Sunday, November 24, 2013

Get to the Karate Already!

Since I'm still on post-nasal surgery restrictions that limit my physical activity, I've only visited my teaching dojo a few times to say hello to my students/training partners and "walk the mat" (meaning not participating, just giving instruction and correction during the class when I am in gi or sitting and observing silently when I'm in my civvies) in the last few weeks. I popped into the adult class one night last week and was a little disturbed by what I saw.

Class begins at 6:30PM. Our senpai - a barely 20-yr-old who's been a shodan for about five months or so - was leading the warmup. Spirited and agile, he was taking our 30 and 40+ "executives" through burpees and minute-long running-in-place high-knee drills. Not in gi (because I actually had to return to work), I said hello to a few folks watching and chatted with training partner Ed for a while before looking at my watch. At 7PM when I was about to head back out the door, they were still jumping around and hadn't even begun stretching yet. The class ends at 8PM.

None of the adult students are sedentary - even if they can only get to the dojo once a week. Ancillary training - from boxing to weight-lifting and running - is done by most all off them on their off-dojo days (heck, one student, a 38-hr-old green belt, does CrossFit in the morning on karate nights). In other words, there were no couch potatoes who only sweat 90 minutes a week on the mat. And although a good "Let's get those muscles nice and warm/loose before we start hitting and kicking things" warmup is a very good thing, too much of a good thing just ain't good for you, IMHO. Personally, when I only have 90 minutes to get some karate training in, I want to spend as much of that time actually doing karate as possible - and I've gotten pretty annoyed in class when instructors didn't see it the same way, which made for less than pleasurable karate experiences.

When I was a kyu, my then sensei used to lengthen the class warmup as we got closer to grading - so much so that it wasn't unusual to have a 40-minute jog/jumping jack/push-up marathon the week before testing. His theory was that the "cup-emptying" workout we were going to be put through at the grading should feel a bit familiar. I understood where he was coming from, but didn't agree - mainly because I was getting my cardio and weights in during the rest of the week and kinda figured my dojo sisters and brothers were doing something similar as well. Plus my other discipline (track and field) had engrained in me that there are strong, strong benefits to tapering your training before upcoming big, arduous contests. My sensei's plan was totally contradictory to that, it seemed.

The next sensei I trained under had spurts where he would try to work us into puddles of sweat before we actually began the karate portion of class. There were quite a few classes where we warmed up with lots and lots of burpees and squat thrusts followed by minute-long planks and "scoop" pushups that made me wonder if I'd somehow stumbled into the aerobic kick-boxing class. Again, I got what he was trying to get us to do, but I just wanted to get to the karate already.

I've also been to classes where students were expected to warmup on their own before class actually started. That meant you needed to get there early enough to do whatever it is you needed to do so you were ready for whatever kata, makawari or other drills Sensei dished out. It developed out of necessity (the sensei taught a boxing class before karate and one started and the other ended at the same time, which made it necessary to be efficient with the little time we did have to do martial stuff), but it made sense to me, as the 19-yr-old college students who trained on one side of me had different physical needs than the 40 and 50-hr-old executives who trained on the other side. Not that there weren't smattering of conditioning exercises/drills during class (like, say, 20 pushups after a kata or 20 round house kicks between bunkai drills), but the business of the day was about karate, not preparing to do karate.

When I teach, of course there is a bit of time reserved for getting the blood flowing and stretching before we start drills or whatever else is on the agenda, but it is not the entire focus of the class and it never usually takes more than 15 minutes or so. Yes, it's necessary to warmup, but I just don't get the "go hard or go home" calisthenics that seem designed to show little more than the fitness level of the person leading the class.

Get to the karate already, please...


  1. I am somewhat of two minds on this. Years ago I came from a Combat Hapkido dojang which focused heavily on techniques and only touched calisthenics enough to make sure we werent injured by all the joint manipulation. This lead to a higher degree of technique competence, but increasing waistlines over the years I was there.

    In my current Kyokushin karate dojo we are about 20% warm up and stretching and calisthenics and about 80% karate training. This is a pretty good split, but I don't feel as tired as I'd like to be at the end of some classes. (Guess I should count my blessings he doesn't run us ragged though!)

  2. Felicia, I couldn't agree more with your sentiments about spending training time wisely. But, just to play devil's advocate, it is the job of the sensei to push people to further than they have gone, at times, to spur improvement. It may also be that not everyone is as studious as you when exercising outside the dojo. All that being said, any workout that takes longer than 20 minutes of class is probably doing more harm than good. How can you work excellent technique and control when your fine motor skills are shot with 45 minutes of calisthenics?

  3. I hear you both, but I see it like this: the martial arts are complex DISCIPLINES that require training away from the formal class. My first dojo had only one class a week for the longest time. You cannot learn karate in two hours a week, so some ancillary training - kihon, kata, conditioning, etc - was absolutely necessary. I think that even if you are taking 4-5 classes a week, you still HAVE to train on your own somewhat. Like anything else, what you put into it is what you get out of it - so if you half-step in class or only go through that form you're learning on the days you are on the mat, your martial art will suck, quite frankly. That being said, I think it is up to each individual practioner to make sure s/he gets whatever they can out of their training. Even if no one else in the class is doing more than running from their car to their homes outside of class, that's on THEM, not everyone me, the student training next to them or even Sensei Me, really. I have no problem with a vigorous warm-up at all, but there comes a point when it becomes a waste of time if there is more time spent doing jumping jacks, burpees and pushups than there is doing karate.

    When I train, I don't think it is my sensei's responsibility to "get me in shape" - it's mine and mine alone. Sure, push me to my limit, but I don't see how 1000 pushups per class accomplishes that at all. 100 minutes of randori? Now we're talking!

  4. I'm with you on this one Felicia. A warm up should be a warm up i.e 5 - 10 minutes to get the heart rate going, blood circulating and muscles stretched out. The warm up is not a supplementary fitness session. Kihon, kata, pad work and kumite done intensely will provide a fitness workout whilst doing karate. In fact some line work actually makes a good warm up because it warms up the muscles you'll actually be using when you start drill work. I think karate lessons should be about karate and supplementary training done elsewhere.