Before I started my martial arts journey, I wanted to know what my risk of injury actually was before I selected my first martial art. The first thing I looked up was which martial art has the most risk of injury.
Mixed martial arts has the greatest risk of injury. MMA as a combat sport is performed at full intensity and allows a wide variety of combat techniques, some of which carry a high risk of injury. If you are looking at an individual martial art Judo seems to carry the highest risk of injury.
There are many studies on martial arts in terms of injury risk, but these studies don’t take into account injury severity whether or not the martial art is performed at full contact or intensity, and what techniques are generally allowed. Let’s take a look to see what we should actually consider when selecting a safe martial art to practice.
Which Martial Art Has the Most Injuries?
MMA is a combat sport that is performed with full contact with many injurious techniques from both striking and grappling martial arts disciplines. Almost no protective gear is used in both monetary prizes and glory are always on the line which makes the athletes more willing to hurt each other.
Due to the fact that both grappling and striking are used in mixed martial arts, MMA athletes face injury risks from both types of disciplines. In fact, MMA takes the most powerful techniques out of all the martial arts and combat sports and applies them to MMA.
This means that MMA includes everything from a simple punching or kicking strike to using advanced leg lock systems to attack legs in a match. This naturally makes it more likely that you will end up with injuries when you practice MMA.
Basic Martial Arts Categories Grouped in Terms of Injuries
It is helpful to break down martial arts disciplines into categories, the best way to look at these in broad terms is by breaking them out into martial arts that are primarily grappling oriented or primarily striking oriented.
Other important factors to determine the injury risk of a martial art include the intensity of training and the rules of the competitions. This is also followed by evaluating the risk of certain types of techniques that are used in each martial art.
Most Common Grappling Martial Arts
Let’s take a look at the three most common grappling martial arts and evaluate them for injury risk based on their combat sport rule sets as well as typical training intensities and techniques used in the discipline.
Wrestling revolves around taking down your opponent and establishing positional dominance. The primary goal is to take your opponent down gain points for securing position, then try to pin their back against the mat for a complete victory. This discipline does not include submissions that directly attack chokes or joints, which somewhat brings down injury risk.
Wrestling, however, is performed at a very high intensity at all levels. Wrestlers tend to have conditioning such that they perform all their techniques with a lot of power all the time. Using a lot of power in dynamic situations brings up the injury risk. In fact, injuries are common in wrestling due to this environment, but techniques aren’t focused on submissions so serious injuries do not occur all that frequently.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu primarily revolves around achieving submissions through either getting a choke or doing some kind of joint lock submission on your opponent and having them tap out. If these submissions are applied with high intensity, which is quite common in competition settings, more severe injuries can occur.
There are also a number of common tactics used in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments that carry a lot of injury risks such as jumping guard or other submissions from the feet which can sometimes lead to serious injuries to the neck and knees.
Judo is probably the most dangerous of the grappling martial arts to practice. Judo revolves around throwing techniques in which you perform a powerful controlled takedown technique that brings your opponents back to the mat and scores an ippon.
Judo is also performed at a high intensity, which alongside the velocity of the typical techniques used by a judoka creates a situation where injuries are commonplace. Judo is performed from a high standing posture, which alongside the velocity of a throw results in high impacts to the mat, and if anything goes wrong injuries can easily happen.
Most Common Striking Martial Arts
Striking-based martial arts come with a wide variety of risk profiles to practice. Most of the risk comes from whether or not live training or sparring occurs, as well as what rule sets are used when being practiced in a combat sport or tournament setting.
Karate is one of the most common martial arts practiced in the world. Most people’s experiences with Karate come from a more watered-down version of Karate that is prevalent in the modern world. Most Karate dojos do not spar against resisting opponents which reduces the overall risk of injury in practice.
The rule sets for most Karate competitions revolve around scoring points, in fact, you are discouraged from making unnecessarily hard contact with your opponents. And since most people do not do karate competitions anyway this is somewhat irrelevant for the art as a whole in terms of injury risk.
Taekwondo is another very common traditional martial art. Taekwondo is more kicking-oriented and generally speaking more dynamic in the techniques that you practice in training. Since it is more dynamic there is more room for injuries to occur.
Taekwondo competitions also revolve around scoring points regardless of the force of the contact, there are even pressure-sensitive socks that are used in many competitions so that light contacts are able to be recorded in the competition between the martial artists.
Boxing is a combat sport focused martial art. Punches are the only strikes allowed in boxing, and while it is a dynamic art, the power generation of the techniques used does not typically result in serious injuries for most boxing athletes.
However, boxing is high intensity, and in boxing matches, punches are thrown with the intention of knocking out your opponent, so the injury risk is significant in this combat sport.
Kickboxing is another combat sport focused martial art. Since both punches and kicks are permissible techniques, it is more dynamic and strikes have far more power generation that can result in more serious injuries for kickboxer.
Since kickboxing is performed with high intensity, kickboxers face a higher injury risk than in most martial arts. Kickboxing matches are often focused on getting knockouts.
Muay Thai is probably the most dynamic and dangerous striking martial art that is commonly practiced as a combat sport. It has strong striking options when clinching and has a wide variety of powerful strikes ranging from elbows, knees, punches, to kicks to almost all parts of the body.
The inclusion of knees and elbows adds in an extra element of injury risk since the relatively small hard surface areas of the joints can focus all the power of the striking technique into a small area and do significant damage. Muay Thai fighters are searching for knockouts and matches are high effort and intense events.
Common Injuries in Striking Martial Arts
Striking-oriented martial arts have a tendency towards certain types of injuries like concussions, stress fractures, and bone breaks as well as the usual minor cuts and abrasions, sprains, and strains around joints.
How to Prevent Injuries in Striking Martial Arts
Completely avoiding injuries in striking martial arts is not really possible, but there are some steps that you can take to reduce your risk of injury while practicing them. Three actions you can take to reduce injury risk are using protective gear, sparring lighter, and developing technical skills.
Depending on the specific striking martial art, certain types of protective gear may or may not be allowed. In general, you should use as much protective gear as your martial art allows. At a minimum, I would be using a cup and a mouthguard in training.
I recommend this athletic cup (available on Amazon.com) and have found it does a good job staying in place when I choose to wear it.
I have found that this mouthguard (available on Amazon.com) has suited my personal needs while being surprisingly affordable.
Depending on the martial art I would also add in headgear and higher quality gloves or shinguards that fit appropriately. Getting all your gear fitting properly is vital to maximizing effectiveness.
Choosing good training partners that are willing to spar lighter can be an optimal choice depending on your situation. As a hobbyist, I tend to lean toward any training partner that is willing to spar light. This can result in developing good techniques and learning while having minimal injury risk.
Develop Technical Skills
Focusing on developing strong technical skills, especially defensive technical skills will pay dividends down the line if you are looking to keep your injury risk low. Being evasive and having a good structure for blocking strikes and navigating a clinch will keep you from taking unnecessary damage.
Common Injuries in Grappling Martial Arts
Grappling-based martial arts tend towards injuries that include cauliflower ear, ligament trauma, dislocations, sprains, and strains alongside the usual minor cuts and bruises that you received in most martial arts.
How to Prevent Injuries in Grappling Martial Arts
Completely avoiding injuries in grappling is not really doable, but you can take some steps to mitigate your risk if you use the right protective gear, spar lighter, and develop strong technical skills in your martial art.
Grappling martial arts have few pieces of protective equipment. In training, it is usually permissible to have a supportive knee sleeve or elbow sleeve if you have inflammation. It is also usually a good idea to wear a mouthguard when grappling.
If you have cauliflower ear or want to avoid getting cauliflower ear, wearing headgear is also a good idea.
I recommend this headgear (available on Amazon.com) to help avoid some of these issues as it does a good job protecting the area and staying in place compared to other brands I have tried.
Just like any combat sport, it is usually a good idea to pick good training partners if possible and spar lighter most of the time. Sparring light can allow you to get better skills without putting as much mileage on your body through needlessly high-intensity rounds.
Develop Technical Skills
Developing strong technical skills in grappling will help you to control matches and sparring rounds better overall. Putting some time into getting good frames and defensive technical skills can also put you in more advantaged situations where personal injury is less likely.
What is the Most Dangerous Singular Martial Art?
Some of the most significant injuries that happen in a single martial art form happen in Judo. In the Olympic games, the injury rate was about 11-12% ranging from abrasions to fractures and sprains or strains.
A big part of the reason why Judo can have such serious injuries is that judokas have a tall posture and focus on high velocity throws on their opponents. With such power being devoted to techniques alongside standing tall, you have a situation where the distance to impact is relatively far and a lot of momentum can build up before a judoka hits the mat.
From personal experience, even just grip fighting seriously in a Judo setting and working on off-balancing your opponent you can really do a number on your fingers and joints, and that’s before you even get to the high velocity throwing parts of the match.
You have to accept injury risk if you train in any competitive martial art. If you’re just a hobbyist there are more things that you can do to minimize the risks. A hobbyist can turn down practicing with higher intensity training partners and select a school or gym that fits his or her training needs.
Using permitted protective gear and developing good fundamentals alongside picking good training partners can make even the most dangerous martial art reasonably safe to practice, so if you are interested in a martial art, don’t let some statistic intimidate you, because you can find a way to make it work if it is something that you really want.
For more check out What Kind of Punches Are the Most Painful?