Goju ryu karate and health

Is goju karate bad for your health?

I was recently asked about whether goju ryu is potentially bad for your health. The correspondent was particularly concerned with knuckle push ups and makiwara punching causing arthritis, and sanchin kata having other adverse effects (eg. raising blood pressure).

Knuckle push-ups

Knuckle push ups will not cause arthritis. There are 2 kinds of arthritis; the rheumatoid type (ie. caused by an immunological disease be it rheumatoid arthritis or any other reactive arthritis related to Crohns disease, psoriasis, etc.) and osteoarthritis (which is commonly associated with age (wear and tear) and can result from joint degeneration following an injury or repeated injuries and inflammation, among other things).

Knuckle push ups and makiwara obviously have no relationship with rheumatoid-type arthritis. As to oseteoarthritis - they MIGHT have a relationship but only if you keep injuring yourself.

To avoid this risk, you should:

(a) do your knuckle push ups correctly (more on this in due course); and

(b) gradually condition your knuckles.

Do one or 2 knuckle push ups on a wooden floor, then revert to hands. Gradually increase the number over time. Earlier this year I managed 82 in a row - what failed was my endurance, not my knuckles. I did 120 in a row in my prime. Knuckles or flat hands - there was no real difference. I think knuckle push ups are rather like sitting in seiza (the traditional Japanese kneeling posture); something you have to get used to (particularly for Westerners). I remember in my first karate class thinking that it was an impossibly painful position; one I could not possibly sustain for any length of time. I assumed I would be the first student in that dojo who would need special dispensation to sit cross-legged. Needless to say I never received that dispensation and I have been sitting comfortably in seiza for almost 30 years.

Makiwara training

Makiwara training is not something I recommend for beginners. In my opinion you should be at green belt before you start it because by then your knuckles will be conditioned from the pushups. You should then begin by punching softly, gradually increasing the "power" of your punches. You should never do too many. If your knuckles feel bruised or sore, stop. NEVER continue punching if you have split them. Gradually callousing will occur and you will be able to punch harder without injury or discomfort. Morio Higaonna who has very conditioned knuckles has had them examined by doctors and they are in absolutely perfect health - enlarged and calloused, but no sign of arthritis.

In other words, the key to knuckle (or any other impact conditioning) is to start out gradually and slowly build up. Avoid injury. A bit of a bruise is going to go away. It is only if your knuckles are constantly inflamed that you face the possibility of joint degeneration over time, leading to osteoarthritis.

A makiwara demonstration

Sanchin kata

As to sanchin kata, there is a lot of speculation that it is a "crude" form of "isometric training" causing blood pressure elevation.1 This is simply not the case. Sanchin kata practise involves contraction of specific muscles - this part is true. But you are not holding your breath and making your face go red - something that is called the Valsalva maneuver.2 This maneuver is dangerous and may lead to a stroke (you'd be surprised how many people die on the toilet while straining - ie. doing the Valsalva maneuver).

Instead while performing sanchin kata correctly you should be breathing in a manner appropriate to the type of exertion3, teaching your body the correct tension for receiving blows (which ANY fighter will experience) and learning grounding. Whatever it is, sanchin kata is NOT intended/designed as a form of isometric exercise.

To the extent that your blood pressure is elevated slightly during practise - yes, this is true. But check your blood pressure after a sprint or after bench press and you'll probably find it is higher (in any case - beware that Valsalva maneuver!). It's probably higher when your boss is telling you off at work! Moreover, sanchin kata is not very long, so you're not exactly doing it for hours.

In the end, any form of exercise is dangerous if it is taken to an extreme. The key to goju ryu karate (or ANY exercise) is moderation and gradual conditioning. Just don't overdo it.

A demonstration of different sanchin/sanzhan kata


1. See Steve Bellamy's interesting but fundamentally flawed article "Sanchin - Your kata is killing you".

2. As to the Valsalva maneuver see the Wikipedia article here.

3. For a more detailed discussion of breathing in sanchin see Bill Glasheen's article "Sanchin Breathing: Are you hurting yourself?". The article is written for uechi ryu but in my view it applies equally to the correct breathing in goju ryu sanchin. If your goju sanchin involves a "vein popping" display then, quite simply, "you're doing it wrong"! For example, if you watch closely when Morio Higaonna sensei does his sanchin kata, his face isn't going red with Valsalva exertion.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Goju practitioners have the same kind of fanatical believe in Sanchin as do fervent religious believers.

    You cling to this ridiculous exercise because is so 'Goju' and after all you've invested so much time learning it, doing it and teaching it therefore you have to make up some kind of pseudo scientific rational to keep on doing it.

    I was more flexible and I knew Sanchin added nothing to my Karate. You too will learn better after a few more years.

  2. Don't you feel you might be generalizing just a tad Steve?

    I don't have any kind of "fanatical" belief in sanchin. However I do practise it (not as much as other gojuka - that's true).

    The view that sanchin kata plays an unhealthy role in elevating blood pressure is quite simply based on misconception.

    Otherwise, the question of whether or not sanchin is necessary or "adds" sufficiently to karate is another matter.

    I've found that sanchin has taught me a lot about grounding. This is something I discuss in another article. Nothing will take that knowledge away and it is entirely consistent with southern Chinese crane and the internal arts that I have studied.

    To me it is just an exercise. There are other ways of developing grounding, I'm sure. However the exercise of sanchin kata has served a purpose in my case. The exercise is only "ridiculous" if you practise it in the way you imagine - with a vein popping Valsalva maneuver, a fanatical worship, or both.

    I might not choose to practise sanchin kata very much now or "after a few more years". However I very much doubt it will make any difference to my opinion as outlined in this article, but we shall see.

    Thank you for your perspective.

  3. I believe "Steve" started hyperventilating halfway through his post, and unwittingly fell into the Valsalva maneuver and popped a vein in his cerebral cortex, which could explain the extemporaneous secretion of stupidity and bad grammar. Cure? More Sanchin(it is so Goju!).

  4. Dan –

    Nice post, well thought out, orderly and, cogent, good stuff all the way around. I am going to have to read more, as your work sets me to thinking quite a bit. Be well.


  5. Thanks Kris - very much appreciated!

    I look forward to chatting with you in the future.

  6. I experimented some with sanchin type breathing and muscle tension. I'm not sure if it was the extra oxygen going to my head, but I was able to focus much better and stronger on a single point.

    I hypothesize that it would work great if you needed to use your peripheral vision in sparring or fights.

  7. Dan,
    Thanks for your great post.

    I don't understand enough Sanchin since I've been practicing it only ~ 50 times (i'm a Goju beginner). What I describe as follows are my short experience with Sanchin.

    However, like Ymar Sakar said, I find myself being able to focus much better in my work as a (computer) programmer, when I do Sanchin.

    1) If I do Sanchin one time in the morning, I could focus better in my work through the whole day.
    2) If I feel my brain tired (probably lack of blood/oxygen) while working, I do Sanchin and find my brain refreshed again.

    Since I very often have difficulty in focusing in work, to the point that I think I have a light ADHD, I have explained those 2 benefits of Sanchin like this:

    1) My muscles are tired after Sanchin, and they become calm through the day and leave my brain in peace to do its job

    2) Through Sanchin, my heart pumps faster, which lead blood and thus oxygen to the brain.

    My background: Asian, 33 y.o., 1m73, 74kg. I learn Goju Ryu through a 5-dan Goju, and through watching Morio Higaonna's Video.

  8. Thanks for reading and for your contribution.


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