Can Older People Do Jiu-jitsu? Just Ask Rick…

Every so often a prospective student emails me and asks me if it’s realistic for an older person to take up Jiu-jitsu. Most of the time the people asking are in the 40s and overweight or out of shape. I’ve always said that it’s possible for anyone of pretty much any age and physical condition (provided doctor’s approval) to start training, but it was only after Rick Karnowski started training with us, that I had the perfect person to point toward as proof.

Rick started training with us in May 2010 at the age of 63. He was overweight, out of shape and had no real martial arts experience (only 6 months of Aikido training that he took over a decade ago). I always try to maintain an optimistic attitude toward all my students and their capabilities, but I found myself wondering how long he would last, never having had anyone of his demographic and situation sign up at my dojo. Well, I’m happy to say that over a year and a half later, he’s still with us and has become the perfect example of what people can accomplish if they are inspired and persistent.

When he first started, Rick weighed in at a hefty 220 lbs for his height of 5’8″. He started slow with his training going at his own pace during classes, but always attended 2x a week and every other Sunday for 2 hours of open training. In addition to his training, he lowered his carb intake and started eating less. With only these 2 lifestyle changes, Rick lost 65 lbs, shattering the idea that it’s really tough to lose weight in your 60s. After he lost the weight, he also added swimming to his weekly exercises. After gaining a little muscle mass, Rick, now 65, weighs a healthy 160lbs and is even a little cut now. Check out the before and after pics below. (I wouldn’t blame you if you accused me of using pics of two different people, but these are actually pictures of the same person!)

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“Training in Jiu-jitsu is great for getting in shape. It re-sets the body to what it should be,” explains Rick on his success with his physical development. “I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into when I first started, but once I make a decision, I just do it. You’ve got to make a commitment to get the most out of it.” And commit, he did. This past September, we added two Self-Defense Fitness classes to our weekly schedule. Rick now attends those, in addition to his two Jiu-jitsu classes each week. He holds the rank of orange belt (5th kyu) and we’re getting him ready to grade for green soon. He was also a co-winner of our dojo’s “Hard Core” award for this year, as voted by our students. Rick is also a dauntless force to be reckoned with, who rarely flinches when sparring. Hard to imagine for someone who carries a senior citizen card, but true. This partly comes from the mental benefits he has also received from his training.

Throughout his life, Rick had confidence issues. “If someone got tough with me, I used to get tough back. I was reactive and would let my emotions get away from me,” Rick recalls. “Martial arts helps you be mentally focused and relaxed, and it also gives you opportunities to deal with fear factors and learn to overcome them. Then it becomes easier to be assertive in your life so you can choose your responses rather than resorting to knee-jerk reactions. Now I just stay relaxed and calmly diffuse aggressive situations.”

Rick, like everyone, still has challenges he faces. He has a fear of falling, which sometimes affects him when he does breakfalls and when he’s thrown. He is also trying to improve his flexibility in his back and shoulders to help him with his speed and mobility. That being said, Rick makes a conscious effort to work on those things. He has already improved his flexibility after taking up a stretching regimen I recommended. And he regularly asks for help with his breakfalls during open training sessions.

If you can’t tell, I am super proud of Rick and all he’s accomplished, but I don’t feel like I can take any credit other than creating a dojo where people can feel comfortable training at their own pace. He was the one who found his own inspiration and followed through on it. In doing so, he inspires me and everyone else who trains with him. He gives hope for us all, showing us that it is possible to maintain your Jiu-jitsu training into your senior years. He also gives me the perfect person to point to as an example of what is possible when anyone wonders if they’re too fat, too old, or too out of shape to do Jiu-jitsu.

Now to you: Do you train with any older people or senior citizens at your dojo? How do they fare as students?

Comments (26)

26 thoughts on “Can Older People Do Jiu-jitsu? Just Ask Rick…

  1. Rick is an amazing story!! I really enjoyed reading this post. I do train with some older people, yet what I mean by older is people in their mid to late 40's or early 50's. I am 38 years old myself and am currently a purple belt in BJJ, so I know how tough it is on the body. Good for Rick for sticking to it, and his before and after pics look great. Personally, I think people who are older can do martial arts (of course if they are healthy enough via their doctor) and encourage them to do so. When I first started I weighed 230 lbs and am a little over 5'8". Unlike Rick, I didn't diet (until I started to cut 10 lbs for a tourney) and in 6 months I was down to 169 lbs!! Plus I had a lot more fun then running like a gerbil on a treadmill. I believe that schools need people like Rick around because it keep the morale up, and members in classes. You have no excuse as a 20 something when there is a member in their busting their butt who is in their 60's. Congratulations Rick!

  2. My experience is that older people tend to have an easy going, relaxed attitude towards training that isn't exactly suited to young people who're full of energy and really want to get into it. While I respect those who take up martial arts later in life I found training with them rather frustrating at times: one of the main reasons why I left my old dojo is because more and more older people joined and the pace and quality of classes declined. It's great that they want to get back into shape and find some agreeable pasttime but as a young guy you always have to be mindful of their limitations and this lowers the quality of your own training. A few older individuals in a club or dojo may well have positive effects but towards the end there were more people over 40 than those below and even though I liked most of them on a personal level I felt I was wasting my time there. The student population should be as diverse as possible but as a teacher you should keep track of your goal and not gear your teaching to one group or another: if you do you'll end up with a very unbalanced group and inevitably this will lead to a decline in quality.

    In short: I think it's great older individuals take up JJ or any martial art and they certainly can, but on the whole I'd rather not be training with them, at least not frequently.

    Zara

  3. Zara: I understand that some older people might prefer to take it easier in their training, but that is true in every demographic. Some like to push hard. Some prefer to be more laid back. Every person is different and making blanket statements limits a person's vision of what is possible.

    I have quite a few people in my dojo who are over 40, a number of whom are some of the most hard core people in the dojo. I have 2 people in their 40s who have full-time jobs in law enforcement, both of which train hard to get the most out of their training. I also have other students in their 40s who started a little over weight but pushed themselves to become more fit and now give the younger students a run for their money.

    I don't cater my teaching to any particular demographic group. I teach the way I want to teach. Every person is different, but I find that when you have preconceived notions about what a group of people is like, you tend to look for confirmation of those notions. Better to keep an open mind (or an empty cup) so you can fill it with possibilities. To achieve true diversity, this kind of attitude is a necessity.

  4. That's an awesome story! I'm 44 and having motivation issues so I have taken a hiatus of sorts from MA.

    I always figured I had one more black belt run in me but first I need to commit time to certifications for my job (part of the reason for my hiatus).

    Once the career settles I really have no good excuse.

    Kudos to Rick!

  5. There's no need to take what I've said in the wrong way: I clearly stated that I only recounted my own experience (in response to your question nota bene) so it obviously wasn't a blanket statement. I never indicated I believe old people aren't capable of proper training (that would be a blanket statement, I even put in a qualifier: 'tend to' doesn't equal 'are by definition') so I fail to see why you'd think that. I understand you want to present this as a succes-story in order to attract more students in that age bracket and kudos to the guy for his effort but it's true older people usually do have (or at least have a higher than average chance of) physical limitations as compared to younger individuals (our bodies do degrade when we get older, this is a biological fact not my opinion) which can impact their training and their partner's.

    This doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't train, but it's a fact none the less. As to your advice: I do think in general training with younger people is more beneficial (presumably you'd want to train realistically, with speed and some impact) and nothing in your response makes me think differently but that doesn't mean I'll disrespect anyone who isn't completely fit or mentally tough and focused or refuse to train with or teach them to the best of my ability. To think I do is conjecture without any basis in reality since we haven't even met personally let alone trained together. Up to date I haven't received complaints about my teaching style so apparantly I'm not doing too shabby. Everyone goes by their experiences (knowledge springs from experience after all) so to imply I'm prejudiced (be it in a very polite and indirect way) is to value your own experience higher than mine: in itself not an unreasonable course of action given your position but you shouldn't present your opinion as being objective ('it is better to…') when it isn't. I'm suprised you seem to be taking this personally somehow, it really wasn't intended that way.

    Zara

    • There’s only one thing that the young Zara must remember: You too will be old some day and will not appreciate a statement like the one you made. We have plenty of old guys training in our MA class, and we’d be more than happy to take out in the woods up here in Canada to around eight thousand feet and see how you hold out.

      • I am 71 and recently took up jiu jitsu. Fortunately, none of the trainers and none of the other students take Zara’s negative attitude. I do not ask for special treatment and I do not receive it. Early on, some younger students (they are all young compared to me) may have thought that they needed to go easy, but that well-meaning attitude did not last. They give 100% and I give 100% and I receive daily encouragement from everyone.

    • Zara I must agree..I’m an old dude trying to train in combat submission wrestling before giving bjj a try and I can feel the frustration from younger partners. Thinking I’d better just partner up with old lions in muay Thai.

      • Unfortunately, each training atmospheres is specific to each school and not every school has an atmosphere conducive for older to be not only included, but welcomed. I hope Muay thai works out better for you.

  6. Zara: I think we may have misunderstood each other. The point of this article was not to attract more people in his age range, but to demonstrate to people who are younger that their limitations generally pale in comparison to what this one individual did. I've never geared my teaching to a specific age group beyond the wide range that I accept (15 years and up), but I do try to look at each person's individual capabilities when teaching them so as to help them achieve their best.

    I didn't take your statement personally, I just thought it sounded like a limiting belief, whether it's based on experience or not. Even with wording like "tend to", you still stated that you'd "rather not train with them on the whole" which sounded a little like a blanket statement to me. I apologize for misunderstanding if that wasn't what you meant.

    I wasn't make any statements or assumptions on your teaching of which I have no experience, only the statements in your comment. Nor do I value my own experience more than yours. I also wasn't trying to convince you that you should prefer training with older people over younger people, just to be open to considering each person's capabilities on a case by case basis, regardless of past experience.

    I try to myself, but it can be a challenge. It was actually hard for me to keep an open mind when Rick first came on board. I had my reservations and wondered how long he'd last, but he opened my eyes. So as a result, I try to see each new student for their potential, rather than their limitations. This is not to say that you don't do this. I'm just recounting my experience so you understand where I'm coming from.

    Your comments are always welcome. I always try to offer my own insights (for what they're worth) on people's comments when they take the time to share their thoughts. Thank you for taking the time to comment and respond. It only serves to broaden my understanding and experience as a martial artist and a writer.

  7. Great Job Rick. Starting out in Jiu Jitsu at 63 years old. Very Inspiring and a great example to any adult who may be “sitting on the fence”. There are so many benefits to be gained through Jiu Jitsu so it’s great to hear it’s made such a positive impact in your life too.

  8. Great to hear about Rick and hope he’s still training hard and inspiring his fellow martial artists. While some students might not be as sharp technically their enthusiasm and intensity is something I find more inspiring.

  9. Congrats to Rick! I just started BJJ a few months before my 53rd birthday and six months into BJJ, I will self-describe as one of the slowest learners in my BJJ school. As a middle aged woman in good physical shape, I can handle the physical conditioning exercises just fine, but learning and applying the techniques is brutal on my mind. I can watch a move or technique but applying it in drills and rolling is where the body doesn’t do what the eyes just saw.

    I put in 4 to 5 hours a week to BJJ classes & rolling and understand Anonymous’s reaction to training with the older population. A lot has to do with the school’s overall goals regarding its students.

    My fellow students are mainly in the 16 to 24 yr old demographic, with maybe 3 to 4 other students who fall in the 30 to 42 yr old category. Mainly men, the school has 4 females. Everybody (male/female) rolls together, as long as you are 16 and above.

    The 30 yr old and 21 yr old women have grasped the techniques much faster than I have, and sometimes I wonder if this is a function of AGE and/or learning style. So far, my technique and learning curve is on par with the 16 yr old woman.

    Needless to say, as an older beginning BJJ student, I am also at the gym and yoga center five days a week to maintain overall fitness so I can participate in BJJ to my fullest.

    Question: Can anyone share their school’s experiences or your opinions on what it’s like to train with older women in BJJ?

    • I have a woman in my dojo who just turned 50. It has taken her longer to make progress in her training, but it seems that everyone is happy to train with her and don’t really measure her by her age. It’s nice to see that everyone is so supportive. :)

  10. I would be interested in learning Jiu Jitsu. I am 61, still working as a manager for 64 apartment units. 32 down and 32 up stairs so I still get around well. Are there any good places in the area of Whittier, Ca.90604 USA that will teach a person of my age?

  11. I thought jiu jitsu as in life is supposed to be a give and take. You take when you are doing what you enjoy best, and you give when you help someone who may be less advanced and less in shape than you. When I am rolling with a girl, I try to give her a ralistic situation of a guy trying to overpower her. If it is a beginner or an older person, I let them set the pace. And sometimes I get thrown around like a rag doll. Try and strike a balance of maybe 70 -30.

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