The Newbie Guide to Martial Arts Training (ver 2.5)

by Jeff Pipkins

So, you've never really had any martial arts training, but you'd like to start. Where do you go? Which school is the best? This guide will help you find your answers if you're willing to invest some effort.


You probably already know that there are many different styles of martial arts. Because variety abounds, it's only natural to ask which style is "best". Unfortunately, it's just not that simple. The question itself is not even complete, but even if there were a one- word answer, chances are that answer wouldn't help you anyway. Not unless you're also willing to pick up and move to a school where the "best" style is taught. And even then, it's very important to realize that two schools that teach the same style, that have the same name on their signs, are often different, many times drastically different. So the name on the sign can tell you absolutely nothing about the quality of the school. So, it's natural thing to want to ask which style is best and then go look that up in the phone book. But it is also possibly the worst way to go about becoming a martial arts student.

The more pragmatic approach is to first make a survey of the schools in your area. There are probably more schools near you than you realize, because many schools advertise very little or not at all. This guide will give you tips on finding them. Then, you should visit several of the schools, many times, before deciding where you want to train. This guide will help you by giving you some hints on what to look for and what to ignore.

This guide is here to help you find a place to train, but to gain the benefits, you must be willing to put in some hard work. Choosing a school is an important decision you shouldn't take lightly. Commit yourself to spending the time and effort it takes to choose wisely. If it takes you 2 or 3 months of searching and visiting to decide, that is certainly time very well spent, and it will be well worth it to have found a good school that suits you well.


There is little correlation between the cost and the quality of martial arts training. So why not look for quality first among the cheaper prices?! Here are some places to look to find M.A. schools:

  1. Friends, or friends of friends
  2. Bulletin boards at martial-arts supply stores
  3. Bulletin boards at Asian bookstores
  4. Local colleges (also check "continuing education" courses)
  5. Community/Civic Center Programs
  6. YMCA/YWCA/Jewish Community Centers (Programs at these places do not typically require that you be of any particular religious affiliation in order to participate.)
  7. Classified ads from newspapers and local free papers (these can often be found on your way out of the grocery store).
  8. Cultural heritage festivals
  9. Bulletin boards at Oriental restaurants. (Hint: if you decide to ask someone who works there, don't assume that they know anything about martial arts. Also, don't assume that they are, say, Chinese just because they work at or own a Chinese restaurant. Beware of stereotypes, especially where someone may take offense.)
  10. Road signs
  11. Yellow Pages under "Karate..." or "Martial Arts"

Numbers 1-10 aren't intended to be in any particular order, but personally, I would only consider #11 after exhausting the other 10 options. But when it comes down to that, I would first consider the ones that are near the route I take between home and work. You can usually find a list of many, but certainly not all, schools by looking in the Yellow Pages under "Karate..." (even if most styles there aren't Karate), or sometimes under "Martial Arts". Remember that there is little that can appear in the Yellow Pages to recommend one place over another. Consulting the Yellow Pages for a martial arts school should be considered a last resort. You will have to visit a school to make any comparison at all. If you live in a small town, you might just visit all of them. If you live in a big city, that might not be feasible. If you have a really large number of choices, be of good cheer -- you don't have to find the absolute "best" school, just a very good school where you can learn and be happy. But do try to visit more than just a few schools. Also, you must visit a school more than once to form a valid opinion.


Cost is neither the most nor the least important factor in your decision. You must weigh it according to your own priorities. Prices vary widely. I've paid as little as US$35/quarter (3 mos.) at a college, which is considered extremely low. I've paid as much as US$75/mo at a commercial school, which is considered higher than average. Some schools give you a price break if you pay lump sum for several months. Some schools require you to sign a long-term contract to join. To discuss all of the different ways to pay and the associated legalities is beyond the scope of this humble document.

Many schools charge an additional fee for each belt test. The fee may be different depending on rank. They might charge US$15 for your first test, and US$1000 for your black belt test. Be sure to ask. Some schools require that you belong (and therefore pay dues to) a world-wide organization. When inquiring about costs, be sure to ask about costs that senior students pay, as well as what beginners pay.

You will probably have to spend some bucks on an appropriate uniform or two. Uniforms vary with the school, but don't be surprised if you have to pay US$60 or more for what looks like a pair of white pajamas. You may also need other equipment, such as sparring gear/pads, training weapons, etc. Most schools will let beginners get by without a uniform for a while at first; be sure to ask to get details. If you do this, the clothes you wear in the interim should be comfortable, secure, and modest. It's prudent to avoid wearing your favorite florescent orange aerobic/dance skins or your prize-winning swimwear. Plain old sloppy sweats are a good bet.

Some arts just inherently have a higher equipment cost associated with them. Kendo may be the most expensive in this regard because of all the armour needed to practice safely (though this may be offset by the higher availability of nonprofit instructors). You may think that Sumo is the cheapest since they don't wear very much, but don't forget the cost of all that food.

There's nothing mystical about the martial arts that automatically keeps a school from trying to rip you off. It's not the norm, but it's not all that uncommon, either. If you get a high-pressure sales pitch and you feel like you're being hustled, just walk out. If you're being treated like they're trying to sell you a used car, then respond in kind -- you don't have to finish the conversation, just walk out. As with any business deal, the rule is caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware!


Perhaps the first thing to look at is the schedule. You can't learn if you can't attend the classes. Depending on the style and school (and size of the school), there may be separate classes for beginner/intermediate/ advanced, so be aware that the schedule may change on you as you advance.

Find out who teaches most of the classes. In many cases it isn't the head instructor. If the classes are split beginner/intermediate/advanced, chances are good that the head instructor doesn't teach the beginner classes. But does he teach most of the advanced classes? And who will you be spending most of your class time with?

Talk to several students. Ask them how long they've studied there, what they like about it, who teaches most of the classes, etc. Remember that they aren't likely to say anything critical there in the school; just ask what they like about it and read between the lines the best you can.

Take special notice of the atmosphere. I mean the attitudes, not the decor. Are they friendly/respectable toward one another? After a sparring match, do they smile at each other or grit their teeth and show disdain? Does the instructor seem to be interested in growing a student along and pruning them carefully, or does he mow them down and use them to prove that he truly is a god? Are there an unreasonable number of injuries in class caused by a lack of control? Look for healthy and unhealthy attitudes. Ideally, the student is encouraged to compete with himself/herself, not with other students.

You MUST visit a school more than once in order to form a valid opinion. That is, unless you get the high-pressure sales pitch and walk out the first time. But aside from that, if you only visit one class, you'll still have no idea what a typical class is like. Classes vary from one to another. There are good days and bad days for everyone, even instructors. The usual instructor may be on vacation. There might even be different types of classes on different days of the week (on one day we do weapons training, on another we do punches and kicks, on another we do throws and pins, etc.) So when narrowing down your choices, visit more often so you can get a good idea of what it would be like to train there.

Be aware that many schools do not have continuous enrollment. You may have to wait until next week, next month, or even next semester (if the school meets at a college) for the next beginner's class to start. This is pretty much par, so don't let this offend or discourage you. Use the waiting time to do more visiting!

The choice of who will be your first teacher is an extremely important one. Unfortunately, as a beginner, you are completely unqualified to judge the skill of instructors. You should realize that this is a basic fundamental dilemma. If you have a friend who is a skilled martial artist, you could ask them to come with you -- but how will you judge the skill of your friend? This is the beginner's dilemma. It's like getting lost in an unfamiliar town, and everyone you ask gives you different directions. Most of them are probably wrong, some lie to you on purpose, and more than one of them may have given you correct instructions (though one route may be longer than another). There is no way that a guide like this can tell you how to judge the skill of an instructor. That only comes with years of experience. So you must make your decision based on whether you like the school itself, and the attitudes there, and other non-technical things. There really is no way out of this dilemma. I'm not saying this to discourage, but because it's important for you to recognize your own limitations and to be honest with yourself about them.


Some things you should NOT base your decision on:

  1. The RACE or GENDER of the instructor is completely unimportant. Don't automatically assume that an instructor is good merely because he's an Asian male. Likewise, don't assume one is not good because she's a non-Asian female.
  2. It's not important whether the building is real nice and fancy. Many people are getting excellent training in their instructor's garage or back yard!
  3. Do not allow your decision to be swayed by unrelated features, such as the availability of exercise machines, hot tubs, and tanning beds.
  4. Don't make your decision based on the garmets worn during practice. Students in one school may wear something that looks like a skirt, while those in another school may wear something that looks like star-spangled pajamas. Pay attention to the techniques and attitudes rather than the garmets. (But personally, I'd be suspicious of the star-spangled pajamas...)
  5. In some arts like Sumo, the size of the instructor is important, but this is an unusual exception. For the vast majority of styles, the size and strength of the instructor are not important. You should not generally be concerned with whether you are built the same way as the instructor.
  6. If you are not interested in martial arts as a sport, then don't be impressed by a large collection of huge, shiny trophies. If you are interested in it as a sport, you should still curb your enthusiasm of trophies somewhat. In many tournaments, the trophies are plentiful, and nearly everyone takes one home for something or other. Some get one just for being the only one present in their particular category. So at least read what's written on the trophies. If you still find yourself overly impressed by them, visit your local trophy shop.


In most (but not all) styles, there is a ranking system. There is no universal ranking system. Without any training at all, you can buy a black belt for US$7.50, tie it on your pajamas, declare that you have just created a new martial art style, and promote yourself to 10th degree black belt without breaking any laws (at least not in the U.S.) As a newbie, you must be aware that this is not only possible, but that it has been done many times.

A typical Japanese ranking system would be to rank non-black belts from 10th kyu (low) up to 1st kyu (high), and black belts from 1st dan (low) to 10th dan (high). Depending on the style, there might be only 5 kyu ranks, or only 5 dan ranks, etc. Typically, 9th dan is the highest, and there is only one (usually in Japan). Korean ranking systems are typically very similar, but the word "gup" is used instead of "kyu" (hence the slang term "guppies" for beginners). The ranking system of Chinese styles differ considerably; some use sashes instead of belts, but many don't have much of a ranking system at all. There are martial arts from other countries than these, and their ranking systems may be drastically different.

Don't be overly concerned with the rank of the instructor. You won't be able to even tell the difference between a 3rd degree black belt and a 9th degree black belt for a long, long time. You should, however, be a little suspicious of those claiming unusually high ranks. Most of the 9th dans out there are those who have quit some other school and started a school of their own, and then promoted themselves to 9th dan. There is no universal governing body that assigns ranks to everyone. Each style assigns their own ranks as they please. You CANNOT compare ranks between different schools! A certain colored belt in one school doesn't mean the same as the same color belt in another school. Some schools don't even have belts. Some don't even have ranks. Don't let the rank game distract you from what is really important.

Some schools belong to world-wide organizations. These have the advantage that you can transfer your rank to another member school. They usually have the disadvantage of dues that each student must pay to the organization. Often there are two or more rival organizations for a given style. The politics involved in such things are extremely involved. In deciding on a school, I would tend to place little significance on their organization, and much more significance on the quality of training at that particular school.


  1. When visiting for the first time, call ahead to make sure visitors are welcome. It wouldn't be a bad idea to ask about proper protocol while you're at it. Some schools have shoe racks on the way in the door where you should leave your shoes; most ask that you bow in the doorway when you enter; some ask that you stand during opening/closing ceremonies; etc.
  2. When visiting for the first time, wear normal street clothes; whatever you wear to work is usually appropriate (depending on what you do for a living...)
  3. Be very polite.
  4. If you're offered a hand, shake hands. If someone bows to you, bow back -- about the same height, in the same manner that they bow, and don't look at them while you are bowing, unless they look at you.
  5. Be quiet during class; don't do anything to draw attention to yourself while the class is in progress.
  6. Get there early, and stay afterwards so you can ask questions.
  7. Don't discuss other schools at all, if possible. If you cannot avoid the subject altogether, then at least don't say anything derrogatory about another school.
  8. Don't try to impress them with your (limited) knowledge of different styles and your (equally limited) vocabulary of foreign words (especially if they're from the wrong foreign language).


I'd like to thank the following people for contributing their wisdom, suggestions, and encouragement to this guide. (The appearance of their names here does not signify agreement with everything written here, of course.)

Stephen Chan, Peter Hahn, Bill Rankin, Terry Chan, Michael Lawrie, Michael Robinson, Joe Chew, Mary Malmros, Andy Vida-Szucs, Doug Cohen, Joe Pfeiffer, Diane Winters, Bud Glunt, David Poore, Tom Yurkiw, Steve Gombosi, Lauren Radner

(C) Copyright 1993-4, Jeff D. Pipkins. All rights reserved. The Newbie Guide amounts to nothing more than my personal opinions, which at your own risk, you are free to use, ignore, or disagree with. You must not change the Newbie Guide in any way, but you are free to make copies of it as long as the copy is verbatim and complete, including this message and my ".sig" quote at the bottom. You may distribute such copies as long as you do not charge any fees for that.

Good luck!
--Jeff Pipkins