What is the difference between Martial Arts, Karate & Kickboxing?

In the realm of self-defence and combat sports, the terms martial arts, karate and kickboxing often intertwine in casual conversation. For those unacquainted with these disciplines, they may seem interchangeable, but a closer inspection reveals distinct characteristics that shape their individual essence. 

Martial Arts: A Tapestry of Tradition and Philosophy

martial arts - kung fu

Although the term martial arts stand as a catch-all phrase, a sweeping term embracing various forms of self-defence and combat sports, it is often associated with those styles originating from Asia – specifically Japan, China, and Korea. From the flowing movements of Chinese Kung Fu to the disciplined techniques of Japanese Karate and Korean Taekwondo, these diverse range of practices echo the profound traditions and philosophies of their individual cultures. These martial arts go beyond mere physicality and self-defence and transcend into a holistic pursuit, an art form, a journey of physical, mental, and spiritual development.

  • The term martial arts is often used as generic term referring to almost any form of combat sport or system of self-defence.
  • However, the term often references those styles originating in Japan, Korea, and China.
  • Most martial arts from Japan, Korea and China emphasise mental, physical, and spiritual development and have a rich history, culture and philosophy.
  • Karate, Kung Fu, Tang Soo Do, Taekwondo, Judo, Aikido, Jui Jitsu, Kendo are all examples of traditional martial arts from these countries.
  • Many martial arts can be learned for self-defence, health, and fitness, as an artform or as a competitive sport.

Karate: The Japanese art of Empty Hands Combat


Karate, meaning “Empty Hand” in Japanese, extends beyond a mere martial art term. It encapsulates a variety of Japanese martial arts, each steeped in history and profound philosophy. Karate is a masterpiece of unarmed combat designed for both fighting and self-defence. Beyond its practical applications, karate reveals itself as a multifaceted discipline, fostering self-defence, artistic expression, and even competitive sport. Rooted in Japanese traditions, karate harmonizes physical and mental development, creating a symmetrical blend. 

  • Karate refers to several Japanese martial arts featuring diverse styles like: Shotokan-ryu, Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, and Wado-ryu.
  • Karate is steeped in history, tradition and associated with a strong philosophy.
  • Karate emphasises character development, discipline & respect.
  • There is also a strong focus on mental, physical, and spiritual development.
  • Karate can also refer to several other styles from Korea which have a Japanese influence: Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do are often described as Korean Karate.
  • Some styles include weapons training using traditional weapons and tools from Okinawa.
  • Karate normally involves the study of kata – predetermined sequences of movements.
  • Karate can be learned for self-defence, health & fitness, as an artform and for competitive sport.

Kickboxing: Combat in the Competitive Arena


In contrast, kickboxing emerges as a specific sport, a full-contact combat sport born in 1960s Japan, which draws inspiration from the fusion of Japanese karate and Western boxing. With different styles boasting diverse rules, from the exclusive punches and kicks of American kickboxing to the comprehensive techniques of Muay Thai, it offers a spectrum of experiences. Kickboxing becomes not just a sport but a pathway to fitness and self-defence, encompassing styles like freestyle kickboxing, cardio kickboxing, American kickboxing, Dutch kickboxing, and Muay Thai. While it harbours the potential for self-defence, for many practitioners the primary allure of kickboxing resides in the competitive sport arena.

  • Kickboxing is normally regarded as a full-contact combat sport allowing the use of both hands and feet, whilst wearing gloves and competing in a ring.
  • It originated in Japan in the 1960’s, based on a mix of Japanese Karate and Western boxing.
  • There are several types of kickboxing with different rules including freestyle kickboxing, 

cardio kickboxing, American kickboxing, Dutch kickboxing and Muay Thai.

  • Different styles have different rules. American kickboxing only allows punches and kicks above the waist. Others allow low kicks and the use of elbows and knees.
  • Muay Thai sometimes referred to as Thai boxing is often considered as a type of kickboxing, allows the use of elbows, knees, sweeps and various clinching techniques.
  • Kickboxing can also be learned solely for fitness or self-defence.

Martial Arts v Karate

It is important to note that “Martial arts” is a broad term encompassing various practices of combat training and self-defence techniques. Karate, on the other hand, specifically refers to a Japanese martial art that emphasizes striking techniques. In essence, karate is a type of martial art, but not all martial arts are karate. Other Martial arts include judo, taekwondo, kung fu, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, each with its own unique principles and techniques.

Karate v Kickboxing

While both karate and kickboxing involve striking techniques, there are key differences:

1. Origin and Tradition:

  • Karate: Japanese martial art with a focus on punches, kicks, knee strikes, and elbow strikes. It often includes forms (katas) and emphasizes disciplined training.
  • Kickboxing: Derived from a combination of traditional karate and boxing, it has roots in 

various martial arts. It typically involves punches and kicks but also allows knee strikes and elbow strikes.

2. Techniques and Style:

  • Karate: Emphasizes strong, precise strikes with a focus on proper form and technique. It often involves practicing predetermined sequences of movements (katas).
  • Kickboxing: Places more emphasis on continuous movement, agility, and often includes combinations of punches and kicks in a dynamic, flowing manner.

3. Training Approach:

  • Karate: Training often includes katas, sparring, and self-defence techniques. There’s an emphasis on character development, discipline & respect combined with a strong philosophy.
  • Kickboxing: Training involves a mix of bag work, pad drills, and sparring with an emphasis on cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

4. Rules in Sport:

  • Karate: In traditional karate competitions, points are awarded for clean and controlled strikes. It’s not as permissive in terms of contact as some kickboxing competitions.
  • Kickboxing: Can have various rule sets, but generally allows more contact, and fights often involve continuous action.

In the mosaic of self-defence and combat, the terms—Martial Arts, Karate, and Kickboxing—share common ground and are often used as generic terms for a multitude of combat sports. Yet these three terms carve unique identities. Martial arts, when referring to the traditional Asian styles combine combat with a holistic philosophy; karate, rooted in Japanese traditions and cultural depth; and kickboxing, a dynamic fusion in competitive arenas, each beckon enthusiasts on a journey of growth and self-discovery.

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