Martial Arts


Martial arts are various methods of armed and unarmed combat that originated centuries ago in Asia, primarily China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. The most popular styles include karate, kung fu, jujutsu, judo, aikido, tai chi, tae kwon do, sumo wrestling, and kendo.


Martial arts usually have the dual purpose of physical fitness and self-defense. Some martial arts emphasize one purpose over the other, however, the very name of “martial” arts implies defense or combat.


Almost anyone can learn and practice martial arts, from fitness beginners to those already fit. It has become equally popular among males and females and all age groups in Europe and North America. Most gyms, fitness centers, and community recreation facilities offer at least one martial arts class or program. There are several hundred styles and variations and each offers a unique regimen from gentle movements to violent kicks and hand chops. Most have mental or consciousness aspects attached, including meditation and a feeling of general wellbeing. These usually are not emphasized as much in North America as in Asia. The most violent martial arts, designed specifically for combat, are taught in many of the world's militaries.


Martial arts have traditionally represented a large number of offensive and defensive fighting techniques derived from Asia. Historically, the techniques were developed in India and then taken to China by Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of the famous Shaolin School. During the Sui and T'ang Dynasties these skills were spread to Korea, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brazil. Throughout most of these early years the martial arts were secretly developed and transferred by word of mouth due, in large part, to repressive feudalism. Since World War II, members of various militaries carried the arts worldwide. Information technologies, such as the Internet and social media, have exposed a much broader world audience to the martial arts.

BRUCE LEE (1940–1973)

Martial Arts

(Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

On November 27, 1940, in the Chinese year of the Dragon, another son was born to the Lee family. The infant Lee made his film debut at age three months when he appeared as a stand–in for a baby in the American film, Golden Gate Girl. Shortly afterward, the Lee family returned to Hong Kong. With his father in the entertainment industry, Lee often visited movie sets. At four years old, he had his first walk–on, then two years later, he had his first real part. As the young Lee grew out of childhood, he became more and more involved with street gangs.

A strong, hot–tempered youth, Lee was constantly getting into trouble. On the streets, he became known as the Little Dragon. In order to develop himself into an invincible fighter, Lee decided to study the traditional martial art of kung fu. Lee began studying at the Wing Chun School, which offered a sophisticated Chinese martial arts system that stressed economy of movement and springing energy. Under the tutelage of wing chun master, Yip Man, it became clear that Lee was especially adept in martial arts. After quickly learning the techniques, Lee began to add his own adaptations and variations to the traditional moves. Frowned upon by the established wing chun community, Lee was asked to leave the school.

Not yet out of high school, Lee was offered a film contract with Run Run Shaw, a powerful producer in Hong Kong at the time. Lee announced to his mother that he would quit school and accept the offer. Although his mother was certain that Lee would someday be successful, she was also concerned that he at least earn his high school diploma. When Lee was picked up by the police for street fighting, his motherforbade him to accept Shaw's offer, and sent him to the United States to live with family friends and to finish high school. To support his education, Lee worked at Ruby Chow's, a popular Seattle restaurant, living in the restaurant attic and working at night as a busboy and waiter. After a few months of restaurant life, Lee quit and began teaching kung fu to his fellow students. One of those students was Linda Emery, whom Lee married in 1964.

Shortly after, the couple moved to California where Lee devoted all his time to teaching his new technique called Jeet kune do. Eventually, Lee operated three schools for jeet kune do, in Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles' Chinatown. He called these establishments the Jun Fan Kung Fu Institute, bearing his Chinese name. As Lee became more and more successful as a martial arts pioneer, he finally had his first big break in 1966 with “The Green Hornet” television series. When Lee felt he would not attain success in Hollywood, he returned to Hong Kong with his wife and two young children. It was in Hong Kong that Lee experienced the stardom he yearned for in the United States, and his legacy consequently spread long after his death in 1973.


While the words “martial arts” may conjure up images of Bruce Lee films, they are in reality a group of usually graceful exercise movements that keep the body and mind strong and healthy. They can be performed by young and old, and range from simple stretching and meditative exercises to more complicated and demanding physical activities requiring mental concentration. The training is usually done without weights or special equipment and can be practiced alone or in a group. Most large gyms and fitness centers offer classes in at least one type of martial art. Some martial arts styles, such as karate and tae kwon do, are more challenging and emphasize general physical conditioning. Others, including tai ching and chi kung, are less physically challenging. Their benefits include more energy, balance, flexibility, and a general sense of well-being.

There are dozens of martial arts styles, including kung fu, a general term to describe Chinese martial arts. Among the most popular martial arts styles globally are:

In traditional Chinese culture, the life force or energy flow of all living things.
A system of legal, economic, and social repression in medieval Europe and Asia from the ninth century to the fifteenth century.
Social media—
Internet technology and Web sites where people share information and interact socially, such as Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube.
An ancient Chinese philosophy that advocates simple living and accepting the natural course of life.
Yin and yang—
The Chinese philosophy that there are two opposing but complimentary forces in the universe.

Other popular martial arts include: aikido, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, capoeira, arnis, escrima, kali, aikido, kung fu, sumo wrestling, jeet kune do, muay thai, krav maga, and American kickboxing.


Most martial arts involve a warm up to prevent injuries in training and promote joint, muscle, and tendon flexibility. A cool down follows most regimens and serves to reduce the accumulation of blood and fluids in the muscles and reduce the breathing rate.


There are some risks in martial arts but generally they are not as great as in other sports. This is because in most martial arts, the body sets its own limits, making it difficult for sprains and other injuries to occur. Martial arts that use weapons carry a small but inherent risk of injury.


Martial arts training usually does not greatly increase muscle mass; rather it replaces fat tissue with lean tissue and increases maximum endurance, flexibility, and mental well-being. In martial arts, the focus is on twisting the trunk, executing kicks, and counterbalancing hand movements. The high leg kick in many martial arts, such as judo and kickboxing, helps develop the muscles of the trunk and inner thighs. For women in particular, martial arts helps tone and strengthen the lower abdominal, hip, and thigh muscles.

Martial arts also offer other benefits, including improved concentration, vision clarity, body development, aerobic conditioning of the heart and lungs, and training in body control that is valuable in any other sport or physical activity, according to the United States Ju-Jitsu Federation.

See also Kickboxing ; Tae kwon do ; T'ai chi .



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Goodman, Fay, et al. The Complete Step-by-Step Guide To Martial Arts, Tai Chi, and Aikido. London: Anness, 2011.

Link, Norman, and Lily Chou. The Anatomy of Martial Arts: An Illustrated Guide to the Muscles Used for Each Strike, Kick, and Throw. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2011.

Scandiffio, Laura. The Martial Arts Book. Toronto: Annick Press, 2010.


Gwin, Peter. “Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu.” National Geographic (March 2011): 100.

Rooney, Martin. “Build a Bruce Lee Body (and Defend It): 3 Time-Tested Martial Arts Training Moves That Will Transform Your Body and Your Life.” Men's Fitness (May 2010): 26.

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Soo, Kim. “Taekwondo for Health: Train Smart Now or Pay the Price Later.” Black Belt (September 2011): 72.

Young, Robert W. “Crash Course: 4 Judo Techniques Every Mixed Martial Artist and Self-Defense Practitioner Needs To Know.” Black Belt (April 2011): 52.


United States Martial Arts Association. (accessed January 20, 2017).


Karate Canada, c/o Canadian Olympic Committee, 500 W René -Lé vesque Blvd., Montreal, H2Z 1W7, Canada, (514) 252-3209, Fax: (514) 252-3211, info@karate, .

National Association of Professional Martial Artists, 14143 Denver West Pkwy., Ste. 100, Golden, CO, 80401, (800) 985-7573, Fax: (727) 693-9581,, .

U.S. Judo Federation, PO Box 338, Ontario, OR, 97914, (541) 889-8753, Fax: (541) 889-5836,, .

U.S. Martial Arts Federation, 1850 Columbia Pike, Ste. 619, Arlington, VA, 22204, (703) 920-1590,, .

Ken R. Wells

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.