The Imbalance of Traditional Kihon Training

At the risk of sounding a little controversial, I have a gripe about the way we karate instructors and students practice our kihon (basics).  Let me set the scene…

The class lines up and everyone bows in.  A warm up begins and is completed and now typically it is time for some kihon practice – punches, kicks, blocks, strikes, combinations, a focus on strong stances, power and solid technique.  We all step forward into left downward block (hidari gedan-barai kamaette.)  “Ichi, ni, san, shi, go (kiai), mawatte.  Ichi, ni, san, shi, go (kiai), mawatte.”  Basic training continues…

A pretty typical start to many a traditional karate class, wouldn’t you say?  What is wrong with this picture?  In all honesty, not much!  The class is well structured beginning with a warm-up and moving on to basic techniques and fundamentals.  Next will be kata and kumite, a good workout will be had by all and some key concepts will have been covered.  However, I believe that there is a fundamental imbalance in the majority of karate classes that follow this format.

Anytime you begin from left stance and follow the “ichi, ni, san, shi, go” method you are training your right side on a 60-40 advantage compared to your left side – three punches right side, two left; three blocks right side, two left; three kicks right side, two left.  Unless you have an extremely disciplined instructor who has you begin from left downward block the first set and on the next set from right downward block, you are guaranteed to practice one side more than the other, thus the imbalance.

There are many sports like golf, baseball, hockey, tennis, to name a few, where one side is always preferred to the other.  It is simply a matter of which side is strongest.  In karate and martial arts this is also true but by necessity both sides should be developed equally.  After all a potential opponent will very rarely be accommodating to your right side strength in blocking and countering or your amazing left leg kicks.  You need to train both.  So why are we continuing to use an outdated method of 60-40 weighting in our basic training?  I believe the problem goes back multiple decades to the time of karate blossoming in the early Japanese school system.

We’ve all seen pictures in karate books and now online with hundreds of karate practitioners lined up perfectly, both in rows and columns.  How do they look so perfect?  I don’t know about you but my junior students nowadays show up to class about 15 – 20 in number and struggle to make two clear lines in my dojo on their own.  It takes a couple of stern reproaches and sometimes several sets of push-ups to achieve a modicum of uniformity.  How do 100+ students in the 1920s and 1930s in Japan line up so perfectly?

One reason is a culture back then of conformity.  You may have heard the phrase of “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  Another reason, however, is a simple but ingenious idea of how to manage large numbers of people in lines.  I’d like you to stand up right now and find some space.  Put your left leg forward and take five forward steps.  They can be simple walking steps or they can be full “zenkutsu-dachi” steps.  Once you have taken five steps turn around “mawatte” by moving your back foot across and pivoting on your front foot and then do the same five steps back to your original position.  You should be in the same spot, right?

Now do the same with four steps forward, use your back foot to step across and pivot on your front foot to turn and do the same four steps back to your original position.  Something happened, didn’t it!  You didn’t get back to where you started.  Now add 150 people next to you in lines doing the same thing and you can imagine the lack of line discipline.

An odd number of steps and then a turn followed by an odd number of steps and then a turn keeps everything nice and orderly.  An even number of steps and then a turn followed by an even number of steps and then a turn gradually shifts the whole class across the dojo.  On the other hand, an odd number of steps creates an imbalance in training, but an even number of steps encourages equal strength in both hands and feet.  Which way should we be training?

Disclaimer: I don’t know, nor have I read anything that suggests that traditional Japanese training methods have caused this method of training that is so common in so many dojos.  It is simply a crazy idea that I had one evening when thinking about kihon training.  I could be way off.  The purpose of this article is to get you thinking and to get you commenting.  What do you think?  Could I be right?  Or am I way off and have taken too many kizami-zukis to the chin over the years?

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