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Gotch's Bible and Other Terrifying Concepts: Karl Gotch's Workout Reviewed

I’m lucky that my current job allows me to work from home. There are challenges to living alone, to working remotely, but in the scheme of things, I’m very lucky. I have yet to meet my co-workers in person (I got the position right as Chicago’s shelter in place order started), but we make up for it with Google Hangout meetings and digital happy hours. Each week, we have a company-wide all-hands meeting, and we discuss the direction of the company, but also the direction of our individual lives. My co-workers have started massive culinary projects, embarked on new learning opportunities, and of course, started new workout regimens. I work at a start-up, so often these exercise routines tend toward the gadget-oriented, your Pelotons, your Mirrors, and so forth. I understand to a degree; I am often enchanted by novelty, and also find myself more willing to do physical things if I’ve invested a certain amount of money—I come from the Midwest, if I pay for something, I have to try and wring as much value out of it as possible. It’s just practical.

More professional wrestling

Of course, being from the Midwest also means I’m weirdly anxious about spending money. Unrelated to being from the Midwest, I also cannot afford a fancy workout machine. So instead of ponying up for digital classes, or an expensive workout machine, I went with the classics—sending away for a strongman routine in the mail: in this case, the Karl Gotch Conditioning For Combat Sports 2-DVD set from Jake Shannon’s Scientific Wrestling dot com. Shannon’s played a huge part in keeping Gotch’s legend alive, including the production of this DVD. I also bought a pair of one-pound Indian clubs on eBay.

Karl Gotch is one of the foundations of modern wrestling, especially the realistic grappling wing. With the rise of interest in shoot-style wrestling over the past couple of years (see: wXw’s Ambition shows, the “kanji is k00l” stylings of the UK’s TETSU-JIN, Paradigm Pro’s UWFI-rules shows, Josh “Reject Modernity” Barnett’s Bloodsport, and of course, Raw Underground), it seemed opportune to both get myself off the couch, and also do a little immersion in the roots of that style of pro-wrestling. The set’s tagline is “Conditioning is the ultimate hold,” and while I don’t super plan to do any grappling until there’s a vaccine, being prepared for long periods of physical activity while the police are rioting doesn’t seem like a bad idea either.

Karl Gotch’s hold on professional wrestling

Karl Gotch’s influence on wrestling is incredibly pervasive—his trademark suplex is now known simply as the German suplex, after the country he grew up in, and his gritty, hold-based style of pro-wrestling would be part of the genesis of Antonio Inoki’s Strong Style. After the Belgian Olympian burned too many bridges in America, he would find renewed success in Japan as one of the linchpins (and foreign talent booker) of Inoki’s fledgling New Japan Pro Wrestling. His involvement in creating one of the two legitimately international wrestling companies would easily cement his place in wrestling history, but his work as a trainer is a real murderer’s row of talent as well. Gotch’s students, throughout his career, have included the likes of Inoki, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Pancrase co-founders Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki, Battlarts founder Yuki Ishikawa, and the original Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama), among others.

Karl Gotch watches a young Minoru Suzuki do one of his exercises.

He had an outsized impact on mixed martial arts, as well, coaching Inoki at his fight against Muhammad Ali, a fight many consider to be the first mixed-martial arts match-up. Billy Robinson claims that Gotch taught Masahiko Kimura the double wristlock (now known often as just a Kimura lock) he used to beat Hélio Gracie, after Gotch learned the hold at the catch-as-catch-can training camp run by Billy Riley, the famed Snake Pit, in Wigan, England. Gotch was invited to train there after his performance in the 1948 Olympics. In MMA, as in wrestling, the largest impact comes from Gotch’s training. Modern MMA looks a lot different without the influence of Suzuki and Funaki’s Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling, the promotion where Ken Shamrock started his rocket to stardom.

I want to note briefly: I’m not a trained fitness person, and a lot of the stuff on this DVD is definitely for experts, as I learned when I tried to replicate it in the comfort of my home. Please consult someone who knows what they’re doing before attempting these exercises. I’m usually somewhat in shape, as I bike pretty consistently, but also I should note that I’ve been pretty depressed and making it through a day of emails is as much gas as I have in the tank lately, so I’m also entering this adventure in… fairly stagnant shape.

This is all to say that I’ve thrown up more over the past month than I have in the past five years.

Gotch’s presentation of his training regime is fairly bare bones, a 25-minute rundown of exercises, many of which can be accomplished without the aid of gym equipment. Gotch is big on “you don’t need a gym, you don’t need equipment,” but also, it seems helpful to have a mat, a push-up bar, a rings set-up, and a large tree to hang a climbing rope from. I have none of these things, but will push on as best I can. It’s important to note that Gotch is cribbing extensively from Pehlwani training—traditional Indian wrestling was a big influence on catch wrestling, again proving that the only good things about England are all imported.

The video finds Gotch running a very buff Tom Puckett (one of his final students, and the executor of Gotch’s estate after Gotch’s passing in 2007) through a variety of push-ups, squats, jump rope, handstand push-ups, ring assisted push-ups, bridges, rope climbs, reverse rope climbs, ring exercises and a variety of bridging exercises. This was filmed after Gotch’s double hip replacement surgery, so he’s mostly in coaching mode. If you want to see Gotch run through some of these exercises himself, plus Fujiwara and Ishikawa sparring on a beach, you can check out Fumi Saito’s Karl Gotch documentary, Karl Gotch: Kamisama.

Every single bridging exercise looks like Puckett is going to break his lil’ beefy neck, especially when Gotch demands Young Thomas no-hands flip out of a bridge on a wet mat in the middle of the Gotch family driveway. Puckett eventually manages it, and in lieu of congratulations, Gotch dryly notes that the young man has lost the change from his pockets. Puckett, even as muscular as he is, obviously struggles with some of the exercises, which fills me with a deep sense of foreboding, as my greatest source of heart rate elevation right now is reading about independent wrestling shows still happening in the midst of the pandemic.

Gotch sets you up with these tools, but unlike more modern fitness DVDs or guides, you’re on your own in terms of stringing them together for your own use. The second DVD purports to have some guidance on using maces and clubs, but mostly is Pancrase buds (Suzuki, Funaki, etc) failing at exercise while Gotch looks on like a kindly grandpa. So I had to do a little bit of extra research for club workout stuff to incorporate. Luckily, Samoa Joe did a nice little intro to club workouts for Sheamus’s workout channel, and I was able to crib those, along with a basic structure.

Gotch thinks in terms of reps; Samoa Joe does duration which makes more sense to me, as a beginner. I don’t know much, but I do know that form is incredibly important with bodyweight stuff, and pushing myself to hit a specific number instead of focusing for a short period of time seems like a recipe for disaster.

So here’s what I came up with:

  • 1 minute of warm up
  • 3 minutes of jumping rope
  • 1 minute of push-ups (hindu or half-moon)
  • 1 minute of squats (hindu or jumping)
  • 1 minute of club work, alternating sides
  • Repeat until no longer feasible

There’s a spot of empty concrete in the back of my apartment building, near the dumpsters, and so that’s where I figured I could run through this stuff without having to wear a mask or encounter anyone else. I made it through the first four minutes before having to dash upstairs to my apartment and quickly expel the contents of my stomach, after which, I laid on the floor, and spent an interminable ten minutes trying to catch my breath. In all the turmoil, I forgot to stretch, and then spent the next three days hobbling around my apartment, my calf muscles impossibly tight.

Integrating Gotch-isms into everyday life

Gotch emphasizes that it’s important to work all of the muscles, which is why his routine emphasizes varying the angles of your push-ups (he also advises changing your hand position while doing push-ups, to work different aspects of your arms). Once I was able to get through a cycle of my cobbled together Gotch-isms, I witnessed the downside of this. I would run through these on my lunch break, because again, after I clock out for the day, my brain and body stop working. This timing meant I would be in agony typing email responses, my arms barely responsive. I’m assuming this is how you get those top-of-your-shoulder Brock Lesnar muscles. He also emphasizes doing exercises that stretch your body while strengthening, and so while I did not skimp on post-workout stretching, I did notice I needed to do it less intensively when my workouts would last longer. Hindu push-ups stretch your calves, the club exercises stretch your shoulders, and so forth.

I had grand plans of eventually working up to the exercise known as Gotch’s bible, where you take a deck of playing cards, and each card represents an amount of a certain exercise (black is squats with double the face value reps, red is push-ups for face value). You go through the whole deck. Gotch used to claim he was able to go through it twice a day. This did not happen. I did not even attempt this. I am terrified of the concept.

In many respects, this DVD set is more of a historical curiosity than a real attempt at an instructional video. However, I do feel like my time with the Gotch Workout has been a success, however. I’m stronger than I was at the start of this experiment, and I find that it has drastically reduced the amount of weird “sitting all day” pains I’ve been experiencing since the start of quar. It definitely made me feel more superior to those around me, bemoaning their lack of gym access, which I’ll count as a win more than any enhanced physical fitness. Weights? Your own body is the only weight you need! You can work out anywhere! It’s a liberating realization, especially welcome in these constricting times. Who knows, maybe by December I’ll be able to do a bridge without snapping my pencil neck.

About the Author

Ed Blair

Ed Blair is a writer/zinester based out of Chicago, IL. They currently publish Pro Wrestling Feelings, a zine about the emotional resonance of wrestling, and run the Holy Demon Army Zine Distro, the only zine distro solely devoted to wrestling zines. Their writing can be found at the Bandcamp Daily, the Chicago Reader, and elsewhere.