Friday, 20 July 2007

Kihon must be basic

What makes Shotokan unique, in my view, is the 'extreme simplicity' of advanced training, insofar as kihon is concerned. KIHON TO ME - MUST BE BASIC, otherwise karateka are better to stick to kata, partner work, and impact training. In my opinion kihon is the 'raw training' of the foundational techniques, and isolation of their respective principles. These principles exist, to maximise your physical action, regardless of attack or defensive measure. Generally speaking, I am opposed to highly elaborate combinations when seriously training (except for the occassional novelty), and certainly opposed to long combinations, when assessing students at kyu and dan-shinsa.

My justifications for this simplicity in training, and assessment, are as follows

Kihon-Keiko (Fundamental Training/Practice): In fundamental training, practice of kihon must be simple and deep, grooving exact form and the correct physiological principles into your subconscious mind. I believe that Shotokan’s biggest asset, in regards to kihon, is its depth. The essence of our fundamentals can be found in the development of reliable body mechanics, which are universal for hand-to-hand combat. This is achieved through the dissection, of a limited number of ‘core techniques’, and perfection of each element. Never forget that mae geri contains hiza geri, chudan soto uke 'has the body action of jodan shuto sotomawashi uchi', and so forth. The limited number of standard techniques, originally established by the JKA, allows us to more rapidly understand the complete arsenal of 'standard Shotokan' (remember this is THE FOUNDATION FOR EVERYTHING ELSE), and from here we can become specialists. When practising, always keep in mind the importance of 'muscle memory'.

It is literally a case of quality as opposed to quantity, and without real quality, your techniques will have less chance of being reliable, in a sudden altercation. Some people may see this karate training as rather mundane, but as I have said before, it can be compared to doing sets and reps at the gym. You must concentrate on perfect form throughout your motions, and train regularly. Even with simple motor skills (say a body building excericse, such as a tricep extension) you must concentrate on all aspects of your technique, and seek to systematically improve your strength (lift heavier weights whilst maintain exact form). Balance what you 'currently percieve as perfect form', with large repetitions of the most simple actions, and you'll advance rapidly. This is because you will discover deeper layers in your karate, which in turn will greatly increase your skill level. It's in this training, that you will discover the need for enormous self-discipline, as I have discussed in previous articles.

Kyu/Dan-Shinsa (Grading Examinations): During grading assessments, single techniques, and very simple combinations, make the examinees 'legitimate' technical skill transparent. Mistakes cannot be hidden by outstanding skills in other areas. For example in a long kicking combination, someone’s ineffective yoko kekomi might be overlooked by the excellence of their mae geri, mawashi geri and ushiro geri etc. As an examiner, I would prefer to visually assess each basic kick individually, or simple renzokuwaza (combination techniques), such as mae geri followed by oi-zuki. When the Kihon portion of the exam is done in this way, the depth of skill is easy to establish, – even by outside examiners, who are brought in, to make up the required grading panel.

* Just as a side note, as opposed to making up longwinded ‘Mega Memory' testing combinations at gradings, I would prefer to see examinees demonstrate their techniques, full-power against a target such as an impact shield (preferably held by another karateka). This, I believe would result in the failure of many people trying to achieving upper kyu and dan grades. Too many traditional karateka 'look nice', but lack impact power. These dancers need to be failed, and given a supplementary strength training regime. A minimum strength requirement needs to be set for all people, regardless of age, gender and rank. This may limit some people from advancing in karate, but that's life! I don't believe in 'politically correct karate'.


The renzokuwaza I deem as essential in ido-kihon training, and assessment, are as follows: (a) Sanbon ren zuki; (b) The four basic 'closed fist blocks' (jodan age uke, chudan soto uke, chudan uchi uke and gedan barai) individually executed, followed by chudan gyaku zuki; (c) Mae geri followed by oi zuki; (d) Traditional Shotokan mawashi geri followed by gyaku zuki - not the 'bad habit' instep kick; (e) Chudan soto uke followed by yori ashi into kiba dachi, with yoko empi uchi; (f) Chudan shuto uke in kokutsu dachi, switching into zenkutsu dachi for tateshihon nukite; (g) Yoko keage switching to yoko keage with the same leg in zenkutsu dachi. Alternatively, yoko keage ashi o kaete (change legs) yoko kekomi in kiba dachi.

Notice all of my ESSENTIAL renzokuwaza contain only two techiniques, with the exception of sanbon zuki.


One term I discovered, on my very first trip to Japan, was 'basics inside of basics'. This term was essentially how instructors at the JKA viewed kihon-keiko. Each technique can be broken down into many sections, like a slideshow, with each part of your body coordinating harmoniously with each frame. Looking at each individual technique in this manner, makes it very clear, that 'long winded' kihon combinations, are completely counter-productive for ones karate growth. Instructors must question ''why'' they are doing certain things in their own training regime, and what they are looking for, when testing their students.

If you prefer to practice ‘fancy stuff’, my opinion is that Shotokan is not for you. There are plenty of flamboyant styles out there, but I seriously question their legitimacy as martial arts. Just remember: ''Someone who can blow you away with a basic oi zuki, gyaku zuki, mae geri or any other 'foundational technique', is a great karateka!''



Bottom line, what do long-winded kihon combinations achieve? Why not just practice kata or sections of the kata, as more elaborate combinations? Will you ever use these techniques combatively, or are they only trained for your next respective examination? And are they teaching any special body mechanics not found elsewhere, or intimately connected to an integral skill? In reality most instructors who advocate such 'cheesy combinations' in training, and in tests, simply lack any depth of knowledge. Clearly the motivation of adding 'another move' to the sequence, for that brightly coloured belt, is either technical imaturity, or an attempt to make training 'more interesting'. Yes, that is the McDojo alarm, ringing in your ears.

My advanced karate practice is kata, partner work, and yes, kihon. And the kihon is made into 'advanced training' by its raw simplicity, and ever increasing depth. This is what I believe makes Shotokan unique, and the most dynamic, amongst the four major traditional systems.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

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