Martial arts come from all corners of the world, each with its own particular style, origin, and purpose. But despite the endless variety, almost all non-weapon techniques can be divided up into two distinct categories: striking and grappling.
Some martial arts specialize in one or the other, but many teach both. Here, I wanted to focus on the best striking martial arts, and I’ve found 15 that deserve to be highlighted. Let’s read on as we take this journey into the world of the best striking martial arts.
Table of Contents
- What Are Striking Martial Arts?
- 15 Best Striking Martial Arts
- Striking Martial Arts – FAQs
What Are Striking Martial Arts?
Striking martial arts teaches students how to hit opponents while still on their feet, as opposed to grappling techniques, where the martial artist takes their opponent to the ground.
Punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbow strikes are all common examples of strikes in martial arts. Some martial arts are striking only, while others utilize strikes in addition to grappling and/or weapons training.
Many striking-based martial arts have been adapted into combat striking sports, with several even being included in the Olympic games. Striking and footwork are naturally cardio-intensive activities and are a fun and exciting way to build up endurance and lean muscle mass.
For this list, I have cheated a little bit as there are a couple of hybrid martial arts in here. However, with all of the martial arts mentioned, you can’t get to a decent level in them without being a great striker. Due to this, I thought they deserved to be included.
Whether you’re looking for efficient self-defense skills, good exercise, or even just a fun new hobby, these 15 striking martial arts are great choices to study.
15 Best Striking Martial Arts
Boxing is an ancient and timeless martial art that developed into its modern form in the 19th century with the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry rules in London. However, boxing as a sport can be traced back to the ancient Olympic games and beyond.
The Queensbury rules banned grappling techniques, determined the size of the ring, and encouraged strategic defensive maneuvers. Boxing was popular for centuries in all English-speaking countries and gradually spread all across the world as a modern Olympic sport.
While some consider it dangerous because of the risk of concussions, it is still the most popular combat sport for professionals, amateurs, and spectators to this day.
Western boxing only allows punches as valid strikes. Strikes from elbows, knees, kicks, and any kind of grappling are completely forbidden. Different kinds of punches may be used, including jabs, crosses, hooks, and uppercuts, but no open-handed striking techniques are allowed.
The arms can be used to block strikes and are combined with precise footwork, weaving movements, and head bobs for defense. This direct and aggressive martial art allows boxers to perfect their punching techniques and is probably the most effective striking martial art for beginners.
2. Muay Thai
Muay Thai is a striking martial art that originated in Thailand in the 16th century. Soldiers used it during peacetime to keep their skills sharp.
Muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport, and it enjoys worldwide popularity because of its frequent use in modern MMA competitions. Muay Thai is sometimes called “The Art of 8 Limbs” because it teaches strikes with knees and elbows as well as with hands and feet.
Muay Thai is a strictly striking martial art, although it is often taught alongside grappling arts in MMA and self-defense gyms. The knee and elbow strikes that Muay Thai is known for are especially useful in close quarters, making them great techniques for self-defense as well as for full-contact combat sports.
Roundhouse kicks using the shin as a striking surface is another distinct Muay Thai technique. Muay Thai teaches an aggressive fighting style where the best defense is a robust and dynamic offense. Due to the use of all limbs, I’d say Muay Thai is probably the best example of a purely striking martial art.
Karate, which translates to “Empty Hand,” is a striking-based martial art from Japan. Karate focuses on delivering powerful strikes in direct, straight lines.
This martial art exploded in popularity in the 1960s, when it was spread worldwide by US servicemen who studied it while stationed in Japan. Karate is a popular first choice for beginning martial artists because of its widespread availability and high-quality teaching.
Kicks, elbow strikes, and both open and closed fist strikes are taught in Karate. Karate training consists of kata, where the technique is practiced alone in the open air, and in sparring competitions, where techniques can be tried on opponents.
This martial art is as popular for self-development and exercise as much as it is for self-defense, with many different schools having their own specific focus. There are many different styles of karate, so it’s a great idea to research them if you’re interested in taking up this wonderful martial art.
Kickboxing is a striking-based combat sport that has many different regional variations. The American version of kickboxing was developed in the 1970s by combining boxing and karate into a full-contact sport.
Savate is a French variation of kickboxing that originated in street fighting before being formalized into a modern sport. Many other countries also have their own distinct form of kickboxing, including Thailand’s Muay Thai, China’s Sanda, and Japan’s Shoot Boxing.
The exact rules of kickboxing vary by region and style, but the common thread between them is that they are full-contact combat sports that allow kicks as well as punches. This added dynamic makes them exciting to watch, and they are popular spectator sports along with Boxing and MMA.
Kickboxing is considered great cardiovascular exercise, and there are even contactless versions offered at gyms for those who just want the health benefits without sparring.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that is another hugely popular sport. The modern form of Taekwondo was codified in the 1940s, as Korea was reestablishing its own national identity after decades of military occupation by Japan.
It’s one of the martial arts that focus on kicks, although hand strikes, grappling, and traditional weapons can be taught as well in its various forms. Taekwondo was one of the three Asian martial arts included in the Olympic games in 2021, along with Karate and Judo.
High reaching kicks are the signature technique of Taekwondo, as well as internal self-development. Practicing Taekwondo helps students develop flexibility and balance, as well as practical self-defense skills.
The mental and spiritual development aspects of Taekwondo make it a popular option for younger martial artists, who can learn respect, self-control, and confidence by studying this martial art.
6. Kung Fu
Kung Fu is a collective term for Chinese martial arts and includes a wide variety striking fighting styles, including Shaolin, Bajiquan, Northern Praying Mantis, and many more. Each style has its own unique focus, ranging from showy and acrobatic to slow-moving and meditative to brutally efficient.
Most forms of Kung Fu utilize fluid and circular movements and were designed to give smaller and weaker fighters an advantage against bigger and stronger opponents.
Kung Fu utilizes striking, grappling, and weapons training, with each style having its own distinct techniques. This martial art uses many more hand position variations than others, including the flat knife hand strike and open-handed tiger claw.
Each of these unique strikes is designed to maximize striking power against specific targets, giving the martial artist an advantage in self-defense situations. Kicks, knee, and elbow strikes are also taught depending on the style, making it a well-rounded addition to a personal self-defense system.
7. Krav Maga
Krav Maga is an Israeli hybrid martial art with a heavy focus on self-defense and brutally efficient techniques. It was developed in the mid-20th century by Imi Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian-born Jew who combined street fighting with techniques from Wrestling, Boxing, Aikido, and other martial arts.
The martial art was created as a way to help teach Jewish people to defend themselves against attacks. Krav Maga uses strikes, grappling, and modern weapons training. In addition to fighting techniques, Krav Maga teaches students to have a no-mercy and aggressive approach to fighting.
This approach can help prevent hesitation or fear during fights and other dangerous situations. Due to all these reasons, Krav Maga is considered a great martial art for self-defense and is still used by the armed forces to this day.
Krav Maga is designed to incapacitate the threat as quickly as possible, even using means that would be considered dishonorable or illegal in competitions. Eye gouges, groin strikes, and throat strikes are all taught, along with utilizing any body part or improvised weapon.
Krav Maga strikes are designed to be direct and aggressive and can cause permanent injury or even death for an attacker. Techniques are practiced until they are committed to muscle memory and can still be performed correctly in high-stress scenarios.
Lethwei is a Burmese form of boxing that originated in Myanmar. Unlike Western Boxing, Lethwei allows a wide range of strikes, including elbows, knees, kicks, and even headbutts. Gloves aren’t used in Lethwei, only a light wrapping around the knuckles.
Lethwei can be difficult to find outside of Myanmar because its violent rule set has caused it to be banned in some countries. Because of its unusual use of headbutts, Lethwei is known as the art of nine limbs, which includes the head as a weapon.
In recent years, interest in Lethwei has been growing worldwide, especially in MMA circles. Lethwei is considered to be one of the most violent martial arts still practiced because of its no-holds-barred rule set and bare-knuckle nature.
Silat is a term that includes many smaller regional martial arts from Southeast Asia. Silat teaches students striking techniques, grappling, and both modern and traditional weapons training.
Since Silat incorporates many different indigenous martial arts, fighting styles, and origins can vary from school to school. While Silat is best known for blade work and knife fighting, it also teaches practitioners effective striking techniques.
Kicks are the preferred striking method in Silat, although punches and other strikes are allowed as well. The kicks are combined with precise footwork to give the martial artist an advantage in self-defense situations. Sparring competitions are common in many Southeast Asian countries, where students can put their training to the test.
Mixed Martial Arts is a full-contact combat sport that allows the use of any martial art. Both striking and grappling are allowed, with some restrictions for safety. In reality, MMA has more rules than many people may assume.
Some of the most popular martial arts used by MMA fighters include Muay Thai, kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and wrestling. MMA is a blending of different martial arts rather than its own distinct practice, but gyms that teach several martial arts together for the purpose of MMA training are fairly common and easy to find.
While grappling is also allowed, striking is an essential skill for MMA fighters. Punches, elbows, knees, and kicks are all allowed and used in MMA with few restrictions.
The blended nature of this combat sport allows martial artists to mix and match techniques from as many different martial arts as they want and train and practice them at full speed in a competitive setting.
Bokator is an ancient martial art dating back to the 1st century when it was used by the Khmer army in Cambodia. Legends say that the origin of bokator was a warrior who defended a village from a marauding lion, killing the beast with a single knee-strike.
Traditional martial artists were among the many groups exterminated by the Pol Pot regime during the 1970s. Bokator was kept alive by refugees who fled to other countries, and the historic martial art only returned to Cambodia in 2004.
Bokator combines the use of striking, grappling, and weapons training. Powerful kicks and knee/elbow strikes are popular bokator techniques. Bokator is practiced in Cambodia today as a full-contact fighting sport and as a connection to Cambodian cultural history.
12. Keysi Fighting Method
Keysi Fighting Method is a modern self-defense focused martial art developed in the 1980s. Justo Diéguez and Andy Norman designed the Keysi Fighting Method by studying other popular martial arts, such as kali, Jeet Kune Do, and boxing, which they combined with their childhood street-fighting experience to create a practical and efficient form of self-defense.
The Keysi Fighting Method spread worldwide by being taught at self-defense seminars before the founders parted ways to form their own schools. Today, the Keysi Fighting Method is taught by one of the founders under the name of “Keysi by Justo.”
Keysi Fighting Method training combines striking and grappling techniques to form a dynamic and aggressive martial art. Using the elbows to defend against strikes is a signature technique of this self-defense system.
13. Jeet Kune Do
Jeet Kune Do is a hybrid martial art developed by the legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee in the 1960s. Bruce Lee combined aspects of Wing Chun, judo, fencing, western boxing, kali, and other martial arts to form a new and distinct martial art.
Jeet Kune Do has a less formal curriculum than many other traditional martial arts, as Bruce Lee rejected what he saw as rigidity in traditional martial arts training. Also known as “The Way of The Intercepting Fist,” its techniques include a heavy emphasis on counterattacks, interceptions, and fluid and efficient movements.
Strikes to incoming punching arms and kicking legs are taught as a specific technique to both block blows and create an opening for a counterattack. Both strikes and grappling are taught in Jeet Kune Do.
14. Wing Chun
Wing Chun is a form of Kung Fu that originated in Southern China and has been in practice for hundreds of years.
Legends say that Wing Chun was developed by Ng Mui, a nun who studied at the Shaolin temple and was one of the Five Elders who survived the destruction of the Shaolin temple by the Qing Dynasty. She developed the martial art as a way to help teach people to defend themselves against bigger and more powerful attackers.
There are numerous different lineages of Wing Chun, each with its own origins and distinctive styles. Wing Chun has developed into a more efficient and practical form of Kung Fu for self-defense, as opposed to some of the showier or more acrobatic styles.
Wing Chun is primarily a striking martial art, without an emphasis on grappling. Students are taught techniques that allow them to work offense and defense into the same techniques with as much efficiency of movement as possible.
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art first mentioned in writing in the 18th century, although it is believed to have origins in the African country of Angola as it’s very similar to the martial art of engolo.
Capoeira was originally practiced by slaves on Brazilian plantations during the country’s Portuguese colonial era as a way to defend themselves and stay connected to their cultural heritage.
The practice was seen as rebellious and was banned out of fear that it would encourage revolts. The techniques took on a more dance-like appearance to allow them to be practiced in disguise and are often performed to traditional music to this day.
Capoeira involves unique and acrobatic techniques that resemble dance movements. Rocking footwork, handstand kicks, and evasive movements are all signature techniques of Capoeira. Strikes are timed to be opportunistic and are often proceeded with feints designed to trick the opponent into giving the martial artist an opening.
Striking Martial Arts – FAQs
What is striking in martial arts?
In martial arts, striking refers to techniques that involve hitting the opponent, usually using hands, feet, elbows, knees, or shins. Striking techniques can be used alone or can be combined with grappling and weapons training, depending on the martial art being learned.
Striking techniques can deal a lot of damage and potentially knock out opponents and are often paired with precise footwork for added mobility.
Is striking the same as punching?
Punches are a specific kind of strike, but not all strikes are punches. Punching involves hitting the opponent with the knuckles of a closed fist, with the thumb wrapped outside to prevent broken bones.
Many striking martial arts include their own variation of this classic striking technique. In addition to punches, striking as a category also includes hits that use other body parts, such as kicks or elbow strikes.
What is the difference between striking and grappling?
Grappling refers to ground fighting techniques, such as throws, joint locks, and holds. Grappling techniques typically involve taking opponents to the ground to make them easier to control.
Striking techniques are designed to inflict damage from either a long or short distance, but not with extended contact and usually from a standing position. Sometimes, grappling and striking techniques are combined, such as in MMA ground and pound strategies.
Who would win a grappler or a striker?
All fights depend on a variety of factors, including the skill and experience of the fighters, the circumstances of the fight, and even a little luck. A well-placed strike could knock out an opponent before they have a chance to take the fight to the ground.
However, strikes are difficult to use if the grappler gets the striker off their feet. Many martial artists study both kinds of techniques to make sure their fighting style is well-rounded.
What is the best fighting style for short guys?
Shorter fighters need to consider two main factors: reach and center of gravity. Up close striking techniques that use elbows and knees, such as those used in Muay Thai, can rob a taller opponent of the advantage that their longer reach gives them.
Grappling techniques that utilize leverage can also be very effective against larger opponents. Having a low center of gravity can enhance throws if the right techniques are used. For short guys, it’s best to be familiar with both striking and grappling so they can adapt their fighting style to fit the specific situation.