You may remember the Lethal Weapon movies with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. Danny plays the cop nearing retirement, and he has the classic line “I’m too old for this #%!**&.”
Can a person be too old for a physical activity like martial arts? Can you, as a mature adult be too old?
The surprising answer? Yes, you may be.
Many of my private clients are from the Boomer generation and have aged gracefully into a fit, active seniorhood. As a result, I am well aware of the issues facing an aging population that wants to go into martial arts.
When you ask “Am I Too Old,” it’s really NOT a question of physical age. It is a matter of fitting in with others in the class, fitness level, and bounce back from injury. Age by itself is not a real issue.
The truth is that there are serious physical limits on martial arts that anyone past the age of 18 should consider before undertaking any study of martial arts, lest you carry around nagging injuries for the rest of your life.
Are You Inside or Outside the Peak Age for A Martial Art?
Many martial arts have been built with a peak age in mind.
This peak is when the practitioner is at his or her physical best in the art. It’s the shape of the peak, its length and the time the peak occurs in a person’s life that you should know. As your age moves outside of the physical peak, you get into an area of larger risk.
Many martial arts peak in the low twenties. There are 6 reasons for this.
- Males in their twenties are typically aggressive and are resolving issues of issues of pack placement, rites of passage, etc.. Martial arts favor this process.
- The amount of strain placed on the joints by the training process makes it physically difficult to continue practice after the twenties.
- The mental drives of the martial art are very aggressive and based on adrenal highs typical of the twenties.
- The lifestyle of the practitioners of the art is typical of people in their twenties. When a person no longer wants to be part of the lifestyle, they drop the art.
- The strain on the back is difficult for people past the age of twenty to bear.
- The art assumes a body fat percentage that is low enough to fit only people in their twenties in the west (America is the fattest country in the world).
The Benefit of Age. The Disadvantage of Youth.
Many of the arts in America are young arts and so have do not have generations of experienced, aged practitioners that have seen the negative effects of the arts’ training system on the body. As an art gets older, the practitioners become more aware of what the typical injury patterns are simply because there is enough repetition to see those injury patterns over time.
Arts with a very sharp peak in the twenties usually spend less time on technical study and immediately favor application. The start up time for such approaches have the advantage of being very short and requiring low rep numbers to be useful, but the injury rate is high and the assumed level of physical fitness is high.
As a result of the physical strain, the drop out rate is usually also very high.
Combative sports typically use this model, where it is tolerated because many competitors are in poverty. They are looking to find a way out of poverty and are willing to sacrifice the body in order to establish wealth. Many, many people that start the training in combative sports will injure out, but it is worth both the fame, reputation, and money-in the-pocket to take the initial risk.
Competitors also realize that they have only a limited shelf-life as a fighter before the body becomes unusable in the sport. For them, it’s the ticking clock.
As an older adult, you need to be concerned about being in an art that was not designed to fit your needs, or that was designed to fit a much more resilient body than yours.
Make sure you want what comes out of training!
Things A Martial Arts Teacher Should Know for Older Adults
Many times an average martial arts instructor will not know the peak of the art. While he or she can be an excellent martial artist, he or she will have never actually contemplated the art as a training system for a population group.
This often happens when you get a person of technical skill that believes he can simply start coaching, because he knows the techniques. Even if your potential instructor isn’t able to tell you anything, you can get a general idea of where an art has its peak placement by asking the following:
- What age are the students at their physical best?
- How many senior practitioners or teachers are there that actively practice? (At the age of 30, most are unofficially retired).
- Was the art designed for sport or quickie self-defense?
Questions you should ask yourself:
- How good of shape do your joints need to be in?
- Why are you taking the art?
- How much load and rotation can your back take?
- What level is your aerobic conditioning at?
These two question groups should give you a reasonable idea of the match between an older adult and an art.
The next step is to actually experience the range of motion and the type of rotation and joint placement needed to participate in the training, usually privately. If you can’t make it through the private, then there is a huge mismatch between you and the art.
Be very cautious getting thrown freebie style into the general class population. This fast food approach should send up huge red flags for you, because the lack of control in the situation can very easily lead you beyond your body’s abilities.
That means getting hurt.
The Characteristics of Heaven Fist Kung Fu
The kung fu I teach is from an active, highly successful 1,500 year old clan known as the Soon. The kung fu was designed specifically to keep an active, fit and effective warrior population throughout the active life span.
The art is adaptive, favoring different approaches to combat and training at different age levels. The performance peak is considered to be in the 50s for the warrior population.
Training can be easily adapted to limbs and backs that have lost some function over time, due to age or injury.
You do the comparison.
My best regards to you!
Master Mikel Steenrod