Martial arts describe various styles of hand-to-hand combat used with the intent of self-defence.1 This broad term describes art forms such as karate, aikido, tae kwon do, kung fu, tai chi, boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, mixed martial arts (MMA), the list goes on. Most martial arts have their own philosophies and principles that govern their techniques.1 It is a fantastic way to get the whole body moving while exercising all systems in the body: neurological, musculoskeletal, and cardiorespiratory.
Martial Arts can fall under several categories with overlap: Striking-predominant vs. Submission-predominant vs. Throwing-predominant.2
Striking-predominant sports include but are not limited to boxing, karate, Muay Thai, and tae kwon do. These types of sports use the competitor’s extremities to subdue their opponent through something like punching and kicking.
Submission-predominant sports include Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Aikido, and submission wrestling. These sports rely predominantly on putting an opponent’s joints in compromising positions (ie. Joint locks) to subdue them.
Throwing-predominant sports include Judo and Aikido, where various techniques are used to hurl opponents to the ground.
What are Common Injuries Experienced in Martial Arts?
Striking-predominant sports tend to result in more head and facial injuries such as lacerations, bruises, and concussions.
Submission-predominant sports, injuries tend to affect the joints (most often shoulder, elbow, and knee joints).3 Since joint locks place the body in positions that are compromising, they could lead to orthopaedic sprains of ligaments or strains of muscles.
Throwing-predominant sports are associated with higher incidents of neck and shoulder injuries.1
With all martial art forms, the possibility of bony fractures is there.
How can a Physiotherapist, Chiropractor or Massage Therapist Help with these Types of Injuries?
If you sustain a head or facial injury, your first line of action should be to seek immediate medical attention with a medical doctor. Lacerations, fractures to the face or skull, or concussions should be thoroughly assessed. Once cleared by your medical doctor, physiotherapy or chiropractic care can help manage concussion symptoms; since it is often associated with neck dysfunction and pain, visual, and balance disturbances.
For mild to moderate orthopaedic injuries to joints (ie. Ligament sprains and muscle strains), consider seeing a physiotherapist and/or chiropractor for an assessment. They’ll be able to understand the full breadth of your injury to create a program specific to you. With all that said, basic first aid can be applied to an acutely injured area to reduce pain (for example icing the affected area for 15 minute periods immediately after, where it is safe to do so).
How to Prevent Martial Arts Injuries?
Since martial arts is a full-body workout, you’ll want to warm up all three of the involved systems described below: Cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neurological.
Thankfully, warming up the cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal systems also prime your neurological systems, so there are really only two systems to consider, which you can warm up in two parts:
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)4 guidelines recommend a 5-10 min warm up of light-to-moderate intensity cardiorespiratory exercise (ie. Cardio exercises). This could include jogging, cycling, elliptical work, walking, rowing, swimming. Keep in mind you want to warm-up the joints that you’ll be using, so where possible, pick a warm-up that will involve your entire body, since martial arts often involves the entire body.
But how intense should a warm-up be?
It turns out some really smart people have already figured this out for us. If you have a fit bit, apple watch, or another device that can monitor your biometrics, figuring out what your target heart rate will be is as easy as strapping on your watch. Here’s what you need to.
- Using a calculator, subtract your age from 220 (i.e. if you’re 30 years old. 220 – 30 = 190)
- Take your answer from above (line 1) and multiple by it by 0.57. (i.e. 190 x 0.57 = 108)
- Now take your answer from line 1 and multiply it by 0.76 (i.e. 190 x 0.76 = 144)
There! When you’re warming up, your heart rate should be somewhere between 108 to 144 beats per minute. Now you might assume, warming up in the high range is better, but remember, this is only a warm-up, so save your energy for when it really counts.
There’s heavy debate as to whether athletes in general should be doing static stretches before their sport, and in this blog, I’ll be siding with the side that says yes, you should do static stretching before participating in martial arts. Murphy et al., 2010 provided evidence to suggest that static stretching can help improve performance for sports like gymnastics, martial arts, and figure skating, where static flexibility is important. 5 Samson et al., 2012 suggest that if athletes combine the above warm-up recommendations with sports specific warm-ups, the sports-specific warm-ups, which are dynamic in nature, might mitigate any negative performance effects from static stretching.6
The take home message from this is to do a 5-10 minute cardio warm-up followed by a brief period of static stretching (5-10 min) for all the major joints involved in your sport (eg. Hamstrings, wrists, shoulders, neck, quads, calves etc.), then do another 5-10 minutes of sport specific warm-up, reproducing the movements of the sport.
What Strengthening Exercises are Best to Prepare for Martial Arts?
Since martial arts is a full body sport, general strength and conditioning can go a long way to prevent injuries. Below are just a few recommendations:
Place a chair behind you in case you fall. Raise your arms in front of you and sit back as you lower yourself into the seat. Once your hips touch the chair, pull yourself back up into a standing position and repeat. Do this 10-15 times, take a 1-minute break, and repeat again if possible.
Start off with lying on your stomach. From this position, lift yourself up onto your elbows and forearms, and feet and hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Make sure your back is straight. If your back starts to sag, take a 1-minute break, and repeat if able.
Go into a crawling position (all 4’s) with your hands stacked beneath your shoulders and knees beneath your hips. Retract your neck slightly so that your ears are in line with your shoulders. From this position, lift one arm outwards and extend your opposite leg without allowing your body to tip. Hold for 5 seconds, then return to the start position and repeat the process with your opposite arms and legs. Alternate back and forth for a total of 10-15 reps and do 1-2 sets of these.
Lie on your back with your arms raised in front of you and your bent knees hovering above your hips. From this position, extend one arm and the opposite leg outwards while keeping your core engaged. Hold this position for 5 seconds, then return your arms and legs to the start position. Alternate with your opposite arm and leg and repeat as able. Recommendation: 10-15 reps, 1-2 sets where possible.
Martial Arts training is an energy demanding sport. Therefore, it’s important to have the right metabolic support to promote recovery and strengthening. Eating healthy, energy rich foods is recommended, and if you’re unsure of what you should be eating, schedule an appointment with one of our naturopaths who might be able to guide you in the right direction.
- McPherson, M., & Pickett, W. (2010). Characteristics of martial art injuries in a defined Canadian population: a descriptive epidemiological study. BMC public health, 10, 795. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-10-795
- Jensen, A. R., Maciel, R. C., Petrigliano, F. A., Rodriguez, J. P., & Brooks, A. G. (2017). Injuries Sustained by the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete. Sports health, 9(1), 64–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738116664860
- Petrisor, B. A., Del Fabbro, G., Madden, K., Khan, M., Joslin, J., & Bhandari, M. (2019). Injury in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Training. Sports health, 11(5), 432–439. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738119849112.
- ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription Ninth Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- Murphy J.R., Di Santo M.C., Alkanani T., Behm D.G.(2010) Aerobic activity before and following short-duration static stretching improves range of motion and performance vs. a traditional warm-up.Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 35, 679-690
- Samson, M., Button, D. C., Chaouachi, A., & Behm, D. G. (2012). Effects of dynamic and static stretching within general and activity specific warm-up protocols. Journal of sports science & medicine, 11(2), 279–285.