JKA Columbia University

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Shotokan Karate Training


There are three components to Shotokan karate training: kihon, kata, and kumite. Each plays a crucial role to the development of karate skills. While particular teachers and particular training sessions may emphasize some (or only one) components, none of them can be neglected in the course of one's training.


Kihon is the practice of fundamental techniques: blocking, punching, striking, and kicking. These techniques are the beginning and end of karate -- a karateka (practitioner of karate) may learn them in a matter of months, yet fail to master them after a life's worth of training. Hence, basic techniques demand regular practice, applied with as much concentration and effort as possible.

According to the late Sensei Masatoshi Nakayama, the karateka must practice kihon with the following in mind:

Form. Balance and stability are necessary to basic techniques. Kicking -- in which one leg supports the entire body -- is an example of technique that depends on the karateka's sense of balance. Karate movements involve shifting the body's center of gravity, which demands good balance and control of the body. In addition, the karateka requires stable joints, stances, and posture to deliver (or withstand) maximum impact in (or from) a blow.

Power and speed. Karate would be meaningless without kime, the ability to concentrate the greatest amount of force at the point of attack (or block). Those with great muscular strength do not excel at karate, if they never learn to use their muscles to the greatest effect. The karateka who excels, does so by maximizing her muscular power through kime. In addition, the karateka's power is directly related to the speed of her techniques. However, speed is ineffective without proper control.

Concentration and relaxation of power. The karateka cannot generate maximum power if her punches rely on the arm's muscles alone, or her kicks on the leg's muscles alone. The greatest level of power comes from concentrating all of the karateka's strength, from every part of the body, on the target. In addition, the karateka must generate power efficiently, using power when and where it is needed. Maximum power is required only at the point of impact. Until then, the karateka should stay relaxed and avoid generating unnecessary power. By tensing the wrong parts of the body or tensing at the wrong time, the karateka only diminishes the amount of power that goes into her block or attack. While she is relaxed, the karateka should stay mentally alert.

Strengthening muscle power. The karateka must not only understand the principles of kihon, she must give them effect with strong, elastic muscles. Strong muscles demand constant, earnest training. They also require the karateka to know which muscles to use in her techniques: well-trained muscles will lead to strong and effective karate.

Rhythm and timing. Karate has its own rhythm that karateka should come to recognize and understand. No technique takes place in isolation; in combining basic techniques, the karateka should pay attention to the timing of her techniques as well as the techniques themselves. A master karateka's movements not only contain a great deal of power but also rhythm and, in their own way, beauty. A sense of rhythm and timing will help the karateka understand the techniques and the art in general.

Hips. The hips are a crucial, yet oft-neglected component in executing karate techniques. Hip rotation adds power to the upper body, and is thus essential to strong blocks and punches. The hips' proximity to the body's center of gravity make them the foundation of strong, stable movements, good balance, and proper form. The karateka cannot move as smoothly, quickly, or powerfully if the hips are passive. For this reason, teachers often remind their students to "block with your hips," "punch with your hips," and "kick from your hips."

Breathing. The karateka should coordinate breathing with her techniques. Breathing enhances the karateka's ability to relax and concentrate maximum power in her techniques. Correct breathing -- fully exhaling when finishing a strike, for example -- is necessary to developing kime. The karateka should not breathe in a uniform manner; her breathing should change with the situation. Proper inhaling fills the lungs completely. Proper exhaling leaves the lungs about 20 percent full -- exhaling completely makes the body limp, leaving the karateka vulnerable to even a weak attack.


The kata are formal exercises which combine basic karate techniques -- blocking, punching, striking, and kicking -- into a series of predetermined movements. Kata combines offensive and defensive techniques, proper body movement, and changes in direction. The kata teach the karateka to dispose of numerous attackers from at least four directions. Although the kata do not involve visible opponents, the karateka, through serious study of the kata, learns the art of self-defense and the ability to calmly and efficiently deal with dangerous situations. For these reasons, the kata have been the core of karate training since ancient times.

According to Sensei Nakayama, there are five characteristics of kata:

  1. For each kata, there are a fixed number of movements. (The basic Heian kata have 20 to 27 movements; advanced kata can have over 60.) One must perform the movements in the correct order.
  2. One must begin and end the kata at the same point on the floor. Each kata has its own "shape" -- depending on the kata, the karateka may move along a straight line or a "T"- or "I"-shaped formation.
  3. There are kata that all karateka must learn, and kata that are optional. The former consist of the five Heian kata and three Tekki kata. (Today, Tekki 2 and Tekki 3 are usually optional.) The optional kata are Bassai-dai (although most brown belts practice this for their black belt exam) and Bassai-sho , Kanku-dai and Kanku-sho, Empi, Hangetsu, Jitte, Gankaku, Jion. Other kata include Meikyo, Chinte, Nijushiho, Gojushiho-dai and Gojushiho-sho, Hyakuhachiho, Sanchin, Tensho, Unsu, Sochin, Seienchin, Ji'in, and Wankan.
  4. There are three aspects to performing a dynamic kata: (1) correct use of power; (2) correct speed of movement, be it fast or slow; (3) expansion and contraction of the body. The kata's beauty, power, and rhythm depend on these aspects.
  5. One bows at the beginning and end of the kata. Bowing is part of the kata, too.


Kata and kumite are complementary training methods. In kata, one learns basic techniques; in kumite, one applies them with a sparring partner. The principles of kihon (see above) still apply to kumite: the karateka must apply proper karate techniques, demonstrate correct power and speed, and, above all, exercise good control -- contact is prohibited. One must remember that, while kumite is a useful application of the fundamentals learned through kata, it is not a substitute for kata.

There are three types of kumite: basic kumite, ippon (one-step) kumite, and jiyu (free) kumite.

Basic kumite, consisting of five- or three-step sparring, permits the karateka to cultivate basic blocking and attacking through prearranged techniques. It is a useful introduction to sparring for beginning students.

Ippon kumite also involves basic, prearranged techniques, but adds emphasis on body movements and proper distancing from the opponent.

In jiyu kumite, techniques are not prearranged. The karateka may freely engage her physical and mental powers, but must strictly control her attacks -- contact is prohibited. The karateka must be well-trained and disciplined enough to make a powerful blow that stops just before it reaches its target. For these reasons, only advanced students may practice jiyu kumite.

(Note: Most karateka learn jiyu ippon kumite -- a combination of one-step and free sparring -- as brown belts. In this semi-free form of sparring, both sides must use basic, prearranged techniques, but may act according to their own rhythm and timing. Jiyu ippon kumite often serves as a bridge between ippon and jiyu kumite.)

Best Karate, Vol. 1, Masatoshi Nakayama.
Dynamic Karate, Masatoshi Nakayama.