I am looking to start a martial art. I am 42 years old and I prefer striking rather than wrestling/grappling arts (for many reasons, such as being able to practice at least some of it on my own or being able to learn them more quickly).

I absolutely want to avoid strikes to the head when in training - studies that link boxing and brain damage got me scared. I don't have a problem with strikes to the body, even if they are somewhat painful. This preference might change in my 50's though.

I strongly prefer some sort of sparring (light/no contact), preferably from the beginning; I like to know that I am moving "in the right direction", that I am not horribly mangling the techniques.

What do you suggest?

  • 2
    I think it might help if you edit your question to address why you want to take up martial arts (fun, fitness, self-defense, etc.) other than that it is more about the individual teacher, rather than the art since you know you want a striking art. Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 14:24
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    Teacher matters more than style. Visit a variety of studios - there are multiple answers on this forum that advise you on how to evaluate a school. My Tai Chi school would fit your criteria, but most would not; if you screened by style first, you'd miss an opportunity. Don't forget weapons schools - you can practice weapons solo and do sparring without head shots. But ultimately, visit teachers and choose based on teachers and senior students. Choose based on what you see on the mat.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 20:21
  • Summarizing the preferences: avoid wrestling/grappling; avoid head strikes while training; include light/no contact sparring. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 12:35

9 Answers 9


Combining the terms "Martial Art" and "avoiding head strikes" is a tall order. The two are mutually exclusive, honestly. The head and its surrounds are excellent and strategic targets in all arts martial. That said, there are plenty of so-called martial arts that reduce their focus on head strikes, primarily for liability reasons, or out of ignorance. Tae Kwon Do includes head strikes, but various schools tend to minimize this aspect of the art.

Each instructor of each art tends to emphasize certain aspects more than others, so I would recommend you attend a training session and talk to the instructor about your concerns and interests.

Perhaps you would do well with a martially inspired exercise regimen - Tai Chi, Tae Bo, or some form of aerobic kickboxing where contact is extremely limited.

Also, some of the sport variants of Tae Kwon Do and Karate have less contact than their martial brethren and might be good to investigate.

Don't expect to find a serious martial art that doesn't include head strikes. Head contact is a whole other consideration. Control is the issue here, practice striking towards the head does not necessitate actually making contact and this is where observing classes is key. Don't go to a school where folks are boxing each other's head and face unless you want to enjoy all that that contact entails. I'm not suggesting there isn't value in making some contact, just that it should be very controlled.


First - it's mostly going to depend on your instructor, regardless of style. It's better to know up front if your instructor will modify to help you or not.


Primarily weapon arts, with strong crossover into empty hand fighting. Most schools focus on drills and light sparring, since, you know, you don't have to hammer people in the head with stick to know hammering people in the head with a stick is effective.

Many weapon focal arts are like this - since weapons can cause serious injury, the sparring tends to not go heavy or hard in terms of force. You may find yourself limited in some schools since some move up to padded/helmet sparring, but you can talk to the instructors and find out beforehand.

Some forms of Kung fu

Many Chinese styles made the change towards no head hits or focusing on training to hitting to the chest for the sake of safety before adequate safety gear was invented.

There's numerous pitfalls that can appear with this modification, the biggest being the temptation to stop protecting the head if no one is attacking to the head. Some schools still teach the defensive positioning while an unfortunate many forget to do so. Look for what's local to you, see if you can find some video of their movement and talk to the instructors as well.

  • Also: what you can learn from striking arts without a partner is more limited than what you think. You can certainly get your ability to deliver force quite well on your own with a heavy bag or target. But the timing, reach, and reading opponent's movements still work best with a partner. In fact, those are things you can improve despite any issues of age, and often are where older fighters can win over faster, stronger, young ones.
    – Bankuei
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 15:29

Start any martial art you want. The martial art itself won't define if you get kicked in the head or not, the school you're in will.

Ask the question before joining : "Hey, do you guys spare with head contact or not? If I'm not comfortable with it, would I be forced to do it?"

Your problem seems to be that you think when you train MA everyone you train with will hit you with all they've got. That is wrong, Martial Arts are about developing yourself. If you get a nice school, your training partners will adapt to you. If you think they hit too hard, tell 'em. You'll need to progress, one step at a time.

For example, you can't expect to take a hit from a good black belt of similar weight right when you start, you'd probably choke. So they'll spar easier with you. That doesn't mean they'll go easy on you, you'll probably get hit a lot more than you hit, but these hits won't be painful. You need to be comfortable saying that a hit hurts, because your partner can't know by themselves.


One other possibility is Capoeira. At first blush, it may seem like an unlikely candidate, given it involves a lot of very athletic movement, something I know I didn't feel myself very up to in my 30s when I started, let along my 40s, but a lot of it, especially in Capoeira Angola, is more a steady controlled movement than a lot of rapid snaps, and the mestres often continue to play Capoeira into their 60s and 70s. It includes sparring from the beginning, but sparring in the roda is largely non-contact, with the action being more of a game than a fight, maneuvering your opponent into a position where he can't dodge and then demonstrating that you could have struck them, but didn't.

As a bonus, it's very much a whole-body movement, which means you're constantly training your balance and proprioception, something which comes in handy as you get older and more prone to falls.

For an example of older mestres in action, a game between Mestre João Grande and Mestre João Pequeno who were 69 and 81 respectively at the time.


I would suggest to compare your requirements with the competition rules of each martial arts.

Usually, the high level martial arts schools competes at some point. So better choose one of those the one that the sparring techniques don't involve head kicking/punching.

From my personal experience I would choose Karate.

On one hand, Kyokushin Karate doesn't allow head punches. Despite of this head kick are allowed (and they are hard) but I don't think your partners will do that during the training (for sure they will do it at competitions). On the other hand, you have the rest of Karate styles that competes under WKF. They have a strict non (or soft) contact. So it would be the best fit for you.

Saying so, I think the best option is to check the martial arts schools around you, see how they train and then make a decission.

I agree with @decuser that some Taekwondo schools may also minimize the contact but sticking again to the rules, they are allowed.


I currently train HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and I think that would suit you perfectly.

HEMA is primarily based around training with a longsword and while there is some striking to the head, you don't get the twisting motion of the head as you do in boxing. This motion shakes the brain around, it is why you get knockouts and it is one of the primary reasons why the brain takes damage. The reason this doesn't happen in longsword fighting is due to the fact that a longsword is meant for cutting, so brute force isn't a big factor.

HEMA is also easy to practice at home. There are many ways to train your swordmanship alone, although I do recommend doing it outside if you're training with a sword. The great thing is that forms can be trained using something as simple as a flyswatter if you don't want to risk the furniture.

It is a bit of a gearsport once you get into it, but you can start out with fairly little. If there is a HEMA club in or near your home town I would recommend talking to them. They will most likely lend you everything you need for the first few times so that you can try it out and see if you like it.


I believe Taekwon-do can fit in your requirements. I'm 42 and recently restarted WTF-style practice after 10-15 years inactivity.

Be careful to choose a school that does not focus too much on olympic sport sparring, which is not what you want. These see Taekwon-do just as a combat sport, rather than a martial art.

Sparring should still be in the curriculum, but the practice would be mostly "controlled sparring" (you aim to touch, not to hit), which only has light contact.

If you like competing, there are also options other than sparring: there forms (poomsae) competitions for all ages and grades.


Wing Chun, if it hasn't already been suggested. It doesn't focus on the head, the closest it gets is the neck.


Your best bet is learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You won't do striking at first, but once you start going to MMA sparring the strikes are very light. It's much easier to control punch power while grappling vs standing far apart. People just do light touches, as there's no point in hitting hard during grappling training.

The problem is you will have to go quite a bit (around a year) to get to the level where you're able to do "rolling with punches."

  • 1
    I think the "I prefer striking rather than wrestling/grappling" rules out styles like Jiu Jitsu and Judo. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 12:32

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