6 posts / 0 new
Last post
Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
My journey from 3K Karate to Practical Karate by Graham Palmer

My journey from 3K Karate to Practical Karate by Graham Palmer

The first glimpse of the unknown, ask you to look deeper. However, many close the door to stay with what they know!

For some time now I have wanted to share my experience of moving away from a 3K approach to a Practical approach with Self Defence in mind. I hope the following article will provide those also interested in following a Practical approach the relevant information or guidance to achieve this.

Back in 2012 I began to question the training methods I was practicing in my study of Karate. I had been practicing the style of Shotokan Karate since 1986. It was the typical 3K approach: Kihon, Kata and Kumite. I had never been interested in sport karate or competing. I believed the methods I practiced were not sport, they were for Self Defence (SD). However, I can now look back and see it was not. I was trying to force a “sport” syllabus into a Self Defence method. Because at that time,  I did not know any different. In order to follow a practical approach, there are two questions which you need to know the answer to. These are:

1.Where do you find the information

2. What training methods should you practice


In todays high tech, mega fast, easy access world. Information should not be hard to find. But you must first know what you are looking for. I have many friends who practice 3K karate whom I speak with often. On many occasions I will talk about an Instructor or a training method and they say to me “I don't know who you are talking about”, “what is an OODA loop?” or “I never knew that is why we act that way under stress and adrenaline”. Five years ago, I to had no knowledge of these Instructors and training methods either. Knowing where to look and who to look for, is a big help in the search. I will reference and link the people, books and DVDs I have used and continue to study, for my Practical approach.


The first area you must be well knowledge on is the law. Unfortunately, this is an area many Martial Arts only give lip service to. If your club is not teaching the law, they are not teaching SD.This will be different from country to country, also from state to state. The information I provide is for the UK. You can find information here at www.cps.gov.uk However, I strongly recommend the book UK Self Defence LAW by Leigh Simms. Leigh studied self defence law and is a highly accomplished karateka. Which makes an ideal platform to write a book for our needs. Also John Titchen of titchen.com is an excellent source of information. I have contacted John and Leigh on many occasions to clarify a legal issue.

Self Defence v Fighting

The next major area I had to learn and understand, was the difference between SD and Fighting. As mentioned before, I assumed I was training for SD. But what my training methods were teaching me, was to fight! I am sure many Martial Artists will be saying, “thats what training is for you fool”. Yes but there is a big difference between SD and fighting. Which is very important if you are unfortunate enough to need your skills for real. Below is a very simple example of how SD and Fighting differ.

Self-Defence vs Fighting

SD is Legal / Fighting is illegal

SD is Non consensual / Fighting is consensual

If you have to fight, you are fighting to FLEE / Here you are fighting to a conclusion

What determines a “WIN”?        

Self-Defense: Escape, not getting hurt, going home to family

Fighting: You beat the other guy! even if you “win” you may be arrested or go to hospital. Now who's the winner!

What are you defending?

Self-Defence: Yourself, family, property

Fighting: Your Pride, Ego, Status in a group

So many times young men get into fights, then say they were defending themselves. When often it was their ego hurt, or for the honor of their girlfriend! And the sensible thing to do was to walk away.

Instructors, Books, DVD’s

Roy Miller: www.chirontraining.com Without doubt Rory is one of the leading figures in teaching and providing information on how real violence happens and how to deal with it. Check out everything Rory has, books, DVDs and theres no substitute to actually training with him. Rory usually visit the UK at least twice a year. A good start would be his books: Meditations on Violence, Facing Violence, Conflict Communication (ConCom).

Mac MacYoung: www.nononsenseselfdefense.com another great source of information with books, blogs etc. Marc and Rory worked closely together on ConCom.

Kris Wilder & Lawrence Kane: westseattlekarate.com/instructors/index Both Kris and Lawrence have written great books on self defence and karate. Also DVD’s and seminars. Check out their work.

Wim Demeere: www.wimsblog.com I really like Wim’s work. He has a couple of books out and his constant blogs are a great source of information.

Peter Consterdine: www.peterconsterdine.com Peter should need no introduction when it comes to practical training and self defence. Based in the UK, Peter has been leading the SD movement for decades. Peter has a great book Streetwise. But I feel the only way to truly benefit from what Peter has to share is to train with him directly.

Iain Abernethy: www.iainabernethy.co.uk Once again Iain requires no introduction. Iain has been sharing his unique approach to karate for a long time. His work with Practical Kata Bunkai has taken him around the world. His Podcasts, books and DVDs are great, but again the best way to benefit from Iain’s knowledge is to train with him.

As I said there are many more people I have trained with and those I have not yet met. But the above list is a very good place to start. All of these Instructors promote the need to learn the “soft skills” to SD and not just the hard physical skills. Which many Martial Arts groups neglect or only give lip service to. 

Training Methods

As mentioned many Martial Arts clubs only practice what we call the hard skills. These are the physical skills usually used for fighting. If you are looking for training methods which support a self defence approach and are practical. You must learn and practice the soft skills also. These soft skills are essential to a successful SD approach. They are the skills which if applied correctly will end a potential violent situation, before escalating to a physical one.

Soft skills would include: Legal & Ethical, Violence dynamics, Avoidance, Verbal deescalation,The Freeze (everyone will freeze) how to deal with it and break the freeze, Aftermath (legal and physical), even if you survive you will be a different person after a traumatic event.

A bare minimum you must be practicing:


Verbal De-escalation

Pre-emptive strikes (yes this is technically not a soft skill, but it is the best option before fighting)

Physical training methods

Kihon - Fresh air practice. Of course I and my students at Practicalkarate.club practice techniques in fresh air. But it is not the hours and hours, up and down the dojo most commonly found in 3K practice. For me now the function is more important than the form. I believe from good correct function of a technique, the form will also improve. Its about getting the right balance of practice and not obsessing with tiny details which do not contribute to the function.

Kata - This is a large section of our training. I say large because our study and practice of kata is comprehensive. It is not only about the performance of the kata. The solo practice is a very small part of the study. We follow Iain Abernethy’s 4 stage model for kata study.

These are

1) Learn the solo form

2) Learn the functional application of each movement (Bunkai)

3) Adapt and vary the applications, using the same combative principles

4) Gain live practice applying the techniques against a resisting partner. This will include Kata based sparring (KBS)

Many karate schools only concentrate on the 1st stage, the solo performance. Never learning or applying the combative principles of the kata. So many times I have heard grades of all levels say, “why do we have shuto uke, we never use it other than in kata”. Juji uke (X block) is another good example of a technique found in kata but never used in a 3K approach kumite. There are many examples of techniques only practiced in kata. One reason is because the way most karate clubs spar is for a sport orientated, rule bound model. Now there is nothing wrong with this type of sparring. But it has to be agreed it is good for the context it was designed for and that is not SD.

The application of the kata must be proactive and not reactive. You can not wait to be attacked and then react, you will loose. Also do not use karate v karate techniques. The Bunkai or combative principles are something we “do to” the person and not “with” the person. It is not an exchange, remember it is not a consensual fight. You must have the mind set, it is always your go…the threat does not get a turn

Limb control & Clinch work

One of the most difficult new skills I had to learn was limb control and fighting from the clinch. I think because the way I was training before did not encourage fighting from a clinch. If you got close or tied up, you broke apart and resumed at kicking / punching range. However, the clinch skills are recorded in the kata. They were part of karate, but lost when karate went to Japan to follow the sport, education, school children model.

Once you learn these skills, they must be integrated into your regular practice. It is no good learning a skill set on a one day course and never practicing them. They have to be practiced, trained and pressure tested in your kumite drills. This practice must include resistance and chaos. There is no reason if you still want to practice regular sport kumite you can. The important thing is you understand the context and objective of the different drills.


I have always been a fan of impact work. Hitting the bag, focus mitts, kick shield etc. It has always been part of my personal home training and in the dojo. However, it was not until October 2012 when I attended a British Combat Association (BCA) seminar in Coventry run by Peter Consterdine and Geoff Thompson. I was introduced to a new way of hitting. It was at this seminar I met Peter for the first time. I saw and felt what striking power he could produce on the pads. Not just Peter, but his Instructors and training partners: Peter Larkin, Steve Williams and Iain Abernethy were walking round helping us achieve better results. It was not just the fact they could all hit very hard. It was the way they hit. The fluidity, transition of combinations and ferocity which impressed me. I bought Peter’s “Training Day” DVD’s that day (which I highly recommend) and altered the way I hit. Not just the way I hit but the high intensity training drills which Peter and Brian Seabright teach on their weekly Training Day sessions. I try to attend these sessions when possible. As mentioned before it is always best to train with these guys than watch a DVD.

Impact work is again a large part of my Practical approach. Every strike is tested using impact equipment. First static, then moving and then with a resisting partner. The bunkai drills from kata are also used against the pads, as well as a partner. Shuto Uke which are strikes to the neck, Age Uke, Tettsui, Uchi Uke as a strike are all tested against impact equipment. Unfortunately I know many karate clubs who never do impact work. Or maybe once a month or so. Ive met many students from theses clubs. Their form is excellent, but when it comes to converting their form into a pad or bag. It just does not have the results they were expecting. To get good at hitting things…..you got to hit things!

Kumite - Sparring/Fighting drills

This was the most difficult area for me. Coming from a 3K approach all my Kumite drills were: prearranged drills like Gohon Kumite (5 step sparring) Ippon Kumite (one step sparring) and then Jiyu Ippon Kumite (free one step sparring) and Jiyu Kumite (free sparring). Although I practiced these drills, I never regarded them as sport. I believed I was using them for a SD reason. But I can now look back and see there were many essential components missing. So what Kumite or sparring drills do I practice and teach now?

I began designing alternative kumite drills which I believed were better suited to our goal. I was on the right tracks, but way behind what was needed. Fortunately in 2013 a new guy called Neil Cook started where I worked. Neil mentioned he trained in karate and naturally we hit it off, as Martial Artists do. Long story short, we began training together. Neil had already been following the Practical approach for some time, qualifying from Iain Abernethy’s Instructor program. I asked Neil how he practice Kumite for SD, he showed me the drills and Bingo! that's what I had been looking for.

I can honestly say I was like a fish out of water the first time I practiced the drills. I was completely out of my comfort zone. But with good Instruction, patience and determination the drills became comfortable and a regular part of practice. The first noticeable difference was the chaos these drills added. When you think about it, chaos is the one thing not encouraged in 3K kumite. From the prearranged drills, kata bunkai, to the advanced Jiyu kumite, there is fast movement, but not chaos. Chaos is guaranteed to be present in a real life situation. The idea of adding chaos to the most basic form of our sparring drills, teach the student to become comfortable with it. They will not be able to control it at first, but they will expect it and not be surprised by it. I have had students visit our dojo from 3K karate clubs. When we practice sparring drills, it is the contact, closeness and chaos they have most difficulty dealing with.

We usually wear 4oz MMA style sparring gloves. These are not so we can hit harder, but so we can make contact safer with less chance of injuring the face or hand. Our most basic sparring drill has free movement with the partner throwing straight and hook punches. As safe as we can use low level force, the aggressor is expecting to land with the shots. This way he understands how close he needs to be to make the shot. If he does land with a shot, the receiver learns to carry on after taking a knock. Remember these are not full powered shots, its a safe way of introducing contact and how to deal with it. Again I have had brown belts from 3K clubs visit and they are stunned when a Red belt lands a glove on their nose. Again it comes down to context and the objective of the drill.

For example if we use the Gohon Kumite (5 step) drill and compare it with our first sparring drill. The training skills are almost opposite. In Gohon, the receiver is moving backwards in a straight line, while staying on the attackers line and he is moving forward. The receiver has to block 5 times and after the 5th punch they counter with a punch, usually Chudan (to the stomach). Now from a Practical point of view this is the opposite to what we want our new students to do. Our first drill will be moving around, the aggressor throwing straight punches at first and building to hook punches. The receiver learns to move off the attack line, to parry or check the punches, maintain contact with the arm to control the person. Push forward to destroy their posture and strike to the head until they can flee/escape. I know many karateka see value in Gohon kumite. But from a logical, practical view point it does not encourage the best response for a SD situation.

There are to many variations of sparring drills we use to explain here. They do include: standing, clinch work/vertical grappling, striking in the clinch, ground work, Multiples, protecting another (family member/friend), weapon awareness, environmental, and more. Another big difference from how I use to spar is “fighting to flee”. This is another area which many Martial Art groups give lip service to. They will say “when you get a chance, run or escape.” But never actively practice this skill. Usually karate kumite fight to a conclusion, for SD you must fight to flee. The law allows reasonable force, NOT excessive force.


A quick mention about multiples in sparring. We practice this scenario often. Actually even when we are sparring with one person. We try to have the mind set there may be more than one, as often is the case in a real life situation. So we try not to fixate on one person and be aware of other threats. This is where our zanshin (awareness) differs from sport or consensual fighting. When we practice multiples, 2, 3 or 4 against 1. Everyone attacks at the same time. They do not take turns, as seen so many times in many examples of multiple sparring. Our attackers punch, kick, grab, take to the floor, everything is on the table. The key is to keep mobile, hit on the move and be predatory. Playing the blocking game WILL NOT work.

Scenario Training Day - John Titchen


Another valuable training method is Scenario training. This is role playing by your training partners and you acting as you would in the simulated scenario. Now to do this correctly and get the best results, the scenarios have to be conducted correctly. This is easier said than done. You can play with doing some in your dojo. We are always using role playing with aggressive, insulting, unreasonable training partners to verbally deescalate or preempt. But for correct scenarios you must have the equipment: armour, environment, good role players, a facilitator, correct debrief, etc.

I highly recommend for those living in the UK. Contact John Titchen at DART and book on to one of his Scenario training days. I have been on two so far and both times come away with valuable experience and knowledge. It is surprising how many trained Martial Artists of several years go along to one of these training days and find they do not react how they expected themselves to. It really does pressure test your training methods.

Alternatively, if you live in or near the USA. I know Rory Miller provides excellent Scenario training days. Or check out his post on the subject: conflictresearchgroupintl.com/the-big-scenario-training-post-rory-miller Also Peyton Quinn has a great book called: 'Real Fighting' which explains his Scenario based training.

Environmental fighting - “fights happen in places” Rory Miller

Following on from the scenario training. Another interesting, valuable and fun training method is environmental fighting. I got the drills and concept from Rory Miller, who always promote training in the environment. Because fights happen in places like bars, clubs, carparks, stairs, toilets etc. It is essential to train in these places to gain experience and good response actions. These environments are completely the opposite to most karate dojo. Which are usually a large uncluttered area with an even, dry floor. Of course with a natural environment to train in comes safety issues. This is where Rory’s drills allow a progressive way of training effectively in such environments.

One of the benefits of environmental fighting is to learn how to “see” and “use” the environment to your advantage. Each area you choose to use, will have countless objects. These can be seen as Hazards or Gifts. For example, a step can be a hazard to you if you step backwards and fall. Or it can be a gift if you see it and push your opponent so he falls. The same goes for walls, stairs, tables, wash basin, corners etc. If you learn to see, the gifts are endless. But you really must experience it. It is no good saying “yes of course I will do that in a real situation”  you have to play in the environment and gain experience and knowledge.

There are further areas and training methods I could talk about, but this will give a good idea and a place to begin. My objective is not to convert anyone, or prove which way is best. Merely to provide information and training methods. Which I have found essential to a Practical approach with Self Defence in mind. As mentioned before, the legal aspect, the Instructors, books, training methods I have presented here. Were all unknown to me five years ago, but are now such an important component to my study of karate in a Practical way.

I am happy to answer any questions or provide further information to anyone interested in this subject. Thank you


shotokanman70's picture

A great article, Graham. I've had the same thoughts on 3K karate as you have and am on a similar path in my karate journey in my training and teaching...I'm just not as far down the road as you are!

MichaelB's picture

I am sure many who are on the same path, moving from 3k to practical karate, will recognise your early disattisfaction. Also, it is difficult giving up your organisation and in the process losing friends. This is article is a comprehensive well thought out summary, that may help others to jump ship. 

BCKA is a different culture, in my experience, compared to 'traditional' organisatios. There is much less emphasis on 'rank', 'seniors and junior grades' or expressed as 'us or them'. Anyone reading this article and thinking about changing direction, because they know in their heart 3k is not self defence, should be reassured there is plenty of support and guidance out there for you.

What I enjoy is the challenge of learning new skills. And, practicle karate is just so much more enjoyable!  

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

MichaelB wrote:
BCKA is a different culture, in my experience, compared to 'traditional' organisations.

There’s plenty of good organisations out there, but here in the UK the natural home for pragmatic karateka is the BCKA (British Combat Karate Association). It was set up due to the large numbers of “disenfranchised” karateka joining the British Combat Association. A dedicated karate group with links to the wider karate world was felt to be advantageous. There is the non-UK side of thing too with regards to the World Combat Association. The vast majority of pragmatic karateka in the UK are part of that family. Those outside the UK may be surprised to find just how many of the people writing books, making videos, giving seminars on practical karate over here are members. I can only think of a couple of exceptions. The support of that organisation, the unparalleled knowledgebase it provides, and the mutual support show by the membership at all levels is undoubtedly one of the key reasons that we in the UK are so prolific when it comes to furthering pragmatic karate. Working together to pursue a common goal – with no sign of ego or a desire to control – is a powerful thing.

All the best,


GPNorwich's picture

Big thank you to everyone for your positive support. Everything Iain has said regarding the BCKA is true. It is where I turned to and found the support, knowledge, flexibility to achieve the transition. It was a very difficult decision to leave my Sensei, karate friends and association. But I was not happy and knew I had to move on. I really do hope the article will provide information and guidance for those wishing to seek a Pragmatic approach. GP 

Marc's picture

Great article and a good summary of the most relevant things to consider, I think.

It is always a bit sad that this kind of change often makes it necessary to leave not only a teacher (which is OK, I guess, because we're seeking different instruction) but an entire club or even association - and with that also friends.