Periodization for Karate – Level Up!

By Jesse | 11 Comments

Sometimes it’s tragic how blind obedience and unhealthy “respect” for dogmatic traditions tend to stand in the way for our own improvement in Karate.

As an example of what I mean, here’s what a sharp reader asked me a while back:

I am a swimming coach and master swimmer. Also an intermediate karateka. A few days ago I discovered your site and I am reading your articles. Very interesting! I have a question, if you are so kind to answer: When I surf the web looking for articles about Karate, very few times, if any, I find references to the periodization and planning of karate.

In swimming is very usual to have two or three peaks in a year, and you plan your training with that in mind. Why is it different in Karate? Bompa and Matveev prescribe “undulated” loads within the day, week and month, alternating general excercises with specific ones. Why can’t I find this type of approach in Karate?

Yours truly, Miguel

See what I mean?

If we, to simplify things a bit, treat Karate like any other sport for just a second then it becomes obvious that Karate-ka all over the world are falling behind when it comes to [scientifically] planning their training.

In short, Karate people suck at sports science.

Most of us at least.

Swimming, basketball, tennis, wrestling, golf, badminton, soccer, bodybuilding… you name it. E-V-E-R-Y serious sport that isn’t stuck in the vise of “tradition” (hint: it’s often just a façade for other fundamental issues) uses different means of periodization in their training, to scientifically enhance their skills when it comes to everything from improving technique, explosiveness, strength, mental toughness and endurance to flexibility, agility, speed and practically every other aspect you can come to think of that plays a part in your performance.

So, since I have spent half of my life reading [almost] every book worth reading on sports science, from Bompa to Matveyev to Verkhoshansky, (why do these crazy sports scientists always have equally crazy names?) I thought I might teach you guys some of the basics of sports planning.

Sounds interesting?

Either you’re a part of the problem, or you’re a part of the solution.

Let’s be the solution.

Here’s a brief overview of planning your training, stepping your game up and becoming the best Karate-ka you can be.

[Note: I'm not an expert in any of this, I just pretend to be. I mean, just because I'm a PhD in Awesomeness doesn't make me a PhD in Neuro-linguistic Programming or Sports Science, mmkay? Free advice is always worth what you pay for it.]

0. Background

Almost every book you read on sports science will have the story about a guy and his bull. The guy’s name was Milo and the bull’s name was…. umm… Bully? Red Bull? Pit Bull? Bull’s Eye.

According to popular legend, Milo of Crotona, a kid who wanted to become strong when he grew up, began carrying a young calf on his shoulders each day. The story goes that he would pick the calf up on a daily basis and walk around a large stadium. As the animal grew bigger, Milo also grew stronger. Obviously.

Eventually, after a couple of years of carrying the darn animal every day, young Milo he was able to carry a fully-grown bull!

(Supposedly…)

This is what’s known as “the principle of progressive overload”, and it refers to the idea that you need to increase the demands you impose on your body during your workout routines to make it bigger, stronger, or leaner. Just like Milo. Pretty basic stuff, but important.

For instance, let’s say that you’re following a workout routine (let’s use weight training in this case) designed to help you build muscle size and strength. In theory, all you now need to do is pick an exercise, and choose a resistance you can lift for a certain number of repetitions. Then, as soon as you’re able to increase the number of repetitions, you add a few pounds of weight to the bar. For instance, you might be able to squat 200 pounds for a maximum of 10 repetitions. Add five pounds of weight to the bar each month, and you’d be squatting with 260 pounds just one year from now. Continue the process for the next five years, and the weight you’re using will have risen to 500 pounds.

Old-style Karate equipment (hojo-undo). Work ethic not included.

Soon you’ll be the strongest man alive!

Or, well, not really.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been working out for more than a few months, you’ve probably realized that this kind of continuous progress doesn’t exist. It’s just bogus. A fantasy. Milo of Crotona royally fooled us all, because no matter how hard you train, how many supplements you use, or how much “positive thinking” you do, the principle of gradual progressive overload only works to a certain point.

That point is known as a plateau.

And we don’t like plateaus.

So what do we need to do?

We need to split our training into periods.

This, then, is what’s generally known as “periodization”.

In this article, I’ll briefly explain the concept of linear periodization, since there are many versions of periodization (conjugate, non-linear, reverse linear; with various macro cycles, micro sycles, meso cycles etc.).

Why? Because linear periodization is the “classic” method (originally created by Dr Leonid Matveyev from Eastern Europe) and is easy to understand for everyone.

1. General Preparation Period

So, the first thing you need to do is to plan a period characterised by a large volume of training, which develops working capacity, general physical preparation and improves technical aspects and basic tactical skills.

This is what we call the GPP (General Preparation Period).

During this phase, feel free to go nuts in the amount of training you do (volume=high) but keep it fairly easy (intensity=low). This is important.

The main focus with the GPP is to develop a high level of physical conditioning to facilitate future training and to protect an athlete’s central nervous system (CNS) from being bombarded with high-intensity training later in the training programme. That athlete is you.

The main objective of this block, the GPP, is to improve your fundament.

In other words, lots and lots of kihon, push-ups, sit-ups, high jumps, kata and kumite. This phase usually lasts from 4 to 12 weeks.

Volume is the key.

Also, when elite athletes say “I practise 6-8 hours a day”, they are generally referring to this period in training. They don’t practise like this always. (I hope!). Just for the record.

2. Special Preparation Period

The Special Preparation Period (SPP) is a transition phase from gross movements to specific sport movements.

This is where you continue when you’re satisfied with the GPP.

For instance, if you previously did kata, kihon and kumite, along with some extra general physical conditioning stuff, now is the time to focus on the specific thing you need to excel at. Kata for your grading? Kumite for a tournament? Or just general kihon for a grueling seminar in Okinawa later this year? No matter what goal you may have with your training (you do need a goal, you know), here’s where you focus on shifting your training from the general to the specific.

From everything to something.

This phase’s movements are supposed to be specific exercises related to the skills or technical patterns of your goal. To use Kobudo as an example: If you previously practised with all weapons, now is the time to focus on one particular weapon; with the goal of a tournament, grading or demonstration in mind, perhaps?

Improving and perfecting specific technique and tactics (often with the use of various aids) are the main goals of this phase.

Lastly, you basically need to accustom your body to make full use of your increasing motor potential, and execute competition/grading/demo/street fight/whatever-your-goal-is- exercises with progressively greater intensity. In other words, you are now going from high volume to lower volume, while at the same time going from the previously low intensity to higher intensity.

Here, I did a graph:

I know, Picasso ain’t got nothing on me.

3. “Competition” Period

Now, obviously most of you guys don’t compete, but that doesn’t matter.

It’s just called “Competition” Period because most sports have the goal of competing.

In Karate, we might compete too, but it seems most people hate competing for some reason? Go figure. So, your goal might then be something completely else. I don’t know what. But you should know.

Anywho, the main task at this point should be the consolidation of all training factors, which allow you to “compete” successfully in the main “competition” which you’ve been focusing on (and yes, there might be more than one “competition” during this period). This phase is the realisation of all the preparation you’ve done.

During the “Competition” Phase it can generally be said that 90% of the movement/exercise is direct action (related to sport-specific movements), while the other 10% is indirect action (gross motor work/general conditioning).

Your intensity is at this point very high during training (which means you can’t train as often, in order to not die), while your volume is pretty low.

The focus lies in doing brief, but great, work.

It is very important now to allow sufficient recovery (to attain the state of supercompensation. Please, follow the link, it will change your life).

The “Competition” Phase can be several months.

It depends on your schedule.

4. Transition Period.

Okay, so you won the tournament, got the black belt, beat down that old bully from high school, kicked ass in Okinawa, or whatever your general plan was. So what now?

Enter chill mode.

Sort of.

The Transition Phase is, as the name implies, characterised by non-”competitive” activities. This phase is important because while muscular fatigue will disappear in a week or so for most highly trained athletes, CNS (central nervous system) fatigue can remain for a much longer period of time. Therefore, the Transition Phase incorporates rehabilitation (to allow recovery from any injuries), regeneration (including massage, health spas etc.) and psychological relaxation.

Nice…

This phase is often a couple of weeks (1 week if you’re a noob, 3 weeks if you’re a bit better, a month or more if you’re in the UFC or the Olympics). This varies greatly depending on your level, sport and schedule.

Cross-training is highly encouraged during the Transition Period, while your regular training should be cut down to allow your body to recover. However, you can’t chillax too much, since that means you’ll just start sucking more than when you started. Maintain your general fitness level, please.

Keep what you built.

And then start all over again for your new goal.

Which concludes this very brief overview of linear periodization and sports science applied for Karate. There is much more out there, just search and you’ll find. The hard part is, as always, simplifying and adapting.

Don’t let “tradition” be an explanation for acting without thinking.

Be the Karate-ka you were meant to be.

The End.

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.

11 Comments

  1. phether

    March 16, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Awesome! I am working on my coaching theory course and most (read all) material I have come across regarding “seasonal training” is all focused on team-based, tournament/competitive sports. Very little on individual sports, or non-comptetive activities. It is very good to read an article from the point of view of karate. I am embarassed to admit that after almost 15 years of coaching I didn’t think of some of this myself…I had no problem thinking about it when I coached volleyball… I guess I was caught up in the ‘traditional’ as well. Food for thought.

    • phether

      March 16, 2011 at 4:21 am

      ps:pardon the spelling errors…was never a good proof reader.

  2. Davide

    March 16, 2011 at 4:27 am

    Great post as always ;)
    It’s ironic how periodization seems like a natural part of the idea of hojo undo, kihon, kata and kumite in karate. :)

  3. bg

    March 16, 2011 at 7:47 am

    you’re losing the plot. this is a life study, train the basics, follow the old principle’s, everyday. who are we in our brief time alive to judge what has over centuries been forged in true battle. competition/games vs actual fighting/life needs to be put in perspective.

    • Stu

      March 16, 2011 at 8:43 am

      Ok, lets look at what has been forged in true battle over the centuries. Modern military forces conduct basic skills training and maintain troops at a standard fitness level with regular testing. Then as they prepare for a deployment, training intensifies with specific conditioning, aclimatisation and battle skills for the expected theatre of ops. They then deploy into the battle field for a time of high intensity operations, then are rotated out for rest and re-training.

      Modern martial arts involving guns and artillery have developed these training methods over centuries because they work. This is no different to what Jesse proposes above.

  4. Jesús Espiga

    March 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Well done as usual! It seems like this plan worked with you looking to the results of last Dutch open !.
    We did a planification like that last season and we get a Madrid Kata champion plus a 3 place in the nationals!!
    The only thing you forget, i guess, is that it is neccesary a natural talented athlete in body, mind and spirit !!! Plus planification…

  5. Teo

    March 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    I really like this thought line of preparation in training. This is something that I learned from my days in Triathlon and have continued with it in my Karate training. When we have big events coming up, tourneys or tests, we try to give the students at least 6-8 weeks to begin the periodization process and ramp up for the event. We take the students through the different steps with event specific training taking place the last couple of weeks. Not only are the students getting better at what they do, but mentally the confidence and motivation levels go right through the ceiling. There is definitely room for the “old ways” and the “new ways” as well. Open your mind and take the best that others have to offer in order to become the best that you can become. Evolve or dissolve.

  6. Randy

    March 17, 2011 at 12:42 am

    This is one of the things that our group has been working at designing and implementing for a while now. Periodization of training with activity-specific training, and corrective programming phases following each cycling through balance/strength endurance/maximal strength/power/performance phases. Unfortunately many “traditionalists” scoff at the benefits or disregard it completely because it wasn’t developed pre-1950. Oh well. The tricky part is to vary skill-based training so that it complements the conditioning demands. For an example, sticky hands can be varied through the periodization phases alongside the conditioning demands:

    Balance and stability- work on moving from stable to less stable conditions. This can be done using wobble boards, single leg standing, closing eyes, closing eyes in a free-moving context. Highlight and fix movement and skill-based problems. Duration 1-3 minutes, light intensity.

    Strength endurance- both partners begin to provide light resistance through the ROMs. Move from stable to less stable conditions when skill is appropriate. Begin to incorporate static lifts for throws or manipulations. Maintain best movement form throughout. 1-2 minute duration, light-moderate intensity

    Maximal strength- freer moving sticky hands, partners selectively provide heavier resistance, balance and stability are challenged more dynamically by using sharper off-balancing techniques, lifts for throws are initiated and controlled. Maintain best movement form throughout. 1 minute rounds, moderate intensity

    Power- freer moving sticky hands, partners selectively provide heavier resistance and reactive movement, balance and stability are challenged more while moving with more agility, techniques are applied with speed but controlled force, lifts and throws are initiated at speed and controlled to the floor. 1 minute, high intensity with best possible form.

    Performance- free moving sticky hands, partners provide resistance, redirection and reactive movements at their discretion, balance and stability are challenged by off-balancing techniques, techniques are applied at speed, lifts and throws are done with full commitment. 1 minute, best possible intensity without losing form or control.

    All skill domains can be integrated into a periodized model this way. High-stress training, like impact conditioning, can be rotated between less demanding corrective phases to avoid overload and injury, things like accuracy, stability and movement quality can be addressed during the lighter/corrective phases. The result is both conditioning (attribute) and skill development that avoid plateaus, and provides opportunities for recovery between periods f higher intensity, higher demand training. Each phase is spaced 4-6 weeks, the average amount of time required for physiological adaptation to training demands. 2 week mini-rest periods can be selectively inserted any time to regress problem areas and allow for recovery before entering higher intensity training phases. If skill based training is incorporated along the same lines then the student’s individual attributes develop in step with his or her skill level and ability. The easiest part to neglect is recovery- it’s hard to back off of higher intensity training like Randori and sparring, but the benefits are a longer training career, less injury, and enhanced performance. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in programming ideas.

  7. Francis Duguay

    March 19, 2011 at 6:28 am

    Miles de Crotone. You rock.

  8. Sam

    March 19, 2011 at 8:51 am

    To me leveling up is the understanding of an enabling principle. I prefer to level up with functional operating knowledge of the body mechanic, and mental mechanic.

    I find that leveling up mentally is most of the time far superior to leveling up physically.

    Professionals in the martial arts and in sports/physical professions will tell you that once they peak physically the only place left to improve is mentally. Some people may call it transcending the physical limitations of the body, of being able to see beyond yourself and into the big picture, being enlightened if you will. One person I can think of who did this was Ayrton Senna, the famous Brazilian F1 driver who tragically met his end through statistics and FIA tomfoolery.

    In the end a martial art should be about successfully using your mind to control your destiny in a life or death situation. The only way you can get better is to think about it very often and do it very often.

  9. herrle 58

    July 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Funny again, i finally learned there is a sientific name for what came naturally to me the past 40 years ;-) !
    However there is a limit in what you are able to gain physically…for everybody.
    This is where the martial arts really start…like Sam said above: after you reached the physical limits, the only way to improve is mentally!
    And i fully agree to your last sentence Sam!

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