You see them in the movies, and they seem synonymous with ‘Martial Arts’, but what do the belt colours even mean in martial arts?
Why are belts used in Martial Arts, and how are they used?
The belts in Martial Arts that we all know today originally stem from East Asian martial arts styles, particularly Japan. Belts were traditionally a part of the uniform that simulated real clothing but were more durable to withstand training years. In Japan, these uniforms are known as a Gi or Kimono. They required a belt to hold the uniform together.
Judo Grandmaster, Jigoro Kano, popularised and standardised the Black Belt use as we know it today. Kano also innovated the ranking system using Belts as previously instructors used certificates to signify progress.
At the time, there were only White Belts and Black Belts. Black belts were used as a sign that the student had mastered the basic techniques in the art of Judo. As Judo grew, so did the number of belts to delineate the level of skills and their use spread across into other popular styles in Asia.
After Bruce Lee had made his cultural mark on the world, martial arts such as Judo, Karate and Tae Kwon Do exploded in popularity. Belts became a significant part of the martial arts culture in other cultures.
Today, belts are still used to indicate different skill levels and usually start with a White Belt and end with the Black Belt.
Some styles don’t use belts at all – Boxing, Muay Thai or Wrestling.
What qualifies each belt, and roughly how long it will take to achieve each belt?
Depending on the style of MMA and the goals require in that sport, the belts will differ.
Take, for example, Aikido. It has two belts (White and Black), whereas Karate can contain 10+ coloured belts.
Karate is a traditional martial art originating in Okinawa, Japan. Partly due to its structured progression system and the belief in using the whole body as a weapon, the connection to Eastern Philosophy is highly regarded.
These values are reflected in the belt grading system, where students will have to perform specific techniques that demonstrate these values. They will be awarded a certain belt rank for the time taken and skills acquired for that belt rank.
In Karate, Kyu (student levels) ranks represent the early stages of practice. The practitioner is then called “Mudansha”. As they progress, Karate practitioners advance numerically downwards through the kyu grades.
So 1st Kyu (or brown belt) is the highest or most advanced “student” rank before becoming a black belt…
White belt (6th Kyu)
Minimum time – 3 months of active training as a white belt. This belt symbolises the starting point or the beginning of the Karate journey.
Yellow Belt (5th Kyu)
Minimum time – 6 months of active training as a yellow belt. The yellow belt is acquired through an exam. This level is where the student begins to understand the basic principles of Karate.
Orange Belt (4th Kyu)
Minimum time – 6 months of active training as an orange belt is awarded to a student when he or she starts to better understand Karate’s necessary skills. Including the understanding and application of the principles of distance management.
Green Belt (3rd Kyu)
Minimum time – 9 months of active training as a green belt. Here, the student starts to refine the skills he or she has learned so far, emphasising protecting himself or herself and mechanical execution techniques. The green belt is more aware of its opponent’s movements.
Blue Belt (2nd Kyu)
Minimum time – 12 months of active training as a blue belt is awarded to students who show more significant control over their techniques and mind. During sparring, they show considerable authority over the opponent, show more control and confidence. Also, they are more adept at countering.
Brown Belt (1st Kyu)
Minimum time – 18 months of active training. At the last kyu level, the student has reached an undeniable level of maturity in terms of their martial skills and mind. Brown belts have a high level of control over Karate techniques’ mechanical execution to apply those techniques with a resisting partner. In terms of self-defence, they have a better overall perception of physical altercation and combat.
Aikido is a modern, non-aggressive Japanese martial art that and was developed early in the 20th century. It is based on circular, flowing movements originating from a relaxed body and an entirely centred mind. In Aikido, there are only two belts.
The White Belt is given to students when they start.
The Black Belt is given to you after completing a formal exam of the art’s basic techniques and is generally takes up to 4-6 years of training.
Judo originated in Imperial Japan as a system for Samurai to fight unarmed and in close combat. Judo specialises in throws and has a uniformly designed international system of progression.
It has an incredibly formalised system of progression with belts determined by the number of throws you know and your amount of competition experience.
The number of belts varies in different parts of the world, but generally, there are between 5-7 belts before Black Belt is awarded in most Western countries.
Kyu grades are for beginners learning the art of Judo, which consists of 6 ranks starting with brown belt (Ikkyu), followed by the blue belt (Nikyu), green belt (Sankyu), orange belt (Yonkyu), yellow belt (Gokyu), and lastly white belt (Rokyu).
Tae Kwon Do
Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art that focuses on kicking.
Belts in Tae Kwon Do are given out after an exam where students perform a set number of techniques, wooden board breaks and a set pattern of techniques (Poomsae). A black belt is generally awarded after 3-4 years with up to 11 belts in between. Here are the main coloured belts:
Chon-ji is a white belt with a yellow tip and signifies the beginner student’s innocence who has no previous knowledge of Taekwondo, and the white uniform symbolises purity.
Dan-gun, a yellow belt, signifies the earth from which a plant sprouts and takes root as the Taekwondo foundation is laid. The colour yellow represents the sun which instigates the birth of the seed.
Won-hyo, the green belt, signifies the new plants’ growth, gaining strength as the Taekwondo skills begin to develop.
Joon-gu, a blue belt, indicates the beginning of a true understanding of technique. It signifies the sky towards which the plant matures into a towering tree as training in Taekwondo progresses.
Hwa-rang, a brown belt, signifies the tree taking stable root in the earth as the technique becomes increasingly proficient.
Choong-moo; (this pattern is practised by the student wearing a brown belt with a black tip)
The BLACK Belt
The opposite of white, therefore signifying the students’ maturity and proficiency in Taekwondo. Black indicates the endless universe and a realisation of the limitless techniques available. Black also shows the wearer’s imperviousness to darkness and fear.
Brazillian Jiu Jitsu’s basics revolve around the concept of “Maximising Leverage” and were initially designed to keep you safe throughout the entire spectrum of situations that occur when defending yourself.
Jiu-Jitsu famously takes the longest time for a Black Belt, approximately 7-12 years of consistent training. Each belt is awarded via competency compared to other students of a similar experience level.
There are five primary belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: white, blue, purple, brown and black. There are also usually four “degrees” or stripes for each belt below the black belt and six degrees in the black belt.
White Belt is held by any practitioner new to the art and has no prerequisite.
Blue belt is the second adult rank in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at schools that do not use yellow, orange, and green belts for adults. A blue belt indicates students have gained a wide breadth of technical knowledge and undertake hundreds of mat time to learn how to implement these moves efficiently.
Purple belt is the intermediate adult ranking in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It means the practitioner has gained a large amount of knowledge, and purple belts are generally considered qualified to help instruct lower-ranked students.
The Brown belt is the highest-ranking colour belt below the black belt.
Black belt – The black belt denotes an expert level of technical and practical skill. BJJ black belts are often addressed within the art as “professor”, although some schools and organisations reserve this title for more senior black belts.A student must be at least 19 years old and spent a minimum of a year as a brown belt first.
This list is exhaustive in no way, but it is an excellent introductory guide to understanding belts in martial arts.
These are all approximate guesses on average times for a student to reach each belt, and of course, some students will progress faster or slower. The key is not to get your black belt as soon as possible but rather enjoy the journey along the way.
from the VT1mma team
VT1mma Academy, Sydney