Types of Martial Arts Styles: A Complete Parent’s Guide

When we speak about martial arts types, we are more concerned with general categories. When we talk of a martial arts style, we are usually referring to a specific named system. There are more types or categories of martial arts than most people think.

There are 4 main types of martial arts

  1. Striking: Unarmed strikes using many different parts of the body
  2. Grappling: Throwing, standing wrestling, and ground wrestling
  3. Weapons: Armed systems that use a variety of weapons
  4. Meditation: Systems focused on Spirituality and inner strength

Let’s now dive into each of these categories and find out more about what they entail and some of the main martial arts styles in each. This will be a great tool for any parent deciding what route is the best for their child.

Beginning the martial arts is an exciting time for any family, but making the wrong choice for your child’s body type and temperament could take much of the enjoyment away that could be had with the right type and style.

Striking Martial Arts Types

When we speak of striking types of martial arts it resonates with images most have of Karate, Boxing, and Kung Fu. We have seen it in movies and on television series from cartoons to live action.

There are several elements that can be identified across the styles in this type:

  • Hand and arm strikes: This includes closed and open handed strikes, but also elbows.
  • Foot and leg strikes: These are kicks using different parts of the foot or the shin. Knees can also be classified in this group.
  • Head Butting: This is not a commonly used or known strike in today’s sports martial arts culture, but a very effective set of strikes

Styles Included in the Striking Type of Martial Arts

Striking arts come from all time periods and many different cultures throughout history. Each offers a unique take on these techniques. Some were designed emphasizing one type of strike, while others were designed specifically to combat other martial styles.

Here is a list of some of the main styles that employ striking as the majority of their systems.

  • Karate: Karate originated in Okinawa Japan in the mid 15th to the late 18th centuries with strong influences from Chinese martial arts styles.
  • TaeKwonDo: Is the national unified striking art of Korea developed in the mid 20th century after the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea.
    • It was originally called TangSooDo or ‘the China Way’, but was changed in an effort to develop a unified Korean culture and national identity.
    • TaeKwonDo (‘Foot Fist Way’) utilized a majority of kicks with some hand techniques.
    • Many of their advanced techniques revolve around jumping and spinning kicks.
    • TaeKwonDo is very popular style for children.
  • TangSooDo: This is the predecessor style to TaeKwonDo and has many similarities.
    • It focuses on kicking with less emphasis on hand skills.
    • The main difference between it and TKD is the sport style sparring employed by Olympic style WT TaeKwonDo and the form or Poomsae used.
    • There is normally less padding used in TangSooDo, but not universally.
    • This is a great style for kids to learn.
  • HapKiDo: HapKiDo is one of those styles known for its use of both standing, small joint grappling and a complete arsenal of striking techniques.
    • Truth be known, HapKiDo includes all of TaeKwonDo (and by default TangSooDo) strikes within its system.
    • This qualifies it as a striking style.
    • The other side of HapKiDo will be discussed in the grappling section.
    • HapKiDo usually is reserved for teens and above.
  • Muay Thai: This style from Thailand employs boxing style hand strikes with powerful kicks with the shin, usually to the midsection and legs of an opponent.
    • Knee and elbow strikes are also strong techniques in Muay Thai.
    • Due to stances, the hand techniques are usually not as powerful as boxing, but the leg techniques more than make up for it.
    • Parent’s should use caution when considering this style for their children. It is an especially brutal style of pugilism normally with bouts in boxing rings. Though techniques can be learned without fighting in a ring, this is the main goal of the style.
  • Boxing: Boxing is arguably one of the oldest forms of martial arts in the world today.
    • Though, this is not to say that it was always in the form that it is seen in today’s matches. It is reported to have been used in ancient China thousands of years ago.
    • This style is one of those that is easy to learn, but difficult to master.
    • There are a limited number of punching techniques and stances. The rest is developed around speed, stamina, and toughness.
    • Some parents want their children to learn boxing, but caution should be used. Brain injuries and death are higher in boxing than in any other sport.
    • The story of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (Mohammed Ali), one of the most famous boxers in modern times shows what can happen to those later in life that box too hard and often.
  • Kickboxing: Kickboxing is a combination of the kicks of TaeKwonDo, Karate, and Muay Thai into one hybrid style of martial art.
    • Like boxing and Muay Thai, the goal for kickboxing is to prepare for bouts in a boxing ring, usually in a full contact scenario.
    • Today, kickboxing uses boxing style gloves, but usually no leg protection.
    • Like Muay Thai and boxing, there is also no head protection.
    • Parents again should use caution when picking an instructor wishing to teach their child to kickbox. The techniques can be learned and used in a controlled environment, but they are based usually on toughness and not evasion or blocking techniques.
  • Kung Fu: Kung Fu is a general term that refers to many Chinese striking styles, in the same spirit as Karate that references over 20 different styles.
    • To read all about the Karate styles and their belt systems click here.
    • Some of the styles of Kung Fu are considered short form, which means shorter stances and strikes. These were reportedly developed in the northern mountainous areas where terrain called for such stances.
    • Then there is long form, which again refers to the longer stances and striking distances utilized in the southern plains areas.
    • Though these designations may have more mythical history than fact, there is a definite difference in the two. There is also styles like Wing Chun that was specifically designed to defeat other systems.
    • These styles are popular options for parents looking for a style for their children.
  • Nutting: I include this here in this list because it is so unique and surprisingly effective.
    • This is a style formed much more recently in the UK.
    • It sometimes utilizes a scarf usually carried in the back pocket that is wrapped around an opponent’s neck. Once the opponent’s neck is secured, a rapid series of headbutts are deployed.
    • See, I told you it was unique. I can not stress enough how effective head butts were in my competition days. Though I never formally studied nutting, I can attest to the effectiveness of the techniques.
    • Headbutting is incredibly difficult to stop. That is why most all martial sports have outlawed it. All matches would essentially turn into headbutting contests.
    • Oh, and by the way, this should never be taught to children. Nope, never.

Check out my article here about the best kicking bag options for all of these striking styles here.

Parent’s Notes About Striking Types of Martial Arts

There are many different levels of aggressiveness to the styles of striking in this category. For children one of the main criteria parents should look at is the amount, intensity, and required padding for free sparring drills.

Free sparring is a live action drill where kids use the techniques they have learned in striking practice in a subdued way against partners in the class. This is usually done with lots of padding on and the instructor of the class should set the tone to be one of respect and control.

Firstly, free style sparring should be reserved for older children. If it is done too young, smaller children will just equate it with fighting. As children grow, they are more able to understand the need to practice their techniques on friendly moving targets. Sparring can be taught to these older children as self defense training and not fighting.

Next is the attitude of the style and more importantly the instructor when children are facing one another using striking techniques. Some have the unscrupulous intention of training small children in cage fighting styles.

Many instructors are rightfully opposed to this mentality and see it as an opportunity to teach respect and discipline and hone self defense skills. Parents should be wary of children’s gyms, classes, and instructors holding up professional cage fighters and their styles as models to be immolated.

Lastly is the amount of gear required to participate in these activities. Children should be padded head to toe in order to make the experience fun and instructive. The problem is, many schools use these pads as a second revenue stream and charge high prices and require their own gear to be bought.

On the other hand, it is a good test of the bravado of the style or instructor if they speak of children sparring with little to no padding as ‘more realistic’. These are children. Realistic training is for adults. Spar with no pads yourself. Strap some pillows on those kids and let them have fun.

Grappling Martial Arts Types

A grappling martial art is one based on control. They attempt to command their opponents balance, position, and momentum. Most styles of grappling have similar components to one another.

Grappling similarities across styles and systems:

  • Throws or take downs: This is taking an opponent off of their feet and placing them in a prone position.
  • Hold downs: Holding an opponent on the ground in predetermined ways either until help arrives or until a joint lock or choke hold can be applied
  • Joint locks: Positioning the body to utilize leverage in order to dislocate joints
  • Choke Holds: Constricting the airway or blood flow in the neck of an opponent to cause unconsciousness

Styles Included in the Grappling Type of Martial Arts

  • Judo: Jigoro Kano, a Japanese Jujitsu expert decided that Jujitsu was not able to live up to its potential with the wide variety of techniques that could not be practiced on resisting opponents at full speed.
    • He took out the grappling techniques of Jujitsu that were considered too dangerous to do without restraint and thus was left with what we know today as Judo.
    • It is a Gi wearing style that stresses falling technique, throwing technique, and hold downs.
    • There are chokes and arm bars that are used, but they are downplayed in the sport rules so see much less action.
    • Judo is an Olympic sport and a great choice for parents wanting their kids to learn self defense.
    • There are general rules in Judo that forbid choking techniques to any child under 13 and joint submissions to children under 16. This has made it a great kids style.
  • Sambo: Sambo is sometimes called Russian Judo.
    • It utilizes many of the techniques of Judo and shares much of its rule system in sport.
    • Where Sambo differs is its addition of leg lock submissions.
    • Also in recent years, it has followed the example of many cage fighting organizations and added boxing and kickboxing to its style.
    • These practitioners also wear a Gi top they call a ‘Kurtka’, but they wear shorts instead of pants and wrestling style shoes.
    • Usually this style is taught to adults. Sambo was not as popular worldwide as Judo and it is not as common to see it taught in a children’s class. With the addition of more extreme striking it is becoming more popular, but also more dangerous for kids.
    • For this reason it may be hard to find a class, and if you do to trust that the instructor will not teach submissions to children. There are those that would take out these techniques in a kid’s setting, but there may be those that do not. Use caution.
  • Japanese Jujitsu: This ancient form of Samurai stylized fighting is highly regulated by tradition and based in large part on ancient weapons.
    • The reason it makes this list is that traditionally, most all Japanese Jujitsu systems have quite a lot of grappling techniques in their styles.
    • This is where Jigoro Kano derived Judo.
    • Due to Judo’s influence in the Japanese culture and the world, these Jujitsu systems began to focus more on small joint manipulations from standing and the traditional and cultural weapons of Japan.
    • There is a resurgence that has occurred in the last 50 years of complete grappling, striking, and weapons systems going under the names associated with Japanese Jujitsu.
    • Much of their grappling is trained with small joint locks or side by side with the complete style and ranking system of Judo.
    • To see more about their ranking systems and style of training visit my post on Jujitsu belt ranking order.
  • Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: This more recent form of Jiu Jitsu is essentially the newaza or ground grappling techniques of Judo.
    • Although, these techniques have been greatly expanded over the years to hundreds if not thousands of subtle variations.
    • Through the influence of wrestling and Sambo, many other techniques have entered their offerings and competitions.
    • This is a sport based style as it exists today, even though it began by using the techniques of Judo in duels against other martial arts styles.
    • This style is hard to trust when it comes to children. Many instructors have no problem with teaching joint locks and choke holds to children.
    • Those that may not totally agree with the practice may choose to exclude these techniques, but it is hard to trust whether that practice will be constant as there is no rule against it in most any governing body of BJJ.
    • Use caution when picking an instructor in this system.
  • Wrestling: This style is not often thought of as a martial art, but it is one of the oldest, staking out a significant presence in even the first Olympic Games.
    • Though, quite different than today, in ancient Greece the wrestler combatants grappled completely nude.
    • It was a very popular spectator sport in Greece and later Rome.
    • Wrestling utilizes much simpler take downs than those in the throwing style of Judo.
    • It has a much shorter pinning time in competition to score and there are no legal submissions
    • This is a great option for a grappling system for kids. Many times school systems have wrestling teams as young as elementary school ages.
    • One caution as kids get older. Competitions are taken rather seriously in some areas and cutting weight to enter lower weight categories with an advantage and diet can be a big problem later.
  • HapKiDo: HapKiDo though it has the complete system of TaeKwonDo included in its style, it also utilizes many take downs and small joint locks learned from Japanese Aiki-Jujitsu.
    • It was developed as a direct counter to TaeKwonDo and TangSooDo.
    • It has much of the same look and feel of the Japanese Jujitsu styles we see today.
    • It blends strikes and grappling together from mostly standing positions.
    • For children, this not really a viable option. The small joint manipulations are dangerous to put in the hands of children and even adults usually don’t practice them at high speeds for safety reasons.
  • Aikido: This is a form of standing grappling utilizing off balancing techniques and some small joint locks.
    • It does not employ any strikes unlike HapKiDo and doesn’t perform leveraging throws like most of the other styles here.
    • It draws criticism for not being a true grappling system as well due to its lack of controlling abilities standing or on the ground.
    • This is not a good option for kids seeing as the small joint manipulations are dangerous to practice at full speeds and could cause injury if not done properly.
    • Most Aikido schools and instructors will not take children until they are in their middle teen years.
  • Submission Grappling: This is a hybrid style that has grown out of the successes of Judo, Wrestling, Sambo, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
    • It combines techniques from all of these and normally restricts its practitioners to No-Gi style training.
    • Many tournaments have risen in this vein and most Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments have No-Gi divisions for these competitors.
    • Many of those in Submission Wrestling cross train in other forms of grappling.
    • Due to the strong emphasis on submission joint locks and choking techniques, I advise parents to look to Judo and wrestling, and in some cases ethical Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructors for grappling options over this one.
    • At around age 16 this becomes more of a viable option, but even then make sure you have an ethical teenager. If not you could be creating a monster.

Parent’s Notes About Grappling Types of Martial Arts

There are several grappling styles that fall under this category. Some adopt specific children’s curriculum for kids usually under the teenage years. They take out joint locks and chokes until they are much older. These are great martial arts choices for your child.

Others simply don’t allow children under 15 or 16 years old. They understand that even if children can perform these techniques safely, which many times they cannot, that is not the point. These techniques are much too dangerous to be entrusted to children who will be away from parental supervision for most of the day.

Still others unethically teach small children choke holds and joint locks. They come up with elaborate reasons why ‘in this day and age’ kids need to be able to protect themselves. Nonsense. Young kids aren’t going to be able to apply these to adult abductors or abusers. They will only be able to use them against other children they have arguments with.

Be very careful when interviewing potential instructors. Make sure you find out if they are going to be teaching your child to dislocate joints and strangle other children.

The point here is not can it be done safely, it is should it be done at all. The answer is no.

Weapons Based Types of Martial Arts

At first thought for most parents, this will be an immediate, no. But hold on one second. I have to tell you, some of these are great fun and very helpful for kids. The caveat is, it is highly dependent on the instructor.

Weapons based martial arts are in truth, the foundation of all martial arts. These arts stem from the military applications of weapons of war. That is the essence of where all martial arts came from before they entered the lives of non military citizens of each culture.

Weapons arts were always the primary systems of militaries and the first to be outlawed for citizens by despots and dictators. When citizens are able to defend themselves against criminals and tyrannical governments, freedom reigns.

There are several styles of weapons used in these styles.

  • Padded Weapons: Some styles use padded weapons and do live training in a safe manner
  • Wooden Weapons: Many that use wooden weapons either hit them together in patterns or use them in the air in memorized sequences
  • Metal Weapons: Either these are only used by adults in sharpened form in the air, or in unsharpened replica style by kids in the air

Styles Included in Weapons Based Martial Arts

There are so many weapons and many systems that teach them. I will try to cover the most common here.

  • Kali / Escrima: This Filipino system known by different names is based on single stick, double stick, and knife techniques.
    • During the invasion of the islands by the Spanish, the Filipino warriors held off the heavily armored Spanish using machetes and spears.
    • This style transferred to civilian life during times of unrest where many people carried blades of all sizes as daily practice.
    • Through years of technique development this highly effective martial art system based on bladed and impact weapons became one of the most effective martial arts in the world today.
    • For children this can be a terrifically fun martial art to study in its padded weapons form and rattan stick form for patterns.
  • Kendo: This martial art is based on the Japanese Katana sword.
    • There are national and international competitions using bamboo swords with contestants wearing full Kendo armor.
    • This is a very formalized Japanese art with strict ediquette and high standards of tradition.
    • The matches are usually under a minute or two in length due to the nature of what actual strikes from a Katana sword could do. The scoring is based on hitting the opponent with the bamboo sword.
    • Though it can be found, usually in Japan for cultural restoration efforts, it is not likely you will find a formal school teaching Kendo that has a class for kids in your area.
    • The other aspect is the armor. The kendo armor alone can cost several hundreds of dollars. Check out the price of Kendo armor on Amazon here.
  • Iaido: This is sometimes called the art of drawing the sword.
    • Many of the techniques are meant to simulate killing blows from the draw of a Katana that the Samurai would have carried.
    • The practice is sometimes done with heavy wooden swords, but often with actual metal ones.
    • The art can be very beautiful to watch and has meditative qualities for adults looking for an expressive martial art.
    • For children this will not be an option. It is almost exclusively for adults to practice.
    • Although, as with everything there is going to be someone willing to teach a child killing moves with actual metal swords. Go figure.
  • Chinese Kung Fu Weapons: These are traditional weapons used over centuries by the militaries of the Chinese and now used in traditional forms.
    • The demonstration aspect of these weapons can become acrobatic and very interesting to watch and train with.
    • Most of the weapons used today are thin unsharpened metal variations.
    • For children who are good at memorization and enjoy rigorously flipping mock weapons, this could be their cup of tea.
    • It is rare to see any of these weapons in competition style sparring or live practice. They are usually swung in the air to set patterns.
  • Karate Weapons: Many of these weapons are of the wooden variety, heavy constructed hard woods, and used in Kata or predefined movements in the air.
    • To get live sparring or competition, you have to look to kendo.
    • There are bo staves, sai, wooden swords, kama, nunchuku, etc.
    • Most of these weapons if used are included in the curriculum of traditional Japanese styles of Karate.
    • They are almost exclusively done in the air to set patterns.
    • For children to experience them, it usually takes a while since they are rarely taught at lower belt levels.
  • Japanese Jujitsu Weapons: These weapons are many times the same as in Karate curriculums, but they are surrounded by much more tradition and almost exclusively taught to adults.
    • Many times metal and even sharp versions of these weapons are used.
    • If you would like to see some examples, take a look at my article on Jujitsu belt ranking order here.

Parent’s Notes About Weapons Based Types of Martial Arts

At first glance a parent may dismiss anything called ‘weapons based’. But I would ask you to reconsider. Most of these systems that kids would be able to participate in would either be centered around padded weapons (essentially pillows) or Kata focused, which means memorized patterns in the air.

Let’s face it, kids love weapons. Just take a look at my article on the best kids animated series and you will see weapons, and even super duper weapons at the forefront of some extremely popular shows. Some of these styles are for adults only, but some versions of these have really well done kid’s programs.

They develop great hand eye coordination and are great motivators for kids to get in shape and engage in the classes. If you have a lazier type kid or even teen, get him or her to a class where they will put a padded, replica, or wooden weapon in their hand and you will see an energy explosion.

Meditative Types of Martial Arts

These meditative styles of martial arts may have originated in military systems, but over the years and usually through times of peace, spirituality and inner development was added. Though not originally an integral part of these styles, this spiritual aspect now is a central focus.

Though some claim these systems to have self defense properties, most in the martial arts communities would disagree. Though for those looking for these arts, it is rare that self defense is of great concern.

Styles Included in Meditative Martial Arts

There are not as many of these that are widely known, but there is one in particular that is practiced the world over.

  • Tai Chi Chuan: This style is slow movements in a meditative state, focusing on balance and breathing.
    • It has helped many elderly people in retirement and nursing homes restore some of their balance that has been lost through the years.
    • I worked with many elderly in these types of facilities doing all sorts of exercise programs. One of the top concerns we have as we get older is the loss of our balance.
    • Falls can be devastating for elderly people.
    • I was asked about exercises that could help with balance nearly every week when I visited these facilities. (Usually it was from the same residents.)
    • To be honest, kids could benefit some from this style, but I wouldn’t want to be the one trying to get them to move slowly and control their breathing in this way.

Parent’s Notes On Meditative Styles of Martial Arts

There are two main issues here.

First, is the problem of tempo and if kids would even enjoy this meditative aspect. They may be okay with it once or twice, but those little balls of energy would probably grow tired of it rather quickly.

Second, is the serious concern of the spirituality of these types of arts. Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan and others all are forms or worship in a formalized religion. Even though many ‘do’ Yoga as a stretching and health related style, those movements are specifically designed as religious worship movements in Hinduism and other related religions

Tai Chi Chuan is a form of religious expression in the Taoist religion. Now, of course if you are seeking this, you have found it. Yet many don’t know this foundational connection and it is important that it is understood.

Just make sure you are clear about the intent and purpose of any martial art before you subject your child to it.

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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