Tuesday, June 7, 2016

2 Exercises To Improve Your Competition Kata

I was at a tournament this weekend (Go En, a tournament/ promotion/ seminar week in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of my style, Seido Karate, by Kaicho Nakamura), which isn't something I've done before.

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):

To do:

  1. Stand in place, feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Lift one (let's say left) leg off the ground, picking your heel up so it's close to your buttock.
  3. 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.
  4. Stand up, using just the strength of the right leg.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

Core Stiffness

 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:

  1. Crunches and leg raises.
  2. Planks/pushups
  3. Single arm planks/ single arm pushups.
  4. Planks on an exercise ball, rotating your base (forearms) in circles as you do them.
  5. Ab wheel roll outs.

Kick Height

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.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The biggest key to success in Karate: Find your Fun

[This post meanders, for which I apologize in advance.]

For my style's 40th anniversary extravaganza (which is starting as I type this!) the participants are being divided into teams with meaningful names related to our art - Team Egoless, Team Empathy, Team Hope, you get the idea. We'll compete in a bunch of fun, not terribly serious events, a lot like color war in summer camp.

Given the name and theme of this blog you'd think I'd want to be placed on Team Fast Twitch Muscle Fiber or Team Burpee or Team Cardiac Output (I made those up), but to my delight I have been placed on Team Fun.

Now I've tended to be the kind of person who takes my martial arts training somewhat seriously. My primary goal was to be better and more skilled, not to have the most fun (or get promoted the fastest). When picking a school and evaluating my training I have not tended to look at the fun factor. I'm pro-tradition and anti-McDojo.

Part of the problem with "fun" in martial arts is that all too often people associate the word 'fun' with 'easy.' Sparring might be fun, but not as much fun as obstacle courses. Pushups are even less fun than sparring. Pushups on your knuckles on a concrete floor does not meet most definitions of the word 'fun.'

And there are teachers and schools where this apparent dichotomy is emphasized. I'm sure we are all aware of martial arts instructors (even if we only know them from movies) who make a point of being grim, humorless, and stern at all times.

On some level there is some merit to that line of thinking. If 'fun' means horseplay and lack of order, the class can be less productive. You don't want a 'fun' class where the students horse around all the time and never train.

But  you can work hard while cracking jokes (trust me, this is my standard state of being). You can make your obstacle courses challenging, you can make your hardest workouts enjoyable with a little personality and a little creativity.

Exactly what that means and how it pans out for someone training is probably going to be different for different people. I don't like sparring to the point of injury - it's not fun for me. Other people obviously get a lot of joy out of that kind of challenge. I don't mind a grim, hard nosed instructor, but other people find such people intimidating.

If you can find a martial art that is fun FOR YOU there are tremendous benefits. You start to look forward to class instead of dreading it. You train more when you don't have to. You're less stressed (meaning, more towards the parasympathetic nervous/hormonal state, which is good) about the training.

When you train not because it's fun but because you think of it as some sort of obligation, or even if you train to achieve some goal (getting a black belt, becoming skilled), life is just hard. I suspect that's part of the reason so many people who train for a belt/promotion end up quitting after they get the belt. If they haven't discovered the fun in the training itself, they don't have a good enough reason to continue.

If your training is fun (to you!) you will:

  1. Train more diligently;
  2. Train harder;
  3. Be much more likely to continue over your lifetime;
  4. Make better friends;
  5. Ultimately be more skilled, because of all of the above!
The key, and it isn't terribly difficult, is finding YOUR fun in your martial art. Like to drink a lot and socialize? Find a school with plenty of adults. Love the crossfit style workout where you almost puke at the end of each session? Find a school where that happens. Don't like that? Find another school. 

Wherever you train, a couple of tips to making it MORE fun for you (without undermining the school's philosophy or structure):
  1. Be better prepared. Being in good shape makes hard classes a lot more fun.
  2. Carefully track your progress. Try filming yourself periodically doing your kata, so you can see over time how much better you've gotten. Skill is fun!
  3. Don't be afraid to back out if it ISN'T fun. If your teacher starts emphasizing the kind of hard sparring that leaves you injured all the time, it might be a sign to find another place to train. If your teacher forbids all contact, and you really enjoy mixing it up a little, it might also be time to change things up. If you train someplace that just can't be fun for you, try to fix it (maybe just take a different class in the same school).
On some level, the question, "Should Martial Arts Training Be Fun?" seems ridiculous, like the studies that attempt to show reasons why we should be having more sex (isn't more sex enough of a reason?) But we do glorify hard, grueling training, and, perhaps especially in traditional martial arts, we tend to perceive 'real' 'authentic' training as grueling, difficult, and humorless. As if fun training is somehow inherently less effective, because we think that the effectiveness of a workout has to be proportional to how much suffering it entails.

Instead, workouts should be fun. Maybe grueling humorless training is fun to you - maybe not. But regardless, find a way to make martial arts fun for you, and you'll get far more out of your practice.

And if you see me at Go En please say hi!