Jesse’s Practical 3-Step Guide to Jumping Higher for Karate

By Jesse | 9 Comments

Jumping.

Jumping, jumping, jumping.

It’s probably the last thing you think about when it comes to pure self-defense, but still an integral part of original Karate (jumps can be found in traditional kata across all styles, ranging from Okinawan styles such as Uechi-ryu, Isshin-ryu, Goju-ryu and Shorin-ryu to Japanese styles like Shotokan, Shito-ryu and Wado-ryu).

Admittingly, it’s not the most common technique we have in Karate – although old-school action heroes like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme seemed to imply otherwise in the many movies that shaped Western society’s view on Karate (and the Oriental martial arts in general) during the ‘golden 80′s’.

And let’s not forget Karate Kid, with the iconic crane kick!

So, even though jumps – with or without kicks – are not as commonplace in Karate as media portrays them to be, they do exist to some extent in various kata that we still practise – both in traditional and modern Karate.

And the harsh reality is this:

The quality of your jump is what will make or break your kata.

(Or you bones!)

No, but seriously though. Even, for example, when you see an athlete like Antonio Diaz performing his signature kata (Suparimpei), we’re all pretty much just waiting for the jump. Sure, the other techniques are impressive and all… but the jump is the icing on the cake.

How come?

Because that’s the way we humans function.

  • We love spectacular stuff.
  • We love seeing other people take risks.
  • We love the feeling of not knowing if somebody will miserably fail or happily succeed right in front of our very own eyes.

And jumping is a huge risk.

One that people will automatically focus on… and judge you on.

So, what I’m going to do today is take you through my personal three-step guide to practially improving your jumping ability – by breaking down and quickly looking at the main components that make up the typical Karate jump.

(Kicks or not.)

Noel Espinosa of the Philippines doing the Unsu kata. (Courtesy of Andrew Villasis.)

Now, of course, having a great jump first and foremost means having great muscles (along with the connectivity between those muscles and your brain). But if you lack the technique needed for optimizing and converting that strength, it doesn’t matter if you can front squat twice your bodyweight or not

You will still need proper technique.

The dictionary definition of jump is to spring off the ground by a muscular effort of the legs and feet. However, this definition is only partially correct, and maybe this is why most people only partially train jumping correctly. Great jumping requires coordinated movement of the arms, legs and feet – not to mention the core.

And in my opinion, here’s where most people fail.

So, with that being said, I’ll leave the strength/explosiveness training to you, and now just focus on helping you improve your jumping ability by looking at the concept and theory behind the actual technique of a perfect Karate jump.

Sounds good?

Awesome.

To make my points clearer, I’ve chosen to illustrate each step with a snapshot taken from the kata Kanku Dai, as performed by multiple-time world kata champion Luca Valdesi (here’s the original video, shot by me at the 11th Italian Open in 2010).

The jump starts from this position:

Let’s go:

Step #1: The Knee Lift

The first thing you will need, to really jump high, is a great knee lift.

As the saying goes, “every great journey starts with a single step” – well, this journey starts with a knee raise.

The key part of this phase is to swiftly lift your knee as high as possible, making sure you keep it in front of your body and not to the side. The leg should almost brush your other (supporting leg) as you lift it, thereby ensuring that your energy is directed straight upwards (where we want it to go).

To maximize the height of your jump, it is essential that you are flexible in your hamstrings and lower back, while at the same time forcefully activating your illopsoas (internal hip muscles) to such a degree that the lifting leg actually acts as a weight – literally pulling your body upwards.

And remember to use your arms!

The whole movement looks like a quick knee strike, done as high as possible in thin air.

Then, after having mastered the first stage, comes the second phase:

Step #2: The Kick Off

Here’s where you really need to show off those butt muscles I know you’re secretly pumping at the gym.

As soon as you’ve completed the knee lift, your supporting leg now strongly kicks off from the ground, initially riding on the momentum gained by the previous knee raise, then boosting it even more by pushing off with your whole posterior chain (hamstring, back, calves) to leave ground.

To avoid injuries, and to jump as high as possible, it is recommended that you keep your toes and knee pointing in the same direction (forward, but slightly outward is okay) so that your joints are naturally aligned for optimum efficiency and safety.

At this stage, the more forceful your kick against the ground is, the better your jump will be – so make sure you give it 120%.

The comes the trickiest part:

Step #3: The Pull Up

So, you’re soaring through the sky like an eagle, having completed phase 1 and 2 (knee lift and kick off), right?

Well, almost.

You see, the whole jump will now fail if you don’t complete phase three – which consists of immediately pulling up your supporting leg (the one you just kicked off with) as swiftly as possible, in the exact same manner as you lifted your first leg up with in step one.

Needless to say, this requires an insane amount of inner core muscle activity (and no, not the kind you get from doing two hundred crunches in front of the TV every night), since you don’t have the same support from the ground anymore.

And that completess the third, and last, step for achieving a high jump for Karate (you can then add a kick, a 180/360 spin whatever).

The thing most people never realize is that each one of these three steps require 100% commitment, energy and focus.

Both physical and mental.

It’s not “just a jump”.

(Well, unless you are Jackie Chan of course.)

So, if you feel you have a “bad” jump, I strongly advice you to tell a friend about these three basic steps, and then have them take a look at your jump to identify the phase you need to improve. In 9 times out of 10, they will quite easily spot the step where you lost some momentum.

Lastly, a few words on safe landings:

  • Land on the ball of your foot and sink into your heel.
  • Flex at the hips, knees and ankles.
  • Maintain a straight back with neutral spine position.
  • Maintain chest over knees and knees over toes.

Landings are more important than you think.

Research shows the typical male athlete lands with forces two and a half times his body weight after a maximum jump, while females land with forces up to five times their body weight.

This large ground-reaction force places great tension on the muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage surrounding the knee, which is why, as I said in the intro, it’s adviced you have a solid strength base for jumping techniques.

In other words; strength, along with proper technique (which we just went through), is what will ultimately make you jump like the Karate Kid you always wanted to be.

Right?

That’s what I thought.

So just focus, Daniel-san…

That’s all for today.

_____

(PS. Big congratulations (and thanks!) to Terry Soucy, New Brunswick, Canada, for his winning testimonial in my mini-competition last week! Just send me your address and the book will be in the mail! Thanks to everyone else who participated.)

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

9 Comments

  1. Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo

    October 16, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Thanks for the tips, they are useful! I think that it’s quite a big leap from “there are jumps in some modern time kata which weren’t there in the old versions” (just compare the Kyan-version of Wanshu with the Shotokan Empi for example – and this is just one single example!) to “jumps are still an integral part of original karate”. I’m not saying that there aren’t or weren’t any, but it seems more that they were so integral that they were simply left out in past times and added later when karate moved towards being something more for the looks. Most of these jumps aren’t emphasizing the jump itself but more the body drop anyway…

    • Jesse

      October 16, 2012 at 10:35 pm

      Thanks for your comment Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo-san! ;) Yes, the “let’s change 360 turns into 360 jumps instead” -phenomenon is a well known fact in Shotokan these days. However, I wouldn’t agree that most jumps were deliberately left out in earlier version of kata, or that the dropping portion was emphasized either, as evident from kata like Chinto, Chatan Yara no Kusanku, Suparimpei and other ‘high-level’ kata of traditional Okinawan styles (Goju-ryu, Toon-ryu, Shorin/ji-ryu etc). That seems to be more of a modern thing (i.e. Kanku Sho). Obviously, it depends a lot on how one defines modern/traditional too. :)

      • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo

        October 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm

        Ok, I see. Yes, it certainly depends on the definition. I would consider those styles more as “modern”. I also wasn’t claiming that the jumps “were deliberately left out”. Au contraire, mon capitaine! It’s more that it seems that they were “deliberately” added in! Like additional kicks and things like that. ;) The kata you named contain all mae tobi geri/ nidan geri – this makes one single technique that emphasizes the jump itself. But still it doesn’t seem that it was meant to be spectacular but to effectively use your body weight. Kusanku’s first jump is definitely more about the body drop, also to make use of the body weight and to add leverage by extending the fulcrum “out of one’s own body” while throwing – but still emphasized as a jump in today’s sport karate. We can be sure that it is for the acrobatic look. There are more kata without jumps and the more you time travel to the past (regarding kata) the more “lame” they seem to be (and with some “wobbling”). So you would certainly agree that having one kicking technique and a few body drops makes it seem a bit exaggerated to say that jumping is an *integral* part of the *original* karate, wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t argue if you’d written: “There are a few jumps in today’s karate and they are very essential if you are a kata competitor with ambitions.” No, indeed I wouldn’t have agreed more.

        • Jesse

          October 17, 2012 at 6:57 pm

          While kata are a great tool for discovering and understanding old-style methods, let’s not forget oral testimony. For instance; the awesome jumping skills of some experts forged unique reputations that remain even to this day. One such expert was Makabe Choken, a real master of tobigeri (jumping kicks). As the legend goes, one day he brushed black Chinese ink on the tips of both toes before jumping up to kick the ceiling from his seated position. Before a stunned crowd of people he leaped 8-shaku (2.4 m) and left an imprint of his foot on the ceiling, which, to this day, remains. Other stories exist too of historical figures mastering the jumping skills of old-school Karate. :)

  2. Kim P

    October 17, 2012 at 4:52 am

    Thanks for the article -- some great advice as always. A question though, do you have any suggestions for those of us who are chronologically advanced when trying to improve one’s jump? As most probably know, a good jump and land doesn’t hurt -- its the 1000 jumps practicing and doing it badly that do the damage. As an old girl with knee issues, I try to avoid jumping altogether due to the havoc the practice wreaks on my knees.

    • Kairu

      October 23, 2012 at 7:29 am

      Hey Kim P

      Jesses article is peppered with advice on how to avoid injuring your self. He states several times that fitness and core strength are integral to jumping. So if you are a little advanced in your days and feeling some pain in your knees you may want to avoid jumping for a little while and take some time to strengthen those knees. Try some yoga or Pilates and get in that squat rack.

      Suffering from knee pain my self, only 26, I know that it is always easier said then done. However I also know how effective practices like Yoga can be for strengthening and healing your knees. My sensei now swears by Pilates and says nothing has ever been better for his knees.

      Besides that try practicing your jumps on soft surfaces, sand, tatami mats, or grass. Avoid big jumps on the hard wood floors many of us love to do Karate on until your knees are ready for it. Other than that hit google with something like “knee exercises” or “how to get rid of knee pain” etc. There will be endless advice. Once you have waded through some of the junk pic a routine that works for you and get on it.

      I wish you luck in all your jumping glory

  3. Szilard

    October 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    If it was a jump Luca would jump much higher. It is a kick, and the jump has to be to the perfect height to execute it. I don’t think the jump as high as possible approach is right. The 3rd phase is very important: as one leg kicks, it gives a reverse momentum for the entire body, which has to be balanced by speeding the other leg down. At the moment of impact chances are your other leg will touch the ground giving some support if there is any strength to the kick:
    http://kepfeltoltes.hu/121017/jumpkick_www.kepfeltoltes.hu_.jpg

    • Leo

      October 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm

      Oss!

  4. Fabian

    April 23, 2013 at 12:35 am

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