If you’ve ever heard something like “we’ll do 500 punches/kicks to relax you- after your muscles are too tired to be involved, you’ll have pure technique” then you have heard some of the inaccurate training information that has plagued karate training for a while. It might make sense on the surface; relax those pesky prime movers and let my hips take over. Sensei says that muscle and strength won’t help me, only perfect technique.

Right. In the meantime, the damage that this sort of thing will cause to your joints, tissues and functional movement patterns will probably end up counter balancing any development that you may make. If the example above were so, why don’t we see professional American-style football coaches making their players do biceps curls and pushups to failure right before working on precision passing technique? This topic can get into some sophisticated concepts and jargon pretty quickly, but suffice to say, quality of practice and movement is more important than quantity- and focusing on quantity can sharply reduce quality.

With that in mind, the karate community could benefit from a very simple grasp of human movement and sports medicine concepts, particularly with regards to the muscular system. People who choose to spend several hours per week putting a serious demand on their bodies are not any different from amateur athletes of all types. More than once someone has objected “but karate isn’t a sport.” That’s right, it isn’t a sport for all of us. But it is inherently an athletic activity, and the more we understand about modern athletic training methods, the more we can apply them to our training with very productive results for our karate. The alternative is relying on several decades worth of badly outdated training practices, sensei-pseudo-science and mangled interpretations of anatomy and physiology.

Partnering with a research-based group like the National Academy of Sports Medicine can enhance an individual or group’s knowledge of best training practices and how to fit them in with karate/martial arts training. The list below is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of these practices and topics. Rather, it highlights several areas that seem to be perennially neglected, confused or misinterpreted by karate students and instructors.

1.      Muscles only pull. They do not push. Complex motions like swinging your arm in a circle involve the coordinated action of several muscles, not one muscle pushing and then pulling the arm. Again, muscles only pull, they do not push.

2.      Muscles work in three  general ways:

a.      Concentric: the muscle shortens in length as it contracts to produce force and overcome resistance

b.      Eccentric: the muscle lengthens as it contracts to decelerate resistance or movement

c.       Isometric: the muscle does not change length as it contracts, but does develop higher tension to maintain a joint’s position.

A simpler way to remember this: Concentric contractions move the ends of a joint closer together. Eccentric contractions happen when you resist the lengthening of a joint, like slowly lowering a heavy barbell from a curl to arms straight. This is the same muscle that brings the ends of the joint together. Isometric contractions happen when you tense a muscle to keep a joint from moving at all.

3.      Muscles are involved in all human movement. Don’t confuse relaxed with “no muscle.” You cannot throw a technique without “muscling it.” It is entirely possible to throw a technique with too much muscular tension, or too much involvement from the wrong muscles- but muscular contractions are involved in every single technique, and there’s nothing wrong with correctly using the ones that are designed to do the job. When someone says “this is a pure technique, there’s no muscular involvement”, ask them to get up from a chair using only pure technique without any muscular involvement.

4.      Large muscles contract at a slower rate than smaller muscles, and with a greater degree of force. They can’t repeatedly contract as quickly as smaller muscles.

5.      Small muscles contract faster than larger muscles, and with a lesser degree of force. They can contract repeatedly more quickly than larger muscles.

6.      The kinetic chain is not in any specific part of the body or a special technique. The term refers to the combined actions of the nervous, muscular and skeletal systems to produce movement. Karate techniques are absolutely bound by the structures and rules of the kinetic chain.

7.      There is nothing special about karate training that makes good conditioning, strength, flexibility, stability and balance training unnecessary.  Very few athletes are genetically gifted enough to ignore a well-designed strength and conditioning regimen. Even less karate people are so gifted- and the example of these very few is not one that we can/should follow. If you are concerned with optimum performance, preparedness, injury prevention and long-term training it’s vital.  Doing a bunch of kata or kihon will not provide the same physical benefits as a good fitness training routine. This does not mean that strength and conditioning training should replace karate, but rather augment it. Conversely, karate by itself cannot replace strength and conditioning work.

8.      Being stronger and faster will only help your karate. Working on being stronger and faster is not mutually exclusive to karate training, but karate training alone is not enough to develop these areas. Poor strength and speed training can produce poor movement patterns, but so can poor karate training. Train like an athlete, not a body builder.

9.      If you practice impact conditioning (which is necessary but can be overdone), you must also stretch those muscles and invest the money into a good masseuse or put the time into self myofascial release to maintain the proper length/tension relationship of the muscle tissues in question. Muscles remodel along lines of force. Repeated impact causes collagen fibers to be laid down in an unorganized fashion. The more fibers that are laid down, the larger a muscle “knot” (fascial adhesion, or trigger point) is created in the tissue, increasing overall tension and reducing performance.

10.  A good core training routine is vital. Doing “core work” does not mean doing lots of sit ups. The core encompasses the front, side, rear and interior muscles of the abdomen. Karate places a high demand on the spinal column and the muscles that stabilize it in all directions. Neglecting these muscles is an invitation to injury and low back pain. Work from the inside out and from the ground up. Some video examples of essential core exercises such as bridges, planks and cobras are available here and here.

11.  Just because a certain practice, exercise or concept has been around for a long time, or is labeled as “traditional” does not make it safe or effective. This also goes for anecdotal reports of someone who did something like bunny hops or punching block walls for decades with no apparent ill effects. Chances are good that there were plenty of ill-effects. Avoid epistemic viciousness, especially if your body might pay the price.

12. You can train too much- and it will negatively effect not only training time, but things like sleep patterns, chronic injuries/ailments, emotions and mental acuity. Over training is something to watch out for, particularly if you train with a group that embraces the “if 10 are good then 1000 are Real Karate Spirit” ethic. Pushing yourself is a different matter, and has it’s place in training.

13. Take time off to recover from injuries. The body reacts to stress and injury as a unit. Broken bones, muscle and tendon/ligament tears, strains, and ruptures take time to heal, as well as advice from a qualified physician and Physical Therapist. This has nothing to do with “spirit” and everything to do with self-awareness and maturity.  If you suspect something is serious get it checked out before it leads to other or more severe injuries.  Sometimes the temptation to “push through” an injury can be great, and I admit that I have not always been the best about this one in particular. As you deal with an injury, find other modalities of training that don’t place more stress on your body, and when given the “green light” gradually work back up to where you were at before.

If you found some of these concepts to be useful and are interested in knowing more, keep an eye out for our forthcoming Fitness for Fighting Arts series of instructional materials. NASM certified TKRI karate instructors are available to conduct F4FA seminars on the East Coast and Mid West for martial arts clubs and schools. These instructors are not only knowledgeable in physical training concerns, but hold higher dan ranks and several decades of combined karate training and teaching experience. The scope of these seminars isn’t just limited to karate: seminars can be tailored to boxers, wrestlers, mixed martial artists, and practitioners of assorted striking arts.

For more information on the Fitness for Fighting Arts program and materials, contact:

Mid West: robertmiller@tkri.net

East Coast: REMSimpson@gmail.com

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