Is the weight training good or bad for karate? 重量挙げの空手に対する功罪はいかに？ Part 2
(This is Part 2, be sure to read Part 1 first)
Next let us discuss why they chose to take this method; more natural but yet more creative in many ways than just lifting weights.
My assumption is that these athletes or performers knew, maybe instinctively, that what it takes is a total performance which requires a lot of harmony and coordination within their body. In other words, what the total performance meant for them was not the simple sum of the power in different parts of the body. Having stronger arms or legs is good only if they were in perfect tune and coordination with the rest of the body. If one lifted the heavy weights it would probably take him two or three times training to put those arms or legs back into harmony and in coordination. For the amount necessary for this process, they figured out it is more effective and wise to train the holistic and core training approach rather than the partial approach.
There is one thing I must share with the readers. I find that there is a serious ignorance and under appreciation to what our body does and how it does it among us including karate practitioners. I know this is a strong statement and it may offend some people. I want to emphasize that I am not using this word, ignorance to demean the practitioners. But rather I want to catch their attention so that they will realize what they are missing or paying little respect or appreciation. Thus, I decided to include this in this article as I consider this subject as critically important for us to understand what we have been discussing up to this point. I get very upset when I see an instructor who allows or orders the white belt or the kids to do jiyu kumite, free sparring. The instructor would say, “Yes, the white belts (or the kids) are terrible but this will teach them the fighting spirit.” The instructor might have done this with good intention but he sadly did not realize how much damage he has done to this white belt (or the kids) in his learning of the karate techniques. If you want to teach the fighting spirit then you must wait till this student learns the fighting techniques first. You may wonder why I oppose jiyu kumite (free sparring) for children. It is not because it can be dangerous (even though it can). As it will take a lot of space I will not include the explanation in this article. I will find another opportunity one day why kids should not be doing jiyu kumite which probably is another big controversial subject.
I am not blaming only the karate practitioners and the instructors. I am afraid this is a general trend among the general athletic field including, believe it or not, the professional level athletes. In fact, the complexity of the body mechanism is not appreciated or respected enough by most of the general public. I have mentioned the similar statement when I wrote the last article, “Why is it so difficult to relax our muscles”. I mentioned this about us taking for granted that we can easily walk, though the mechanism of standing and walking is extremely complex and difficult. So far no mechanical robot can imitate the exact walking movements of a person. But we do it so easily we do not appreciate our ability every time we walk. You will discover the appreciation once you lose this ability, say from an accident or a stroke. You will experience extreme difficulty if you have to re-learn how to walk through rehabilitation. It may take months and even years to regain the walking ability which you would have never dreamed of. Read the article, “Walking after a stroke”, from Health Day to understand what happens when you encounter a stroke. Anyone can have a stroke no matter your age, race or gender so it could happen to any of us. The patient in the article was only 52 years old. http://consumer.healthday.com/encyclopedia/high-blood-pressure-24/blood-pressure-news-70/walking-after-a-stroke-part-1-645712.html
Now you understand that walking is a complex body mechanism but it will take many muscles and a lot of body coordination to do even a simple action like picking up a glass. To many readers it may be surprising but a movement like picking up a glass with your hand is mechanically difficult as it is a fine and complex movement that requires a very precise and harmonized neuro-physical coordination such as detecting the hardness and the weight. A fine and precise balancing act is required even though we may not recognize it as we can do this action almost unconsciously. Have you ever tried to pick up something light such as a glass filled with water which looked very heavy? I am sure you ended up spilling the water as you picked it up too fast believing it was very heavy. Indeed, even just to pick up a glass of water requires the perfect coordination of many muscles not only in your hand and arm but also the upper body. Not only that it will also require, at the same time, the eye/visual coordination with the neural processes in the brain and spinal cord which control, plan, and relay motor commands. Here is a paragraph from The Anatomy of Movement by Susan Schwerin, PhD at Brain Connection. http://brainconnection.brainhq.com/
“To pick up a glass of water can be a complex motor task to study. Not only does your brain have to figure out which muscles to contract and in which order to steer your hand to the glass, it also has to estimate the force needed to pick up the glass. Other factors, like how much water is in the glass and what material the glass is made from, also influence the brains calculations.”
If you still believe picking up a glass is easy, how about handling a pair of chop sticks? Can you pick up a small round bean or something very soft like tofu? Yes, it takes a lot of training but you can learn to do it. Do you not agree that we really must appreciate and respect more of what our body can do and does for us?
To understand our motor coordination more you can read the basic concepts that are explained in Wikipedia on this subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motor_coordination
Now I need to bring up another important fact. It is that the body is designed to do what it has learned or repeated many times. I am sure you will agree, this concept that we normally do what we most repeated or practiced. Some of you may say, “Yes, this is why we are supposed to do our kata many times.” Tsutomu Oshima said we have to repeat kata 150,000 times before we can think the kata is ours. I am not sure if that number is really appropriate but he was right about the necessity of repetition to learn and understand only one kata. If you have trained under any of the Japanese senseis I am sure you have found that they like repetitions.
OK, I need to bring up one more important concept that you are probably already very familiar with. You know that it is difficult to kick an old habit. When you were a novice did your sensei tell you to rub your elbow against side of your body when you did the choku zuki? Our “natural” body movement for punching is to bring the elbow out like a round punch. Punching straight like a choku zuki is a new technique for a novice and I am sure it was difficult for you then to change your arm movement to something different from a street fight style (left). This is why you want to learn a technique correctly FIRST. It is possible to change later but will take much time and effort to change or make an adjustment to the initially learned technique.
You may ask how this is related to the subject of weight lifting and karate training. If you think a little more it is not a difficult question to answer. We have talked about the fact that our body will do the movements that were learned (repeated). You must remember that lifting weights will leave a big impression on the muscle tissues with the movements that are dis-similar to the karate movements. You will teach the muscles to move in the way you lift the weights. Because of the weight the muscle memory will be several times or more, stronger than the movements done without any weight. Then, remember how complicated the body movements your karate techniques require. Those movements demand a lot of muscle groups to harmonize and coordinate in totally different ways from the movements you did with weight lifting. Thus, most of the muscles strengthening with the peripheral muscles such as biceps and pectorals are almost meaningless for the karate techniques. In fact, they could turn out to be a disturbance to the coordination and harmonization of the muscle groups that are required for the karate techniques.
Some of you may wonder if the karate movements and techniques are really that complicated. After practicing karate for many years many of the readers may feel almost natural -when doing a kata or a series of kihon techniques. But, seriously the karate techniques are indeed extremely complicated. This very point is undermined or taken for granted by many practitioners and athletes. I consider karate and martial arts techniques the most difficult of all physical activities. I am not talking about only the techniques per se. I am aware that some of the techniques in ballet and gymnastics are physically more demanding and difficult. However, the requirement of martial arts , demands both the conscious and unconscious reactions. I have already explained about this in detail in another article, “Why we must preserve our kata”. So, I will not repeat the explanation but the basic concept that differs (and to put martial arts in the highest category) is the concept of not having any rules including no attacking and defending sides or dos and don’ts. This is why the ability of extremely high level of reaction and reflex is required in karate. One may be able to execute a technique in a conscious state (during training or in dojo) but he may not be able to in an unconscious state (in a real fight or in a dark alley) which is the stage where the techniques must come out without thinking. Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973) said “Don’t think! Feel…” He was right and that is the ultimate stage we need to reach in martial arts. But to get to that ultimate stage we must, first, be able to perfect the techniques in our conscious state, training. Therefore, unnecessary weight lifting can be a monkey wrench thrown in the precision machine, our body. Unfortunate thing is that weight lifting training is often done with a good intention and without really understanding the negative side.
Let me give you one very interesting case. I read a story that had happened to one of the professional golfers. I forgot his name but he became known in the professional golf circle about 20 years or so ago. He was young and an up and coming champion at that time. He wanted to drive the ball further, of course. So, to increase his power he decided to go up to Alaska and become a lumberjack for a significant amount of time. Certainly he believed it would help. He would swing a very heavy ax to chop the trees in a manner similar to swinging a golf club. I do not remember exactly how many months or years he stayed there and chopped trees but it was not a few days or even weeks. He returned to the golf circuit and discovered the shocking reality. His golf form was totally destroyed and could not play the game at a professional level. I remember he could never regain his form and he eventually disappeared from the circuit. If any of the readers happen to know who this player was, please let me know. I want to find out what had become of him.
How beneficial are those training tubes we use in our dojo?
The old bicycle tire tubes are a popular training tool in many shotokan dojos. I used to use them a lot during my younger days and have a fond memory of hard training using those tubes. A short answer is that any exercise is good if done correctly. I used to believe the tube must be fully extended and you had to fight it out by pulling or pushing to its limit in order to get the best benefit. The recent research proved my understanding was wrong. The fact that the tube will give you least resistance at first then gives you the most when it is fully expanded will not result in the best performance for karate. In other words you may gain some power in your arms or legs but the speed of your punch or a kick will not improve. In fact, they discovered extensive training with the tube is not good for your elbows and knees. What you need, instead, is a machine or a tool that gives you the most resistance at first then gives you less as you proceed with a punch or a kick. Unfortunately, at this time we do not have such a machine or a tool that would provide that kind of training condition. This is why I dropped the tube training from my workout menu as well as from my teaching class. One alternative is to find a partner who can give you that condition by pulling against your moves strongly at the initial stage then let go gradually. Well anything is possible.
How about the use of the weight jacket/vest?
When I was training full time I used to use a vest like this (photo below). If your body weight is in line with the healthy weight chart, then you could wear one of these. This will work on your foundation and help you strengthen your legs. One thing you must remember is that there is a minor ill effect on your form as your body is now artificially heavier. If you pay much attention to keep your posture correct then there will not be much negative effect. I suggest putting the weight bars in the lower pockets around the waist and keep the chest area free so that you will not have the obstacles that would limit your arm movements. If you are overweight then you do not need an extra vest. What you need to do first is to reduce your body weight down to the healthy level before you consider wearing a weight jacket or a vest.
Aren’t Jogging and cardio-exercise beneficial?
As I stated earlier any moderate exercise is good for your health. But if this is to supplement your karate training I say “Why would you spend time jogging or on an exercise bike if you can do your kata or stretches at home?” You can get a lot of cardio oriented exercise if you do kata nonstop for 15 or 30 minutes. That would be a lot more beneficial for your karate improvement and you don’t have to drive to a gym.
If your excuse is that you don’t have a big enough room to do a kata, you can always go to a park. If you are embarrassed doing it in front of people, go to a park at 4 or 5am then you will find very few people. This is how the tai chi people train normally. It is simply a matter of desire. Most of the reasons I hear are, I hate to say, only excuses.
Anything wrong with going to a gym to do some exercise?
Once again there is nothing wrong with doing the exercises whether you do them at home or at a gym. Some say they need an environment to exercise and their homes are not suitable. The other say they need some exercise equipment. Regardless, I just do not understand why they do not spend that time for karate training. It may be a supplement workout for the karate training but I am afraid they will get tired from the workout at a gym and they may skip or downgrade the karate training. One thing we must remember is that we need to spend the same amount of time or more for karate (precision work) to compensate the muscle work out (non-precision work, or non-karate movements). So, I hope you can plan a plenty of time for your karate training if you will engage in the supplemental workout.
I must mention that weight training tools are commonly used by the Okinawan styles. They use many different tools, some heavy, such as chishi チーシ (#1), sashi サーシ (#2), kame カメ (#3) etc. What benefits do the Okinawan styles expect from working with those weight tools? Are they beneficial for the shotokan practitioners?
#1 #2 #3
First, these exercises are called hojo undo 補助運動, auxiliary exercise which is designed to support or supplement the karate techniques. This is a part of the regular dojo training syllabus at an Okinawan style dojo. In most of the shotokan dojos we do not train with these tools but it is an important part of the Okinawan karate training.
My understanding of these tools is that they are for strengthening the joints especially the wrist and also the shoulders as well as strengthening the arm and finger muscles. The wrist (twisting) power is very necessary in the close distance fighting. We see many maki or kaiten (turning or twisting) techniques in many of our katas such as Bassai, Hangetsu, Kanku, etc. For shotokan a typical bunkai for these techniques is to block the punches. In that case the strong twisting or grabbing power is not needed, however, as you know there are many different bunkais. It could be the opponent grabbed your clothes or your wrist. In that case, you will need much more wrist twisting strength. You can develop the twisting strength by swinging a Chishi (#1 above). With a Sashi (#2) you will punch (slowly) with it or them. The immediate purpose is to refine your punching course so that your punch will travel straight with the connection with your hara. After accomplishing this, your punch will become more powerful and faster. This may be confusing but I must emphasize that this exercise is not designed to have the direct result of power and speed from strengthening the muscles with a Sashi.
Kame (vase, #3) is used for strengthening the gripping power and this is definitely for the close distance fighting purpose. At the same time the weight of the vases will work on the shoulder muscles and the foundation (legs and stance).
There are other tools such as iron geta but I believe those three tools I mentioned above are the most popular one. I conclude that those tools are excellent to strengthen your upper body muscles but also the core muscles (stance). If you find an extra time to train your body, working out with them will be beneficial to any Shotokan karateka.
I would like to hear from the Okinawan karate practitioners if my understanding is correct especially about the purpose of using those tools.
Finally, let’s discuss what the core muscle training is.
First we need to know what the core muscles are. In short, they are the muscles around your trunk and pelvis typically located beneath the surface muscles. According to Wikipedia, the core is explained as “In anatomy, the core refers, in its most general of definitions, to the body minus the legs and arms. Functional movements are highly dependent on the core, and lack of core development can result in a predisposition to injury. The major muscles of the core reside in the area of the belly and the mid and lower back (not the shoulders), and peripherally include the hips, the shoulders and the neck.”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Core_(anatomy)
The core muscles are also called the inner muscles as many of the muscles are hidden beneath the exterior musculature people typically train. The deeper muscles include the transverse abdominals, multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and many other deeper muscles. What we consider most important core muscle are those that connect the pelvis to the legs (mainly the area between the knee and the thighs). Believe it or not, there are many muscles there but the main ones are psoas major, iliacus, sartorius, pectineus, adductor lomgus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, bicept femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and more.
Why are these muscles important?
Your core most often acts as a stabilizer and force transfer center rather than a prime mover and this is why the core is important for karate. We must consider core strength as the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. One other important benefit of exercising the core research has shown, is that athletes with higher core stability have a lower risk of injury. According to Mayo Clinic article, core exercises improve your balance and stability; “Core exercises train the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen to work in harmony. This leads to better balance and stability, whether on the playing field or in daily activities. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles.” Interestingly it also states that “Core exercises don’t require specialized equipment or a gym membership.” For more on this subject read, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/fitness/in-depth/core-exercises/art-20044751?pg=1
Obviously the hip area is the most important part of your body when we talk about body movements. Most people understand that the legs are important when you walk, run or simply body shift. Many may believe they are done solely by the muscles in the legs but that is not the case. Unfortunately, not too many karate practitioners truly understand that such movements must accompany the highly sophisticated coordination of various muscle groups as well as the heavy involvement of the muscles that are located near the pelvis or lower abdominal area (see illustration right). In addition, even fewer people know or appreciate that the coordination and the harmony of these core muscles have a great impact to all other bodily motions especially the ones that require precision work or sophisticated skills. The work of these inner muscles in precise harmony and coordination can result in extra ordinary power generation as well as the exceptional technical skills. For instance, you need this ability if you wish to do a one inch punch. This ability is exactly what is needed if a serious karate practitioner wishes to obtain such ability and skills.
Modern medical science is proving this fact only recently that was known hundreds of years ago by the samurais who had no medical knowledge. They knew this from their physical experience after training intensively for many hours every day. When one pushes his body to its ultimate level with severe training he begins to develop the internal eyes, (self -awareness) that reveals the functions of the internal body. This may sound like mysticism but it is not. I am simply touching on the area of unknown human capability that will eventually be proved by modern science though not proven at this time. This experience was recorded by Egami and if you are interested you can read his book, “The Heart of Karate-do”.
You may say, “OK, we understand that the inner muscles in the hip area are important but how about the big muscles like pectorals and the belly muscles? Aren’t those six packs in the belly, rectus abodminis, a part of the core muscles?” All the muscles in our body are important in general. However, we do not consider those muscles that are located on the surface of our body as the core muscles. The core muscles are located internally or in a deeper part of our body. The other important muscle in addition to the pelvis area muscles for the body movements is erector spinae (the major back muscles, illustration above). Though they are not directly connected to the legs they are eventually connected to the hamstrings and they play an important role in the body movements. They are the main supporter of the upper body. They work in balance with the internal and external abdominal oblique as well as rectus abodminis to keep your balance while we stand and to give mobility of the body.
I must review that there are two types of weight exercises to strengthen your muscles. One type is done for the moving techniques and the other type is for the foundation building. Let me give you an example. Doing punches with a Sashi or a tube is the first type. In this case, you need to follow up with the same technique without the weight spending twice as much time and effort in the follow up exercise. This is because your focus with the punches with the weight is not typically for the accuracy or the speed of the technique. You need to a follow up exercise without the weight so that you can repeat the technique with a close attention to the accuracy with speed to gain the benefit in the targeted technique. This type of exercise is not considered as core muscle training.
The exercises such as deep squats and leg raises are to strengthen your core muscles. The purpose of this exercise is not to imitate the karate techniques but to strengthen the stance, the body foundation. These exercises should be included in your training menu but should be done separately from t karate training. You do not want your core muscles to be tired before karate training. Your attention to learning and repeating the karate techniques will be reduced if your core muscles are already tired. You want to keep or maintain 100% attention to the techniques during karate training. There are many other core exercises and I will not go into the specifics here. I have already given some hints where to look for the information so I ask the readers to do their own research and investigation to learn how to exercise those important muscles.
One more concept I must share which is a deeply embedded concept among the Japanese for the martial arts. It is Shin Gi Ittai 心技一体 which literally means Mind and Technique are one. This means mind and body must harmonized and work together. We have been discussing how to strengthen our body but we did not touch on the mind aspect. Why? Because most of us think only of physical techniques when we think of karate. This is one of my concerns I have with many of the practitioners. And this is why I wanted to bring this up at the end of this article. Remember one of Funakoshi Nijukun? He wrote in the fifth kun, Gijutsu yori Shinjutsu. He told us that mind technique is more important than the physical technique. He, I am sure, believed both are equally important but he had to say this because most of us tend to forget about the mind aspect of budo and karate. How do we strengthen our mind technique? We certainly cannot do so with lifting the weights. A skillful karateka without honor and respect is only a hoodlum. A karateka who is strong but with a chicken heart will not be able to defend himself or his family when a life and death situation arises. The Japanese senseis know this but we find it difficult to teach this. Let me quote the words of Takayuki Mikami. He said “The hardest thing to teach in karate is budo spirit, but it is the most important aspect the art of karate can offer to its practitioners.”
Many experts tell us that the biggest enemy is our-self. How do we win against our-self? How do we overcome “fear” and ego? Are there any training methods to strengthen our mind? As this article is not on this subject I will not spend much time on this but I will share this with the readers. The hints can be found in Dojo kun and Niju kun.
We agreed that power is necessary for every one of us to move and do any physical activities. We also agreed that the stronger a technique the better it is. However, we also found that the excessive weightlifting without well planned strategy is unwise and not recommended as such activities can be harmful and possibly detrimental to your karate techniques. We discovered that our body despite looking simple is in reality a very delicate and complex mechanism that requires a tremendous amount of fine tuning and organized training to do even a simple movement.
Another important discovery is that karate (martial arts in general) techniques are the most difficult or complex physical activity compared to any other sports and arts when we examine the physical and mental structure. We also learned that even a simple movement will require the group of muscles to function. This means any of the karate techniques require various muscle groups and their total coordination so that the muscles will perform in harmony. Strengthening a certain muscle or a muscle group can be a monkey wrench such as an electric guitar in a classical music orchestra (with due respect to an electric guitar player). This is the primary reason why the Japanese senseis are against weight lifting training.
Most importantly, we found that lifting weights to strengthen the peripheral muscles such as biceps and pectorals has much less value compared to the strengthening of the core muscles. Those muscles are typically called the inner muscles that are hidden beneath the exterior musculature and most of them are found in the lower abdominal area. Your core most often acts as a stabilizer and force transfer center. Also, core strength is the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. Mayo Clinic reports core exercises improve your balance and stability. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles. Though the Japanese instructors dislike the weight lifting exercises they include exercises that strengthen the core muscles in the hip and lower back areas.
Our legs are the foundation and also the transportation tool thus they need to be strong and movable. This is not only true for the runners but also for karate performance. The leg bones are connected to the pelvis and supported by many inner muscles. Those inner muscles are more difficult to train and to strengthen than those that are visible. Most of the visible muscles easily become weak without consistent training. On the other hand, those core muscles remain strong for a much longer period. Due to the peculiarity of the location, the core or inner muscles are easier to train using our own body weight rather than using weightlifting tools. Research has shown that athletes with higher core stability and strength have a lower risk of injury. In the interview conducted by Shotokan Karate Magazine in 1994, Tetsuhiko Asai said, “Karateka must aim to control every part of their body as a unit and separately. Relaxed, strong and flexible muscles are the key.” He was telling us that the strong muscles are important but at the same time they must be relaxed and flexible. We must spend our training time not only in strengthening the muscles but also to stretch and breathe deeply so we can be relaxed and flexible. In Asai karate, we list three key elements we need to prepare before practicing karate. They are flexibility, balance and strength.
We also need to look at the strength of our mind as we strengthen our body to perfect your karate. To achieve the ultimate height of karatedo one must have both the strong body and mind. So, when we spend our time to strengthen our body we must also plan to spend the equal amount of time to strengthen our mind.
Do you think you were doing your weight training correctly, and, was it beneficial to your karate techniques? Did you consider the facts described in this article in your weight training? As I believe you are a serious karate-ka, maybe you want to consider these facts, when you do your weight training next time. I am sure you want to see the time and effort you put in will result in improvement of your karate, do you not?