How To Warm Up Like An Okinawan Karate Master

Aug 20, 2020

How To Warm Up Like An Okinawan Karate Master

A complete illustrated guide to routines that keep you agile and injury-free

Created by the author.

I traveled to Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, when I felt I was at the peak of my career. I had trained for 8 years, been a black belt instructor for 4 years, and earned a silver medal at the nationals the year before. I was training with the UK national squad, but training with teachers on these small islands in Japan showed me how much I didn’t know.

Working out in 38 degrees Celsius with 95% humidity for four hours every day was as tough as you can imagine. Yet, my first task was to memorize the mobility warm-up from the instructor with my merely passable Japanese. I needed to run through this by myself for an hour every time I entered the dojo (training hall), then I would work on karate techniques and sparring. This was non-negotiable.

Okinawa is famous for being a blue zone, an area with an exceptionally high proportion of residents over 100 years old. While much is made of their diet and style of life, it’s not a coincidence the martial arts thrive in these small islands. Many karate instructors teach well into what we consider old age, with legends such as Morio Higaonna, Masaji Taira, and Eiichi Miyazato coming from the dojo I trained in. Higaonna was considered the most dangerous man in Japan and is still teaching at the age of 81.

My instructor, Sunagawa Sensei, was a relatively young 69-year-old. He was far more agile than me, even though I was a national squad member, at 21. He even joked, “Am I the old man, or are you?” He was disappointed that I tended to have short warm-ups and credited the following routine with keeping him injury-free and dynamic.

I’ll run through some of the core concepts behind the warm-up then move on to the exercises.

Mobility vs. Flexibility

There’s a key difference between mobility and flexibility that you should understand. Flexibility is the ability of muscles to lengthen whereas mobility is the ability to actively move a joint through a range of motion.

This warm-up focuses on the mobility side, as this is more useful in everyday life and martial pursuits.

This routine targets all the major muscle groups with a focus on compound movements. No equipment is needed, and the challenge comes from our own bodies. You may spend your entire day sitting down—something completely different than the Okinawans’ active lifestyles. The natural movements of this routine make full use of our body’s capabilities and, over time, prevent tightness.

The karate students would do these movements almost every single day. When he wasn’t feeling well, my sensei said he would still make sure to at least warm-up and see how he felt after that. Consistency is key to progress, and you’ll see the improvement bleed over to other parts of your life even if you aren’t attacking imaginary people in a dojo regularly!


Even karate students who have studied for decades have not perfected the prescribed breathing techniques, so this will be a high-level introduction.

Breathing is critically important to make the most use of these exercises and not tire out too early. We are going to focus on diaphragmatic breathing. Always breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. You aim to breathe in deeply, so you feel it in your stomach. When you breathe out, contract your abs inwards, pushing the air out. Make a “wa” sound with your mouth to ensure it is in the correct place

A few exercises to practice:

  1. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, then breathe out for four seconds through your mouth. Repeat this exercise, increasing the time by one second each time until it’s no longer comfortable.
  2. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Hold for seconds but this time breathe out sharply by contracting your stomach. Keep breathing out in this way until you notice the outbreathes are weaker. (Stick to no more than five breaths out unless you are experienced).
  3. Breathe in for one second then breathe out sharply once. When you are comfortable with the exercises, this will be the most common breathing method.

If at any stage during your practice you feel light-headed or beyond your limits, stop immediately. Seek professional advice if necessary.

Determining Intensity

Only you can know how your body feels, and you must listen to your pain sensors. When I did this for the first time, I was already training 20 hours a week regularly. That doesn’t mean this isn’t accessible for everyone, but you should adjust for your own needs. If you aren’t currently active, set a lower target number of reps to suit you; the numbers are just a long-term guide.

I recommend everyone first tries each exercise without repetition to get accustomed to the feel and to check their form. Take it from someone who has torn their knees multiple times: There is no award for rushing into things. If you have pre-existing injuries, then determine if an exercise is right for you and seek advice if you need to. You can do the parts of the routine that benefit you.

Traditionally, karate students would use makeshift weights, such as rocks, to increase their practice intensity. If you find this routine is too easy for you, make use of weights, or decrease your rest. Another key element to work on is explosive power in several exercises.

If ever in doubt, always err on the cautious side until you build up confidence.


Ankles inside/outside

Target: 10 reps

We start the furthest away from the center of our body. Take a neutral stance with feet one shoulder-width apart. Lift the big toes on both feet and transfer weight to the blades of the feet. Then return to normal and do the opposite. Lift the blades of your feet off the floor and put the weight on the inside of your foot.

The aim is to keep your upper body as stable as possible. Each full cycle is one rep.

Calf raise/invert

Target: 10 reps

Start in a neutral stance with hands on your hips. Raise your heels off the floor whilst maintaining balance. On the way down, go past neutral so your knees are slightly bent. Now rock back onto your heels and lean forward to deepen the stretch to finish the rep.

Hip twist

Target: 10 reps on each side

From a neutral stance, put one foot slightly wider than hip-width and out in front. Have the ball of the foot placed firmly into the ground. Keep the ball of the foot where it is as you use it as a pivot to swiftly rotate the opposite hip toward the outstretched leg.

Ankle raises

Target: 10 reps on each side

Place one foot a few inches off the ground with the toes stretched then pull the toes back toward your shin.

Ankle rotations

Target: 5 reps in each direction on each side

Next from the same starting position, rotate your ankle clockwise five times then counter-clockwise five times. Repeat for the opposite leg.

Supported mushroom squat

Target: 10 reps

Start in a neutral stance with hands on your hips. Now slide your hands underneath your knees while bending down as far as you can without your heels leaving the ground. Come back up to ready yourself to go again.

Knee semi-circles

Target: 10 reps

Bend over forward slightly with your hands on top of your knees. Move both knees to one side then move to the other side in a semi-circle fashion. Reverse the motion to go back to the original side.

Knees out-to-in

Target: 5 reps

Bend over forward slightly with your hands on top of your knees. Use your hands to help you open both knees outward at the same time then pull them back in two semi-circle motions.

Knees in-to-out

Target: 5 reps

Bend over forward slightly with your hands on top of your knees. Push your knees as far forward as you can then use your hands to open them up and circle back to the starting position.

Superman toe touch

Target: 10 reps on each side

Start in a neutral stance with feet shoulder-width apart. Have one hand raised above your head. Keeping this arm straight bend forward and touch the opposite big toe then pull back up to the starting position.


Pull-in press

Target: 10 reps

With your feet hip-width apart in a neutral torso position, have your hands extended in front of you palm facing downward. Pull both hands toward your body, keeping the elbows in tight to your side. Slowly turn your hands over then sharply lift both hands above your head. Retrace your steps to complete the rep.

Side stretch

Target: 10 reps

From your neutral position, keep your lower body glued to the spot as you reach with both arms toward one side. Be sure to keep both of your shoulders facing forward and in alignment, this will require conscious effort to pull the opposite shoulder back. Return to your position and repeat on the opposite side.

Extended side stretch

Target: 10 reps

Similar to the previous exercise, but this time you stretch 45 degrees behind you for a deeper stretch. Remember a full rep is stretching to the left and right.

Tricep stretch

Target: Hold for 8 seconds on each side

Our first static stretch now where you simply lift one hand behind your back and deepen the stretch with the other arm. Be sure to keep your chin up and neck strong. Repeat on the other side.

Crossbody arm stretch

Target: Hold for 8 seconds on each side

Another static stretch, pull your arm across your body and hook it with the other arm. Be sure to do this above the joint to be most effective. Repeat on the other side.

Arm rotations

Target: 10 reps fast and slow on each arm; forward and backward

Stand with one foot slightly in front of the other for stability. Form an OK sign with the hand on the side with the back foot. Rotate the arm slowly 10 times forward then 10 times backward. Do the same for the other arm. Now repeat 10 forward and 10 backward, but this time as fast as you are able and repeat for the other arm.

Opposite direction arm rotations

Target: 10 reps

Now for one of my favorite party tricks. Start with both arms above your head with one foot slightly in front of the other. Rotate both arms but in opposite directions. Each time you reach the top, swap the direction the arms are going to mark your reps.

Back fist to front

Target: 10 reps

Prepare in a boxing-like start, feet shoulder-width apart and both arms raised with the elbow at a near right angle. The forearms should be parallel to each other. Extend one arm until straight in front of your center line and flick your wrist at the end. Do both arms for one rep.

Back fist to the side

Target: 10 reps

Get into a bodybuilder-like pose where both arms are raised to your sides bent at a right angle. Now one arm at a time, extend the arm outward and flick the wrist at the end. Alternate arms until you’ve done 10 on each side.

Low back fist

Target: 10 reps slow and 10 reps fast

Splay your elbows out to your sides whilst your fists are top of each other resting by your navel. Take the hand on top and extend the arm whilst opening the shoulder so it is fully extended 45 degrees behind you roughly in line with your hip. Pull the hand back and place it underneath the left behindhand. Now repeat on the other side. You can do 10 slowly on each side then 10 fast. A full rep is a back first to both sides.

High back fist

Target: 10 reps slow and 10 reps fast

With a starting position the same as the previous exercise, this time, aim to extend your arm at head-level in line with your body (not 45 degrees behind you). A full rep is a back first to both sides.

Low to high back fist

Target: 10 reps

This exercise combines the previous two. First, extend one arm low 45 degrees behind you then return to the starting position followed by the same arm at head level. As we’ve warmed up this exercise, go straight to the fastest you can. Your rep will be complete when you’ve done four strikes; two on each side.


Head up and down

Target: 10 reps

Maybe the most simple exercise on the list. With good posture, pull your chin to your chest and then open up your neck for a single rep.

Head side-to-side

Target: 10 reps

Now move your head side to side, each time pulling the opposite shoulder back to deepen the stretch.

Head rotations

Target: 5 reps on each side.

Start with your head facing one direction then breathe in through the entire movement and exhale at the end. Do a full rotation by moving first downward, then across to the other side, upwards, and returning to the start where you exhale. Now reverse the motion so upwards first to complete one full rep. Take extra care with this movement, especially if you have a history of stiff neck muscles. If this feels easy, move onto 540-degree rotations.


Floor taps

Target: 10 reps

With your feet two shoulder-widths apart, breathe in and pivot from the hips, maintaining a straight back, until you are parallel to the floor. Then reach down further and touch the floor three times. On the final type use your glute strength to pull yourself up and lean back while supporting your lower back/glutes with your hands and exhale.

Shoulder shrug drop squat

Target: 10 reps

The following exercises make use of your whole body weight to bring your torso down fast rather than using muscle strength. Begin with feet two shoulder-widths apart with hands loosely on your thighs. Focus on your core and try to drop as fast as possible down to a squat position. Your hands should naturally move towards your knee to stabilize. Your shoulders will be by your ears but there should be no tension in them. Raise up again by using your glutes.

Arms raised drop squat

Target: 10 reps

This time start with your palms facing upwards by your ribs with feet two shoulder-widths apart. When you drop suddenly, you want to simultaneously force your arms powerfully above your head. You must trust your body structure to prevent you from falling. Use your glutes to return to start position.

Combination drop squat

Target: 10 reps on each side

This is a mix of the previous two exercises. Start with one hand by the ribs and one hand loosely on your thigh. When you drop, the hand by the thigh will shift toward the knee and the other hand will raise to the sky. Try to ensure your torso stays facing the front and doesn’t twist with the asymmetric movement.

Eagle drop squat

Target: 10 reps

Our final variation of the drop squat. Again, feet two shoulder-widths apart but now with hands stretched out in front. When you drop pull the arms back with power aiming to get the shoulder blades to touch. From a side angle, you look like a bird preparing to take flight. Use your glute strength to return to the starting position.

Squat and hold

Target: Varies on fitness starts at 10 seconds and work up to minutes

Now we want to do a regular squat but with our feet wide like our previous exercises. This time, do not drop down but slightly above parallel to the floor so a house-like shape is formed in the gap between your legs. Maintain this position for as long as is comfortable. At the training, depending on the sternness of the instructor it could vary by 10–30 seconds per level. Black belts would be holding it for over five minutes on occasion!

Alternate shoulders in a squat position

Target: 10 reps

Before you can get up, you can have some relief by moving your hands to support your legs. Now use this to twist a shoulder to the front then pull it back and repeat on the other side. Take this slowly to get a good stretch in the rear deltoids and one rep is when you’ve done the action to both sides.

Knee strikes

Target: 10 reps

Start in a neutral stance with your hands facing downward by your waist. We are simply going to raise a knee and strike the hand directly above it. The challenge with the exercise is reducing the movement in the rest of your body. Your torso should stay exactly where it is and no movement in your head. This requires your entire body to tense and maintain stability. It’s useful to do this exercise in front of a mirror or record yourself. You’ll be surprised how much you shift. A rep is only complete when you’ve done a knee strike with both legs.

Crossbody knee strikes

Target: 10 reps

The same as the previous exercise, but this time we are striking across our body to the opposite hand. Again, aim to have minimal movement in the rest of your body. One rep is both legs.

Combination knee strikes

Target: 10 reps

Combining the last two exercises, first, we strike the hand on the same side as the leg, touch it to the floor and immediately strike the opposite hand. One rep is four knee raises.

Advanced Exercises

These final exercises are more physically demanding. If you are not sure whether you can do them, then don’t do them or seek professional advice. Some of these are high impact, and it is important to try them when you have supportive flooring or gymnastic mats. There are no bonus points for how many you can do on your first attempt; start well within your capabilities, and work up over time.

Mule kick to cobra

Target: Start with only a few reps and increase as you become more comfortable.

Start on the ground supporting yourself with both your hands and your feet. Try to curl into a tight ball. Next, shift your weight over your hands and kick up forcefully as if you were trying to get to a handstand. Allow yourself to drop down landing on the balls of your feet. Have your arms straightened but allow your hips to relax towards the floor. Exhale four times out before pulling your body back in with a large inhale.

Strong bicycle kicks

Target: Aim for a certain length of time, you can start as low as 10 seconds.

Lay on your back with your head and legs off the floor. Keep your hands by the side of your head with elbows out. Pull one leg toward your body while the other is extended. Forcefully cycle your legs imaging each time you are kicking at the legs of an attacker. Keep your core engaged to stop your limbs from losing control.

Modified Hindu push up

Target: Start at 3 and work upwards

For those familiar with yoga, start in a downward dog position. Otherwise, start on the floor with your hands and your feet shoulder with apart. Pull your hips up to bring yourself into a triangle shape with the floor as the base. From here, extend your body, leading with your chest, through your hands into the same position as the bottom of a press-up. Hold for a second then exhale sharply. Pause again and pull your body back to a downward dog.

This time pull your body down, but leading with the hips with your head up and arms extended, exhale sharply when you reach this position. Now return to the beginning to complete one rep. Take this exercise slow to make it more difficult whilst keeping full control.

Frog split jump

Target: Start with 3 and work upwards

Drop yourself down so you are resting on your heels while all your weight is in the balls of your foot. Try to keep your back as straight as possible without leaning forwards or backward. From here bounce three times slowly, and on the fourth bounce, explode upward as fast as you can. At the peak of your jump, bring both your feet in toward your glutes. On the way down, kick your legs out to land safely at the bottom of a squat position. Bring your heels up to return to start position.

I hope you enjoyed this routine and use it as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Remember to take it only as far as your body allows. The aim is to improve your health and keep mobility late into life.

Have an awesome day!

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