Chiishi, Kettlebells and Strength Training

Following my earlier post discussing Joe Berne sempai’s article about the importance of strength training comes a thoughtful piece from Mario McKenna sensei [guest in episode 12 of The Applied Karate Show podcast) about the value of the chi-ishi for strength development in traditional karateka.

Chi-ishi on the right. Image by Dormis

Mario sensei compares the relative advantages of the chiishi versus tools like the kettlebell and Indian clubs, stating that chiishi are

heavier than Indian Clubs and allow the development of strength, but lighter than Kettle bells to allow more variation in the exercises that can be done. Chiishi design is similar to the Indian club which allows a greater range of motion. So to me I find Chiishi the “best of both worlds” as they say.

Mario sensei explains his own approach to strength training:

I alternate between modern weight lifting (barbell, dumbbells, & machines), body weight exercises and traditional weight lifting using Chiishi, etc.

I agree that body weight exercises are a staple exercise for the karateka, and in an ideal world I would alternate body weight exercises with traditional hojo undo equipment. I set out to do just that a decade back or so, and found that there was virtually no supply of products (in Australia), a very ill-defined training regime (outside select Gojuryu schools), a scarcity of instructors and a scarcity of books or videos on the topic. I wish that Mike Clarke sensei’s book The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate was available then!

In my own search I came across the Russian Kettlebell. With an excellent training regime based on the approach from the pioneer of kettlebell training in the west, Pavel Tsatsouline (guest in episode 10 of The Applied Karate Show podcast), his books and videos and a ready supply of kettlebell products, I “got into the swing”. I undertook training (and later a kettlebell instructor course) with Don Stevenson.

I think that the kettlebell continues to be an awesome tool for a martial artists. The grip development, the off-centre centre-of-gravity, the range of compound exercises and the development of explosive power from the core make it suited to the needs of a karateka. These reasons are, as Mario sensei outlined, similar with hojo undo tools like the chiishi. But for me, the availability of product and the availability of quality instruction and instructional resources make the kettlebell my preference for strength training.

Joe Berne on Training Prioritisation

Joe Berne sempai (guest in Episode 15 of The Applied Karate Show podcast) has posted a thought provoking article about how you should prioritise your workouts when time is limited.

Joe makes several great points, and the whole article is well worth a read. But I particularly enjoyed the following:

I’d say you probably shouldn’t spend any time on actual karate unless you have more than an hour a week to train. That is, your first hour of exercise (I don’t mean the first hour on Sunday, I mean the first hour we’re counting) should be dedicated strength training. Keep your muscle and bones healthy. If you have 2 hours a week, still spend 1 hour of it strength training, but add in dynamic stretching and skill training sessions for the second hour. And, if you have it, the third.

It should be no surprise that I am a big fan of strength and conditioning training, particularly using kettlebells, and I suspect that my approach is similar to (but perhaps not as well develoepd as) Joe’s. The point Joe makes is that strength training should be the foundation – strong bones and muscles will help us prevent injury as we age. And then being able to move dynamically is the next piece of the puzzle.

I also like a key point in Joe’s article:

Try this conditioning trick: stand on a soft-ish surface, maybe a yoga mat or a wrestling mat or even an old futon. Fall to the ground – break it as well as you can. Then stand back up. Alternate falling to your left and to your right. Repeat for 2 minutes. You want to live long and be healthy? Be strong and learn how to fall without getting hurt. Don’t think it matters? Visit a local nursing home and walk around for 15 minutes. Then come back and we’ll talk.

Learning ukemi waza (breakfalling techniques) is not just a lesson for martial arts, but a lesson for life. Kind of goes with one of my favourite kotowaza (proverbs): nana korobi ya oki – fall down seven times, stand up eight.

The Applied Karate Show Episode 15 – Joe Berne Sempai

Applied Karate #015 (mp3 – 40MB – 84 mins)



Well folks, my intentions about getting a monthly podcast out were pure. Following on from the September episode with Chris Denwood Sensei, I recorded the October episode in plenty of time, only to have a bunch of gremlins strike. They seem to be resolved now, so hopefully we’re back on track.

Our guest for Episode 15 of The Applied Karate Show is Joe Berne, Sempai, a Seido practioner and blogger behind the Karate Conditioning blog.

Joe began training in Seido Karate in 1988 at the Karate Club of his college, the State University of New York at Buffalo.  The class was taught by Shuseki Shihan Christopher Caile (who went on to create, a well known website with content about a variety of martial arts).  He trained there, and at the style’s New York City Honbu dojo, through 1994, at which time he earned his shodan in Seido Karate.  A variety of injuries and life issues kept him away from training, but he returned in 2006.  Then living in Maryland, he began training under Jun Shihan Kate Stewart, and has remained there since then.  He recently earned his sandan at the 2011 Gasshuku in upstate New York.

Joe began studying strength and conditioning informally in high school in a vain attempt to qualify for the (American) football team.   He resumed his studies with a vengeance after taking up karate again in 2006 as he tried to use science to make up for the damage done by over a decade of a sedentary and hypercaloric lifestyle.  He has made a part time job out of reading and viewing everything available in the field of strength and conditioning that can relate in any way to martial arts performance.

The wide ranging discussions with Joe covered such topics as

  • Joe’s introduction to, and background in, karate
  • Strength tools (including the wonderful kettlebell)
  • Training for martial arts skills
  • Stretching for karate
  • Training for injury avoidance
  • Nutrition tips and the Paleo diet

This was a fascinating interview with a karateka who has clearly invested a lot of time and thought into his training and the strength and conditioning program required to support it. I heartily recommend you visit and subscribe to Joe’s blog Karate Conditioning.

Applied Karate #015 (mp3 – 40MB – 84 mins)


The Applied Karate Show Episode 14 – Chris Denwood Sensei

Applied Karate #014 (mp3 – 27MB – 60 mins) DOWNLOAD EPISODE 014 OF THE APPLIED KARATE SHOW

Kicking off our new monthly schedule of podcasts in The Applied Karate Show podcast series is episode 14, featuring Chris Denwood sensei of the Eikoku Satori Karate-do Kyokai (E.S.K.K®).

Chris has been practicing martial arts since childhood, having started under the watchful eye of instructors like Doug James sensei of the British Karate-Do Chojinkai and Iain Abernethy sensei (guest on Episode 9 of The Applied Karate Show podcast), and currently holds the rank of 4th Dan with the English Karate Federation. He is Founder and Chief Instructor of the E.S.K.K® and a senior instructor with the British Karate-Do Chojinkai, one of the most respected and successful associations in the UK. He is also a nationally qualified fitness coach and advanced level kettlebell lifting instructor.

A columnist and key writer for Combat, Traditional Karate and Jissen magazines, as well as a regular contributor to a number of other martial arts/fitness periodicals and online publications, Chris has written over sixty pieces on subjects including the technical and pragmatic aspects of traditional karate, functional fitness, kettlebell lifting and general motivation/positive thinking.

Chris is also author of the internationally acclaimed two-disc kata bunkai DVD Acorns to Oak Trees and has recently published his first book entitled Respecting the Old Creating the New, which is an accumulation of around five years work, combining a selection of his articles on traditional karate for self-protection and personal growth.

Chris currently lives on the edge of the western Lake District in Cumbria, England, where he regularly trains with and teaches to a dedicated membership of karate practitioners and fitness enthusiasts. He is also active on the seminar circuit, where his courses and workshops have gained excellent reviews from martial artists nationwide.

I trust you enjoy this interview with Chris Denwood sensei, a karateka who struck me as being very sincere, thoughtful and dedicated to the pursuit of classical karate. Chris discusses his approach to karate and strength and conditioning training, his background, his 2010 trip to Okinawa and much more. You can get in touch with Chris sensei through the web links above.

We love feedback. Email can be sent to For up-to-date info on the Applied Karate Show, follow us on Twitter – we’re @appliedkarate. Of course, you can leave a comment below, or join us for the ongoing conversation on The Applied Karate Show Facebook page at

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The Kettlebell Swing for Martial Artists

Over on the Karate Conditioning blog, Joe Berne has posted about his early kettlebell experiences as a martial artist, in the aptly named An Ode to the Swing.

So doing the swings and concentrating on that hip snap has really improved my hip drive when throwing punches.  I suspect that that same movement – full extension of the hip – is going to transfer over into greater closing speed the next time I fight, too.

I challenge anyone to find a better exercise that the kettlebell swing for developing explosive hip power.  I will readily believe that there are exercises that may be as good, but I don’t know of any.  The fact that the swing generates power from the hips to the extremities using focus (kime) in a unique way is the main reason it is often proclaimed a strength exercises for budoka. 

But there is an additional factor that (IMHO) is less considered.  This is that in the split second, following the technique, the swing forces the kettlebell user to recover and work hard to regain balance on the rebound.  Not necessarily an easy task.

Together the explosive hip power, focus and recovery inherent in the swing make it an amazing exercise for the budoka.

I am also a big fan of the Turkish getup when it comes to develop rock solid strength and stability in the shoulders and upper body.  This is something also vital for strikers.

An Ode to the Swing – Karate Conditioning.

Hard and Soft – Important in Kettlebell and Budo Practice

The form of kettlebell practice that I follow is based on the RKC system of Pavel Tsatsouline (our guest is Episode 10 of The Applied Karate Show). The RKC system is commonly regarded as a hard style of strength and conditioning practice, which utilises the Russian kettlebell. Leading RKC proponent and instructor, Mark Reifkindhas put together a very interesting post on his blog regarding The Soft Side of Hardstyle

And while the hardstyle of generating force( segmented body segments.compensatory acceleration techniques and an explosive mindset) is the predominant concept in the ballistic lifts one thing seems to be forgotten when this way of swinging is talked about: that for each high force hip snap there is a concommittent relaxed stretched phase that preceeded it and will preceed the next high power rep

This is an excellent post, and provides very useful principles for both kettlebell practice, but also for karate practice.

Whilst karate is generally regarded as a hard style martial art, it is a true-ism that the hard cannot exist without the soft, and that in order to generate maximum power (hardness), we need to be able to focus and generate power through the use of relaxation and dynamic tension as two sides to the same coin. Rif continues:

Just like Okinawan karate moves, the goal is to focus all one’s power into one very fast, concentrated movement that create as much force and as possible

Younger practitioners of karate often try to make everything hard. They try to exert maximum tension into every technique, yet if you can’t relax dynamically you won’t be able to do that. Speed cannot be generated while muscles are tensed, and power can’t be generated without speed.

One of the key pieces in the Okinawa karate bible, The Bubishi, was a line that reads “Ho Wa Go Ju O Donto Su”. This translates to something along the lines of “hard and soft is the foundation of the method”, and reminds us that we must explore both hard and soft. Master Chojun Miyagi thought this line imoprtant enough that he named his style of karate as “Goju” ryu – the school of hard and soft.

Another important maxim that reminds of the importance of this balance is contained in one of the “5 Principles of Kata”, which reads “chikara no kyojaku”reminds us to practice with both strong power and passive power (relaxation).

Practicing hardness and softness in your technique is an important reason why it is not productive for a karateka to practice their techniques only to the air. You have to hit something, and be able to hit hard. This is where the use of tools like bogu (protective equipment), makiwara (striking posts), punching bags, focus mits and so on come in. Its also why karateka like to break things, using the techniques of tameshiwari.

The practice of kettlebells for me is not just about developing strength and burning fat. Its also very much about refinement and further building of the same type of power that I need to support my karate practice.

True power can only be achieved through a balance of tension (strength) and relaxation. Focus on these things, and you will find your techniques can improve dramatically.

Rifs Blog: The soft side of hardstyle..