Friday 29 June 2007

The Optimum Karate Physique

The Optimum Karate Physique

Is there an optimal physique for karate?

I've always tried to develop a 'karate body', that is a physique which is optimal, for my execution of karate techniques (both performance and application). So much so that I foolishly crushed a disk in my spine, at 12 years old, trying to strengthen my body with heavy weights. This injury was the worst in my karate career, and still limits my motion. Thankfully it has not limited my karate, except in regards to some warm up/stretching exercises (i.e. - forward bending can put me out for weeks, so I simply avoid it, and spend more time on other stretches). Strangely enough, this has never hindered my karate, except when instructors have 'forced me' to do bending stretches.

I believe the best 'muscles' for karate are ones that are both flexible (please refer to my junansei/softness article) whilst allowing maximum explosive power. Of particular interest, and synonomous with these two points, is 'freedom of motion' (i.e - not getting 'muscle bound'). Via years of experimentation I found that with around 10% bodly fat, and the weighing in at about 70kg, has been optimal for me (Please note: I'm only 175cm tall). I realise that my body is 'poorly-sculpted' next to a body builder, and many other athletes. But keep in mind that my physique is merely the result of karate training (with no focus on 'looking' cut). Going by these points, I think it is fair to say that karate is quite effective, for toning up the body, without looking 'freakish' (with the exception of my knuckles, according to my wife Mizu). I have also noted that over the years, my students have also toned up nicely, with bellies shrinking and more cut muscles appearing.

Functionally looking at karate, and in particular, its focus on ikken-hissatsu (the single 'finishing' blow), we must maximise our impact power, but balance this accordingly with speed. Hitting hard but slow is limited combatively, particularly when one is specialising in 'percussive blows'. And being super fast, with insuffient impact power, is completely useless for traditional karateka (typical of many karate exponents, with too much focus, on the sporting aspect of the art).

This balance must be decided by each karateka, via serious training, and self-evaluation. Sorry if this is not PC, but generally speaking, ''fat people'' don't make good karateka, and at best, seriously limit their technical ability. To me, keeping in shape is fundamental for budoka (unless you are doing Sumo), as it results from training (that is 'really training'). People with two or more years of regular dojo practice, who are fat, simply aren't training with enough intensity. Regardless of dan rank, we must then question such peoples karate. In the picture above (tensing up to show some muscle definition), I am slightly overweight, sitting at around 72kg (last Winter).

So what exercises do I recommend to develop a 'karate physique'? Firstly, I no longer use weights. One reason is because I don't have access to any, here in Japan, and secondly, I pretty much stopped using weights several years ago, as I found greater success using my own body weight (largely due to my old injury). I have been using plyometrics for over a decade (within my own karate training), and found that these, coordinated with wind sprints, have greatly increased my explosive power. Some of my favourites exercises include: (a) various box jumps with karate techniques; (b) basic plyometric push ups; (c) ankle springs; (d) squat jumps; (e) continous 'machine gun' punching in kiba dachi (a favourite of Asai Sensei). (f) Stance thrusts from seiza (direct and spining).

More important than these exercises is specificity, that is, to supplement your dojo training with regular home practice of kihon. In particular focus on what your instructor is correcting in the dojo. For example if trying to improve your mae geri, try three sets of 20-40 repetitions with each leg. Make sure you can see yourself, to ensure you are not grooving a bad habit into your technique. Such training is karate specific and therefore develops a physique

optimal for karate. You can supplement this by kicking over a chair to practice a proper 'rear-chamber' and 'hiki-ashi' etc. Also look at sitting in basic stances during your daily activities, for example, I often sit in kiba dachi when typing on my laptop, and talking on the telephone. Before you know it, sometimes you will have found yourself sitting in a low kiba dachi, for three minutes or longer, with your legs burning. Training in this way makes great use of your time, and if done regularly, will really improve your karate.

Obviously diet also plays an important role in training, however I won't cover this here, as I am not qualified to comment (and have a very unorthodox system). In saying that, I'm the first to admit that I eat 'what I want to eat', and reduce my food intake when I detect weight gain. This usually comes as a result of not training hard enough (often influenced by the weather or my hectic teaching schedule - both of which are BS excuses). Personally, as a 100% karate-man, I would prefer to eat what I like, and train more with more vigor, thus killing two birds with one stone.

The optimal karate physique is a body which maximises your potential, in the execution of karate techniques. The byproduct of this is having a balanced body, which is relatively cut, and both supple, and strong. Karate is defined by the frequency, intensity and quality of ones training, and the result of these things should be the ability to execute a 'single finishing blow' and the 'optimum karate physique'. If not, we have to question our training methods. Karate instructors must remember that ''Teaching is not training.'' Asai Sensei constantly emphasised that ''Instructors must train harder than their students if they are to teach properly''. Does your instructor train harder than you? If not, one has to question whether attending their classes is worthwhile.
© André Bertel, Japan 2007

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