Congratulations! You’ve decided to start your journey in the martial arts. Maybe you’ve already found an instructor you like, but the next session doesn’t start for a few more weeks.
What can you do in the meantime to prepare for your first karate class?
Don’t try to learn karate techniques on your own. Beginners have an extremely difficult time teasing out the nuances of good technique from videos or books, and your instructor may teach different methods than the material you find online or in your library.
You’re best off spending the time before your classes begin improving your general physical fitness—strength, speed, and endurance.
The more endurance you develop, the more you can practice technical skills without getting sloppy, and the faster you can improve. The stronger and faster you get, the more effective those techniques become.
Moreover, fighting and self-defense can quickly exhaust you. The more endurance you develop, the easier you can keep fighting when you confront danger.
Your instructor will help you build all of those physical attributes when you join the class. Anything you can do in the interim, however, will make your classes and practice time easier.
In addition, some students (and their parents, on their behalf) worry about martial arts injuries. These are real risks—martial arts by their nature are hazardous activities, so even properly run classes can hurt students. Good conditioning and technique, however, can greatly reduce your injury risk. As you get into better shape, you may discover that many things that once hurt don’t bother you that much, and you can fight through them.
Meanwhile, here’s what you can do at home, without any special equipment or coaching.
Start by warming up. Usually you want to break a sweat before you begin hard physical exercise. Simply bouncing in place for a few minutes or a light run will do the job.
Then you want to stretch. But you want to do the right stretches at the right points in your workout.
Thomas Kurz’s books, videos, and website lay out an excellent, scientifically proven stretching method.
You want to learn and perform some basic dynamic stretches before your workout—the gentle leg raises and arm swings that Kurz depicts. Take care never to exceed your comfort zone when stretching, or you could injure yourself. Gradually, you’ll find your comfort zone will expand, and your flexibility will increase, but don’t push it.
From there, you will want to exercise your limbs and core body.
A few of the exercises we like to use in the Carbondale Park District’s karate program include:
- Burpees with pushups to develop the strength needed to punch and kick
- Situps to toughen the abdomen and other core muscles
- Leg raises to develop the muscles along the top of the hip, thigh, and abdomen (which lift the legs for front kicks)
- Adductor flies to exercise and stretch the inside and outside muscles of the legs (which lift the legs for side, roundhouse, and hook kicks)
- Bicycles to exercise the legs and core body
- Heel raises to exercise the calves, which provide stability and balance
When starting out, take it easy. Do just a few repetitions of each exercise. If you can’t do 20 of each, do 10. If you can’t do 10, do five. Modify the exercises to make them less difficult if necessary—maybe you cannot do pushups without setting your knees on the ground. Do them that way, then.
Remember to breathe.
Listen to your body, work at your own pace, and find, but don’t exceed, your limits. In time, you’ll find the exercises get easier, and you can adjust them to make them harder (by lifting your knees off the ground when doing pushups, for example) or add repetitions to increase your strength and endurance. You may find other calisthenic exercises that help. You may find weightlifting and running (particularly wind sprints) valuable. You will gradually find that your limits expand.
When you finish, don’t forget to perform static stretches that lengthen and relax the muscles you just exercised. Refer to Thomas Kurz’s site for more information. You can also watch several excellent instructional videos about stretching by Bill Wallace, a tournament karate and kickboxing champion who earned a master’s degree in kinesiology. In particular, you’ll want to finish your workout with straddle stretches and standing forward bends.
Never bounce into stretches. Don’t try to compete with the flexibility of others, particularly people with the extraordinary flexibility of Wallace or Kurz. Stay in your comfort zone. Wallace says that you don’t really stretch muscles, you teach them to relax, so don’t strain. Remember to breathe. To return to our motif, with time and effort, your limits will gradually expand.
You’ll want to take a day off from calisthenic exercises every other day so that your body has time to recover and prepare itself for more. If possible, do this for a few weeks before you start karate—or any other martial art. Keep doing them long after you begin. You’ll find you will perform better in class and build the stamina needed to practice more often. Improvement will come quicker, and you will minimize frustration.