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How to train in the Martial Arts and be Old

Long term Martial Artist and those who start training later in life have many lessons to learn about taking care of their bodies. All too often we push forward with bravado ignoring the pain and damage we may be doing to ourselves.

Now being officially an adult “because the younger students call me the old man” several life lessons concerning an ongoing shoulder injury prompted me to reach out to other aging Martial Artist and see what they were doing to keep from becoming broken.

The question I posed was fairly straight forward and made from my own personal affliction.

This is the question I asked:

“I have been in the Martial Arts since I was 18 and am now showing signs of age and training injuries. Last year I started Aikido as a fun add-on and the lessons it can teach in center movement. Long story short I hurt in the shoulders and upper arms constantly. The age thing is really starting to wear me down and I am now in the mist of taking a few weeks off to recoup. I am no stranger to throws, grabs, falls, and takedowns but the continual upper shoulder stress the Nages are giving me is taking its toll on my health. It is not necessarily the falls that beat me down but also the force the Uke uses to manipulate my center as transferred through my upper body that is causing the issues.

What insights can you all provide too help me survive? “

This evolutionary path of ageing is one that we all must walk. The answers I received were both personal and insightful and I thought it would be appropriate to share the highlights of our conversations.

Suggestion – Change what you do

A large portion of the early comments referred to the inclusion of Chinese arts such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong. The reasoning for this was twofold. One being the softer training style would allow training to continue and secondly for the development for push pull methodologies and core/center foundations while handling the Uke.

This may be a good place to start but if you approach the Tai Chi training for health benefits and not martial intent I wonder about the overlap issues? This concept of adding the softer drill work also tends to blend with my thoughts on Yoga. For years I have considered taking classes but have never really made an effort to find the time. This may be the final motivation to begin the program.

Those who did not practice the Chinese arts in the traditional form turned their responses to “Teacup Drills.” I have been trying these and after several painful starts have found that when I begin to use my full body motion and not isolate just the shoulder joints it is showing a benefit.

I have included a video for this exercise and chosen this one because it is a male who is carrying some extra body weight. He represents the typical body style for new students. The moves he is doing are somewhat complex for a beginner but if you breakdown the action into small component pieces it would work well.

Background – Aiki Arts and their injuries

The discussion then moved into the affects of the Aiki arts on the body during training. It seems that these types of injuries are common for these arts: Aikido, Hapkido, Judo, and their like. The injuries tend to derive from the fact that the arms are everything and in order to move the opponent or be moved by the Nage the arms will typically come into play.

It is the learning process of this type of action that causes the most injuries. Typically the unlearned Nage will over power by using muscle and weight try to force the action of the Uke. Secondly the action of falling and striking out to the mat exasperates the problem and will begin to cause tendon issues within the elbows. This fact about the cause of elbow injuries has given me great insight to why I just can’t seem to get rid of my tennis elbow and after a few weeks of reducing the stress on my shoulders has reduced my elbow problem.

The blame for these injuries cannot be placed simply upon the Nage. The Uke also takes responsibility for not having conditions in place that limits to what extent they will be able to be “handled” during training. In retrospect I fit the classic case of not having my own rules in place. I simply tried to work out as the old man in the group and let the young guys and gals toss me around. I have learned this lesson through injury and must make changes to my training accordingly.

I also stopped my weight lifting program earlier this year and I can now see a direct correlation between this injury and the loss of muscle. The original injury occurred several years ago in a work related accident. Knowing where the original injury occurred has helped me realize that the training is an aggravation of something done outside the Dojang. The weight training represents my rule that I broke. Lesson learned; old men must do their own homework to be able to play in the sandbox with the young kids.

Speed of training and being soft – or is that relaxed?

This part of our conversations generated the most difficulty in consensus or understanding. Several styles spoke up and the answers varied upon those styles. Those in the hard styles such as Karate and Tae Kwon Do did not seem to hold the same commitment or opinions to those that practice the softer arts.

In going back to the original concept of the Aiki arts, the process of being relaxed is a foundation of the art. Being the art does not meet force with force and instead utilizes deflection and center based counters this is important if the practitioner wants to be able to flow and react with but not against the attacker.

This relationship between the Uke and Nage was discussed and how training might be better understood and modified to benefit both person’s health and learning.

  • The Nage must learn slowly and this means in both the accumulation of knowledge over time as well as approaching learning new skills with slow movements.
  • In the Aiki arts the Nage ultimately moves or causes the movement of the Uke through force manipulation or deflection.
  • This force has the potential full weight of the Uke and possibly Nage behind the move.
  • As the Nage is learning they will tend to overuse their muscles and body mass to compensate for poor structure and technique. This slows their learning and can damage the Uke.
  • Excess speed at this early learning slows educational advancements and will encourage the Nage to use excess force and body weight.
  • Softness and being relaxed is the key to Aiki type arts.
  • This lack of relaxation once again places the Nage in the position of over utilizing proper form, structure, and technique. Hence the outcome is to use more muscle, speed, and body weight.

These concepts turns my mind back to my earlier days of being young and wanting to “ground and pound” an opponent. It is difficult to go from hard to soft styles and many years later I still have this “must break things” learning floating around in my subconscious mind.

Age has greatly tempered me and I am so much softer in my execution than I use to be and teaching has made me even softer, but the need to break still exists. As we get older, we can no longer be thrown around and punched like the younger people can. This is why you don’t see senior citizens flock to a judo or aikido school when they want to learn self defense.

This leads to the question; “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Is it practicing martial arts or self defense? If you are older, you have to choose a martial art that will not damage you physically. Maybe, if you want to learn self defense, take up weaponry like edged blades and projectile weapons?

Weapons instead of hand to hand skills

My typical response when asked a question in class is “Yes, No, Maybe.” And the concept of weapons as the focus for older students is a complex and hot topic and deserves such an answer. My personal thoughts run to the side that yes weapons should be taught and not the Nunchaku or Bo. We must keep a realistic view that the martial arts are about self mastery as well as self defense.

But on the no side, weapons have no place in the beginning phases of a traditional hands based art because they distract from the concept of being able to deal with a potential hazard with only the tools at hand.

However, maybe we need to be realistic and remember that I am writing from the old man perspective and weapons have their place alongside how to punch. Our older bodies just can’t take the pounding long term training requires and we all might be well served to start with real world weapons early on in our training.

To be really proficient in understanding your own body you must have some level of training in how to use that body. And I feel this holds true for shooting and edged weapons. The only true weapon you have is your mind and body, everything else you add to that is just an enhancement.

How I have dealt with the weapons training in my club is by starting new students with cane techniques early. Hapkido typically does the cane at the black belt level but I now generally start it 8 to 12 months into the program. The reason for this is that the average age of new students has risen over the last twenty years and I continually get adults in their 50’s and 60’s. This changeup lets them begin to learn a weapon that has great defense capabilities while their bodies are still strong. And as they age to the point of maybe needing a cane later in life, the techniques will already be second nature.

Fitness levels for the arts or self-defense

Self defense, which means defending yourself or somebody else from an attack, might imply one does not need to be very fit. But one must have some level of fitness to practice these leanings’ and that poses the problem.

I have never witnessed a self defense situation that lasted more than a few seconds. However you have to be very fit to be a fighter.

Self defense and martial arts can be two different things which have overlapping areas. Competition is a young man’s sport, but I know a few men who are still deadly well into their seventies. However, they would not last long in the ring.

Static training seems to be the dividing line between most upper body joint injuries. The harder styles that kick, punch, and use other strikes tend to be less damaging to these joints than the ones that require partner type workouts. Case-in-point would be Karate. Yes getting hit later in life can cause more damage but in a typical practice the student is not being handled by the Nage.

However the wrestling and Aiki arts require someone to move you and this is the problem. The point to remember is that in the striking styles it is the practitioner that has control of the severity of the workout. In the “it takes two” to practice it is the Nage that ultimately determines the severity of the workout.

So in maintaining your strength, flexibility, and breath it becomes slightly diverged with each art that is practiced. How this applies to my situation is that my arts are hands-on touching, grabbing, and getting moved around. Hence the fitness requirements change as we age. I am less worried about being able to run five miles but more interested in lean body muscles and joint strengthening. Pushups are somewhat counterproductive for me now. I still do some but instead focus on rolling pushups where I slide my body back and forth to build flexible shoulder strength, not raw power from the up down motion.

Some will say that without good pushups you can’t punch with much force; my reply is that I don’t punch with my shoulders but with my back, center, and hips. Old man punches are much stronger than young man shoulder punches.

Cardio work can be difficult in the Aiki arts especially since sparring is not typically done. This can be a deficit for the students and I have specific drills that I use that build the cardio levels. But I learned long ago that the older students can’t do continual falls for cardio. They breakdown physically before the cardio starts to become beneficial.

One of the biggest groups of comments centered on the inclusion of outside physical training and how the arts don’t meet all the needs that the older students require. I have found this to be true as well. Some form of weight or resistance band training kept being discussed. I am a prime example of the weight training and how I mentioned above that I stopped my program a number of months ago.

The Chiropractor and other people that do physical maintenance to your body

I use to be a regular attendee for the Chiropractor but about 10 years ago I found that it become counterproductive for me to get adjustments for maintenance needs. I will still go for specific injuries or when my back locks up and I have been unable to get it to release after several days.

What I found is that the maintenance adjustments caused me more issues because my body had found equilibrium and an adjustment would aggravate that delicate balance. Good regular stretching and proper posture do me better than regular visits to the bone crusher.

What has helped the most for long term care as well as specific problems is Trigger Point therapy. Much of this I can perform myself using guide books and a special cane designed to give you access to your backside. The old tennis ball in a sock while leaning against a wall is just about as low tech as you can go but it still yields terrific results. Another trick I use is to roll my foot on a golf ball. This hurts beyond belief and you will have things go crunch that you never knew existed. And yes, rolling the bottoms of your feet will help relieve stress in your shoulders.

The older guys in class help each other. It is not uncommon for the senior black belts to rub trigger points for each other as well as the junior belts. Health care should be a standard part of the class.

Ice and heat were discussed as well. I am a believer that everyone should have a hot water bottle. I heat it up in the microwave for a few minutes and use it on the back and shoulders after a hard day of falls or kicks. The trick to remember is that if you have lots of swelling before you use the heat this can cause you to swell more and aggravate the problem. In this case ice would be better and then switching back and forth between the heat and cold. I keep cold packs in the freezer as well.

I was amazed how few people spoke up concerning heat, ice, and the mechanical laying of hands on yourself or others. While some brought up the topic for self healing no one discussed it from a group perspective. I guess we are all “menly men” and don’t want to break that taboo.

Weight control and nutritional supplements

I am barrel-chested and will be for the rest of my life. I have good Celtic stock with lots of muscles. I wish I had a thin frame and could be lithe and jumpy like so many thin guys. It will never happen and I have accepted this fact in my life. That does not mean I don’t try and stay conscious of the weight control. It just means my point of reference is skewed with my body style.

Being able to control your excess weight is extremely important. This was a hot topic and deservingly so. Every extra pound represents static weight that must be moved, slammed to the floor, and lifted from the ground every time you walk. This leads into your diet. We must eat healthy and try to maintain our weight. We must also make certain that our vitamins and minerals are properly maintained.

It is beyond my skill to offer advice to what an actual diet should be or the inclusion of supplements. What I will mention is that my feet and hands hurt constantly if I don’t take a magnesium supplement daily. It seems my body just can’t function without this extra boost. I have tried specific foods, exercises, and treatments but it all comes down to this mineral that I seem to be deficient in.

That deficiency becomes more pounced during hot Florida summers. I become very lethargic as would be expected with the heat and humidity. What the weather also does is cause my legs to cramp. This goes back to the mineral deficiency and I add a little Gatorade or some other energy drink to my diet. The salts and minerals stop the cramping and when the weather breaks around mid October I stop the program.

A couple of quotes

These two comments really hit the point. Each say pretty much the same thing but approach it from a different direction.

John, you are finally at the threshold of truly “learning” martial arts, LOL!!! On my next birthday in December I will be 77. Martial art is about conserving energy. It is about both effectiveness and efficiency. It is not dependant on strength or genetic speed. In fact genetic speed is a minor part of what ‘speed’ really is.

Gerald says it best:

“Some of the best Martial Arts come after we start to age. That is when you realize that the principles behind the movements really are important”

Final thoughts

I have learned more in the last 5 years about body dynamics than I ever thought possible. Having started as a young man I was all into the kick, hit, and make them lose philosophy. That has changed. My focus is now control of the situation verbally, physically, and emotionally. Being able to take a step back and watch the young guys’ burn themselves out practicing I have realized how much the arts if done correctly are built upon energy conservation. When we spar the young ones can’t understand why I don’t lose my breath. I simply tell them “training and old man tactics”