5 “big bang” exercises for developing maximal strength in Karate

In Karate, weight training can be easily misinterpreted by coaches, and for that reason entirely discarded from the training routine. I’ve heard many karate coaches complaining and labeling the weight training as something that karatekas should avoid or question when it comes to its implementation.

This confusion arises from the fact that many times the weight training is connected with bodybuilding, muscle gain, which is something that might interfere with the karate techniques and contribute to loss of speed and explosive strength.

For this reason, it is crucial to understand that the effect we get from the strength/weight training depends on many variables that we need to have in mind when building the big picture about the weight training and whether it’s beneficial or not for Karate purposes.

For the sake of making things less confusing, from now on I will be referring to weight training as strength training, whose primary purpose is to increase the maximal strength through the usage of heavyweights. I’ll explain why and how the training for maximal strength can be efficiently incorporated.

Whether you’re aiming toward developing explosive strength, power, speed, and agility, which are all desired qualities for every karateka, you should incorporate the strength training as part of your training routine. Strength is the foundation, and it is necessary for developing other qualities that we perceive as more related to Karate.

Before we dive in the details of some of the exercises that will provide the most significant yield, and will make you stronger, it would be nice if we answer the “Why” part of the question.

Why it’s essential to introduce strength exercises and focus on maximal strength development?

How do we get stronger and faster, without necessarily jeopardizing our techniques and slowing down?


Maximal Strength

We can look at the maximal strength as a foundation on which other strength qualities are built in the later stage, qualities related to different sports.


“Maximal strength represents the ability of a group of muscles to produce a maximal voluntary contraction in response to optimal motivation against an external load.”

 Maximal strength is developed by lifting heavy weights using exercises that involve big muscle groups. These exercises are covered below. Since this is just the starting point, not our final goal, let’s get familiar with strength qualities essential for Karate.


Explosive strength

Explosive strength is something that every karateka is focusing on. However, this one comes after you’ve developed an adequate amount of maximal strength. By definition, explosive strength is the ability of the muscle to exert substitutional power in minimum time.

Vladimir Zatsiorsky defines explosive strength as:

“The ability to produce maximal forces in minimal time is called explosive strength.”


More maximal strength does not mean more explosive strength

When talking about karate, MORE does not necessarily mean BETTER. Spending too much time, and wasting much energy on developing maximal strength can impair the development of the explosive strength. It is necessary to understand that we need to work on developing an optimal level of maximal strength.

Yuri Verkhoshansky:

“When effective methodology is used, exercises with resistance promote not only an increase in movement speed but also the perfection of coordination, motor reaction, quickness and frequency of movements, the ability to relax muscles, development of local muscular endurance and an increase in maximal anaerobic capacity.”


Speed Strength

Speed strength is defined as the ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance. Sounds familiar? Exactly what we need in Karate.

Now, that we covered and briefly explained the different strength qualities, let’s get back to the maximum strength training and what are the benefits of implementing this type of training.

The muscle is comprised of motor units, made of muscle fibers that get activated by a nerve. There are two types of muscle fibers, fast and slow, activated in a different ratio, depending on the intensity and velocity.

To develop adequate power, which is something that is beneficial for karate, the fast muscle fibers must be activated. However, these muscle fibers cannot be activated with low intensity and load. It’s quite the opposite. This is where the maximum strength training comes in.

Maximal strength training benefits:

  • Development of intramuscular coordination – better coordination between fibers inside the muscle. This involves firing rate, timing, and activation.
  • Development of intermuscular coordination – improved sequencing and coordination between different muscle groups. This means each muscle activates and “shuts down” on time.
  • Improved work on the nervous system which results in activation of a more significant number of muscle fibers.
  • Sarcomere hypertrophy – increase in number and size of the sarcomere, the functional elements of the muscle responsible for producing power. In translation, this means you get stronger without necessarily getting bigger.


5 “big bang” exercises that every karateka can benefit from

Back Squat 

Before you start with back squat, it is essential to understand the laws of squatting and master the air squat. In the end, the back squat is the same as the air squat, plus some weight on your back.

When talking about squat, the first thing that comes to our mind is the starting stance. Should it be narrow, wide, neutral, shoulder or hips width? Should the toes be pointed forward or to the side? Furthermore, how low should I go? Do we go all the way to the floor, or do not let the hips to pass the knees?

Here are some useful tips and guidance how to safely execute air squat:

Keep your shins as vertical as possible (picture 1)

To be able to use the power of your posterior chain and get the weight off your knees make sure that your shins stay vertical as much as possible. This will allow you to create a torque putting your ACL in a stable position and saving the cartilage in your knee.

Load your hips and hamstrings instead of your knees (picture 2)

After bracing your posterior chain, tilt your hips back and start descending while keeping your shins as vertical as possible and pushing your knees outwards. This will allow you to maintain a proper torque and tension necessary for proper technique and safe execution of the exercise.

Keep descending until you reach full depth (picture 3)

While going down, keep driving your knees out laterally and keep your back straight and tight. Try to look forward, not too high, since that might cause overarch in the lower back. However, you must experiment since everything is individual. When you get at the bottom, you should be stable, in control of your body.

Getting back at the top position (picture 4 and 5)

While screwing your feet into the ground and pushing your knees out, push yourself up by extending your knees and hips. Try to keep your body and shoulders in a stable position. At the top contract your butt, which will allow you to prepare for the next movement by putting your hip in a good neutral position.


Now that you have a proper technique for air squat it’s time to load your body.

The rules that apply for the air squat apply for the back squat as well, just this time you need to take care of taking the barbell off the rack, putting it in the right position and putting it safely back on the rack after you finish with the exercise.




To avoid any mistakes and injuries, before loading the barbell with weight, try to find someone with experience to guide you through this process until you become comfortable with the exercise.

Dead Lift




There are some principles related to the squat technique that can be used for safely executing deadlift. Those are braced position, straight back, vertical shins, hips back, create torque.

Deadlift requires picking something off the ground, whether that be a barbell, a medicine ball or maybe a kettlebell. To pick something off the ground we need to lean forward, and this is the moment we need to pay attention to a proper technique. Bad posture is the reason for injuries most of the time, mainly in the lower back.

For this reason, if you haven’t done deadlift before, it is essential to ask professional to guide you. Here are some tips that will help to execute the movement safely.

  1. Organize your body and put your spine in a stable position before putting your hand on the bar. People usually skip this phase, by first going to the bar and then trying to organize their hips and back while being in a bend over position.
  2. After getting your body into a braced position (butt flexed, shoulders pulled back and down, tight belly, toes pointed forward), hinge forward, bend your knees a little, and reach for the bar. Keep your back in a straight position.
  3. Before getting the bar off the ground make sure you load up of hamstrings, hips, and back. This will create more tension in the system and get rid of all the slack in the body, protecting you from injuries. And when it comes to the hand’s position, try to screw them into the bar like you want to break it. By doing this, you put your shoulders into a stable external position.
  4. From this position lift the weight off the ground while still taking care to maintain a proper body tension. While raising the bar, try to keep it as close as possible to your body.

For more in-depth information regarding this technique watch this video from Kelly Starrett.


Bench Press

This exercise doesn’t need any introduction. A bench press is “The Exercise” that everyone who’s been in a gym has had a chance to get familiar with. And most of the people fall in love with it. It’s because of its magical effect on the chest and triceps, which are body parts mostly exposed in a tight t-shirt.  Because of this effect, people forget about their lower body. However, it does not mean that we should get rid of it, but instead, we should adjust for our purposes. Karate purposes.

Bench Press Sequence

  1. Lie underneath the barbell, so it gets between your neck and collarbone.
  2. Before you lift the bar pull your shoulder blades back and put your shoulders in an external position by trying to “break” the barbell. This will also put your elbows in the right place keeping them close to the body (30-45 degrees). As you pull the weight off the rack, screw you feed into the ground, squeeze your buttocks and elevate your hips.
  3. Keep the bar over your shoulder, shoulder blades back, shoulders externally rotated.
  4. Lower the bar and think about loading your chest and triceps while keeping the forearm as vertical as possible. Push the bar back and assume a starting position.



How is this related to karate?

When executing a punch, whether that be in kata or kumite, the muscles responsible for the movement are the same muscles involved in a bench press. We can agree that the motion isn’t the same as the one in kata or kumite. However, this is not the final product. It is only the foundation (Maximal Strength) on which the sport specific abilities (explosive strength, speed strength) are built in the final stage.

Pull Ups

So far, we’ve covered one leg exercise, one for the posterior chain, one for upper body (chest and triceps) and now it’s time for making a balance by introducing the pull-up (back and biceps).  When choosing exercises, I also like to think on one leg, one pulling and one pushing activity.

When it comes to pull-up, we should start with the grip. The pull-up hook grip will enable you to create a torque putting your shoulders in a good position, externally rotated, and pulling the shoulder blades back. I’m not saying that this is a rule you can’t break, but it is something that not everyone pays attention to.

After getting a good grip, proceed with the pull up:

  1. And as usual, we start with bracing the trunk and putting the body in a good position for applying force without any leakage and stay away from injuries. By trying to “break” the bar put your shoulders in an externally rotated position. Squeeze your butt and belly, and point your toes.
  2. Pull yourself up. Do not forget to keep your belly and glutes tight. Overarching the lower back and getting your legs back is a common mistake in this phase.
  3. While pulling your chest up keep your head in a neutral position until you get your chin over the bar.
  4. After getting to the top start descending while maintaining the same position.
  5. If you don’t have enough strength to execute a pull up with a good form you can use an elastic band for support.


How is this related to karate?

First of all, it’s about muscle balance. Previously I mentioned that usually, I do one pull, one push, and one leg exercise. Everything that involves pushing can be related to punching techniques, and activities, like pull-ups, that include pulling can be referred to executing different blocking and pulling movements. (e.g., hikite – pulling hand in kata). Although this exercise does not simulate and can’t be related to any particular movement in karate, it is a valuable asset for developing strength component in the posterior chain, especially in the General Preparation Period. (GPP).


Kettlebell Wind Mill

If I have to choose one exercise for developing core strength, without hesitation that would be KB Windmill. This exercise challenges your body in many ways. First of all, it’s performed in a standing position. This puts additional stress, besides obliques, on the trunk stabilizers, legs, and hips. Furthermore, due to the nature of the exercise, it will help you develop better hip and shoulder mobility and hamstring flexibility, and the only thing you need is a kettlebell. Nothing beats that.

Since this is a complicated exercise, and it is improbable that you can understand anything out of a picture, here is a link where you can find more in-depth information about KB windmill. 

How is this related to karate?

Developing a stable and mobile trunk in karate is crucial for successfully executing any different technique. Explosive change of direction in kata, side moves/leaning in kumite or performing sidekicks.

How to implement these exercises in your practice?

These exercises are not meant to make you tired, but stronger and fresh for your karate training. Since the primary focus is on developing maximum strength, which is something we want to establish first, these exercises find their place at the beginning of a training cycle, in the General Preparation Phase (GPP). The same can be substituted with other training methods such as plyometric exercises in the later stage, or be used in the following period (Sports Specific Preparation) with reduced volume and frequency.

Frequency, intensity, volume

  • Two/three times a week – depends on the level of preparedness and previous experience.
  • Load – 80-100% 1RM.
  • Repetitions per set – 1-5 (3 repetitions for karatekas, especially Kumite competitors who struggle with their weight). Always leave two reps in the “bank.” You do not want to exhaust yourself.
  • Sets per exercise: 4 – 7 sets. Don’t take this number for granted. More is not always better. In my opinion, and from my personal experience 3-4 sets is enough.
  • Rest between sets – 2-5 minutes. This might seem a long time, however, do not forget that you try to create an efficient nervous system not bigger muscles. DO NOT CUT THE REST PERIOD.
  • Execute the positive phase (concentric contraction) of the movement with maximal speed. It might take you 3-4 seconds to do the rep, which is fine if that is the fastest you can do. It’s not about what you see from outside, but what is going on inside your muscle.


Wrapping it up

  • We can look at the maximal strength as a foundation on which other strength qualities are built in the later stage, qualities related to different sports.
  • Exercises for developing maximal strength – back squat, deadlift, bench press, pull-up, and kettlebell windmill.
  • Almost every exercise has something in common: brace your body, screw your hands in the bar, put your shoulders in an externally rotated position,
  • 2-3 time a week, 3-4 set of 1-5 repetition of each exercise with 2-5 minutes rest between each set.


What about you

Do you have strength training routine and how does it look like?

What are your thoughts regarding strength training for karate purposes?

Did you find this helpful?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.



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