ClassPass 101: Everything You Need to Know About Martial Arts

From the outside, it can look a look intense and sometimes, a little brutal. Fists and hands flying, legs spinning, bodies pinned to the ground. What have you gotten yourself into?

Fret not: it’s martial arts training, not a real fight. The stakes? Your fitness. The benefits? Many.

With dozens of disciplines and styles, the breadth of the martial arts world is as deep and intricate as it is old. If you’re new to the practice or have never taken a class before, the whole thing can feel a bit daunting (about as daunting as expecting to be kicked in the face).

Luckily, the point of the training is not to be injured (or to injure) and the applications for martial arts in your everyday life are innumerable.

Before you don your judo gi or your karate obi, here’s what you need to know to feel like a pro on the mat (and a champion in your mind).

What are martial arts?

The majority of martial arts classes you’ll find on ClassPass are taught in styles originating in Asia. While martial arts, historically, were military and defensive in practice, modern martial arts are derivatives of these and practiced as sports. These can be divided in to armed (kendo, for instance) and unarmed (like judo, karate and tae kwon do), and self-defense practices (such as aikido, hapkido and jung fu). Also commonly practiced and taught are other disciplines like mixed martial arts (MMA), jiu jitsu, Muay Thai and capoeira. The expanse of possibilities for getting your physical and mental game on is vast.

What makes these practices unique is the combination of their intense physical nature and the focus on the mental and spiritual state of the practitioner. From a military standpoint, this makes sense: a clear mind and a calm body will make better, more calculated and safer decisions. As it applies to our modern practice of these exercises, a calm mind can be an antidote to everyday stress and an assurance that your workout will be safe and effective.

Types of martial arts

The martial arts most commonly practiced across the ClassPass platform include some of the most popular disciplines in the world.

Kickboxing is derived from karate. It borrows moves from multiple types of martial arts including full-contact karate, Muay Thai and boxing, but unlike Muay Thai and other practices, elbows and knees are not allowed.

Known as the art of the “empty hand.” Like yoga and other Japanese physical practices, the philosophy of karate is larger than the physical practice and aims to build larger life values such as respect, discipline and the quest for constant improvement.

Rather than focusing on punches and kicks, aikido uses an opponent’s kinetic energy against them to take control. Aikido practitioners learn to redirect the force of an attack to weaken their opponents and make it easier to complete a throw or pin. Aikido generally has a steeper learning curve than other martial arts, and many beginners may train for a year or more before they feel comfortable using the techniques outside of the dojo.

Tae kwon do
A practice originating in Korea, and one of two martial arts featured in the Olympics, tae kwon do is all about feet and fists. It emphasizes power through feats such as splitting boards and bricks with the bare limbs. Similar to karate, this practice also emphasizes respect, discipline and other forms of personal strength.

You know boxing. It’s two people (or a person versus a punching bag) wearing gloves, moving quickly, endeavoring to use speed, agility and strength to subdue the other participant. Punches are relegated to above the belt only and kicking is prohibited. It’s the other martial art in the Olympics.

Krav maga
One of the most effective forms of self-defense training, krav maga (“contact combat” in Hebrew) is centered around simultaneous defense and offense: every move is a combination of both. This fighting style incorporates no real etiquette or fighting patterns, instead relying on continuous motion that rarely allows an attacker to rest.

Muay Thai
The national sport of Thailand, Muay Thai is one of the most popular styles used in MMA fighting. It relies on all of the extremities to bring an opponent into submission; because of this, Muay Thai is truly full-body and can provide an excellent strength and conditioning workout as it requires speed, agility, strength and coordination to do well.

You may have seen some impressive videos of experienced Capoeiristas executing complex dance-like fight moves. Practitioners “flow” together, using feints and deception to confuse and overtake their opponents. It looks almost gymnastic in nature and requires a lot of flexibility and power to perform successfully. This form originated in Brazil and combines fighting, dance and music.

Kung fu
Rather than defining a single martial art, kung fu is more of an umbrella term that covers a range of Chinese fighting styles. The style has its roots in the Shaolin Temple around 500 CE, where a Buddhist prince developed a series of self-defense exercises for monks.

The benefits of martial arts

Regardless of your fitness level, martial arts can offer physical and mental benefits that translate into your everyday life.

Physical benefits of martial arts

Because of its grounding in self-defense, most martial arts rely on some combination of physical skill: balance, coordination, endurance, strength and agility. In taking on a martial arts practice, you’re committing to building some or all of these for your body, which can translate into better performance in your other sports or workouts (faster on the soccer field or stronger in the CrossFit box!). They can also help bolster your body in ways that make you more resistant to injury, out in the world or in the dojo.

Most practices involve a degree of intense cardio work: you can expect to build stamina while you huff and puff your way through the workout. Fast movements and agility-based exercises also rely on fast-acting responses, which can in turn improve metabolism and energy use in the body. There is also a degree of muscle-building, as physical strength (or stability of smaller muscles) is integral to form and the ability to overpower an opponent (style-dependent, of course).

The strength and speed you acquire can also be useful in real life self-defense situations.

Mental benefits of martial arts

Martial arts provide a significant mental challenge and an opportunity to develop your cognitive and emotional skills. You may be asked to confront challenges that seem too big and you will be asked to work through them: there is something powerful in finding the resolve and the determination to do it and pushing through. This training can be made applicable to everything in your life, from work to relationships to other physical pursuits. Martial arts also require focus; that is, pushing the chatter out so you can concentrate on the task at hand. (Also beneficial outside the gym.) Practicing has also been shown to increase memory, strategic planning skills, sleep and to combat anxiety and depression. You actively use your fight-or-flight response, which can be a great way to work out excess tension, anxiety or worry.

There is also a great deal of self-confidence to be gained via martial arts: none of it is easy to learn right away, so the discipline and reassurance that you can make small, measured improvements over time is key to feeling strong and self-assured in your body. Committing to the (sometimes daunting) repetition can be an exercise in growth and humility.

How to prepare for your first martial arts class

Do some research about the style of class you’d like to take. What is the structure and duration going to be? How much cardio endurance versus strength will the class involve? Will the beginner class focus on breathing and terminology? What is the history of the form you’ve selected? Being a bit prepared can go a long way.

You’ll also need to have your gear in order. Call ahead and make sure you’re set with the proper uniform, footwear and accessories. Some studios may offer rental uniforms or gear for new students. Depending on the class, you may also need or want gloves, a mouth guard, shin pads or other protective equipment. Your studio may be able to provide these.

Prepare to enter class with an open mind. Be proud of yourself for trying out something (very?) new and embrace the experience and the challenge. Expect to get a little bumped or bruised, especially if it’s your first time around. They’re good for bragging rights at the bar later.

The takeaway

No matter the form, martial arts offer many benefits for your mind and body. Don’t be intimidated: embrace your inner warrior and get on the mat. Your whole self will be improved for it.

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.