Martial Arts In The Military

When someone mentions the word military, what comes to mind? Probably high-tech gear, insane weapons, tanks and ships, and all that. When someone talks about martial arts, the first thing that might pop inside your head might be hand-to-hand combat and flying daggers.

But can you imagine martial arts in the military?

Sounds absurd, we know. However, the reality is that martial arts plays a crucial role in the military, especially in training (for example the US Marine Corps Martial Arts Programme (MCMAP)). As MMA Today suggests, you can not complete your training without the proper mindset and attire. Further, MMA strength training is also important for reducing the risk of injury, increasing the power of striking, and helping make you more dominant during grappling exchanges.

With this in mind, read on to find out more about how martial arts impact the military.

The Importance

The military prides itself on technical strategies and weaponry for warfare. Soldiers equip themselves with some impressive and fascinating weapons, gear, and hardware. But, once you shoot your last bullet or use your final bomb, it all comes down to you and your fists. This is where martial arts comes into its own. Martial arts is paramount for military training because of the many benefits it grants, including:

  • A soldier-in-training will learn about new tactical fighting methods that will aid them in close quarters and hand-to-hand fighting;
  • Any practising individual will develop patience and discipline (rashly charging an opponent can get you injured, captured or killed); and
  • Martial arts also prepares an individual by improving their physical and mental capabilities (This benefits an individual by improving their resilience to demanding and tiresome tasks).

Martial Art Forms In The Military

There is more than one form or style that an individual can pursue or practice in the world of martial arts, and the various military organisations may practice one or more (either as military training or as a sport).

The various martial arts that may be practiced include:

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is currently the most popular and widest martial art in the military.

It is a martial art based on grappling and ground fighting, focusing on the skill of controlling one’s opponent through techniques that force him or her to submit. It prides itself in being known as the ‘gentle art’, allowing a smaller, weaker person to use leverage and submissions (chokes, locks) to defend himself against a bigger opponent.

BJJ has its origins in Judo (Newaza) and Japanese Jujutsu.

Krav Maga

Krav Maga is a military self-defence system developed by the Israeli army after World War II. It is not a combat sport but a simple and effective fighting system designed for self-protection and physical training. It is intended to be practical and intuitive regardless of age, gender or physical ability.

Pronounced “krahv mah-GAH” (/krɑːv məˈɡɑː/), it literally means “contact combat” in Hebrew. The root word krav ( קרב) means “combat” and maga ( מגע) means “contact”.

Krav Maga can be described as a mixed-martial art geared towards self-defence. As such, it integrates elements from a number of combat sports and martial arts namely boxing, judo, wrestling and jujitsu. One of the main influences in Krav Maga development, though, was the Fairbain-Sykes Close Quarters Combat Method (aka “Defendu”) taught in the British army. William Fairbairn, who trained allied special forces during WW2, emphasised the necessity of forgetting any idea of gentlemanly conduct or fighting fair: From the very beginning, Krav Maga was rooted into real life situations and the brutal experience of Close Quarters Battle (CBQ) and street fights.

The development of Krav Maga is closely linked to the lives of its founder Imi Lichtenfeld and the first generation of instructors he trained.


Taekwondo as a sport has over 60 million practitioners in 184 countries. It originates from South Korea where the world governing body, the World Taekwondo (WT), is currently based.

The modern form of Taekwondo was not agreed until 1955, but the sport has its roots in various Korean forms of martial arts stretching back more than 2,000 years.

The name Taekwondo literally translates as the way of the foot and the fist: ‘Tae’ means to break or attack with the foot, ‘kwon’ means to break with the fist and ‘do’ translates as the art or way.

Muay Thai

Muay Thai or Thai Boxing is the national sport and cultural martial art of Thailand. It was developed several hundreds of years ago as a form of close-combat that utilises the entire body as a weapon.

Muay Thai is referred to as “The Art of Eight Limbs”; and using eight points of contact the body mimics weapons of war. The hands become the sword and dagger; the shins and forearms were hardened in training to act as armour against blows, and the elbow to fell opponents like a heavy mace or hammer; the legs and knees became the axe and staff. The body operated as one unit. The knees and elbows constantly searching and testing for an opening while grappling and trying to spin an enemy to the ground for the kill.


Judo (literal translation ‘gentle way’) is generally categorised as a modern Japanese martial art, which has since evolved into an Olympic event – with the sport being created in 1882 by Jigoro Kano.

Judo originated in Japan as a derivative of the various martial arts developed and used by the samurai and feudal warrior class over hundreds of years. Although many of the techniques of judo originated from arts that were designed to hurt, maim, or kill opponents in actual field battle, the techniques of judo were modified so that judo students can practice and apply these techniques safely and without hurting opponents:

  • Judo does not involve kicking, punching, or striking techniques of any kind.
  • Judo does not involve the application of pressure against the joints to throw an opponent.
  • Judo involves no equipment or weapons of any sort.

Instead, judo simply involves two individuals who, by gripping the judo uniform or judogi, use the forces of balance, power, and movement to attempt to subdue each other.


SAMBO is a martial art and combat sport developed and used by the Soviet Red Army in the early 1920s to improve their hand-to-hand combat abilities.

The word “sambo” is an acronym of the Russian words SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, which is why the word is sometimes seen in all caps as SAMBO. The meaning of sambo is literally self-defence without weapons. The fighting style is often simply referred to as ‘sambo’ for brevity.

It is now an internationally-practised combat sport, and a recognised style of amateur wrestling included by UWW in the World Wrestling Championships along with Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.


Kali is a weapons-based martial art from the Philippines and is actually an umbrella term, similar to the term “kung fu”.

Kali is just one of several terms used to describe this martial art, the others being arnis and eskrima (escrima). All three of them are actually an umbrella term for what is today known as the national martial art of the Philippines.

They are generally interchangeable terms for all the traditional martial arts of the Philippines (Filipino Martial Arts or FMA), which put the focus on weapon-based fighting with sticks, knives, bladed weapons, and various improvised weapons, as well as “open hand” techniques without weapons, which means that we are dealing with a very specific combination of fighting with and without weapons.

As for the terms themselves, arnis comes from arnés, an Old Spanish word for “armor”. It is said to derive from the armor costumes used in Moro-moro stage plays where actors fought mock battles using wooden swords.

The second term, Eskrima (also spelled Escrima/Eskrima) is a Filipinisation of the Spanish word for fencing, esgrima, while the last of them – kali – has a very complex etymology and there is no consensus on how it actually came to be and what it means exactly in this context.


Systema (Система, Sistema, literally meaning “system) is a Russian martial art. There are multiple schools of systems that began appearing after the end of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, with teachers claiming their respective “systems” (usually named after themselves). It can be traced back to the Cossacks of medieval times and was later used by KGB agents and Soviet Spetsnaz (special forces).

It focuses on hand-to-hand grappling and weapon disarmament, emphasizing the importance of intense Zen-like calm to turn an attacker’s strike against him, coolly and effortlessly.

Systema advocates a straight-edge lifestyle and instructs fighters to discard ego, fear, and tension in the heat of combat. In its purest form, this martial art is non-competitive and does not rely on belts, grades, or titles.


Although each military organisation will have its own martial arts preference(s), martial arts in the military can be both for show (i.e. in sport) and real world application (i.e. on the battlefield). The various methods outlined above facilitate discipline and self-defence in soldiers and (civilian) individuals to become agile, alert, and prepared for real-world scenarios.


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