The fundamental problem with karate?


I've titled this article provocatively for a good reason.  No, it's not just another "polemic".  Well it is... but for a good reason!  As you'll see, I'm not dismissing karate.  I am simply challenging one aspect of the way it is generally practised today (specifically in kata and frequently in bunkai).

Basically, I'm going to propose (I'm certain, controversially) that there is a "fundamental flaw" with this practise.

I'm also going to propose that it is principally this one flaw that has given rise to the dismissive (and arguably well-deserved) attitude sport fighters have towards karate and "like" arts (taekwondo, kenpo, many gong fu systems etc.) - at least in their traditional, kata/form/pattern expression.1

I'm going to propose that this "fundamental flaw" is precisely what has fueled (albeit indirectly) an entire industry of "practical karate" books, videos and seminar series; it has produced the "new wave" of bunkai and "reality based" karate.  But I'm also going to propose (again, controversially) that this new industry doesn't always address the essential criticisms of the sport fighter for one very simple reason: it has (largely) yet to even notice (never mind address) this "fundamental flaw".

So what is this "fundamental flaw"? In a nutshell it is:
Incorrect timing. 
By this I mean not timing your blow in such a way as to:
  • maximise its chances of actually connecting with the target; and
  • exploit your opponent's vulnerabilities and maximise your own opportunities.

Specifically, the "flaw" I'm talking about is one that teaches karate students an ineffective method of timing their hand techniques relative to their stepping and other body movement (particularly when "closing a gap"), namely the karate habit of stepping up, then punching, in two separate counts.2

Timing - as understood in 16th century Europe!

There's a saying martial arts:
Timing is everything.
And I'm about to show you clear evidence of why this is true.  How you time your techniques relative to your opponent and, consequently, your own body movement (whether entering or exiting an engagement) is pretty much the soul of "everything" in the martial arts.  It makes the difference between hitting and missing.  It makes the difference between getting hit and getting missed.

I think the following video, first brought to my attention (and expertly analysed) by my esteemed karate colleague Matt Perlingiero, is an excellent summary of what I'm talking about.  It is from European traditional sword school and it lays out the fundamental issues very simply and, I think, undeniably.  Although it video wasn't intended for unarmed fighting, the same principles apply.

The video makes the following points:

One's hands, body and feet are all involved in bridging the distance between combatants.  Yet they all move at different speeds.  How should one time them respectively so as to produce an optimum result?

The video shows clearly how feet movements, which carry the weight of the body, are the slowest.

The next fastest is the body/torso movement: it can beat a step, but it can't beat a hand movement.

Obviously the hand movements are then the fastest.  This is hardly surprising: I've previously noted that the hands are wired for speed and sensitivity; the rest of your body, not so much.

The video then goes on to discuss whether there is a particular order for hand/body/foot when you have to take a step to get into range.  It concludes that "moving the foot first" is flawed.  I quite agree.
Stepping first, then punching, "signals" (ie. telegraphs) the action long before it comes forward.  It also takes longer to deliver (ie. the technique is slower).  This is the same issue I've previously noted with the "double hip" - the twin evils of telegraphing and extra time.

I very much like the way the video categorises the "step first" as "false time" and the alternative as "true time".  Keep those terms in mind: one is "true" because you can use it in reality.  The other is "false" because you just can't.

How things start vs. how they finish: a better way to examine the question

However I think the question posed in the video could be framed a bit better.  It is couched in terms of which body part starts first (sometimes referred to as "which part leads").  And as I've previously argued, this is not a terribly accurate measure.

A more useful analysis starts with the question of which body part finishes first (and if you want to understand why, I invite you to read my article on that subject).  In fact, this is precisely what the video maker implies, when you consider his "hand clapping test"; he notes that you "clap twice" for the "false time".  But with the "true time" you can only clap once.  This clapping is dependent not on how the drill starts - but on how it finishes.

And how should it ideally finish?  As one movement.  In other words, so that you clap once.

Put another way, the video is stressing precisely what I've maintained in recent times: that we should be using the "internal arts principle"3 that the hand and foot should land at more or less the same time.

On the left the foot has landed but the sword is catching up.  On the right the foot and sword complete at about the same time

Now I know that this description is somewhat simplistic; in truth, the hand can, and often does, land just before the foot.  However in reality this difference is so small (as per the above video - see the stills) that you couldn't really pick it.

Basically, if you land your blow just before your foot lands (say a millisecond before) all will be well.

On the other hand, if you finish your blow when you are half-way to your target, you risk:
  • being out of range; and
  • even if you do get into range, having exhausted your arm movement before reaching your target - and hence not having the velocity of your arm as a force producer.
As I tell my beginners, you certainly don't want a "battering ram" effect - where your punch is fully extended before you get into range and you run into him with a stiff arm.  No, you want to use the arm movement in concert with the body (particularly the hip) and the step in what I've called staged activation of body parts - so that you're using all your body parts in harmony while being in perfect range as you complete your technique.

This means the answer to a well-timed punch or strike lies in landing your blow as close as possible to when your foot lands.  But never after that.

That last point bears repeating: if you land your punch after your foot, you're in false time.  And false time is false precisely because it doesn't work.  It doesn't work for the familiar twin evils: it telegraphs and it takes extra time.4  Both mean your opponent will be able to frustrate your attack.

If you want to look at it from the perspective of the hand claps, the false time example happens in two moves.  The true time example happens in one move.  You only have time for one move.

A loss of power as well...

Now you'll be aware that I've previously canvassed this as one of the most important issues in martial striking - but I've done so more or less entirely from the perspective of force multiplication - ie. increasing your "power".

The main thing to take away from the video in this article is that the hand/foot timing is also important for a totally different reason:
Telegraphing/time taken.
These things are in many ways far more important than simple "power" (ie. force).  After all, it doesn't matter how powerful your punch is if it doesn't land.  Or if you get hit by someone's punch before you get a chance to "drop your own bomb".

Either way, you should now be aware that there is simply no good reason to step up, then punch (ie. use two movements where there should be only one).  In fact there are 3 critical reasons not to do so:
  1. you'll telegraph your intention;
  2. you'll take extra time;
  3. you'll lose power.
If you use false time, there is everything to lose and nothing to gain: it is, quite simply an unworkable tactic.

Karate kata and the typical 2-count timing

Now contrast this rather fundamental issue of true time/one movement vs. the way the vast majority of karate kata techniques are performed today.

Indeed, the "double hip" (as one of the vanguards of the "new karate", spawned to address whole issue of karate's "impracticality" but couched as "rediscovering the true way" rather than as a recent development) has, if anything, exaggerated the false time by increasing both the telegraphing and the lost time.

They would argue they have at least maximised the power of the strike with the extra hip use, but I would counter that what they have gained is offset by the loss of the forward body momentum in the step.

Yes, there are quite a number of moves that I've found in karate kata where the hand and foot are (and have always) been taught as finishing at the same time.

But, more often than not, even these are devolving in dojos around the world into the standard "two moves" of karate - ie. "false time".

And this trend isn't just limited to stepping and punching: it is being translated into individual hand techniques - eg. uke (blocks/deflections/interceptions) - which I've argued can and should be practised as one move.  Except they aren't.

And rather than tackle this "two count timing" problem head-on, "new karate" more often than not worsens it - by interpreting the extra count as some sort of lock or hold - all in a kind of bizarre "grappling" system known only to "new karate" and rightly dismissed as laughable by specialist grapplers because this "system" proposes tactics they would never attempt.

Simultaneously the "new karate" grappling bunkai widely ignore the ancient wisdom of civilian defence grappling - which was designed specifically to allow locks to be applied from a slight distance, and to avoid the clinch - all so as to keep you from being trapped in a wrestling match (which is highly dangerous in a street environment).

Does karate need to be done in two counts?

I'm going to leave aside the whole question of "how karate was originally done".  Instead I want to focus on how it should be done - particularly at a higher level.

Is there any reason for karate not to use a "one count" motion where it presently uses two?

Many top karateka are already implementing a single count motion in many of their movements:

Consider Taira Masaji sensei's striking of makiwara below: when he steps and punches the timing is unmistakably such that the hand and foot land together.

The following screen shots reveal that the punch and the foot are pretty darn close to landing at exactly the same time.

And this matches his performance of gekisai kata below: you'd be hard-pressed to differentiate the step from the punch in, say, the opening moves.

Yet, like many karateka today, Taira sensei also occasionally emphasises a two count version of this kata.

Is he wrong in this?  Absolutely not!  I know for a fact that this is being done here for a good reason (ie. emphasising fundamentals).  I do exactly the same.  In fact, I do not teach gekisai kata (a basic form) without the two count.  For me, gekisai are kata that predominantly exist to teach/focus on elements other than the "hand and foot timing" issue to which I allude.  There is a reason gekisai are regarded as beginner or fundamental forms.

Indeed, rather than tamper with gekisai kata and their role in beginner training, I have designed my own kenkyugata (experimental kata) version - Jisui.  In this form I apply a more advanced, "internal-inspired" timing.  But this is not something I teach beginners.  When I teach them gekisai, I leave its structure inherently as a two count one.

Putting all this aside, many of today's karateka do not seem to be thinking along such lines.  I dare say, most are inclined towards a two count version for every kata, regardless of the particular student's experience or needs.

And this is where I feel karate is being practised in a flawed way:

Techniques and methods appropriate to teaching fundamentals to beginners have been perpetuated as the be-all and end-all of karate: its final expression.  Every kata is treated as "kihon" - a disparate collection of basic techniques - and not as something that actually puts techniques into a "dynamic context" (ie. a moving, changing environment where a step preceding a punch is actually treated as part of the technique - which it most assuredly is).

Why is this so?

I believe this is a dilution of knowledge.  Karate has always suffered from the "don't ask, train" philosophy. It suffered a great deal more when it became the focus of school-oriented programmes for physical education leading up to World War II.  It suffered badly from attempts to popularise it on the Japanese mainland,

And later it suffered even more when it was introduced to the West.  Basic karate (ie. a version in which the fundamentals were emphasised) became the only karate.  You need only look at what was passed on to Bruce Tegner and Ed Parker to see just how much worse this trend used to be in the 50s and 60s.

Stepping for "positioning"?

One lingering justification for "stepping, then punching" in kata is that the step is for positioning - it is not part of the punching motion.

The concept is that if the opponent reacts to the step, you wouldn't punch, you would "step again".

Yet I would have thought if you moved into range without some sort of technique, you would be risking walking into a potential punch.  And while whatever technique you chose to enter with might not necessarily the technique you are going to knock your opponent out with, there should never be a situation where you step up, and only then do something.  You won't ever have the luxury of moving into a position and then "assessing your options".  If you step up, you have to be doing something as you do so.  And if a kata has you doing something with a step, you might as well be doing that particular something.  There has to be a reason the kata has paired the technique with that step.  There is a lesson in there.

I hold it to be evident that this is congruent with the few karateka who actually apply their techniques in MMA.  Lyoto Machida, for example, never "steps into position, then does something".  He is always doing the "something" as he steps.  Generally this "something" is his shotokan competition-like punches.

It might be hard to determine whether he is exactly "landing the techniques at the same time" - largely because he's mostly firing combinations.  But a frame-by-frame analysis shows, I believe, that the hand/foot timing of which I speak is a broadly accurate description of his method of punching etc.

In fact, I did a comparison and my drop step in teaching a class is timed pretty much exactly as Machida's in MMA: the punch starts only after the back foot has passed the front. The only real difference is Machida's higher chamber.  That and the fact that I'm doing one step and stopping - where Machida is continuing his momentum in successive steps, leading to more committed forward stance by the end of his punch.

In other words, fighters like Machida apply karate in motion.  They never "step up, then punch".  Nor do they punch and run into their opponents with a battering ram!  Rather, they do more or less what I've been arguing all along: timing the hand and foot together (or, if you insist, timing the hand a millisecond before).

I note in passing that old school bare knuckle boxing insists on broadly the same timing: hand and foot moving together as one count - never two.  See below:


Karate is most often criticised on the basis of its simplest, most elementary expression in teaching: where sequences are broken down from single movement into two for the purposes of isolation and refinement.

Unfortunately, much of karate is not taught in any way beyond this basic pedagogy.

I think it is time for karate to break this pattern.

The internal arts do lots of things "wrong" from a fighting/practical perspective, including not having enough "hardness" or "practicality" in training and execution.  But one thing they do "right" is teaching, as an immutable rule, the notion that steps are to be used - that their power must be harnessed, not wasted.  That moves are to be done to one count - not two.

I see no reason for karate - at least at its higher levels - to employ precisely the same pedagogy and tactics: to focus on one of the most practical, essential features of fighting: the application of techniques in true time.

There might be valid reasons for beginners to be taught techniques in "false time" - focusing on detail of form would be the most obvious.  But there is simply no good reason to perpetuate this trend at intermediate and higher levels.

For karate to work in a dynamic context, it simply must use a one-count platform.  The two-count platform that seems to be the default was only ever a stepping stone.  It is by no means any sort of destination.

I believe "non-beginner" karate kata can (and should) be practised using a "one count" philosophy.  How would they look?  I'm not entirely sure but here are my current ideas in relation to the goju form suparinpei.

I hope to do an analysis in the near future explaining exactly what I'm doing and why.  But for the time being note the moves normally done as "two counts" and see where I've turned them into single ones.


1. Consider the casual dismissal of karate by Ronda Rousey in this interview from around 2:45 when she mentions her friend Marina who "actually fights" and her cousin "who did karate which is like... you know... it's... it's... something."  I found this attitude fairly standard when I ran my radio show "The Combat Sports Hour" on SportFM: karate and other traditional arts aren't taken seriously.  And I'm not just talking about McDojos - even senior, skilled martial artists are regarded as practising something that "doesn't really work outside the dojo".

And yes, they know that fighters like Lyoto Machida have shown karate and its techniques to be effective - but sport fighters counter that the art has had to be heavily modified - so modified that, in their opinion, it is simply no longer "karate".

2. Forget "blocks", forget front and side kicks, forget chambers, forget karate punches, forget small joint manipulations.  All of these arguably could work.  No, when it boils down, what the sports fighter dismisses (indeed, lampoons) is the typical karate stepping and air punching/blocking/striking etc. - as seen in kata but as never seen in any fight.  Ever.  Ironically, Bas' timing with his steps is more or less correct.  But what do you expect of a fighter who actually knows how to land a punch while stepping?

3. Note that by "internal" arts I simply mean the 3 arts that are "within" (ie. internal to) the Wudang school - using similar technical emphases, like timing the hand and foot.

Rather than focusing on some old theory based on qi, bone marrow and 6 harmonies etc. practitioners of these arts would do better to simply look at what it is their arts actually teach in physical terms.  That's where the "magic" lies - not in some old poems filled with jargonistic gobbledygook and not in some ridiculously fake pushing demonstrations of "fajin".

4. This is much the same as the "double hip" - except in that case the issue is landing the hand after the hip, rather than after the foot/step.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic