10 Important Karate Details Your Sensei Hates to Remind You About

#1: “Straighten Your Back & Look Up!”

Check your posture.seishin-female-gi-karate

If you spend your days like 95% of Western people (= sitting in front of a desk) your back is probably permanently hunched over.

Humans are a product of their environment.

Unfortunately, this is neither good from a health perspective nor from a Karate perspective.

Your back needs to be straight in Karate – especially if you do rotational movements.

Otherwise, your techniques won’t be fully efficient from a biomechanical standpoint, and you might seriously hurt your health and performance.

But it’s not enough to have your back straight. Your neck needs to be straight too.

Many people look down at the ground when executing Karate techniques.

Why? Because it’s an unconscious expression of low self-esteem.

I get it. Karate is hard. Look up anyway!

Did you know that for every inch your head tilts forward, you add 10 pounds of pressure to your spinal chord?


Plus, in self-defense, bad posture makes you look like a victim.

Straighten your back & look up!

#2: “Breathe!”

You can go days without food or sleep.

But you can’t even go minutes without breathing!

Yet, for some reason, people start compulsively gasping for air when doing Karate.

(Or even worse; they hold their breath.)

Breathing is the key to unlocking the path between your mind & body.

To be more scientific; you can change the activation level of your nervous system simply by down/upregulating your breathing, directly influencing your emotional state.

Related reading: How to Breathe Correctly in Karate

Some people can even control functions of their autonomic nervous system (i.e. digestion and heart rate), purely through adjusting their breathing pattern.

With conscious breathing, you tap into your subconscious.

It’s a well-known fact that breathing unleashes your inner strength.

“The lungs are reservoirs of air, and the air is the lord of strength. Whoever speaks of strength must know of air.”
– Jui Meng, Shaolin monk, 1692


#3: “Twist Your Hips!”


Your legs account for 40% of your total body mass.

To achieve maximum power in your Karate techniques, you need to use your complete body mass – including your lower extremity.

So, how can you recruit your legs and transfer their energy to your upper body?

Four letters:


If you don’t twist your hips when you punch, block, strike etc., you might as well be sitting in a wheelchair, because you’re literally isolating tons of energy in your legs.

The only way to completely channel the energy from your lower body into your upper body is through the efficient timing of hip rotation.

The trick is to coordinate your hip with the rest of the kinetic chain.

Easier said than done, I know.

Twist your hips!

#4: “Lower Your Shoulders!”

Twisting your hips is not enough for delivering great power.

You need to transfer that power via every joint – including the shoulders.

If your shoulders are stiff, weak or disconnected, the power of your techniques will get diminished before it has a chance to reach your target.

That’s why you need to lower your shoulders, so you can relax them and establish the correct connection in the structural alignment of your arms and body.

Only then can you activate the correct muscles.

However, if your Karate solely consists of “punching thin air”, this doesn’t really matter.

But, if you actually hit stuff, your shoulder position is critical – both for power transmission and joint health.

Lower your shoulders!

#5: “Slow Down!”

When something excites us, we speed up.maurino-beach-seishin-lowq

It’s great that you think Karate is exciting.

But sometimes it’s important to slow down!

When you rush all the time, you tend to create bad habits – like cheating in techniques or injuring your training partners.

The main advantage of slowing down is that it gives you time to reflect & feel.

Slowing down allows you to explore uncharted territory in your proprioceptive map – the physical areas of the brain responsible for sensing movements (read more).

I know… it’s easy to always go fast, because it doesn’t require any thinking – and you can ride on the momentum of speed.

But slowing down requires you to be in full control of you mental state.

And 99% of Karate is about the right mentality.

Slow down!

#6: “Keep Your Guard Up!”

I love eating carrot cake.

But I hate eating knuckle sandwiches.

Why? Because every time I drop my guard when I fight a skilled opponent, I’m reminded of how bitter they taste.

(Luckily, knuckle sandwiches are organic & gluten-free!)

Okay, enough with the bad jokes.

Everyone knows that it’s important to keep your guard up.

Yet, as soon as we face a skilled opponent, we tend to drop it and panic.

The reason is simple: your lizard brain goes into survival mode when you fight. Your brain is literally telling your body to run away from the dangerous situation and curl down in your bed with a warm blanket, a big cup of hot chocolate and Netflix.

But you’re in the dojo now. You need to be able to defend yourself!

(Related reading: 3 Ninja Tactics to Become a Better Karate Fighter)

Keep your guard up!

#7: “Elbows In!”

Many people have heard this, but few people know why it’s important.

When you punch with the elbows in, your shoulder joint rotates externally. Since the shoulder is a spheroidal joint (“ball and socket joint”), this creates a stabilizing force in the shoulder due to the biomechanical law of torque.

It’s basic anatomy.

This is super important, because your shoulder is one of the most unstable joints in the human body!

If your elbows flare out when you punch, block, strike, etc. you lose torque in the shoulder and end up with extra slack in the joint, causing it to get loose.

This increases your risk for injury dramatically.

Keep your elbows in!

#8: “Knees Over Feet!”


Let’s play a game.

Raise your hands if you know a Karate practitioner with a knee injury.

Good. Now take your hands down, grab your knees and whisper softly to them that you’ll never do this dangerous (but common) mistake.

Here’s what you need to know:

If you strive to always align your knees and feet, you’re doing better than 99% of people who injure their knees in Karate.

Why? Because your joints are not made to work in isolation – they’re made to work in integration. The more you align your knees and feet, the better they can cooperate.

Strive to track your foot with your knee – no matter what stance you’re in.

Otherwise, your Karate career might be shorter than you expect.

Knees over feet!

#9: “Focus!”

You got “important stuff” to do.

Groceries to shop, kids to take care of, work to finish, people to meet, places to go…

We’re all so busy these days.

But nothing of that exists in the dojo!

The name says it all: “DO”-“JO” (“Way” + “Place”).

There’s simply no room for worldly distractions in the Place for studying the Way.

If you only practice Karate a few times a week, don’t waste them by being unfocused.

(Here’s my favorite way to focus.)

Trust me – your grocery list, phone bills and parking tickets will still be there for you after training. They’re not going anywhere, unfortunately.

And your Karate won’t improve by thinking about them.

You deserve the luxury of shutting out external distractions in the dojo.


#10: “Relax & Smile!”

Lastly, perhaps the most important one:


It’s easy to be too tense in Karate.

Today’s modern hectic life basically promotes it!

But Karate can’t flow from a state of tension.

That’s why Inoue Yoshimi, the world’s greatest kata coach (R.I.P.) once old me the following:


Not because life is too short to not enjoy.

But, because when you smile, you relax!

Needless to say, your Karate techniques can only *snap* when you’re truly relaxed.

(That’s how I was able to extinguish all those candles in Karate On Fire!)

In other words, smile every time you feel stiff. It’ll make you feel relaxed.

Plus, it will make training more fun!

You only live once… right?

Might as well enjoy it.

Relax & smile! ; -)


PS. If you want to seriously improve your Karate, read this next.


  • Austin Baker
    This is pretty much exactly right. Although, they're really like 10 habits I want to eradicate; I could never hate helping my students.
    • Thanks sensei Austin! Glad it resonates. Which one do you find your students need most help with?
  • Rob
    Oh yeah, knees over feet - still learning that one myself! As for smiling during kata? It's a liberating experience. I'm more relaxed which makes it easier to slow down and to breathe properly which, in turn, has an immediate and powerful impact on the kata.
  • Alex
    Keeping your head up dovetails nicely into a point I always try to remind myself of - Trust your own body. It takes time and effort to build good technique, but things like looking down, being too tense, etc, often fade away when you trust that you know what to do. If you are not elite level, trust that you can perform it at your own level and build from there. Be mindful of things that will need improvement, but always trust your own body.
  • Andrew
    It's funny how reading through this list I'm seeing things I know I'm guilty of maybe without even realizing I'm doing (or not doing) them. Things to look for in myself as well as in my students. Thank you so much Jesse-San for another informative and thought provoking article!
  • Ossu! Only ten? LOL! Heard 'em all, still working on them all :-) Especially the shoulders. I think I've made some progress, but I've a memory from a few months ago that illustrates how bad/obvious this problem was and sometimes still is. I was standing around looking for work that needed doing after an event and a black belt sneaked up behind me, grabbed my shoulders and (instantly so I knew what he was up to and wouldn't counterattack) started massaging. Message understood - waaaaaaaaay too tight even when I'm not doing anything!
    • Thanks for chiming in Joelle-san! Massaging the shoulders is actually a great reminder of this important point. I'll start doing that more with my own students!
  • Paul Hornbogen
    Jesse: This article rocked. Everything you discussed I have and continue to face while training. Clearing the mind, relaxing, not leaning, dropping the hands, shoulders, hips, to looking down.
    • Thanks Paul-san! Much appreciated. Like the saying goes... "Karate is a lifetime study" :-)
  • Arindam Sikdar
    After reading your few post,I have found this post, and also my first comment that slowly but steadily you are growing with shotokan way ( JKA Nakayama Principal).From your correction, from heel and toe movement to this new post.Word from Shotokan Way, "Always student." Oss.
  • Philip
    Hey, i have a question, i'm myself is 3 kyu. So what should i call, for example you Jesse?. Would it be San, Senpai or Sensei?
    • Call me what you're comfortable with, Philip-san! Jesse works fine:-)
  • Chris
    Hey, nice post with some good information. I'm curious about one thing here: You say that for optimal shoulder health, the shoulders should be down ... How does this apply to people training in a form of combat which involves boxing style punches, where correct technique involves elevating the shoulder of the punching arm? Should somebody throwing boxing style punches avoid elevating the shoulder excessively, or what is your opinion on this? I know it's not really a karate-related question, but I'd be interested in your opinion on this. Thanks, Chris.
  • jackie
    I tell my students to focus on technique rather than speed. Once tje technique is right speed will follow. Focus on speed and you tend to lose the technique. Also tell them there are no instructions on the floor, so look up - not down :)
  • Bo
    Great and inspiring article as always, Jesse-San! I am myself striving to remember these important things in my karate. Of all of them I find breathing to be the absolutely most difficult one, even though breathing should be easy, we do it every day. I would love to see an article by your hand on how to learn to breathe properly while doing karate. Thanks for a great blog!
  • Great text, Jesse-san! I will try to remember this when preparing for the World Martial Arts Games 2016 in Germany. To answer your question: The hardest thing for me is smiling. Yesterday we trained for a show we'll have on sunday and when I performed the Kata, I heard my girlfriend from behind me: "Lächeln!" (German for "Smile!") I immediately thought about your article about Yoshimi Inoue who always reminded you to smile. I train Karate now for 20 years, I can talk about trash while performing a Kata, but hell, I can't just do it and smile.. yet! I hope, one day I can do it. Thanks for all your input over the years and keep on doint your great job! Sincerely, Sören
    • Sören - I know what you mean, I just can't bring myself to smile when doing a kata. Sparring - I'm working on it, especially if my opponent has just done something brilliant and effective against me. But kata? I have a little training and a little experience in drama, so once I've memorized the movements and bunkai, I start to call on my acting skills. I can't see myself smiling happily while doing a takedown on an evil clown or a hairy biker dude (yes, I imagine specific opponents). I'm gonna fight my way through these guys because they've kidnapped my daughters (yes, I'm an old-school method actor, LOL)! I am not happy. I tune into my "inner *****." Those guys are going DOWN.
  • Yes, yes, and YES! These 10 things are heard every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at our dojo. It is great to know that I am not alone and that we all have to work on similar problems (myslef included). The best thing is, we always come back to it and get better everytime. Thank you for you post Sensei Jesse!
  • Viesia
    #6 . By now I should know this ...yet I still drop my guard
  • Oscar.
    Am 5.28'ft....can height be a hindrance.I would want to amp my game and reach high leevels as you have achieved. Kenya.
  • Brian
    This is so accurate I think you must be Psychic. That is exactly to the letter what I am constantly being told by my Shihan especially dropping my shoulders & moving the hips.
    • Well, what can I say Brian-san... you're not alone! :-)
  • Cathrine
    Spot on. I chant these in our Dojo more often than I care to think about. (It is a wonder people keep coming to my classes, one would have thought that they had gotten tired of them by now...) #11: "Keep your heels down!" #12: "Tighten your hara!"
    • Great additions sensei Cathrine! I'll add those if I ever do a follow-up post. Thank you!
  • Nate
    Knees over feet is the one I'm consciously working on the most, particularly in kiba-dachi. I developed a bad habit of allowing my knees to buckle inward, because at 42, I lack good flexibility in my hips. The one I have the hardest time with, realistically, may be the breathing. When I execute a fairly rapid series of techniques in a kata, I tend to hold my breath until I hit a "pause" point, which is no good. I find myself huffing and puffing after only a couple of kata. Part of THAT issue is that I'm asthmatic, and asthmatics tend to exhibit abnormal breathing patterns to begin with. Knees have made a lot of progress. Breathing, not so much.
  • Ben Brown
    Jesse -San , I think this article should be dedicated in the loving memory of Master Inoue Yoshimi! Although I've never met him, I can see that he was someone very passionate about "the way". Those who were fortunate enough to receive his knowledge, should feel blessed to be able to share with others his same spirit. Sincerely, Ben
  • Great article. The only other (non-technical) thing "Your Sensei Hates to Remind You About" is pay your dues or explain why. Every time a traditional Sensei has to ask for money, a kitten dies somewhere.
    • Sad but true, Mark-san...
  • Robert Loyer
    Awesome post keep up the good work Oss !!
  • Hi Jesse, Sensei. Outstanding article. Here's an idea for Group discussion: let's build an additional list since you know there are more 'details' we have to tell our students about. This way we will have Intel from everyone who reads this fascinating and truthful post. Start to create your list and copy it and paste right here. Do it now so you don't forget. Thanks everyone-:) --ASL/Publisher: www.officialkaratemag.com P.S. We will post the complete list with your name, school, style on what you added if you add 5 or more details. Fair enough? iF you don't want your name listed etc., let us know and we will abide by your wishes.
  • Great article Jesse San. You have managed to point out majority of the mistakes that we were told about by our Sensei. But we usually forget to practice this in the dojo. I remember a great quote by none other than Bruce Lee that many students should know about. "Knowing is not enough, we must apply. wiiling is not enough, we must do." Knowing these things will not do any good unless we apply it and this post is a great reminder of all the little things that are of great value to our training in Dojo. Sad to hear about Inoue Yoshimi Sensei. RIP
  • Peter
    Possibly your best article ever! Easy for me though, I only struggle with the first 10.
    • Haha, thank you Peter-san! :-) Keep smiling!
  • Ania
    My Sensei tells me all of that. Nothing new in there. Maybe that's why I'm the regional champion of southern Africa.
  • James
    HIPS!! They're my biggest downfall... They always feel disconnected and sometimes they want to pop out (which I understand is a matter of strength and flexibility). But these are definitely points I've brought up for other students in the past!
  • Arjun
    Nice article Jesse, i am also a great writer Jesse and this is how i end your 10th point Your Sensei knows it SMILE:)
  • Holly
    Definitely relaxing during techniques is the hardest of these for me. Relax your arm and fist until delivery of the punch and then tense it as you make contact will definitely increase the power and speed of the technique. Great article Jesse.
  • Sensei, you are really great. I got a lot of points from you. I didnt expect such lessons from karate. And once again you are a karate NERD !!!
  • ShotoNoob
    There is great martial wisdom in these details. They are meant to develop the traditional karate base skills. \ Traditional karate is more about building a strong base for fighting... than fighting. The prerequisite of a strong base is paramount in successful karate. \ Post note. Boxing ,etc. train to keep the chin down for protection, gaze down to gauge the footwork of your opponent. Why doesn't karate advocate the same?
  • KM Chokar
    I had left Karate now for almost 10 years but after reading your page I want to start again. I practiced upto 2nd Kyu in Shito-Ryu Karate Do. Now I am 31 years old. Can I start again? For me twisting hips with punching or kicking was never easy. With regard KM CHOKAR
  • Chantal
    Since I've just started Karate this year, I struggle with everything basically ;) Posture and feet, however, are okay as I am coming from classical ballet (even though I have to admit that my 'ballet feet' -turned out and not straight- are driving my sensei nuts...). The biggest asset I am bringing into Karate is probably my flexibility. Breathing is a critical point for me as I also tend to forget to breathe in other situations, like public speaking. For 2016, besides getting serious with dojo and belts and stuff, one of my resolutions is to practice meditation on a regular basis and I hope this will also enhance my performances in other areas of my life...
  • Dan
    Great blog Jesse Great advice well explained - keep it up Dan Ireland
  • Wonderful to read! Some of the things I know, but not conscious, you know what I mean? For example: Besides practicing karate I love to draw, and am very aware that when you relax and are open, every line is much more precise and accurate (and surprising) than when you just work hard. Drawings get blunt and dull when you just work. I KNOW that! But with karate I put on my serious face and put every effort into making blunt and hard movements. So thank you so much for reminding me to laugh ?
  • Novice
    *Nods while reading* Yeah, got reminded of most of these more than a couple times.
  • Cory
    Knees over feet, elbows in, guard up. Those three I struggle with or forget quite often.
  • Great article again Jesse! Very nice to see and read your articles! Keep on training. Osu!
  • Chris Veverka
    Love your articles Jesse-san, however the pop-ups are very annoying and some are impossible to exit without starting the entire article over from the beginning. :(
  • Marc
    You could add "lower your stance"... but that is a more debated topic, depending on the style you practice. I'm guilty of the whole thing above... but working on it! Which I have most trouble with? Humm... I'd say, long term, #1... looking up means that you have surpassed your shyness and fear. It's a whole state of mind shift that takes ages to achieve and master. Becoming proud of what you do... no matter of you suck at it (as you discuss it in the other article you referred to) goes a long way to achieving this I think.
  • Aimie Howard
    For me, its to check my stance and feet or go lower in 'horse stance'
  • Maleele Siakachoma
    Wow Awesome Article Sensei. I really need to improve on my breathing. Sometimes I feel inner energy easily comes out when you take a deep long breath especially during jump kicks or whenever you get air-borne. I usually take long to breath during these quick airborne movements. Thanks, I will work on it.
  • Salima
    I hear every single one of these at my dojo. I can see my sensei smacking my husband's shoulders and saying, "RELAX!" I can hear him telling me to breathe. I can also hear him yelling, "FEET" from wherever he is in the room and EVERY SINGLE person in the room checks their feet. With every point I read, I can see one member of my karate family that is guilty of this and hear my beloved sensei's exasperated voice as he corrects his "kids" for the millionth time. LOL.
  • Dionne Kiloh
    Every week. Just trying to be the best me.
  • John-Paul Mitchell
    A sensei's list of complaints shouldn't be made public to students. It would be disgraceful for a teacher to be heard saying such things and would discourage students. If a sensei is so inept that he must rely on disparaging students to get their compliance, his students need a different instructor and he needs a different hobby -- he certainly isn't acting professionally. He should. Have a numerous tools to train them to do the right thing. So, are their failing theirnown fault or his? I suppose because they walked into the dojo and haven't yet walked out they are somewhat responsible for his not having sought to improve himself. It's the sensei job to make these corrections continually. Be a man or get out of the dojo. A sensei who relies on expressing sincere disgust creates a relationship of emotional co-dependance, not a student-teacher relationship based on mutual respect. This makes karate a cult; an abusive hierarchy where the only way to advance is to kowtow to the teacher -- which isn't the attainment of skill, but just kissing-up. Is this the Tao? Now, maybe it's just your packaging, your headline. Maybe you aren't actually complaining, but trying to awaken students to the most common points they can improve on. But you're doing so by then feigning the co-dependant emotional manipulation -- which is still negative emotional manipulation. Is this how you think the best senseis teach?
  • John
    Only starting out... Anticipating my first lesson with my kids. Thanks for these great tips! OSU!
  • FreelancerWells
    When it comes to breathing, the main problem is rhythm. If you don't breathe properly, it messes up your flow, hence why some people are inclined to just hold it. Learn to breathe in a way that follows the cadence of your actions. For example, when stepping forward, I would inhale as I draw in my back leg, then I would huff out a short breath as I push forward to strike. In fact, if you make a habit of letting out short intense exhales, it will help with your Kiai as well. Also, I totally relate to the slowing down part. During a private lesson, I got some in-depth guidance on the basic Kihon, and between that and doing it slowly, it suddenly became a whole lot harder. The good thing is that I've become a lot more proficient at them, and I look forward to more private lessons and covering more moves at that same level of depth. :D

Leave a comment