At What Age Should You Start Martial Arts?

Martial arts like karate, aikido, jujitsu, and other self-defense arts require learning difficult physical skills and may involve hard physical exercise. Parents may wonder if their children are old enough to learn martial arts. Older adults may wonder if their bodies can withstand the rigors of martial arts training.

Let’s look at both extremes one at a time.

Is My Child Too Young to Learn Martial Arts?

Different instructors may give you different answers.

Instructors figure into the equation. Some instructors enjoy teaching younger students and do that well. Others don’t.

Your child forms another part of the equation. Parents sometimes think martial arts will help their children. But martial arts require the mastery of intricate, difficult techniques. Improvement necessitates constant repetition. Some children find that boring.

A child who cannot focus through these challenges will not just waste their time but endanger themselves and others.

The inherently dangerous nature of martial arts techniques requires a different level of attention than schoolwork. Students who cannot concentrate and follow directions can hurt themselves and their fellow students through the incorrect execution or application of technique. They may hyperextend a kick and hurt a knee or muscle. They may not control a technique and hit a fellow student with too much force.

Students need a strong ethical foundation to responsibly apply martial arts. They may only use them to respond to a true physical threat, not a mere insult, and only as a last resort, after exhausting all nonviolent solutions. Many younger people lack the maturity to make those distinctions and choose the right path. Such a person with martial arts training can unnecessarily hurt an antagonist or inflict far more harm than a situation requires.

Parents must carefully consider whether their children have developed the maturity and attention span for martial arts training.

Physical development can also play a role. Young people may not fully grow into their bodies until early adolescence. Before that, their lack of coordination, dexterity, agility, and balance can make a young person susceptible to injuries. Furthermore, some martial arts exercises, like hand conditioning and isometric stretching, can damage young bodies.

On the other hand, as we grow older, we lose our flexibility. As Thomas Kurz notes in Stretching Scientifically, “During the growth spurt (13 to 15), height may increase nearly one inch in a month. Micheli (1990) states that muscles and tendons do not elongate as quickly as growing bones and the resulting loss of flexibility leads to overuse injuries…. A large study on more than 900 high school students, however, suggests that loss of flexibility is not caused by growth but only associated with it (Feldman et al. 1999).”

Flexibility training earlier in life develops and preserves the limber muscles needed for martial arts kicks. Retaining flexibility is far easier than regaining it. Starting earlier can give your child a flexibility advantage. And the sooner they begin training, the longer head start they can get on those who start later.

Taking all of that into consideration, at the Carbondale Park District, we feel that most children should wait until they turn 10 before starting karate. By then, most people have begun to develop the physical and overall maturity to safely, successfully start karate training.

If your child is younger than 10, please call us to discuss whether they are a good fit for our program. If not, and you still want your child to take martial arts, we’re more than happy to refer you to other Carbondale martial arts schools that do an excellent job of teaching younger students.

Is It Too Late to Start Martial Arts?

Of course, older teenagers—and adults—can start long, successful martial arts careers. You might wonder, however: Is it too late for me to start martial arts?

The cutoff point will vary from person to person and the physical demands of different martial arts and instructors. Most people, however, can begin training fairly late in life, though they may not scale the heights they might have had they begun earlier.

Nevertheless, as we age, we hit our physical peaks.

After that, sadly, we go into decline, and everything grows harder.

  • We lose flexibility.
  • We get sore and sustain injuries more easily and require more rest to recover
  • Some injuries—for example, to joints like knees and hips—deepen with age and require surgery to repair
  • Hearts wear out

Physical damage and ever-longer recovery times force many older professional athletes to retire. It’s little wonder that few people older than 40 play in the NBA, NHL, and NFL.

Martial arts like karate, however, don’t require you to face young, elite, professional athletes in full-contact competition. They don’t require you to reach certain milestones by specific deadlines. They allow you to fulfill your potential at your own pace.

As with younger students, martial arts can help older students maintain or improve:

  • Flexibility
  • Strength and physical toughness
  • Range of motion
  • Cardiovascular endurance

Not everyone, particularly those with certain health conditions, will realize those benefits. In some cases, the risks of martial arts training may outweigh the rewards.

Not every martial art, however, requires hard physical fitness training. If karate training is too much for your body, look into aikido or jujitsu, or vice-versa.

If you’re older and worry about whether your body can withstand martial arts or self-defense training, visit a class to see what it entails. Talk to the teacher and students to learn more. Of course, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program, including karate, to determine if your participation would improve or worsen your health.

If you join a martial arts class, you may find you can make significant progress because of your age. Younger students may lack the fortitude that only age can develop. The life experiences of an older adult can carry them through many of the difficulties that younger students cannot so easily overcome. This, in turn, can allow you to serve as a good example for younger students.

More than athletic exercises or self-defense systems, however, martial arts are arts, no different than music or theater.

In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee harangues a young student for his lack of emotional content.

This points to the need for gravitas, a seriousness of purpose and intensity, particularly in kata, that not all younger students have the life experiences to call forth. Here, perhaps they cannot match the physical skills of younger students, but older students may not only serve as good examples to their younger peers, they might outshine them.

Keep It Real

Older and younger students face different challenges than those in between them, but they overcome these obstacles by applying the same solutions.

It starts with realistic expectations, both for your (or your child’s) station in life, and for what martial arts entail and impart.

Both age groups need to work hard and dedicate themselves to learning. This involves regularly attending classes and practicing at home, perhaps more than others in class.

It requires paying attention to detail—not just working hard, but working smart. Older and younger students may need to concentrate more to get the same results as others.

And it may take more time and patience than the students in the middle need to make progress or earn certain belt ranks. But their accomplishments can mean more.

More than anything, however, it helps to find a martial art you enjoy and an instructor with whom you gel. Then, you will enjoy the journey, regardless of the adversity you encounter on the way, and not feel pressured to reach a destination. 

Before long, you (or your child) may reach the destination far sooner than expected, and going further than you ever thought possible.