Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ishikawa & Draeger: Judo Training Methods

As I’ve mentioned previously, Donn Draeger was an elemental force of Japanese martial arts. Some of his most impressive accomplishments, to my mind, are being accepted by the Japanese as a source of knowledge, and bringing weight lifting into the Kodokan.

I was ignorant of Ishikawa prior to this book, but he was a 2-time All-Japan Judo champion and a martial arts trainer for the Japanese police. (That is actually a significant and highly respectable accomplishment in Japan, unlike in America, where it could mean that your cousin is a sheriff, or that you’re the loudest black belt in the state. I’m even impressed by the aikidoka who run Japanese police training.) 

Judo Training Methods is intended as “a sourcebook” for both students and coaches. I found it very thorough and well-written, though at times overly wordy. It has a lot of great information, particularly in how it explains the hows and whys of judo. Unfortunately for me, the book is not as awesome for my primary area of interest—judo plus lifting. Much of the information on that topic is interesting only as history, or as an example of how far astray even two highly knowledgeable and successful men can go.

Here are my notes, which I will try to relay in an intelligent fashion.

Their Argument For Modernizing Judo With Weight Training

The main thrust of the book was to popularize weight training as an acceptable form of training for judo. I was amazed to read that “until a few years ago”, which would have been the sixties, “most athletes, under fear of removal from the squad, were forbidden to practice weight exercises by firm-minded coaches.” (115) The authors spend the next eight pages dispelling myth after myth about weight training. Earlier, ample time is spent carefully making clear that development of strength must be fundamentally necessary for proper judo. They use reason, authority, evidence and anecdote to make their points:

  • They assert that judo is not a complete endeavor in itself, a bold statement already: “neither excellence in judo nor vibrant health can be nurtured without subsidiary exercise.” I can see some judoka (and jiujitsieros!) reaching for the first commandment in feeble counter-argument.
  • Further, they state that “no system is as good as it could be” (14), obviously the seed of the idea that changes to the system should not be seen as blasphemy.
  • They point out that 1959 All-Japan Champion Inokuma used weights (14), and that in general, All-Japan champions aren’t small and weak, but rather skilled, fast, and strong (23). 
  • With well-chosen excerpts from the founder’s own writings, they note that “Doctor Kano was not opposed to strength, but rather the unnecessary expenditure of strength.” (21)
  • Mo sukoshi, an apparently common training cue, roughly translates to “a little more”. In most cases, this means “harder next time”!
  • They use a smattering of gorgeous snapshots from elite competition as examples of judo being not the poorly-translated “gentle” art, but roughhard, and full of smashing.
  • At the beginning of most chapters, they model good judo/lifting integration by showing high-dan-grade judoka doing their favorite lifts or exercises.

In other words, they use all methods of persuasion in their power to beg the judo establishment to please, please embrace, in their words, “sensible weight training.”

A Smattering of Judo Advice

Ishikawa and Draeger discuss the proper way to teach and learn the art. Below I paraphrase heavily.

They espouse the following progression of skill acquisition (specifically, for judo techniques):

  1. Lecture on the why and when of the technique, and discuss theory.
  2. Have students watch and mentally picture themselves performing the technique. Repeat this step several times.
  3. Iteratively imitate the technique, [Dave: thereby taking advantage of mirror neurons] with corrections from an instructor or senior student. (39) 

Training, in contrast, must involve development not just of technique, but also of strength, endurance, and speed. Technique is developed by intelligent practice. Endurance is best acquired through daily judo training. They don’t say where speed comes from, and I assume they believe strength is best acquired through lifting. (44-45)

Monthly intra-dojo competitions (tsukinami shiai) are vital in their view for full development (49). (One option they recommend, particularly for children, is to have two-point matches when doing in-house competition.) Damn, I’d love to have monthly in-house tournaments. I bet that properly used, such a practice would reduce the frequency of people treating sparring like tournament. 

The authors note that Kano meant for judo to be a method of physical development, contest proficiency, and mental development, wherein preparation for contest was the means for the other two ends. 

In a lengthy treatise on how to properly conduct oneself (wear a clean gi, show up on time), three points stood out. First, they warn against being an “exercise-shower-go home” student. They want students to be part of the community, to give back. Second, they expound on the virtues of fighting the tough guys in the dojo, and not being a “wallflower”. Third:

Remember that learning judo skills is a process of self-activity. The instructor is not present to “give” you the movements or thoughts and ideas, but to “convey the spirit” so that you may rediscover them for yourself. This is the only way… (56)

Love it. Throwing people follows physical laws, and having people find them on their own—after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us—is the only way to true knowledge, to the flesh and bones of judo. 

The section on nutrition is sound, except for the idea that one should “dry out” before and after practice, taking no fluids (71). This was apparently common in the ’60s and ’70s across many sports.

Ishikawa and Draeger strike a harmonious note with regards to form practice (which, lest you forget, is entirely a partner exercise in judo, not a solo performance). To wit:

Randori alone makes it difficult for trainees to develop a wide variety of techniques due to the heavy resistance of the opponent. Generally, attacks must be confined to a “pet” side and there is little chance for other development. To eliminate this, include Uchikomi and Kata in all training schedules.

So far, this doesn’t sound too far from Galvao expounding the virtues of drilling. In particular, take this second sentence in the following paragraph:

A point of emphasis in training which often becomes forgotten in Western Dojo, is the method of Kata. Traditionally, Kata study should be scheduled before attempting Randori, as practice of the various techniques under its imposed ideal conditions will bring a better understanding of Judo and efficiency in technique than can be had from Randori. A persevering study of Kata will provide a stable basis for free-style Judo.

So they acknowledge that drilling with perfect form is not the same as the chaos of sparring. They go on to insist that containing one’s practice to only forms will bring despair:

…Confining study only to Kata will never produce complete Judo ability. The fundamentals learned during Kata practice must be put to use in Randori. (87)

While we’re on the subject of drilling, let me pass on their finger-wagging about uchikomi: Stop cocking your leg back between reps! Don’t disengage, keep your grips! It’s worthless if your butt stays behind your heels! (82)


They recommend picking a tokuiwaza (favorite technique) from the owaza (big/major techniques) such as tai-otoshi, osotogari, hanegoshi, haraigoshi, seoinage, or uchimata—essentially, the high-percentage forward throws plus osoto. In contrast, kowaza (little/minor techniques) take more timing and uchikomi practice, and pay dividends into old age, but are not as fruitful as the powerful owaza moneymakers. (89) They even use some (half-assed) charts to prove that the All-Japan champions overwhelmingly favor only four major throws. (141) These champions followed a strict mold at that time:

An early age start at Judo, sometime between late grade school and early high school; attainment of 3rd or 4th Dan by the age of 18 years; university or police for Judo training 3-4 hours daily, 6 days per week; 26 to 33 years of age; 6 Dan; over 200 lbs. and about 5 feet 9 inches in height; and the possessor of at least one powerful and effective Waza chosen from Uchimata, Osotogari, Ippon Seoinage, or Tai-otoshi. This is the formidable Judoka of the Orient. (143)

These champions would face ten to thirty opponents in randori per session, though only four or five are recommended for mere mortals. (87) These champions, and those emulating them, would apparently engage in (new vocabulary word!) Ju Nin Gake, or “Ten In A Row Training”. This is the shark bait drill of mid-century Japanese judo: higher belt tries to mow through ten lower ranked opponents as fast as possible. Apparently the time to beat is in the area of two minutes.

I got reinforcement on something I’d already heard of: the best grip for a combination of flexibility, strength, control and speed uses the bottom three fingers to grasp firmly while the forefinger and thumb take a more moderate hold (77-78). In my dojo, this recommendation is extended to a handicap method for playing lower ranks: grip moderately with the bottom three fingers, and not at all with the thumb or forefinger.

I also found extension of an idea I had heard before: the familiar Happo No Kuzushi (“8 ways of Kuzushi”), the basic idea of there being eight directions in which to unbalance or throw people, has a cousin. Hando No Kuzushi (“reaction form of Kuzushi”) ”is an unbalance that the opponent imposes on himself by his body reactions to your diversionary attack”. 

Non-Weighted Exercises

At one point I briefly understood the categorization system the authors use to describe various exercises, but since the divisions are mostly arbitrary (air seoinage is “prepatory”, but air uchimata is “supplementary”?), I lump them all together. I don’t like their organizational structure, but a lot of the work they recommend is great stuff.

Many of these exercises are standard fare for anyone who’s trained in a gi: jumping up and down while switching feet, duck walks, the Cossack leg stretch. But a couple stand out:

  • Pistols! (150)
  • Partner stretches, which Kurz and I think are inane.
  • Various “air” versions of throws, which are awesome and neglected in many dojo.
  • "Tai-otoshi exercise", (158) which I imagine shuai jiao practitioners will recognize if they imagine a belt or stone lock in the hands. Essentially it’s a lunge to each side while twisting the torso dramatically around the vertical axis in the same direction.
  • Neck strengthening done with a partner pushing on the head while you resist, and then later, trying to sit up while your partner holds a bamboo rod across your neck. (201)
  • Head-stands, no arms, balanced with a partner. This is alongside every bridging variation you’ve ever seen. Apparently they were serious about neck stability and durability back in the day. I can appreciate that.
  • The Hindu Pushup, aka the Dive-Bomber, is called “The Catman” here.
  • Dragging and shrimping across the floor is covered in all its variations, as are leg circles from the guard (198) and air-triangles (200). All the schools of jiujitsu are brothers under the sun.
  • "Hip shifting" (198) requires further study. You lay on your hips and elbows and drive each side of your hip into the ground with steady force.
  • Hanging from a horizontal pole. Weird.

I liked the exercises presented, but since I am not interested in the way they organize them, my joy was muted. Also, each exercise is presented as a stand-alone. There are no progressions or hints on how to organize them into a training regimen.

Weight Training Exercises

Out of the whole book, I was most excited to hear Ishikawa and Draeger’s specific ideas for weight training. 

I was mostly disappointed. The book undoubtedly did tremendous good by winning hearts and minds with regards to just getting weight training within the Overton window. However, to put it as succinctly as possible: I cannot trust a book about weight training for judo that has at least eight variations of the bicep curl, but only one mention of chin-ups in any form. (That form is behind the neck, and it features prominently in exactly one of their sample programs: the advanced-level “upper back specialization program.”) Simply put, their recommendations smack of bodybuilding.

Yet, they still got a lot right. For that, and for the fact that they wrote this when a barbell was considered poison to a judoka, they deserve great praise. Therefore my notes on the exercises they pick are of two minds:

  • I was glad to see multiple types of cleans included and given high praise (256, 266, 270). I think that Draeger’s rack position is outdated, but what do I know?
  • The “heavy dumbbell clean”, performed with a 50-100 lb bell in each hand (see below for why this is unusual), is “considered by the authors as the best all-around power development exercise for Judo.” On this I could be convinced.
  • I was glad to see dumbbell swings in the style of kettlebell swings, but 4th Dan or not, I disagree with over-the-head swings.
  • They prefer half-squats to full squats. For more power. While technically half-squats do provide greater power output, I would think that A) the normal arguments against partial-ROM exercises applies, and B) demonstrating power output is not the same as developing greater power output.
  • Never did I notice grip strength addressed as a specific issue.
  • They recommend a number of bodyweight exercises that make use of the gymnastics wall—I know not the term—the one with horizontal rungs every few inches up the entire height of a man. 
  • Straight-legged deadlifts are recommended, albeit with a comically exaggerated backward lean at the top. Normal deadlifts are AWOL.
  • The large number of shoulder articulations and pulls at awkward angles strike me as productive for judo-specific strength. Kuzushi for many throws requires huge pulls, usually at a disadvantageous lever positions far away from the body. Now I want to research the kind of pulley systems they (and Alliance) use.
  • Push jerk, great. Barbell clean done as a curl? Don’t know what to think.

Weight Training Programs

The most damning fact about Ishikawa and Draeger’s recommendations is probably that their sets, reps and weights are firmly in the bodybuilding style. 

Their general programs are halfway decent: half include squats, and most have useful stuff like cleans, dips, or straight-legged deadlifts. But more than half of the exercises are things like curls (usually multiple kinds in each program) and calf raises. They recommend paltry weights done for three sets of 10 reps. (130-131) 

Their “power” exercises, such as the aforementioned “heavy dumbbell cleans”, are a welcome exception. Their system in these cases is 2-3 exercises done for 4+ sets of 2-4 reps at 85-100% of maximum. Love it! Unfortunately, it is recommended for advanced trainees only. Their choice of exercises for this program is also hit-or-miss: push jerk alongside half-squat. (211, 223)

They have a cross-reference between judo techniques and specific exercises (136) that I did not find useful. I will communicate by example. This is one of the better ones:

Uchimata: back arching, jumping squat, leg extension curl, leg biceps curl, leg tuck and body lever, bench situp, side raise, decline situp, barbell bent rowing, heavy dumbbell clean, dumbbell power pull, barbell cleaning, barbell strict reverse curl, one hand dumbbell swing, dumbbell rowing, upright rowing, barbell clean & press, seated barbell press behind neck.

Why these exercises? What does uchimata need that these provide, individually or as a group? Are some of these more useful than others? It’s not even clear if they’re suggesting that an uchimata specialist base their programming solely on these exercises, or a subset, or what. I’m even willing to believe that the cleans (for instance) will help—but how? Why? 

The newaza lists are worse. For armbars, they recommend curls. Arm curls, leg bicep curls, leg extension curls, concentration curls…

Further, they recommend switching programs every couple months, just for the hell of it. They do not talk very much or very convincingly about programming except to say very reasonable things about not training too much and not trading judo time for lifting. I was hoping for some advice on how to schedule my lifting around judo, or perhaps to get well-reasoned advice on what exercises to emphasize. I was disappointed on that front.

This is Way Too Long

In conclusion, Ishikawa and Draeger did a great thing with this book. It is informative about judo practice, fascinating as historical artifact, well worth reading for intellectuals who throw or choke their friends, but near-useless for someone conversant in modern barbell training methods. It wouldn’t be awful as training regimen for someone who somehow knows how to perform various exercises but not how to arrange their training. It would be a useful resource for someone running a judo dojo

I already want to reread the sections on bodyweight training and dojo organizational guidelines. I won’t forget the wacky exercises.

I’m glad I read it, I’ll be referring back to it, and it joins a long list of resources that I will take only limited advice from. 


  1. jackrusher said: History:…
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