Fitness, Sparring and Cross-Training in Ninjutsu Exclusive Interview with AKBAN Academy

akban ninjutsu

The endless amount of skills and techniques in the Bujinkan curriculum undoubtedly demand an exhorbinant amount of time to learn and retain, but to really master the art a student must also meet the taxing physical responsibilities of the movements and mindset.

AKBAN Academy is a Bujikan school in Israel, founded by Doron Navon in 1986. Navon was the first foreign Bujinkan Shihan and the first Gaijin who passed the Godan test under Masaaki Hatsumi. Yossi Sheriff, who studied under Navon is now the Headmaster at the academy.

Fitness Approach

Some consider the approach that AKBAN has taken to instruction of the art “modern,” mimicking the recent trend of combat sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA). Sheriff asserts that this is a misconception. “If you mean the fitness aspects of our art, then yes, we treat fitness as a necessary prerequisite to everything we do,” Sheriff told Shinobi Exchange. “If you mean other aspects, like training methods and sparring then I think these are essential. Fitness and sparring were once part of the Bujinkan training regime so we just kept on doing them when some groups stopped.”

In order to progress in the art of Ninjutsu, and be able to affectively utilize techniques, there are several aspects of fitness that must be developed: strength, flexibility, balance and breathing. These areas are sometimes overlooked as a necessary part of a student’s practice. The series of stances and positions required for the practice of Ninjutsu, coupled with the range of motion necessary to move within the positions is something that takes time and effort to develop. This time is undoubtedly lengthened if not built on a strong foundation of physical fitness.

According to Sheriff, “An AKBAN veteran should be able to easily run half marathon and even once a year do the super tough “24 hour event”. Being fit demands a no-compromise regime of training. Being fit for many years is the utmost level and everybody’s goal. I wrote a thorough fitness program in Hebrew, some of it translated to English, for AKBAN students – that is simple, gradual and popular with runners outside our academy.”

In the art of Ninjutsu there are neither weight classes nor gender categories. The way of the Ninja requires a practitioner to be prepared to advance upon or evade an opponent of virtually any size or strength. It is difficult to imagine an overweight, chain-smoker with no cardio endurance being able to complete a mission effectively. AKBAN takes a realistic approach to these obstacles and also recommends a physical examination prior to starting the fitness regimen.

The fitness curriculum is structured to be affective for students at all ages and levels of physical fitness and is intended as a gradual program to building meaningful results over time. The AKBAN fitness introduction asserts,

“We did not start as fitness experts; we turned into ones because we hard to. In our martial art, fitness is our safety envelope.”

According to the event description on the academy’s website: The AKBAN “24″ starts at 16:00, continues through the night, with no sleep or rest, and concludes at next day’s sunset, at 16:00. Only few minutes are allowed every hour and these are devoted to stretching and replenishing calories. After these five minutes we change partners and continue sparring (striking, kicking, throws and ground work) for another hour.

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Sparring (Randori)

There are number of benefits to live sparring. Drilling techniques with a partner who has instructions to punch, kick or fall in a certain manner at a certain time solidifies a practice that is effective only if the opponent responds as the training partner does. Incorporating sparring rounds in training allows practitioners to realize strengths and weaknesses in their technique and skill level, which may otherwise have gone un-addressed.

“It’s simple, actually. We have a very wide skill set, a huge syllabus of techniques. We spar, but we do not compete,” said Sheriff, “This makes it safer to practice this wide skill set without endangering our training partners. 

If a set of techniques is very dangerous to spar and compete with, then it prevents the practitioner from experiencing the important chaos of fighting. This is the paradox, the more lethal the technique is, the less one can practice it in sparring. Less practice means less preparedness.

Combat Sports disciplines have smaller set of techniques and a tight set of rules that allow aggressive competition and are the catalyst for better training and debriefing methods. We try to augment the sparring and the debriefing while preserving our diverse tradition and rational.

No two opponents will move exactly the same. Their timing will be vary, their kamae will have a different flow. Regulation of breathing properly under pressure will come into play. Sparring serves to expose these differences and allow students to develop a sense of urgency to adjust. This exploits a students natural reactions in a way that cannot otherwise be experienced when an opponents movements are choreographed.

In the words of Masaaki Hatsumi, “Remember that for every technique you think you can fall back
on, there is a counter for it, or there are times when it cannot
be used. When real battle comes, you must remember that
some things will not be applicable. Don’t think that any one
technique is quintessential.”

Ninjutsu and Combat Sports

Because of the emphasis the AKBAN curriculum places on sparring, the question has been raised as to whether students training in the discipline would be well suited to enter the competition arena of mixed marital arts.

“Apologies for the straight answer, no. Let me explain,” said Sheriff. “Traditional Ninjutsu syllabus lacks four major aspects that are necessary for MMA competition: 1) Fitness, 2) Groundwork, 3) Sparring, 4) Training methods for hitting and evasion.

Anyone who has researched our Ninjutsu syllabus in AKBAN, can see that we try to augment and deal with each of these deficiencies. We conduct a gradual and expertly supervised fitness program we learn Brazilian jiu jitsu and wrestling. We spar and we develop or credit other arts with better training methods.

I am sure many veterans can compete in MMA because of our comprehensive syllabus and our well-rounded routine but I don’t care too much about it. MMA is, justifiably, the most popular combat sport and martial art and it will stay this way until something more violent and realistic comes. But I do not care about popularity.

So there is no prohibition in Ninjutsu against learning, adding, growing.
Quite the opposite, adapting, learning and getting stronger is the essence of our art.”

Complementing Ninjutsu Training with Other Disciplines

“I do not think that this is such a rarity in Ninjutsu,” said Sheriff. “My teacher, Doron Navon, was the first foreign Bujinkan Shihan, a dedicated and superb Ninjutsu practitioner, but he also was a 4th Dan Kodokan Judo instructor and a qualified Krav Maga teacher who learned under the founders. So this kind of honest approach, this kind of multidisciplinary approach, is a thing I grew with.

If you ask for an earlier example, I can cite Takamatsu Sensei, the father of Bujinkan syllabus, who collected and added not only techniques, but full systems. And, of course, he also competed in martial arts.”

One component that AKBAN has found to be an effective addition/focus as an enhancement of the Ninjutsu curriculum is groundwork. This is not an area that is “missing” in the art, but it is one which is could be considered less effective against a grappling artists if only practiced at the basic level.

“Years ago I noticed some missing aspects in our art, Ninjutsu. Some were obvious, like ground fighting, and some were more difficult to solve, like training routines that were not optimized,” said Sheriff.

“Ninjutsu has ground techniques but these are intended to minimize the time on the ground as every extra second spent on the ground makes it more dangerous for the fighter in street situations. So, the ground techniques exist, but are very different in nature compared to Combat sport techniques, they are lethal or destructive by design. This is not a benefit; on the contrary, this dangerous aspect is not good for training and eventually decimates the level of the practitioner.

The solution in AKBAN was simple, keep the tradition and learn. We conducted, and still do, seminars with internationally acclaimed teachers. We had Renzo Gracie, Alan Moraes and Ricardo De La Riva teaching us BJJ, Ernesto Hoost – some Muay Thai and Kickboxing, Murata Masao – Judo etc. This closed many technical gaps in our syllabus.”

Martial sport disciplines have better teaching and training methods, better debriefing apparatus and safer ways to experience the techniques against an opponent. So we try to augment our art with these insights.

An important side note is the suspect phrase “well rounded”. I consider a practitioner well rounded if he or she have a very wide set of humane skills, not only technical expertise. Moreover, a well rounded fighter in a country like Israel probably needs a much wider skill set then a well rounded fighter in post-Viking era Sweden. This is the reason for the inclusion of Gun skills in the veteran’s protocol.

Everything. Everything should be explore-able; every technique should be learned by simultaneously making it open to refutation. This extreme eclectic attitude comes together with extreme and visible respect for tradition.”

Respecting Tradition

With the supplementation of other disciplines, sparring sessions and fitness emphasis added to the already extensive curriculum it is increasingly important that the Bujikan Ninjutsu traditions are preserved and practiced by students of the art.

“I’ll try to explain why respect for tradition should be so important,” said Sheriff. “At the ethical level the respect one shows for tradition is an aspect of the respect we feel for our elders, our veterans, our teachers. Even very competitive sports, like Rugby, American Football, Water Polo or MMA, should be, and most are, accompanied by respect for the system and a clear sense of boundaries and limits. With no respect for it’s own history and veterans, combat sports will be just a bunch of hooligans and violent sociopaths. Respecting the tradition is the antidote for this.

There is another reason to research and preserve tradition, utilitarian one. Our predecessors worked in many combat scenarios, and met many conditions that we do not have now. The techniques that passed through the ages sometimes contain valuable information. We should preserve the culture, starting from now. So this is what we do, or more accurately, try to do, on our AKBAN wiki. Having the utmost respect for our tradition, for other traditions, we collect and we learn and we preserve.”

Shinobi Exchange would like to thank Yossi Sheriff for taking the time to provide us with such useful information about the Akban Academy and the great things they are doing to further the study and application of Ninjutsu. For those who were wondering, Akban means ‘guardian of light’.

4 thoughts on “Fitness, Sparring and Cross-Training in Ninjutsu Exclusive Interview with AKBAN Academy


    Truly quite impressed by the esteemed school of martial arts ,in 30 years of my career never seen a school which has all the knowledge of martial science… Is there a short timed course or a package or a seminar which many things will be learnt in a short time? I am from India and cant afford to stay a long time in Israel and a humble that a school of AKBAN start in India.
    Myself trained in Karate Shotokan and Goju ryu , currently under Bujinkan ninjutsu in Bangalore .

    Kindly awaiting your reply and the fees for different sessions.


    • togakure says:

      Hi Ramesh, you would have to check with your local Bujinkan dojo about any seminars in your area. Many dojos bring different shihan and/or shidoshi out to their location to teach. If you’ve heard of Kacem Zoughari, then you know he travels the world with the teachings of the Bujinkan. Thank you for your comment and please don’t hesitate to ask more questions.

  2. AKBAN1990 says:

    This is a very, very, well written article with some outstanding information that’s not on the main akban website It also mentions the problems that overall modern Bujinkan has, the watering down of the art, etc, and how the akban is trying to fix these problems.
    It was well worded and very informative, unbiased, and truth based.
    As a student of the AKBAN it makes me proud.
    -Martial Artist 15 yrs and counting.

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