Karate is one of the world's most widely recognized martial arts. Karate emphasizes control, precision, discipline, and self-knowledge. In addition, value is placed on peace and meditation.
Martial arts mastery always starts at the fundamentals, and Karate is no exception. Advanced karate moves are often made up of multiple "Katas" or choreographed sets of movements. Karate, as with all martial arts, focuses on precision and technique rather than raw strength. Mastery of Karate comes from reflex actions: practicing a technique or skill so often that it becomes second nature to you. Once you master Karate, you'll be able to draw upon it without thinking twice during a competitive or self-defense situation.
The Three Elements of Karate Training
Karate training is comprised of three elements, kihon, kata, and kumite.
Kihon are known as the "fundamentals," the building blocks of more advanced sequences of Karate moves known as "Katas." Thus, Kihon is the foundation of Karate. Kihon allows the karate student, or karateka, to learn Karate in an organized and structured manner. As the rank of the student increases and as they advance in belt color, Kihon becomes more complex and more difficult. That's why you must practice Kihon until you can execute them without thinking. Even simple techniques like blocking, punching, kicking, and striking demand regular practice.
Kata, or "forms," are combinations of Kihon performed in a sequence. They are intended to simulate a fight against multiple attackers. Kihon teaches self-defense and the ability to act efficiently in stressful situations.
The basic Heian Kata has 20 to 27 movements, and advanced Kata can have more than 60 movements. Kata always begins and ends on the same point on the floor. Correct execution of Kata includes the proper application of power, the right speed, whether fast or slow and the expansion and contraction of the body and limbs. A bow is performed at the beginning and end of every Kata.
Kumite is a term that means sparring with a partner. Any two karatekas involved in a Kumite must apply proper sparring techniques and control over their movements. Generally speaking, there are three types of Kumite:
- Basic Kumite: This Kumite involves five or three-step sparring, consisting of the repetition of basic attacks and blocks in a pre-set technique.
- Ippon Kumite focuses on simple, prearranged forms, emphasizing movement and proper distancing from the opponent.
- Jiyu Kumite: Jiyu refers to full-on bouts, where the combatants can freely engage in any technique. However, the karateka must strictly control their attacks and execute powerful strikes that stop before they connect to their target. Maintaining control of your attacks isn't easy to do. For that reason, Jiyu Kumite are generally for advanced students.
The Four Basics of Karate
The fundamentals of Karate are arranged around the four main Kihon: stances (Tachikata), punches (Tsuki), blocks (Uke), and kicks (Geri). Mastery of these basics is necessary to excel as a karateka. Unlike other popular martial arts such as kung fu or Muay Thai, which elaborate movements, Karate has a much more limited range of motion. Despite that, executing even the basic karate moves requires concentration, discipline, and repeated practice over months and years.
Stances allow you to maintain proper balance and form while attacking. Without a good stance, your attacks lack force, and you can lose balance quickly or move into a disadvantageous position. Stances are common to all schools of Karate. They create the frame from which your attacks are built. Here are some of the most basic stances you'll likely learn when you begin as a karate student:
- Musubi Dachi: This is the most basic stance. It's performed with the feet in a V-shape. It's used when bowing, which is how every karate lesson begins.
- Natural Stance (Hachiji Dachi): This is the stance that immediately follows after the Musubi Dachi. It's done with the legs at shoulder length and with both feet pointing forward. The arms are usually kept in front and inclined to the body.
- Horse Riding Stance (Kiba Dachi): Horse Riding Stance is also prevalent with other forms of martial arts such as Kung Fu. It's done with your feet parallel and wide apart, with a straight back and your knees pointing inwards.
- Front Stance (Zenkutsu Dachi): Zenkutsu Dachi is the most common stance in karate. It consists of an extended back with the rear leg straightened and the back knee slightly bent. The front foot must always be straight. Your front knee should be at 90-degrees and the back leg out 45-degrees.
While Muay Thai and Taekwondo frequent kicks, punches and open-handed strikes are more common in Karate. Here are some of the punches you'll likely start training with on your first day:
Straight Punch (Choku Zuki)
The Choku Zuki is primarily a straight jab executed from a natural stance. First, make a fist by folding your fingers - not over your thumb - and bend your knuckles at the base of your fingers. Then, tuck your fingers inside your palm.
Punch with the right arm and your palm facing upwards. As you pull your other arm in, your punching arm extends until the palms face downwards.
Front Lunge Punch (Oi Zuki)
The Oi Zuki is a punch executed from a front stance, with the punching leg throwing the punch. Push your hip forward using your stance to add more momentum to the attack.
Reverse Punch (Gyaku Zuki)
With the reverse punch, the leading leg and punching are on opposite sides. So when your right leg is in front of you, punch with your left and vice versa. It's usually intended as a counter that follows a block.
Kicks are more challenging to execute than punches but are much more powerful. Karate features movements with the arms more frequently, but kicks are essential as well. Geri requires a stable balance with a stance. It's also important to chamber your kick before and after execution, which will make your kicks more streamlined and give them more accuracy.
Front Kick (Mae Geri)
The Mae Geri is one of the most basic karate kicks, one that you'll likely learn on your first day of class. The front kick is done with either your front or back leg in a fighting stance. Front kicks can either be snapped or thrust. When performing the front kick, or any kick, it helps to chamber your kicks before and after execution. First, chamber your kick by bringing your leg up from the floor. Then, execute by extending your leg and hitting your target with the arch of your foot. Chamber it again by bringing in your knee, then lower your leg.
Roundhouse Kick (Mawashi Geri)
The roundhouse kick has been popularized by famous martial arts movies starring masters like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. A roundhouse is a fast kick that gets its momentum from the hips.
Raise your leg to the side while leaning back. Extend your leg in a snapping motion and hit with the top of your foot. Bring your leg back to the chamber position.
Side Kick (Yoko Geri)
The sidekick is done from a horse stance. Bring the left leg to cross over from the right foot, pull the left leg close to the left knee, chamber the right leg, and extend to the side, the chamber.
How You Can Teach Yourself Basic Karate
When it comes to learning Karate or any martial art, there is no substitute for learning in a structured setting under the supervision of an experienced sensei. With the COVID pandemic still active, it may not be safe to return to gyms and dojos even with vaccine roll-outs in effect. Martial arts self-study at home can help you refine and retain the skills you learn in class.
Here's a short training regimen you can do at home:
- Meditate: Karate emphasizes practicing mindfulness, as does many of the Eastern martial arts. Take 15 minutes. Put on some quiet, repetitive movements. Sit in a lotus position. Empty your mind, and practice letting go of whatever thoughts occupy your attention.
- Drill the Basics: You will never improve as a karateka without practice. That means drilling your basics. You should also train your stances, your punches, your kicks in 15-minute intervals.
- Focus on your balance: Karate is not about strength - it's about power and speed. Be conscious of your balance. Be aware of how it's affecting your movements. You should be able to shift your movements at a moment's notice.
- Practice your Kata: Practice all the Kata you learn in your last session. Do it until it becomes muscle memory, and you'll progress faster than students who don't.
Progression and advancement as a karate student come with diligent practice and a grounding in the fundamentals. When you're intimately familiar with the essential elements of Karate and practice them often, you'll be well-placed to begin a rich and rewarding path as a karateka.
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