22. The difference between training tough or stupid?

The difference between tough and stupid in martial arts is a very thin line.

I’ve heard a lot of stories from my seniors and teachers, some of which are true, some of which are probably apocryphal, about physical toughness in budo training. Those tall tales notwithstanding, in my old age I’m figuring out that in reality, as far as my own training is concerned, there’s a difference between tough and stupid. Oh, yeah, and then there’s crazy.

If you go to YouTube and watch a video of the judo legend Kimura Masahiko, you’ll see the definition of tough bordering on crazy. Kimura was one of the toughest martial artists alive in his prime, an opinion first voiced to me by Donn F. Draeger, who was no slouch himself. Kimura was one of Draeger’s teachers, and the stories he told me of Kimura’s grueling training sessions would put them on a par with any pro boxer or wrestler’s prefight training schedule, and then some.

In the video I saw, the narrator (an American judo player) spoke matter-of-factly of Kimura’s students doing 600 push-ups a day. For warm ups.

Draeger told me he once had a cold that was so bad he thought it was turning into pneumonia. Kimura appeared at his house, took one look at him, and said he should quit lollygagging around in bed and get to the dojo. He even helped by dragging Draeger out of bed and scolding him for his laziness.  At the dojo, Kimura dumped Draeger all over the mats, all the while scolding him for being too soft and mushy.

That kind of training is so tough, so intense, it borders on crazy. But you know, if you wanted to get to Olympic-caliber toughness, if you wanted to be as tough as Kimura, that’s how you trained.

Another example of toughness:

One of my Takeuchi-ryu sensei said that he used to sometimes wonder if he was coming back from training in one piece. The training was that tough. Although it was mainly “just” kata training, he said the speed at which the higher ranking students trained was at the speed of “reality,” and that they applied a good 75 percent of the actual strength it took to dislocate or break the bones of their partners. They were so skilled, they rarely endured or gave debilitating injuries, but it was scary how close they could get.

That’s pretty tough.

Then there’s stupid. I overheard two of my students talking about a martial arts style they both used to train in. In hindsight, they agreed that their old school might have taken the idea of “tough” a bit too far.

For example, one of my students said there used to be a young woman in the class, barely five feet tall. They were practicing a move where you would get behind the opponent and pick him up and slam him down with a sort of body slam. They were practicing in a rented hall with a solid concrete floor, no tumbling mats. The woman’s partner didn’t make allowances for her lighter weight and shorter stature. He upended her and threw her face first into the floor, instead of on her side, and knocked out all her front teeth.

I interrupted, saying something like “Why weren’t there mats? Why didn’t they take it step by step at first so they knew what they were doing and nobody got hurt?”

The student shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you know. That’s how they thought. You gotta be macho in martial arts. No need mats. Tough it out. Go full blast from the start. The poor lady, though, she was young and pretty but she got all her front teeth knocked out.”

He went on to say that a lot of students got so beat up in free sparring, which was so wild it was nearly out of control, that they couldn’t go to work the next day, losing valuable income. A lot of people quit, he said, because the training was too rough and tough. They couldn’t train and go to work at the same time.

That, I would submit, is not tough. That’s stupid.

Unless you’re a prize fighter, professional athlete, attempting to get to Olympic-style competition level, are independently wealthy, are in military or law enforcement and training for life-and-death fights, or are simply young and gung-ho and have parents who can take care of your medical bills, you have to pace yourself so you can get up the next day and go back to work to support yourself and your family. That’s the sad truth of budo training for most of us average slobs who have to work at some separate day job for our daily bread. Budo training has to be paced so we can still get to work.

You can, of course, still endow the training with a modicum of “toughness,” according to your capabilities, but it has to be worked towards, not engaged in from the first day, and it has to make sense. You don’t knock out someone’s front teeth because you think that’s “tough.” That’s sadistic. You get some darned mats. You train to avoid needless injuries. People get injured enough even WITH all sorts of teaching and training safeguards in place. You don’t have to make it any easier to get hurt. That’s just senseless.

Training for an hour or two without a water break in normal weather, steeling yourself to endure the ordeal slowly over time, is good for teaching your body to conserve energy and build endurance. However, forcing a newbie with no endurance to train like this under a blazing summer sun with zero humidity and no shade is just asking for a sunstroke.

Sparring at near-maximum speed and strength with other people who are at the same level or higher than you are builds up your skills and toughness. Beating up students who are obviously below your caliber, without giving them a chance to develop their meager skills, is not making them “tough,” it’s just sadistic. And it’s stupid. Before that student can develop his/her skills, you’ve discouraged him/her and maybe lost a training partner. That’s stupid.

Carefully working towards near full-speed and full application of a technique under supervision and control is pretty tough. Doing a technique half-arsed, wild and out of control so that you hurt your training partner is not tough. It’s stupid.

In my younger, more carefree days, I had the good fortune to train with some topflight budo folk in competitive martial arts. I remember the time I sparred with a former All-Japan Karate tournament winner. The first time he punched me, I was knocked right on my rear end. I had never been hit by anything so well-timed, so fast, and so powerful before. But I wasn’t permanently injured. He hit me in a legal target zone, not in my throat, groin, or other dangerously weak structural area. I managed to get up and keep on sparring. As he built up my skills, I managed to train harder and harder with him, until in some sessions we were going full blast, and we were sparring, as he said, “like back in Japan,” and he would grab my arm or leg if I was too slow retracting it, throw me, and then we’d end up grappling on the mats, no quarters given or taken, going for pins, arm bars or chokes.  But he built me up to that point. He didn’t just knock me down and knock me out from the outset. He didn’t deliberately try to injure me or hit me in illegal and easily damaged body areas.

I was also very lucky to have trained with members and coaches of one of the United States’ Olympic judo teams. The judo players needed people to work out with, and I happily volunteered. The first time the player in my weight class threw me, I felt like I had hit the mat so hard I must have left an impression of my body all the way through the mats to the hardwood floors to the ground under it, all the way to China. It was one of the fastest, most unstoppable throws I’d ever felt. It was a tough throw, but it wasn’t a sadistic one. He didn’t deliberately attempt to maim me by throwing me in a wrong way. Because I did a textbook ukemi (breakfall), I only got slightly winded…and dazed from the speed of the throw and the sting of the impact. Nothing else, except my pride, was injured.

Those were tough sessions, but save for strained muscles, a cut lip now and then, and inevitable spot injuries, I actually made it through those days with less hurt, injuries and pain than what I endured during my high school days playing football or wrestling. My budo teachers trained me tough, but smart.

Nowadays, I’m usually the teacher and I try to inculcate the lessons I’ve learned from the best of my teachers. I try to pace my students’ training to challenge them, but not to abuse or brutalize them. Toughness has to be built up, along with skill, endurance, speed and strength. Some of my students have more ability and can advance faster than others. Some of the students may never reach much higher than where they are because of some kind of mental, physical or personal problems.

But I hope, by positive encouragement, to train them to become tough, not stupid.


20 thoughts on “22. The difference between training tough or stupid?

  1. Stories about teacher’s demanding their students to shed blood, break bones and tear muscles in training stick around for a long time. I’ve met lots of men and women who where afraid to get involved in martial arts because they fear being subjected to such kind of masochism.

    Do you think this kind of “stupid” training is still quite prevalent?

    Has internet access to information or the popularity of fitness orientated MMA possibly made the situation better?

    A question for Wayne and other readers here: As a beginer, what is the scariest/stupidest/most physically harmful thing you have ever been asked to do in a dojo?

    1. Hi Philip,

      I think that the internet is a double edged weapon in this sense. I mean that for the serious budo practicioner is a giant source of information to get ideas…from. To a lot of other people is a place to show off, or they just keep their watch on the most weirdiest, violent stuff.

      I think there still be teachers that do stupid training, just focusing on attracting this wave or stpid people that just watch youtube videos of peopleo smashing people.

      Answering your last question, I have been always lucky to have very good, high level and talented teachers (talented in budo and in teaching), that never asked me to do any stupid thing. If somene asks you to do so, my suggestion quit that “Kobra Kai” dojo.



      PS. Great post as always Wayne

      1. The best part of being in the Kobra Kai is dressing up as a skeleton at Halloween and beating up Ralph Macchio! 🙂

  2. Hi Philip,
    I don’t know if it’s floating around on YouTube yet or not, but I saw one video of a krottee teacher demonstrating the samoorai sword. He tried to cut an apple laid on a student’s neck, blindfolded. He misjudged and the student had to hobble off stage, aided by other students putting compression on his neck to stop the bleeding.

    I was lucky to have had really good teachers…tough, but not crazy. Well, I take that back, maybe one or two crazy ones, but they weren’t looking to get a lawsuit so they didn’t ask us to do a lot of scary/stupid things.


    1. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that video before Wayne! Although I though it was a cucumber, not an apple. Or perhaps there are more idiots out there cutting fruits and vegetables on peoples throats that I though?

      It blew my mind, and actually inspired me to write about it. Here’s a link. I tried a bit of blogging before moving here to Japan.


      The video link is now dead, and I can’t seem to find it again.

    2. I think I might know the video you are talking about. Although I remember it as a cucumber, not an apple.

      I was so inspired/dumbfounded that I actually wrote a piece about it on my short lived blog. (Phil in the Blank: Take a look if you have the time: http://philipofgurney.blogspot.com/search/label/martial%20arts)

      The link for the video is now dead, and I haven’t been able to find it again. If you do please let me know!

      Thanks for another great read Wayne!


      1. Was it a cucumber? …Whoever it was that posted it probably realized how much of an embarrassment it was and took it down? I’m sure there’s other examples floating around that are just as bad. One of my favorites is that of a bunch of guys trying to show off their kurrottee skills. The climax is one guy with numbchucks who tries to do a backflip and somersaults right flat on his face. Hilarious.

  3. “Stupid-tough” training leads to injury – not acceptable for people who have to fight for a living – as in professional fighters, or having a greater percentage chance of having to fight for their lives – LE, military, etc.

    Today members of some formerly dominant MMA gyms are lamenting what they did to themselves through “stupid-tough” training. The body can only take it so long.

    “Smart-tough” training is another thing altogether. Takes a lot of control, a certain atmosphere in the dojo where certain things are not tolerated, a force of gravity in terms of the instructor/seniors, and a sense of our own limitations.

  4. Not wanting to single out MMA, some of the shenanigans allowed in traditional dojo where people crank on unresisting and cooperative uke in the name of being “tough” is actually more along the lines of sadistic.

    Then we venture into the whips, sticks, and the like and you wonder where these people get these ideas from. Its often done in the name of “adrenal stress conditioning,” which is just foolish. No contact is needed at all to achieve stress inoculation levels when done properly, and when contact is involved, allowing an opposing will on the part of a antagonistic partner produces more uncertainy and greater stress than being whipped or whacked with a stick with foreknowledge.

    I think a lot of “stupid-tough” comes from folks not clear on the concept. Sadly being a martial arts “instructor” comes with no guarantee or development of teaching ability.

    1. Kit, very interesting additions to our discussion from an LE and MMA POV…”Teaching ability” is something I’m thinking of blogging about in the future. As a former high school and currently college instructor, one of the things I’ve thought a lot about recently is how many martial arts instructors don’t have a really good pedagogical foundation. Thus, we have a problem where teachers can misplace “tough” with sadistic, and can do things that are even counter-productive to longer term goals and learning outcomes…

  5. Excellent post and excellent comments. Inquiring minds want to know: did the lady of your story sue? ‘cuz that is a pretty good way of putting some sense in them mucho macho guys…

    1. Frederico,

      Not that I know of. I overheard the conversation between two students and they both left that martial arts club because it dawned on them that it was too “stupid tough” for their liking. So I don’t think they know what happened afterwards.

      That’s the other thing. As much as you want to have “tough” training, you (the teacher as well asthe student) have to be very careful about how far to push the training because we live in a litigious society. Being “smart” about training means you have to be careful not to leave yourself open to lawsuits because of needless recklessness. Doing martial arts, an active, physical exercise, is tough enough as it is. In the course of even sensible, careful training, injuries can and will occur. That’s the nature of the beast. Doing silly/stupid things to further more injuries will just leave you wide open for being sued nowadays.

  6. The whole liability issue is a great point: but I think a double edged sword.

    This fear has done a great deal of damage within LE circles, where the training already suffers from budgetary issues, the fear of liability and lost time in terms of the officers has it that only a pale shadow of “smart tough” training can be utilized. That, or, they stay at a relatively low level of force application (wristy twistys) which can also be damaging if done full out in the typical LE training context, that you are left with a highly watered down version of training “too smart;” What I call “worrier” versus “warrior” training.

    1. Kit, yes, the liability issue does cut both ways. It makes us aware that we have to be careful of doing really stupid things that can cause needless injuries and litigation, but on the other hand, yes, like in LE training, it also cuts into classical and modern martial arts training as well, for both good and bad. There’s less injuries, but also I wonder if my students really “get” it? I’m not seeking to injure them senselessly, but for example…I learned ukemi in judo way back in the “old days” by first being taught the basics, and then for several weeks I was just tossed around like a rag doll. I used to crawl off the mats with muscle aches and pains, but after that first two months, I could take nearly any throw, any way, any how. That’s just how my blue collar teachers taught, not through a lot of explanations, but by simply dumping me around until I finally got it and I hurt less. Only then did they teach me my first throw. My students have been training for years and I’m still not happy with their ukemi because, maybe, they haven’t gone through the mill that way. Maybe. I don’t know.

  7. fwiw, in your mention of the Kimura training video, the narrator Doug Rogers is a Canadian, not an ‘American football player’.

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