Martial Arts After 40

Every once and a while, I hear someone say, “I am too old to do karate.”  Many times, the people that say this are only in their 40s.  In my years of doing karate, I have seen numerous adults start martial arts after 40 and continue for 20+ years, reaching high black belt ranks and being world champion competitors.  So, when I hear someone say they are too old, I empathize with them, but I also think it is hogwash.

Starting martial arts after 40 is scary for some
Starting martial arts after 40 is scary for some

Now that I am in my 40s, I feel I have a bit more insight, but I still feel it is hogwash to say that someone in their 40s (or 50s or 60s) are too old to start training.  I certainly feel the effects of aging like getting slower, being stiffer, and taking more time to recover, but I still feel I can do everything in karate that I have always done.

In this post, I will share with you some tips on how to maximize your training as you get older.  Starting sometime around 40, it is important to think about body preservation as the likelihood of injury increases.  When we are younger, in our 20s and 30s, we don’t need to think about these things as much.

Before getting into the tips I have, I first want to nerd out a little and talk about the concept of time.  Our concept of time (seconds, minutes, etc.) is artificial, created by humans.  Time is just a function of the revolutions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun.  Time was created to make the mathematical equations that describe the way the universe works.

Age is just a number
Age is just a number

What that means is the “age” of 40 years old is just a function of celestial orbits.  It is a number that means different things to different people.  There are some people in their 40s that can do things that people in their 20s can do.  There are people in their 20s who are physically comparable to an average 60-year-old.

A person’s age is just a number.  Don’t let a number dictate how you do something or if you do it at all.  Now, with that out of the way, let’s discuss several ways to keep healthy and safe while you train into your 40s and beyond.

Protect Your Joints

In my opinion, the most important thing to ensure long term success in any physical activity is to protect your joints: knees, hips, ankles, shoulders, wrists, and elbows.  The function of these joints is what allows us to move in everyday situations without pain or discomfort.

  • In karate, proper stances are crucial to preserving knees, hips, and ankles.  Many people who have done martial arts for 10+ years with improper stances will have pain in these joints.  Improper stances over time will slowly degrade these joints.
  • When doing any kicks that require rotation, be sure to pivot fully and correctly.  Not doing so will apply torsion to the lower body joints.
  • When you are learning something new in martial arts, make sure that you focus on the technique.  Many times, we want to do things with maximum power right away.  When doing so without proper technique, we run the risk of damaging joints.
  • When punching, kicking, or executing other strikes, do not snap the joints.  Tense the muscles upon impact so as not to “bang” the joint.
  • When doing any type of jumping technique, be sure to land softly.  Many people think that as you get older you need to stop doing jumping techniques.  This is not true.  While your physical ability in doing them will surely diminish, if you do them properly, you can still avoid pain and injury.  Keep knees slightly bent when landing and try to land on the balls of the feet rather than flat footed.
  • Gravity is not a friend of an aging body.  Do your joints a favor and control your weight.  Being overweight or obese will add more pressure on the joints.
  • Avoid standing with legs locked out.  Keep knees slightly bent and the weight mostly on the balls of the feet.  Not only will this help preserve your knees, but you will also be in a better position to spring into action if needed.

Thoroughly Warmup and Cool Down

For whatever reason, when we get older, we also get stiffer.  Therefore, it is essential to do a thorough warmup.  The days of showing up to class and jumping right into sparring are over.  A thorough warmup for martial arts needs to include getting the muscles warm through brisk movement followed by light stretching of every muscle.

When starting martial arts after 40 be sure to warmup
When starting martial arts after 40 be sure to thoroughly warmup

Equally important is cooling down after training.  Stretching the muscles that were used primarily in the training session will greatly assist in recovery.

Do Yoga or Stretching

When starting martial arts after 40 be sure to stretch
When starting martial arts after 40 be sure to stretch

Unfortunately, the little bit of stretching we do in class warmups and cool downs no longer cut it.  Having a full stretching workout or better yet a yoga class once or twice a week will do wonders to preserving your body and aiding in recovery.  I used to think that yoga was a waste of time and bit too hippy for me.  However, the last several years I have seen a vast improvement in my overall fitness when I included a weekly yoga workout.

Weight Training

Weight training will help retain muscle as you age
Weight training will help retain muscle as you age

In addition to yoga or stretching, as you age it is important to include weight or resistance training.  You don’t need to be a body builder or muscle head, but increasing your muscular strength is important.  Stronger muscles will ultimately help stabilize the body.  Do not skip leg day!  Strong leg muscles will help preserve the knee joints as you maintain stances.  Building muscles also helps the metabolism which leads to burning more calories and maintaining a healthy weight.

Strengthen the Core and Back

Ensuring your back is in good shape is of equal importance to preserving your joints.  You hear people complain of back problems very frequently as they age.  To help keep your back healthy and strong remember the following:

  • Strengthen the entire core: upper/lower abdomen, obliques, lower back, etc.
  • Stretch the muscles of entire core
  • Maintain good posture

You can’t just do a bunch of sit-ups to strengthen the core.  There are a variety of exercises and stretches that need to be done to completely work on the entire core.  If you are a desk worker, be sure to maintain good posture while seated and get up every hour to move around.

Listen to Your Body

When we are younger, we get a rolled ankle or pulled muscle and we can “walk it off”.  Worst case we take a day off to let it heal.  As we get older, we need to allow our body more time to heal.  Listen to your body and give it the rest it needs by taking breaks from physical activity from time to time.   Be sure you get enough sleep at night as well.  I know this is difficult, but it is very important.  We heal when we sleep.  Getting enough sleep will also help keep energy levels higher and improve mental health.

If you have a nagging injury that won’t go away, be sure to modify any exercises or techniques so as not to exasperate it or cause further injury.

Proper Diet

Proper diet is key to fitness as you age
Proper diet is key to fitness as you age

Finally, I have unfortunately learned that a proper diet has a huge impact on how you feel.  Long gone are the days of late-night beer and pizza.  Limiting alcohol consumption and eating healthy foods significantly boost energy levels as well as limit inflammation in the body.

Getting older is hard
Getting older is hard

After reading all of this you may be thinking, “man, this is a lot of work!”  You would be correct, which is why most people stop training when they get older or decide to never get started in the first place.  Training in martial arts as you get older is entirely possible if you take the necessary steps.  Just like getting a black belt, if it was easy, everyone would do it.

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  1. All good advice. I am 55 and currently a 1st Dan in ITF style Tae Kwon Do, so not all that different from the Tang Soo Do I used to practice as a teenager. I started training 3 1/2 years ago when I was 52, and I wondered at 52 whether I was too old to start training. But there were other people in their 40s and 50s so there was that.

    And I probably train as often as almost any student at my school. I try to go 4 times per week, but some weeks I only make it there 3 times per week. More than 4 times per week, or more than 2 days in a row is too hard on the joints and I need a little recovery time.

    There is nothing our teacher asks of the rest of the class that I cannot do. Now, there are some techniques I probably wouldn’t do in a tournament or a street confrontation, and I won’t be doing any 720 degree spinning kicks,’s or my old teacher’s signature kick, the scissors kick ever, but that is more for show than something we are expected to do to advance in rank.

    But let us be realistic at the same time. There are tremendous benefits to doing martial arts, but if you have been sedentary and especially, put on weight since high school or college, there is no guarantee that 3 or 4 hours a week of training martial arts will take it all off without other diet and lifestyle changes. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do a martial art and be effective at it. I like to think that what I lack in explosiveness and high flashy kicks, I can make up for in consistency, old man strength (a very real thing some bigger guys have), and intelligence. If I can’t outfight my younger training partners, maybe I can outsmart them. That is the hope, anyway.

    I would ask you Master Elmore, what would you tell a person who came to you at age 45 or 50, overweight and out of shape. Do you sign them up and tailor their program to allow for some limitations, or tell them to lose weight, get in better shape and come back in 6 months or a year, knowing the chances are you will never see them again?

    1. Thanks for the comments. Just to clarify, I am not implying overweight people cannot do martial arts. Everything I stated is how we can maximize our potential as we age while not experiencing pain and injury. Martial arts can be a great way to get into shape. An overweight, out of shape person is going to more prone to injury and pain than others. This is true whether they do martial arts or any other physical activity. The beginner level curriculum I teach can be modified to accommodate physical limitations. I would have no problem signing up someone overweight and modifying things with the understanding that it was temporary and we would eventually work towards removing those limitations. Over time, if there is not improvement in fitness, the student’s rank progression will certainly slow down or even stop. I have kept students from testing for black belt for years because they weren’t in shape.

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