I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. On Nov 6, I’ll test for my second-degree black belt in Shotokan Karate. Karate is a significant part of my life, so this belt exam means the world to me (especially after my leg injury 2 years ago). I’ve been doing Shotokan since I was 15, with the exception of my college years (no karate dojo in Northern Mississippi at the time.) Not having Karate would be like not having jeans to wear to work at Microsoft. I would have no idea how to live.
What does 2nd degree mean?
First of all, there are 10 degrees of black belt in most styles.
In Shotokan, 10th is awarded posthumously. I have no idea how 10th degree is awarded.
I always say that a 1st degree black belt means that you know how exactly bad you are. Or another way I heard it phrased is that at 1st degree your training finally begins.
I think second degree means you’re showing signs of potential that you could maybe one day perfect the techniques.
Do you have to win your fights to pass the exam?
No, it doesn’t work that way. Maybe some styles do, but Shotokan is focused on three areas:
- Kihon (basics) – the basic moves consisting of stances (front stance, side stance, …), punches (lunge punch, reverse punch, …) , kicks (front snap kick, round house kick, …) and blocks (rising block, downward block, …)
- Kata (forms) – 26 choreographed series of movements that represent a fight against numerous opponents. (As it was explained to me when I was 15 years old, you are visualizing numerous clones of yourself attacking you, where these clones represent the worst aspects of your character that you wish to eliminate. Therefore, the more you do kata, the more your character should improve.) At 1st degree black belt you are required to know the first 12 series of movements (or forms, or katas). I only know about 19 of them currently.
- Kumite (sparring/fighting) – exactly what it sounds like. But it isn’t about trying to winning. It’s about trying not to lose. In competition, yes, it’s all about the winner. But in a belt exam, it is about how well you understand the sparring concepts and put them into practice. For example, if someone literally showed fear when a punch was thrown at them, they are probably not going to pass. Whereas if someone could effectively block the first punch, but wasn’t fast enough to block a follow-up punch, then they are showing the right concepts and would probably pass.
The exam (which takes about an hour) covers all 3 aspects. For kihon, you have to demonstrate each of the 20 or so basic moves roughly 6 times. That part takes about 30 minutes. Then you move into Kata, where you demonstrate each of the katas for your level once. For Nidan there are 5. Now about 45 minutes have gone by, and now it is time for Kumite. Why fighting at the end? It’s because that’s where you are most likely to get hurt (although I’ve seen people get injured during kata), so it is always at the end, in both belt exams and in competition. You usually fight 2-3 people, just enough to see your sparring techniques. Again, it isn’t about winning or losing, but whether you can hold your own and show proper understanding of free sparring (competition fighting).
If you’re not fighting someone, how do you pass?
It’s kinda like “Best in Show” at a dog show. You are measured against the standard or the perfection of the technique. Again, since 1st black belt means you are just staring your training towards this perfection, there’s some sort of measure of how far off from perfection you are allowed to be at each degree of black belt.
For example, here’s a link to some videos of a 7th degree black belt (a Sensei) demo’ing each of the 3 areas of Shotokan. There is no way I will ever achieve this level of perfection in my lifetime. But, I’m going to try for my entire life to come as close as possible. And however close I get will determine my rank.
He and his father (who is a 9th degree black belt) will administer my black belt exam in this upcoming November.
How do you train for a 1-hour anaerobic exam such as this? You start training very, very early, and you train as consistently as possible, only gradually adding more workouts or increasing intensity. As my physical therapist told me, “you are allowed to knock on the door of the house of pain, but you are not allowed to go inside.”
Recall I broke my leg at this time 2 years ago. It took a full year going to physical therapy just to walk into the dojo for the first time again. (Moral of the story: never let your quad muscle atrophy.) You could say I started training for this exam that day, or you could say I started training in this past Fall when I learned the first of the Nidan katas. Your pick.
My current training schedule per week (as of this blog posting):
- 1 workout with personal trainer (core strength; overall training advice)
- 3 karate classes per week
- 1 karate workout 1-1 with my sensei
- 1 karate workout by myself
- 2-3 Brikham hot yoga classes (flexibility; recovery from leg injury; reminds me of weather back home)
- 1 spinning class (stamina; recovery from leg injury)
- 1-2 rock climbing (cross-training to give me another challenge so i don’t burn out on karate)
- 30-40 knees to chest jumps daily
- 1 rest day (no working out whatsoever)
It’s taken me about 6 months to build up to this workout intensity. Last year at this time, i couldn’t even do a karate class a year ago at this time because the pain in my knee was too great. Or at hot yoga, I couldn’t even put any pressure on my knee just kneeling down. (Seriously, never let your quad atrophy). I would need 6 bags of ice (3 for leg, 3 for shoulders/neck) after one easy karate class just this past last Sept/Oct.
What I do to prevent injury
Here are the things I do to make sure I’m only knocking on the door to the house of pain:
- Keep an exercise journal. I write down what I did and how I felt each day. After doing this for several weeks, you’ll start to see patterns in your progress or injuries. For example, if I do 2 very hard workouts on consecutive days, there’s a very high chance I’m going to be injured if I do a very hard workout on the third day.
- Make a weekly plan that balances my low-impact workouts with my high-impact workouts. I know that hot yoga classes are low-impact versus karate classes that are high-impact.
- Keep a food journal. I’m not so much into counting calories as i’m trying to make sure I’m eating consistently. Also i found that eating as big of a breakfast as possible has really helped me improve my energy levels, especially for evening workouts.
- When in doubt, ask someone. I hired my personal training last year to help me recover from my leg injury. Now, his job is to build up my core as much as possible, and helping me plan this crazy workout schedule of mine.
- Listen to my body. Probably the most obvious, but the most overlooked, especially by younger versions of myself. If i’m just not feeling it, i back off on that technique. If i’m just not feeling it the entire day, I consider the day a rest day and recalibrate my workout schedule. It’s all about seeing how long i can go without getting injured, or as I say “My goal is to never see the physical therapist again.”
- Get a full night’s sleep. If I get < 6 hours, I can still work out that day, but the next day must be either a rest day or a light day, and recalibrate my workout schedule. Again this is where a workout journal comes in handy to see how your body reacts to changes in your routine.
It’s all about consistently and only gradually adding more workouts or increasing intensity. When I get back from a week at TechEd, i’m not going to be able to do even half of the exercises I’ve listed above. Knowing this I’m going to plan a workout at 1/4 the intensity, meaning just 2 karate classes and maybe a hot yoga class and/or rock climbing class. And of course, I’ll have to tell my trainer not to push me that week.
It isn’t about how much can I work out, but whether I can live to work out another day.
Anyways, I hope this post was interesting. And now back to working on my CodePlex TechEd talk.