Guest Article: What Makes a Martial Art Effective?

Guest article time! This article comes from James Stapleton and is based on a Reddit thread he made of the same title. I found it particularly riveting and asked if I could edit it into a format suitable for the blog, and he generously agreed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

A little about James:
I’m James Stapleton. I’ve studied boxing, muay thai, no gi BJJ and wrestling in my ~10 years as a martial artist. In addition, I ran the MMA club at my university for 2 years where I had the opportunity to train with and learn from students of various styles of karate, TKD, aikido, sanshou, wing chun, tai chi and several others. Currently I focus mostly on boxing, training as a hobbyist. 

You can (and should) find him on YouTube here.

There’s a lot of discussion online about which arts are the most effective. While everyone has their own opinion on that, I wanted to make a thread to talk about the fundamental elements that are required for a healthy, effective art. In this context we’ll define effective as being able to consistently produce students who are capable of performing in a full-contact, continuous, non-scripted environment against a fully-resisting opponent. In my experience there are three main factors:

  1. Training methods
  2. Curriculum
  3. Talent pool.


The most obvious factor is training methods. This is where “aliveness” comes in. For an art to be effective, the daily training methods must be conducive to actually fighting. Arts where the norm is forms, compliant partner drills and physical conditioning are not going to produce many competent fighters. It’s vital that we understand that there are 3 layers to technical proficiency. The physical execution of the technique is only the tip of the iceberg. While proper technique is incredibly important, and there must be training methods solely for the refining of body mechanics to instill proper technique, even more important are the abilities to read the situation and to plan the correct action. Forms and compliant drills do not train these abilities- they only train the movement itself. Many people think that this is fixed by simply adding sparring. While that’s a big improvement, it’s far from enough to overcome ineffective training methods. There’s a whole range of shadowboxing, bag work, padwork, partner drills and light sparring/rolling that are required to develop the reading, planning and execution of techniques–which all must eventually done in a split second with no conscious thought. Alive training requires resistance, it requires randomness, and most of all it requires failure.


The most effective training methods in the world are going to be wasted on a poor curriculum. Even an art that trains with resistance and aliveness will fail to consistently produce good fighters if it focuses on impractical techniques. A great example of this is Tae Kwon Do. While many TKD schools incorporate effective training methods like padwork and sparring, the art is still known for not producing very good fighters. The main reason is curriculum. The rule sets of competitive TKD, especially Olympic style, end up favoring more of a foot-tag game than something that resembles a real fight. Another example could be Aikido. While Aikido is notorious for its compliant training, many have made efforts to “modernize” or pressure test it. These efforts have largely been unsuccessful, primarily due to the focus on wrist locks and attempts at control from positions where the opponent has too much ability to react and counter. When we look at fighting in the real world, the main tools tend to be hard shoves, punches and tackles. These are the most natural, and some of the most effective, attacks for us to use. In order for an art to be effective its curriculum must account for those attacks, and must also recognize that under high-pressure, fine motor skills tend to evaporate. An effective art will have a curriculum that focuses on gross-motor skills that allow you to retain balance, mobility and stopping power at all times.


The absolute most under-looked factor is talent pool. The importance of talent pool is almost universally neglected when assessing the effectiveness of an art despite its significance. No matter what training methods and curriculum are used, they will not produce great fighters if the talent pool is lacking. Talent pool matters so much because you must learn to apply your skills against a large variety of opponents, as well as against more skilled opponents. Imagine, for example, there are 100 MMA practitioners and 100 RBSD (editor’s note: “Reality Based Self Defense”- think Krav Maga) practitioners in a town. Imagine there are 4 gyms of 25 students each for both. At the RBSD gym you’re likely to interact regularly only with the 25 people at the gym you choose. You may train hard, spar and focus on effective techniques, but you’re only getting to practice them against 25 people. Once you reach the top you quickly become a big fish in a small pond. You could very easily never meet any of the other 75 RBSD guys in your town. Now, at the MMA gym, you’re also going to interact most days with the 25 students at the gym you choose. However, MMA structurally will include open mats, smokers, competitions and seminars as a regular part of training. Through this system, you’re going to interact with new people constantly, and not just the 75 other MMA practicioners in your town but also some of the BJJ guys, the boxers, the nak muay, and much more. While in this town the total talent pool for both MMA and RBSD is technically the same 100 people, the effective talent pools are vastly different. The interaction of the talent pool, as well as its depth, are both incredibly important to the health of an art. It ensures that you always have new challenges to face, whether it be a a better athlete, a new stance, a different strategy, or whatever else a new person may bring to the table that you have to adapt to. This results in a rising tide effect as everyone benefits from the better exchange of information and better pressure testing through a more interactive talent pool.


In my experience, for an art to be effective it must utilize alive training methods to teach a practical curriculum that is regularly tested against a deep, varied talent pool. Any weakness in this chain will result in a big loss of effectiveness of the art as a whole.

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