How long does it take to learn a martial art? – Beginner Level

How long does it take to learn a martial art? - Beginner Level

Last updated on March 11th, 2017

How long does it take to learn a martial art, with decent proficiency as a beginner? And what exactly is beginner’s proficiency in martial arts?

The first time you feel like you’ve internalized a technique (with decent skill) is a life-changing experience. You grow more confident and become less shy when training.

Note: Where part one answers the question of how long it takes to get a black belt, this article explores how long it takes to gain beginner’s proficiency.

Why knowing when basic techniques kicks in is important?

When I was a beginner, I had very little confidence in my ability to learn. It was the same in Aikido, as it was in Taekwondo (when I was a kid). Not having expectations to map my progress made me paranoid. If only there were a sign as to when techniques would start clicking in my head.

How long does it take to learn a martial art with decent beginner proficiency?As I moved up the ranks, I partnered a number of white belts who had the same anxiety. They often looked at my face for some signal of whether they did a technique correctly. That was when I realised that the feeling was common to beginners.

As a result, I believe it’s important to give beginners feedback and set their expectations of when they will first experience the flow state. This gives white belts (and potential beginners) something to look forward to.

While many would argue that the first grading is a good indicator of progress, let’s quantify the average actual time.

What is basic proficiency in a martial art?

Obviously, beginner proficiency doesn’t mean competency in fighting or self-defense. That’s way beyond the level of a beginner. Instead, it means being good enough in a basic set of techniques, to the degree of knowing how to punch, kick, block or parry (depending on the combat style you train in).

While the time needed varies depending on the style, syllabus and dojo, the study summarised below covers the average.

Now, how long does it take to learn a martial art at basic proficiency? And what special insights did that study glean that are useful to you as a beginner (or instructor)?

Time Needed as a Beginner to Become Good at a Martial Art

How long does it take to learn a martial art at basic proficiency?

How long does it take to learn a martial art, with decent beginner skills?

To answer this question, we refer to the study Martial Arts: Time Needed for Training (2010) that recruited fifteen volunteers with no martial arts experience to learn 21 different techniques (both offensive and defensive). Out of the 15 volunteers (aged between 27 to 50), 14 were female.

The study tasked two black belt martial artists to instruct the volunteers for forty-five training sessions, which lasted 45 minutes each. What they wanted to find out was how long it took for beginners to demonstrate proficiency in 21 techniques.

Here’s what they found (that you need to be aware as a beginner, or instructor)…

Average number of sessions needed for the easiest and most difficult technique

Time for Martial Arts Proficiency in Beginner TechniquesEven something as simple as the ready stance took as long as 27 sessions (on average) to get good at. The most difficult technique was the rear elbow strike to face, which took 38.3 sessions.

Proficiency is isolated

Predictably, even after the experiment, not one person was proficient at every single technique. Progress in one technique did not automatically mean an improvement in all.

Shocking failure rate (with lesser practice)

The volunteers mastered some techniques earlier than other. This allowed the instructors to focus on more challenging techniques. This resulted in a shocking failure rate of at least 50% for simpler techniques.

So, gaining proficiency in a techniques, at least as a beginner, does not mean retaining that proficiency for good. Constant review and practice is crucial to maintaining competency. Otherwise, you will lose the skill.

Lower than average proprioception

Proprioception is the ability to perceive how your body parts are moving in relation to one and other. It also helps you perceive where your body will end up in a state of motion.

What’s clear from training in the rear elbow strike to face is that the volunteers found it challenging to aim the strike at the nose. This was likely due to poor intuitive perception in movement.

So, as a beginner, it takes much longer to get the intuitive feel and accuracy of executing a technique. The skill of proprioception comes into play after training for a much longer time.

Bottomline: How long does it take to learn a martial art with basic proficiency?

29 hours on average. 

Assuming that you are training two session of one hour each week, you will take roughly 3 to 4 months to be good enough.

However, being complacent in training will make you lose your competency very quickly. Also, it will take longer to be accurate at striking, as it involves an intuitive understanding of movement.

Granted that the sample size of fifteen people is not fully representative, the study at least gives insight on what to look out for when starting out a new martial art.

If you are interested instead in how long it takes to get a black belt, read this. That was the first part in this seriesabout martial arts mastery and proficiency.

Articles in this series (including upcoming ones)

About Logen Lanka 184 Articles

Logen is a the founder and editor of Before his shoulder injury, he was actively involved in street calisthenics, Aikido and obstacle course racing. He has also served his 2-years conscription with the Singapore Armed Forces as an Armoured Infantry Trooper.

  • Joelle White

    Yep, this is pretty much what I’ve observed in the college PE Karate classes I help out with 🙂 22 class hours for the first rank, 22 class hours for the second. That said, I rather suspect those who actually test for (optional) and earn their belts practice at home.

    • You mean online black belt programs? I’m not a fan of those either.

      People need to train against a partner and have a competent instructor judge your techniques for mistakes, as part of the learning process. I think this is what we both agree on. 🙂

      As Jesse Enkamp mentioned – kata is for self-practice; bunkai is for application. Application is most important in self-defense.

      Anyway, thanks for adding your observations at your class. Useful information to consolidate.

      • Joelle White

        We don’t have an online component. The class only meets for 1 hour on Monday and 1 hour on Wednesday, so if people want a belt they either have to be naturally talented or practice on their own. The philosophy behind the way we test is the first several ranks are designed to be an encouragement to beginners, especially children. The first rank is ridiculously easy to earn, the second not quite so ridiculously easy but still pretty easy, especially if you practice outside of class. The belts do get progressively harder to earn, but really – the first several ranks are “easy.” What I’m facing to earn my next belt and beyond will really kick my butt. What’s really interesting is we have a pretty high dropout rate starting at the point where we expect students to learn their first advanced kata, so relatively few people reach the “kick your butt” tests.

        • Ah… I see. Thanks for clarifying. Your dojo’s grading scheme seems well thought-out; balancing motivation and progression. 🙂

          There really isn’t much that can be done about the dropout rate though… unless standards are lowered (terrible idea).

          By the way, at which kyu grade did it get challenging for you, Joelle?

          • Joelle White

            All tests so far have been challenging in at least one aspect. Honestly, though, this last test (4th kyu) was more challenging than “usual.” My basics were pretty abysmal, my sparring wasn’t exactly stellar, but my forms were “all there” – at least as good as can be expected from a student at my level. So I feel like I barely passed this last test. The tests from here on out (3rd kyu and beyond) are going to be a lot more demanding – there will be some format changes and the expectations of performance are way up. But before tests get that hard is when most people drop out. We start to see dropouts around 6th and 5th kyu when advanced forms are introduced.

          • Ah… Sounds familiar in many dojos. Hahaha. And I also tend to feel as though I barely pass gradings.

            It’d be great if someone could survey students who drop out for honest responses though. That would help rule out other possible reasons.

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