Great kihon makes great kata and kumite

Reverse punch

Great kihon makes great kata and kumite.  This is something that two of my Sensei’s, Sensei Cieplik and Sensei Brien, have shared with me over the years.

For those unfamiliar with Japanese, kihon means basics.  Basics are a technique or combination of techniques that make up the majority of training that many of us do in the Karate dojo.  For example, stepping forward with a front punch is one of the most fundamental basics.

Great kihon equals great kata

Your kihon can have a huge impact on your kata.  Without good kihon, your kata will look much like a group of memorized movements or a dance instead of Karate movements.  These simple movements that we do up and down the floor in our Karate classes can be a determining factor on how good your Karate will be overall.

The low stances, hip rotation and precise hand movements that we work on can take our katas from looking good to great. We could easily take a gymnast or other athlete and teach them the movements from any kata but their kata would not look anything like a kata performed by someone who practiced a great deal of kihon.  The time on the dojo floor, doing the same techniques many thousands of times, over and over again, directly applies to the how great someones kata can become.

Great kihon equals great kumite

Here is another area where many people will argue that good kihon isn’t needed when your goal is to be great at kumite.  This is an area where you could take a good fighter and show them how to score a point but without the kihon from Karate class, they would never become a champion.  All those low stances develop strong, powerful legs for shifting and shuffling and doing those basic techniques gives the student the ability to punch precisely with extreme control which are required to be great at kumite on the national and international level.

Kihon that my Sensei shared with me

Below is a class that I did almost every week for seven years with Sensei Cieplik before he retired in August 2013.  This class was heavy in kihon and with the exception of one step sparring and some shifting and shuffling drills, there was no partner free sparring.  We did do kata in these classes but the majority of the kata work was with the five Heian katas, Tekki Shodan, Jion and Bassai Dai.

Kihon specific Karate class

A formal bow is not required but it does help

We always started this class in seiza with a formal bow.  After moving into seiza, the leader (the highest ranking Shodan below Sensei) would say Mokuso (meditate), we would close our eyes for about 60 seconds and clear our minds from outside thoughts allowing us to focus solely on the training to come.  Next, the leader would say Mokuso Yamae (meditation stop) and we opened our eyes.

Next, the leader would say Shomen Ni Rei (bow to the shomen – in our case it was the flags but in an ideal setting, it would be a photo of Funakoshi Sensei), we put the left hand then right hand on the floor, bent at the waist and lowered our head to show respect to the leaders of our Art and the art itself.

We then brought our body back to the upright position and the leader would say, Sensei Ni Rei (bow to the Sensei (teacher)) where we bent from the waist again, hands on the floor as above and lowered our head while facing Sensei.

For the last part of the formal bow, the leader would say Senpai Ni Rei (bow to fellow classmates of higher rank) and all of the lower rank students would turn towards all the higher rank students, still in seiza, and bow the same way as above.

Sensei would stand up first, then give a hand motion for the Shodan’s and above to stand up, then he would give a hand motion for the lower rank students to stand up.

Although the formal bow is not needed when training by yourself, I have found that it does help me get more focused before I train.

Warm up

For the warm up, Sensei would always have us start out with some kicking drills.  Below is a sample of what we did before each class to get the blood flowing and we would do more if Sensei felt that we weren’t ready yet.

The two drills below were fairly standard before each class done with the left leg and right leg forward:

  • 20 stationary front snap kicks from a front stance.
  • 10 stationary front leg front snap kicks with rear leg front snap kick

If we needed more warming up, Sensei would add the following drills for each leg:

  • 10 stationary shuffle up with the rear leg and execute a front leg roundhouse kick
  • 10 stationary shuffle up with the rear leg, execute a front leg roundhouse kick, set it back down in front and execute a rear leg roundhouse kick, setting that kicking leg foot down in front which them becomes the front leg and repeat.

The following last part of the warm up was done in every class.  The intention of this drill was more about the group and not just ourselves.  The idea was to execute this technique combination at the same speed as the slowest person in class.  From your peripheral vision, you would look at the person next to you and match their speed and timing.  Once everyone was working together, Sensei would have us stop and start with the other leg in front.  This was an awesome drill that raised the spirit of the entire class.

Start in a front stance with your reverse punch out, do a rear leg front snap kick and switch your hands while kicking, put the kicking leg back down behind you and do a reverse punch. If anyone needs a video of this drill or any of the drills, please leave a comment below and I will record it and add it here.

Next comes the basics…

All of the basics below start from a left leg forward front stance for a 5 count moving forward and backward:

  1. Moving forward and back with front punch.
  2. Moving forward and back with rear leg front snap kick and front punch.
  3. Moving forward and back with rising block and reverse punch.
  4. Moving forward and back with downward block and reverse punch.
  5. Moving forward and back with inward block and reverse punch.
  6. Moving forward and back with outward block and reverse punch.
  7. Moving forward and back with outward block, jab and reverse punch.
  8. Moving forward and back with inward block, move into horse stance with elbow strike and backfist.

All of the basics below start in a left leg forward back stance for a 5 count moving forward and backward:

  1. Moving forward and back with knife hand block.
  2. Moving forward and back with knife hand block, front leg front snap kick, move into front stance with spear hand strike.

When executing the back stance, try to keep your weight on your back leg.  Your front foot should be silent when moving into each back stance and it should always lead with your toes not your heels.

All of the basics below start in a horse stance for a 3 count moving first to the right and then to the left:

  1. Step across, little toe to little toe in a horse stance.
  2. Step across with side snap kick.
  3. Step across with side thrust kick.
  4. Step across with side snap kick and side thrust kick.

The key to the above four drills is to stay low, keep your stance (feet) in line and try to keep the moving foot or toes of the stepping foot in contact with the floor at all times.

All of the basics above normally took between 25 to 40 minutes depending upon how well everyone was moving and how many times Sensei would have us repeat certain techniques if he felt that we needed more work on them.

Extra basics and more

On some days, Sensei would have us work on either specific self-defense drills derived from the katas, one-step sparring or the following kumite drills.

  • Shifting forward and backward with jab
  • Shifting forward and backward with reverse punch
  • Shifting forward and backward with jab and reverse punch combination
  • Shuffle up with front leg roundhouse kick, step down with reverse punch
  • Step forward with a long lunge stance and reverse punch

These drills were done without a partner the majority of the time.

Finish up with kata

For all those classes I took over the years, we would do all five of the Heian katas every week.  There were times when we would do each Heian kata once and there were times when we did each kata many times over depending on what Sensei saw.  We also did Tekki Shodan and for the brown belts we would work on Jion and Bassai Dai.  We also worked on specific parts of each kata where Sensei felt that we needed the extra work.

Not often but sometimes, we would also work on the Shodan katas, especially if it was near exam time or if there was a major competition coming up.

When class was over, we would line up and do a standing bow to Sensei.

The proof is in the champions

Many Shotokan champions were born from this type of training in these classes.  These students were not only local tournament champions, many of them went on to become multiple National Champions and World Champions.

I am not going to say that every champion only took this particular class but most of the classes in my Karate club are very heavy in kihon training.  The students that always place well in competition, that I have watched and judged over the years, always have the best kihon when training in class.

If you would like more information about the classes that I have taken over the years, visit my other blog at You can find more information about this particular class, that I outlined above, which I took each Thursday from September 2006 to the end of August 2013 in the archives section on that blog.

6 thoughts on “Great kihon makes great kata and kumite”

  1. The low stances, hip rotation and precise hand movements that we work on can take our katas from looking good to great.

    Excellent and well said, except I would say it not about looking Great, its about how will the technique fare in a real fight,
    the stance, hip rotation and precise movements are about effective fighting techniques (like knocking someone out with one punch when in the situation you want it to be automatic).

  2. as my Sensei (8th Dan, received Black Belt in Japan) Karate was developed in Okinawa in response to weapons being banned (and farm tools were developed to be used as weapons, an extension of the hand) and for Self Defense.
    Today some Karate people forget and do a beautiful Kata, like one I saw on the Internet where the practitioner extended her leg all the way above her head,
    and this is not in any of 26 Shotokan Kata’s and would help you in no way in a fight. It looked Great and was very athletic and as good as any professional Ballet Dancer but had nothing to do with fighting. If I were scoring the Kata I would have deducted points for such nonsense and foolishness, unless after the Kata the person could have demonstrated how the move could be used in a fight. Thats what my instructor taught us real Karate is all about fighting (for the Good, like if you saw an old lady being mugged or weak person being beat up , like a Samurai the Bushido code). When he saw some Shotokan schools not living up to high standards he changed the name to Richardson’s Shotokai Kan – Shotokai = Shotokan the Way it Should be. oss

  3. Hi Nicholas,

    I totally agree. If the kata is done without knowing the application, it is not kata. Even if the person doing that kata has their own version of the application, I am fine with it as long as it doesn’t detract from the original meaning of the kata. I know that kata is also much about self expression but when the person doing the kata changes the fundamentals too much, the art is lost.

  4. Yes there can be differnt version,
    such as the end of Jion either a Punch (side punch) or Hammer Fist,
    I personally like to punch on the 1st turn and grab (since the fist is alreay chambered and I could use this in a “real fight”) but then a Hammer Fist on the slide and grab to the right. Either way it is a grab and strike.

    The third bow we used was Otagai Ni Rei – Bowing to Each Other (Giving Respect regardless of Rank), and we did it standing lining up in a straight line according to rank, then getting into lines of 4-5. We did seza mostly before getting ready for competition.

  5. Choshin Chibana 知花 朝信 (1885 – 1969): an Okinawan karate master
    His words on karate:
    “In our time we trained Karate as a martial art,
    but now the most practitioners train Karate as a sport.
    We must avoid treating Karate as a sport
    – Karate must be a martial art at all times!

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