Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fighting invisible opponents

I'm revisiting a topic I touched on a month or so ago because it has generated some questions from readers who have never attended a martial-arts school.  The subject is "forms."  A form -- often referred to by other names depending upon the martial art in question -- is a pattern of blocks, kicks, and hand strikes that follow a rigid sequence of movements.  A friend of mine has referred to it as a "self-defense dance."  Well, there's some truth to that.  Each form is carefully constructed by the top masters of the particular martial-arts style, and every student worldwide must learn how to execute each form in precisely the same way in order to move up the ranks.
     So if you attend, let's say, a taekwondo school, you may have to learn one or two forms in order to advance from white belt to yellow belt.  Each of the forms is a highly choreographed pattern that leads you to "fight" several imaginary opponents who are attacking you from all sides.  The first forms that you learn are relatively simple and have few movements.  Naturally, the forms become more complex as you move from white belt toward black belt, and they incorporate a more complete arsenal of blocks, kicks, and hand strikes.  Each time you test for a higher belt, your exam will include a new form that you must execute crisply, forcefully, and, of course, with all individual techniques accomplished in the proper order. 
     On the one hand, the form is an artificial fight that you can't lose.  You're fighting imaginary opponents, after all.  On the other hand, each time you practice the form, you're reinforcing the "muscle memory" of how particular techniques flow together naturally.  A low block, for instance, can flow naturally into a punch, or a high block can flow easily into a front snap kick.  Since you will no doubt practice each form hundreds of times in the course of your training, you will possess a vast repertoire of multiple techniques that make sense together -- just as the master instructors intended.  And someday if you're forced to fight real rather than imaginary opponents, there's a good chance that all of the solitary practice will allow you to respond sensibly and without having to think too much.  Listen, even if you're facing only one attacker, you'll get the most favorable results by acting more than thinking. 
     In the following video I demonstrate a form called Taebaek, which is required for promotion to third-degree black belt in the style of taekwondo that I study.   If you're interested, you can also find my video demonstration of Hansu, required for promotion to eighth-degree black belt, by searching YouTube for Russ Johnson Hansu.
     Video: Taebaek form

Friday, May 25, 2012

"DO SOMETHING" Part three

This is the third post in a series about basic self-defense strategies and techniques for seniors.  The primary strategy, of course, is to do everything you can to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And, yes, we can all exercise a great deal of control over this. 
     If you're strolling through Central Park at 2:00 a.m., you're asking for trouble, and you're likely to find it.  So why not go there at 2:00 p.m. instead, when you're surrounded by families, sun-worshippers, and softball players?  You get the idea.
     But no matter how careful we are, we can still be attacked by some guy  who's up to no good.  If you're in a supermarket parking lot and are threatened by this guy, your best move, if at all possible, is to walk away without saying a word.  If that's not possible, your second best option is to talk or plead your way out of trouble.  But if the attack comes, you need to DO SOMETHING in order to buy time for help to arrive.  In the first two posts of this series, we talked about a) executing a high block while yelling for help and b) if at all possible, executing a strong front snap kick to the attacker's groin.
     In today's post I'll demonstrate two hand strikes that you may also wish to have in your self-defense arsenal.  If you successfully block the attacker's blow to your face but can't deliver a powerful front snap kick, a hand strike may be your only remaining option.  In the short video that follows, I'll demonstrate a palm strike to the attacker's face as well as an open-hand strike to the attacker's throat.  If you deliver either of these blows with some degree of accuracy and as much power as you can muster, you stand a good chance of buying yourself enough time to depart the scene uninjured.  Remember, the goal is to get away, NOT to engage in sustained hand-to-hand combat with a young thug.
     Before you click over to the video, here are two thoughts you should keep in mind.  First, NO ONE has a right to attack you.  You, on the other hand, absolutely have the right to defend yourself.  Naturally, your defense must be proportionate to the perceived threat.  If someone in a parking lot calls you a bad name, you don't have the right to beat him with a tire iron.  But if someone younger and stronger pushes you against your car, you have a right to strike back and buy enough time to retreat to safety.
     Second, you won't learn how to defend yourself effectively by reading this or any other blog or watching some videos on the Internet.  No matter what your age, consider enrolling in a local martial-arts school, ideally one that already has a number of seniors among the students.  Only by practicing your blocks, kicks, and hand strikes under the watchful eye of a professional instructor will you gain the skill and confidence to use the techniques properly in the unlikely event you are attacked. 
      Video: two hand strikes

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


In my previous post I stressed the importance of doing something if you are attacked.  Step one was to execute the strongest possible high block to keep your opponent from striking you in the face.  Even more important, I said you should be yelling for help if you're in a public place.  Your objective is to buy precious time so that someone can come to your aid.  The older you get, the less you want to grapple with a 25-year-old thug.
     Okay, let's suppose you have successfully warded off a blow to the face but still don't see anyone rushing to help you.  Once again, you've got to DO SOMETHING to buy more time.  A highly useful second step in this self-defense sequence may be the "front snap kick."  If you're an experienced martial artist, this is the first kick you ever learned.  And if you are thinking about studying a martial art for the first time, this will be kick #1.
     The front snap kick is nothing like the incredible jumping, spinning kicks that you've probably seen in martial-arts movies.  This is a basic, fast, and extremely powerful kick that does not require a master's skill or balance.  The short video that follows will take you through the fundamentals of the front snap kick.
     There are two things to love about this simple kick.  First, since your legs are longer than your arms, the kick allows you to increase the distance between you and your attacker.  Second, your legs are stronger than your arms, so you're relying on your most potent strike.
     For the purposes of senior self-defense, we're not talking about placing the front snap kick on your attacker's chin . . . or even his midsection.  We're aiming for the groin.  If you deliver a fast, powerful kick to the groin, you will buy sufficient time to turn and retreat.  As I said in my previous post, your objective is to get away from the attacker and call 911.  If you place the front snap kick where it belongs, you're on your way.
     A gentle reminder: you won't master self-defense by reading a blog or watching videos.  If you're serious about learning how to defend yourself from an attack, you need to join a local martial-arts school.  Visit several; ask questions; watch a few actual classes; and select the school that seems most serious about training seniors. 
     In the meantime, here's a brief video demonstration of how to execute a front snap kick if the situation absolutely calls for it.  http://youtu.be/YnJl8eDLrrc

Friday, May 18, 2012

The first rule of self-defense

Even if you have never taken a martial-arts class, you can certainly learn some basic self-defense techniques at any age.  In fact, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Many senior centers offer either martial-arts or self-defense sessions, as do many community education programs throughout the country.  If all you do is learn some basic strategies and techniques, great.  If you decide to join a school and do some serious martial-arts training, even better.
     Either way, the first rule of defending yourself from an attack is DO SOMETHING.  Now that sounds almost too obvious to mention, doesn't it?  But it's a fact that some people who are attacked do nothing.  Well, that's not quite true.  What they do is freeze.  They keep their hands down; they close their eyes; and they cringe, waiting for the blow to land.  And this, of course, can be the shortest path to the ER or worse.
     Okay, so what does DO SOMETHING mean?  First, it means being mentally prepared to defend yourself if a) an attack seems imminent and
b) it doesn't appear that you'll be able to talk your way out of the situation.  By being "mentally prepared" I mean accept the fact that you could be attacked -- even in a place as seemingly safe as a super market parking lot -- and therefore have a simple strategy in mind.  Among other things, being mentally prepared means staying aware of your surroundings, most especially any suspicious individuals who might catch your attention.  When in doubt, stay away.
      Second, DO SOMETHING means being capable of buying yourself some time while you yell for help.  If you're in a public place at a decent hour, help is usually nearby, and there's a good chance that someone will come to your aid if you yell for help.  But you certainly want to avoid being punched in the face or stabbed in the chest before help arrives.  Once it's clear that you're about to be assaulted, almost any defensive action -- something more than simply freezing and waiting for the blow to land -- may spare you serious injury. 
     Martial arts students learn a wide variety of blocks, but if you can learn only one technique, the high block is probably your best bet.  Although it's designed to protect against a blow to the face, the same motion can protect everything from your midsection to the top of your head.  Whether you execute the block flawlessly isn't terribly important.  If your life is on the line, fending off the first blow with a strong block may be enough to buy you the extra time you need.
     The best way to learn how to deliver a powerful high block is to attend a self-defense class or to sign up for a month or so of basic martial-arts training.  By practicing the basic blocks over and over again, you'll find that they become automatic.  And if you're ever actually attacked, you won't have to think about what to do.  You'll DO SOMETHING other than freeze.
     While you consider taking a formal class of some sort, you should look at this short video on how to execute a proper high block in taekwondo.  Different martial arts may teach slightly different variations on this block, but all of them will get the job done.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYADNvog3Dw

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yoga for martial artists?

Several years ago a college classmate and good friend of mine began emailing me about the fitness benefits of yoga.  Yoga?  Fitness?  I mean, really.  Any self-respecting martial artist knows that the only way to train is to crush boulders with your feet and chop down oak trees with your bare hands, right?  What possible good could come from sitting cross-legged on a mat or striking strange poses with unpronounceable names? 
     But recently I got the same yoga-as-fitness message from my physical therapist, who had spent a couple of months keeping my body intact before and after my training for an important martial-arts tournament.  Since I had maxed out my authorized PT visits, she suggested that I give yoga a try.  It would help with my stretching, she said, but it would also improve leg strength and balance.
     Still a rabid non-believer, I went to my local Senior Center, which happens to offer a very fine -- and free! -- yoga class.  I figured I'd try one session, confirm my doubts, and go back to the no-pain-no-gain training methods that I had learned more than 40 years ago.
     Confession is good for the soul, they say, so here's mine: I found that yoga is a highly demanding mode of physical activity that has challenged me in ways that I never expected.  The stretching methods are gentle but effective; and what could be better for those of us who are now closer to 70 than to 60?  But my real shock came when we tried a few of the fancy poses.  The first pose I learned, Warrior 1 in English, is what most martial artists would recognize as a forward leaning stance.  You get a great stretch, and if you hold the pose long enough your quads begin to quiver.
     Then we moved on to Warrior 3.  Mere words can't describe the challenge of Warrior 3, so I thought I'd insert a short video in today's post.  Yes, the woman who demonstrates Warrior 3 for us has been at this for quite some time.  And, yes, she's a lot more flexible than most of us old folks can ever hope to be.  But what impresses me most is the power she possesses in both legs.  Trust me, you don't execute Warrior 3 unless your length strength is way up there.  Take a look at the following short video.  Then think about adding yoga to your martial-arts comeback.
         Warrior 3 pose     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PjcQJjOvBc

Sunday, May 13, 2012

540-degree reverse hook kick

While roaming online martial-arts sites recently I came across an excellent demonstration of a 540-degree reverse hook kick, performed by Master S.J. Woo.  Master Woo has a long list of video tutorials on YouTube, and I highly recommend that you check them out sometime.  His lessons range from the basic -- how to punch, how to block, and such -- to the highly advanced.  The 540-degree reverse hook kick is definitely one of the latter.
     For those of you who have never seen, much less attempted, a 540 reverse hook kick, here's a simple plain-English description.  You spin your body 180 degrees toward your opponent, thereby generating momentum.  As you complete the 180, you leap high into the air and execute a 360-spinning kick to the opponent's face.  And, yes, Master Woo makes it look easy.
     Since I'm the author of "Seniors in the Martial Arts," you have probably figured out that I'm a certified senior -- a few weeks away from 66, according to my Medicare card.  What you may not know is what would happen if I attempted a 540-degree reverse hook kick.  Basically I would be fine with the 180-degree spin, which I routinely use for spinning back kicks on my kicking dummy.  But then it would get tricky.  The part about leaping high in the air is problematic for seniors who, like me, have become what I suppose we could call "gravity challenged."  Although I was a high jumper on my high school track team about 50 years ago, I now consider "a jump" to be anything that gets me high enough off the ground to allow a thin sheet of paper to slide between my feet and the floor.
     My "high into the air" isn't the same as Master Woo's.  Thus I would never complete the 360-degree airborne spinning kick.  Instead, I would would hit the ground somewhere in the middle of the kick, and that's when I would begin the countdown to my trip to the local hospital's emergency room.  There's simply no way of knowing exactly how many muscles I'd tear or how many body parts I would lose before crashing in mid-kick.
     But since I have no plans to attempt this particular kick anytime soon, here's the good news: senior martial artists can be highly successful when it comes to defending themselves and staying in shape even if we can't execute the same techniques that we were able to manage 30 or 40 years ago.  When it comes to self-defense, the most important techniques are strong blocks, a punishing groin-high front snap kick, and powerful punches or hand strikes.  You won't win a sparring tournament with this small arsenal of techniques, but you can definitely put down an attacker.  And in terms of staying fit, every element of your martial-arts workout -- stretching, punching, kicking, practicing forms, and sparring -- will do more for your mind and body than, say, logging 30 minutes on an exercise bike.
     With age comes wisdom, and it's wise for a senior martial artist to recognize that he or she should resist the temptation to play at being 20 or 30.  It was great to be there, but that was then . . . and this is now.  Whether you're 50, 60, 70, or older, your goal as a martial artist never changes: do all you can with what you've got.  If you just do that, you'll always get back more than you put in.  Martial-arts training is without question one of the best investments of time and energy you'll ever make.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Five self-defense tips for seniors

Even if you've never been a martial-arts student, you need to have a clear understanding of what you'll do in the unlikely event you're attacked.  In today's blog, I'll cover five key self-defense strategies that may prove helpful.  Of course, I still believe that your best course of action is to find a senior-friendly martial-arts school.  But in the meantime, here are my five tips for seniors.
     1.  Don't be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sure, that can happen purely by accident.  But most of the time you have control over where you are and when.  If, let's say, you're riding a subway train at 3:00 a.m., you're asking for trouble.  If you like leaving bars at 3:00 a.m., ditto.  Be sensible about where you go and about what time of day you go there.
     2.  If confronted by a possible attacker, use words to defuse the situation whenever possible.  Speak calmly, and plead if you think that might help.  This is not cowardice; this is intelligence in action.  And if you're facing an armed assailant who simply wants your wallet, give up the wallet.  Even a highly trained defender is at risk against a knife or gun.
     3.  Don't make the first move, but if attacked, be prepared to do everything in your power to save your life.  And the older you get, the likelier it is that any attack could prove deadly.  What do I mean by "everything in your power"?  Jabbing your fingers in the attacker's eyes, for instance.  It's not something you would like to do, but it may be the only way you can walk, run, or drive away from an attack.  And assailant has no right to attack you; you, on the other hand, have a right to defend yourself.
     4.  If you are attacked, DO SOMETHING.  You can't just stand there and get hit or stabbed.  Put your arms up as forcefully as you can to block the attack momentarily.  Buy yourself a little time.  And while doing it, scream for help.  Screaming for help while buying time with your defensive movements is the best way to avoid serious injury, especially if you're not in a dangerous place.  If, let's say, you're attacked in a shopping center parking lot, fending off an attacker while screaming for help will -- at least in a fair world -- bring someone to help you.
     5.  When the situation ends, call the local police and provide as much information as you can about the attacker: license plate number, description of the individual, exact time and place, and names of witnesses.  After you call the police, call a local martial-arts school, and sign up for a class.  It's never too late to begin.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What color is your belt?

Even if you have never attended a single martial-arts class, you probably already know that the training involves moving from a belt of one color to a belt of another color to . . . well, you get the idea.  The color of the belt changes as you move up the ranks, culminating in a black belt if you stick with the program long enough and become proficient in a host of required techniques along the way. 
   But there's a common misconception about the meaning of black belt, and in today's post I would like to help set the record straight.  Ask most people, including yellow belts and green belts, what black belt means, and they'll probably say something that incorporates the word expert -- as in "a black belt is an invincible martial-arts expert." 
   Well, there are two flaws in that statement.  First, a black belt is not invincible, not by a long shot.  A black belt may or may not be able to handle a 220-pound mugger.  I never wanted to find out even when I was 25; 40 years later I'm even less inclined to test the theory.  Second, a black belt may or may not be an expert.  It's generally safe to assume that a 9th-degree grand master in, say, taekwondo, is an expert.  But what the black belt truly signifies is a "serious beginner."  You've become proficient in a great many basic techniques, and now you are ready to become a fully committed student of your martial art.  How long will you be a student?  Forever.  If you're a serious enough student, you never stop learning and never stop striving to strengthen the mind/body connection that represents genuine mastery of a martial art.
   So when you look at it this way, a white belt, a green belt, and a black belt are all in the same business.  They are attempting to become all that they are capable of becoming, regardless of the color of the belt.  The black belt has been working at this longer, but he or she probably understands that the path has no end.  The more you know, the more you recognize what you don't know.
   Now here's the best news.  No matter where you are in your training -- white belt or black belt -- it's not too late to reach for your full potential.  If you haven't taken a martial-arts class, go for it.  Find a senior-friendly school that will help you on your way.  And if you've been out of training for some time, let today be the day that you rededicate yourself to the path that never ends.
   Do you have a success story about being a senior in the martial arts?  If so, please share it here. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Ideal School for Seniors

In my last post I discussed the huge health problem that falling represents for seniors, in particular those 65 and older.  And I discussed the potential benefits of martial-arts training, among them the ability to build leg strength and improve balance -- two key factors in healthy, fall-free aging.
    This led us to an important and practical question: what would the ideal senior-friendly martial arts school look like?  So today's post is an exercise in thinking out loud -- or perhaps dreaming -- about the perfect training hall for martial artists of a certain age.  If the school of my dreams exists, I haven't found it.  My online searches have led me to schools that mention "adults of any age" and a couple that specifically advertise classes for folks 50 and over, but I haven't found one that exists solely to serve senior citizens.
    Let me say up front that I understand why most schools are eager to serve students of any age -- from small children to teens to seniors.  The broader the market, the greater the potential to attract students and turn a profit.  And right now in America there's a vast opportunity for martial-arts instructors to generate a profit by teaching children.  Look, if you don't turn a profit, you end up closing the doors.  Very few instructors get rich teaching martial arts, so I applaud all those who manage to keep the enterprise afloat by serving the age groups that are available to them.
    But if you could find a dream school for seniors, what would it look like?  Here are some of the things I would want:
      1.  A minimum age of 50 or 55 for all students.  In the best case, I would like to see a 50-59 group and a 60+ group.  Believe me, there's a big difference between 55 and 65.  I've lived them both.  And if the school had enough students 70 and older, I'd have another group just for them.
      2.  Classes would be offered in mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and early evening.  Asking most seniors to participate in martial-arts training early in the day would be a mistake; and many, if not most, seniors are not able to handle serious workouts in the late evening.  7:00 p.m. is too late for most of us for a variety of reasons.
      3.  The instructors would ideally be seniors themselves, because to anyone else the phrase aging process is probably no more than an abstract concept.  If you're 60 or 70, aging process has real meaning.  You truly understand that, for example, your "high kicks" are closer to the ground than they once were. 
      4.  The program would focus heavily on gentle stretching, balance, forms, and basic self-defense techniques.  Sparring?  Maybe not.  Breaking boards and bricks?  Definitely not.  This doesn't mean that seniors can't break a board or brick; it simply means that requiring everyone to prove his or her ability in this area is inviting injured egos and broken bones. 
      5.  The head instructor would personally interview each prospective student to explain how this senior-friendly school will differ from traditional martial-arts schools, to understand what the student hopes to gain from the training, and to make sure that the student has been cleared for training by his or her physician.
    Well, that's just five short items on what could certainly be a much more exhaustive list.  And, as I said at the top, this is my dream school rather than a school I expect to find anytime soon.  In terms of the real world, I'd settle for a school that incorporates as many of these components as possible.  Simply offering a seniors-only class once or twice a week would be a huge step forward for most of the schools I've looked at online.  That's because most schools define an "adult class" as 18 and over.  Someone who is, say, 68 does not need to train alongside someone who is 18.
    Do you belong to a senior-friendly school?  If so, tell me about it, and I'll gladly help spread the word.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leg strength and balance

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the number one cause of injury death among Americans 65 and over.  Falls are also the leading cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.  And among older adults falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries as well as fractures of the spine, hip, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm, and hand. 
   Now there are lots of reasons why older adults may fall, including medications, faulty vision, cluttered living spaces, and the like.  Yet one of the most common reasons is something that's very much under our control: poor leg strength.  But there's more.  According to the physical therapist who has managed to keep my body parts intact throughout the first half of 2012, leg strength and balance are virtually two sides of the same coin.  Work on one, and you're improving the other.  And even if balance deteriorates with age, you can compensate to a large extent by keeping your legs in top condition.
   If you're a martial artist you already know that leg strength and balance are essential ingredients of your training.  But if you have never participated in the martial arts, maybe it's time to consider the powerful health benefits that can come with the study of taekwondo, karate, kung fu, or basically any martial art you can name.  Very early in my own training an instructor once said that a martial artist should have better balance on one foot than everyone else has on two.  Well, I think that's a bit of a stretch, but the underlying sentiment is sound.  The martial arts train you to remain upright and under control.
   Every kick you execute strengthens both the kicking leg and the supporting leg, but it also forces you to remain upright in a rather odd position.  The more you train, the less odd the kicking position feels.  And at some point you may find yourself executing spinning kicks, which naturally ratchet up the need for balance.  After all, you can't execute a spinning kick properly if you fall down every time you try, right?
   So if aging well is a high priority for you, either get active or stay active in the martial arts.  Scout out schools in your area, and find a senior-friendly environment in which to train.  What to look for in a "senior-friendly" martial arts school will be the topic of our next post.
   In the meantime, for more information on the problem of falls among older Americans, visit www.cdc.gov. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A "total package" workout

I don't know whether anyone has conducted a scientific inquiry into why people take up martial-arts training, but my gut tells me that "self defense" would be the most common answer.  It's certainly the reason I began studying taekwondo more than 40 years ago, and the self-defense aspect is still important to me.  But today the primary attraction is that in terms of efficient exercise, taekwondo is a "total package" workout. 
    A complete martial-arts training session checks off just about every box on your fitness checklist.  Strength training?  Absolutely.  Push-ups, sit-ups, and explosive repetitions of hand strikes, blocks, and kicks are highly effective in building a powerful body.  Flexibility? You bet.  Few training programs place as much emphasis on full-body flexibility as the martial arts.  Aerobics?  I've never run a marathon, but I've experienced martial-arts training sessions that gave a pretty good imitation of what a marathon must feel like.  In a well-run school your heart rate gets up and stays up.  Balance?  It's really tough to deliver an effective front kick if you fall down every time you do so.  So your instructor will spend a great deal of time working on how to maintain balance while delivering strikes with maximum power.  Symmetry?  Training just one side of your body can lead to problems like muscle-strength imbalance.  With the martial arts, you work both the left and right, front and back of your body from head to toe.  Even though you will likely be more proficient with one side than the other, the training requires you to give equal attention to left and right movements. 
    For senior martial artists there's another important health consideration that's certainly worth mentioning.  Brain training?  As you progress through the ranks, you place greater and greater demands on your brain -- learning countless individual techniques; learning complex forms; and learning about the history of your particular martial art.  The martial arts will work your brain in a way that most exercise programs simply cannot approach.
    The best part of martial-arts training is that you can participate at any age.  Your workout at, say, age 70 won't be as intense as it was at 25.  But you can tailor the training to whatever limitations might come with aging.  
So rest assured that if you haven't begun martial-arts training, it's not too late.
    We're looking for senior-friendly martial arts schools that we can tell other readers about.  If you know of such a school, please let us know, and we'll help spread the word.