Karate and Conditioning

Conditioning is Not Optional

Whatever else karate may involve; it is about learning to fight. Students come to karate believing it will help them learn to fight. Fighting requires a high degree of fitness. Although karate may not be best understood as a sport or fitness regime that does not mean that students should be lead to believe that fitness is not fundamental to fighting or safe training (to fight).

Supplemental training should be safe. Supplemental training should stress the body in ways analogous in relevant ways to the kinds of stress that fighting will place on the body; the difference is that supplemental training should be safer. In supplemental training there should be fewer unaccounted for forces acting on the body at once than there are in real fighting or in training. Supplemental training should reduce injury rates; if the reverse is happening reevaluate your program.

A realistic program of physical fitness should include training in the following areas (at least):

a. Weight bearing strength training necessary to prevent injuries from darting, changing directions, being thrown, and from having joints manipulated. Strength training should also be sufficient to allow safe lifting actions within the context of throwing.

b. Agility training to facilitate safe and rapid changes of direction, height, and position (i.e. prone, kneeling, standing etc.)

c. Balance training designed to develop balance in the context of movement under (potentially eccentric) load.

d. Explosiveness training requiring “fast twitch” muscle fibers to work close to capacity. Sprints, medicine ball work and other plyometric based training can be very useful for this.

e. Cardio-Vascular endurance to both enhance the students ability to “stay in the fight” until an opportunity to react decisively presents itself, and to prevent the likelihood of sudden strokes or heart attacks while training intensely or fighting. Train to shorten recovery periods between high intensity “bursts” of activity.

f. Muscular endurance training. In a fight it is not likely that you will only need one principle exertion to finish things. Even negotiating for position takes an incredible amount of energy when you are in a fight. Train accordingly.

g. Functional flexibility (as opposed to absolute flexibility which when made the focus of flexibility programs may undercut joint stability and strength). Static stretches should only be performed at the end of training rather than during warm ups.

Training Considerations

Trying to fully incorporate every element is not likely to be practical for most classes. It is not a good idea however to leave the responsibility for conditioning solely to the students. Most students have limited time to devote to karate so if time for conditioning is not carved out of classes, many will not devote adequate time to it. Think about emphasizing some aspects over others rotating the emphasis areas in order to program conditioning over time.

If, for example, you are planning a phase of training focusing on free sparring or other skills that require rapid shifting it may be a good idea to dedicate more time to agility and balance training in the weeks beforehand. During practices actually incorporating free sparring it may be a good idea to add more lower body strength training to the pre-practice warm ups in order to protect the knees.

Of course such precise programming will only work if students attend classes regularly. Students need to take some responsibility for their progress. Teachers are well within their rights to address the potential consequences of poor or irregular attendance with the students. Explaining to students the aim of the training they are receiving and giving them some idea of what is to come helps motivate greater involvement.


8 responses to “Karate and Conditioning

  1. I suppose that one thing we could do is suggest some supplementary training ideas for enthusiastic students who are keen to do something extra outside of class that would make them better at karate. We probably get students already who have very high enthusiasm and ambitions and are doing extra stuff that might not be optimal – such as going for endless long slow runs, or doing a lack-lustre nautilus circuit once a week – but who don’t realise how enthusiastic a response they would get from us if they were only to ask!

    Of course, students’ needs are likely to be pretty individual in this area. Skinny 18 year olds have the potential to make massive gains in brute strength, an ex-body building 30 year old might get more benefit from explosiveness and agility training and an out of shape 40 year old should perhaps be most concerned about lowering the potential for stroke and heart attack first before going on to focus on other things. So maybe that’s a reason not to put a one-size-fits-all supplementary training guide on our website. But we could have a note for students, saying, you know, “if you’d like some personalised ideas for supplementary training, just ask! We’ll fall over ourselves to suggest effective stuff!”

  2. Here are some vids that might help:

    JC Santana

    Martin Rooney -Training for Warriors

    Ginastica Natural

    Pull up bar specialists from NYC- awesome skills here

  3. There does seem to be some initial resistance in some students to the idea that karate require good physical fitness, and that developing that fitness doesn’t magically happen by doing kata or whatever. For a while I was posting suggested conditioning exercises online for the FC club students to pursue between classes. I don’t think anybody was really doing much of it, judging by progress from class to class. Consequently, we do a lot of conditioning in class time- I’m just not comfortable doing some things until I can tell that people’s bodies can support it safely. What I’ve tried to do more of is incorporate conditioning that serves a dual purpose, providing a conditioning aspect while also warming up the brain for specific motor skills.

    If I can establish “reference points” to later applications/drills within some of the warm up activities, it’s helpful to students later on in class to remind them of how the legs had to move to pull a partner down in drop squats, or where their butt was in relation to the knees when pushing a person/weight. One of my recent favorites has been a medicine ball toss variation, wherein the recipient catches it and then has to return it using the same body mechanics as in a cross/reverse punch. From whichever foot is forward when they catch it, they have to quickly assess their position and make the footwork switch so that the ball fires from the rear hand. Using just the arms sends the ball but so far; using the rear leg to explode forward while using the arm sends it further, providing some visual feedback for the difference between the two sets of motion- it’s obvious which one works better, and I’m not defaulting to “no, move like like this” ad nauseum. This starts to motivate and build the neuro-muscular pathways involved in a body-driven punch as opposed to a shoulder driven punch, but it also conditions the muscular strength and speed aspects of the technique. Later on, maybe in pad work or partner applications involving the reverse punch, it’s much more productive to be able to say to a student “drive the punch with the rear leg and twist into it, with the same feeling as when we were tossing the medicine ball” instead of “no, not like that, move the hips like this (with demonstration).” The brain already has a reference to work from, not some new and bewildering “karate” technical content that confuses the process.

    Check out Brain Gym (http://www.braingym.org/). I saw some of this at a workshop I participated in when I taught Public schools (shudder…). It’s a series of physical exercises that target specific generative or supportive brain functions involved in motor activities/motor learning. For example, asking students to touch the right hand to the left foot during squats gets directed activity moving across the corpus collosum, priming the hemispheres of the brain to consciously exchange information more efficiently. It doesn’t sound like much, but adding a neurogenerative component can reinforce the physical conditioning goals.

  4. I’ve been doing TKD for 3 years now. I’m 45 years old. any suggestions on how I can get more flexible?

  5. Gillian Russell

    Yes, for sure, but first, be aware that flexibility is not the holy grail when it comes to *fighting*. Maybe sport TKD is different, and I wouldn’t presume to comment on that, but from a martial perspective, there’s a lot to be said for a 45 year-old who can’t reach to kick at head-level but possesses a fine strong grip and a sweep from hell.

    That said, the advantages of increased functional flexibility can be better balance, better injury-proofing—especially when you’re on the ground—and a wider-range of techniques to choose from—such as higher kicks. Flexible people are often much harder to pin and get joint-locks on too, and, perhaps surprisingly, one benefit of flexibility can be more effective strength-training, since you can take the joint through a greater range of motion when doing resistance exercises.

    Some of the important theoretical facts about flexibility, which it will be useful to know when you’re working on yours are these:

    – you can easily injure a muscle by stretching it. Stretching is not necessarily a low risk activity, so it’s important to know what you’re doing.

    – flexibility varies with genetics (not everyone can be a contortionist) but also with age (people get less flexible as they get older), with gender (on average women are more flexible than men), and with training (this is the point that makes it something *worth* training)

    – flexibility (both innate and acquired) tends to be very muscle and joint specific: you can have flexible calves without having flexible hips and vice versa.

    – we can distinguish static flexibility (e.g. being able to hold a v deep splits for 30 secs) from functional flexibility (e.g. the ability to kick very high with one foot on the ground.) One surprising fact is that these things are also relatively independent. One can have good functional flexibility without having good static flexibility and vice versa. Functional flexibility is what we want for martial arts, so that is what we have to train—not static flexibility.

    – training for functional flexibility is not just about making the muscles fibres “stretchier”, it’s also about training the way your nerves control those muscles, so that the stretch reflex – which contracts the muscle to prevent damage to the joint – is activated later in the movement. This is one of the keys to preventing injuries to the muscles themselves – many muscle tears are not caused by extending the muscle beyond its ability to lengthen, but rather by extending the muscle quickly and triggering the stretch reflex which then attempts to contract it, and the result is a muscle that tears long before it reaches its maximum length.

    – muscles injure less easily when they are warm, so you should ALWAYS go through a 5 minute thermogenic warm up before stretching – longer if it is cold where you are stretching. 10 minutes jogging is fine, 5 minutes on a rowing machine is good. And there is a good thermogenic warm-up at the beginning of this video:

    But all in all, the warm-up, whatever you do, is crucial. If you don’t have 5 minutes to warm-up, you don’t have time to stretch.

    – one of the keys to training for flexibility is consistency. You don’t need to spend hours stretching, and it isn’t a good idea to stretch with great intensity. Rather, it helps to stretch often – e.g. every day or every second day – and for a moderate amount of time, such as 10 minutes to half an hour, depending on how many stretches you are doing.

    For some actual exercises, take a look at this:

    I know that many of them look kind of, well, easy, but they work just fine. We especially like the “toy soldier” one – it’s about 4th from the beginning. Our version has both hands held out in front the whole time, with alternating legs kicking up, and we call it “karate zombies.” We do it EVERY class as part of our dynamic warm-up. The key is to do it *gently* – remember that you are teaching your muscles to relax while raising your leg. You should not be “bouncing” off the limit of your flexibility with any force.

    This video is a bit more martial looking and you could adapt it to your TKD kicks, so it’s also worth a look:

    (Note that the kicks in this video are SLOW. You are not extending your leg in the air with any speed.)

    This website, which specifically advises against some of the more dangerous stretches, is also worth reading:


    In general, I think its worth learning as much as you can about a certain aspect of fitness when you’re trying to improve. Ask everyone and read everything you can find – especially more theoretical anatomy and fitness sources, which will provide some base knowledge which you can use to evaluate the more specific suggestions you hear about or read. Remember that there are lots of bad practices around, and that people can be flexible without really being able to coach flexibility. As you get more knowledgeable and conditioned, you could venture into foam roller massage, or try some more advanced stretches, such as PNF.

    Bob – anything you want to add, or that you disagree with in here?

  6. Nothing to disagree with here. I’ll just add one point.
    Tkd tends to place a great deal of emphasis on kicking and kicking can be risky for someone with poor flexibility. Femurs, hips and lower backs have a surprising degree of morphological variability. This means (for example) that some people really can’t raise their legs to the side very far without pain. Forcing the issue can cause permanent damage. If you are experiencing any hip or lower back pain as you concentrate on increasing your flexibility you should see a medical doctor (not a chiropractor or other alternative healing specialist) who specializes in sports medicine for an evaluation. Most sports medicine specialists will be able to refer you to qualified trainers (don’t just visit a gym trainer for this sort of issue) or physical therapists who can help you set up a program that fits your particular body.
    Good luck.

  7. Adam says, Seriously, I am not Mr. Karate.

    I am 1st Dan in Taekwondo, I trained in Korea and also taught Taekwondo as well.

    Slow and steady stretching will help, it is not something that should be rushed into.

    If you are doing WTF style, leg flexibility is a must for the axe and crescent kicks. ITF style probably needs less.

    Also I heard bad stuff about Tom Kurz’s videos on stretching- caveat emptor.

    If you plan to compete, flexibility is a must. If you train for self defense, it is less of a priority when it comes to defensive moves with the legs, but in ground combat if your body gets contorted during grappling it can be deleterious not to be flexible.

    It took me a long while before I could do front splits (which I can’t do anymore)

  8. Pingback: Karate Blogs Review | Karate Books

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