“How long does it take to be a black belt?” was one of the first questions I wanted to know when I first started training in Karate.
It’s a very common question asked by most martial art students when they first start.
The black belt is a visible sign that the wearer has reached an extremely high level of technical proficiency.
At the school I was training at, it seemed to take about 3-4 years of consistent and regular training for an individual to be awarded with a coveted black belt.
I wanted to see if this was a typical timeframe, not just in Karate but in other martial arts as well.
I contacted some highly respected instructors to get their thoughts:
How long does it take to get a black belt in Karate?
I contacted David Lechuga, Head Instructor at Lake Forest Shotokan. David obtained his black belt (1st degree) in 1983 and he was awarded his 5th degree (Godan) in 2006. This is the highest rank awarded by the Shotokan Karate Association.
When asked how long it took to get a black belt from his school, David responded as follows:
“This depends on the practitioner’s age, health, and motivation. Let’s say that the student is in his or her 20’s and 30’s, and that they are in good health. Athletic. No need to be a top athlete. Open to learning. If they practice 2-3x per week in the dojo and maybe another couple times on their own outside of the dojo, then about 4-5 years in our system. This includes going to special trainings, which are held 2x per year. Marathon practice sessions over several days. No cheap rank here!”
This was very similar to the timeframe at my own club.
I also wanted to contact some leading instructors in other martial arts to see what their time frames looked like.
How long does it take to get a black belt in BJJ?
I contacted Head Coach Hondo at Jiu-Jitsu USA. Hondo has been training and teaching Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu since 1997 and began his training at the legendary Ralph Gracie Academy in San Francisco.
Hondo said that:
“A Black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu takes about 10-20 Years- Depends how much time to train & how fast you learn.”
When I first, heard this I couldn’t quite believe it; 10-20 years! This seemed a really long time.
I contacted some other BJJ instructors to see if this length of time was typical for this martial art.
Harry Chung, at All American Jiu Jitsu, has been training since before 2014, now a Brown Belt under Renan Vital. He has competed and won a large number competitions and in 2018 was the Purple Belt Gi and NoGi NABJJF World Champion.
Harry responded as follows:
“[It takes] 10 years of consistent training. But the average practitioner will not get a black belt. And that’s ok. Majority will lose interest, injury, life goals change and priorities change.”
Harry raises an interesting point. Martial arts have a high fall out rate in that many individuals stop training at some point on the journey to become a black belt. Only the most committed and determined will have the patience to put in the required time it takes to reach the level of black belt.
I asked the same question of Gil Sanchez at Gil’s Kickboxing Gym. Gil has been practicing Muay Thai/Kickboxing since 2008 and has a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under professor Alexandre Novaes.
“ Let’s say in a perfect world somebody trains 3x a week in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu consistently, they could achieve the black belt rank in 7-9 years. Take into consideration on how some schools promote, some require competition experience, some just want you to show up and put in the hours. Never chase the belt, always chase the knowledge is the best mindset to have.”
Gil raises a good point. Does it actually matter how long it takes to get a black belt? As long as you’re continually improving and making progress over time, surely it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
How long does it take to get a black belt in Judo?
I asked Jacob Dempsey at Alaska Judo, how long it took to get a black belt in Judo. Jacob holds a a second degree black belt in judo.
Jacob responded as follows:
“It takes about 7 years to earn a black belt. Keep in mind, that a black belt, shodan, means beginning grade. It means you have learned the basic techniques. Put another way, you’ve graduated from high school, and now you are ready for focused learning.”
This is an interesting point. In many martial arts, obtaining a black belt is just an indication that you’ve mastered the basic techniques and that you are now ready to learn the more advanced techniques.
Hearing these comments really made me think. The practice of martial arts is a continuous journey. The black belt is not a destination, it is only a waypoint.
How long it would take for someone to be able to defend themselves?
Given that it takes several years to become a black belt, I also wanted to know how long it would take for someone to be able to defend themselves. By this I meant that the trainee had a greater than 50% chance of fighting off an attacker.
After all I suspect most people start a martial art in order to be able to defend themselves should the need arise. It would be slightly strange if it took years and years of training before it could be applied to a real life setting.
Again I ask the martial arts experts for their thoughts.
David Lechuga, Head Instructor at Lake Forest Shotokan, said:
“If a student worked on realistic self-defense moves a couple times a week for a few months, then I think they would stand a chance against a semi-skilled attacker.”
Coach Hondo’s view was as follows:
“In a 2 hr. self-defense class a person should have a better than 50% of effectively , defending, diffusing, & controlling the situation and attacker.
However there are lots of variables.”
Harry Chung, at All American Jiu Jitsu, thought the following:
“6 months of consistent training should get someone in position to defend themself.”
Gil Sanchez’s opinion was:
“Anybody that trains for 6 months consistently and giving maximum effort can definitely defend themselves against most that are untrained. Learning and understanding the basics of hand to hand combat is a real skill and without the training somebody simply does not have the awareness, there is always a puncher’s chance though.“
Jacob Dempsey, at Alaska Judo, gave the following comprehensive answer:
“This is a very complex question as you have to consider the student’s physical stature, physical conditioning, the fighting experience of the attacker, etc. So, I will assume the student and attacker are of similar build and similar physical conditioning, and that the thug is a street brawler. Assuming the school teaches Judo for self defense, as I do (Alaska Judo represents numerous schools). They will be effective at defending themselves against a street brawler in about 3 months. If the school teaches Judo only for sport, it will be 6 months to a year as the student will need to puzzle some things out on their own, such as if they aren’t wearing a gi, how do I grip. How do I block punches and use their momentum to throw them.”
From these responses, it’s obvious that there is no clear answer. As Jacob points out there are far too many variables (the attacker’s, height and weight, level of fighting skill etc) to give a definitive answer.
I thought a good point was made by Gil. No matter how highly trained you are, all it takes is a lucky punch from your attacker to leave you unconscious and vulnerable. It’s worth bearing this in mind before engaging with an attacker.
I personally think the best form of self defense is to run away whenever possible and to confront the attacker only when it’s absolutely necessary.
What technique should I focus on as a beginner?
I also asked these experts what technique they should focus on in order to improve their fighting ability.
They gave the following helpful responses:
David Lechuga, Head Instructor at Lake Forest Shotokan, had the following view:
“A reverse punch to the neck.”
This is commonly referred to as Gyakuzuki. A simple sounding technique that is demonstrated here:
Coach Hondo said:
“The Technique of showing up for class consistently & Verbal Jiu-Jitsu, unless you actually train.”
Training consistently is perhaps the best way to develop any skill, so I think Coach Hondo has a very valid point here.
Harry Chung, at All American Jiu Jitsu, believed the following:
“Philosophically, being calm and breathing dramatically helps. Gives them the ability to learn, know whats happening to them, foresee risks and incoming attacks. Understanding the guard offensively and defensively will get them far.”
Here’s a very good video that details the importance of breathing correctly in BJJ:
Gil Sanchez’s view was:
“Train and understand distance, knowing where you need to be at all times allows you to dictate the fight. You learn techniques to compliment the different ranges but understanding distance is the glue to put them all together.”
Here’s a video that demonstrates Gil’s point perfectly (albeit in kickboxing rather than BJJ):
Jacob Dempsey, at Alaska Judo, had the following opinion:
“If I could only teach them one technique to defend themselves with, I think it would be Ogoshi, major hip throw, but I hate the idea of a student defending themselves with such a limited arsenal. Combinations of techniques tend to be the most effective for self-defense and sport.”
This brutal technique is nicely demonstrated here:
What equipment do you need for martial arts?
Like any new activity, there is some equipment you’ll need into order to train effectively. I asked the martial arts experts what they would recommend.
David Lechuga, Head Instructor at Lake Forest Shotokan, didn’t think any kit was required:
“No special piece of equipment is needed for karate.”
Coach Hondo suggested:
“Mouth Piece (There are hundreds of brands), Clean Gi, leave you ego at the door”.
Harry Chung, at All American Jiu Jitsu, had the following thoughts:
“A Gi. We just use the brand that is more convenient for us. Breakpoint. When all other brands work with us, it usually puts us in a bind with higher minimums and such. The Breakpoint guys have been great and the gi’s are holding up great!”
Gil Sanchez stated:
“Nothing is essential to own, having a good coach and supportive team is all You need.”
Jacob Dempsey, at Alaska Judo, had the following view:
“A good quality gi, I like Fuji, but Mizuno, and Adidas make great gis as well. That said, I start my students out in a t-shirt and sweat pants or shorts. Once they have learned some fundamentals, they buy a gi.”
I think the most important thing is that you actually start your training rather than worry too much about the equipment you’re using. Sure, as you progress, you may want to invest in some of the recommendations listed, but, as has been pointed out in this article, consistency is the most important factor in determining your progress.
Keep this in mind and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a black belt.
A very big thank you to all the Martial Arts experts that contributed to this article.
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What is Shotokai Karate?
How Practical is Judo in a Fight?