Hard Style Training Principles Across Karate and Kettlebells

Me: “You need to keep your abs tight. Grab the floor with your toes and tighten your legs. The only part of your body that should be loose are your arms.”
Student: “Mrs. Music, how did you know his abs weren’t tight? I don’t get it. How did you see that?”

This was a conversation that went on last night in karate class. I was watching a karate student perform Naihanchi Shodan as he practiced for his test and as I do with all my students who are eligible to test.

How could I see the lack of tightness in the abs and know he wasn’t rooting or having tension in his legs? I practice Shurite Kempo, which is a hard style method of self-protection. The principles we practice are the same as strength training. Allow me to explain.

Hard style training in kettlebells and karateMaximal Tension in Hard Style Training

First, I want to define a word I will use throughout this article. The word is maximal. The definition, according to Merriman-Webster dictionary is “most complete or effective.” In other words, applying just the right amount.

Practicing Naihanchi Shodan requires full body maximal tension achieved instantly for brief moments of time. Utilizing the concept of Go-ju, the hard complements the soft and the soft amplifies the hard with power and speed. The lower body needs to remain tight and feet rooting, (Naihanchi means to grip the ground). But the upper body must remain loose to execute proper hard style punches. The abdominal area remains in the maximal tension until the punch is executed, then the hips must push forward, slightly relaxing the abs, but only for a brief moment, then return to maximal tension. The maximal tension that is present in Naihanchi Shodan is comparable to the lockout position of the swing.

“Tighten your abs, grab the floor with your toes, zip up your knees, squeeze your glutes. Tense your body at the top just like a plank position.”

This is the top position of a hard style kettlebell swing—or is it the top position of a deadlift, back squat, clean, snatch, jerk, or push press? It is interesting that the beginning of both descriptions is similar. Both are hard style. Hard style is a method that is practiced to strength train as well as train in karate-do.

Hard style training with kettlebellsBreathing and Kime in Hard Style Training

The most important aspect of hard style I have not mentioned is breathing. The breath in a hard style swing is executed at the hip snap. The breath in Shurite Kempo is associated with the punch. It can occur before, during, or after the punch, but it occurs with the maximal tension of the body.

Kime is a moment of focus. There is nothing else on the mind except what is happening at that moment. The apex of a swing or the impact of a punch is a perfect description of kime.

The principles and methods that are studied in strength training and in karate-do are parallel to each other. Many times in my karate training, I heard my Sensei repeat to me the words I read in our manual such as: lower your shoulders, grip the ground and move fast with tension and relaxation.

Reneta Music Swings KettlebellThis is one of my favorite quotation that blends strength training with karate-do:

“When you train, you should train as if on the battlefield. Make your eyes glare, lower your shoulders and harden your body. If you train with the same intensity and spirit as though you are striking and blocking against an actual opponent, you will naturally develop the same attitude as on a battlefield…” — Ankō Itosu, Okinawan karate master


Reneta Music
Reneta Music began martial arts training in 1991 and achieved her black belt in Japanese Karate in 1994. She is currently the Chief Instructor for martial arts and kettlebell training at the Mansfield YMCA in Mansfield, OH and the chief karate instructor at the Shelby YMCA, in Shelby, OH. Reneta received her SFG Level I Certification in 2011 and her Level II in 2012. She also received her SFB and SFL in 2013. Reneta is ranked as a 3rd degree black belt in Shurite Kempo and 4th in Japanese karate.

8 thoughts on “Hard Style Training Principles Across Karate and Kettlebells

  • Agree fantastic article. very well written , too the point and excellent analogies between traditional strength training and the strength training in the martial arts.

  • Reneta, excellent article, thank you! I am myself practitioner and teacher of Southern Chinese hard style Practical Hung Kyun (also known/spelled as Hung Kuen/Hung Gar), our principles are 100% compatible with Pavel’s HardStyle/StrongFirst system. Some of our concepts:

    • “legs open two and half steps” (geuk hoi yi bou bun): ie. little bit wider than shoulder width
    • “toes grip the ground” (ng ji ja dei)
    • “the power is generated form the ground” (lik chung dei hei)
    • “sink the air into the abdomen” (hei cham daan tin)
    • “sink the elbows, lower the shoulders” (cham jaang lok bok)
    • “hollow the chest, round the back” (ham hung bat buy) – hollow position
    • “hard and soft complement each other (gong yau ping jai)


    Regards from the Heart of Europe, all the best in your StrongFirst and martial arts practice.

This article is now closed for comments, but please visit our forum, where you may start a thread for your comments and questions or participate in an existing one.

Thank you.