The 3-Step Formula of Karate Mastery


“Mastery” is a big word.

If you practice Karate, you should strive for it.

In every punch, kick, block and strike – move towards incremental mastery.

To me, that’s what makes Karate so fun!

There is always something to improve.

Like the legendary founder of Shito-ryu said:

“Karate is a lifetime study.”

– Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952)


Is there any secret formula for this lifelong process of mastering Karate?


It’s called “Shu-Ha-Ri” in Japanese.

And today, dear Karate Nerd™, I’d like to share my understanding about this ancient 3-step formula for mastering Karate with you.

Check it out:

Step 1: Shu (“Follow The Rules”)


The first step to mastery is to follow the rules.

In Japanese, “Shu” literally means “to obey”, “keep intact” or “protect”.

In other words…

Do EXACTLY what your sensei says!

  • Follow the lines.
  • Copy the forms.
  • Imitate the moves.

At this stage, your only job is to observe and memorize what you are being taught.

Just like a child, learning to write the alphabet on a blackboard.

In the legendary words of Bruce Lee; try to be completely empty and formless – like water, poured into the cup of your sensei.

At the Shu stage, you are constantly processing, collecting and memorizing information that is being presented to you. Then you repeat it, over and over again.

From a neuroscientific viewpoint, Shu is your conscious mind.


Eventually, you begin to float to the next stage.

Step 2: Ha (“Break The Rules”)


Now you’ve arrived at step two.

In Japanese, “Ha” literally means “to detach”, “let go” or “break away”.

This might seem paradoxical.

But once you have memorized important details, forms and techniques, you need to STOP thinking about them.


You need to break free from the constraints of imitating, memorizing and copying (Step 1, “Shu”) and take charge of your continued learning process.

This is hard for people, because change is scary!

For this reason, many Karate-ka never make it past the “Shu” stage.

They’re stuck…

…in an endless loop of technical nitpicking.

But, just like Tarzan swinging on his vines in the jungle, you need to let go (“Ha”) of your current vine if you want to jump to the next one.

Only then can your Karate skills become second nature.

You stop thinking.

You just react.

From a neuroscientific viewpoint, Ha is your subconscious mind.

This is what people often refer to as “muscle memory”, because your techniques have transferred from your relatively slow & heavy conscious mind to your fast & instinctive subconscious mind, through gazillions of repetitions in the “Shu” stage.

Get it?

Lastly, you flow into the final level of mastery.

Step 3: Ri (“Make The Rules”)


At this point, let’s be honest:

You’re pretty badass.

In Japanese, “Ri” literally means to “leave”, “go beyond” or “transcend”.

And that’s exactly what you’re doing now.

After you’ve slavishly “followed the rules” (Shu) and rebelliously “broken the rules” (Ha) it’s time to masterfully “make the rules” (Ri).


This means, you finally transcend the obvious by connecting the dots and seeing the unseeable – tapping into your supreme, absolute, limitless depth of creativity.

You finally make Karate your own!

From a neuroscientific viewpoint, Ri is your superconscious mind.

This whole Shu-Ha-Ri process; where you transcend from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind to the superconscious mind, goes for all skills – not just Karate.

For example, cooking food with a recipe:

  • At first, you follow the recipe exactly (Shu).
  • But when you’ve memorized the recipe, you don’t use it anymore (Ha).
  • Eventually, you start freestyling, substituting ingredients according to your own taste, creativity and feeling (Ri).


You’ve just “mastered the dish”, using the 3 steps of Shu-Ha-Ri.

Just like Karate.

And here’s the coolest part:

Now everything begins again!

Because learning never stops, my friend…

“Karate is a lifetime study.”

– Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952)

This is the essence of Shu-Ha-Ri.

Now go master Karate.

I believe in you.


  • Josep
    How can a beginner know when is he/she ready to move to the next stage?
    • It's a natural process, the symbiosis between you and your sensei :-)
      • Mike
        I've never liked the Shu-Ha-Ri concept of mastering karate. It does not account for unhealthy ego and pride that a sensei could have that could prevent one from moving to the next stage. A "symbiosis between you and your sensei"? I'm not sure what that even means, Jessee. C'mon, man! That's bordering on mystical woo woo. Another problem is, what is the definition of mastery? And if mastery can never be achieved because there is always something to improve, then how can one be permitted to move to the next stage? If mastery does not exist, then there should be no bed wetting over a student who even in the lower ranks has not conformed himself to the style's box, retaining individualistic quirks that could be seen as pre-markers to an already developing somewhat new style. I think it would be a more honest observation to say that evolution in karate can begin from day one of a new student. It should be no secret to many that many sensei want to retain their students as long as possible (unless they are sure to go out and start an affiliated dojo that pays a franchise fee to sensei), and amongst sensei there is ego and pride attached to how many students they can claim to have training under them, as well as branch dojo. Just because they show a humble exterior, doesn't mean they are. Don't be fooled. Cynical? Perhaps. But definitely not naive.
        • Just shut up, if you dont believe in this article just dont comment, no one requested you to comment. Jesse's articles are always the best.
          • Mike
            Actually, Arjun, Jessee has requested me to comment by encouraging us all to chime in on his articles, whether we agree with him or not. He doesn't seem to be just looking for people to pat him on his back. Or, at least I never got that impression. I don't think he is afraid of disagreement. Yeah, his articles are good. I enjoy them just as much as anyone else does. And enjoying them does not mean you have to agree with them all the time, and it is no sin to offer another perspective. Have a good day, Arjun.
          • jack
            "Just Shut up,.." Arjun.. Your Sensei teaches you that? Wow .. he must be very proud of you now..
        • worthy evaluation....power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely....however, great teachers are very very rare and their value is simply beyond price..... Karate is the unconquerable mountain, and selecting the right guide is vital.....but it makes sense, if one is fortunate enough to come across another great guide; without a doubt, your journey will be enriched
          • Ward Wagar
            I see a lot of angst right now, and although I agree that people are flawed, can we not take the best of each experience and focus on that? If you find your Sensei to be holding you back, there are countless others to try. Take great care selecting a Sensei who demonstrates by actions to be who you are looking to study under. Most of all, be positive, and share positive experiences with others. Cynicism hurts your spirit as well as that of those around you.
        • Jonathan
          “symbiosis between you and your sensei"? I'm not sure what that even means, Jessee. C'mon, man! “ You and your is “you” the you ? is the “I” the “I” ? of the awareness that comes in the stillness of the practice. You are being guided to (your) inner teacher/dojo. As you are learning how to consciously make adjustments dropping all ideas and concepts just do “you” can learn to listen to the “I” ? ???
          • Jonathan
            This reply was relating to mikes statement : “symbiosis between you and your sensei"? I'm not sure what that even means, Jessee. C'mon, man! “
  • Jay Torres
    Very nice article Jesse San.
  • Nijil Jacob
    Amazing Article my friend! I do not know where you get these amazing pieces of information! and to put it together like this is just amazing! I think I am still in the first stage. I can not explain how interesting Karate has become to me! and you are very inspirational. If you have time check this out from our competition last year:
    • Nijil Jacob
      • Ryan-san
        The music on the first part of the video comes from the movie bloodsport (my favourite movie yay!!!!!!) i noticed it as soon as the video started. Good video by the way.
    • Thank you Nijil-san! :-) I appreciate it.
  • Ossu! [bow] Definitely in the "shu" stage here with brief forays into "ha" sometimes when it comes to kumite. I like your cooking analogy - I am pretty far into "ri" when it comes to that. Thanks for the peek into my future! It helps to have an idea of where I'm going :-) [bow]
  • Fernando
    "To search for the old is to understand the new..." The three stages brilliantly described by Jesse, as usual, remind me of the process of skill acquisition explained by Motor Learning Theories. From my point of view, these stages -Shu-Ha-ri- coincide with the well defined phases of skill acquisition: the Cognitive Stage, the student learns what he needs to be done to perform the skill; the Associative Stage, the student begins to apply the skills in “game” situations; eventually the Autonomous Stage, when the mastery and automation of skills occurs and the student can focus on the environment and apply skills in increasingly complex situations. According to Schmidt's Schema Theory, skill acquisition is a process in which can be established several stages. The first stage or acquisition phase involves learning the techniques, in other words, learning the physical sequence and motion of each technique and the body mechanics required for efficiency and effectiveness. So it could be said that kihon and kata contribute to motor program formation and to create strong movement schemas which are stored in the memory through continuous practice. The student learns how to coordinate movements, i.e. learns the rules which govern movement. The second stage is to study the functional application or each technique. The student adapts movement and techniques in relation to specific characteristics of the environment. With regard to karate that means the opposition of an opponent. The student has to break the rules. The third stage, which not everybody reaches, involves that the student begins to include variations of those techniques in an increasingly more complex and more demanding environmental conditions, such as higher speed, greater uncertainty or opposition. At this stage variability of practice, as proposed by Schmidt, is essential. Regarding karate, a fourth stage could be added, the application of techniques in real life situations. As Sensei Abernethy states "the initial stage of solo practice is often where kata practice begins and ends in many modern dojos. One of the main reasons for this is that criteria used for determining the quality of a kata is frequently just its visual appearance. If the kata looks good, then it is good! This is obviously a flawed way of view kata when you consider that the katas are supposed to have a functional and pragmatic purpose. (An Introduction to Applied Karate)." "...The old, the new. This is a matter of time. In all things man must have a clear mind."
    • Nice work, Fernando-san! Your thoughtful and elegant comment is much appreciated.
  • Ben Brown
    If I may, I like to look at it from a learning to drive perspective . Particularly a manual( stick shift). You begin by realizing there are three pedals, a gear shift , and steering wheel . Confusing and frustrating . Like me you've no doubt killed the engine a gazillion times before you get it moving. Your always looking down at your feet to figure out what pedal is to do what , let alone shift gears. After some PRACTICE you don't look at your feet, nor as flustered as to shift gears.After some more PRACTICE, you've figured out how you can even shift without using the clutch, and you can hear the noise the engine makes to shift gears! Shu/Ha/Ri. Domo, Jesse - San for allowing me to post this. And thank you to the entire Karate Nerd Nation also.
    • Thanks for chiming in Ben-san! Indeed, Shu-Ha-Ri can be applied almost anywhere, and driving is a nice analogy.
  • maya heikal (asmaa heikal)
    How much time does it take to pass each stage??
    • @Maya Heikal: I'm taking off my very low-ranked obi here and putting on my "teacher's hat." Everyone develops at a different rate. I'd suggest taking a look at where shu-ha-ri has applied to or is currently playing out in your life. Is there something you're good at - so good you can improvise or put your own stamp on it? Flower arranging? Dog training? Music? If you can see where this principle plays out in your own activities outside of Karate, hopefully you'll recognize it as you make progress in Karate. Be patient with yourself!
  • maya heikal (asmaa heikal)
    how much time does it take to get past every stage??
  • Willem
    Really like this sentiment. However, after looking at the responses I would like to add one thing. I don't think you can really put a time boundary on the different steps since everyone is different. To make things worse, the theory that you need to work on certain area's before you can start to work on other. Please have a look at Maslow's pyramid and all the criticism it's had.
    • Willem
      Clicked a bit to fast. Meant to say that theory has been outdated. In other words you're always working on all area's. However, with an emphasis on one the three.
  • Fernando
    With regard to the time it takes to overcome all stages, obviously the answer is neither easy not simple. Motor learning is a complex process that depends on multiple factors. According to Motor Learning Theories, there are multiple factors affecting skill acquisition. These could be summarized in process-related factors, learner/student-related factors and skill/task-related factors. PROCESS-RELATED FACTORS: -THE AMOUNT OF PRACTICE. Motor Learning is directly determined by the amount of practice. This is the most important factor in skill acquisition. -DISTRIBUTION OF PRACTICE. MASSED PRACTICE VS. DISTRIBUTED PRACTICE. Studies have shown that distributed practice is more effective than massed practice. Karate people should pay attention to this statement; especially those of “Shut up and train” wing… -TRANSFER OF LEARNING. The notion of transfer is usually misunderstood if not totally ignored in most of karate dojos. And what is worse, traditional karate teaching usually causes negative transfers as a result of the application of the 3K’s Rule, Kihon-Kata-Kumite, the Holy Trinity. Negative transfer happens when what is learned in one context hinders or delays learning in a different setting. An inconvenient truth? -EXTERNAL FEEDBACK. KNOWLEDGE OF RESULTS. There are two kinds of feedback: knowledge of performance (KP) and knowledge of results (KR). KP or kinematic feedback refers to kinematic information about the actual execution of the movements performed. KR or external feedback refers to external or augmented information provided to a performer after a response and indicates the success of their actions with regard to the predetermined objective. External feedback is regarded as a critical variable for skill acquisition. And it doesn´t fit well “Shut up and Train” method. LEARNER/STUDENT-RELATED FACTORS. -PREVIOUS LEARNING/PRACTICE. Prior learning decisively affects skill acquisition since motor learning occurs hierarchically. Basic skills before specific skills. -MOTIVATION. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink… SKILL/TASK-RELATED FACTORS. A skill is the learned ability to bring about pre-determined results with maximum certainty; often with the minimum outlay of time or energy or both. There are different kinds of motor skills and different classifications of motor skills based on diverse criteria. Closed skills require repetition of a successful movement pattern. For example, kihon and kata are closed skills. Open skills require flexibility and adaptation in the execution of a skill under environmental changes pressure. Kumite in all its forms is an example of open skills. The basic characteristics of kihon, kata performance and kata competition are: - Movements are highly organized and well defined in space and time. - Low demands in the decision-making mechanism. Decisions are made beforehand. - Low demands in the perception mechanism due to the high stability of the environment. In contrast, the basic characteristics of kumite are: - Open nature and low organization. Techniques must be adjusted and must suit the demands of the situation (unpredictable opponent’s movements). - High demands in the decision-making mechanism. - High demands in the perception mechanism due to the unstable situation caused by the unpredictable actions of the opponent. That said, obviously, demands and difficulties in kata and kumite practice are different, therefore, the didactic approach to each modality must be different. I hope these contributions from Motor Learning Theories could be helpful for you Karate Nerds and encourage you thinking out of the box.
    • Trent
      Hey! Great website you have going! Anyway, I used to be in Karate when i was young but, I am thinking of heading back into it. I am short, just over 5 feet, so what is some advice or techniques for people like me to win a fight? Thanks!
    • ShotoNoob
      "BREAKING / REMAKING THE RULES:" | LoveD your essays. Great insight into the education process, which is overlooked by many critics of traditional karate. The exercises you speak of have a PROGRESSION. Traditional karate training is not STATIC as the outward form may suggest. | NOW TO BREAK / REMAKE YOUR RULES. | Although the outward environment in terms of an opponent is static in kihon, kata (excluding special versionds having a training partner, partner training), your categorizations fail to examine the internal processes going on. | Even the much criticized practice of kihon technique practice 'punching air' by the contact sparring crowd, is a very sophisticated process of both internal physical effort & corresponding mental discipline working together to build, gather, and project strength. | As a rule breaker / re-maker, I don't care to elaborate more @ this time. Other than actually these are the real foundation rules I learned under my first TMA instuctor.... Others feel free to chime in.
    • Thanks Fernando, the article was already great, but your comments are making it even better!
      • Fernando
        Thanks a lot, Glauco. I trully appreciate this.
  • Ian
    I see questions about "how long does it take?" ... I am reminded of the old story where a new student comes to a sensei "Master, can you make me the best fighter in the land?" "Yes." "How long will it take until I am the best?" "Ten years." "What if I train every day, twice as hard as your other students ... how long then?" "Twenty years." "What if I train all day every day, stopping only to eat and sleep?" "Thirty years."
  • Karato
    Once I saw an old man sweeping the yard in a monastery, I politely asked him: Master, what is the essence of shu-ha-ri in Karate? He laughed out loud: Shu-hahahahahah! Suddenly I was enlightened...
  • Fernando
    Thinking about the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri came up with a crazy idea. What about applying the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri to karate as a whole? I mean as a discipline, because karate as a discipline evolves and changes as well, like any practitioner. At what stage is karate now? I came up with the idea that karate is in constant evolution and that the three stages could be found in that evolution. - First Stage. Follow the rules. Setting Styles. In the early days of Karate (late 19th Century and early 20th Century), I mean when Karate spread from Okinawa to Japan, essential changes were introduced in order to gain national recognition from Japan’s leading martial arts association, the Butoku-kai. Karate had to follow the rules, requirements and conditions set by Butoku-kai. It was the systematization of karate. Karate rules and the major styles were set. - Second Stage. Break the rules. Confrontation of styles. Searching for “the best style”. The first ever JKA All Japan Karate Championships was held at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in 1957. This way karate is definitely established as a sport, closing the evolution started decades ago. The evolution, development, promotion and spreading of karate around the world started. Karate is breaking the rules. Style’s evolution is different. Some styles keep tradition, others evolve, just like karate practitioners. There is a confrontation between styles and some kind of search for “the most effective and powerful” style, which in my opinion is a big mistake. - Third Stage. Make the rules. The confluence of styles. Making a new Karate. Searching for the Best Karate. In the early 21st century karate may be reaching a new era, the era of the confluence of styles, time to make a new karate, time to make new rules. Time to search for the best Karate, the most effective and powerful, irrespective of styles. I mean a new karate characterized by globalization and integration of all knowledge accumulated throughout its evolution. We live in post-industrial society, 21st Century society, aka the Information Age, the Knowledge Society, the Network Society, the Internet Society, the Internet Galaxy and so on. The society of Globalization and Information Revolution; characterized by the creation, distribution, use and integration of information and knowledge. We all are 21st Century digital boys! Human being is entering a new phase as well as karate. I think some privileged, gifted, talented and open minded first class karateka are actually at the threshold of this stage. It’s all a matter of time… What do you think?
  • Great article Jesse. We were actually talking about this article specifically in class last Saturday. I like how you've articulated the 3 stages of training. It really resonated with me and I think newer students can benefit from it as well. Thanks!
  • Karate nerd cuber
    it is hard to use in real life but is very fruitful
  • Aung saw moen
    My Sensei taught me about it ... He was actually making me understand how to expand Karate and make my own Karate as Different sensei have and will have different perspective .. I am really amazed to read it again and remind sensei's words .. Thank you Jesse San.. Oss Hope to hear more details about it
  • peter
    the toa that can be told is not the true tao
  • Gabriel Fernandez
    Good article, really interesting. I agree with those concepts but it is the first time that I see it so graphically. It has taken me almost 30 years to pass the first stage (SHU), almost 5 years the second (Ha) and now just under two years ago I am happily passing the third stage (RI). Thank you very much for all your work of diffusion, it shows all your passion as professional of the martial arts !!
  • Alexander
    We can use "Shu Ha Ri" to all martial arts and everyday life, It is like we are learning the basic note to create our own music.
    Great insight!

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