Are Martial Arts the new CrossFit?

If we dive back into the archives of this site, you will see that I am a long-time skeptic and critic of CrossFit.

The short version is that I view CrossFit as something that looks fun, but the injury risk is too high. Ballistic movements under load for reps may yield great results in the short term, but one poorly formed rep could leave you sidelined for months nursing an injury. There are safer ways to get fit. I still believe that to be true.

I don’t see CrossFit nearly as popular with health influencers as it was a decade ago. Here is a Google Trend for the word CrossFit. Interest peaked in July 2013 and has been in decline ever since. Did everyone get hurt?

CrossFit Google Trend decline

Other than bro lifting (squat, deadlift, bench), I would say today the hot topic is some form of martial arts. Joe Rogan, Andrew Huberman, Lex Fridman, Mark Bell, and other podcasters with large audiences are discussing some form of martial arts regularly.

In June, Elon Musk challenged Mark Zuckerburg to an MMA-style battle. It’s everywhere.

Not For Me

Based on my CrossFit view, you can probably guess my opinion of martial arts. It looks cool and fun, but the risk of injury is way too high for me to consider. It’s CrossFit while getting punched in the face.

If I were a kid again, I absolutely would be interested. Kids get in more fights than adults by far. Having the skills to defend yourself in middle or high school would be useful. Even the confidence building would be beneficial.

However, when you get hurt at a younger age, you heal super fast. Not so much when we get older. From Approaching Weight Lifting Like An Investor:

In 1988, I had knee surgery. Not the sleek arthroscopic knee surgeries we have now, but one where they cut open my leg, ground down some bone, and then put me in a full leg cast, which I wore for months. The next year, I ran a sub-4 hour marathon having never run a single race before.

Fast forward to May 2021, I had the opportunity to try and kick a field goal after a fancy dinner held on Century Field, which is where the Seattle Seahawks play. Although I made the field goal, I got a high hamstring tear. It still isn’t fully healed. For the first year, I could only drive my car for 10 minutes before the pain would arrive. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100%. All the sports massages and daily PT exercises have made my recovery painfully slow.

That’s the cold reality of aging and recoverability.

Of course, there will always be examples of people at every age who are successful with martial arts, but I understand survivorship bias. You aren’t seeing the countless examples of those who got hurt and never returned.

Martial arts are a skill. Skills take a lot of time to develop. Even if I still had teenage recoverability, I simply don’t have the interest in devoting the time that would be required to get decent.

In 2007, I came to the same conclusion with skiing. It was fun, but because I was only skiing at most once a season, I wasn’t improving, nor did I care to spend the time and money to get better. I haven’t gone skiing since.

Protect My Family?

But martial arts are more than exercise, you say. You may need to fight to protect yourself or your family. Let me share a quote from Dr. Doug McGuff, who besides being the author of Body By Science, is an emergency room doctor.

If you are walking down a sidewalk and are approaching a group of loud and apparently intoxicated males, cross to the other side of the street immediately. If anyone tries to start a fight with you, the first step should be “choke them with heel dust”.

Since middle school, I haven’t been in a single fight. Not even close. I can’t even recall seeing a fight. I live in a safe neighborhood and don’t go out at night. But if a conflict were about to happen, I would take McGuff’s advice and flee.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tore his ACL while sparring. Dr. Shawn Baker injured his neck doing jiu-jitsu, causing nerve issues that required stem cell therapy. It’s hard to flee or “protect your family” if you’re being pushed around in a wheelchair.

Zuck after his sparring injury.

You Are Not Joe Rogan

Joe Rogan started martial arts at the age of 13. He has been at it for more than 40 years. He has seen or participated in thousands of fights. The skills he has developed over a lifetime have made martial arts far safer for him than someone equal to his age just getting started.

And if Rogan did get injured, he has the financial resources to get the best doctors and medical procedures that money can buy. Meanwhile, we average folks wait weeks or longer just to get an appointment with our plan-assigned doctor. If I hurt my neck or tore my ACL, I’m not flying down to Panama for cutting-edge treatments. I still need to cook my meals and go to work on Monday.

Last Words

I can only think of one situation where I would take up martial arts. If I were on trial and facing potential jail time, I would want to enter prison with some fighting skills.

Am I wrong on this topic?


Add yours

  1. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 25, 2023 — 11:43 pm

    No …you are correct. I once asked Bill DeSimone why he stopped BJJ at blue belt. He informed me that all he needed to know for self defence was covered up to blue belt, after that it was simply a case of mastering / perfecting the various grappling nuances. Plus, as he rightfully ( I assume, having never done BJJ, only Judo) added, the activity went against his positioning as the “Joint Friendly Fitness guy”.
    With regards to CrossFit, I think you are also correct there…like activities such as Peleton, as initiators, they enjoy a huge share of the market for a while, then imitators come along which start turning people’s heads. In terms of the old CrossFit crowd those imitators include Deka Fitness races and Hyrox races. These are variants on the theme of “Total fitness”, but without the gymnastics or Olympic lifting. This probably drew many away from CrossFit who could not, or did not want to, master those skills. Hyrox in particular is becoming quite popular amongst those who like to run, but are too big / muscular to be too good at it, as the separate stations / events are split by a kilometre of running between each ( if I remember correctly). Plus these events, unlike CrossFit, never change, so it gives people something to focus on and improve over time. Now I’m not saying that these are better / worse than CrossFit ( I wouldn’t participate in any of them) but they have probably helped in reducing the interest in Crossfit over the last few years. Plus many people might have got tired of Crossfit and simply gone back to their old bro lifting…

  2. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 26, 2023 — 12:00 am

    There is also the fact that over the last couple of decades or so, thanks to the initiation of the UFC and MMA that there has been a move in the world of martial arts towards realism.
    People have seen certain martial arts exposed in the arena of combat ( aikido anyone?) and some people who have trained for years / decades have either had their aura of invincibility exposed to others, or have had to take a long deep look at what they have been training in for years, and probably found it wanting. There has also been a movement ( online especially) to expose what are termed McDojos and fraudulent experts, who, before the UFC and online exposure, touted themselves as being sufficient for self defence.
    However with the push for “reality” and effectiveness in a confrontation comes the potential for injury. The more real the training becomes, when you start to involve more training against a “live” resisting opponent, who also comes with an ego, and who wants to win as much, if not more than you, then the chances that someone gets hurt, increases manyfold. Far more so than the old and seemingly outdated methods of standing in lines and doing pre set moves and punching thin air. Katas were probably the ancient masters way of shadow boxing, knowing as they did, that any injury sustained, might have finished their “time” as a martial artist, with the primitive medical help around over a hundred years ago.
    Now everyone wants to be the next MMA superstar. I was recently watching the Netflix series “McGregor Forever”. Not because I like the guy, can’t stand him, but just to see what the training entailed. Even when preparing for fights, since the time between his boxing bout with Mayweather, till the time he broke his leg in his last UFC fight, he seemed to be injured or on the verge of it. This was despite having access to the best medical / physio help around and participating in controlled fighting. I would imagine that this is the same for most UFC fighters.
    I’ve read articles by the likes of BJJ experts Steve Maxwell who stress the importance of choosing rolling partners for BJJ practice very carefully as you get older. Rolling with partners with too much ego ( or if you have too much ego yourself) can be a recipe for disaster it seems.

  3. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 26, 2023 — 12:17 am

    One more thing…in terms of you’re running away from an altercation, you are spot on…
    Even those who participate in the more “realistic” martial arts, BJJ, wrestling, boxing, MMA, sometimes forget that it is in a controlled environment. Participants often know their opponent beforehand, start on a safe, soft, clean floor / mat, and approach their opponent from several feet away, often shaking hands before starting to fight. No “dirty tricks” are allowed, and apart from MMA, fighters are often I’ll prepared to deal with attacks that are from outside their experience…eg wrestlers don’t punch or kick, boxers don’t go to ground. And of course their is a referee, to stop proceedings if they are not going your way.
    In a “real” situation the attacker will not often start from a distance. They may be right up “in your face” prompting an adrenal dump. Worse still they may use distraction, “What time is it mate?” This switches the victim’s awareness off and creates an opening for an ambush attack.
    As you said, for self defence, good running skills are useful, but so are good awareness skills or the ability to talk/ bluff your way out of a situation.
    Also, these days, even in the UK, where guns are outlawed, knife crime is rampant. You don’t know what someone is carrying. And in the US, where, (and I STILL can’t for the life of me, fathom out why) guns are allowed…then all bets are off.
    Just to prove a point, here is a video from a little “tournament” where six online martial arts “reality” experts ( including one MMA fighter) competed. They had separate tests and scored points for how well they did. This test was each expert going up against someone with a rubber knife, for a short, limited time. As you will see, all notions of any stylised training moves went straight out of the window, it got messy. As you will also see, none of them succeeded at successfully defending themselves at all.

  4. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 26, 2023 — 12:21 am

    In terms of self defence…probably one of the best lessons that you will learn…

  5. At 67, no actual combat for me, but I love flexibility work, kicks, and shadowboxing.. Just for fun.

    Being loose and flexible feels great, and is very underrated.

  6. @Stuart – Verbal self defense is a good skill.

    However, when I consider the most likely person that would approach me with hostile intentions, it would be a mentally ill homeless person. I’m not going to talk down a crazy person. I will flee.

  7. I once met a female stripper (I’m a female) who was doing some contract work in an office in order to transition out of the lifestyle.

    She mentioned that she didn’t bother with self defense classes, even though clients trying to follow her home after work was an ever present danger.

    Her reasoning was actually really good. Basically, she thought that self defence classes gave women false confidence, that men would always be much stronger, much more violent and it was better to work on your running skills.

    I always remembered her advice. She struck me as an intelligent person who found herself in bad circumstances and was trying to leave them.

  8. Situational awareness, verbal deescalation, and running should always be your first choice. It is always the best choice. I go to a fair number of firearms training classes. A common saying is a variation on ” You win every gun fight you do not get in.”. They stress that your goal is to not ever have to use your training. “Do not go stupid places, with stupid people, at stupid times.” If you are a responsible adult, you have no business being piss drunk, at the shiftiest strip club in town, at 0300 on a Wednesday, with your hot headed college friend. That should take care of 97% of problems. Until it doesn’t. You can find endless YouTube security camera videos of innocent people, doing innocent things, and just being plain unlucky. Compliance is not a guarantee. for a decent percentage of criminals…. they do not think like you do. Running sounds good, but if you are running from a fit, strong, 20 year old male with a long history of experience with physical altercations, can you out run him? Can you fight well enough to keep him from permanently disabling you , after you have tried running and are tired? I am 54, fat, but strong. I get your concern with martial arts training. But……. some level of training seems worth the risk, to me. Having some level of unconscious competence in striking, blocking, and grappling while tired seems like a worthwhile goal. Blue belt is probably good enough, if you keep up with it, and do some practice once you get there. Don’t roll with the overly aggressive 22 year old who wants to compete and has a huge ego. Try a few different styles. Judo ( probably some others) also teach proper falling to the beginner. Knowing how to fall is a valuable skill to older people. So much so, there are programs to teach senior citizens the basics in martial arts falls. Lot’s of older people break arms improperly stopping a fall after tripping over their dog or grand kids toys. For the last few years, I have been meeting 2 or 3 times a month with a group training knife fighting. We do some “duel” type stuff, but I mostly do it for learning to block knife attacks empty handed. It’s hard, not a guarantee, but not impossible. Just having someone come at you with a training knife, full speed, I think, offers at least some level of stress inoculation in a real fight. The less panic and adrenal dump in a real fight, the better your chances of survival. Martial arts training will also offer that. I intend to expand my training soon, despite the risks of injury. I have never been in a real fight, even in the couple of years I bounced in some sketchy bars. I think assuming it is unlikely to happen, because it hasn’t happened yet, is a dangerous form of normalcy bias. The older you get, the better target you become for someone with a predatory mind set. I firmly believe violence will be getting exponentially worse in the coming years, and society is quickly breaking down. I suppose if you don’t feel that way, then that affects the math on how worthwhile the risk of training is. When I am 70, I do not think I will be able to defeat a 20 year old in a full on fight. I do not think my fit 17 year old niece can beat a male attacker. We can be good enough to make someone with a predatory mind set decide to seek easier prey, that does not mean we will not get hurt in the process. Even a 70 year old can land a throat punch or eye gouge. No amount of size and strength can protect against a proper throat punch. But you need to be prepared and practiced in throwing it. But, that is just the way I see it. I get the reasoning for deciding not to participate in martial arts, the math just seems to work out different for me.

  9. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 27, 2023 — 10:13 pm

    Steve RN
    “Even a 70 year old can land a throat punch or eye gouge”.
    The thing is, realistic self defence would involve that 70 year old landing that punch and then running away. Except now that 70 year old is running away from an enraged attacker, who might have friends with him / her. That 70 year old won’t get far, and is now in for an even bigger beating.
    The throat punch, I presume, in your thinking is to create the opening for an escape, not to then get into a prolonged fight to the finish. Fine, practice a throat punch…but MAS is talking about the kind of BJJ and MMA style of martial arts that have people “locked up” in clinches aiming to apply moves that , fully applied, break bones, or rip connective tissues, or striking sparring where people are taking blows to the head ( punch drunk and brain issues are a thing…just ask NFL players).
    Also, a less enraging way of creating that opening would surely be the use of a panic / rape alarm. Creates distraction, while not as likely to enrage as much as an eye gouge.
    Still the primary focus on self defence should be situational awareness, knowing your surroundings and potential dangers. The best defence is just not being there.

  10. This is a topic that crosses my mind from time to time. At some point I realized that my discomfort with conflict and confrontation is one of the things that held me back in life. I think martial arts and self defense training could benefit this greatly, of course I never got around to it other than a couple of one off self defense classes.

    Now I’m 40 with many adult responsibilities. I still would like to try martial arts, but dislike the idea of being in a class composed of teenagers and even more so high risk of injury (I agree with the thesis of the post). Anyone have any good suggestions for self defense/martial arts training for the middle aged?

  11. @SteveRN – Great comment. It gave me a lot to think about. I am not a target now because I am fit and not yet elderly. I also live in a safe neighborhood and don’t drink or go out at night. But I will get older and those other variables could change as well. I fell for the normalcy bias. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I will look at some self defense videos on YouTube this weekend and reassess my view.

  12. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 28, 2023 — 8:17 am

    I think the premise of the post is basically, using MAS’ investors mindset, that the risk of getting injured while training for a physical conflict ( see Zuckerberg’s photo above as evidence example number one) outweighs ( probably by far) the risk of getting injured from a physical conflict.

  13. @ Stuart, I agree, not being there is the best option, as if leaving, if possible. The problem is, the criminal gets a say in that, he can go to an area that is safe, he decides when go time is. All he needs is 2 seconds of distraction. Situational awareness can’t be maintained at all times. And I realize MAS is looking at it from a different perspective, I was just throwing out why I weigh out he costs differently. For instance, I toy with the idea of taking real boxing lessons, at a real boxing gym. I had one concussion as a teenager, and am well aware of the potential effects of even one over time. I am not eager for more. BUT…. having never been in a fight, and talking to people who have, having the experience of taking a hit to the face and realizing I can still fight on, seems to be something that those people found to be of great value in surviving an assault. I have not ruled out taking some boxing to have that experience and knowledge. Of course, I also have not signed up for any classes, either. But I am definitely not going out and participating in a fight club. Personally, I feel the risks of engaging in training can be managed well enough to gain value in the practice. In my informal knife group, we are not shy about saying, yeah, let’s not try practicing that. I am also not talking about going to martial arts for fitness, which was part of MAS’s original post too, I am looking at this entirely from a personal safety perspective. I approach this from the point of view that A) rapid social decay is happening, and will get much worse, B) if someone is trying to assault, rob, carjack me, etc, I have to assume that they are ultimately willing to kill me, and I can not assume that the assaulter has a value system and threshold for the initiating of lethal force that mirrors my own. Of course, this is without touching on the very expansive subject of the legal ramifications to me after I defend myself. I get that a lot of people do not share my views, have not heard subject matter experts that I have heard, and run the math and decide not to participate. Can’t say they are making the wrong choice. I hope when I die, I will have never have had to use any sort of self defense and it will all have been in vain. I was just throwing out my thoughts on why I think some well managed risk in training might be worth it.

  14. Stuart Gilbert

    Dec 28, 2023 — 10:51 am

    You make some valid points, and my younger self probably would have been in full agreement with you. However using MAS’ comparison to CrossFit allows us a slight counterpoint. CrossFit enthusiasts always talk about their version of training being useful for either “training for life” or for the zombie apocalypse. Putting to one side the fantastical notion that a zombie apocalypse is ever going to happen, I have never seen any normal life event requiring one to do an Olympic snatch, walk on your hands for distance, squat and then thrust a heavy ball up against a wall, or do a series of kipping pull-ups. Or many other of the mind boggling “fitness” stunts that CrossFit dreams up.
    In a similar vein…if as you say, society breaks down to the point that you are alluding to, then mere self defence skills may not be appropriate. You would probably be better off with combat skills and learning how to fire a gun, as people looking to hurt you won’t be coming at you unarmed.

  15. @ MAS.. IF you are looking for YouTube channels, some ones I follow, and seem to be worthwhile ( I am far from an expert, so judge for yourself ) look for Lee Morrison at his Urban Combatives channel. His protege also has a channel, Urban Combatives Netherlands. Kelly McCann has a channel called Kembativz Brand. Tommy Moore: Bartitsu lab, boxing &gutter-fighting is interesting, he does a lot of historical stuff. Tim Larkin has a YouTube channel, though he has not put up new stuff much lately. He has some good security cam/ cellphone breakdowns, interviews, videos showing techniques. I think he main goal is/was to sell his videos and in person training, but he does have good content. Hock Hocheim has a YouTube channel, but I have not watched it yet. Hock’s Combatives Channel. I mostly read his blog and articles he has written. He sells videos that look like they may be worthwhile, and he never sounds like he is selling a magic formula. Cecil Burch is someone I have read a few articles by, and heard good things from others. Craig Douglas/ Shivworks I have heard GREAT things about. But… people who have been to classes say, especially for the advanced stuff, they are willing to risk some injury for the chance at very realistic training. I am sure I am leaving a lot of good people out, but thought this might be a good place to start, if you are interested.

  16. @SteveRN – Thanks for the resources. I’ll be watching some of those videos this weekend.

  17. @ Stuart…… Oh, I agree, I have, and train with, pistol, long gun, and shotgun. But, since the aggressor is the one who starts the clock, it is possible you will need to fight to access to your weapon. And, again, hopefully I am NEVER in a situation where a gun is necessary, with luck I will die having spent a lot of money on ammo and classes for no damn reason other than the fun of shooting paper and steel targets. Just like I hope I never have to use my CPR (well, other than at my day job) or stop the bleed first aid training. A physical assault is a much more likely scenario ( though still, for now, pretty remote, it’s true) and usually does not meet the legal threshold for a deadly force response. I like to talk about the zombie apocalypse, but I do have a lot of concern for low probability/ high impact events. The risk may be low, but more than zero, and for some of them, the probability seems to be growing. And that is just for the events that my fevered imagination can dream up. I will grant, I tend to be a pessimist and fatalistic at times, but I don’t think my concerns are completely attributable to that. Again, hopefully, I am just being a tin foil nut. But I don’t think so.

  18. Also, since we are talking about calculating the risk of needing to know self defense methods, John Hearne is doing a webinar, tonight. I believe you can still watch it for 30 days after today too. He a federal LEO, firearms trainer, Masters in research. “Crime and Criminals: Risks and Mitigation.” It should be interesting, I have watched several pod casts with him. Might be worth the $25 for helping decide what your risk level is.

  19. Interesting comments. Whilst the investor analysis that MAS likes to use is helpful, particularly in the context of exercise – (particularly Crossfit). I would disagree with some of his analysis to the martial arts. I’m 50 and a long time judoka, we still have plenty of people older than me that are still competitive on the mat. Statistically judo is a safe sport and is probably one of the higher amplitude martial arts. The point is that there is some risk but that is mitigated out to varying degrees within martial arts.

    Any analysis of martial arts to self defence is historically problematic. Clearly some arts are recognised as more useful than others. The advantage of judo and boxing is that you actually get to pressure test your art – does it work when you are tired and stressed. It is the latter point that gets lost in martial arts and self defence discussions. in a real fight you’re going to have to rely on on gross motor skills rather than fine. Here is an interesting application of that – the Singapore Prison Service have recently revamped their self defence training. Note just how few techniques there are, how simple they are and how they have greatly reduced the number of techniques based on real feedback. See - Food for thought.

  20. @DanC – This is good info. I will be watching some recommended videos this weekend – including yours.

    You mentioned being 50 and a longtime judoka. Would you feel comfortable starting as a beginner at your age? I think that might be the key to safety. Start early. I wish I had learned how to fall and take a hit in my teens at a time when my recovery would have been much faster. Faster recovery. Faster learning. Today it would be the opposite. Slow recovery, slower learning, and increased safety risk.

  21. @ DanC…. I think you are probably right, from what I have read. Martial arts techniques can be used in a real fight, but in a stressful situation, focusing on developing gross motor responses is more useful. A lot of the references I put up above are for combative types guys that focus on moves like that ( another guy I have heard about, but not followed much, Tony Blauer and his SPEAR system). I think martial arts are good for stress inoculation and developing the mental fortitude to keep going when you are tired and would rather not. MAS, DanC can probably speak to this better, but my understanding is , in Judo, falls are one of the things you start out learning, and probably one of the most useful things you will learn. Like I said, there are programs to teach older people how to fall, a huge risk as you get older. That in and of itself is probably of value, and more likely to be useful, than any self defense use. If they can teach it safely to a 75 year old grandma, you probably have a pretty decent risk/ benefit ratio for learning falls, at least. If you are running in a dark ally at night from a threat, you don’t want to fall and break your arm tripping on trash, you want to be able to fall, roll, and get up and continue to run.

  22. Stuart Gilbert

    Jan 1, 2024 — 9:53 am

    A bit off topic I know…but if you click on the links to articles that you’ve connected to this topic, after a click or two back you come up to articles detailing your thoughts on running.
    As this post also mentions the validity of running away…I just wondered what your current thoughts on running / sprinting are? Have they changed ( even slightly to what you were posting around 2009 to 2013? Do you see any place for limited running / sprinting in a training program? Or is it still off limits, despite its practical use in getting away from a potential confrontation?

  23. @Stuart – I can only answer this question for myself. As a taller person who has experienced lots of running related injuries, I am a fan of uphill “sprints”. Hopefully, I will be able to resume them in the spring, as I am still recovering from my surgery.

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