Combat and play fighting is well aligned with the primal nature of many intelligent animals. In terms of evolutionary usefulness, it’s about as functional as any form of exercise can get.
Until you’ve participated in martial arts, it’s impossible to understand just how frail and “in danger” you would be during a physical attack or confrontation. Training in martial arts is great for fat loss and fitness, but it could also save your life.
I was a martial arts instructor for over 15 years and a school owner for five before launching The Rebooted Body and becoming a holistic health coach for men and women around the world.
I’ve been involved in martial arts since I was a child and I recognize it as an exciting way to improve your fitness, body composition, and health. And if you choose wisely, you’ll get some great self defense skills as a bonus (I’ll rate each of the five arts I’ve chosen for their self defense merit along with their overall safety rating because our goal is not get injured during any exercise as well!).
The reason some martial arts are so well suited to promoting fat loss and improved body composition is because they blend functional movements with strength training, cardiovascular conditioning, agility, mobility and flexibility, spatial awareness, and gross motor control.
I’ve ranked the top five martial arts for fat loss and fitness in reverse order below. Note that self defense and safety ratings did not play into the placement of any style.
#5 – Muay Thai
Muay Thai is characterized by brutal kicks, knees, and elbows. It’s a very basic and straightforward martial art that doesn’t contain a lot of flashy and fancy techniques, throws (though sweeps are common), joint locks, and so on.
Training for Muay Thai centers around developing punching, kicking, knee, and movement skills, fight strategy, and conditioning. Workouts are very tough and sparring is even tougher. It may be possible to find a gym that allows you to not spar, but it’s uncommon.
Self Defense Rating: 3.5 stars*
Safety Rating: 5 stars (no sparring) / 4 stars (non-competitive sparring)
* Lacks key ground skills.
#4 – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art characterized by devastating throws, takedowns, sweeps, joint locks and limb manipulation, chokes, and controlling positions.
Aside from wrestling and judo, it offers the unique advantage of taking another human being out of the domain of using kicks and punches in a standing position to the ground where only skills specific to ground martial arts will prevail. For this reason, it’s one of the best self defense martial arts for single attacker scenarios.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is very physically demanding, beautifully blending aerobic and anaerobic demand. It conditions practitioners in a unique way — it seems the only way to condition yourself for BJJ is to practice BJJ. Sparring is a staple in nearly every practice which is where most of the demand comes from.
Self Defense Rating: 4.5 stars*
Safety Rating: 3 stars**
* Wonderful for single attacker scenarios only, especially for women. While there is no striking, once a BJJ practicioner gets the opponent to the ground it mitigates the need.
** Due to the nature of BJJ’s focus on putting people in bad positions and manipulating their joints in dynamic situations, injuries are common.
#3 – Wrestling
Wrestling is another martial art that takes place primarily on the ground, though wrestling starts in a standup position. It features devastating takedowns and top position control. Like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there is no punching or kicking — it’s all about the control of the opponent.
Wrestling got the nod for fitness and fat loss over BJJ because there tends to be less stalling in advanced level wrestling matches and more emphasis on strength and endurance (versus BJJ’s emphasis on grace and flow).
Self Defense Rating: 4 stars*
Safety Rating: 3 stars**
* Wonderful for single attacker scenarios only. BJJ is probably better for women. While there is no striking, once a wrestler gets the opponent to the ground it mitigates the need.
** Wrestling features dangerous takedowns and body manipulation that causes it to be injury-prone.
#2 – Olympic Taekwondo
The only martial art besides judo to be featured as an olympic sport is Taekwondo. It’s important to mention that there are various styles of Taekwondo and the olympic version is much different than the traditional styles. There’s no kata, no board breaking, no throws, etc. — it’s all about developing the most devastating kicking techniques possible while utilizing one of the broadest striking arsenals of any martial art.
Olympic Taekwondo is characterized by devastating and highly dynamic kicking techniques. It emphasizes both speed and power while using flexibility and spatial awareness to deliver many techniques in quick succession to both the body and head.
Because it requires so much speed, agility, and explosiveness, training is very demanding and feels more demanding than other martial arts because it solely focuses on developing the largest muscle groups in the body (legs).
Self Defense Rating: 2.5 stars*
Safety Rating: 4.5 stars (no sparring) / 4 stars (non-competitive sparring)
* Taekwondo (by itself) does not teach practitioners how to adequately use the hands and head movement for striking or defense and lacks key ground skills.
#1 – MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)
MMA is a combination of many traditional styles but as morphed into a cohesive style of its own. As an interesting note, most of of the styles in this list have risen to the top when tested inside the MMA arena. The top MMA athletes tend to be well versed in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, and Muay Thai. There are a few title holders who have roots in Taekwondo as well.
Many gyms will allow you to participate in the very demanding training style of MMA without ever “fighting” in MMA. Light sparring is almost always required though. Training is very demanding because there are so many skills and so many positions with a strong emphasis on speed, strength, endurance, and agility. For this reason, MMA athletes are among the fittest athletes in the world.
Self Defense Rating: 5 stars*
Safety Rating: 3 stars
*MMA gives you options and techniques to utilize in any situation and can be used against multiple opponents if need be.
Have you considered participating in martial arts?
What do you think of this list? Would you ever consider adding martial arts to your activity/exercise schedule? Do you currently participate in martial arts? Join the discussion below…
Note: Training in any martial art is inherently more dangerous than many other types of exercise. However, due to the side benefit of self defense skills, it may be worth the risk.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.