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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Supplementary Conditioning for the Karate Athlete - Part one

Joel Proskewitz


Elite Karate-ka are some of the most explosive, powerful and agile athletes in the world. And as with all martial artists, the karate-ka needs to function at their very best for most part of the time. This is vitally important for the karate-ka, for unlike seasonal athletic sports, the art of karate does not allow for the participant to have ‘off seasons’, especially regarding the self defence aspect, therefore the karate-ka needs to be alert and physically capable to handle all challenges.


For fear that the martial artist will lose speed and quickness; supplementary strength training has never been a big part of karate training. When it comes to supplementary strength training for the karate-ka, the standard conditioning program consists mainly of the regulatory press ups, sit ups and bunny hops across the dojo floor; which is great when worked into the context of a limited time karate class. But if the karate-ka is looking to create strength based conditioning programs that will allow them to develop their explosive power potential, then a scientific based strength and conditioning program is essential.


Strength training is a method that consists of many tools that can be used to create the desired training effect. Strength training is not necessarily confined to lifting weights, even though correctly prescribed weight training is one of the most effective ways in increasing strength and power. The tools of the strength trade include, but are not limited to: bodyweight exercises, resistance tubes (a favourite with many karate-ka), weights, kettlebells and isometrics; in essence any object or modality that will create an effective and safe overload to force the muscular system into working harder. Many martial artists and boxers have shunned the use of weight training for fear of bulking up to the point that the extra muscle mass could potentially slow them down, but this is only true when the incorrect strength training principles are applied to the karate-ka’s routine. Unfortunately many athletes have implemented incorrect strength training methods into their routines, which will no doubt have the opposite effect to what they desire. Most strength training routines have been based on conventional bodybuilding methods which entails creating maximum growth of the muscles for an aesthetic purpose, not a functional, sports-specific purpose. With the correct exercises and technique, the advantage of strength training for the karate athlete far outweighs the negatives.


Karate is an art that emphasizes speed, power, strength and agility and naturally increases the overall strength and conditioning of the participant, but eventually the karate-ka will need to add in supplementary strength training to their routines to enhance their conditioning and facilitate progression. In creating a strength training routine for the karate-ka, one needs to assess the art and determine what is required from the program. Karate is generally a power dominated art, which means that the karate-ka needs to be able to execute short bursts of explosive power movements within the shortest time frame possible. The karate-ka also needs to have a good aerobic base of conditioning to facilitate the endurance needed to last in a kumite match or a kata. After assessing and practising the art for many years, I believe that the karate-ka will have sufficient aerobic and cardio conditioning from the intense practise of kihon, kata and kumite, as long as the intensity allows for a progressive overload of the cardio system. When it comes to the best method of cardiovascular conditioning for the karate-ka, I advocate Interval training, which is a method that closely replicates how the cardiovascular and muscular systems are utilized in elite level karate practise. Interval training is the ‘Strength’ training for the cardio system and it consists of highly intense bouts of exercise, followed directly by a lower intensity recovery period, performed at certain predetermined ratios of work to rest, e.g. 30 sec of work: 1min of rest.


Training for strength and power, the karate-ka needs to have a sound foundation in performing bodyweight exercises before moving on to external resistance. What is the point of trying to bench press your body weight and more if you can not perform a press up correctly using your own weight as resistance? After the basic strength program has been completed, the karate-ka can then safely move to external resistance emphasizing a progressive overload on the muscular system. During this phase of training the karate-ka will develop added strength and stability of the muscular and skeletal systems, which lays the foundation for the next phase, which is the power phase. The scientific formula for power is:


P (power) = F (force) x D (distance) / T (time)


As can be deduced from the above equation, power is basically the expression of combining strength and speed. There is a saying that states ‘Power is nothing without control’, so with that in mind, before the karate-ka can successfully create power, their strength base needs to be sufficient to safely allow for controlled power production.


When prescribing supplementary strength and conditioning programs for athletes, the priority is for the program to enhance the athlete’s performance, not hinder it, therefore the karate-ka only needs to set aside approx 30-45min per workout for no more than 3 sessions per week. Scientific research suggests that strength training should be performed in less time and at a greater intensity to maximize growth hormone and testosterone release, therefore if the S&C program takes longer to perform than the above recommendation, then the athlete is either not training with enough intensity or the volume of training is too great, which could potentially lead to an overtraining state if not rectified with a decrease in volume and the correct recovery and nutrition.


Both scientific evidence and experiential knowledge have proven the benefits of supplementary strength and conditioning for the karate-ka and in the next article I will cover the exercises used in the strength and conditioning programs for the karate-ka. 


Joel Proskewitz