Building a Successful Training Strategy

Our Philosophy on Training

Our students put their hearts into their training and show amazing dedication. We believe it’s the responsibility of the dojo to make sure our students get maximum value from their efforts. If our students dedicate a significant part of their lives and focus to learn the art of aikido, we better make sure they get the most out of their efforts. We believe it’s our duty to do so.

Jason Ramsay finds out he passed his shodan test. Photo by Ron Brazil.

Jason Ramsay finds out he passed his shodan test. Photo by Ron Brazil.

The Foundation of a Successful Training Strategy

It’s easy for both students and instructors to get into a pattern of training in a group class, going home, and repeating. If you simply enjoy the movement practice, this is a fine way to train. However, after overseeing the development of over 1,000 students, we’ve found that group classes are necessary but not sufficient to maximize one’s development.

Practitioners who progress most dramatically are those with a training strategy built across 3 dimensions:

  1. Group class participation
  2. Personalized one-on-one or small group practice
  3. Independent training

1. Group Classes

Matsuoka Sensei leading class at Ikazuchi Dojo

Matsuoka Sensei leading class. Photo by Marc Krutiak.

This training format doesn’t need much explanation. Group classes are an excellent venue for learning new techniques, but more importantly, learning how to adapt and apply known techniques to a range of body types. There’s no substitute for struggling through the process of discovering how to make a technique work on a teenage girl, a 230 lb. bodybuilder, a 6’4″ tall man, or an incredibly flexible (or stiff) attacker.

Group classes also build the dojo community, allow us to support the development of our fellow students, and give us the opportunity to learn through observing others’ successes, struggles, and failures.

2. Personalized Training

In our experience, we’ve found that group classes are necessary but not sufficient to excel, because group classes, by definition, can’t be tailored to the individual. Personalized training seeks to understand each student’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses and then align training activities to help them maximize their individual potential.

Not only do we see clear evidence of the effectiveness of this kind of training, we also surveyed our members and found that getting individual time with instructors and senior students was their highest priority.

At Ikazuchi Dojo, this kind of individualized practice takes a variety of formats. Most students already receive one-on-one training with a senpai (senior student) when they prepare for kyu tests or when they seek refinement of a specific technique after class.

Other forms of individualized training we employ include personal training sessions with instructors, intensive small group programs, and an instructor development program.

This video is a short clip of one of our instructor development sessions.


The instruction Matsuoka Sensei is giving Chris and Nastia is critical for their development and geared specifically for them. For other students at a different skill level, or with different movement capabilities, this training would be confusing or irrelevant. However, for these two instructors, this is rocket fuel that will push them to the next level. You can see a slightly longer clip from this training session (about 5 minutes) here.

Individualized training with an instructor or senior student allows practitioners to shore up deficiencies, leverage their talents and strengths across their techniques, and understand how to customize and tailor their movements and tactics to best take advantage of their body type and even personality.

3. Independent Practice

Independent practice can take many forms. This type of training will vary from person to person and will evolve over time for each individual.

The video below shows some of my current independent training exercises. At this stage in my development, one of the ways I learn best is to take ukemi from Matsuoka Sensei so I can feel his technique. There are many subtleties in his movements that are difficult to transmit through language. I can pick them up more easily through tactile and kinetic feedback. Now in my 40s, it’s a priority for me to be able to take his ukemi safely and effectively, so I focus on training exercises that allow me to increase the efficiency of my ukemi.

You’ll see me working on moving from a back fall to kneeling position while balancing on only the back leg, refining my forward and back rolls to make them more efficient, and practicing some drills to help ensure a controlled descent to a prone position when being thrown quickly.


For others, independent practice may be totally different. One person may focus on increasing ankle and toe flexibility to be able to sit in seiza and practice seated techniques. Another may need to practice footwork drills to reprogram sub-optimal movement patterns.

Independent training doesn’t always have to be physical in nature. Some may focus on diet and nutrition, or even invest their time watching randori videos to learn positioning tactics when dealing with multiple attackers. One non-physical element of my independent training right now is to learn more about the historical evolution of the art of Aikido. Thanks to Stan Pranin Sensei, I’ve been able to get exposure to valuable writings, photos, and videos to support this endeavor.

Our Results

Training Hours at Ikazuchi DojoIn 2015 we had hundreds of workshop participants, ran almost 450 one-on-one training sessions, led many students through intensive small group training programs, and established our instructor development program.

Since we’ve begun to transition our instructional strategy to align behind these three key training components, we’ve seen a huge positive change in the quality and consistency of our students’ aikido.

For example, even though we’ve always had stand out kyu tests at lower ranks (5th-3rd kyu), we now find the quality level at those ranks increasing, and that quality is seen more consistently across all of our students.  We also find that our senior students are more prepared for (and successful at) randori during their dan tests than ever before.

Our Next Steps

After we more consciously aligned our programs around these three core pillars of training and observed the results, the value of the strategy became clear. Our next step is to establish better methods to ensure that every dojo student at every level can get clear guidance and direction on how to focus their training across all three dimensions. With a growing dojo, we need better systems to meet this goal. We’ve already implemented some systems successfully, but still have a way to go.

If our students think it’s worth their time and focus to walk the path of a martial artist, we think it’s worth it to make the journey as powerful, rewarding, and transformational as we can.

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There are 8 comments


    Just wondering if its better to do ushiro ukemi by squatting on the back foot instead of folding it underneath?

    I’ve been taught the folding method wasn’t safe as it takes away control of your fall.

    1. Josh Gold

      Hi Robert!

      Ukemi mechanics will vary from school to school to best align with a particular style’s throws. Not sure if you are talking about a direct drop to a supine position or a throw that moves into a complete back roll so I’ll quickly cover both:

      Ukemi to a back roll:

      If you are referring to a fall that requires a complete back roll, we prefer to fold the back foot during the descent phase of a back fall. This does a few things:

      1. Once down on the mat, the tibia bone in full contact with the ground, it gives a much larger and more stable base of support. This allows for increased balance and an improved ability to stabilize when coming out of a roll.

      2. Based on the types of throws we practice, squatting on the back foot risks injury to the ankle if there’s a throw that applies significant force with a rearwards vector, or worse, a twisting force that would apply torque to the ankle joint when it’s grounded into the mat.

      3. With the tibia flat on the mat, we can keep the back knee aligned under the back hip which allows a rapid and stable transition to standing hamni posture.

      Ukemi to supine position:

      If you are referring to a throw that drops the uke straight down on their back to a supine pose, we use both methods – tucking the back foot or leaving it flat. If someone has the flexibility to perform a squat on their own and bring their tailbone within a couple inches of the mat, keeping both feet flat is a viable option. This method also allows better hip extension if a throw requires the uke’s hips to come forward to absorb impact (like in a fast iriminage or sayunage).

      However, if one does not have the flexibility to squat down on their own and get their tailbone very close to the mat, they risk injury to their tailbone and pelvis during a hard fall. In that case, tucking the back foot is a better option as it allows one to get their pelvis closer to the mat under a controlled descent. Tucking the back foot also allows for a larger range of hip rotation (vs. improved extension in the other mode) which is valuable during certain types of falls.

      So the specific movements we apply are somewhat situational based on the movement capabilities of the uke and the force vectors created by a given throw. It’s probably easier to illustrate this stuff in a video but ideally this gives you some visibility into how we think about the movements.

      Hope that helps!


  2. Alex Barrera

    As always, a superb post. Can’t agree more with the three tier strategy you outlined. How do you manage the coordination between sempai and Kohei? In our case we let them setup dates but it’s become obvious to me that this will depend on people’s schedules which tend to be already complicated. I wonder if allocating fixed slots and letting people use them for this specific training (one on one’s i.e.) would force it to be more systematic.

    Once again, thanks a ton for sharing Josh! Really appreciated 🙂

    1. Josh Gold


      Good to hear from you!

      For test preparation and similar senpai / kohai practice, we usually just let them coordinate on their own. We have enough senior students that if there are schedule incompatibilities, we can just have another senpai pair with a given kohai.

      For one-on-ones with instructors – those are scheduled through a software system that takes care of bookings, cancellations, billing, etc.

      We have tried in the past having scheduled blocks of open training times but that’s not been a consistent success. However, I’m sure a lot of this depends on local culture / schedules, etc.

      If you end up using fixed time slots in a successful way for this purpose, please let me know. I’d love to hear the details of how it works!

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