Types Of Martial Arts

Top Types of Martial Arts in the United States

There are a number of different types of martial arts taught and practiced in the United States.  Although outsiders may have difficulty detecting differences from the outside, each kind of martial art has its own set of rules and stems from different social contexts.  Here then is a short list of the major martial arts in the United States:


Kung Fu

Thanks to Bruce Lee and his films in the 1970’s, Kung Fu is the perhaps the best known martial art in the United States.  As you probably know, Kung Fu originated in China, back in the 1100’s.  The practice of Kung Fu was created for the purpose of war—as technically all martial arts should be since the word “martial” means “having to do with war and war craft.”  (The root of the word “martial” comes from Mars, the Greek god of war.)

The philosophy of Kung Fu has its underpinnings in the larger Chinese context of their period, much of which were codified in the Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  Kung Fu itself, however, varies depending on the regions where it was developed—so much so that many histories consider the northern and southern versions of Kung Fu to be two different types of martial arts.  The more sophisticated Sword Kung Fu puts the focus on speed and grace of bodily motion, while the less prestigious Monkey Kung Fu tends to place the focus on the extremities—hands and feet.

Kung Fu is not just a practice involving the body, however.  The mind is just as important in mastery of this Far East art of war.  To master it, a student must be able to master the force—known to the Chinese as “chi”—and to direct it (or let it direct you).  If this all sounds a bit like Star Wars to you, it shouldn’t be surprising, George Lucas was highly influenced by Eastern philosophies during the writing of his blockbusters.



The second most popular of the types of martial arts in the United States comes from that great neighboring rival of the Chinese, the island nation of Japan.  Karate is a relatively modern form of martial art without the long tradition of its major rival Kung Fu.  Karate was only developed in the pre-World War II period on the island of Okinawa.  It was created because of a ban on weaponry near the capital—so in order to have a method of defense, local masters developed this type of martial art.

Like Kung Fu, however, Karate too has a strongly psychological element to it that emphasizes attitude as much as bodily positioning and movement.  In fact, the name for Karate comes from the word “kata” which means “form.” 


Originating in Korea where it is considered the national sport in the way that Soccer is the national sport of Brazil, Taekwondo has everything to do with the positioning of the region of its development.  Taekwondo is actually the synthesis of various fighting styles.  Because Korea has a middle position between the two great and opposed powers of China and Japan, Korean Taekwondo has borrowed from these traditions in the creation of this sport.

Krav Maga

Like Capoeira from Brazil, which was the newest martial arts fad in the 1990’s, Krav Maga is the hot new martial art right now.  Krav Maga was developed in Israel to prepare Israeli commandos to deliver deadly blows at close contact.  Unlike the other types of martial arts we have mentioned to this point Krav Maga is not meant as a competitive sport—it designed for “real world” situations in which an individual might be threatened with bodily harm but may not have a weapon other than his or her own body to use for defense.  It was developed in Hungary as a direct response to the threat of the Nazis.