Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hard blocks

Introduction

I have made my views very clear on this blog that I believe "blocks" (better termed "deflections") work.

However, now comes the hard question: How should "blocks" be performed?

Many karateka and other martial artists (in fact, some of my most esteemed friends and colleagues) believe that the "hard" block is the "mainstay" of their art. I find this view particularly common in the various shorin ryu karate schools.

However I disagree. I adhere to the view that the majority of blocks - whether from karate or the Chinese arts or whatever - should be "soft". In fact, I believe that "hard" blocks are rarely useful - so rarely useful that this is part of what accounts for the fact that blocks are very seldom even contemplated in combat sports. Yet I see no reason why they should not be used in that arena.

It seems to me that relatively few martial artists today practice "soft" blocks; the majority adhere to the "hard" methodology. So, inevitably, the very few who might have tried to use "blocks" in sports like MMA have almost certainly relied on "hard" blocks - I'm guessing, with poor results.1 No small wonder that MMA practitioners have disregarded the entire concept of "blocking" as "unrealistic", "unworkable" or even "fanciful". That's their loss.2

Because traditional "blocks" do work. But they work principally as deflections of attacks - not literal "blocks" that "stop an attack dead".

Efficient deflections are, by my definition "soft". Inefficient deflections, and most "dead stop" blocks, are "hard". I shall explain and evidence what I mean a bit later. It really does come down to some simple physics.

"Soft blocking" is a very specific skill that is in some ways the very opposite of "hard blocking" and requires years of dedicated practice to understand fully. I believe (controversially, it seems) that the emphasis on "hard blocking" in many (if not most) traditional schools detracts from the understanding of the art and science of deflection.

And so, I propose to detail my position here - to explain how one should execute "soft" blocks, how they differ from "hard" blocks, why they are effective and why "hard" blocks are not.

Almost all blocks are "deflections by another name"!

Most traditional “blocks” as we know them are deflections more than anything else. That is to say, they don’t act to stop a force “head on”. They act to shift a force off its line of attack.

Don’t believe me?

Consider that a jodan/age uke (rising block) does not act to stop an attack “dead” unless that attack is:
  1. a downward chop (a foolish attack and an even more foolish defence!); or
  2. a wild circular swing (another foolish attack, which is better dealt with by punching your opponent as he starts telegraphing his swing).
Ditto chudan uke, etc. All of them are principally used to approach the attack from the side, not meet the attack “head on”. This is true whatever your style of karate or other traditional martial art.

The primary aim of deflections: to protect YOU

Now that this is out of the way, consider this: For my part, the primary aim of deflections is obvious: they are to stop you getting hit. After all, talk of counters etc. is quite redundant if you’re flat on the floor, the world spinning around you. That’s something that seems easily forgotten in the chase for a strong, disabling counter attack. Even “simultaneous” responses come to nothing if your block fails.

And remember that a a strong fulcrum for deflection doesn’t necessitate a hard impact. Put another way, the impact of your forearm against the attack is not a measure of the stability of your blocking platform. What is? The ability to displace the attack and “occupy the center line” (as they say in wing chun). This can be done in 2 different ways:
  1. either the blocking forearm inscribes an arc (ie. a "curved" path) and uses the power of the circle to deflect a linear attack, much as a spinning top can deflect a marble that rolls into it; or
  2. the blocking forearm rotates on its axis in a "spiral" (ie. it is "torqued"), using that circle to deflect the attack.
Sometimes, as I discuss in my article "Chudan uke: to spiral or not to spiral", you can use both.



I discuss 2 ways of executing a chest level deflection - one with the forearm inscribing an arc, the other with the forearm spiralling or being "torqued".


Either way, a circle is being used to deflect a linear attack. And most punches, even cross punches, have an element of "straightness" that permits them to be deflected along that line - particularly if you examine the technique from the perspective of multiple planes - ie. more than 2 dimensions. For the purposes of this article, it is worth noting that "hard" blocks generally don't utilise the former type of block, namely the forearm inscribing an arc. Rather they get their force from the "torque" or spiral of the forearm. So let us examine this in closer detail.

The importance of applying the "torque" correctly

We've noted above that blocks function to occupy the centre line - not to smash an attack out of the way. This is what enables a block to deflect the attack. Occupying the center line doesn’t require an impact, as I demonstrate in the previous video. No "torqued" wing chun block requires that kind of impact: Yes, they are “torqued”; but they are nonetheless “soft” under my definition of using only the amount of impact necessary to occupy the center line.

In other words, they are not designed to “punish” your opponent’s limbs. They are designed to occupy the center line as efficiently as possible. Coming back to karate, I see no difference between wing chun and similar karate deflections (ie. those using the forearm spiral/torque). Exactly the same principles of physics apply. So I prefer to put 100% of my deflecting energy (be it in the form of a forearm torque/spiral or a circular arc of deflection) into the task of deflection. The “softer” (ie. the less impact) I can do the block while succeeding in occupying the centre line, the more efficient I’ve been. The more efficient I am in deflection, the less my chances of being hit.

To understand the reasons why this is so, we need to examine more closely exactly how the "torque" or spiral of your forearm is applied when used in hard blocks, vs. how it is applied in soft blocks.

The difference between torquing for strikes vs. torquing for "soft" blocks

Here's the thing about torquing/spiralling: it is used subtly, but significantly, differently when used to power a strike as opposed to a deflection.

With strikes, the spiral completes just as contact is made. This adds the momentum to the strike at the moment it lands. With soft blocks, the spiral only starts when contact is made. The spiral completes as the deflection is finalised. So in that case the spiral helps absorb the impact and its momentum is used to redirect the attack - not inflict a blow. I discuss this the video below:


A discussion on how to "torque" deflections

In summary:
  1. strikes - torque used to add force;
  2. soft blocks - torque used to deflect.
How soft blocks utilise the power of the circle

It's all very well to say that "soft blocks use torque to deflect". But what do I mean? To answer this we need to consider 2 elements: angle of interception and your movement along the attacking limb. Unless your block intersects the attack at 90 degrees, then any arc inscribed by, or spiral in, your forearm that happens after impact will necessarily cause your blocking arm to move either up or down the attacker's limb.

I say "necessarily" because:
  1. the arc or spiral increases contact time with the attack; and
  2. if you have more than momentary contact time, I can't see any way of effecting a non-perpendicular strike without movement up or down the attacking arm, given the vectors of the respective moments.
Soft blocks intersect the attack at an optimum angle for deflection (which is obviously less or greater than 90 degrees). Without more, this angle might be sufficient to drive a "wedge" into the attack, thereby deflecting it (as I discuss a bit later).

However soft blocks, as I have discussed, go further; they employ an arc or spiral which starts immediately after impact and coincides with a slide up or down the attacker's forearm. This helps redirect the attacking force. How?

Well, it is important to note that this circle doesn't "push" the attack away. Rather, a small circle at the axis of interception is amplified by leverage so as to increase deviation at the extremity of your opponent's attack.3 Accordingly it does not comprise a "push", but rather an "interception and redirection" - a bit like gears meshing.4, 5

In a manual gearbox this can be done "hard" (for example when you don't use your clutch correctly) or smoothly (when you do use your gearbox correctly). Part of the reason you get that horrible "crunch" when you don't time your clutch use properly is that some of the energy that would have aided the smooth interchange has been used up as "impact".

By contrast, when you execute a hard block, you typically finish a spiral of the forearm at the exact moment of impact. That rotation gives you the momentum to "bump" the attack away. This minimises contact time which in turn negates any noticable slide up or down the arm.

"Hard blocks" resulting from poor timing

It is my view that a substantial number of what people think of as "hard" blocks are only "hard" because they are performed poorly.

In other words, the student sets out to perform a block that utilises an arc or spiral - but still ends up connecting "hard". This can occur even if the student is consciously aware of the need for the arc or spiral and is intent of activating that after impact. So what's going on here? Why is the impact not transferring seamlessly into the circle and being absorbed/redirected by it? The answer is simple: the student has cut the wrong angle or has poor timing or both. It is really no different to a "clunky" gear change. If the angle and timing are correct, then there should be little impact. The attack should "slip" off and past your blocking forearm and be redirected harmlessly from its intended target.

It is important to note that I do not see such techniques as deliberate "hard" blocks. Rather, they are simply "soft blocks performed poorly". Any arc or spiral in the forearm started after impact should create a soft block or deflection. So when, through errors in timing or angle, your block results in a hard impact, you aren't choosing to do a "hard block". The hard impact you feel is the attacker's punch hitting your forearm, not the reverse.

This is another way of saying that your arm got punched/struck. Instead of efficiently redirecting the attack, part of your blocking arm "just got in the way". On the other hand, if you deliberately finish your rotation on impact so as to use your block to strike your opponent's attacking limb, you are indeed executing a "hard block". Let us examine these true "hard blocks" and the issues confronting them:

Problems with hard blocks: reliance on brute force and exact angles

The first and most obvious drawback of the hard block should now be obvious: it does not use the power of the circle to deflect. Instead the hard block relies on the application of simple (brute) force, driven at the correct angle into the attack. A portion of that force comes from the outward movement of your arm. As I have discussed, many hard blocks use the rotation of the arm to add extra force at the moment of impact. Others add more force by increasing contact time - ie. they effect a push.

It is important to note that soft blocks do not utilise a push.4 Either way, when using a hard block:
  1. you need a fair amount of force (be it by impact or pushing); and
  2. your angles need a fair degree of precision.
As I argue a bit later, you can't rely upon the power of the circle to "forgive" any miscalculation in your angle of interception.

Problems with hard blocks: "single bone" impact

I mentioned previously that it is possible to deflect an attack by driving a linear "wedge" into it. Indeed, this is exactly how most hard blocks work (a notable exception being most palm deflections).5

Unfortunately when a hard block does so, the point of impact is usually the thin edge of your forearm (ie. a "single bone", namely either the radius or ulna but not both) - particularly if you time the spiral to finish at the moment of impact.

This contrasts with the soft block where you always impact with the "flat" edge of your forearm (ie. both bones) then rotate through to the thin, "single bone" edge. This issue has major ramifications for injury (and the prevention or cause thereof); your forearms are simply not adapted to take impact on the thin edge / "single bone". Any impact there is concentrated on a smaller, weaker surface area, increasing risk of injury and breakage.

I remember sometime in 1989 training with the late (controversial) taijiquan and baguazhang instructor Erle Montaigue. He was an interesting fellow and provided many important insights. He also had his own fair share of misconceptions, meaning that you had to take what he said with an occasional pinch of salt.

One of his "pet peeves" about karate concerned the age/jodan uke (rising block): It was, he said, ineffective because it contacted with the outer edge of the forearm, presenting a thin, "single bone". As he explained, this is manifestly weak.

I knew then, as I'd known for years, that this is totally incorrect (at least as we do jodan/age uke in the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts). What he was seeing was the finishing position of the block. The reality is that the block should intercept the attack with the top, flat part of your forearm - ie. it should impact with 2 bones (the radius and ulna) - then rotate through to the "single bone" as part of the torque action. I demonstrate this misconception at 1:06 in the video below:


I demonstrate the rising block and discuss both the primary use of the arms. Note my discussion of the rotation of the primary arm at 1:06.

Unfortunately Erle's criticism was spot-on with hard blocks. At the time I was largely unaware of just how widespread this practice had become, so I dismissed it as one of his misconceptions. As it turns out, he was right in respect of many karate schools. It might not be how the jodan/age uke should be done, but it certainly is how it is often actually done.

Now it is true that strikes like the hammer fist require you to finish the rotation in your forearm at the moment of impact. At impact, your hammer fist is thus oriented so as to line up with a "single bone" of your forearm. Luckily in that case you aren't hitting with the "single bone" - you're hitting with the hammer fist! The fact that your forearm is not ideally lined up for a strike is irrelevant; it simply isn't the striking surface. This is a major reason that I don't agree that "forearm blocks are really strikes in disguise".

What is appropriate striking alignment for a clenched fist or sword hand is not appropriate alignment for forearm contact. It is only works if the block momentarily precedes the strike, contacting with the flat part of the forearm. The strike then follows later as the forearm rotates to finish the deflection. In other words, you can combine a block and strike into one continuous action, but it is not "simultaneous"; there are 2 distinct, consecutive movements, each with separate functions and requirements.

So do hard blocks work?

In a word, yes. How do they work? Mostly they deflect by driving a wedge into an oncoming attack. This is a "linear wedge" because it does not utilise the power of the circle in the deflection. Now I know that it can use a circle; however when it does so, it doesn't use the circle to power the deflection. Rather, the circle is used solely for impact.

That impact does indeed lead to the deflection, but only indirectly. Instead of working "inside" the deflection, it just serves to add brute force at the point of interception. As I've said, if there is no rotation in the forearm, then the necessary force to displace the attack is derived from a longer contact time (ie. a push). However when the force is generated faster, there is less contact time on the attacking limb (ie. a strike).

Accordingly, hard "impact" blocks do not have to drive as far into the attack to "wedge" it successfully.

To summarise, if a hard block drives a wedge at the correct angle, it will either "bounce" or push the attack thereby deflecting it. Whichever way you do it, the hard block works. However, because it fails to utilise the power of the circle, a "linear wedge" is, in my view, manifestly inefficient in terms of energy use. Moreover it is also risky. I discuss these points below:

"But it takes minimal energy to deflect an attack and deflection is about angle of interception not so much energy applied!"

This argument was put to me by my friend Marcel. It might be true, but under the pressure of a real attack you don't want to waste a single bit of that energy. You want to be 100% sure that punch isn't coming through.

Remember that in the context of an adrenaline-fueled surprise attack, things never go to plan. If you plan on 100% efficiency you might get 50%. And as for angle, the correct application of a circular deflection (ie. starting to turn as you contact) is very forgiving. Is it possible to slide a straight, non-spiralled/torqued wedge into an attack? Yes. Would I like to try that when facing a committed, full power right cross with an element of surprise? Not a chance!

Again, if you plan on attacking the angle at 12.5 degrees, under the stress of real combat I suspect you'll be lucky to attack it at something as close as 15 degrees. Luckily the arc/spiral of your forearm gives you latitude to adjust that angle, especially because you establish kinaesthetic feedback with the initial contact. The feedback is increased by the greater contact time given by curving/rolling across your attacker's forearm. In turn, this feedback allows you to adjust your angle by increasing/changing the pressure, amount of roll/curve, etc. You simply can't do this if you've attacked the "wedge" with a linear movement and already used up your spiral/torque in creating a (fairly pointless) impact on your opponent's forearm.

So it's not just a philosophical debate about "energy consumption". It is played out as a very real, tactile issue adversely affecting your chances of a successful deflection.

"But beginners find it much easier to use hard blocks!"

I've heard this argument from a variety of instructors. But this is not my experience. I find beginners intuitively understand circular deflection much better than they do "hard blocks".

Over 25 years of teaching I can say that the standard "gedan uke" (low block), which features a fairly linear movement with relatively little forearm rotation, has consistently been the hardest block to teach beginners. It is also the last block I've seen them apply successfully against attacks in a free-form environment.

Left to their own (untrained) devices, beginners default to palm pushing deflections. They don't default to hard blocks. And while they don't naturally default to circular deflections either, these are readily assimilated (unlike hard blocks). It makes sense after all: don't meet the force head on. Rather, intercept it and use a circle to redirect it. It might sound difficult to those who haven't used it before, but beginners pick it up - and start applying it in a free-form environment - surprisingly quickly; much more quickly than any "hard block" I've ever taught (and I've taught it all in my time - we all learn and develop).

So, I don't agree that hard blocks are some sort of "necessary step" or "precursor" to soft blocks. Rather, I think they are a blind alley. They teach bad habits that take a lot of "unlearning" (specifically the too-early torque or spiral). I'd rather start teaching beginners efficient technique, than teach them something that is manifestly inefficient. Anything you can learn from hard blocks can be learned from strikes, which use the same principles (eg. spiral of forearm finishing on impact). And because of the pressing need to ensure that your blocks work "first time - every time" you need to start inculcating the most efficient and effective movements from day one.

There simply is no reason to teach less efficient methodologies first. What I think the statement in the heading is really expressing is that beginners have a tendency to mistime their blocks or cut the wrong angle. If so, this should not be encouraged. It should be corrected. There should be no tacit approval of mistakes by labeling them as "different techniques". A block either utilises a circle to deflect or it doesn't. If it does, but doesn't do so efficiently, then it should be identified as something on which the student needs to work.

"But I use hard blocks to attack my opponent's limbs!"

Here is an argument posed by my friend Sanko. My answer to this argument is this: I don't believe in attacking people's limbs, unless you're talking an elbow break or something catastrophic like that (xingyi can use pi quan to dislocate the shoulder and I can show you some neat elbow smashes from Hong Yi Xiang's tang shao dao system!).

Otherwise, in my experience people high on adrenaline don't really notice pain in the forearms. Many's the time I've come out from an adrenaline-fueled bout only to realise that my arms are bruised and starting to swell like dead fish. I didn't notice anything at the time. I've even copped some awful shin smashes without feeling it fully - until after the fight. In the dojo you can sometimes feel even the smallest knock - but then again, you have no adrenaline etc. to distract you.6 So I think it is far more prudent to use force in blocks to do what they are designed to do - deflect attacks. You really need to use all of the force of the deflection as carefully as possible to guarantee your successful defence. The more efficient you are, the less the chances the attack will come through.

And if you're going to hit someone, I would hit a vital region; I simply don't adhere to a "war of attrition" theory, where you wear down your opponent with painful, non-disabling strikes.

Blogger Ymar Sakar has posted a couple of thousand words in commentary on my blogs in recent days on this topic alone. Even if I disagree with him about some matters, I agree in this respect: if you're going to strike, make it count. While I'm on the topic of "making it count", Ymar argues (I think somewhat curiously, given his credo of "disabling attacks") that:
    ... most of the targets those TMA systems are hitting isn’t the arm. It’s the radial nerve in the arm... A proper strike against that nerve deadens the nerve and causes temporary nerve damage, preventing a person from sending reliable signals to his hands and fingers. They also lose a lot of strength there, although adrenaline can make up for some of that with pure willpower. Adrenaline can ignore pain. It cannot ignore damage to the nervous system in terms of controlling organs or muscles."
I know the radial nerve only too well. I know exactly where to hit and how bad it can be - if you get it just right. You don't go 30 years in a "school of hard knocks" and not find out - the hard way. Practically any good, old-fashioned karateka knows all about this nerve and the main "weak spots" on your forearm.

But, with all my experience of copping "dead arms" and causing "dead arms", how do I rate the chances of me hitting, or getting hit in, an optimal spot on the radial nerve? Not highly. The body has a uncanny way of protecting its weaker points and making them less accessible. Regardless, even some of the nastier blows to my forearms haven't disabled me. It's caused me a nuisance, no more and no less. It certainly hasn't cause a disabling blow by any stretch. Optimal or not, radial nerve strikes just don't disable sufficiently.

Apart from the fact that this is my direct experience, I would have also thought it was obvious. So would I bank on a radial nerve strike? Not on your life. In striking it is imperative, as my friend Zach says, "go for the light switch" - ie. targets that shut your opponent down, not ones that make one part of one limb a bit numb. And by using blocks to strike the latter (relatively inconsequential) targets you also risk forgetting what the block is meant to do - stop you from getting your head knocked off!

Theory about radial nerves is all well and fine. My experience tells me emphatically that this theory is just that; fighters cop blows on the forearm every single day. I have yet to hear of a fight where the turning point was occasioned by a blow to the forearm. And I doubt I ever will.

"But I use hard blocks to break my opponent's structure!"

Yes, it might be advantageous to have your opponent unbalanced by a hard “block” that leaves your opponent staggering. But I question whether this is really likely to happen by blocking his or her arm. As I discuss in the video above, I train my students to move in a fluid, relaxed fashion. If an arm encounters resistance, it softens and yields. So if a person had to block my arm "hard", it might will affect my arm but not the rest of my body. I tell my students to think of the arm going floppy at this point. Only if the arm and body are stiffened into one rigid structure, can a hard block break that structure.

But perhaps this is not what the proponents of this theory mean. I suspect they are thinking of a block that doesn't just strike the arm - it pushes through the arm to strike/push the body. If you're doing that, then you're really pressing an attack after your block; in other words, you are executing a "simultaneous" block and strike with the same arm.

As I have discussed previously, the whole issue of "simultaneous" defences is an entirely different one and I don't propose to go over it again. Suffice it to say, with any "simultaneous" technique of this kind, you still have to cross the first, most obvious, hurdle before you can effect any sort of counter: you have to make sure your defence has been effective! And as I discuss above, this means ensuring that your block provides a sufficiently "bullet proof" defence, not one that is compromised by mixed/conflated objectives.

In other words, the torque or spiral of your forearm needs to be applied first to the task of deflection, then to the task of striking which occurs after the deflection has succeeded. Indeed, if the torque or spiral is timed to coincide with the block landing, none of the torque remains to power the strike when it lands on your opponent's head or body - all you have left is a "stiff arm" strike.

Conversely, if you time your forearm spiral so that it is happening as you deflect the strike, the finish might just coincide with your strike landing on your opponent's head or body.

Once again, the "soft" version wins, hands down!

Consider, for example, the hammer fist strike from karate can be applied as a strike (as I demonstrate at 4:43 in the above video) or as a deflection (see 4:53 in the video). If you want to deflect the attack and continue to strike the forehead, you will note that the deflection necessarily occurs before the final strike.

It is for this reason that I say it is not truly a "simultaneous" block and counter. Because the deflection occurs first, you will want to adopt the spiral or torque method I use for deflections so as to time the finish to coincide with the strike to the forehead. In other words, only the "soft" method enables you to use your torque as part of the final strike. If you do a hard block, you use up the torque on the attacker's forearm and you have none left for the strike to the head (see 5:01)!

To summarise, if you want your blocking arm to carry on and be used offensively, you have every reason to make the "blocking" part "soft" - not only to ensure an effective deflection, but also to ensure maximum force on your counter strike.

Deflection with minimal displacement works in your favour!

Regardless, let us assume that you want your block to unbalance your opponent by pushing into him. This is a laudable objective, to be sure. But it is arguably more advantageous to have your opponent fall into your counter punch after you've deftly caused his attack to slip away harmlessly. Using his forward momentum against him means that you are maximising the force being applied by your counter. If he is still flying forward after having been deflected, and you are punching him at the same time, the momentum of your punch is being added to the momentum of his body.

It's like 2 moving cars colliding head-on, rather than one crashing into a stationary vehicle or sideswiping a vehicle moving in the same direction. The head-on collision is clearly far more forceful than the others.

This is only possible where your deflection is unnoticed by your opponent until it is too late.7 In other words, deflecting a punch with minimal displacement (ie. the displacement needed to avoid you being hit and no more) is likely to be superior in terms of the total force being applied by your counter.

How deflection uses your flow to add speed and force

Last, hard blocks are all well and fine for countering - if you can execute them with a "simultaneous" counter (ie. either with the same arm, as discussed above, or 2 arms moving out together). But I hold it to be self-evident that you will more than likely face at least your initial attack under surprise, meaning that you are left with late initiative.

With late initiative, soft blocking at least allows you to connect the block and counter into one flowing movement. That flow even allows you to use the opponent’s force against him, by feeding the momentum of the circular deflection on one arm back into the striking arm.

This enables me to use my body as a synergistic whole, as I demonstrate in the adjacent gif. (I'm using the Naha te chudan uke - but he same principle applies with the naihanchi chudan uke.) In other words, it simultaneously:
  1. minimizes the delay between block and counter by connecting them into one flowing sequence; and
  2. uses the flow to add more force to your counter.
[For more on this topic, see my article "The importance of flow".] By contrast, when you apply a deflection with an impact, it does more than “stop” your opponent:
    It also stops your blocking arm - in fact it stops your feet, your whole body!
In any combination you then divorce your block from anything that follows - meaning less use of “whole body momentum” (to add force) and the dreaded separate “block + counter” which my friend Zach so (rightly) dislikes and which Choki Motobu rightly said “isn’t bujutusu”. It isn’t just slower and less powerful: such disconnected techniques don’t work at all!

Conversely, synergistic whole body movements manifestly work, even when they involve multiple connected movements. Just ask a boxer who weaves under a punch and then throws a knockout cross as he exits the weave. This might be late initiative comprising multiple movments - but they are connected so that they are part of the same continuous loop. And even if, like me, you don't favour boxing as a method, you can't deny that it works! The flow or connectivity underpinning this synergistic use of the body is stifled with hard, “stopping” blocks. So in my view hard blocks don't comprise a good policy - unless of course:
  1. you’re fortunate enough to have succeeded in executing a simultaneous counter; and
  2. that counter is conclusive.
I for one wouldn’t be putting all my eggs into that one basket. As I’ve frequently argued (and demonstrated by real life examples), you’re more likely than not to be left with late initiative. And soft deflection is the king of late initiative. The rest? That’s attack. Really, we all know attack (even if some peddlers of various "reality-based" programs insultingly insist that we don't). Now what about focusing on defence for a change?

"But it's all about an attacking mentality!"

This argument has been put to me by any number of "attack-centric" martial artists, ranging from my friend Marcel to blogger Ymar Sakar. Marcel notes:
    "Shorin ryu is about attack. Uke waza is about receiving an opponent's technique with an attack of your own. Hard blocking is about an attacking mentality."
But what are you trying to do with your "hard block"? Put aside general, theoretical mindsets for a moment and come back to specifics. Consider an actual "blocking" technique. How will it be used/applied? How does this "mentality" translate to actual fighting method? I ask these questions because, whatever your "mentality preference", attack and defence are not the same.

Yes, attack is often a good defence, but only because you are either "beating your opponent to the punch" (ie. disabling your attacker before his strikes have landed or even been launched) or overwhelming an attack so pathetically weak that it did not warrant any defence.

Otherwise, attack and defence function differently. And in order to so function, they have different technical requirements. I have shown some of these differences in this article: in particular you will note that the spiral or rotation of the forearm, and the alignment of the forearm at impact, are subtly, but significantly different as between strikes and blocks. Ignoring those differences doesn't make them go away. So what is it you're trying to do when you use your blocks "as an attack of your own"? It can only mean one of 3 things:
  1. you don't bother blocking attacks because your own attacks will land before his will; or
  2. you use your hard blocks to strike his limbs - necessarily meaning that you've adopted a manifestly less efficient defense technique that doesn't use the power of the circle (and hence requires more force) and that presents a weak "single bone" as the contact surface - all in the name of a "mentality"; or
  3. you use soft blocks, but you do so assertively, feeding into a counter either simultaneously or as soon as possible.
The first rationalisation is clearly illogical. It ignores the need for defensive technique, all in the name of "my attack skills are too good". What nonsense!

The second rationalisation is confused. Just because you want to be assertive and proactive in your approach doesn't mean you should use less efficient technique! To do so is to let blinkered dogma triumph over logic. The third rationalisation is just common sense and is totally consistent with my argument. As I said at the outset, presenting a strong fulcrum for deflection and "hard blocking" are 2 different things. To be effective, all blocks need to be done assertively and with a sufficiently strong platform. This is what underlies the need to drive into the attack in order to wedge it successfully. But it is important to note that this is not "attack". It is "assertive defence".

Yes, counters should generally be launched as soon as possible - if not simultaneously. But when have I ever advocated otherwise? Acknowledging the necessary technical differences between attack and defence are not the same as saying that you can or should "dispense with attack". On the contrary I am all in favour of an assertive, aggressive mindset when facing an attack. I am not ignoring any variable. It is those who wish to conflate attack and defence who are ignoring variables - in particular the need to understand that the necessary platform for good defensive technique (ie. evasion and deflection) is not the same as the necessary platform for good offensive technique (ie. punching, kicking and other striking).

Conclusion

Most "blocks" in the traditional martial arts act as deflections - not literal blocks. Unless you're meeting fist to fist, that is almost always the case against any punch. The primary task of these blocks is to occupy the centre line, displacing the attack. Beginners will clearly have less efficiency in blocking and as a consquence they will experience more impact due to timing and angle errors. However these are not "hard" blocks. They are inexperienced blocks. "Hard" blocks are the result of a deliberate strategy of using blocks in the same manner as strikes. This is often done in the name of "attack is the best form defence".

However this is where the tail starts to wag the dog. Because the methodology for striking and the methodology of deflection are 2 different things. Using the methodology of attack in a defensive technique can work, but it is manifestly less efficient and, I believe, less effective. In particular an attack methodology produces a spiral or torque, and alignment of the forearm at impact, that is fundamentally at odds with the principle of deflection.

And hard blocks also interrupt the natural flow of your techniques by effecting a focused blow during a transitional phase, ie. the set-up phase preceding your counter, when the need for mobility and fluidity is never higher. It is my view that the arguments in favour of hard blocks are based on flawed premises, principally a failure to consider the physics of deflection. They also ignore (or at least sidestep) the issue of how to build a good defence, preferring to focus on the principle of "attack, attack, attack!" As I've frequently argued, attack skills are definitely necessary. But so are defence skills. Ignoring the issue won't make it go away.

Accordingly it is my strong advice that those who practice hard blocks should consider the Chinese counterpart arts, particularly those that use spiral or torque actions in deflections (eg. wing chun). They could take "leaves out of their books" with nothing to lose and everything to gain. After all, the kata moves would be identical. Even the bunkai (analysis) of the kata might be the same. All that might change is a few less bruises on the forearms. And some more efficiently executed deflections.

Footnotes

1. For that matter, I can't remember the last time I saw a block (other than a rather primitive "slapping" parry) in karate kumite and taekwondo competitions. They certainly don't bother with them in most dojo sparring I've seen. So I wonder why the proponents of hard blocks are so vehemently supportive of them. They never use them! By "use", I don't include their use in the rather artificial "ippon kumite" (one step sparring), where your attacker conveniently freezes after attacking so as to let you complete your counters!

2. As I argue in my article "Enter the front snap kick", I suspect that blocks will, one day, make their way into the MMA arsenal, just as front snap kicks have done. It will take more time for a such a subtle defensive technique to be adopted (attacks are easier to understand) but with so much on the line, I think fighters will, sooner or later, give blocks (or rather, deflections) the examination they deserve.

3. Consider the debate at this forum where "Bossman" says:
    "I've taught in the security industry for over 30 years and if I took only a handful of my students, their fight record would be in the thousands - and no one has ever broken an arm with a block or heard of someone doing so. All the experienced guys work on sensitising and using curves spirals and circles on touch... There is always a curve on any movement and you simply match it, then there is no forceful collision. Original Kyokushin worked on this premise, as did the late Ashihara who broke away from Kyokushin. Thigh kicks are usually met with a circular motion of the leg disrupting the kickers balance and then destroying the kickers knee with the same or other leg."
4. Without a forearm rotation you simply have too little impact force to "bump" your attack. So if you don't use the rotation, you must allow for greater contact time, resulting in a push (see my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy"). In this respect, pushing deflections are a lot like soft deflections in as much as they move along the attacking limb. But, as we shall see, pushing deflections are a lot more like hard blocks in every other respect. A pushing "wedge" (ie. using nothing more than a sufficient angle to drive into, and deflect, the attack) is such a "push", except it is a forward push - into the attack. Any impact felt in the block is typically generated by your opponent's attack striking you - not the reverse - and is a by-product of you choosing a less than ideal angle of interception.

5. A palm deflection is an example of a hard "pushing block" if it doesn't feature rotation of the palm (cf. deflections like jut sau in wing chun or what I call "sokumen te awase" which do involve a rotation of the palm). Straight palm depressions or presses typically intersect at 90 degrees to the attack, comprising downward or sideways pushes. The most obvious examples are the downwards palm press (known as "te osae uke" in Japanese) or the straight sideways palm push (known as "te nagashi uke" in Japanese and featuring in the Seikichi Toguchi 2 person versions of gekisai kata). Sometimes these are performed with a bit of wrist-generated slap, using that force instead of the pushing action. Either way, they are "hard" blocks under my definition.

6. Again, consider "Bossman's" comments from the previously mentioned forum where he says:
    "In the Dojo students might stop when their arms are hurt, when the adrenalins up for real and if they're on drugs or alcohol they won't even feel it."
7. From that same forum, consider "JohnL's" comment:
    "When someone attacks me, I consider a good block as one that redirects the attack so that it isn't going to hit me done softly enough so that my opponent doesn't realize it's been redirected until it's too late."
Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic