Old Guys in the martial arts, Part two

In my post on how to transition from competitor to coach, John replied with this comment.

One thing I don’t think is realistic and not really the point of your post but mentioning the 60 year old instructor as being able to kick butt… I hear that all of the time. Now I don’t know if this is out of respect (and if it is – I understand) but most older guys cannot perform nearly as good physically as a good younger man with good skill. True the older guys might be more crafty and such.

For me – I am out of shape but still crafty – I joke that I could go 2 minutes with anyone but I don’t really believe that… maybe 1 minute. :)

Actually the higher belt/degree/or whatever generally does not mean much other than a reflection of how much time one has put in… not really a measurement of quality.

I’ll try to give a bit more details here to explain exactly what I meant with that comment. Here goes:

Old guys in the martial arts

'Nuff said...

First of, John mentions respect for my teachers as a possible reason for me claiming they can kick my ass. He’s right. I try to show as much respect as I can. Not because I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid but because I think they deserve it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be my teachers. It’s that that simple for me. But this doesn’t mean they can’t kick my ass, not at all.

Then he mentions how an older man can’t keep up physically speaking compared to younger guys with good skill. That may be true in most cases, I won’t disagree with that. But to place it in the context I think it needs, we need to look closer at a few things:

Old muscle doesn’t necessarily mean weak muscle

It often does, but it’s not written in stone.  Here are some examples of older people putting most guys who could be their grand-children to shame. And I mean red-hot-I-wish-I-would-die shame. Check it out:

Take a look at this 69-year old man doing some “light gymnastics”:


Or this “Grandpa” of 67 doing reps with 120 Lbs. dumbbells:


There are loads of examples like this. Go to Ross’s place (which is an excellent resource BTW) for more.

So I think I’ve established that you can be a strong mo-fo even when you’re in the later parts of your life…

Which brings me to my next point:

Time spent training.

There’s just no substitute for training years on end. If you train regularly and correctly for a long, long  time, chances are good you’ll eventually have a lot of skill. This is true for most things, martial or otherwise. The people I’m thinking of have 30, 40 or 50 years of dedicated, daily training. By that, I don’t mean doing a form three times every day and then calling it quits. I mean training long hours and working your ass off to perfect your techniques, every single day. More on this in my “How to become a martial arts expert” post.

Combine those decades of training with the same efforts in keeping physically fit like the older gentlemen in the videos above. If you keep going at it, you can be at a conditioning level most 25-year olds can only dream of.  Though there are similarities with conditioning, with martial arts it’s a little different. Some things you get better at, others you lose a few steps as time goes by:

  • Technical skills usually don’t degrade. On the contrary, you should be getting better as time goes by. You won’t move like a 20-year old kid when you’re 60 but that isn’t necessarily the worst thing ever. Loads of kids that age don’t move all that well because their youthful strength gets in the way of good technique.
  • Timing, strategy and tactics go through the roof. These things don’t have a limit to them. You can keep getting better all the time. Though timing is slightly different because of it’s interaction with physical capabilities, it’s still something you only get really good at as time goes by. Because it mostly revolves around knowledge and experience. So these three can make up for a lot of deficiencies in other areas.
  • Mindset and mental strength can be at their peak as you get older. If life doesn’t break you, you’ll be one strong SOB when you hit your 60’s. The old saw of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true. It’s not as simple as that as there are a bunch of qualifiers that come with this statement (like, does being unbroken mean the same as being whole?) but in general I think it’s accurate enough. As most people know how important mindset is when you fight, perhaps the most important thing, then you’re ahead of the game on most young guys here too.
  • Physical attributes go down.Strength, speed, endurance, they’ll all go down. There’s nothing you can do about that. However, look at those videos here above once again. Now imagine those men doing 50 years of martial arts at the same time as their impressive conditioning training. Would you really want to have a go at them?

This list is actually a bit longer than this but I want to keep it simple. The point is this:

Yes, physical factors don’t favor you as you get older. A young guy sure has the edge over an older guy there. However, all the other factors (technique, skill, experience, strategy,tactics,mindset,etc.) will probably be in favor of the older guy. If, and it’s a big “if” the old guy has kept up his conditioning, the difference in that area between him and the young guy may not be that big. And even if they are bigger than you’d like, all the other factors should be at that much higher a level that they can make up for the difference.

To be clear I’m talking about real violence, not going five rounds in the ring or Octagon. A younger guy should do better there than an older man. Because that’s indeed a young man’s game (despite Randy Couture still going strong in his late 40’s) in which the physical aspects are the most important part. What I mean is fighting them with your life on the line and anything goes including weapons, not some sort of competition.

Which brings me to another point.

There are no guarantees in a fight.

Anything can and will happen when two men fight. There’s just no way you can predict how it’ll turn out. Think of any combat sport you like and you’ll find examples of out-of-shape or less skilled fighters beating their world champion-level opponents. That’s just the nature of the game. The same goes for a “real” fight.

Now I’m not saying you should count on getting lucky, not at all. I’m saying that just because the odds are against you, doesn’t mean you have to roll over and die. Because what looks like an easy fight on paper can turn out to be the exact opposite. Read this cool story here for a perfect example. Starts at the third paragraph.

The same goes for my teachers being able to kick my ass. I didn’t claim they would, I said they could.  I’m not saying I don’t have a chance, of course I do: I’ve been training for a long time now and have kept in well enough shape. What I’m saying is that they have a good chance at beating me too. As in, I’m not putting money on which way it’ll go. Because they’ve been training at least twice as long as me and have kept their conditioning up just as well. So then it boils down to who gets in the first good shot. Again, no guarantee it’ll be me. And for having felt how hard they can hit, I’m not sure if I’ll recover enough to get back in the fight before they finish me.

So yes, they can kick my ass. I can probably kick theirs too, but that’s not the point. The point is that if we were to go at it, I’m not all that sure I’d be the one left standing. Which is why they are my teachers in the first place…

I still think you’re exaggerating…

I can understand that and empathize. So let me give you a few examples. These are all real men I have actually met and trained with.

Old guys in the martial arts

Yup, Chiu Chi Wai sure looks like a pushover right there...

Pushing hands with Dan

My tai chi  head-instructor gave a seminar a few years ago, here in Belgium. He had us do a pushing hands drill in which you step around freely, keep your arms in contact at all times and then try to land elbow and shoulder strikes to the chest. Obviously, the purpose was to try and close in to attack and to smother, evade or deflect your partner’s techniques.

We did the drill together and the first thing I felt was his effortless strength: our arms touched and we got started. Then he just stepped forward, straightened his arm and I slid backwards, unable to stop him. You can take that literally by the way: I didn’t step, my legs didn’t budge and I was sliding backwards as if standing on ice.  And he wasn’t even making an effort.

So I figured I couldn’t match him in that area so I tried to be unpredictable and threw an upward elbow I’d learned in silat. It was perfect: I came through under his arm, I was in the right range, my timing was on and I actually felt as if I made contact with his ribs. Suddenly, he blurs in front of my eyes, materializes on my left while I get yanked to the right.  The thing is, I knew I was going to land the elbow; I’d done it enough times before to know what it feels like to land it on the target.  And I was wrong. To this day, I can’t duplicate that move.

He was in his early 50’s then, I was about 30.

Loren’s living room punch

A few years ago, I visited my friend and co-author Loren W. Christensen at his place. Obviously, we talked a lot about martial arts and self-defense. At one point, we discussed a specific technique (I forgot which one) and I showed it to him (smart move right there, Belgian boy…) in his living room. He walked up and stood at the exact right distance where his superior reach gave him the best possible advantage. And then he threw the punch. No wind up, no preparation, just standing still and the next instant, his fist came flying at me. I managed to block just in time but the first thing going through my head was “Damn… I knew what was coming, I almost got nailed and he’s not even hitting at top speed…”

It had nothing to do with anything other than his decades of experience and being blazingly fast and powerful even though he was in his mid-50’sand I in my early 30’s.

Being Bob’s demo dummy.

A few years ago I had my kuntao teacher, Bob Orlando, over for a seminar. I was his demo dummy a couple of times then but other participants got to share the fun too. A year or so later, he came back and I was his main dummy then because we visited a bunch of other schools and I was the translator. That’s when I got to feel just how well he knows his art… After the first day, I was black and blue underneath my t-shirt. Everything just hurt. I’d been elbowed, punched, twisted, thrown, tripped and more for only a few hours and relatively speaking, not all that many times. But it was plenty enough. And here’s the kicker: he was holding back. He could have done far worse had he wanted to do so.

He was in his late 50’s and me mid-30’s.

I have a bunch more stories like this involving the same but also a host of other people. But I’ll leave it at these three here.

Like I said, this whole thing is a lot more nuanced than “Old martial arts guy gets beat up by young martial arts guy.” I don’t believe in black and white when fighting is concerned and have felt how much certain “older” practitioners can do damage. So to me, it’s entirely possible they can beat me up if I give them half a chance. Which is why I prefer to learn from them instead of  trying to see who’s best: I already know they’re more than able to beat me, why would even try to see if I can beat them? Especially if I can have all sorts of fun learning from them?

Click here for  part three where I’ll explain why these older martial artists can reach this skill level.


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  1. Verry nice article

    Und cool subject.

    At the Judoclub i train some of the toughest sparring partners are some older people.
    They have some great newaza skills, und some awesomley timed throws.
    It,s verry hard to throw them down or pin/submit them.
    One guy has a crazy foot sweep (de ashi barai) with which he once throw me without having a grip, i just stepped forward to geth a grip.

    Und one guy who is past his sixties has a sacrifice throw which almost always works.

    This is a big inspiration for me, because i know if i train hard, i wil become perhaps just as good as these guys when i,m older.
    And because of their experience i usually learn a lot from them.

    It has also learned me to respect technique and timing (by gething thrown down by people who could be my father or grandfather).

    Again great article.

    Look forward to reading more in the future.

  2. Great piece, Wim, and thanks for your kind words.

    The aging process is a fascinating subject, unless you’re 25 and you just know that you will never get older. I’m coming up on 65 this summer and have been blessed with good genes and a strong will to train virtually every day. Can I train like I used to? No way. Can I hit as hard as I used to? Probably not. Am I as fast as I used to be? In some moves, yes.
    I wrote the speed book when I was 56, and I was amazed that by working on the various drills in it that my speed improved even more, in some moves, many times over. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible to improve at my age. Maybe that’s an individual thing. For example, there is no way I could bench the weight the guy in your pic is lifting, but I have been able to hold onto my speed in some techniques.

    There’s more observations but space is limited.

    Let me just conclude that one of the toughest fights I had on the police job—and I had lots—was with a man in his upper 70s who had no legs. We fought inside of a car for most of the brawl and out on the street for the last part. This mo-fo was one powerful SOB! In short, he was stronger than any teenager I fought. (I’m guessing his strength was developed by having to move around like a chimp.)

    The “secret” to longevity in the fighting arts is to not stop, eat right, don’t do stupid things when you’re younger that will come back to haunt you, and pick the right parents.

    • My pleasure Loren, I’m glad you didn’t mess up my handsome face that day. ;-)
      For me, the biggest change as I’m approaching 40 is in timing. I’m “seeing” a lot more than 10 years ago. Which is weird, but in a good way. I’m not complaining…

  3. Old me and rattle snakes with both fuckin kill you. They dont have the time or patience to play. Just sayin

  4. Kevin Keough says

    Great article and well-delivered back-fist to the caste of mind that drools for attention in sad efforts to accomplish ?? for what ?? telling war stories and yapping about young guys being able to thump an old guy.

    You picked teachers wisely who you probably sensed would keep your on your toes-or knock you to the floor like Loren could’ve done. Who would want it any other way ? Actually, you are being kind to even respond to adolescent minds in 25 year old bodies.

    I’ve had the good fortune to play push hands as you describe and had a similar experience with Yang Jwing Ming. The cotton and steel is for real. Did you chuckle as you just kept sliding backwards ?

    Loren, thanks for being nearly 65 with tips I’ll use as a 51 yo.—I didn’t know about picking the right parents—-really old guys like Loren have incredibly funny dark humor. Bob Orlando is only late 50’s and is is bruising the 10,000 hour man (genuine respect on that one Wim).

    Clint does make a good point. As I’ve gotten older I’ve had plenty of chances to lead the bear out and move instinctively. Yap-Yap provokes bears to grumpiness. It’s no good “country” for young men in bear territory (loved Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men).

    Great stuff—thanks.

    • Thanks Kevin,

      I remember going to my first tai chi class and the smallest student there managed to put me on my ass every time we did push hands. And I was a hot shot full contact fighter then. :-) So I wanted to learn what everybody there already could do.
      When I worked with Dan it was that amazing feeling of being totally unable to do anything about what he’s doing. And every move I made was diverted or used against me. Every time I meet a teacher like that, I have an instant “Oh! I wanna learn that!” reflex.

  5. Awesome post Wim. In some ways, I can’t wait to see if I will be a tough ol’ bugger. I certainly hope so!

  6. I had the “chance” to be the dummy of Mr. Orlando in one of his belgian seminar (think you were there Wim, it was in the liege area).
    When I was sitll young, fit, and full of sh…

    And I also remember how I suddenly felt very humble in front of this great instructor (and his blazin’ fast “hacksaw” elbows)… :-)

    Great times…

    • I was there and we did Kilap Hands #3 and 4 together. Nothing like slamming elbows at eachother to have a great time. :-)

  7. Thanks for expanding on this Wim… For self-defense I think age before youth (as you say – kept up with their training) is probably true!

    I would not want to mess with any of your examples either. I remember my instructor taking about Ed Parker one day after we saw him at his tourney, “Could you just imagine after a life time of teaching – what he could do if some street punk attacked him?” This was when I was 19 years old. I could not even imagine getting old at that point.

    Anyway after 10 years of riding a desk while getting my BS and Masters – I’m trying to recapture some of my conditioning. I’ve started back up sparring and am dealing with the odd injuries. You see unlike the examples you have mentioned – I did not steadily practice but rather intermittently worked the bag.

    Your post gives me some hope that I’ll be able to recapture some of my youth back.

    • No worries John, my pleasure. The thing to remember is that it’s never too late. I’ve started training people when they were in their fifties and a few years later, they were in great shape and you didn’t want to get hit by them. We did everything gradually and made steady progress. That’s the real key: patience and perseverance.
      Maybe you’ll never reach the level of the people I mentioned but so what? As long as the progress is there.

  8. Juha Tokkari says

    Good post Wim. I’ve also pushed hands with Dan and lasted about 1 second :D

    I’m 28 and trained a decade of fighting sports. That story about Loren’s living room punch reminded me of my boxing coach Martti Riikonen who is now 74 years old.

    I’ve been trying to hit him in our short 1min sparring sessions (yes he is still sparring) and i can proudly say i brushed his forehead once. But only once and i’m always getting hit, luckily for me he never hits with full force since i never have time to react to his punches.

    After sparring he usually comforts me by saying nicely “Don’t worry i’ve had over 50 years more practice.” and i reply “i still have time to improve.”

    That thought keeps me training. Just keep at it.

    • Thanks Juha. Yes, I know those kind of old school boxing coaches. These oldtimers are the kind of guys you definitely don’t want to mess with.

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