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When doing certain exercises, I get the feeling that they would cause stress on the joints after doing them for years and years (such as elbow joints in the instance of wing chun chain punches).

However, from anecdotal experience, it doesn't seem like long-time martial arts practitioners suffer joint problems. Is this because joints regenerate like muscles do, or because the development of martial arts focuses on ways to reduce joint stress? Or is it that practitioners do suffer joint problems more often than non-practitioners, and I just don't hear about it?

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I would avoid asking a "yes/no" type question and rephrase your question to ask what the long-term benefits and negative effects of practicing martial arts are on your joints. –  Matt Chan Feb 4 '12 at 4:03
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Anecdotal evidence is not worth the paper it is printed on. –  Sardathrion Feb 4 '12 at 15:18

7 Answers 7

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Any trained athlete, such as martial artists, will develop injuries due to accidents that will get worst over time. Joints are amongst the first thing to go because of the large amount of repeated motion that we use in all martial arts. However, if done safely martial arts pose no more dangers than any other sport.

Remember to warm up, not over exert any joins (stop when it hurts), see the physiotherapist when it does hurt for longer than a week, and keep good care of your body. We only get one of those, once it's broken, the game is over.

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Not true. If you do something that damages your body, it is something you shouldn't be doing. The fact that some arts damage the body over time indicates, to me, that they are not arts one should be studying at all. –  Trevoke Feb 4 '12 at 17:30
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@Trevoke: Of course, you are right. What I meant that accidents happen and damage your ... Answer edited. –  Sardathrion Feb 5 '12 at 15:29
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Now, I wish I could disagree with you, but I know it's true :( –  Trevoke Feb 5 '12 at 17:07

My knees think so.

Honestly, every form of exercise stresses something. Be careful about form, and don't do things that hurt.

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My sifu told me this: advanced martial arts practitioners were willing to "break" their body a little in order to gain the upper edge in a fight (life or death situations). This means that not all advanced techniques are safe for all body parts such as joints.

Moreover, certain martial arts have been designed by and for smaller people (e.g., southern Chinese martial arts vs. northern Chinese martial arts) so taller people have to adjust if they don't want to put too much pressure on their knees.

That being said, this was a long time ago. Nowadays, still according to my sifu, competent instructors won't teach techniques that are fundamentally dangerous for the body. In general, if you feel a burning sensation, that's good. If it hurts, that's not good.

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I refer you to this question that I asked. There is a natural, proper way to use the body, and ... Other ways. A martial arts should follow the natural way and only enhance body movements and effectiveness, not put undue stress on the body. This goes for forms, striking techniques, and calisthenics.

Training joints, tendons, ligaments - this is done through, for instance, careful Chin Na (joint locking) training with a partner. It is a good way to put some stress on these weak parts and let them get used to it over time.

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GRADUAL PROGRESS!

In the more internal Chinese martial arts we mostly believe in doing slow gradual training, hardening our body over time and not abusing our bodies so we can be effective at a ripe old age.

Hard styles tend to do things faster and end up with hard bodies, but with injuries. The best example is Mas Oyama which had hands like steel but suffered from Osteoarthritis.

In my opinion train gradually pushing your limits slowly and you will not suffer major injuries.

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The following answer is based on my personal experience and information I have gained in 10 year of martial arts practice. I hope it will be of use.

As many other sports, martial arts also fall into the category of 'impact sports'. Indeed the joints are stressed not as much by practices such as shadow boxing but by striking hard surfaces as for instance heavy bags. Impact also happens during running or jumping on concrete as it does not absorb the impact force. The explanation based on physics and medicine is that the force you strike with also has an equal reaction force which goes back into your body so the harder you strike the more reaction force you absorb which has a negative effect on your joints from the extremities(striking part) up to your spine which are all affected by this shock. Also keep in mind the the body(muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone) needs weeks, months or years to adapt to striking hard surfaces without injury depending on what you are striking.

To sum things up if you don't push yourself too far at once you will be in no more danger than a runner or any other sports player. You should also see the amount of benefits regular and proper practice brings compared to not practicing. Also, at least as far as my knowledge goes wing chun is more gentle on the joints then for instance boxing or muay thai but still there are champions and master in every martial art and sport who are old and very healthy, much healthier and stronger that other people of their age so I wouldn't worry about it.

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Some techniques and training do not stress the joints, others do. It depends on the martial art, the teacher and the kind of training. For example, a lot of judoka end up with bad knees. Likewise a lot of capoeira folks end up with back injuries.

Joint damage can be understood in 3 factors:

Too much stress, bad applied

If you try to do too much force or weight and at a bad angle, the joint can be destroyed. Anything that involves a lot of bodyweight moving fast - your own or someone else's is typically what produces it. Martial arts that use acrobatics, throws, or pivots on one foot tend to get these problems more. Obviously, training/sparring with joint locks with someone who lacks control and goes too hard also produces this, since locks are designed to overpressure joints when used combatively.

Slow grind

Long term damage happens when the joint is used improperly over years. This is usually where we see stuff like meniscus disc damage on one side of the knee vs. the other, calcium deposits in knuckles or wrists, or spinal disc bulges/slips.

This is particularly hard to screen for, as it requires a lot of knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology - it's not as simple as "some positions are bad for everyone" as much as "Oh, your knee happens to have grown in this particular angle so this stance needs to be modified by this much to be the kindest to your knee cartilage".

Because nearly every martial art trains repetitive movements to make certain actions automatic, this becomes a problem over time as you slowly grind away cartilage or over stretch certain stabilizing tendons. Very few teachers have this level of anatomical understanding - a standard movement that is correct for 70% or 80% of the population is usually what folks know and they will simply repeat it as "the correct way" for everyone...

Muscle stabilization and tendon strengthening

On the positive side, some training can improve your muscle stabilization and tendon strength to help protect tendons.

Assuming you have a technique that protects your joints, the next factors are things that involve strengthening stabilizers and having you use them in reaction to constantly changing erratic movements (balance exercises, sticky hands work) are useful. That is to say - the strength to absorb the stress has to be there, but also you have to train the body to be able to turn on the muscles in time to do so as well - otherwise the strength is useless if it's not there when you need it.

Tendon strengthening is done through light weight/resistance, repeated hundreds of times. Low stance work can help a lot in this regard for protecting the knees.

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