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 The following article originally appeared in the Journal of Asian
Martial Arts
(Vol. 5, No. 2, 1996) and appears here in a slightly edited form.

supplementary weight training for miyagi chojun's goju-ryu karate

This article is dedicated to the memory of
Shinjo Masanobu, one of Okinawa's greatest karate masters.


letter traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate is a system designed primarily for self defense. Founded by Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953) in the early part of the twentieth century, Goju-Ryu uses both hard and soft fighting principles to incorporate circular blocking movements with linear and circular strikes, forming a flexible style of karate that is geared toward close-range combat, but can also adapt to deal with long-range attacks. Since there are numerous grappling and grabbing maneuvers contained within the twelve kata (forms) that make up the system, it is important for students to strength en their bodies and maintain overall body flexibility, to properly perform the Goju-Ryu techniques that require quick responses to put an end to an altercation in the least amount of time. For this reason, supplementary conditioning with traditional Okinawan weights is a major part of the system, which Master Miyagi taught to all his students.


Master Miyagi's early training consisted mainly of strength and development work with various resistance devices. Beginning at the age of eleven under the tutelage of Aragaki Ryuko, the young Miyagi was instructed in the use of the chishi (single ended stone lever weight), nigiri game (clay gripping jars), and the makiwara (straw padded striking post). In 1901, Aragaki introduced Miyagi to Higashionna Kanryo (1851-1916), who was well known throughout Okinawa for his expertise in the style of self-defense that he called Naha-te. The training under Master Higashionna was very harsh, with an emphasis on the Sanchin conditioning kata, and few students were able to withstand the physical demands placed upon them by the practice of techniques and supplementary developmental work, which for the most part consisted of running and lifting progressively heavier stones. However, Miyagi thrived on the difficult training, and he eventually came to learn all of the Naha-te kata.

When Master Higashionna died in 1916, Master Miyagi took over the leadership of the Naha-te system and traveled extensively to promote the art. A person of great wealth, Master Miyagi made frequent trips to China before and after the death of Master Higashionna, and combined the principles he learned from the great martial arts masters of the time with Naha-te techniques to establish the art he later called Goju-Ryu (the hard and soft system). His travels also took him to mainland Japan, Hawaii, and Korea, where Goju-Ryu was promoted to the extent that it became famous not only in Okinawa, but in other areas as well.

A man of great strength and power, Master Miyagi was also known for his gentle nature and desire to serve humanity by making available to the public a martial art system that concerned itself with producing outstanding citizens. Despite very few rumors to the contrary, Master Miyagi never fought, keeping a promise to his teacher, Master Higashionna, never to use the martial arts to harm another human being. However, his demonstrations were anything but gentle, as his tremendous physical and mental strength allowed him to overcome obstacles that would have felled most other people. One of Master Miyagi's performances on Okinawa in the 1920's has become legendary, and eventually paved a way for promoting his art in budo demonstrations in Japan. In this particular instance, after an extraordinary display of techniques by visiting judo founder Kano Jigoro, Miyagi was asked to perform on behalf of the Okinawan martial arts. It has been reported that he responded by carrying out such tasks as ripping bark from a tree with his fingers and tearing chunks off a large slab of raw meat with his bare hands. Master Miyagi also kicked a hole in a kerosene can with his big toe, thrust his hands into a bundle of bamboo and pulled out stalks from the center of the stack, and remained uninjured while being struck with a bo (six-foot wooden staff). Kano was so impressed with this performance that he later used his considerable influence to enable Miyagi to take part in demonstrations on the Japanese mainland.

As a physical fitness enthusiast, Master Miyagi maintained a strict training regimen, pushing himself physically and mentally to reach a state where he was always alert and always aware of what was happening around him. Taking every opportunity to practice, the Goju-Ryu founder would start off a typical day by practicing kata, running, weight training, and then more kata. Using his vast knowledge of the internal and external workings of the human body, Master Miyagi developed scientific methods of supplementary exercise and calisthenics that directly corresponded with the demands placed upon Goju-Ryu practitioners, and his students were instructed to properly perform the intricate exercises that strengthened the body to enhance the performance of kata. As a teacher, Master Miyagi was very strict and pushed his students as hard as he pushed himself, concentrating on the basics and on supplementary exercise. The usual training session that took place in the courtyard that served as a dojo would begin with a warm up, then weight resistance training, and then the practice of Sanchin. After the death of Master Miyagi, his students carried on the tradition and preserved his teachings, never forgetting the benefits of supplementary exercise that began with the basic instruction of Aragaki Ryuko so many years before.

masanobu shinjo Another Goju-Ryu master, whose life paralleled that of Master Miyagi in many ways, was Shinjo Masanobu (1938-1993), the founder of the prestigious Okinawan Goju-Ryu Shobukan Association. Dedicating his life to Goju-Ryu, Master Shinjo became famous for his outstanding martial arts skills as well as his community service, and he was sought out on a worldwide basis by people who wanted to train under such a knowledgeable teacher. Like the founder of Goju-Ryu, Master Shinjo traveled extensively to promote the art, and his very untimely death marked the passing of one of Okinawa's most respected karate masters, whose deeds have now become legendary on the largest island in the Ryukyu chain.

Along with being known for performing kata in a manner most closely resembling that of Master Miyagi's, other parallels between the two great teachers can be drawn through Master Shinjo's incredible feats of strength, as he was able to exercise with weights that people much larger physically could not even lift off the floor. Another similarity concerns their great dedication to supplementary exercise as a major part of karate training. Like Master Miyagi before him, Master Shinjo passed on to his students the valuable instruction of the correct utilization of the various resistance devices. In this way, the scientific knowledge Master Miyagi so carefully cultivated years ago has been preserved for the benefit of today's Goju-Ryu students.


Long before scientific studies of exercise and its effects on the human body became as popular as they are today, Master Miyagi knew the importance of a strong, well-balanced physique and had the knowledge to apply resistance training to the art of karate to enhance the overall performance of technique. For this reason, Master Miyagi designed a system of exercises that would correspond directly to the movements within his art. Through the use of traditional Okinawan weights, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the body are strengthened, and the speed at which a technique is delivered is increased, which are the major purposes for this supplementary training. To carry out this task, Master Miyagi was well aware of the importance of a balanced approach to resistance training.

The old saying "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" applies to Master Miyagi's supplementary system, as he saw the body as a whole unit and designed his training regimen to work all of the major muscle groups equally. Muscles do not work alone, and whenever a movement is performed, the whole body is involved to a certain degree. For every movement, there are prime mover, synergist, and stabilizer muscle groups that act together to complete a given task. Prime movers are the muscles called upon to do most of the work to perform a movement, synergists assist the prime movers, and stabilizers hold the body in place. To use a very common weight training exercise as an example, the bench press, where a person is Iying in a supine position on a bench with a barbell across the chest and then presses the weight up to arm's length, involves many muscle groups for completion. In this case, the pectorals (chest muscles) are the prime movers; the anterior (frontal) deltoids and the triceps (the large three headed muscle on the upper arm) are the synergists; and the lateral and posterior deltoids (side and rear shoulder muscles), along with the upper and lower back, help to stabilize the body.

Muscle fibers provide force for movement by contracting (shortening) to approximately two thirds their original length when called on to perform a task. By training with progressively heavier weights and forcing the body to work harder, the overload increases the size of the muscle fibers and increases the number of fibers that can be employed to complete a movement. A larger recruitment of working muscle fibers adds strength and power to a technique without decreasing overall speed. However, an imbalance where one antagonistic muscle group is overly developed or under developed can negatively affect the quickness of delivery. For optimum speed potential, antagonistic muscle groups must function in a cooperative manner without dominance of one particular group over another. When delivering a punch, the triceps contract to straighten the arm as the biceps relax to allow the extension to take place. Upon recovery, the biceps contract to pull the arm back while the triceps relax and let the arm return to a position where another technique can immediately take place. In this context, the term "muscle bound" can apply to an imbalance between the biceps and the triceps if one group is more developed than the other, which could result in a loss of flexibility and decrease the speed potential of delivery and/or recovery of the technique. For this reason, the exercises developed by Master Miyagi concentrate on balanced development, working the body as a whole unit and exercising the various major muscle groups at the same time within a routine.

While muscular imbalance can occur with the improper usage of free weights (barbells and dumbbells) where one muscle is favored exclusively over another, this condition is more likely to be realized when exercising solely with the various resistance machines that can be found in most well-equipped gyms and health spas. Though these machines may serve as an invaluable means of rehabilitating a specific injury, there is no need to balance or control the load being moved, which limits the role of the stabilizing and synergistic muscle groups. The range of motion is also limited to the design of the machine in working an isolated muscle group, and if the user concentrates on exercising one muscle while neglecting others, the specific muscle may be developed out of proportion. With most free weight exercises, and especially with traditional Okinawan weights, the whole body becomes involved in the movement to a certain extent, which strengthens not only the prime movers but the synergists and stabilizers as well.

Exercising in a manner that strengthens the entire body and enhances the communication between major muscle groups is the primary purpose of supplementary resistance training for karate, as the muscles learn to work together to adapt to the stress that is imposed by the resistance device. According to Philip M. Potacco, D.C., C.C.S.P., "more muscles and more joints are stressed with free weights than with machines. Muscles across the multi-joint areas begin to communicate with each other in a neuromuscular education to coordinate the amount of stress and respond with the appropriate effort. In other words, the muscles learn to respond to the amount of load on them with the recruitment of additional fibers, and the percentage of each muscular contraction to the total amount of force required to perform the movement is increased. The muscles grow in response to this stress (load); it is a positive adaptation. The bones, tendons, and ligaments are also made stronger in response by the addition of calcium into the bones and at the site of attachment of the tendons and ligaments to bone. The result is larger and stronger muscles and stronger attachments" (personal interview). Though traditional Okinawan weights differ from barbells and dumbbells in many ways, the principle of improved overall body strength and neuromuscular education is very applicable to karate training.

Training with traditional Okinawan resistance devices is not like body building or weight lifting in the purest sense, as the working muscles are not "pumped up" to a degree where they become instantly larger; nor is the concentration on lifting the maximum amount of weight for a single repetition. Instead, Master Miyagi's methodology takes advantage of working at a slow, deliberate pace for each repetition; and the weight being used is kept under control at all times without any sudden movements, "jerking," or extra, forced contractions designed to increase muscle size. Stated simply, "strength" refers to the amount of tension a muscle can apply when contracting; and keeping movements at a slow, controlled, even rate optimizes the potential for a muscle group to exert the strongest contraction when called upon to do so. In Master Miyagi's style of exercise, the use of progressively heavier weights will increase the size and number of muscle fibers that can be recruited when per forming a certain movement, which is similar to other methods of resistance training; however, the main emphasis for the Okinawan method is to supplement the techniques within the martial arts system by making them more powerful and explosive.

Traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate students must learn to balance their training sessions to include stretching, supplementary resistance work, and the performance of kata in a manner where the body remains strong, flexible, and in a position of readiness to react quickly and explosively when necessary. Reaction time concerns the interval between the recognition of a stimulus and the consequent start of the movement that takes place with regard to the stimulus. The dedicated practicing of kata and bunkai (practical applications of kata) teaches the student to react in a corresponding manner to a threat or lack thereof, and supplementary resistance training enhances the techniques by making the movements faster and more powerful.


One of the most versatile and effective traditional Okinawan resistance devices consists of a concrete weight attached to one end of a wooden handle that is approximately eighteen inches long. The chishi, or stone lever weight, provides resistance by forcing the user to overcome the effects of leverage and load, which aids in strengthening muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones. The range of motion with the chishi is greater than with a conventional dumbbell, and since it is unbalanced on one end, more effort is required to control the weight, and various muscle groups can be exercised at one time within a sequence of movements. One sequence with a single chishi illustrates these points; when starting with the arm straight down and the weighted end

of the chishi pointing down and then rotating the weight upward to a position behind the head (see Photos A 1-A-5). The rotation of the weight around the shoulder joint and behind the head puts great stress on the tendons and ligaments because of the greater range of movement as compared to a conventional dumbbell, and also produces an increased amount of pull at various angles. The momentum of the chishi must also be controlled, which places additional stress on the joints.

A-1 The chishi (single-ended stone lever) is a versatile pice of exercise equipment, as it can be used in a variety of ways to work the muscles from different angles. John Porta assumes the starting position for this particular sequence with a single chishi, and demonstrates the proper posture that should be maintained throughout the movement. chishi a-1
A-2 With the weight completely under control, the chishi is moved slowly upward. chishi a-2
A-3 The wrist is turned over as the weight descends to the right side, closely relating to the middle-block position. Note that Porta keeps his shoulders square and in line, despite the pull being asserted to the right side of the body chishi a-3
A-4 Moving the elbow forward and up, the weight now goes to a position behind the shoulder. chishi a-4
A-5 In the final movement of the sequence before returning to the starting position, the weight is brought forward and out in front of the body. chishi a-5

The versatility of the chishi can be realized in training with various amounts of weight, eventually working up to heavier loads when the body becomes accustomed to this type of stress being placed upon it. However, form and technique are the essential factors when working with free weights, and should never be sacrificed for an increased workload that cannot be controlled with good form. When using the chishi, it is extremely important to pay close attention to one's posture, keeping the shoulders straight despite the pull being asserted to one side. Maintaining a strong stance and keeping the body low helps to restore balance, and aids the supporting muscles. Performing the exercises in front of a large mirror can help a student observe postural guidelines to carry out the movements in a most effective and safe manner.

As to the actual motions, the chishi should always be moved slowly and deliberately with the weight under control at all times, never using momentum or "swing" to move from one position to another. This controlled motion aids in neuroeducating the muscles, joints, and ligaments to not only work in communication with each other, but also to react quickly and forcefully when called upon to do so. For example, Photo A-3 illustrates moving the chishi to a position that resembles the middle block (chudan uke). Diligent practice of this movement will make the technique faster and stronger, because the body becomes accustomed to moving against resistance in this manner, thereby becoming more efficient when the actual block has to be made.

B-1 A single, heavy chishi provides great resistance for overall body conditioning. From a solid stance, the chishi is initially held out in front of the body with the weighted end up. chishi b-1
B-2 Without changing the position of the hands, the chishi is moved as far as possible to the left side of the body while keeping the shoulders square. chishi b-2
B-3 The weight is now brought over to the right side of the body, a movement that can be performed with linear or circular motion. chishi b-3
B-4 Returning to the frontal position in good form is an important aspect of training with tradition Okinawan weights. chishi b-4
B-5 Without moving the hands, the wrists are turned inward toward the body as the weight is lowered. From here, the movement is reversed, moving the chishi away from the body before returning to the starting position (B-1). chishi b-5

Neuroeducation is an important aspect of supplementary resistance training, since the muscles will act in accordance with the way the brain has been programmed to perform specific movements. Strength is increased by moving a heavy chishi in a slow, deliberate manner, which also builds muscle mass. Using a lighter chishi that can be moved more rapidly enhances muscular definition, and aids in teaching the body to react quickly to a given stimulus. However, proper technique must never be sacrificed for speed, and when training with the lighter chishi, the movements must still be controlled so that momentum is not used to move the weight from position to position. It is also imperative to point out that exercise devices such as the chishi are in no way intended for competitive use, where one student attempts to lift as much weight as possible to equal or surpass the amount of load being used by another student. To use the chishi in a manner other than what it is intended is to invite injury, which would destroy the entire purpose of supplementary training.

Power, speed, balance, and timing are equally important, essential factors that affect the performance of karate maneuvers; and while the practice of kata and bunkai develops the student's proficiency, supplementary training is necessary to increase the strength and velocity of a well-balanced, properly timed technique. By training with heavy and light weights, the brain becomes patterned to accept both aspects of movement, which results in an increase of both force and velocity. Balance is enhanced by the strong stances that must be maintained when working with traditional Okinawan resistance devices, which require a solid power base to stabilize the movements. Timing also benefits from the neuroeducation involved in supplementary training by teaching the body to move in a specific direction at a specific time, which directly corresponds to the techniques contained within the various kata.

double chishiTwo chishi can be employed with one in each hand, which was a favorite exercise of Master Shinjo, who moved two huge weights simultaneously in semicircular fashion while maintaining a strong sumo stance (shiko dachi). A single, heavy chishi can work the major muscle groups in a different manner from lighter weights. One sequence would involve assuming a sumo stance and grasping the chishi handle down near the bottom at the level of the abdomen, with the weighted end pointed up. From this position, the weight is moved from side to side without relaxing the grip on the handle or changing the positioning of the hands in any way. To emphasize the gripping muscles, a heavy chishi can be moved from the same starting position as in the previous sequence by turning the wrists in toward the body to a point where the weight is facing downward. Since the hands are turned over as the weight descends, it is important to maintain a strong grip on the handle. The wrist action is then reversed and the weight brought away from the body to grasp the chishi from a different angle. Another use for the chishi is to grasp the handle with the hands apart, one hand at the bottom of the handle and the other up near the concrete weight. With the weight aimed forward at waist level, the practitioner then practices thrusting movements, which strengthen the muscles that are used when performing a technique that involves lunging into a forward position.

chishi c-1 chsihi c-2
C-1 The chishi can be used for thrusting movements, with the hands spread apart on the handle. C-2 Without moving the feet, thrust the chishi forward while maintaining good posture, with the shoulders square.

The chishi is an exercise device that can be easily made, with the only necessary materials being cement mix, various lengths of wooden dowels, nails or wire mesh, and receptacles of various sizes. Coffee cans and one gallon paint cans serve as adequate vessels for pouring the cement, and the larger the receptacle, the heavier the weight. Wire mesh can be attached to the dowel or nails firmly driven in to bind the wood to the cement. After placing the dowel in the freshly poured cement, allow the mix to harden and then cut away the receptacle. To gauge the weight, start with the smaller coffee can size and weigh the finished chishi to determine which receptacles will be used to make progressively heavier implements. The usual thickness of the wooden dowel that is used to make the chishi is one and a half to two inches, but a person with smaller hands may use dowels that are one inch or less in diameter. In any case, with very little effort a student can produce an array of chishi that runs the gamut from large to small and takes full advantage of the properties of this versatile instrument.


nigiri-gameThe nigiri-game, or clay jar, is another device that can be used to strengthen the grip, as well as working the lower body and helping to improve posture. One method of exercising with this implement involves gripping a nigiri game in each hand with the thumb positioned under the lip of the jar (as demonstrated in Photo E), and then performing stepping techniques similar to those in the Sanchin kata. The jars may also be lifted from knee level to shoulder level while keeping the arms straight, which stresses the shoulders and upper back, as well as the wrists and fingers. The nigiri game can be made progressively heavier by filling them with sand.

D-1 The nigiri-game is a clay jar filled with sand for various weight resistances, which makes for a very effective device for improving the grip. nigiri-game d-1 D-2 Keeping the shoulders down and the body square, alternately raise the nigiri-game to the shoulder-level position. nigiri game d-2

F-1 Wrist rollers are effective exercise devices for strengthening the forearms. Holding the handle at shoulder level while rolling the weight up involves many supporting muscles, as well as the fingers and wrists. nigiri game f-1 F-2 Heavier weights can be used when holding the wrist roller in the lower position. Both high and low starting positions are recommended for optimum results. nigiri game f-2

Since traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu Shobukan karate often relies on numerous grabbing and pulling techniques as a means of self defense, a strong grip is essential to effectively carry out the movements. One implement that can be used in supplementary training is the wrist roller, which consists of a thick wooden dowel with a hole drilled in the center to accommodate a sturdy length of rope or cord. Weights are attached to the open end of the cord, which is then rolled up onto the dowel in an alternate over and under motion with the hands. Another simple yet effective gripping device can be made from a thick bundle of straw about six inches in length, held together with cord. As with the chishi, the thickness of the straw should be determined by the size of the user's hands. A fishing net filled with small stones worn smooth by tidal movements represents the geographical heritage of the island of Okinawa, where everyday items can be made into valuable exercise devices. This "bag of stones" is a unique implement for strengthening the fingers, and can be tossed back and forth between students, with the receiver catching the bag with the hand positioned as in Photo H-2 (below).

G A simple, thick bundle of straw held together with cord makes for an inexpensive but effective gripping implement. straw bundle g
H-1 A fishing net filled with smooth stones can be tossed back and forth between students, and should be caught with the hand in the position as shown in H-2. fishing net h-1
H-2 The hand postion to the right simulates the grabbing techniques that are so prevelant in traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate. fishing net h-2


iron ringThere are various other devices that can be used for supplementary resistance training, including the iron ring, foot weights, and implements that can be held in each hand while practicing striking and blocking techniques. All of these exercise tools reflect the tremendous ingenuity of a people that "made do" with whatever was on hand, and developed a system of supplementary training that enhances the performance of martial arts techniques. Though they may be a far cry from the gleaming, highly polished weight sets and machines that have become so popular today, these "old" implements work the muscles that are used in Okinawan Goju-Ryu in a more direct manner, as they are intended solely for the purpose of supplementary karate training. However, it is highly recommended that students train only under the instruction of an experienced person who is qualified to teach the various movements and sequences, or severe injury could result. Those who are able to add resistance training with traditional Okinawan weights to their karate practice will realize the benefits of stronger, faster techniques, which was the original goal set forth by Master Miyagi so many years ago.



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