So, you want to win the All Valley Karate Championship?
“Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight? Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight!”
The boy from Newark hobbles back into the karate circle after injuring his leg. And, you know what happens next. Against all odds, LaRusso defeats Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai dojo.
More than thirty years later, though, the story doesn’t end. Lawrence and LaRusso, played once again by William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, find themselves sensei’s in their own right, in the hit Netflix show Cobra Kai.
But in Cobra Kia, unlike The Karate Kid, there is no good versus evil. While it’s a redemption story for Johnny Lawrence, but he’s no hero either. Both LaRusso and Lawrence showcase moments of success and failure, of wisdom and brash stupidity.
There are moral ambiguities and imperfections all around, unlike the near-perfect mentorship of Mr. Miyagi (played by the late, great Pat Morita), and the easy-to-hate attitude of Lawrence’s sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove) in the original films.
Although there’s no clear “good guy” in Cobra Kai, LaRusso and Lawrence remain adamantly opposed in their karate training philosophies. LaRusso runs Miyagi-Do with patience and attention to detail, noting even the way the students wash windows.
Lawrence and the Cobra Kai dojo instead opt for an approach based on discipline and hard work.
We can debate all day which approach is better (maybe I’ll write another article about it), not only for karate training but also for the development of these young karate students as human beings.
But the question I found myself asking is:
Would it be different for each group?
Or rather, if I had to take Miguel or Robby, Johnny and Daniel’s respective star students, and train them for the All Valley Karate Championships, what would their training look like?
Trainers and strength coaches love to argue about “sports specific training.” Some call it bullshit, while others assert the necessity to tailor the training to the sport.
The reality is both are true.
Yeah. They’re both true. Firstly, you first have to understand the role of a trainer like myself, compared to the job of the sensei, and where they overlap.
Karate and martial arts, like nearly all sports, require a certain mix of skills and general abilities. In karate, the skills include punching, kicking, defending, and all the moves you see throughout The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai. Teaching those skills is the job of the sensei, not the trainer. I’m not qualified nor do I have any idea how to teach someone how to punch.
As a trainer, it’s my job to make the athletes more generally athletic. I’m supposed to make them stronger, more powerful, and faster. I’m not worried about the specifics of the sport, because training for sports is a generalist approach. If I can make Miguel and Robby both faster and stronger, those general physical traits will transfer onto the mat. If I can improve their conditioning so they won’t get tired during a grueling tournament, that makes them better at karate.
The sensei trains the skills specific to karate, while I train the attributes that will broadly help them become better athletes and by extension better karate students.
Remember the championship match between Johnny and Daniel in the first Karate Kid movie? Johnny was undeniably bigger, stronger, more muscular, and just an all-around better athlete. But Daniel had one skill up his sleeve: The Crane Kick.
Daniel wins by pulling off the miraculous kick, smacking his foot squarely into Johnny’s face and winning the tournament. That’s skill. And that’s the sensei’s job to teach, not mine as the trainer. Thus, my training for them will be general in nature, not specialized or “sports specific.”
When trainers say, “sports-specific training is bullshit,” this is what they mean. The trainer’s job is general by nature.
However, not every sport has the same general athletic needs. This is most obvious with the conditioning and cardio aspect of sports. Some sports are more sprinting based, others require more of an aerobic engine. Basketball players, for example, need more aerobic work than baseball players. Karate requires a mix of aerobic and anaerobic acumen, so our conditioning training should reflect that.
The power demands of sports also vary. For example, hockey players, because they skate, don’t get as much of a “bounce” from stride to stride the way running sports do. So, their power training works more on exploding without using a “bounce,” or what is formally called the stretch-shortening cycle. Hockey players’ plyometric training includes more complete pauses at the bottom of a jumping position.
Finally, there are movement considerations. Baseball players require more rotational strength, so they’ll do more med ball throws than most other sports. Hockey players will need more frontal plane work because skating requires heavy use of muscles like the groins compared to land sports. In karate, they need to have more upper body and rotational power for punching than many running-based sports, and also need to have elite mobility and flexibility for kicks and other maneuvers.
Despite these differences in sports, for younger athletes like Miguel and Robby, it’s all about building the foundation. Even the differences between karate and other sports won’t really matter if they don’t have the basics down. In other words, I don’t care what your plyometric training program is if an athlete can’t squat effectively first. From a strict programming standpoint, their program is going to look 90% the same as that of a soccer or basketball player, with the other 10% made up by the differences above. But even without this 10%, they’re still going to make a ton of progress by just doing the basics.
These slight adjustments in training can make all the difference at the highest level. An athlete chasing the best of the best in athletics need their training tailored to every detail of their sport. Their training likely gets more specific. For high school karate students, they should just get better at doing push-ups and squats.
For Miguel and Robby, they’re both too skinny, not very strong, and not particularly athletic. They should follow a basic progressive resistance training program with basic plyometric and sprint training.
The problem with sport-specific training, is too often trainers want to take all of the adjustments from sport to sport and apply them to trainees who have no business worrying about them. If a young athlete can’t do push-ups or deadlifts proficiently, it doesn’t matter what med ball routines you have them on.
Sports specific training is at the top of an athlete’s development period and is built on a foundation of the basics.
Even at the highest levels, those top athletes still work on the basics. As the maxim goes, “Success lay in the ruthless execution of the basics.” Right on the money.
Often, as I’ve learned from conversations with top hockey strength coaches, those top athletes follow a program just as basic as beginners but for different reasons: they need to spend most of their time on the ice refining their skills, so their training should be short, sweet, and simple. You won’t see many fancy med ball drills with professional athletes in the middle of a long, grueling season.
So, all of these trainers are right, and their arguments come down to missing the point about who they’re training and what those trainees need.
The Karate Kid ends precisely after Daniel defeats Johnny in the All Valley Karate Tournament.
Win the tournament, earn the respect, get the girl, all because Mr. Myagi taught you how to do a crane kick and you pulled it off in the end.
But again, the Cobra Kai series is more nuanced than that.
And neither does karate, in the strictest sense. Rather, karate is an outlet for them to develop as young adults, to learn to deal with the problems of the real world.
In season 1, Miguel deals with bullies and his tough social life as the new kid, and learning karate gives him the skill and confidence to improve both of those. Robby deals with a neglectful father (Johnny) and struggles to find a safe and supportive environment. When he meets Mr. LaRusso, it’s a turning point for him. In other words, they have real-life shit going on, and karate just helps them maneuver through all that while learning and growing.
Eli Moskowitz, or “Hawk,” for example, has found confidence he didn’t have before, thanks to Cobra Kai, but now it needs to be reigned in. As a trainer, it would be part of my job to build a relationship with Hawk and explain how his aggression is building a barrier between himself and his former friends, and how it will lead to problems in the future.
I would never tell Hawk to just work harder, and I might specifically program exercises that require him to slow down before making progress.
An example might be a 1-leg bench squat which I’d replace with a typical squat pattern. This exercise requires more balance, patience, and lighter weight than other leg training exercises. Maybe this would help show Hawk that more isn’t always better.
A Myagi Do student like Demetri needs the opposite. He needs confidence, and we see Daniel (at this point referred to mostly as “Mr. LaRusso”) struggle to help him until late in season two.
For a guy like Demetri, I would want him picking up easy wins in our training right away. That means giving him an exercise that’s nearly impossible to mess up and building his confidence through that.
This could be a trap bar deadlift, which is easier and safer than a traditional deadlift. He can also grab the high handles so he doesn’t have to go as low, and we can put bumper plates on the bar so it looks like he’s lifting a normal amount even if it’s a very light weight. Once he builds up his confidence it will be easier to throw him other training modalities.
There’s an example where two athletes are perform different exercises, but not because it’s going to affect their physiology in a drastically different way. Who they are as a person is way more important.
Even in The Karate Kid, this is true, even if the film ends before we see the fruits of Mr. Miyagi’s teachings. Daniel applies all the lessons Mr. Miyagi taught him at Miyagi-Do Karate and applies it to become a successful businessman, running “LaRusso Auto” throughout Southern California.
If you’re training to compete in the All Valley Karate Championships, you need a program that will make you stronger, more muscular, faster, more powerful, and probably super ripped also.
All told, you should be doing the type of training superheroes need to do. Luckily, that’s why we have The Super Hero Workout.
And right now you can get the Super Hero Workout for the best deal we’ve ever had it at. If you just finished binge-watching season 3 of Cobra Kai like me, and now want to get super athletic so you can learn karate, then check out the program here.