Where can a 34-year-old dude with a bad knee learn to defend himself?
February 20, 2013 12:41 PM   Subscribe

I would like to take some kind of self-defense or martial arts class. Only problem? I'm a dude, I'm 34, and my left knee is not-so-great. Bonus points for resources in San Francisco.

First off, I should say that I'm in good shape. Average weight for my height and frame. I walk a few miles a day and do a vigorous gym workout once a week. However, my left knee is a bit of an issue. Physical therapists have told me it's because some of my muscles are weak down there, so when I work out, I always do plenty of lower-body exercises. Still, I have to be mindful of my knee. For example, any kind of kneeling will set it off, so I have to avoid a number of yoga postures. The last time it gave me problems, I had apparently pulled my quad, and walking down stairs was VERY difficult for a few weeks. But typically, my knee feels fine as long as I don't stress it too much.

So what are my options? I'm imagining I can't take up any martial art that requires a lot of kicking. Isn't that all of them? I know there are general self-defense courses for women, but I don't know of anything similar for men.

Where can a 34-year-old dude with a bad knee learn to defend himself? I don't need to do competitions or anything like that, nor do I expect to get into fights. But I'd like to know that I can defend myself, and I'd like to have the self-confidence that comes along with that.

I do live in San Francisco, so resources in SF will be particularly appreciated.
posted by Sloop John B to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I heartily recommend Bagua Zhang. It is primarily hand-focused, but the walking portion is vital and strength-building. There are weapons forms after basics are mastered, too.

Here's an extremely authentic Sifu looking for students in the greater SF area. You can search for Ba Gua Zhang or Pa Kua, too.
posted by batmonkey at 12:45 PM on February 20, 2013

What are you defending yourself against? The ultimate force multiplier is a firearm; your knee doesn't matter when you can shoot someone at 300'.

I'm guessing that you are not in situations where you need to engage in armed conflict; I realize that you're looking for confidence, but it's easier (in my experience, as a life-long martial artist) to translate that to skills if you know what you're looking for. I've trained in boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Aikido; I also know how to fire a gun. There are situations where my hand-to-hand skills make me feel confident, and situations where they do not, and I would rather be armed.

As a general art, boxing is pretty useful. As a speciality art, Judo and Aikido are pretty good, but both are designed to round the edges off of an already-trained martial artist.
posted by ellF at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to a few Aikido classes and it seems like the CULTURE would be very accommodating to a student with physical limitations, but that having to protect your knee would really inhibit you from taking the kinds of falls that the more advanced students were doing
posted by thelonius at 1:41 PM on February 20, 2013

thelonius: ukemi (the falling) is designed to keep the person safe; it can be modified as necessary.
posted by ellF at 1:45 PM on February 20, 2013

Consider Wing Chun, which is a martial art that includes some low kicking but is mainly about conditioning. If you can form the Wing Chun horse without distressing your knee you might really like it.

To approximate the horse: put your heels about shoulder width apart and point your toes in towards one another. Bend your knees and sit into the stance such that your knees are about a fist-width apart and your body is in a relaxed straight line between your knees and your shoulders. Tuck your butt in. Obviously you'll want to have a Sifu show you properly in-class, but this should do. If your knees feel okay in this stance, you can start learning Wing Chun.

This place looks decent to me, but that's just based on their website and their lineage -- I'm not recommending them one way or the other.

Whatever style of martial art you choose, be wary of cults and of organizations that just want to take your money. Also, consider that the particular style may not be as important as the personality of the teacher and their willingness to respect and help you progress as a student with your own particular body and its particular constraints. It might be worthwhile to try out a number of schools and styles and see what works for you -- a lot of times a place will let you sit in on a class or two for free so I'd bet you could spend six months exploring styles and schools for free before you decide on what works for you.
posted by gauche at 1:52 PM on February 20, 2013

Response by poster: ellf : Not particularly interested in carrying a firearm.

The kinds of situations I'd like to be prepared for :

* In a club or bar, some drunk idiot takes a swipe at me over something stupid
* Some random crazy person (we have a lot of them in SF) turns violent and attacks me
* Someone I'm aqcuainted with feels wronged by me and thinks the only way to settle the matter is with violence
* Some slimeball makes my girlfriend feel physically/sexually threatened

More important than that : I'd like to walk around with the knowledge that I can defend myself and/or my girlfriend if I need to. It would influence my interactions with the world. I've found that I instinctively flinch or retreat whenever someone attacks me or threatens to attack me, and I'd like to be able to stand my ground better.
posted by Sloop John B at 2:31 PM on February 20, 2013

I came to suggest Wing Chun as well for all the reasons gauche states. There are people in my class with knee problems and they've done really well.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:10 PM on February 20, 2013

I'm going to address your question in two parts.

First, what martial arts might be appropriate for you physically--what kind of knee strain tends to set off problems? You mention kneeling, but can you shift your weight onto your bad knee? Stand on your left leg? Stretch it, bend it? For how long? What about falling onto that leg? I wouldn't necessarily rule out kicking, because a lot of the motion in the kicking leg is more in the hip than the knee--but the kicker (ha) is that you'd need to be able to support your weight and balance on your back leg. If you can't do that, then yeah, kicking is out. If you can't fall onto your leg (or have someone else fall onto your leg), you may need to avoid or limit some kinds of grappling. If you make it clear that you have a real physical constraint, a good teacher will help you work around it. If the person you're learning from isn't willing to do that, go somewhere else.

Second, on self-defense--there are very few common, first-world-city-life self-defense situations where knowing a martial art and physically besting the other person in hand-to-hand combat is going to be the optimal solution, and the skills you'd need to develop for that to even be feasible take years and years of work. All of the situations you list are (a) based on some absurdly skewed perception of risk ("some random crazy person turns violent and attacks me"? Really?) and/or (b) best handled in another way (Do you actually have acquaintances that are likely to settle perceived slights with violence? Because, if so, stop hanging around those people.)

That said, martial arts great exercise and many can provide a tangible self-defense benefit in that you'll be in overall better shape and some touch on other skills like situational awareness, verbal de-escalation, surprising or distracting an attacker long enough to run the fuck away, etc.
posted by kagredon at 4:50 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I definitely agree with the sentiment that it's the culture, not the specific style, that is going to make a martial arts school right for you. I study Seido Karate, which has a mandate to teach martial arts to everyone regardless of physical ability - we have classes for the blind, etc - and has generally been a good experience for me. East Bay Seido may be the closest to you (and I have met Sensei Todd, he is delightful.)

Improving your flexibility is likely to help your knee out, and karate will definitely give you opportunities for that. And while traditional karate is not in itself a street-fighting system, it really does help to safely practice being in high-stress, physical situations, and certainly any martial art with a sparring component will give you that.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:57 PM on February 20, 2013

Response by poster: kagredon : if you wish to continue the "meta" thread of conversation, please MeMail me. But suffice it to say that all of those situations have actually happened to me. I don't mean to downplay the importance of the other skills you mentioned, but none of those negate the utility of being able to physically defend oneself.

As for what my knee can withstand : hard to answer that. The activities you mentioned -- shifting weight onto it, standing on it, stretching it, bending it, falling on it -- are all things that I can do. It's more that if I do anything that stresses that knee for any amount of time, it starts to hurt. For example, I can kneel, but if I do it for more than, say, 30 seconds, it hurts. When I pulled my quad over the summer, I'm pretty sure it was because of some extended kneeling I did (5+ minutes). Another example -- when I work out, I'm usually on the elliptical for about 45 mins with moderate resistance. I can go for an hour without pain, and possibly longer. However, if I step up the resistance beyond 'moderate', my knee gets very upset with me.

Generally, I just try to be "kind" to my knee.
posted by Sloop John B at 6:03 PM on February 20, 2013

Although I am no martial arts expert, I have a good friend who is. He's a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt and runs a few academies in the south-eastern US (teamhopkinsgjj.com). I've known him since we were 12 (now 46 - eek!) and he's studied many different forms of martial arts and finally landed (20 years ago) on GJJ as the form that he found most effective and fulfilling. From what I know of GJJ (and BJJ) is that it would a great fit for you in terms of wanting to learn self defense coupled with your knee situation (he confirmed this): it's primarily about leverage and technique and you do most of the moves (or whatever they're called) from a position of core/stability. I asked him if he could suggest some schools in the Bay Area and here's what he gave me:

Charles Gracie's academy: charlesgracie.com

Gracie Humaita: www.oaklandbjj.com/gracie-humaita-academies/gracie-humaita-san-francisco-academy

Both have SF locations.

Good luck!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:59 PM on February 20, 2013

kali or escrima usually involves no kicking (or is very light on it) and can be done with weapons/stick/umbrella/knife/your empty hands. basically perfect for the situations you want to be prepared for.

boxing is good too, for conditioning.
posted by zdravo at 9:24 PM on February 20, 2013

You've noted that you want the "knowledge that I can defend myself and/or my girlfriend if I need to". That doesn't exist; trained fighters lose precisely because martial conflict is inherently dangerous and unpredictable.

I'll bow out from here, but please evaluate what you're really looking for; if you want a foolproof defense against violence, carry a weapon. Speaking as someone with ~25 years of training, martial arts won't give you what you've described.
posted by ellF at 11:13 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

seconding all the responses so far about aikido. there is really no offensive movement, the first rule is run away if you can (ok different aikido schools differ on this) and the rest is to accept energy as a "gift" and redirect it. the main point being resolution and harmony. having an offensive weapon or an offensive training means it can likely be taken away from you and then used on you.

I am on the east coast but when visiting SF have tried a couple schools there - Robert Nadeau is an amazing and historically very respected educator. that school was somewhat more martial than mine, but taught me new things and really impressed me. ucsf is also good and a little closer to my local aikido "culture" of non-harm.

most aikido schools I have been to also have a really great culture of, hey just come and observe, or, hey try a class with us, you can sign up some other time.

there is no kicking, there is no punching even. it is really about escaping from being held, just some holds and joint-locks if necessary, and resolving. you are "nage" - "the victim" but as ellF states, the attacker is "ukemi" - "the one who falls". or reversed, you take turns in sparring. but the falling is a very much part of the training - falling is a defense, also as ellF said. (and even in terms of forward/backward rolls, I don't feel like knees are at risk - not even in breakfalls)

my school is very understanding of people with injuries to consider, age, size, it is truly encouraging, this is the "culture" of aikido I have come to know. I have seen a 95lb high school girl throw a 300lb man several times, no kidding. personally I have one shoulder that will separate on a whim, and everyone there knows and is extremely considerate of that. just saying I feel that most aikido schools are very welcoming and worth a try.
posted by dorian at 8:24 AM on February 21, 2013

(ok not entirely holds, yeah there is munetsuki or kendo style attacks like yokomenuchi shomenuchi etc.)
posted by dorian at 8:38 AM on February 21, 2013

One more recommendation from my friend:

Clovis Silva
- in SOMA, on 11th
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:00 PM on February 21, 2013

I agree with zdravo on Kali and Escrima. Panantukan could also be interesting for you.
posted by Bearded Dave at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2013

Keep in mind that defending yourself or your lady's honor rather than retreating is pretty likely to result in injury to you and/or possible criminal charges and/or a civil suit. Are you sure you'll be able to get enough witnesses to corroborate that the other party "started it?"

A friend and coworker got punched in the back of the head at a bar after an argument. He turned around and smacked the assailant in the face with his pint glass, knocking the guy out but cutting off a chunk of my friend's hand and severing several tendons. The guy's friends chased my friend down and alley, beat him severely, and he lost consciousness. Upon awaking, HE was charged and the other guy and his friends weren't. The hand injury ended his professional bass-playing career and he had to pay fines, do community service, and pay restitution to the initial assailant.

While I agree with ellF about carrying a weapon, consider my warning above to be increased 1,000-fold if you do, and carry personal liability insurance of $2mil.

If you're in a public place, a loud and firm vocal response can do a lot to disarm a potential attacker.

I took close to 5 years of Tae Kwon Do. The blocking and punching I learned there has come in handy when friends try to roughhouse with me. Anyone who takes a swing at me or attempts a titty-twister gets their arm slapped to the side and tapped in the chest. I don't even think about it; I just react. I hope that will get me out of most predicaments.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:32 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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