martial arts belts

Martial Arts Belts: Everything You Need to Know - 2022

Martial arts belts are used to represent the ranking and progress of students in martial art.

It was a system put in place to reward the best students and show their progress until they get to the highest rank after attaining a certain level of expertise.

Martial arts belts consist of 9 belt colors: white belt, yellow belt, orange belt, green belt, blue belt, purple belt, black belt, and red belt. The number and order of martial art belts can vary depending on specific martial arts.

In this article, I will tell you everything about martial arts belts’ colors, what are the highest-ranked martial arts belts (and is there a belt above black?), the history of belts in martial arts, and much more about martial arts belts.

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Which Martial Arts Use Belt Ranking System?

The most popular martial arts that use the belt ranking system are karate, taekwondo, judo, Aikido, BJJ, capoeira, Krav Maga, savate, Kung Fu, and Wing Chun. Sometimes, martial art instructors use the belt system to award their students in other martial arts, like Muay Thai or Western Kickboxing, but historically, the belt system is not used in those arts.

Martial Arts Belts Colors in Order

If you are a martial art student, your rank will be denoted by the color of the belt tied around your waist with your uniform.

In almost all types of martial arts, the first belt is the white belt and you will have to progress from there until you reach the peak, i.e., the highest stage which has been described as the black belt.

However, getting to reach the black belt takes dedication and several years. Before you get to that stage, you will move from one color to another and each belt color has its special meaning and it also signifies a level of experience and progress.

The different colors that have been associated with martial art include white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, and black (and red belt) in the order of ranks. 

White Belt

This is the belt usually worn by beginners and it symbolizes the birth of a seed or a fresh beginning. This belt is given to those people that are just starting their skills in martial art. Students begin their martial arts voyage or a “new life” with a white belt.

A white belts knot drawing

Yellow Belt

This is the second level in martial art and the color represents the idea that the sun is warming the seed. Yellow belt mostly means that you’ve learned basics, and one can call you “an advanced beginner”.

Orange Belt          

This is the third stage of martial art skills and it represents that the seed is getting warmed and strengthened to prepare them for new growth. It usually denotes a student’s body and mind starting to develop and strengthen.

For Karate students, this means the final stage of beginner, and it shows that you are ready to transition to the intermediate level.

Martial arts students with orange belts

Green Belt

This is the fourth stage of martial art skills and it usually signifies that the student is beginning to hone his or her skills and has begun to learn how to refine and strengthen his techniques of martial arts. Green belt mostly means you’ve reached an intermediate practitioner status.

Blue Belt

The blue belt represents the process to possess a certain level of confidence where the student becomes stronger and continues to get the needed knowledge to ensure the correct path is being followed.

It is believed that the advanced students are pushing their branches toward the sky (blue), and the fruit is ready to grow. It is a part of the life cycle, where blue belt means “that you are in the middle of your journey”.

A martial arts student with blue belt, doing warm up

Purple Belt

This is the stage where students get ready to transition to an advanced level in martial art, a stage where a student has to understand what he requires to obtain the highest rank of black belt that is not so far away.

Brown Belt

The brown belt is the stage when the student starts to appreciate all the hard work and dedication he has put into attaining the skills since he started with a white belt. This will also help him to push to get to the black belt stage.

The brown belt symbolizes the ground, the Earth. The student is ready for a new cycle once he/she reaches the brown belt level.

Black Belt

This is the most prestigious stage of martial art belts and it is the time a student must have full control of his or her abilities and knowledge and also possess the power to teach them to new students. 

A drawing of a black belt martial arts student

Red Belt

The red belt could sometimes denote a pre-black stage where the student becomes powerful in abilities and must respect and recognize this power. A red belt could sometimes denote the grandmaster, i.e. the stage after some levels of black belt.

Martial Arts Belts History

Martial Arts Belts History

Most Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Martial Arts use the kyū/dan system along with colored belts for ranking grades. But, for example, Taekwondo and Karate belt colors are different. We will explain everything in the paragraph below.

According to the Japanese Martial Arts, dan ranks are equivalent to and are represented by black belts. Various dan ranks are style specific. [1]

Usually, dan ranks are from 1st to 5th and 1st to 10th represented by various degrees in black belts.

Ranks below the dan ranks are called kyū ranks. These are basic ranks denoted by various colored belts.

Once a person has achieved the dan rank, he is no longer considered a beginner and not necessarily an expert. A dan rank signifies that an individual knows how to walk and may hence begin the journey.

The many dan ranks in Japanese Martial Arts are pronounced as such:

  • 1st Dan – Shodan;

  • 2nd Dan – Nidan;

  • 3rd Dan – Sandan;

  • 4th Dan – Yondan;

  • 5th Dan – Godan;

  • 6th Dan – Rokudan;

  • 7th Dan – Shichidan;

  • 8th Dan – Hachidan;

  • 9th Dan – Kudan;

  • 10th Dan – Jūdan.

Usually, the 1st to 8th dan is represented by a black belt while the 9th and 10th dan is represented by a red belt.

Meanwhile, Chinese Martial Arts has a graduation system based on nine Duan levels – split into three each for each beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. 

The beginner level or basic duans are awarded to students with a few years of experience.

The intermediate-level or middle-level duans are awarded to students/coaches with 5-10 years of coaching experience.

The advanced level or the final three duans are for experienced masters with established reputations in Wushu. An advanced-level individual is allowed to call himself a “Grand Master”.

Instead of belt systems, Chinese Martial Arts has adopted three animals – Ying (Eagle), Hu (Tiger), and Long (Dragon). These animals along with 3 different colors – bronze, silver, and gold decide the level of an individual.

In Korean Martial Arts, the grading system is based on dan ranks. A person with a dan rank (equivalent to a 1st-degree black belt) is called a “yudanja” and one above 6th dan rank (equivalent to a 6th-degree black belt) is called a “godanja”.

The dan ranks for most Korean Martial Arts do not go past the ninth dan but in some places, a tenth dan is also offered.

  • Il dan or 1st dan – first-degree black belt;

  • I dan or 2nd dan – second-degree black belt;

  • Sam dan or 3rd dan – third-degree black belt;

  • Sa dan or 4th dan – fourth-degree black belt;

  • O dan or 5th dan – fifth-degree black belt;

  • Yuk dan or 6th dan – sixth-degree black belt;

  • Chil dan or 7th dan – seventh-degree black belt;

  • Pal dan or 8th dan – eighth-degree black belt;

  • Gu dan or 9th dan – ninth-degree black belt;

  • Sip dan or 10th dan – tenth-degree black belt.

Other martial art traditions apart from the East Asian Martial Arts use their own system of belt ranking which are colored from white (beginner) to black (advanced).

How About Mixed Martial Arts?

MMA is the fastest-growing fighting style in the world, but there are no belts in mixed martial arts. Every fighter mostly comes from one martial art, where he has some kind of rankings, but you will never hear about a guy with a black belt in MMA.

For example, Georges St-Pierre is a black belt in Shotokan Karate, Demian Maia has a degree in BJJ, and Stephen Thompson is a black belt in American kickboxing. But they are mixed martial artists, not MMA belt owners.

Even division champions like Alexander Volkanovski or Jiri Prochazka are not black belts in mixed martial arts, they just have a basic fighting style. For example, Jon Jones has a background in Gaidojutsu, a fighting style invented by his coach Mike Winkeljohn.

Which Martial Arts Belt Is Highest?

Usually, the black belt is the highest belt in martial arts. But, in a few arts including Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Karate, the red belt is reserved for exemplary masters of the art and is above the black belt.

No universally accepted standard governs how the belt colors of martial art should be, each type of martial art follows its own rules, explanations, and traditions and there are at times variations within the same type.

However, it is generally accepted that the first belt should be white while the highest belt is black. You will usually move from the white belt to the yellow belt, to the orange belt, to the green belt, to the blue belt, to the purple belt, to the brown belt, and then to the black belt which is the peak.

Meanwhile, there are levels to black belts and it takes a level of mastery and time to attain those feats.

How Many Degree Black Belts Are There?

The black belt in martial arts has a significant meaning and it is usually referred to as a level of competence when first attained, but as you move higher, you begin to move towards a certain level of mastery.

This ranking system has been labeled to be the Dan ranking system. It has also been researched that there are up to 10 mastery levels (degrees) beyond the first Dan black belt and it may take a lifetime to accomplish them.

This means that there are 10 different degrees for black belts and though the color of the belts will remain black, different inscriptions per level are usually written on them to denote seniority.

Is There a Belt Above Black?

As stated above, the black belt has been generally accepted as the highest-ranked belt, but for some martial arts, some other colors have been placed above the black belt when someone attains a very high grade.

In Judo and Karate, a red and white belt is usually worn by a sixth dan. Usually, this belt is used for ceremonial occasions while the regular black belt is still used for training. For the ninth and 10th dan, red belts are awarded by some schools while others award purple belts. 

Martial Arts Red Belt

A red belt is commonly used to differentiate an opponent in a competition or it is used to denote ranks. Its use is usually varying depending on the martial art but most times, it is given to grandmasters and some other high ranks.

However, some arts use a red belt for beginners while some use it as a pre-black rank. For modern Karate, blue and red belts are used by competitors and it is the rule that these are the two belts worn in this competition.

Mainly, a red belt is usually designated for the person with the highest rank, i.e. a grandmaster, or for pre-black or perhaps conventionally worn in Karate competitions.

Does Taekwondo Have Belt System for Ranking?

Taekwondo has a ranking system based on belts. ITF Taekwondo ranking system has 10 ranks (dans) based on a skill level, from 10th which is the white belt to 1st which is the black belt. WT Taekwondo has 11 belt ranks, ranging from 11th dan (white belt) to 1st dan (black belt). You can read more about belt colors in Taekwondo here.

Does Karate Have Belt System for Ranking?

The karate belt system consists of eight different colors. Ranging from the lowest to the highest, karate students can achieve white belt, yellow belt, orange belt, green belt, blue belt, purple belt, red belt, and brown belt. You can read more about the karate belt system here.

Does Kung Fu Have Belt System for Ranking?

There are 10 belt levels in Kung Fu. The first-degree belt rank is white, while the highest achievable is the black belt. You can learn more about belt colors in Kung Fu here.

Does BJJ Have Belt System for Ranking?

There are two different belt ranking systems in BJJ: the Gracie system, founded by Carlos and Hélio Gracie and used by the Gracie family, and the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) system, prescribed by the international governing body of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You can read more about belt levels in BJJ here.

Does Muay Thai Have Belt System for Ranking?

Traditional Muay Thai doesn’t have a colored belt system. On the other hand, some Western Muay Thai schools have belts and ranking systems. You can learn more about the ranking system used in such schools here.

You must understand that to attain the best belt in martial art, it takes dedication, discipline, hard work, persistence, patience, perseverance, and time. Only those who can undergo these processes will attain the highest belts.

How Many Belts Can You Get in Martial Arts?

The number of belts varies from martial art to martial art. For example, karate has eight belt colors, while Kung Fu has 10 belt colors. Each martial artist starts with a white belt, white the ultimate goal to achieve the highest belt (usually the black belt).

What Belt Was Bruce Lee?

Bruce Lee was one of the most influential martial artists of all time. Contrary to the popular belief, he did not have any belts.


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