I've had experience with a lot of different arts. They've all been useful to me, but a few stand out in my mind as must-haves. They're not necessarily the best arts, but they all have components that make them the best at certain things. Whether you're a seasoned martial artist or a newbie I think you should try out these arts (in no particular order):
Krav MagaQuick to learn, effective, real
If I currently had to pick one art for everyone to learn it would be Krav Maga. Krav Maga is one of the quickest ways to become a reasonably effective at defending yourself. While some arts may take you years to become effective, Krav Maga will make you effective in just months (heck, maybe weeks). It teaches no-rules combat, has no sport element and teaches in a realistic manner.
Much of Krav Maga centers around using gross motor reflexes. This and its no-rules all-realism element make Krav Maga one of the most practical systems you can train at the moment. If you're into martial arts for the self defense component this is one art you should definitely try.
Kali(aka Escrima, Arnis)
Weapons, real combat, lots to learn
I have never found a system better at teaching weapons than Kali. It teaches a concept of "One technique, many weapons", meaning that whatever you learn with (or against) one weapon should be almost instantly transferable to another weapon or empty hand. Kali also teaches weapons first, empty hand second because of this concept.
Kali teaches no-quarter, real fighting. Kali goes further than more defense-oriented-no-quarter-real-fighting styles in that it is an ancient warrior combat art. Kali isn't just about realism, it's also about killing your opponent and not getting killed by your opponent who does want to kill you. While you of course have the option to leave out the killing on your own, it's a very real part of Kali.
Some other great concepts in Kali:
- Hit the closest target with your longest weapon - Example: your opponent's hand is extended away from his body. Don't try to strike his body with your hand. Instead strike his extended hand. Also found in Jeet Kune Do (JKD).
- One technique, many ways to do it - Kali teaches one technique and expects you to understand it as a concept and apply it in many variations, not just one way as is taught in many arts.
There's a ton to Kali and it is often taught with other Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) as a component making it one of the most well-rounded systems you can study. Some notable ones: Dumog (ground fighting), Panantukan (boxing), Pananjakman (low-line kicking).
AikidoBody movement, footwork and leverage
First off - I'm unsure of whether I consider Aikido to be a martial art or not. On its own, Aikido is very far from being a full combat system and certainly not practical for self defense in modern times. It would probably be considered decently practical for field battle with swords, but that's not very relevant today. Most importantly though, the more I read of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, the more I believe that Aikido was a means to an end for philosophy and spirituality.
However, Aikido teaches a few core things about martial arts better than any other system I've seen: using body weight and leverage is one. This is a key martial arts concept that must be understood if you intend to master any art.
In training Aikido the general rule is: if you're straining muscle you're doing it wrong. Some examples of how this is accomplished:
- Using your opponents energy (movement, weight, and on a deeper level - intent and emotion) against him.
- Using your body weight to its fullest extent.
- Using a much more powerful force to deal with a much weaker one. Example: using your body weight and your core muscles (abs, back, etc) against your opponent's arm.
- Disbalancing your opponent.
Aikido also teaches some other core concepts well such as great footwork, awareness and dealing with multiple attackers.
Another great thing that can come out of training Aikido is personal growth. Aikido's philosophy and spirituality components are strong and just. I gained a lot from training Aikido in this regard.
If you're entirely opposed to trying Aikido there are some other arts that teach Aikido's core concepts similarly: Judo, Wrestling, Systema.
Brazilian JiujitsuGround fighting, leverage concepts that aren't as well understood in standing arts, even Aikido
Standing-only arts can teach you some great things, but if you wind up on the ground chances are you probably won't know what to do. If you've never trained ground fighting Brazilian Jiujitsu is one of the best places to start. Understanding at least the basics of ground fighting is essential for any complete martial artist.
Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) teaches leverage concepts that you will not find in most standing arts. Things such as limb isolation and grappling-specific leverage are concepts every martial artist should learn.
BJJ is recently very popular as a result of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and BJJ is a major component of most mixed martial artists' repertoire. While the sport element to BJJ is somewhat of a downside as far as realism goes, one great part of it is that it teaches you real-time fighting and forces you to realize that what you train is very different in real execution. Also, if you want to try a martial sport but don't want to get struck (much) (Boxing, TKD, Karate or any other striking art with competitions) then you should try out BJJ.