judo

Judo can be traced back to the 1880s in Japan. It’s a discipline that focuses not on brute strength, but on using an opponent’s weakness to advantage. The principles of Judo guide the practitioner to utilize efficient movements and to evade the blows from a larger opponent to throw them off balance.

Judo is based not on strikes, but on grappling and throws, making it a martial art that practitioners of all sizes and strengths find appealing. It’s a popular technique for self-defense and discipline and is taught to many youths looking for a style that deemphasizes aggression. Judo has gained so much popularity that it is now an official Olympic sport.

2. Jujitsu

Jujitsu, also from Japan, was the forerunner of judo and came about as a means to fight back against armed samurai during the feudal era. Since strikes against an armored opponent weren’t fruitful, jujitsu emphasized moves to neutralize even a heavily armed aggressor including pinning and throws.

Jujitsu roughly translates to “soft art” and is generally practiced without weapons, focusing on grappling instead. Some schools do teach the use of short weapons but grappling is the primary skill taught. Jujitsu emphasizes using an opponent’s force to the jujutsuka’s advantage instead of attempting overwhelm it with an even greater show of force.

3. Muay Thai

Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, originated in the 18th century as a style of hand-to-hand combat during battles between the kingdoms of Burma and Siam. The famous fighter Nai Khanontom was taken captive during a battle and so impressed his Burmese captors with his fighting abilities that he was allowed to go free and return to Siam. His style of fighting became known as Burmese-Style boxing and then later Muay Thai.

It’s known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” and utilizes feet, elbows, knees, and shins for full-contact fighting, making use of nearly available points of contact. Focusing on strikes makes for a more aggressive style of fighting which has gained popularity around the world, with highly viewed matches. Muay Thai depends heavily on conditioning exercises such as cortical remodeling, in which fighters train by repeated striking the shin against a heavy bag to condition and harden the bone itself.

4. Capoeira

Capoeira is a very fluid style of fighting from Brazil, originating as a defense against colonial authorities that was so effective that it was outlawed at some points. Mixing elements of dance into the movements, capoeira has highly complex moves that can prove highly effective even against multiple opponents.

A move called the ginga is a cornerstone of the style, consisting of a continuous rocking motion, keeping the fighter constantly moving and the opponent unsure of the next move. Evasive movements make this a style that can be very nearly impossible to defend against, as the opponent is kept constantly guessing as to what the fighter will do next.

5. Karate

Dating back to the 1300s and with influences from China by way of Japan, karate is undoubtedly the most famous martial art and the most frequently referenced. Karate has been portrayed countless times in film and television, with its unique style having a strong visual appeal and drawing in fans from across the world.

Karate is less passive than other forms of martial arts, emphasizing striking first and gaining the advantage by being the first to take control of a match. While other martial arts place importance on defensive motions, karate’s strength comes from the ability to destabilize an opponent by throwing them off guard. Katas, or shapes, are sequences of movements that are taught to prepare for diverse scenarios and students strive over years of practice to perfect them.

Find the Martial Art That’s Right for You

If you’re interested in starting a martial art, consider what you’re looking to get out of it; are you interested in improving your strength and flexibility? Are you looking for a meditative way to relieve stress? Do you need more discipline and structure in your life?

Once you’ve decided on a specific martial art to pursue, you’ll want to stock up on the best martial arts supplies, find a local academy or dojo to sign up for classes, and start discovering the benefits of practicing martial arts.


Carl Turner is a personal trainer and freelance lifestyle writer from Los Angeles, California. With over 10 years of experience, he has trained many clients and has helped them to reach their personal fitness goals. During his free time, he enjoys kayaking, hiking, and reading.

One thought on “The 5 Most Popular Martial Arts Disciplines

  1. I highly question whether Capoeira is one of the most popular forms worldwide.

    You’ve also left out Kung Fu, which, considering its practiced widely in the country with the largest population in the world, as well as worldwide, clearly has its place.

    Also, I’d point out that while judo emphasizes throws, both it and jiujitsu in their classical forms as practiced in Japan used “atemi” – strikes – as the setup for the throws. In other words, punch the guy in the face, then when he’s stunned use the fancy throw. Aikido does that, too, which people seem to forget when bashing it as a useful martial art.

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