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Hip and back issues seem to plague karate people. Back pain can be particularly frustrating for karate people because it is so easy to set off. Sometimes very little activity can result in seemingly disproportionate pain. Measures, such as conditioning for the core often seem to just further aggravate the condition.
At the Fitness for the Fighting Arts Seminar in Rocky Mount Virginia, and again at the recent TKRI summer camp in Ferrum Virginia I led classes in which I presented some ideas, and exercises that may be helpful for karate people who are already struggling with back pain, and for those who would like to avoid such problems altogether.
After the class at our recent summer camp I was approached by several people who asked me to elaborate, and if I could send them some notes related to the issues I discussed. It occurred to me that I could respond to the requests for information all at once by sending people a link to an article here on the TKRIBlog, so here goes.
“I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.”
Note: this essay grew out of notes for an as yet unfinished review of Jack Dempsey’s 1950 book “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” and personal notes that developed over the course of a year of intensive work on punching
What does a black belt know about punching?
I first read about Jack Dempsey in an article written by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo for Classical Fighting Arts in 2006. The article, entitled “Jack Dempsey, Master of Xingyiquan” focused on a boxing manual written by the 1919 heavy weight world boxing champion. As I began reading the article, I wondered what an old-school Western boxer had to do with an Asian martial art, or karate training in general. I was still in the “karate is superior to boxing because it uses the whole body” phase of thinking that some people go through early on in their training (and some never leave, to their detriment). The book in question, “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” (1950) seemed quaint and outdated, right down to the rolled up sleeves and pompadours in the accompanying illustrations. By the end of the article however, my interest was piqued, and suddenly my dichotomous conceptions of boxing and karate began to mutate some. The utter clarity of Dempsey’s cited examples set off a new train of thinking: regardless of styles or arts, punching is punching. Using the fists to damage or knock another person out is a skill that is governed by the same principles, regardless of the art that develops it. To borrow a phrase from Harry Cook, we all practice the “two hands, two feet, one head” style of fighting.
We all practice this style, but the training methods that one chooses to pursue can either develop or detract from making it practical and usable. After reading this article, I began to look objectively at the differences between the way that a boxer trains a punch and the way that karate people- both in general and at my particular dojo- trained punching. Before long, I reflected that boxers, on average, spend far more time than karate people hitting things: stationary targets, heavy bags, focus mitts, reflex bags/balls, and of course, other people (yes, there are exceptions, but I am addressing generalities here). Their learning environment is incredibly rich with varied stimulus (static targets, moving targets, responsive targets, non-responsive targets) and opportunities to apply their skills under varying levels of pressure. Simply put, the best way to get good at hitting things is to hit things. I had earned shodan a year earlier, but I did not feel like I was hitting any harder, faster or better. Despite the fact that the dojo I trained in spent a considerable amount of time on pad work, and a makiwara and heavy bags were present and well-used, it was clear to me that despite hard, frequent training, my own punching ability was not what it needed to be (and this is in no way a disparaging reflection on my teacher- it was a critical look at my own pursuit of the skill).
One of our members picked up some used tires that were on their way to the junk yard. One of the larger ones now lives by the makiwara in my back yard. When I need a break from pounding the makiwara I get out a sledgehammer and pound on the tire. It is a great power workout for shoulders, lats, abs, and even gets the legs moving.
I can spend way too much time doing circuits on the makiwara, the heavy bag, the double ended bag, the chishi, and swinging away with the sledge hammer. Cheap entertainment and a workout at the same time. It sure beats standing on a tread mill at the gym watching Oprah.
Here are a couple of pics:
A few years ago I found myself cooling my heels in the cardiac unit of a local hospital after a training session/workout. I was fairly young at the time (early forties), I did not smoke, drank only on rare social outings, as a lifelong vegetarian I had avoided the pitfalls of the American fast food dietary time bomb, and I led an active life. How I ended up in that hospital had a lot to do with my attitude toward health and training.
My family has a very rare, almost unique health condition, we develop rheumatic symptoms in reaction to a host of triggers, the most common one is cold. The cold does not have to be very severe either, just working in an air conditioned office can result in high fevers, swollen joints, uncontrolled shaking, lose of fine motor control, and all sorts of other nastiness. Other triggers include exercise, and trauma (think ude tanren, or even the joint locks of aikido). Because our condition is so rare it is only now starting to get the kind of systemic investigation that allows our doctors and us to begin to understand the disease. Treatments are finally being developed and we are gaining important information about how the disease works which helps us manage it.
I used to be ashamed of the welts that would raise over my skin as a reaction developed, I would go to great lengths to hide them. I felt weak willed when, in the course of a developing reaction I could no longer stand in a front stance because of the pain in my ankles and knees. I often felt humiliated when I would begin to shake and loose fine motor control during winter training. I would gut it out, feeling incredibly frustrated, and go home to collapse while my fever would shoot up, often to 103f for hours.
Nutrition, Sumo Style
Every year TKRI demonstrates karate at the Japanese Festival in the Missouri Botanical Gardens of St. Louis. It’s an all around great time, and I am always impressed with the quality of every aspect of the event. One of my favorite experiences each year is chatting with the gentlemen from the Sumo demonstration, who share the changing area with us and the other demonstrators. Not only are they absolutely huge and powerful, but they’re extremely polite and funny. Everyone in their crew wears T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Train Hard, Eat Plenty.” And that’s exactly what these guys do. Over the years, this motto has been enthusiastically adopted by our group. When in St. Louis, I know that training will likely be followed by a humongous burrito, extra guacamole. When at home I head to the Subway after training on campus to pick up a foot long loaded with veggies and provolone on my way to work. And after slugging it out at the TKRI-VA dojo or in my backyard, I head straight to the kitchen and compile monstrous sandwiches that would make Shaggy and Scooby-doo jealous. My desk at work is packed with dried fruits and nuts for those long stretches between meals. The bottom line is, if you’re expending energy you have to replace it with high-quality raw materials, i.e. food. And not just any food- good whole food.
You are what you (don’t) eat
Being hosted on a college campus, the FC club tends to get a lot of 18-20 year old students at the beginning of each semester. A recurring problem with some of these recruits, and with some of the stalwarts has been nutrition. Or rather, a lack thereof. At least once a month someone shows up to class and goes hypoglycemic after 10 minutes of activity, rapidly becoming lightheaded and white-faced. This is not only dangerous for the student, but also for anyone they happen to be working with. In most cases these folks will tell me that they haven’t eaten a thing all day, or had nothing more than a soda and a handful of something from the corn syrup food group. The most recent occurrence of this phenomenon sparked the combined ire of the small farmer, food enthusiast, physical culture enthusiast and educator in me. It’s not exactly recent news that the entire body needs regular good nutrition to offset the expenditures of training and to become stronger. But poor nutrition tends to effect the mental faculties first- which are just as important during training as physical abilities .
The Hungriest Processor of all
The brain is a ravenous consumer of energy, awake or asleep: up to 25% of the energy derived from food is burned in the brain, and this consumption increases during intense mental activity. A moderate drop in available glucose produces levels of impairment in reaction times and judgment abilities comparable to those of a drunk person. As our own Robert Miller has pointed out in the past, would it be responsible to allow a drunk student onto the training floor? So a new standing rule has evolved with this club: if you haven’t eaten, you don’t train. It’s not my job to tell people how to take care of themselves, but it does become my concern when it can have a negative spillover into training time. To be pro-active about this, I’ve made a number of resources available to students, some related to general nutrition and some related specifically to nutrition for active martial artists. Being a vegetarian, most of these are skewed towards that end of the dietary spectrum; however, good nutrition is good nutrition. Whether you do Karate, Judo, Wrestling, Muay Thai, or Sock Puppet Boxing, “Train hard, Eat plenty” should be a basic principle of training. Resources are linked below:
(Viewing the article requires registration, which is free)
Spend a few years in karate and you will find that there are all sorts of scoundrels associated with karate who—for all of the years they have spent talking about character perfection—are nothing more than bullies, thieves, liars, con men, or worse. There are lots of good people who train in karate as well, but in my experience the distribution of bad to good people pretty well matches the distribution in society at large; there is nothing magic about karate that makes its practitioners good people or moral exemplars.
Claims regarding the moral benefits of karate are pretty ubiquitous. These claims are everywhere from the copies of the dojo kun hung on training halls to the cheesy adverts in newspapers offering to help “little Johnny” stay off drugs, become more disciplined, to raise his grades, and turn him into Superman if his parents fork over some cash to “Grandmaster” (hold on tight to your wallet when someone starts trying to sell you morality.)
This association between karate and character does more than just line the pockets of snake oil samurai. It provides a platform for unwarranted moral posturing on the part of your friendly neighborhood shihan. If you want to find someone worth venerating as a moral exemplar, you are more likely to find them volunteering at a soup kitchen, working with special needs kids, or lending a hand at the local homeless shelter than at a karate dojo.
The moral pretensions of disingenuous karate teachers can be genuinely harmful. I remember a club that was affiliated with the same national organization I belonged to once hosted a seminar taught by a senior karate teacher. About an hour after training (ironically concluded with a period of seated meditation and recitation of the dojo kun), the group gathered at a local restaurant and the visiting instructor loudly asked the students “who is gonna f*** sensei tonight?”. This question was not meant to be funny or ironic, considering this man’s history it probably counted more as foreplay.
I had brought several of my students in a minivan to the event. Upon hearing this I politely excused myself (I still regret that I was polite about this), gathered my students, and drove off. Some of my female students were as young as fourteen years old. We never again visited any events hosted by this group.
The host club trained in a gym run by a local women’s advocacy association and many of the students who trained there found the club through this organization. They understandably assumed that any group using its facilities would be sensitive to the fact that a substantial portion of the women served by it had been victims of some form of misogynistic behavior. Several women who had trained with the group reported to the institution—and later to several higher ranking members of their karate organization—that they had been the victims of sexual harassment and other associated abusive behavior. The fall out from this essentially destroyed the club.
From conversations I had had with several of the members of this group (before all of the harassment charges came to light) I knew how important karate was to many of them. It represented a way to empower themselves. Some of them had already lived though devastating emotional and physical abuse. Karate training represented a foray into a world larger than the quaint Midwestern landscape, and it was supposed to have something to do with “seeking perfection of character”. I can not imagine how much emotional damage was done to these people. I expect that it was worse because they suffered at the hands of men whose power was underwritten by both physical power and supposed moral authority.
Forget everything you have ever been told about “fighting spirit”, most of the time the instructors using this term are bullies. It is not a moral issue or character issue. It is a matter of what an individual has learned they can take and survive. Someone who has survived by acting less dominant, by trying to avoid confrontation, or by “flinching” to protect herself does not necessarily have a character problem. The bullying instructor who—believing some self-serving and naïve semiology—equates these behaviors with some species of bad character simply reveals his own ignorance.
Learning is the key. If you show students that they have a better chance of surviving by moving in to stuff an attack, they will. Provide them with a safe environment to explore assertiveness. The degree to which they experience success will bear on how they learn and incorporate this behavior. Moralizing the natural “flinch” responses in lower ranked students is unproductive, pedagogically naïve, and offensive. If you really need to recast the flinch response for your student, turn it into something like an eye gouge. Do not turn it into a moral indicator.
Some people claim that “fighting spirit” implies a willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to realize some strategic end such as providing time for family or loved one to escape an attack. This sort of behavior may be gallant; however I have found no evidence of the rehearsal of (existentially) self sacrificial behavior in regularly practiced in karate classes. In fact most of karate training involves modeling methods of survival. I have met many people who do not train in karate who would gladly make any sacrifice for their families or loved ones. I have met bullies who train in karate and who simply hide their fears behind aggression. The correlation between preparedness to sacrifice oneself and karate practice is a loose one at best.
The primary aim of karate training is to improve the student’s chances of survival in a fight (in the real world, as opposed to within a constructed environment). All of the other benefits (real or imagined) of karate, such as focus, determination, character development, etc are, to some degree dependant on the process of striving to develop the ability to fight (in the context of a community of fellow karate learners.)
If you are concerned about developing character, model the kind of behavior you want to see in your students, including modeling the “losing” side of partner drills. Do not spend all of your time fawning over the amazing physical skills of your most talented athletes while ignoring the efforts of those who struggle. Draw attention to the importance of cooperation in training. Train hard, and proclaim less. Let the students know you struggle to improve just as they do. There is nothing wrong with reciting the dojo kun, just remember it is not a magic formula.
Moral issues are not all easy or obvious. Be prepared to have conversations with students after class. They will want to know about dealing with bullies, abusive partners, imagined street defense issues, they will want to tell you about fights they have had and all sorts of related stuff. Do not expect to, or act like, you have all of the answers to their questions. Many times they will get on your nerves and will seem hopelessly naïve. If you have the time to teach them how to hurt people you should have the time to talk to them about it. By spending the time talking about these things after class you are confirming the importance of moral thinking for your students. By acknowledging the difficulty of knowing what is morally required of each of us, and the difficulty of acting accordingly, you encourage genuine moral thinking.
It’s recorded that Shinpan Gusukuma (Shiroma in Japan) regarded the ability to generate the force of 3-4 times one’s own body weight behind a strike as a crucial aim in karate training. It’s also recorded that he was a relatively small, light framed man, yet was capable of generating such force when he hit (This idea is not exclusive to the Okinawan/Japanese martial arts; American boxing legend Jack Dempsey and others stressed a similar idea).
I have come to feel that the other side of this coin is the ability to support one’s own body weight on any limb. Let me be clear in saying that weight training with equipment is an invaluable adjunct to karate and must not be overlooked for a number of reasons (one being to equip the body to safely continue in vigorous karate training for years). Body weight exercises, which exploit one’s own weight and structure for resistance, develop a different type of strength that is just as important: integrated, dynamic strength. We need to be able to handle our own weight under any circumstances: in static conditions and in explosive bursts, on one arm or leg or a combination of either, on our backs, sides or stomachs, upside down, right side up, horizontal, etc. The utility of this kind of strength and mobility for fighting should be obvious. Weight training and body weight training should complement each other in a martial artist’s conditioning routine, not replace each other.
But to get back to Shiroma sensei, I’ve come to the understanding that the ability to support and redirect yourself quickly and powerfully on arm or leg has a lot to do with the ability to use your whole body to generate powerful strikes. I would suspect that Shiroma did an awful lot of conditioning to achieve his striking ability, both with Okinawan free weights and body weight exercises. Aparently, one of his favorite party tricks was to pinch-grip the rafters of a house and swing himself around the ceiling from rafter to rafter – try that (such stunts are now commonly visible on YouTube).
Below is a link to BodyWeightCulture, a forum that is absolutely packed with good information for body weight training for a variety of goals and outcomes. You have to register to access the content, but the hassle is worth it. Five minutes of perusing this forum yielded many new exercises to try with excruciating-looking variations on some old favorites. In the meantime, I’ll be getting back to leaving foot stains on door frames from handstand pushups and trying in vain to love chinups…
10/8/09 Note: Earth-Gi is on indefinite hiatus due to the shifts in the economy and resulting increase of the cost of importing hemp fabric.
Earth-Gi carries the distinction of being the only 100% Hemp fabric gi on the market. Hemp isn’t just a hippie obsession; the fabric from hemp plants is superior in many ways to cotton- for starters, it’s four times stronger than cotton fabric and hemp will naturally resist yellowing and rotting over time. Industrial hemp is NOT at all the same as the variety that produces marijuana; so no, there is nothing psychoactive or drug-related about hemp products. Unfortunately, industrial is illegal to cultivate here in the United States. The materials for Earth-Gi are imported from Canada and the gi is hand made by a husband and wife team who make hemp active wear for karate practitioners and yogini. According to their web site (www.earth-gi.com), each gi is made to order and Earth-Gi will craft custom size gi at no extra cost. Orders are shipped within 1-2 weeks. Embroidery is also available.
Earth-Gi can stand by the fact that it is not produced through sweatshop labor, something that many gi manufacturers cannot claim. Hemp canvas is also an environmentally responsible choice, as it requires none of the harsh pesticides that the cotton industry uses, and does not require nearly as much fertilization. The end product is a very well made gi that more than holds it’s own alongside comparable commercial brands.
I received my Earth-Gi just in time to test it out in an evening karate class. Right out of the box, the 12 oz. hemp fabric feels like a good work shirt that is broken in just right. The fabric is free from flaws and the stitching is clean and straight. Based on measurements that I sent to the Earth-Gi team, the gi fits me closely enough not to be a flapping nuisance, but is loose enough that it does not restrict movement, especially in the legs and midsection. The overall cut of the gi is very much in line with the “traditional” cuts of the Meijin and Tokaido gi that I have used in the past. The jacket is slightly longer which keeps it from pulling out of the belt. Above all, this is a very comfortable gi to wear.
A difference that is immediately apparent is the color- this gi is not the crisp bluish-white cotton that is a bit of a fetish amongst karateka, but a mellow creamy tone. The hemp fabric is not bleached for two reasons: bleaching is extremely destructive from an environmental standpoint; and bleaching significantly weakens the fibers in plant derived fabrics such as cotton and hemp. Although it may look different than the typical gi, the Earth-Gi will last longer than bleached fabrics and does not contribute to water pollution. As an aside, the uber-white gi is a relatively modern artifact, as industrial bleaching was not around in pre-WWII Japan.
The construction of the jacket reminds me of a cross between a good Judo top and Carhartt work clothes. All jacket seams are triple stitched with heavy thread. The inside of the sleeves are reinforced with a second layer of hemp fabric, and the lapels and front panels are two layers thick and stitched with five lines of thread. For those of us who engage in rugged karate practice with much pulling, shoving and throwing, this extra reinforcement means that the gi will last for far longer than a few months. Although sturdily made, the jacket is not bulky or noticeably heavier. It feels just as strong as my old Judo gi without being nearly as thick. In fact, it closes and maintains the same profile as a lighter weight gi despite the thicker, much stronger fabric. Just for grins, I had the largest student (a football player with arms the size of my thighs) in my class pick me up by the lapels and throw me around a few times. The jacket seams did not show any signs of stress or tearing.
One of my biggest complaints about the “traditional” heavy cotton gi is that the pants often bind on the top of the thighs when kicking, especially after a good sweat- it’s counterproductive to have to readjust for each kick. The Earth-Gi pants allow for full range of motion without any obstruction. The draw-string waist does not bunch excessively when pulled tight, leaving plenty of swing room in the crotch and legs. The inseams are reinforced here as well. It also does not hold sweat the same way that a cotton gi tends to, making this a very breathable gi to train in.
I immediately noticed that the draw string loop of the pants is far sturdier than in other brands. In all of the gi I’ve owned, the loop is one of the first things to rip from regular use and abuse. The Earth-Gi design is inverted, meaning that it’s horizontal as opposed to vertical. The loop is of folded and stitched hemp that is secured to the folded waist band of the pants with more reinforced stitching. If you like to roll around and toss each other across the dojo, this feature is worth looking into.
So why is a hemp gi so special? A gi review is no place for preaching from the soapbox, but bear with me for a moment. Modern karate is the product of globalization, the mingling of cultures and individuals exchanging ideas. An art that began on the relatively small island of Okinawa has spread to every continent and been embraced by people from myriad nationalities, religions, languages and walks of life. This implies a certain kinship, a responsibility to relate to each other not only as karateka but as human beings who share something that has become the property of the global community. That awareness extends to our decisions about where or food comes from, how our products are made, and who is affected by these processes. Certain choices can have a positive impact on those who produce these goods for us. Please see the bottom of this review for some facts about the human and environmental cost of modern cotton production.
All environmental and ethical reasons aside, the Earth-Gi is worth looking into. The investment is worth it when you consider that the fabric will outlast cotton, and that the manufacturers are real people who you can deal directly with about custom sizing that’s actually made to order, not just mix and match sizes. The price is comparable to a heavy-weight Tokaido or Meijin gi. Compared to the 12 oz. gi offered by other brands Earth-Gi is designed and made every bit as well- possibly better, when you consider the attributes of hemp fabric for this use. I recommend Earth-Gi to anyone who is serious about good training equipment and about their footprint on the rest of the planet.
For more information, visit:
or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on the human cost of pesticide-dependent cotton production, visit: