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