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Part  1 was entitled Basic Physical Training Concepts for Karate Practitioners. This installment’s differently worded title is a reflection of our broader focus on fighting arts and sports as opposed to simply karate.

Stagnation: Too Much of a Good (?) Thing

Martial arts are often marketed and practiced as if they are a finished product with set training and methods. The entrenchment of this idea varies from circle to circle, but it is quite common. It’s very appealing to both new students and long-term students alike. Predictability and stability are things that we tend to gravitate towards in our choices of recreational activities, as can be seen by the guy who goes to the gym and does the exact same workout every visit, or the  karate sensei who plans each class to be a further exposition on the basic techniques that the last year’s worth of classes were based on. Stagnation of training activities can take the form of:

  1. repetition of specific skill-based activities: techniques or drills, especially elementary techniques
  2. repetition of physical conditioning exercises past the point of useful adaptation

For new students the appeal of a set training format is very strong, as it minimizes the new material that they have to learn on a given night, which reduces anxieties and confusion in front of more experienced students. A handful of things can be learned, whether that be a drill, technique or conditioning exercise,  and then repeated reliably in each successive class. This is a comfortable routine, and if it is tied to claims of efficacy or magical thinking, the new student may place an inflated value on whatever he or she has done the most, regardless of ability.

For the long term student, stagnation may be appealing due to one of two factors:

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In Random Training Notes 16: Heavy Bag Tips, I mentioned the importance of regular feedback from hitting bags etc. in the fighting artist’s training regimen. As important as hitting is, it cane be over done. And without stretching and conditioning, excessive bag work can lead to muscular imbalances that in turn lead to avoidable injuries and performance impairments. So what should a practitioner of a fighting art or combat sport do to stay balanced?

Stretches For Strikers

Regular stretching for the prime movers, synergists, stabilizers and antagonists involved in punching  is vital, especially during periods of intense striking work on bags or pads. This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers the muscles that are most prone to interfering with punching dynamics. If you do frequent, intense bag work, consider including 1-2 week recovery periods of very light or no bag work into your training routine. Corrective exercise and self myofascial release are also recommended to provide the optimal length/tension relationships for the muscles and promote efficient recruitment patterns. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat x 2 times per day, especially after hitting bags/pads/makiwara. This list is loosely organized from smaller muscles to larger:
  1. Avoid extensive stretching immediately before engaging in heavy striking work. A light pendulum stretch can activate the rotator cuff muscles and mobilize the superior thoracic outlet and sub-acromial space, which may be tight from training/fighting in a “hunched” posture.
  2. Subscapularis: Shoulder internal rotator. There are also ways of performing this using a stick or towel for assistance, but starting out in the lying position makes it easier to monitor the head of the humerus (upper arm) to ensure that it is not rotating forward.
  3. Teres Minor and Infraspinatus. Shoulder external rotators. Notice that she is not forcing her arm down. If the head of the humerus wants to bulge forward and the shoulder up off of the table, don’t push it past this point.
  4. Rhomboids: Retract and elevate scapula.  These may lengthened and inhibited from the forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.-Pectorals : Flex, internally rotate and adduct shoulder arm at shoulder, pec minor specifically pulls the scapula forward and down. Do one at a time, avoid the double arm “hanging” doorway stretch.
  5. Levator Scapulae: Scapular elevator and medial rotator,  neck rotator and lateral flexor. This muscle attaches the cervical vertebrae to the upper medial aspect of the scapula. The upwardly rotated, “hunched” position that many fighters adopt during bag work and fighting can shorten and tighten this muscle.
  6. Triceps: Extends forearm. This muscle is heavily used in straight-arm punches and strikes.
  7. Biceps: Flexes and supinates forearm. Used heavily in hooks and uppercuts, as well on the return to guard from a strike.
  8. Upper Trapezius: Assist in elevation and retraction of scapulae. This region of the trapezius may be tight from forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.
  9. Latissimus: connects the humerus to the thoracic spine, adducts, extends and internally rotates arm at shoulder. These are often tight in people who kick a lot or engage in excessive “air punching.”  Hint: if you can’t do a squat with the arms stretched overhead and keep the hands in line with your ears, or can’t help but fold at the waist as opposed to the hips, the lats need serious stretching attention.

Relevant surface muscles of the back and chest

Deeper relevant muscular anatomy
Deeper muscle layers, rotator cuff muscles and tendons

Train Smarter to Fight Harder

There’s a growing recognition of the benefits of evidence-based training methods for the fighting arts. More and more martial arts sources are beginning to discuss the benefits of periodized training and activity specific conditioning. As tempting as it may be to assume that these developments “already exist” within traditional or standard training approaches, sports science and the broader Human Movement field are way ahead of the training notions that are common in most fighting art. Consider that martial artists have always adopted the  most promising training methods of their time- why should now be any different? Although more people are catching on, there still isn’t much practical information on how a student, fighter or coach can go about implementing these strategies into their own training and practice.

For the past several years we’ve been working on introducing modern periodized training methods to the broader martial arts community. Our blog is chock-full of relevant studies, reports, and training tips for avoiding training injuries, improving performance and making the most out of training time. With credentials in both the fighting arts and modern evidence-based training methods, we are poised to offer further consultation and information that is beyond the scope of this blog.

Our Fitness for the Fighting Arts DVD’s and educational materials are still in the works, but in the mean time we are available to offer consultation for martial artists, amateur and pro competitive fighters, coaches and club owners. If you are interested in tapping the knowledge base of NASM-certified trainers with over 45 years of experience in training and teaching, visit us HERE to find out what we do, how it can help you, who we are and samples of what we can offer, and how to contact us.

Improve how you train, improve how you teach, improve how you perform.

Bob reviews a movement analysis with a 2010 F4FA Seminar participant
Explaining rotator cuff stretching methods at a 2010 F4FA Seminar
Discussing performance problems related to impact conditioning at a 2010 F4FA Seminar

When training combinations on a heavy bag or pad, or working combos in sparring, pay close attention to what your hands and arms do immediately following and between strikes. A few tendencies are very common:

  • dropping the hand to waist height in between strikes with a bent elbow
  • pulling the hands all the way past the lateral line behind the body
  • letting the entire arm hang straight at the waist

These are common habits, especially among people who are new to training, bag work or successive sparring. People who train in arts that emphasize a “pullback” motion in tandem with every strike are especially prone to it, and it’s a habit that should be discouraged. I understand the utility of a pullback to create a force-couple with the target, but it is absolutely useless unless something is actually being grasped and pulled back- keep the other hand near your face, where it can serve a purpose (keeping your face from being rearranged).

Ideally, you want to train in the habit of returning the hands to a guard that covers the face following each strike. I prefer a higher guard, but the happy medium between people’s personal preferences is one that places the hands someplace between the chin and temple. If this is something that you or a student has a hard time doing, try the following strategies:

  • Adopt the habit of keeping your thumbs or palms in contact with your temples. You may not prefer a guard that is quite this high, but the tactile feedback of the thumb contact often works better than repeated verbal coaching about the location of the hands. Once you begin returning naturally to this position, thumb/skin contact with the temples is no longer necessary.
  • Put your bag near a mirror (or a mirror near your bag) so that you can watch what your hands do.
  • Ask a trusted training partner to slap you lightly in the face when your hands drop during a drill. Touching may get the idea across, but a few light slaps will provide quite a bit more motivation to keep your guard up between strikes.
  • Take a resistance cable or band with moderate tension and wrap it across your upper back, in line with the shoulders. Grasp the handles at roughly chin height. As you strike the bag (lightly) the cable will produce higher tension, providing an external motivation to return them to your face as opposed to dropping. Don’t let the tension cause your elbows to flare too wide from the body.

Absolutely beautiful- accurate, fluid,  fast, changing ranges and targets and in control of the bag the whole time. This is a guy who knows what he wants to do and has invested the time into getting there. We’re not all pro boxers but that’s no reason not to approach bag work with the same intent:

The FSRI Virginia club will once again be hosting the annual FSRI Summer Training Camp in Ferrum, Virginia. Camp will run from June 24th-26th (Friday-Sunday). As always, all comers are welcome, regardless of what they practice.

The rough theme for the weekend will be “Train Smarter to Fight Harder.” Instruction will feature:

Robert MillerNASM Corrective Exercise Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness for Fighting Arts Certified Trainer

David Campbell– chief instructor of the TKRI Virginia club

Randy Simpson– NASM CPT, Fitness for Fighting Arts Certified Trainer. Simpson’s classes will explore Gentile’s taxonomy of motor skills as a method for planning instruction and analyzing the complexity of fighting skills, and present partner drills to foster development of game skills for close range fighting in a variety of environmental conditions and action goals.

This year’s camp will reflect the transition that TKRI has been making away from “traditional” karate and towards a broader approach to the elements of training for fighting skills and self defense. We invite boxers, wrestlers, judoka, MMA students and competitors and other martial artists who have an open mind and the desire to explore methods of pursuing the goals common to all fighting arts. The skill-based training sessions will focus on practical, intuitive responses to violence, rather than historical or theoretical conjecture.

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How Boxers Decide to Punch a Target: Emergent Behavior in Nonlinear Dynamical Movement Systems

Hitting a moving target is one of the most inherently athletic skills that I can think of, and it’s an absolutely vital element in a martial artists’ tool box.  I’m a strong advocate of the “hands off” approach of giving a student the conditions in which to explore range and which weapons to apply at different- and changing- ranges. Light moving targets, stationary targets, heavy moving targets and sparring all play an important role.

I’m amazed at how many conversations I’ve had with earnest karate/TMA people wherein they insist that distancing, timing, impact force management and the selection of the appropriate weapon (strike/technique) are best learned with minimal- or no- bag and target work. While some “traditional” martial artists insist that learning how to effectively hit something takes years to develop and master, it’s painfully obvious that a novice student can develop considerable skill in far less time if he or she is allowed to experience feedback instead of endless, abstract technical instruction. Several findings of the study provide insight into why this is so:

By allowing novice boxers
during the basic training sessions, when the
heavy bag practice is mostly used, to explore the
whole spectrum of constraints enabled by each
combination of parameters, they would learn
how to adjust emergent motor solutions to the
hitting task which are specific to their individual
organismic constraints. Once these efficient
coordination patterns have been established with
the heavy bag, learners could move to the task of
hitting moving opponents during light sparring…

…Novice boxers are able to discover and exploit
the scaled performer – target distance region that
affords maximization of the unpredictability (H),
diversity (S) and the efficiency ratio (E) of their
punching actions…

…Spontaneous emergence of boxer – boxer
coordinative states and strategic positioning as a
consequence of boxers’ perception of essential
interacting constraints points to the possibility
that practice should be less loaded with verbal
instructions from the coach to impose decisions.
Rather, practice could be directed towards
creating a variety of learning situations (by
manipulating the dynamics’ constraints) in
which trainees would themselves explore,
discover and thus adapt to the information …

It’s probably a gross underestimate to say that half of the equipment at the TKRI Virginia dojo came from a flea market in lovely downtown Ferrum. Over the years I’ve found a wide array of boxing gear there, most of it relatively new and in good condition, at the sort of prices that your average underfunded martial artist can appreciate. I popped in last weekend and found a practically new set of 1.5 pound hand weights, in a very handy glove design:

Perfect for light, slow shadow boxing or, if it’s your cup of tea, kata (emphasis on light and slow- no need to tear a joint out).

I’m a big fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.   I can’t help myself.  I love watching those guys destroy each other.  The top fighters exhibit explosive athleticism and devastating technique.  There’s a big difference between training to fight in a cage and doing martial arts as a hobby.  But, there’s a lot we should have in common, too.

The most important thing is mindset.  If you learn all the best techniques out there but don’t have the will to fight, nothing else matters.  The aggressive attitude of cage fighters often seems ego-driven and arrogant…and it is.  But, when the time comes to defend yourself or your loved ones, you will have to “turn off” your conscience.  It’s either you, or the other guy, that’s going to get hurt.  Make sure it’s the other guy.

The importance of physical conditioning cannot be overemphasized.  When fighters know all the same techniques, strength, agility, and endurance make the difference.  It’s like football.  Nobody thinks any other team has better blocking or tackling technique.  They just have better athletes.  Besides, it should be obvious that we use our bodies to perform every move.  The better condition we’re in, the better our karate will be.

Many people credit Bruce Lee with initiating the mixed-martial-arts revolution.  His Jeet Kune Do was an amalgamation of techniques from different styles organized around the concept of the “stop hit” from Western fencing.  Also, he believed in live sparring as the true test of a technique’s effectiveness.  But, he was not the first.

Mixing martial arts is nothing new.  Throughout history, people who actually fought have always wanted to learn anything that would help them survive.  For instance, caravan guards of nineteenth-century China often combined Xing Yi’s powerful linear striking methods with the circular throws and evasive footwork of Ba Gua.

I would argue that an effective self-defense method could be created by combining only the primary techniques of a few different styles:

Boxing – Nobody punches better than boxers.  That’s all they do.  The straight-lead, or jab, is a great way to gauge distance and create a reaction in your opponent.  I like the method described in Jack Dempsey’s book, Championship Fighting.  According to him, the “stepping straight-jolt” is the most important punch.

Muay Thai – The signature technique of Thai boxing is a round kick with the shin.  It’s absolutely devastating, but I don’t like it.  I could probably do some damage, but my shins aren’t conditioned to handle the impact.  However, I can throw knee strikes, while controlling the opponent’s head in the clinch, without hurting myself.  That’s good stuff.

Freestyle Wrestling – The single and double-leg take downs are simple and effective.  Either one is a good way to put an opponent on the ground in a hurry.  Plus, the ability to change levels and penetrate quickly are invaluable skills for closing the distance.

Greco-Roman Wrestling – Because holds below the waist are illegal, Greco-Roman wrestlers are the best at clinch fighting.  Learning to pummel for under-hook control might be enough to fight off an untrained person.  If you can duck under or arm drag to a rear clinch, that’s even better.

Judo – In general, I don’t like turning my back to the opponent, and techniques need to be learned without a gi.  But, Judo’s basic hip and shoulder throws are hard to beat.  Learning to back step well is a good skill to have.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – The Gracie revolution demonstrated to everyone the importance of grappling methods.  Even though the art has it’s roots in the ne waza of Judo, BJJ evolved on it’s own into a subtle and profound art.  The most distinguishing characteristic is extensive use of the guard position and an ability to fight on your back.  Submissions are not as easy as they look.  I’m most concerned with just controlling an opponent and trying to sweep or stand up.

The attitude of the Okinawan originators of karate would have been to use whatever worked for them.  There was a predisposition to believe that anything Chinese was better, and the Fujien province was most accessible to them.  They did the best they could with the knowledge they had.  Shouldn’t we do the same?

I thought I would post this video. I really like the drill. Have a look.


"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin

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