Home Healthy Lifestyle Is Body Conditioning Karate’s Lost Art?

Is Body Conditioning Karate’s Lost Art?

by George Mattson

by George Chaplin

Copyright remains the property of: George Chaplin, C/O Dr. N. G. Jablonski, Dept. of Anthropology, California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. CA 94118 – 4599 U.S.A email: njablonsk.cal.org.
Biographical Details George Chaplin is an Uechi Ryu Karate Do Yon Dan, and has taught and practiced karate in Hong Kong and Perth Western Australia. He was registered at Futenma Dojo where he trained with Grandmaster Kanei Uechi, and has spent a total of one year studying on Okinawa. He spent five years as Chief Instructor of the Hong Kong Dojo with Mr. Robert Campbell Renshi who was Senior Instructor and head of the branch. He has recently moved to San Francisco. .


This article is offered to the audience with the hope that it will inspire further discussion about the topic of conditioning. Here conditioning refers to the body’s accommodation to getting hit and not getting bruised. It does not mean physical or cardio-vascular conditioning. It is an attempt to explain the observation that conditioning takes place. It may or may not be the answer and although the medical implications are pondered by the author, he must point out from the start that he has no medical training.
 He welcomes any input from health professionals into this debate. He advises that conditioning must be done carefully and under supervision. If it is not undertaken then there is a risk that sparring and training accidents will cause greater injuries than they would otherwise. If you are in doubt about any health aspects of karate training the correct person to consult is a health professional. Unfortunately their most frequent advice, to the author at least, has been to give up karate!

Despite its importance for most forms of modern martial arts training, body conditioning has either been totally dropped or is sadly neglected. Traditional forms of kung fu and karate, such as Uechi Ryu, have always incorporated a system of body conditioning. It was by means of body conditioning that the body was prepared for the rigors of combat.

Today many of these exercises to “toughen” the body have been discarded. The emphasis has shifted to sport karate and body conditioning has been replaced with muscle and cardiovascular conditioning because now it is fitness that is of paramount importance. It can be said, however, that conditioning is vital to all forms of karate because it gives the body the ability to stand up to the constant knocks and blows. The ability to withstand the small but constant injuries sustained in normal training is important because it gives rise to greater confidence in the practice of karate. In addition to this confidence conditioning done correctly will help to maintain good health. For these reasons conditioning should again become an essential part of martial arts practice.

Training Methods:

Traditionally, conditioning was achieved by practicing very slightly injurious routines slowly and sustainedly over many years. The important word here is slightly. The inflicting of serious injury is detrimental to body conditioning, karate spirit, and general well being. Neither masochism nor sadism should have a place in training. It must be noted that vigorous training may seem to approach these extremes but at no time should the boundary separating safe from injurious training be crossed.

There are no absolutes and it necessary for the training partners to set their own limits with which each is comfortable. It is up to the instructors and seniors to ensure that the training is continuing within orderly and safe bounds.

So what areas do traditional karate individuals try to train? To answer that question we will look at Uechi Ryu Karate Do, a conservative Okinawan form of karate, which has a number of specific exercise to train particular places. These exercises are done against the resistance of a partner and so increase muscular strength at the same time as conferring conditioning. The slight trauma is provided by means of rubbing and hitting. These exercises are performed at every training session and last for approximately 10 – 15 minutes. In Okinawa, Japan, karate training sessions consist of two or more hours three times a week. Conditioning is started at the first lesson.

In the first place these conditioning exercises are used to strengthen those areas on the outer arm used for the majority of blocking, that is, the dorsal, medial, and lateral aspects of the forearm. Care is taken to avoid the tendons, nerves and blood vessels of the ventral (inner) aspect and also around the elbow and wrist joints. This whole area is referred to as the Kote in Japanese. These areas are conditioned by practicing repeated blocks and strikes to each of the areas in turn, each time hitting a slightly different place. Next in importance to the blocking areas, are the areas that are not so successful in avoiding getting hit or kicked such as the; thighs, and calves (which in this system is also used in blocking against kicking techniques). Lesser amounts of conditioning in other areas that also occasional become hit, such as, the stomach, pectorals, and the latissimus dorsii muscles, is also undertaken. In Okinawa conditioning of the frontal lower throat area has been observed, the resistance being provided by forceful contraction of the neck muscles. This practice the author considers doubtful. This and other extreme methods of conditioning seems to be a recent introduction to Uechi Ryu. In conditioning the pectoral region of women care must be taken to avoid the breast tissue as bruising can cause fat necrosis. Besides the undisireablibity of necrosis, these post trauma, necrotic, lumps may potentially lead to a cancerous lump being missed or confused in manual breast examination.

Coincidentally with this protective conditioning the exercises are training the striking weapons so as to improve their strength and ability to withstand constant impacts. They use techniques such as striking with (knife hand, using body of the Abductor Digiti Minimi muscle on the edge of the hand), (hammer fist, which utilizes and reinforces the same area as shuto by having the digits tightly flexed to form a fist), and (full fist, striking with knuckles of index and middle fingers). Parts of the foot such as tips of toes, top of instep and occasionally the lower shin just above the ankle is used for conditioning the legs by means of (front kicks) and (circular or round house kicks). The areas of the leg that are conditioned are the lateral and anterior (outer and front) aspects of the thigh and to a lesser extent the inner or medial aspects above the adductor canal (well above the knee but low enough to avoid the groin). The lower leg is conditioned at lateral and medial sides of the shin and at the front, above the shin bone proper, where the Tibialis Anterior muscle joins the top 1/3 of the tibia below the tibial plateau. The shin itself is also conditioned by repeated very light taps with the toes. In addition in Okinawa the front of the shin is conditioned by rolling a smooth heavy weight up and down on it. Kote Tikkai (arm rubbing) is also used for conditioning in addition to the (blocking) and (striking) techniques described above. This is where the three blocking areas of the forearms are massaged against those of a partner very forcefully. It is said to be used to spread the micro bruises out and increase the blood supply. Sometimes the calve is rubbed by using a rising front kick into a rubbing X or cross block to the lower leg.

Chinese Kung Fu practitioners also use similar methods as well as preparations of herbal medicines to enhance blood flow into the regions that are being conditioned. An herbal remedy is used in Uechi Ryu Karate Do but only to ameliorate over-enthusiastic conditioning that has caused severe or extensive bruising. The so called “Uechi Grass” preparation of an herbal grass grown at the masters home soaked in (Okinawan rice spirit) is applied topically and internally, but it is not used routinely as it would be in Chinese systems. Besides partner work Chinese practitioners employ such training aids as lightly and repeatedly hitting the “wooden man” so often seen in Wing Chun academies.

Observations of Students:

Although the methods employed vary from style to style, the end result appears to be the same. Unfortunately it is impossible to state what physiological changes conditioning actually brings about, without the opportunity of dissecting a practitioner’s arm. We can speculate about how it is most likely effected, from observing the changes seen in the proponents of Uechi Ryu and in particular, those changes arising and developing in students new to karate. The author has had the opportunities to observe this training both in students and high ranking masters in Okinawa for one year and among his own students over periods as long as twelve years.

All students report bruising, on first starting body conditioning. This soon lessens and usually disappears within six months. Severe bruising is a sign of over vigorous application, if it continues with a lower intensity of conditioning bruising needs to be investigated as it could be indicative of blood or other medical disorders. The bruising appears to be more common in students of poor physical condition and weak muscle tone. Younger students frequently achieve conditioning more quickly. Once it has been achieved, conditioning seems to last for a period of years after the cessation of active training. The muscle tone and resistance to depression in actively conditioned areas appears to be very high. There is no sign of obvious damage and no changes in skin texture or coloration were observable.

The conditioned areas show very little subcutaneous fat deposits. All students report lesser amounts of injuries, less severe pain in injuries that are accidentally sustained and enhanced healing of such injuries. At least for the author medical nurses who have had to give injections or draw blood, have complained that the blood vessels are hard to find, that they are deep and the skin itself is thick.

Mechanisms of Body Conditioning:

Training appears to cause the loose connective tissue and fascia underlying the skin to change in such a way that they can withstand knocks and blows better. Besides the sub-cutaneous fascia there is a compartmental fascia, that is, a covering around bundles of muscle fibers, individual muscles, and around groups of muscles. Fascia is the tough unchewable substance found in the middle of the leg muscles used in a typical Sunday roast beef. Its natural purpose is to provide the muscle fibers something to push against when they are contracting. Hence, fascia is very tough and weight for weight is comparable to steel in tensile strength. It seems that with repeated slight trauma the fascia thickens slightly so as to provide an even stronger cover.

This covering of sub-cutaneous fascia cushions blows and can be thought of as a tough extra skin underlying the outer skin. Cushioning from the fascia is achieved by account of it being totally inelastic and when it is stressed against contracted muscles it spreads the impact over the surface of the muscle allowing no penetration into the muscle body. This lowers peak impact pressures at the point of contact. Equally important to the actual fascia’s thickness and strength is muscle tone. The stronger the muscles are contracted the more tension would be exerted in the subcutaneous fascial layer. The tighter it is stretched the more are the penetrative force would be dissipated over. The deep compartmental layers in and around muscles are quite possibly also implicated in this cushioning.

Other structures are probably also involved in conditioning. The dermis may develop a protective callusing over areas that are frequently hit or abraded. The loose connective tissues are those tissues that lie between the fascia and the lowest levels of the outer skin or epidermis. It is made up of collagen, the same tough connective tissue as that of fascia and tendons and it is in the loose connective tissues that fat is stored. This layer too may change as a result of training and also work to slightly cushion the effect of blows. One way could be a change in the proportion of collagen to fat.

The loose connective tissue has a rich blood supply and is able to repair and regenerate itself quickly and quite easily. The deep fascia is also bathed, although mostly indirectly, in a rich blood supply from the loose connective tissue and from the muscles themselves. It also has a very limited direct blood supply. As a result of the micro damage and regular training the blood supply to the loose connective tissue and fascia might increase as they thicken. Besides the cushioning effect of this thickening, the increased blood supply would provide another benefit, in that, the body’s ability to repair micro damage is much enhanced — small bruises healing almost before they are noticed.

The mechanisms for conditioning bones is much more problematic to describe if it even happens because the author suspects that it is more likely an artifact of pain tolerance. If any conditioning can be given to bones it is more from the effects of muscle stress than repeated trauma, because bones thicken depending on the loads they have to endure. Denser boner could be more resistant to impact forces but it is doubtful to the author that this would be to any significant degree.

An increase in the density of the bone would stimulate the periosteum, and it may be possible by repeated very gentle stimulation to make it thicken and hence “condition”. With bone’s slow regenerative ability any useful conditioning will also be very slow to develop. Any apparent bone conditioning, other than that insignificant amount explained by increased bone density and minimal thickening of the periosteum, is more probably better explained by accommodation to pain. It is not recommended by the author to seek to condition bones and this activity has been abandoned by him.

This abandonment was is due to the attendant risks of bone conditioning. The slightest over zealousness in conditioning bony areas and the periosteum will separate from the bone because the bone becomes depressed away from the periosteum. Once it has lifted from the surface of the bone it will lose its indirect blood supply and take a long time to re-attach. Whilst it is unattached blood will collect between the bone proper and the periosteum. This is the dreaded and very painful bone bruise. Other problems are much worse.

Complications of Over Training:


Bruised bones take a very long time to heal due to the almost non-existent blood supply. This can lead to some very potentially serious complications. The most unusual and worst these complications being Osteosarcoma or Bone cancer. This is where the regenerative properties of the bone go haywire. In Osteosarcoma the cells change and go mad, proliferating at such a rate they destroy the bone they are supposed to be repairing. This very serious illness is often, but by no means always, set off by a severe bone bruise. Like all cancers, if it is not caught in time, it can be fatal and anyway it is always serious. In young people it is more difficult to catch as it develops at an even faster rate than adults. The other serious complication of bone conditioning is infected bones, osteomyelitis.

This is where an infection sets into the body of the bone. Its main non-surgical cause is almost always trauma. The infection will eventually ulcerate out through the skin. It too can be life threatening because it can cause blood toxicity complications and very high fevers. It is always quite difficult to cure and will often break out again as the infection slowly smolders, undetected, through the bone. Bad bone bruises can leave areas where there is too much calcium deposited or the deposits are wrongly laid down, which may have health implications in old age.


Deep muscles have such a rich blood supply that they bruise easily. In fact they can bruise so badly that they become flooded with blood. This can cause the muscle to swell in its fascial covering. When this happens in the calf it can cause the blood supply to the lower leg to become shut off. This carries the possible risk of gangrene in the lower leg if the circulation is impaired for a long period. If the blockage is total gangrene will start in less than half an hour. This condition only likely to happen in the calf and is then known as Anterior Compartment Syndrome. It can usually be detected by acute pain in the calf itself and numbness around the second and third toes as the nerves serving those areas are similarly compressed along with the arteries. The seriousness of Gangrene does not need amplifying and it too is associated with fever. Bad diabetics with impaired peripheral blood flow should be particularly concerned about gangrene in the foot. A very high fever associated with any bad bruise is a certain sign of serious difficulty and needs prompt investigation.

Another concern with bruises is those in the body of the large muscles themselves, usually the muscles of the thigh; Although the author has seen one in the biceps. When flooded with blood from a bad bruise haemotoma, the blood starts to form a new bone in the body of the muscle. This is heterotopic bone formation associated with charley horse or chronic cramps it is called myositis-ossificans. The small fragments of bone in the body of the muscle cause severe pain.

The ability of the muscles to form bone in this way is a method the body has developed for reinforcing areas of high stress. With trauma this useful ability is confused and forms bone in an inappropriate place. The chance of myositis-ossificans forming is often exacerbated by deep massage to a bruised large muscle.

Tendons, Nerves and Other:

To avoid serious injuries it is of course prudent to avoid damaging blood vessels and nerves, however, these are mostly well placed to avoid damage except, maybe around joints, e.g., around the wrist and elbow. It goes without saying that joints of any kind can never be strengthened by conditioning. The last major complication to be concerned about in body conditioning is in the fascia of the tendon sheaths, tendons, and ligaments. These do not have a direct blood supply and like periosteum they collect their nutriments from the thin fluid that passes between the cells. It is called the interstitial fluid. Therefore, without a blood supply they will not bruise.

Fascia, tendons, and ligaments don’t really bruise anyway because they are made of inelastic, tightly bonded molecules of collagen. These are so inelastic that they tear instead of bruising. Small tears are not very serious or complicated and will usually clear up with some rest. Sudden impact onto a highly stressed tendon or ligament can often cause complete separation that will require surgical repair. Major tears, whether complete or not, will weaken a ligament or tendon and the resultant scarring will leave it susceptible to more tears. This weakening can become chronic and cause the cessation of training. Tendons run in a protective sheath. Bruise this and you run the risk of having the smooth slippery surface of the sheath roughening, the tendon will then grate every time it moves causing acute pain.

This can be seen in the knuckles of people over doing the Makiwara and punching hard objects like bricks as in Tamashiwara training. This condition, tenosynovitis, is not normally serious although it may be become chronic and require the cessation of karate training.

Why if there are so many dangers to over-zealous body conditioning do we do it at all? And indeed aren’t these dangers the reason why most systems practiced today don’t do it anyway? Well, the complications found in body conditioning are present in everyday practice when doing forms of fighting and sparring. What karate practitioner has never had a major bruise? If you are going to become bruised — and every one is — then it is best to prepare the body for the eventuality. A forceful punch that is wrongly blocked or not blocked at all will connect.

When it strikes the blocking surface it will hurt and could injure. This is such a regular occurrence that it is not even considered or thought about in most karate circles. A potentially stronger danger can come from actions such as leg sweeps and especially from poorly prepared demonstrations involving breaking techniques. Because conditioning can protect the body from inevitable contacts it should be started with the first lesson and kept up through out a karate practitioner’s life. They will then always be well protected. Protecting oneself from injury is surely the raison d’être” of karate training.

The Yin and Yang of Body Conditioning:

It is useful to compare the injunctions given above, with those practices and explanations of the old Chinese masters. It is hardly surprising that the old masters arrived at the same knowledge, but that they did so by trial and error and centuries of tradition is much harder for us of the scientific age to accept. The old masters were almost always doctors too, although their medical system was that of the Chinese herbalist. This system often arrived at the same conclusions as Western medicine, but with an archaic explanation that is considered scientifically wrong. From a functional point of view, however, the Chinese paradigms are as valid as Western ones.

Body conditioning is explained in terms of Yin and Yang. The dark soft forces and the strong hard forces. Nothing is ever purely one or the other but every thing is a different admixture of the two principals of the universe. In the body the yin and yang areas can be determined by standing in the midday sun. The areas in shadow are yin those in full sun are yang. The energy traverses the body in channels Yang channels are on the outer sides of the body and limbs and Yin channels on the inside shaded area of the body. The depth of the shadow determines the amount of yin present in an area. Therefore, the arm pit, groin, and throat, are the weakest area being almost pure Yin.

It becomes immediately evident that this “theory” has some validity as these are the major striking points of the body to cause injury. Lesser shadows become apparent on closer inspection, such as those under the pectoral region, covering the inner arm and leg, below the knees, around the ankles, bridge of the nose, etc.. The major muscles of chest, thighs, calves, forearms, etc. all stand out in brilliant light; being infused with yang.

The components of the body are each assigned to either yin or yang. Muscles are the most yang. Hollows and spaces are the most yin; armpit, groin, back of the knee. The internal organs are considered uniformly soft and vulnerable. Tendons are a mixture of yin and yang. Tendons along with blood vessels and nerves are considered the areas where the flow (movement) of energy takes place. Therefore, the yin element can easily be disrupted there; as it can at the joints. Bones are surprisingly considered as being almost all yin with only a tiny fraction of yang that is concentrated on their surface.

Although the terms and labels are different this must sound very familiar by now.

Apply to this knowledge of the body a few simple rules and we have the outline of the principles of body conditioning training methods as formulated by the old Chinese masters. Yang will be repulsed by yang (strength repulses strength). Greater yang overcomes lesser yang. Yang (being strong) damages yin (soft). Yin will eventually overcome yang — as water will wear away rocks (energy takes strength which will ultimately cause tiredness). Too much yang and the body will burn up (heat exhaustion).

So the methods become simply: Hit strong areas as hard as the strong area can withstand it. Therefore, muscles can be trained to ever increasing amounts of conditioning. Hit mixed areas only hard enough so as not to damage the soft parts. Only apply soft force to area belonging to yin (soft parts and bones). Do not become permanently tense but apply focus (kime) as it is needed. Therefore, it can be seen from the above that functionally, an identical solution as that of modern medicine and sports science, has been arrived at by the old Chinese masters.


All in all, conditioning is a useful adjunct to martial arts training, giving participants an opportunity to strengthen their techniques, and offensive and defensive natural weapons. It will enable the students to come face to face with the fear of being struck and to learn to accept and overcome this fear. It will also help to avoid, in their daily training, the potentially life threatening injuries that rarely but unavoidably do happen.

George Chaplin, 4th dan, Uechi-ryu Karate-Do.

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