I’ve had a few injuries over the years from sports and from martial arts training.
I wrestled and played football. And, of course, I've trained in a lot of martial arts.
I’ve done the “hardcore”, the “knuckle dragger”, and the "old school" type of martial arts training.
I recall going to a chiropractor. Looking at my x-rays during the consultation, he said, “It looks like you’ve been in a car accident or something.” To which I offered, “Or something.”
The damage was already done.
I’ve done a lot of throwing, which means I’ve been thrown a lot. Not all of that was on mats. I’ve done break falls on wood floors aplenty, often stepping off the mat to demonstrate the fall on a hard surface. I’ve worked throws on concrete that was covered with that really thin industrial carpet. Which is basically concrete.
That all seemed great at the time, but it takes a toll. It’s very much like being in a car wreck. Or several. Or many. My X-rays prove that point.
Fortunately, I’m not too bad off.
I had a conversation with a guy once who had lived, trained and fought in Thailand. He told me how he would train "hard" and then would almost always have some injury to deal with when he fought in the ring. He was never at his best when in the ring because of training injuries. Then he went to a well respected training camp, and they wore protective gear all the time during training. They were super careful in their training, working to avoid injuries. That way, when the fighters got in the ring, they were at 100%. He said it was a real eye opener for him, and it's been a conversation that's stayed with me over the years.
I'm not training for competition. I left that world behind years ago. Even so, injuries can still happen. I broke two ribs falling off a sled while going down a hill. The hill won. Not the end to the day of sledding with my kids I had imagined. It got in the way of my training. It also got in the way of everything else I did every day. Accidents happen, and me falling was an accident. Could it have been avoided? My wife says YES and has banned me from doing that again. She didn't really have to ban me, because I won't do it again. It just wasn't worth it to me. I was several months in recovery. This past winter, I went down a lot of hills on a sled with my kids. We had so much fun together. I didn't stand up on a sled though. I had a great time, but my training and my life didn't suffer for it. Instead, everything was better for it. Exercise and fun and bonding with my kids. And no injuries.
I’ve also talked to more than a few guys who did a lot of kickboxing in their younger days, hitting heavy bags for years. They’re all banged up and have arthritis in their hands. They aren't kickboxing anymore. They can't. Their bodies won't let them anymore.
Firstly, inanimate objects will always win. Always. Doesn’t matter if they break or bend. They don’t care. It won’t hurt them today, next week or in a decade. They can hurt you during all that time. The more time, the more you get hurt. While you can easily replace a heavy bag, the same can't be said for your body.
As an example, if you roll your wrist hitting a heavy bag, it’ll hurt today. You do it badly enough and it will really slow down your training. And as you ease back into using that wrist, you could easily re-injure it and prolong your recovery even further. It will also diminish to what extent you can recover. You may never fully recover. The likelihood is that you won’t. If you get over 90% recovery then you’re lucky and you did your rehab properly. You might be OK, but more than likely you will have to pay attention to the injured area, warming it up extra...for the rest of your life. This doesn’t just apply to martial arts. My broken ribs were bad and held me back from doing so many things until I recovered. This could be to paint, push the mower, play baseball, or swim. You might have to work with an injury every morning just to hold your coffee cup. Or stop holding your spouse’s hand to work out "stiffness". Or even worse, your child’s hand. Imagine not being able to hold your infant child or grandchild because you injured your back or shoulder during training. An injury you could have avoided.
Which takes us to our second point. You don’t have to train that hard. Drilling is meant to activate and strengthen the muscles so that they align and hold themselves properly at point of impact. That might be a punch, a kick, a throw, or a break fall. I teach my students in a manner that allows them to learn how to do a break fall without actually taking the impact of doing a bunch of break falls. Mats, good ones that absorb the shock, should always be used. The goal is to teach them to land with the proper alignment. If you are thrown in a fight, it will hurt. Why take that kind of abuse regularly? Train the body to respond properly. Don't damage the the very thing you are trying to protect.
Can you hit the heavy bag? Yes! But let's be smarter about using this particular tool. Yes, a heavy bag is a tool. Used properly, it is a beneficial tool. Used improperly, it is detrimental to both your training and your body.
So how do you use a tool properly? Let's stay with the heavy bag. We'll say we're working a punch. It could be any punch, but I'll use the cross. However you throw a cross doesn't really matter for this example. The heavy bag is there to give you greater resistance to your punch. This helps the muscles develop. It also gives greater feedback so that you are able to work on stabilizing various parts of your body at the time of impact. This could be your shoulder or hips or a foot or whatever. The point is that it is meant to give you feedback so that you can further develop your punch.
Hit the heavy bag, but not to the point of fatigue. Be aware of your hand, your wrist, your shoulder. If you are improving, then your punches will generate greater and greater amounts of power. If one part of your body fatigues out before the rest, then that is the part that will get injured. What does that mean? Let's say that the muscles around your wrist, those used to stabilize the wrist, tire out first. When you hit the heavy bag again, those muscles that hold your wrist stable, allowing for the smooth transfer of kinetic energy from the arm to the hand to the target, don't. They don't do their job. They fail. The other parts of the body are still creating a large amount of kinetic energy. Power. Only now, that destructive power is going into the failed area of the body, your wrist. All of that destructive power gets caught in the wrist instead of harmlessly going into the bag. And you have an injured wrist. Congrats, you beat up your wrist. Then you're in that cycle of recovery that I mentioned earlier. It's not good for your training or your body.
Continued injuries to an area will result in chronic ailments that stay with you for life.
As I mentioned, I've proven that I can survive a fall on a very hard surface. I want my students to be able to survive a fall too, but I don't want them to get hurt. So I teach it differently. I teach it first from seated. This allows the sensation of falling but with little impact. From standing, I have students work on slowing themselves down as they sit into the break fall. This is all done on mats. Leg take downs and sweeps allow for the next stage of "falls" to develop. When students work with each other to develop higher throws, they are still on mats but haven't taken an extensive amount of damage up to this point. They can work the throws on the mats. Once you understand a throw, you don't have to actually throw your partner each time. The whole idea is to limit the damage while still learning to the fullest. Once you've learned it, then it becomes about working the muscles and exploring subtleties. This can be done in ways other than doing a full out throw every time. I have a whole section on throwing that is taught from a kneeling position. Works the same mechanics but you're way closer to the ground. And being on a mat is good for both your knees and the shorter falls. Those subtleties can be worked on because your partner can relax and allow the throw to happen slowly and easily.
So why do we do this harsh training? Why do we hurt ourselves? The answer is ego. Either our own ego telling us that we're tough, that we need to prove how strong we are by enduring pain, either through a damaging drill or by continued training with an injury. (the heavy bag won't be impressed) Or it's your instructor's ego that needs to have "tough" students, and this harsh training is the way to prove yourself to them. Put the ego aside and look at what you're doing. Training. So train. Develop reactions with your equipment. Appropriately. And with as little intended damage as possible. Use the equipment to help you. Don't over use the equipment and ABUSE yourself.
Yes, injuries are going to happen. Even when you're careful. They're called accidents. They happen. I have had some things just happen to me. Or seen it happen to someone else. It wasn't because we were doing something carelessly or that was intentionally damaging. It was students who made a mistake and got hurt.
Take a good look at your own training. Look for drills that are damaging to your body. If you identify one, see if you can find another way to develop the skill. Is there another drill? Maybe you need three safe drills to replace it. It'll be worth the extra effort!
If you're fighting for you life, or even for a championship, and you get hurt, that's one thing. If you are just abusing your body every week, at some point it is going to catch up with you. And it won't be enjoyable. And why?
The point is to train smarter, not harsher. Another thing to remember, and this is a BIG one, is that the martial artist that you see doing something amazing has two things on you: time and abuse. They put the time in, and hopefully didn't take too much abuse in that time. Don't cut corners. If it's your first year, don't expect to perform as well as someone who has been training for 10.
For most people, martial training is a hobby. It's something they enjoy doing. If you'd like to enjoy it for a long time, train like that. Train in a way that will allow you to continue your martial journey for years and even decades. All with a body that isn't all beat up. You'll pick up enough injuries along the way without trying to give yourself some. With some mindfulness, those injuries won't all be from your martial training. They'll be from doing something stupid like standing up on a sled.
Yes, I have a few injuries that I have to be mindful of now. But for the most part, I've been fortunate enough to avoid prolonged abusive training and the permanent effects it has to the body. I continue to train smarter instead of harsher. It's more than a hobby for me. I enjoy training, and I'm so happy that I'm still able to train. I plan on training for many more years.
I hope you can train for many more years too.