Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Should a kyu grader be cross training?

By cross training I mean training simultaneously in two or more martial arts. Is cross training a good thing for a kyu grader to be doing? I suspect there are opinions for and against a kyu grader cross-training in different martial arts so I’ll make my confession early in this post: I am a cross trainer!

As you know, I do both karate and kobudo (with some jujitsu thrown in on a need to know basis). But should I be doing this so early in my martial arts career? The arguments against often ring in my ears: You need to focus on learning the basics in one martial art first (at least up to shodan); your time and attention will be diluted and you’ll end up doing both arts badly; or stances and techniques will be similar but different and you’ll get confused as to which to use.

These are all potential pitfalls but I genuinely don’t think cross training is creating any problems for me at the moment. In fact I think that cross training is actually enhancing my performance in both karate and kobudo. This is what I feel are the advantages and disadvantages of my cross training:


Core principles: When you have been training in a martial art for a few years and you are starting to understand its principles; and then you look at what other martial arts are offering you start to realise that there is a lot of overlap between them, it’s just the emphasis that is different. Most striking arts include some grappling and most grappling arts practice a bit of striking. Core principles such as ‘block/evade, counter, finish’ become much more apparent and enhanced when you witness them in use in more than one martial art.

Attention to detail: In karate there is a lot of attention to detail in teaching us how to punch and kick correctly. The bio-mechanics of striking is explored in detail and we spend a lot of time practicing our combinations to get this right. The exact position of hands, feet, shoulders, hips, stances etc is criticised and corrected to help us perfect these techniques. However, the attention to detail for learning grappling is much less. On the whole this makes most karateka better strikers than throwers. In my kobudo (jujitsu) club there is very little attention to detail on how to strike but a lot more detail on throwing and locking techniques. The result is that jujitsuka are better grapplers than strikers. Since I have been training with weapons in a jujitsu club I have become a better and more confident thrower (and learnt to be thrown). In the jujitsu club we do break fall practice every session and so I have become a more confident faller than many of my karate peers.

Different perspective: Karate is often labelled a ‘hard’ art and jujitsu a ‘soft’ art. Beginners in both arts can often misconstrue what is meant by this. Junior grade karateka often interpret ‘hard’ as ‘tense’ and assume muscular effort means more power. They are often told that they are too stiff and rigid in their movements. It is only with experience that you start to see that to achieve ‘hard’ one must relax in order to gain speed only tensing at the last moment. The beginner jujitsuka often interprets ‘soft’ as slow and without power. With experience he comes to realise that the ‘soft’ flowing movements of jujitsu come from being relaxed rather than slow/powerless and that this, together with an understanding of the dynamics of throwing creates strong, fast and powerful throws.

By cross training I have come to realise that both karateka and jujitsuka are trying to achieve the same thing: soft flowing movements (through relaxation), to achieve hard powerful techniques. They just approach it from a different perspective.

One of my weapons is the bokken . To use a bokken you have to develop soft flowing movements in order to ‘cut’ quickly and powerfully. By training with the bokken I am learning to relax. This is a skill I am transferring to my karate training. Utilising the principle of ‘soft’ my karate techniques are becoming more powerful. I am benefiting from the different perspective that jujitsu gives.

Enhanced understanding/transference of certain principles: Sometimes when you are training in a martial art it is easy to become a little complacent about your performance of a particular technique and think you are doing it well – take blocking for instance. You know all about twisting your wrist at the end of a block and assume that you are doing so correctly. Then you take up a weapons art and have to block a strike from a bo or jo with your tanbo or tonfa. If your forearm does not twist out correctly you do not block the bo with your weapon, you block it with your forearm – and it hurts! You soon learn to do your blocks correctly and snap out of your complacency.

When you are applying a wrist lock to your opponent using a tanbo (short stick) you do not get any feedback about how hard you have applied it unless your opponent tells you. Partners get good at giving each other feedback about technique (it’s self preservation really) in a way we sometimes don’t in karate. Weapon’s training can teach you to be a more careful and considerate partner because the damage you can do to each other is potentially more serious.

To block a downward strike from a bo or jo you need to block it whilst the bo/jo is at its slowest point i.e. whilst it is still fairly vertical and has not picked up a lot of momentum on its downward swing. Perhaps this is also the best time to block an otoshi (hammer fist) strike in karate? When you cross train you start to see parallels between similar techniques and can transfer this knowledge from one art to the other.


I have found a few disadvantages to cross training but these are relatively minor and do not outweigh the advantages. Some of the break falls are performed slightly differently in karate compared to jujitsu so I have to alter which way I do it depending on which club I am in, but that is not a major problem. Altering stances is a little more problematic. In karate the stances seem to be an integral part of the technique, often used to unbalance your partner and to shift your weight quickly and dramatically from one foot to the other or from front to back. In jujitsu the higher, lighter stances enable you to move around more quickly but most of the technique is performed using the arms, upper body and hips. There are exceptions to this such as body drops and inside hock (but then these techniques are not dissimilar to some take downs in karate). Sometimes I find that my stances are too deep and rooted for some of the jujitsu techniques to work well and occasionally in karate I have started to forget to bend my front leg enough when in zenkutsu dachi!

My overall experiences of cross training are very positive and I would recommend it to anyone. However, it is important to remember which your main art is. For me it is karate. Kobudo is an adjunct, an art which gives me new insights, a different perspective and helps me enhance skills which are relevant to karate. It’s also great fun.
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Charles James said...

Should a Kyu grade cross train?

No, kyu grade means novice and a novice NEEDS to create and SET a solid foundation. It should be understood that a foundation is one that will allow the person to extend their training into any other area. It is like spending an exorbitant amount of time learning one kata. To achieve this expedites the learning of other kata.

Story to explain: There was a master story teller who took on a promising young deshi. This deshi spent the next several years practicing just one short story, nothing else was allowed. The young deshi asked many times to move forward but the master said to be patient. Finally the young deshi got so disappointed in his perceived training path that he quit and left the dojo.

As the young deshi traveled back to his home village which was a very long journey he found hunger creeping in and a need to bathe and shelter. He realized he had no money but along the way he heard a voice telling a story. He found the person at an Inn where a contest was in play as to who could tell the best story.

He entered and got up and told his one short story. The proprietor at the end awarded the young deshi the award which allowed him to eat, bathe, and shelter. The proprietor spoke with him and referred to him as a "master story teller." The young deshi said that this is not proper as he was simply a fledgling student. The proprietor expressed emphatically that his story telling was such that only a true master story teller could have done so well.

The young deshi realized that he made an error, returned to the master, and asked to continue his training.

The moral of this story is to spend the extra effort with the fundamentals and once you establish mastery of that you can do any thing else and it will not only come quicker but you will master if faster and more thoroughly.

Master your styles fundamentals the branch out, that is the traditional way. Lastly, all system are comprised, from Okinawa anyway, of both karate and kobudo. Most dojo use the one title to encompass them both BUT in my humble opinion you should be very proficient in the empty hand before tackling the weapons.

samuel.x.killer said...

I am a kyu grade in Tae Kwon Do and recently started practicing Hap Ki Do. I understand that a practitioner needs a solid foundation in one art, but that means different things to different people - just like shodan does. I have practiced TKD for two years and though I am far from mastering the art, I wanted to find something to supplement my learning. I think it's important to think about it in two ways: first, that the second art is no more (or less, really) important than my core art and that i should be spending as much time in the latter as the former if not more. Additionally, I would not think taking Karate at the same times as TKD would be as helpful or easy as the similarities could get really confusing. Even now, I have one school telling me to kick with my heel down and another saying to kick with heel up. Fortunately I am able to adjust, but it would be impossible for someone just starting out to sort through.

Ultimately, martial arts are a learning environment. People learn in different ways. Some people learn quickly. I exhausted a number of TKD resources before even thinking about going to another school. I also brought up the idea with my instructor who supported it - I don't think he would have if either he thought it was a bad idea or I wasn't ready. In fact, he encouraged it. I think it's important for the student to be honest with him/herself in that if attending two schools is hurting the core art then maybe he/she is not ready yet. I thought it might be overwhelming at first, but HKD has really helped my TKD and vice versa. Ultimately I plan on a lifelong practice which I hope will balance out my impatience.

Felicia said...

I think cross training is a very good thing - especially at kyu level. I understand what Charles is saying, but I disagree. I don't see how SUPPLEMENTING your training somehow keeps you from establishing a solid foundation. Perhaps it CAN, but I don't see it necessarily as a hard and fast rule IMHO.

Black belt only means intrinsic understanding/mastery of the basics. Seems to me that cross-training in a similar art or even a different one could only enhance that understanding - similar to what Sue was discussing with the attention to detail and transference of specific principles. In other words, all knowledge is good knowledge if it is used/absorbed correctly. Can't see how it matters all THAT much that she's gaining knowledge four months before her black belt grading instead of starting four months (or whatever) after.

I just don't buy the argument that mastery of the basics can't happen if a practitioner tries to learn more than one "thing" at a time. I say, good for you, Sue, for having the courage to WANT to learn more - and keep on keepin' on!

John Coles said...

You temptrest. I'll take a different approach to your blog. In the cognitive sciences, it is said that the core of all learning is the identification of similarities and differences. Four ways have been identified as especially effective: comparision, classification, making anolgies, and making metaphores. Comparing different approaches facilitates, among other things, learning more about what you do in your primary study (I think I may have wrote a blog on this). ... By the way, encourage you with sword work as you can gain a different approach to actual combat than the popular jump up and down and constantly moving approach.

Sue C said...

Charles, I agree entirely with you about setting a solid foundation and I am trying to do that. However, in my experience I feel that the weapons training is actually enhancing my understanding of basic principles in karate rather than hindering it. I very much consider karate to be my core art and the kobudo provides supplementary training that enhances that. If I were flitting from one art to another, never getting very far in any of them then I would agree that that was a bad thing, but I really am trying to keep my eye on the karate 'ball' all the time - really I am :-)

Samuel, I'm glad your experience of cross-training is also positive. I think you raise an important point when you say: 'I would not think taking Karate at the same times as TKD would be as helpful or easy as the similarities could get really confusing.' I think it is important to cross train in complementary arts rather than ones than are 'similar but different'. For that reason I would not train in kung fu as well as karate as it would be too confusing. I agree that TKD and karate would also 'clash' a little. Thanks for stopping by, good luck with your training.

Felicia, thanks for your support! I think what is important is that the cross-trainer has clear ideas of what it is they want to gain from the supplementary training in another art and keep relating it back to the main art. That way the learning becomes integrated and synergistic rather than confusing and deleterious.

John, I just knew you'd have a scientific answer for me! Those four cognitive skills you have listed pretty well fit the bill of how I approach my cross-training. Cross-training wouldn't work for everyone, I definitely think you need to have this cognitive approach to it. ...As for the sword, this initially was my least favourite weapon to learn but now that I am starting to pick up the basic way of moving with a sword it is becoming my favourite weapon, particularly since I learnt how much the sword has influenced the development of karate. I'm pretty sure some of the bunkai applications in Bassai Dai are sword disarming techniques!

Nick Guinn said...

At the risk of sounding like some sort of bruiser or something. The study of martial arts is a lot of things to a lot of people but the crux of the matter is this...

Martial Arts are the study of fighting. As Mr Rory Miller might say, "We are studying the process of manufacturing cripples and corpses."

Thus, we can attach great and magnanimous feelings to what we do at times. But the goal is simple if we really break it down the answer is glaringly obvious. We will all likely need to cross train eventually.

If that is true and I think it is, then we must acknowledge that we should learn to fight at every range. Fist to fist and rolling on the floor, everything in between.

As I have said before all martial arts have one thing in common, a common template on which they are all built. The human form. I believe cross training is required for us to ever master the martial arts for ourselves.

Now! To say that there is a single answer that all of us need to follow is also not going to work. For me and apparently Sue cross training is helpful and enlightening. For others Charles for example, perhaps cross training does not fit well with his personality and psyche.

I think it is needed by all martial artists at some point. Perhaps some can benefit from it sooner than others.

That is NOT a comment on capacity. I think everyone has had a light bulb moment in the martial arts from time to time. Where some technique just makes no sense till all of the sudden. A-Ha! I get it. Some of those connections may need to be created for cross training to be useful.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy into the whole soft vs hard, grappling vs striking style debate: through experience and research I found truly effective arts share very similar characteristics and once you get to that deeper level of understanding (principles over technique) there is little confusion. To get to that point however takes a long time and perhaps it would be better to stick to one art and learn it thoroughly before moving on but once you achieve a decent level you should branch out and try other arts, both to enhance the weaker points of your art and learn to appreciate its strong suits better. Of course much depends on the individual: some people have a natural talent for martial arts and need to spend less time mastering the basics: as in every practical pursuit experience is everything. Try and find out. Another factor is the time you're willing and able to spend on training: to really learn an art you'd need to train at least two times a week, if you have time for more by all means seek out another art and see if it enhances your original art or not.

One thing though: once you learn a particular skill (striking for example) I wouldn't take up another art that's designed for the same range but takes a different approach (for example taking up kickboxing and karate) as this wastes time (pick one way and stick with it) and doesn't add up in terms of developping different martial skill properly (weapons, ground, distance fighting, grappling). If you decide to crosstrain think about it thoroughly and identify the weak and strong points of your original style, otherwise you you'll end up having to unlearn instead of learning new, useful techniques and methods.

@Charles: in the Filipino martial arts it is said training with weapons enhances ones empty hand skill and should come first since angles of attack and footwork don't differ much. This would make sense with regard to the origins of the martial arts: fighting empty handed was a course of last resort and thus probably the least important skill in warfare where ones life depended on the skill with weapons. I found in truly effective fighting arts weapons are of paramount importance and the general principles of fighting remain the same no matter the weapon, including empty hands: avoid being hit and move to a position from where to hit the opponent effectively. Attack and defend at the same time. Use your body in the most efficient manner possible. Body and mind are one. Use distance and time to your advantage. These are timeless principles, regardless of style.

Charles James said...

SueC: "If I were flirting from one art to another, never getting very far in any of them then I would agree that that was a bad thing,"

Exactly, well put ... :-)

Charles James said...

Anon said: "...identify the weak and strong points of your original style,..."

There are no weak or strong points of any system or style; there are only weak and strong points of the individual practicing that system or style!

If you feel or determine a weak point in your system/style then the person who taught it left something important out...

The Barefoot Lawyer said...

Only if both instructors agree. I trust my teachers.

Sue C said...

Hi Nick, you bring some nice balance to the discussion. I've definitely had some of those 'Aha' moments during kobudo sessions when the penny has just dropped about something I've been puzzling over in karate - it's all about seeing something from a different perspective, sometimes that just helps.

Anon, I think you bring up a key issue when you talk about understanding martial arts at the principle level rather than the technical level. However, it's only through cross-training that you start to see how common principles are applied throughout the martial arts and then start to look for them in your main art.

I'm also starting to agree with you on the hard/soft thing not being very useful.

Charles, I agree that if a system is comprehensive and complete in what it teaches then any weaknesses are the fault of the student and/or instructor. However, there have been many diluted systems, particularly in karate that fail to teach the full range of karate techniques (including, throwing and grappling). These punch/block or entirely sports styles of karate are inherently weak as self-defence systems regardless of how good individual students are. Unfortunately it can take a student a long time to realise they are training in a poorly developed system.

T, One should definitely put trust in ones teachers (as long as that teacher is not insular, ignorant or protectionist about the art they teach). I would imagine that teachers who cross train themselves would be more supportive of their students doing it then ones who have never cross-trained and don't appreciate the benefits of it.

My karate teacher started cross-training in aikido a couple of years ago and it has definitely opened his eyes to new possibilities which are influencing the way he teaches us in a very positive and enthusiastic way. He is very supportive of me cross training in kobudo and we often have conversations about our cross training experiences - but we also both remain committed karateka.

Journeyman said...

Hi Sue,

Good post and what a great bunch of comments. I think one of the main points that you've identified as crucial in this debate is having a core or main style that the cross training supplements, not competes with.

Reading both your post and the comments has really got me thinking. My thoughts are a little lengthy for your comments section, so I think I'll post about your thought provoking article and my thoughts on the matter over on my blog.

Thanks for the inspiration.

John Vesia said...

I often wonder why kobudo (indigenous Okinawan weapons as opposed to Japanese weaponry) is taught alongside of most karate styles. Kobudo is a bona fide fighting system unto itself. Yet when presented with karate it gets relatively short shrift. At least that's been my experience.

With that said I don't think cross training is a good idea for a kyu grader. I do think attending seminars from time to time to get an idea of how other styles operate - and possibly shedding some light on certain core concepts within one's own system - is well advised. But to fully immerse oneself into another art (even if it's to appreciate an overlapping of techniques or whatever) sounds like a bit much. If I were learning a foreign language, like say, Spanish, "supplementing" it with a related tongue like Italian probably wouldn't give me more insight into understanding either language. The whole exercise would just become counterproductive.

Sue C said...

John, one of the reasons I chose to cross train in kobudo was because there is no weapons training at all in our karate system and I felt I was missing out. I expect that people who take it for granted that weapons training is a normal part of a karate class don't consider themselves to be cross training though technically they are. I just wanted to do what a lot of karateka take for granted in their training :-)

On the language front, people who train linguistics often study more than one language at a time. My friend's son is studying French and Italian at University - I don't think this is unusual.

John Coles said...

One of the greatest living martial artists, Kanazawa, cross trains. He's very much into tai chi which he said influences his karate. He had a very interesting thing to say about karate. Shotokan is for young, fit people; then when they get older they should train goju and older still, tai chi. Very interesting observation given he's founded an interntational organisation teaching shotokan karate and devoted his life to it.

Sue C said...

Hi John, It's funny how tai chi always gets associated with old people. Though I'm sure it is eminently suitable for older people, I can't help thinking young people who practice tai chi as a fighting art (rather than as gentle exercise) would feel a bit miffed!

Harriett Bolenbaugh said...

It is fine for a kyu grader to go for cross training, given that they have a solid foundation on their primary martial art and be able to retain that discipline while handling another. Also, it would be beneficial for you if your primary art focuses on striking and another focuses on grappling or weapon handling. This will broaden your horizons.

Sue C said...

Hi Harriet, thanks for the affirmation.


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