Russell Newquist

The Shogo FAQ – The Meanings of Renshi, Kyoshi, Hanshi and Shihan

What does [Renshi/Kyoshi/Hanshi/Shihan] mean?

In addition to the kyu/dan (underbelt/black belt) ranking system used by most Japanese martial arts, there is a parallel system called shogo (称号). The word loosely translates into English as title or rank. In this context, title is a bit more accurate. These titles are awarded only to dan (black belt) level martial artists – typically at high dan levels. Their primary purpose is to show that in addition to being a good martial artist, the individual is also a good teacher.

The shogo titles are independent of dan level and do not effect it. In other words, a promotion to one of these titles does not raise the practitioners dan level. However, there is a relationship between the two in that most organizations that use them impose minimum dan level requirements in order to earn the shogo titles. Earning the minimum rank is not enough. The teacher must also be nominated and approved for the title. Typically, they are awarded to teachers who have given something back to the organization he belongs to.

The three commonly used shogo titles are renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi. Some organizations will use the title shihan instead of hanshi. Other organizations will use the title shihan in addition to hanshi, independently of the formal shogo system. And because there are so many martial arts organizations, there are many different rules for receiving these titles. Yes, it can get a little confusing!

Renshi belt

Renshi (錬士)

Renshi literally means “polished teacher.” It is the first, or lowest, of the shogo titles. In many organizations this requires a minimum rank of godan (5th degree black belt), although others will award it at yondan (4th degree black belt). I even know of one organization that would award it at sandan (3rd degree black belt), although even within that organization this was not common.

A teacher awarded the title renshi is typically allowed to wear a belt that is half red, half white. The orientation of the belt depends on the organization. The American Budo Society, to which I belong, makes a distinction between renshi-sho (lesser polished teacher) and renshi-dai (greater polished teacher). A renshi-sho wears the belt white side up, while a renshi-dai wears the belt red side up. Most organizations make no such distinction, and typically the belt is worn red side up.

Kyoshi belt

Kyoshi (教士)

Kyoshi means “expert teacher,” although it is sometimes also translated as “professor” or “assistant professor.” Depending upon the organization, this typically requires a minimum rank of at least rokyudan (6th degree black belt) or shichidan (7th degree black belt).

Once awarded the title kyoshi, the teacher is entitled to wear a red and white paneled belt.

Hanshi (範士)

Hanshi translates literally as “exemplary teacher.” Many English speaking martial artists will use the term “professor” interchangeably with hanshi. This almost always requires a minimum rank of at least hachidan (8th degree black belt) and sometimes nanadan (9th degree black belt).

A teacher with the title hanshi is entitled to wear a solid red belt.

Shihan (師範)

Many martial artists speakers mistakenly assume (or are even taught) that shihan is a reversal of the same words that make up hanshi. To a non-Japanese speaker this sounds obvious. However, a quick look at the kanji shows that this is not the case at all. However, the difference in actual meaning is subtle. The shi (士) used in renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi translates more precisely into “gentleman,” “warrior,” or “scholar,” whereas the shi (師) used in shihan translates very directly into “teacher.” So one might say that shihan means “exemplary teacher” and hanshi actually means something closer to “exemplary gentleman.” However, since that’s not really how they’re used in English, both terms are often just used as a variation of “exemplary teacher.”

Some organizations use shihan instead of hanshi. Notably, the organizations that use shihan instead tend to be karate organizations, whereas judo, jujitsu and kendo organizations almost universally use hanshi instead. However, many organizations that use the shogo title of hanshi also use the title of shihan. However, in these cases its use is often far less formal and conferred by general usage rather than direct, proper “promotion.” Also in these cases, there are very few shihan in an organization (often only one).

Why isn’t my instructor wearing his [Renshi/Kyoshi/Hanshi] belt?

The etiquette of wearing the belts varies from organization to organization and sometimes from school to school within the same organization. In some organizations, once awarded, these belts are always worn. In others, they’re considered ceremonial belts and only worn on special occasions – seminars, reunions, and belt promotion ceremonies. In these cases, the practitioner typically wears a regular black belt striped as appropriate during normal classes.

Do these titles confer special privileges?

That depends entirely on the organization, but in many cases, yes, they confer special rights. In some organizations, instructors aren’t allowed to promote students to dan (black belt) ranks until they have specific shogo titles. In the American Budo Society, all black belts can promote up to two levels below themselves. The titles of renshi-sho, kyoshi-sho, and hanshi-sho allow promotion of up to one level below themselves, while renshi-dai, kyoshi-dai, and hanshi-dai allow promotion up to their own belt level. In other organizations, they confer no special rights at all.

The ACTUAL Origin of Karate Belts

We’ve now hit on two very different myths about where karate belts came from. They didn’t come from not washing belts, and they weren’t invented for lazy Americans. So where did they come from?

We must recognize that what came first wasn’t the belts, it was the kyu/dan ranking system that the belts represent. This ranking system isn’t unique to the martial arts. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, brought it to Judo in 1883. From there, it spread throughout the rest of the Asian martial arts.

But Kano didn’t invent the system. He borrowed it. The system is used in several competitive sports in Japan, but the most famous is the game of Go. The purpose of the ranking system is to match competitors against opponents of comparable skill. That’s exactly why Kano borrowed it. When he transformed the ancient martial art of jujitsu into the competitive sport we know today as Judo, he needed match judoka into reasonably fair groups. The kyu/dan ranking system provided it.

Kyu ranks begin with a higher number – usually in the five to ten range – and count down toward one as the competitors become more advanced. After the first kyu rank, practitioners then advance to the first dan rank. The dan ranks count up from first dan, usually maxing out somewhere between sixth dan and tenth dan. To us westerners, a good way to think of it is that first kyu would represent a very skilled amateur, while first dan would represent a very beginning professional. That’s far from an entirely accurate picture. The idea of changing money, which westerners associate with the term “professional,” has nothing to do with it. But it kind of gets across the general idea.

This system is used fairly commonly in Japanese competitive events. There’s even a particular brand of Japanese flower arrangement that uses the kyu/dan system. We have similar systems in the west, including several different chess rating systems.

Kano introduced colored belts into the system when he brought it to Judo. The original Judo belt color scheme consisted of light blue for brand new students at sixth kyu, white for the remaining five kyu ranks, and black for dan ranks. At sixth through eighth dan, practitioners could choose to wear either black or red and white paneled belts. At ninth and tenth dan, practitioners could wear either black or solid red.

Gichin Funakoshi again borrowed the kyu/dan ranking system for Shotokan in 1924 when he brought it into the Japanese school systems. From there, the system spread first into other styles of karate and back into Jujitsu, and then outward into many other martial arts. By the late twentieth century it would even spread into Korean and Chinese styles.

Many styles – and even many dojos within the same style – adopt their own belt color system, making it nearly impossible to compare belts from different dojos. There are a handful of fairly common color schemes. For instance, very few Japanese schools will use a red belt for a kyu grade. Those usually represent the highest of the dan grades. And schools that do use red for kyu ranks usually use it for first kyu. Even so, there are glaring exceptions from time to time. I’ve made it a habit to ask students transferring from other dojos how long they’ve been training, rather than what color their belt is. It gives a far better picture of the student’s actual skill level.


No, Karate Belts Weren’t Invented For Lazy Americans

Last week we discussed a popular myth about the origin of karate belt colors. Another, even more popular, myth is that karate belts were invented for “lazy Americans.”

According to the story, the “ancient and true” martial arts masters of yore never needed belt colors. They trained because of a love of the art, and didn’t measure themselves. Belts only came along when the martial arts moved to the west – specifically the United States. Those lazy westerners (especially Americans) wouldn’t train if they couldn’t see some outward measure of their progress. So the supreme martial artists invented belt colors to keep those lazy Americans training.

There’s a common theme between this myth and the last one: the idea that martial artists of yesteryear didn’t need or use belt colors. That part is true. But it wasn’t so much from a love of the art. Before the late nineteenth century, students of the Asian martial arts basically fell into one of two categories: soldiers or monks. The monks studied the art as a form of discipline to aid their religious studies. The soldiers studied them because they literally concerned life and death. Then, as now, few people actually studied the arts for decades on end just for pure love.

But there’s a huge underlying flaw in this theory: belt ranks predate the widespread acceptance of the martial arts in the western world. Gichin Funakoshi adopted the kyu/dan rank system in the early 1920s and awarded the first karate black belts in 1924. The study of karate, however, didn’t spread outside of Japan until the 1950s.

Next week: Where Karate Belt Colors ACTUALLY Came From.


How Your Karate Belt Colors DIDN’T Come To Be

There’s a legend surrounding karate belt colors. I’ve heard variants of it in many dojos, but the core of the legend goes something like this:

In the beginning, the only two belt colors were white and black. Since ancient tradition dictates that washing your belt washes all your knowledge away, over time, a student’s belt would begin to fray and yellow. After a bit more time, the belt would start to get moldy and turn green. Eventually, years of training would leave it dirty and brown. When it reached that point, the ancient instructors knew the student was nearing time for a black belt. Thus, eventually, we got the first belt colors of white, yellow, green, brown and then black. Later, this system evolved into the broader spectrum of colors we see today.

It’s a fun story. Kids, especially, love it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s all about how something awesome happened from not washing, right? And it puts a rhyme and reason behind your belt colors. And it makes sense, at least internally.

It’s also complete bunk. There are at least four completely fabricated falsehoods in this story.

First, the tradition of not washing your belt is not ancient. As near as I can tell, it’s not even a Japanese tradition – it’s American in origin. The Japanese have a cultural obsession with cleanliness, and this tradition makes no sense within that culture.

Second, this isn’t actually the way white actually changes colors over time – unless you wash it. If you don’t wash it, it’s going to become brown from dirt first. White fading to yellow is something that only happens if you do wash the dirt off.

Third, even within the discipline of karate, belt colors are highly non-standard between schools. In many dojos, these colors won’t even relate to the colors they actually use on their belts. I’m continually caught off guard by students coming in from other dojos with various belt colors – which is why I’ve stopped even asking. I just ask how long they’ve been training. That gives me a much better idea of their status than any color does.

Fourth, these aren’t even the original belt colors. Gichin Funakoshi’s original belt color system for Shotokan (as near as I can tell, the earliest karate belt coloring system), was white-brown-black. That kind of fits the legend. But these are predated by Jigoro Kano’s Judo belt color system, which used the colors light blue – white – brown – black. That’s right – the original belt system didn’t even start with white!

It’s a fun story. Enjoy it when you hear it. Heck, even tell it a few times if you must. But recognize it for what it is: a story, not the history of the martial arts.

Next week: Karate Belt Colors Weren’t Invented For Lazy Americans

A Student In Need


We’ve been through some wonderful times together as a dojo. Unfortunately, sometimes the times aren’t so great. Last weekend, tragedy struck close to home for one of our youngest students. Ethan LaPietra came out on Saturday to perform wonderfully at his belt test and earn a well deserved blue belt. Sadly, the next day he found his world turned upside down when his father passed away from a heart attack.

Beyond the terrible emotional shock, the family now also finds themselves facing a financial shock as well. In addition to the immediate costs associated with the tragedy, they’ve also lost a major pillar of their support. The family has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help ease their burden.

This morning I made a contribution to their campaign. Now I’m asking any of our students and friends who are able to chip in a little of their own to help out. Even a little bit can help in their time of difficulty.

Thank you all, as always, for your generosity.

Sensei Russell Newquist

[Cross posted to my personal blog]


fightlikeaphysicistThere’s a reason that martial arts are called “arts.” There are a lot of myths, half truths, gray areas, and outright lies in our field. And even when we can demonstrate with practical experience that something works, martial artists all too often have a terrible understanding of the science behind why it works. In that environment, Fight Like a Physicist by Jason Thalken is a real breath of fresh air.

Thalken’s tome is basic rather than exhaustive. Anybody who’s had a college level physics course should be familiar with most of what he lays out. The problem is that all too many college educated martial artists leave their physics knowledge outside the dojo door, swallowing whole whatever their sensei feeds them. The even bigger problem is that too many senseis are feeding them a diet of junk science.

And it’s a shame, because there’s very good, very real science to back up much of the martial arts. Thalken covers the key concepts here – center of mass, momentum, energy, rotational physics, and leverage. Again, none of this is groundbreaking to any college level physics student. But what Thalken does is to apply the physics to the body and explain how it interacts when human beings fight one another.

In the second section, Thalken discusses some of the ramifications of the physics he lays out in the first section. Importantly, most of this section is given over to safety. His discussions of padding, gloves, helmets and concussions should be required reading for any martial arts instructor or coach.

My only complaint about this book? As I mentioned above, it’s not an exhaustive tome. It’s more basic than I would have liked, covering a lot I already knew (I did take college level physics). I’d very much love to see a follow on to this book at a far more advanced level. Mr. Thalken, if you’re reading this, know that I’d buy such a book in a heartbeat if you wrote it.

For what it is, though, this book is top notch. Five out of five stars, and I would consider this book a necessity for every serious martial artist.

This post has been cross posted to Sensei Russell Newquist’s personal blog.

2015 American Budo Society Seminar Recap

The 2015 American Budo Society annual seminar was last Saturday. I was asked to teach a session for the first time this year. Although that was a lot of fun – and a great privilege – it also meant that I didn’t get to participate directly in any sessions other than the ones I taught personally. However, several of my students did, and they all reported a fantastic time. I know that I had a great time, too.

Thanks to Sensei Ernie Doss, Sensei Leh Shabel, and Sensei Kevin Swanner for teaching the other sessions this weekend and a special thanks to Sensei Joe Medlen for hosting the seminar this year. Also thanks to the folks from Knuckleheadz Ju-fitsu for driving up from Mississippi for the weekend!

I’m also pleased to announce that Madison Martial Arts Academy has been asked to be the host dojo for next year’s seminar. We plan to be back at Grace Presbyterian Church again, ready for more fun and learning. See everyone again next year!

Never a Master

Yesterday, a student answered a question with the words, “Yes, master.” I told him point blank that I don’t like the term and asked him to please not do that again in my dojo.

To be fair to the poor kid, a young boy of six, I was trying to get the class to respond with a hearty, “Yes, sir!” What can I say? This is the south – we still pride ourselves on the sirs and ma’ams. And the way most dojos have twisted the word “osu” is so ridiculous that I prefer to avoid using it in the dojo. Plus, let’s face it – at that age, discipline is a large reason parents are bringing their kids to the dojo in the first place.

But I don’t like the term master and I especially don’t like it when it’s applied to me.

I Am Nobody’s Master

This is America. Last I checked that means that I am a free man and you are a free man. I don’t have a master and neither do you.

I do run my classes with some discipline – especially my youth classes. I’m sure that my students think of me as something akin to a drill sergeant. But as I tell all of my students, the main role of discipline in my class is just to keep class itself moving. It’s hard to teach a group of students anything if they’re all talking, each about different things, and nobody can hear the teacher. If we aren’t moving in the same direction as we drill we’ll walk through each other – or, worse and more likely, punch, kick or otherwise hurt each other.

So yes, discipline is important. But I am not anybody’s master. Nobody has to listen to me. If they don’t like it, all they have to do is leave. We don’t do contracts in our dojo, so nobody is on the hook for anything they haven’t already paid for or attended. I am not your master and I don’t want to be.

Always a Student, Never a Master

StudentMasterNow, I know what many of you are about to say. “But Sensei, what about master in the technical sense, meaning one who has mastered a subject.” For that I refer you to this wonderful graphic that Century shared on their Facebook page this morning.

Life doesn’t let you tread water. It’s like a river with a current. If you’re not constantly striving to move forward the current will eventually pull you backward. As martial artists, we must constantly strive to continue to improve ourselves. We must constantly push to learn more, to refine our techniques, to push our skills to the next level. If we don’t, we’ll only move backwards and atrophy. As my good friend Sensei Joe Medlen of Quiet Storm Jujitsu likes to say, “The day I know everything is the day I stop teaching.”

My students shouldn’t worry that I’ll stop teaching anytime soon – I still have plenty to learn. I am not a master but still a student.


6 Martial Arts Myths and the Truths Behind Them

The martial arts world is home to an awful lot of myths, misconceptions, half truths and sometimes even outright lies. Most of this comes from well meaning individuals – including well trained martial arts instructors – who are merely repeating what they’ve been told. Only a small portion of it is malicious, coming from hucksters and scam artists hoping to part people from their hard earned money. Even so, all of it is damaging – not just to those who are fooled, but to the martial arts community as a whole.

The selection below is just a very few of the martial arts myths that I’ve encountered over the years. As you can see, most of these myths are based on some small nugget of truth that has been expanded and twisted into a dangerous form.

Myth 1 – Super Secret Ancient Knowledge of Awesomeness

To hear Hollywood – and some martial artists – tell it, the only martial arts worth knowing are the ancient, secret styles taught by monks hidden away in fantastical mountains who never teach their mysteries to outsiders. The older and more pure a martial art is, the better. The fewer people who have studied it, the better. The less well known it is, the better. And all modern martial arts are just “watered down” versions of these ancient secrets.

Truth: Go ask the US Army if the oldest “martial” fighting systems are the most effective. That noise you here is their laughter. What was that? You can’t hear it over the roar of a cruise missile or the whump-whump-whump of an Apache attack helicopter? Yeah, me either. But trust me, it’s there.

The truth is that combat is always evolving. The oldest and most ancient martial arts began when a caveman picked up a stick and whacked another caveman over the head with it. Honestly, it probably began even before he figured out to use the stick. If we went back to the “oldest” system, it would be that simple.

There is a bit of truth to the idea of secret styles. They do exist. In fact, most martial arts styles were highly secretive up until about the 19th century. Until gunpowder revolutionized modern warfare (and remember – Japan was completely isolated until the 1890s, so this took a lot longer there), what we know now as the formalized martial arts were closely held military secrets. You didn’t let them out because you didn’t want your enemies to use them against you.

In this day and age, though, many of the secret arts have been aired to “the public” – meaning that they’re accepting students outside their secret clans, not necessarily that all the info is on YouTube. Outside experts have had a chance to study the once hidden styles. And although they’re often effective, they’re not anything particularly more effective than the less secretive styles. There are only so many ways the human body can move, and at this point in human history we’ve studied most of them quite well.

Nevertheless, some of these older and ancient arts can be a lot of fun to learn and can still have utility in the modern age. There’s nothing at all wrong with studying them. Just don’t expect them to be amazingly superior to other arts.

Myth 2 – Strength Training Will Make You Slow as Christmas

I’ve heard this one a million times from martial artists. The argument goes something like this: “I don’t do weight training because weight training makes you big and bulky and that makes you slow.” The raw ignorance of this argument makes me groan every time.

Truth: being big doesn’t make you slow. Being fat makes you slow. More muscle will make you faster. And stronger. And you’ll take a hit better. In short, for the martial artist there is NO downside to strength training. It will improve your martial arts in every way.

Some out there will even try to claim that strength training has to be done “right” to benefit martial artists. Specifically, they’ll say that you have to focus on “explosive power” rather than strength. There’s no doubt that this is the best way for martial artists to strength train. But almost any basic strength training program will benefit you, even if it’s less than perfect. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Start incorporating free weights into your training regimen today.

Myth 3 – All Fights Can Be Ended With a Hug and a Song

OK, technically speaking this myth doesn’t usually come from martial artists. It comes from others outside the community who think that all of life’s problems can be solved by sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya.” They live delusional lives in a make believe Cloud Cuckoo Land in their heads.

Truth: Most fights actually can be avoided – and that’s exactly what we encourage our students to do. Avoiding the fight altogether is the best way to defend yourself. The simplest ways to do this are to avoid trouble areas (your local police can tell you where the high crime areas are; these days they might even have it online) and keep your wits – and your calm – about you.

But there are people out there who, for one reason or another, want to hurt you. And they aren’t always so thoughtful as to keep themselves pent up in predictable “bad areas of town.” Thankfully, most of my readers live in a place and an age where those people are rare. It was not always so – and in many parts of the world still isn’t. Even so, some people out there will do everything they can to hurt you.

It may be because they’re high. Or it may be because they’re depressed. Or poor. Or hungry. Or they’ve had a hard life. Or, occasionally, even because they’re evil. It doesn’t really matter why. They are out there. Sometimes the only way to defend against these people is with violence.

Myth 4 – Fights Only End When One Combatant Gruesomely Kills the Other

This one is most commonly spread by a certain breed of macho martial artist that is obsessed with showing off how “deadly” he is. Every technique he trains is either deadly or maiming, and “nothing else works in the street.” Anything that isn’t heavily destructive to the opponent is “useless” and “not worth your time to learn.” They would have you believe that the only way to end a fight is to brutally maim your opponent, kill him painfully, and disfigure the corpse.

Truth: The fight ends when one combatant or the other no longer has the will to fight. Killing your opponent will definitely achieve this goal. Maiming and dismembering him often will as well. But quite often it’s possible to achieve this with far less destruction than either killing or maiming. Especially if you, like most of my readers and students, live in suburban 21st century America.

Most self defense situations are not fights to the death. Most of my students will never face off against a crazed meth-addled skinhead streetfighter in a dark alley on the wrong side of the railroad tracks – if for no other reason than that I’ve taught them (I hope) not to enter dark alleys on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Most of my students, even those in law enforcement – are unlikely to find themselves in hand-to-hand combat to the death (it is at least plausible that my military students might find themselves there; but even so, if they end up in that situation unarmed, something has gone horribly wrong).

Far more likely for my students is to find themselves at a bar, either trying to control a drunk friend who’s gotten a bit wild or fending off a frat boy who’s had a bit too much to drink and wants to start something. End that fight with a maimed or dead opponent and you can count on a nice vacation at the county jail. Even my law enforcement students are likely to find themselves up on excessive force or police brutality charges.

Ending a fight without killing or maiming your opponent is certainly much harder. It definitely takes more training and more skill to do so successfully and without putting yourself in undue danger. But it is possible, and for serious students in the modern age it’s definitely worth striving for.

Myth 5 – This One Thing I Read on Facebook is All I Need to Defend Myself

I don’t know about you, but I see these pop up in my feed all the time – sometimes from very experienced martial artists who should know better. “Here’s this one thing I learned from a self defense class, and I’m passing it on so that YOU, TOO can now be safe!” OK, usually this is more like a list of 10 or 20 things. And if you read it closely, it never actually says, “this is all you need to be safe.” But people spread it around that way and act as if it is.

Truth: Learning effective self defense doesn’t happen from reading one article online, taking one 2 hour self defense course, or even a few short weeks of martial arts training. The problem is that even though you can learn a lot of things mentally, it takes time to train your body to actually perform correctly. There’s no way around it. That’s just how the human body works.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to learn from these articles – although even there you have to be careful. Many of these articles contain “tips” that sound good but are of dubious value in the real world. Occasionally they even contain a few ideas that are downright dangerous. But most commonly the true danger comes from the complacency of thinking that reading this article, taking this one class for a few hours, etc is all you need to do to keep yourself safe.

Learning real self defense takes time, effort and energy. There are tons of quality programs out there that will teach it to you, if you’ll take the time to learn it. If you’re not ready to invest the time, that’s fine. Really, it is. You have to make your own choices in life of what you want to spend your time on. But please, please don’t let yourself fall into this trap and believe that you know what you’re doing when you don’t. It’s a recipe for getting yourself hurt.

Myth 6 – Anyone With Less Than 20 Years of Training is Worthless in a Real Fight

On the flip side of the previous myth comes the belief that until you’ve spent [5, 10, 15 – pick a number] years training, you’re completely worthless in a fight. Hollywood is mostly responsible for this this one, portraying all martial artists as those who have spent decades training and meditating in temples (ironically, this is when they’re not portraying them as students who have learned all they needed to learn in two weeks). But some martial artists and some styles help to portray this myth as well.

Truth: Most decent martial arts training programs can teach you enough to competently defend yourself on the streets of suburbia in about 9-15 months. Will you be amazing in that time? No. Hollywood level? Absolutely not. Tournament winning? Depends on the tournament bracket. Taking on all comers? Nope. But against your average street thug (typically untrained and not really interested in a serious fight), you’ll probably do fine after about that much time.

Now, don’t get me wrong: after about a year of training there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Our program runs about 3.5-4 years for a black belt (longer for younger children). And remember, black belt doesn’t mean “expert.” It means “advanced beginner.” But expert level isn’t really necessary for most people for competent self defense.

Also keep in mind that some styles of martial arts specifically take longer to reach a level of real-world effectiveness. Aikido, for instance, is focused on a more “passive,” less destructive approach to self defense. It can be very effective – if you’ve got about a decade to put into practicing it. But if they aren’t supplementing the program with other things (and many Aikido schools do, to their credit), it will take a lot longer than a year to reach any level of effectiveness. But in most schools, 9-15 months will get you somewhere useful.

These are just a very few of the many martial arts myths out there. What are your favorites?


8 Benefits of Martial Arts Training

“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?