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What Is the Sound of One-Leg Standing?

Training like the Karate Kid enhances balance and postural control in real life.

The Karate Kid movie is an iconic example of the fascination with karate and kung fu that permeated the 1980s. It also contains numerous legendary movie moments and possibly the most famous "standing on one leg" scenes ever. Daniel-san, maliciously injured in a prior match from an illegal knee attack by the malevolent Bobby Brown, faces off against his nemesis, Cobra-Kai’s Johnny Lawrence, in the final of the “All-Valley Karate Championship.” This is where one of the many iconic movie lines in Karate Kid is uttered: "Sweep the leg.” Johnny does as instructed by his coach and sweeps Daniel’s injured leg, injuring him further. He can but hobble around the ring and is forced to use his secret weapon: the one-leg-standing “crane” stance from which he will leap and front kick Johnny to win the championship.

Regrettably, while this legendary scene is dramatic, memorable, and indelibly etched into popular culture, it is not so realistic. It is fiction to say that no one can defend the jump kick as Mr. Miyagi has mistakenly told Daniel-san (as an aside, there are a few other misleading things Mr. Miyagi said but we'll leave those for another day). What isn’t fictional is that in karate training there is a fair bit of standing on one leg. Not necessarily to do jumping crane kicks in tournaments, but certainly when kicking, changing stances, stepping, and so on. So what might all that one-leg standing training do to balance and posture?

What effect karate training might bestow on long-term martial artists is something that Amit Hadad and Israeli colleagues Natalie Ganz, Nathan Intrator, Neta Maimon, Lior Molcho, and Jeffrey Hausdorff were interested in discovering. They did so using a cross-sectional design that uses a very nice control comparison group for comparable non-balance focused physical training--swimmers.

 E. Paul Zehr
The author doing some one-leg standing practice in Chinto kata at Katsuura village, Chiba prefecture, Japan in 2010.
Source: E. Paul Zehr

This work, “Postural control in karate practitioners: Does practice make perfect?" published in the journal Gait & Posture, examined balance control while standing on one leg with eyes open and closed and postural sway in 20 karate practitioners and 20 swimmers. The two groups were matched for physical activity experience as well as many other characteristics such as age (mid-thirties), weight, and so on. Both groups had on average 15 years of training experience. The karate group trained on average 3 times per week for one-and-a-half to two hours in the manner of most traditional martial arts practicing basic technique, interactive movements, sparring, self-defense, and kata forms. An unfortunate limitation is that all participants were men.

In any case, the results are extremely clear—those who train in an activity that repeatedly challenges posture and balance as does karate have superior balance control. For example, when standing on one leg with eyes closed the karate group had 15 floor touches for balance stabilization while the swimming group had 167. Postural sway measures were also dramatically different between the groups. Since it is a cross-sectional study, we can’t conclude cause and effect, but the overall picture is compelling.

Lead author Amit Hadad told me he has always been interested in the health benefits of martial arts training. Hadad, now in his early 30s, is himself a karate practitioner with over 20 years of experience and who began when he was a very young boy. In fact training is well supported in the Hadad family, Amit’s father introduced both he and his brother to martial arts and their practice continues to this day. Amit further told me that “karate led me to study physical education as my bachelor's degree and physical therapy as my master's degree.” He has a demonstrated and important interest in applying martial arts in rehabilitation and "prehabilitation."

Studies like the one Hadad and colleagues conducted are extremely important in normalizing and revealing empirical evidence about the beneficial effects functional activities like martial arts can have on essential body functions. The maintenance of balance and postural control as we age is critical to our function not just in sports and recreation but in daily living. This becomes especially critical in older adults. As the authors of this paper rightly point out, “specific balance-related exercises, such as repeatedly standing on one leg, are needed to achieve optimal postural control.” Yet, again in their words, such approaches may often “be boring and require extensive self-discipline and motivation to continue to practice it over extended time periods.” I’m a big fan of doing functional activities (especially martial arts) that lead to training benefits as side effects and this approach fits that very well.

So, while standing on one leg and leaping to kick your opponent as did Daniel-san in The Karate Kid might be a fail in real-life fighting, it’s great training for improving your balance and posture now and while you age. Doing functional activities like martial arts that are engaging on multiple levels and across different domains of health can be an engaging and useful way to provide background balance improvement and postural control. My advice, though, is please just keep clear of the Cobra Kai while you do it.

© E. Paul Zehr (2020).

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