A Karate Approach to Calisthenics

by Owen Johnston on June 2, 2015

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Back of the Wrist Pushups

Like many of my generation, I grew up watching movies like The Karate Kid, Kickboxer, Enter the Dragon, Drunken Master, and Rocky. The larger-than-life characters from these films wowed us with their fighting skills and never-give-up attitudes.

A common theme they all share is that the main character is an underdog who must train hard to become a better fighter and overcome his seemingly invincible opponents. The training methods employed often include some tough calisthenics skills. I’m sure we all remember seeing Rocky do uneven pull-ups in the second film, and dragon flags in the fourth. The perseverance of our heroes, the amazing skills they learned, and the rigorous training methods they endured inspired many of us to take up martial arts and training ourselves.

Bruce Lee popularized the dragon flag as well as other difficult bodyweight feats, like his two finger push-ups. He espoused improving your athletic performance in order to improve your martial performance, as well as to help fully express the human body. Certainly, the martial-calisthenics connection is as old as man, yet Bruce was a great catalyst in the popularization of martial arts in America, inspiring many to train hard like he did. He said, “Life is never stagnation. It is constant movement…as well as constant change. Things live by moving and gain strength as they go.”

I didn’t fully understand the implications of these words until I got into Progressive Calisthenics. There are certainly comparisons to be made between learning progressive calisthenics and martial arts. Coach Wade made some of these comparisons in “The Tao of PCC”. He brought up some important similarities to martial arts. “…nobody can remember a hundred techniques in a fight. What matters are the principles you absorb.” “You learn the form, you absorb the form, you discard the form.”

Our training shouldn’t keep us stuck in a rigid form, but instead be directed to the fullest expression of ourselves with utmost efficiency and simplicity. In Jackie Chan’s older films, many of his characters often went through a transformation from a struggling student to a graceful, efficient and powerful athlete. The training was generally harsh, but once he absorbed the principles of his master’s art, he was ready to face the next challenge!

Like the progressive calisthenics approach, traditional power training and body conditioning methods in Okinawan karate focus on bulletproofing the joints, improving flexibility, and building holistic, functional strength.

One Arm One Leg Fingertip Training

There are a number of progressive bodyweight movements taught in Okinawan karate, including knuckle push-ups, fingertip push-ups and ultimately, wrist push-up variations. The exercises have very direct benefits for “bunkai” or application of kata.

Of course, these exercises shouldn’t replace previous progressions, but supplement them. Also, don’t overdo it with directly training the joints. Be sure to allow plenty of time for your connective tissues to adapt.

To regress any of these variations, you can practice them using an incline (wall, chair etc) or you can simply create less demanding leverage by kneeling instead of performing them from your toes. You could also adapt the Convict Conditioning push-up progression to these variations. (Coach Wade has already covered this for fingertip push-ups in Convict Conditioning 2.)

Warm up your hands and forearms properly before working knuckle, fingertip or wrist push-ups. Afterwards, shake your hands out, and stretch your fingers and wrists.

Like most push-up variations, knuckle push-ups strengthen most of the muscles used in straight punches. Knuckle push-ups also strengthen the wrists and knuckles, and help toughen up the skin. A course of fingertip push-ups, grip work, pull-ups, and proper use of a heavy bag will help you punch as hard as Rocky Balboa!

Fingertip push-ups strengthen the finger extensor muscles. Naturally, they provide direct benefits to strikes using extended fingers. Fingertip push-ups can be progressed by doing push-ups on fewer fingers.

The author, Owen Johnston demonstrates a push-up on just the index fingers and thumbs.

The author, Owen Johnston demonstrates a push-up on just the index fingers and thumbs.

Wrist push-ups strengthen the wrists for various strikes, and have very specific benefits for “ox jaw” and “crane” techniques. This push-up variation is done on the backs of the hands. You can also ease in by having one palm on the training surface instead of having both on the backs of the hands. Practice this way on both sides to maintain symmetry in training.

Wrist Stretches by Owen Johnston, PCC Instructor

A stretch commonly done in gymnastics will be useful in preparing for a wrist push-up progression. Sit in a kneeling position, look straight down at your knees, lean forward slightly and place the back of your hands on the ground, directly in front of your knees. Naturally, leaning forward will put some of your weight onto the backs of your hands, with the fingers turned inward. Cautiously lean into your hands until you feel mild discomfort. Hold this stretch for 10-30 seconds, then come up and shake your hands out. Repeat 1-3 times.

There are “hidden steps” between this stretch and a wrist hold in the top position of a kneeling push-up. First, gradually build strength and flexibility in the wrists with the stretch until you can put moderate pressure onto the backs of your hands with little to no discomfort. The next part of the progression is to move your hands a few inches forward from the starting position and unfold your hips slightly as you start putting pressure on the backs of your hands. Imagine that you are trying to move a little closer to perfect form for push-ups (hips locked out, weight carried through arms and hands). Find the most difficult position that you can hold for 10-15 seconds when you put mild to moderate pressure on your hands. Gradually work towards the full kneeling push-up wrist hold.

A sample progression:
1. Wall wrist push-ups
2. Incline wrist push-ups with one palm on contact surface and the back of the other hand on contact surface
3. Incline wrist push-ups
4. Kneeling wrist push-ups with same regression as in step 2
5. Kneeling wrist push-ups
6. Hold top of push-up position on backs of hands; use same regression as in steps 2 if needed at first
7. Full push-up with one palm on contact surface and back of other hand on contact surface
8. Full wrist push-ups

Programming and volume for wrist pushups are straightforward. Since the joints don’t adapt as quickly as the muscles, and the wrists can tend to be injury prone, be conservative about volume. Practicing wrist push-ups once a week for low sets of low reps is a good rule.

A few options for programming wrist training:
1) Adding it to an existing joint specialization session; see Convict Conditioning 2 for a template
2) Doing some wrist stretches, holds and/or pushups as part of your warm-ups for practice (whether karate or a sport that needs strong hands/wrists)
3) Doing some light stretches and other exercises as part of rehabilitating your wrists (of course, this will depend on what exercises your physician recommends)
4) Training wrist holds after a session of pushups
5) There are many other possibilities depending on your own needs, goals, experience, etc.

Back Of Wrist Push up variations

Martial arts and calisthenics can work hand-in-hand to develop all of the qualities needed for the development of strength and technique. I hope that you, dear reader, find my examples of this to be clear and useful. The Okinawan martial arts and the methods that Coach Wade wrote about are ancient, but are still around because they work, and can work well together!


Owen Johnston, PCC has served as the strength and conditioning coach at Olympia Gymnastics in Moncks Corner, SC since April 2014, and as a gymnastics coach since August 2014. He began his martial arts journey on June 10th, 2002, and is a black belt instructor. For more information, check out his site, http://www.strengthcalisthenics.com.

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  • Thanks again, Al, for posting my article. Your feedback helped a lot, as well! I’m glad that all of my experiences thus far, plus what I’ve learned from you, Danny, and Coach Wade, can be represented here on the official blog 🙂

    • Right on, Owen! Thanks for contributing such a great post!

  • Matt Schifferle

    Great to hear from another martial artists perspective there Owen. I’ve been involved in Taekwon-do for a while and my skills improved by leaps when I got into calisthenics. I was impressed by how much the calisthenics helped and where the weak links were still holding me back even though I had been lifting weights for years prior to that. As you mentioned there was a lot about the joints and connective tissues getting primed for the activities. Turned out it was more the tissues around my joints, especially my hips, that were keeping me back. Progressive calisthenics did wonders to not only build up the tissues around the joints but it also gave me a lot more balance and control with the basic moves.
    Thanks Owen!

    • Thanks, brother! Indeed, there’s no doubt that moving the body the way it was meant to irons out a lot of kinks. So many weight trainers forget or ignore the fact that the joints and connective tissues are just as important, if not more so, than the muscles. Traditional martial artists, calisthenics practitioners, and anyone into “old school” weight training have known this for a long time. Strong, healthy joints and connective tissues make for greater strength potential and less potential for injury!

  • David

    Calisthenics and BJJ complement each other a lot!

    • Agreed! I remember my BJJ instructor saying how Relson Gracie, his teacher, said once that he only needed “this much space” to work out in, and extended his arms. By the time we were done with class that night, our legs were wobbly from tuck jumps!

  • Great stuff, Owen! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • And thank YOU for the encouragement in finally writing this! You’re awesome!

  • Incredible article, Owen–would love to see more like this my man.

    Calisthenics and martial arts go together like love and marriage, and they always have.

    • Benjamin Dumbrell

      hey coach me again, your advice last time really helped me! (i’m on step 2 for most of it but I can crank out 5 full range handstand pushups). unfortunately for the next 3-6 months i’m not gonna have time to train with a set program like CC, I think i’ll have to combine Grease the groove with your proggressions, maybe Pushups, Pullups and leg raise evry second day and the other stuff every other day, have any thoughts? like if I would lose muscle or is this kind of pure strength stuff a good idea for a while? thanks.

    • Thanks a ton, Coach – getting that sort of feedback from ya means a ton! I have a few more topics in mind. Nothing like the natural pairing of two bodyweight disciplines, eh? I also plan on exploring at least some of the crossover between progressive calisthenics and gymnastics. I do want to explore the idea of a followup to this article as well!

    • Noah Peachey

      Hey coach how’s it going I got a question for you I can barely get 1 rep on pullups step 2 i could probably do several thousand reps on step 1 it’s very easy for me and I can do 10 full pullups what am I missing thanks a lot coach

    • Benjamin Dumbrell

      Hi coach, I took your last advice to heart and have been busting my ass, I know I am going to build a powerful physique but I still wanna ask something. Compared to someone like john grimeck or reg park how well did some off the bodyweight prison guys who are natural stack up? Please answer, everyone even AL and Danny side step this question! I gotta know!

  • Thanks for the great article!

    First, I love that you reference Rocky and Karate Kid and all the other favorites from “back in the day.” Those stories got my nearly 40 year old self off of the sofa and into action! There’s something profound to say about having a long-term goal that you have to practice for.

    Like performing a musical instrument, kettlebell exercise, calisthenics, ballistic body movement exercises, and so many other things that I’ve discovered in the last year have a lot in common with playing an instrument. You have to practice the movements until the muscle memory is developed so you can focus on the “playing” and not have to worry about “which step comes next” or “am I doing this part right.”

    I don’t really have any sports experience and certainly not any Martial Arts experience. However, I really can relate to what you’re writing in terms of playing instruments. I also feel that exercises like a Turkish Get Up or hanging from bars are really similar to playing in general… it’s meant to be fun! I think that a lot more people would be less shy about trying movement overall if it were presented as play and fun for the benefit of just “being” and “moving” rather than a “work” out. Don’t you?

    • I’m near enough to 40 myself – will be 38 soon – I remember as a child in the late 80s watching VHS tapes of my heroes! I vividly remember watching the fight in Rocky IV on tv at a friend’s house. This was like…1987 or 88 if I remember correctly. It was awe inspiring! Somehow it wasn’t until the mid 90s that I watched the full movie. I’d been following boxing off and on for a while by then, though. I ended up going to a boxing gym twice a week for 3 years because of the love I’d always had for the sport!

      The impressive Kung Fu movie collection my dad still has – bless him, he’s still doing well at 71 – kept me entertained for a long time in the early 90s when I finally started watching them. I vividly remember thinking that Jackie Chan’s characters were always hilarious yet amazingly athletic – which got me hooked!

      I ended up doing karate classes for a few months here and there under two different sensei because I wanted to train hard and be amazing as well! Didn’t really stick with it – the interest fizzled out for whatever reason – wasn’t until 2002 I picked it up again, and started the lifelong journey I’m still on!

      It can definitely be a LOT of fun – and I wish more instructors could or would engage students fully – mentally, emotionally, not just physically. It won’t always be fun, of course, but it’s good to try to motivate students to work hard and teach them new things 🙂

      I don’t really have any sport experience either. Even though I’ve trained in boxing and Brazilian Jiujitsu a decent bit, I never competed in either… And never was into sports in school, really. Calisthenics and martial arts have always been ways for me to improve myself and help others improve. Self control, self discipline!

      I don’t have the same sense of play that you have, as for me, both are solitary and serious pursuits, but I do find them to be very satisfying and wonderful. Moving meditation! I almost never have a workout these days that I don’t tweak something here or there, as well – definitely satisfying.

      And I can’t lie – it IS fun and thrilling when I nail a new skill without anyone spotting me! After class last night at gymnastics, two other coaches and worked on pullovers, free standing handstands into handstand rolls, bridge kickovers, back walkovers, and back handsprings – it was great! Pullovers are the gymnastics equivalent of the PCC solid rollover. I nailed it a few months ago 🙂 The other skills are still a work in progress for me – I still need a spot for them. I feel really good about the fact that, even though I had no gymnastics background whatsoever, I’ve still been able to start learning the sport in my “old age”, hah.

      So yes – I definitely agree about practicing and practicing until it’s muscle memory, like playing an instrument. Continue tightening up form and practicing correctly, and you’ll get it sooner or later!

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