Martial arts for fatties?
November 21, 2005 7:19 PM   Subscribe

Can seriously overweight people do martial arts?

I'm interested in taking up a martial art. I'm a female, above average height, currently about 80-90lbs overweight. I'm pretty inactive, although I was rather athletic in the past so I know I've got it in me - it's just covered in fat! I'd like to do some form of martial arts as both a way to get some activity and also because I'm interested in the focus on discipline. Being overweight and poorly conditioned, do I have any chance of participating in a class or being able to keep within a reasonable range of other beginners? Is it likely to be physically impossible for me? I'm not exceptionally flexible but I don't feel like my movement is hindered a tremendous amount by my weight. Is there a certain form of martial arts that would suit me better than others? What's the level of activity like in comparison to something like aerobics? What's the best way to go about finding a class; should I call up and say "Hi, I'm fat, is it okay to sign up?" Any other advice?
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Allow me to introduce you to Sammo Hung.
posted by Rothko at 7:34 PM on November 21, 2005

Aikido is well-suited for any body type; in fact, at the dojo I used to frequent in Washington, DC many people were overweight (and had the beer bellies to prove it), and it didn't affect their skills at all.
posted by armage at 7:44 PM on November 21, 2005

Actually, pretty much any martial art will give you some fitness benefits, and it really doesn't matter what shape you're currently in. If the instructor is good, you'll be able to work at your current level of ability, and slowly progress to doing more challenging things as your fitness level allows.

If martial arts classes were only for people in tip-top shape, there wouldn't be very many martial arts schools out there. People in martial arts classes range from the ultra-fit-athlete types, to the beer-drinking couch-potato types.

The most important thing is to find an instructor that is knowledgeable, friendly, and that you're comfortable with. The type of martial art shouldn't matter that much.

As to the level of activity, it'll vary from class to class. Your best bet is to call up a few classes, let them know you're not in the best of shape, and ask if you can try a class or two. Virtually all martial arts schools will let new people try a couple of classes for free.
posted by gwenzel at 8:00 PM on November 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

I study ITF Taekwon Do, which is what is typically called a "hard" martial art. That is, it is generally more high-impact, with an emphasis on strikes (both hand and foot) rather than low-impact energy-redirection techniques (a la "soft" arts, like aikido)*.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I can tell you that you are absolutely capable of studying a hard martial art like mine, and flourishing in it. Some of the best practitioners I have seen are very overweight. Obviously,this impacts their physical ability, but the weight does not affect their mental abilities whatsoever. AFAIK, you are likely to gain more aerobic fitness with a hard art over a soft one, but that is not to say that a soft art will not help your fitness levels

Like my instructor always says -- just because you can't do something, doesn't mean you can't learn it, nor that you can't teach it.

Also, on preview: what genzel said.
Also also, my school is affiliated with the USTF. To date, all of the people from this organisation I have met have been wonderfully kind people, and brilliant instructors.

posted by coriolisdave at 8:04 PM on November 21, 2005

I took taekwon do when I was about your size. It was a lot of fun and just about as hard for me as the others in the class, with one exception: when we improved to the point that we were expected to do a long (comparatively speaking) series of moves I was not prepared for the cardiovascular workout. In my enthusiasm I waaaaay overdid it and ended up sitting on my floor with my head between my knees feeling nauseous and light headed with my heart leaping out of my chest. So know your limits and communicate them to your instructor, but by all means go for it.
posted by cali at 8:26 PM on November 21, 2005

Riffing on what cali said, get yourself a heart rate monitor and learn how to set your target zone. It'll start beeping if you're working too hard, and you can give yourself a break.
posted by matildaben at 9:02 PM on November 21, 2005

My aikido instructor during a college course in the art, had a very noticeable pudge. He was still able to fling everyone in the class around with wild abandon (usually, of course, his second/sensei-in-training/partner).

In general, just consider this an echo of the previous comments--you can definitely get into martial arts right now, but like with any prospective student of any size, the trick is finding a "good" school, with an instructor who knows their stuff and is actually good at teaching. Most arts will probably be okay, hard or soft (and hard, as mentioned, will probably get you into better shape faster) although you will probably want to avoid the really gung-ho ones like Wing Chun (a kung fu style) or Jeet Kun Do.

coriolisdave, refresh my memory, what's the relationship (if any) of ITF with the ATA (which has strong associations with 'Karate for Kids' and any other generic 'karate' outfits, and thus gets a bad rap from 'real' martial artists)?

I took some TKD once but it was at a dojong which was not, at the time, associated with any major organization that I can recall, partly because the instructor didn't like the atmosphere in the tournament circuit. If memory serves the school of TKD was 'Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do' and the instructor's instructor (don't recall the correct term) was one of those bona fide grandmasters from Korea.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 9:48 PM on November 21, 2005

I'd concur with the people advocating Aikido.

That said, don't underestimate Judo. A good judoka can pretty much stand their ground instead of jumping hither and yon to evade or deflect an attack. Not that anything is wrong with that approach, but if you're concerned that you lack the agility and flexibility you might want to concentrate on more low-keyed (but highly effective) grappling techniques. The side benefit is that you will ultimately develop that grace and flexibility -- a good Judoka can move to Karate move easier that a Karateka can do Judo.

Most streetfights ultimately degenerate into tackling and grappling at some point. A bit of Judo comes in real handy. Slap a blood choke on someone and even the biggest guy will quickly see the light -- just before he sees the dark.
posted by RavinDave at 10:20 PM on November 21, 2005

RavinDave: Interestingly, one of the oft-overlooked facets of TKD is the grappling aspect. There is a strong emphasis on take-downs, choke-holds, etc, unfortunately in most schools it is typically only taught at higher rankings (blackbelt level)and tends to be overshadowed by the perceived focus on flashy high kicks. One thing I'd love to do, however, is take a bunch of classes in jujitsu or judo, just to get more practice at being tossed around the room :)

cyrusdogstar: Relationship? Name only. The ATA is affilliated with the WTF (World TKD Federation), as distinct from the ITF (International TKD Fed). Wikipedia actually has some reasonable information on the differences, but it boils down to politics, and technique.

The WTF is the style you see in the Olympics (and, to be frank, Olympic sparring bores me to tears). It is heavily supported by the South Korean government, claims origins back to to the dim reaches of time, and the technique is more in line with Karate's theory of power-development (hip motion). Due to the Olympic emphasis, there are a lot of schools who focus on the sport aspect over the 'art'. Additionally, a McDojang is more likely to be a WTF-affiliate than an ITF school*.

The ITF is a political mess all of its own, but (again) broadly speaking, ITF schools tend to teach a more traditional art, emphasising discipline, self-control, etc along with the techniques and sparring and general what-not you get in a typical "real" art. It lays no claim to being an ancient art, instead stating that it developed from various Korean and Japanese arts, being codified in the 1950s by General Choi Chong Hi ("Founder of the Art"). The theory of power is significantly different from WTF, using Newtonian physics /etc, as well the patterns taught are completely different.

*Note: These are my impressions of the WTF from reading various boards/usenet groups over the years, and talking to numerous martial artists. There are good WTF schools, who teach the Art over the Sport, and aren't just there to take your money, however there are vastly more McDojang's that are the opposite.

posted by coriolisdave at 10:46 PM on November 21, 2005

Only martial art (if you can call it that) I have done recently is capoeira. I've seen some pretty overweight participants in beginners' class. Those who have stuck it out past the first couple of months have invariably become markedly leaner over time.

There are plenty of unfit skinny people out there, and I'm sure you can become fit as fast as they can. You could get an advantage from your mass in arts that emphasise takedowns, and have trouble in the more gymnastic movements that need a good power to weight ratio.

I'd say the hard martial arts (I've done TKD and Shaolin boxing as well) are a different kettle of fish to aerobics. They're more like interval training - bursts of intense activity in sparring and drilling in between more low-key work. Great for fat loss, in fact, but very unpleasant until you have a achieved a base level of fitness. Assuming you train twice a week or so, I would be thinking about taking up some other, milder activity in addition just to help build up fitness. It's pretty hard to concentrate on good form and timing and stuff when you're puffing like a steam train.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:52 PM on November 21, 2005

I'm not overweight, I'm average. I've been studying Tae Kwon Do for a year and a half, and I have a disability called "Cerebral Palsy.It really depends on your location. Here in Ottawa, Master Lee will push you, but he also knows you.

Don't fret, the school you belong to know will what you're capable of.

posted by aclevername at 12:53 AM on November 22, 2005

I found the best training to get myself fit for my blackbelt testing last year was high-intensity interval training (which, as joe's offal points out, is great for weight-loss ;). I used an ergo (rowing machine) and a fantastic HIIT program to build myself a "bottomless fuel-tank"
posted by coriolisdave at 1:06 AM on November 22, 2005

I've been taking TKD at an WTDF dojang for over a year. Maybe it's a Canadian thing. Our Grand Master is Tae E. Lee. He is a 9th Dan and brought TKD to Canada.

Some disagree with him, as we have to learn his Tae Kwons and Pa Gwae's.

Many TKD dojogangs learn only the Tae Geuks. Yes, sparring is important, but so is poomse.

I would never have had the confidence to start if Tae E. Lee hadn't advertised for special needs.

I'm currently a red stripe, aiming for a red belt. I've been at red stripe for over 6 months. I want to get my red belt. But I want it the way you got it.

Maybe I may never have a
black belt - but I want it more than so many others.

I will not give up until I am at least close. (Ih-neh, my tatoo).
I don't think our dojoing is hurting my baby.

I don't want to be proud
posted by aclevername at 1:20 AM on November 22, 2005

What's the best way to go about finding a class; should I call up and say "Hi, I'm fat, is it okay to sign up?"

I see nothing wrong with being as direct as this. Discuss your concerns with the instructor and listen to what he says. Bear in mind that MA gyms are a business so they're unlikely to turn away potential students.

Nothing beats visiting a gym and observing how things work. Suss out the mood of the place - are the students respectful? is the instructor welcoming? Does the place 'feel right'?

For advice on choosing a gym, have a read of the many online forums.

Whatever you decide, do not let the weight issue put you off training. MA can be a truly life changing experience.
posted by the cuban at 4:15 AM on November 22, 2005

The Chinese martial arts are not only designed around animal fighting styles, but also human body types. My best friend, who used to be overweight, learned Hung-Gar. After a couple of years, he finally whiddled away a few pounds and moved on to Wing Chun.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:04 AM on November 22, 2005

Regarding aikido, I know a few "larger" people who do it. You will learn to throw and be thrown, so be prepared for that. I'd imagine that landing heavily for an overweight person is potentially dangerous, but the dojo should introduce you to the more athletic stuff slowly, so overall it's probably a good idea.

You should ask yourself why you want to do this. If it's purely to lose weight, then perhaps something like tae bo or boxercise would be better. You'd get the same motivation and a good workout.

If you decide to join a martial arts gym, the normal caviat applies: check out the dojo/gym before you sign up. If the classes look at all disorganised, or you think the teacher pushes people too hard too fast, then don't join. Don't think you'll get fitter just by someone shouting at you to do one more rep. You'll most likely get injured or demotivated.

You could check out some form of grappling. Judo and jujitsu feature a lot of groundwork. This is tremendously good exercise. A weight advantage is always useful in grappling, although a good style will teach its exponents how to use technique instead of strength.

A simple get-fit tip is to cycle to and from your gym. Depending on the distance, it shouldn't extend your travel time too much, and so it will gain you extra exercise "from nowhere".
posted by ajp at 5:27 AM on November 22, 2005

I knew a 20-stone plus Chinese guy who did Wing Chun kung fu. He could jump higher than me, kick higher than me and was much fitter than me.
posted by xpermanentx at 6:29 AM on November 22, 2005

I've taken Aikido for a few years now, and as others have mentioned, in our dojo also there are a few overweight people - but the good ones have learned how to work with their weight. I don't have experience in other martial arts, but for Aikido, we focus a lot on lowering our centers to get better balance and more power. Those with "larger" centers can have an easier time with this, actually. One of the black belts had the best time practicing when she was very, very pregnant - the extra belly made her more powerful, she says. :-)

As for learning while overweight - it shouldn't make a difference. As has been mentioned, you'll just have to be aware of your cardiovascular limits. Aikido is a workout, but nothing like karate or aerobics or things like that, so it's not something I would focus on if you're using it to lose weight. But it's still a great thing to learn.
posted by bibbit at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2005

Ditto, ditto, and ditto. Lots of good stuff above.

My $.02... I am an aikidoist. Started practice in 1987, started teaching in 1992. We had a guy in our dojo who was very overweight - more than 300 lbs. He wasn't even able to get a belt that fit - we had to sew two children's belts together. But that guy was always at class, always worked hard, and eventually started losing weight. Eventually, he stopped training, but he was an amazing inspiration to me. Had more "heart" than most of our black belts. That said, I say go for it.

But to reiterate, find a school you like, whatever style you choose (I'm partial to aikido, obviously). Do your research; online, talk to other martial artists, students in the dojo, etc. And above all, KEEP AT IT! Being "out of shape", you will often feel like quitting. Don't!

Also discussed here, here, and here (do an AskMe search on "martial").

If you need any further aikido info, feel free to email me. Best of luck to you!!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:00 AM on November 22, 2005

Absolutely yes. Depending on the school and instructor.

A year and a half ago, I was in your shoes. Overweight (about 60 pounds in my case. But I'm about 5-foot-3 so, your mileage may vary), wanting to take martial arts, and not sure if I could.

I ended up taking Tae Kwon Do at a small school in Burke, VA - I don't think that the dojang I go to is part of the ITF or WTF, though some of the black belts learn some of the ITF forms, I believe.

What I learned was that - yes, it IS harder for someone overweight to keep up. It is by no means impossible. I felt slower (I was slower) and heavier than my classmates.

It took me eight months to get past my white belt. I -hated- that damn belt by the time I got my next one. I think my roommate hated my white belt too, just because of the amount of complaining I did.

I found that I had to work harder to keep up with my class. My dojang allows students to come in and work out during other belt levels' classes, if there is free space. So I do a lot of that.

The more I work out, the better able I am to keep up with my class. I ended up losing weight, and putting on muscle. (25 pounds of weight lost, I don't know how much fat-converted-to-muscle, but I'd imagine rather a lot, since I have some muscle definition in my calves and thighs now.)

It is still -hard-. My endurance is not what I would like it to be, certain activities still hurt like the dickens, and I still have to put in a ton of extra time, because every belt level gives more challanging lessons.

If the first place you talk to scoffs? Find a different school. The art you pick doesn't matter - find one you like the style of, and then find a school that will teach it and deal with your personal needs.

It is worth it. It is 100% worth it.
posted by FritoKAL at 10:16 AM on November 22, 2005

I'd like to second RavinDave's comments about judo—I used to practice it in high school, and we had a great range of body types there. The great thing about judo is that you can find a niche—you may be better at matwork, or your strength may lie in throws. Whatever your strengths/weaknesses, judo will work well with them, 'cause that's what it was designed to do.

But from the comments above, it seems that you'll likely be just fine with most martial arts as long as you find a solid dojo where the instructors care about their students.
posted by limeonaire at 10:23 AM on November 22, 2005

Not too much to add to all the excellent comments above except to say that I practice jiu jitsu, and I also teach beginner classes at my dojo. Students in these classes are all shapes and sizes and every single one of them -- if the attend regularly and can follow directions -- can learn all the moves.

Please don't let your current weight and/or fitness level stop you from trying out martial arts. Being fit does not mean you will be a good martial artist. Being dedicated and loving what you are doing is the key.

It sounds a bit cliched but one of the best lessons that a new student can learn is to not focus on all the things that there are to know about a particular style -- that can be totally overwhelming -- but instead to focus on trying to do just one thing a little bit better than the last time. In this way it's possible to focus on personal progress, and not get hung up on "I'll never be able to do a flying, spinning hook-kick."

My advice would be is to try introductory classes in two or three different styles. Be frank when you talk to the senseis about your concerns and your goals. Go with the dojo that puts the focus on effort, and that demonstrates that there are a lot of different reasons for being on the mat.

Good luck!
posted by melimelo at 10:15 AM on November 23, 2005

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