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Karate Training
Dragon Times

According to tradition the first Japanese sword blade was made by the swordsmith Amakuni about the year 700. Amakuni, his son Amakura and a number of other smiths were employed by the emperor to make weapons for his warriors. One day the emperor and his warriors passed by Amakuni's forge as they returned from battle, and instead of greeting Amakuni as he usually did, the emperor totally ignored Amakuni and all the swordsmiths. As the warriors straggled back Amakuni noticed that many of them were carrying broken swords; the weapons he had forged had snapped in the heat of battle. He closely examined the weapons and swore an oath to make a sword that would not break and so regain the emperors favour.

Amakuni and his son locked themselves in their forge and prayed to the Shinto gods for seven days and nights. Then they set to work, refining the metal of the blade and applying all their knowledge to make the perfect sword. After a month of work they emerged with a sword that curved slightly and had only one edge. Pleased with their first effort they refined the process, and when the warriors returned from their battles the following year, none were broken.

The methods followed by the legendary Amakuni were improved over the next ten centuries but the basic technique of forging the blade remained the same. Small pieces of steel formed in a blast furnace were selected and stacked on an iron plate. This was heated in a furnace then welded into a solid block on an anvil by pounding the metal with heavy hammers. The block was then folded and beaten out again repeatedly until thousands of laminations were produced and much of the carbon in the original pieces of metal was removed. The final blade was made by wrapping the prepared block around a strip of high carbon steel which would produce the edge of the sword in the finished weapon. In the final forging the blade was covered with a paste made of clay, charcoal, powdered grinding stone and other material which is removed from the edge to leave a pattern typical of the smith's tradition. The sword is heated "until it turns to the colour of the moon about to set out on its journey across the heavens on a June or July evening," according to the words of one swordsmith, and cooled by being plunged edge down into a trough of water kept at a specified temperature. The unprotected edge of the blade cooled quickly while the clay covering allowed the rest of the blade to cool more slowly and so retain its flexibility.

The smith would then sign his name on the tang and pass the blade onto specialist craftsmen who would polish the blade and fit the hilt, guard (tsuba) and other items of sword furniture. The finished blade was sometimes given to a professional sword tester who used the living bodies of condemned criminals or their corpses taken from the execution grounds to test the cutting power of a new sword. Twenty different cuts were used, beginning with severing the hand by cutting through the bones of the wrist and progressing through the thicker limbs of the body. The most difficult cut was known as ryo-kuruma (pair of wheels) which involved slicing through the hips and the thickest part of the spine. The results of the test were usually recorded on the nakago or sword tang, and it is not uncommon to find inscriptions on old swords giving details of the tests such as "two men cut" or "eight arms severed." Some swords were so well made that in the hands of an expert swordsman they were capable of slicing through tremendous resistance. Some seventeenth century blades bear the inscription "mitsudo setsudan" (three bodies with one cut), and in the martial art of iai-jutsu (the art of drawing the sword) one of the techniques taught is capable of cutting a body in two by slicing through the torso from the right hip to the left shoulder. The terrible cutting power of the Japanese sword does not simply depend on the quality of the blade; it must be wielded by someone who knows how to cut, a skill developed by cutting through bundles made from wet straw or other materials.

The Japanese ken-jutsu master Taisaburo Nakamura believes that modern ken-jutsu has declined because the majority of those who train with the sword can no longer cut powerfully. He says that when he trained in military swordsmanship at the Toyama Gakko the most important part of the training was "daily cutting practise," Tameshigiri. "Without this daily cutting practice we could never hope to be any good. Almost no schools do this anymore and they do not produce swordsmen anymore. I have been a senior instructor of Kendo for many years so I know-without actual cutting practise you are not going to ever learn to use a sword. Kendo people today don't seem to realise this. What they are doing is not a martial art; it's a sport. Simply knowing how to move a sword (real or a bamboo simulation) through the air does not teach the swordsman how to actually cut, and so the art has suffered. Cutting through targets which simulate the resistance of flesh and bones allows the swordsman to correct any errors in his technique which cutting in thin air cannot do. The shock of hitting the target and the resistance of the material cannot be duplicated by thin air, and so this kind of training is vital if ken-jutsu is to retain combat reality."

This kind of training is based on the principle of feedback which is probably the single most important factor in improving skill. Tony Gummerson explains that "The whole purpose of feedback is to help to improve the learning environment and the acquisition of technically correct patterns of movement."1

In learning karate, or any other martial art, the student is faced with two tasks; the first is learning the techniques of a particular style and the second is developing skill in using those techniques. Geof Gleeson explains that " the use of the body and its bits and pieces (arms, legs and head) to transmit force to the opponent.technique is best learnt in the simplest of circumstances, ie. in a non-varying situation.Skill is the application and therefore the adaption of technique to an ever-differing situation."2

In karate learning the mechanical movements of the various blocks, kicks, and strikes is known as kihon (basic) training and is usually learned by drilling the techniques in thin air. Although some karate instructors place great emphasis on the specific details of the basic techniques of their styles in reality the small technical differences between the styles, like beauty, are often only skin deep, and are sometimes stressed for commercial reasons or to enhance the instructor's ego; ie. one way is "correct" while the other is "wrong", and therefore the student is advised not to waste his money or time on the "wrong" way. Miyamoto Musashi refers to this in his Gorin No Sho (Book of Five Rings) when he says "When an excessive number of sword moves are taught, it must be to commercialise the art and impress beginners with knowledge of many moves with a is delusion to think that there are all sorts of ways of cutting people down.if their are variants, they are no more than stabbing and slashing."3 If two practitioners of differing styles spar together, the apparent technical differences tend to diminish and factors such as, speed, timing, flexibility, stamina and power become far more important. The stress laid by most instructors on developing precise basic techniques can lead in some cases to the more important attributes such as impact etc. being neglected. This is probably due to the influence of values derived from the sporting arena, where form and speed are the over-riding concerns and the importance of impact has diminished.

In 1989 Tikki Donovan, the coach of the British team was asked to give his opinion on the importance of competition karate. He replied "if you had asked me that last year I would have said it was very important, but recently I have changed my opinions. If as a figure you have 100,000 people training in karate in the UK then only 1% of them may be interested in competition karate, but what they do train for is to develop good basic karate, and now we are getting a split within the art which can only be a bad thing.

"There are black belts out there who can't even punch their way out of a paper bag, or when they do they are missing the target. Just because you win a few competitions it does not mean you can do proper karate, it is for that reason that I am going back in my teaching to the way I was taught.Competition karate is killing the art, I feel karate must become more physical, it has all become too mamby-pamby. Today, competitors are getting points for punching and falling on the floor. Before, we would have never given a point for such a technique, as there is no stance or form.There's too much dancing around now. When I was competing you trained in your basics and kata, then when a competition came along you entered it. But now there's a competition every week and some of the fighters that compete only train for the next competition, resting in between, and that's not on."4

When he was asked to account for a decline of interest in karate Donovan said "Too much competition.Look, most people start karate to learn how to fight on the street. Instead, too many instructors just want to teach competition karate, which does not suit everyone, so they leave."5

Obviously those who involve themselves in any style which encourages contact have a greater appreciation of the need for and the effects of power than those who identify actually hitting an opponent with a "lack of control." In my experience some very senior grades of many styles of karate are deficient in the areas of power and impact, as they use a lot of their training time inefficiently. They often train very hard, ie. they develop impressive levels of aerobic fitness, but often they are simply practising how to do basic techniques in more complex gymnastic ways, not how to use those techniques in a practical way.

There seems to be some resistance to training with equipment among senior karate-ka who would otherwise classify themselves as "traditional."6 I find it hard to understand why this should be so, because by training in this way they can still practise the basic form of their movements while improving their balance, appreciation of distance and power. I believe that it is more valuable for dan grades to train their striking techniques on a target of some kind rather than simply hitting the air like low grades, but unfortunately the trend is towards finding yet more ways to practise basic techniques which they already perform very well. Shotokan 8th dan Teruyuki Okazaki believes "in order to make your techniques have to hit something which has resistance. So this is our responsibility as karate instructors: to instill within the minds of todays practitioners that they do need traditional training."7

All training methods are subject to the law of diminishing returns, and for an experienced karate-ka to train like a low grade is meaningless, but instead of identifying and improving those areas where they could make major improvements some seniors tend to immerse themselves in training methods which may challenge their memories or stamina but are actually pointless as methods of improving relevant fighting skills. As an analogy would it be effective for a concert pianist simply to practise scales like a beginner, or would it be more sensible for a skilled musician to improve by playing pieces of music which stretch his or her talents to the limit? This does not mean that basic training should be ignored; training in kihon is very important as a method of developing the mechanics of karate techniques. John Sayer and Christopher Conolly, in Sporting Body, Sporting Mind, explain that "Repetition of physical skills sends a constant stream of signals via your nervous system to the brain, familiarising it with the movement. What repetition really does is to train the nervous system and the brain."

Attributes such as impact, timing, distance, and power require specific training methods. If we accept that one of the most important purposes of training in a martial art is the development of self-defense skills, then it becomes obvious that means must be devised to improve those skills which training in thin air cannot develop. This point was made by the authors of the works on karate translated by E. J. Harrison "In both the katas or forms and kumite or contest of karate it is essential that you should on no account neglect the assiduous training of your natural weapons by means of the special auxiliary apparatus recommended for that purpose. If you do, then the real power and efficacy of the art will be reduced by half."8

To take a simple example: if you want to develop a powerful punch it is imperative that you train your fists by actually hitting something; in fact until you actually hit something you are not punching, you are simply moving your hand in the air. Essentially it is more efficient to hit something than to simply punch thin air; impact cannot be really developed by punching thin air, and focus (kime) is only truly experienced when the fist actually hits something. If however you are primarily interested in developing a fast punch for use in sporting competitions, then this type of training will probably be less useful, and in fact might be counter-productive as by landing a powerful punch you could be disqualified. One athletic coach Roy Shephard has pointed out that "Any drills that are used (in training) must resemble the corresponding components of the sport very closely, or the motor controls of the brain will become confused."9

Elwyn Hall is a Shotokan karate-ka and a very successful competitive fighter. He has also trained as a boxer for some time. He was asked to comment on training methods and he explained "take for example reverse punch. You punch the air, you punch your training partner, always controlled technique. One of the things I understand is that what you practise, you will eventually get better at, and what you don't practise you won't get better at. I think you need to actually practise fully released impact in order to develop fully usable techniques.the successful karate competitor develops great speed, control, balance and agility, but not necessarily great power. But for success in a real conflict the preparation needs to cater for a slightly different scenario, ie. different distance, greater impact, different body positions. To put it simply, the preparation needs to fit the arena."10

For a punch to be effective in real combat it is necessary for the blow to penetrate the target and not simply touch the surface. It is known from research conducted in 1979 that a punch reaches it's maximum speed of about 7.5 metres per second at a little over three-quarters of the extension of the arm.11 It follows that for a karate-ka to generate maximum impact his fist should hit his opponent's body when the arm is travelling at maximum speed; often however what we often see is the blow landing at full extension, i.e. at the exact moment the fist is decelerating to a stop. Hirokazu Kanazawa sensei warns against this when explaining methods for training hyoteki, or targets. He says "generally each execution of tsuki, keri or uchi should go beyond the target approximately 10 cm. for two main reasons.

"Firstly, to avoid running the risk in a real encounter, of being unable to advance the impetus through the body of an opponent, the nervous system and the different motor functions being accustomed to the 'No contact' (Sundome) practice. We are referring to a karate in which efficiency in competition is valid in a real encounter.Secondly, it is paradoxical that, after thorough training what the real feeling of 'giving a blow' is, that we realize the importance of the control or sundome."12

In karate, skills are developed in a number of ways, including working with a partner to practise many sparring methods which range from kata application or bunkai to full contact sparring. To improve the quality of karate techniques a number of tools have developed over the years. Some are very traditional, while others make use of up to date technology, but they all have one great advantage over training in thin air; they generate feedback so the student can correct himself. Gichin Funakoshi pointed out that "What you have been taught by listening to others' words you will forget very quickly; what you have learned with your whole body you will remember for the rest of your life."13 Those who regularly train with equipment know this to be the case, and their understanding of the quality of their techniques does not rest on the subjective opinion of an instructor or anyone else.

Mirror/Video Camera

Watching yourself practising techniques in a full length mirror is a very useful way to correct the form of your techniques. Errors in posture or body alignment are readily apparent and can easily be corrected. Using a video camera to tape yourself is even better as the tape can be replayed, if necessary in slow motion, to highlight strengths and weaknesses in the performance of karate techniques. Clearly identifying a fault is the crucial first step in eliminating the error; simply practising techniques without any form of correction will almost certainly make a fault worse.


The founder of Shotokan Gichin Funakoshi wrote "The seiken is truly the life of karate-do, and the karate-ka cannot neglect the constant training of his fists, not even for a day. Without a powerful fist, your kata and kumite will lack authenticity and your movements will be no different from dancing.

"To a certain extent, basics and kata are helpful in strengthening your fists. But in either case, you are only punching air so there is no resistance or response, and never having had a chance to test it, you cannot really have confidence in your punch. This is where the makiwara plays an important role.

"In karate-do, the makiwara is used to strengthen not only the fist, but to practise use of the sword hand, elbows and feet. The explosive power behind the karate strikes and kicks can be attributed to training with the makiwara."14

The makiwara has sometimes been called the "anvil of karate." It is a very simple piece of equipment made by fastening a punching pad, traditionally made from straw, to a length of flexible timber which is either buried in the ground or secured firmly to a base plate in some way. It may have been derived from various types of "wooden dummies" used by Chinese martial artists, but the makiwara has long been used by Okinawan martial artists to train their punches, strikes and kicks.

A drawing of an Okinawan training on a makiwara (below) was included in the Nanto Zatsuwa (Miscellaneous Writings on the Southern Kingdoms) written in 1850 by a Japanese samurai from Satsuma named Sagenta Nagoshi.

Training on a makiwara is relatively straightforward. The straw pad is struck with all the natural weapons of the body, with the level of impact gradually increasing as the trainee learns how to correctly transmit power into the target without damage to himself. Once powerful blows can be struck from a standing position various types of footwork and body evasion are added creating drills which develop the ability to throw powerful strikes from a range of angles. It is often claimed that training on the makiwara or similar kinds of equipment is dangerous because of the inevitable damage to the fist caused by the constant impact against a hard surface. According to a study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine in 1985 "long term and routine practice of karate does not appear to predispose to early onset of osteoarthritis or tendonitis in the hands and wrists of those studied."

Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushinkai karate was a staunch believer in makiwara training. He had his hands x-rayed in 1955 and in 1970; no evidence of any kind of degenerative disease was found and the density and size of his bones and joints were normal.15

Although it cannot be generally recommended as a training method, there are some individuals who have developed very powerful punches by hitting very hard targets. An extreme example was that of the boxer "Two Ton" Tony Galento who according to boxing writer Arthur Helliwell "concentrated on toughening his ham-like fists by pounding them against a brick wall until they were red meat. As a result they became so hard that he could punch his way through a solid door without harming his hands."16

Some instructors of Chinese boxing and Indian Kalari claim that training methods which involve striking a hard target are dangerous as the heart may be damaged. They believe that the shock produced when the fist hits the target travels up the arm and damages the heart. If this theory held any validity we would expect to see heart disease among blacksmiths, and those who regularly use rivet guns or road drills. As far as I know no one has ever made this connection, and these warnings have no basis is any scientific understanding of the human body.

Focus Pads

Focus pads, also known as hook and jab pads were originally used by boxers to sharpen their punching. They were soon taken up by karate-ka who realised that they could be used to train all of the striking techniques of karate. Although many people believe that this piece of equipment was popularised by Bruce Lee, training with the focus pads appear in Mas. Oyama's book What Is Karate?17

Kick and Punch Bags

The aim of training on the punch bag is to develop powerful strikes with the hands and feet. The pugilists of the Prize Ring used various methods to develop strong punches. Peter Robinson (aka Rafferty) was a nineteenth century bare knuckle fighter. He taught his sons, Harry and Johnny to punch by "punchin' sacks of grain till their hands bled. Peein' on them till the bleedin' stopped, and then the same the next day. Till Harry and Johnny could punch anythin' without breakin' skin."18 As training for boxers became more sophisticated sacks of grain etc. were replaced with bags of varying weights. R. G. Allanson-Winn wrote in 1897 that "hitting at the sack, say for ten minutes twice a day, will, in conjunction with the boxing, get the upper portion of the body used to the effort of long-continued punching.

"The punching-sack should be stuffed tightly with flock, hay or cloth, and should be about 3 ft. long, and suspended from a beam in such a way that the upper portion is about on a level with the head of an ordinary man."19

Modern karate-ka also make use of the heavy bag, especially for training the kicking techniques. Frank Brennan recommends training on the "heavy bag.which I consider important in the development of effective technique and transmission of power. I find the bag work very revealing in that you immediately understand if one's timing, distance or focus are correct, and finally I find the heavy bag work very beneficial for the development of stamina."20

This kind of training is also found in Japan, especially in the more traditional dojo. Roy Estabrook trained at the Yoseikan honbu dojo in Shizuoka in the early 1990s. He explains that "each session begins with the punch bag when a variety of punches and strikes with the hands and elbows are practised followed by a full range of kicking techniques. You must strike hard," Sensei told me, "the bag is there so that you can unleash full power."21

Air Bags

The airbag is essentially a portable version of the punchbag. Resistance to the punches and kicks is provided by an inflated inner tube from a car tyre which is faced with layers of foam. This is held by a training partner who can move either towards the attacker to jamb his technique or away to avoid the blow. This in turn improves the attacker's footwork and judgement of distance and timing. If the attacker hits the bag with a particularly effective kick or strike the holder will let him know; this kind of feedback is invaluable for the attacker to improve his technique. Feedback is immediate, and if the kicker throws an inaccurate or unbalanced technique he becomes aware of the error without needing an instructor to correct him. This way of developing powerful, accurate kicks is more efficient than simply kicking thin air, where the training can become either a demonstration of flexibility, or an aerobic drill which improves stamina, but not penetration or accuracy.

The air bag is also a very useful tool to develop good balance and the ability to absorb the recoil which can occur when the kick hits a firm target. For those who may have to train on their own, or who prefer to train on their own the same effect can be obtained by kicking a rubber tyre which is securely fastened to a wooden or metal post.

Speed Ball

The speed ball is essentially a device to speed up reactions and develop timing. The best kind in my opinion features elastic cords fastened to the top and bottom of the ball which are fastened to the ceiling and the floor. Once the ball is hit it moves back and forwards in a very random way, which develops the karate-ka's ability to react to changing distances and angles. One variation of the speed ball which I saw being used by a professional boxer is made by attaching a tennis ball to a length of elastic which is then fastened to the forehead. Begin by punching the ball gently and try to keep the ball moving by striking it alternately with both fists, or with combination punches off one hand. With practise you can keep the ball in motion and then add footwork, moving backwards, forwards and sideways while hitting the target. The elastic means that the tennis ball will spring back quickly towards your face, so you must be prepared to either punch, slip, or block. While this piece of equipment looks very strange, it is a very challenging way to improve your punching accuracy and timing. When I began training with it I received a good number of hits to the face when I mistimed my punch; this duplicates the effect of an opponent's counter punch and is a useful way to keep your reactions very sharp. Be prepared for sarcastic comments from your friends. I showed this method to a number of highly graded karate-ka of a number of styles, many of whom have won international honours in competition karate, and of course most of them found it very amusing, but when I asked them to try and hit the tennis ball, none of them could land more than a couple of punches without quite extensive practise, which I found amusing! It is more difficult than it appears at first sight, and care should be taken when training in this way.