We’ve all been there. You spend hours upon hours of throwing punches (tsuki-waza) in the dojo. You’re laser focused on perfecting technique, bag contact, snap-back and control. The problem is you’re just not getting any more power or speed. As karate-ka we spend the majority of our training time perfecting form with our sensei and peers. This has helped develop timing, balance and coordination that are paramount to the development of speed and power. This can only take your quest for the perfect punch so far. In order to further hone your punching abilities you must start to incorporate sport specific exercise and strengthening. We see this technique in all other branches of sport and at times has been absent from the lifestyle of the karate-ka.
In order to fully appreciate the exercises we will be introducing, one must understand the bio-mechanics of the kinetic chain (how the muscles and joints of one part of the body can affect another). To understand this simply imagine throwing a gyaku tsuki without rotating your hips or while trying to firmly plant yourself on an ice skating rink. How much speed do you have without directing your hip rotation through your spine? How much power can you deliver when your feet start to slide in the opposite direction? While these are extreme examples they illustrate the need to strengthen and coordinate all muscles and joints along the chain. Also of importance is the need to improve flexibility in specific body regions to allow strength to fully develop.
One area of particular interest are the hip flexors, and in particular the iliopsoas. While throwing an appropriate reverse punch the rear hip needs a functional level of extension. This can be severely restricted if the hip flexors are tight or if they develop adhesions (scar tissue) which can occur from major injury or repetitive strain. The most effective way to stretch this muscle is to stand with the legs shoulder width apart and the side you want to stretch slightly behind the other. Begin by tilting the pelvis upwards in the front; you should begin to feel a pull in the front of the leg. Raise the arm on the stretch side over your head and bend the upper body away from the stretch side. You should feel the stretch from the front of the leg and into the abdomen. This stretch should be performed twice daily, 5 repetitions for 30 seconds each until the desired flexibility is achieved.
When developing muscular strength for the punch, energy development begins in the hips and core and is directed up the torso, through the shoulder and into the arm. Stability for the hips is provided by the legs. In this respect the punch is a whole body undertaking and can be improved by any number of exercises for any number of body parts. Let’s start with the most important. Trunk rotation is what initiates the reverse punch and needs specific attention. We’ve all seen the rotation machines at the gym, skip it. Get yourself a medicine ball. Stand with your left shoulder about 4 feet from a solid wall. Grasp the medicine ball with an underhand grip. Initiate body rotation with your hips and allow hour arms to explode releasing the ball and allowing it to strike the wall. Repeat. For a faster exercise with less downtime, use a partner to catch and return the ball. Remember, explosion and proper order of muscle contraction is important. Always initiate with the hips and allow the arms to be an extension of this rotation.
In karate we focus very much on the rotation but shoulder strength cannot be ignored. In fact many studies have shown that it is the shoulder that actually contributes more power to the punch. A simple exercise that can help with shoulder explosiveness uses the same medicine ball. Get into a standard push-up positon with the medicine ball under one hand. Perform your pushup with an explosion forcing the hand to break contact with the ball and return back to the ball slowing your decent to the starting position. This exercise allows for both explosion and rotation that cannot be achieve in a standard pushup and more closely reproduces a punch.
The last exercise is focused on a component of the punch that is unique to the karate practitioner, the snap. In order to create the speed that causes the significant explosive force associated with the snap punch. To develop these muscles exercise bands provide a better source of resistance. With one end of the band attached to an object at the height of your punch, grasp the band with a standard closed fist. Stand with your rear arm extended in front of you as if you have just struck a target with your reverse punch. There should be adequate tension on the band. Return your arm to the chambered position of your reverse punch. The movement should be explosive and quick as if you are actually performing the punch.
All exercises should be performed as 3 sets of 15 2-3 times per week with increased resistance as you improve to achieve the best results. You are now well on your way to a faster, more powerful and more effective tsuki.
These strategies are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the biomechanics of improving karate technique and preventing injuries.
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About the Contributor
Dr. Peter J Scordilis is a Chiropractic Sports Physician who treats athletes of all disciplines. He has provided on field and ringside medical support at many local, regional and collegiate events. He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and triathlon coach and holds a black belt in Koei-Kan Karate Do.