Introduction to Conditioning
In karate, the word “conditioning” tends to be used in two ways–as it relates to fitness and as it relates to toughness. Each aspect is more or less important depending on why you train, but both have value to karateka and should not be ignored. Conditioning for fitness (aerobic and anaerobic) should focus on intense practice of karate as well as supplemental training that has benefits directly relating to karate training. Conditioning for toughness can apply to soft tissue (muscles and skin) or hard tissue (bones) and is generally utilized to make a karateka more resistant to pain and injury, but care must be taken to not abuse fellow students (or one’s self) or take this conditioning too far.
Conditioning for Fitness – Aerobic
If you want to increase your endurance then you will need to build slow-twitch muscle fibers and increase your lung capacity and heart strength by working out an an aerobic level. Aerobic exercise is typically light to moderate in intensity (about 65%-80% of your VO2 max–there are charts available online to help determine this) and focused on endurance (anything over 2 minutes of sustained effort, but more commonly an average of 20-30 minutes) and the use of oxygen to fuel the muscles. This use of oxygen requires your lungs to work harder and more efficiently in order to allow your muscles to continue functioning effectively for extended periods of time, and if you reach a point where your lungs are no longer providing enough oxygen, your muscles will begin to work anaerobically. It should be noted that the slow-twitch muscles developed by aerobic exercise are the smallest type of muscle fiber and so while they will make you stronger and help you metabolize fat, they do not typically cause a person to develop a large, muscular appearance.
Most people run, jump rope or swim for their aerobic exercise. These are certainly viable aerobic workouts that will build slow-twitch muscle fibers and increase lung capacity, but they are not karate specific and many martial artists place a bit too much emphasis on them. If a person is trying to increase their fitness as it relates to karate, they would benefit more from exercises like extended sessions of shadow boxing, kihon waza (basic technique) practice or kata (f0rms). The reason for this is simple–running will build the slow-twitch muscles required for running, jumping rope will build the slow-twitch muscles required for jumping rope, and swimming will build the slow-twitch muscles required for swimming. Karate training certainly shares some of these muscles, but the most efficient use of a karate practitioner’s workout time is to build the slow-twitch muscles needed for karate, which can only be accomplished by practicing karate in an aerobic way.
Conditioning for Fitness – Anaerobic
If you want to increase your power, explosiveness and speed then you will need to build fast-twitch muscles through anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic exercise is a higher intensity level (typically through the use of weights or fast movements) because the muscles need to be worked hard enough that they do not have enough oxygen, and this is done over short bursts of activity (typically less than 2 minutes at a time). The fast-twitch muscles (there are two types) are the largest muscle fibers, and in addition to generating speed and power they also cause people to develop larger, more muscular-looking builds.
Weight lifting with heavier weights and fewer, faster reps tends to be the anaerobic exercise of choice for most people. This can be effective for karate, but the same conditions apply with anaerobic exercise that apply with aerobic exercise–doing curls will make you stronger and more explosive at bending your arm, for example, but won’t help you punch any harder or faster. Plyometric exercises (explosive, dynamic body weight exercises) and weight training exercises should work through ranges of motion used in karate in order to be efficient. Plyometric pushups, dumbbell presses, bent-over rows, leaps from a fighting stance, leg extensions, leg presses and oblique situps are all examples of exercises that have direct relation to movement found in karate.
Conditioning for Toughness – Soft Tissue
Human skin is easy to scrape, cut and bruise, while muscles are susceptible to tearing and even bruising of their own. Karate is a martial art that requires physical contact, and many instructors promote body conditioning/hardening in order to make students more resilient for both self defense and training purposes. The human body is always involved in a constant process of rebuilding, and when it experiences minor trauma it tends to rebuild the affected areas a bit more densely than it otherwise would have–this is evident in people who regularly work with their hands, as they have thicker, tougher, more calloused skin on their palms and fingers than people who do not work with their hands.
There is no shortcut or magic solution to making your skin and muscles tougher and less prone to bruising. Striking bags, mitts and makiwara with bare hands (and other striking surfaces) will toughen them over time, as will things like knuckle pushups. Take care not to let skin be scraped off, as it will heal as new, softer skin. Instead, simply work until the skin of the knuckles has been somewhat irritated–red, sore and somewhat chalky in appearance from abrasion–but no more. As this heals, the surface layers of skin will become tougher as they are repaired while new skin grows beneath them to eventually form callouses. Striking flexed muscles will toughen them over time, as well as slightly toughening the skin, but care should be taken with this type of conditioning as too many strikes, or strikes which are too forceful, will damage the tissues and make them weaker in addition to causing injury. Conditioning should stop when the muscles feel sore like the day after a hard workout, or immediately any time there is sharp, deep or intense pain.
Conditioning for Toughness – Hard Tissue
The bones of the body are constantly being broken down and rebuilt as they are stressed, and it is generally known that weight-bearing exercise increases bone density. Those with strong bones are, obviously, less prone to breaking them and for a karateka this is especially important. Karateka engage in training that exposes them to more risk of bone injury that most people, between sparring, partner drills and the use of training tools like the makiwara. In order to strengthen the bones and help prevent breakage, they must be stressed so that they increase in density.
The weight training and body-weight exercises that should accompany karate training will increase overall bone density over time, but this is generally not sufficient for intense karate training. The use of kote kitae (literally “forearm forging/tempering”), which smashes the forearms against hard objects, such as makiwara, kakiya (a training device with a weighted arm and striking surfaces), striking sticks (sometimes called “makiwara sticks”) or other karatekas’ forearms, will gradually increase the density and strength of the bones in the forearms so as to protect them from breakage while blocking and grappling. This very same thing can be done with the shins and elbows. The use of makiwara for striking with the fists or feet will also strengthen those bones as weight is forced onto its striking surfaces repeatedly. In both of these cases it is very important to be cautious–start with light contact and gradually increase the intensity, otherwise it can be easy to cause injury. A safer method of strengthening the bones of the hands, specifically, is to form fists and use them to hold a plank position on a hard surface. As there is no impact, this is a less intense method of increasing bone density, and weight can be placed on the karateka’s back to increase the weight being supported over time.