Since I was a kid, books, and training videos have been everywhere in the martial arts world. And the best martial artists to live, like Bruce Lee and Anderson Silva, have released materials designed for you to teach yourself martial arts. But they always came with a warning “Find a qualified teacher to learn martial arts.” So the question remains, can you teach yourself martial arts?
What Do You Mean By Teach Yourself?
When it comes to a specific martial art, such as Shaolin Kung Fu, you can’t “teach yourself,” the techniques and forms that make up the art are distinct, so you must learn them from somewhere. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn by yourself or at home.
It just means that a book, a video, or something else is teaching you.
If you built yourself a gym at home, never read a book, saw an instructional video or even a martial arts movie, and decided to teach yourself Taekwondo or BJJ, you would come out with something very different.
There’s no way you could reinvent those martial arts’ exact forms or techniques.
However, you could teach yourself to fight or create your own martial art this way; many people have. But if you want to learn an existing martial art, you need something or someone to teach you.
How to Teach Yourself Martial Arts
The first martial arts book I bought was Austen St. John’s Karate Warrior. In case you’re unfamiliar, he was the original red Power Ranger, and I was 11 years old.
Books can be a fantastic way to learn martial arts independently, but there are a few things to look out for when choosing a book to advance your training.
- Pictures – A book without plenty of pictures usually means it’s not a training manual. However, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, there are great books on the history and philosophy of martial arts that contain no pictures, but as something to learn from, you need pictures or photos you can follow.
- The Author – Another thing to look out for is who wrote the book. Is it an unknown guy with no online presence trying to teach a secret internal martial art style? Don’t fall for it. Instead, find a reputable martial artist or trainer and buy their book.
- Your Learning Style – If the idea of learning from a book repulses you, don’t force yourself. There are other ways to learn martial arts at home.
Here are three great martial art books that you can actually learn from:
- Mastering the 12 Immutable Principles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Paulo Guillobel
- Muay Thai: The Essential Guide to Mastering the Art, Kru Tony Moore
- Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, Fu Zhongwen
DVDs or Online Video
Finding high-quality video instruction in any martial art has never been easier than right now. In my early teens, when the internet was just starting to be a thing, I would order VCDs (remember those?) from Japan and wait weeks for them to arrive so I could learn a new form or training method.
Now, all those VCDs are available on YouTube for free.
YouTube is, without a doubt, the first place you should go to find quality martial arts instruction for free. It has enough content to last you a lifetime of training, and most of it is designed for a beginner just starting to learn martial arts.
Here are three channels you should check out.
They should get you started on your journey toward martial arts mastery, but what about if you’re looking for something more advanced or more in-depth than a 10-minute video can give you?
The DVD market has long since given over to streaming and downloadable content, but they are essentially the same – long-form training videos. Of course, what you will choose will depend on what style of martial art you want to learn, but here are two great options:
Online Classes or Long Distance Classes
Do online classes still count as “teaching yourself?” I don’t know, but I’m including them here because they are a great way to learn at home.
There are some huge benefits to taking online classes too:
- Someone has done the hard work for you – The instructor has already worked out what you need to learn and how you must practice; this is a lot of work you don’t need to do now.
- You’ll discover your mistakes faster – There’s nothing more frustrating than finding out you’ve been doing something wrong for years when you have a teacher on the other end of the Zoom call; he can tell you when you’re going wrong and save you time.
- Classes make you accountable – A regular class and the pressure of a teacher watching you makes you much more likely to train as much as you should. When you’re training by yourself, it’s too easy to skip a session or take it easy.
But long before smartphones made online classes so accessible, students wouldn’t see their teachers for months between lessons; this was a form of long-distance instruction.
You go meet your master and spend a weekend learning and practicing something new, then you say goodbye and return to where you live. You spend the next few weeks or months perfecting what you learned and then go back to learn something new.
This was the way martial arts were taught across Asia for centuries, and there is no reason you can’t still do this. In fact, even students who attend class should still follow this model. First, they learn something in class, then go home and practice it so that they can build on it, next class.
It’s still common if you go to Thailand and learn Muay Thai or go to China to learn Kung Fu. The expectation is that you will go home and perfect what you learned, then return when you need to learn more.
“The best way to learn to fight is to fight” Bruce Lee wasn’t wrong.
If your main goal in martial arts is learning to fight, just get some friends together and create a “fight club.” Create some rules to make it safe, and find protective gear so you don’t hurt each other.
Going up against other people in a sparring situation is the best way to hone your fighting skills, and it can be lots of fun too. Sure, you probably won’t have the best technique or learn any complex methods, but you can always learn those later if you decide to use one of the methods above for learning martial arts at home.
Which Martial Arts Can You Learn By Yourself?
The beauty of boxing is the limited scope and the small number of techniques to learn. There are six basic strikes in boxing:
- Lead Hook
- Rear Hook
- Lead Uppercut
- Rear Uppercut
Sure, there are some evasive movements to learn too, but it’s not overwhelming to a beginner trying to learn by himself.
Boxing is a foundational skill too, so if you ever decide to learn another martial art, your boxing skills will likely give you are big headstart. MMA fighters, Muay Thai kickboxers, and even Karate competitors all need to know how to punch, so boxing is an excellent choice if you’re learning a new martial art.
Much like boxing, the relatively few kickboxing techniques make learning it by yourself a little more manageable.
Of course, there are different kickboxing styles, such as K1, Muay Thai, and San Da, but the fundamentals are very similar. A boxing base with the addition of kicks. Some of the standard kicks found in the various styles of kickboxing include:
- Front Kick
- Push Kick
- Spinning Hook Kick
- Leg Kick
- Side Kick
- Question Mark Kick
- Back Kick
Learning kickboxing will make your training sessions much more varied than learning straight boxing and give you more of a full-body workout because of the addition of leg techniques. It’s more fun too!
Once it comes to learning more traditional martial arts like Karate, things get more complicated. In addition to the basic punches and kicks found in the martial arts above, there are many more techniques found in Karate.
Aside from the techniques to learn, Karate also has kata or forms to perfect.
Progress in Karate is marked by different colored karate belts, which you won’t be entitled to if you teach yourself. Traditionally, belts are awarded by a recognized karate organization such as the American Karate Association or World Karate Federation.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t stil learn the techniques and practice at home.
Like Karate, Taekwondo has a tradition that extends beyond the techniques employed within the ring; it also has gradings for different belt levels and forms or poomse accompanying each level.
Learning Taekwondo is much more about learning the kicking techniques because, in competition, this is the only way to score points. When I trained in taekwondo for seven years, we spent 90% of our time drilling kicks in some way.
Taekwondo forms are pretty simple, even the high-level ones such as first dan Koreo, so learning from a website, book, or video isn’t tough.
Sparring is the only thing you will struggle with if you are training alone. Like Bruce Lee said, “Bricks don’t hit back.” That’s true of paddles and heavy bags too. You need someone to spar with if you will ever understand how to use Taekwondo techniques in a combat situation.
BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu is the most technical of all martial arts. The subtle positions and complex techniques don’t lend themselves to learning without a teacher or instructor. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, so of course, you can do it if you’re willing to put in the effort.
But without a partner to practice and learn with, you won’t get anywhere learning BJJ by yourself. So the first thing you must do to learn jiu-jitsu at home is find someone willing to learn with you, preferably a few people.
Next, you’ll need to consider where you can train. You might think there’s enough space in your living room, but once you start rolling around in there and breaking things, you’ll understand how much space you need. The most accessible place is in the yard on the lawn, but this could be uncomfortable depending on how hard the ground is where you live.
The one thing you won’t have to worry about is finding quality instructional materials; there are so many BJJ training courses out there you’ll be spoilt for choice; here are some suggestions:
What Equipment Do You Need to Train Martial Arts at Home?
If you’re practicing throws, takedowns, wrestling, or any groundwork, you will need mats to train on. They are easy to find on Amazon, or you can save money by finding some second-hand on eBay.
A heavy bag isn’t only a necessary piece of training equipment. It’s also lots of fun! As soon as you tell your friends you have a heavy bag hanging up at home, they’ll all want to come over and have a go.
Heavy bags are useful to practice strikes and kicks and are the only time you can really hit something with full power.
Gloves are only necessary if you’re learning an art that has hand strikes. If you’ve decided to study jiu-jitsu, you might not need them.
Gloves have two purposes:
- They protect your hands when you’re hitting a heavy bag or sparring.
- They protect your opponent when practicing or sparring
A broken hand will put your martial arts career on hold very quickly!
Pads or Paddles
If you already have a heavy bag, do you need pads too? It’s a good question, and the answer is not really. But if you want to make maximum progress in your chosen art, you will need some pads to hit. Why?
Because pads move around with the person holding them like an opponent would. A heavy bag will never be able to mimic this.
Martial Arts Shoes
Of course, you can train bare feet, and many people do. And you could use your regular sneakers if you don’t want to train barefoot. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. The strain of martial art training on your footwear will wear them out quickly, especially if they’re not designed for it.
I’d recommend you buy some cheap training shoes like Fei Yues, which is what I used when I trained at Shaolin in China.
Tips for Learning Martial Arts Alone
Whether you’re learning a new form, hitting the heavy bag, or just practicing some basic techniques, filming yourself will give you the feedback that you usually get from an instructor.
After recording yourself, watch it back and compare it with someone with more experience online. Try to pinpoint the things you are doing wrong or differently, and work on them. Then repeat the process and see if you’ve improved.
Get a Friend to Join You
Though there are many reasons people decide to learn martial arts, ultimately, they are designed for combat or self-defense, so training with someone else will always be advantageous.
You can practice forms alone, and you can shadow box, hit the heavy bag, and practice technique, but until you get in a ring or a sparring situation, you won’t know if you can use anything you’ve learned.
Aside from sparring, learning techniques with a friend can be easier too. You can practice the moves on each other and spot each other’s mistakes and offer advice.
Learn More Than One Style
“Learn everything and discard what is useless,” is a great motto to live by. It makes for a more exciting martial arts hobby too.
Perfecting your craft should be the aim of learning a martial art but seeing the progress of learning something new can be intoxicating and exciting too. So try out a new style, something that you never saw yourself learning, and see if you want to continue with it.
I learned a mix of traditional martial arts, kickboxing, and even tai chi, and each one brought something different to my understanding of martial arts.
Read the Classics
They are classics for a reason. While the classics won’t necessarily teach you new moves or give you anything to practice. They might give you some advice worth more than a new chock or elbow strike.
Most of the classics of martial arts are philosophical books that teach the reader something about the world or morality in the realm of combat. Here are three I recommend:
- The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi
- The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee
- The Complete Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo)
There is no better way to see martial arts at the highest level than to watch MMA competitions like the UFC. I know that some “traditional martial arts purists” might think that MMA is a degenerate form of martial arts, but combat is brutal, and nothing explains that better than MMA.
In the earlier UFC fights, you could see boxers fight wrestlers, kickboxers against jiu-jitsu practitioners, etc. Now everyone seems to have a more well-rounded skillset, but most still have a primary fighting style. Watching MMA allows you to see how the techniques you are learning are actually applied in combat and how people defend them.
Don’t Neglect Strength & Cardio
I’ve always hated cardio, so I completely understand that you want to skip this section, but hear me out!
Learning the kicks and punches, hitting the pads, and sparring is all so much fun that we sometimes forget there are some fundamentals of martial arts we can’t ignore.
Strength plays an important role not only in wrestling and grappling exchanges but in punching, kicking, and blocking too. There are times when technique will beat out raw strength, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
Cardio is another aspect many people neglect to develop. Unless you never need to see a second round, you’re going to need some cardiovascular work in your training schedule. You’re never more vulnerable than when you’re gassed out.