Karate Class Vs. Self-Defense Class: Which is Better for Exercise and Real Life?

Karate Class Vs. Self-Defense Class: Which is Better for Exercise and Real Life?

Traditional karate instruction, with its endless drills of katas, repetitive punching and kicking combinations, tournament-style sparring, and board or brick breaking, has been disparaged as less than practical on the street. Nowadays, traditional karate instruction has moved to the background as studios design new classes to help students learn "more practical" methods to defend themselves. In doing so, however, the exercise and strength-building benefits of karate are often lost.

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I have both attended self-defense workshops given by my karate master and I have taught them myself on a number of occasions. The self-defense classes were great, and practical, but they weren't designed to create aerobic exercise. They answered questions such as, "If someone grabs me [like this], how do I get out of it?" We taught students ways to escape from certain holds, grabs, and compromised positions, then repeated these different moves again and again in the hopes that muscle memory would take hold.

But the students barely broke a sweat, and I always left from teaching a self-defense workshop wondering how much I had really helped my students. A one-time or two-time self-defense class - even a longer six-week course - was not really a strong foundation for defending oneself, and because self-defense does not emphasize exercise to the level that a traditional karate class does, they were not building the stamina or strength for a "real fight".

In a traditional karate class, practical application may be slightly less emphasized than in a self-defense class, but on the other hand, students are getting in shape through aerobic exercise, and they are building the strength and instincts required for fighting. Do students in a so-called self-defense class get the same benefits?

In 2001, a friend of mine from our karate studio was jumped at a party by seventeen (yes, seventeen!) guys who were drunk, high, and looking for a fight. My friend was eighteen or nineteen at the time, and had been studying karate at our dojo since he was twelve. As the first group of guys attacked, he was holding his own and still on his feet. It was only when someone broke a beer bottle over his head and eight more guys jumped in that my friend went down. Once he was on the ground, he said he mentally shut out the kicks and blows he was receiving and focused his mind instead on breathing techniques he had learned from years of practicing kata. The doctor said later this was the only thing that had saved his life. To me this example shows that the mental focus, instincts, and exercise benefits gained from traditional karate should not be so quickly discounted.

Another guy from our dojo was attacked from behind by two muggers while visiting New York. The result of that fight? He sent both of them to the hospital, while he came away with only bruises and scratches. This was before the days of self-defense workshop craze, and a few well-placed, traditional sidekicks served him just fine.

As new self-defense and fighting techniques emerge, we would be wise not to forget about the traditional training that karate and other martial art disciplines offer. Learning how to break free from a bear hug does not replace the mental and physical stamina that traditional karate classes give. It seems that the best approach is the approach my own karate master eventually adopted: integrate self-defense techniques within a traditional karate class.

On certain nights, after getting sweaty with our kicking and punching drills, we would partner up and practice breaking loose from grabs, holds, etc. The result? We were both in shape and had self-defense knowledge.

I haven't been mugged yet, but if I ever am, I trust the strength and muscle memory of endless, tiring drills more than I trust isolated self-defense techniques.


on Yo Joe!