“Why do you take Karate?”
It’s a question I’ve asked almost every single student I’ve ever trained at almost every single belt test that I’ve ever run. To give credit where credit is due, I stole the question from my own Sensei. It’s a question that a good sensei should always be asking his students.
Over the years I’ve encountered a pretty wide variety of responses. Some are obvious – almost cliche, even. Others are humorous (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not). I’ve even had one or two that are downright weird.
Martial arts training can provide an astonishing array of benefits. I tell my students that there’s no right or wrong answer – only your answer. However, that’s not quite true. There is a wrong answer. You see, what you get out of the martial arts is largely dependent upon what you put into it – just like most things in life. Almost all of the benefits I’ve heard in the past can come from martial arts training. But if you’re not training correctly, they won’t. Here are eight benefits of martial arts training – and how to make sure that you do get those benefits.
Benefit 1 – Practical Self Defense
This seems like the obvious one, right? I mean, that’s the reason the martial arts exist in the first place, right? I hate to break this to you, but when it comes to practical self defense not all martial arts classes are created equal. Step back and re-read that sentence. Notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t mention styles at all. I said classes. The choice of words was deliberate.
There are a lot of different martial arts styles out there, and almost all of them have some kind of utility in a fight. If they didn’t, nobody ever would have trained them in the first place. But not all classes are run in a way that provides anything useful for practical self defense.
The easiest example is certain flavors of Tai Chi. All of us in the martial arts community are well aware that Tai Chi is an ancient Asian martial art. But there are places where Tai Chi is taught only as a low-impact exercise regimen, and nothing of the martial arts side is ever even mentioned. There are Tai Chi students out there who don’t even know that it’s a martial art.
Of course not all Tai Chi is like that – in fact, our own instructor, Steffan de Graffenreid, teaches Tai Chi in a way that is very faithful to its ancient origins and extremely effective as a martial art. The difference is in the focus of the training. In order for your martial arts training to be effective for self defense, it must contain the following:
- Discussions of real-world scenarios
- Examples of how to apply your techniques to those scenarios
- Dynamic practice of your technique against real human beings (otherwise known as sparring, one-step practice, or many other names)
- Practice of timing, distance, and power – not just motion.
- Practice actually hitting something (or, in the case of pure grappling arts, actually practicing on a real human being)
- A mentality that focuses on real world application
Benefit 2 – Physical Fitness
Martial arts can be great for physical fitness and overall well being. Or it can do nothing for you at all. The main key is intensity. Are you actually getting up and doing something in your class, or are you just sitting around? A martial arts class that features too much talking and not enough doing won’t do much for your physical fitness. Don’t get me wrong – you can still learn a lot about practical self defense in a class like that, and I know some great Senseis who run classes that aren’t very physically intense.
But if you want to get in shape, you need some intensity. And no matter how intense your class is or isn’t, you can make it much more intense. As noted above, it’s all about how much you put into it. So give it 100% while you’re there.
Benefit 3 – Weight Loss
As noted above, martial arts can be a great form of exercise. Don’t take my word for it – check out this calorie chart. That’s right, a 205lb man can burn over nine hundred calories per hour doing martial arts training. That’s right up there with running, soccer, and football and higher than hockey, cross country skiing and tennis.
If you’re out to lose weight, exercise is important. But it’s not everything. The running community has a saying: you can’t outrun a bad diet. The meaning is that if your diet is terrible, it doesn’t matter how much you run. You still won’t lose the weight.
You can’t out-fight a bad diet, either. The martial arts can give you great exercise. But if you want to lose the weight, you need to put down the donut, too. And the cake, and the cookies and the ice cream. Maybe try some vegetables and the occasional fruit instead.
Benefit 4 – Confidence
Let’s be blunt for a moment. There’s only one way to gain real confidence: do something hard and succeed at it. Everything else is the fake kind that’s worse than having no confidence at all. Martial arts training can help you develop a lot of real confidence. But in order for that to happen, you must be training toward difficult goals.
This can take a lot of forms because people are different. What’s difficult for you may be easy for your classmates – and what’s easy for you may be difficult for them. I’ve had students come in to class before and plop down at 90% of a full split on the first day. Focusing their goal on flexibility is silly – they’ve already got a ton of it. That doesn’t mean they should get complacent – merely that we should find something else for them to work on. Strength or form, perhaps.
On the other hand, I quite frequently have students (mostly adult males) who come in with almost no flexibility at all. Stretching with defined, achievable goals can be a huge benefit for these students – and achieving those goals can provide the added benefit of a great confidence boost.
If you want that confidence boost, set realistic but difficult goals for yourself – and then set out to achieve them.
Benefit 5 – Discipline
Here we go getting blunt again, but the only person who can give you self discipline is you. Your sensei can impose external discipline. And if you’ve got a nugget of self discipline in there, he can help you nourish it and grow it. But all the help in the world will do you no good if you don’t tend to it yourself.
Class offers you plenty of opportunities to cultivate your own self discipline. Use them. Push yourself to stay focused when others are getting distracted. Drive yourself to keep working when your fellow students are getting lazy.
Benefit 6 – Artistic Expression
Benefit 7 – Socializing
The dojo can be a fantastic place for making friends! I’ve made several lifelong friendships in the dojo. I even met my wife there! Get to know the people you train with. After all, you’re entrusting your safety to them – and they’re entrusting theirs to you. Most dojos are really great about this. Almost every dojo I’ve ever worked out with has had a very close bond. However, there are two important things to be wary of: cliques and bullies.
Like any other gathering of people, the students at a dojo can very easily fall into cliques – especially at bigger dojos. Small groups of people spend all of their time together and, usually without malice, are reluctant to take the time to get to know “outsiders” and let them into the clique. Or, more commonly, the higher ranked students form into an “inner circle” of sorts that the lower ranked students can’t penetrate.
Some dojos, though, are even worse. The students there are honest bullies – indeed, they’re often drawn to the martial arts because they’re bullies. The students think they’re big and tough and they often feel the need to go around proving it – to themselves, to outsiders, and, unfortunately, often to new students. Thankfully this kind of dojo is rare. They tend to run off new students who don’t fit the mold very quickly. As a consequence, they don’t stay in business very long.
If you find yourself in either kind of dojo, be the shining example. Take the responsibility on yourself to get to know the new guy and welcome him into the group. Or be on the lookout for the little guy who’s getting pushed around. Very often all it takes is a little nudge from one person to break outside of either the clique or the bully formula and completely transform the group – for the better.
Benefit 8 – Fun
No matter what you do, don’t forget to have fun in the dojo! The martial arts can – and should – be one of the most fun things you’ll ever do in your life. Finding the right sensei and the right group to fit your personality is important. But your own mentality and state of mind is even more important. Relax. Enjoy what you’re doing! There’s no reason you can’t be serious and have fun at the same time – we do it all the time in our dojo!
What benefits are you trying to get out of your martial arts training? Are you doing everything you can to make sure you get the most from it?