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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?

Breaking Boards

Some karate dojos break an awful lot of boards (and bricks and other things). Others don’t do any at all. At Madison Martial Arts Academy we fall somewhere in between. We do break boards… and sometimes other things. But we don’t do it very often.

Before I explain why we do it the way we do it, let me first describe what some other schools do. Realize that I am not describing or criticizing any one particular school. However, everything I’m about to describe is something that I have seen happen at other schools.

Some schools do a lot of breaking. A lot. Every time they do a demo, nearly every student is breaking something. Test time comes, and if you don’t break your board you don’t pass your test. Often they even have brand new students breaking boards.

There are often two extremes working here. Both are cheating the student and both – in their own way – are actually dangerous. On one extreme, you have a class full of students breaking “wood” that is little more than paper. Either it’s extremely soft wood such as balsa or, more commonly, it’s just cut extremely thin – sometimes as little as a quarter inch thick. Or, alternatively, instead of cutting it extremely thin, it’s cut very narrow – 6 inches wide or less – and very long – 16 inches or more (in another post I’ll describe how board sizing and choices effect breaking).


Some schools even take this so far as to turn it into a marketing gimmick – and I use the term deliberately, because it’s a gimmick. It works like this: the instructor shows up in front of a group of the uninitiated, sometimes with a few of his students in tow. He gives a great speech about the transformative power of the martial arts, and about how great an instructor he is. Then he invites some or all of the audience to come up on stage. Lo and behold, you too can break a board! Should you find yourself watching one of these shows, keep an eye on the boards. Though I haven’t witnessed one in person, I’ve seen video of such a demo where the balsa wood boards literally flutter away in the wind after a break. More commonly, though, they’re just cut thin.

At the other extreme you have instructors who are pushing students – and sometimes the audience (see above) to do breaks that they really shouldn’t be doing. With correct training and form, breaking a single board of “standard” breaking size poses little danger. But the honest truth is that incorrect form can break your hand instead. Done correctly, it takes about 275lbs of force to break a standard breaking board. It only takes about 315lbs of force to break a finger (and the bones inside your hand are basically the same as finger bones). That’s only about a 10% margin of error. Get your technique wrong or your aim off and you can do a lot of damage to your hands.

The first extreme is just as dangerous, although less obviously so and less immediately. Students leave with an excess of confidence feeling that they have more abilities than they actually do. When confronted with a real self defense situation, they find that they’re far less effective than they believed themselves to be.

On the other end of the spectrum there are dojos that never break anything at all. Although less dangerous, I also believe that these schools are missing out on something. Done correctly, breaking does give you a sense of what it feels like to hit something sturdy, how much force you actually need to get through it, and what it feels like to feel something strong break under your power. Shadow boxing, hitting hand targets or punching bags, or even light contact sparring really can’t provide that.

Even so, breaking boards is of limited value to real self defense. Not no value – just don’t expect too much out of it. As the popular snark goes, boards don’t hit back. The conventional martial arts wisdom is that breaking one standard board is about the same as breaking one rib (which is really not quite true – a rib is closer to 1.5 boards) – but breaking a board really doesn’t have the same feel as breaking a bone and isn’t quite the same thing. However, since we can’t just go around cracking people’s ribs at random for training purposes, it does provide some value to feel it.

Also, there are a surprising number of martial arts instructors out there (including some otherwise very good ones) who really don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to breaking. At all. I know several personal stories of students who have injured themselves trying to perform breaks that their instructors should never have allowed them to attempt.

Your bones have a certain hardness to them. The object your breaking has a certain hardness to it. If the object you’re “breaking” is harder than the bones you’re striking it with, the bones will give before the target does. It’s as simple as that. Small children in particular should not be performing heavy breaks on hard targets, as their bones are still forming and the impact can literally stunt their growth. Light targets that are sized for children can be fine, though.

In our school, we do only light amounts of breaking. We require our adult students to begin breaking at the blue belt level (roughly 1 year into their training). At this point their form is typically good enough to minimize the chances of injury. Even so, we only break occasionally (small amounts every few months) as a small part of a comprehensive training program. There’s not really a whole lot of point in breaking more often than that.

With children, we wait a little bit longer before breaking – generally one more belt level (about 4-5 more months). We use boards that are sized for children and require a bit less force to break – but not too much less force. We still want them to have to work for it, but we recognize that children’s bodies are simply not the same as adult bodies.

With the preschool aged children we don’t do breaks at all. Some of them have the strength to break through some decent sized boards, but their bones aren’t developed enough for it to be a good idea. We could, of course, cut boards that would be safe for them to break. But there wouldn’t be a lot of point to it. Instead, we focus on teaching them solid technique so that they’ll be ready to perform the breaks – and everything else we do – safely when they’re older.