Two men carrying a stretcher after an injury.

Should Martial Arts Hurt?

Before I even realized what happened, I was on the ground in pain. Someone pulled me off the mats as I opened my eyes and tried to focus. Something was wrong. I couldn’t see out of my left eye. Just dark, like someone flipped off a light switch.

A common concern for new students is, “Will I get hurt?” After all, everyone has to wake up in the morning and go to work.

It’s also quite common during class to hear students say, “That hurts,” and, “I don’t want to hurt my partner.” 

Well, that’s good. I don’t want you to hurt your partner either. Then again, sometimes I do.

Wait. What?

Three different levels of hurt in martial arts.

It’s important we don’t automatically label hurt as bad. Sure, hurt feels bad in the moment. But the levels of hurt are defined by the outcome. What is the result of the hurt? And why did it happen in the first place?

Let’s take a quick look at the types of hurt experienced in training. You could experience each of these due to something you do to yourself, or something a partner does to you.

Level 1: Discomfort

If I had to put a number on it, I’d say 90% of the time a student exclaims “That hurts!” they’re referring to discomfort. 

Man causing discomfort to his training partner, but not injury.

Discomfort is common when you’re on the receiving end of joint locks, pins and controls, or even “cheats” like pressure points and horse bites. Practicing strikes causes discomfort even without hitting full force. For example, doing a slow speed palm strike that merely pushes into your partner’s face creates discomfort.

But you don’t have to train in a contact style to experience discomfort. For instance, learning a new stance in a Tai Chi form is uncomfortable. When your body isn’t used to it, you’re going to feel it!

Here’s a hard truth. Training should be uncomfortable every time you do it. If it isn’t, you’re not training hard enough.

Level 2: Hurt

So now we get to the actual “H” word. Hurt.

If you practice a non-contact style, you’ll likely hurt less than someone learning a contact style. But either way, training hurts sometimes. That doesn’t make it bad.

Like discomfort, hurt is temporary. The difference is discomfort stops when the technique ends. Hurt may linger a little longer. Even a day or so.

It doesn’t take contact to create hurt. In fact, physical activity in general often causes hurt. Ever hit leg day at the gym too hard and spend the next two days dreading a trip to the toilet? Holding a new stance for a long time can cause the same response. 

You can hurt yourself in training as well– no partner needed. Like the time I smacked myself in the head spinning a bo staff.

Boxing parters getting hurt with punches in the face.

Other examples of hurt could be:

• You get popped in the nose hard enough that your eyes water. It doesn’t bleed, but it’s sore the next day.

• After practicing wrist locks, your wrists feel sore the next day because the joints aren’t used to it.

• While practicing a ground technique, you roll and bump heads with your partner hard enough to see stars.

But in all of those scenarios, you’re able to keep training.

Level 3: Injury

Injury. This is the level of hurt students have in mind when they ask if they’ll get hurt in training. No instructor or student ever wants an injury to happen in class. Injuries should never happen in class.

But the reality is, they do (though not often).

Injury involves actual damage to tissue– something that slows or stops your training for days, weeks, months, maybe even permanently.

Sparring sometimes leads to dislocated toes or fingers, busted noses, and sprained ankles. Yes, broken bones happen sometimes. So does getting smacked in the eye.

Broken fingers are often an injury occurring in martial arts training.

But injuries aren’t exclusive to martial arts. Football players tear up knees. Mountain bikers fly over the handlebars and break collar bones. Soccer players get concussions from heading the ball.

For that matter, I’ve seen an elementary school playground basketball game lead to knocked out teeth when one kid tripped over his own feet and hit the goal post.

And in case you’re thinking Tai Chi is perfectly safe, I should mention I’ve seen a push hands session require stitches after a student was knocked off balance and fell into a wooden rack on the wall.

I don’t say these things to dissuade you from training. But reality is, if you train long enough, injuries happen. 

How to minimize your injury risk in martial arts.

Man wrapped in bubble wrap to avoid getting hurt.

 The easiest way is wrap yourself in bubble wrap and sit on your couch. 

When it comes to martial arts (or any other activity), nobody can guarantee your complete safety. There are too many risk factors involved.

There are, of course, things you can do to minimize your risk. Most of them start with communication.

• Speak to your instructor about any safety concerns you have.

• Ask the instructor and other students about injuries. Just keep in mind they may lump discomfort, hurt, and injury into one category.

• Communicate with your training partner about your comfort level.

• Slow your training down at first. Take time to understand what’s about to happen in the technique, whether you’re on the receiving or the giving end.

• Protect yourself as an attacker. For example, when throwing a punch, keep your own head protected.

• Ask your instructor how to practice safely if you’re not sure.

Don’t let hurt stop you 

Should you continue training after getting hurt? Well, that’s a call only you can make. Having said that, here are some things you should keep in mind.

First, make sure you understand what kind of class you’re getting into. If it’s a contact class, facing discomfort and hurt shouldn’t be a surprise.

Here’s my honest opinion about discomfort, and even hurt, in training when it comes to contact styles. Especially Krav Maga and other self-defense-first styles.

Hurt and discomfort shouldn’t affect your training if you know you’re getting involved in a contact style. In fact, it needs to happen because

• If you don’t cause discomfort you don’t understand the technique, nor how to control your level of force.

• If you don’t receive discomfort, you don’t understand the technique, nor do you build the character to withstand discomfort and hurt in the real world.

“It’s important we don’t automatically label hurt as bad.”

Now, if an injury happens, you’ll have to consider the risk factors going forward.  My advice is sit down and talk with the instructor, and don’t make a decision right after the injury. Wait for the emotion to subside.

In almost three decades of training, I’ve had multiple pulled muscles, sprained joints, and busted noses. I’ve had a complete tear in a thumb ligament. But the most scary was the fingers to the eye.

I was blind for almost a week in one eye, and honestly wondered if I’d lost vision permanently. To this day, I still have blurry vision due to scar tissue on the cornea. 

When it first happened, I was pissed. How could my partner be so reckless? He shouldn’t even be in class, right?

But as the days passed and I calmed back down, I knew he didn’t do it on purpose. It was in the middle of a pressure test, and as one of his attackers I was pushing him to the max. 

I also realized that I helped my own injury along by not protecting myself. I got complacent. I threw a punch with my right hand and let my left hand drop, even though I knew his response would be coming at my face due to his training.

Do I ever want on injury? Of course not. But when I look back on all of mine, I understand they’re just a natural byproduct of training– some more preventable than others.

So go train, and train hard. Be smart and do what you can to stay safe. But also know that training brings growth, pride, confidence…

And often a little bit of hurt.

What about you? Have you ever been hurt or injured during training? How did it make you feel? What did you do about it? Let us know in the comments below.

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