Physical Training Apr 2001

Massage for the Martial Artist

 by Emily Dolan  

Longevity and Survival

        Another day of training comes, and you find yourself wondering how much longer your body will take what you love to do without simply falling apart. Particularly in cold weather, it takes longer every year to warm up creaking joints and bloodless muscles. You soldier on, working through the pain, taking longer to warm up, taking for granted that your body is simply stiff and there's nothing you can do.

        Nothing could be further from the truth.

        Massage originated in China and Japan as "amma" and has been the companion and, in fact, a component of rigorous physical training in Oriental cultures. A judoka client of mine recently commented to me that he was reminded of how he survived so many years of judo when he received a session from me. He recalled the tradition preserved in judo of massaging each other, tending to stiff muscles which hinder relaxation and lead to injury in shiai.

        As martial arts have 'modernized', few have kept the tradition of teaching healing to those who will teach and, instead, focus on competition and salability instead of transmission of a whole art.

        Modern science shows that athletes who receive regular bodywork are more focused, more relaxed and efficient in their movements. As the therapist manipulates muscle tissue and stretches limbs and torso in specific patterns to induce relaxation and improve circulation, proprioceptors (Golgi organs) in the muscles are affected and relaxed.

        This means that hidden tension that can affect performance and endurance is lessened. Research has shown that office workers who receive light work to the neck, face, shoulders and forearms show heightened awareness and reaction speed.

        While the more subtle effects of classical Swedish massage include improved circulation and greater relaxation and awareness, there are other benefits for the martial artist who wishes to continue practicing as much as possible.

        Damage to muscle and tendon creates micro-adhesions, or sticky spots, between muscle fibers. These spots create areas vulnerable to tearing from sudden movement or impact.

        A skilled therapist can feel these adhesions and free them using cross-fiber friction or other myofascial techniques. The therapist may also prescribe a regimen of gentle stretching or ice and heat.

        I personally try to get a good massage a day before a big seminar as well as one the week following. It's a safety factor for me as a person who practices grappling arts, the relaxation makes me far more aware of my partners movements and makes taking falls much easier. It also reduces the shoulder pain and cramping of sword and jo movements and allows me to keep the proper relaxation and spinal-hip alignment for efficient work. I find that tense muscles work against one another and I tire far faster if I have not had good bodywork recently.

        The very fact that martial artists do use their bodies so much lends them far healthier lives than the average modern citizen who perhaps walks the dog a few blocks in the evening. However, the body a martial artist lives in places far more demands on its systems. Sustained postures, repetitive motions, the general process of toughening and softening the body and the mind, the specialized use of hip muscles, adductors, abdominal obliques and tiny internal rotators of the shoulders and hips can lead to overuse and injuries which stymie the average MD, who will generally tell you to take an anti-inflammatory drug and "stay off it."

        This is not an acceptable answer for any martial artist I know, including myself.

        Martial artists are athletes and should be treated as such. It is part and parcel of our philosophy not to quit, sometimes, very much to a fault.

        In my massage practice, as in modern sports medicine, I encourage activity as soon as possible, as often as possible. I advocate stretching and strength exercises for the vulnerable muscles of the shoulders, torso and hips.

        I also recommend that a practicing martial artist get a full body massage at least once a month to maintain relaxation and flexibility, and to tend to overused or borderline injured muscle groups.

        Competitors should receive work two days before and one day after competition. Rank tests count physiologically as competition, and the stress reduction inherent -- particularly in Swedish massage -- is highly beneficial in test preparation.

        There are many different types of massage available, so make sure your therapist has had formal training at a reputable school.

        Ask therapists what they do and how they do it. And note that there are some types of massage, such as Reiki and aromatherapy, which do either little or no physical manipulation.

        Personally, I do not use therapists of this type. While some people get great benefits from these treatments, I prefer not to separate body, mind and spirit; instead I treat the whole person as a gestalt.

        I also encourage people to find what works for them, to explore just how well they can be, and not to accept the 'RDA' theory of existence -- that is, getting the minimum to prevent disorder. I say change the focus: Why not try for the maximum of health and happiness?

Emily Dolan has been practicing budo (aikido, kenjutsu, judo, wing tsun, and most recently Kokoro Ryu Aikibudo in Indianapolis)  for 8 years and is a graduate of the Lauterstein Conway School of Massage in Austin, Texas (  She enthusiastically welcomes input and networking from budoka and health professionals who treat them. Her web site is:

Physical Training Apr 2001