The most effective martial arts to learn first

In this article, we explored what types of information and bodies of knowledge can contribute to a physical education that prepares you for an unknown future.

If you haven’t already, go back and read that article to get an overview of the framework you can use to structure your own lifelong learning, in both the physical and mental realms.

This post is going to take a look at the most useful martial arts to learn first, if you’re new to the martial journey. Or, arts that you’d be wise to invest your future into, if your current martial practice has become stale or is no longer serving you.



The top middle square on the above diagram, labelled Military/Martial, can be defined as;

Subtle or overt techniques and movements that cover the offensive and defensive approach to dealing with external aggression.


It’s pretty obvious why it’s useful to have martial systems in your physical education. The big one is that external sources of aggression are unpredictable. You can’t deny they exist in this world. To do so is naive and potentially dangerous. Having a skillset to deal with these appropriately seems wise, as you can’t always choose what you’ll come across in this life.
“Gas Station Ready” is a term coined by the Jailhouse Strong crew and sums up this unpredictability and why you should always strive to stay ready.

For ease of explanation, let’s split the martial world into two categories;

  1. Grappling arts
  2. Striking arts

1. GRAPPLING ARTS

The only grappling arts you need to start with are BJJ, Wrestling, Judo and/or Sambo.
Each of them contain the principles you need to objectively overcome, restrain and injure a larger, stronger opponent, whether on the floor or standing. Out of those (I’m biased), BJJ will hit the most birds with one stone.

Why not some of the other grappling arts?
One reason is because their systems are not rigorously tested in the heat of competition to discover what techniques are objectively useful against a resisting opponent. Competitions are excellent screens; they filter out the superfluous techniques of a martial system very quickly.

The beauty of Brazilian JiuJitsu is that it was designed for the smaller, weaker person to be able to reign victorious from positions that are thought to be less advantageous, for example, lying on your back on the floor. Also the movements are so varied and diverse, you cover a plethora of directions and vectors in any one session, meaning your agility and movement vocabulary will improve over time, just from training alone.

The early UFC events showcased just how powerful BJJ was against a fully resisting opponent. Go and watch the first 5 UFC events from the late 90s and you will see how the Gracie family created the event as a test, later becoming a proving ground to showcase BJJ to the world.
This actually changed the global martial arts landscape for the better, but that’s another story.

2.Striking arts

There are more striking arts than grappling ones in the martial world. There’s a range of possible reasons for this but what’s important is being able to sift through the bullshit and know which arts are worth your time.
Again, taking the idea of testing competance under the pressures of competition, these striking arts should form the starting point of your martial journey; Muay Thai, Dutch Kickboxing and Western Boxing.

All three of these arts are tested in the forms of competition. Strategies for each sport change depending on the rulesets, but they all have pragmastism in common, can be learned by anyone and have devastating, lethal effects against non-compliant opponents.


Muay Thai was formed in eastern asia, from a blend of Thai and Burmese cultures. As a people, these asian cultures are not genetically huge-bodied. They are slight, wirey, small framed people who developed a fighting art capable of felling any sized opponent. The beauty of Thai boxing (Lethwei, too) is that not only are punches and kicks part of the system, but elbows and knees, too (and headbutts in Lethwei). Using these areas of the body to strike with turns the average framed person into a lethal weapon, equipping them with dangerous tools that are as useful on the street as they are in the ring. Muay Thai is not only tested within the competitions of pure Thai boxing, but also within the arena of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Very often the MMA testing ground sieves out the techniques that worked in a pure Thai boxing ruleset, distilling the art form in to the most effective formulae. Surprise, surprise, elbows and knees proved to be very useful in MMA, too.

This is the same with Dutch Kickboxing and Western Boxing. Although there are fitness class versions of all these striking arts, which arguably won’t teach you the real mechanics of the strikes you are learning, at their core these striking arts have been proven to be the most useful over the hundreds of others, both in the ring and on the street.

To see more of these martial arts in the heat of competition, I recommend digging up videos of these promotions; Pride (Notorious old Japanese MMA promotion), UFC, Glory, and K-1.

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