How To Get Started in the Martial Arts (For Grownups)
It's not easy to get started in the martial arts as a grownup. If you're an adult who never trained, or someone who trained as a child but dropped martial arts training and want to pick it up again later in life, it's confusing and difficult to know how to start.
Where should I train? What style should I train? What's the "best" thing to learn for self defense? For women? For old people? Around injury? What style will help me get physically fit?
I wrote this guide so my answers to these questions are all in once place, as an attempt to help all of you grownups out there wanting to get started in the martial arts but have no idea how to begin.
You see, I was you once.
This is a long post, so grab a coffee or tea and settle in.
I hope this helps.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO TRAIN IN THE FIRST PLACE?
This is an important question only you can answer. This is the key to every consideration when choosing a school and a style.
The most common reasons people seek out martial arts training are for self defense and for physical fitness. These are not the only legitimate reasons to train, mind you, just the common ones.
Other reasons might be to gain self confidence, to learn physical and mental discipline, to socialize and make friends (especially when you have just relocated to a new place), and to resume training after a long break. Or hey, you've always thought that martial artists were cool and wanted to be one. Or it just looks like a heck of a lot of fun.
All of those are legitimate and fine reasons to train.
List your reasons for wanting to train in order of importance. Literally, write it down.
Ask yourself if competition is important to you, or not, or if it's even something you want to avoid. Many martial arts schools participate in tournaments, and some require it, and some don't. Include your answer to this question on your list.
Maybe you want to train with a child, together, as a family activity. Maybe you don't, but you're fine with kids or teens being in the same class with adults. Or maybe you want to only train with other grownups, and not have any kids around. This is an important consideration, so put this on your list.
Write down your budget for training. The general costs of training vary widely depending on the school and locale and what's included in training, so I can't give you a great guide here. I can tell you, in the places I've lived, training typically runs about $50-90 USD for rec center programs (and may include uniforms, some equipment) and I've seen up to $200 USD for unlimited access at private martial arts schools. We'll get into fee schedules a little later, but make sure you have an idea of your budget before you move forward.
And finally, are you sure you want to train in the martial arts?
Do you understand what martial arts are all about? Here's how I define the term:
The difference in strategic choices and decisions is what makes one style different than another. These strategic choices include (but aren't limited to):
✔ Striking and kicking and grappling
✔ Fighting with/against weapons empty handed, or armed
✔ Aggressive action to inflict maximum damage or passive action to redirect or inflict as little harm as possible
There is one big "yeah but" martial arts style that often comes up, and that's tai chi (taiji, tai chi chuan - the Chinese martial art style known for slow movement). Make no mistake, if taught as a martial art, it totally is a martial art. But it is possible to learn the style as an exercise pattern only and not see or apply the martial applications found there.
Yes, there are differences in how violence is though about and practiced, and sure, there's plenty of martial arts performance out there that isn't intended for fighting at all. Look up "XMA Weapons" for a great example of this. But make no mistake, it is all grounded in violence.
You can get many of the benefits of the martial arts in other activities, including sports, yoga, and Crossfit and other exercise programs. So be sure that you're okay with violence before you start training in the martial arts.
Other than being comfortable with violence, don't overthink the whole "this style is better than that style" debates we get into. When you are just getting started, style isn't terribly important, and there's no such time as wasted time in the martial arts. No matter what you study, you will learn something useful. You can gain experience and then change to something else that suits you better later, if you like.
I did that myself, actually. I started in taekwondo but I don't practice it today, but that time I spent there was definitely worth it.
Another differentiation is the training culture. Is it derived from a specific culture (China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Brasil, etc.) or not? Aficionados of a specific culture often end up training in that culture's martial arts systems. If you have an affinity for one of those cultures, it may influence your choices.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN YOUR AREA?
When getting started, this is your most practical consideration. The truth is, you're most likely to stick with training that is convenient for you to attend. You do have a life - job, family, and other hobbies and commitments - that you have to manage as well as martial arts training. There's no point in making it hard on yourself when you're first starting out.
You should consider areas around home, around work, along your normal commute, and around any other place you spend a lot of time (such as a church, or a child's activity at a recreation center). Unless you live in a very rural area, I'd recommend searching within 10-15 minute commute of home, and 5-10 minute commute of work. If you do live in a rural area, you need to expand your search a bit as you tend to have longer commute times to train.
Using a tool like Google Maps, search for "martial arts" in your target areas, and make a list of all the schools you find and what they say they teach that meet the location criteria. Save their contact information in your list (address, phone, web address, and email address). Look at their web sites and social media channels, if they have them (Most will at least have a simple Facebook page).
If they have it posted, also write down the cost(s) of training (some will, some won't). This will be an important consideration later.
Find out the class schedule of each school on your list. Note if they adult classes or not. This may be posted on the school's web site and social media sites, but they may not be, and you'll have to contact them to find out more.
Note - many schools have early morning and mid-day classes. That's why a school near your work place might be ideal for you.
Eliminate any schools that don't fit into your schedule. That is, if Sensei Joe's Karate Emporium only meets on Wednesdays and Fridays, and that's when Junior has basketball half the year, that might not be the best choice for you starting out.
As an aside: if you end up having to take months-long yearly breaks for things like sports seasons it is very difficult to make long-term progress. It's not impossible, but very difficult, and in my experience, people who have to do this end up not returning to train. So keep this in mind.
If you decided you wanted to only train with adults, eliminate any schools that do not have adults-only classes.
Be sure to check out the martial arts program at your local recreation center, community center, or YMCA/YWCA. These can be very good, high quality programs at a reasonable price. The big plus with these programs is that they often have child care available during class. This is very important if you have very small children at home.
One alternate way to find places to train is via sites like Meetup.com and on Craigslist. Small, less formal or new training groups often promote themselves this way (we run the Kansas City Presas Arnis Meetup as a matter of fact), and their classes may be in public parks or in backyards or garages (and sometimes the fees for training are minimal or even free). This does not make them any less legitimate than schools in rec centers or in stand-alone facilities, but they tend to vary in quality.
One other idea - if you just can't find a schedule that suits you, and everything else checks out, inquire about private lessons. They usually cost more but you'll train one-on-one and get a lot more work done in class than in a group setting at your convenience. Sometimes a couple of students can get together and buy private lessons instead of group classes.
A NOTE ABOUT ONLINE (VIRTUAL) DOJOS: I do not believe that an inexperienced person can train online-only and become proficient at the martial arts. So I can't give you advice there, as I think it's a waste of money for people new to the martial arts.
VISIT THE SCHOOLS
Time to visit each of the schools on your list.
You should attend one or two sessions of the actual class you are planning to attend. That is, don't go see the Little Tigers class for toddlers as it will not look anything like the adults class you'll be taking. You will also want to make an appointment to speak to the owner/instructor/leader of the group. Sometimes this has to be at a different time than class time due to how schedules work.
If it takes the instructor a long time to get back to you via phone/email (more than a day or two) that may be a bad sign.
Note the condition of the place you'll train. Generally speaking, you have the right to expect cleanliness, orderliness, and for it to not smell like dirty feet. It may smell sweaty like a gym, but not acrid. Equipment should be in good repair.
Make sure to go to the bathroom. It should be clean and well maintained. HYGIENE is super important in martial arts training and the facilities should be promoting this.
Remember your list of why you want to train? Now's the time to look for those things. Some things to look for include:
✔ If it's for self defense, do they do or talk about things related to that topic? Many schools promote themselves as being about self defense but don't actually teach it. Do they understand the legal constraints around self defense where they are located (for example - if they teach someone to kick a bad guy in the head after throwing them down, that's a huge red flag, as that's illegal in many places).
✔ If it's for physical fitness, do they do exercises as part of the class, and do the students/instructor look physically fit? Schools that are very serious about physical fitness will often have workout equipment in the school, such as bar bells or other tools. If you see that stuff around, that bodes very well for it being a school with an emphasis on physical fitness.
✔ If it's for mental and physical discipline, does the class look organized and focused, or is everyone sort of doing their own things willy-nilly? Adult classes are often a little less formal than kids classes, but people should still be quiet when the instructor is teaching, not wandering around, and working on what they're supposed to be working on instead of chatting.
✔ If you want to train weapons, do you see any in the room? The particular class you are attending may or may not be working with them that day, but will typically have some displayed around the room.
✔ Do the students look bored, or are they engaged and having fun?
✔ Can you picture yourself on the mat, doing what the people there are doing?
At your instructor meeting, tell the instructor what's important to you, and listen to their answers. Do they answer your questions directly, or do they avoid them? Are they honest about what they do, or do they try to claim they are all things to all people? Do they listen to your questions, or do they talk over you?
I think these are big red flags:
✔ If they claim "It's better to be tried by 12 than carried by 6" or claim that legalities don't matter in self defense. This person is clueless and will get you in trouble.
✔ If they spend a lot of time putting down other schools or styles. It's not about the downsides of other styles, it's about the upsides of theirs. To me, that suggests a struggling school with an insecure instructor.
✔ Lineage issues: not willing to name who taught him/her, claims to have been taught by a mysterious Asian master as a small child (the name of the master might not even be remembered), created own style after earning a black belt rank as a child.
✔ Not being up front about training fees and charges.
It is also a good idea to search the instructor's name online, and see what you find. Is there anything out there on the Internet that bothers you?
Trust your gut. If the instructor doesn't seem "right", and you're not sure if you can like or trust that person, don't pay money for the privilege of spending time with the guy, no matter how objectively "good" he might be. Trust is important in the martial arts, and if the instructor doesn't seem trustworthy, your training will suffer no matter what.
At the school visit/instructor meeting you should also get a full accounting of fees and charges. If there is a trial class offered, get the costs BEFORE that class.
There is no point to a trial class if you can't afford it, but DO attend that trial class if the costs are reasonable to you.
FEES AND CHARGES
These may include:
✔ Monthly training fee. There may or may not be a contract, and it may be for so many hours of training time a week/month. This may be tiered, offering more hours training for a higher fee schedule. Make sure to read the entire contract, if there is one, and understand the fees and and penalties if you end up leaving early.
✔ Testing and/or belt fees. A belt fee, to cover the cost of the belt and rank certificate (if your school has belt ranks), is very common, often in the $20-30 USD range. There is often an associated cost with registering your rank with their organization if they're a member of one. Other testing fees vary widely, depending on the organization/school/style. It is not unusual for it to be a higher cost for higher ranks. This often includes the cost for board members to attend the test.
✔ Mat fees. This is often the drop-in fee for training outside of normal classes, during "open mat" sessions or charged to visitors to train.
✔ Equipment fees: the cost of training/demo weapons, if needed, plus other school-wide equipment, like exercise equipment, striking bags, rolling dummies, etc. Equipment (like bo, tai chi swords, etc.) is usually purchased through the school.
✔ Uniform fees. Required uniforms, such as gi/dobok and other things like shoes or protective equipment for sparring. Also for shirts/shorts, rash guards, etc. Often this is purchased through the school like equipment.
Before you sign up, make sure you understand all fees, what they are used for, and when they are incurred.
There is no rule of thumb as to what's "reasonable" or what isn't. A low-fee school might be the best one in town. Or it could be that you get what you pay for, and the highest fee school is the best. The most important consideration in terms of cost is that it fits your budget.
Now you have enough information to actually step on a mat.
PICK A SCHOOL
The school you should choose is the one with the fee schedule you can afford, offering classes convenient to you and your schedule, that is clean and hygienic, has an instructor that doesn't skeeve you out, and meets your initial reasons for training, whatever they are.
Now it's time for the hard part.
Stepping on the mat.
Yes, fellow grown-up, it's not easy to step on the mat the first time. You feel out of your element, kinda shy, a little scared, and afraid that you'll look like an idiot. You'll be afraid your personal hygiene isn't up to snuff. You're worried that you'll hurt someone, someone will hurt you, or worst of all, you'll hurt yourself.
That's all normal and some of those things - especially looking like an idiot - will be absolutely true.
You're a newbie. Newbies know nothing, are often pretty clumsy, and often look like idiots.
It's all right.
You've joined the fellowship of people who get bruises for funsies, the folks who get put into a painful position and grin and say, "Do that again!". Every one of us, at one time, were newbies too. Train for a while, and you'll be the one helping the newer crop of newbies and assuring them that everything is all right.
Starting training for the first time at age 39 was the best decision I ever made. I had zero martial arts experience other than watching my kid yell "KIAAAA!" and break a board on tests. I started training to get more physically active after I realized I am gonna get old and it was gonna suck if I didn't change my ways. I went to the same school my daughter and husband were in when I started, in a martial arts style I do not train in today. I've changed schools, cities, and styles, and have kept training since 2008.
I went from "maybe I'll try this punch-kicking thing as an alternate to gym" to weapon-oriented martial arts instructor (who knew, right? I certainly didn't!).
I belong to the tribe, and you will, too.