Copyright remains the property of: George Chaplin, C/O Dr.
N. G. Jablonski, Dept. of Anthropology, California Academy of Sciences, Golden
Gate Park, San Francisco. CA 94118 - 4599 U.S.A email: njablonsk.cal.org.
Biographical Details; George Chaplin is an Uechi Ryu Karate
Do Yon Dan, and has taught and practiced karate in Hong Kong and Perth Western
Australia. He was registered at Futenma Dojo where he trained with Grandmaster
Kanei Uechi, and has spent a total of one year studying on Okinawa. He spent
five years as Chief Instructor of the Hong Kong Dojo with Mr. Robert Campbell
Renshi who was Senior Instructor and head of the branch. He has recently
moved to San Francisco.
This article is offered to the audience with the hope that it will
inspire further discussion about the topic of conditioning. Here conditioning
refers to the body's accommodation to getting hit and not getting bruised.
It does not mean physical or cardio-vascular conditioning. It is an attempt
to explain the observation that conditioning takes place. It may or may not
be the answer and although the medical implications are pondered by the author,
he must point out from the start that he has no medical training.
He welcomes any input from health professionals into this debate. He advises
that conditioning must be done carefully and under supervision. If it is
not undertaken then there is a risk that sparring and training accidents
will cause greater injuries than they would otherwise. If you are in doubt
about any health aspects of karate training the correct person to consult
is a health professional. Unfortunately their most frequent advice, to the
author at least, has been to give up karate!
Despite its importance for most forms of modern martial arts training,
body conditioning has either been totally dropped or is sadly neglected.
Traditional forms of kung fu and karate, such as Uechi Ryu, have always
incorporated a system of body conditioning. It was by means of body
conditioning that the body was prepared for the rigors of combat.
Today many of these exercises to "toughen" the body have been discarded.
The emphasis has shifted to sport karate and body conditioning has been replaced
with muscle and cardiovascular conditioning because now it is fitness that
is of paramount importance. It can be said, however, that conditioning is
vital to all forms of karate because it gives the body the ability to stand
up to the constant knocks and blows. The ability to withstand the small but
constant injuries sustained in normal training is important because it gives
rise to greater confidence in the practice of karate. In addition to this
confidence conditioning done correctly will help to maintain good health.
For these reasons conditioning should again become an essential part of martial
Traditionally, conditioning was achieved by practicing very slightly
injurious routines slowly and sustained over many years. The important
word here is slightly. The inflicting of serious injury is detrimental to
body conditioning, karate spirit, and general well being. Neither masochism
nor sadism should have a place in training. It must be noted that vigorous
training may seem to approach these extremes but at no time should the boundary
separating safe from injurious training be crossed.
There are no absolutes and it necessary for the training partners to set
their own limits with which each is comfortable. It is up to the instructors
and seniors to ensure that the training is continuing within orderly and
So what areas do traditional karate individuals try to train? To answer
that question we will look at Uechi Ryu Karate Do, a conservative Okinawan
form of karate, which has a number of specific exercise to train particular
places. These exercises are done against the resistance of a partner and
so increase muscular strength at the same time as conferring conditioning.
The slight trauma is provided by means of rubbing and hitting. These exercises
are performed at every training session and last for approximately 10 - 15
minutes. In Okinawa, Japan, karate training sessions consist of two or more
hours three times a week. Conditioning is started at the first lesson.
In the first place these conditioning exercises are used to strengthen
those areas on the outer arm used for the majority of blocking, that is,
the dorsal, medial, and lateral aspects of the forearm. Care is taken to
avoid the tendons, nerves and blood vessels of the ventral (inner) aspect
and also around the elbow and wrist joints. This whole area is referred to
as the Kote in Japanese. These areas are conditioned by practicing
repeated blocks and strikes to each of the areas in turn, each time hitting
a slightly different place. Next in importance to the blocking areas, are
the areas that are not so successful in avoiding getting hit or kicked such
as the; thighs, and calves (which in this system is also used in blocking
against kicking techniques). Lesser amounts of conditioning in other areas
that also occasional become hit, such as, the stomach, pectorals, and the
latissimus dorsii muscles, is also undertaken. In Okinawa conditioning of
the frontal lower throat area has been observed, the resistance being provided
by forceful contraction of the neck muscles. This practice the author considers
doubtful. This and other extreme methods of conditioning seems to be a recent
introduction to Uechi Ryu. In conditioning the pectoral region of women care
must be taken to avoid the breast tissue as bruising can cause fat necrosis.
Besides the undisireablibity of necrosis, these post trauma, necrotic, lumps
may potentially lead to a cancerous lump being missed or confused in manual
Incidentally, with this protective conditioning the exercises are training
the striking weapons so as to improve their strength and ability to withstand
constant impacts. They use techniques such as striking with (knife hand,
using body of the Abductor Digiti Minimi muscle on the edge of the hand),
(hammer fist, which utilizes and reinforces the same area as shuto by having
the digits tightly flexed to form a fist), and (full fist, striking with
knuckles of index and middle fingers). Parts of the foot such as tips of
toes, top of instep and occasionally the lower shin just above the ankle
is used for conditioning the legs by means of (front kicks) and (circular
or round house kicks). The areas of the leg that are conditioned are the
lateral and anterior (outer and front) aspects of the thigh and to a lesser
extent the inner or medial aspects above the adductor canal (well above the
knee but low enough to avoid the groin). The lower leg is conditioned at
lateral and medial sides of the shin and at the front, above the shin bone
proper, where the Tibialis Anterior muscle joins the top 1/3 of the tibia
below the tibial plateau. The shin itself is also conditioned by repeated
very light taps with the toes. In addition in Okinawa the front of the shin
is conditioned by rolling a smooth heavy weight up and down on it. Kote Tikkai
(arm rubbing) is also used for conditioning in addition to the (blocking)
and (striking) techniques described above. This is where the three blocking
areas of the forearms are massaged against those of a partner very forcefully.
It is said to be used to spread the micro bruises out and increase the blood
supply. Sometimes the calve is rubbed by using a rising front kick into a
rubbing X or cross block to the lower leg.
Chinese Kung Fu practitioners also use similar methods as well as preparations
of herbal medicines to enhance blood flow into the regions that are being
conditioned. An herbal remedy is used in Uechi Ryu Karate Do but only to
ameliorate over-enthusiastic conditioning that has caused severe or extensive
bruising. The so called "Uechi Grass" preparation of an herbal grass grown
at the masters home soaked in (Okinawan rice spirit) is applied topically
and internally, but it is not used routinely as it would be in Chinese
systems. Besides partner work Chinese practitioners employ such training
aids as lightly and repeatedly hitting the "wooden man" so often seen in
Wing Chun academies.
Observations of Students:
Although the methods employed vary from style to style, the end result
appears to be the same. Unfortunately it is impossible to state what
physiological changes conditioning actually brings about, without the
opportunity of dissecting a practitioner's arm. We can speculate about
how it is most likely effected, from observing the changes seen in the
proponents of Uechi Ryu and in particular, those changes arising and
developing in students new to karate. The author has had the
opportunities to observe this training both in students and high ranking
masters in Okinawa for one year and among his own students over periods
as long as twelve years.
All students report bruising, on first starting body conditioning. This
soon lessens and usually disappears within six months. Severe bruising is
a sign of over vigorous application, if it continues with a lower intensity
of conditioning bruising needs to be investigated as it could be indicative
of blood or other medical disorders. The bruising appears to be more common
in students of poor physical condition and weak muscle tone. Younger students
frequently achieve conditioning more quickly. Once it has been achieved,
conditioning seems to last for a period of years after the cessation of active
training. The muscle tone and resistance to depression in actively conditioned
areas appears to be very high. There is no sign of obvious damage and no
changes in skin texture or coloration were observable.
The conditioned areas show very little subcutaneous fat deposits. All
students report lesser amounts of injuries, less severe pain in injuries
that are accidentally sustained and enhanced healing of such injuries. At
least for the author medical nurses who have had to give injections or draw
blood, have complained that the blood vessels are hard to find, that they
are deep and the skin itself is thick.
Mechanisms of Body Conditioning:
Training appears to cause the loose connective tissue and fascia
underlying the skin to change in such a way that they can withstand knocks
and blows better. Besides the sub-cutaneous fascia there is a compartmental
fascia, that is, a covering around bundles of muscle fibers, individual muscles,
and around groups of muscles. Fascia is the tough unchewable substance found
in the middle of the leg muscles used in a typical Sunday roast beef. Its
natural purpose is to provide the muscle fibers something to push against
when they are contracting. Hence, fascia is very tough and weight for weight
is comparable to steel in tensile strength. It seems that with repeated slight
trauma the fascia thickens slightly so as to provide an even stronger cover.
This covering of sub-cutaneous fascia cushions blows and can be thought
of as a tough extra skin underlying the outer skin. Cushioning from the fascia
is achieved by account of it being totally inelastic and when it is stressed
against contracted muscles it spreads the impact over the surface of the
muscle allowing no penetration into the muscle body. This lowers peak impact
pressures at the point of contact. Equally important to the actual fascia's
thickness and strength is muscle tone. The stronger the muscles are contracted
the more tension would be exerted in the subcutaneous fascial layer. The
tighter it is stretched the more are the penetrative force would be dissipated
over. The deep compartmental layers in and around muscles are quite possibly
also implicated in this cushioning.
Other structures are probably also involved in conditioning. The dermis
may develop a protective callusing over areas that are frequently hit or
abraded. The loose connective tissues are those tissues that lie between
the fascia and the lowest levels of the outer skin or epidermis. It is made
up of collagen, the same tough connective tissue as that of fascia and tendons
and it is in the loose connective tissues that fat is stored. This layer
too may change as a result of training and also work to slightly cushion
the effect of blows. One way could be a change in the proportion of collagen
The loose connective tissue has a rich blood supply and is able to repair
and regenerate itself quickly and quite easily. The deep fascia is also bathed,
although mostly indirectly, in a rich blood supply from the loose connective
tissue and from the muscles themselves. It also has a very limited direct
blood supply. As a result of the micro damage and regular training the blood
supply to the loose connective tissue and fascia might increase as they
thicken. Besides the cushioning effect of this thickening, the increased
blood supply would provide another benefit, in that, the body's ability
to repair micro damage is much enhanced -- small bruises healing almost
before they are noticed.
The mechanisms for conditioning bones is much more problematic to describe
if it even happens because the author suspects that it is more likely an
artifact of pain tolerance. If any conditioning can be given to bones it
is more from the effects of muscle stress than repeated trauma, because bones
thicken depending on the loads they have to endure. Denser boner could be
more resistant to impact forces but it is doubtful to the author that this
would be to any significant degree.
An increase in the density of the bone would stimulate the periosteum,
and it may be possible by repeated very gentle stimulation to make it thicken
and hence "condition". With bone's slow regenerative ability any useful
conditioning will also be very slow to develop. Any apparent bone conditioning,
other than that insignificant amount explained by increased bone density
and minimal thickening of the periosteum, is more probably better explained
by accommodation to pain. It is not recommended by the author to seek to
condition bones and this activity has been abandoned by him.
This abandonment was is due to the attendant risks of bone conditioning.
The slightest over zealousness in conditioning bony areas and the periosteum
will separate from the bone because the bone becomes depressed away from
the periosteum. Once it has lifted from the surface of the bone it will lose
its indirect blood supply and take a long time to re-attach. Whilst it is
unattached blood will collect between the bone proper and the periosteum.
This is the dreaded and very painful bone bruise. Other problems are much
Complications of Over Training:
Bruised bones take a very long time to heal due to the almost
non-existent blood supply. This can lead to some very potentially serious
complications. The most unusual and worst these complications being
Osteosarcoma or Bone cancer. This is where the regenerative properties of
the bone go haywire. In Osteosarcoma the cells change and go mad,
proliferating at such a rate they destroy the bone they are supposed to
be repairing. This very serious illness is often, but by no means always,
set off by a severe bone bruise. Like all cancers, if it is not caught in
time, it can be fatal and anyway it is always serious. In young people it
is more difficult to catch as it develops at an even faster rate than
adults. The other serious complication of bone conditioning is infected
This is where an infection sets into the body of the bone. Its main
non-surgical cause is almost always trauma. The infection will eventually
ulcerate out through the skin. It too can be life threatening because it
can cause blood toxicity complications and very high fevers. It is always
quite difficult to cure and will often break out again as the infection slowly
smolders, undetected, through the bone. Bad bone bruises can leave areas
where there is too much calcium deposited or the deposits are wrongly laid
down, which may have health implications in old age.
Deep muscles have such a rich blood supply that they bruise easily.
In fact they can bruise so badly that they become flooded with blood. This
can cause the muscle to swell in its fascial covering. When this happens
in the calf it can cause the blood supply to the lower leg to become shut
off. This carries the possible risk of gangrene in the lower leg if the
circulation is impaired for a long period. If the blockage is total gangrene
will start in less than half an hour. This condition only likely to happen
in the calf and is then known as Anterior Compartment Syndrome. It can usually
be detected by acute pain in the calf itself and numbness around the second
and third toes as the nerves serving those areas are similarly compressed
along with the arteries. The seriousness of Gangrene does not need amplifying
and it too is associated with fever. Bad diabetics with impaired peripheral
blood flow should be particularly concerned about gangrene in the foot. A
very high fever associated with any bad bruise is a certain sign of serious
difficulty and needs prompt investigation.
Another concern with bruises is those in the body of the large muscles
themselves, usually the muscles of the thigh; Although the author has seen
one in the biceps. When flooded with blood from a bad bruise haemotoma, the
blood starts to form a new bone in the body of the muscle. This is heterotopic
bone formation associated with charley horse or chronic cramps it is called
myositis-ossificans. The small fragments of bone in the body of the muscle
cause severe pain.
The ability of the muscles to form bone in this way is a method the body
has developed for reinforcing areas of high stress. With trauma this useful
ability is confused and forms bone in an inappropriate place. The chance
of myositis-ossificans forming is often exacerbated by deep massage to a
bruised large muscle.
Tendons, Nerves and Other:
To avoid serious injuries it is of course prudent to avoid damaging
blood vessels and nerves, however, these are mostly well placed to avoid
damage except, maybe around joints, e.g., around the wrist and elbow. It
goes without saying that joints of any kind can never be strengthened by
conditioning. The last major complication to be concerned about in body
conditioning is in the fascia of the tendon sheaths, tendons, and ligaments.
These do not have a direct blood supply and like periosteum they collect
their nutriments from the thin fluid that passes between the cells. It is
called the interstitial fluid. Therefore, without a blood supply they will
Fascia, tendons, and ligaments don't really bruise anyway because they
are made of inelastic, tightly bonded molecules of collagen. These are so
inelastic that they tear instead of bruising. Small tears are not very serious
or complicated and will usually clear up with some rest. Sudden impact onto
a highly stressed tendon or ligament can often cause complete separation
that will require surgical repair. Major tears, whether complete or not,
will weaken a ligament or tendon and the resultant scarring will leave it
susceptible to more tears. This weakening can become chronic and cause the
cessation of training. Tendons run in a protective sheath. Bruise this and
you run the risk of having the smooth slippery surface of the sheath
roughening, the tendon will then grate every time it moves causing acute
This can be seen in the knuckles of people over doing the Makiwara and
punching hard objects like bricks as in Tamashiwara training. This condition,
tenosynovitis, is not normally serious although it may be become chronic
and require the cessation of karate training.
Why if there are so many dangers to over-zealous body conditioning do
we do it at all? And indeed aren't these dangers the reason why most systems
practiced today don't do it anyway? Well, the complications found in body
conditioning are present in everyday practice when doing forms of fighting
and sparring. What karate practitioner has never had a major bruise? If you
are going to become bruised -- and every one is -- then it is best to prepare
the body for the eventuality. A forceful punch that is wrongly blocked or
not blocked at all will connect.
When it strikes the blocking surface it will hurt and could injure. This
is such a regular occurrence that it is not even considered or thought about
in most karate circles. A potentially stronger danger can come from actions
such as leg sweeps and especially from poorly prepared demonstrations involving
breaking techniques. Because conditioning can protect the body from inevitable
contacts it should be started with the first lesson and kept up through out
a karate practitioner's life. They will then always be well protected.
Protecting oneself from injury is surely the "raison d'etre" of
The Yin and Yang of Body Conditioning:
It is useful to compare the injunctions given above, with those practices
and explanations of the old Chinese masters. It is hardly surprising that
the old masters arrived at the same knowledge, but that they did so by trial
and error and centuries of tradition is much harder for us of the scientific
age to accept. The old masters were almost always doctors too, although their
medical system was that of the Chinese herbalist. This system often arrived
at the same conclusions as Western medicine, but with an archaic explanation
that is considered scientifically wrong. From a functional point of view,
however, the Chinese paradigms are as valid as Western ones.
Body conditioning is explained in terms of Yin and Yang. The dark soft
forces and the strong hard forces. Nothing is ever purely one or the other
but every thing is a different admixture of the two principals of the universe.
In the body the yin and yang areas can be determined by standing in the midday
sun. The areas in shadow are yin those in full sun are yang. The energy traverses
the body in channels Yang channels are on the outer sides of the body and
limbs and Yin channels on the inside shaded area of the body. The depth of
the shadow determines the amount of yin present in an area. Therefore, the
arm pit, groin, and throat, are the weakest area being almost pure Yin.
It becomes immediately evident that this "theory" has some validity as
these are the major striking points of the body to cause injury. Lesser shadows
become apparent on closer inspection, such as those under the pectoral region,
covering the inner arm and leg, below the knees, around the ankles, bridge
of the nose, etc.. The major muscles of chest, thighs, calves, forearms,
etc. all stand out in brilliant light; being infused with yang.
The components of the body are each assigned to either yin or yang. Muscles
are the most yang. Hollows and spaces are the most yin; armpit, groin, back
of the knee. The internal organs are considered uniformly soft and vulnerable.
Tendons are a mixture of yin and yang. Tendons along with blood vessels and
nerves are considered the areas where the flow (movement) of energy takes
place. Therefore, the yin element can easily be disrupted there; as it can
at the joints. Bones are surprisingly considered as being almost all yin
with only a tiny fraction of yang that is concentrated on their surface.
Although the terms and labels are different this must sound very familiar
Apply to this knowledge of the body a few simple rules and we have the
outline of the principles of body conditioning training methods as formulated
by the old Chinese masters. Yang will be repulsed by yang (strength repulses
strength). Greater yang overcomes lesser yang. Yang (being strong) damages
yin (soft). Yin will eventually overcome yang -- as water will wear away
rocks (energy takes strength which will ultimately cause tiredness). Too
much yang and the body will burn up (heat exhaustion).
So the methods become simply: Hit strong areas as hard as the strong area
can withstand it. Therefore, muscles can be trained to ever increasing amounts
of conditioning. Hit mixed areas only hard enough so as not to damage the
soft parts. Only apply soft force to area belonging to yin (soft parts and
bones). Do not become permanently tense but apply focus (kime) as it is needed.
Therefore, it can be seen from the above that functionally, an identical
solution as that of modern medicine and sports science, has been arrived
at by the old Chinese masters.
All in all, conditioning is a useful adjunct to martial arts training,
giving participants an opportunity to strengthen their techniques, and offensive
and defensive natural weapons. It will enable the students to come face to
face with the fear of being struck and to learn to accept and overcome this
fear. It will also help to avoid, in their daily training, the potentially
life threatening injuries that rarely but unavoidably do happen.
George Chaplin, 4th dan, Uechi-ryu Karate-Do.