Proven Ways to Prevent Injury Now So You Can Train for Decades to Come
By Dasha Libin Anderson
The potential for injury exists in all physical pursuits. You can sprain an ankle by inadvertently stepping in a pothole while crossing the street just as easily as you can by putting a foot down incorrectly after executing a kick. You can experience an overuse injury that stems from spending hours in front of a computer screen just as easily as you can from repeatedly sweeping an opponent with the same leg.
Bottom line: When we use our bodies, anything can happen. When we repetitively use our bodies in a specific manner, we subject ourselves to potential muscle imbalances that can lead to chronic pain and instability.
For martial artists, the stakes tend to be higher than for sedentary people. In the dojo, there are lots of impacts and plenty of resistance, not to mention training sessions that are by design highly repetitive. For example, striking, grappling and wielding weapons are actions driven by force and frequently met with opposition. Training to execute techniques forces you to spend countless hours practicing the exact same patterns of movement. This can place you at a higher risk for acute injuries in addition to overuse injuries.
But because you're an active martial artist — why else would you be reading Black Belt? — you know this. You accept it. You consciously decided that the rewards of training — self-defense, fitness, confidence, awareness and discipline, to name a few — far outweigh the risks. You know that just because an activity incurs a liability, you need not stop doing it. It's much better to build your knowledge base and take actions to mitigate the risks of, in this case, sustaining a training injury. The key to doing that is having a plan and adopting an exercise routine that will help you steer clear of injury in the long run.
Prevent Injury With Strength Training
Having spent two decades in the martial arts — on both the fitness side and the self-defense side — I can safely say that most practitioners get it wrong when they adopt the notion that adding strength and conditioning training to their daily routine will just wear down their body. In fact, supplementing your martial arts workouts with exercises designed to boost strength and improve conditioning will do just the opposite. In a nutshell, if you want to maximize the likelihood of being able to practice your art far into
the future, start doing strength and conditioning exercises now.
One reason to do this is performance enhancement. Following a solid exercise program will improve your ability in your martial art, just as it does in other physical pursuits. Those who compete in triathlon, basketball, tennis, swimming and virtually all sports regularly engage in regimented strength and conditioning routines.
Another reason is injury prevention. The right strength and conditioning workout will fortify your body and help balance its components. The key is to keep things simple when you lift weights. Done properly, your workout will be general-purpose. The exercises should not parallel specific martial arts moves; they should address your whole body and the variety of motion that's typical for you. In other words, avoid mimicking martial arts moves like kicking with weights on your ankles and punching against a resistance.
Instead, focus on basic strength-building exercises that incorporate pushing, pulling, hip hinging and knee bending. Load weight on the bar progressively to avoid trying to lift too much too soon.
One more caveat: In the martial arts, it's OK to concentrate on stances and positions that favor one side of your body. (If you're a southpaw, you shouldn't force yourself to adopt a conventional stance.) However, when it comes to strength and conditioning, you should strive to keep things balanced. Make sure you work all the muscle groups on both sides of your body equally.
Prevent Injury With Consistency
Your body adapts to repetitive stress. If you want to become faster, stronger or more flexible, you must apply the necessary stress in a suitable dose, then wait for your body to adjust to this new normal. The biggest problem in this equation? The erratic training many martial artists put in both on and off the mat.
Your body is far more likely to experience injury and overuse issues when it's pushed to the max one week and then allowed to skip training altogether the next week. Yo-yo training is the No. 1 reason martial artists are held back in terms of progress. They miss class for a few weeks, then dive back in and go all-out.
The truth is that the snail will beat the rabbit in the martial arts. Translated, that means longevity and consistency will override intensity, and while it's nice to be able to give it 100 percent at certain times, it's more important to be consistent. Make sure your body isn't shocked and is never overloaded by the sudden stress of training you haven't done for a while.
Prevent Injury With Downtime
One of my greatest mentors in the martial arts is Dan Inosanto. I've spent the past 15 years meeting with him every August at the academy I run with my husband. During one of those meetings, he said something that spurred me to develop a whole new perspective on martial arts:
“The most difficult part of your training — at this point in your life and going forward — will be knowing when to sit out."
His words stunned me because until then, I'd been accustomed to pushing myself to the edge in everything I did. Even so, I had begun to wonder whether this was wise. Inosanto's advice was the confirmation I needed to make a change.
In the martial arts, it's crucial to develop a routine. As noted, it's not good to train sporadically and then disappear from class. However, training every day and going all-out every single time — and pushing through pain, ignoring overuse issues and going past the point of exhaustion — is a surefire way to get injured.
In sports, athletes often go through an injury cycle. If they don't address a certain pain, it can travel through the body — for example, working its way from the elbow to the shoulder to the neck to the back. Ignoring it can take you to the breaking point, stranding you in a cycle that can last for years and become chronic.
The cure is simple: Sit out when you're hurt. That doesn't mean you need to stay home. You can attend class as an observer. You can engage in training but not spar. You can do light non-contact sparring while abstaining from full contact. Or you can just take some time off. If you're a true martial artist, your art will be with you for life, so taking off a day or a week won't be an issue.
Prevent Injury With a Proper Warm-up
There's a reason old-school karate, judo and jujitsu classes were an hour and a half to two hours long. The human body thrives when it's warmed up in a progressive manner. That means you're able to more efficiently and effectively use your skills after you've engaged in exercises that target mobility, flexibility and strength.
These days, most classes are shorter in duration, sometimes as short as a half-hour, mainly because of our busy schedules. However, if you want to avoid injury in the long term, you need to devote more time to your martial pursuit. Try not to run into the dojo late — something I often see — and jump right into a 300-kick drill. Maybe you've done this in the past without repercussions, but eventually, your body will snap under the pressure of going from zero to 60 without a warm-up.
In the martial arts, warm-ups are critical because they do exactly that — warm the body in the ranges of motion and movement patterns required for the specific art. Ideally, you'll arrive early and devote at least five to 10 minutes to a customized routine to give your body what it requires. This is in addition to any organized warm-up that precedes the formal lesson.
If you're at a loss as to what to do to warm up your body, start by slowly moving through the limb motions you do when you practice techniques. If you plan to be kicking, slowly cycle through leg stretches without holding any particular position. Then engage your core with dead-bug and plank exercises to wake up your back, arms, legs and glutes.
Prevent Injury With Shadowboxing
A decade ago, I attended a Gracie jiu-jitsu seminar in which the instructor unexpectedly advised us to shadowbox. Now, I was used to shadowboxing because of my jeet kune do, muay Thai and kali studies, but hearing that it could enhance my jiu-jitsu practice was confusing. Standing in front of the class, the instructor began to demonstrate the movement patterns required for sweeps, reversals and escapes, only by himself. He back-rolled, front-rolled and moved his legs, then had us do the same.
Much later in my career, after traveling and training in countless countries in a variety of martial arts, I realized that every style should teach shadowboxing as a way to prevent injury and enhance skill. Shadowboxing is a form of mobility practice. It takes you through all the ranges of motion of your art without creating the tension or resistance you encounter when you drill or spar.
In past years, however, with the growth of the martial arts in general, I've seen countless students in many different arts skip over this excellent form of practice. Instead, they opt to jump right into sparring. I doubt they know what they're depriving themselves of.
Sure, shadowboxing requires skill and discipline, as well as attention to detail and feedback, but it's also a proven way to enhance your performance and warm up your body. Thus, it helps you avoid injury on two fronts: by fixing poor technique and by getting your body ready for exertion.
Yes, practicing martial arts — just like engaging in any sport, art or life pursuit — entails risk. However, you won't live a life worth smiling over if you choose to abstain from that which drives and inspires you. The happy medium is to adopt a long-term plan, to keep an eye on the big picture, and to take the steps needed to prevent injury so you can train in the martial arts as long as you live.
Dasha Libin Anderson, MS, NASM-PES, is an instructor in jeet kune do and the Filipino martial arts under Dan Inosanto and Dan Anderson. She also owns a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. For more information, visit universityofmartialarts.com.