The Definitive Guide To Choosing a Martial Arts School

by | Jun 21, 2021 | More Information | 0 comments

Whether you are in Northville, Novi, Plymouth, or Elsewhere

How do you know the right martial arts school for you when you’ve never done a day of martial arts in your life? Should you find an instructor you mesh with, or should you choose a style (like taekwondo, karate, or mixed martial arts) first? How much should martial arts classes cost, and what should you expect to receive for your investment? At Michigan Academy of Taekwondo in Northville, MI, we want to help you avoid the most common mistakes first-time martial artists make and guide you toward a fantastic training experience. We’ll do that whether you choose us and train in taekwondo and karate in the Northville, Novi, and Plymouth area, or you choose another martial art in some other part of the world. We are excited to provide this comprehensive and unbiased guide to choosing a martial arts school. Here are the topics we will cover:

The Purpose of This Guide The difficulty choosing a martial arts school for newcomers is simple: you can’t know what you don’t know. At Michigan Academy of Taekwondo, our instructors have more than 160 years of combined experience, and we’d love to help you find your ideal martial arts school. The purpose of this guide is to help you identify the best school for you – because there is no “best” school. We are perfectly happy for this guide to steer you away from us and toward the experience that will best fit your needs. If that sounds like what you’re looking for, then let’s dive in with…

Three Things Almost No One Realizes When They Pick Their First Martial Arts School:

#1 Almost no one realizes they’re making a long-term decision.

When we start our martial arts training, we seldom realize we’ve begun a life long journey. We think we’re just ‘checking it out.’ But, pretty soon we’re training four nights a week and gunning for a black belt. We go from ‘checking it out’ to ‘completely hooked,’ and we never see it coming. If we’d known what we were getting into, we probably would have taken more time to research our first school. Years later we have invested thousands of hours and dollars into the first school we stumbled into. We could have gotten lucky and stumbled into a fabulous school – or the school may not be very good at all. In the latter case, that means we’ve misspent thousands of dollars and hours – and all because we didn’t dedicate ourselves to researching the right school at the beginning. Yikes! In light of this, we suggest you take your time in your hunt for your future martial arts home. That way you can figure out exactly what you need, and make the right investment with your time and money.

#2 Almost no one realizes how much the quality of each martial arts school can vary from school to school.

How much can it vary? Well, let’s start with tuition, which can range from $50/month to $250/month. The expectation for how often you’ll train can be radically different as well. Some schools will expect students to attend classes once a week, others daily. Some schools allow you to pay your dues month-to-month; some have three-year contracts. One karate school might focus heavily on traditional martial arts weapons, another on ‘kata’ or forms. A third karate school might focus on self-defense. A taekwondo school may gear their entire curriculum toward sparring and have students competing several times a year; another may not compete at all. You might compare two schools with five-star reviews, but one of them is headed by a master instructor from Japan with 50 years of experience and the other is taught by a guy with five years of experience and a marketing degree. Both appear good on paper, but only one has a true expert in charge. Different styles of martial arts offer different experiences as well. For example, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, you’ll spend a lot of time with a sweaty someone laying right on top of you. In a karate dojo that won’t ever happen. In a taekwondo school, you’ll spend more than half of every class throwing kicks; in a judo class, you won’t throw any kicks at all. Later on in this guide, we’ll help you narrow down which style might be right for you. We’ll also give you the questions you can ask so you can figure out ahead of time what you’re getting yourself into. For now, just know that schools can be very different, so a bad experience at one school may not mean martial arts isn’t for you. Choosing a martial arts school is more like picking a restaurant – just because you hate the sushi place doesn’t mean you won’t love the burger stand.

#3 Almost no one realizes that not every martial arts ‘instructor’ is a genuine martial arts expert.

Martial arts businesses are not regulated. An instructor doesn’t need to prove he knows his martial art to open a school. In fact, he doesn’t even need to prove he’s not a criminal. As crazy as it sounds there are hundreds of people who open schools with almost no experience. They just buy a black belt and overstate (or outright lie about) their experience on their website. You’d think no one could ever get away with this, but it happens all the time. Just search “fake black belt” on Youtube. You can imagine that if you can open a school with zero experience and get away with it, you can definitely get away with opening a school with inadequate experience. Later in this guide, we’ll talk about what verifiable factors make for a valid martial arts instructor. That way you’ll be equipped to vet potential instructors when it comes time to choose your martial arts school.

Why So Many People End Up In Bad Martial Arts Schools

In the beginning, people don’t always know what they don’t know. As we said above folks usually think all schools are pretty much alike, and they ‘shop’ for a school on these poorly chosen criteria:

  1. Location. They go to the nearest school to their home or work. The right martial arts school is worth driving a few extra minutes for.
  2. Schedule. They choose the school with classes that fit their schedule instead of changing their schedule to fit the school that’s best for them.
  3. Price. They go to the cheapest school and get what they paid for.
  4. Friend’s Recommendation. They go where they know someone else goes, instead of diligently searching for the training environment that will meet their personal goals.

How to Choose the Right Martial Arts School For Your Personal Goals.

Why are you thinking about taking martial arts classes? Clearly defining your goals and knowing a few non-negotiables you’d like to achieve with your training is the first step to finding the right martial arts school. Of course, your goals will change and adapt as you learn more about the martial arts lifestyle. That’s part of the journey. Nevertheless, you should do as the old saying says, and “begin with the end in mind.” There are five primary reasons you may be thinking about taking up martial arts. Let’s dig into each one and talk about what you can expect.

#1. Martial Arts For Self-Defense

Many people come to martial arts to learn to protect themselves.. This makes sense, of course, because the nature of all martial arts is fighting. It’s also true that martial arts were touted only as a means of self-defense when they first proliferated in the West. Self-defense is certainly why martial arts were created centuries ago, and why they all include smashing faces, choking necks, and snapping limbs. But are they still a valuable means of self-protection in the modern world? The short answer is yes, but perhaps the question can’t be resolved with a short answer. First of all, what do we mean when we say “self-defense?” Are we talking about defending ourselves as a soldier on the battlefield? Do we mean in a dark parking lot when we leave work late? Or, do we just want to be able to ‘win’ a scuffle outside a bar or sports park? Modern self-defense includes good situational awareness, the ability to recognize danger before it becomes a physical confrontation, and the verbal skills to talk yourself out of a problem. Unlike self-defense centuries ago, modern self-protection measures include a cell phone and myriad tools – from firearms to pepper spray – most of which can’t be taught in the context of martial arts. Your self-defense plan should include more than just punches and kicks. If you’d like to learn to protect yourself and your loved ones, martial arts training should be just one part of your preparation. Knowing how martial arts fits in with your other precautions will help you select the right martial art and the right place to learn it. If self-defense is the primary thing you want to learn, here is the most important question you can ask: if this is good for fighting, where are the students of this school applying what they’ve learned? We suggest you figure out if a school’s students are in the MMA cage, on patrol as police officers, bouncers in a biker bar, or otherwise engaged in vetting the school’s curriculum. In other words, if a school says you can bet your life (or your child’s life) on their curriculum, they should be able to demonstrate proof of its validity in the real world.

#2. Martial Arts For Physical Fitness

Martial arts classes let you work out without always feeling like you’re working out. That’s because martial arts is about as much fun as you can have with the bounds of the law and good decorum. Martial arts training usually provides a balance between cardio and resistance training with the bonus of stretching. Plus, many schools will supplement martial arts training with health club-style exercise classes. But be warned: here too, not all schools will be created equally. Some schools consider their purpose to get people in shape, and some schools aren’t concerned with fitness at all. If fitness is your primary goal, you might consider a school with a competitive focus. After all, they are training athletes, and you can benefit from their regimens even if you never compete yourself. You might look for a school that has weight and cardio equipment and includes gym access in its membership. Here’s a tip: One easy way to judge the value of the fitness program offered at a martial arts school is the fitness of the instructor. If their black belt can stretch around a Honda, maybe that’s not the best school to get in shape at. Try to ask questions about how you’ll get in shape, because almost all schools claim they will improve your fitness. The school’s answer should reveal a plan and a program that systematically leads to a healthier you.

#2. Martial Arts For Personal, Mental or Spiritual Growth

When the Karate Kid hit theaters in 1981, moms everywhere flocked to martial arts schools to find their very own Miyagi. To this day the most common martial arts school enrollment is a child whose parents want to instill greater amounts of self-confidence, self-discipline, respect, and focus in them. Of course, some adults are after the same thing. But can martial arts actually instill better character? You guessed it – not all schools are created equally here either. In fact, the wrong school may make matters worse. Consider high school basketball coaches. Some of them use the court as a means to instill values in their athletes. These coaches are often beloved by their athletes who value the contribution their coach made to their life long into the future. Other coaches demean and berate their athletes. They create a profoundly negative experience that harms the self-esteem of their athletes long into the future. Martial arts teachers are no different. Left on its own, martial arts may instill positive traits and develop character. The question is – if character building is your primary goal – how do you find a school that always improves the character of all its participants? Well, one thing is for sure, it won’t happen by accident. It takes a system. Much like self-defense and fitness, nearly every school promises to deliver character development. But how will they do it? Where is the proof? If this kind of growth is your primary reason for enrolling in martial arts classes, ask the school how they develop character. Do they have a program that systematically instills values, or do they just try to do a good job and hope for the best?

#3. Martial Arts For Competition

Many martial arts are sports that offer ways for both the amateur and professional to compete at every age and level. Martial arts competitions are fun, build camaraderie, and can be participated in as athletes, but also as judges, referees, and officials. Mixed martial arts (MMA) offers competition at both the amateur and professional levels but tends to favor younger people. The same holds for boxing and Muay Thai.   Taekwondo and judo both offer competitive opportunities to people of all ages, and both are Olympic sports. It’s worth noting taekwondo is the most practiced martial art in the world, so there are opportunities to compete at just about any age and ability level. Brazilian jiu-jitsu also offers competition to practitioners of all ages. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is sometimes called the ‘gentle art,’ and tends to be among the least likely styles to result in injury.  If competition is your goal, there’s good news. Competition provides an objective measure by which you can determine a school’s quality. In other words, if students are winning championships every weekend you know the training is legit.  Finding a great school to compete with might just come down to the vibe. Many schools have successful athletes, but they all create different training environments. So, figure out if you’ll thrive in a “suck it up and train, cupcake!” environment or a, “tell me about your mother,” environment, and go from there.

#4. Martial Arts For Cultural Enrichment

Finally, you may wish to train in martial arts so you can participate in an ancient tradition. Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Indonesian martial arts typically have a strong cultural component.  Karate, kung-fu, and taekwondo are often perfect examples of traditional martial arts – particularly when purposefully taught as cultural activities.  If this is what you’re looking for, the keyword to search is ‘traditional.’ This will sometimes, but not always, steer you away from competitive schools. Competition by its nature requires innovation, and innovation is the enemy of tradition.  Authenticity is important here, so one way to figure out if a school is genuine is by asking questions about its lineage. Most good traditional schools can trace their curriculums back to the founder of the style.  You should also notice a fair amount of rituals in a traditional school. For example, there will be a short ceremony (usually in the language of style) that opens and closes class, and that precedes and concludes practice with a partner.  Martial arts can be a wonderful means to not only observe other cultures but to genuinely experience them. If you’d like to add richness and meaning to your life, a traditional martial arts school can be a fantastic way to do that.

The four most common styles of martial arts classes: Taekwondo, Karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and, Mixed Martial Arts.

Your choice of martial arts style is where you will best align your personal goals with a probable outcome.  Is the style of martial art you’ll study the most important decision to make? Maybe.  You may already have a specific martial art you’d like to learn. However, if your goals are broader – such as getting in shape or developing character – several styles could work for you. In such a case you may be better served looking for a teacher you connect with than a certain style.  Let’s take a quick look at the four most common styles of martial arts in the United States and what you can expect in the schools dedicated to studying them. 


An Overview of Taekwondo:  Taekwondo is the most practiced martial art in the world – and for good reasons. It’s an Olympic sport, but it can be practiced by people of all ages and fitness levels. That makes it easy to travel the world and participate in taekwondo events and join a robust global community.  There are two parts of taekwondo training: kyooroogi (sparring) and poomse (forms.) Each practitioner finds their balance between the two. There are opportunities to compete in both and the combination provides a lifetime of opportunities to learn and grow. Physically, taekwondo is best known for its dynamic kicking techniques. This makes taekwondo exceptional for developing one’s timing, speed, and flexibility.  It is interesting to watch Stephen Thompson in the UFC. Though he is a karate practitioner, his style is very similar to modern taekwondo, and watching his bouts will give you a fantastic representation of the way taekwondo works in application.  Taekwondo is the official sport of South Korea, and it’s a rich part of its history and culture. That means that many schools, especially those headed by South Korean instructors, offer a chance to explore a proud tradition.    ((These Score sections would be cool to format differently than other text.))Scores: Self-Defense: 2/5  We score taekwondo only two out of five points for self-defense. Though it does include punches and elbows in its curriculum, its sparring is 90% kicking. While that does give practitioners a critical chance to ply their techniques on the uncooperative, the absence of punches to the face and grappling make it a poor choice as a self-defense martial art.  Physical Fitness: 5/5 Taekwondo receives high marks for physical fitness because it is a competitive sport requiring massive amounts of stamina, strength, flexibility, and agility. Because it is an Olympic sport, many taekwondo schools incorporate the latest advances in athlete development. Personal Development: 5/5 We gave high marks for personal development to taekwondo. Although personal development tends to be a result of how a style is taught rather than the style itself, taekwondo has a strong tradition of prioritizing the character of its participants over their physical ability. Competition: 5/5 Taekwondo gets the highest possible score for competition because it provides such a wide range of opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to compete against each other.  Cultural Enrichment: 5/5 Because taekwondo is the national sport of South Korea, and because it is still considered a ‘traditional’ martial art by most, we rate a five out of five for taekwondo’s ability to provide a wonderful, cultural experience. 


Karate classes represented more than 90% of martial arts training in the United States before taekwondo’s introduction to the Olympics in 1988. Because of that the word “karate” is still used as a generic word (like Kleenex or Coke) to describe all martial arts.  That means that each karate dojo is radically different from the next. Some still practice a very traditional karate-do from Okinawa or Japan, while others do gymnastic-style tricks and demonstrations, and still, others teach something akin to mixed martial arts (MMA.) That makes it impossible to say what you’ll encounter at your local karate school.  In the scores below we tried to give a general idea of what we feel most karate schools offer. However, take it with a grain of salt. After all, karate spawned both the word “McDojo” and the greatest MMA fighter of all time, Georges St Pierre. Traditional karate-do has a long, beautiful tradition and if a rich cultural experience is your aim, an old-school karate dojo may be a perfect choice for you.  Scores: Self-Defense: 2/5 (but maybe 5/5) While there are exceptions to the relatively low score for karate’s self-defense prowess, we find that the average karate school doesn’t provide a dynamic sparring opportunity, or compete against practitioners from outside their school. Hence, the 2/5 score. However, it’s worth noting that the exceptions to this are truly exceptional. If you can find one of the rare karate schools that have adapted, expanded, and vetted its curriculum over time, you may just find yourself in the very best place to learn self-defense.  Physical Fitness: 3/5 We gave karate the lowest score of all the martial arts we looked out for physical fitness. Again, dojos vary wildly from one to the next, so we’ve based this on the average school. Most karate schools don’t have a competitive element, and most put their emphasis more on precise movement rather than dynamic movement. Personal Development: 5/5 Almost invariably karate does a fantastic job of helping people become better versions of themselves. Karate is much more about who you are as a person (honorable, respectful, focused, and brave) than it is about what you are capable of physically. Competition: 2/5 While the opportunity to compete exists in karate, the martial art lacks much organization as a sport. Too many leagues and rule sets and too few practitioners mean a lot of poorly attended tournaments.  Cultural Enrichment: 5/5 If a deep cultural experience is what you’re after, karate makes a fine choice. Traditional Japanese dojos are run with the kind of disciplined action that makes Japanese culture so unique. 

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is the most rapidly growing martial art in the world. This is due largely to its popularity in the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC.)  Much like wrestling, it is almost exclusively a grappling martial art. That makes it great for self-defense in one-on-one situations. However, its lack of striking and ineffectiveness against multiple opponents doesn’t allow it to stand alone as a self-defense system. At the same time, no such system is complete without some proficiency in the ground fighting Brazilian jiu-jitsu provides.  Brazilian Jiu-jitsu also has a robust competition network, including both the amateur and professional levels. Like taekwondo, it provides many opportunities to participate in the sport for people of all ages.  The downfall of Brazilian jiu-jitsu for many people is the close contact it puts you in with your training partner. If being crushed under a huge man who is occasionally sweating into your mouth sounds intolerable, Brazilian jiu-jitsu won’t be for you.  If you’d like to practice a martial art that will get you in shape, enable you to compete around the world, and would rather grapple than punch and kick, you may find a home at your local jiu jitsu school.  Scores: Self-Defense: 3.5/5 It’s difficult to score Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s effectiveness for self-defense. Its lack of any striking techniques and its dependence on achieving a dominant position before you can disable an opponent make it a poor choice for self-defense.  However, if a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner gets their hands on you, and you don’t know Brazilian jiu-jitsu, have a weapon, or have a friend coming to kick them in the back of the head, you are in real trouble Brazilian jiu-jitsu excels in its ability to take control of an aggressor without hurting them, which makes it a great choice for police officers, security professionals, and children on the playground. Physical Fitness: 5/5 Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes are not only fun but physically demanding from beginning to end. They will get you into great shape and do an especially good job building your core and grip strength. Personal Development: 4/5 Most Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools do a good job of helping improve people’s lives. It’s great for developing humility, respect, and confidence. However, we can’t quite give it a 5/5 due to its lack of good character as a fundamental tenet.  Google Kurt Osiender’s videos. We love him, and so will you, but you’ll also see why BJJ lost a point in the ‘character’ department.   Competition: 5/5 Brazilian jiu-jitsu has a huge amateur and professional competition network that is worldwide. Because it also feeds directly into mixed martial arts, we give Brazilian jiu-jitsu the highest possible marks for competition. Cultural Enrichment: 1/5 Jiu-jitsu is a Japanese martial art that was improved upon by the Brazilians expressly to win fights. It does not claim a culture other than the one made inside individual schools.  

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

Since the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in 1993 mixed martial arts (MMA) has only continued to grow in popularity. Though disorganized and humble in its beginnings, it is now a powerhouse sport that eclipses every other combat sport on the planet.  The appeal is clear: the world’s toughest athletes risking life and limb to play the world’s toughest game.  Mixed martial arts is about as close as you can get to a real street fight and still call it a sport. That makes it a great choice for people who want to learn self-defense. And because it requires heaps of athleticism, it’s a great choice for those looking to get in shape too. However, there is a massive downside for most people, and that’s the high risk of injury. Even if you manage to avoid concussions and your partner breaking your elbow, the rigors of the sport are guaranteed to take a toll on your body.  MMA is highly unlikely to be a lifelong pursuit. While MMA may be hard on your health, you might be willing to take the risk. MMA provides the opportunity for you to know what you’re made of – and to prove yourself in one of the world’s most difficult endeavors.  Scores: Self-Defense: 5/5 Hands down, MMA is the best way to learn to protect yourself. Practitioners study every aspect of empty-hand fighting and blend them into a highly effective and proven method of fighting. Physical Fitness: 5/5 It is simply impossible to wholeheartedly pursue MMA and not get in shape. Even overweight fighters like Mark Hunt and Roy Nelson are still in tremendous condition. Personal Development: 1/5 MMA is primarily about winning – not about character. One need only look as far as every UFC press conference ever to see how the average MMA fighter behaves. Let’s just say it’s probably not what you are looking for in a potential spouse or employee. Competition: 5/5 We were tempted to give MMA a 4/5 for competition because it doesn’t provide competitive opportunities to anyone other than young, athletic participants. However, we gave it a 5/5 because it’s likely the most difficult sport to compete in, and it’s the only martial arts competition you can earn a living at. Cultural Enrichment: 1/5 Uh, no. 

Six Signs of a Quality Martial Arts Teacher

#1. The instructor’s years of experience they have in the specific martial art they teach. 

We think a good master or lead instructor should have a minimum of 15 years of experience in their art.  Unfortunately, not everyone is honest about their experience. So, look for some signs of your potential instructor’s longevity. That might be pictures of them in a uniform from twenty years ago, or trophies and certificates dated that far into the past. Another thing to look out for: as some traditional martial arts like karate have become less popular, and other arts like taekwondo and jiu jitsu have exploded, some instructors will try to ‘borrow’ time from an art they have practiced previously – even if it’s not the art they teach. Make sure their experience is in the art you want to learn. 

#2. The instructor’s years of experience teaching martial arts. 

Just because someone has spent a lot of time practicing martial arts doesn’t mean they have spent that much time teaching it. And, as you already know, just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they can teach it to someone else. Martial arts practice and martial arts teaching are separate skills.  So we suggest you try to figure out how much time a potential instructor has spent on the mat helping others. 

#3. The instructor’s highest rank held, who granted it, and where it’s certified. 

Not all black belts are created equally. You can get a ‘certified’ black belt online in a weekend, or you can earn a black belt from a respected teacher through years of dedicated practice. Figuring out what rank a teacher holds is a good idea, but what’s really important is figuring out how credible its source is. 

#4. An instructor’s clean criminal history. 

 Pretty simple – make sure you’re not dealing with a con artist or worse. 

#5. Disposition. 

Finally, an instructor’s disposition is important. A good teacher is going to be polite, humble, courteous, and talk more about what they’ll do for you than how great they are.  Remember that when you meet your potential instructor for the first time, they are putting their best foot forward. If something about their nature turns you off, pay attention. It could be a signal of things to come. 

10 Signs You’re in a Quality Martial Arts School.

1. Customer Service.  

Martial arts is all about mastering the fundamentals, so your school of choice should have mastered the fundamentals of customer service. That means they answer the phone during normal business hours, their facility is clean and odor-free, and their staff and students put out a friendly vibe. 

2. Real-world experience. 

You need an objective measurement of whether or not a school’s curriculum is valid in the ‘real world.’ In other words, do the things they’re teaching work? The most common validation comes from a school’s record of winning tournaments and competitions. Even if a school doesn’t actively compete, its instructors should have a robust competition resume. Or, put another way, they should be able to prove they can make their techniques work on the unwilling.   Pro tip: make sure that these accomplishments are in a legitimate league, not one they created themselves.   Of course, not all martial arts have competitive leagues, particularly those that are geared more for self-defense. In such cases, instructors can often demonstrate their expertise by verifiable time spent ‘operational’ as a soldier, police officer, or in another high-risk security role.  What if you don’t care to compete or learn self-defense? Admittedly, in such a case real-world experience may not matter. On the other hand, with legitimate options available nearly everywhere, why not choose an instructor who knows their stuff? 

3. Many long-time students. 

One sure way to know if you’re visiting a great martial arts school is if there are a ton of long-term students. If hundreds of people choose to invest their time and money year after year, they must see the value. One way to determine if your potential martial arts school is retaining its members is to look at the schedule. You should see more advanced and intermediate classes than beginner classes. 

4. Appropriate pricing. 

In general, a quality martial arts school will charge between $149 and $229. Rates may be a little lower in areas with a lower cost of living, but in most parts of the U.S, you should consider it a warning sign the monthly costs are any less. Low costs could mean that the school lacks the quality to charge a higher rate, or it could mean they lock members into a contract, and charge a lot of people who never attend classes.  When a school’s tuition falls in that $149-$229 range it indicates they offer a quality program, and that they are established enough to ask for a sustainable rate. 

5. Fair contract terms. 

A martial arts school that offers flexible terms for cancellation is confident they’ll keep you around on the strength of their program, not the strength of the contract. If a school is willing to cancel your membership under a variety of circumstances, you can be confident they’ll continue to work to earn your loyalty as the months and years go by. 

6. Earned belt system. 

A school that awards its belts based on performance instead of attendance demonstrates its integrity. You want to be sure what you accomplish is truly earned, so look for a school that requires an honest effort from its students. A caveat: we don’t think beginners (especially children) need to be held to an exceptionally high standard. It’s enough that there is a standard, and that that standard becomes more demanding as students get older and approach black belt. 

7. Can explain how they provide benefits.

A quality martial arts school doesn’t just say they’ll improve your fitness, confidence, self-discipline, and self-defense ability – they can explain how. A first-rate school has a proven system for helping their students reach their goals.

8. Background checked and first-aid certified.

Safety is paramount in the martial arts classroom. One simple way that the best martial arts schools demonstrate their commitment to your wellbeing is by background checking and first-aid certifying their instructors. It’s a relatively easy, low-cost process and one that a good school won’t ignore. 

9. Martial arts press (not local press,) affiliations, certifications, and championships.

Another sign of a quality martial arts school is press from magazines like Black Belt, Taekwondo Times, or Jits. These industry publications usually have a good nose for sniffing out the best programs, and if they routinely recognize a school for its excellence, it’s a great sign. Likewise, schools with legitimate certifications from large, credible associations are operating within a group that holds them to a kind of minimum standard. Finally, a school that wins medals demonstrates the quality of its curriculum. As mentioned before, even if the average student doesn’t compete, and you don’t want to either, your instructors must have some experience applying what they know. 

10. Instructors are still training. 

Training in martial arts is a lifelong journey. Your instructor should be ahead of you on the path, not someone who has ‘arrived’ at the destination. If instructors are still actively trying to improve their skills it shows you they are passionate about what they do. After all, if they are telling you it’s good for you to practice martial arts – shouldn’t they be doing it themselves? 

10 Signs You’re in a Terrible (Possibly Sketchy) Martial Arts School

#1. Boastful. 

Consider it a warning sign if the instructor’s ‘pitch’ to join their school is something along the lines of, “Because I am awesome.” For example, the instructor tells you about how they are the “highest-ranking non-Asian in the world,” or that they “won hundreds of tournaments.”  Of course, expertise is very important – but your potential instructor’s focus should be on what will happen for you, and not on how great they are. 

#2. They say, “What I do is so dangerous I couldn’t possibly spar with my students or have my students enter tournaments.”

This could either be a ruse to cover for the instructor’s lack of knowledge and ability, or it could be simple self-delusion. One thing it isn’t? True.  At best, the instructor lacks the physical, emotional, and technical capability to meld realistic training scenarios with safe practices. At worst, he can’t fight the tide in the bath – much less an opponent in the ring. 

#3. They use some version of “trust me.” 

We said earlier that good schools can always explain how training in their martial arts program will provide the benefits they promise. There’s a system. The inverse of this is an instructor who responds with, “Oh trust me, it does!” It’s likely the instructor is well-meaning, and they’ve probably seen their program deliver the promised benefits. However… If they can’t explain why the program works, they can’t duplicate their results. That means that the benefits of training miss some students and that instructors can’t be trained to get the same results as the owner. 

#4. Janky facility.

If a school lacks the organizational ability, funds, or concern to keep their facility clean and the equipment in good repair, likely, they don’t manage other things well either. A martial arts school doesn’t need to be the Ritz Carlton. Truthfully, it probably shouldn’t be. Concrete floors and Ikea charis are fine – as long as they are clean concrete floors and Ikea chairs.  Infections like staff, MRSA, and ringworm run wild in unkempt martial arts schools. So while some people may not consider it a big deal, dirty schools are a serious matter. Consider that UFC superstar Kevin Randleman died from an MRSA infection he contracted on the mat.  Stinky dojos kill, people.

#5. Kids with black belts on. 

 A black belt is analogous to graduating from high school. Just about anyone can do it, but you can’t do it without considerable effort – and you sure can’t put in the effort required by the time you’re 11. Schools that grant children black belts are most likely engaged in selling ranks to parents. Sure, they create the illusion that the child earned the belt – and indeed they earned something – that something just isn’t a legitimate black belt.  Credible schools will offer a junior black belt to its younger students who have learned their curriculum up to a black belt level, but still need to mature into the physical, mental and emotional qualities required to be an actual black belt. These junior belts may be black with a stripe of another color, or embroidered with an alternate color from senior belts. In any case, they should be clearly distinguishable from the black belts earned by older students. 

#6. Out-of-shape instructors.

 Martial arts instructors should exemplify the benefits of martial arts. They are role models to their students. So if an instructor is out of shape they are advertising the inefficacy of their school. At best the unfit instructor isn’t practicing what he or she preaches – and that indicates a failing of character that you don’t want in your personal mentors.

#7. Few black belts are actively training.

One of the signs of a healthy martial arts school is the number of people who make it to their black belt, and you who have such a strong relationship with the studio they remain for years after. A school that doesn’t have a lot of black belts either isn’t able to show people enough value to make them want to remain enrolled, or it offers little advancement beyond the black belt.  Earlier we compared earning a black belt to getting your high school diploma. The truth is, your black belt makes you ready to begin training. In a good martial arts school, the depth of what you can learn is limitless, and so the best training often comes years after you begin.

#7. Long contracts and ‘upgrade’ memberships

A thirty-six-month contract when you ‘upgrade’ to the Super-Duper Allstar Leadership Master Black Belt Club guaranteed to make your child the next Bruce Lee graduating Harvard? Gross.  Good martial arts schools give you their best curriculum in a straightforward membership that’s easy to cancel if you need to.

#8. No proof of expertise.

There’s a big difference between an instructor who got their black belt at the local YMCA and one that has spent time studying under a legitimate master. Unfortunately, there are now generations of hacks who learned from other hacks.  While certification from a legitimate organization is no guarantee you have found a great instructor, it’s pretty unlikely that an instructor without such certification is any good. It’s an appropriate question to ask what rank your potential instructor holds, and most importantly who granted it and where it’s certified. Take some time to research their answer, so you can be 100% sure you’ve found a teacher who knows their stuff.

#9. Instructors have less than 15 years of experience.  

Sometimes it seems like there is no greater know-it-all in the world of martial arts than the new black belt with about five years of experience. And while most new black belts remain humble students, it sure does seem like there’s always one oddball who charges off to become the master. Most long-time practitioners will confess they thought they knew more than they did about five years in, and that somewhere around ten years of experience they realized the wisdom of the statement, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  While this remains true for the veteran of 15-20 years, such experienced practitioners have gained heaps of wisdom and humility. And, they’ve worked hard to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.  It’s our advice to find an instructor who has been through this cycle and has a minimum of 15 years of experience in martial arts. 


How to Determine a Fair Price for Martial Arts Classes

A fair rate at a professional school is between $150 and $225 monthly. Of course, costs depend upon the cost of living in your area. Expect to pay closer to $300 in areas like Manhattan. Here in Northville, Novi and Plymouth costs fall right in the middle. This may surprise you: one of the biggest warning signs in martial arts is that the tuition is too low.  Running a martial arts school is more expensive than you may think. Leasing enough floor space, paying staff, and covering insurance costs make for a pretty high monthly nut. It is nearly impossible to make it charging less than $150/mo. So if a school’s tuition is too cheap, watch out. They may be hitting you with hidden costs elsewhere, or they may just be charging too little to run the school well (or for much longer.)  Quality training comes with a price tag. There are no exceptions.  What if they are asking for more than $225 per month? Well, if a school truly provides something special and the market bears the cost, (meaning the school is full of happy customers) don’t rule it out. For example, you may be wise to pay $350/mo to train in taekwondo with former Olympian and Olympic team coach, Juan Moreno.  What if you don’t have that kind of money? Sometimes virtual learning can be a good option, such as streaming classes or DVDs. If you can find a few like-minded friends to practice with, you may be surprised at how much you can learn.  Good martial arts schools rarely turn away people who are dedicated and want to train hard. If the cost of classes is more than you can afford, you can offer to barter services, help out with maintenance or hang fliers on doorknobs. Have a conversation with the school’s owner and see if you can work something out.

Should You Sign a Longterm Contract at a Martial Arts School?

First off, every school needs to have you sign a contract that defines terms of payment, indemnifies the school, and sets expectations for the business relationship.  Should you sign a 12+ month agreement? It depends, but usually no. Nowadays many states don’t allow ‘physical fitness centers’ to enforce those contracts. In general, schools should be good enough to keep you interested without the contract.  There are exceptions. Bigger, better schools sometimes have an overabundance of students. Asking for a commitment is a way of weeding out students who wouldn’t stick around anyway. If everything else about the school seems great, a long-term agreement is not a dealbreaker.  If you are going to sign a long-term contract make sure that you get a reasonable trial period (two or three months) before you are committed to the full term. Verify that if you move, are injured, or have a loss of employment you’re able to terminate the agreement.  One final thought on contracts: it’s unfair to your school and its owner to bail out with no warning. Running a martial arts school is a stressful occupation, and most instructors do it only because they are passionate teachers. There are easier ways to earn a living.  So, it’s a good practice to always give your school a minimum of 30 days’ notice (make one more payment) before you cancel. It allows the school to adjust its schedule and finances accordingly – and it’s just the right thing to do. 

The Bottom Line: our Six-Step Guide to Finding a Killer Martial Arts School.

Step 1. Define your goals. 

What is most important for you to get out of your martial arts training? Is it self-defense? Mental acuity? Physical fitness? Self-defense? A deep learning experience? Flashy moves? One of the best sayings in martial arts is, “Begin with the end in mind.” Before you start looking for a martial arts school, get clear on your desired outcome. Not all styles and schools provide equal opportunities for growth in every area.  You can refer to THIS SECTION above to see the pros and cons of the most popular martial arts. 

Step 2. Pick styles you’re interested in and research them.

Suppose you decide that you want to use martial arts primarily as a means of self-defense. You’ll figure out pretty quickly that combat sports do a great job at this, and you may also wonder about things like combatives and krav maga. Now do some research. Get on YouTube and watch demonstrations and listen to discussions. Try to figure out who the experts are and hear what they have to say. And, perhaps most importantly, research what the naysayers say. Figure out all the counterarguments.  If you were to settle on MMA as your chosen discipline (a wise choice for those looking to learn to defend themselves) you could then go watch classes on YouTube. This is a really good idea, because you’ll have an idea of what a good class (and school) should look like before you go on to step three.  Which is… 

Step 3. Choose at least three schools to look at.

Why three different schools? Perhaps the biggest reason is that skill in marketing has nothing to do with skill in martial arts. A school’s website might be wonderful and say everything you’d like to hear – but the classes might not be that great. Likewise, a school with a so-so website may have amazing classes.  Good instructors genuinely want to see you in the right school, even if it’s not theirs. What’s more, they would probably like to avoid having you at their school if it isn’t a good fit. A couple of months of tuition is a poor trade for a mildly dissatisfied customer or an unenthusiastic student.  As you try different schools, each instructor will impart their advice, and you’ll begin to get firsthand experience to use when you make your ultimate choice. 

Step 4. Go in to see a class and meet the teacher and students.

You can certainly jump right in and try a class out, but if you aren’t comfortable doing that you can always arrange to observe. Sometimes sitting on the sidelines will reveal things you’d never have noticed if you were in the class, so that may be a good start.  Attending a class will give you a chance to meet some of the instructors and talk about the school. It’s a good idea to try to strike up conversations with other students. Ask them how long they’ve come, if they recommend it, and what they like about it. You can refer to this guide to see the signs you’re in a GOOD MARTIAL ARTS SCHOOL and this one to see if you’re in a BAD MARTIAL ARTS SCHOOL.

Step 5. Take a short trial. 

It’s hard to know if you will enjoy your training experience from just one visit to a school, so after you have visited a few and gotten a feel for where you might like to go, do a trial membership. This might be anything from a couple of weeks to 90 days or so.  This will give you a chance to get immersed and see if your chosen school and martial art style are for you. You’ll be able to try a variety of classes with at least a couple of different instructors and figure out everything the school has (or doesn’t have) to offer.  After this trial, it will be time to…

Step 6. Commit. 

At a certain point, you’ll have to stop ‘checking it out’ and start making a real commitment to your training. Once you’ve done your research and found the right school, commit to attending no matter what. This might be a long-term contract or just a silent, internal promise to yourself.  Either way, be confident in your choice and work hard. 

Important Questions to Ask A Potential Martial Arts School

Below is a list of questions we think it’s important to find the answers to. Most schools will answer the majority of them in their initial presentation, and many can be answered through observation.  However, if one of these questions isn’t covered in the natural course of your visit, you should ask about it. You are likely to find the answers to most of these questions revealing. Questions about the school:

  • What do you consider the greatest strength of the school?
  • Who is this school not for? 
  • How are belts given? (Attendance vs. Performance) 
  • How many black belts do you graduate a year?
  • How many black belts are training regularly in this school? 

Questions about the instructors and staff: 

  • Who is the head instructor?
  • Where did they train?
  • How is their rank certified?
  • Do they have experience applying the martial art they teach?
  • Who will I be training with the majority of the time? 
  • How do you find teachers?
  • How do you train your teachers to teach?
  • Do you background check all your staff? 

Safety questions:

  • What kind of safety equipment do you use?
  • Is there a defibrillator? 
  • Is the staff first aid and CPR certified with certificates displayed?
  • What do you do to prevent the spread of infections like MRSA, ringworm, and staff?

Questions about the membership:

  • What happens if I want to cancel? 
  • What things will I need to purchase in addition to my tuition? 
  • How often do you raise tuition?
  • Is there an ‘upgrade’ program? 


So to wrap things up, please let us wish you the best of luck in your search for a martial arts school. Training is a rewarding and enriching experience for all who pursue it.   Thank you very much for reading this guide, and even more for taking the time to thoughtfully chart your course at the beginning.   If you have any questions about finding a martial arts school, please feel free to reach out to us via email at Even if you’re not in the Northville, Novi, and Plymouth areas we’d still be happy to help. Of course, if you are in the Northville, Novi, and Plymouth areas we’d love to have you visit us. Just head over to the REGISTER FOR OUR FREE INTRO PAGE or give us a call at 248-349-6900.