What to Expect in Your First Karate Class

Congratulations! You’ve decided to take karate or another martial art and you found the right martial arts school for you. Welcome to this extraordinary way of life.

You probably don’t know what your first class will entail. Every teacher will conduct classes differently, but here’s an overview of what you might expect in your first karate class—and a little about what your instructor will expect from you.

You may find that you’ll enjoy karate more if you join with a friend. You’ll have someone to practice with between classes, and you can help each other remember what you learned.

Arrive to your first karate class early. You’ll want time to get there, relax, and maybe meet the other students. You may need time to change into workout clothes. Your instructor may wish to get to know you before the class begins.

If your teacher doesn’t mandate that you wear a uniform when you start, put on loose, comfortable clothes that allow freedom of movement, like sweats and a light T-shirt.

Tight, heavy clothes like blue jeans will make the class more difficult. Shorts can expose your knees and leave them vulnerable to rugburn, so wear long pants. You’ll probably train in bare feet, so the legs of your pants shouldn’t extend beneath your heels or they’ll create tripping hazards. Women may wish to wear sports bras to provide support. Some instructors require that their male students wear groin cups and supporters at all times.

Remove all jewelry—rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces—before class. They can create safety hazards for you and your classmates.

Your class will probably begin by bowing in.

Western societies associate bowing with worship and subservience. They exist in the bows performed in Asian cultures, too, but martial arts view bowing as an exchange of mutual respect. Through the bow, the student thanks the teacher for providing instruction, but the teacher also thanks the student for choosing to come there to learn.

Your instructor may start by explaining class etiquette.

As in school, you should not talk during class.

The teacher may require you to bow before entering and leaving the training hall. They may require you to raise your hand before asking questions, to bow when called upon to ask them, and to bow upon receiving the answer.

Your instructor may require you to address them using traditional terminology. Japanese martial arts, like karate, jujitsu, and aikido, use sensei (fourth- or fifth-degree black belts and beyond might use shihan). Korean martial arts like tae kwon do and hapkido use sabumnim (and more advanced black belts kwanjangnim) and Chinese martial arts like kung fu sifu. You may learn additional terminology as the class proceeds.

After warmup exercises, you will start learning basic techniques—blocks, punches, and kicks.

You may find the repetition boring or the techniques either unrealistic or too difficult. It helps to keep your expectations reasonable.

Remember that martial arts are arts, like playing the piano. When you take your first piano lessons, you don’t start by playing Mozart études, or wild Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard rockers. You start by learning beats, rhythms, notes, scales, and chords—not songs. You practice them over and over until you make them second-nature, because all songs contain those fundamentals.

In the same way, the fundamental techniques of karate lay a foundation for more advanced learning. Proper stances and body mechanics will teach you to move with balance, efficiency, accuracy, and precision, attributes you will need to learn and apply more complex techniques.

In your first music class, maybe you’ll pick out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Chopsticks.” It can take years before you learn to actually play an instrument.

Martial arts are similar. It takes time to internalize good techniques, learn how to use them in strategic combinations, and develop conditioned responses that all work for you.

That last part is critical—everyone has different skills, bodies, and mentalities. Some people do some things well, but not others. Taking the time to learn a broad range of skills will help you discover what works for you and what doesn’t. That starts with learning basic techniques during your first class.

And as you continue through your martial arts journey, you may find, as most martial artists do, that the most effective techniques are often the easiest ones to use—and you may well learn those fundamentals on your first day in a karate class.

At the class’s conclusion, your instructor will bow you out. Once again, through the bow, you thank your teacher for the instruction you received, and your teacher thanks you for coming and learning.

Then you’re ready to go home, practice what you learned, and take your second karate class.