Quick Guide to Cross-Training in Karate: How, If & Why You Need It

By Jesse | 19 Comments

Aiiight, so people keep asking me about this “cross-training” thingy.

“What is it, do I need it, why do I need it and how should I do it?” are just a few of the obstacles encountered when faced with the daunting dilemma of cross-training.

So let me break it down for you.

Step by step.

First of all, what is cross training?

Generally speaking, the term cross-training refers to somebody (whether a professional athlete or regular hobbyist) training in sports or activities other than the one that you normally compete/practise in – with the goal of improving performance. Cross-training simply takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to neglect the shortcomings of those method by combining them with other methods (that address their weaknesses), giving you a super bad-ass workout scheme.

And the cool part is, this has been done in Karate forever.

Some quick examples:

  • Miyagi Chojun, founder of Goju-ryu Karate was reportedly quite proficient at judo, which he enthusiastically studied while serving in the army. Not to mention kung-fu (quanfa) learnt during his numerous travels to China, where he found many techniques that he incorporated into what would later be known as his own system of Karate. And let’s not forget his superb hojo-undo/Karate strength training methods, now practised all over the world.
  • Mabuni Kenwa, founder of Shito-ryu Karate, was pretty skilled in ju-jutsu, mainly due to his powerful connections on the Japanese mainland, including such masters of ju-jutsu and ninjutsu as Konishi Yasuhiro and Seiko Fujita. He also knew a lot of kobudo, with kata like Sueyoshi no Kon and Hamahiga no Sai being among his finest.
  • Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan-ryu Karate, was often seen training with weapons like bo and sai, due to his extensive cross-training and exchange of techniques in Okinawan kobudo with grandmaster Taira Shinken. And let’s not forget his extensive body hardening regimen, using tools like the makiwara (as seen in his numerous books).
  • Otsuka Hironori, founder of Wado-ryu Karate, was a headmaster and licensed teacher of traditional Japanese ju-jutsu (Yoshin Shindo Ryu) among other stuff, before incorporating Karate into his martial arts system.
  • Azato Anko, legendary Shuri-te Karate teacher of Funakoshi Gichin, was one of the most skilled swordsmen in the Ryukyu Kingdom, due to his extensive practise in Jigen-ryu kenjutsu (samurai-style fencing with various weapons) of which he even became a licensed master.
  • Nagamine Shoshin, founder of Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu Karate was seriously enlightened when it came to Zen, as he was an avid practitioner of zazen (seated meditation) which he famously incorporated into his style of Karate.
  • And the list goes on…

As you can see, most – perhaps all – of our famous Karate pioneers/founders/grandmasters somehow fused their Karate together with either other martial arts (ju-jutsu, judo, kenjutsu etc.) or non-martial arts (strength training, meditation etc.) as well as the fine arts (many masters excelled in calligraphy, literature and/or music, although the public rarely knew about the width of their skills in this particular area) to step their game up.

And the coolest thing is, the further back in history you go, the more you start to realize that Karate in itself (before if became “Karate”) is actually an eclectic mix of several fighting traditions and cultural arts cooked together in the pot of Okinawa, as it was an important place for trade and travel in the old world.

Thus, Karate - in it’s original shape and form – was nothing but a bunch of Okinawan dudes having fun, cross-training.

That’s right.

(But you already knew this, didn’tcha?)

So why shouldn’t you?

Yeah, why shouldn’t YOU cross-train?

Well, that’s the second point. Now that we know what cross-training is, and that many (if not most) of our “founding fathers” (you can Google basically any famous Karate master, and you’ll quickly see that Karate was but one of their pursuits) considered it vital – how do you know if you should cross-train?

To answer that, you will need to have a look at your particular branch of Karate, and determine what its weak points and its strong points are.

(Sidenote: The problem here, of course, is that if you are a beginner in your style it will be pretty much impossible to determine the pro’s and con’s of the whole system, since you’ve only nibbled on a small piece of the whole pie, so to speak. So before we go any further with this cross-training thingy, I advice you to get acquainted with one style only, and then make other choices when you’re proficient and confident enough in your martial arts skills/abilities of your “mother style”. Also, a strict Japanese sensei would mercilessly feed you to his hungry black belts if he found you “dojo hopping”, so keep it on the down-low, mmkay?)

Again, when looking at your own style, you will need to find points of potential improvement. These are determined by the pro’s and con’s of your dojo/style’s characteristics.

A quick example:

What?: Sports Karate School

Pro’s: Great basic physical training, cardio, explosiveness, strength, agility, stretching.

Con’s: Lacks in realistic self-defense training, traditional/non-competitive values and close-range fighting as well as groundwork.

Conclusion?

Well, that’s the next point.

After figuring our what needs to be improved, the rest depends entirely on how far you are willing to take it.

Are you satisfied with not practising the most ultimate, all-encompassing style in the universe? Or do you want something more? Something else?

See, depending on your goals with Karate you might need one type of cross-training or another type of cross-training. Or maybe no cross-training at all! Using the above Sport Karate dojo example – if your goal actually is to become a great Karate athlete, the only cross-training you need is more of the “pro’s”: strength, agility, technique, mental training etc. Forget the traditional stuff then. Throw some other sports in the mix too (to not stress yourself out).

Hey, there’s a reason why the Japanese female kata team practises tons of badminton on their spare time!

(Oh, was that a secret? Oops…)

Or perhaps your goal is to get that next belt? To pass an important grading? But, in order to get that belt you need to have better cardio, because you know there is a 15 minute full contact kumite fight-to-the-death waiting? Well, then you’d better strap on some jogging shoes and do countless hours of roadwork, amigo!

Right?

Wrong.

Want to look like Van Damme? Well, less Karate, more gym. Also, more stretching.

Because jogging fifteen hours a week will not do any difference to your level of fatigue in that intense grading fight. You’d be better off switching those wasted hours of slow jogging to four minutes of tabata-style exercises three times a week. Most definitely.

Which, conveniently enough, brings us to the third point:

Choosing the appropriate means of cross-training.

Listen, the goal of cross-training must always be to improve your Karate, by addressing the weak points that you’ve identified in your game. Whether that improvement then is technical, psychological or purely physical is another question, but this fact remains:

Your cross-training activity should be a side dish, not main course.

Therefore, you will have to follow two basic guidelines:

1. Keep it simple: If you do something advanced without proper instructions (plyometric training, high altitude running, underwater exercises, HIIT [high-intensity interval training] etc.) you risk not only developing bad habits that might spill over to your Karate, but more importantly you risk injuries. Always start slowly and gradually increase the level. Keep it simple, keep it fun.

2. Keep it relevant: If you feel your Karate techniques are bad because of your weak back/leg muscles (and conclude that you need some extra weight lifting as cross-training), don’t go to the gym and mindlessly bust out 50 reps on every machine in sight. Instead, focus on the few full-body exercises that give most bang for the buck. Dead lift, bench press, chin-up and squat is enough for anybody. Full body exercises that work everything you need, without removing those important, yet often overlooked, stabilizing muscles (like a machine would do by isolating the working muscles) are preferred. Always make sure that your cross-training is as close to your Karate in terms of range of movements, intensity, volume, duration etc. as possible. Make sure you never waste your time by messing around with stuff that has no carryover to your Karate skills. Don’t be foolish. Keep it relevant.

Which then brings us to the last point in question:

Your situation.

I mean, what possibilities do you have? If you want to become better at breakfalls, and therefore decide to take up judo class once a week – there’d better be a judo club nearby. And you’d better have extra time. Otherwise it won’t last long.

Or perhaps you want to have more dynamic kicks, so you simply order a taekwondo DVD that teaches you a boatload of kicks? Well, you’d better have a spacious living room, some free time and a dose of motivation – because there is no sensei to scream at you now.

At the end of the day, if your possibilities of cross-training are not that convenient (considering time, location and motivation), then your previous steps of 1) first identifying your weak spots and 2) subsequently finding the perfect cross-training activity to improve those weaknesses were a bit wasted.

It all comes down to you.

But that’s basically all there is to it.

So, with that being said, is cross-training something for you? I don’t know. All I can say is that in my dojo we try to incorporate strength training, cardio, kumite, kata, kihon, bunkai, pad drills, conditioning and plain ol’ self-defense in just about every regular class – so that people don’t need any extra cross-training on their precious spare time.

Sounds unconventional?

That’s because we are.

And if your dojo isn’t, give cross-training a serious thought.

It might very well be the missing piece of your puzzle…

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.

19 Comments

  1. Dan

    October 19, 2011 at 12:36 am

    How about ‘cross-training’ in between styles? The different branches of the karate tree might not be as opposite as muay thai and capoeira, but it should be nice to have some of the full-contact experience of kyokushin, just to find out how effective that shotokan deep stance can get.
    Remember that not everyone gets a sensei who’s trained shito-ryu, goju-ryu and shotokan-ryu, Jesse-san. ;)

    • Jesse

      October 19, 2011 at 1:01 am

      Dan-san, I fully agree. In fact, you can even cross-train within your own “style”! Example: Weight lifters will often do dead lifts to increase their RM in the back squat, since the weak point in the squat is often the lower back, not the legs. And nothing works the lower back like a nice dead lift! :)

  2. Dave

    October 19, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Jesse-san,

    thanks for the thought provoking post. My own Sensei has extensive cross training background with boxers, judoka, some jujutsu and other “full contact” (before it was called MMA)fighters, not to mention resistance and cardio training.

    i believe that is part of what makes him such an obviously complete martial artist, although he wouldnt say so! the other part is recognising shortcomings and working to overcome them…GENIUS!

    even though my school is somewhat renowned for (and often dismissed because of) its tournament success, we are at heart a traditional school, and as a student returning after 12 years absence, i love the fact that the the parts of the whole puzzle are all there, but ultimately its up to me to build it!

    personally i’m influnced by a brief stint with Goju, and an even briefer study of Aikido (months only), and my bro-in-law’s kung-fu /tactical policing background. i’m truly excited!

    as for resistence training, i’m convinced that the “right” approach is functional strength rather than beautiful pecs/abs/triceps/biceps etc. i think that should be obvious. crossfit training prpinciples are an excellent axample of this method.

    Dan, i agree other systems probably have their benefits when viewed from your own schools perpsective, but there’s plenty of youtube/dvd’s available now, you could save some time and just find a training partner within your school with whom to simply push some boundaries(with sensei’s consent/agreement).

    my 2 cents worth. Onegaishimasu!

    • PatrickG

      October 19, 2011 at 9:15 am

      “as for resistence training, i’m convinced that the “right” approach is functional strength rather than beautiful pecs/abs/triceps/biceps etc. i think that should be obvious. crossfit training prpinciples are an excellent example of this method”

      Have to agree with this. It’s the difference between “weight lifting/body building” and “Weightlifting” (as in Olympic Weightlifing). I’ve started doing Olympic Weightlifting followed by a Crossfit workout 3 times a week, and our Karate training sessions have become easy!

  3. Gomugomu

    October 19, 2011 at 1:31 am

    Well, I just have one thing to say : cross-training rocks !
    I went back to karate class last year (after four years of inactivity, teenage style), got my 1st dan, and realized that waiting 2 years for the second was pretty annoying (it’s how it works in french karate federation, dunno how it’s elsewhere).
    I first decided to start competiting to keep my karate spirit awake, but my timetable didn’t match (not free on week ends).
    Then I thought “man, you LOVE martial arts, you’re interested in ground fighting, and you suck at throwing…(and Jesse never stop talking about always improve and stuff)
    *checking local martials arts clubs* OMAGAD my karate club is affilied with a judo/jujitsu club ! Got enough money ? Got enough time ? And got enough goddamn MOTIVATION ??? Hell yeah !”
    So this year I train at karate, jujitsu and judo as well, and it’s awesome. Getting choked and throwed like a seven years old boy is as motivating as fighting judoka who don’t even realize you can kick their face in every way thanks to karate background.
    I advice everybody who’s MOTIVATED and who want to LEARN (and improve ;D) to cross-trained.

    (Hope my english didn’t make your eyes bleed 8D)

    • Jesse

      October 19, 2011 at 9:15 am

      Awesome comment! :)

  4. Diego Romero

    October 19, 2011 at 5:12 am

    one thing i’d like to add is: cross-train if you want to simply learn something new. stagnation is the cancer at the heart of any activity, potentially turning it monotonous, boring and meaningless, or even worse, creating a hermetic bubble that lets nothing in or out. martial arts training is not just styles and techniques, much less in the modern world. cross training exposes you to new ways of thinking, new ways of moving, new ways of fitting in the puzzle pieces, but it also allows you to meet new people (and potentially make new friends), train in different locations, be exposed to new cultures, and generally keep yourself refreshed through variety. and we all know that variety is the spice of life ;)

  5. PatrickG

    October 19, 2011 at 8:25 am

    I would argue that a number of things you have mentioned are not “cross training”. Makiwara is not cross training. Strength training is not cross training if you are working on the muscles you use in Karate.

    I also don’t agree with your example of a deadlift being “cross training” for a back squat. Deadlifts are a standard exercise in Olympic weightlifting so it doesn’t meet the definition of cross training you got, according to me. That’s like saying doing pushups is cross training for punching. It’s not, it’s a strength exercise to increase the muscles you use to punch so is specific resistance training for Karate.

    Judo, boxing, Ju Jitsu (badminton, squash, running) etc. are all cross training for Karate.

    It might sound pedantic, but people often think of cross training as an optional thing you can do. Strength, core, flexibility training are all specific to the art/sport of Karate and are not really optional if you expect to improve.

    • Jesse

      October 19, 2011 at 9:08 am

      Right, so it seems supplementary training and cross-training are kinda the same thing for me. Hope you don’t mind :)

  6. PatrickG

    October 19, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Heh, I don’t mind. It’s just my perspective on it. It does confuse my wife when she says “are you doing some cross training tonight” and I say no, then go and do what she considers cross training :)

    • Dave

      October 19, 2011 at 10:05 am

      good point i think mr G. cross training implies an activity OUTSIDE the normal stuff done in the pursuit of karate-do.

      a blurring of boundaries perhaps when your karate system already uses a lot of joint locks/throws etc…mere semantics.

    • Dan

      October 20, 2011 at 12:13 am

      “Strength, core, flexibility training are all specific to the art/sport of Karate and are not really optional if you expect to improve.”
      So Patrick, just a little reflexion here. It’s gonna play with how we name stuff, but I can’t resist… If strength training is a must-do to improve your karate, what happens when you reach the peak of karate, that is, the conjunction of kata, kumite, punching and kicking and elbowing and kneeing and eye-poking andwellyougetthepoint? To start training something like judo would qualify as just improving your throwing, or would it improve the way you use karate, as in changing your stance to make a takedown easier, or with a wider maai/distance from your opponent?

      • PatrickG

        October 20, 2011 at 2:29 am

        Well if you are taking up Judo with the goal to it improving your Karate I would call that cross training. If you’re doing it because you think you’ve mastered Karate and want to learn something else, without expecting it to improve your Karate (though it probably would), you’re just learning Judo.

        As for what you do with your strength training when you reach the peak of Karate, if you stop doing it you will lose the strength as you lose your muscle mass.

        However, if you take the Crossfit methodology to it’s logical conclusion, where you don’t train for something specific but train for everything, there is no such thing as cross training, everything is just training ;)

        • Dan

          October 20, 2011 at 2:37 am

          True dat, man. :)

  7. Chris

    October 19, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Jesse-san:

    Great post.

    Thanks!

  8. patrick

    October 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    great article and thanks for the historie part I’m a sucker for historie.
    the best cross^training for me is kobudo!

  9. Mukesh

    October 20, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Great article Jesee San
    Cross training rocks but karate already has a load of it as Jese-San says “Thus, Karate -- in it’s original shape and form – was nothing but a bunch of Okinawan dudes having fun, cross-training” but still doing a tabata or set of sprints or a ladder work of your most-hated body weight exercise/s (like chin-up/push up… pick you own nemesis)increases you karate capability and for stagnation part you need to be top master or quitter. Later can’t be helped even with cross training……. :-)

  10. Leif Hermansson

    October 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I have been done cross training a long time, like to go to gym for weight lifting to make my body stronger 2-3 times a week and before i also run 3-4 times a week (with kobudo weapons in my hands) when my knees was stil ok, now I can´t run but I use the cross trainer at the gym for my cardiovascular etc training 5 times a week.
    I also train some other Martial Arts like Okinawa kobudo as a complement to be better in my karate and 1996 I got to Brazil to learn BJJ because there was not that much groundfighting in karate and I incorporated this in my karate to be more allround fighter. I also train iaido since 33 years ago because iaido is like meditation in a movement with the sword as a tool, to make me more relax and in harmony.

  11. Theodore

    October 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Great post Jesse. Something I have often mentioned to my students, and I am glad you mentioned it in your post, is that it is important to have a good base in one thing before you start over loading yourself with another. My Kobudo stances are drastically different than my Karate stances and they are both very different than Olympic Tae Kwon Do. For most people new to martial arts, this simply ends in them doing all three wrong. As always, thanks for some “unconventional” thoughts.

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