The Best Martial Arts For Kids- Toddlers To Teens (Revealed)


Many parents are at a loss when considering the time consuming and sometimes costly proposition of enrolling their children in martial arts classes. This is compounded by the fact that they generally don’t know the ins and outs of the martial arts world. If this sounds like you, then this parent’s guide to children’s martial arts options is for you.

The best martial art for most kids is Karate. This is true for most children in the majority of their formative years. This is only true however, if other styles like Judo, Kali, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, or Boxing are cross-trained at later stages of their development.

Throughout my over thirty years of martial arts training, competing, and instructing I have had experience in many styles. I have gained instructor levels in styles in the categories of striking, grappling, and weapons. It is by these categories and by each major age group that I detail for you why Karate is the best for your child (and what are the close runners up).

Table of Contents

The Overall Verdict On The Best Martial Arts For Kids

The point totals here are a sum of the totals in the individual age brackets later in the article. Those brackets account for many aspects parents and kids are looking for in the best martial art style. The grand totals and rankings are in this chart.

RankingsStyleTotal Score
#1Karate155
#2Judo140
#3Kung Fu140
#4Kali (Escrima)135
#5Taekwondo133
#6Wrestling96
#7Brazilian Jiu Jitsu92
#8Kickboxing84
#9Kendo79

The Overall Best Martial Arts For Kids Explained

(All styles are linked to other articles I have written on this site if you want to learn more about each system.)

  1. Karate is the all around winner of best martial art for kids throughout most age groups. Its balanced approach to striking, grappling, and weapons along with its character and physical development in early years set it apart from the rest. Later cross-training with other more category specific styles is recommended.
  2. Judo comes in at the second position, but in reality is a strong contender for the top spot than the points let on due to some of the core important techniques it teaches. With falling being the number one reason for injury in nearly all age brackets, the importance of Judo falling techniques cannot be underestimated. Its complete lack of striking or weapons training is the reason for its position in the overall list.
  3. Kung Fu is a close third, but lacks in the takedown training of Karate or Judo and has a slightly complicated approach. The interesting circular aesthetics of Kung Fu cannot be denied, but with those outward theatrics comes a steeper learning curve with little practical application.
  4. Kali (Escrima) is in the forth position whereas for adults it is by far the most practical and effective self defense art. This is due to the nature of its bladed weapons based techniques. Though it has a fairly standard set of grappling and empty handed striking techniques that are integrated, it is based primarily on carried and improvised weapons. It becomes a great kids option with padded and foam weapons. To read about Kali’s high position as an adult self defense art, see my article here.
  5. Taekwondo comes in at the fifth spot with its advanced kicking technique base. Though it excels at some balance and developmental aspects, its complete lack of grappling and weapons training is a big minus for motivation and practicality. This is underscored by its overt downplay of hand techniques as a whole.
  6. Wrestling is one that some may not have even thought of as a martial art. Yet, being one of the original Greek sports in the first Olympic games, it is one of the older ones on the list. It totally lacks striking or weapons training, but for the right child it should definitely not be overlooked as a cross-training option.
  7. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a style founded by modifying the techniques of Judo to become more ground submission based. It’s major flaws go beyond no striking or weapons. The total lack of universal controls on teaching dangerous adult techniques to children are a major concern. Judo has these in place. BJJ properly modified for younger children is in essence… Judo. That being said, it is one of the top styles for teens for good reason. See the teen section to find out why.
  8. Kickboxing is in some ways similar to the striking styles at the top of the list. However, it lacks totally in grappling and weapons and it’s training methods are too extreme for many younger kids. The amount of contact and live resistance training necessary to become proficient in its limited technique base is over the top for most kids before the teen years. For teens, it is a great option whether it is the American or Thai version.
  9. Kendo is a unique Japanese system that may not be widely offered in many areas. Similar to fencing, but with bamboo swords and armor, the sport his highly ritualized. It may not be for all kids, but is actually used in middle and high schools in some parts of the world to teach fair play in sport. It can be a very interesting alternative.

Now that you have the list of the BEST martial arts for kids, if you were actually looking for the most FUN martial art for kids, then see my article here for all the fun.

Does The Best Martial Art Mean The Best For Your Child?

Not necessarily. Everyone knows that their child has differences and similarities with other kids. It is my hope that the rest of this article can better inform every parent and help them choose the best style of their specific child. Age, limitations, interests, and many more influences could change the best martial arts rankings for your child.

Having a an autistic child with fears of being touched take Judo or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would simply be torture.

Likewise, having an obese child that is shorter than most of their friends take Taekwondo is not only a bad choice, but could set them up for a bad self image.

That child would do excellent in Judo, no kidding.

Later in this article I will go into how to choose the best option for your family, but for now lets look at the different age groups and how the best martial art for children changes with age.

Want to see my recommendation for the best piece of martial arts equipment you can get for a child or adult? Check out my article on the best kicking bags for any age or style here.

The Best Martial Art For Toddlers (2 – 4 years old)

These Little Ninjas from ages two to four years old have a special set of needs and precautions when starting in the martial arts. The best art for them will be centered on a more developmental path than a strictly character and technically focused goal.

At this age it is actually more important to model for them the difference between sport, play, and fighting. In other words, they need to be taught to ‘not hit’ their friends and when it is ‘okay to hit’ targets and pads. Likewise, it is fine to throw a stuffy or a throwing dummy, but never your little sister.

The line for most kids at this age between reality and fantasy is blurry at best. We shouldn’t expect them to understand the difference between aggression and self defense either. Clearly defined and simple techniques and rules for their use are key.

The martial arts best for children of this age range will focus more on elements related to their mental, social, and physical growth. Some styles will be much more suited to this than others. The following should help parents wanting to aid in their son or daughter’s development.

Best Toddler Martial Arts – Complete Rankings

The criteria used here to judge each style is based on the most important milestones for the different ages as delineated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One noticeable column that has been left out is the virtue training category. At this age, the focus should be on non violent, peaceful conflict resolution in all techniques. Regardless of the style, if this is not the central theme of every drill or game, then it is likely that the instructor is not the right fit for toddler training.

Here is a link to the CDC website to get an idea of how these categories align with toddler level milestones. You can see the expected goals for each age by following the links on the left of their page.

Important Milestones For Toddlers – CDC website

Each martial arts style is ranked here on a scale of 1-10 for each of the milestones categories listed.

StylesStanding Balance
And Coordination
Copying And Following
Sequenced Directions
Kicking – Gross Motor
Arm Motions
Jumping and Running Total
Karate1010101040
TaeKwonDo1010101040
Kung Fu1010101040
Kali (Escrima) *1010101040
Judo15**510535
Kickboxing10510530
Wrestling1051117
Kendo555116
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu *551112

* Important: These styles must be majorly modified to be applicable in this age group. Many times this will depend heavily on the instructor of the class.

** Judo gets a higher score than all other martial arts for the extreme balance that it develops. See the study in the toddler grappling section below.

Still not convinced that martial arts is a good option for even two year olds? I have an article here that talks about what two year olds can learn from Karate.

The Best Toddler Striking Martial Arts

These are our little treasures that are literally copying everything they see. At this stage in life, they need positive role models, strictly defined boundaries, and simple instructions and goals.

Here is an explanation of the top martial arts for toddlers in the striking category.

KARATE For 2 to 4 Year Olds

Karate is by far the winner of the top spot not because it is the best for every child at every stage of their lives. Karate is the best martial art for kids because it is the most universally applicable style for most children in their lower to intermediate years.

The reason for this is the emphasis on the well rounded individual. The idea of being good at many things and an expert at nothing is a Japanese Samurai ideal. If the time comes that takedowns are needed and your style only teaches kicks, your skill will be useless in that situation.

If a child must defend against a stick wielding bully and their only defense is a boxing style based on trading one blow for another, they may end up in a world of hurt. Likewise, many a grappler has found that wrestling shirtless on a concrete or gravel surface spells many weeks of pretty intense pain.

Karate blends takedowns, hand strikes, ground strikes, kicking techniques, and weapons use and defense. Some styles of Karate obviously are going to be more practical than others, but in general most of them are at least nominally well rounded.

There are also the benefits from training in Karate that are added bonuses to its intended skill sets.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Palermo, Italy, data showed that training in Karate helped children significantly increase:

  • coordination
  • speed
  • reflexes
  • strength
  • memory
  • attention
  • executive functions

My recommendation: With this all being said, I would suggest cross training in more dedicated weapons and grappling arts by the tween years. Karate is primarily a striking art and without specialized training in weapons based and grappling based arts, some could exploit weaknesses in these areas.

In my Online Karate Classes for kids I start off with an equal mix of Kali, Karate, and Judo for young kids right from the beginning. I intend on children moving on from these beginnings to other instructors with specialized training appropriate for their age groups.

To see information on my philosophy in teaching Karate, visit my page here on the virtue and character the martial arts training can bring. To see more information on my classes for young kids online, visit this link for all the details on my Little Ninja Online Karate classes.

TAEKWONDO For 2 to 4 Year Olds

TKD tends to be a favorite of parents for many reasons.

  • It is a simple style without techniques too complicated for younger children
  • It stresses keeping distance and defense through evasion
  • The tennants of Taekwondo ressonate with parents looking for discipline and character development
  • It is strongly sports based which assures parents that children will not be taught to be violent

It holds the second spot to Karate mainly due to its lack of upper body or ‘hand techniques’. This as well as its lack of grappling and weapons training, cause it to fall in the rankings as children grow older.

Taekwondo is not without its draw for older kids and teens though. Its international sport and Olympic status make it a choice for many teens looking to take competition ‘to the next level’.

Want to learn more about Taekwondo? Check out my article here on the belt ranks, organizations, and times to black belt for Taekwondo.

KUNG FU For 2 to 4 Year Olds

Kung Fu is a more universal term in the Chinese culture. It doesn’t only get used for the martial arts. It is utilized for any form of craft or skill that has been honed to a high degree.

As it pertains to the martial arts, Chinese Kung Fu is characterized by flowing, synchronized, and aesthetically based movements. It is based much more on circular motions than styles that later developed like Karate and Taekwondo.

For younger students, unless adequate modification is made, some of the techniques and teaching methods could be a bit complicated. It is a great style of martial arts for kids so inclined that more resembles the art of dance than many others. It truly makes for great demo teams and exhibitions.

Though it can be successfully learned by many young learners, for some it may be much more of an uphill climb than the more straight forward styles of Karate and Taekwondo.

The Best Toddler Grappling Art

Grappling based arts, or martial arts that focus primarily on wrestling movements, are a source of great fun, physical fitness, and extreme saftey training for any child.

JUDO For 2 to 4 Year Olds

When speaking of young children and grappling, there really it only one choice. Judo is an Olympic sport and one of the foremost influencers in the state of modern martial arts today. The entire sport side of the martial arts owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jigoro Kano and his offshoot of Jujutsu… Judo.

This can also be said of all belt ranking systems which were designed and first implemented by Kano for his Judo students.

When compared to the more unregulated art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the Greek founded system of sport wrestling, Judo is the hands down winner for toddlers.

Judo is known as “The Gentle Art” for good reason. It has no strikes, no weapons, and for younger children no arm, leg, or neck submission techniques. It is based on taking the opponent down and holding them there until an adult arrives. This goes for the sport and self defense side.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an amazing art for teens and above that came from Judo. It is more based on the ground side of the equation. The problem for young children is that it has no safeguards on instructors teaching armlocks, leglocks, or choking techniques. Judo has these in place as internationally defined rules.

Important Safety Bonus: Due to the nature of most injuries at any age coming from falling, Judo is especially valuable for younger children. Judo has extensive curriculum based on how to take falls safely which is copied and incorporated into many other styles. This element alone makes it one of the top contenders for best toddler martial art.

Judo also shines in helping younger children with balance and coordination. Not only does it do this more than most any other style of martial art, it also outshines other activities known to offer these benefits as well.

In a study published by the University Henri Poincaré – Nancy, France, Judo was shown to be by far superior to even dance in promoting balance in its students. Even at a professional and expert level, Judoka (practitioners of Judo) were proven to have better command of their bodies in terms of both balance and coordination.

My recommendation: I would highly recommend the combination of Judo and Karate for a coordinated, safe, and excellent foundation in the martial arts for most any child. These are both Japanese styles with great character development, well rounded training, and great added benefits.

The Best Toddler Weapons Art

Toddlers and weapons? Is that really a good idea? You better believe it is. Tell a toddler that they can never use a sword and every crayon and straw becomes one when your back is turned.

They will simply do it at the wrong times, in a dangerous way, with the wrong instrument. Teach them how to use a foam one and set the rule that it is only for martial arts class… then you have one happy little munchkin.

KALI (Escrima) For 2 to 4 Year Olds

Kali or Escrima is a Filipino based system of traditional, carried, and improvised weapons integrated with empty hand striking and grappling. It is not a traditional martial art that many will come across on its own, but it may possibly be offered as an additional style by some instructors or schools.

The answer that I have heard most in my decades of teaching children to the question, “What is your favorite martial art class?” has most definitely been, “Kali!” Combine this with the hand eye coordination, reflex development, and self defense against swung objects and you have the makings of an excellent kids martial art.

Here is the rub. This is a weapons based martial art. Moreover, it is a largely bladed weapons based art. This can turn off some to its use with kids.

Here is the good part. With a kid’s love of swords, and the plethera of foam and padded options, this sort of training for young kids turns out to be great fun and very safe. This also feeds their need to swing things that resemble swords while giving parents and teachers the mantra, “Only in martial arts class.” to use.

My recommendation: This for younger children may not be offered as a complete stand alone style, but that should not stop some instructors from either incorporating the techniques or offering it along side another. This really turns out to be most children’s favorite if delivered by a qualified instructor that knows how to teach the age group.

Best Martial Art For Adolescents (5 – 8 years old)

Adolescents will move into the more traditional practices of a martial art. There is still a definite need for age consideration in the technique selection by instructors, but now the more traditional methods of teaching, training, and testing can be used.

In this section we will look at things like the amount of character development training usually found in an art as well as the self defense taught at a their level. Though this is different in some aspects than toddler training, it by no means should be considered the same as categories like teenage practice.

Best Adolescent Martial Arts – Complete Rankings

Here again, each style is rated on a scale of 1 – 10 in each of the categories listed.

StylesVirtue
Instruction
Balanced
Self Defense
Age Appropriate
Techniques
Training
Safety
Total
Karate1010101040
Judo105101035
Kung Fu105101035
Taekwondo101101031
Kali (Escrima) *51051030
Wrestling11101022
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu *555520
Kendo515516
Kickboxing115512

* Important: These styles must be modified to some extent to be applicable in this age range. This must be done by the instructor as there are not universal age limits present in these styles for certain techniques.

Top Adolescent Striking Martial Art

With the addition of ‘older kid’ style techniques and training, the striking arts usually will utilize memorization and demonstration of techniques to much higher degree. Along with a more direct concentration on the history, culture, and language of the martial art, character development also comes into play.

KARATE For 5 To 8 Year Olds

Here again we have the balanced approach of Karate in the lead. This age group can also benefit from its structured practice method and emphasis on self defense. The sport side of Karate is a significant part in some schools and styles, but unlike styles like kickboxing, it is not the central focus.

This makes harder contact partner ‘sparring’ not as necessary for learning the techniques as in a style like boxing. Though at this age and at the appropriate belt and mastery level sparring can occur, it usually is in a controlled manner.

Top Adolescent Grappling Art

Grappling for this age range may entail more partner resistance training drills and even sparring. Yet, here we should not see submissions being taught or used. The malformed frontal lobes of their brains and unformed consciences of these kids are not prepared for strangulation and arm barring techniques.

Judo For 5 To 8 Year Olds

Here again we find the Japanese jacket wrestling style of Judo. It and its derivative Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are both great additives to any striking and weapons systems. For older teens, BJJ especially can even become so controlling at higher levels that it can negate some striking threats altogether.

For this age group Judo serves as a great bully deterrent. A swift takedown and holding position can take the fight out of most bullies. This also keeps your child out of trouble with teachers and school administrators bound by sometimes unreasonable ‘no tolerance policies’ that punish even acts of self defense. When no strikes are thrown punishments are harder to hand out.

Top Adolescent Weapons Arts

KALI (Escrima) For 5 To 8 Year Olds

At this point I would like to introduce you to something called the Siniwali. This is a word in Tagalog that translates to ‘pattern’ or ‘weaving’. This is one of the most fun and impressive partner training drills in most of the martial arts. (Though the not too often seen Judo throwing Katas are pretty cool.)

These patterns of hitting rattan sticks together can be learned and even mastered at this age with careful practice and precautions. I have personally helped kids at this age take home tournament champion weapons trophies with these demonstrations of hand- eye coordination and timing.

For those with the opportunity to get your adolescent started in a program that teaches Siniwali, just do it. These are by far some of the most fun things to learn in most all of the martial arts. Well, maybe not learn, but demonstrate… absolutely.

The Best Martial Art For Your Tweens (9 – 12 years old)

At this point I feel I should give a caution. Due to these kids getting taller and taking on some of the attributes of teenagers at these ages, we shouldn’t equate them with those in their teen years. There is a big difference.

In the teen years we will see that adult style techniques can begin to be practiced. Yet, in the tween years they should still be excluded from their training.

The mental, emotional, and rational level of children in this age group leaves them vulnerable. They simply can’t be trusted to consistently react in non-emotional ways to stress and conflict. Teaching dangerous techniques to them could lead to disastrous results.

Best Tween Martial Arts – Complete Rankings

The results here are similar to the ones for adolescents. The ranks are calculated on a 1 -10 point scale.

StylesVirtue
Instruction
Balanced
Self Defense
Age Appropriate
Techniques
Training
Safety
Total
Karate1010101040
Judo105101035
Kung Fu105101035
Taekwondo101101031
Kali (Escrima) *51051030
Wrestling11101022
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu *555520
Kendo515516
Kickboxing115512

* Important: These styles must have some techniques restricted by the instructor as there are no universal age restrictions in place.

Best Tween Striking Martial Art

Striking arts for tweens may look more like the sport styles we see in most martial arts tournaments. Sparring at upper levels becomes an integral part of their training. If it is done with the proper gear and with proper instructor guidance, it can be a fun part of the process.

KARATE For 9 – 12 Year Olds

Karate offers children in this age range enough of a goal to strive for without the possibility of serious injury. With the character development still in place and controls on contact levels in sparring, Karate is a great choice for both self defense and safety.

Some styles like boxing and kickboxing will introduce full contact bouts at this age range. It is highly ill-advised to allow nine to twelve year olds to fight at full contact levels.

In a study conducted by researchers from the Royal Children’s Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, two important reasons were given why children at this age should not be partaking in full contact matches like the ones in boxing and kickboxing.

  1. In the case of chronic encephalopathy, which takes years to develop, kids have little to no concept of the risk of injury. This is especially true over time.
  2. Society as a whole, and rightly so, has no taste for a sport that involves its youth inflicting acute brain damage on an opponent.

Most every style of Karate as designed for youth practice has safeguards against full contact matches involving youth. This also applies to Taekwondo and Kung Fu. It is just the well rounded nature of Karate that sets it on top.

Want to see a comparison between Karate and Taekwondo? I have an article here about Karate vs Taekwondo that you should read.

Best Tween Grappling Art

At this stage, many children will want the option to compete at tournaments. The safest tournament grappling options available for them at this age will be the ones that exclude locking and choking techniques. One style rises to the top with this as an option combined with character development, culture, and historical instruction.

JUDO For 9 – 12 Year Olds

Judo satisfies the grapping sports and self defense requirements for most parents and kids at the tween level. There are endless avenues to pursue it as well. This can be taken as serious as the Olympic Games all the way down to inner club tourneys.

Judo has enough controlling and self defense capabilities to aid most any child at this development level. Though the threats they may face could be larger and more able to cause harm than ones faced by younger children, Judos throwing and controlling techniques are more than adequate for the task.

Best Tween Weapons Art

KALI (Escrima) For 9 to 12 Year Olds

Like with the adolescent category, the main choice here is Kali.

There are tournament options available at this level in some areas that are unique experiences. Like with Kendo, there are helmets and types of body armor for kids to wear and padded weapons.

Some instructors and schools may have fully formed competition teams, but more than likely the training at this age will have to be fairly self motivated and directed.

The Best Martial Art For Teens (13 – 17 years old)

In the teenage years we find the full range of options open up to many kids looking to take on more adult level challenges. Some of these styles offer options at younger ages, but caution should be observed that instructors are not teaching inappropriate techniques below the teen level.

As with the charts above, this table is based on a 1 -10 point scale in the categories listed.

StylesSport TrainingEffective
Self Defense
Age Appropriate
Techniques
Training
Safety
Total
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu1010101040
Submission Grappling *1010101040
Judo 105101035
Karate 105101035
Kali (Escrima)101051035
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) *101010535
Wrestling 105101035
Kickboxing101010535
Taekwondo 101101031
Kendo 101101031
Kung Fu 55101030
* These styles have not made an appearance on other lists due to techniques and training practices that are inappropriate or dangerous for younger children.

Teen Striking Martial Arts Ranked

This is the time that it is safe for parents to enroll in styles like Mixed Martial Arts, Muay Thai Kickboxing, or Submission Grappling as long as full contact striking competition bouts are not attempted until adulthood.

Keep in mind that the frontal lobe in all humans isn’t fully developed until after the teen years. With this comes a lack of reasoned responses and future planning. Your teen will need your help, even if they think they don’t, in deciding the best style for them.

MIXED MARTIAL ARTS (MMA) For 13 to 17 Year Olds

A 13 year old will be much different than a 17 year old, and this means the mixed martial arts training should be as well. That being said, MMA training is a very good option in the teen years.

To be honest here, MMA is not actually a martial art style. It is an amalgamation of striking and grappling arts, and not always the same ones from school to school and from one instructor to the next.

What it usually consists of for teens especially is the combination of one grappling style and one striking style. The striking styles are usually a bit less developed technically than those studying the complete specific style alone, but their sport application could be close. Adults may have multiple styles in each category combined together.

This is also considered mainly a ‘No Gi’ system with very limited ranking possibilities. For those looking for more structure, this may not fit the bill. But for those looking for application in one on one self defense situations, this could fit the bill better than many others.

Some schools will promote kids fighting in MMA style cage fights. This should be avoided until adulthood when the child can make their own decisions as an adult. Without these full contact competitions this is a good option for some teens, but it is not for everyone.

Make sure you and your teenager know exactly what is being taught and expected from your instructor of choice.

KARATE For 13 to 17 Year Olds

Once the teen years hit, Karate won’t always make the top of the list for all kids. This is simply because sport plays a major role in the life of many of them. Yes, Karate has a sport side, but the martial sports that are popular today are more strictly focused on kickboxing and some form of grappling.

For others it will still hold its sense of wonder and interest. The Japanese culture, history, and ways of practice will still resonate with many that don’t find the pure pragmatism of sports like MMA appealing.

To be fair, Karate becomes more of the Samurai method in late teens and Adulthood. Samurai believed that to be an expert at any one thing made you useless in another. Your time was not spent wisely. It was their way to be good at many things, but not an expert at any one of them.

MMA, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Kickboxing, and other popular styles today have the opposite mentality. They hyper focus on one or two areas and neglect others. This could make Karate for older teens and adults somewhat less appealing. This doesn’t mean less useful, just useful for some more than others.

I strongly recommend one piece of equipment for any age that can take the techniques learned in the martial arts and bring them to the next level. I go over many of the best kicking bags by age and by style in my article here.

Teen Grappling Arts Ranked

At this point, grappling and submissions should definitely be a consideration for most any teen. The controlling aspect of a good grappling system can even at times negate the striking power of an opponent. This is huge for any bullying situation.

BRAZILIAN JIU JITSU (BJJ) For 13 to 17 Year Olds

At this age is where BJJ or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu shines. The main focus of BJJ has been to start with the ground grappling of Judo, add wrestling, and come up with thousands of variations, counters, and transitions. For the teenage level of intellect, learning BJJ is definitely achievable.

Not only this, the submissions that come from this constant modification allows for many different grappling strategies to compliment body type and size. A smaller opponent with enough skill in BJJ can definitely defeat a larger attacker using this style.

The reason it appeared so much lower on the other lists was due to the inappropriate nature of most submission techniques for younger children. In the teen years, they are more able to handle the responsibility that comes with learning to dislocate someone’s joints and choke holds.

The one thing that sets BJJ apart from something like wrestling and submission grappling is the use of the Gi in at least half of its training. There is ‘No Gi’ training, but the base of the system revolves around the Gi.

For some this means less practicality, but when long term training is the goal to reach high proficiency in complicated techniques, belt ranks and the respect a Gi brings to training sessions has high appeal.

Want to read a comparison of two of the most popular grappling styles for kids? I recommend my article here on BJJ vs Judo.

SUBMISSION GRAPPLING For 13 to 17 Year Olds

Submission grappling is a lot like BJJ, but to the seasoned grappler, it holds many differences. It is more based on catch wrestling than Judo, which is a submission style made famous by Karl Gotch in the 1970s (though it predates him by over 70 years). It combines wrestling and years of added ‘hooks’ or submissions that competitors would create to defeat their opponents.

This style is distinctly done without the Gi or wrestling jacket. Many grappling tournaments are held around the world which attract grapplers from styles like Judo, Sambo, BJJ, Wrestling, and many others.

Teens that are not attracted to the Gi style grappling will enjoy this more wrestling based ‘No Gi’ option. As is evident from its name, the main purpose is to put the opponent in a hold that either can cause pain, dislocation, or choking in order to make them give up or ‘tap out’.

Teen Weapons Art

Most ages of teens will not be able to carry a defensive weapon in places like schools, busses, or even in their part time jobs. This is one reason many don’t think about practicing arts that focus on weapons.

The other aspect is the grave trouble using such a weapon in a non-defensive way could bring. Many teens may say that they are looking for self defense, but when tempers are high they are really wanting something they can use to settle a score. If this might be the case for your teen, a weapons style may not be for them.

KALI (Escrima) For 13 to 17 Year Olds

Kali is by far the most effective, but also potentially dangerous martial art today. Though this has been recommended for smaller children, it has always been with the caveat that the instructor or school greatly alters its offerings.

Though it can be fun for younger kids, the techniques they learn should only be a fraction of what it has to offer. Teens will be getting into the full style even if only by the mid teen years.

Teens looking to develop this style for when they are allowed to carry defensive weapons in their adult years will learn knife, baton, stick, and improvised weapons use.

Parents and instructors alike should make honest and serious judgements on whether the teenager is capable of controlling their actions before training in this style.

Most styles of Kali or Escrima have integrated empty handed striking and/or grappling techniques. These may not be enough on their own. Other empty handed styles may be a good option for parallel training.

To learn more about Kali (Escrima) for kids see my article here on Kali martial arts.

How To Choose The Best Martial Art For Your Child

There are many important factors to consider when choosing the absolute best martial arts systems, instructors, and facilities for your child. Will they learn self defense and character from this style or will it simply teach them to be aggressive and violent? When is the right age to start in each style? How do I choose not only the best style, but the right instructor, gym, or school?

The answers to these questions can affect your child and your wallet either negatively or positively. So, when choosing a style from the many martial arts systems out there, a parent should have some answers right up front.

Read through these and keep them in mind as you consider the data from earlier in this article. An important note to make here is that even though a style may be better for one age than the other and have more interested students, it still doesn’t mean it is the only choice for your child.

Ultimately, the information in this article should be a tool to help you decide the best of the martial arts for YOUR child. That is a decision only you are qualified to make.

Should You Even Put Your Kid In Martial Arts?

I have written many blog posts on how the martial arts can benefit most every kid and at most every age. If you would like to see a detailed rundown of how a quality instructor in the right martial art style for your child can foster virtue, character, and ethics, see my article here.

Yet, not all martial arts are the best for children of all ages. Some styles should be reserved for older children and even the teen years.

So, if we are talking about just any martial art that happens to have a class or an instructor near your home, then the answer to this question is, NO. You shouldn’t have your kid join just any class simply because it is a martial art style.

On the other hand, in the right system for your child’s interests and age, the martial arts could literally change their lives. If it is an age appropriate style with character driven instruction, from instructors determined to be positive role models, then the answer is a resounding, YES. You should most definitely put your kids in martial arts lessons.

What Is The Best Age To Start Martial Arts?

This question deals with one of the central issues concerning parents and their future Little Ninjas. The best martial art for children changes in a general sense as they get older. This is not to say that any style shouldn’t be practiced by older children, teens, or adults.

The offerings of some styles are smaller in scope and therefore more applicable to younger children even though like many skills, teens and adults can take them to heights that can amaze. There are also some styles that have a high percentage of their offerings either too dangerous or too complicated for younger children.

With that said, when speaking of starting martial arts in general, there is a firm and fast rule.

The earlier the better.

This is true for one main reason. The time to mastery of the techniques in all martial arts is measured in years not days. This can be readily seen by looking at high level martial athletes. Once a sport is established, it becomes rare that a highly successful competitor didn’t start their training in their younger childhood years.

In the martial arts, this may mean that the style that they start with may change to others by their teen or adult years, but the basics are learned usually at an early age.

Interest Is Foundational To Long Term Motivation

For anyone taking the martial arts and especially for kids, interest or the amount of fun someone has will be a large factor in whether they reach a black belt or not. There is a saying that many martial arts instructors use.

A black belt is just a white belt that didn’t quit.

For many kids, this will require more than the satisfaction of achieving short term goals to reach a long one. This may work for some adults, but for most kids, the fun or ‘coolness’ factor must be present.

Whether it is a movie, friend, sports star, or parent that has inspired them to train, it will ultimately be up to their instructor to present it in a way that meets their expectations. They have to cause them to want to know more on a weekly basis.

In the end, it will be the student motivated by their instructor that will have to find the inspiration to see it through to the end. That combination will be the best martial art for that child.

The Instructor Is Key

Like stated in the previous section, the instructor is a main component in whether a style is the best for a child. A good instructor can make a mediocre style choice many times better. Likewise, a poor instructor can make even the best style a chore to learn.

What I tell a lot of prospective parents of smaller children is that the style for that age group matters much less than who is teaching the class. The style and techniques it contains is more important for older kids, but the instructor can make them more or less right for a child by exponential factors.

The Best Martial Art For Kids Takeaway…

For all parents looking for that perfect fit for their Little Ninja, I wish you the best in your search. Hopefully you have found some information here that makes your decision easier.

I teach Karate Online for those interested in getting younger kids started. But I will be honest, my silly jokes and playful style is not for every child and tends to wear thin on older kids pretty fast. My teaching style is for the two younger age groups above.

The reason I say this is to illustrate that when you search for the best martial arts available for your kid, keep in mind that the instructor can really make or break a class. If one instructor of a style didn’t seem to work, the information about the best styles for most kids will still hold true. You will just need to find an instructor that meets your needs better.

If you are interested in getting a younger Little Ninja started in the martial arts, check out my Little Ninja Online Dojo here. I would love to help them with their first steps in their lifelong journey.

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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