Finding the right martial arts school and avoiding the fake ones

A woman practicing karate
Photo from Flickr: Flavio


The sad reality is, there are A LOT of fake martial arts schools out there. People are getting duped for hundreds and thousands of dollars to be taught fake martial arts. We have several nicknames for these schools in the martial arts world, “McDojos” or “Black belt factories” are my two personal favorites.  Not only is it a waste of money and time, but it’s also dangerous.


Below is my advice based on my 11 years of studying martial arts (I’m a third degree black belt in Uechi-Ryu karate) and visiting a variety of dojos.


Why it’s really dangerous to go to a fake martial arts school

  • Imagine, God forbid, if someday you have to actually use your martial arts skills to defend yourself or someone else.  If you’ve been taught ineffective techniques, you’ve just put yourself in a very dangerous situation.
  • Ineffective techniques and/or an ineffective instructor can lead to serious injury while training. I once watched an inexperienced instructor coach someone through a leg hold. He didn’t know how to teach it and the guy trying to execute it broke his partner’s leg in THREE different places. It was a very horrific sight. These types of injuries can lead to PERMANENT damage of your body.


The issue of transferring schools

We live in a very mobile world now, which means it’s very likely you will need to switch to a new dojo at some point. Belts in one form of martial arts do not transfer to another form of martial arts, so if you take a fake or unusual style, when you move, you will have to start all over again at belt zero. In contrast, if you study a mainstream style, you will be able to go to a new dojo of that same style in your new city and keep your belt rank.


At what age should children start martial arts training?

No less than 7 years old.  Before that, you are basically paying a ton of money for dodge ball/gymnastics type training.


Telltale signs of a fake martial arts school/McDojo/black belt factory

  • More than two different styles are offered, especially if they are offered by the same instructor. It takes a lifetime to master one martial art, so if instructors are trying to teach multiple types, they are probably not mastered in one. See section above on why this is dangerous.
  • They offer MMA/UFC classes. This is probably the easiest way to spot a bad martial arts school. No legitimate martial artists teach mixed martial arts (MMA). I could write a whole manifesto on this, but basically, martial arts is based on humility and respect, two things that are not valued in MMA. And, see my first bullet point under this heading.
  • They accept children under the age of 7. Sometimes a really mature 6 year old can practice, but it’s rare.
  • They don’t have a lot of high-ranking students. If students tend to get their black belt and leave, it’s probably a black belt factory.  At the martial arts school I studied at for 11 years, there were students who had been studying there for over 25 years.
  • The instructor doesn’t have more than two black belts in the same style. I prefer a third-degree black belt and up, but I’ve met a few competent second-degree black belts as well.
  • The instructor is shy about giving you information on his/her certifications and what association they are through. Most legitimate schools will have the instructor black belt certificates prominent displayed on the wall. These will list their rank, date of promotion, who promoted them, who their instructor was, and the association certifying them.
  • There is a heavy emphasis on competition.  For example, Tae Kwon Do is a legitimate martial art, but some of the dojos are not. They emphasize winning competitions above humility, respect, and effective techniques.
  • The more decorative the uniform, the less likely the school is legit.



Signs that a martial arts school is legitimate

  • See above for more detailed explanations on a lot of these.
  • They focus on one or two styles.
  • They teach a legitimate, national/world-recognized style.  Examples


Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu



Karate (including Uechi-Ryu and Shoen-Ryu)





T’ai Chi


Tang Soo do

Wing Chun

  • The instructor has at least two black belts in the style they are teaching.
  • All of the instructor’s black belts have been certified by an external association (see “tricky tricky” section for an example of how some instructors try to fake this). The instructor should be very open about presenting proof of his/her certifications.
  • The focus of the martial arts school is on humility, respect, and effective techniques.
  • There are students at the school that have been studying there a long time.
  • The instructor asks you to watch a class or two before allowing you to sign-up.



How to research a martial arts school

  • Research the rank of the instructors at the school. They should have at least 2 black belts in the style that you are interested in learning.  Also look at all the black belts they have. Black belts in more than 2 styles is a red flag.
  • Ask for the association(s) that certified the instructor in the style you are interested in learning. Research the association to make sure it’s legitimate (see “tricky tricky” section for an example of how some instructors try to fake this). VERY IMPORTANT: Call the association and ask them to confirm the instructor’s credentials.
  • Look at the class schedule. The schedule should be mostly focused on teaching one style of martial arts. Also look for whether or not they are teaching MMA/UFC classes. If they are teaching mixed martial arts, it’s not a legit school.
  • Go watch a class or two. A legitimate instructor will actually require/heavily encourage you to do this. Look for the following during the class:
  • Is there a heavy emphasis on humility and respect?
  • Do the instructor and senior students engage with the lower-ranked students in an effective manner?
  • Is there an emphasis on safety?
  • Is there an emphasis on perfecting techniques to ensure they are effective?
  • Is discipline heavily enforced?
  • Is there a heavy emphasis on competition (red flag)?
  • Think about your personality and the instructor and other students’ personalities. Are these people you want a long-term relationship with? Essentially, when you join a dojo you are entering a long-term relationship (kind of like a second family) with everyone in that dojo. So, if you aren’t comfortable with the instructor, how the instructor teaches, the other students, the interactions between students, etc., you should keep looking.
  • Talk with some of the senior and junior students (away from the instructor) to get their take on the school.
  • Ask about costs/contracts. The costs will vary by area, but I paid about $70 a month to attend as many classes as I wanted to come to. Some schools in bigger cities charge more, but I’d be wary if a school is charging more than $200 per month. Also ask about other costs, such as testing fees (a fee every time a student tests for a new rank) and uniform fees. This will give you an overall picture of cost.



Tricky tricky, how some fake martial arts schools appear legitimate

Here are some fun quick stories on schools I’ve researched for friends and family and how they tried to hide the fact that they are fake. I’m including these in hopes that they will help you better understand how to research a school.


Krav Maga, but not really

I’m very wary of Krav Maga schools anyway as I’ve never met a legit instructor, but my brother asked me to look into a Krav Maga he was considering attending, so I did.  The instructor claimed to have two black belts in Krav Maga and gave me the associations that certified him.  The association for his first Krav Maga black belt seemed legit, so I called them to confirm his black belt. I called twice. No one ever picked up and my messages were not returned. Red flag #1.


Here’s the real fun part of this story. I looked up the association for his second black belt in Krav Maga. Guess who was the founder and president of the association? HIM!!!! Yep, he founded his own association and then promoted himself.  This means he’s not legitimate at all, so I advised my brother not to go there.


What is that style? Where’s your certificates? And you’re teaching MMA?

I also researched a dojo for one of my cousins. Red flag #1 was that the school was teaching MMA. This alone is enough for me to declare a dojo/school not-legit, but there’s more.


Red flag #2 The instructor had black belts in several styles (more than 2 is not good) and nothing above a second-degree black belt in any style.


Red flag #3 I’d never heard of the styles the instructor had black belts in. In researching them further, I could find no evidence of them being legitimate styles of martial arts.


Red flag #4 Admittedly, at this point, researching was for my own morbid entertainment. I contacted the fake martial arts school and asked them for the associations of the instructor’s black belts. They responded that they didn’t know, but if I’d come in, the instructor would be happy to speak with me about his experience.


I studied karate and martial arts

Once, while doing kata at my gym, a guy approached me and asked me what style I studied and if I wanted to spar (drilling fighting) sometime. My ears perked-up when he said he’d studied Shoen-Ryu, which is a “sister-style” to my style, Uechi-Ryu. But then the conversation went downhill.


Red flag #1 He was a brown belt only.


Red flag #2 His instructor “studied a wide variety of martial arts including Shoen-Ryu.”


Red flag #3 His instructor also taught him mixed martial arts (MMA).


Red flag #4 He said he studied “karate and martial arts.” This one is funny to me because karate is a form of martial arts, not something separate from it.


Other helpful links:


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jon says:

    Never heard of Shoen Ryu. I’ve been studying Uechi Ryu for 17 years and have done a lot of research on the Okinawan and Chinese style and have never heard of Shoen Ryu.

    1. hyporesource says:

      Oh my goodness! Talk about a typo! Shorin Ryu. I’ll fix it. Thanks for catching that!

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