Building a strong body should be an essential part of a karateka’s training program. No matter how good your techniques are, at the end of the day, size and strength do matter a lot in a fight. This post covers six types of training that can help you build a stronger fighter body including basic drills, specific body-conditioning drills, training with the makiwara and other tools, sanchin practice, endurance training, and strength training.

Table of Contents

Basic drills

Your basic kihon and kumite drills can already help you build a stronger body if you do it right.

For example, in the basic gohon kumite, sanbon kumite, or san dan gi drills, if the attacker attack with speed, power and the right distancing, the defender must also block with speed, power, and the right timing or someone will get hurt. So, if both you and your partner perform these drills the way they should be done, your arms and (to a lesser extent) your legs will be well-conditioned through the exercise because they will get used to regular hard contact.

On the other hand, if you both perform the drills halfheartedly because you don’t really understand the purpose of these exercises and just want to get it over and done with, you and your partner will miss out on a valuable opportunity to develop your stances, techniques, distance, timing as well as body-conditioning.

Let’s have a look at the two drills below, one by Sandra Sanchez (a world kata champion from Spain) and Jesus Del Moral (Spanish national kata team coach) and one by two children from Chelmsford Karate Club. It is not a criticism of the children who did a good job of showing the form of the Gohon kumite drill for their level, but you can clearly see who will benefit more from those types of drills in terms of body conditioning.

Makiwara training

Makiwara is a simple, effective, and important training tool for any serious karateka and is considered the secret to developing good techniques in karate.

Only through working with a hard object like a makiwara you will find out how strong your techniques really are and be able to test out ways to continuously improve your techniques. Over time, you will learn how to use your body efficiently to generate power, develop good forms and improve your kime.

In addition, working regularly with a makiwara will help you condition your hands, feet, elbows, shins, and other body parts.

A makiwara is an indispensable training tool because it can provide you with progressive resistance, the harder you punch it, the harder it will bounce back. A punching bag or a punching post, however, will give you consistent feedback.

However, if you don’t have a makiwara, punching any real hard object (a punching bag, a punching post, a dummy or a training partner) is still so much better than punching thin air.

If you just start out, remember to take it easy and increase the number of repetitions slowly to avoid injuring yourself. Start with as few as 20 strikes at the beginning and build it up gradually.

How much time you should spend on hitting the makiwara or a heavy bag depends entirely upon your goals in your martial arts training.

For most of us who don’t compete and just train in karate for mental and physical health benefits, I think the minimum training should be so that, in the unfortunate event that we need to strike someone on the street to defend ourselves, at the very least, we know what to expect and don’t break our wrist in the process and go into shock as a result.

Other training tools

Other traditional tools that help with body conditioning and turning various body parts into powerful weapons include:

  • the chi-shi (a weighted stone at the end of a stick used to strengthen the wrist and forearms)
  • the nigiri game (gripping jars to strengthen grips and help with stance transition in the Sanchin kata)
  • the sa-shi (concrete padlocks to increase the strength of the shoulders, arms, grips, and wrists)
  • the kongo ken (a large oval-shape metal bar used to develop throwing and grappling techniques); and
  • the tetsu geta (iron sandals to improve leg strength and kicking techniques).

Please watch the video below for examples of how some traditional training tools are used for body conditioning.

You can make these traditional training tools pretty easily at home. For example, the chi-shi can be made from an ice cream tub, some ready-mix concrete, a wooden stick, and a few nails. The nigiri game can be made from large protein jars filled with small rocks or ready-mix concrete. A pair of dumbbells can be used instead of the sa-shi.

In addition to the above five tools, there are many other tools that can be used for body conditioning. For example, a box of beans, rice, or sand or a bundle of loose bamboo sticks can be used to harden the fingers for more powerful nukite and other hand techniques. You can make these at home without much effort as well.

Apart from these traditional tools, some even go further and hit concrete blocks or rocks daily to increase their strength. Personally, I am not a fan of these extreme exercises. They do increase overall body strength and the power of your techniques but at a significant cost to your health.

Body-conditioning drills

In traditional Okinawan karate dojos, body-conditioning partnered drills to harden arms, legs, shoulders and abdomens are also practiced regularly.

If your dojo doesn’t do this type of drill, you can consider using a wooden stick or a baseball bat to hit your arms, legs, shins, stomach, and shoulders to condition those body parts.

Sanchin practice

Sanchin practice can help you develop overall body strength, mind-body control as well as the ability to withstand heavy hits during a fight.

Sanchin is a very important kata that is practiced in a number of karate styles including Goju Ryu, Kyokushin, and Uechi Ryu.

Sanchin has only a few basic techniques but is considered the most difficult kata to master. The entire kata is performed in the sanchin dachi stance and requires full muscle tension with coordinated breathing throughout the entire kata.

You will be tested on the correct body structure and tension by taking blows to the back, shoulders, stomach, legs, and buttocks. Therefore, through Sanchin practice, one can learn to take heavy blows to the body and keep going which is very important in real combats.

In addition, if you know you are able to take hits to the arms, legs, and torso without problems through repeated body-conditioning practice, you can focus your defense on protecting vital points like the head and the throat and counter-attacks and that can free up a lot of mental bandwidth during a fight.

Endurance training

Endurance training is any activity that increases endurance.

Endurance training is obviously important for karate practitioners because, given the same technical capability, in a fight, the one who can outlast the other will ultimately be the winner.

Endurance can be divided into:

  • General endurance which is your body’s overall ability to perform different types of activities over a prolonged period without becoming fatigued. For example, if you can walk, run, swim, or cycle for a long period of time without getting tired, you are considered to have a good general endurance
  • Specific endurance which is your body’s ability to perform a specific event over a prolonged period of time without becoming fatigued. For example, a professional football player has the specific ability to play on the field for 90 minutes or more without losing form while a marathon runner has specific endurance for 26-mile races but probably not for long-distance cross-country skiing.

It is a good idea to incorporate both general endurance and specific endurance training as a part of your overall training program.

Some examples of general endurance activities are walking, running, swimming, biking, hiking, and HIIT training. Generally, any physical activity that increases your breathing and heart rate can improve your endurance. Two important things to remember are to build it up gradually and to train consistently if you want to see results.

Specific endurance activities for karate practitioners are obviously just fighting practice and a lot of it is needed. An average street fight will last for no more than one minute and competition bouts will last a bit longer but it is always better to train to endure a much longer fight than those. In most dojos, 10 to 50 rounds of kumite is a normal part of dan grading these days. To improve your fighting endurance, you will need a lot of timed kumite practice on your own because it is not easy to regularly get to fight 20-50 rounds in a normal training session (unless you are a professional athlete).

Strength training

Strength training is important for your karate because it helps build a stronger and healthier body, increase the power and speed of your techniques, build an iron body that can withstand heavy hits, improves your endurance, balance and stability, and reduces risks of injury.

A common misconception about strength training is that it will bulk you up too much, reduce your speed and flexibility, and therefore diminish your martial arts ability. However, the right type of strength training exercises will do the opposite and make you a better karateka and a better fighter.

The ideal physical training program for karate fighters is not the typical, traditional bodybuilding routine. Rather, strength training for karatekas and martial artists in general is more similar to the kind of strength training appropriate for other athletes, as it centers around developing specific aptitudes required for specific sports.

The strength training routine to support your karate should be one that strengthens and supports fast-twitch muscle fibers to make your movements more explosive as well as promote muscle growth and improve your strength, speed, balance, endurance, and overall fitness.

Below are a few examples of basic but effective strength exercises that can help with your karate training because they tend to challenge your entire body as well as support your karate techniques:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Thrusters
  • Overhead presses
  • Deadlifts
  • Barbell squats
  • Burpees

How much training is needed

How much time you should devote to building a strong fighter body depends entirely upon your goals and the amount of time you have for your karate training.

If your goal is just physical fitness or if you have injuries or health conditions that prevent you from doing most of the above training activities, it is perfectly fine to stay with punching air and no-contact drills. It is your life and of course you are free to do whatever suits you and makes you happy.

But if your aim is to become a decent fighter and your physical health allows you to achieve that goal, body conditioning, endurance and strength training should be part of your overall training program. This type of training not only helps you build a strong iron body but also gives you a mental edge – the inner quiet confidence and fearless attitude that comes with knowing your own superior strength and endurance that can outlast your opponent.

Most of us training in karate today have only a very small amount of time each day for our training and we need to also cover kihon, kata, and kumite training. Obviously, the more time you put towards body conditioning, the less time you will have for other areas of the curriculum. Therefore, it is important to work out a balanced training program that suits your skill set and make the best use of your time.

My personal view is we, ordinary folks, should all aim to spend enough time on body conditioning activities so that we are able to knock off an opponent of similar body sizes with our techniques. We should also train enough to be able to withstand being hit at some point in time. The reality is, in a fight, you will get hit at some point in time and you must become familiar with the sensation of being hit and how to protect yourself from heavy hits. Beyond this, we face the law of diminishing returns and we’d be better off spending time on improving our karate techniques.

I don’t think it is necessary to go into extreme measures like hitting rocks and concrete blocks to condition your body unless you are willing to pay for it with your health later on.

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