If you haven’t read the other parts of this series, please do so first or it won’t make any sense:
All the previous was just to explain that it is indeed possible for older martial artists to beat up younger martial artists. Again, I’m not saying this is so by definition. There are no guarantees in a fight, period. But you’d be a fool to think old age makes all men less dangerous than when they were younger.
In this post, I’ll cover some of the ways these men train(ed) to keep their fighting skills to such a high degree even when they are in their 50’s and 60’s. There are probably more factors involved than I’ll list here, but I think I have the most important ones. Here goes:
Invariably, all the men I listed in my previous posts have decades of hard, physical training. They didn’t just train their punches and kicks; they did tons of conditioning along with it. Loren and Bob have been training with weights forever and it shows: Loren’s built like a brick house and Bob is all lean, shredded muscle. If you still need proof that the old saw of “lifting weights makes you slow” is wrong, look no further. I believe this additional weight training is a key factor in their longevity in the arts and there’s plenty of science to back me up on it: pumping iron keeps your body strong and healthy.
But it isn’t necessary to lift weights to get to that stage. Jean-Louis didn’t lift weights but he did tons and tons of bodyweight exercises (before they came back into style, thank you very much). In class, we’d do hundreds of push-ups and crunches during the one-hour warm-up and he did them all right along with us. Actually, we never could keep up but that’s another story.
Dan is a similar example: To the best of my knowledge, he never focused on lifting weights but his conditioning regimen is well known. There’s the 24 nei kung exercises he uses every day (takes one hour to complete at the easiest level) but also a lot of other conditioning drills. I remember a seminar a few years ago where a student asked how long the sessions of punching the air with hand-weights should last. In his own typical style, Dan answered that one time, back in Hong Kong, they kept such a session going non-stop for three hours straight. He added that a little less would probably be fine too…
I believe conditioning is key to staying in fighting shape. As you can see in the previous examples, it doesn’t really matter what kind of conditioning you do: Western or Eastern, traditional or modern, weights/machines or bodyweight exercises. Like Nike says: Just do it!
In Chinese martial arts, they say it like this “Without “Kung” (conditioning) training, even until old age, is all in vain.” I’d like to offer the opposite for your consideration: “Kung training until old age is the only way to train.” My teachers have all done this and it shows in their skills.
Teach their art
Peyton Quinn gave his own reasons why certain traditional martial arts masters can make their style work in self-defense in his excellent book “Real Fighting.” One of these reasons is that they have been teaching their art for a long time. This means they get tons and tons more practice than the average student, which increases your skill levels in and of itself. But there’s more: as a teacher, they get to work with all sorts of students: tall and short, heavy and light, fast and slow, skilled and unskilled, experienced and beginners, etc. Multiply this by 20-30 years and you can see how they have tested their techniques in a wide variety of circumstances against a very large sample of the human population.
This is a far cry from training three times a week with the same partners. There’s nothing wrong with that but this lacks the training quantity and diversity of partners compared to teaching your art full-time.
An additional factor is that as a teacher, you have to know your art much better than your students. Because you’ll get so many questions you have to think everything through much more thoroughly. Sometimes, the answers come right away because you already asked yourself that question before. But students can and will surprise you with their specific questions and sometimes, it takes a lot of thinking, training and testing before you can give them an adequate answer. This gives those teachers even more skill in the long run, simply because they understand their art better and can then train more efficiently. Knowledge is indeed power.
Exposure to violence
With few exceptions, all my teachers worked in a field where they were submerged in violence almost every day:
- Loren was a cop who started as an MP in Vietnam during the war and then came home to work skid row in Portland.
- Dan was a police officer in Hong Kong for ten years and had his share of violence there.
- Jean-Louis was a bouncer in a club in a not so nice area for over ten years. Some of his fights are still talked about today.
This combination of intense martial arts and physical training gave them the skills to handle violence. The frequent exposure to it gave them the experience to understand their art better and hone their skills. So it’s a constructive, positive cycle. As I said in part three, this builds up their capabilities in the upper levels of the training pyramid, the levels where physical factors are not the focus.
What’s more, the brain learns differently when you’re under adrenal stress so the more you successfully overcome violent situations, the better you get at them. This also stays wired in your brain much better than a random training session against the heavy bag, especially in the long term. Which means that certain aspects of violence (fear, adrenaline, doubt, timing, distancing, sneaky shit, etc.) and how you deal with them are much more familiar to these men than to a young buck just coming up. If they keep their physical training up, older martial artists can use this to their advantage to prevail when violence comes their way again.
Which is where the other old saw comes from: old age and treachery will always overcome youth and strength.
I don’t agree with this by definition because people usually interpret it too literally and think being sneaky is all you need. It’s not. Youth and strength are still a danger to you, but you can overcome them if you’re a total bastard about fighting. Which is something most (not all…) young guys haven’t learned yet. The thing is, treachery only works once in such a situation. You’ll have to be REAL sneaky to surprise that young punk again because he’ll remember you from last time and come at you with guns blazing right of the bat. So as always, there are no guarantees.
Adapt their arts to their experience on the job
This may be the key element in the equation. Training hard, staying in shape and having lots of experience is great. It’s a winning formula. But the one ingredient that takes it to the next level is learning from that experience, aka, not making the same mistake twice.
Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. We all come up short sometimes. Instead of dwelling on these failures, you can learn from them and avoid them in the future. I found this to be a common personality trait in the men I described here: they always tried to learn from their experience with real violence.
Sometimes this meant emphasizing certain parts of their art because it offered the specific skills they needed in the violent environment they faced. Or they found that certain techniques either didn’t work or needed to be adapted to make them effective. The former got deleted from their training where as the latter were analyzed and tweaked until they did work.
Invariably, this made them innovators in their arts. Sometimes to the ridicule or jealousy of small-minded traditionalists and the silly politics these lesser men like to play. “Pygmy detractors”, is what Dan calls them and I can only agree with that description. There’s nothing wrong with tradition, on the contrary. But as with all things, martial art have to evolve with their times to stay relevant. These men who do just that: learn from the traditions of the past and bring them up to date with the demands and necessities of today’s reality.
The final factor is their long-lasting commitment to study martial arts and self-defense. After decades of training and tons of live experience, they still look for ways to improve what they know. It would be easy for them to become complacent or even look down upon other arts because they’ve made their’s work so well already. But they don’t. Instead, they keep on looking for better ways to train, to make techniques more effective, to keep getting better. Case in point:
- Just last week, Bob mailed me to look at an article he wrote and asked for some feedback. The topic was something he knows much better than I do.
- Loren regularly mails me with a question about a specific technique or concept to see how I do this in the arts I practice (which are different from the styles he does). We then discuss it a bit and I’ve yet to hear him say “You’re wrong and I’m right”, even though both his experience and training eclipses mine.
- Dan specifically told me that past a certain point of training, you need to look at other arts to still make progress in your own. Because no one art holds everything and the information you find in those others will help you understand yours better.
They are all very much still a student eager for knowledge, just like they were when they got started in the martial arts. In my opinion, this is crucial in maintaining your skills as you get older.
In this series, I tried to give you some more information about the men I’ve met and trained with. They are my teachers and my friends, so of course, I show them the proper respect when I talk about them here on my blog. But don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m blowing smoke up their collective asses or want to make them look better than they actually are. They simply don’t need that kind of hypocrisy; the skill they demonstrate is testimony enough so they don’t need me to embellish it. I have the memories of bumps, bruises and sore muscles to know better.
My goal is not to make you think every single older martial artist is able to beat up legions of MMA champions either. As usual, things aren’t black or white. Some can still kick ass in their 60’s and 70’s while others can’t. What I did want to point out is that it is indeed possible but it takes decades of dedicated, non-stop training along with a couple more things. No shortcuts, just lots of hard work.
Final point: these are the people I look up to. When I grow up (my girlfriend says I really have to start doing that…) I want to be just as good as they are. So I guess I better go and train some more then…