It was a very big tournament, so I got to see a lot of people doing kata competition, with really varying levels of skill. What was interesting was that it seemed as if the better half was separated from the bottom half of competitors by a couple of very specific characteristics which could be addressed (at least in part) through a strength training program.
In other words, I saw some things that might not help the third place person beat the first place person, but that could probably help most of the competitors who finished near the bottom see some quick improvements that might move them towards the middle of the heap.
Owning the Level Change
What does that mean?The first trait that put certain competitors towards the top (or bottom) of the competition was owning the level change. Karate doesn't have the same kind of super low, deep stances that you'll see in certain kung fu styles (at least not in very many places), but there are still distinct level changes. Your hips should drop noticeably between a fudo dachi and a kiba dachi, or between fudo dachi and kokutsu dachi (standing position to horse stance or back stance), for example.
In my experience very, very few people have problems getting the proper depth in stances because of a lack of flexibility. Almost everyone (barring those with some kind of structural injury) can get into a proper back stance or front stance - the problem is holding that depth, which puts a lot of strain on the quads and hip extensors, or moving in the stance while maintaining a low elevation, which also requires a lot of leg and hip strength.
If you think you're too inflexible to hit a deep stance, try laying in bed, maybe on your back or side, and pull your legs into the right position. If you feel tightness doing that, you may have a flexibility issue. But I bet the real obstacle is muscular pain.
Owning the level change is not just about getting into deep positions, but about descending into them quickly and (apparently) effortlessly, and then popping up (when appropriate) dynamically. In other words, you have to be able to drop down quickly, stay level where you ought to (no bouncing up while shifting stances), then pop up easily and quickly when switching into a higher stance.
How do we own the level change?Developing the strength you need to get deep, stay deep, and move while staying deep can be done with traditional weightlifting exercises. You could deadlift or squat with a barbell and it would certainly be helpful.
However, a standard barbell squat might not be the best tool for this job for a couple of reasons. First, it requires safety equipment (a rack) and space and a bar and plates that aren't cheap and that take up a lot of space (none of which is a problem if you use a gym, of course). Second, the barbell squat trains your legs together - both work at the same time. When you get into a deep stance other than kiba dachi, most of your weight is often on one leg or the other, not both (zenkutsu dachi, kokutsu dachi make obvious examples). And when one leg has to work without the other to support you additional muscles are called into play to stabilize the hips and keep them level - hip adductors and abductors and rotators that just aren't challenged (sufficiently) in the traditional squat.
So how can we work these muscles?
If you have access to a gym, you can do rear foot elevated split squats with a barbell (or a trap bar). Basically, you start by either putting a bar on your back or holding dumbells or finding some other way to load yourself. Then you stand in front of a bench. Keeping one foot on the floor, lift the other foot and put it on the bench behind you. Then squat down and (hopefully) up. Most of the load will be carried by the front foot.
This is a great exercise, but I think people tend to cheat on depth - they don't go deep enough, and more than just building strength, the kata competitor has to build strength in the lower positions that they might need for certain stances to look good. It's also a somewhat awkward movement if you don't have a spotter to help you get set up.
An alternative exercise that doesn't require any equipment is the pistol. With a pistol, you don't need weight. Instead, from a standing position, stick one leg out in front of you, in the air, keeping the knee straight. Then squat down until your butt cheek is touching your calf, then stand back up.
I like pistols, but I find them kind of hard on my knees, and very hard to learn. It takes a lot of mobility and skill to do them correctly. And honestly, if you can do any significant number of pistols, leg strength just isn't your issue in kata - you're already strong enough that it isn't thigh strength that's limiting your kata performance. So I tend not to make them my go to exercise.
So my recommendation is the skater squat (which does have other names):
- Stand in place, feet shoulder width apart.
- Lift one (let's say left) leg off the ground, picking your heel up so it's close to your buttock.
- Squat down until the left knee just barely touches the ground. Your upper body will be leaning forward, and you can hold onto something in front of you for balance (I use my kitchen counter). The left knee is still bent, so the left foot never touches the floor.
- Stand up, using just the strength of the right leg.
- Either repeat for several reps on the same leg or switch legs with each rep, depending how fit you are (more fit = more reps before switching).
- Once you get good at these, you can add weight (wear a weight vest or hold dumbells in your hands) and add a jump to the end, so you're driving up and jumping with just one leg.
Skater squats are significantly easier to do than pistols, aren't as taxing on your knees (your knee never really goes into maximum flexion), and will build plenty of strength in the range of motion you need to maintain and move in a nice, deep karate stance.
The second physical trait that seemed to separate the not - as - good competitors from the upper tier competitors was core stiffness.
What is core stiffness?Imagine two people: one has a steel rod for a spine, the other has a spine made out of a Slinky. Now imagine how they move - imagine what their upper bodies would do, for example, when they throw a hard kick, or rotate into a punch.
You don't want a lot of extraneous motion (i.e. flopping around) when you deliver your techniques. Nothing impresses more than a high, clean quick - except a high, clean kick with your upper body locked in tight as a rock.
How do we get core stiffness?There is not, as far as I can see, a single best exercise for core stiffness. A few I like,. roughly in order of difficulty, are:
- Crunches and leg raises.
- Single arm planks/ single arm pushups.
- Planks on an exercise ball, rotating your base (forearms) in circles as you do them.
- Ab wheel roll outs.
I've written about this before. I have some new thoughts on this topic, but I'll save them for another day. Let's just say that a clean, well executed kick at head height usually impresses more than the same kick to the stomach area (although, do the kata correctly before any other considerations).
In short, a few basic strength training exercises might be all you need to take a big leap forward in how good your kata look. If you have these weaknesses, shore them up and see how much that helps. Having said that, nothing you do with regards to strength training is going to replace actual kata practice, only enhance it somewhat.