Are Martial Arts and Karate the Same Thing?

If you’re looking for a new sporting hobby for your family, you may have already investigated martial arts or karate classes. After all, these are a great way to not only have fun and keep fit but also to practice self-discipline. If so, you may have wondered if martial arts and karate are the same things.

Karate is a fighting style, while martial arts encompass a wide variety of fighting styles traditionally used in wars or conflicts. As such, karate is practically considered a martial art by most people, even though it is not a fighting form used in warfare.

However, with so many martial arts out there (plus karate – we’ll look at that distinction in a moment!) it can be hard to know which will be best for your family. In this article, we’ll take a look at martial arts, and karate, in particular, to help you learn a little more about what makes these fighting styles unique!

An image of a Group of children sitting on the floor together and talking to each other before sports training in karate in the gym.

Why is Karate Not a Martial Art?

A strict definition of martial arts specifies that they are combat systems designed for military use. As karate has its origins as a civilian defensive fighting style, it has not been traditionally recognized as a martial art.

Of course, the term ‘martial arts’ is normally used a little more loosely, so don’t worry if you’re a little surprised by this strict definition! There is an important difference between karate and martial arts, though, which is that it is primarily defensive.

Karate is intended to teach self-defense and evasion to civilians, as opposed to true martial arts which are generally designed to teach soldiers how to assume an attacking position and incapacitate an opponent.

There are loads of different martial arts out there! I’ll get more into that in a bit. However, if you’re looking for something for your family to practice, I’d recommend karate, as it’s not only great fun but its defensive basis is definitely a load more wholesome than some other fighting styles!

An image of a Midsectiona of Two karate fighters performing karate stances against a black background.

Who Is the Number 1 Martial Artist in the World?

The #1 martial artist in the world will depend on which martial art is being considered, as well as the timeframe or timeline in consideration. Today’s #1 martial artist may not be the #1 martial artist in another 10 years.

This is why it’s incredibly difficult to choose the number 1 martial artist in the world, as there are not only loads of fighting styles but plenty of top-class fighters in all of them!

There are a few criteria that might make someone the most successful martial artist, whether that’s number one in terms of fame or achievements. Let’s take a little look at some of the ways that you can make it to be a no.1 martial artist.

On-screen fame: the #1 martial artist on shows

Plenty of martial artists go on to become household names. This is particularly true of those who go into film work, whether that’s Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, or any of the other famous martial artists on the big screen.

Of course, fame doesn’t come without achievement first. Film martial artists tend to come from extremely impressive backgrounds, as while the fighting in the film is normally choreographed, they’ve had to learn how to do it for real first!

If I had to pick my favorite, #1 martial artist on-screen, I’d definitely have to give mention to Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, and whoever helps Michelle Yeoh train, because while she’s a ballet dancer, she definitely nails the look of a martial artist in all of her films.

See? Even I have a hard time deciding who’s the #1 best martial artist in shows.

Achievements: Finding the best martial artist by achievements

There are actually lots of ways that martial artists can be recognized for their achievements. Often, the highest honor achievable depends on the precise sport.

Here’s a (non-exhaustive!) list of the many ways in which you can become top of your field in martial arts:

Achievement #1: medaling at the Olympics

One way that martial artists can get recognition is by going to the Olympics. Depending on how you define martial arts, you could consider up to 6 of the sports in 2020 (well, okay they were held in 2021) Olympics in Tokyo to be martial arts: boxing, fencing, judo, karate, taekwondo, and wrestling.

It hasn’t always been the same number of martial arts in the Olympics, though. Throughout history, many other sports have been both included and excluded, and who’s to say that more martial arts won’t be in the future?

In any case, a gold medal at the Olympics is no mean feat, and certainly gives any athlete a strong claim to be considered the best in the world!

Achievement #2: Having the highest-rated belt

Some martial arts like to use a belt system. In general, there are two ways they might choose to do this, with uniform belts or championship belts. Both give you a good idea of who’s the best – or who at least has a claim to being the best right now.

An image of brown, orange, blue, and black belts on the shelf.

Uniform belts

Something you might associate with Asian martial arts, in particular, is a colored belt system that’s used to hold together the uniform, or gi.

Are you curious about the uniform or gi? Find out more about the gi (and if you have to wear it) in my article here!

Rather than being given out competitively, these belts are normally awarded when the student attains a certain level. However, at the very highest levels (often the black belt), these are elite awards and might give the wearer a strong claim to be one of the best martial artists around.

Championship belts

In the world of professional boxing, championship titles often lead to the victor being awarded an oversized belt, which is the highest honor in that part of the sport (of course, in boxing this gets somewhat complicated, bearing in mind different weight categories and divisions).

Some martial arts, in particular, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) follow similar systems, and in this sport being awarded a belt gives you a claim to being the world champion. Recent years have seen big names such as Conor McGregor (who is also the world’s highest-paid athlete in any sport) be awarded belts and stake a claim to being the world’s #1 martial artist.

Achievement #3: Participating in tournaments

Every martial art tends to have its own federation, which often organizes events on a global or national level. Smaller centers often organize local events. If you’re interested in finding out about tournaments, it’s often a good idea to start with the webpage of your sport’s federation or organization.

An image of an Asian Taekwondo teacher and student standing and bowing for saluting posture in general action of Taekwondo sport.

What Are the 5 Most Popular Martial Arts?

The 5 most popular martial arts depend on who’s ranking them, as the 5 most popular martial arts for MMA fighters may vary from the 5 most popular martial arts for children to practice.

There are so many martial arts out there, from martial arts that are well known and popular for kids to learn (think taekwondo, jiu-jitsu) to those that are more aggressive and used by military forces around the world (think krav maga, muay Thai, MMA).

I’m guessing if you’re reading this then you’re probably more likely to be looking for a sport for your kids than signing them up for the Navy SEALS, so here’s a list of the five most popular martial arts for children to learn!

Martial Art #1: Karate

Now, I know that some of you smart cookies that read the whole article will be pointing out that I already said it isn’t technically a martial art, but bear with me. Because most of the world considers it a martial art in practicality.

Still, karate is a great sport for kids to learn. Like all martial arts, it builds strength, endurance, and discipline, and teaches good mental habits.

Karate has its origins in civilian self-defense, so it’s also built around evasion and self-preservation rather than some others which teach you how to hurt others (which in my experience, it’s never a good idea around young children).

Martial Art #2: Judo

A relatively new one compared to other martial arts (around 200 years old, while some others are over 2000!), judo teaches a lot of throws and wrestling-style techniques rather than striking and kicking (these techniques are a part of the martial art, but not practiced in competitions).

This is pretty handy as it builds a lot of the same strength and discipline aspects as other sports, with the added bonus of your kids not turning into lethal kickers once it gets to bedtime!

Martial Art #3: Taekwondo

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art which, although relatively new in the name (just 70 years) can trace its roots back over 2300 years! This sport (part of the Olympics) is based on ten basic moves, which include kicks and punches, and will have your kids fit and healthy in no time.

Martial Art #4: Wrestling

Of course, ‘wrestling’ is something of a catch-all term… In this context, I’m talking more about Olympic wrestling than Lucha libre, so hopefully, there won’t be any steel chairs being thrown around!

More of a combat sport than a martial art (though martial arts often use wrestling techniques), wrestling is a great sport for kids to get into.

It’s very popular at the high school level, so it’s easy to find competitions at your kids’ own levels. Just like judo and karate, this sport is more based on competition and throwing than kicking and real fighting.

Plus, kids can get college scholarships for wrestling, so that’s also a nice perk. Just know that wrestling is a ton of hard work (as is any martial art).

Martial Art #5: Jiu-Jitsu

Like some of the other martial arts I’ve included on the list, jiu-jitsu is a martial art that focuses on holds and throws rather than kicking and punching.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu in particular has a pretty cool focus, teaching how a smaller and weaker individual can overcome someone bigger and stronger by using their own weight and balance, bringing the opponent to the floor before focusing on holds.

Of course, like the other martial arts on this list, this sport will build not only the body but the mind too, and self-discipline and mental clarity are key parts of jiu-jitsu training!

Next Steps

Now that you know more about how karate is considered by most regular people to be a martial art even though it doesn’t technically meet the super-technical description, it’s time to see if having your child participate in a martial arts class is right for your family.

Or, hey – maybe you all want to participate together. That’s awesome. Go give this article we wrote a read next so you can learn about how MMA compares to boxing.


Learning from your own experiences is important, but learning from others is also smart. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as a family of sports nuts wannabes.

  • Martial arts are such a huge topic. After all, each one takes years to fully understand and master – so of course, there’s a whole world of information out there if you want to find out more!
  • My kids have taken aikido and are now in kung fu through a community program. Their sifus, Beth and her husband run this Facebook page or group showing kids the techniques they need to know as they advance through the belt ranks.

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