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I am nearly 50 and have been training more-or-less continuously for most of my adult life. I am careful to baby myself after injury, particularly joint injury, because I'm painfully aware how much longer it takes to heal.

However, a friend who is of a similar age recently asked to join our club. He's not practised any martial arts for many years. We're a fairly traditional kung fu style with a lot of forms work and moderately deep stances.

I'm trying to think of a list of things to ease him into training without injury.

For example, is it a good idea to encourage him to do more stretching, particularly using PNF (isometric) techniques? I think improving flexibility, particularly in the hips, is a very important guard against injury particularly as you get older.

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6 Answers

What do you do to an old engine the first time you start it up ? You warm it.

Literally, the most important thing is making sure your friend is actually training. Pay attention to the body warmth, not only when it comes to warm up (also very important), but also right after the end of the training.

Gradually, he should come out of the dojo as warm (sweated and such) as everybody else. Also make clear with him that fatigue (muscular) pain the day after is a needed and welcome signal.

Body temperature is ultimately what should lead us further into body development. :) The more you help him do that, the faster he'll get in shape and the less his change to get injured will get as the time goes by.

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I suggest walking up and down hills if possible. Then back that up with gentle stretching. Do that for 4-6 weeks and the body will have adjusted a bit to the stress of physical activity and loosened up a bit. Then can start trying out training. But make sure you arrive early, I'm 40, and I find I need to turn up to class a bit earlier and make sure I stretch out all the trouble spots.

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Do not over do it. Warm up before and down after each class. Eat well, hydrate before and after class, and keep in mind that doing things slowly is good at first. You can always speed up later once you know the form/kata/technique.

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In the words of both the Master and my band teacher, "If you can't do it right slow, you will never be able to do it right fast". It's amazing how many times I'll have difficulty with something, slow it down to almost tai chi speed and the teacher will then tell me "your hand is in the wrong position here. –  Pulsehead Feb 15 '12 at 14:27
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I'm fifty two years old. Returned to Ninjutsu after decades of inactivity. After a few years I've had to stop training because of a back injury.

My way back into training involved a one year term with the long staff: This allowed me to stay mostly upright, and not put a load on my back. Moreover, the group I've joined is a women's one, and is defined as "Feldenkrais + long staff". So we train with the staff AND study motion-awareness.

So my suggestion is: Do it slowly, do it easy, and try to figure a way that would allow you to become active while avoiding injuries.

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The body they have now is not the body they used to have. They may need a lot of attention for a few months, if they are not very self-aware, because they may try to do what they remember, and damage their body in the process.

The best way is to start like any beginner would. Learn the basic movements. Slowly go down into the stances, getting feedback from them as far as where and when and how it hurts. Do the movements. Just that. Do the movements. Martial arts change the body over time - let them spend the time and effort, and their body will change.

No rush.

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The question is whether that person who hasn't done martial arts in a long time has done anything to stay in shape over the years. If they have been sedentary for a long time, they will likely need to build up to a base level of fitness first. This is just to get the joints used to moving, build up some mobility, and add a bit of strength. If they are already fairly active, they might be able to jump in and adjust well enough.

One example of the latter that comes to mind is someone I met in my teens. He was in his 50s, and could play basketball pretty much all day long. That person would be able to jump into Kung Fu, or any other martial art, and learn the way most beginners learn.

However, since people like that are rare, it might be worth doing a bit of a physical assessment and giving some homework to help solve the problems. Most common issues with getting older (and I hate to admit I'm approaching that) are:

  • Increased need for mobility (this is range of motion, not just flexibility)
  • Need to build up cardiovascular system.
  • A need for basic strength to overcome sarcopenia, which starts about age 30 and robs up to 15% (in sedentary people) of your muscle mass every decade after that.

If the person is lacking in only one area, have them work on improving that area. If they are lacking in all three, then start with what you feel is most important for your art and build up from there.

The basic strength can be obtained through body-weight exercise. Mobility can be done either through stretching, or other exercises designed to increase the range of motion. Most likely hip mobility and shoulder mobility will be the most affected. The cardiovascular system can be built up rather quickly by running intervals. If they are very detrained, start with walking/jogging intervals and work up to jogging/running intervals. Tabata training is very effective (20s activity, 10s rest, 8 cycles).

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