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A while back, my Aikido teacher adviced me to do do-in / tao yin exercises to improve my flexibility because a particular muscle in my leg is relatively short and sometimes hinders me while practicing. I found that the exercises are quite effective for me. This got me thinking, what are the most effective exercises you do off the mat?

This question is somewhat related to this question about morning routines. The difference is that I'm specifically interested in exercises (hojo undō or otherwise) that people found made a big difference to their martial arts practice (and not necessarily as a morning routine or as preparation for a lesson) .

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3 Answers 3

What Is Hojo Undō?

The term Hojo undō is generally translated as "supplementary exercises". Now, I can't read or speak Japanese, but the ever-useful Saiga-JP Kanji Dictionary translates the the following kanji in the phrase as:

  • fill up / supplement / compensate for / assistant
  • help / assist / aid / support / save / rescue / relieve / be helpful / survive / assistance
  • luck / fortune / chance / destiny / fate / lot / carry / convey / transport / make progress
  • move / stir / shift / work / go / run / change / be touched / be influenced / waver / vacillate / transfer / start / a movement / a motion / a trend / an action / a change

I bolded the translations that I think sound like they apply in this particular phrase. Note that there is no mention that the exercises must be Japanese or Asian in origin, nor that they must be historically grounded. It's just the movements that help you make progress.

My Hojo Undō Experience

When I did karate, I tried a great number of the traditional hojo undō implements: chi-ishi, nigirigame, makiwara, and so on. The most productive one was the heavy bag, not any of the Okinawan tools. I didn't get much out of the traditional stuff, though a modern-style makiwara was nice. I didn't notice that I got any stronger, nor did my grip strength improve.

When I first trained judo, I tried some supplemental conditioning exercises (mostly running variations), which helped a little. (I've always found that my conditioning was best improved by just going to class more and sparring more.) I tried the old "rubber band uchikomi on a tree", but I didn't see any improvement, and I couldn't be sure I was ingraining good habits instead of bad, so it was tough to motivate myself to do them more often.

There were two things that dramatically improved my judo. I noticed it, my instructors noticed it, and multiple training partners noticed it--and they didn't know anything had changed! One was getting up and doing something first thing in the morning--a quick run and stretch, a little yoga, jumping rope and doing some hip-opening exercises, it didn't matter. That made me more limber throughout the day. Any form of at least somewhat vigorous dao yin would do fine here. The key is to make sure you break a sweat before breakfast.

The second was strength training. Not making and trying traditional Okinawan strength equipment, though that was fun, but rather modern, scientific strength training. Specifically, barbells. Kettlebells and dumbbells get novices plenty strong too, but barbells are tough to beat for developing raw strength, durability, and power. For the upper body, pull-ups, chin-ups and dips are also tremendously productive.

All Techniques Demand Some Minimum of Strength

Let me be specific:

  • achieving a barbell squat above my own bodyweight allowed me to practice lifting throws like seoinage, whereas before it was an exercise in futility
  • achieving a deadlift double my bodyweight stopped the constant backaches and back injuries that I got from being wrenched during throws and twisted into a pretzel in matwork. It also allowed me, quite literally, to start turning people over (and resist being turned over myself) using a number of techniques that simply failed before. My technique was good, but all techniques demand some minimum of strength.
  • being able to do eight to fifteen pull-ups instead of one to five meant that I stopped getting brutally exhausted during uchikomi and other workaday activities. When I was weak, each rep was a significant effort. With some moderate strength I get winded from uchikomi, but not spent.
  • lifting in general forced me to notice and address a number of joint and mobility issues that I was able to just work around in my judo. I could always just modify my jujigatame to avoid my stiff hip, but everything comes out in the wash when you need to squat.
  • lifting in general--and particularly overhead pressing--helped me notice my body more, because I had to have precise control over which muscles were firing when. Taking on almost any new sport can do this, but it's worth noting.

I tend to wax poetic about barbells fairly frequently and vigorously, but I only do so because it was such a dramatic improvement in my judo, my health, and my life. Before barbells: body weak, mobility declining, judo stagnating. My body was too accustomed to judo, so I was losing physicality instead of gaining it. After barbells: at least moderately strong, mobility improving, judo progressing, healthier and happier.

I recommend that everyone, and particularly every martial artist, lifts heavy at least once a week. Squat, deadlift, chin, clean, and press. (There is, of course, some leeway. Snatches, handstand push-ups, squats, and pull-ups would work too.) Start light, but heavy compound exercises, particularly with a barbell, are enormously productive supplemental exercises. One doesn't have to be strong, but one shouldn't be weak.

What Hojo Undō Should Not Be

At this point it should be clear that I reject the definition of hojo undō as those exercises used by Okinawans or Japanese martial artists before 1950, or similar definitions. It is totally arbitrary and notably counterproductive to our health and our practice to limit our supplementary exercises to the pre-modern. We know as modern physical culturists that sprinting makes you fast, lifting make you strong, and the Olympic lifts are the most powerful human movement ever known. These facts are not changed by a preference for Asian-derived movements, full stop.

Anyone not convinced that barbells or strength training are not necessary or useful for martial arts, or that traditional methods are better for martial artists, should read Ishikawa & Draeger's Judo Training Methods. This book was instrumental in convincing the ever-traditional Japanese judo community to adopt barbell training as a staple.

That said, of course bodyweight movements and traditional exercises have their place. But we should not delude ourselves into believing that they do things that they do not do, or that they are more effective than they are, or that they are superior to modern methods or barbell work just because one is not familiar with modern methods or barbells.

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Thank you for sharing your experience. I share your opinion on hojo undō and agree that modern training techniques are also part of hojo undō –  THelper Dec 21 '12 at 21:08
    
@THelper Osu! Thanks. It's a great question. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 21 '12 at 21:40
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The old techniques of hojo undo were not necessarily just for strength training, it is my understanding that they were also a body conditioning exercise designed to create tiny micro fractures in the bone and muscles with each strike causing them to build back harder and more dense, with the use of the repetitive striking. After a few years of this you get a very very strong bone structure. It was my understanding that this was sort of the japanese form of the chinese iron palm and iron body training. Most of the techniques used were created by a japanese doctor to aid the elderly to supplement for strength and speed, using the idea that if the body is hardened it becomes more difficult to damage. There are multiple videos on youtube of mas oyama from kyoukushin karate and many others doing this type of training, many are breaking wooden baseball bats with the radial bone of their wrists due to this conditioning. I watched a thing on fight science about this recently.

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Thank you this interesting explanation. What I'm really interested in is excersises that people have done themselves that made a big difference to their martial art practice. –  THelper Feb 15 '13 at 14:43
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At this point it should be clear that I reject the definition of hojo undō as those exercises used by Okinawans or Japanese martial artists before 1950, or similar definitions

Why would you reject that? Every sport (I don't like to refer to martial arts as a sport but it works for this situation) has exercises that are designed to improve motions or actions specific to that sport. i.e. Football players use a blocking sled to improve coordination and strengthen muscle groups used in blocking. Basketball players use special exercises and equipment to improve their vertical jump. In karate the Nigiri Game (Gripping Jars) server 2 purposes: 1. They are used to train you to keep your shoulders down (boxers use devices to help train themselves to keep their chin down and elbows in) 2. To strengthen the grip, specifically the thumb which needs to grip the jar's lip in a specific manor. Traditional Hojo Undo tools are a great example of the S.A.I.D. principal. With that said are to be used to supplement regular strength training.

I would recomment purchasing or getting a copy of The Art of Hojo Undo by Michael Clarke It is one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive books on the subject available in English.

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Thank you for the book recommendation! I don't think Dave Liepmann is questioning the 'exercises to improve motions or actions' part of the traditional hojo undō definition. It's the 'before 1950s' part he disagrees with (and I with him). –  THelper May 16 '13 at 7:26
    
THelper is right; the issue is with presupposing that traditional methods are more effective at sport-specific training than newer methods. (Furthermore, many if not most martial artists are also in need of general strength & conditioning prior to sport-specific S&C, and do not understand the difference.) –  Dave Liepmann May 16 '13 at 12:56
    
...and the sentences immediately after the one you quoted describe why I think so. I don't mind using nigiri game jars; but they shouldn't be valued higher than modern grip training methods unless the goal is historical reenactment rather than functional martial arts. –  Dave Liepmann May 16 '13 at 15:12
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