How to Choose a Martial Arts School

After more than 30 years (on and off) of practicing various martial arts, there's one question I'm asked more than any other: "How do I choose the best martial arts school?" It's a difficult question because the answer depends on several factors.

Staying Close to Home

Most people choose a school based on convenience, choosing the martial art they find by accident whether it's taught in school, a fitness club, the YMCA, a city recreation center, or a retail storefront. For children especially, the choice of a school may depend on what's popular at the movies or on t.v. One year it's "Kung Fu," and the next it's "The Karate Kid," "Ultimate Fighting," or Cardio Kickboxing, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), or Brazilian Ju-Jitsu. Ultimately, you'll choose a school that's nearby.

Four Possible Outcomes in Choosing a Martial Arts School

Martial arts fads come and go. Regardless of what's considered popular, there are four possible outcomes to learning a martial art:

  1. You have a satisfying, long-term experience. You find a great teacher in a quality school.
  2. You have a mixed experience. You spend too much money or injure yourself and become discouraged, even though you may learn a few valuable techniques in the process.
  3. You waste your time and money. You think you're learning the nuances of an ancient art while in reality your instructor is inexperienced or even fraudulent and/or the school itself is focused mainly on getting your money. (The saddest part of this outcome is that you might never realize that you've been RIPPED OFF and that you've learned nothing useful.)
  4. You suffer from #3 above, PLUS, you find yourself with an instructor who is abusive, reckless, or dangerously incompetent. If you're enrolling your children, ask for references from other parents. If you're enrolling yourself, make sure you take the opportunity to observe classes (preferably unannounced) before you sign up.

Why Study Martial Arts

Choosing a martial arts school often depends on why you want to study. Here are some typical reasons, and some tips for choosing a school.


For practical self-defense classes, contact your local police department or community college and ask specifically about self-defense classes. These are typically short-term (several weeks), with a focus on practical tips for improving your chances in a confrontation. In contrast, traditional martial arts are often taught in equal parts to to pass down a cultural tradition, to enhance fitness, and to perfect technical fighting arts. If you're looking to learn a few self-defense techniques quickly, traditional martial arts don't provide the answer.


Some martial arts emphasize individual and team competition much like other sports such as wrestling, football, or basketball. Judo, a Japanese art of grappling and throwing, was conceived purely as a competitive sport like college wrestling. Tae kwon do, the Korean art similar to Japanese or Okinawan karate is also widely practiced as a competitive sport and appeared in the 2000 Olympics. There's now an active movement to make karate an Olympic sport as well. Along with karate and Chinese martial arts generally labeled as "kung fu," the degree to which the school emphasizes competition depends on the teacher or school. Some will emphasize the sport aspects of their arts and some will not seem to care at all about competition. You should make a judgment about the school based on your preferences.

Fitness and Health

Many martial arts provide intensive aerobic conditioning, strength training, and stretching. In visiting a martial arts school, watch the class warm ups and exercises. Some schools focus on explaining techniques more than on physical conditioning. If you're looking for physical conditioning, be aware that some schools may expect you to arrive to class ready (already warmed up) to learn techniques, while others will lead an intense cardio workout before moving on to the technicalities. There's no right or wrong in this case. When time in the dojo is limited, you may want more technical instruction and less exercise that you could otherwise do on your own. Just be sure to watch the class to see if it provides the kind of workout you want.

Also, keep in mind that traditional martial arts are folk arts passed down through oral traditions. The physical training — while intense — may not incorporate the latest scientific fitness methods. You might want to inquire about these training methods and consider cross-training for a better-rounded workout. Also, beware of instructors who discourage you from cross training and exploring outside interests. They might be seeking to monopolize your time and your money.

Spiritual Development

Many people who seek spiritual development or understanding of Eastern philosophies do so through the study of traditional Asian martial arts. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial arts embody various Buddhist principles, whether or not an instructor acknowledges them. The harmonizing of the body and the spirit is central to the practice of these martial arts, and the practice of kata (forms) is considered a form of moving meditation. The breath control, the enhanced awareness of one's surroundings, and the calmness of mind are all basic to this spirituality. The practical effect of this training is to make the movements you're learning second nature, to speed-up your reaction time by minimizing conscious thought, and to help you remain clear-headed to avoid confrontations or, if necessary, prevail in battle.

If you seek a deeper understanding of a particular religious or spiritual discipline, look for a temple in your area. In my experience, most Western martial arts instructors are amateur (unqualified) spiritual gurus at best and frauds at worst.

Strength, Confidence, Discipline

Many people study martial arts because they feel physically vulnerable. Practicing a martial art can provide a sense of confidence and control. (This is why parents enroll their children). This is more than simply self-defense. A martial art can't make you invulnerable, but it can help you cope with the fear of confrontation, the fear of pain, or the fear of striking another person even in self-defense. The training can help you develop basic assertiveness and confidence.

All of the Above

When you choose a martial art, you need to be aware of how well the school and the instructor matches your goals. If you choose carefully, you'll have a great experience. If you have limited choices in your area, you might have to make some compromises, but at least you'll be aware of your objectives and what your chosen school has to offer. At least you'll avoid the worst, and you'll have a satisfying and worthwhile experience.

Achieve the Best by Avoiding the Worst

Because most people will sign up for martial arts training in their neighborhoods or in their schools, here are some guidelines for making a decision — especially for avoiding the worst of the lot.

AVOID any school that discourages you from visiting a regularly scheduled class. Visit each school you wish to consider. Grab a copy of the class schedule, then drop in unannounced at a later date. Watch what's going on. Is the class orderly? Are the students respectful of the instructor and of each other? Is the instructor helpful or hostile? Humble or boastful? You can decided for yourself which of these characteristics you like.

BEWARE of free trial promotions at commercial schools. Visit the school to watch classes even before you attend a so-called "free trial." Some schools even SELL a "free" trial, which includes a uniform and three to six classes. These trial classes can put you in a high pressure sales situation. Bottom line: A quality school will let you try one or more classes with no obligation. If you visit a dojo to train, you may be asked to pay a class fee of as much as $20, which is legitimate. Many instructors rent training space on an hourly basis. If you work out with the group, you should be prepared to chip in to help cover the rent.

AVOID schools that require signing a non-refundable membership contract for any term longer than a few months. Years ago, I signed a membership contract. The instructor who had impressed me with his knowledge never taught a class after I joined. To make matters worse, my contract was sold to a collection agency and I was required to pay a monthly fee for two years after I had left the school.

Accreditation, Licensing, and Credentials

There is no single accrediting body for martial arts schools, nor are there any licensing requirements in most of the United States. Pretty much anybody who wants to teach martial arts may do so. This makes it nearly impossible to use accreditation or licensing as the basis for choosing a school. Even if you can decipher the acronyms for the various accrediting bodies, such as the WKF (World Karate Federation), JKF (Japan Karate Federation), the USANKF (U.S.A. National Karate-Do Federation), or the ITF (International Tae Kwon Do Federation), you can't rely on these affiliations to guarantee that a school will suit your needs.

The discussion of teaching credentials could take up another whole article. Belt ranks vary from school to school, so focus on the chief instructor's years of experience studying and teaching. In my opinion, teaching any martial art as a senior instructor requires a minimum of 10 years experience in training, and ideally more. There's nothing wrong with a junior black belt leading classes or helping students, but only under the supervision of a more senior instructor. In Japanese karate, a full instructor (a Sensei) status is not typically granted until 3rd Dan (third degree black belt), which generally requires at least 10 years of experience. A master or Shihan grade requires 15 to 20 years of training.

Qualities to Look For in a Martial Arts School

In seeking martial arts instruction, look for a school:

  • that let's you watch (unannounced) and try first
  • that doesn't require long-term contracts
  • where students and instructors are respectful of each other
  • where you see the right degree of physical conditioning
  • where the instructors have a minimum of 10 years of experience
  • where the emphasis is on quality and not on commercial exploitation

If the school advertises an affiliation with an accrediting body or international organization, do some reseach on the Web to confirm that the organization exists and that its mission seems consistent with what you were told at the school.

Finally, check with your local Better Business Bureau to find out if a school has a history of complaints. If you avoid the worst of the lot, chances are you'll do just fine.

David M. Kalman began studying Shutokan karate in 1974 as a member of the St. John's Prep Martial Arts Club (Danvers, Mass., USA). He later served as the club's leader. He's had some experience training in Tae Kwon Do, Shito-Ryu Karate, American Freestyle Karate, and Shaolin Kempo. Since 1996, he has trained in Seigokan Goju-Ryu under Sensei Marcos Collaco in the San Francisco Bay Area. Email Dave at or visit

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Seigokan organization or anyone else.

Copyright © 2009 David M. Kalman ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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