Karate, I’m Sorry For Being So Harsh….. Random Musings on Karate, MMA Training, Midline Fitness and Lessons Learned

During the course of life, important moments of growth are often preceded when fundamental beliefs are seriously challenged. Hopefully, if one is mature and ready enough, openness replaces dogmatism, new methods erode ingrained behavior and, in the end, an appreciation forms for the stepping stones and obstacles that necessitates true learning and growth. No one ever said this process was easy. Quite the contrary, sometimes one realizes that a colossal amount of time and effort have been spent on endeavors that are hugely counterproductive to our long-term goals and happiness. We see this in fitness (“I should have spent less time on curls, the pec deck; maybe more on pull-ups, dips….”). We see this in martial arts (“if only I wrestled in high school instead of taking karate class” – more on this later). We see this (perhaps) in relationships (“Man, I married the wrong woman” – Ok, maybe that’s just me….) and I’m sure it pervades almost any series of events in life’s endeavors. It’s not unusual to look back on the activities we mistakenly pursued in disdain as ‘a mistake’ or ‘a waste of time’ to the point that we fail to notice the little gems of knowledge or experience we may have picked up without really consciously thinking of it. Another way of appreciating this viewpoint would be to look how Thomas Edison phrased things when confronted with adversity – “I have not failed, not once. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.”

From the time I was twelve until I went to college, karate training was the focus of my physical activities. Although I dabbled on the high school swim team for two years (and diving for a year), staring at a black line at the bottom of a pool for a great length of time just wasn’t stimulating enough to remain on the team through my senior year. This was compounded by the fact that my high school didn’t offer men’s sports teams for a lot of the activities I considered interesting at the time (gymnastics, downhill skiing and volleyball). Lastly, I wouldn’t learn to appreciate the value that three years of high school wrestling could have given me until much later in life. Given the situation, I wasn’t about to abandon an activity that captured my attention since I was twelve years old. Anyone who knows me real well knows that, in retrospect, I don’t presently hold the karate training that consumed my attention during that part of my life in the highest of regards, especially in light of my growing interest in MMA related arts towards the end of my college days (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, western boxing, etc.) My negative comments normally stem from the perspective that my Mixed Martial Arts training that I adopted later was actually impeded, instead of being aided by, such traditional training. Hours of improper practice in certain movements had to be overcome for the new material to be ingrained. I was starting from a deficit relative to a newcomer to fight training.

Allow me to explain via use of the round kick as an example. In the sytle of Karate I studied, the round house is usually taught as a multi-jointed, segmented move. The knee is fully flexed, raised and pointed at the intended direction of the kick. Once that first step is accomplished, the knee extends, the toes of the foot drawn back as the ball of the foot is accelerated in an horizontal arc toward its target. The final phases of the kick involve isolated action from an outer extremity of the body. It lacks power and violates the important core-to-extremity fitness principal I would later learn when exploring Olympic Weightlifing and, later, CrossFit. On the other hand, the kick looks totally flashy, and by repeatedly flexing and extending the knee we can through a plethora of pretty, frilly kicks that will likely fluster and injure any worthy opponent in the same manner that a swarm of mosquitoes would the driver of a motorcycle without a helmet, although I suppose that is debatable. In other words, the version of the kick that I was taught was great for looking cool but not so great for practical fighting.

Contrast this with the action involved in throwing a Muay Thai kick. This technique, like most of the powerful, land-based human movements initiates from the hip and, in this case, that hip energy carries directly through to final phases of the kick. There’s a slight weight shift towards the front supporting leg and then the hip of the kicking leg insinuates towards the opponent and begins to rotate as the entire body turns over with direction of the hips rotating past the opponent before the shin lands. The energy generated from the large muscles of the torso and upper leg first lead, then radiate outwards and accelerate quickly the lower leg as the shin tries to catch up with the already rotated hips and upper leg. The shin crashes into the opponent as if it were the end of a swinging baseball bat (some like the bull whip analogy better). The force is so great that there is significant danger to the person throwing the kick if the defender is able to anticipate it far enough in advance and block it with his own shin (Google ‘Youtube muay thai shin break’ and you’ll see what I mean, but don’t do this if you are at all squeamish) Trainees throwing this kick are also taught to completely spin around in the event of a missed attempt because it’s very difficult to stop the large amount of momentum generated by this kind of technique. Admittedly a little slower in the beginning, it is vastly more powerful than than any kick I learned from my karate training. In general, folks coming from such arts as Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu who could actually hang in a fight with Muay Thai fighters had kicks that, well, looked like that of a Muay Thai fighter! They were the exception to the rule.

And this is just one example that illustrates where a great deal of frustration set in. Because I had practiced the vastly differing mechanics of the round house kick literally thousands of times before encountering the wonderful properties offered by the Muay Thai kick, I was at a significant disadvantage compared to someone who had NEVER STEPPED INSIDE A MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING SCHOOL! In essence, I had to not only learn a new movement pattern but had to deprogram the inefficiencies of an old one to boot! Combined with a complete absence of any type of ground fighting skill acquisition, this led to one of the most despairing realizations of my life up that point. The one where you become acutely aware that, given your current goals (in my case – effective fighting skill acquisition), all of the training hours that you have previously put in amount to the same value as that of a warm bucket of hamster vomit (any old school Saturday Night Live fans here?). Near the end of one of my early BJJ practices, it became blatantly obvious that my training partner, who was a wrestler during high school, was ‘glopping’ significantly more effectively than I was (think of ‘glopping’ as applying pressure to an opponent underneath using your bodyweight without giving them a flexed, rigid structure off of which to push off – one analogy my first coach used was to act as if your body was made of wet cement). This type of movement, largely second nature to a wrestler, or other athlete versed in the ground game, was completely foreign to someone steeped in the traditional stand-up based martial arts (any Fred Ettish fans still around?) At the end of said practice, I nearly had a mental breakdown. I knew that I was, for all intents and purposes, starting over as far as my fight training was concerned, but had already fully realized just how effective this new style of training was. It was too late to turn back. ‘Cup emptying’ moments like this aren’t exactly relished by someone in their early 20’s and it was from this jaded perspective that led to unabashed criticism of my former style of training, should the topic ever arise. One of my often-stated sentiments was that I would trade my six years of karate training for 3 years on the high school wrestling team with boxing practice in the off-season. In my opinion, no one knows how to better give and receive a punch than a boxer. And no one knows how to take someone down or prevent themselves from being taken down better than a wrestler and although I would eventually become very comfortable fighting on the ground or on my feet, I was, in my limited fight experience, never the fighter to actually determine where the fight was going to go (are you guys paying attention? Razak Al-Hasan, my current roommate, just informed me that entry level fighters are now making $700-$800/fight. I might just make a comeback – Just don’t tell my mom.).

A couple of concepts have lately been brought to my attention or reinforced through various sources that is making me look at my karate training in a different, kinder light. In recent months, I’ve been been going through an intense learning phase as it pertains to my current profession as a fitness professional. Ultimately what this means is that I’m reading voracious amounts of material and likely remembering very little. Given the fact that there about a half a dozen organizations I’d be interested in getting training from compounds this issue as I tend to have subject matter attention deficit disorder and jump around quite a bit. That being said, I’ve started to connect some conceptual dots and have come to the realization that there may have been some pretty important contributions gained from my traditional martial arts training that I’m so normally inclined to bash:

  1. Posture. One of the common issues personal trainers and physical therapists have to work to correct today is the slouching, chest dropped, rounded upper back posture of a society increasingly attached to seated positions in front of computers, TVs and/or video game consoles. A lack of scapular retraction in people is something I work to correct almost every time I’m working with my clients. In traditional Okinawan karate this type of posture isn’t adopted often, if at all. A nice, elongated spine, flared chest was emphasized in pretty much all of the postures I could think of from the horse stance to the forward lunge position that we used to practice most of our basic strikes and kicks. Maybe, back in feudal Japan, no one ever threw a counter punch that necessitated a person adopting the raised shoulders, chin tucked, closed chest position seen in the modern day boxing posture. Perhaps the laws in place in that day and age dictated that a commoner leave their neck fully exposed to the potential cut of a samurai sword, even if they were using their karate skills at the time to defend against such a fate. Whatever the reason, most karate postures seem to promote a lengthening of the spine and a retracted, depressed shoulder position both of which are conducive to health and wellness (well, at least when you’re NOT fighting). I’ve often been complimented on having good posture by people in the health and wellness field and suspect that my years of karate training may have been a contributing factor.
  2. Midline stabilization and development. At the school I attended we did copious amounts of sit-ups. Another abdominal drill, often encountered in our dojo, was the concept of tensing our bodies either while executing a strike and also in anticipation of receiving a blow. Both in our self-defense drills and in our sparring sessions a certain amount of controlled (or not so controlled, depending on your partner) contact was expected. Not having your abdominals ‘turned on’ so to speak and ready to contract in any given moment during class time could have its consequences. As I progressed to the advanced ranks this type of readiness extended beyond class time as members and instructors would occasionally throw surprise mock attacks as we hung around the dojo before and after class. Back expert Stuart McGill has done research that shows that top level athletes, regardless of their sport, have the ability to very quickly tighten and then relax the muscles of the trunk. Now I’m not saying I’m a world class athlete by any means, but, at 38 years of age, would like to think that I can hold my own pretty well against most people and I attribute a good deal of any athletic talents I may have to possessing a fairly powerful midline. Some might argue there’s a genetic factor involved, but I’m going to make the argument that, even if this is the case, that my karate training, at the very least, helped to optimally express this genetic trait.
  3. Diaphramatic breathing – by learning to breath from your ‘hara’ or area near your center of gravity (think two inches below the navel), a person can learn to very quickly recover their breath from hard physical exertion. Also, this practice works to relax the muscles of the neck and shoulders, which will try to take over as stabilizers if people resort to the chest emphasized panic breathing associated with the fight or flight response. Although debatable, I suspect that learning to focus one’s attention on a deeper seated source of breathing will also help in balance and stability.
  4. Really comfortable clothing – OK. I’m reaching here. But if you’ve ever worn hakama (think kilt, but really light fabric that breathes easy – although there ARE legs) you know comfort.
Obviously the real lesson here isn’t about clothing, it’s about looking back on your experiences, even ones that were unpleasant/seemingly meaningless in retrospect and finding the pearls of wisdom, the catalysts, and the motivating factors that led to future, fulfilling growth. Outside of doing nothing, nothing really is a waste of time. Karate may not have been the best way for me to learn how to fight effectively, but it sure did a good job of promoting certain aspects of my health and fitness. And you won’t hear me bashing it quite so much anymore. Perhaps there’s a good possibility, that, had I actually followed a boxing/wrestling/Brazilian jiu-jitsu regime during my early years, I wouldn’t have developed good posture, obtained the abdominal capacity or reaped the benefits of focused concentration on breath that I currently enjoy. Perhaps I’d be walking around with weak scapular retraction, rounded shoulders and a collapsed chest position. Perhaps, I would have developed my knee problems earlier rather than later. Taken in that respect, I can look back on my karate training as a significant contributor towards the road as a fitness instructor instead of as the thing I ‘shouldn’t have studied,’ even if it would have meant that I would have been able to finish a couple of my first opponents rather than having to win by decision.
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