In some forms of Karate, sparring with a partner is done just once in three months. The rest of the time is spent in strength exercises, katas, flexibility exercises and ab crunches. I've noticed this not just in Karate but other martial arts classes too.

While I agree it takes time for discipline, muscle development and development of reflexes, and in one way the katas help with that, I'm also of the opinion that a student needs to be introduced early-on to the body weight and the dynamics of body movement of an opponent, and that only comes with constantly practicing with a partner. It does not have to be full contact sparring. I'm referring to what the kids are doing in the background of this video. They are practicing the moves with each other in a controlled environment. It gives them some very necessary practice and confidence, which I believe is far more valuable than fighting an imaginary opponent or an immovable object.

I remember reading of a teen who learnt Karate at a Dojo where his master taught only katas. The kid's friend was getting beat up by a bully, so he stood in a karate horse stance in front of the bully to defend his friend. After that, he didn't know what to do. The bully simply pushed him to the ground, sat on him and started punching him. That's when he realized his Karate wasn't actually doing him any good because they never taught him to fight in a real life situation.

Shouldn't people be readied to have the confidence to prevent social injustice? So why do martial arts classes still dedicate so less time for practicing with a partner?

Is it just an intelligent way to make money via monthly fees?

Update: From the answers given below, I hope this message would actively get conveyed to martial arts instructors and students across the world.


4 Answers 4


This is a good question. And to answer it, you have to understand why karate kata (forms) exist, what their original purpose was, and how kata practice differs from sparring.

The original purpose of karate kata was to pass on self-defense technique to students. Each self-defense technique consists of one to three movements strung together in the sequence of the form. When you've learned classical jujitsu, you can begin to notice what's going on in the kata. The movements are the same, more or less. Those "blocks" in the forms aren't really blocks. They're grappling-based self-defense maneuvers.

What self-defense scenarios are we talking about? Well, they're the same ones that have always come up in real life. For example, a guy gets up in your face and grabs your lapel in one hand and raises his other fist up threatening to punch you. There are probably a dozen techniques shown in karate katas for dealing with this situation and situations similar to it. It's because it happens so often in real life.

Other scenarios: Someone has bear-hugged you from behind. Someone is choking you from the front. Someone has you in a side-by-side headlock. Someone is grabbing your shoulder from behind to turn you around so that they can punch you in the face with a hook punch. Etc.

All of these are typical self-defense scenarios that came up in the past and still come up today. Nothing has changed.

And when I say that the self-defense shown in the kata is grappling-based, I mean it. The blocks you're taught in karate are actually doing things like grabbing someone and throwing them, performing a standing arm-bar, bending someone over so you can strike to the base of the skull and shove them to the ground, grabbing someone by the hair and pulling them down by it, shoving someone over your leg to trip them, and so on.

Bottom line: It's jujitsu.

On a side-note, if you want an example of what I'm talking about, I posted an analysis (also known as a "bunkai") of a series of 3 movements in the karate kata, "Heian Sandan", at the following link:

Kata were developed as a way of more easily remembering self-defense techniques. And for that purpose, they did well. At the time books weren't very easy to make and produce. Drawings failed to show all the details, also. And they certainly didn't have video tapes and DVD's to record everything. So they relied entirely on memory. And kata made that part a lot easier and more reliable.

Classical jujitsu taught self-defense techniques individually, with a partner. And it still does, by the way. That means that you have to remember a list of techniques, and you have to have a partner with you in order to practice them. It was easy to forget a technique that way. Karate kata can be practiced in solo, which lets you practice much more often. It can be drilled into you so that it's much harder to forget.

The shape of the kata, and where it starts and where it ends on the floor also helps to remember the form. If you forget something, it will be more obvious that way.

And so originally, karate was supposed to be taught as a series of self-defense techniques that go along with the movements in the kata. You would learn both at the same time. Or you might learn the kata and then learn the self-defense interpretation after that. And the kata helped you remember them. That's it in a nutshell.

Now, why don't you know this? Why do we see countless karate schools teaching people to do kata in solo and almost never see any partnered activity working on the kata's self-defense techniques?

Well the answer is: Most karate instructors don't have any knowledge of it whatsoever. Less than a percent of karate schools teach this. These can be 8th dan black belts. They still don't know the first thing about the self-defense techniques of the kata they teach.

Why is that? It's because they learned from someone who didn't know it, and that person learned from someone who didn't know it, and so on.

You can see this more clearly in Shotokan Karate and its derivatives. It's because the founder of Shotokan Karate, Gichin Funakoshi, taught it as a form of exercise to Japanese school children as part of their official physical education program. In doing so, he deliberately left out the self-defense meaning of the kata. He didn't want any kids hurting the others with it.

So the self-defense meaning of the katas was left to the students' imaginations. Which is why you see a lot of really terrible interpretations of kata. I've seen people explain, "Oh, this technique is simultaneously striking a person in front you and blocking a strike from someone else behind you, whom you can't see." Yeah, have you ever been able to block punches you couldn't see?

Shotokan karate gave rise to the karate phenomenon in the second half of the 20th century. Prior to then, it was an obscure art practiced by a small number of people on Okinawa.

Shotokan became very popular in Japan because of it being taught in the elementary and high schools there. The children would graduate and form their own schools to continue practicing what they had been taught in high school.

It spread to Korea to become Taekwondo, Tangsoodo, and so on, because Japan invaded Korea in the early 1900's and forced its young men to go to Japan to become soldiers where they were exposed to Shotokan karate. They brought it back to Korea. And Taekwondo spread like wildfire.

After World War II, American G.I.'s were stationed in Japan and were exposed to Shotokan karate. They brought it back to the U.S., and karate soon afterwards overtook Judo in popularity.

Shotokan and all the hundreds of styles derived from it spread all over the world in the second half of the 20th century. Today, most Japanese and Korean karate schools can trace themselves back to Shotokan karate. And that is why most karate schools you might run into don't have any idea what the self-defense techniques are in their kata.

As for sparring, it's completely different from the self-defense scenarios I spoke about. Sparring is free-fighting. Nobody is holding onto the other person. Kata, however, is grappling. You can't learn to block from solo kata practice, nor can you learn to deal with a bear-hug from sparring practice. Both teach completely different things.

Now, back to your original question, which deals with how best to spend your time...

Since the vast majority of karate schools don't have a clue about the self-defense meaning of their kata, the only thing they can do is practice performing it over and over again in solo. They don't know why they're doing that. They just do. They mumble something about it training "proper movement", physical development, or maybe how it's supposed to teach your subconscious mind which will be able to apply it perfectly without thought when the time comes.

If I was given those kinds of answers for why we're practicing karate kata in solo for 50-90% of the class time, I'd laugh. Well, now I would. I know better now.

At least sparring is useful. You can see yourself improving. You learn distancing, timing, the ability to block and parry, how to evade and move, etc. Good stuff. But endless amounts of solo kata practice without any partnered self-defense practice? It's pretty much worthless.

By the way, that's why some karate schools (especially Taekwondo) only do sparring and physical development instead of kata. It's because they see those other things as useful. They don't know why anyone would want to do kata. In those schools, you learn kata so you can test for your next belt. That's it.

If your school is only doing solo kata and physical development but not doing sparring or any partnered self-defense activity, then you need to ask your instructor about it. Plenty of schools are like that. They truly believe that kata is "everything". They just don't know why. But they're going to repeat those kata over and over again until they reach the enlightenment they know someday they will achieve!

My advice to you is to go have a good look at other schools in your area. Find some Okinawan karate schools, for example, instead of Japanese or Korean karate. You'll probably have better luck.

Better yet, take up Muay Thai. And while you're at it, study classical jujitsu or Gracie Jiujitsu. That combination will give you what karate was originally designed for, and it will do it much less time and will be a lot more refined, effective, and useful. It gives you all of the knowledge and skill with none of the bs.

Hope that helps.

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    Thanks for the elaborate answer. Can you please references for the historical development of Shotokan?
    – zr.
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 6:51
  • @zr. I'm a bit busy at the moment, but if I get time I'll cite some sources for what I've wrote. Thanks! Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 6:56
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    @Nav I let my answers show my knowledge level. I don't feel the need to post my lineages, rank, and so on. I dabble. I've studied around a dozen martial arts and have advanced rank in some of them. Jack of all trades, master of none. Haha. My background is: Taekwondo, aikido, Bujinkan, northern shaolin long-fist, Mitsung Lohan Kungfu, southern shaolin, wu / yang / and chen style Taiji, shorin-ryu karate, shotokan karate, Kali, Wing Chun, Judo, and a smattering of others. I've discarded most of it. My current interest is Gracie Jiujitsu. Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 7:02
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    @PhilipKlöcking Yes, I agree that if it is taught that way (with more time devoted to partnered bunkai), then it's useful. Without partnered feedback, you don't get the correction needed for your stance stability you mentioned or your muscle memory. You just get garbage results. Teachers that devote their time mostly on solo kata practice and little to no partnered bunkai are doing a disservice to their students. They should be doing it the other way around. I think that's the point Nav was getting at. I think we probably all agree on this, or mostly agree. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 4:35
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    Shotokan History citations available now?
    – Malady
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 1:10

People get hurt sparring, and they get hurt worse fighting. This is a fact of life. It's why professional fighters may only fight a few times a year, and why you can't just pound each other in martial arts class all the time. Some injuries are permanent. If you are injured all the time, you can't train and possibly can't work either.

There's a reason why there are techniques that are "too dangerous to be practiced". It's because people got hurt while they were being practiced. The problem is that if you can't practice a technique realistically, it's hard to really develop that technique to be combat effective.

Martial arts have to train in a way to minimize the danger of injury while still imparting real martial skill against live opponents. This is a fundamental conflict.

Some training elements to address the injury problem:

  1. Gear: Boxing, for example, puts giant gloves on your hands, and possibly headgear to try to protect your head. The problem is that this is not the way you will actually fight, and headgear may not protect your head while training anyway.

  2. Rules: Judo prohibits hitting and kicking during competition. Boxing and tae kwon do prohibit throwing. Obviously there may be problems when you encounter opponents who do things outside the respective rule sets.

  3. Kata/Forms: These are very safe to train. Some people never learn to apply, as you have pointed out.

  4. Prearranged fighting exercises: These are partner exercises where each partner has a role to follow, so it's easier to anticipate what will happen and not get hurt. The problem is that real opponents do not follow a script.

  5. Point sparring: If you don't hit hard, you can't get hurt, right? The trouble here is that you can tag your opponent for a point with a technique that is totally ineffective in combat.

  6. Hitting boards, bags, and other non-human targets: You can develop hitting power with non-human targets, but ultimately you have to hit a live person that moves. Also, the act of hitting these other targets can still hurt you.

There are no perfect solutions to the safety/liveness conflict. Each martial arts instructor will have their own approach to this problem, and it's up to you to evaluate whether this approach works for you. It may also be that one approach works for you for awhile, but you need to change to a different approach at a future time.

Finding a good martial arts instructor who knows "real" martial arts is another age-old problem. There have always been instructors who can show you little bits that may look useful by themselves but never amount to anything.

  • Sparring is one thing (people can get permanently injured; agreed.). Practicing like the kids in the video I've linked to in my question is another thing (which I'm stressing more on). It's necessary to get a feel of the dynamics of motion, strength and weight.
    – Nav
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 15:59

mattm and Steve have adequately covered the angles of injury and the basis of kata. I would also add two more factors, efficiency and the need to set a physical foundation.


It's not easy to make money with a martial arts school without going down the route of a McDojo and gouging money with belt fees, contracts, etc. Typically, your two routes are either a) train a small set of dedicated students who are willing to pay relatively large fees or b) train more people at once, but with lower fees. Because there are only so many people really interested in advancing themselves rather than kids ferried in by harried soccer moms, the latter is a common approach. Free sparring takes a fair amount of resources between the space necessary and the fact that you need at least one person supervising each bout. Arranged sparring (going through specific sets of movements) requires less supervision, but still typically takes up space. Compare that to spreading your students across the floor and having them do katas, or having them jog around the room before doing crunches en masse.

Physical Foundation

Let's say that, in class, you only teach technique, whether it's kata or sparring. Students are expected to exercise outside of class, warm up before class, cool down after, etc, all on their own. That's an efficient use of time... and would probably fall apart pretty quickly with typical students. I know that I personally seldom would decide to pump out a quick 50 crunches at home outside of class, and I was typically getting to class just on time because of all of the other demands of my life. Again, you could probably consider this under the perspective of whether you want to teach a small number of dedicated people, or open your school up to the general public, but people are busy, with a lot of demands on their time. If you have an hour-and-a-half class, the exercise they do in that class might be the only exercise they do all day. Thus, you need to include that conditioning in the instruction.

In my experience, this often lets up in upper ranks, where students truly are expected to work on their own outside of class, and where those people who lacked the dedication have been winnowed out, but especially early on, you kind of need to include it.

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    Out of years of experience as an instructor: More than 15 students is impossible to handle and correct if it isn't a group of mixed grades and they work in pairs, over 10 the outcome for the students and the stress for the instructor become rapidly worse. At least if you are alone and want to sustain a good standard. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 14:32
  • I wonder if there has been a history of students being exposed to sparring with a partner early-on, and they went out of the dojo and injured non practitioners. Eventually martial arts clubs decided to allow sparring with partners and teaching of advanced techniques only to experienced students. I wonder if this is the reason students are made to do just katas for many years. This being a way to get rid of people with less patience. Perhaps these would be the kind of people who would show less restraint once they've learnt techniques.
    – Nav
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 8:07
  • @Nav: Welcome back. I feel like your comment is more apropos to Steve's answer, though. :) Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 11:44

Many good answers here - I would add that for many, like myself, martial arts practice is a way of life - a 'practice'. It's practical and exhilarating to learn actual fighting techniques and to practice sparring. But I've found that after 35 years of martial arts training in various styles, that it's the basic exercises that help most - these thousands or millions of reps are forever keeping your body in good condition and are 'remembered' by your body and integrated within you - if health is your goal, then the exercises alone are of great value. If fighting skill and ability is the goal, you still need the body to be trained. It's a good question, but I think any good teacher will include plenty of warmups and exercises - like yoga or chi kung, simple exercises are not glamorous to watch, but as a martial artist/fighter they are a friend to your body.

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