When you are choosing a martial art, you must have a basic understanding of your own needs and interests, as well as what that particular system teaches. Doing this will not only save you time and money, but it will allow you to find instructors and fellow students who have similar goals in mind. This will lead to a healthier and more enjoyable training environment for everyone involved. For simplicity's sake, I have organized the martial arts into three major categories and will cover their basic strengths and weaknesses.
Remember, these are generalizations. Since each individual style is unique, you will need to do your own research to determine which one is best for you.
Modern self-defense systems are the first major type of martial art. These systems only have one goal in mind: survival. Your chief concern is to make it home safely to your family and friends every night. For that reason, these systems only teach simple, battle-tested moves that can be learned within days, weeks, or months. They are also constantly updated to deal with the evolving tactics of criminals. Some examples of modern self-defense systems are Krav Maga, MCMAP, and Systema.
The chief benefit of these systems is that they teach you effective techniques for dealing with modern weapons such as guns and knives. They are very well-rounded, training you in grappling as well as striking and weapons' defenses. That way, you will still be able to survive if the fight goes to the ground. They also teach you realistic tactics for dealing with multiple opponents, as well as practical moves for dealing with much larger assailants. In other words, you practice a lot of groin kicks.
The only drawback with modern self-defense systems is that, since the moves are so simple, a highly-trained opponent will be able to counter most of them. For example, if you try to kick a Shotokan black belt in the groin, they will probably see it coming and knock you on your butt. That being said, most assailants are not world champion fighters or dedicated traditional martial artists, so your odds of winding up in that situation are slim-to-none. Just in case, many modern self-defense instructors encourage cross-training so that you can still survive if you are that unlucky.
You should study a modern self-defense system if you have no previous martial arts experience and don't have a lot of free time on your hands. For example, if you are a businessman who works 60 hours a week or a single mother raising two children, these systems would be perfect for you. If you are a traditional martial artist or a competitive fighter, you would still benefit from the weapons' defenses which these systems teach. Not to mention that they can show you how to apply the techniques which you already know in a more practical and efficient manner.
Next week, I will cover the second major type of martial art: combat sports.