Ask LH: Can I Learn Martial Arts Through Videos?

Ask LH: Can I Learn Martial Arts Through Videos?

Dear TUS,

My immediate reaction is to say “no”. I’m sure you could get some idea of the moves involved through a video, but I suspect the specifics of mastering them would be better taught face-to-face. And that’s without considering the philosophies involved, which are just as important in martial arts as the nifty-looking moves.

Since, however, I have never tried to learn a martial art (and have no interest in doing so), I thought I should ask around. So I put the question to Lifehacker’s Facebook and Twitter readers, and got, well, pretty much the same response.

Not everyone dismissed the idea (“You can learn the basics of anything using online resources”). Peter Sibilant argued on Facebook that being online wouldn’t be a problem, but that a casual attitude doesn’t really work with learning anything:

You can learn anything with online resources and the desire and determination to learn. Like everything it’s just a matter of doing — not wishing.

But most people were opposed. Bill Chipman summed up the argument nicely:

As a brown belt in two different martial arts, I can tell you that you can learn some basics online watching videos but you will never be able to truly perform as a martial artist without learning from a master. If you are really interested in learning, find a local school and check it out. Most schools have free trials. You can try it out and decide if the cost of real lessons are worth what you want out of learning martial arts.

Benzies argued that even with experience, it’s just not possible to master martial arts without another body to work with:

It’s easy to talk about, but in practice it’s 100x different. Needs to be 2nd nature, need someone to train with.

Jainesh was blunter:

It’s totally like learning how to drive whilst seating in the rear passenger seat.

So I think the message is clear: video is not enough. Signing up for a single or trial lesson shouldn’t cost you a fortune, so use video to identify something you like the look of, then head out into the real world. (As ever, if readers disagree, the comment box awaits.)


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  • you cant possibly get a sense of how to punch, kick, grapple etc without sparing its all very well to learn the moves and possible even with reasonable form if the video instructor explains it well enough but you wont be able to put that knowlage to any practacle use without practacing with someone.

  • Yes it is possible, however speaking from nearly 20 years of martial arts training, the best way to learn a martial art is by practising under someone that knows what they are doing, video’s can often hide the true under meaning of techniques, most martial arts clubs offer a free two lesson trial, also don’t be afraid of trying something new!

  • You can definitely learn the techniques from the videos, but a technique is useless until its pressure tested. I have been doing BJJ for years and watch a lot of videos to learn new techniques but they count for naught unless you actually have someone to test them on.

    And as anyone who does martial arts would know, all technique goes out the window if you have to use it for real and you’ve never actually tested it before. But the same can happen in a classroom as well. Learning techniques with a partner doing padwork in a predictable manner you start to develop bad habits.

    The best example of this is Taekwondo watch how its used in the Olympics, they don’t even hold their hands up to protect their faces/heads which would be a basic requirement if you actually got into a situation where you had to use it. It’s controlled learning, and it can happen in an actual lesson as much as it can from a video.

  • I have been teaching martial arts for 5 years and you need a resisting opponent to help you build timing, balance and skill. the 3 things you need to get better at any sport. If its not a sports based martial art in other words a performance based martial art its just fantasy.

  • I guess you could get a feel for the basics, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to do it that way for long. A sensai can see what you are doing and makes lots of small but meaningful adjustments to your techniques. If you spent six months learning off a video and then decided to take it up properly, you would spend all that time creating bad habits that you would then have to unlearn.

  • I’ve been learning Martial Arts for the last two years and nothing beats physical training with an experienced teacher. That being said, online videos are fantastic for fine tuning techniques. Especially Kata which requires alot of seperate and complicated movements which sometimes can not be remembered in one sitting.

  • I’d recommend watching a lot of videos to get an idea for what sort of style interests you. I’ve done Taekwondo, Zen Do Kai, Wing Tsun, Karate, Jodo, Kenjutsu and Iaido – they are all very very different. If you don’t know a lot about the styles available in your area, YouTube can help you get a feel for what the style is all about.

    Videos are also useful as mentioned above for remembering complex sequences for kata.

    But I agree that you need a sensei to properly learn. Take Iaido for example – the best videos on YouTube (and there are plenty of terrible ones – how will you know the difference?) show great detail about the precise movements required for the 12 Seitei kata, but having learned them from a truly dedicated practitioner, the videos barely scratch the surface. And more to the point, the videos don’t tell you when you do it wrong.

    Good luck grasshopper!

  • Yes! totally! not a problem. you can learn any of them to absolute mastery online. don’t listen to these guys. go for it!
    As long as you only expect to use it online …

  • Having done Judo, Japanese and Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, Western Kickboxing, Western boxing, Kendo, fencing, and a little Capoeira and introductions to a couple of kung fu styles at various points, I know that for me, the philosophies of the martial arts, and things like speaking in the language of origin for the martial arts style, and the random rituals, all annoy me. I like martial arts because I like the sport and the physicality of grappling or striking. Things like not being scored for a strike because the kiai didn’t have the appropriate amount of intensity made me loathe certain styles. I don’t take the classes for meditation or philosophy or discipline or to half heartedly learn slanted foreign history and a smattering of badly pronounced other languages. I just go because I enjoy fight sports. I understand if there are things about your local schools or clubs that you don’t enjoy/want to be involved in. And you diminish the other student’s experience by suffering through those things you don’t like waiting for the fun bits – you’re better off just hunting around for a class that suits you.

    But really, without another person to practice with – there’s no point. Nothing you learn will be of any practical use without real human feedback. You could probably learn some basic forms or maybe break falls or simple techniques online – but transitioning those techniques to actually being usable in either a competition or a real fight needs more than that. And for the vast majority of human beings – you won’t learn those techniques terribly well without someone to spot you and correct you when you get things wrong. And you can seriously hurt yourself getting it wrong.

    If you did try to learn martial arts at home, from the intarwebs, with another human being, but without a skilled coach/teacher to correct you and guide your pace and direction – you’d be risking really serious injury. Both to yourself and to the person you’re training with. It’s a bad idea.

    The other consideration is that training at home is expensive and a hassle, or a waste of time, or dangerous depending on how you go about it. You need a lot of clear space for break falls – or you’ll knock shit down everywhere even with good mats, or just hurt yourself when you start learning on hard flooring. Learning to strike without good technique coaches is begging for wrist and ankle injuries. Wrapping your wrists and ankles to diminish injuries is a pain to do by yourself. Buying the right gloves for the style you’re practicing is important and learning without gloves is begging for injuries again. You then need a heavy bag or a target dummy or focus pad stand and ideally a combination of the three – all of which are more expensive than a couple of weeks of classes, and if they’re poorly mounted they’ll be noisy, shake your nearby stuff around, or just fall and break stuff or injure you. You can’t really learn to grapple without another human being – you can practice transitions on shop manikin with pool noodle arms – but it’s not the same as actually practicing techniques, it’s just a hack way to work on stuff that’s a bit awkward in class.

    TLDR – go take a class. It’s a much better idea.

  • OK I ranted long and hard against the human lemming mentality and then I erased it. IMO you could if you were so inclined run out into the wilderness and learn martial arts from scratch simply by trial and error shadow fighting and applying common sense. How well would that hold up v contemporary, why u didn’t want to take advantage of knowledge already out there and whether everyone should stage a intervention for you are separate questions.

    On a more practical note as far as video and text learning go this is a very good resource written by someone with far more experience and thought put into the matter than

    Here’s stolen excert from the site linked.

    On the other hand

    I’m definitely not suggesting that one should try to learn a martial art without an instructor, simply that one can learn from books and videos. Feedback happens, it’s immensely valuable and important to get those verbal clues from sensei on whether or not you’re doing it right. It would take a dedicated, talented and careful person indeed to learn iaido entirely from a book. It would take really good instructional materials and a video tape machine to watch oneself… and most of all, it would take a person who would never ever be satisfied that they’d “got it”.

    Customization of training programs does in fact happen in the martial arts, despite what we may claim. Instructors do give suggestions and hints about what to work on at which time in the training process. These come as quick comments such as “cut stronger” or “relax the shoulders” and trigger whole cascades of discovery in the attentive student.

    Instructors are role models, they are at class every day and thus give students a hint about the most important training method of all. Butt on floor. Nothing else can compare with being at class, all class, every class. Sensei is, why not us?

    Depending on what you want to get out of martial arts, and how good a person your sensei is, you might even learn other things from his modeling. Like being a good person.

    What can I get out of book and video instruction?

    You tend to get out of martial arts training what you want to get out of it. If you expect to learn how to be a kick-ass butt-whupper, you’ll learn that. If you want to become a zen master, you might even learn that. Certainly you’ll tend to find an instructor that will emphasize and teach what you want to learn, so quite a lot of the learning will be self-selection. Very few boxing and wrestling coaches are trying to create monks, (although boxers and wrestlers may actually become gentler people). Very few tai chi instructors are trying to teach their students to take their enemies heads off with a single blow, (although some tai chi students may learn such a thing). Those who want to fight might choose boxing, those who want to become balanced and peaceful might choose tai chi.

    In any and all of these arts, no matter what you want to get out of it, there will be a physical component of the art. I can’t think of a purely mental martial art except perhaps the study of logic (formal, informal and symbolic). If there’s “dance steps” there’s books and videos out there that can help learn them. If you can’t learn from them, perhaps it’s the fault of poor instructional materials. Martial artists are not often known as great educators, but there’s no reason someone could not write a set of books that were graduated like math texts, starting from what you need to know from the beginning and moving on to ever more subtle instruction.

    Considering most students never go beyond the “dancing” level of practice anyway, why should we worry if part of their learning comes from books and video? It’s precisely the stuff that’s most easy to learn from that sort of material.

    Oh side note from me I’d be very interested to see what someone who went out with no prior training and taught them self martial arts from scratch would come up with. Devastatingly practical comes to mind.

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