Personal development is a catch-all category for those using the martial arts to improve themselves. The improvements might be physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual. But they are all internally directed, rather than externally focused.
Because these goals are so wide and varied, it's difficult to talk about them collectively. I'm going to try and break things down into more manageable chunks, starting with one of the most common reasons given for training in the martial arts: fitness.
What Is Fitness?
Before you start thinking about doing martial arts to "get in shape", it's worth thinking about what being in shape actually means to you (as the cliche goes, round is a shape). How you choose to define fitness is going to define what your fitness training looks like. A powerlifter and a marathon runner are both arguably "fit", but neither is capable of performing the other's sport successfully.
I realize that for many people reading this, "in shape" means dropping a few pounds and being able to move without feeling like crap, and that's great. But really, put a little thought into it. If all you're concerned about is physique changes, what changes do you want? You won't look like Arnold Schwartzanegger training like Lance Armstrong (though you could still do steroids...)
Are Martial Arts Even What You Want?
This is the part where I try to shoot huge portions of the martial arts industry in the foot. Sorry team.
If your ONLY goal is to improve your physical fitness, I believe the martial arts are a poor choice for you.
Let me clarify that.
When people find out about my profession, very often they'll tell me thinks like "Oh, wow, that's so great. It seems like such a great way to get in shape!"
Here's the thing; it's kind of not.
I know, I know. All those guys in the UFC are freakin' ripped. But they didn't get that way solely from the practice of the martial arts, and odds are, you won't either.
Professional fighters look the way they do because they combine their martial arts training with serious strength and conditioning programs and a rigorous diet. I've watched pro fighters train--it is amazing, but impractical as a guideline for the average person. Most people simply don't have the time or energy for two or three training sessions a day, five or six days a week. And yet, that's what these pros are doing.
Martial arts are about developing a skill, first and foremost. Because it is a physical skill, the practice of that skill will change your body...but it won't always be in a positive way. Blunt force trauma isn't good for you. Having your joints hyper-extend isn't good for you. Getting slammed on the mat isn't good for you, and neither is being strangled into a deep shade of purple. But all of these things can happen in the martial arts.
Every long training martial artist I know has accumulated various
aches, pains, and sometimes more serious injuries as a result of their
training. I know several who have needed joints replaced. Most of them consider it a price worth paying, but that's because they value the skill. If you really, truly, don't care about the martial arts, then don't study them.
Worse, the physical benefits you'll get from practicing a martial decrease as you get better at it. One of the common principles in martial arts is to learn to move your body more efficiently, which means increasing the results you get while decreasing the amount of effort you have to expend. Jigoro Kano's motto "Maximum Efficiency, Minimum Effort"captures this perfectly.
The problem with moving more efficiently is that, from a fitness perspective, you're not working as hard. Dan John talks about this idea better than I can, so I'm just going to quote him here:
On the other side of the fat loss coin, really, again, everything
works and it always has. Whatever you write down, whether it is African
Disco Dance or Step Marching Spandex or Kettlebell Swings, it will work.
The problem is a little odd: as you become more and more efficient, you
get less and less benefit. A Modern Dance class will just about kill me
as every time the class does “Step-Ball-Change,” I will have done
twenty extra moves. Oh, it will be fat loss for me, but our little
darling “Twinkle Toes” to my right had better have a perfect diet,
because she is just going through the paces.
Fat loss exercise needs to be as inefficient as possible (emphasis mine).
(Manage Your Options!, Dan John)
In other words, the better you get at doing a martial art, the less well it's going to work for you as a fat loss tool. I know this, because years ago, while doing Muay Thai regularly, I got fat. There were a bunch of factors at work there, but bottom line, I was training regularly, could spar for rounds...and was still fat and out of shape.
Martial arts aren't designed to develop physical fitness. It helps to be fit to do them, and you can achieve some measure of fitness doing them, but ultimately, it's unlikely to be a one-stop shop for true fitness. And if ALL you care about is fitness, then the martial arts may not be the best path for you.
So What Should I Do Instead?
Well, first of all, let's be clear. You can do martial arts with fitness is mind, if there are other things you want as well. But if you just want a challenging workout that makes you feel like a badass for doing it...I might suggest looking elsewhere. Find a good CrossFit gym. Find an SFG or RKC who runs group classes (or does private sessions, if you prefer). Buy one of Ross Enamait's products, and follow that. There's lots of options out there for those who want their workouts to feel bad ass without actually learning a fighting skill.
[I should put this note in here somewhere, and here seems as good a place as any. If it seems like I am down on those who come to train wanting to get in shape, rest assured that I am not. I am down on those who say things like "oh, I don't care about learning the art...I just want something more interesting than running on the treadmill.". I can only speak for myself, but as an instructor, I resent having an art I've dedicated time, energy, and effort into learning compared to the human equivalent of a hamster wheel.]
So I Can't Do Martial Arts For Fitness?
No, you can. But it should be part of a complete program. In other words, if improved physical fitness is your goal, start with a martial art, but be prepared to supplement that training with strength work, some conditioning, and mobility work. Strength and, to a lesser extent, mobility tend to be under trained within the martial arts community. (Yes, mobility. I know a lot of martial artists, myself including, who are giant messes of compensatory movements. Being able to kick someone in the face is not indicative of joint health).
Obviously, trying to add all of this stuff into your routine can be complicated, but it's what you'll ultimately need to do if you want to get the greatest physical benefits from your martial arts training.
The School Itself
Assuming that you're starting the martial arts with the goal of improving your fitness, what kind of school are you looking for?
Styles don't matter much for this goal. You can improve your fitness through Judo, Tai Chi, Muay Thai, or just about anything else. Sport styles, arguably, have an edge in this department, only because they tend to place a premium on physical fitness, but that's not a hard and fast rule. Tai Chi, apparently has some documented evidence for improving heart health, but I haven't looked at the research that backs that up. What you are more concerned about when seeking a school for fitness is the level of training, not the specific style.
Questions to Ask/Things To Look For
Are The Students In Shape?
Look at the students in the gym. Do these look like healthy, fit people to you? I don't mean that they all need six packs, but do they look, well, in shape? This is one case where looking at an advanced class may tell you more than a beginner class. Beginners anywhere are likely to be out of shape. If the advanced class is ALSO out of shape, that's probably not a good sign.
Does the School Offer Any Fitness Classes or Coaching?
With the rise in popularity of group fitness training, many martial arts schools are now offering group exercise programs in addition to their martial arts training. CrossFit, TRX training, kettlebell classes, and many other popular group fitness programs have made their way into the martial arts world. If fitness is a major concern, a facility that offers both types of training may be the perfect balance of both worlds.
Even if the school doesn't offer that kind of programming directly, they may have qualified trainers available, either within the school, or by referral to an outside source.
Do The Classes Look Challenging?
When you're watching a class, pay attention to the students. Are they working hard? Sweating? Do they appear to be getting a workout, or are they just going through the motions without much intensity? Does there seem to be an emphasis on working hard, or is physical exertion not a concern?
(Note: this does not mean that every class should end with people vomiting on the floor or passing out from exhaustion...but if everyone looks as fresh when they walk out as when they walked in, they probably aren't getting much of a workout.)
Out of Shape Population
Not everyone in the gym needs to be a Greek statue brought to life, but if everyone in the gym looks like Danny DeVito, chances are good that this isn't what you want.
Disdain for Physical Training/Skill
You wouldn't think it, given the nature of the martial arts, but there's a whole section of the martial arts population that seems to feel that being strong and fit is some sort of anathema--that true martial arts skill requires no physical capacity whatsoever, and therefore, the pursuit of physical fitness is not only not necessary, but outright bad.
These are not the sort of people likely to help you.
Macho or Bullying Behavior
There's a flip side to this, which is that you will find some gyms that operate under the philosophy that if you aren't in shape, the instructors will simply bully you until you get in shape. If you want the martial arts to be part of your journey towards fitness, you need to find an environment where you will be built up, not torn down.
Ultimately, building a fitness plan around the martial arts can be a very rewarding practice, but it requres a bit of time and thought. Make sure you're considering the other things you might want out of the martial arts, and then create your fitness place around that.
Some Further Resources
Ross Enamait's Infinite Intensity and Never Gymless are both excellent resources for combat athletes. I've reviewed both of them on this blog before. Each has a fifty day workout program, along with a bunch of resources for designing and adapting the ideas for your own use.
Fighter's Body, by Loren Christensen and Wim Demeere, is a book specifically for martial artists who want to get in better shape.
Easy Strength, by Dan John and Pavel, has a great breakdown of ways of training for various sports, including martial arts.