“Body Type Karate” And Why It Doesn’t Exist

There’s a pretty widespread theory in Karate these days that you should choose your ‘waza’ (techniques) or kata depending on your body type.

Ever heard that?

Like, depending on if you’re stocky, thin, fat, strong, tall, slim and so on, you will theoretically need to choose different things to practise, since not every move is suited to your unique physique.

For instance, after consulting sensei Google, I found the following random quotes:

“Oddly enough, Seipai doesn’t fit my body type at all […]”

“Teaching kata that fit your body […] makes it easier for the student […]”

“Shorei-ryu karate is suitable for people of large build.”

“The combative sequence of […] kata lend themselves to multiple applications depending upon the person and their attributes.”

And my favorite one:

“…the OKINAWAN masters taught different kata to different people based on ability and body type . There are “big man kata” suited to heavier types and “general kata” which are suited to most builds…”

Yeah.

Of course there are.

And then my Rubik’s cube fell down from my desk and completed itself on its way down.

Dewd… I don’t even know where to begin.

Who spreads these kinds of ideas?

As they say, “your mileage may vary”, but in my world; Karate was originally developed for civil, mainly unarmed, self-defense. And the only real evidence (artifacts?) we have left of this – from that time – is kata, which can be seen as some kind of physical manifestation of the mindframe and thinking that once laid the foundation of the art we’re all enthusiastically practising.

There is little question about that.

So then, using that as our starting point, think about this:

Sucessfull self-defense relies on being able to defend oneself against a physically superior person.

That’s the basic idea, right? Therefore you assume that your opponent will always be bigger, stronger, have a higher treshold of pain, be quicker, tougher and more aggressive. Because if he/she isn’t, then you wouldn’t be needing much self-defense in the first place. Better safe than sorry, right?

It goes without saying that if you are already physically superior to everyone around you, you wouldn’t waste your time learning to defend against stronger and bigger people because, well, there aren’t that many of those around. And if there were, they would pick on smaller people.

Karate was primarily developed for regular (at best), perhaps even weak, people.

Because these are the ones most likely to need it in the first place!

Now that we’ve got that historical junk out of the way, let me pose a quick question: Have you ever heard of the Zen saying “the obstacle is the path”?

Great.

Then let’s start applying it.

Ignoring, or avoiding certain techniques or kata because they “do not suit my body type” is like choosing to build a house with only a hammer and a screwdriver, because those are the tools that “fit your body type”. Makes no sense, does it?

To sucessfully build a house you will have to master a wide selection of tools, ranging from the familiar (hammers and screwdrivers) to the more unfamiliar (chainsaws and drills) – and surprise, surprise – the same goes for Karate. The problem is, most people are afraid of the unfamiliar.

But you will seldom have the “luxury” to choose what type of habitual act of physical violence (HAPV) you will have the “honor” of being assaulted with, which means that you gotta know ’em all, champ.

And I’m not talking Sport Karate at this point. In that case, fine, ditch some ugly kata where you have trouble looking good in favor of other, because the objective has changed. No problem. It’s all good. Do what you got to do.

But in the case of Karate’s original aims and means, you simply have neither the time nor the energy to waste, complaining that a certain technique or kata is useless because it “doesn’t fit my body type”.

I can just imagine people going:

“Look, that guy’s legs are sooo strong! He must be really good at the kata Seienchin!”

Well, did it ever occur to you that his legs are strong precisely because of his intense practise in that particular kata? In 9 times out of 10, that’s the case.

As a matter of fact,

  • You never start out good at anything.
  • You become good.

And dismissing stuff that seems strenuous, brushing it off with some halfhearted line about your unfortunate body composition (which you “can’t even change, because you were born that way”) just makes it even more pathetic.

So stop it.

I will literally projectile vomit on the next person that comes to me and uses their age, size, strength or gender as an excuse for not learning, or being able to learn, whatever it is that they need to learn.

You have weak blocks? Oh, must be because of your short arms, right? You have sloppy kicks? Most be because of your long and flappy legs, right? You have too high stances? Must be because of your huge abs, right?

Wrong.

(Well, except for that last one – which definitely fits in on me. But then again, my abs are basically godlike.)

Yes, it is true that you can’t make a ruler straigher, but you are a human, flexible being. An ever-changing organism. You can get straighter. And stronger, and more flexible, and faster, and…

Simply better.

At everything.

And the minute you let somebody have you believe a certain “body composition” decides whether or not you’re going to be good at something, then you’re forgetting that even Michael Jordan – one of the world’s best basketball players in history – was once cut out of his varsity basketball team because he was deemed too short to play.

And now he’s a legend.

Which reminds me of this awesome quote from Jordan sensei where he said:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

In the end, what bugs me most about these “kata X was made for stocky people, kata Z was made for small people” type of statements isn’t the fact that they were created largely by people who once encountered some kind of obstacle/limitation themselves and chose to stop there rather than work through it, but the negative influence this has in other – more impressionable – Karate enthusiasts.

If you choose to suck, based on imaginary limits places upon yourself by none other than yourself, be my guest. But don’t try to make the rest of us follow your lead.

Because there is nothing in the realm of Karate that wasn’t made for everyone.

Karate was made for average Joe to defend himself against average Joe on steroids.

If you already are average Joe on steroids, good for you. Karate will often work even better for you, since you can now add a strength or size advantage to your arsenal.

If you’re not, don’t sweat it. Almost every Karate master in history, from Funakoshi to Miyagi, started out frail, weak or even sick when I think about it. Not being able to raise your leg above waist level is the least of your worries, believe me.

In the end, there is no “body type Karate”, because there is no need for it.

Regular ol’ Karate already got it covered, baby.

“Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but unwilling to improve themselves. They therefore remain bound.”

– James Allen (1864–1912)

18 Comments

  • Kevin
    An old karate master has said different. I quote: “Shorei-ryu is suitable for those individuals who are “thickboned,” or generally larger than others, whereas Shorin-ryu is more suitable for those individuals who are lithe, or slim in build and do not possess large amounts of physical strength.” Gichin Funakoshi, 1922, in his book Karatejutsu.Now I have a translation and I do not have access to the original Japanese text to verify that the translation is accurate.
    • That is correct. And Funakoshi's main teacher Anko Itosu also stated that there were two "styles" of karate, Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu, in his 1908 letter addressed to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of War, but he never characterized them as relating to body types. The famous Okinawan Bubishi also mentions Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu (see, for example, Mabuni, 1934), but again, does not state the differences between the two.Indeed, other prominent teachers of the day also took exception to Funakoshi's classification. In 1930, Chojun Miyagi was quoted as saying that the breakdown of Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu into kata for differing body types, as Funakoshi did, was unfounded (Miki, et al, 1930). Miyagi also went on to say basically the same thing in his 1934 essay Karatedo Gaisetsu (McCarthy, 1999). At the 1936 "meeting of the masters," he said that the only real difference between Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu lay in their teaching methods (ibid.).Later, Mabuni Kenwa and his co-author Nakasone Genwa, in their 1938 publication "Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon," also disagreed with Funakoshi's categorizations.In conclusion, Funakoshi seems to have been a bit confused about this whole division himself, as he subsequently changed his kata classifications numerous times throughout his works.
      • Ørjan Nilsen
        I first read the kata for specific body type in Karate do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi. Is Funakoshi the only pioner who makde the claim? I guess it is from his work that the myth has come from.
      • Kevin
        I quote Chojun Miyagi as translated by Patrick McCarthy found on page 51 of the text Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Koryu Uchinadi Volume 2. The translation is of Karate-do Gaisetsu (1934): "Currently there are many theories about karate-do styles, yet none have been corroborated by historical investigation. Like fumbling in the dark, most theories are only vague suppositions. The most accepted hypothesis describes the Shaolin and the Shorei styles. The former, it is said, best suits those whose structures are stout while the Shorei style best accommodates those with smaller frames, or who are thin like a willow and lack physical strength. However, after considering this from various perspectives it remains obvious that this evaluation is unquestionably erroneous."Notice that Miyagi has Shorin and Shorie listed as the opposite from what Funakoshi did. I think this might be an error in the translation. Regardless, the idea was the most accepted. Now this writting was done after Funakoshi's Karatejutsu text. However, the question is. Did Funakoshi come up with this idea on his own and made it into the most accepted hypothesis of the time, or was this a common idea amongst karateka of the time.Whereas, I am of the thought that there is no style in Okinawan Karate, I must state that there were those Okinawan Karate masters of the past who did stress that there is a “Body Type” Karate.
  • Jonathan J
    How about kata that's suited better for one's disposition?
  • hans
    There are natural born kickers amongst us, and the ones who are less limber. You can improve somewhat on freedom of movement in the hipjoints, but there is a limit. Why wasting your time on trying to learn high spinning jumping back kicks which were alegedly devised for kicking soldiers form horseback which you will never learn who to peform without injuring yourself, let alone apply safely, while you can improve on your groundfighting in the meantime? As long as you can kick the other guys shin or knee. Isn't that SO okinawan karate-ish in the first place?
  • Ørjan Nilsen
    We all agree that Kata contains techniques. I believe that those techniques were chosen to show specific tactics. The collected tactics of a Kata would therefore show a strategy.There are different strategy to fightning. Some would like to grapple and feel confident in that range, some like close in striking and would feel most confident in that range and some likes it best in striking range.I am not saying a fight would only happen in one of those ranges alone as a fight is chaotic and will be fought at different ranges wether you like it or not, but if you are inclined to strike as opposed to grapple for instance you can suit your training to support your mindset.For instance traditional Taekwondo is a striking art, BUT we also train in basic grappling skills. Not grappling like a judo-ka but basic grappling skills in case the opponent tries to clinch you or grab your arms etc to prevent you from striking (a natural reaction to striking is to close the distance and try to prevent further striking by various grabs). You therefore practise striking because you like it and also you practise ways of freeing yourself so that you can continue striking if necesary.If a Kata shows a strategy that holds more to one side than another (predomitably a striking strategy or grappling strategy)you could say that the Kata would suit one indidual mind set more than another individual.So I do not think a Kata are made for specific body types but I do think some are better for different mind sets. Most Kata will show both striking and grappling, but the overall strategy will favour one over the other. It is the maker of the Kata`s mental inprint on his/hers own kata that decides what the strategy contained in that Kata will be. Perhaps the mental disposition of the practisioner vs kata strategy would be a great follow up article to this one?
  • Szilard
    I think it is somehow the other way around but not completely. You learn from kata without much of bodily injury if you suck at something, so you don't have to test it in dire circumstances. And if you improve it enough to be really useful, that's good, but it doesn't necessarily happen. What does it mean that you suck at a technique? It means you know it well enough to defend against it and you feel vulnerable while doing it. You wish someone did it against you the same level you do it. Because he would just make your day. A kata is 50% teaching you things and 50% showing you what are the weak points of those things. So even if there is a "big guy" kata or "thin man" kata we are better practice them regularly.
  • I partially agree with you in this sense Jesse. I believe you to be definitely correct that we can all improve upon the things we are bad at, and thus we cannot use the excuse of "not being built" for a certain technique.However, I think the main point of the choosing-techniques-based-on-body-type theory is that while you can strive to improve all of your weaknesses, at the same time, you will naturally gravitate to a certain technique. I believe you have a post about this as well (something about finding your "special technique").So in essence, I think we could elaborate your thoughts into saying that you cannot use your "body type" as an excuse for not working hard at a certain skill/kata/technique. But that you will also find something that you are particularly good at.
  • Aiko
    In Okinawan dojos, we often see senior karate masters who do not know the whole syllabus of kata of the school. They are specialists in certain kata. They do some kata, and select one or two kata as their tokui kata. They do not know certain kata of the system and not interested in learning them (Of course,most Okinawan schools have less than 25 kata in their syllabus). I think they select the kata which suits them and perfect them, without trying to learn the whole system. But, outside Okinawa, we are more sticked in to syllabus.
  • patrick
    Body type or mind set? In the systeem i train whe have surite nahate tomarite etc etc I like all of them but when I think about it nahate kata (technique) fits my body better !!! maybe i just love nahate more ? anyway 35 years ago I started sick ( astma)now almost 50 my body is better dan in my prime !!!! thanks shorin-ryu ,shorei-ryu and al others
  • Sam
    The purpose of karate kata is not only to practice techniques and motions by yourself in order to ingrain them into your being, but to actually physically change and alter your body and it's abiities. If you find something really challenging to you in a kata you must overcome your inadequacy with it in order to complete the change by becoming familiar with the movement. As for the multitudes of kata in other styles I can't really comment on that dilemma, but in Uechi Ryu/Shohei Ryu there are only eight kata that are practiced, many moves between the kata are the same, I am always working on improving the same things over and over again, and every time I work on those things I will always hit certain moves that I have trouble with. Due to me encountering those same movements over and over again I eventually get better at them, which is what kata was primarily developed to do, make you better through familiarity over time.
  • Ann Collette
    Thank you. Case closed. :)
  • Thant Coleman
    The only difference between Shorei Ryu and Shorin Ryu were in how they were taught … I could agree and disagree. Bunkai for the same kata could give one a completely different interpretation of a particular system. A small person teaching only techniques that fit a smaller or large build could certainly happen and be very plausible. I agree that they are essentially the same but how they are taught would indeed make them different at the same time ... Okinawan Goju and Japanese (Yamaguchi’s) Goju … they are the same but they are different. A 6’2”, 225 pound bodybuilder type is better suited for a hard “style” martial art than a 5’2” … 125 pound man. You could then argue that the system learned (lets say Goju) may be the same but they are simply taught to stress different methods or techniques (yeah, that’s your point) but it is just as legitimate to say that a system of “hard” only techniques versus soft techniques creates a different system indeed. If I’m not making a clear argument let me put it this way … there is little to nothing in Aikido that is outside my Goju bunkai. I can readily display and explain Aikido movement and technique within my kata. Does that mean I practice Aikido? Are they two different systems … YES … I would say that no matter which side of this argument you are on … a person would have to be “splitting hairs” in order to make the point. I FIRMLY AND STRONGLY agree that one should be rounded and know all aspects of kata, technique and application within your system if possible (if your instructor knows enough to teach you). I personally favor “soft” techniques because I tend to be smaller than most of my opponents, however I am in no way ignorant of the hard. Because I tend to favor soft techniques, I purposely teach 50/50 hard and soft. I in fact go out of my way to ensure an even blend of technique and interpretation but I’m consciously aware of my personal preference. I want my students to choose and further develop methods that they feel best suit them. As far as arguing the finite point of some techniques being better suited for some individuals and not others … DEFINITELY … as a Judoka, Shaquille O’neil would have a hell of time getting below my center of gravity … I’m 5’8”!My 2 cents worth!
  • Raddon
    Inspiring stuff as usual, Sensei Jesse. In my humble opinion though, body-type specific karate does exist. Let me try to explain why I think this. In any given karate class, there will often be a rather broad spectrum of karatekas, with a great variance of age, height, gender, and physiques- fat & slim, stocky & thin, etc etc. Now, I have been priveleged to train with karatekas that eschew (for example) their stocky physiques, short legs, inflexible hips, and relative lack of youth to go ahead and diligently practice kicking anyway. In fact, they'd practice it a lot, for the excellent reason that they find it difficult. And yet, low & behold, they would often get shown up in this avenue of karate by a younger, lighter, more flexible classmate who didn't train a fraction as much in their kicking. And vice versa with something like close-in grappling. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, an overweight, stocky, middle-aged man is never going to kick like Jet Li, and a 5'4" 90-pound teenage girl is never going to out-grapple a Sumo wrestler. But, as you point out, they'd be surprised how good they CAN become at these respective skills with the right effort. But I do believe that the fact that people shouldn't feel discouraged by less than-optimum physical predispositions towards certain techniques in no way means that they don't exist.
  • Wowi
    Hi. Thanks for this article. I had fun reading through it. Your article makes lot of sense, at least to me.I bumped into your blog cause I was looking for info on this karate/body type issue. But only cause my 8 year old son has started learning karate, and I was wondering how long he will stay interested in it. Somehow my mind wondered off to the possibility it might depend on how well he can physically cope with it, I remember seeing a program on body types fitting for specific sports, and so on. But your article really made me laugh at my self for thinking that way on karate. I guess mindset is really the important factor in karate (and other martial arts).Anyway he's (my son) is very enthusiastic with his karate lessons. This is the 1st sport I've noticed he really gets so enthusiastic and attached to. I think it's great. It's great for him to get more control over his physical movements, for his concentration and discipline, his energy and stamina, and several other aspects. He has a really good sensei too (I think), teaching them (the whole group) very well.Anyway, thanks for your article. I had a fun reading it, and also a moment of realization. :-)
  • SVENsei
    When I first started practising karate, I sucked. My legs weren't strong and flexible enough for a Shiko Dachi, I couldn't kick fast enough, my balance wasn't good.. I can go on.Today I do everything very well.The human body is very flexible and can adapt easily. There is no such thing as certain katas or waza that aren't made for certain body types.People have a nasty little habit of trying to make excuses or find shortcuts out of sheer laziness. Perhaps the reason that separates black belts from white belts.
  • Krzysiek
    So, because I have long legs, my kicks are weak? Who on earth is making such excuses?! Tall guy can win the fight by KO from simple mae-geri staying outside of the fighting range. Kicking opponent head is often still chudan level for tall person, possible even in every day clothes. This is pitiful excuse :P

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