Black Belt Vs White Belt: The Real Difference Revealed

Parents and adult students alike when first entering the martial arts world will have already come across the ideas of black and color belts. The problem for the newcomer is knowing what they all actually mean. The secret here is that there really is not a standard between styles, schools, and even instructors.

So, what is the difference between black and white belts?

A black belt vs a white belt student in competition usually will demonstrate the amount of knowledge a style has to offer. Yet, in some styles this gap is not as large as some may think. Pitting a black belt in one style against a white belt in another will not always have the expected result.

In this article we will dive into what it really means when someone wears a black belt vs a white belt. For adults this could be about the practicality behind all the effort and if it is worth it. For parents we may be looking for the character and discipline along with the self defense. Yet, in both instances legitimacy plays a central role.

Let’s find out the difference between black belts and white belts.

Is A Black Belt Really Better Than A White Belt?

The color of belts in martial arts originated in the early 20th century with Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. He wanted to tell the difference visually while in training between beginner, intermediate and advanced students. He started with white, brown, and black belts worn with the Judogi.

Was there then and is there now a true difference between a black and white belt on a student’s waist?

Black belts are better than white belts in that they show a prescribed amount of progression over where the student began as a white belt. Self-defense ability will have increased, but in some styles and schools it will be drastically more than in others.

Let’s break this down a little further so I can show you what I mean when I insinuate that black belt ability is relative.

The Style Matters In Black Belt Vs White Belt Ability

All styles of martial arts and specifically how they are trained are not equal, not even a little bit. Some systems are combat based and use bladed weapons (Kali, Pekiti Tersia, etc.), some systems are highly athletic with live competitions at their base, while others are based on memorizing mostly prearranged movements in the air.

With such a wide range of training types, it is obvious that black belts from each system will be more or less capable depending on what the style was designed for. To be fair, there will be self defense learned from most any martial art style based on martial movements.

The reality is that some will have nominal uses in modern society where everyone doesn’t carry a Katana (Japanese sword) hanging from their wooden armor. Large traditional movements were based on this and become less useful than more modern movements based on current trends.

This is not the case for all traditional technique and not all technique developed today is practical either. For instance, the inumerable variations of the Brazilian Jiujisu guard make for good techniques to fool other grapplers, but will do nothing to defend against a knife in the hands of a competent wielder.

All techniques have their place, but black belts specializing in techniques better suited to horse riding warriors will be hard pressed to utilize it in modern society.

Here are some articles I have for you that lay out most of the color belt systems in these given styles with times to black belt. You can see the progression of some are much different than others. Styles are very different.

Prior Experience

One thing that is extremely important when talking about live training (sparring, competitions, etc.) is experience. There is no substitute for experience and this goes doubly for the rule systems of the sparring or competition in place for safety and point systems used.

When competing inside of a specific rule system or in live resistance training in general, experience in similar conditions in the same style or even other similar styles is invaluable. There are cases of white belts beating black belts in competitions, but normally there is a story behind it.

Usually in a grappling event, the white belt has spent an inordinate amount of time being a white belt or the instructor has redefined the time frames for his students.

In striking events this can also be the case when a student of different systems with different time requirements for their ranks compete with one another.

There is also the possibility that other similar styles that the competitor has practiced for years came into play. Many systems of martial arts will make a student start over as a white belt, even if they have a black belt in another style. Their past experience will only come out when sparring or competitions are attempted.

Wrestlers, Judo players, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu students all have similar concepts and if entering the competitions of the other will have some advantage.

This same thing applies to boxers, Muay Thai fighters, and Karate students.

Take Muay Thai for instance. Does it have a black belt? I have an article about just that…

Athletic Ability

In some martial arts styles stamina, strength, and agility can boost a white belt’s ability to that of a black belt when the black belt is not particularly in shape. This happens more often in the styles with less sparring required to achieve rank, but can happen in most any system.

There is a quote that sums this up nicely. Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packer’s most famous head coach borrowed and adapted a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Fatigue makes cowards of us all.

Vince Lombardi

Stamina is the number one ingredient after technique in most every competition. Sometimes people lump in determination, but that flies out the window when your muscles are screaming and refuse to respond. No amount of deep breathing can restore it for a few minutes, and when seconds matter that just won’t do.

Athletic ability can also entail fast twitch motions. In Kali and Escrima reaction time is everything. When swinging real, wooden, or even padded weapons at an opponent and parrying theirs, milliseconds matter. Those with the honed and even inbred ability to react quickly have an edge.

Black belts can overcome this to some extent, but a person wearing a black belt has a specific story of training and effort. If their opponents ability is too much, the black belt’s training may not be enough.

Size Matters

Right along with athletic ability is size. Those that try to tell you that a small woman can defeat a large man using only martial arts technique is not being totally honest. Could she do better than if she had not trained? Definitely. Will she likely win in the encounter? No, not likely.

For those that would like to differ all I have to do is note one unavoidable fact. Look at every competition in martial arts. There are women’s and men’s divisions in nearly every instance. Then it goes further. There are weight classes dividing up each into more divisions.

Are there exceptions? Sure, but they are uninteresting. They are merely outliers and don’t have anything to say about the large role size has to play in the martial arts.

Black belts of small stature most definitely can beat white belts of a much larger one. That is for certain, but there is a limit. That limit disappears quickly as the larger white belt gains experience.

Make no mistake, in martial arts size matters. And in some cases, it matters more than the belt color or experience.

The Instructor Matters In Black Belt Vs White Belt Ability

Then we have the instructor and the role he plays. Not only does the type of martial art determine the distance between most white belts and black belts, but the ability of the instructor to create the proper environment for practical learning is paramount.

Two separate groups of students will have an average ability that can differ wildly even if their instructors are teaching the same style. Some of it will be individual makeups of the students according to the categories I have already discussed, but a big portion of it will come from the instructor.

We all love to think of one instructor as a rigid benchmark that deals out equal amounts of knowledge as the next. Yet, that just isn’t the case. Some instructors are good and some are not. This depends on the goals you have for yourself or your children, but make no mistake, there is a difference in instructors.

A black belt earned from one instructor could mean a totally different thing than one earned from another. This can be true even if they are teaching the same style. In this case, it could happen that a large athletic white belt from a good instructor could defeat a smaller, out of shape black belt from a bad one. Stranger things have happened.

Does A Black Belt Mean Anything?

So, what does all of this mean? Isn’t it all just subjective? Do we need to put any credence in someone wearing a black belt? The answer may surprise you.

A black belt means much more when one person wears it than when another person wears it. Practical training against fully resisting partners must be done in order for a black belt to relate to some level of self defense skill. Without it, a black belt is truly only something that holds a Gi closed.

A black belt on a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor, an Olympic Judo competitor, or an international Karate competitor means they posses a practical ability along with technical knowledge. Yet, many styles like Kali, Muay Thai, and Wrestling can claim the same, but don’t give black belts.

There is an analogy I like to give that illustrates the point even further. Even in these competitions and bouts one black belt can mean so much more than another.

Take a grappling or striking competition like many held around the world each year. Many are what is called single elimination. This means if you lose your match you are out of the competition and the last one left in the bracket is the winner.

In one of these you will have anywhere from 30 to over 100 black belts that compete. This is the important part. After the first round of matches, half of these black belts lose and are out of the competition. Half will go home with no wins and one loss.

There is a definite difference between the meaning of one black belt versus another. Though, don’t misunderstand me. This in no way means that any black belt that is properly earned means nothing. They and the techniques they stand for are useful for what they were designed for. Some just have more practical uses today than others.

What about kids wearing black belts? Are they legitimate? Well, I have an article about that too…

Can A Black Belt Wear A White Belt?

As stated before, one example where the lines between white belt and black belt can be blurred is when someone cross trains or has experience in another style. This leads to the question, “Can a black belt wear a white belt?”

Black belts in one style can definitely wear a white belt in another. When beginning a new style, even if a black belt has been earned in another, it is customary to wear a white belt. It is inappropriate and considered cheating if a black belt wears a white belt in the same style in a competition.

There are three instances here though that should be further discussed so that others don’t feel cheated or lied to.

The Prank

Instructors liven up their training many times by pranking their students. Many of these students are guys, and pranks abound when a group of guys are together for too long. That is just the nature of things.

This could take the form of having an unknown black belt from the same association or an affiliated school come in and pose as a white belt. The shock comes when sparring or live training happens. Students will immediately notice the strangely elevated ability of the ‘white belt’.

Sometimes this will be done as a teaching tool to remind students of what we are discussing in this article here. Black belts are only as good as their training, athletic ability, style, and instructor. The color of the belt is not always consistent and someone wearing a white belt may have a lot of experience and ability that cannot be readily seen.

White Belts That Have Black Belts

Many systems have completely different philosophies and employ techniques geared for a wide variety of circumstances. So, when beginning a new style or system most instructors require the student to progress through the lower ranks like all new students even if higher rank has been gained in another system.

If a Karate black belt decides to take up Judo as a second style, he will definitely have to wear a white belt. These two styles are completely different. Judo is a grappling or wrestling style whereas Karate is a striking style. Both are Japanese in origin, but both have different belt rankings for good reason.

If a Judo black belt started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he would have to begin with a white belt like any beginner in the system. Though both are similar grappling styles, they have completely different focuses. BJJ is a ground intensive style where Judo is a standing throwing style. Both share elements, but are completely different.


Now we come to a situation where tempers can raise and words like cheating are thrown around. In competitions it is important for the fairness of the matches and the proper instructive progression inherent in tournaments that everyone honestly wear ranks that correctly correspond with their skill level.

Stiff competition is a good thing, but overmatching opponents of widely different skill levels is counterproductive. Good competition breeds better technique and ability in all that participate. A black belt wearing a white belt to get guaranteed wins causes distrust and discouragement in everyone in the bracket.

This is not only bad for those in the bracket, but bad for the sport in general. These sports rely on competitors of good will that are there to learn and push themselves. If these students feel that this only degenerates into upper level students taking advantage of lower ranked ones, the sport will quickly die. No one will be interested.

Is There Any Belt Higher Than A Black Belt?

Most that think of a black belt believe that it is the pinnacle of anyone’s martial arts journey. One reason for this is the emphasis that is placed on it in movies and television shows. Yet, is this the case? Is there a belt higher than black belt?

There are many belts higher than first degree black belt in many styles. In the styles of Karate, Judo, Brazilian JiuJitsu, and others red and tan striped belts and solid red belts are designations of grand masters. There are others that don’t give colored or black belts at all.

In Kali there are designations that range from jewelry to clothing and some of these would be considered higher than an equivalent black belt in another system. In Muay Thai kickboxing there is also another way of defining rank. The championship belts won in fighting organizations are considered higher than black belts in other styles.

Black belt in many organizations is simply considered to show that the wearer has mastered the basics. There is much more to learn. The problem is, many don’t reach it and once some do, they quit their training having reached the ‘ultimate goal’.

Black belt in the original context that Jigoro Kano set up for it was to simply denote a student that could help with training others in a class setting. Today it takes on many different meanings and for some systems, higher ranks were needed.

The Black Belt Vs White Belt Takeaway…

Hopefully this has cleared up the meaning and usage of a black belt for parents and adult students alike. Teaching kids to be healthy, productive adults using education, reason, and the martial arts is our goal. With this information you can make a better, more informed decision about when, where, and how to enroll your child in the martial arts.

It can be a great tool and a black belt can be a tremendous goal to help them set. Keeping it all in perspective is key.

Here are some other great articles from that you will enjoy…

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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