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December's Great Fitness Experiment: Karate

Posted Dec 02 2008 2:58am

"Okay, everyone get warmed up because today we start our new Karate Experiment." Holding up two small pieces of wood, I continued in my most serious voice, "We will begin by breaking these boards."

You should have seen the Gym Buddies faces! Until Gym Buddy Megan busted up laughing. That girl never takes me seriously. But I had Allison good and scared for about half a second.

Actually the blocks of wood were there for a painful purpose. Sensei Don ( Don Seiler, 3rd degree blackbelt and teacher of Matsubayashi-Ryu Karate-do ) gave them to me to toughen up my knuckles. You know, so it won't hurt so much when I punch stuff. He instructed me to do two sets of 30 push-ups a day. On the wood boards. On my knuckles.

Allison was not down with this. "But it hurts!"

"It's supposed to hurt," I answered. I did one knuckle push-up.

"It hurts a lot!"

"I know!" Two knuckle push-ups.

"I have girly hands!"

"Me too." Three knuckle push-ups.

"It's easier if you do it this way." She turned her hands to the side.

"Ow,ow,ow, ow... okay." It took me three measely knuckle push-ups before I gave up and finished out the set the normal way. I think that Sensei Don does not fully understand who he is working with. Poor man.

Karate Means Open Hand
Ever since I started The Great Fitness Experiment, various readers have been encouraging me to do a Martial Arts Experiment of some sort. And given its reputation for being a hard-core full body workout, I was eager to give it a try. Plus, and I swear I'm not a psychopath, I really like to hit people and I never get to do it. Something about it not being a socially acceptable habit or whatever.

Anyhow, as Sensei Don informed me, they call it a martial "art" for a reason: it's not just about fighting, it's about training the mind, body and character to work together for self protection. Ideally, it's mostly about strengthening the mind and character and the body will follow suit. In practice it means that you start with the most rudimentary techniques - called standing basics - and perform them hundreds of times until they become ingrained. In addition you perform routines of these basics - called kata - hundreds of times to demonstrate your mastery. You also get to yell. When I expressed my worry about yelling in the gym and looking crazy, Gym Buddy Megan cracked up something fierce. Again. That girl.

At the risk of offending my generous Sensei, I pointed out to him that since this is a one month Experiment, I am less concerned about the "art" and more concerned about the killing people. Not only was he not offended but he told me about a karate concept called "Ikken Hissatsu" which means something akin to "one punch kill." Unfortunately, to reliably perform these manuevers (as opposed to on accident in a bar fight which is called a one-punch homicide and will land you in jail where, if you are really lucky, you can write a rap song about it and make a million bucks but barring that will live out the rest of your days being miserable and lonely so don't do it), you have to be, well, good at karate. So back to the standing basics we go. But at least I have a goal now.

The Workout
Sensei Don devised a workout broken up in to three major parts for us: conditioning, standing basics and kata. He instructed us to spend an hour day on these things and then do whatever we wish with the rest of our time (helllooo cardio!).

The main parts to focus on for karate are your core, legs, forearms and back. He actually said that to be effective at karate we need to learn to rely less on our chest and biceps and more on using gravity and our body weight to help us punch and kick. So we do one hundred reps of crunches, leg raises (the ab kind, not the Jane Fonda kind), one minute supermans, and a squats.

Standing Basics
The easiest way to learn these is to have a qualified Sensei teach them to you. However, if you can't find one or are as cheap as I am, you can always get his book Karate-Do: Traditional Training for All Styles. I tell you what, that man knows how to look fierce in a picture. Miss Tyra ain't got nothing on Sensei Don.


There are about 20 standing basics of which I have only learned the first 4. But repeating each of those 100 times took the better part of an hour and I was pretty tight in my shoulders and sweaty by the time we were done.

The First Kata
I can't describe the kata except to say that it is like a dance. Except a really tough guy dance. With yelling. Check out the video here. (Note the yell - I am very excited about this part.) This is what the Gym Buddies and I will be attempting to learn over the next week or two and will be practicing every day as well.

How To Play Along At Home
Some of my Experiments are easier to follow along with than others. This one is going to be a toughie. I can't teach Karate technique - even if I knew it, which I don't - over the Internet. But what I can do is try out this particular style of martial art for a month and tell you what I think of it. If it intrigues you then I encourage you to check your local listings for a dojo near you. If not, then you get to sit back and enjoy the ride!

Do any of you have martial arts experience? What is your opinion of it as a workout? As a lifestyle? Any advice for me about the knuckle push-ups??

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