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 1
Have you noticed that many Japanese senseis oppose weight training? Now I am not referring to the Japanese senseis that live outside Japan. I am talking about the general consensus of Japanese Shotokan instructors. As a group they either oppose or discourage weight training. Though I do not know what the instructors from other karate styles would say on this subject but I do know that many of the Japanese senseis in other budo such as jujitsu, kendo or even judo are not in favor of weight training. One interesting finding is that Mas Oyama 大山倍達(1923 – 1994), the founder of Kyokushinkai極真会left a message; “Lifting weights at the gym won’t make you strong.” (right) I found it very interesting because Kyokushinkai is a full – contact style karate where raw power is needed. In addition, I know that he himself used to lift weights when he was young. Thus, you would expect him to encourage the idea of lifting weights to build muscle but his message is opposite to the idea. He must have changed his view in later years of or maybe he had a different idea about weight training.
Here is another quote from the famous Togakure ryu ninjutsu 戸隠流忍術master, Hatsumi Masaaki 初見良昭(1931 – present). He said, “Power is not necessary.” (left) Well, he is not from karate but if you watch his training many of the techniques he uses are very similar to the karate techniques. Apparently he does not believe in using power in his techniques. Even though he is old (73 years old in 2014) he can easily subdue opponents who are a half his age. Without power you cannot subdue an opponent so we wonder why he would say we don’t need power. In this article, I hope I can shed light on this subject by sharing what these instructors believe. You will examine what I present here and be a judge. You can decide at the end if you agree with them or not. OK, let us start.
I realize that this subject is controversial. When I made an announcement at my Facebook page showing the title of this article, I received so many comments, pros and cons. I must also say that it is an important subject and that everyone must have the correct knowledge and understanding. I am afraid that many people seem to have some wrong ideas as well as misunderstanding in some parts of this subject. There are also many good questions but no senior karate instructors have provided the logical and educated explanations and answers. It is natural that many karatekas are somewhat confused. I will do my best to provide the answers to all the questions I list as well as the explanations that are, hopefully, easy to understand. Let us travel this road together and discover the answers to the different aspects of this important subject; weight training.
First, let us define this term, “weight training” and have clear understanding of what we are discussing. Wikipedia defines weight training as using the weight force of gravity (in the form of weighted bars, dumbbells or weight stacks) to oppose the force generated by muscle through concentric or eccentric contraction. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weight_training)
When we think of weight training we almost automatically think of lifting heavy barbells and dumbbells. However, weight training also includes using our own body weight (e.g. push-ups, sit-ups, squats, etc.). So, there are two large categories of weight training. One is using some type of equipment or weights and the other is to work only with the body weight. OK then, let’s bring up the questions and we will see if we can find the answers to each of them.
Do the Japanese instructors oppose all weight training?
The short answer is no. This is obvious because they include some type of weight training in their workout such as squats and sit ups. The Japanese instructors know that all of us need power, even just to move our body our muscles have to work. So they believe making our body strong is the right thing. For instance, if our legs are weak then we cannot stand in a low stance for a long period of time or shift our body quickly. They particularly believe in the strength of the legs and the mid-section so you may have gone through, under a Japanese sensei, some rigorous weight training such as many sit ups and squats.
Then, why do the Japanese instructors say they oppose weight training?
When the Japanese instructors, particularly Shotokan style, refer to a term, ‘weight training’ they are normally thinking of weightlifting using either free weights or weight lifting machines. They normally do not consider exercises using the body weight as weight training. Many of the senseis include sit ups, push-ups and squats in the regular karate class. What the Japanese instructors have an issue with is lifting heavy weights or power lifting. They may not oppose it completely but discourage it strongly.
Why are they against weightlifting?
The question here is the main issue of this article. My explanation will be somewhat long and rather involved. I will do my best to make my explanation simple and clear. I found that this subject raised a lot of interest among the readers and is a controversial one. I am aware that what I write may not bode well with the beliefs of some of the western practitioners and instructors.
It is true that weight lifting builds power in your muscles and makes them stronger. Obviously the karate techniques require physical strength so you wonder what the problem is with gaining power from weight training. Definitely the Japanese senseis are not considering that gaining strength or becoming stronger is a problem. What is an issue is what kind of weight training is included and how you apply your weight training to the ultimate goal, improving your karate techniques as I assume the readers are karatekas.
I hope it make sense so far. Let me elaborate further. First, there is a very important point that we must remember. That point is that there are two separate phases in karate training. One is learning the techniques and the other is delivering or executing them. I have explained this in another article, “Why we have to preserve our kata” so I will not repeat the detailed explanation again here. Many instructors know about these phases but this important fact has not been discussed enough in the past. In the learning (the techniques) stage power is not considered as the most important requirement. In fact, having too much power is considered a handicap or detriment. If you have taught a novice you probably remember this. Teaching a novice goes like this. You will show a simple technique such as choku zuki (straight punch). You tell the novice student to repeat it slowly. What you notice in most of the students is the overt tension of the arms and the shoulders. You will see the shoulder (the punching side) raised up as it is tensed too much. We know that the shoulder should be relaxed and pulled down by having the arm pit muscles tensed. The students need to be relaxed so that they can perform the accurate techniques slowly. Of course, they need the minimum power to move your arms and to be able to stand up for a period of time but they do not need more strength than this during this stage. The other important requirements for karate such as speed and kime are neither needed nor required at this stage. The most important and challenging thing in this stage is to accurately learn the techniques. In this stage the senseis will not recommend the students get involved in weight training except for the core muscle training which will be explained later.
I am sure you agree the idea of not focusing on the power side when you are just learning the techniques. So, we have no problems up to this point. What we must remember is that many of the readers are probably either advanced practitioners or instructors. They belong to the next stage, executing the techniques. In their training they deliver the technique with speed and power. Weight training should increase the speed and power. So why would the Japanese instructors oppose it? This is where the most precise explanation is required.
There are at least three apparent reasons why Japanese instructors consider having more power unnecessary and weightlifting training can be harmful even for the advanced practitioners.
1) They emphasize the importance of accuracy in karate.
In other words, if your punch cannot land on a target correctly then a strong punch means nothing. This is same as a baseball batter, for example, who can swing a bat fast with great power. If this batter cannot hit a ball, his fast and strong swing amounts to nothing. This player needs to work on the technique of hitting a baseball. So, for a karateka the ability to execute an accurate technique includes timing, hitting the target, judgment of distance, etc., and is considered more important than sufficient impact (power). Out of all the important requirements (physical side), power is probably considered to be the least or the second least important by the instructors. The instructors typically tell you, “You do not need power but must have accuracy when you stab the eyes or kick the groin.”
2) The concept of 5 out of 5 being better than 5 out of 10.
The concept of power for which the Japanese instructors favor heavily is the achievement of its maximum. These numbers are just for a model of the concept so the numbers themselves are not important. Here is an example, one person has a maximum power of 5 and can generate all (or 5) in a technique. There is another person who has a maximum power of 10 but can produce only a half (or 5) because of bad balance, too much tension, etc. Though the final output figures are the same, the first person is better as he/she could maximized the body coordination to generate all of the power outage. The second person wasted half of his capacity though he tried for the maximum because of poor balance, excess tension, etc. Of course, if the second person learns how to generate more, then that person will be stronger than the first person. However, the instructors will not recommend this person workout with weights, but rather to relax and stretch. By spending his time and effort in this manner this practitioner can produce more from the existing power capability. Thus, the priority of power is low in Japan thus the senseis will encourage you to work on the other requirements such as accuracy, balance, rhythm, flexibility, etc.
3) Complexity of karate technique, in fact, most complex in all physical activities.
Though the requirements such as speed and power are important, the instructors consider technique and skill as most important. As I mentioned earlier, no matter how strong or powerful your punch or kick can be if it misses a target then such an attacking technique has completely lost its meaning. This is exactly the reason why so many Japanese senseis oppose weight lifting as they believe weight lifting training could derail good technique. Let’s examine the thoughts behind this.
Before I go into the explanation, let me share my opinion about the free weights method versus weight stacked machine method. Both approaches are to increase your muscle strength but for the karate practitioners, if they choose to do weightlifting, I recommend the free weights. I know it is easier and safer to train with a weight machine but you cannot learn the important essence of balance from a weight machine. It is like trying to learn how to balance on an exercise bike but it will be impossible as an exercise bike is fixed to the floor.
When you work with the weights regardless of the methods mentioned above there are two approaches. One is to lift the very heavy weight close to the maximum you can lift. In this approach you can do only a few repetitions. And the other approach is to pick the light weight so that you can easily do 10 to 20 repetitions. Of course there are other approaches or a combination of those but the two approaches I mention here are the typical ones. The first approach is taken mostly by the serious weight lifters who wish to either increase the maximum weight to lift or to bulk up (make the muscles bigger). The second approach is chosen, mainly by the people who are aiming only to tone up their muscles or to maintain their strength. For a karateka who chooses to lift weights I hope he is taking the second approach as you do not want to make some of your muscles too strong by doing the first approach. Let me explain.
There is nothing wrong with building muscle and gaining strength but we do not want to just build muscles in karate. There are two main reasons why the senseis oppose the weight-lifting type of weight training. Here is the first and the most important reason. In the previous article about relaxation I listed some data of our body parts. For instance an adult body is made up of 206 individual bones, over 230 moveable and semi-moveable joints (illustration left) and 640 to 850 muscles. Even though the exact numbers of these parts are not important one thing I wanted to emphasize was our body is assembled with a huge number of movable parts. They enable us to perform all these complex movements that are found in karate training. In fact, the karate techniques are, believe it or not, one of the most complex movements you can find. Now remember we have more than 640 muscles and they are the power generators. So, imagine our body is like a huge orchestra with more than 800 singers and instruments (640 muscles and 206 bones). Yes, your brain is the conductor to manage them all. You can imagine that this will be a challenging task to make beautiful music especially if the players and the singers are not professionally trained. I am not a musician so I cannot tell you how challenging it would be but I am sure it would be to most of the amateur conductors. What would happen if a certain instrument like a drum or a group of drums start to make much louder sound. Even if you like the sound of a drum, the audience will not be pleased if it is not in harmony with the other instruments. I assume it is pretty easy to understand the importance of harmony and coordination with orchestra music.
Just like orchestra music, when you want to improve the karate techniques what you need most is the coordination and harmony. The karate skill is a precision work and numerous amounts of exact repetitions are needed. I am sure you remember when you were a white belt how many times you had to repeat age uke, shuto uke, gyaku zuki, mae geri, etc as they were totally new moves for you. The instructors told you to do those moves slowly but accurately. You did not need power in that process. Refining or improving your techniques is a similar process. It is a fine tuning and coordination work. Indeed, extra strength is not only unnecessary but also an unwanted element in that process.
Let me give you another reason and I believe this is a large concern among the senior instructors including myself; why weight lifting is discouraged in karate. The action of weight lifting requires contraction and tension. The more weight means more tension. I have mentioned this several times in the past that karate techniques must be executed with well – balanced and coordinated expansion and contraction. Master Funakoshi also left his message on this in his Niju Kun; the 19th kun, “Chikara no kyojaku, tai no shinshuku, waza no kankyu o wasuruna”.
Master Taiji Kase 加瀬泰司(1929 – 2004) of France also left a message stating his concern, “Unfortunately, these days I see too much tension in the practitioners’ muscles.” A practitioner will be off balanced in the harmony of body mechanism after each weight training (tension), unless he/she makes sure to spend equal amount (or more) of time and effort to expand and stretch his/her muscles. Most of the practitioners do not see the ill effect from not doing the counter balancing exercise until the result gets large enough to see in his performance and that may be too late to reverse the course. Worse yet, that practitioner may not see the ill effect at all as he is blinded by the muscle gain and the power increase. One may believe he can prove the power gain when he punches a makiwara. It may make a louder sound but he may not realize that he may be now punching more like a street fighter. How could it be? Bench press is probably the most popular barbell exercise to develop the pectorals (chest muscle). Unless you make an extra effort to keep the elbows inward, they will be kept outward as you do the pressing. I am sure you know what I am talking about if you have bench pressed before. The body performs exactly how it is taught. It is like a computer. Garbage in garbage out. We were taught to keep our elbow in as we do the oi zuki or choku zuki but the bench press imprints a different impression on the chest, shoulder and arm muscles. The degree of the muscle impression and memory is equal to the amount of the weight and the number of the repetitions.
First of all, why is power or big muscles more popular in the western world than in Japan? This is a cultural subject and my answer may not be accurate or even correct but I will share my thoughts. At least to me, the need for power and having big muscle seem to be over emphasized in the western world and possibly under emphasized in Asia particularly in Japan.
I think it mainly comes from the western macho-ism. A hero in the western world often looks like Hulk with the huge chest, arms and small waist line. Consider the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he started in Hollywood who believed he could become a successful movie star as he could not act or even speak good English. Maybe he later learned how to act but how could he get the job in the first place? I am sure I do not need to tell you the answer. The build, like Hulk Hogan, the wrestler (left) or a body builder, Schwarzenegger does not get too much admiration by the majority of Japanese. This is because we consider it artificial and not natural. We like strong men too and that is why Sumo is popular in Japan. But the sumo wrestlers certainly do not look like Hulk or Schwarzenegger though the sumo wrestlers are big too. Many of the readers may think these sumo wrestlers are fat because their bellies are sticking out. Believe it or not the fat content of the sumo wrestlers is surprisingly low and lower than that of the average population. It is true that many of the current sumo wrestlers are getting heavier because they began to believe that having large body weight can be an advantage. It is true that it is harder to be pushed out of the ring if you are heavy. The Japanese audience does not like this trend but it is happening. Compare the way this famous sumo wrestler from the mid 20th century, Futabayama 双葉山 (1912 – 1968, photo right) with the way Hulk Hogan looks. Futabayama had a winning streak of 69 consecutive bouts and this is a record no one has broken yet. In fact, though it may sound ridiculous to the western readers, Futabayama moved his inner belly organs to shift his balance to his advantage during his matches. I have covered this technique in one of the past articles. I will touch on this again when I cover Rickson Gracie later in this article.
Also, what is not widely known about sumo wrestlers is their stretch exercises they must go through. Side split is a requirement for all the wrestlers, (photo below). The flexibility of the hip joints is considered to be extremely important. With the flexible hip joints a wrestler can do a deep squat, which in turn enables him to push the opponent strongly. However, what is important here is that they believe the flexibility (stretched muscles) will result in more power. This is the biggest difference in the concept of generating more power as the Sumo method comes from flexibility mainly of the hip joints and not from strengthening the muscles by lifting weights. Besides the flexible hip joints it is important to note that they only do the sumo workout in and around the ring. I hear the young generation wrestlers especially the ones from outside Japan go to a gym to lift weights. However, most of the wrestlers still rely on the regular sumo workout to build their power. From this method they can develop the strong but “soft” elastic muscles like chewing gum or a rubber tube. The Japanese prefer the flexible and soft looking muscles rather than the hard ones that look like rocks. This is the Japanese way of thinking. Maybe you recall I wrote an article earlier this year about the Okinawa karate term, Muchimi or Mochimi 餅身, the rice cake body. I explained what Muchimi is anddoes in that article so you can check it out if you are interested.
I also see the similar difference in the view of “power” between the swords of the knights and those of samurai or katana 刀. The knights broadswords were built heavy and thick. Its main purpose is to hack at the opponent more than a sharp cut with the heavy weight of the swords. It takes, of course, some technique to swing and maneuver the heavy swords but it definitely needs strong upper body muscles. On the other hand, katanas were tempered to have the finest sharp blade and a slight curve. They were designed and made to slice, cut and pierce. Of course a katana is much heavier than a pair of chop sticks but is lighter than a knight’s sword. Samurais built their upper body strength by swinging the swords hundreds of times each day but they mainly spent their training time in mastering the techniques of using katana. I am not discussing which sword is better here as each has its own advantages and disadvantages. I am not 100% sure if this difference in the swords had any impact or influence to the cultural difference between the modern day west and Japan. Maybe I am too nostalgic about the knights and the samurais thus I may be thinking too deep. However, it will be an interesting study to compare the swords from two different regions of the world that developed around the same period of history, in the 14 -15th centuries. Well, it looks like some people have already done the study.
Here is one of the videos titled “Samurai sword VS Knight Broadsword”:
Now let’s go back to building your power. We have covered that it can be divided in two categories for our discussion purpose. One category is lifting weights to either build the size of the muscles or simply to be able to lift heavy weights. In this case, the lifting of the weights is not for the direct connection to the sports or the martial arts. In other words the motion of the weight lifting does not simulate the movements of any specific physical activity or a skill. This method is suited for the body builders and the weightlifting competitors.
The second category is the weight training specifically programmed to supplement and enhance the targeted movements of a sport, a martial art or other physical activities.
Let me give you a good example for the other activities which I mentioned in the last sentence. The United States Navy’s Sea, Air, Land Teams, commonly known as the Navy SEALs, are the U.S Navy’s principal special operations force. They were highly publicized when a SEAL team attacked and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 so some readers may remember this. What I want to share is that SEAL training is extremely rigorous, having a reputation as some of the toughest in the world. The dropout rate for SEAL training is sometimes over 90 percent. Take a look at the workout video of SEAL. Take a look at the video clips of SEAL workout and see how it is done at the following URL. There are three parts of this so be sure to watch all of them.
By reviewing the workout you notice that they either use the free weights, the exercise leveraging their body weight by hanging and push-ups or the weight of the logs and the boats. These video clips do not cover all the workouts, I am sure there are a lot more. But one thing I can almost bet is that they do not use the weight machine to increase their power or grow the muscles. Their exercises are to develop the overall power performance by training mostly on the core muscles rather than the peripheral muscles. If anyone has taken the SEAL training, I would like to hear if my assumption is correct. To build the power that can be used in the complex actions this method is obviously preferred and this is a part of the answer to the question we have for karate.
OK so I brought up the SEALs training for one method of building power and endurance but it does not cover the examples of the successful athletes and the martial artists. In my previous article on relaxation, I picked two Olympic sprinters; Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. Johnson chose the power approach and Lewis chose the body coordination to increase his speed. I wish to share the interesting fact of another Olympic gold medalist, Michael Phelps; the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 22 medals. He did not use any weight lifting in his training, at least up to 2005. Here is an excerpt from the IGN interview in 2005:
IGN Sports: You’re 6′ 4″, about 200 pounds. Is your physique all from swimming, or do you hit the weights?
Michael Phelps: I’ve never lifted a single weight in my life. It’s all from training in the water, period. That’s not to say I wouldn’t lift in the future, but now, no.
Short distance swimming race is similar to sprinting, speed is the name of the game, yet Phelps did not choose weight lifting as a method to increase power and speed. Isn’t this interesting? Look at how he is built. His body is muscular but rather slender and not bulky at all. Is it only my wild imagination that his built looks like a dolphin? It certainly does not look like that of Ben Johnson, a Mac truck, but more like the fluid looking figures of Carl Lewis or Florence Joyner who I believe relied on the natural body weight training. I believe all these athletes shared the same philosophy and concept with SEALs on how to train your body to get the maximum power and speed. That philosophy is exactly what the Japanese martial arts instructors believe and want.
Here is the entire IGN interview which you can read if you are interested in Phelps:
OK the examples I gave above are all sprinters. Now you want to know the examples from the budo. Let me start with a famous person in Judo. At the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 when Kaminaga lost in the judo final to Anton Geesink, the Japanese for the first time realized that power could overwhelm techniques. He was not only huge, height: 6′ 6″ (1.98 m) and weight: 270 lbs (122 kg) he was strong. He basically yanked him down and held him for 30 seconds to get an ippon. Here is a video clip of his matches at the Olympics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtyWMKs7dp0
To develop the power, his Japanese sensei, Michigami, written in his book, made him work with the natural method more than lifting barbells. Michigami told him to run, swim and bike a long distance. He also instructed him to play soccer for the leg strength and agility. The photo left shows him carrying logs on his shoulders and he ran up and down the hill to strengthen his legs and upper body. This is interesting as a similar work out with the heavy logs is used in the SEALs training.
Despite the defeat by a strong Dutch judoka, power is still looked down not only in the martial arts but also in sports in general in Japan. We have a term used for someone who has an extra ordinary strength, baka chikara バカ力 which means strength of a stupid. The Japanese people wonder often why the western people pay so much attention to increasing power or the strength of a stupid. As I have mentioned earlier, partially it may be from the machismo culture in the western world; big biceps and chest. The people proudly show their half-naked photos in their Facebook pages with their pumped up arms and chest which the Japanese consider a silly act of the young people. The other reason is the fact that the performance is visible and the result is much easier to measure with the numbers. You can say “I lifted 100kg today”. On the other hand, it will be much more difficult to see and show your result in numbers for flexibility, balance, timing, etc. People will not be impressed if you say, “Hey I could stand up on one leg for five minutes.” or “I could touch my toes today.”
OK some may say Judo is no longer a martial art. Let me share another example but this time from MMA. Rickson Gracie, a well-known Brazilian jujitsu fighter who had 11 official matches and retired undefeated in 2000. I was always impressed with his training routines and syllabus. He was known to goe to the beach to train on the sand. He used to (I do not know if he continues his training now which I hope he does) practice stretches, relaxation, balancing and also weight training using his own body (similar to Ginastica Natural). You can find many video clips of his training. Here is the one I like the most:
He is also known to practice yoga especially with the breathing methods exercising his abdominal muscles. In the training video I believe you can see how he moves his belly up and down. In fact, with this exercise it made him capable to move and shift his internal organs. Believe it or not, he can change the center of gravity by doing this. This may not sound like a significant fact but in fact this is why he was so difficult to be dislodged once he gets on top of his opponent. There are many video tapes of his fights so you can see this. His winning did not come from hitting or kicking from the standing position as he is a jujitsu practitioner. He used to take his opponent down to the floor then straddle him then beat him until the helpless opponent gave up. You may wonder why the opponent who happens to be well trained and strong could not dislodge him from that position. Well, the special ability of Rickson was that he could shift his internal organs to keep perfect balance. Lifting weights was never a part of his routine or workout program. He believed in his method and it certainly paid off in his fights. He was an undefeated champion in MMA for many years which proves his ability and skill. He also proved at the same time that his method worked.
If I investigated and researched more, I am sure I could come up with more examples of who followed or are following this type of workout but I believe I have given enough examples. So, next let us discuss why they chose to take this method.
(will continue to Part 2)