Kids vs Hojo Undo, Part 1
I've gotten some questions about what kinds of hojo undo are appropriate for younger students and if I could make some equipment specifically for children. I thought this was a really interesting question since children make up the majority of most martial arts schools. Thankfully, the issue of strength training for kids is not unique to martial arts so we have a lot of research to draw on. For purposes of readability I'll outline the conclusions and list the sources at the end.
Let’s start with the main question. Is strength training safe for children? Yes, if done correctly. The traditional argument against resistance training for prepubescent children is that it could stunt their growth. The fear is that weight training could damage their bones in such a way that they would stop growing. This can actually happen. Children’s bones have sections called growth plates where new bone tissue is added. If that plate is broken it can stop working and the bone can be permanently stuck at that length. Thankfully the growth plate is made of cartilage so breaking it is difficult, and even if it is broken there are treatments that can help. (1) Still, it is a serious injury and it should be avoided if at all possible. For that reason the Mayo Clinic recommends children not participate in competitive strength sports like Olympic weightlifting, bodybuilding, or powerlifting. (2) The drive of competition can lead to injuries especially when good technique falls apart under maximum weight. But that only applies to professional level training. Strength training is not itself dangerous. Even at top levels Olympic weightlifters experience injury rates of 0.24 – 5.5 per 1000 hours of training. (3) Compare that to distance runners who report rates of 2.5 – 12.1 per 1000 hours and you can see how safe it really is. Add to that the fact that in a martial arts context the weights will be lower than in most strength sports and that they will have more access to good coaching, and we can see that the injury risk is extremely minimal. Considering that most of martial arts training involves trying to punch each other in the face hojo undo is likely to be the least dangerous part of a class.
Alright, you say, I can accept that children can safely do hojo undo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. If there’s even a chance that they could be injured why not just wait until they’re grown? Good question. First, because that argument is for quitters and communists. Second, because not only can children expect the same relative safety of strength training they can expect the same benefits such as injury prevention, improved performance, stronger bones, healthier blood pressure and cholesterol, weight maintenance, and improved confidence and self-esteem. In short, children should do hojo undo for the exact same reasons that adults should.
Alright, you say again, I can accept that too, but what exactly to you mean by “children.” There are more differences than similarities between a 5 year old and a 17 year old. That is, of course, true. No one is suggesting you try and jam a kongoken in your baby’s crib. If you do though, post a picture. That sounds adorable. Obviously, this all depends on the exact child in question, but if they are big enough to use the equipment they can benefit from using the equipment. Obviously, they shouldn’t go overboard. A 5 year old cannot do kongoken pushups, and they shouldn’t even try, but they can do some light chi ishi work. With my standard chi ishi handles you can even strip off all the weight and just let them practice the technique. The earlier they learn to do something the earlier they can master it. If they learn the basics when they are little when they are big enough to add real weight and intensity their progress will be all the quicker. Every student is different and we have to treat every student differently, but with the same careful attention we give to them in every other part to training every student can benefit from hojo undo training.
My standard chi ishi handles (4), 5lb concrete chi ishis (5), and 5lb ishi sashi (6) are specifically designed to work for children as well as adults. If anyone is interested in other equipment designed for children let me know and I can see what I can do. I know I can make gripping jars with smaller grips, for example.
The astute reader may have noticed that for this entire discussion I’ve used strength training and hojo undo almost interchangeably. That’s mostly true, but has one very large exception: the makiwara. Makiwara training is just not as simple as all that, and doesn’t follow the same rules. Add to that the fact that it’s the most important piece of hojo undo equipment and we have something that absolutely needs to be addressed. So as to not short change the subject I’m going to devote an entire article to kids and the makiwara next week.
So, what do you think? I think the research makes a good case, but I’d still like to hear your thoughts. Do you let your students do hojo undo? How do they like it? Are there any tips or tricks you’ve learned that help? Is a kongoken the greatest teether of all time? Let me know.