A Karate Approach To Calisthenics

Like many of my generation, I was inspired to take up martial arts and calisthenics by movies such as The Karate Kid, Kickboxer, Enter the Dragon, Drunken Master, and Rocky. The larger-than-life characters wowed us with their fighting skills and never give up attitudes. A common theme in these films is that the main character is an underdog who must train, and hard, to become a better fighter and overcome his seemingly invincible opponents. The perseverance of our heroes, the amazing skills they learned, and the rigorous training methods they endured inspired many of us to take up training as well.

The training methods employed often include some tough calisthenics skills. I’m sure we all remember Rocky doing uneven pullups in the second film, and dragon flags in the fourth. Bruce Lee popularized the dragon flag as well as other difficult bodyweight feats, such as his two finger pushups. He espoused improving your athletic performance in order to improve your martial performance, as well as to help fully express the human body.

Certainly, the martial-calisthenics connection is as old as man… Yet, Bruce was a great catalyst in the popularization of martial arts in America and inspiring many to train hard like he did. He has said that “life is never stagnation. It is constant movement, un-rhythmic movement, as well as constant change. Things live by moving and gain strength as they go.”

I didn’t truly understand all of the positive implications of these words until much later, when I got more into calisthenics. It all started with my love of movement in general, inspired by all of those great movies I watched in my childhood. Yet, even though I ended up doing some karate training as a child, I didn’t take it seriously – it wasn’t until I was an adult that I did so.

Fortunately, my sensei was quite knowledgeable not only about karate, but calisthenics as well. I took to the exercises he taught quite excitedly, even if it was torturous at first! He was a true taskmaster; classes often included dozens of knuckle pushups, leg raises, squats, combat rolls, sprints, and more. Thanks to the results I was getting, I kept soaking up knowledge about not only martial arts, but calisthenics and training in general.

Years later, I earned my black belt in Heiwado karate under my sensei and began helping him teach. I eventually began teaching on my own. Heiwado is a hybrid style that was founded by Hirano Kiyohisa, founder of Japan International Karate Center. Heiwado was based upon his many years of experience in Wado-ryu, as well as Shotokan karate, Shito-ryu karate, with influences from various other arts. The result is a style that incorporates useful elements, strategies, and training methodologies of each, including calisthenics.

I also ended up training in boxing, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Judo, Aikido, MMA, and various styles of karate after earning my black belt. I have also taught karate and helped run classes at a few karate dojo over the years, before landing a job at a gymnastics studio last year. During that time I’ve not only learned from various athletes and styles, but experienced how different body types react to different exercises and programs.

Eventually I discovered the first Convict Conditioning book through an ad in Black Belt magazine. I looked up reviews for it online, and they were largely quite positive, so I thought, sure, why not? I ended up buying the first two books and started digging right in. The minimalist training was my kind of thing – little equipment, maximal results. It had the same kind of creativity yet Spartan approach to training that the Okinawans did when developing their martial ways. My training partners and I loved the grip and fingertip work of Convict Conditioning 2, while also seeing the benefits to martial arts techniques.

Eventually we felt proficient enough in the progressions and approach to fully assimilate them into our existing training approach, and the classes we were teaching. It wasn’t long after this that I pursued getting a fitness trainer certification, since I had accumulated so much knowledge on training. My wide experience in martial arts, athletics, and calisthenics, combined with my certification helped me to land a job at a gymnastics studio. Progressive calisthenics and gymnastics have plenty of crossover and similarities, as both are bodyweight arts.

I eventually attended the PCC workshop in Alexandria, VA to learn more about my newfound passion, progressive calisthenics! Of course, it would also help me do my job better at gymnastics. The new levels of full body tension and connectivity, overall body control, and holistic strength learned from the workshop benefited not only the kids at gymnastics, but my karate students as well.

(PCC stands for progressive calisthenics certification.)

There are certainly comparisons to be made between learning progressive calisthenics and martial arts. Coach Wade, author of the Convict Conditioning books, made some of these comparisons in his amazing article “The Tao of PCC”. It’s fair to say that article alone was the biggest influence on my attending the PCC workshop, besides the Convict Conditioning books.

Coach brought up some important similarities to martial arts that really spoke to me. “… nobody can remember a hundred techniques in a fight. What matters are the principles you absorb.” “You learn the form, you absorb the form, you discard the form.”

The second line is exactly the same as the concept of “shu ha ri” in budo – the Japanese martial ways, of which karate is one. Shu-ha-ri essentially means the three stages of skill. In the first stage, “shu”, you practice the techniques and forms as they are taught to you, without question. The goal is to ingrain the movement patterns into muscle memory, and this often takes hundreds or thousands of repetitions.

This can be a long and arduous process under a demanding teacher. The goal of Karate, according to Funakoshi-sensei – father of modern karate – is the perfection of the character of students. The many hours of strict training build character and patience.

This process can also be compared to calisthenics practice. You gradually tighten up form, become more efficient in movement, and milk the exercises for as much benefit as possible. The many hours spent in kata practice, and getting them just right, builds strength, explosiveness, flexibility, coordination, proper breathing technique, and full body connectivity. Proper instruction in calisthenics and many hours of practice will provide the same benefits.

The kata – or forms – are the core instructional method of many of the Japanese martial ways. The kata have principles and concepts encoded into the movements. The principles and concepts can be learned once you move past “shu” and into “ha”, then applied in a natural, free way when you move to “ri”.

When you have memorized the form – whether the form of a pushup or a karate form (or “kata” in Japanese) – it is time to internalize the movements and start grasping the principles behind the form. This is the “ha” stage. During the first stage of learning, it can be hard to learn all of the “rules” and principles of the movements. Yet, once the movement pattern has been ingrained, it has become more natural, more automatic – and feels less “mechanical”, less rigid. The central nervous system has become more efficient at these movements. The student is able to reflect more on what’s happening and put more “mindfulness” into each repetition and each technique, and be able to start discovering the principles behind the techniques and movements.

A good teacher will know how to guide the student through this process, as well as how to teach more advanced kata in such a way that they will present new challenges for this mental process. The key is carefully guiding the student to observe not only the “omote”, or outer form of the kata, but to also start observing the hidden side – the “ura”. The “ura” of kata is the abstract side – again, the principles, concepts, and so forth.

Once the student gets deeply into this “big picture” approach of kata, instead of just the little details, he or she will be able to move more freely within the rules of the form. This is the beginning of creative self-expression. The caution is to not stray too far from form just yet, or it will become entirely different. Compare this to learning correct form for pushups, then in the “ha” stage you would start learning about leverage and hand placement – which helps you to progress. Once intermediate students get to this stage, they can clearly see the value of the kata, and their knowledge, skill, and expression grow in leaps and bounds.

Once the principles have been internalized and you are moving freely according to these principles, you are in the “ri” stage. You are moving according to the form without the outer shell or “omote” of the form. It is a moving meditation that is the ultimate outgrowth and goal of many disciplines. It is a Zen-like state where the practitioner moves intuitively. Just watch any calisthenics great perform movements effortlessly, such as the awesome Kavadlo brothers performing human flags, or a traceur navigating an environment with expressive, powerful parkour movements.

In the words of Bruce Lee –

“A martial artist who drills exclusively to a set pattern of combat is losing his freedom. He is actually becoming a slave to a choice pattern and feels that the pattern is the real thing. It leads to stagnation because the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, but constantly changes from moment to moment, and the disappointed combatant will soon find out that his ‘choice routine’ lacks pliability. There must be a ‘being’ instead of a ‘doing’ in training. One must be free. Instead of complexity of form, there should be simplicity of expression.”

Our training shouldn’t keep us stuck in a rigid form, but instead be directed to the fullest expression of ourselves with utmost efficiency and simplicity. When you are first learning to apply the principles and techniques of kata in a self defense situation, you must take it slow and put a lot of thought into each movement. Eventually you will go through the same process of “shu ha ri” and become free, fast, and expressive!

It’s been said that a number of applications for Okinawan kata (aka forms) have been lost, as well as at least a few secrets to power training. Still, a lot still survives on the island in Okinawa and has been passed down through the generations in traditional Okinawan styles such as Goju ryu and Kenpo. As Coach Wade talked about in Convict Conditioning, he learned not only from ex-Navy Seals, gymnasts, and oldtime strongman Joe Hartigan, but also from kenpo and karate guys.

The influences are obvious in Convict Conditioning 2 and 3. The fingertip progression alone, in the 2nd book, has similarities to many exercises taught to me by various karate sensei. The sensei I earned my black belt under always had us do “knuckle pushups” – basically doing pushups on our balled up fists – with obvious benefits to the wrists and knuckles. He also taught us a number of breakfalls and rolls, and I learned even more over the years under Judo, Jiujitsu, and Aikido instructors. As such, Convict Conditioning 3 was like treading familiar ground, but also opened up many, many new possibilities for power in movement!

Like the progressive calisthenics approach, traditional power training and body conditioning methods in Okinawan karate – aka “hojo undo” – focuses on bulletproofing the joints, improving flexibility, and building holistic, functional strength. “Hojo undo” focuses on the use of heavy implements and other tools that are specific to Okinawan karate training, but these are outside the scope of this article. There are, however, a number of bodyweight movements taught in “hojo undo”, including pushup variations. Regardless of the exercise or implement used, however, the focus – like in calisthenics – is on building skill, strength, and power. The exercises also have very direct benefits for “bunkai”, or application of kata.

With all of this in mind, I will cover some pushup variations that are at least somewhat common in karate dojo, and/or have direct benefits to karate techniques. Warm your hands and forearms up properly before working fingertip or wrist pushups. Afterwards, shake your hands out, and stretch your fingers and wrists. Also, don’t overdo it with directly training the joints. Build up gradually and be sure to allow plenty of time for your joints to adapt.

There are at least a few ways to regress all of these. Firstly, you can practice them using an incline (wall, chair etc). Secondly, you can use a less demanding leverage (such as kneeling). You could actually adapt the Convict Conditioning pushup progression to basically all of these variations. Coach Wade has already covered this for fingertip pushups in the amazing chapter on them in Convict Conditioning 2!

You can also have one palm on the training surface (wall, floor etc), instead of having both hands in the same position (such as in a fist). Of course, you would want to practice this way on both sides to maintain symmetry in training. A further regression for this is to sit in a kneeling position, lean forward, and place your hands on the ground in the desired position (fists, back of wrists, etc). I will talk about this particular regression a bit more when I get to wrist pushups. One could also hold the top position of any of these pushup variations for time, basically turning them into static holds. This isn’t necessarily just a regression, though, as statics can indeed be quite difficult!

Knuckle pushups are a very common variation in karate dojo. Besides strengthening most of the muscles used in straight punches – which basically all pushup variations will do – knuckle pushups also strengthen the wrists and knuckles. They also help toughen up the skin, but that is a side benefit and a secondary goal.

Fingertip pushups strengthen the finger extensor muscles. Naturally, they provide direct benefits to strikes using extended fingers. A course of grip work and fingertip training will also help lay the foundation of strength needed for hard blocks. While I personally prefer soft, circular blocking techniques and body shifting to hard blocks, I still believe it’s useful to train the forearms in order to help with grappling, finger strikes, and keeping a tight fist. Fingertip pushups can be progressed by doing pushups on less fingers.

It’s been said by some martial arts instructors that blocks can be used as strikes, and vice versa. A hard hammerfist block – as seen in many karate kata – can be used to not only redirect an attack from an opponent, but also do damage to the limb used by striking certain nerve clusters and/or muscles. Many similar techniques can be found in karate kata, so we have to assume that the old masters knew that these techniques worked. It is our task to research the potential applications for them, study anatomy, and train accordingly.

I want to cover one more variation – wrist pushups. If you are a martial artist or need strong wrists and hands for your sport, I recommend adding wrist exercises to your training. Of course, these exercises shouldn’t replace previous progressions, but supplement them. Wrist pushups are done on the backs of the hands, strengthen the wrists for various strikes, and have very specific benefits for “ox jaw” and “crane” hand techniques. I prefer to practice wrist pushups with my hands in “ox jaw” for added specificity.

If you’re new to wrist pushups, start by learning wrist stretches. I recommend learning stretches that are commonly done in gymnastics. Aikido wrist stretches are also highly useful.

One wrist stretch commonly done in gymnastics will serve as the beginning step in a wrist pushup progression. Sit in a kneeling position, look straight down at your knees, lean forward slightly and place the back of your hands on the ground, directly in front of your knees. Naturally, leaning forward will put some of your weight onto the backs of your hands, with the fingers turned inward.

Cautiously lean into your hands until you feel mild discomfort, but no more. Hold this stretch for 10-30 seconds, depending upon degree of discomfort, then push yourself up and shake your hands out. Repeat this 1-3 times.

There are “hidden steps” between this stretch and a wrist hold in the top position of a kneeling pushup. The first step is to gradually build strength and flexibility in the wrists with the stretch until you can put moderate pressure onto the backs of your hands with little to no discomfort. The next part of the progression is to move your hands a few inches forward from the starting position and unfold your hips slightly as you start putting pressure on the backs of your hands. When you straighten your hips out slightly, imagine that you are trying to move a little closer to perfect form for pushups (hips locked out, weight carried through arms and hands). Find the most difficult body position that you can hold for 10-15 seconds when you put mild to moderate pressure on your hands.

Keep working with this toughener and gradually work towards the full kneeling pushups wrist hold. Of course, always make sure you warm up your wrists with stretches and so forth before getting into this or any wrist hold or pushup.

A sample progression:

1. Wall wrist pushups

2. Incline wrist pushups with one palm on contact surface and the back of the other hand on contact surface

3. Incline wrist pushups

4. Kneeling wrist pushups with same regression as in step 2

5. Kneeling wrist pushups

6. Hold top of pushup position on backs of hands; use same regression as in steps 2 if needed at first

7. Full pushup with one palm on contact surface and back of other hand on contact surface

8. Full wrist pushups

Programming and volume for wrist pushups are fairly straightforward. Since the joints don’t adapt as quickly as the muscles, and the wrists can tend to be injury prone, it’s best to be conservative about training volume. Coach Wade recommended training fingertip pushups for low reps once a week, and I believe this is a good rule for wrist pushups.

A few good options for programming wrist training are:

1) Adding it to an existing joint specialization session; see Convict Conditioning 2 for a good template

2) Doing some wrist stretches, holds and/or pushups as part of your warmups for practice (whether karate or a sport that needs strong hands / wrists)

3) Doing some light stretches and other exercises as part of rehabilitating your wrists (of course, this will depend on what exercises your physician recommends)

4) Training wrist holds after a session of pushups

There are potentially many other possibilities depending on your own needs, goals, experience, etc.

A toughener for wrist pushups involves rolling your hands up into fists as you ascend to lockout. Pattern this movement during wrist stretches to get a feel for it. If this doesn’t cause you discomfort, and you have already gotten comfortable with wall wrist pushups, try working with this toughener.

To go beyond, you could explore working towards one arm wrist pushups, but this is a very challenging exercise. Of course, it’s recommended that you have already paid your dues in one arm pushups on your palms as well as in wrist pushups on both hands before working towards doing them on one.

To provide a real world example of my integrated approach to teaching karate and calisthenics, I’ll share what my karate classes for beginners involve (on average).

PT (Physical Training) for 1 hour:

Minimum of 1 mile of running

10-15 minutes of stretching and mobility work

Bridging work, basic hand balancing skills

Low to moderate sets of high reps for early squat, pushup, pullup, and leg raise progressions

Wrist roller work with light weight for several sets

Leg work – common exercises are deep horse stance, split squats, jumps, and wall sit

Light stretching and shaking out the arms and legs, then water break

Karate practice, 1 hour –

Zazen (seated meditation) and deep breathing

Courtesies (bowing in, etc)

Basics and kata for half an hour

6 inches hold with arms extended behind head and just above the floor – I condition the abdomen with a medicine ball while they are in this posture

Horse stance (again!) while I condition the arms, legs, and abdomen with a shinai (bamboo sword)

Split squats – 2 sets of 10 per side

Drills and padwork for the rest of class, with light free sparring if any of the students are ready for it. Groundwork, submissions, and “bunkai” (kata application) are allowed and encouraged as long as the students use control and proper technique.

Dedicated students with a good work ethic, and students whose parents want them to be worked a bit harder, get to do “outside training” with me after class. I have an outside training area set up behind the studio where we practice “hojo undo” (traditional karate exercises), more advanced calisthenics, and odd object lifts (bricks, cinder blocks, car tires, sandbags, etc).

Intermediate and advanced students get longer classes where we work intermediate and/or advanced calisthenics. We also practice kata and kata-based drills after physical training. If there are any students in the beginner class that are not ready for kata yet, they will sit in seiza – kneeling – while watching kata practice.

All of the exercises required for each rank are bodyweight-only. While all forms of exercise carry at least some risk of injury, calisthenics is safer than heavy weight training. Also, calisthenics – when taught correctly – improve coordination, balance, proprioception, flexibility, agility, posture, and functional strength. Calisthenics benefit karate training to a great degree!

I do not give students a deadline to get acclimated to the program. However, it can take as little as a few weeks for students to get used to the level of volume I require, if they were coming in with experience in other athletic activities and a good work ethic. Students coming in from a completely sedentary lifestyle can expect to take at least a year.

I am willing to continue pushing students for however long it takes to get them there. Just as in progressive calisthenics, students shouldn’t rush ahead to meet goals. It’s better to be patient when getting acclimated. Coach Wade basically talked about this in the first Convict Conditioning.

The benefits of exercise have been very well documented. Engaging in regular moderate to intense exercise at least twice a week is invaluable for improved health, and performance in athletic activities. It has also been my experience that if a student is coming into karate from a sedentary lifestyle, their health and fitness must be made top priority.

It’s important to not only help each student improve his or her lifestyle, but also improve his or her athletic performance. This way, he or she will be able to handle the rigors of training when and if they get to advanced ranks in karate. Advanced rank requirements include a several rounds of hard contact sparring and a large technical syllabus. As such, advanced rank examinations require the ability to move quickly for short bursts and strike with sufficient force, and the stamina to make it through a long examination period (upwards of several hours). This means it is important to drill power exercises such as sprints, strength building exercises, and endurance exercises.

To earn yellow belt, white belt students have to not only learn the basic techniques and drills, but be able to perform the Convict Conditioning progression standard – 3 sets of 40 – for each of the following exercises.

Incline pushups

Knee tucks

Vertical pulls

Jackknife squats

Also, they must be able to hold horse stance correctly for a minimum of 20 minutes as well as hold a leaning plank and a shoulder bridge for a minimum of 1 minute each.

I realize that my physical conditioning requirements and beginner classes are indeed much more intense than those found in most karate schools. Still, I work with each student according to his or her own level. Novices should not be trained the way that brown belt and black belt level students would. With this in mind, students who are completely new to working out will be only required to perform a low number of repetitions at first. They must gradually build up to the required volume as well as learn the material for the next rank before being nominated for examination.

It’s as Coach Wade has always taught – start with the early exercises and milk them for strength and conditioning benefits by locking down your form and building up to doing plenty of reps at a slow cadence. Also, high volume ingrains proper movement patterns, balance, coordination and so forth – just as in practice of karate techniques. Repetition builds skill.

Lastly, because the exercise volume requirements are so high, students have to train on their own if they truly want to earn their next rank and get closer to becoming an instructor. Parents may use reminders of this goal of instructor rank as positive reinforcement. It also helps the kids develop a sense of accountability and a work ethic.

In summary, I start everyone off with exercises they can handle for very low but quality reps and require them to work up to high reps, to build strength, conditioning, technique, and work ethic. Also, I hope that I have explained in a clear enough fashion how karate and calisthenics can be fully integrated in a useful way.

I do occasionally introduce a very few moderate difficulty exercises early on, but not until students are ready for them. Split squats are a good example. These help build balance, tension-flexibility, rooting, strength, and conditioning in a way that is much more specific to front fighting stance than early squat progression exercises do. Cossack squats, another advanced squat, help with back fighting stance, known as “kokutsu dachi” in a number of Japanese styles of karate.

Early squat exercises help with patterning horse stance – “kiba dachi” in Japanese – and correcting posture. Horse stance is often difficult for most students to hold correctly at first, and it is the posture that causes the most grief. However, it is still best to drill it early on in order to develop balance, tension-flexibility, rooting, strength, and conditioning. This helps lay the foundation for stability in stances, techniques, and movement.

Of course, static postures such as horse stance are not enough to develop rooting, known as “muchimi” in Okinawan karate. As such, dynamic stances, footwork, and drills are also taught. Rooting basically involves having a strong stance. When you are rooted, you are able maintain a connection to the ground through a lowered center of gravity and generate power in techniques from the ground up. It is important to maintain correct upper body posture and coordination of the whole body in techniques. These ensure proper rooting and power.

As I’m sure most people with experience in both calisthenics and martial arts are aware, both can work hand in hand to develop all of the qualities needed for the development of strength and technique. I hope that you, dear reader, find my examples of this to be clear and useful. The Okinawan martial arts and the methods that Coach Wade wrote about are ancient, but are still around because they work, and can work well together!

The bodyweight arts are certainly disciplines that can take a long time to become proficient in. The arts are also quite often ways of life and are worth dedicating a lifetime of training to. The hard work, “shu ha ri” process, and trying to more fully express oneself not only help us become faster and stronger, but much wiser and closer to mastery. Seeking to perfect one’s form does get us ever closer to the ideal, and as always, tightening up form generally makes calisthenics more difficult.

Of course, as we get older, we may find that we are not always as fast or strong as our younger counterparts. Even so, our experience and dedication to mastering our arts more than make up for this. We can continue improving with age, as there are almost no limits on skill, whether in calisthenics or martial arts!

Be safe and train smart, my friends!