The Complete Guide to Strength Training & Conditioning for Karate
“Lifting weights makes your Karate suck.”
Ever heard that?
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.
- Strength depends on muscle mass.
- And if you increase muscle mass, you increase body weight.
- But if you increase your body weight, you decrease the speed of movements.
- 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.
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).
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.
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.
That’s what I thought.
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.
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:
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™.
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 thrust (single/double leg)
- Stiff legged deadlift (single/double leg)
- Deadlift (classic and sumo)
- Leg curl on a Swiss ball (single/double leg)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
- Periodization Training for Sports by Tudor Bompa - The ultimate book for creating periodized training programs to maximize gains.
- High Powered Plyometrics by James C. Radcliffe - The best book for speed and agility (plyometrics) training, for both beginners and experts.
- 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
- Weight Lifting Safety Tips (to print)
- 1 Rep Max Chart
- Target Heart Rate Calculator
- ExRx Knowledge Center
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.