Friday, August 26, 2011

Exercise of the Week: Box Jump

The most important movement in which a karateka needs strength and power is the hip snap - the last few degrees of hip extension.  Think of what happens when you punch - the hip is driven forward by extension, and it's not from a deep squat or anything, it's right from a slightly flexed hip, the way you hold it in a casual stance, to full extension.  The same thing drives a front kick - the supporting leg snaps the hip forward, again extending the hip through a relatively short arc of motion.  Ditto for a side kick, except then it's the kicking leg that gets force from the hip snap.

My favorite way to develop this hip snap power is the kettlebell swing, about which I intend to write more at some point.  Lately I've been using box jumps to develop hip power as well.


  1. Stand upright in front of a box or platform.  It has to be sturdy - not something that's going to easily fall over.
  2. Quickly dip down, not into a full squat, but more into a quarter squat.  Think of a basketball player going for a rebound - they don't squat all the way down, just a quick flex of the hips.
  3. Jump up quickly.  Don't pause at the bottom - dip down, then jump up as rapidly as you can.
  4. Land on the box in a crouch position - knees up in your chest. 
The box should be high enough that you barely reach the top - you're not trying to jump up very high, then come down a long way and land on the box.  You're trying to just barely reach the box, and you should have to land in a deep squat position.  If you can land in an upright stance the box is too low.


Don't do a ton of reps.  Try 3-5 jumps each at 3 different heights.  The first 2 heights are warmups.

Use these at the beginning of the program, after your warmup, mobility training, and dynamic stretching.  DO NOT do these when you're tired, it's both counterproductive and dangerous.

Do these maybe twice a week at most.  Once a week might be better.


I like this exercise for a few reasons.
  • This really encourages you to generate maximum power.  Jumping higher is very compelling.
  • This movement is functional in the sense that you're training for and learning to jump onto high objects.  You might very well have to do that - in an emergency, when running from or after somebody, etc.  Jumping onto things is part of real life in the way that bench pressing just isn't (I mean, it's possible that a perfectly balanced cylindrical object could fall across your chest as you lie on your back, but I think it's more likely that you'll have to jump onto or over something at some point in your life).
  • The hip snap is followed by a very rapid hip flexion (the movement of quickly bringing your knees up to your chest so your feet clear the box).  I find that very little in my routine trains hip flexion, especially at speed, and nothing will improve your front kicks more than some improved hip flexion strength.  Box jumps give you twice the bang for your buck - and this is one way they improve on the kettlebell swing.
  • You can find plenty of videos online of people doing box jumps onto specially designed plyo boxes, but you can also use low walls and ledges or anyplace outside where there are elevation changes.  Kettlebells are expensive; walls are often freely available for our use. 
  • If you just jump high, or jump over something, then you have to land.  Landing can be hard on the joints, especially for us older folks.  The landing in a box jump is very soft - remember, you don't fall down onto the box, you just barely catch yourself on it at the top of your jump - and you're free to climb down rather than jumping down if your knees aren't up to a pounding.
  • The primary muscles working to fully extend the hip are the glutes.  And really, who doesn't want nicer glutes?  
I don't think you should totally ignore hip strength in a deep squat - you need to be strong through the entire range of motion of the hip, for safety reasons if nothing else.  But given how rarely you get into a deep squat in combat or sparring situations, you should focus more than half of your hip training to developing that fast snap.  Swings and box jumps are two of the best exercises I know of to do that!  Plus, being able to jump up onto high things is another cool party trick to pull out when people get tired of seeing you do one arm pushups.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Still Fat?

I just finished reading Stephan Guyenet's post (and every associated comment) relaying some details about a disagreement he had with Gary Taubes at the Ancestral Health Symposium over, I believe, the cause of obesity.

Guyenet, who writes an excellent blog, has lately been endorsing a food reward theory of obesity.  I'll paraphrase: different foods have different reward value.  The reward value is, roughly speaking, some intersection of diversity (increasing variety increases reward value), taste (tastier food has higher reward value), fat and sugar (see taste) and ease of preparation.  People become obese because they eat high reward value food.  When they switch their diet to lower reward value food - almost regardless of the macronutrient ratio - they will lose weight.  When populations start eating higher reward value food they get fatter.  A potential cure for obesity is to eat blander food, with less variety, less seasonings, and cooked in an intentionally bland way.

Gary Taubes, in case you haven't heard of him, is a book author (Good Calories Bad Calories is an absolutely fantastic history of modern nutritional doctrine, even if you disagree with the dietary recommendations) and a journalist who endorses an excess carbohydrate theory of obesity.  To paraphrase, people get fat because they eat too many refined carbs and sugar, which causes disregulation of insulin, which leads their fat cells to accumulate fat.  A potential cure for obesity is to cut most or all carbohydrate, especially refined carbohydrates, sugars, and starch, from the diet.

The two got into a heated disagreement at some point during the AHS (I wasn't there, nor did I watch the video, so I'm going on what I've read in blogs).  I learned quite a bit from the debate, however - especially from the comments!  And I want to share my observations with you.
  1. There are different competing theories about nutrition and health (Paleo, low carb, high carb-low fat, vegan, vegetarian, ancestral, weight watchers).  Some are total crap.  Many (the better ones) have components that can explain away the evidence presented by the competitors (your vegan diet "works" because even though it doesn't include meat, at least it reduces the use of white flower; your low fat diet "works" because at least it restricts industrial seed oils along with the healthy saturated fats you demonize; your paleo diet "works" because even though you're still eating too much saturated fat at least you've increased your intake of fresh vegetables.)
  2. Each of the competing dietary philosophies are endorsed by plenty of people who saw drastic improvements in health - got leaner, felt better, etc. - when taking up that eating plan.
  3. Each of the competing dietary philosophies is derided by plenty of people who got fatter or sicker while taking up that diet plan over a range of time periods (some after years of compliance, some sooner). In some cases that may be a problem with implementation (some people go lacto-ovo-vegetarian by eating only pizza and beer; others concentrate on eggs from pastured chickens, dairy from grass fed cows, fresh vegetables, and no grains - they'll get very different results) or genetic or acquired differences in metabolism and tolerances of certain foods or food groups.  For every healthy, lean vegan you can find someone who got miserably sick on the diet for no obvious reason (not because they did it wrong) - and the same is true for paleo, low carb, low fat, etc.
  4. Strategies that work for whole populations (that is, you can find a group of people living on an island somewhere who eat that way and are healthy, lean, and long -lived) will not necessarily work for everybody.  Why not?  It could be that there are genetic differences that make the difference, lifestyle differences (that group that did well on diet X got lots of sunlight, you live in Alaska), or a metabolism damaged by a lifetime of Oreos and Coca Cola isn't the same as that of a hunter gatherer who's never tasted sugar.
  5. Whenever anybody figures out the thing that works for them - low carb, low fat, paleo, vegan, whatever - they seem incapable of accepting that it may not work for everybody.  Anybody who tells you they have the whole nutrition thing worked out is full of crap.   Look, cutting out gluten radically changed my health and, in fact, my life - that doesn't mean it will do the same for you.
So I've basically told you that you know even less than you thought you did - no matter what you're advising somebody to eat, you might be wrong - your advice might make them fat and sick, depending on the person.  And, perhaps worse, what you're eating might be wrong for you - in fact, you might be doing everything right, or so you think, and yet you're still fat.

What do you do?

1.  Start with the commonalities.

I've said this before, but there are, in fact, some commonalities among nearly all the diets that "work" for either health or fat loss:
  • Cut back on (at least) refined flour and sugar.  I can't find a legitimate diet that encourages white flour and sugar.
  • Drink enough fluid/ water (there's disagreement about how much you really need, but if you're thirsty and dry mouthed a lot you're definitely in trouble).  I don't believe that your fluid has to be from plain water, but you have to get at least some fluid in.
  • Whatever you eat, get the highest quality version of that food that you can manage: if you eat only beef, get grass fed beef.  Get eggs from pastured chickens.  For plants some need to be organic (generally, if there's an inedible skin or it grows underground, being organic is less important).
  • I am very sorry about this, but you're going to have to reduce your energy intake if you want to lose fat.  With some diets this is easier than others - I personally have a much easier time restricting calories when I avoid gluten - but you still have to, at the end of the day, consume less food if you want your body to burn fat.  But, and here's the real kick in the ass, if you reduce intake too much you'll stop fat loss.  Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster has a weird sense of humor.
2.  Give your current plan a chance.
  • Whatever you're doing - low carb, vegan, whatever - do it super strict for 30 days.  If you don't feel/ look better at that point, then it's time to move on.  When/ if you do move on, at least you'll know you gave it a real chance.
  • Stay away from fake foods that are aimed at your diet.  If you're gluten free, you shouldn't be eating anything that is advertised as gluten free.  Gluten free Bisquick is not real food - rice is real food, meat is real food, veggies are real, gluten free brownies are not.  Ditto for low fat, low carb, etc.  Invariably the processed products that are manufactured to meet some weird dietary requirement are substituting one evil for another.
3.  Maximize your chance of success by working on the non-dietary factors that are important.
  • Get plenty of the 3 S's for leanness:  sleep, sun, and sex.  (I should turn that into a book.)  Getting more of all 3 -but avoiding the excess of sleeping all day, burning, or acquiring an STD - will make you healthier and leaner.
  • Train hard but not too hard and enough but not too much.  Cortisol will keep the pounds packed on for most of us (not everyone responds the same to this).  Training too hard can make it just as hard to be lean as training too little.
  • Get in plenty of very low intensity movement.  Take long slow walks at night.  
  • Minimize the stress in your life.  Try meditating.
4.  If these strategies don't do the trick... MOVE ON!

I'd love to tell you that paleo will work for everyone.  I have strong philosophical and scientific reasons to think that it will.  But... I've been wrong before.  And you can easily find a hundred vegans who are just as certain that staying away from delicious animal products will optimize your health, longevity, and fitness.  So, if you've been giving any dietary strategy a real commitment and it's not working, try something else!  Eat some carbs.  Have a salad.  Whatever.  Just stick to the basic framework:  eat less, cut back on sugar and white flour, and eat higher quality food.

It took me 25 years to find the formula that works for me, and I'm still tinkering with it.  I'm not saying it will take you as long, but:  a) the end result is worth it; and b) the alternative, giving up, is kind of horrible.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Karate as Physical Culture

[Side note: you may have noticed that I've added ads to the blog.  Through the ads it is possible I will make some money out of this.  I seriously doubt it will ever amount to much, but I kind of feel that if there's even a tiny amount of cash flow coming in (and I made a penny on the first day!)  I'll be more likely to post regularly.  If any of you dislike the ads or feel I should pull them, let me know and I'll reconsider.  If you want to support my blogging activities clicking through on the ads will generate cash for me.  Now on to the post...]

The sport/ lifestyle/ practice of bodybuilding has acquired a tarnished reputation in the last few decades, as it has become increasingly associated with unhealthy practices (extreme dieting, drug abuse) and a lack of functionality (professional athletes who look strong but can't climb a flight of stairs).  Interestingly, bodybuilding has its roots in something called physical culture, which had a very different philosophy.

The physical culture movement, which started in the 19th century, was a system of exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle that was designed to address three major areas of life - health/ longevity (I'll group these together in the interest of simplicity), performance, and appearance.  There were lots of physical culturists, many with competing theories about methods of advancing their goals (some of which were pretty weird, but a surprising number of these theories have been borne out by science in the last 100 years).

The promise of physical culture was appealing - exercise and eat right and you could be healthier, be able to do cool stuff (like gymnastics movements or lift heavy objects), and look good.  Strongmen (popular in circuses and the like at that time) were walking, breathing proponents of physical culture, and people all around the world wound up in gyms working out on all kinds of equipment to experience physical culture for themselves.  They would train in ways that would seem familiar to a modern gymgoer, but they'd also practice skills like gymnastics.

Early contests among physical culturists were interesting.  Physique shows (where you were judged based on how you looked) were often paired with weightlifting competitions.  The guys who trained at Muscle Beach might have been after big biceps, but they also practiced tumbling, gymnastics, and other "functional" sport movements.  The earliest "bodybuilders" were accomplished athletes - to them, the idea of looking strong without being strong was anathema.  You can see the remnants of this culture lasting all the way into the 70's - top bodybuilders of that time often put on shows of strength (think of Franco Columbu blowing up and bursting a hot water bottle) when they weren't onstage in their posing trunks.  That idea is pretty much gone - you're never going to see a guy walk off an Olympia stage and into a World's Strongest Man competition anymore.

Not surprisingly, the athletic endeavors most popular with this crowd were feats of strength (formal weightlifting, picking up oddly shaped objects, etc. - the kind of stuff you'd see in modern strongman competition), gymnastics, and tumbling.  These activities fit in with both the health aspect of physical culture (being muscular and lean are both good for health!) and the appearance.  If you can do a freestanding handstand pushup you're probably going to look pretty good!

The negative things that are associated with modern bodybuilding are only possible because of the way bodybuilding has separated appearance from performance.  If competitors were expected to be able to do heavy snatches, tumble onstage, or perform competitive feats of strength, they'd be a lot more careful about their drug use, would have less-cartoonish physiques, and stay a lot healthier at contest time (because when you're as badly depleted as these guys get for contests you can't do any kind of physical competition).

What I find appealing about the term physical culture are the aims embraced by the movement - looking good was important but not the only goal.  I am saddened that the term isn't in common use today.  People who want to look good, be healthy, AND be strong don't have an easy term to describe their interest - "bodybuilding" may have meant those things once, forty years ago, but it doesn't anymore.

Now, long term readers know that I have little to no interest in self defense - if I trained in karate to better be able to defend myself it would be a huge waste of time, given the likelihood that I'll ever be in a position to have to do that.  I mean, it would be like spending hours a day studying music in case I find myself trapped in a life or death version of American Idol.  I train karate because: a) I love it, irrationally; and b) it's my preferred method of physical culture.

Now, before the angry e-mails start, I'm fully aware that karate was not historically part of physical culture - I'm not claiming that 19th century Okinawan karateka trained to better their health or to improve the appearance of their physiques (maybe some did, to some extent, but I'm not arguing that point).  My point is twofold:
  1. Karate practice is well suited to acting as a method of physical culture.  By training all aspects of fitness - strength, flexibility, reaction time, endurance, coordination, and balance, karate is possibly the most complete form of training that exists;
  2. Karate practice can (and should) be marketed as a method of physical culture as well as a method of self defense, if for no other reason than that the number of people who want to look good, be healthy, and do cool stuff is much larger than the number who are seriously concerned about defending themselves from unarmed attackers.
In modern life, for most people, karate as physical culture makes much more sense than karate as self defense.  It's easier to justify the hours spend training, it's easier to answer challenges ("does that even work in the street?" becomes a less-relevant question if you're training primarily for health, appearance, and performance), and it seems less anachronistic.  Perhaps not everyone can appreciate that a solidly performed Seienchin kata is just as cool as a backflip, a muscle up, or a handstand, but I think a lot of people can.  

I'm not advocating that anybody change their karate training - don't stop doing self defense, don't stop thinking about self defense - I just think we should spend a little time thinking about our karate as a method of physical culture.  When we wonder about the expense of training, or choose a school to go in, or make decisions about how exactly we tailor our practices, our choices should be informed by the philosophy of physical culture.

I train karate for many of the same reasons guys at Muscle Beach in the 50's practiced gymnastics - and, I would argue, for the same reason Crossfit adherents practice jumping rope or doing handstands.  

And if we happen to learn how to fight along the way, that's a lovely added bonus.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Exercise of the Week: Overhead Squat

I don't use this as a conditioning exercise, or really a strength exercise, but more a combined warmup/ mobility/ movement prep sort of thing.  I'll do maybe 2 sets of 10 reps with very little weight (unless you want to count my fat behind as weight) before doing my kata-centric workout.


  1. Walk up to a straight bar - could be anything from a bo to a broomstick to a loaded Olympic barbell - and set your feet at least shoulder width apart, toes pointing out slightly.
  2. Pick up the bar, hands pretty far apart - not shoulder width, they have to be farther out than that, and get it overhead, either by snatching it or just lifting it (it's kind of pointless to snatch a broomstick).
  3. Keeping the bar directly overhead perform a full squat (keep your lower back straight or even arched a little; make sure your knees travel over or outside your toes, not caving in).  I like to have a mirror to the sides to make sure I'm not letting the bar travel the the front or back.  From the side your arms should be pointing straight up the entire time.  If this feels like it's stretching or cramping your upper back, it's okay - you're loosening up your thoracic spine and activating lazy muscles in that region.
  4. Stand back up; repeat.  Your arms don't bend - the distance from the bar to your head doesn't vary at all - all the motion is at your hips and knees.


People do this with higher weights and more reps as a conditioning exercise, and I'm not opposed to that in theory, it's just not how I use the movement.

The squatting movement is super important for your hips - a deep squat is probably the most important movement pattern for any athlete.  Getting that full range of motion ready before your workout is a big deal for maintaining performance and hip health.  

Keeping the bar overhead as your butt moves backwards requires a decent amount of thoracic mobility.  Basically, your thoracic spine has to arch to keep the bar from traveling forwards and falling.  Good thoracic mobility is important for good shoulder and lumbar health.  Very few of us do enough thoracic mobility work in our karate workouts.

There's nothing magical about this exercise, but it's great for hitting three problem areas at once - hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders - and getting them all warmed up and prepped for the workout.  

Try doing these before your next workout.  The pinch in your upper back will tell you how badly you need to do more of them!


Paleo Bachelor: Bacon Fried Rice

If you're a foodie, if you like to cook recipes that have multiple steps and require actual skill, then this recipe probably isn't for you.  I only use recipes that are:

  • Easy to do (little to no skill required);
  • Utilize predominantly ingredients that keep a long time, so you don't have to be super prepared when you shop to buy fresh ingredients;
  • Soil an absolutely minimal number of pots/ utensils so cleanup is easy and quick;
  • Cook relatively quickly;
  • Taste at least decent;
  • Fit my modified paleo diet (I eat paleo sort of - I'll also eat some sugar, dairy, artificial sweeteners, and white rice, but I do try to minimize the seed oils and grains otherwise)
Today I cooked a recipe that fits this broad definition.  It's not paleo - there's no getting around the white rice - but if you're okay with that it's pretty paleo otherwise.

I owe my sister in law Amy a big debt for introducing me to the basics of this recipe.  Thanks, Amy!

Here are the ingredients and utensils (this serves 2, or maybe 1 if you're veeery hungry):

1 cup white rice (basmati works well, I'm sure aficionados would prefer specific strains);
3 eggs;
1 tbs. butter (you can substitute any other fat if you don't do dairy - coconut oil, lard, whatever);
2 small onions;
8 or so brussels sprouts (or any other veggie you like - thinly sliced carrots, spinach, cabbage, peas, broccoli, kale, collard greens, whatever);
1 lb. ground beef;
5 slices uncured bacon;
1/4 cup or so gluten free soy sauce (widely available at places like Whole Foods);
salt & seasonings;
1 nonstick pan or wok, large-ish;
1 medium pot/ saucepan with tightly fitting lid;
1 rubber spatula;
1 medium sized bowl;
1 chopping knife & cutting board;
1 spoon.

  1. Start the rice (put rice, butter or 1 tbs oil, and 1.25 cups water into the saucepan, bring to a boil; lower heat so it simmers and cover for 20 minutes, when it's done let it sit for 10 minutes - once it's at a simmer you can do other stuff).  [Note:  you can absolutely use leftover rice for this, and I have it on good authority that this dish is even better when the rice is cooked the day before!]
  2. Cook the 3 eggs in the nonstick pan scrambled style, until they're dry.  Dump them into the bowl.
  3. Render the bacon - put over medium or low heat until the bacon is crispy and all the white stuff has melted off.
  4. While the bacon cooks slice your onions and other veggies into small, thin slices or chunks.
  5. Take the bacon out and dump it into the bowl with the eggs.  If you can, slice it into little bits when you get the chance.
  6. Dump the veggies into the pan with the bacon fat, turn up the heat to high, and cook them until the onions are browned.
  7. Dump the veggies into the bowl with the eggs and stuff.
  8. Throw the beef into the pan; cook until the meat is browned.  I like to add some salt, garlic powder, and whatever else to it.
  9. Dump the meat into the bowl.
  10. Dump the (hopefully finished) rice into the pan with the last of the fat.  
  11. Pour the soy sauce around the rice.  Stir the rice, fat, and soy sauce until it's nice and evenly colored a light brown.
  12. Dump everything from the bowl into the pan and  mix it all together.
  13. Dish it back into the bowl and eat.  That's what the spoon is for!
If it comes out too greasy for you, cut back on the bacon or the fat you added to the rice (but don't eliminate it altogether).  You can add more garlic, paprika, or cinnamon as you wish.

If this is too carby for you, you can always cut back on the rice and add more veggies.  I found the ratio in this to be pretty much ideal, personally.



Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is a Black Belt?

[Disclaimer:  While I am a proud practitioner of Seido Karate, my views do not necessarily represent the views of that style or its leadership - this blog is about my personal opinions.]

I really dislike telling muggles (my term for people who don't practice martial arts) that I'm a black belt, or even that I practice karate.  It's not that I'm ashamed of it - I'm actually quite proud to be a karateka - it's that I find it hard to communicate what my practice or my rank actually means to somebody who doesn't do any martial arts.

How do I know people don't understand?  Because no matter how well meaning (and I honestly believe that these conversations all involve absolutely well-meaning people, and if you've said these things don't feel bad!) they are, people almost always make follow-up questions or comments that leave me shaking my head.  I bet you've heard the same kind of things:

"Oh, you have a 3rd degree black belt?  My niece does too - she's 11 years old and she studies tae kwon do!"

"Does that mean you could beat up (a second degree black belt, a boxer, anybody else, a UFC fighter, a motorcycle gang member)?"

"I guess I shouldn't get into a fight with you!"

"So, you're 3rd degree, and there are 10 degrees, so only 7 more until you're finished!"

"Does that mean you can (break bats with your shins, break slabs of ice, do jumping spinning kicks, break this object that we have lying around the office, do pushups on one fist)?"

"I bet you still can't beat a well place round from a Colt .45."

And so on.

I understand why people make these responses - they're trying to make conversation, they don't really know what martial arts are all about or why grownups would spend hours a week learning them, or they just don't know what else to say.  That's part of the reason why I'm writing this post - to clarify things a little.

So what does it mean when someone tells another person (someone outside the style I practice) that (s)he is a Xth degree black belt?

Implied Threat

Every once in a while people hear "I practice karate" or "I have a black belt" and hear it as an implied threat - as if someone said, "I could totally kick your ass."  Now when someone tells you that they could kick your ass it isn't just a statement of fact - it's not the same as me saying, "I can type faster than you can" - it's usually a veiled warning (depending on context, of course).  So sometimes people get defensive, thinking that the karateka is asserting dominance or threatening to use violence to resolve any conflicts.

In fact, however, more often than not a trained karateka will be less likely to start a fight with an untrained person.  We have nothing to gain from it, ego-wise - if I beat up an untrained coworker I won't have proven anything, because after 10 years of training if I couldn't whip the ass of a guy who hasn't thrown a punch since grammar school I'd be super pathetic.  Plus, we're less likely to freak out in violent situations - you throw a punch at me, it won't be a completely foreign experience, while if you throw a punch at someone who is completely untrained - or do anything else, even innocently, that might make them feel threatened - they're more likely to overreact.  Plus, we know that we're less likely to receive sympathy from judges and juries, simply because we are trained in martial arts.  So we have more to lose.

I'm sure you can find examples of martial artists who use their rank/ status as a means of bullying other people - but they're the exception, in my experience.  Bullies don't usually last too long in the dojo - there are too many tough people around who won't put up with that kind of attitude.

Cross-Style Comparison

A natural assumption people make is that a black belt is a black belt is a black belt, regardless of style.  They think that being an Xth degree black belt is like meeting some objective standard - like being an Olympic qualifier in swimming or something.

In fact different styles have widely varying requirements for promotion to black belt, and they change with different levels.  For example, it is typical for a shodan (1st degree black belt) to be granted to a student based on skill/ knowledge of the syllabus, but usually higher rankings (say, 5th degree and up, roughly speaking) take into account a person's contributions to the style - do they teach, how many high ranking people they've trained, etc. 

Additionally, the relative skill required differs greatly from style to style.  I trained as a kid in a style where it took 10 years of hard training, minimum, to achieve a black belt.  I saw my teacher do some kata the day after he got his first degree black belt and he was awesome.  His skill level was at least equal to most 3rd or 4th degree black belts in traditional styles. 

If you want to know how "good" or skilled someone is at martial arts a much better question than rank is how many years they've been training.  Of course, someone who puts in 10+ hours/ week of training for 5 years is probably going to be better than someone who trains 2 hours/week for 6 years, and someone with better teachers and classmates will advance more quickly, but you'll get a rough approximation.

Implied Fighting Ability

Other people hear "I practice karate" and think I mean to say that I could beat up either anyone who doesn't practice, or anyone of lower rank than me.  So they sometimes ask if I could beat up a particular person or type of person, to put me in the correct spot in some imagined global pecking order.  The answer is always "maybe," because the outcome of a fight depends on so many things.  I could lose a fistfight with my seven year old daughter if I get hit by a stray meteor before landing a punch.

Now, we can argue statistics, and my chances would be pretty good against most seven year old children, but if you ask how I'd do against your average 3rd degree black belt in tae kwon do, even if you narrowed it down to a particular school, the answer would have to be - how the hell should I know?  How many tae kwon do black belts do you think I've gotten into streetfights with, that I should have a solid grasp of my mathematical chances?  (In case you're not sure, the answer is zero.)

In fact it is very difficult to answer the question of "who would beat whom."  It depends on circumstances, rules (or lack of rules), relative condition (we all have good days and bad days), and luck.  The one thing I feel very comfortable saying is this: I'm better as a 3rd degree black belt than I was when I got my 1st degree.  If I could travel back in time, I'd have a very good chance of beating up my old self in a fight (though that seems like an awful waste of the ability to travel in time).  And I'd stand a better chance in a fight against anybody with my current skill level than I would have before - though that doesn't mean I'd have a good chance of beating up any particular person.

There is another aspect to this that we have to consider: age.  I'm 40.  50 years from now I'll still be at least a 3rd degree black belt - maybe higher.  Chances are that despite my best efforts I won't be much of a fighter at that point, despite my rank.  There is always, or almost always, a loss in overal ability due to the accumulated injuries and the effects of aging and training on fast twitch muscle fibers.

So what does a black belt mean?

The efforts of marketers and martial arts movie producers have resulted in a somewhat mystical and somewhat, in my opinion, misleading perception of what a black belt is.  Not every black belt is a paragon of virtue.  Not every black belt is ready to step into an action film or fight off a gang of thugs bare handed.  Not every black belt is even capable of feats that would impress an untrained observer.

Pretty much every black belt (depending on their style and school) is someone who has devoted a significant amount of time over several years doing difficult training to perfect their art.  They have met some arbitrary standard for promotion - one decided on by their instructors.  Tha'ts it. 

Does that mean that person deserves your respect?  Probably, at least a little bit.  I have respect for anybody who works hard to achieve a goal - I respect people who can play musical instruments.  My cousin Ed is a hell of a photographer, I respect him for that tremendously.  Does it mean you need to tread lightly around a black belt or worry about them beating you up?  Only if they're also an asshole - which is possible, but actually not that likely.  Violent people don't often last long in martial arts - bullies and hot tempered people don't do well when they have to regularly spend time in rooms filled with people skilled enough to kick the crap out of them.

If you meet someone who trains in karate you can ask them their rank, but if you want to make small talk try these questions instead:
For how long have you been training?
What style do you practice?  (You can follow up by asking where the style is from, etc., especially if you haven't heard of it.)
Do you train with weapons or only bare hands?
How often do you train?
How/why did you get started in your martial art?
Do you do anything outside the dojo to supplement your martial arts training?
Do you think I could learn it as well? (feigning interest in another person's hobbies is a great way to make friends!)

Treat your black belt wearing friends the same way you'd treat someone who has any weird but interesting hobby - an amateur painter, long distance runner, or whatever.  Try to avoid talking about violence and dominance issues.  We don't practice martial arts so others will fear us, we do it because we love it. 

And if you really want to understand what a black belt means, take up karate (or, if you must, some other style of traditional martial arts) and train hard for four or five years.  By then you'll probably understand!