I'm recovering from a very tenacious back injury and the martial arts I usually do (MMA and BJJ) hurt too much. I've had this injury for 2 years and whenever I think I'm healed enough to restart martial arts training, I damage it again. It is improving slowly (I've been able to restart bouldering and weightlifting, if I go easy), but I expect my normal martial arts will stay a no-go for a while longer. I have consulted physiotherapists and other specialists for my injury, but the recovery remains extremely slow.

So I've tried finding a martial art that's less intense but still effective for actual hand-to-hand combat; so far I've come up empty handed. I've been to a few aikido, aiki-jj, japanese-jj dojos, but I've found most of the techniques they teach are not very practical; they are over-complicated and even the most advanced practitioners cannot pull them off against an MMA fighter (i.e. me) who isn't cooperating. I went to a ninjutsu dojo and they were very rigid in their thinking and wanted me to completely forget everything I had ever learned in other martial arts. Krav-maga seemed like a good bet, but the local school focuses only on self-defense (against knives, muggers, terrorists, etc.) and almost never on symmetric combat. I'm also a bit worried about the potential for brain damage from practicing styles that involve too much boxing.

So, could anyone recommend a martial art that is useful for MMA but less likely to delay my recovery? I'm in Montreal (Canada), if someone local knows a good dojo.

Edit: the movements that hurt my back are mainly spinal flexion and extension beyond the "usual" range of motion.

  • "very tenacious back injury" - you've provided no details of which movements cause you trouble, so it's hard to make a recommendation. Perhaps you can improve your question?
    – Tony D
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 14:22

3 Answers 3


So you have two qualities you're looking for in a martial art:

  1. It shouldn't put you in a position where you have to really fight your way out (because you have an injured back that won't be able to heal unless you lay off it).

  2. It should be effective against someone who doesn't cooperate - i.e. someone who actually fights back.

The problem, as you saw for yourself, was that styles that are good with #1 are never going to be good at #2, because they never actually try to spar against people who aren't cooperating.

And vice-versa, styles that are good with #2 are never going to be good at #1, because those style necessarily have to put people in positions where they have to struggle to get out of holds and such.

Most but not all styles like Bujinkan ninjutsu, classical jujitsu, aiki-jujitsu, aikido, etc. do not practice with non-cooperating partners. They like to think they do, but they don't. Their version of non-cooperation involves partners who stand there letting you do an armbar on them, but maybe they'll keep their arm tense until you strike them in the lower ribs or something, and then they'll let you have the armbar.

That's not the same as someone who's going to prevent you from even getting close to being able to apply that armbar. And when you do, they'll just do a level change on you to get a single leg take-down while you're doing it. That's a completely different ballgame.

Unfortunately, that choice is what you're up against. You can have one but not the other at the same time.

And by the way, you could suspend your judgment for a while and do a classical jujitsu school to learn their techniques. If you go into it with the mindset that you know this isn't going to work for real against struggling opponents, and that you're just there to learn something new, then you might find that it can be very enjoyable.

You may even find a hidden gem that you can take back into your BJJ / MMA practice when you return to it someday. It's not the techniques that are the problem. It's the way they train that matters.

One word of caution, though: Classical jujitsu styles, Bujinkan, aikido, etc. are not gentle arts (haha). They can involve back-wrenching practice. So you have to be careful even with them.

Which brings me to another question: Why not try going back into BJJ/MMA, but make sure your instructor and partners all know you can't go all out and may need to tap instantly if your back is being put in a bad position?

I guess you're not confident that you can do that with BJJ/MMA, but you're okay with classical jujitsu. That's fine. Just throwing out the possibility.

Maybe, though, the best thing is to just let your back recover and not risk doing anything to harm it for a while. It sucks to realize that, but this might only keep you out for a year or two. You have the rest of your life to do martial arts. Spend that time maybe working on basic exercises like weightlifting and running. It won't be wasted time.

And heck, if you really want to do something that's still a martial art but is good exercise and actually can be useful for self-defense in a limited way, try Chen style Taichi. Look up videos of Chen style taiji push-hands competition. Also look up videos of Chen style taiji vs. judo. You'll find that the best practitioners of that style can actually hold their own in grappling competition. But those are the best, mind you. You'll probably never get to that level. Still, it's fairly easy on the back, it's good at keeping the whole body toned, and it gives you a way of moving ("internal mechanics") that might give you an edge later on in your BJJ/MMA practice.

Hope that helps.


Your two goals are (almost) anathema to each other.

However, there are a few martial arts that would help if you can find them where you live: anything that uses weapons.

Fencing, kendo/kenjutsu/Iaido, and HEMA will provide you with some interesting self defence skills. Although, wandering around with a sword is generally frowned upon; a cane is not especially odd, since you have a bad back. If you can find anyone teaching Bartitsu, there are many techniques for the gentleman with a cane.

Knife fighting will end up with you in jail if you ever use it in real life so I would not advise it. I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV, please seek legal advice from professionals.

Guns are your last port of call. Whether it is shooting air guns in competition or actual modern or historical firearms, you might find something worthwhile there. Clearly, carrying a gun unless you are in a war zone or America is frowned upon but the skills you will learn are somewhat transferable to tazers which are less frowned upon, although possibly not legal where you live.

Finally, your best bet is to learn/practice distance running -- Rule one: Cardio. However, a bad back is not ideal for running either, so you should seek professional medical help before doing any physical exercise whatsoever.

I know that OP is living in Canada but I strived to make my answer applicable beyond that one locale.


Since I am over 40 (over 50) now, I can no longer endure the typical Taekwondo work-outs. I don't mind the cardio, it's just that my joints and muscles are not those of a 20 or 30-year old any more. I also reached my peak in Taekwondo training, and realized that I would not be learning anything new or different from it.

So I switched to learning Hapkido (part of the Aiki-Juijitsu family of MA styles). The physical requirements are far less rigorous, and the techniques are far more useful for real-world self-defense situations. The work-out it entails is about one-half or one-third as rigorous as my old TKD work-out, but it provides sufficient stretching and cardio for me at my age.

One of the drawbacks of intense martial arts training is the physical toll that it takes on your body, especially on your joints. You hear about most of the well-known martial artists undergoing hip, knee, shoulder, and back surgeries, and not being able to do any of the spectacular stunts they could do in their younger days.

I would much prefer a reasonable cardio work-out combined with learning practical but low-energy self-defense techniques. I do not really have any need for competition or sport styles. That's why Hapkido is a good fit for me and my needs. (But your needs and desires may be different.)

As for your finding the hand-to-hand combat techniques ineffective, all I can say is that the Hapkido techniques (old-style, pre-war) I am learning are quite practical and effective (and they even work against MMA fighters)*. It sounds like you need to find a better style and a better instructor, preferably someone who has had actual combat experience.

[*] Most of our Hapkido techniques are disallowed in MMA competitions, since they are designed to disable and injure the attacker.

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