Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why block with the forearm (rather than the palm)?


One of the most common queries I've had over the years from combat sports practitioners and eclectic martial artists is why traditional martial arts use the forearm as a blocking/deflecting surface. Why not use the palm?

Indeed the palm is a useful tool in "blocking" (ie. deflection/parrying and sometimes even actual blocking/stopping). However what is inherent in the question is the assumption that the palm is fundamentally more useful than the forearm. The forearm is often seen as "brutish" or inelegant compared with the sensitivity afforded by the palm.

Yet the traditional martial arts are full of forearm blocks. They are common throughout the Asian martial systems. They are even a well-established part of Western boxing traditions, going back as far as Ancient Greece right up to the more modern bareknuckle boxing era. [Consider the adjacent image as one of many examples one can find. As a side note, take a look at hip chamber being used!]

So what's going on here? Why do the older, more traditional martial arts make use of the forearm where its use is almost completely ignored in modern combat sports? The answer lies, to a large degree, in considering the purpose/goal of traditional martial arts as civilian defence systems - especially the range in which techniques are going to be typically employed.

Step 1: understanding the range for which "blocks" are designed

Forearms blocks are designed to be applied in the melee range - ie. the range where most civilian defence encounters play out. This is the "toe to toe" range that combat sports practitioners enter for brief, furious, exchanges. In this range a punch from either side can land. Half a step in gives you elbow and standing grappling range while half a step out gives you full kicking range. It is within this volatile and dangerous range that forearms come into their own as defensive tools.

Step 2: understanding the bareknuckle guard

To understand why this is so, the first thing one needs to consider is the position in which hands are likely to be held in the melee range - which is the bareknuckle guard.

This is typically held further out from the face than in combat sports. Why? For 2 reasons:
  1. Like a goal keeper in soccer facing a lone, breakaway striker racing in towards you, the last thing you want to do in the melee range is wait for the attack. You want to go out and meet the attack as soon as possible. A guard kept at the face in the melee range means that your arms are not extended; you can't dominate or control by trapping, grappling and striking. Any block you effect will be "last second", picking the attack away just before it lands on your face. You really need to be intercepting attacks early - which means you want your guard further from your face.
  2. Unlike combat sports, civilian defence encounters don't feature gloves. The last thing you want is to have your own fists driven into your face. This can be almost as bad as being punched full in the face.

I discuss the use of forearms, as opposed to palms, for blocking

Step 3: understanding reaction time

Having established that you are likely to be in the melee range with your guard away from your face, the next thing to look at is reaction time. It takes most young adults at least 0.2 second to react to an attack. In fact, if you look at the video above at around 0:53, you'll note my student Yi throwing a punch at me without me expecting it. I've slowed it down by the millisecond and noted when I start to flinch. My flinch reaction starts at exactly 0.17 sec after the attack begins. In the adjacent image you will note that at 0.2 sec the movement of my head in the flinch reaction is just noticeable.

In that 0.2 sec my student's fist has travelled quite a long way towards my head - over 3/4 of the way. And here's the crunch:
    When your guard is up in the bareknuckle way, your attacker's fist will be well past your own hands by the time you react.
What this means is that you simply don't have time to pull your hand back and use it to deflect or parry the punch down.

Your forearm is, however, ideally placed to deflect the attack, as you will see from the adjacent images. Contrary to some views expressed on the internet, you don't need to be The Flash to use a forearm or other deflection. You forearm only needs to move a matter of an inch or so to deflect a punch. Given that you have only a fraction of a second to react, this is a good thing.

Greater surface area: an added bonus

The added bonus of using a forearm for deflection is that you have a greater deflection surface. The palm is relatively small and it is easy to miss a punch, particularly if you're trying to pick the attack off at the last moment by targeting the fist. The forearm is, by contrast, a large and forgiving surface that operates by deflecting your attacker's equally large and accommodating forearm.

Stronger structure: another added bonus

Another benefit in using the forearm as opposed to the palm is that of structural strength. By this I am not referring to the potential to "break something" when blocking. Rather, I am talking about the ability of a particular body part to act as a strong and stable fulcrum for deflecting attacks.

It is a biomechanical fact that the closer you come to your body's core, the stronger the structure. So a forearm will necessarily provide a more stable fulcrum for deflecting attacks than a palm which is at the extremity of your body. A door serves as a good analogy here: if you want to open a door it is very much harder to do so by pushing at the hinge than it is pushing at the handle. Similarly, your palm/hand can be moved very easily by a strong force, where your forearm will be far less resistant to that force.

Soft distance sparring and false feedback

So what accounts for the popularity of palm deflections over forearm ones? I think "soft" distance sparring bears a lot of responsibility. When you're bouncing up and down, darting in with shallow penetration "tag" punches, forearm blocks become a non issue. At that range they are, quite simply, impossible. Any attempt to use the forearm invariably results in catching attacks at the fist or wrist - not in the "Goldilocks zone" which is mid-forearm.

By contrast, palm deflections remain viable in such distance sparring, hence their ascendancy.

However you need to be aware that what works in a light-contact distance sparring environment will not always work against committed, melee range blows with full penetration. I have personally reverted to forearm blocks when attempts at palm blocks have resulted in me being pummelled. You need to put the feedback of light sparring in perspective, otherwise it can be quite misleading.

A video showing the sport karate reverse punch. Note the distance from the target and the shallow penetration of the punch - both quite unlike real confrontations in the melee. The shallow depth of the punch means the demonstrator doesn't even have to form a proper fist. Forearm blocks have no real application to sport karate of this kind (where they have application in karate as a civilian defence art).


I don't want to give the impression that palm/hand deflections are not useful. They are, and I use them all the time. They are particularly useful at a greater range or when you are using them to trap and control. In the latter case you need the finesse and fine motor skills your palms afford. However forearm deflections are supremely useful too - especially in the tight melee range of civilian defence encounters. It is there, when your guard is passed, that you will find the need to use your forearms to intercept and deflect incoming attacks.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, May 20, 2011

Back to basics: punching

Introduction: the basic chudan zuki (chest level punch)

Following my recent "back to basics" theme, I thought I'd touch on that most archetypal basic of karate (and many Chinese martial arts), namely the corkscrew punch.

The basic punch is often aimed at chest level, however this should not be confused for a striking target. Rather it is a basic angle relevant to teaching brand-new beginners. In particular, beginners need to learn to punch in a straight line (ie. without unintended sideways deviations or up and down wave-like movements). They also need to learn to punch without any other extraneous movement. The basic chest-level thrust (chudan choku zuki) is ideally suited to teaching these concepts - both from the teacher's and student's perspectives.

Step 1

Start with one hand (in this case the right) in the pull back position, the other (in this case the left) in the finishing position.

For more information on the pullback, see my article "Chambering punches".

The finishing position is achieved when your left arm is fully extended, your palm is down and your index and middle knuckles point at the target, which in this case is at the height and position of your imaginary opponent's right nipple.

The shoulder should be relaxed and rounded, however you should not be leaning into the punch (your shoulder position is identical to that when you are doing push ups - see my article "Punching: alignment and conditioning").

Care must be taken to ensure a correct fist shape. For more on this topic, see my article "A fistful of details" (on how to make a fist).

Care must also be taken to ensure the correct alignment of the knuckles, wrist and forearm. For more on these topics, see my articles "Punching: alignment and conditioning" and "Punching: alignment with the forearm".

Step 2

Start punching out with your right fist while simultaneously pulling back your left. As your right elbow clears the body, palm up, your right fist is being pulled back in a "vertical fist position" as indicated in the adjacent image.

Step 3

Continue punching with your right fist which moves into the "vertical fist" position when it is approximately one fist away from its fullest extension. Simultaneously pull the left fist back further so that the palm is up.

Step 4

Punch out the last 15 - 20 cm with your right fist, turning it over fully so that it is palm down. Simultaneously complete the pullback with your left.

This will mean that you have completed a full "corkscrew" action with your punch. For more information on this topic, see my article "Why "corkscrew" your punch".

The next steps

Once a beginner is comfortable with the basic punch, we (in the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts) move the student on to variations - eg. using the hip to throw a reverse punch (as my brother Nenad demonstrates below).

Nenad demonstrates the reverse punch

After these and other "formal" punches are mastered, the student is free to punch with a greater degree of "informality" so that punches are ultimately thrown in a manner that resembles (but is not identical to) punches in combat sports such as boxing. It is really only at the basic levels that traditional martial arts punching appears "different" to more eclectic punching. It is important not to confuse basics with how punches are ultimately intended to be applied.

Further reading:
Hitting harder: physics made easy
Karate punches vs. boxing punches
Kime: soul of the karate punch

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Back to basics: stances


Some time ago I wrote the article "The role of traditional stances", however I have never attempted to describe these in any real detail (although I have previously discussed stances and stepping in stances in various articles, eg. "Northern and southern kung fu, karate and the question of range").

So following my last post about basic blocks, I thought I'd describe how to assume the basic stances of karate (and most other traditional martial arts):

Heisoku dachi (attention stance)

Feet together, weight evenly distributed.

Musubi dachi (V stance)

Heels together, feet out at angles, weight evenly distributed.

Heiko dachi (parallel stance)

Feet parallel, shoulder width, weight evenly distributed.

Hachiji dachi (figure 8 stance)

Feet angled outwards, shoulder width, weight evenly distributed.

Zenkutsu dachi / gong bu (forward stance)

Feet shoulder width, weight 70% on front foot, 30% on back, front shin vertical, outside edge of front foot pointing forwards, back foot angled outwards.

Sanchin dachi / sanzhan bu (3 battles stance)

Feet shoulder width, weight evenly distributed, heel of front foot and toes of back foot on the same line, outside edge of back foot pointing forwards, front foot angled slightly inwards.

A video on sanchin dachi

Further reading:
The naming of sanchin
Sanchin in the Chinese arts"
Naha te and its Chinese cousins

Neko ashi dachi (cat stance)

Front foot in line with the middle of your back foot, one foot distance between the heel of your front foot and the line drawn by the toes of your back foot, weight 90% on back foot, 10% on front pointing forward, heel lifted, back foot angled outwards.

Further reading:
The enigma of tiger mouth in cat stance

Shiko dachi (sumo stance)

Feet angled outwards, 1½ to 2 shoulder widths, weight evenly distributed, shins vertical.

Kiba dachi (horse stance)

Feet pointing forwards, 1½ to 2 shoulder widths, weight evenly distributed, knees oriented naturally in line with the feet.

Further reading:
The 'naihanchi stance'",

Kokutsu dachi (back stance)

Front foot in line with the heel of the back foot, 1½ to 2 shoulder widths in length, weight distributed 60% on the back leg, 40% on the front.

Renoji dachi (tick stance)

Front foot in line with the middle of your back foot, one foot distance between the heel of your front foot and the line drawn by the toes of your back foot, weight evenly distributed, front foot pointing forward, back foot angled outwards (a "lazy cat stance").

"Open" zenkutsu dachi / bai bu

Oriented like a zenkutsu dachi except that the front foot is angled outwards.

Seisan dachi / zhan bu

Feet are one fist distance apart, 1½ shoulder widths in length, weight distributed slightly to the back leg, front foot pointing forwards and the back foot angled outwards.

Further reading:
Xingyi stepping vs. karate stepping
Sanchin in the Chinese arts"
Naha te and its Chinese cousins

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, May 16, 2011

Back to basics: blocking


Over the years I have written extensively about various basic techniques, but it recently struck me that I have never sought to include a kind of "online lesson" of such techniques in my blog.

Accordingly I will make this entry about "how to perform basic blocks".

You will note that I generally use the term "block" but this is a force of habit: a more correct term would be "deflection", "parry" or "interception". Generally traditional blocks are used to intercept and redirect attacks rather than stop them dead in their tracks. In karate and other Japanese/Okinawan arts these techniques are classified as "uke". "Uke" comes from the Japanese word "ukeru" meaning "to receive".

In this article I shall focus on the 4 main forearm blocks. I propose to deal in later articles with the question of why the forearm is the principle tool for deflections (rather than say, the palm).

Age uke: the rising block

In traditional martial arts, the most common block is the rising forearm block. In karate this is called "age uke" ("age" meaning "rising") or sometimes "jodan uke" (upper level block).

A classical age uke is is performed in the following way:

Step 1

Start with one hand (in this case the right) in the pull back position, the other (in this case the left) in the finishing position.

The finishing position is achieved when your forearm is angled down from the hand to the elbow, and away from your head (ie. your fist should be further from your head/body than your elbow).

The middle of your forearm should be in line with your head and at least 2 fists away from your head.

The forearm should be rotated so that the fist is angled at about 45º towards your opponent.

Take care to tense the little finger of your fist to ensure a rounded edge to your blocking forearm.

Step 2

Bring your left elbow down, and at the same time bring your right arm across and in front of your left lower forearm to make a cross.

Step 3

Raise your right arm into the finishing position, taking care to delay the rotation of the forearm into its finishing position until the very last moment.

Simultaneously, pull your left hand back into the full pullback position.

The most common mistake people make in performing age uke is to have the forearm too close to the head at its finishing position. This has the simultaneous problems of leaving the deflection/interception too late and also too close to your face.

The video below describes the age uke in greater detail:

A video in which I discuss the correct form of the basic age uke

Further reading:
Reinventing the wheel: back to the rising block
Two for the price of one: more about karate "blocks"

Chudan uke: the chest-level block

The chudan uke or chest-level block is a bit of a misnomer because the technique can be applied against high-level attacks just as easily as it can against chest-level. I suppose the "chudan" label is applied because it has a wider scope that encompasses the upper chest (but not the abdomen lower than the line drawn at the elbows).

In karate, chudan uke has 2 main incarnations, as I discuss in the video below, namely the Naha te version (which is a deflection utilising a circle at 45º to your chest) and the shorin version (which utilises the rotation of the forearm to effect a deflection).

A video in which I discuss the 2 main versions of chudan uke

At the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts we teach the Naha te version first. It is is performed in the following way:

Step 1

Start with one hand (in this case the left) in the pull back position, the other (in this case the right) in the finishing position.

The finishing position is achieved when your right elbow is one fist away from your ribs, your right fist is at your shoulder height and there is a 90º angle in your elbow and your forearm is angled at 45º to relative to your chest slightly outwards relative to your elbow.

[Note that in this position, called "chudan kamae", you have created what is know as a "Clayton's gap; there appears to be a straight line of attack from your opponent's left jab, but this is illusory. See the article "The karate 'kamae' or guard".]

Step 2

Bring your right fist back towards your chest and simultaneously bring your left arm out at a 45º angle relative to both your chest and the side to make a cross. You should take care to ensure that your left forearm goes in front of your right forearm.

Step 3

While pulling back your right arm, continue pushing your left fist outward on the 45º plane relative to your chest, but with a circular motion motion so that your left fist moves to the centreline.

At maximum extension the middle knuckles of your upturned fist will be at your own eye level.

Step 4

Continue pulling back your right hand and inscribing the arc with your left hand until both reach the finishing position.

It is very important to note that the Naha te version of the chudan uke is not performed as a "smash"; in other words it is not designed to knock an attack sideways. Rather it is intended to intercept and deflect an attack.

Nor is there any reason to pause between the block and your counter. Rather, you should block and counter in one, continuous, rolling manner as illustrated in the above gif.

As I have foreshadowed, the shorin chudan uke is performed with a rotation or "spiral" of the forearm. I describe this deflection in the preceding video, but in essence it uses the "spiralling" action of the forearm to deflect rather than a movement of the whole forearm along a 45º plane.

There are pluses and minuses to both versions of chudan uke. It is even possible to combine them both into one movement, and many have done so. However, as I argue in my article "Chudan uke: to spiral or not to spiral" it is neither necessary nor appropriate to conflate the 2 in every instance and you run the risk of never understanding either properly if you do so.

Further reading:
Dilution of techniques: chudan uke
Two for the price of one: more about karate "blocks"

Hiki uke: the pulling block

Hiki uke ("pulling" block) is also known as "kake uke" ("hooking" block). It is another "chest-level" deflection that is capable of being applied against high-level attacks just as easily. In terms of performance, the hiki uke is really quite the same as the Naha te chudan uke, except that both hands are turned over so that the palm is facing down.

It is important to note that at all times the hand doing the primary movement (the main deflection) is parallel with the forearm which is at a 45º angle to your chest.

At its furthest extension the 2 main knuckles (the ones you punch with) of the extended hand come to eye height.

At the finishing point, those same knuckles are at the height of your shoulder and, as with chudan uke, your elbow is one fist distance from your chest.

I discuss the performance and application of hiki uke in the videos below:

I discuss the performance of the basic hiki uke

I discuss the application of the "secondary part" of the hiki uke

I discuss the application of hiki uke against more realistic techniques (as opposed to the very basic karate punches against which it is usually applied in practice)

Gedan uke: the downward block

As with chudan uke, there are 2 main versions of gedan uke or downward block: the Naha te version and the shorin version.

At the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts we teach the shorin version first since beginners usually find it easier to perform and understand. The main difference between the 2 versions is that the shorin version is relatively linear, while the Naha te version employs a circular movement.

The shorin gedan uke is performed in the following way:

Step 1

Start with one hand (in this case the left) in the pull back position, the other (in this case the right) in the finishing position.

The finishing position is achieved when your right arm is pointing downwards in line with your right shoulder, approximately 3 fists away from your right thigh.

Step 2

Bring your left hand up to the right side of your chin.

At the same time bring your right arm in to the centreline so that your right fist is covering your groin.

Step 3

Simultaneously bring your left arm down into the finishing position while your right arm is withdrawn into a pullback.

It is sometimes useful for brand-new beginners to imagine scraping something off their right forearm with the left (and vice versa when performing the movement with the other hand).

The video below describes how to perform the Naha te version which we call "gedan barai" (low sweep) in order to distinguish it from the shorin "gedan uke". Essentially, the gedan barai is differentiated only by the circular path of the primary arm from outside to in and then down.

It is important to note that the primary arm in gedan barai has an additional, important, primary application, and that is as a low strike ("gedan barai uchi") following a soto uke deflection, as I discuss in the video below:

I discuss the use of gedan barai as a counter strike following the use of a soto uke deflection

As with all other traditional "blocks" there are primary and a secondary applications which I discuss in the video below:

I discuss the "secondary" applicaton of gedan uke and gedan barai

Further reading:
Soto uke: unfairly maligned cornerstone of traditional deflection
Why blocks DO work

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic