Tradition Reloaded


A word heard often when speaking about Karate.

Traditional values. Traditional techniques. Traditional etiquette. Traditional…. you get the point.

I think many people misunderstand tradition.

Let me take an example: In our classes we practise with “focus pads“. You know, the type that boxers or kick/thai-boxers usually use. We train strikes, kicks, punches, knees and other techniques on them.

It’s great for cardio, strength, impact/resistance training, and simply adds a whole new dimension to “punching in the air” that many Karate schools seem to worship. And don’t get me wrong, punching in the air is a valid exercise, even thaiboxers spend hours and hours on shadow boxing. I simply believe they go hand in hand.

Now, here comes the million dollar question: Is this a traditional way of training Karate? Hitting pads?

Most people would say no.

Before I comment this, let’s take another example:

Many “traditional” Karate schools use old-style strength training equipment. Like jars filled with sand (nigiri game) and wooden sticks in a stone (chi ishi). They are great, and training with them really helps in building strength in the specific muscle groups involved in Karate. Plus, they add a high degree of exoticism to the training!

If you didn’t understand my messy explanation, here’s a picture.

In our dojo we don’t have these. What do we have? We have kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells and other “modern inventions”. They are great for strength training, and not hard to get, like the old-style versions.

Now, do we train traditional Karate strength training?

Most people would say no.


I say “Yes” to example one, and “Yes” to example two.


Because tradition is not about preserving the ashes – It’s about keeping the flame lit.

In other words, it’s not about stepping in the footsteps of the old masters. But rather to seek what they sought.

I know that the old way is to not use focus pads. Because they weren’t even invented then. I know that the old way is to not use modern gym equipment. Because neither did they have that.

But if they had focus pads and modern gym equipment, I’m absolutely sure they would use it. They wouldn’t have any seconds thoughts about it.

Before you could blink, Motobu would be standing there with focus pads, perfecting his devastating elbow strikes, while Funakoshi and Miyagi would be comparing their kettlebell-swing technique with each other. Mabuni would be standing in a corner explaining to some critics why the old-style training equipment is no longer needed with these new grat inventions.

But they didn’t. Not because they didn’t want to. But because they couldn’t. Sport science and the sporting industry was barely invented at that time. They just didn’t have the knowledge or material to make a pad, even if they wanted to!

So, when we train with pads and modern gym equipment, we train the traditional way. We seek the same goals they did. To make our Karate more effective by using equipment, but without being stuck in time.

I am actually going so far that I will say that if you only use the old style equipment, and neglect the modern inventions, you are going AGAINST tradition.

Because tradition is about keeping the flame lit.

You are just sitting there with your ashes.


  • vimal
    Dear Sensei Jesse I agree with your view that working with Focus Pad would not breach the traditional practice. Kime is an important part of practice in karate and Focus pad is only an aid to it. Let me add "Maki Wara" one of the most traditional equipments used in karate and very similar to "Focus Pad". Nothing can be immune to changes but the fundamental should remain one and such changes could not be said to be change in the traditional practice may an addition. Regards and Keep writing vimal
  • Hello again vimal! You are right, and I agree with you fully. Change is inevitable, but fundamentals should remain. The makiwara is an excellent tool. I keep writing if you keep reading! Dôzo yoroshiku! /Jesse
  • John Arena
    Brilliant analogy. You are so right, it is imortant to keep the flame and not just preserve the ashes, However due to the lack of accurate information from the past, we must study the ashes as well. Unfortunately, if we discard the ashes we sometimes also throw away burning embers that through diligent practice could develop into flames that illuminate the path. our writing is a daily inspiration. great job.
  • John, Thank you (now I'm flattered)! Studying the ashes is the hardest part I believe... Even if you discard them, you might find something later which you didn't realize was significant at that time... as you say, embers may still be there, developing into the light that we need. Thanks for commenting. /Jesse
  • Batman
    "Tradition is not about preserving the ashes but keeping the flame lit." Lovely way of summing it up. Some people say it dishonours the old masters to change things they taught, but perhaps it only dishonours them when you don't continue where they left off.
  • Szilard
    "sticks in a stone": we exercise with them as a 'prerequisite' for all the bo kata, I can't imagine anything better for the same purpose. We have modern equipment in the dojo too, but they are used with moderation.
  • Training the "old" way has nothing to do with "Strength Training" or "excellence" in combat. It has to do with the state of mind you enter with the training the same as with Kata. As Karate Do has nothing to do with fighting, training has nothing to do with your body. You can experience and train the "new" ways, develope your body in ways the old Masters never imagined but you will never arrive to Satori by this path...
  • Satori is to reach enlightenment through experience, reflection and personal development. According to your logic, karate as such would be completely inadequate for this purpose: Only doing kôan riddles and meditation would help. Using karate and kata is an innovation made at some point, the same way replacing old by modern training equipment is. Karate does have to do with the body: Get a totally unsporty person to do intensive kata practice, this will only lead to injuries and ineffective imitations of techniques. However, after some years gradual training builds your body, so that you will not get injured and be able to execute powerful techniques. It is important to have philosophy underlying the practice of karate, but this does not negate physiological facts and the progress of humanity made over the centuries.
  • Dear Jesse! I do totally agree with your point of view. My guess is: They used what they had to proceed and if they had focus-mitts, thai-pads, rubber-bands or even Music, they would have used it for certain purposes. Like Funakoshi quotes: The world changes so obviously martial arts must Change, too. ATB Christian
  • diosdado
    I agree that keeping the tradition is to continue doing the technique and purpose but not necessarily using the same training material. However, for those who can not afford modern equipment; and so improvise them, then resort to the traditional equipment. make a makiwara instead of punching bag or sand bags. Buy earthen jars and filled it with sand or cut a pole put a concrete cement on its ends and you have a traditional weights.

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