This article originally appeared as a guest post on

Photo by Gary Smith via Flickr (Public Domain)

This topic is dedicated to a friend of mine who runs his own dojo. He expressed frustration at the number of people who choose to take “Martial Arts Inspired” workouts, when they could be getting much deeper benefits from “real” martial arts training (at his dojo of course!)

So I said I’d write him a list of reasons for promoting “real” martial arts training – as a valuable alternative to the workout classes it inspires.

Of course there are a huge range of classes in the MA-inspired workout category –some far better than others, and many of them delivering excellent benefits to their students. And the same goes for what I’m going to call the “real” martial arts in this article. But let’s assume that your dojo is a good one and take it from there . . .

1. Martial arts training can avoid the false sense of security which non-contact exercise classes can give

To be fair, the creators of the MA-inspired exercise classes are often careful with their wording; and make it clear that they are not teaching people self-defence. But I’ve still met people who believe they “know a bit of martial arts” through doing non-contact MA-inspired workouts.

When you train in a “real” full-contact martial art, you gain valuable experience of striking, kicking, blocking, grappling and so on with live training partners. (NB there are also limitations to how well many martial arts prepare you for real combat, which you should always bear in mind.)

A good martial arts class is also likely to cover issues around awareness and avoidance, ensuring that students are better prepared to keep themselves safe.


2. Martial arts training can develop the mental conditioning to face a real attack (whether physical or verbal)

The non-contact elements are often promoted as an advantage of the MA-inspired exercise classes:

Boxercise combines boxing and exercise in great fun, stress busting activity to suit everyone who wants to enjoy boxing training without getting hit. [1]

But in fact, learning to take a punch, or be thrown or pulled to the ground without flinching or panicking – and knowing yourself able to handle it safely – can be HUGELY empowering experiences for students.

And on a related note, martial arts can provide valuable stress training, which helps prepare students for the psychological effects of being attacked.


3. Martial arts training is more likely to focus on imparting correct technique and developing new skills.

One really big difference between the MA-inspired classes and “real” martial arts, is likely to be the technical standards and expectations.

Generalising broadly, a formal martial arts class is more likely to focus on correct form and technique. It’s also more likely to encourage students to practise things slowly in their own time, to truly understand and perfect the movement.

You might argue that the purpose of the MA-inspired exercise classes is not to focus on technique, but is just to have fun and “let off steam”. However, your muscle memory kicks in, whether you are training correctly or not – which makes practising kicks or punches wrongly inadvisable.


4. Martial arts training can provide access to a highly-trained and experienced sensei with extensive technical knowledge

Like all the points in this article, this may or may not be true for any given class. There are plenty of highly qualified instructors teaching MA-inspired workouts – and plenty of poor martial arts instructors too.

But I think it’s fair to generalise that the level of technical knowledge is often likely to be higher in the dojo. To give an example, when the topic of whether to wear hand wraps for non-contact MA-inspired exercise came up on a chat forum, instructors gave worrying advice such as:

For me it’s a security thing […] when I wear them I feel like I can punch harder and stronger – I think it’s just that psychological trigger in the brain saying ‘hey now you’re wearing gloves you are the ultimate fighter’

Whereas a properly trained martial arts instructor would hopefully explain that for a non-contact MA-inspired workout, wearing wraps or gloves is generally to be discouraged. This is because it can make students “lazy” about learning and maintaining the correct form for a punch.

Martial arts at its best is all about accessing and learning from those who know more.


5. Martial arts training can teach more effective ways to deal with stress

A popular message in the marketing of the MA-inspired classes is that they will enable you to “release stress” and “let off steam” through your aggressive and energetic punching and kicking.

But the view that we can “release” stress and anger through aggressive acts such as punching a pillow is pretty much discredited now. Indeed, studies have shown that angry people who punch a punch bag to relieve stress end up feeling MORE aggressive than angry people who sit still and do nothing. [2]

In any case, there’s something quite limited in pretending to hit someone you don’t like. In the formal martial arts, you inevitably come up against difficult real-life training partners – and learn valuable lessons in the process.

The martial arts can also help us to deal with stress through teaching us to control our breath and mental focus. Some arts include various forms of sitting, kneeling, standing or moving meditation.


6. Martial arts training can provide enjoyable kinaesthetic and intellectual complexity and challenge

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [3] describes an ideal, blissful state called “Flow”, as a path to human happiness and self-actualisation. His conditions for flow are as follows:

[…] a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted […]

If you already train in a martial art, and it’s all going well, you’re likely to recognise this description to a tee!

And there are so many resources and options to take your training to a higher level. You can cross-train in other styles or arts. You can read thousands of books on martial arts technique or philosophy.

I don’t believe that anything like this wealth of resources is normally shared with students of MA-inspired exercise, in the same way that many martial arts insructors like to encourage their students to embrace challenge, read widely and explore the wider world of MA.


7. Martial arts training can provide an inspiring ethical context / framework for daily living

The moral / ethical side of the martial arts is a huge element of training. It’s one of the reasons we love so much to send our kids to classes. These ethics are expressed in many different ways, but to give just one example, this is the Shotokan Karate Dojo Kun; a five point guide for both training and everyday living:

  • Each person must strive for the completion and perfection of one’s character
  • Each person must be faithful and protect the way of truth
  • Each person must endeavour (fostering the spirit of effort)
  • Each person must respect others and the rules of etiquette
  • Each person must refrain from violent behaviour (guard against impetuous courage)

Whatever your personal faith, or lack of faith, or other belief system, there’s not much to object to here.

The challenges of trying to embody these in class, and (even harder) live up to them in your personal life are immense – but should pay dividends if we try hard enough.


8. Martial arts training can keep your body safe, for example minimising the risk of overextending joints

One big risk associated with non-contact MA-inspired classes is hyperextension of the joints. This is because excessive kicking or punching with no resistive target means that:

your fist or foot don’t make impact with anything and thus the impact is instead made on your joint. Of course over time this can cause your tendon, ligament or muscle to stretch and eventually tear causing injury, or it can cause your bone to wear away or damage cartilage […] [4]

Training with a pad, punchbag or partner to absorb the impact avoids this risk, although some martial arts also practise non-contact punching and kicking. Aerobics and martial arts teachers alike therefore need to insist on all students using correct technique; and being careful not to fully extend the arm or leg without a target, to avoid damaging joints and ligaments.


9. Martial arts training can teach skills for conflict resolution in day-to-day life

Another big advantage of the “real” martial arts over MA-inspired workouts is that they focus on understanding and managing conflict. We saw above that good martial arts training can prepare us psychologically to deal with stress. This is not only useful for a physical altercation; it can also give us centre and clarity when under verbal attack.

The use of martial arts metaphors and principles for resolving conflict is widespread.

Practising sparring in a controlled setting can also help us to develop soft skills useful for conflict resolution such as:

  • the ability to recognise and read nonverbal cues
  • the capacity to remain relaxed and focused in tense situations
  • the ability to experience intense emotions and recognise what matters most to you [5]


10. Martial arts training can challenge and subvert stereotypes about what women (especially) can / can’t / should / shouldn’t do

MA-inspired workouts are often marketed primarily to women as a way to “improve” their body.

In other words, the students are not there to learn to fight or protect themselves, but to make their bodies look nicer, in a safe, “feminine” environment (i.e. what is effectively an aerobics class). Such classes may claim to be empowering for women; but they can actually consolidate disempowerment.

Compare this with the martial arts, which at their best give women a wonderful opportunity to leave restrictive aspects of “femininity” behind; and explore and play around with all kinds of different ways of being. As Becca Borawski says of her early BJJ experience:

I could define myself without judgment. I could act however I saw fit. I could be strong. I could be intellectual. I could be plain or pretty. I was not good “for a girl.” I was not expected to be man or woman, or compared to archetypes of such. After a point, I too sometimes forgot I was the girl in the room. I forgot that there was even “boy” and “girl.” I was free. I was free to be the essence of me [6]

So there you go; ten good reasons why your martial arts class might just be a better and more empowering option for potential students than a MA-inspired workout . . .