Moral spine of Karate


When I started my training in martial arts I did not think about all of the culture, rules and traditions – “I just wanted to kick some ass!”  As I was always one of the smallest on my estate I tried everything to make myself bigger and to be able to fight.  So I started going to the gym and I joined a Karate club.  I had a clear vision of being just like Bruce Lee.P6070005.JPG

Moving forwards 20 years and I now appreciate all of the rules, traditions and morality associated with The Art of Empty Hands, especially the aspect of “Do”.  Looking around I find that the emphasis on the moral aspect of martial arts appears to be decreasing.  Quite a few teachers seem to promote aggression and the disrespectful behaviours of macho men/women.  Good examples of this can be observed in the worlds of Boxing and MMA where fighters try to dominate their opponent before they even step into the ring, making as much hype as possible around their persona in order to generate more money.  Two fighters who highlight this particularly in my opinion are Connor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.  Both are exceptional fighters with excellent skills, but they are extremely rude to and about others.  Behaviours like this puts me off from watching MMA and makes me question whether these famous fighters are the best role models for young people?  I personally do not think they are and I have more respect for an average fighter who has respect for others.  He might not be at the top of his profession but he is a humble hero who promotes the best behaviour for the young people that take up martial arts classes.

From running my own classes I have noticed that people are drawn to moral martial arts where you can learn honour, diligence and respect and how this fits in with traditional systems such as Karate, Aikido, Ju Jitsu and others.

For me the philosophy of Karate works, giving people that train not only a physical workout, but in addition teaching them a structured, moral code.  This is the essence of the phrase “Karate ni sente nashi”, “Karate does not attack first”.  The name Karate “Empty Hands” is telling in itself in that it signifies that empty hands are about protection and that the hands being open is a welcoming gesture.   Karate should be used only for good reasons with respect to others and in case of danger to self or others.  Kaicho Nakamura has pointed out a few key principles in Karate that really resonate with me and that I try to impose in my training and life so that my existence is meaningful and helpful:

  • GI – Rectitude – To take the right decision in every situation and to do it without wavering. The right decision is the moral one, the just one, the honourable one.
  • YU – Heroism – Bravery means taking risks to our position, status or self-interest on a daily basis.
  • JIN – Compassion – We should always try to find ways to express our compassion for others.
  • REI – Courtesy – We should practice it constantly especially in modern times where we are lacking in courtesy.
  • MAKATO – Truthfulness – In all dealings with others, we should develop a sincere, honest straightforwardness.
  • CHUGO – Devotion – always be devoted to your family, friends and teachers.

The above are great tips for an honourable life.  I guess the question is how many of us follow them in our lives once we step out of the dojo?  We can hear in the media about martial arts instructors scrounging on benefits, molesting children and taking people’s money.  It is easy to preach about honour, diligence and respect on classes and then get involved in corrupt behaviours and doing harm to others.  Many instructors want to be perceived as holy, without a mark against their character.  We would all like to be like that, but reality if often different.  We all have faults, but we can strive for perfection through our choices and actions.  I do preach about honour and respect and I have to confess that I am not always perfect, but I try to follow the path of Karate do, self-education and excellence.  Since I started to employ these principles I have noticed that my life has changed for the better and I am now helping others through Karate.  I wish for all instructors to be an excellent example to their students, we certainly need more respectful people in this world.


Les Bubka



Muscle memory

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Instructors in martial arts very often use the term ‘muscle memory’, but they often cannot actually explain what it means.  In this article I will try to explain my views on this topic.

I will begin with some definitions for muscle memory, motor skills and subconscious reactions.

These definitions have been taken from Wikipedia. 

“Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort”

We have two types of motor learning relating to Gross motor skills and Fine motor skills:

“Gross motor skills involve movement of the arms, legs, feet, or entire body. This includes actions such as running, crawling, walking, swimming, and other activities that involve larger muscles”

“Fine motor skills are the small movements that occur in the hands, wrists, fingers, feet, toes, lips and tongue. They are the smaller actions that occur such as picking up objects between the thumb and finger, using a pencil to write carefully, holding a fork and using it to eat, and other small muscle tasks that occur on a daily basis.”

Subconscious reactions:

“Occurring without conscious perception, or with only slight perception, on the part of the individual: said of mental processes and reaction”

As we can see from these definitions our muscles can learn or maybe it is better to say that they can synchronise with the brain to perform tasks, with maximum efficiency.  This learning process increases the speed at which we can execute practiced movements, which is why when we first start to learn how to punch or kick our movements are sluggish and clumsy.  With time and repetition our moves start to become quicker, stronger and more precise.  These moves become more natural and we do not need to concentrate so hard on how to perform them.

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All of this is due to our system of connections between the brain and muscles via a network of nerves.  Our nervous system is a bit like a muscle, when put through training it gets stronger and bigger; our impulses can travel quicker as the amount of connections dedicated to each of the tasks is increased.   In time our brain also learns how to recruit more muscle fibres to support a movement.

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Our brain creates a plan of action which can be performed by our muscles, so we are able to perform defending or attacking combinations.   When we develop muscle memory our ability to perform these tasks improved.



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In the context of martial arts however there is a slight problem with muscle memory.  Whilst it allows us to perform a task quickly and is good for predictable situations in martial arts every situation will be subtly different.  The dynamic nature of fighting makes it difficult to know what will happen next and be able to plan a prescribed response.

That is why it is so important to develop subconscious reactions, where we do not have to choose the right move to block an attack.  Our brain should be trained to switch between tasks without thinking about them.  It is a kind of muscle memory for the brain to spot small signals and to choose the appropriate reaction for our muscles.  A good example of this will be how we automatically protect our eyes.  When an object is travelling at speed towards our eye, we do not think to close our eyelid; it happens much quicker, our hands travel up to catch the object or cover our head without thinking about it.  We are usually able to think about what happened after the event has occurred.  This kind of response is what we are looking for in martial arts.  If we can master our response to stimuli without the involvement of conscious thought we will become better fighters.  This state of mind is called ‘Mushin’, which means an empty mind in Japanese.

Combining an empty mind with muscle memory allows us to easily switch between defence and attack, deciding which technique to use in a split second.

In summary, muscle memory is a combination of brain activity synchronised with muscles via a network of nerves. 

Thanks for your time !

“Black belt- target or side effect of training”


First black belt in Shin Ai Do Karate in Poland, kept in nice box.

This time I would like to write about approaches towards gradings, belt systems and the black belt. Starting with my story, I began training in martial arts when I was 14.  The same as all beginners I dreamt of becoming a black belt and being able to kick ass! After 13 years I achieved my goal of attaining a black belt.  By the time I achieved my black belt my attitude and opinion of what it meant had changed – I was happy to have it, but now I realised that it was not that important.  During my time training in Karate my teacher did a great job of imparting the belief that it is only a belt – “belts do not fight, they are only there to hold your Gi top together”.   This was his endless mantra.  Looking back, I am very grateful for him impressing this view on us.

Now I am teacher myself, I try to pass this approach on to my students and friends. Looking around I see lots of people chasing the dream of being a black belt, but they do not want to invest time and effort, they want it now, almost instantly.  In this way, the black belt has become something like a driving licence.  You go for a course, when you have done your hours you go for a test and if successful, receive a certificate.  You can then hang this over your toilet for all your guests to admire!  Then you can retire from training as you now know it all – you are the master, the black belt holder…

With more and more people looking for an easy way to achieve this holy grail of martial arts, there are more and more opportunistic teachers and organisations that give away black belts, for a certain price of course.

Another growing trend for extracting money from people is the creation of grading systems with up to 20 kyu grades (or more!), each of which having a separate belt colour.  So the student not only spends money on taking many grades, but also has the pleasure of buying many belts as well.

belt progression

Shin Ai Do have only four colour of belts.


Shortening the times between examinations to 1-3 month intervals provides a steady income for examiners. Students on the other hand may experience a fake impression of progression and achievement.  Such short interval between gradings does not usually provide enough time to properly learn techniques (unless of course you are training every day for many hours).  Speeding through grades at such a pace creates students who often can only remember techniques associated with the current (or very close) grade as they are constantly having to focus on the requirements for the next grade rather than building a solid body of knowledge based on an accumulation of techniques.  Organisations then build black belts and instructors on this foundation.  This causes a lowering of standards within an organisation and damages the image of Karate.  Unfortunately this practice has become very popular in martial arts as a means to make money.  I cannot understand how students are being charged (sometimes ridiculous amounts) for gradings on top of their membership, classes and licence fees.  I understand that obtaining knowledge costs time and money, but to my mind this is extortion.

In line with the realities of supply and demand, people want a black belt quickly and so other people provide this service.  Having a very small Dojo, I try to fight this approach.  At my club we have gradings typically once a year, if (and only if) the instructor decides that a student has done enough to be graded.  When permission is granted to grade, I consult my opinion with one of the other instructors within the organisation to see if they agree with my assessment of a student.  If we are all in agreement that a student(s) should grade, then a grading is organised.  However, we do not setup an isolated exam for only those that are being graded, but observe the students during a few hours of normal training, with a panel of instructors present.  As a panel of instructors are required, our gradings often coincide with international seminars.  The benefit of this is that students can be judged not only by instructors from within our own style, but also by instructors from different martial arts.  All of our gradings are free of charge until black belt when there is a small fee for producing a dan grade certificate and embroidered belt.

Recently at our club we have decided not to wear belts at all as we are a small group and know each other well.  We now only wear our belts when joining our friends on seminars, competitions etc.  I have noticed that this approach is putting off some potential students as one of their first questions when they come through the door is “how long do I have to train to become a black belt?”  After I finish explaining our philosophy on the subject of belts I can see the disappointment in their faces, most of them do not come back…

Another thing I have noticed recently (and is the subject of one of my previous blogs) is that people want easy training, where they pop in for classes for a bit of a workout and social interaction, but do not want to get tired.  At our club our sessions are physically challenging and often involve students having to consider the details of techniques, which requires concentration and constant correction,  hence my popular catch-phrase “something like that”.

I suspect that most people expect from their instructor a ‘pat on the back’ and encouraging words like “yes, you are doing this well”, but being from Eastern Europe I am often seen as being rude as most of the time my focus is on ensuring techniques are performed correctly.  Besides, I do not like to lie and “beat about the bush” and so I am very direct and honest – some people do not seem to get on well with this.

In an age where everything is nearly instantly accessible, people do not often have the patience for long, hard training and being told that they are not ready to grade makes them angry.  That is why McDojos are doing so well.  Organisations like this have adapted to the modern, fast pace of life and fulfilling peoples demands for a quick route to black belt.   However, it is my view that when we start travelling on the path called Karate our focus should be on training and improving, not on grading.  In my opinion obtaining a black belt should be a “side effect” of training and not the target of training.

If you think that anyone else would benefit from reading this article please feel free to share.

Bunkai session @ our club

Here is a little insight into our approach to functional karate and kata. This video shows the first level of bunkai (application) of Tensho kata. Note that the video does not provide all the details of what we do. It is best to meet, try and feel the techniques for yourself. I hope you enjoy.

Kihon kata- bridge between classical self defence application and free fighting

In Shin ai do karate we have two kinds of kata: classical and modern. This clip shows one of our quick forms with application. Function of this form is providing the bridge between classical self protection captured in old Kata and modern sports fighting.

Components of a Punch

In this article I would like to focus on the components of a front punch. I will try to show the basic mechanics of our body when punching. Our interest will focus on the following four key points of our body:

  • Fist – positioning the fist in relation to our target and the natural set up of the wrist and knuckles.
  • Elbow – the setup of a safe position to make use of our body’s natural cushioning mechanism and effective transfer of energy.
  • Shoulder – in relation to our target and our hips, allowing the most power delivery.
  • Hips – angle of the hips when striking to improve power transfer.

I will skip leg setup and the use of the back and front legs. I will come back to this in other article.

First we have to look at the natural set up of our arms, trunk and hips. As you will probably have noticed our limbs when relaxed are not fully extended, this anatomical adaptation is to protect our joints from injury.  We try to replicate this setup when punching.   To understand this natural setup let your arm drop to the side of your body in a relaxed position and have a look in a mirror to see this natural posture.  Now clinch your fist.  You should be able to see that your shoulder, elbow and wrist create a ‘zigzag’ pattern. Now if you raise your arm and point to your target you have a safe and properly setup arm from shoulder to wrist (please see pictures below).


[Arm in a relaxed position]


[Arm creating a zigzag when fist is clinched]

   Why is this set up the best?  All of the bends in our joints (especially the elbow) create a cushion. When our fist impacts a target a shockwave is generated that goes through the target and back through our arm.  A bent elbow allows us to absorb this energy – if we had our arm completely straight, all of the energy from the shockwave goes directly up our arm to our shoulder, which increases the possibility of damaging our joints.

Fist clinching – there are a few schools of thought on this and I will focus on the two methods that are best for me.

The first method is with all of the fingers tucked in with the thumb covering index and middle finger.


[Fist method 1]

The second method is with the index finger resting on the base of the thumb. As a result of this change the thumb is now only covering index finger. This setup gives me a firmer base for the front knuckles, but it is a bit slower to do.


[Fist method 2]

 The rest of the setup for the wrist is the same for both fist methods.  Looking from the top of the fist we should notice that fist is not strait but bend outwards.


[Ideal arm setup when punching]

 Why? If we had our fist straight the punch would be delivered by only the middle knuckle, which might cause unwanted movement in the wrist and sprain it.  There is also no cushioning effect.


[Wrist straight in relation to target, resulting in middle knuckle making contact]


[Unwanted movement caused by punching straight that may lead to a strained wrist or broken knuckles/metacarpals at the ring and little finger]                                

When the fist is bent both the first and second knuckles land on target, giving the most efficient transfer of energy with maximum stability.

Another very important angle is the vertical wrist position in that the wrist should be slightly bent downwards, which results in the first dropping slightly.


[Ideal vertical wrist angle]

 This position allows us to land two knuckles when punching at head level or higher. By bending the wrist we expose the knuckles.  If we have our wrist vertically straight our punch will land with the middle joints of our fingers, which may cause injury.  Note that there is a technique where we hit with these knuckles (hiraken), but the position of the hand is changed significantly to provide support for this.


[Straight vertical wrist angle leading to punch landing with middle knuckles]

 Now onto the elbow.  The elbow’s relaxed position is at a slight angle – if we relax our arm, the elbow rarely straightens completely.  This is our body protecting our joints.  When we punch we want to use this mechanism for our benefit.


[Relaxed elbow position]

 Apart from the safety risks, having a straight elbow when punching causes our shoulder to turn towards the center of the body as the shoulder is unnaturally lifted up, which results in power loss. This elevation of the joint also tenses the trapezius and neck muscles which reduces the speed of the punch.


[Straight elbow causes shoulder lift and direction of force to move away from the target]

 To insure the most powerful strike our hips must be directed towards the target. This allows the direct transfer of energy through the trunk, shoulder, elbow and wrist to the target. If the whole system is correct we will have minimal losses in energy transfer.


[Ideal hip and elbow setup ensures that the energy of a punch is directed at the target]

If we turn our hips too much we will increase the reach of the punch, but it will lose a lot of energy as the hips provide the direction for the power.  A simple exercise to test this is to place your fist against the wall in a punch position.  Now push your body weight into the punch with your hips directed forward.  You should feel supported by the two first knuckles of your fist with your shoulder in a comfortable position.  Shifting your hips towards the centre of the body (pushing the fist further forwards) causes the rotation of your trunk and you should feel the change in direction of the energy.  Moving your hips changes the direction in which the shoulder is pointing as it moves with your trunk and so the energy is directed in line with the hips.  Therefore the punch does not impart the maximum power.  This position may also cause shoulder injury.

Ideally, the hips should be directed to the target (for a front punch) and lifted up to help with the contraction of stomach muscles.  Then the energy of the punch will flow through the shoulder, elbow and wrist, exploding via the first two knuckles.

I hope this explanation will help with understanding the components of a punch from Shin ai do karate point of view.

All of the mechanisms described here are best tested and trained on a makiwara (punching flexible board) or a heavy punch bag under the supervision of qualified instructor.


About the author: Les Bubka is an experienced martial artist, personal trainer and therapist who specialises in posture, mobility and Karate.  Les works with a wide variety of clients including martial artists and athletes as well as those suffering with postural dysfunction or those who wish to improve their fitness and wellbeing.