I began training in the late 80's. I took a 12 year break and when I got back into training in 2006 I found that a few things had changed. I was in worse shape (not as strong, not as flexible, with less endurance, less resistant to injury) at 35 than I had been at 21 - and I had never been what you'd call an athlete. I had less time and energy for training - a family and a full time job can really interfere with two hour training sessions. But, (and this turned out to be my saving grace), I was connected to a huge body of information about training that I hadn't had access to before, all thanks to the internet (thank you Al Gore!).
I've spent a considerable amount of time over the past 5 years reading and looking at books, magazines, blogs, websites, videos, and DVD's about diet and training - not just about martial arts training, but about training for athletes in all sports, and every minute of it was devoted to figuring out how that information could make me better at karate. I learned a lot - I learned how to become and stay more flexible throughout the day, how to get faster and stronger, how to improve my health, how to dramatically improve my endurance, how to practice my skills, all without having to train more than a few hours a week.
It didn't take me too long to realize that not everybody knows all this stuff. Plenty of wonderful karate instructors spend their time learning and teaching technique instead of poring over the latest research on VO2 Max. Which is fine - I don't mean to criticize anybody's teaching. I thought I had learned some things that could help other people - people like me, older people or people who aren't very athletic or don't have fifteen hours a week to train - become better at karate. Not by showing them or teaching them karate, but by helping them train better so their karate can be better.
Nothing, or almost nothing, in this blog is original. I stole every last idea from sources from Pavel Tsatsouline to Mike Boyle to Bret Contreras. I've discovered no secrets, no ideas that you couldn't figure out yourself if you want to spend the hundreds of hours of reading to learn it all. But if you don't have time for that, you can read my blog and hopefully get a few useful tips that will make your karate training more productive and more efficient.
Here's a summary of the key points I try to convey:
1. Flexibility Training:
You should do two types of stretching: static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching means moving a muscle into a stretched position and holding it. Think of things like sitting on the floor and leaning over a locked leg to stretch the hamstrings, or wedge your legs apart to stretch your adductors. Dynamic stretching involves moving a muscle fairly quickly into and out of a stretched range of motion. Think mae keage, or swinging your leg up and back, or up to the side and back.
Do your dynamic stretching daily, preferably early on. Do ONLY dynamic stretching before a workout unless you have an injury. I like 2 sets of 10 leg swings to the front and sides per leg. Do 3 sets if you're very tight or sore.
If you do any static stretching - which will gradually lengthen the muscle tissue - do it when you're cold (not right after a workout). You can do it as often as you'd like, but you'll probably need at least 3 times per week to get any results. And don't do it before a workout!
If you need better range of motion, say in your adductors so you can round/side kick higher, you have to build strength in the target muscle (the one that's holding you back) when it's stretched. If your adductors are tight, get close to a split (as close as you can) adn draw your legs together - either pulling into the ground or actually pulling them together, sliding so you end up standing. You can do various other exercises as well, but the point is to build strength in the stretched position - that's how you get the muscle to relax when it's being stretched so it doesn't restrict your movement.
2. Skill Training:
When you try to get better at a skill (say, punching or kicking) you are making a neurological adaption - your nervous system is changing. This process doesn't work the way, say, building muscle does. Your nervous system learns new things best by practicing them well; and practicing them often.
That has several ramifications. You want to practice your techniques as often as you can - every day or more would be best. You want to practice most often while fresh. At the end of a workout, if you're tired and drained, your technique will be relatively sloppy. That is the wrong time to practice karate. Instead, practice karate when you're fresh - even performing just a few minutes of drills several times a day - and save your endurance work for when you're tired.
That also means your workouts should start with a warmup, then dynamic stretching, then skill practice, then strength training, then endurance training - don't put the strength/ endurance stuff before the skill stuff or your technique will suffer.
3. Strength Training:
If you're doing a routine you got from your typical personal trainer or the pages of a fitness/ bodybuilding magazine you're probably training wrong. Karateka need explosive strength, not big muscles (although you will gain some size as you get stronger).
- Focus on workouts shorter than 45 minutes in length.
- Do exercises with enough weight/ difficulty that you can only complete 5 or fewer repetitions at a time (for example, don't do regular pushups if you can do more than 5 of them; work on one-arm pushups instead).
- Focus on movements instead of muscles - hip extension (kettlebell swings, deadlifts), knee dominant squatting (one legged squats), an upper body push (pushups, presses) and pull (pullups, body rows) and core (next bullet).
- For your core do mostly exercises where you stabilize your core against a resistance - for example, a plank instead of a situp. Do a ton of anti-rotation - holding your core stable while some force tries to twist your body - think one armed plank, medicine ball throw, etc.
Presumably you want more endurance so you won't gas out during sparring or intense kata practice. Some people train for that by doing lots of LSD (long slow distance) - jogging, hopping on a bike or treadmill for long bouts of steady state "cardio" work. Unfortunately, you'll get at best mediocre results from that type of training.
The name of the game is High Intensity Interval Training. You need to work at a level of intensity so high that it really stresses your cardiovascular system. Instead of jogging, sprint. Instead of biking, do burpees. That means you won't be able to keep it up for long - that's fine. Just rest for a little while and repeat. Over and over. I don't know the best work/ rest time ratio - working 20 s, resting 10s, repeating is popular, I also like 15/15 - but the principle is to make the work very, very hard and not to do anything during the rest. As you get in better shape don't extend the work intervals - don't make them longer - make them harder instead.
One other point: you may be tempted to kill two birds with one stone and do your conditioning by working martial arts techniques until you're exhuasted. For example, doing 500 side kicks. Don't do that. Why not? Becasue if you're pushing your endurance close to its limit you're going to end up doing a lot of sloppy kicks - practicing bad technique. You only want to practice kicks when you're fresh, then once you're getting tired, hammer away at your cardio with a non-skill movement like running or burpees or something else where you don't care about your skill.
I'm a big advocate of a roughly Paleo diet. Put simple: Avoid all grains (especially wheat, corn, soy); avoid legumes (beans); eat no seed and vegetable oils (corn oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, etc.); restrict any artificial and processed foods; limit dairy; and limit fruit and nut consumption. Eat animals that are fed on the same principles - so eat only grassfed beef, pastured chicken, etc. What can you eat other than meat? Vegetables, fruit, root veggies (sweet potatoes, yams), some nuts and fruit, some dairy (preferably raw, preferably from grass fed cows). Yes, you'll be eating a lot of fat. Yes, it's okay. No, it won't make you fat. It might heal your gut and cure your arthritis, though. This diet, which improves insulin resistance and lowers inflammation, will improve recovery, enhance your endurance, help you drop any excess fat, and make you healthier.
There are a lot of resources on the ins and outs of paleo eating both on this blog and in other places. This diet has made huge differences in my personal health and fitness. Many paleo bloggers lean towards the low carb end of the spectrum - I don't. I find that my karate goes better if I eat plenty of carbs. I just get my carbs from sources other than wheat, corn, and soy. Meaning I eat plenty of sweet potatoes and rice but no bread. Try it for 30 days and see how you feel!
That's a brief summary of the key points to improving your karate practice that I've discovered over the past 5 years. I have posts up about all of this which cover each in more detail - if you're interested in more explanation of anything here please post questions to comments.