Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are You Lean Enough?

The other day I was watching a video showing some bunkai for a kata - Pinan 1 I think it was - demonstrated by a severely obese man.  The fact that he was obese has nothing to do with the practicality of the techniques he was demonstrating, and his karate seemed quite good, but it got me thinking about other fat or pudgy karateka I've seen in the past.

I'm sure many fat karateka are fat by accident - they might rather be lean, but don't know how or aren't able to get there.  I have sympathy for that situation, and I'll talk more about methods of leaning out in future posts.  But I wonder if some doubt the value of leaning out or see being lean as part of their karate practice.

The case can be made that there are advantages to being fat for a fighter (for recreational fighters, at least - if you have to make weight for competition that changes the story somewhat).  Like what?

All else being equal, a fatter fighter might be able to hit harder.  Imagine two fighters, one very lean, and the other his identical twin but with 20 lbs. of added fat.  The fatter twin will be slower, but will have more body mass.  If both are able to use their weight in their strikes (i.e. aren't arm punchers), and the fatter twin isn't much slower, he will hit harder.  If the added weight slows down the fatter twin's strikes enough then that will overcome the advantage of the added mass.  Figuring out which really happens would take some interesting experimentation and some math, but we can safely assume that it's conceivable that the extra mass would help, at least some of the time.

Fatter fighters can take punishment better.  Don't believe me?  Kick a lean guy in the belly.  Then kick a fat guy in the belly.  If the fat guy isn't in bad shape - that is, if he has an adequate amount of muscle under the fat - the layer of fat will increase the time of the impact, decreasing the force (look up the equations for impulse to see what I mean, or take my word for it).  Think of it like a built in airbag.

Fatter fighters are going to be harder to move.  We use some techniques specifically to move another person around or disrupt their position - I'll sometimes use a front kick to create distance (push my opponent back).  The more your opponent weighs the less they'll move when you hit them.  It's also harder for them to move themselves, but that's another part of the story.

If you're not convinced, look at K-1.  The open K-1 class does not have weight divisions.  Many of the fighters in that class are kind of pudgy.  They might be in great shape in the sense of having good cardio, but they're not lean.  Now these guys are professional athletes, and I'm sure they train hours a day and work hard to gain every advantage they can.  Don't you think there's a reason so many of them have extra fat?  I have to think that, at least up to a point, the extra mass confers advantages to them in the ring.  It is equally obvious that there is a point of diminishing returns with this - if not, we'd see only super-obese fighters in the ring.  Too fat and you're too slow and have no wind.  Too lean and you might not have enough mass to maintain position in the ring.

Does this mean I think karateka should all leave the dojo and head to the donut shop?  Not exactly.  First of all, fat slows you down.  The more mass you have to move, the lower will be your acceleration when you do it.  That's simple physics.  So while extra fat may help you survive being hit, it will make it harder for you to avoid being hit, and fat doesn't protect a lot of the vulnerable parts of your body (head, pressure points, testicles...) 

Plus, while fat may help you hit harder, the fact that it slows you down means it will be harder for you to land those strikes.  I've seen some people who are great at working around this, using timing to land their techniques, but it's better to have speed you don't need than to be slow and eventually get stuck fighting someone where good timing isn't enough to hit them.

There are other compelling reasons to get and stay lean.  Extra bodyfat is unhealthy - it's pro-inflammatory, which leads to heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other problems.  Fat is hormonally active, which means that it reduces testosterone levels and raises estrogen.  This will impact your mood (make you feel relatively crappy) as well as making it harder to build and maintain muscle, train hard, and... lose fat.  Extra fat will also decrease your endurance, which will mean you can't train as long before becoming sloppy.  Being lean means extra quality training time which results in greater skill.  Being lean also looks better, if you care.

Does that mean I think you should get as lean as humanly possible?  Actually, no.  There is a point where the caloric restriction and hormonal effects of being really, really lean actually reduce performance.  People who do crossfit notice this - at a certain bodyfat level they actually do worse, despite the expected improvements from an improved power-to-weight-ratio.  Unfortunately, that level of a bodyfat is very low - you're probably not there yet.  If you don't have a sixpack or if any part of you is still moving when you jump up and down, you're not as lean as you should be.

Next time, I'll talk about how to get leaner if you're like 95% of Americans and need to lose some fat.


  1. I am guessing your how to get leaner post will either be about high-intensity interval training or metabolic enhancement training. Anyway, I am looking forward to see what your ideas are.

  2. As far as exercise goes you're absolutely right, but I was thinking more along the lines of dietary changes. HIIT does nice double duty though if you're trying to get lean - good caloric burn, plus getting you in better shape! My problem has always been finding a nutritional strategy that works.

  3. I think the American preoccupation with body shape is often disconnected from a purpose other than aesthetics. Certainly morbidly obese people can improve their blood chemistry and their blood pressure by losing weight, but most people aren't at that level; they want to lose weight because our culture values lean bodies. For the purpose of martial arts, your weight, muscle mass, and flexibility should be dictated by the style you practice not fashion.

  4. Dietary change is pretty key to getting and staying lean, I look forward to reading it. This is just what I was looking for, karate people, especially old school karate people, often overlook modern physical fitness ideas.

  5. Thanks, beelzebot! I find that most "old school karate people" aren't very clued into the modern physical fitness advances, and that's exactly what this blog is about.

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