Applying Sports Science to the Fighting Arts: An Interview with FSRI’s Robert Miller

Robert Miller has been training and teaching karate for more than 30 years. His explorations into effective training and technique have led him to pursue training in Aikido and Judo, studies in anatomy, kinesiology, and education, as well as cross-training with a diverse range of classical and modern martial artists. To further his understanding of effective training practices and dispel  the myths about training that exist within many “traditional” karate circles, Miller recently completed Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist certifications with the NASM. This is part 1 in a series of interviews with him about the role of sports science in designing training programs for the fighting arts that are as safe as they are effective.

Bob, you recently attained Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist certifications through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). What can you tell us about how both of these fields overlap with karate training, and what can they offer to someone who trains, or teaches karate?


Personal training is a pretty broad field, it is sort of what you make of it. The organizations that certify  personal trainers vary widely in both their content, and the depth of knowledge they expect of trainers. I chose the National Academy of Sports Medicine for its rigor, its emphasis on “evidence based” training, and because they spend a lot of time dealing the “why” of various training programs. It is a very empowering program. I recommend NASM to anyone considering a career in health and fitness who wants to do more than just lead an occasional aerobics class. That stuff just leaves me cold I’m afraid. I tend to be pretty uninterested in marketing the most current, shiny, new fads in fitness. That’s probably why I resisted becoming a “ninja” in the nineties, why I don’t turn out ten year old black belts, and why I am not marketing what I do as some sort of MMA now. Same thing with fitness; I want sober stuff that works, and does not bankrupt my students/clients.

I am in my mid forties now and although I am in alright shape, I can really feel the effects from some of the abuse I have subjected my body to. I believe that the demographic for “traditional karate” is aging also. I have seen too many older karate-ka hobbling around half crippled after years of dedicated, but unscientific training. It is really a shame, when you think about it, these guys probably bought into the whole idea that it would take years, maybe decades to master their techniques, when they feel like they might be getting close to finally understanding them, their bodies are too damaged to do much with the techniques anyway.

The last couple of years I have been reading a lot of sports science related literature, especially the stuff concerned with injury prevention. I have also spent a considerable amount of time interviewing college and high school soccer, football, wrestling, and basketball coaches and trainers about injury prevention and performance enhancement. When my job changed I found myself with some extra time on my hands, and I thought “now’s my chance to do this right”, it seemed like getting certified as a trainer was a good place to start, so I enrolled in the CPT (Certified Personal Trainer, -ed.) program with NASM. Right after signing up I went to a weekend long class conducted by Eric Beard of NASM, and I was blown away. The guy is amazing. It was clear to me in an hour that I was going to get more out of this than ninety percent of all the karate seminars I have ever been to. I decided right there to continue on and enroll in NASM’s corrective exercise specialist program.

What does the Corrective Exercise specialty involve?

The corrective exercise specialist is a sub-specialty in fitness training. We look for movement impairments, problems with programming, and muscle imbalances that can lead to injuries. The more injury free time you have to work with, the more you can improve if you are training smart. Corrective exercise specialists do a lot of movement assessments, and we try to develop precisely targeted programs for our clients that can rapidly improve their functional fitness. It really is remarkable how quickly people begin to feel, and move better. Sometimes it is a little strange wearing both hats (karate teacher, and corrective exercise specialist) though, sort of like being a crack dealer and a rehab counselor at the same time.

The fields of sports science and karate, especially “Traditional karate”, may seem unrelated, or even mutually exclusive to some. What got you interested in applying this science to karate training?

Sports science has so much to offer karate that it could take volumes to discuss. Both karate teachers and fitness professionals should be concerned with helping the student/client. This should be trivially true, except that there are some “so-called” traditionalists who invert this relationship, making the student’s development subordinate to the “tradition”. Of course the student owes some obligation to the school, and should be loyal, however the school should be at least as concerned with the student’s development and well being. In my mind any teacher worthy of the name, should be at least as devoted to their students as to the school.

The second part of your question is difficult to answer. Karate would benefit a lot if more instructors made a diligent study of contemporary sports science. Some folks say “karate is not a sport”, and I believe they are right, but it does not follow from this that sports science has nothing to contribute to the field of karate. Hitting a moving target with speed, power, and accuracy is inherently an athletic task, even if karate is not necessarily a sport. One of the biggest problems plaguing karate, in my opinion, is that it includes so many outdated, overly romantic ideas regarding how to train people to become more powerful.

Would it be safe to say that constant repetition is one of those notions? The commonly encountered “traditional” idea is often that executing 1000’s of reps (often into empty air), and pushing past discomfort, is the only way to improve.

There are lots of ways to improve the qualities of complex athletic tasks. Sometimes repetition is called for, sometimes it can do more harm than good. Our neuro-myofascial tissues, our bones, and our joints are all subject to overuse injuries. These tissues need time to recover after the stress of training. The cost of the stress to the body, and the time the body needs to recover becomes greater as we age making effective programming all the more important. It is easy to develop muscle imbalances from poorly designed training programs, it is also easy to lose motor control after injuries. This can also lead to further muscle imbalances, and movement impairments. The stress on the joints can be substantially greater if, for example, the joint stabilizers, and synergists take over (become dominate) for a prime mover like the gluteus maximus. This can lead to both overuse injuries, and poor joint function. The answer here is not more repetition, it is better programming that provides time for the tissues to heal, activates the poorly recruited glutes, and inhibits the overactive tissues.

Can you give us an example of how overuse or improper use affects the body over time?

Let me give you a hypothetical example of a case in which “more on the floor” is not really the solution to a training performance challenge: Imagine you have someone who is a dedicated karate-ka. He is something of a kicker. He likes to practice his kicks during class, and at home. Everyone knows that when it time to spar they had better watch his legs. Our imagined karate-ka is also dedicated to his own conditioning. It is not unusual to see him on the floor after class doing extra sit-ups. His legs have become conditioned to be able to bear the impact of being blocked, or checked when, while sparring, he kicks at an opponent.  Our man’s lats are strong from focusing on the connection through them to his lower body, and from holding his elbows close to his body as he extends his arms as he punches. Of course his strong pull back arm further tightens and conditions his lats. His external obliques, his lats, and his quadratus lumborum muscles are also tight from helping stabilize his pelvis as he kicks. All in all he is a pretty formidable athlete.

He is however unhappy with the explosiveness of his gyaku-tsuki (reverse punch). His deficiency is especially obvious to him when he attempts to slide in while executing his punch. Our guy is no dummy, he has figured out that he needs to get his hip to explode in the direction he wishes to punch if he is going to get more speed and power. It seems apparent to him that what he needs to do is to work on this punch more. His teacher, and his senior all seem to agree that there is just no substitute for doing more punching if he wants to improve. He accepts this advice, and he may realize some minor improvement in the short term, but his lower back is now hurting him when he relaxes, and after a couple of months he decides that it must just be a matter of genetics, this is about as much power as he is going to be able to generate in his sliding in reverse punch without destroying his back. He is a kicker, and his punch is not weak. He resigns himself to the thought that his punch will not ever become the sort of rapid “opportunity maker” or decisive counter punch that he has seen others develop. Of course these thoughts are kept to himself.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at what is going on with our hypothetical karate-ka. The first thing to bear in mind when we are talking about karate training is that all the shifting, punching, and stepping in deep stances is hard on the lower back. The force coming up the legs, and through the back is pretty substantial. Any little conditioning, or performance issue can push things over the edge and cause lower back pain. Kickers depend heavily on their hip flexors, and the hip flexors suppress activation in their antagonists, the glutes. Chronically tightened hip flexors can, over time, inhibit the glutes enough that other muscles in the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex become dominate and over-active. If you have ever seen a long time karate man with a gait like a waddling duck, with a “noassatall” side profile, you have probably seen the end stages of this process. Such a person is not athletic, in extreme cases they can be nearly crippled with foot/ankle, knee, hip, and even shoulder pain.

So an overuse problem in the hips can affect the areas above and below?

If the glutes have become difficult to recruit, it is going to be hard to get the explosive hip extension necessary for rapid/ powerful reverse punches. Once the compensations have set in, further repetition will just reinforce the whole cycle. In the meantime the ankles, knees, lower back, and even the shoulders will also be dealing with the consequences of the movement impairment. There are predictable patterns of injury that result from exactly the sort of compensations I have just described. The shoulder bit is interesting because the glutes, and the contra-lateral lats participate in a muscular sub-system that helps support movement in the transverse plane (i.e., through both the frontal and sagittal planes, like the rotational movement in the reverse punch). If the glutes are under-active the lats will try to compensate, and you can end up with overly tight lats. Lats that are too tight change the way the shoulder moves, and can cause shoulder impingement. Keep in mind that the lats not only stabilize the scapula, they pull down against the humerus as the arm extends when punching. In simple language that means less speed, and less power in the punch. Force the issue by trying to push through more reps and you are going to end up with soft tissue injuries and more problems.

Any shock to the shoulder (such as is caused by punching, especially punching rapidly in the air) can cause the deep stabilizers in the joint to tighten. In the case of the shoulder joint these are the muscles of the rotator cuff. This leads to further compensations in the shoulder and throughout the torso that can both destabilize the shoulder joint, and reduce functional speed.

How do we identify these over-compensations in our training, and how can our hypothetical student correct these problems?

Well you start by identifying what the problems are. The first one is pretty obvious; he has tight hip flexors inhibiting neural recruitment of his glutes. There is actually a pretty straight forward solution to that one: we inhibit the over-activity in these muscles by having him lay off of the kicking for a couple of weeks, we have him perform self myo-fascial release techniques with a foam roller to these muscles,  we stretch out his hip flexors, and at the same time we begin retraining his glutes with targeted resistance exercises designed to help him learn to recruit those muscles. Slowly we reintegrate his glutes into more complex tasks up to and including punching.

Next we are going to go after his shoulders. We want to make sure that he has sufficient mobility in his rotator cuff that he does not need to compensate by winging out his scapulae. To this end we will use stretches designed to give him that mobility while at the same time we will inhibit some of the over-activity in his lats, and chest. We want the muscles in his back that support his scapulae to do what they should be doing so we will have him perform strengthening exercises for his mid and lower trapezius muscles, and his rhomboids. Slowly we will recondition the shoulder, and reinforce proper kinesthetic awareness by having him perform more complex tasks like “squat to rows”, and cable rotations. Once he is ready we will have him perform slow punches using proper technique.

We are going to have to make sure that his core is working right so that his shoulders and lats do not have to deal with more than they need to so we will be doing lots of planks. We will not be doing sit-ups because these mostly work the same hip flexors that we are trying to turn down.

Once we have fixed the underlying movement disorders we will work to increase the endurance of those muscles he will be relying on most. We will begin to challenge his use of these muscles on less stable platforms by having him do things like squats on a wobble board, and doing chest presses on a balance ball, once his endurance and control are there we will begin working on power. Squats , cleans, and medicine ball work are all great for this if done with proper technique, but so are short sprints, and agility work. The agility work helps him keep a good base when he punches, reducing the likelihood of injury while at the same time promoting explosiveness. Punching in the air is just plain hard on the body. We are not going to do much of it. Instead he will practice his punches most of the time using resistance cables and targets. All of the time we will be taking care to let his body recover between workouts by alternating exercises, and allowing him to get sufficient rest for his body to adapt.

So rest plays an important part in the Corrective Exercise phase, versus simply pushing through more of the same skill that started the problems in the first place?

Many people do not respect their need to rest. You do not build muscle, or learn complex skills on the training floor. You build muscle after your work out while your body tries to adjust to the new demands placed upon it. Without sufficient sleep you are not going to learn new skills very effectively, and your performance of familiar tasks will suffer leaving you more vulnerable to injuries. One symptom of over-training is sleep difficulty. Another is a proneness to viral infections such as colds. People who are over-training often have more rapid heart rates, this effects their cardiovascular endurance. People who are over-training heal more slowly. Before you know it there is more water pouring out of the bucket than can be put back in.

Of course this is frustrating, and for all the “I am a modern day samurai that can push through anything” self talk, that frustration will eventually effect your training. My point is just that it is incredibly helpful to know what kinds of adaptations (psychological  fortitude, endurance, strength, power, balance, agility, recruitment of correct muscle groups, coordination, etc) you are going for, and then set out a rational program to accomplish it. Being dedicated and diligent enough to work a program is difficult. It is much nicer to think that there is something intrinsically special about karate training, imagining that if we just soldier on we can become impressively powerful. The truth is that this sort of mentality is a good way to find oneself with chronic back, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle pain, poor balance and agility, and a bunch of techniques you are too crippled to ever hope to use. We are much more likely to succeed by recognizing the relevant research in the field of sports science and doing our best to apply it to our training. In my opinion fighting spirit should entail the maturity, realism, and discipline necessary to do the work required to help ones self improve without resorting to magical thinking.

Thank you, Bob.


8 responses to “Applying Sports Science to the Fighting Arts: An Interview with FSRI’s Robert Miller

  1. It is about time the karate world started to implement modernized training methods- the top practitioners MMA, BJJ, boxing, kickboxing, olympic wrestling, submission grappling are very, very savvy in sports science or they have trainers who are very adept at it.

    People say, “Karate is not a sport”, but neither is soldiering or policing, and the top people in those fields train their bodies scientifically like athletes- because doing warrior tasks are often athletic endevours. There is a reason why conditioning is so important in the development of military and police personnel (and many of them do train in combat sports/martial arts since many of the techniques and concepts do apply to their work).

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  5. Good article. The funny thing is, that many of these newly discovered practices are similar to the classical karate and kung fu exercises that have always been a part of Okinawan karate and Chinese kung fu, but not Japanese karate. Michael Clarke’s book, “Hojo Undo” is a good reference. Instead of “modernizing” karate, I think it is good to research the old and embrace the new.

    • There may be similarities in the fact that Okinawans/Chinese recognized the need for certain exercises, but they did not have good knowledge of actual anatomy, or key mechanisms of useful conditioning, such as overload and progression. Another big one is recognizing the damage inherent to connective tissues from trying to produce or support force in certain positions. For example, some old-school karate teacher with a grasp Chinese-medicine might be able to recognize a muscular imbalance, but be relatively clueless as to it’s actual causes- substituting “your lats are hypertonic from too much punching, let’s inhibit them” with “your chi is weak, you need more yang tonic.” For the observation to have a useful benefit to the student, an accurate understanding of the cause is required. Researching the old is useful; some of it is still applicable, some is outdated, but can clue us in to what our predecessors recognized about the activity- which in many cases mirror our own observations. I would be willing to bet that if Miyagi or Mabuni had access to the quantum leap in knowledge that modern sports science brings to martial arts trainng, they would eagerly apply it and make changes to their ideas.

      • Maybe. As a martial artist, I definitely need to explore more information both on TCM and Personal training before I could do a definitive comparison of the two. My problem with some modernist approach is that they assume they understand the old approaches thoroughly when they often don’t. The irony is that much of our modern approach (with functional strength training and core work) was a part of Chinese/Okinawan exercises prior. I am all for modern study, but before we assume limits, we need to understand all that Okinawan/Chinese method incorporated and understood.

      • It’s not so much a comparison between personal training and TCM per se. The point of the analogy was that a karate instructor of 100+ years ago knew less about the body than the average athlete or trainer knows today, especially if he based his understanding of training physiology in Chinese medicine (which Okinawans embraced). The elephant in the room that karate/TMA people tend to ignore is that although Okinawan/Chinese martial artists may have noticed the usefulness of things like strength training and the stabilization provided by the core musculature, their understanding of the actual anatomy, physiology and mechanisms of conditioning was nowhere close to accurate. It’s not accurate to say that modern training principles were/are already in these practices. Just look at a contemporary Chinese anatomy text- in most cases, one has to wonder just what the hell they were actually drawing. If you read through contemporary Chinese/Okinawan training manuals, you will not see any information about basic training variables such as volume, intensity, frequency, duration, progression, or recovery. Nor will you see anything about how to restore proper arthrokinematics or correct a training-related muscular imbalance via restoring an optimal length/tension ratio. In that light, the older practices are indeed limited compared to those informed by a modern evidence-based understanding. Sometimes old practices aren’t necessarily good or better just because they’ve been around awhile. Sometimes they got passed down because no one knew any better, or because they maintained a certain prestige or power structure within a group. Where the observations of past practitioners match our own, the best progress can be made using modern knowledge to understand the how and why of training.

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