Conditioning For Karate Kumite & Kata

Many fell in love with karate because of movies such as the Karate Kid. I’m also sure Bruce Lee was a big influence as well even though he wasn’t showcasing karate, but rather kung fu, in his movies.

Karate hasn’t been studied or covered as extensively as other martial arts and therefore, training information tends to be scarce when looking for quality training information.

Conditioning for the demands of karate is very similar when training for kumite or kata. Both disciplines require short explosive bursts of energy interspersed with footwork, bouncing, or complete break. A highly developed alactic and aerobic energy system is needed to excel in karate.

Let’s break down the demands imposed on a karateka during kumite and kata. Are they any different?

Match Demands Of Karate Kumite

When developing a conditioning plan for karate kumite, we first must understand the demands of a competitive match. And to some extent, the demands of simulated matches.

Research is scarce in this area as karate isn’t a widely researched topic. However, we do have some data to go by in high-level National and International karatekas.

In an older study in 2004, nationally and internationally ranked kareteka performed two to four simulated fights of 60 seconds [1]. They found an activity to break ratio of 2:1 with 12-24 seconds of activity and 3-15 seconds of break phases.

These activity periods consisted of 1-3 seconds of high-intensity activity (attack and defense) for a total of 1-5 high-intensity actions per minute.

Based on oxygen uptake measurements after each fight, the study concluded Karate Kumite is dominated by the aerobic energy system. Activities such as forward, backward, sidesteps, and hopping movements combined with short high-intensity bursts of attacking strikes cause a metabolic profile highly aerobic which is supplemented by anaerobic energy production.

Competitive matches may tell a different story. Elite karatekas were studied during the 2012 senior World Championships [2].

Only bronze medal and final matches were analyzed with video which was 4 minutes in length for males and 3 minutes for females. The study found a completely different activity to break ratio of 1:1.5.

This was broken down into 6.5-11 seconds of activity and 5.5-17 seconds of break phase.

This represented 15% and 13% of total fight time respectively. The remaining fight time was made up of preparatory activity (bouncing, footwork, feints).

When broken down by weight class, light weights kept a 1:1.5 activity to break ratio while middleweights had a 1:2 and heavyweights had a 1:1 activity to break ratio.

High-intensity actions were similar to the previous study with each action lasting 1-3 seconds. This led to a 1:8 high-intensity action to break ratio when taking into account the 6.5-11 second activity period with a total of 24-40 high-intensity actions per fight.

To top it off, top-level karatekas used more upper limb techniques than lower limb techniques.

This discrepancy between simulated and competitive matches was further confirmed in a 2014 study [3]. They directly compared black belt national and international level karatekas when participating in ten competitive and ten simulated matches.

They found upper limb techniques were used twice as much in competition compared to simulated matches. Preparatory and fighting activity times were higher during simulated matches, while break time was longer during competitive matches.

Competitive matches had a much longer high-intensity effort to pause ratio of 1:11 compared to 1:7 during simulated matches. High-intensity actions lasted up to 5 seconds in this study. Blood lactate was higher during competitive matches but is low overall indicating little involvement of the anaerobic lactic energy system.

To sum this data up, we can say the activity to break ratio ranges from 1:1 to 1:2 depending on the weight class. Further, high-intensity activities range from 1-5 seconds within a 6-11 second activity period. The pause period of 5-17 seconds.

Overall, karate kumite is characterized by short high-intensity actions mainly maintained through the alactic energy system interspersed with lower intensity karate specific movements and breaks maintained by the aerobic energy system.

Competitive Demands Of Karate Kata

Conditioning For Karate Kata

Karate also has a non-combative discipline named kata. It’s important to note before taking conclusions away from this section, that kata has so many variations from the number of techniques, duration of the kata, level of kata, and style of kata.

That means the competitive demands presented in this section will be based on general trends from kata of multiple styles.

One of the first studies investigating the demands of kata was in 1982 [4]. They had karatekas perform a Shotokan style kata with 24 movements under continuous or interval conditions. The continuous condition involved performing each movement for 30 or 45 seconds in a continuous fashion.

The interval condition involved the same rep speed but karatekas had a 60-second rest between each movement. They found that performing 30 second continuous kata was the best protocol for developing the aerobic energy system with VO2 (aerobic capacity or oxygen consumption) being greater than 50% of maximum aerobic capacity.

A 1993 study showed, when performing a Shito-Ryu style, 67 movement kata in normal time (approximately 1 minute), oxygen consumption was even greater than the 1982 study at approximately 75% of maximum aerobic capacity [5].

More complex kata seems to demand greater contributions from the aerobic energy system.

Performing kata in this continuous fashion as presented in these two studies would be considered abnormal to competition as kata generally have several short pauses between varying numbers of movements.

However, it seems performing kata in a continuous fashion provides a strong aerobic training stimulus that can influence conditioning training for karate kata.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a 1995 study investigated a 20 second, 21 technique wado ryu style kata [6]. They had six different conditions;

  • Half of the kata (10 sec)
  • Full kata (20 sec)
  • One and a half kata (30 sec)
  • Two kata (40 sec)
  • Three kata (60 sec)
  • Four kata (80 sec)

They found the anaerobic lactic energy system had a negligible contribution to the half and full kata and increased to have a 13% contribution to the 80 sec kata. Aerobic contribution raised from 11% to 41%.

The major energy system involved was the alactic energy system contributing a whopping 90% of energy during the shortest kata and 46% for the longest.

A more recent 2012 study agrees with these findings concluding that the alactic energy system plays a major role in karate kata [7].

Taking all of this into account, the research suggests that the duration of the kata is what dictates the energy system contributions. Further, the majority of energy is provided by the alactic energy system and as duration increases, so does the involvement of the aerobic energy system [8].

Conditioning For Karate Kumite and Kata

Competitive demands of Karate

I’m going to place conditioning for both kumite and kata under the same section as I know many karateka train both kumite and kata. Based on the research presented above, both kumite and kata are highly dominated by the alactic and aerobic energy systems.

Aerobic Capacity For Karate

As the aerobic energy system is going to influence recovery between fights, kata, and explosive efforts, karateka must place a great deal of emphasis on aerobic training. Ideally, this should be done through performing karate specific movements.

There is no need to perform traditional aerobic activities such as running, biking, or swimming when more time can be spend rehearsing kata or improving striking skills and footwork.

Kumite

Continuous shadowboxing, pads, or bag work: 20-60 minutes at a heart rate between 130-150 BPM.

Aerobic power: 3 x 3-minute increasing intensity shadowboxing or bag work. Every 30 seconds increase intensity until at 90-95% for the last 30 seconds. Perform easy footwork during the rest period.

Specific karate rounds: 1-3 seconds blitz attack, 6-11 seconds of total activity. Break period depending on weight class.

Kata

Manipulation of kata practice by either performing each movement slowly in a continuous fashion or longer kata performed at normal speed with approximately 1:1 work to rest ratio.

Anecdotally, six-time karate World Champion Mona Pretorius performed no other external conditioning training during her karate success. Everything was performed on the mats by varying the intensity of the kata being practiced.

For example, perform 8-9 kata at 60-80% effort and the final one or two kata at 100% effort.

Heart rate may not be a great indicator during kata due to the isometric tension produced during movements so best to go by feel and how heavy you are breathing.

Alactic Power & Capacity For Karate

As we know from “What Is Conditioning Training,” the alactic system is the least trainable energy system and is highly genetic. However, that doesn’t stop us from improving our ability to perform explosive efforts.

Kumite

Taking our alactic power guidelines, performing 7-10 seconds of all-out strikes against pads or bags with full recovery is how you can develop power striking.

However, alactic power should be supplemented off the mat with various jumps, throws, and plyometrics. For example, maximal medicine ball throws for height, jumps for maximal height or distance, plyometric exercise with the intent of jumping as high as possible with the least amount of time spent on the ground.

Alactic capacity can be trained in exactly the same manner but with 10-15 seconds of work with only 20-90 seconds of rest. For example, split squat jumps for 15 seconds with 30 seconds of rest.

Kata

Alactic power and capacity for kata will have to be trained exclusively off the mat. That is the one key difference between kumite and kata.

While some kata has various jumps as part of the movement sequence, just performing the kata likely won’t develop the maximal outputs.

As with alactic power and capacity training for kumite, training for kata should involve mainly jumping and plyometric exercises. For example, 3 x 10 hurdle hops with incomplete recovery. Or squat jump with 30-40% of 1RM for 3 x 3-5 with full recovery.

Don’t forget to take your creatine monohydrate to increase your alactic capacity without any training!

Anaerobic Lactic Capacity and Power For Karate

Both karate kumite and kata have minimal contributions from the anaerobic lactic energy system. Having a well-developed aerobic energy system that can be called upon to supply more energy as a competition day goes on or kata gets longer, and an alactic energy system with a large supply of ATP and the ability to replenish it quickly will likely optimize karate performance.

This suggests lactic training needn’t even feature in your training program. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train for the worst-case scenario that could occur during kumite.

Worst Case Scenario For Kumite

Match Demands of Karate Kumite

When training for worst-case scenario, it’s best done with a training partner as an opponent in a sparring format. This could potentially be done as bag work or against pads.

Importantly, just having two karateka spar in a simulated match seems to create activity periods much longer than competition.

Worst case scenario training is great as you can manipulate training variables of the sport to fully prepare the athlete for the worst that could happen within a competitive match.

A worst-case scenario based on the above research for karate kumite would be 11 seconds of activity broken down into 5 seconds of high-intensity attack or defense with 6 seconds of feints, footwork, or bouncing (preparatory phase) and 5 seconds of break.

Repeat this for the fight duration which would be approximately 8 rounds for a two-minute kumite. For example:

Round 1

  • 6 seconds preparatory phase
  • 5 seconds attack/defense
  • 5 seconds break

Round 2

  • 3 seconds preparatory phase
  • 5 seconds attack/defense
  • 3 seconds preparatory phase
  • 5 seconds break

Round 3

  • 5 seconds attack/defense
  • 6 seconds preparatory phase
  • 5 seconds break

Round 4

  • 2 seconds attack/defense
  • 3 seconds preparatory phase
  • 2 seconds attack/defense
  • 3 seconds preparatory phase
  • 5 seconds break

This can be repeated in any random order. The activity to break ratio in this scenario is 2:1 which is similar to the simulated match demands but with competitive match demand activity phase duration.

To increase the number of high-intensity actions, multiple can be performed within one round as shown in round 4. In black belt level matches, 24-40 high-intensity actions are seen in 3-4 minutes so for a two-minute match, aim for a minimum of 12 high-intensity actions.

As stated in some of my previous conditioning articles, break down your own matches or previous matches in your competition and see if you can identify any trends regarding activity to break ratios. They may be slightly different from what is presented here so you can make small adjustments specific to you.

References

1. Beneke, R., Beyer, T., Jachner, C., Erasmus, J., & Hütler, M. (2004). Energetics of karate kumite. European journal of applied physiology92(4-5), 518-523.

2. Tabben, M., Coquart, J., Chaabène, H., Franchini, E., Ghoul, N., & Tourny, C. (2015). Time-motion, tactical and technical analysis in top-level karatekas according to gender, match outcome and weight categories. Journal of sports sciences33(8), 841-849.

3. Chaabène, H., Mkaouer, B., Franchini, E., Souissi, N., Selmi, M. A., Nagra, Y., & Chamari, K. (2014). Physiological responses and performance analysis difference between official and simulated karate combat conditions. Asian journal of sports medicine5(1), 21.

4. Shaw, D. K., DK, S., & DT, D. (1982). Heart rate and oxygen uptake response to performance of karate kata.

5. Zehr, E. P., & Sale, D. G. (1993). Oxygen uptake, heartrate and blood lactate responses to the Chito-Ryu Seisan kata in skilled karate practitioners. International Journal of Sports Medicine14(05), 269-274.

6. Francescato, M. P., Talon, T., & Di Prampero, P. E. (1995). Energy cost and energy sources in karate. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology71(4), 355-361.

7. Bussweiler, J., & Hartmann, U. (2012). Energetics of basic karate kata. European journal of applied physiology112(12), 3991-3996.

8. Chaabene, H., Franchini, E., Sterkowicz, S., Tabben, M., Hachana, Y., & Chamari, K. (2015). Physiological responses to karate specific activities. Science & Sports30(4), 179-187.

Written by James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with high-level teams and athletes. I review the latest research every month for Science for Sport and use my combined knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.

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