Training when injured

One of the most amazing things about Kokikai Aikido is that we have a very low rate of injuries. In fact, in my 10 years of teaching, we have only had 5 serious injuries that occurred on the mat–a record that I doubt many other martial art styles can match.

That said, we do have our share of students who get injured off the mat. When that happens, I count myself lucky when a student actually asks me how they can continue to train without aggraviting their injury further. I’m lucky, because another great aspect of Kokikai Aikido is that we can easily modify training to account for a wide variety of injuries–all the student needs to do is ask! Here, I’ve put together a list of ways you can continue to effectively study Kokikai Aikido even when on the “injured list.”

Before I begin, we should make one thing clear: any time someone tells me they are injured, I ask them if they’ve seen a doctor or taken any action to discover the cause and correct resolution of the issue. Aikido is great, but it doesn’t have an answer to a frozen shoulder or a sprained ankle! Seeking proper medical advice is not only common sense, it is critical to safe training.

Forget Ukemi

Common injuries most students (and people!) experience include things like a tweaked back or a swollen knee. These injuries typically existed before the student ever started training. In a lot of cases, the solution is simple: stop taking ukemi (falls). There is no rule that says you have to be both uke and nage every time you train. By focusing on being the nage, you can often train quite effectively, contribute to the dojo, and significantly reduce the risk of aggravating the injury.

Often, students balk at this option, because they think that if they don’t take falls, they’re reducing the training opportunities for their partner. This is absolutely not true. For one thing, there are always a few people who could use a little more ukemi in their training. For another, it is very common to find a group of three at any classs–by becoming the “third” person, the fact that you cant fall becomes almost irrelevant.  This option works well if the injury is mild or relates to the back or arms–it’s not the best option if you injured your leg, because many techniques still require some twists and turns that are hard to do carefully.

Weapons Training

One risk with training while recovering from an injury is that your training partner may not fully understand what you can and can’t do. For this reason alone. weapons training is a fantastic option. There are a couple of advantages. First, you can move at your own pace–whether you need to move at a glacial pace or one more akin to molasses, you are in complete control. Another advantage: the weight of a jo staff or a bokken is often just enough to help build back some muscle strength, without being unduly taxing.

Often, students in Kokikai Aikido skip over weapons training because, to be honest, weapons are not a primary focus in Kokikai. However, most dojos have enough open space that it’s easy to carve out a section for a student or two to work on weapons while everyone else students open-hand technique. I know this is true in our dojo–if you’re not sure about yours, just ask!

Ki exercises

Another phenomenal training method is to focus solely on ki development exercises. These can range from the typical eight to ten exercises we use during warm ups, to a variety of exercises that improve your understanding of unliftable body, unbendable arm, and so on. Recently, I spent an hour on ki exercises, and we barely got through about four of them. The best thing about ki exercises is that they require very little physical movement, so you can avoid aggravating any knee, leg, or back injuries.

Should you go this route you can train with minimal disruption of class. Simply choose a training partner. Instead of working on whatever technique the instructor requests, ask that instructor what the corresponding ki exercises are and work on those. I promise you, you’ll not only help yourself, but your partner as well. Ki exercises are often overlooked, because they aren’t very flashy. But they improve your technique in ways you cannot possibly imagine.


When all else fails, you can always train your eye. Come to the dojo and observe what you see. Ask your instructor what you should look at, or ask questions about what you see. This training is essential–most instructors don’t bother to explain what they do, they require you to catch it by observation and experimentation. Best of all, training your eye requires only that you can get to the dojo and find a place to sit–that makes it open to just about everyone!

Again, it is so important to take care of yourself, both on and off the mat. That said, I hope these ideas can help you when you find that you’re not able to train the way you’d like.

7 thoughts on “Training when injured

  1. We have a teacher, here at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, who once said that Uke’s injuries are always his or her faults. Once Uke understands that going along Tori’s technique in order to make perfection come true will enable him not only to make his body strong and pliant but also to experience the subtleties of the art, he will have made great progress towards safe practice. We must also be careful to protect our eyes, nose mouth and head when we are pinned down to the ground, because the neighbors’ spinning heels are really dangerous; people making a back fall on your head, too.

    Injuries can provide many opportunities to better know one’s body while under the care of a doctor. This should lead to a healthier and more intelligent way of training. I have been dragging a knee injury for more than thirty years now. It has led me away from fast and furious Taekwondo competition and to Japan where the more static Japanese Karatedo enabled me to delve into the intricacies of the kata and the secrets of the art, then to Tai chi and to Aikido. My early wound led me thus to the softer arts and most of all to a softer way of training which befits the age I have reached and allows me more regular and intensive training which of course leads to a more profound understanding. Said understanding in turn, attracts the attention of the experienced practitioners “who know”. Drinking powder collagen every day and going to acupuncture therapy once a week have become a kind of body maintenance which accounts for my great general shape and health.

    In order to achieve proficiency in the art, we should undertake basic and boring exercises. But if we have a choice in the matter (that is in the absence of injuries) we’d rather have fun and discover fascinating techniques with a partner. The big problem when trying to carry on training while injured is that we often get swallowed into the class and the partner’s pace: too fast, too strong, too demanding. It might be a good idea to devise a program for solo practice such as tai sabaki when handling a weapon or learning some weapons kata. The idea is to have practiced these kata with the instructor a few times so as to understand what is going on in a video or a book. So your injury will create time for research and surfing, for creating compilation of videos on subjects to learn and understand; because to see is not to look. So much goes unnoticed in Aikido techniques…we have to know to look for meaningful details. And the most important things are invisible to the eye: the reason for a technique, its strategy and its wisdom, its philosophical aspect, the proper timing, angles, distance for success etc.
    We have eyes but we do not see…

  2. I appreciate the article! Very well written and very good advice.

    I had a chronically sprained wrist which did heal with slow weapons practice – momentum in a weapon means stress on the wrists, so no fast weapons work.

    We have a martial history of Daito Ryu. Our techniques can cause death and serious injury, with little modification it doesn’t matter how good someone’s ukemi is. My Sensei would talk about how “ukemi could be taken away.” When he wanted to, he could demonstrate exactly that!

    This is not the focus of Aikido now, but as students start to explore a movement and develop power and speed I have seen students accidently recreate techniques that would have been more at home on a battlefield. O Sensei’s rules of following the instructor puts the pressure on the teacher for being careful enough in what is taught.

    We have become so focused on being gentle that some students have no concept of how they might injure someone. When I see injuries from this type of practice, I very much blame Nage’s ignorance and the instructor and not Uke’s ukemi. When I see someone meditate and talk spirituality but refuse to learn how an arm can be broken, I have come to expect injuries to happen to their uke.

    Also, as a sempai, there is no blaming an uke for not being able to take ukemi they couldn’t reasonably be expected to take. I can’t agree with the Hombu instructor. As a nurse in psychiatry, restraining someone is me taking them into my care. If they are injured, it is completely my responsibility. I do not get to blame the patient for falling badly. I don’t encourage students blaming injures on the person taking the ukemi, even when it is true.

  3. I have been teaching for 8 years and we have been fortunate enough to not have any injuries on the mat but like you we have had several folks get injured at home or work. Like you I offer the option of training injured and working around it, not taking ukemi and such. Some take me up on the offer while others decide to take a break which is always a bad idea for two reasons.
    1st- preditors don’t care that you are injured. They won’t take it easy on you just because you limp or your arm is in a sling, in fact you are more likely to get picked as the target because they think you can’t fight back. My solution is you need to learn how to defend with the limitation so you can protect yourself. I had back surgery in February and was back on the mat in two months, as soon as I could stand for an hour without major pain.

    2nd- students who take off a month or more to heal from an injury are likely to stop training. I had two stop training last year for minor injuries at home and neither have come back though both are healed(one even goes to the gym daily!!).
    Craig Cruse- Paducah Aikido Association

    1. In order to learn how to defend with the limitation so you can protect yourself, observing injured, handicapped, weak, aged or exhausted people’s training should help. Everybody is able to perform best in optimum conditions, but optimum conditions are hard to come by even when practicing kata keiko…

  4. Thank you very much. I have come to understand the truth of your reply. I have now been training for more than three years with the same old Japanese who took a fancy on me and would not practice with anyone else. I know it is bad policy and under normal circumstances the Doshu or the other teachers would have objected to this but respect for the aged is tremendous in Japan and this “grandfather” is so energetically devoted to the art that I find impossible to reject his requests to practice with me. Mind you, I don’t find myself in the least worse for it, because he is always available for extra training, although he told me once his doctor and his wife were quite opposed to his intensive and strenuous training and that he was still quite busy at home.
    I try to be gentle with him but when he grabs me fast and strong or when he tries to fight the techniques he often ends up injured and since recovery is bad at that age we both have ample time to regret what happened. So we try hard to practice more cautiously by paying great care to meaningful details.
    But the slower and the more cautiously we train the more dangerous the techniques become; in a truly appalling and lethal way. Because we take the time to ensure we are applying to the fullest extent the principles of physics such as that of the lever, that of gravity, etc, the principles of anatomy when applying locks (to the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, the neck etc.) and those of psychology when using feints or atemi to unbalance for real the partner or make him unwisely contribute to his own demise. It is true that a technique done under these conditions doesn’t allow the ukemi. Rather, the partner very often falls in a very dangerous way. It is impossible to break a good sweat while practicing in this way: when using the partner’s moves and the laws of nature, we have to take the greatest care not to hurt when it’s so easily done, so unavoidable. It reveals that fast and furious practice in Aikido is a purely physical and sport-like thing.
    You need to be conscious of the extent of the damages you could inflict in order to know how to protect yourself and understand the importance of etiquette and self-control.
    What could be said in defense of the Hombu instructor is that he probably wanted to stress the importance to actively think about one’s own security instead of entrusting it completely to Tori.

  5. I have to say the article is spot on. Having learned the hard way that practicing whilst injured simple makes a bad situation worse; it is imperative to heal first before getting back into training.

    However what I subsequently learnt from my stupidity (training when injured) was that there are things that we can do which both a) aid the recovery process and b) enhance our capabilities by ‘training differently’.

    Here goes:

    a) Dedicate more time to ‘exercise’ which supports the healing process. In my case I looked out my old Yoga book and sought out the necessary exercises and I also did a lot more Pilates practice. By the time my knee had fully recovered (a good couple of months!) I was more flexble and had a stronger core which supported my gradual move back into regular training.

    And the best way to get back into regular training after an injury is ‘very slowly’ – without effort, almost like doing T’ai Chi. That way you get the movements but withough the hard exersion which might otherwise lead to another injury.

    b) This can be done anywhere – and it should be! Mentally go through your training. That is close your eyes and in your mind’s eye ‘visualize’ yourself doing the moves. Feel yourself doing the moves.

    This is truly an awesome training aid which should be done anyway even if you are fit and injury free. Try it for 5 minutes a day – and watch your skill move up incrementally!

  6. Even though I train in full-contact karate we have very few dire injuries in our dojo. That said, I’ve had many, many bruises to contend with, ripped the skin off my knuckles, and bruised bones so deep that some are still healing!

    I say all that not to try to sound like some kind of tough guy but rather to say that injuries have forced me to be creative. During kumite I was kicked in the thumb that nearly broke it at the joint. As a result, I couldnt form a fist with my right hand. I was still in the middle of the match, so it wasn’t like I could just stop, so what did I do? I switched to a left handed stance and used open hand techniques instead. It wasn’t perfect, but it let me keep going.

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