Thursday, April 7, 2011

How to Become a Better Fighter with Kata

Lyoto Machida uses it as part of his training. Mas Oyama and Andy Hug both utilized this training method.Even Georges St. Pierre used it as part of his early training.

I’m talking about Kata.

Kata (also known as poomse/hyung or simply ‘forms’) is a choreographed set of fighting techniques typically done alone, but sometimes with a partner.

Kata are predominately used to perfect certain fighting techniques. But they can be used for so much more. Used properly Kata can help you improve your conditioning, your proprioception, and even your mind/body/energy connection.

Read on to find out how.

The Decline of Kata

The growth of MMA has been both positive and not so positive for the martial arts world.

MMA has shown the martial arts world (and the general public) the importance of being a well rounded fighter. Thanks to MMA everyone understands that a great fighter needs to be effective in all ranges of combat.

Also, MMA has shown a great many the need for realistic training. Sure, prior to the MMA boom there were a lot of people who preached about the importance of realistic training. However, it was MMA that brought the subject to a much wider audience AND MMA fights that proved the importance of realistic training.

(And I know I’m going to get some emails or comments if I don’t write this, so here goes: Of course, MMA fighting isn’t EXACTLY like a real fight. But there simply isn’t a way to safely re-create a true life or death self defense situation. An MMA fight is about as close as a civilized society can come to re-creating such a situation.)

Photo by Stefan Tell
Obviously, though, the MMA boom has it’s ugly side. The rise of inflated egos, bad role models, and a lack of respect have all accompanied MMA’s increased popularity.

As MMA becomes more popular with the general public fewer and fewer people are training at Traditional Martial Art schools.

Which means more and more people are avoiding certain practices from the Traditional Martial Arts that are really quite beneficial.

One of those practices is Kata.

Many are opting to substitute shadowboxing for Kata practice. Shadowboxing is a fantastic form of training and I recommend that all martial artists take up the practice. However, I also feel it is unwise to throw out Kata training altogether.

Why Kata is Still Relevant -

It may not be readily apparent at first but practicing Kata does have some serious benefits for martial artists and combat athletes who are interested in performance enhancement and improved fighting ability.

Proprioception - First, Kata can be used to develop your sense of proprioception.

You see, many Kata put your body in certain stances and require movements that challenge your balance and equilibrium. Sometimes these stances and movements are difficult simply because most people just aren’t used to them.

The improvements in balance and body awareness have both a general and specific carryover to fighting. Any improvement in balance and body awareness can only help you as a fighter. But because all of the stances and movements of the Kata are either actual fighting techniques or very close approximations of real fighting techniques you get a much more specific carry-over into actual fighting.

Conditioning - Like shadowboxing, Kata can be used to perfect technique and as a form of conditioning. Performing a Kata at full speed can really be a test of your anaerobic endurance - especially when combined with other drills like kettlebell snatches or burpees.

When using Kata as a form of conditioning you really want to work hard but, at the same time, you still need to focus on proper technique. Otherwise, you’ll begin to ingrain sloppy technique into your nervous system. Not a good thing.

Internal Training - Tai Chi is widely know as an “internal” martial art. The routines of Tai Chi are known to stimulate the nervous system, calm and focus the mind, and improve one’s breathing. However, it isn’t necessary to actually know the Yang style 108 form or the Chen style “Cannon Fist” form to start gaining the benefits of internal training.

Any Kata can be used to improve internal power. As long as you apply certain “internal” principles.

Let’s take a look at a few ways you can use Kata to dramatically improve the physical and mental qualities you need as a fighter.

Simple Ways to “Amp Up” Your Kata Training -

I want to make it clear that you can feel free to use any Kata/hyung/poomse/form you are comfortable with.

I don’t care if it is Shotokan’s “Kanku Dai”, Tae Kwon Do’s “Keon”, or Xingyi’s “Linking Fist”.

As long as you know the Kata very well these training tips will work for you. I would avoid using a Kata you aren’t very familiar with.

Blind Folded Kata -

Most people rely heavily on their sense of vision to maintain balance. If you were to blind fold the average person and have them do simple tasks you would see them quickly turn into a stumbling mess.

One of the easiest ways to instantly make a Kata more difficult is to simply blindfold yourself. Doing so will improve your sense of balance as well as your proprioception.

Start off slowly. If you try to move at your normal pace it will most likely end in disaster, so get used to being blindfolded first. As you become more acclimated you can start moving towards your normal speed.

Kettlebells and Kata -

I really like to combine my Kata training with some conditioning work.

My conditioning tool of choice is the kettlebell.

My favorite routine is a High Intensity Interval style session where I switch between doing a Kata and a kettlebell drill. Here’s what it looks like:

Kettlebells and Kata - (no rest between each Kata/KB drill super-set, no more than 1 min. rest between each super-set)

A1) Kata 1
A2) Snatches - 10-20 reps each arm

B1) Kata 2
B2) Goblet Squats - 10-20 reps

C1) Kata 3
C2) Clean and Jerk - 10-20 reps each arm

D1) Kata 4
D2) Swings - 10-20 reps

E1) Kata 5
E2) Windmills - 5-10 reps each side

As an alternative you could as simply super-set one Kata and one kettlebell drill and keep going back and forth resting as little as possible.

The “Tai Chi” Kata -

Photo by Craig Nagy
Nearly everyone has seen the the stereotypical image of older Chinese men and women doing the slow, dance-like movements of a Tai Chi form.

And most of us in the martial arts world know that Tai Chi is considered an “internal” martial art. But, like I’ve already talked about, you need not actually know any Tai Chi (or other “internal” martial art) to experience the benefits of internal training.

All you need to understand are internal principles.

The first place to start is proper posture (see the “Internal Training” section) and mechanics. Go slow and feel every part of each movement of the Kata.

Try to coordinate each block and strike with an exhale and each transition with an inhale. You are free to use Buddhist style breathing during your Kata. However, I prefer to use the Taoist style reverse breathing method. It takes some getting used to but once it starts to feel natural you will be able to issue more force. Which brings me to another point the keep in mind.

When you first start practicing your Kata this way keep every movement slow. However, once you become more adept at it you can, at certain points, explode with a specific strike or block. In internal martial arts circles this is called “Fa Jing” or issue force. It helps to teach you how to easily move from “soft” to “hard” in a quick and powerful way.

A very useful skill for any fighter.

Putting Together a Routine -

At this point I’m sure you’re asking, “This all sounds great. But how can I implement this training into my current regimen?”

Pretty easily actually and you’ve got a few choices.

I like to do the Kata and Kettlebells routine at least once a week. I’ll either use it to finish off a regular martial arts training session or as a finisher to a lifting session.

The Blind Folded Kata has many uses. It is a great way to start any training session. It is also a great way to train when you need some active rest. You can also use the Blindfolded Kata to impress friends, family, and members of the opposite sex.

The “Tai Chi” style Kata is a great way to get some active rest, improve your technique, or do something productive during rest periods on lifting days.

There are some days where all I do are a few “Tai Chi” style Katas and a lot of stretching.

I’m sure you can come up with other ways to incorporate the Kata training methods into your current routine. All it takes is a little imagination.

So, give these a shot and let me know how they work out for you.

Train Hard,
Josh Skinner


  1. While I always appreciate the use of imagination in training I'm not a fan of kata as a fitness tool. Seems to miss the point slightly.

    I'm not a fan of the stylised karate stances, which are way to static and simply fail to allow optimal transfer of momentum and so force, the emphasis is on form over function. Not a good thing.

    To build this into a workout seems a bit daft to me. Including shadow fighting seems more sensible and this is specific to fighting!

    Practising the 'internal principles' as you put it seems more sensible and is what kata should be about, so long as you then transfer this into other areas of training.

    These principles are essential to all martial arts and should not be lost

  2. BMA,

    You make some valid points and I appreciate the feedback.

    But consider this:

    A kata is a training tool - one of many in a fighter's arsenal.

    While you are correct that the stances and movements won't SPECIFICALLY be very helpful in a fight. The qualities kata can be used to develop: balance, conditioning, and focus actually carry over quite well into a real fight.

    Wide, stylized stances are a form of conditioning for the body. They aren't the easiest stances in the world to hold or to move from. Very useful long ago when knowledge of human kinetics was limited but still useful today.

    On The Fighter's Training Continuum kata fall on the more general side where a fighter develops certain qualities that help lay a foundation for more specific fight training.

    I think the main thing people miss is that the kata/poomse/form is NOT the fight. To say you don't like formal karate style stances because they aren't funtional is missing the entire point behind the stances and the movements of the kata.

    But this confusion isn't just with Karate. I see it all the time with my fellow "internal" arts practitioners. The Tai Chi guys think their fighting should look like their forms, or their push-hands, or their well choreographed applications. My Xingyi brothers are just as guilty of this too! The forms, the push-hands, the zhan zhuang are all just tools - they aren't The Fight.

    Yes, shadowboxing is a big step closer towards actual fighting when compared to kata. It is definatly more specific, as you put it. But I think throwing kata into a workout makes a good bit of sense considering the aforementioned virtues of kata training. I mean, kettlebell training isn't exactly "specific" in terms of martial arts or for fighting. However, the kettlebell has proven to be a useful tool for martial artists and combat athletes all over the world.

    Kata and shadowboxing are simply two different points in the same process.

  3. I appreciate this article and there are some valid points but I adapted my traditional base many years ago and kata was a practice I don't regret dropping. Whenever I left the traditional MA it took me a LONG time to drop the bad habits that the TMA and the accompanying Kata instilled into me such as dropping my hands to my waist. Whenever you drill over and over again the technique of rigid stance work with hand down at the hips then in an actual fight- be it on the street or for sport- the hand will instinctually come down to the hips. I got blasted in the face so many times until I re-programmed myself to utilize proper hand work. I actually think that kata does more harm than good.