Why Slow Training Improves Your Karate Techniques (& Life)

Question:

Would you believe me if I told you there’s ONE training method that can improve you Karate like crazy?

A training method that even masters and champions don’t figure out until late in life.

Answer?

Slow down.

That’s it.

Move much slower.

To be precise; much, much, much slower.

“But Jesse-san, how can slow movement improve for my Karate? I want to be fast, hard and powerful!”

Bro…

I used to be *exactly* like you.

Until I realized slow training is essential for Karate mastery.

Why?

Because of an obscure principle called the “Weber Fechner rule”.
appelfagel (514x530)

Let me explain:

Imagine you’re holding a one pound apple in your hand.

If a fly landed on the apple you wouldn’t feel a difference in weight. But if a small bird landed on the apple, you would sense it.

Now, imagine holding a sixty pound apple instead.

You wouldn’t be able to feel the small bird landing either. It would have to be a big ass eagle instead!

So, what’s the point?

Well, the point is that when you increase the apple’s weight from one pound to sixty pounds, you become about sixty times less sensitive to changes in the amount of muscular effort used to lift the apple.

As you increase a stimulus, the ability to tell a difference in the amount of the stimulus decreases. 

That’s the Weber Fechner rule.

You need to know this because…

YOU ARE A CHEATER.

(Yeah, I said it.)

Ever since you learned your first Karate punch, you’ve been cheating.

Me too.

Everybody cheats. Even your sensei.

Cheating is natural.

See, due to the nature of the human organism, when you’ve been doing a Karate technique for many years, your body adapts to the movement and tries to find the optimal pattern that requires the least effort.

This means you will automatically create tiny shortcuts in your movement.

When you perform techniques at full speed, it’s impossible to notice this.

It’s like the fly on your apple.

So, try this:

  • Stand and perform a slow front kick.
  • Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
  • Done?
  • That went WAY too fast.
  • When I said slow, I mean slooooow.
  • Here’s a timer. Let it run for 2 minutes. You cannot stop before that.
  • Done?
  • Awesome!

If you manage 3-5 minutes, and you have a super strong mind.

(5 minutes or more? You’re freakin’ Gandhi!)

In my experience, most people have huge difficulties moving slowly.

When I tell my students to perform a kata or kumite at 50% speed, they can only do it for a few minutes before losing control. Their mind panics and their whole body starts screaming to go faster!

taichimaster
Slowness is vital in the Chinese historical roots of Karate.

Now…

Here’s the interesting part:

The slower you move, the more likely you are to notice small jerks or twitches in your techniques.

These small glitches are uncharted territory in your proprioceptive map – the physical areas of the brain responsible for sensing movements.

Blind spots.

You see, after years of repetitive training, your CNS (central nervous system) has basically forgot parts of movements (a phenomenon known as “sensory motor amnesia”), due to your habit of always executing the technique fast.

Cheating has literally become carved into your neural pathways.

That’s why you need to sloooow dooown.

The goal of slowing down is to explore, identify and eliminate blind spots in your habitualized Karate techniques.

But there’s more!

When you slow down, you’ll notice other things too – like excessive force, tension, weakness and muscular imbalances.

For instance, do a back kick (ushiro geri).

How did it go?

Did you do it slowly and mindfully?

If you are like most regular Karate-ka, every time you extend the hip to kick back, you are contracting the hip flexors instead of relaxing them. Perhaps you didn’t notice (because you did it so quickly).

This means your muscles are cross-motivated – the flexors are constantly fighting the extensors a little in their effort to extend the leg, making them work harder than they have to.

How can you avoid this inefficient co-contraction?

By moving slowly.

Slow movement leads to a more accurate and discriminating perception of the mechanics of your movements – whether it’s a punch, block, strike or kick.

If you always move fast, you’ll never sense and correct problems or shortcuts in your technique.

(Tweet that)

The same holds true for your mind.

Ever since humans evolved into cognitive beings, we’ve cluttered our minds with layers upon layers of thought patterns that interfere with our TRUE self.

We’ve told ourselves so many stories – about our body, skills, talents, environment, worldview – that the journey of finding oneself through the Way of Karate is not so much a journey of discovery as it is a journey of recovery.

This is where slow thinking comes into play.

I hate to sound like a weirdo hippie, but the most efficient way of slowing down your mind is actually through meditation.

It’s easy:

  1. Sit still.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. “Think” about nothing.

That’s it.

For the first 5 minutes, you’ll panic.

Seriously.

Your consciousness will be subject to hundreds of irrelevant thoughts flying through your brain at supersonic speeds.

fke_oyama_mokuso

But the less attention you give those thoughts, the less frequently they appear.

Eventually, they vanish.

*POOF*!

Your mind relaxes.

That’s when you achieve clarity – in thoughts, feelings and actions.

Our mind usually operates on autopilot – just like the body.

When you slow down, you see this.

That observation leads you to a magical place:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Viktor E. Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)

This is why you need to slow down.

  • Slow movement allows you to experience the depth of techniques.
  • Slow thinking allows you to explore the interconnectedness of life.

Slowness is a catalyst of self-discovery.

Apply it…

…or remain stuck forever.

In Karate.

And life.

🙂

44 Comments

  • Gunnar Grisl
    ...I trained Shotokan to 2nd Kyu, these days I am a Tai chi Chuan teacher. Think about this: To pergorm a perfect technique... is it better to do or practise it slow? What is easier? Your Body learns anyway. Speed is essential only in the real world application, so give your body AND mind the chabce to experience all variations of speed and consciousness. That´s he way which is more than just the struggle fpr being cool or get a point at a competiton.
    • I started T'ai Chi Ch'uan at the same time as karate. When I became a teacher, I began to employ elements of each during sessions. I regularly use very slow kihon in karate combined with people coordinating their movements with everyone else in the dojo and trying to move "as one". This creates an intense awareness of the Zen ideas of "big mind"; awareness/other and "little mind"; focus/self......and a damned fine kick and punch! Nice article Jesse
    • ozzy savage
      Thank you,i shall add this tec/to my learning.Respect....
  • MVDB
    It's funny how everything's connected, or well, guess it also depends where you put your focus on. I'll explain myself:Two days ago I heard Bill Harris of the Centerpointe Research institute (Holosync) say: "We create suffering because we are working on automatic pilot and are focussing on something we don't want", so our mind unconsciously directs us toward that particular thing we focus on. Yet, when we meditate, we create awareness, we witness and that creates 'choice', now we become aware of what we want, we have the ability to choose, and when WE choose something we will most likely never choose what we don't want.I wanted to lay out the way he expresses it here, because you talk about slowing the body and mind down to become aware of, it's another way of saying the same thing, and I believe you understand something better when you observe it from different angles.I also think, Qi kong, Tai-chi etc. are a good form of practicing Karate.Thanks for the insights Jesse!Peace!!
  • Alex Parks
    Great article Jesse! My instructor, Elmar, used to say that if you can't do a technique slowly then you probably aren't doing it correctly at speed. Great food for thought!
    • Gunnar Grisl
      That´s the spirit I mean. :-)
  • Very very interesting and cleverly built article. I remember, back in the days, when my sensei wanted to work slowly. I remember findind it boring and useless. After 3 to 5 tsuki in nahanchi dachi (wado ryu), i felt like i was being torture... And you know what? Today I'm the one struggling with my students, trying to teach them to work slowly, espcially when they train alone. Let me tell you that the fight's not won yet because they cannot undersatnd the benefits.But i'm not giving up that easily ;-)So, many thanks Jesse-san for bringing out the subject.
    • Brenda
      Thank you for this. Its what I've thought and have been saying to my daughter for over a year and now that I'm training with her, I'm using my own advice. Executing a technique quickly is one thing, but doing it correctly is extremely satisfying.Just like learning to play an instrument, muscle memory is built by repetition and doing something wrong during that repeition ingrains it. Much easier to do it right the first time than training the bad information out later on.
  • My instructor called this "seeing the brush strokes". We employ these ideas in the dojo. Good article. Thanks.
  • Gunnar Grisl
    "Control... you need control..." even Master Yoda said that! ;-)
  • "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast." - So basically slow = fast with regard to to practice. I saw an article a while ago where and RBSD teacher was saying that he makes his students practice movements slowly due to how dangerous they are, but it's not a worry simply because physiologically the body can't tell the difference between slow and fast movement when it's under stress. The idea would seem to be supported with adrenal time compression.
  • mkultra329
    Nice article. I was at a seminar with Nagatomo of the JKA/WF earlier this year and he was doing exactly this. And his technique is precise.
  • Brilliant article, thank you Jesse! Slowing down does indeed give me a better understanding of why certain techniques aren't as powerful at full speed. I also find slow can help build more muscle control. As a yoga teacher with a black belt living (like most of us) a very hectic life, I also find any kind of meditative pause necessary in the dojo and outside.
  • David Gimberline (Dave In Minnesota)
    Great Article Jesse. I discovered this years ago and use it regularly, although it is difficult for the younger (inexperienced) karateka to appreciate. We started with Super Slow Motion kata. Slower than Hangetsu. Work on maintaining structure. Expansion/Contraction of your center. Maximize the compression at the end of the (focused) techniques and release to begin the next motion. Have a settled, directional force all the way through all of the movements (no dead space or stiffness during the transitions or between techniques), including kicks and leg lifting actions (tuff to do on jumps though ;) This can be expanded to all of your basics or any problem areas. Throughout my karate career I have struggle with too much tension and a lack of 'shock'. Moving in super slow motion was the only thing that fixed this. Yes, moving slowly taught me and enabled me to move quickly.
  • Bob and Ray "Slow Talkers of America" ... I encourage everyone to find that on Google or Youtube and have a laugh.
  • Jesús Espiga
    Just brilliant!!
  • maja
    I actually learned this from my father when I was little. he was trying to teach me the piano. while that didn't work out, there was one lesson that stuck and I've been thinking a lot about it after I started training karate.I wanted to play as fast as my dad, but of course when I tried it I just did everything wrong. he sat me down and told me "what you need is to focus on a smooth and steady rythm. when you get that the speed will come by itself." and so he put on this thing sayng "tick, tick, tick" at a painfully slow rythm and had me play. I was not allowed to go faster or slower, I was just to focus on the rythm. eventually he turned it up a bit, and a bit more, and a bit more. until he finally let me play without it and I remember being so amased at the results!it really stuck with me and it's already been a huge help when I train. every now and then I'm told I need to be faster and I'm always a bit confused by it, because I know that when I try to go faster without first being able to really do it right, then I'll just fall on my face (I tried, so that really is what happens). I understand that learning to move fast is really important, fast really isn't fast. smooth is fast.
  • Have you been reading Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais by any chance Jesse?
  • Slim934
    Isn't this the exact opposite from your "42 ways to improve your karate" post where one of your points was actually to move so fast that you can't really concentrate on the movement?
    • Slim934
      Dagnabit this thing needs an edit button.I meant "42 ways to improve your kata"
  • Freddy
    I fully agree with your articleI started practising Kusano-ha shito-ryu in 1988. In 2007 I entered a Tai ji quan course because I was getting older and feared that I wouldn't be able to continue karate. I took up Tai ji quan as I sensed it was similar to karate. And it is in a way : same stances, same techniques...but everything goes slow. I.Now 7 years later, I still practise both arts. It's true, with age, certain techniques become harder to perform. Karate slows down. Kicks are not as high as before. But....after training in karate for quite some years, I still find it difficult to perfom a good kick in Tai ji quan....as it has to be done oh so slowly ! Slow is hard work. My Chinese teacher (who is 20 years older then me) still shows excellent form. I hope one day to be able to do the same. Now, I still practise karate (with a preference for kata and bunkai). I do it at 'my speed'. And why would this be wrong ?
  • Mike
    Hmm...I don't know, Jesse. I agree that slowing down to a certain degree from time to time is a good idea to tweak and improve things, but I do not agree that it need be as slow as you have suggested. I would suggest that a punch or kick executed so slow as you say should be done could result in a lot of false positive feedback, causing doubt about one's form when it is not warranted. It could cause one to start fixing problems that are not there when speed could be acting as a force, a kind of glue, holding things together.For example, if you do a two minute kick your grounded leg or knee could begin wobbling, or twisting slightly in or out. This could simply be due to the extra tension in muscles or tendons as they exert themselves in trying to maintain balance, which could also cause your kicking leg to start altering its trajectory. In effect, one has then created a false positive. And what then? Is one going to start wasting time on going down a dead end, fixing something that dose not need to be fixed?One has to understand that speed itself can aid in keeping form. A faster kick means that the supporting leg will exert itself for less time. Less exertion helps avoiding fatigue, and fatigue can throw things off.I am not saying to not slow down and take a look at things, but I am saying that a punch or kick need not be done at a minute or two to catch something that truly might be a problem in technique. When you pass a certain point one will experience not only diminishing returns in benefit, but could also be creating a net negative.The better approach to trying to catch problems in techniques would be to perform them either at your regular speed, or slightly slower and film them, perhaps even from different angles. Then slow them down. This way muscle fatigue or a wandering mind will not skew the reality of how you truly do punch or kick. In other words, you've controlled variables that could give you a false positive. Now days most everyone has a smart phone so this should be a rather simple thing to do.As for short cuts, what's wrong with 'em? I don't buy the argument that they are somehow inherently bad. One should not be a slave to form. Everyone's body moves slightly different, and sometimes a body is moving a certain way because a certain strict form imposed from an instructor does not feel right. A certain amount of comfortable is not a sin for effective techniques, and may even be optimal for that particular person.When one takes a shortcut it is to move from point A to point B in the quickest amount of time. It makes efficient use of time so long as the final goal is accomplished. If that goal is accomplished more quickly than not using the short cut, then it is also a more productive use of time. Now, if one is merely lazy, and that is the reason for the shortcut, rather than trying to maximize productivity, then that is a problem, then I would suggest the martial artist reexamine the form they have taken on as habit and change things.Keep on keep'n on.
  • this is a great article. I understood that if I want to improove my level I have to slow down in practice. I will try thank you
  • Marjolein van Rest
    Thanks! Very, véry interesting article! I'll definitely will try to keep this in mind every time I practice. Works in other areas as well, at least , that's what my piano teacher keeps telling me: slow down! Slow down!
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    Whether one performs their techniques as slow, Fast, medium, no movement at all, simply stand and not move, lie down, sleep, don't do anything and just be...either way - unless one is doing their art for REAL - then one is doing nothing more than "re-enactment" Karate / "pretend" Karate. Pretty much like those fools who dress up in Armour and pretend to be Knights fighting with swords, and spears etc. Absolute rubbish. Stop wasting time on things that aren't going to save you should the absolute worst happen.Before joining the forces my grandfather (whom survived the SANDAKAN Death March) said, "make sure you know the Rule of the Seven P's, they being : Prior, Planning, Preparation, Prevents, Piss, Poor, Performance .." - I have NEVER forgotten it, and it IS dead true !If you guys are not actually hitting each other and drawing blood I fear the day you are placed in a life altering situation. I do not wish this upon any of you, but for goodness sake, GET REAL ! and do it fast !Being the recipient and the wearing of the Kuro Obi (Black Belt) is supposed to be the result of having been trained, tested, and ready for war.The ARTS were designed for armed and unarmed conflict! - not running around wearing white pijamas like clowns in a Kabuki play.I've trained with many females and males from the Israeli world whom have served their country at the highest levels, and the women are far more ferocious than the men. They do not waste their time practising any movements like snails.Unfortunately training as close to REAL is a necessary evil - otherwise good luck on the day when you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because you will not be fighting for points or trophies. You will be fighting for your LIFE !P.S. I have travelled the world and seen many horrific evils committed by child soldiers, adolescent gang members, even soldiers from other countries; once I served my attitudes to the arts changed forever and I received the awakening my Sensei's, and Hanshi had been reminding me of daily. Given the term Samurai means to serve; therefore serve by protecting oneself and your families and friends, and forget whether or not you can apply a technique LIKE a snail. If it doesn't work in training as close to real as possible - either work at it until IT does - or use another technique. Focus on KEEPING IT REAL !
    • Mike
      Excellent post, Peter!I find myself more and more critical of traditional karate training. Half of me still enjoys doing the kata as an art form, but the other half wants our dojo to move in a more realistic direction for using it as PART of a complete fighting system that allots much more time to grappling and ground fighting. A well rounded fighter should train equally in all three.When you enjoy the sensei and other students the hard part is trying to nudge the dojo in that direction. The traditionalists are still well entrenched.
  • Hi Jesse-san. Great article, and it makes a lot of sense. My Matsubayashi-Ryu Sensei would have us do katas three different ways.1. Normal - Full speed and full power 2. Slow - With as little tension and strain in the muscles as possible, taking two to three times longer than at normal 3. Stressed - Still doing kata slow, but keeping all muscles tight, again taking two or three times longer than normalI still do my katas this way, but now I'm thinking about doing my slow version of the kata even slower.Thanks for the great advice.
  • Ida
    Hi Jesse-san,GREAT ARTICLE! And iit is awsome Way of practicing Kata. I am also using this for many years in my Dojo. Also with the eyes closed.It really helps!Btw: i Like your site!! It's a eye opener that the real lessona of karate start by becoming a black belt. It is not the end, But only the beginning!! Keep up the GREAT job!!
  • Irwin Chen
    This topic has a strong correlation to your 'Kiai'article:My thoughts:Linking of movements one after another, Understanding the techniques as you link Avoiding mistakes when the kata is performed in full speed, power, with spirit and in 'proper' and 'correct' form, Meditative aspects Breathing
  • Mikkel Secher
    Good article, but: Sometimes correct form, is impossible to perform slowly. Especially kicks. Look at the standard Mae Geri (front kick) - to perform it as slow as you suggest, it requires a completely different activation of muscles compared to correct form. Mostly when doing a correct Mae Geri many muscles in the leg are completely relaxed, and only certain muscles are used to accelerate the leg. The key to a correct Mae Geri is kinetic linking - transfering kinetic energi from one muscle to the next. This requires a certain speed, otherwise the kinetic energy dissepates. A slow (several minutes) kick requires a lot of other muscles to keep the leg in the air, and moving it slowly. Moving as slowly as you suggest, requires tension all the way through the technique, and will develop you neural pathways in a way that will have a negative effect on the power and speed of the technique when performed at full power. The key to a powerful punch or kick is speed. (Energy = mass * acceleration). One need only tighten the muscles in the moment of impact to achieve maximum transfer of energy. The more you train your muscles to tighten throughout a tecnique, the more energy is wasted.
    • Ken Morrow
      Mikkel makes a very good counter-point. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. A good karateka should be able to hold each "snap-shot" position in a 4 count technique for at least a few seconds - even most kicks. If you are having to rely upon dynamic balance to execute a technique instead of static balance, you are not doing it right and you lack the proper conditioning to make the technique as powerful as it should be. Much of this "slow" thing is about conditioning of internal muscles that are part of larger muscle groups, tendons, and ligaments; including the synaptic control of them. This requires mindfulness - intent and focus, as well as repetition. This is internal karate. Take, for example, many of the odd stances we use. We train students to do them correctly by putting them ina frozen position, holding the pose longer and longer - extending the posture deeper and wider. But we never hold these positions in a fight! They are transitional, flowing from one to the other and staying in them only long enough to unbalance the opponent, close/open the gap, slip their attack, execute the throw, etc. We're talking about blink and miss it sort of timing. Slow builds the proper foundation, Mikkel. It does not teach the proper application. Application without foundation is weak karate. Foundation without application is dancing. Balance is the goal of all things. And I agree, Mikkel, 2 minutes is way too slow. But several seconds is not. In fact, I'd LOVE to see a Shotokan practitioner take 2 minutes to execute a flawless mei giri from zenkutsu dachi! That would be a very impressive trick.
  • Love the explanation of why to use meditation. I'm a zen buddhist since like 16 years ago and what you have written is what I usually call "learn to really think". I use to say that many people "don't know" how to think because they do it too fast. Now I'm going to read your article about Mokuso.
  • Peter Byl
    Thanks Jesse for this article. I practice Aikido and have just started Kendo but I'm sure this slowing down would help in any art.I believe this method will teach me to use the muscles needed and at the same time relax the antagonistic muscles.
  • themba ncube
    Hie, l started doing karate in 1995 and l did for six years up to blue belt(wado ryu). After that l relocated to another place were there was no karate for eight years and l really love karate.but now l have been training alone for the past six years and it's like l m going nowhere sensei. Maybe l can get same help from you. Ossu
  • Ken Morrow
    Retention (mental and physical) is also greatly enhanced through slow-motion training. You will remember movements learned in slow-motion much longer with less repetition. I teach ALL kihon in slow-motion first. Then increase speed gradually. Of course, this forces me to practice kihon in slow-motion on a regular basis. I think the slow, by-the-numbers approach common in kyu rank classes is the primary reason most people don't appreciate this methodology until they are 2nd Dan or higher. Most of your time is now spent teaching a 4-count mei giri. A couple weeks in, you notice your mei giri getting much better. Hmmm...
  • Ed Sumner
    Nice article.... reminds me a bit of an interview I read with Eric Clapton, nicknamed "slow hand" because his guitar playing was blindingly fast. He commented, "if you want to know if someone really knows how to play the guitar, have them do a ballad... anyone can sound ok going fast."When I first began having knee and hip problems, I HAD to go slow... it was the only way I could continue practicing. Doing Goju Ryu kata in a Tai Chi fashion was "revealing." Now that my legs are somewhat fixed, I can go (reasonably... for an old guy) fast... but I still practice slowly on a regular basis.... and I teach that way too.
  • I do that in my yoga classes, make my students go slowly and smoothly.
  • adheesha sooriyabandara
    yahhh... it's Great. Thank you..!
  • Madhava P
    Thank you Jesse Good Article
  • maison
    good luck jesse for you to make good articles
  • Valerius Maximus
    Jesse, very interesting thoughts about the role of slowness in the learning process of Karate. Recently, in Portugal, the (slightly) unusual heat wave was as a challenge for Karate students of all ages, meaning that in most Dojos, more breaks to rest and drink water had to be included throughout the classes. To avoid the unnecessary discomfort caused the physical effort in those temperatures, we performed Kihon and Kata in slow-motion. This allowed us to focus on details, such as coordination, sequence, breathing and, perhaps, polish the movements, adding a layer of aesthetics. It felt like meditation and may have allowed us to "slow down and feel", perhaps understanding a little better what is beyond the practical aspects of this Martial Art.
  • Adrian
    Hi ive tried this a few in class every one hates it......but.........it works especially for older adults who struggle with high kicks I'll incorporate in tomorrow's class ..........see who moans the most
  • Eddy S
    I'm just wondering at what stage you can start with 'slow' execution of techniques. Is it suitable for beginners or do you need some experience ? Do you need to program a basic routine in your movement(s) or can you already emphasize on it from the start?
  • Pavol Bajusz
    Dear Karate by Jesse, My wiritning has been inspired by one of the seeming contradictions raised in one of your reader´s questons: “But Jesse-san, how can slow movement improve for my Karate? I want to be fast, hard and powerful!”Well, in my oppinion, a retired instructor of Karate, there is a contradition only in terms of time, first slowly and after having understood and consolidated the mechanics of Karate techniques, practiioners you may start training the harder way with more Kime involved.Yet, there is a half-way solution, do it slowly with some Ki-me, similarly like in the Sanchin -Kata of Goju-ryu, which increases botzh intra-muscular coordination and strength, pre-requisits of training for harder puneches first on soft surfaces, gradually becoming harder, thus requiring shotrter time for muscular contraction known as Kime.Caution: there is still a difference between hitting soft target, where longer and deeper Kime is requiered opposite to harder targets, wheer short and more concetrated Kime is of gereater advantage both to your hands and ther results to be achieved.Best regards,Pavol Bajusz, retired instructor of Goju-ryu Karate, age 64

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