To many people (especially beginners), kihon training in karate is boring and they would rather work on kata which is way more interesting or kumite which is practical and a lot more fun and they can see some value in it.

In this post, I will argue that kihon is the very essence of karate and, without good kihon, your kata will be floppy and you will never reach your full potential and become the best fighter you could possibly be.

First, let’s have a look at the argument against kihon practice.

The best way to become a good fighter is to fight a lot

A common argument against kihon is that karate is an art of weaponless fighting and the best way to get better at fighting is to practice fighting a lot. Kihon and kata training is generally a waste of time because it takes away precious time that could be used for fighting practice.

I totally agree with the view that karate is a fighting art so learning karate is learning how to fight and, at the end of the day, it all comes down to whether one can fight or not. Practical fighting practice, therefore, is definitely critical and should be the core component of our karate training.

While there are people who strongly believe that karate is first and foremost about character building, karate was originally created for the self-defense purpose and it continues to exist today for that main purpose.

Of course, there are other benefits of karate training such as improved mental toughness, character building, better physical and mental health, or improved problem solving skills, but these are not what karate was created for (also one can achieve those other benefits from other fields anyway).

I believe the main reason that the mental and spiritual aspect of karate is emphasized so much these days is an overwhelming majority of us training in karate never have to use karate to defend ourselves. Therefore, what we see on the daily basis is only the secondary benefits of karate training. However, if we take away the practical fighting aspect of karate, it will lose its soul and become no more than a mere physical exercise and a very boring activity at that.

Being a fighting art, fighting practice in various forms should be the core component of karate training. However, I don’t believe abandoning kihon and focusing one hundred percent effort on kumite is the way to bring out the best fighter in you. This is why you don’t see champions like George St-Pierre or Rafael Aghayev sparring all the time.

In the session below, we’ll look at what comprises kihon training and why kihon training can help you build a solid foundation and make you a better fighter.

What is in kihon training?

Kihon (基本) means “basics” or “fundamentals” and refers to everything in your training that is not kata or kumite.

Kihon can include the following:

  • Blocks
  • Punches
  • Strikes
  • Kicks
  • Footwork
  • Stances
  • Throwing techniques
  • Break-fall techniques.

These basic techniques can be practiced alone or with a partner and with or without equipment (punching bags, makiwara, chishi, nigiri game, pad work, speed ball, wooden dummy, etc).

I also consider strength training, cardio workout and general body conditioning exercises to be part of kihon training because they are fundamental in building a strong fighter body and helps you fight better. Whether this is also kihon is very much up for debate but, whatever you want to call it, it should be a part of your overall training program.

Why kihon training?

Kumite is analogous to kihon in fluid motion so if your kihon or the fundamental building blocks of your karate are weak, your fighting ability will be crippled and you won’t be able to reach your best fighting potential.

Three key elements that determine the outcome of a fight are:

  • Distance,
  • Timing, and
  • Techniques.

If you don’t get the distance right, nothing else matters. You can have great techniques and the right timing but without the right distance to deliver your techniques, they will be useless. And how do you develop the right distance? The answer is through kihon practice like footwork drills and basic partnered drills (e.g. Sandan Gi, Sanbon Kumite, and Gohon Kumite). During a fight, distance changes constantly so you will need appropriate dynamic footwork to get the right distances in order for your techniques to achieve their desired effects. Basic partnered drills (due to the differences in body physiques) can also help you improve your sense of distance if you practice them right. [1]

Similarly, if you get the distance right and have powerful techniques but your timing is off, you won’t be able to fight effectively either. While you can improve timing through basic partnered drills, to get the timing right, you do need a lot of free sparring practice. [2]

And lastly, if you get distance and timing right but your techniques are poor, your defense will be weak and your attacks will be ineffective. It’s like going to a battlefield with a rusted sword or a malfunctioned firearm, instead of ending a fight with ikken hissatsu (one killing blow), you will just irritate your opponent, endure a prolonged fight and potentially suffer a defeat.

In sports karate competitions, you may be able to win with the right timing and the right distance and get away with fake punches and weak techniques, but that is not how genuine traditional Okinawan karate or a real life-or-death situation works.

To me, a karateka is very much like a swordsman who has to learn blacksmithing at the same time to forge his own sword. Given its weaponless nature, a karateka has to turn his or her hands, feet and other body parts into usable weapons with many years of regular and correct practice. They then also have to learn how to use those weapons in actual combats.

But, unlike a swordsman, even after they have managed to turn their hands and feet into deadly weapons, they still need to work on their kihon regularly otherwise their weapons will become rusted and weakened overtime. No matter how good their footwork, their sense of rhythm or their ability to read opponents are, if their techniques do not remain solid, their general ability to fight will decline.

Kihon training, although it may be boring is extremely important. If the foundations of a house are weak, as the house gets older, problems will arise. This is the same for all karate styles, no matter their origins.

A lot of people spend many years training to realize later on, after 30 years of karate practice, that they don’t have a solid foundation and their technique is not polished at all – that they lack solid basic, clean karate technique and they feel embarrassed because they have a high rank.

You find this situation mainly among karateka who have devoted their training mainly to kumite. Don’t misunderstand my words; kumite is not easy but it is not what make a good karateka. Kihon and kata are the foundation of karate. Kumite is a “personalized” way of using karate technique. But you should get that technique first. Unfortunately, you see high ranks who lack good karate basics and they try to cover it up focusing on kumite.

Inoue Yoshimi

In short, kihon is more than just the foundation of karate, kihon is the very essence of karate. Kihon practice (blocks, punches, kicks, footwork, throws, grapples, breathing, stances etc) are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, will determine what kind of fighter you are. Good kihon is what will help you become a good fighter.

If you are a beginner, invest your time in what matters which is kihon. You don’t want to realise 20 or 30 years later that your techniques lack solid foundation when you are a 4th or 5th dan and it is too late to come back and correct those mistakes.

Kihon in other fields

Basic fundamental skills are not only important in martial arts but also in other fields as well. Let’s look at basketball as an example.

Tex Winter was an American basketball coach who is credited with implementing the triangle offense which was the key to the Chicago Bulls‘ six NBA championships between 1991 and 1998. Later Winter moved to the Los Angeles Lakers and used the triangle offense with them which led to their five NBA championships. Winter was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.

Tex Winter was once asked about why the Chicago Bulls won so many games with Michael Jordan and he responded “we work more on fundamentals than anyone in the league.”

Tex Winter taught Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, the triangle offense and probably had instilled in Kobe the importance of basics.

There is a story that a Nike representative came to one of Kobe’s training sessions, perhaps expecting to see some extraordinary skills on display. Instead, he witnessed Kobe spending 45 minutes doing boring basics like dribbling, passing, shooting, free throws, and jump shots, the stuff that high school basketball players work on.

When he was asked why his practice was so boring, Kobe responded “Why do you think I’m the best player in the world? Because I never ever get bored with the basics.

If you want to bring out the best karateka in you, maybe you’ll need to learn to fall in love with basics.

Through repeated and correct practice of basic techniques, you’ll learn principles of body mechanics or how to use your body efficiently to generate power in your techniques. This will take many years of practice but without a good foundation, your kata and kumite performance will suffer.

Take, for example, a simple straight punch. If you can’t execute a proper punch from a natural stance, you won’t be able to do a stepping punch in a kata well, let alone do it an actual fight when there are so many other elements at play.

David Hooper, PhD who has spent many decades training and teaching karate in Japan, observed the following about karate training there.

One of the things that epitomize karate training, JKA style, is its preoccupation with basics. From my first day’s training at the JKA Honbu in Tokyo, and later, perhaps even more so, at Takushoku University, the format was always the same: basics, basics and then more basics. The more advanced the class became, the more basic it became… Even the instructors’ class regularly began with all the senior Japanese sensei performing sets of repetitions of basic, fundamental techniques.

David Hooper

You have to learn to walk before you can run. Basics may seem boring but is extremely important. The most advanced kata can still be broken down to the most basic techniques and footwork. The best karate fighter of all time still relies on basic footwork, punches, kicks, and blocks in their fights. So, focus on your basics instead of chasing fancy showy techniques and learning advanced kata, it will pay off and you will see real progress.

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“Returning to the source” by Joe M. Fraguas, Fall 2012, Martial Arts Masters

The mastermind behind the Chicago Bulls’ six championships