The Complete Guide to Strength Training & Conditioning for Karate

By Jesse | 45 Comments

“Lifting weights makes your Karate suck.”

Ever heard that?

I have.

And in some cases, it’s true.

However, the notion that strength training makes your Karate bad is based on an erroneous train of thought.


  1. Strength depends on muscle mass.
  2. And if you increase muscle mass, you increase body weight.
  3. But if you increase your body weight, you decrease the speed of movements.
  4. Therefore, strength training is bad for your Karate.



Because stronger doesn’t equal bigger and slower.

See, it all depends on how you train. You gotta be smart. For instance, you shouldn’t focus on the bodybuilding method (to get buff), but instead aim for explosive strength to build better, faster, stronger, harder and safer Karate techniques.

Makes sense?

In fact, studies show that a typical bodybuilding routine not only gives unnecessary increase in hypertrophy (muscle mass) but also decreases your activation of motor units (making your Karate techniques worse) and only gives a minimal boost in speed-strength (the ability of your neuromuscular system to produce the greatest possible impulse in the shortest possible time).


Strength training was common in old-school Karate (“hojo-undo“).


Forget Arnold.

And think Bruce.

Because you need something functional.

You need basic explosive strength that can blend seamlessly into, and ultimately enhance, your hard-earned Karate skills – while staying injury-free, strong and healthy.

Strength training should be a complement.

Not an impediment.

Therefore, today I’ve decided to help you improve your Karate with proper strength training and conditioning (endurance) using the expertise of my friend Vilhjálmur Halldórsson – a personal trainer and graduate of ÍAK Sports Academy, the most prestigeous physical education program in Iceland for coaches and trainers.

In this article we’re going to talk about tips for enhancing your Karate performance using the tactics and techniques from the professional strength world – so you can construct your own training program.

But wait!

There’s more.

Additionally, we’re not only going to look at how to use strength training to boost your Karate, but also examine some common problems caused by improper Karate practice, including the muscular imbalances that can occur when using bad technique.

Sounds cool?

That’s what I thought.

Let’s go!

What’s Strength & Conditioning Training?

First of all, let’s start from the beginning.

I often have a hard time convincing Karate-ka that they should lift weights.

Typically, this resistance stems from bad experience with prior strength training (i.e. feeling sluggish, DOMS, slow gains, getting injured etc.). I don’t blame these people, because in 9 times out of 10 they’ve been doing what’s called a “body-split routine”, which is good for people who are not striving for excellence in Karate.

Body-split routine means that in each session you’re working only one bodypart.

Like Arnold.

For example; on Mondays you work chest (Mondays are international chest day) and on Tuesdays you do the back. This allows you to put a great amount of training volume on specific bodyparts.

That’s great – if you’re getting ready for the beach.

The rest of us wants to use strength and conditioning to enhance our Karate. And in Karate we are always trying to use our body the most efficient way. Thus, we should pick exercises that challenge the entire body as a unit, based on the true concept of Karate.

This will give us the most “bang for the buck”.

But strength and conditioning is more than lifting weights. In fact, it’s not even about “getting strong”. It is essentially about maximizing your performance, no matter what activity you’re doing. If you need more stability, strength, mobility or speed, or are dealing with injuries, a good strength and conditioning program will help you a lot.

Therefore, an excellent strength and conditioning coach will look at how you run, squat, jump, push, pull and twist to find weaknesses in these most basic movements, and then prescribe specific exercises aimed at overcoming muscular imbalances and weaknesses to optimize your movement pattern and improve your performance.

This is strength and conditioning in a nutshell.

Now let’s dig deeper:

The 3 Fundamental Planes of Motion

To understand how to put together your own program, you need to know that the body can move through three different planes of motion:

  • Sagittal (moving forward and backwards)
  • Frontal (from side to side)
  • Transverse (rotational movements)

Why is it important to know these?

Well, because, for example, in sports where we move excessively in the sagittal plane, and are constantly trying to create power forwards (like sprinting), stability in the frontal plane is extremely important in order to make sure the energy one is creating isn’t leaking out at the sides.

For instance, if you watch Karate-ka do techniques in the sagittal plane (like a forward stepping punch), you’ll sometimes see their hip falling out as a consequence of weak hip abductors. You might also see people who have weak hip abductors (glute med) fall inwards when doing deep stances, kicks, squats/lunges or jumps.

Related reading: Sanchin & The 4 Secrets of the Skill of Strength

Whenever you step forward in a zenkutsu-dachi, you need to stabilize the front knee in the frontal plane (to the sides). But if you’re weak in this plane, your muscles can’t provide enough stabilization and this will lead to knee injury, most likely ACL injury.

So, it’s vital to understand these three planes of motion.

Now let’s look at another important component.

How to optimize gains:

Periodization Theory

In several sports, there are seasons that dictate how an athlete trains.

The seasons are typically divided and structured into various periods, i.e. competition period, pre-competition period, off-season etc. For Karate, the periodization will depend on what your goals are.

Here’s a basic example for somebody who competes in Karate:

  • Pre-competitive period: In this phase the Karate-ka typically works on fundamental strength, endurance, lots of technique and basics. This is known as the GPP (General Preparation Phase)
  • Competitive period: In this period the Karate-ka tries to make his/her training reflect the competitive environment, with less focus on quantity and more focus on quality. Mental training and recovery plays a bigger role. This is the culmination of what’s known as the SPP (Specific/Special Preparation Phase)
  • Off-season: Lastly, after one’s goal has been reached, a common mistake (typically in young Karate-ka) is to take a complete break from training. It is, however, much better to spend this time working against muscular imbalances, rehab and stability. Training can take a less serious tone, but a general level of fitness should be maintained. This is commonly known as the CBP (Chill on a Beach Phase). Piña Colada optional.

Now, in Karate we don’t have the same “seasons” as regular sports.

The lack of these defined seasons makes our strength and conditioning year plan slightly different. We must constantly train speed, flexibility, conditioning and strength throughout the year, which is difficult to do.

Therefore, try to always incorporate some strength work, speed work, stability work etc. in your weekly regimen and vary the emphasis depending on how close to certain goals (like a grading or competition) you are.

Related reading: Periodization for Karate

That being said, it’s a common mistake to do the same exercises over and over again, with the only variable being that after a while you change to heavier resistance. This can easily spiral to overtraining, which leads to injury, which leads to chronic injury, which commonly ends in a burnout.

A better option is to surprise your body with different (related) exercises during the periodization process, and to focus on improving weaknesses in order to become a complete killing machine Karate Nerd™.

Moving on:

So, What Exercises Should I Do?

When it comes to exercise selection, the first thing you need to know is that your body doesn’t think in terms of “muscle groups”.

It thinks in terms of “movement patterns”.

Therefore, your training program should be a) primarily based on functional movement patterns and b) involve core demanding full-body exercises to really utilize the limited time you have most efficiently.

Below is a list of suitable exercises for your Karate strength and conditioning program.

In the list there are many exercises that can be performed on one leg or two legs. If you do the single-leg variation you have to stabilize the movement more, which takes focus away from the prime movers. Meaning, you can’t handle as much weight but you’ll greatly improve your “functional” strength and stability. When you are on two legs it’s the opposite; you are more stable so you can use more weights, but you won’t develop the same stability.

(Which one should you choose? It depends on your skill level and goals. If your idea of fun is not being able to sit without pain for a few days, I suggest combining them both.)

The exercises are divided into the following categories:

Hip dominant

Knee dominant

Vertical pulling

Horizontal pulling

Vertical pushing

Horizontal pushing

Anti-extension (core)

Anti-rotation / anti-lateral (core)

The idea is to choose exercises from each category to create your program.

Related reading: 3 Quick Exercises Guaranteed to Improve Your Karate

Keep in mind that some of these exercises require extra instruction and preferably a spotter before your form is good enough to perform it on your own (i.e. back squat, deadlift, barbell row, bench press etc.).

Also, remember that all exercises can be made more or less difficult by using single/double legs and arms.

It’s worth mentioning that everyone is different and you might have a muscular imbalance that prevents you from doing some of these exercises above. If you find an exercise impossible, just change it to another one. These exercises are widely known and easy to find on YouTube and Google for more variations and tips.

Now let’s talk conditioning:

Endurance Training for Karate

The human body is brilliant.

You see, it constantly adapts to the stress that we put it under.

If you train your endurance by lifting light weights for fifty reps, you are going to get good at that. Or if you run slowly for a long time, you are going to get good at that.

People call the above “endurance training”, but neither of those options are very appealing for someone who wants to improve their Karate endurance.

The best advice for someone who wants to improve their conditioning for Karate is:

Do more Karate.

That being said, if you feel that your Karate training is not building your endurance I suggest Tactical Metabolic Training.

TMT simply means that you emulate the metabolic demands of the sport/activity you’re performing – through tweaking the various parameters of work (timing, movements, tools, intensity, frequency etc.) corresponding to your chosen activity.

For instance, a Karate athlete who competes in kumite should have the ability to go all out for roughly three minutes, then recover, and then go again. Hence, their endurance training needs to reflect this.

For somebody who wants efficient all-round conditioning, I recommend high intensity interval training (HIIT), which has been scientifically proven to improve cardio and endurance greatly. A good example is the Tabata protocol, where you perform 8 sets of 20 sec work with 10 sec rest between, for a total of 4 grueling minutes.

Obviously the work/rest periods and types of exercises can be adjusted in accordance with TMT to better reflect your specific goals in training.

The final point I want to make here is that there’s a trend in the fitness industry that basically goes, “if you leave the gym still able to walk, not vomiting on your way to the hospital, you have wasted your time, bro”.


If you think of training as medicine that is supposed to improve your health and well-being, does it make sense to constantly leave the gym feeling miserable?

Of course not.

Martin Rooney, a world-famous strength coach I admire greatly, once told me, “Anyone can make somebody tired, but not anyone can make somebody better”.

Now, time for six-pack stuff:

Core Training

Anyone who has ever been to the gym has his/her opinion on this subject, and it’s becoming one of the most researched and talked-about topics in the professional strength and conditioning community.

I’m talkin’ core training.

One of Bruce Lee’s classic core exercises

But listen…

People say things like “use your inner core” or “this is a great exercises for your lower abdominals“, without fully comprehending what they’re actually talking about.

Point being, your inner core consists of many things; including the diaphragm, the transversus abdominis, the multifidus and the pelvic floor – and your “lower abdominals” are quite often really your obliques.

Also, there’s a difference between core strength and core stability.

Core strength is the ability to move your trunk powerfully, while core stability is the ability to maintain and resist outside force – whether that force is a barbell or your own hand waving around. It could be said that an exercise where you perform a movement that directly challenges your core develops your core strength, and an exercise where there is a challenge not to move your trunk develops your core stability.

The core is active in every exercise you perform. This is why personal trainers don’t let their clients perform basic lifts like the deadlift or squat if they have a weak core, since the primary function of your core is to stabilize the spine and keep it safe.

So make sure you train your core.

Another function of the core, especially in Karate, is to transmit energy. If we use the example of the stationary gyaku-zuki (reverse punch) twisting your hips from hanmi to shomen (half facing to facing) you will realize that with a weak core the energy will get lost along the way, and you will have an inefficient technique.

So how can we BEST train the core?

Well, the abdominal muscles can move in three ways: flexion, rotation, and lateral flexion.

For beginners and most everybody, I recommend training the abdominal muscles to resist these movements because their main purpose is not movement, but stabilization. However, for Karate-ka we should strive to train rotation too – because it is one of the main components when executing powerful techniques.

It is, however, important to make sure that you rotate the hips along with the torso (keeping your back straight), otherwise you twist your lumbar spine – which is a quick way to get injured.


Some people will tell you that if you squat, benchpress or deadlift a lot, you don’t need to strengthen your core specifically. This is true if your core is firing in perfect sequence and you have perfect balance in all your core muscles. But I’ve seen really top-class athletes with inactive obliques, weak technique or a bad firing sequence (referring to the order in which the core muscles activate to hold the spine stable), so this isn’t always the case.


Train your core, bro.

Simple rules for core training:

  • Do not twist and bend your lumbar spine at the same time.
  • When you train rotation, make sure you rotate your hips as well.
  • Make sure you train anti-extension, anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion to have balance. Too many people just focus on anti-extension.
  • Stop doing crunches. You’re most likely just training your hip flexors.
  • When you can perform a one-minute plank for several sets, move on.
  • Save the core exercises for last. This is for your own safety. If you have an exhausted core, you could get injured when doing heavy lifts.
  • Did I mention “stop doing crunches”?
  • If you don’t like pure core exercises, pick other exercises that are core demanding – preferably unilateral (one arm/leg) moves.

Now let’s talk bad stuff:

Repetitive Moves & Muscular Imbalances

What does having a muscular imbalance really mean?

And does it truly matter?

I want you to understand that any bad posture or repetitive movement can cause a muscular imbalance – often without you even noticing.

See, your muscles have contractile fibers which are called actin and myosin. These fibers have an optimal position for performance; meaning that when your muscles are too tight, these fibres are jammed together and can’t perform to the best of their abilities. The same thing goes when they are too far apart.

For example, when you punch you internally rotate your arm. This internal rotation is done mostly by two muscles; the pectoralis major and the subscapularis. When you do this repetitively (anytime you punch a lot) and don’t let these muscles recover properly, they become overworked and too short, while the external rotators become too long, causing shoulder stiffness and pain.

Ever noticed how basketball players turn their hand when they make a long pass?

It’s all about smart movement.

This is why strength and conditioning coaches not only look at movements in the sport their clients play, but also look at what movements are not there.

For this reason, Karate-ka who are hitting the gym should perform more pulling motions than pushing motions. This goes for the legs too. It’s for your own good.

Common muscular imbalances in Karate:

  • Like we discussed above, because we internally rotate the arm/hand bone (humerus) so much, the muscles that do the rotation can become short. The way to fix this is to strengthen the external rotators and stretch the pectoralis major and subscapularis
  • Winging scapula is a common muscular imbalance among throwing/punching athletes. What happens is that the shoulder blade moves too far away from the spine because the serratus anterior muscle is too weak. The way to fix this problem is to perform wall slides or serratus push-ups.
  • Poor internal rotation of the leg bone (femur) happens when the external rotators of the leg are so tight they don’t allow the natural internal rotation which the bone requires. This causes all sorts of hip problems. Anytime you kick a mae-geri, yoko-geri or mawashi-geri, you are using these external rotators. Imagine how tight they can get! The way to fix this is to perform passive and activ stretching, and foam roll/massage the external rotators combined with slow strengthening exercises.
  • Stiff ankles is another problem in Karate. There are many muscles in the foot, and some of them sound like a Harry Potter spell (flexor digitorum profoundus is a good example). Two muscles which typically hinder dorsiflexion (the ability to lift the toes to the shin) are the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Whenever you stretch your calf and your knee is straight you are stretching the gastrocnemius. But if you bend your knee, you are stretching the soleus. This is important to know because you could have good flexibility in your gastrocnemius but not your soleus (or vice versa). Flexible ankles are important for many reasons in Karate, including knee protection; because if your ankles are too stiff and can’t move correctly, the knee will take over – and you knee is not designed for that kind of movement. There are tons of ankle mobility exercises out there, spend some time looking them up with sensei Google.

The above is not a complete list of muscular imbalances that occur in Karate, but should get you started. All of thes exercises and solutions are easy too look up on YouTube.

“What happens if I try to do a movement but lack mobility?”

This is quite simple. Your body finds a way. It’s smart. The body always chooses the path of least resistance to perform movements in.

This could be good – or bad.

For example, when you squat and have poor ankle flexibility, your knees are unable to go far enough forward – so when you get to a certain depth you will compensate by letting your upper back fall forward and flex the spine, which is not a good idea when you have a barbell on your back.

Therefore, mobility and correct form should always precede heavy resistance.

Wrapping up:


In a martial art where we’re constantly chasing perfection, and often stuck on various plateaus, the feeling of getting stronger, flexible or faster can be a lifesaver.

Both physically and mentally.

That’s why you need a structured plan for strength and conditioning training.

Masutatsu Oyama (founder of Kyokushin Karate) got strength training from wrestling with bulls.

However, it’s important that your supplementary training flows smoothly along with your regular Karate training, and doesn’t interrupt your day-to-day Karate progress. If you are constantly tired from hitting the gym, doing hill sprints etc., your usual training will likely suffer.

So… why isn’t there a “perfectly structured” training program included here for you?

Because that would be freaking impossible.

Also, it could do more harm than good. See, there’s a reason personal trainers are called “personal” trainers.

Everyone needs different kind of training.

Each person should construct his/her own program using the principles and ideas contained in this article, in order to truly reach the heights of his/her own personal potential when it comes to strength and conditioning training.

If that’s too daunting, or if you’re feeling über serious, get a personal trainer to help.

Now check out some of these links:

Jesse’s 3 Favorite Books on Strength & Conditioning

  1. Periodization Training for Sports by Tudor Bompa - The ultimate book for creating periodized training programs to maximize gains.
  2. High Powered Plyometrics by James C. Radcliffe - The best book for speed and agility (plyometrics) training, for both beginners and experts.
  3. Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett - The #1 book for mobility, prehab/rehab and correct lifting technique. Expensive but worth it.

Quick Strength & Conditioning Resources

That’s all for today.

I hope you enjoyed this article and got some new ideas for improving your Karate through exploring the fascinating field of strength and conditioning training.

Questions? Leave a comment below.

Good luck!

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.


  1. Raza

    January 19, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    Wow. Why has no one else written about this? I thought I was the only one who experienced muscular imbalances. Jeez, I’ve been looking for exercises to fix it for years. Thanks Jesse for writing this. None of the physical trainers or physical therapists or anyone said anything about these problems. Again, thanks.

    • Randy

      February 4, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      We’ve been writing about it for years:
      Karate can be one of the surest ways to develop muscular imbalances, with all of the chronic injuries that follow (ask around, and you see a predictable constellation of karateka with vertebral disc herniation/degeneration, Achilles tendon ruptures, meniscus, ACL and MCL injuries, protracted shoulders with rotator cuff impingement, upper and lower crossed syndrome, and kyphosis). Train smarter, get good instruction in how to lift and condition, ignore “more is better” when it comes to your karate, and avoid the pitfalls.

      A quick word on Tabata training- intensity is the absolutely crucial factor in making this a productive use of training time. When people say something like “I do Tabata push ups or Tabata kata,” this is missing the boat. The original Tabata results came from trained athletes working at 170% VO2 max (maximal cardiovascular capacity) for the 20 second work periods. They used mechanically braked cycles to do this. Chances are high that most people doing “Tabata” out there aren’t working anywhere near this hard. Monitoring heart rate is the simplest way to keep track of how hard you are actually working. You want to be around 95% or higher max HR (you can use the 220-age method to figure this out, but it is not at all accurate- get a trainer to help you do a more accurate assessment).

      You can’t work that hard doing kata or even bag work. The other issue is that if you fatigue skilled patterns, you begin to train in a breakdown of kinematics (form). If you use skilled motor patterns, not only are you not working hard enough for the metabolic adaptations to occur, but you are beginning to corrupt those skilled patterns. So choose something gross that doesn’t involve skilled motor patterns, but still involves large amounts of muscle mass, like jump rope, bike, sprints, etc. Once you ID your working HR, make that a target to hit during the 20 second periods. One more thing- your max HR changes as you become more conditioned, so your max in the first few months of training might be a few beats lower- it can even drop some from day to day- identify your target HR range, and adjust accordingly. Tabata intervals once per week is enough for the first 4-6 weeks. Occasionally adding in a second Tabata day is ok every few weeks, but this is definitely a “more is not better” situation. It’s easy to overtrain at this intensity level. Mix in days of different duration intervals at different intensities. I.e., one day Tabata, one day metabolic complexes, one day of sustained high intensity (15-20 min 80-85% MHR, x1 or 2) and maybe some longer steady state easy work from time to time. Also avoid stacking up Tabata on high intensity weight training days, and if it will be on the same day as lifting, do it after, not before (which is the rule of thumb with all cardio in the same day as lifting).

  2. Shawn Vicknair

    January 19, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Great article. You should check out Scott sonnon.

  3. Claire

    January 19, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks Jesse for yet another super and timely article! I have been trying to join the dots on strength training and improved karate performance for the past half year with a personal trainer who isn’t a karate practitioner but gets the need for explosive action. After reluctantly admitting that heavy lifting has made a big difference to my stances, and realizing that long commuting for work makes the gym less likely (it always comes second to karate classes!), I invested in the basics for a home gym and included an olympic barbell set. Not only does it make my lounge more stylish, I’ve even learned to like it. I’ve also tried educating myself as much as I can about martial arts fitness in general. This article gets straight to the point and is a much simpler outline to follow than a book. It also covered alot of areas I hadn’t thought of yet so I’m looking forward to re-reading it plenty of times and integrating what I can. Thank you again!

  4. Jim

    January 20, 2014 at 3:01 am

    Great article Jesse-san. I’ve just started working out with my youngest son (a 22 y/o, so not so young) with functional fitness being the goal, and it’s been great fun. Thanks for this resource. It’s a chewy topic and I’ve bookmarked this article to keep coming back to for ideas when we occasionally rev our routine. Keep the good stuff comin’ bro!

  5. David

    January 20, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Thank you Jesse! I always find your articles interesting, but it’s awesome to read one that fits in PERFECTLY with what I’m trying to work on right now.

    I’d love to see more articles like this. Having helpful and specific recommendations for improving my karate is just fantastic.

    One thing I didn’t see much about was recommendations for sets/reps. Like you say, everyone is different, but it would be nice to see a suggested starting point.

    • Jesse

      January 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      Thanks David-san! You are completely right. When I expand the article, I’ll make sure to include examples of sets and reps.

      • Vilhjalmur halldorsson

        January 22, 2014 at 7:51 pm

        sets x reps needs to vary frequently, for building strength you want few reps and more sets ( 3-5 reps all the way up to 6 sets) for most people starting out with strength training 8-12reps 3-4 sets is a nice middle ground between the bodybuilder and the powerlifter

  6. Sean Cox

    January 20, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Thanks Jesse, awesome info! Very helpful.

  7. Manuel

    January 20, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Wonderful advices Jesse!! I just wanted to ask you one thing, I plan buying the Hojo Undo book bt Michael Clarke, do you think I can get good results following the exercises I’ll find in that book also? =)

    • Jesse

      January 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      Manuel-san: Absolutely. If you have access to the tools in question (nigiri-game, chi-ishi, kongo-ken etc.) I believe you can get good results with traditional strength and conditioning training for Karate (hojo-undo). That being said, it’s MUCH better to learn from somebody in person rather than a book. Especially when it comes to old-school exercises like hojo-undo, where there’s much more in play than meets the eye.

  8. Brian Smiles

    January 20, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Hey Jesse, big fan of your articles!

    Keep it up bro!


  9. Marcelo Luna

    January 20, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks Jesse San!

    I’m practicing bodybuilding six months in order to gain some muscle mass and better withstand blows to the body. I have the goal of getting functional training for karate, but was lost. Now with your help I can create a functional training routine along with my fitness trainer!


  10. Henrik

    January 20, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Excellent article and very useful.

    Several of these topics are on the agenda in our dojo and also for me personally.

    This article not only provides new information for these topics, it also highlights areas that need more focus and it gives me more energy and inspiration to move forward.

    Wish I could provide something more valueadding than praise with my first comment. I will spread the knowledge to make up for it.

  11. Mark A

    January 20, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Starting strength and strong lifts 5x5 are my favorite programs. Does not matter what area of life where strength is needed; they ensure you have it when you need it. Everything from moving heavy furniture to going “nope!” when someone is trying for that americana or kimura, to everything in between.

    Science seems scarce on research on trying to determine if we can change are natural distribution of fast and slow twitch muscles to any significant extent. Or from what I have read anyways. I meet martial artists that just do not seem to have it. Makes me wonder if they do not train properly for its development, or if that is 95 percent of their potential?

  12. Mario

    January 20, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Hi, Jesse-san, it was a really good article for me!

    I have only one thing to poit: what about the olimpics lifts? I’m talking of course about the snatch and the clean & jerk. I think these two excersices are a must for anyone who want to gain explosive power.



    • Jesse

      January 20, 2014 at 10:51 pm

      Mario-san, the Olympic lifts are great for explosive power. Personally I think they require a great deal of technical skill in order to be performed safely to their full potential.

      • Diego Romero

        January 23, 2014 at 10:38 am

        i’d say if you’re good enough to learn karate, you’re good enough to learn the oly lifts :p (within reason).
        just gotta be smart about it, like with everything else (and never ever ever ever do them for high reps per set in any capacity unless it’s like super light, and even then be very careful and stop when your technique goes bad), and building a strength base for them first via deadlifts, presses and overhead squats will often be a good idea as well.

        • Mario

          January 23, 2014 at 7:22 pm

          I Agree with you, Diego, but as the better way to learn karate is with a sensei, in a dojo, the same applies for olympic lifts. The better option always be going to a some classes.

          If you don’t know where to learn the olympic lifts, a good place to do it is in a crossfit box. The instructors there have to certificate for teach crossfit, and generally they have great technique in the olympic liftings.

          As Diego said, a person with the will power and skills to practice karate, will learn those liftings, if not easily, at least without difficult.


          • Diego Romero

            January 23, 2014 at 8:57 pm

            well, crossfit’s kind of a controversial issue regarding oly technique. i myself frequent a box that has good instruction for the oly lifts (one of the things that convinced me to keep going), but since crossfit is mainly group training aimed at general fitness, even if the coaches are good (and many generalizations have been made about crossfit instruction, which has both its good and its bad exponents), it’s no guarantee that you’ll get adequate instruction yourself. in that regard, i’d advise towards going to boxes that have specific oly lifting classes (group or individual) in addition to the regular crossfit, as those are usually the ones that’ll have people that are specifically qualified to teach oly lifts. it’s worth noting that crossfit is reviled by many for averaging very bad teaching and implementation of olympic lifts, even though there are many crossfitters who have branched out into olympic lifting and done very well, which of course will influence oly lifting inside crossfit.

            that said, i didn’t find them very hard to learn after doing a little bit of research and watching pendlay’s vids (before, i was relying on rippetoe’s instructions for them, which are not optimal, and so neither was my technique, to put it mildly). it’s not so much that the lifts themselves are difficult (if you can keep hold of the bar, hold a rack or overhead position, and deadlift with a straight back, they’re not), but that they require body awareness and control that people new to physical activity won’t usually have. experienced martial artists hopefully should, however, and so should not have much trouble getting proficient at them given proper instructions (which pendlay’s videos have in spades). if you want to be competitive in oly lifting, get a coach, but if you want to learn them for yourself, all you need is a little kinesthesia, some patience, and correct information (the concept of them being hard coming from many people lacking all three attributes and failing catastrophically when trying them).

            on yet another note, though, i’m of the opinion that clean and snatch pulls can adequately substitute for the full lifts in 99% of cases, unless you absolutely must get the bar on your shoulders or overhead from the floor, for squats, presses or whatever, and they’re infinitely safer and easier to learn than the full oly lifts, and once properly grooved and developed up to a decent strength standard, they can even substitute for light/medium deadlifts (in fact i usually use cleans followed by clean pulls to warm-up for my deadlifts, although my weight training isn’t karate-specific).

            cheers :)


  13. Gerry

    January 20, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    I’ve been mixing body weight exercises, higher rep/lighter dumbbell exercise with my karate training for the last couple of years. Kind of like circuit training: do x reps of a kata, planks, x reps of kata, dumbbell exercise, some bag training, etc…. Mix and match depending on your needs.

  14. Henri

    January 20, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks for another inspiring article.

    After ten years of karate I can’t jog long distances anymore because of knees that hurt and a golf elbow prevent me from proper training. I do believe it is because of muscle imbalances. Can you help?



    • Vilhjalmur halldorsson

      January 25, 2014 at 1:45 am

      Hi henri

      first thing i would look at for your knee is both your hip and ankle.with anterior knee pain, what typically goes wrong is the ability to decelerate (eccentric strength)so doing single leg work slowly will strengthen your hip abductors and the tempo of the movement will challenge the stability also specific glute med work(look it up on youtube)will help you greatly if the hip is the problem.

      the next thing i would look at is the mobility of the ankle because like the article mentions if you lack mobility somewhere you will do the movement from somewhere else and people who lack mobility in the ankle move excessively from the knee which can cause a problem.

      you might need to see a physical therapist for the elbow (and the knee)but if it´s a golf elbow “ulnar deviation” exercises could help with that

      hope this helps :)

    • Ian

      January 25, 2014 at 1:53 am

      Many years ago I enjoyed distance running. Then my knee gave out. I tried various doctors and therapists with no luck and finally went to a physiotherapist who spotted that my problem was with my foot over-pronating. A bit of arch support and a programme of exercise and stretches got me right as rain in short order.

      Maybe a professional can help you in a similar way.

  15. Scott

    January 21, 2014 at 12:00 am

    Great work, Jesse-san. I was wondering if you had thoughts on Rushfit or any other DVD series that purports to orient itself toward martial arts training?

  16. Ian

    January 22, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Great article.

    When I was starting karate, I heard that exact thing from someone in my new Dojo … that working out at the gym would make me too stiff and slow for karate. While I was never the “bodybuilder” type, I have taken my physical training towards more explosive and “functional” techniques rather than simple weightlifting, and think I’m all the better for it.

    I have a question about the “Three Fundamental Planes of Motion” you mention … I would have included a fourth: vertical, as in the burpee, or if you need to hide from ninjas at night. Where would you see this fitting in your overall scheme?

    … looking forward to hearing more about this!

    • Vilhjalmur halldorsson

      January 25, 2014 at 1:50 am

      with the karate athletes i train i always include jump training. but to do it safely you need some know how especially if you are going to do plyometrics.

      when designing a exercise program you should always start with the exercises that are most demanding on the CNS. so start with your explosive work and then move on to the “big exercises”

  17. Diego Romero

    January 23, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    oh, and for those who believe that big muscled guys can’t really be fit, athletic or whatever (nevermind that goju and uechi guys can get absolutely HUGE doing their hojo-undo, and no one criticizes their karate :p), here’s something fun: (warning: loud angry music and macho antics, recommend not opening at work)

  18. Miq

    January 24, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Hello Jesse,

    Great article on Strength and Conditioning; I really appreciate that you discuss functional training, and that you suggest TMT instead of the old idea of “road work,” or running several miles a day for endurance. What are your thoughts on the time domain for Karate, especially non sport Karate? Would it be the 5-25 min time domain? Then, I suppose if one can run a 18 min 5K, that would be good endurance training for Martial Arts. Also, what are your thoughts on periodization if you are not a competitive karateka, or a karateka who trains for self defense, rather than competes in the sport aspect of Karate?



  19. Thorsteinn

    January 25, 2014 at 5:07 am

    Hey Jesse, that’s a great read.

    I´ve been thinking quite a bit about delivering harder blows (both kicks and punches) and have mostly been thinking about the velocity part of the Newtonian equation. And the core exercise chapter above speaks to me. It would have been nice to get some more specifics about good exercises there. If you’re ever in the mood to expand on the article, don’t hesitate… really :)
    I´m currently working on an torn ACL so physical therapy + regular karate classes for the time being, but hopefully I´ll be able to transition over to a broader range of exercises within 6 or so months along with the karate.

    @Vilhjálmur -- are you located back in Iceland now, and if so where are you practicing? It’d be great know where to head when I get into full exercise mode this fall.

    • Thorsteinn

      January 25, 2014 at 5:08 am

      @Vilhjálmur -- and when I say “practicing” I mean in which of the gyms are you working as a personal trainer.

      • Vilhjalmur halldorsson

        January 25, 2014 at 5:54 am

        i work at Sporthúsið Kópavogur you can contact through e-mail ( )for a free trial session or full time training

        • Yngvi

          January 27, 2014 at 1:49 pm

          Much appreciated. Thanks.

  20. Dod

    January 27, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Could anyone go a little deeper into why we should not do crunches? I have heard the same often said before, and it did seem to sometimes trigger back pain (interestingly not since I started doing a lot more core exercises). But it is still a very common exercise to be asked to do in class. Maybe there’s a good way to do them?

  21. Vilhjalmur halldorsson

    January 28, 2014 at 2:41 am


    the annulus fibrosus which is the outer edge of the Intervertebral discs is thinner on the back side so when you flex your lumbar spine (as you do when you crunch) it pushes the nucleus pulposus (the core of the disc) out and that can pinch one of the nerves leading to and from the spinal cord this is commonly known as a bulging disc.

    also EMG studies (an EMG is a machine that shows how much a single muscle is involved in a movement) have shown that the rectus abdomins (the six pack) only plays a minor role in the crunching movement and most of the work is actually done by the hip flexors which are already under quite a bit of stress in karate. in fact your basic pull up showed much more core activity then the crunch.

    the best way to do a crunch or a sit up is with straight legs then you move the hinge from the back to the hips and better protect your back but i still recommend doing the exercises that are in the article

    • Dod

      January 28, 2014 at 10:21 am

      Thanks a lot for that reply Vilhjalmur

  22. Slim934

    February 6, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    “In fact, studies show that a typical bodybuilding routine not only gives unnecessary increase in hypertrophy (muscle mass) but also decreases your activation of motor units (making your Karate techniques worse) and only gives a minimal boost in speed-strength (the ability of your neuromuscular system to produce the greatest possible impulse in the shortest possible time).”

    I would like to know exactly which studies these are. I would especially argue with that second statement about “decrease activation of motor units”. This is incorrect, or the author is using a definition of motor unit that is not used in the literature. If you work a muscle such that all of the fibers have contracted to their fullest, then you have maximally activated its motor unit.

    This is not to imply that certain body-building protocols are good methods of exercise, which they are not.

    The truth of the matter is that most scientific research on exercise is absolute crap, and this is precisely what one should expect given how poorly the controls and definitions are in the experiments. Intensity and other important performance metrics are generally never well documented, or when they are they can be confounded by other effects. This is no unusual when you consider that any movement- ANY MOVEMENT -- has both a strength and skill component. The power of your kick will be determined by muscle strength, as well as your skill training in throwing the kick (timing, trained biomechanics, etc.). The issue with most of the training research is that in most cases it improperly or utterly fails to control for these effects.

    The idea that there is such a thing as “explosive strength” that somehow exists outside of the explosive skill one is training has no empirical proof to support it. When you train to perform olympic lifts, you are becoming stronger at lifting, this is true. But from a standpoint of muscular strength you are not reaping any special gains compared to someone who lifts with a 4-5 second cadence to momentary muscular failure. The only explosiveness you are training is explosiveness in performing olympic lifts. This extends to people who engage in crossfit: they are primarily training to become good at crossfit. This specialized skill effect is one of the most agreed upon principles in exercise physiology, right up there with the Size Principle for muscles.

    This leaves aside the entire question of individual genetic variation. I’ll use the Bruce Lee vs. Schwarzenneger comparison above. Does anyone honestly believe that if those 2 individuals had exchanged training styles that their body shapes would have morphed into the other? If you do, then you need to reacquaint yourselves with the basics of genetics as well as the statistical fallacy of Survivorship Bias.

    You’d be better off training the big lifts a few times/week to momentary muscular failure, and then using your excess time to drill martial skills than trying to push in a bunch of extraneous conditioning.

    • Jesse

      February 7, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Keith-san! Thanks for asking. The findings were based on a study by Schmidbleicher and Buhrle (why do scientist always have such crazy names?), where they compared three types of strength training, conducted with three groups of people for a couple of weeks.

      Group 1 used very heavy weights, and lifted them a few times only (90% RM, 3×3).
      Group 2 used light loads and lifted them a couple of times (45% RM, 5×8).
      Group 3 used moderate loads and lifted them many times (70% RM, 3×12).

      Group 1 & 2 were give instructions to “explode” when they lifted. This wasn’t said to the third group.

      This was the result:

      Group 1
      Maximum strength: 18% increase
      Speed-strength: 34% increase
      Activation of motor units: 8 % increase
      Hypertrophy: 10% increase

      Group 2
      Maximum strength: 17% increase
      Speed-strength: 11% increase
      Activation of motor units: 3 % increase
      Hypertrophy: 10% increase

      Group 3
      Maximum strength: 21% increase
      Speed-strength: 4% increase
      Activation of motor units: 4 % decrease (!)
      Hypertrophy: 18% increase

      I agree very much with your last statement, which is the protocol I follow myself. Except the failure part.

      • Diego Romero

        February 7, 2014 at 8:36 pm

        i believe this might be of interest:

        tried to find more but couldn’t find it. anecdotally (which of course means zilch scientifically), oly lifters are regularly observed to have absolutely absurd vertical and box jumps (see for example relevant posts on the allthingsgym website and the occasional california strength video), and it’s generally accepted by a lot of people (including a few big name strength coaches, such as poliquin for example) that heavy olympic lifts lead to bigger vertical jumps. my own jumping ability has increased a tiny little bit (went from needing a run-up for hip-height box jumps, to multiple successful ones from a standstill) after improving my full clean (note that i lift because i like lifting, not for martial arts, though), although my clean is at a paltry 1.3xBW-ish and my squat has actually gone down the drain from focusing on deadlifts. who knows, maybe when i get up to a hundred it’ll have improved more.

        to counterbalance it, this article plays devil’s advocate a bit and raises some good points:

        re: whether explosiveness exists or not: fitness terminology is always a mindscrew. this one at least has some basis: get as much muscle activation as possible, in the shortest time frame possible, ie accelerate with great magnitude. if done with absurdly heavy weights you will not get a whole lot of net speed (near 400lb barbell jump squats that barely clear the ground by a certain controversial weight training blogger come to mind), but done with moderate weights, the difference should be very observable, even if both are done with the same effort (the ~130lb jump squats said blogger warms up with and which are at least three times as high with no slowing down mid-way). both however are examples of the same thing. the guy could quite easily do his warm up jump squats more slowly and relaxedly and barely do a tiny bunny hop, and we can all agree that’d do jack squat, but since he puts all he has into it, he gets quite a bit of air time. as the weights go up, height and speed go down, but the effort is the same. the same deal exists with traditionally non-explosive lifts, for example any kind of regular barbell squat. if you just go through the motions, or voluntarily slow down your squat (for example in a powerlifting competition where an uncontrolled squat can lead you to not achieve legal depth, or to exceed it and fail to get up again), we can agree that very little stimuli is being applied that would lead to increased acceleration, but if you squat each rep as fast as possible (idalberto aranda and his dive-bombed ATG squats come to mind), and use bar speed as a measure of your strength increases, i’d bet money that after a while you’ll be the proud owner of noticeably faster hip and knee extension when unloaded (although of course there’s the issue of at which point increases in load atop having carryover to unloaded performance).

        i believe it was the russians that came up with the whole strength-speed, speed-strength, etc thing? we could always go with those concepts too, to be somewhat more specific.

        /2 cents

        oh, and on an unrelated note, building on the exercise list on the article: heavy (at least half your bodyweight) one-arm dumbbell rows are excellent for anti-rotation too (they’re basically the only thing i do for obliques, myself), and regular lunges (and i guess reverse walking lunges too, but those are probably just silly) are quite nice to simultaneously stretch out and strengthen the psoas, since they get heavily involved in pulling you out of the bottom of the lunge when you use the rear leg to stand up (much more tolerable and less boring than leg raises, at least to me, and they do wonders for hip flexor-induced back pain as well)

      • Diego Romero

        February 7, 2014 at 8:42 pm

        and because i completely forgot; an addendum for the sake of completeness: re: the thing about rep speed: this of course correlates with the study jesse mentioned indicating that those who were not instructed to think about ‘exploding’ their reps. that said, i believe the study was flawed, because they should have had six groups instead, two with each protocol, of which half attempted to ‘explode’ and the other lifted slowly. else it’s impossible to know under that specific study whether 8-12 rep lifting leads to greater motor unit recruitment/whatever term you want to use, or if strength protocols done with low acceleration also lead to a decrease in it.

  23. Eddy Schumacher

    February 26, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    My Master’s thesis in Sports Conditioning and Human Performance was actually this very topic, entitled “Resistance Training For Traditional Okinawan Karate: Combining Traditional Okinawan and Modern Training Methods”.

    • yngvi

      February 26, 2014 at 11:18 pm

      Awesome Eddy, is it by any chance accessible online?

      • Eddy Schumacher

        February 26, 2014 at 11:40 pm

        No. It’s not online. I was, for a while, considering editing and submitting portions to NSCA Journals for publication at the urging of my review committee and supervisor, but never did that.
        I may post it on my FB web page.

  24. Amakiri Oruamabo

    March 25, 2014 at 2:01 am

    A truly remarkable article Jesse -san…I keep coming back to review and reappraise myself with the ideas you’ve put forward here. Difficult to digest completely in one or two reads, this article (and the interesting comments) will be an integral part of my fitness program.

  25. Ruben Greve

    April 9, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    What do you think about stronglifts 5x5, for each lift:

    eccentric: 5 seconds, 1 second hold, explosive concentric, 1 sec hold.

    A program to build basic strength while maintaining explosiveness.

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