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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What is a Black Belt?


There's so many misconceptions about what it means to be a black belt. Some common ones include:

  • They are master warriors capable of extraordinary feats. 
  • They are all-knowing. 
  • They are deserving of admiration and worship. 
  • They are spiritual and philosophical geniuses.
The truth is, none of these are true. The most basic definition is this:
A black belt is a person who has mastered the basic techniques and concepts of their respective martial arts discipline.
Is that all there is to it? No, of course not. It is reasonable to assume that a person who has achieved a black belt will also be a confident person who has learned the meaning of respect, perseverance and self-discipline. However, that's not always the case. It really depends on the school/instructor. The unfortunate truth is, there are many schools out there who don't teach these values, and their curriculum is a sham. Many award black belts to young students after only a short time in training, giving a false sense of security and often results in an inflated ego. Those that run such schools are only interested in the business aspect, and making a profit (they are known as McDojo's). This is why people need to research before choosing a martial arts school/program, to be sure they are truly getting the benefits they are paying for. Generally, if a curriculum takes any less than 3 years to achieve a black belt, it's safe to assume that it is a "McDojo". A good program should take 4-6 years, maybe 3 at the very least. It is not the black belt itself that a student should be proud of, it is the journey toward getting it that is the real achievement.


Yes, black belts have ranks, from Junior black belt or "Observation" to 10th Degree. It's different from the color belt ranks, both in terms of meaning and how the ranks are achieved. The Japanese term for a black belt rank is "Dan" (1st Dan, 2nd Dan, etc.). In some systems, a black belt cannot be achieved until the student is at least 16 years of age, until which time a "Junior Black Belt" will be awarded (sometimes designated by a black belt with a white stripe down the center). Some curriculums (like mine) awards an "Observation Black Belt" before 1st Dan, indicated by just a plain black belt with no rank stripes (or sometimes a two toned belt of red & black, called a Poom belt). The general guideline for most systems go as follows:
  • Expert: Observation (or 1st Dan if not applicable) to 3rd Dan 
  • Master: 4th Dan to 6th Dan 
  • Grand-Master: 7th Dan to 10th Dan 

So how are these ranks achieved? It varies by system, even by school. But I'll explain how my system works. Usually black belt testing is done in front of a panel of instructors (it can range from 2 to 10). The instructor awarding the rank has to be at least 2 Dan ranks above the rank being awarded (with the exception of Grand-master ranks). Black belt ranks are not only based on skill, but also on merit... the higher the rank, the more heavily it relies on merit. It's not unusual for a candidate to spend several months preparing for rank advancement. Here are general requirements for my system:
  • Observation: Must demonstrate proficiency in all learned material (white through red belt), must have fulfilled Sempai hours, and must possess leadership qualities. 
  • 1st - 3rd Dan: In addition to required material, must show high level of respect, humility and strength of character. 
  • 4th - 6th Dan: In addition to required material, must show exemplary leadership qualities and deep level of understanding of martial arts concepts/ techniques. 
  • 7th - 8th Dan: These ranks require a panel of high-ranking instructors and decision must be unanimous. In addition to required material, must have shown great strides in understanding martial arts concepts, technique and philosophy, personal development of character and potential to impact the lives of others. 
  • 9th - 10th Dan: These ranks have no skill-based components and cannot be tested for. They are solely based on merit and requires nomination by at least 2 high ranking officials. The nomination is brought before a panel where credentials are reviewed and deliberated. Usually these ranks are awarded to the heads of schools or organizations, who have made a significant impact on the martial arts and in the lives of others. 

Sometimes, different ranks of black belt are indicated by rank stripes or special belts. Some examples include a Renshi belt, which is two-toned (red and white) on one side and black on the other (usually indicating 5th or 6th Dan). Some master belts (4th Dan and above) are white, black or red with a contrasting color trim around the edge. Some systems don't have a red belt in the colored ranks, instead a red belt indicates a very high ranking individual (9th or 10th Dan). Other master or grand-master belts have panels of red and white or black and white, or are black with a colored stripe down the center (usually red). Many of these belts include custom embroidery with their name in English, and/or characters from their style's country of origin (Japanese or Korean), indicating their style and/or school. Others just wear a plain black belt with no markings whatsoever.

It's important to keep in mind that a belt is just a belt, a piece of cloth. A person's rank is only significant within their own style or school. Different styles have different ranks, different requirements and different standards. It is the person behind the belt that really indicates if they are truly worthy of the rank they wear. You be the judge.

-Sensei Kristalyn

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Flexibility Guide

Let's face it, strength and flexibility are important aspects of the martial arts. They go hand-in-hand. Knowing how to develop it is just as important. I myself am working on getting my flexibility back to where it was at the peak of my training. I'll tell you what I know through years of experience and research, then I'll give you a few pointers so you can do some workouts and stretching exercises on your own.

Types of flexibility:

  • Dynamic- using momentum to bring your limbs through their full range of motion (such as leg lifts).
  • Static Passive- holding a relaxed stretch using some sort of surface resistance (like front and side splits on the floor).
  • Static Active- holding a stretch using only the strength of the antagonist muscles (holding a kick high in the air with no outside resistance).
So what type of flexibility should you develop for the martial arts? All of them! However, I don't ask my students to be able to do full splits or hold a kick for long periods of time (unless they are interested in getting into XMA training). In fact I don't even begin flexibility development training right away because it's important to build up leg strength before getting into flexibility (this strength begins to develop after several months of martial arts training). Once a student is ready to begin working on flexibility, how should they start?

A typical workout should go as follows:
  • Warm-up- joint rotations, dynamic flexibility exercises like leg lifts to the front, side and rear. Also include some light cardio to get the blood flowing.
  • Main workout- practice techniques, drills, kata. If you're looking to develop your strength further, include those exercises here (squats are great, and trunk lifts against a wall).
  • Cool down- isometric stretches*, followed by passive stretching.
*Isometric stretching is holding a stretched position while simultaneously tensing the stretched muscle for 10 to 20 seconds, then increasing the stretch and repeat the process until max stretch is reached. This should not be attempted until some strength and flexibility has been achieved, and no more than 4 times per week. Leave at least 24 hours between applications.

When you do your static passive stretching, be sure to target all your leg muscles as well as your back and abs. Start with quads and calves, stretch your back and ab muscles, then sit on the floor and do a pike to target the hamstrings. Next extend one leg out and stretch toward your foot and switch, and lastly try the side split position. Hold each for 1 minute, then go back and do all leg stretches again for 2 minutes each. Don't hold the stretches longer than 3 minutes, as that can lead to small muscle fiber tears and slow your progress.

For static active stretching, what I like to do is, start off with s-l-o-w leg lifts to your max height to the front, side and back (just 5 reps each leg). Then rest for a minute, and do a kick and hold it there for 10 seconds (front, side and back kick). Do 3 reps each leg, then go back and do 2 reps each leg. Yes, this is hard and tiring, but it's supposed to be. That's how you make progress, so try to suck it up. :)

If you ever feel pain during a stretch, STOP and slowly get out of the stretch. Do not try to force a stretch past your max tolerance, that can lead to injury and hinder your progress. You're not doing yourself any favors by over-doing it. I also suggest varying your routine to avoid getting bored... boredom can easily lead to that "I don't wanna" attitude and you may end up giving up before you reach your goals.

Please don't hesitate to ask if you need some workout guidance or more strength training exercises to get you started. Happy stretching, and train safe!

-Sensei Kristalyn