The topic of physical fitness for martial arts has come up in a few conversations I had recently. Its relative importance continues to be debated, and there continue to be people who claim it does not matter. Personally, I think that physical fitness matters a great deal. Especially in the way of “being fit to do this particular activity” (see this article by Kasey Keckeisen on the topic). I think that the idea that it doesn’t matter continues to exists in some parts of the marital arts world, especially within internal arts, partly because the “frail old man who kicks ass” has become such a figure of myth. Let’s go and poke at that myth a little bit though.
Yes, there are people who don’t fit conventional ideas of fit who are good martial artists. One of my main Aikido teachers is in her 80s and roughly the size of an underfed hobbit. And she is in great physical shape for her age (at my wedding, she partied and danced until 4am…). I once attended a Systema seminar where the teacher was, whatever way you look at it, clearly obese. His mobility and skill at movement were exceptional though. He was “fit” for what he was doing, if not in other ways. In fact a lot of the “unfit” teachers – the ones who are actually good, not the internet experts who’ve added a rank to their belt every time they had to expand it – are actually not. In particular, they tend to have the types of fitness that relate to their particular activity, usually as a result of being in great shape when they were younger, and of keeping up with practice as they aged.
That is another thing, most of the people pointed to as examples of “he’s old and frail and good, you don’t need anything but technique” have been doing this a long time. Their technique is excellent, and this compensates for their physical drawbacks. Again, compensates. If they were also fit, but kept the same technique and tactics, they would be better. Unfortunately a lot of time technical refinement comes out of necessity, which comes out of physical decline. Many of these people are not unfit by choice (again, the good ones, not the tactical donut brigade).
Older, less fit martial artists also tend to be sneakier in their tactics, again out of necessity. There is also a certain part of this which is deliberate deception. If you read some of the accounts of early Japanese teachers sent to the west, you find instructions on how to use practice methods that negate the strength advantages of bigger, stronger students to make them feel inferior to the teacher (see this for an example).
Similarly, there are a lot of stories of frail old masters beating younger, fitter challengers. While I don’t doubt some of this happened, a lot tends to be somewhat embellished with time, especially by the students of the master in question. The stories notably get more spectacular the less verifiable eyewitnesses there are, and there tend to be less of these stories as we approach the age of the cell phone camera.
Culturally, there is one single biggest contributor to the iconic “frail old master” trope: martial arts movies and other media. There’s a reason it comes up a lot, and that is that it can make for good stories. However, like many other things, the reason this idea makes for good stories is because it is so rare and exceptional. “Big strong fit full contact fighter wins against small old dude” is not interesting, because it is what you would expect. The other way round, more exceptional, more interesting. But because of this, and because so much of our “knowledge” of violence comes from the media, we see it more and it seeps into our idea of how prevalent it is in reality.
With the internet, and the rise of mma in recent years, a number of very unfortunate challenge match setups between young, fit full contact fighters and older traditional martial arts teachers have show the fallibility of the “invincible old teacher” idea. You can make all sorts of arguments about the type of matches or of the people who participate in them, but at the very least they show that the myth does not stand up to reality in that particular context.
The concept doesn’t just show up in traditional martial arts by the way, it’s not that different in the self-defence world. “Badass old men” memes are common, and there are many dangerous people who do not at first glance look like they are particularly fit. But again, often fitter than they appear, lifetime of experience (that you cannot substitute), sneaky, using tools, and not better than they would be with greater fitness. Also plenty of people who share that stuff around or follow their own version of a guru – to live off vicarious badassery, as it were. Many while perpetually being in a constant state of “I need to get back to training one of these days”. Some convincing themselves they are so sneaky/tactical/alpha dangerous badasses that they can get away with eating like the dumpster behind a fast food franchise and not being able to make it up the stairs without wheezing, but are secretly lethal weapons.
So, in my opinion this particular source of the “you don’t need to be fit” idea is a myth. Like many myths, there is a kernel of truth to it. There are amazing martial artists and very dangerous people of advanced age or with physical issues. But it’s not that common, and chances are you are not them. If you try to emulate them as they are now, you will never be that good. Aikido is lousy for this, because common images show O’Sensei as an old man, rather than in his prime.
There are for sure things to admire about some of the old or out of shape master that do exists. Perseverance in the face of physical issues. The technical excellence that comes from a lifetime of practice. The sneaky tactics that let them keep up with younger, stronger folks in some ways. When we look at them as examples, this is what we should emulate. We should not point at them to falsely proclaim that physical fitness is irrelevant, or even a hindrance. To paraphrase a conversation with one of my teachers: “The idea is to use skills and tactics like a sneaky old person, and move like a fit young person, not to move like an old cripple and fight like a young idiot”.