Saturday, July 30, 2011

“Check your brain in here

Occasionally folks who come to try out my taijiquan (t'ai chi ch'uan) class will "turn up their noses".

"It's too complicated," they say in an accusing manner, as if I've deliberately tried to make them look stupid by giving them an impossible task or required an "anal" level of detail.

They want to "flow" or "move their spirit" or "be one with their mind and body" or some other vague new-age concept. They identify taijiquan with such concepts and they expect to be "naturally good at it". Experts even. All without having tried it before. After all, they might have gone to some qi gong (breathing exercise) classes, meditation courses or something similar, where all they had to do was sit or stand, “breathe”, chant mantras and maybe do some basic macro body movements like swing their arms loosely. And that was all "natural".

Or maybe they went to a yoga class where their genetic flexibility made them feel automatically "at home". The activity came "easy". Even if there was a certain level of physical difficulty (and even if they happen to acknowledge that there is certainly much, much more to learn about the finer details of yoga), they didn't feel awkward or "out of their comfort zone" ("unlike that poor middle-aged man in the corner who couldn't touch his knees, never mind his toes!"). They weren't "beginners" (or, at least, they didn't feel like beginners).

But invariably when I turn around after demonstrating, I see that the people who have such attitudes are the least likely to be doing anything remotely approximating what I've shown: They have the wrong foot forward, wrong arm forward. They are moving in the wrong direction and at the wrong angle and speed. Basically they are likely to be doing the exact opposite of what I've shown. And all the while, they have disdainful, even disgusted, looks on their faces. They come expecting to feel an immediate sense of achievement - superiority even. They came to the class expecting to be able to "check their brains in at the front counter". Instead what do they find? They have to use their brains after all - and on some "tedious sequences" and "stupid details" that make them feel "uncomfortable"! For shame!

It is not unkind to say that such people are, in fact, useless at taijiquan - but not because of a lack of coordination or other talent. They are useless because they won't even try. When they find that it is not something that they can do without effort, they get cranky. And I get the blame - even though I’ve spent the entire lesson patiently explaining, demonstrating, correcting etc. (at a pace that is suitable for them).

The same applies to more physical/fighting styles of traditional martial arts; these might be targeted at a different "audience" but they face the same objections: "It's too complicated - I know I can fight, so why are you making me look bad by giving me these useless things to do that I can't do (and no reasonable person would want to do)? This is so lame."

Such a response is particularly galling for a teacher like me who pours heart and soul into each lesson and always gives students the benefit of the doubt. But in the end I know you can’t take it personally. You have to nod, smile and carry on. As my teacher said to me many years ago: "Studying the martial arts was never meant to be a popular pastime." Such study takes a lot of patience, hard work and dedication - which are rare, particularly in today's consumer-based, "instant gratification" culture.

So I tell new students: "Don't expect to check your brain in at the front counter". If that is your intention, there really isn't any point in turning up in the first place.

In this respect, studying a traditional martial art is no different to studying calligraphy, fine art or a musical instrument. You wouldn't expect to turn up at a violin lesson and "just start playing". And if you failed to “just start playing” you wouldn't blame the activity for being "too complicated" or your teacher for being “anal about detail”.

In the same vein, don't expect a traditional martial art to be something you can do without expending both physical and mental effort. It necessarily involves "gong fu" (功夫) - expertise in a skill achieved through hard work and practice. If you don't have sufficient interest, patience, diligence and perseverance to acquire martial skill, acknowledge this - don't blame the art or the teacher.

My friend Russ Smith recently reminded me of this quote by Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC):
    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”
This is worth remembering. Training in the martial arts involves years of focussed, habitual activity. It doesn't involve an activity where you can "switch off" (eg. in the way that you can when you listen to your iPod while pounding a treadmill) – however popular, beneficial and laudable such an activity might be. Studying a martial art requires your undivided mental attention and your best physical endeavor.

It requires you to be out of your comfort zone - because that is the only time you are really learning.

If this isn't for you, be honest and acknowledge it. We all have things in which we don't particularly want to invest time - so there's no shame in this. The only shame arises when you try to blame someone else for your lack of interest, patience or diligence in acquiring a particular skill – or for the fact that acknowledging this "makes you feel uncomfortable".

However if you come to one of my lessons expecting to be out of your comfort zone - prepared to apply yourself mentally and physically - I can promise you that you that, whatever your circumstances, you will get the benefits. Unlike learning the violin, you will be "playing something" by the end of the first lesson. After a month or 2, you might even be "playing a full tune"! This is because martial arts involves considerably more "macro" movement than playing a musical instrument. It might not be easier to perfect, but it is easier to "get started". And I can promise you that I will be doing my absolute best to help you every step of the way.

On the other hand, if you "check your brain in at the front counter" I can guarantee that you won't learn a single thing, regardless of my efforts. You'll have wasted your time. And mine.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, July 22, 2011

Internal arts fact and fallacy: double weighting

Introduction

There is a classic principle in the internal arts (specifically taijiquan) commonly referred to as “the rule against double weighting”. To me, this is one of the most misunderstood principles associated with the internal arts.

Many proponents of this principle will insist that the body should never “double-weighted”. In other words, weight is always biased on one leg or the other, not distributed equally over both.


A drill I teach beginners who are learning the Chen Pan Ling "99" taijiquan form

The fallacy: your body inevitably passes through double-weighted points!

In literal terms the “rule against double weighting” is clearly a fallacy. Consider for a moment that you will, sooner or later, have to transfer your body weight from one leg to another. And as you do so your body will have to pass through a point where your weight is, however transiently, evenly distributed over both legs.

In Chen Pan Ling taijiquan we acknowledge this fact. There is even a “50/50” stance (shock horror!). I have no difficulty with this. The 50/50 stance is a transitional point in transferring weight from the front foot to the back. In our taijiquan it occurs in the movements commonly called “play the lute” and “grasp bird’s tail”. 1 It is not “held”, but its existence at a point in time is acknowledged nonetheless.

It seems to me that this interpretation of the “rule against double weighting” springs from a (flawed) static analysis of arts like taijiquan – ie. as if they comprised a series of postures. In fact, as I’ve outlined in my article “Taiji and yoga: poles apart?” internal arts like taijiquan are about movement – ie. the transition between “postures”. They are not about the “postures” themselves.

So, for example, the taiji sequence known as “single whip” is not a “posture” as per yoga. It is a series of movements. It ends with the characteristic “single whip posture” but this is not a posture to be “held”; it is merely “passed through”.

The “rule against double weighting” however is commonly regarded as assuming the very opposite; it is seen as sternly instructing you not to “assume a particular posture that has your weight evenly distributed”!

Is the horse stance incompatible with "the rule against double weighting"?

As a consequence, the “rule against double weighting” results in many internal arts schools supposedly never using/teaching “mabu” (known as "kiba/shiko dachi" in Japanese) – ie. horse stance. This is because that stance is manifestly “double-weighted” – at least when one examines the stance statically.

However, as I’ve discussed, I don’t see any reason for thinking that horse stance, or any other stance, is incompatible with taijiquan or any of the internal arts – precisely because stances are never used statically.

So it should come as no surprise that in the Chen Pan Ling system the horse stance is very often used. It might not appear very often in xingyiquan2, but it certainly does appear in baguazhang and in taijiquan (in respect of the latter, think of the move known as “wave hands like clouds”).

Again, the horse stance is not “held” – it is passed through. I’m sure this occurs even in those schools that rigidly maintain a “rule against double weighting”; if you slow down video performances of their forms, you note that practitioners routinely pass through positions that are, for all intents and purposes, a horse stance (or, for that matter, the Chen Pan Ling “50/50” stance, etc.). All that differentiates these schools is that they won’t acknowledge, or aren’t aware of, this fact!

But even if we removed all the "even distribution" stances, we are left with one, most salient, fact: most of the time that you are practising taiji, bagua or xingyi you are "double-weighted". True, your weight might not be evenly distributed - but it is distributed to both legs to some extent (eg. 60/40, 70/30, 90/10 etc.). Let's just say that you don't spend most of your time on one leg (ie. you aren't truly "single-weighted")!

“Preservation of momentum”: what I think the “rule against double weighting” really means

So, given the obvious fallacy of the “rule against double weighting” in terms of its application to taijiquan (or baguazhang or xingyiquan), what can this principle be driving at? Rather than being about “no double weighting” I think it is more accurately described as being about “no stopping”.3 In other words, it's okay to move through a "double-weighted" point, but not to linger there. Think about it:

In the internal arts you don't literally spend your time being "single-weighted". What do you spend your time doing? Moving from one leg to another! In other words, you spend most of your time transferring from one single-weighted position to another single-weighted position. So the rule does relate to "single-weightedness" - just not in the way people assume, using a static analysis.

In the art of taijiquan, weight is continually being transferred from one leg to another. In baguazhang forward movement is continually being redirected into a coil that loops around and resumes the movement in the opposite direction. In xingyi you “restart” your momentum after each focussed “fajin” strike by lifting your front foot and “dropping” directly into another step.

This is all in accordance with a principle I prefer to call “preservation of momentum”. Under this principle you should harness your natural momentum and use to its full potential. If you are moving forward, you should harness your forward momentum, not fight it. Ditto with moving backward, sideways, up or down. In other words your body is like the water in a river - never pausing, but flowing (as one would expect of Daoist/Taoist arts).

You shouldn’t try to resist or halt the natural/optimal flow of your momentum; this is clumsy, costly and leaves you “flat-footed” and open to attack. Rather you try to use your natural/optimal lines of flow to your advantage – both to make efficient your deflection and evasion and add force to your attack.4 And the more senior you get, the better your timing so as to ensure that your momentum is “going where you want it to go” in the first place!


The first section of the Chen Pan Ling "99" taijiquan form

Examples of “preservation of momentum” in application

So, for example, let us assume that you’ve executed a committed front kick (ie. not one that snaps back, but one that thrusts or pushes forward into your opponent). If it lands, but is not determinative of removing the threat, you will want to press your attack. In other words, you will want to “preserve” your forward momentum. Your second and subsequent attacks should flow in a continuous stream; any interruption just gives your opponent chances to evade/deflect you and resume attacking. Any “in between” movements should be geared at setting up the next strike by unbalancing your opponent and heading off or shutting down his defensive options.

But what if your initial kick is evaded or deflected just before it lands, leaving you falling forward – straight into a counter attack? Should you “put on the brakes” and try to stop? The principle of preservation of momentum would say “No!” Why?

First, it isn’t really plausible to “stop” a committed attack. You can only stop an attack that is executed very slowly or without commitment or both. If your attack has speed and weight behind it, you will find it impossible to stop when it unexpectedly misses or is diverted. In other words, “putting on the brakes” won’t have the effect of stopping your punch once you realise you’ve been thwarted: the evasion/deflection will occur, and your attack will miss – all in a fraction of a second. Any attempted “retraction” will happen after the fact.

Second, let us examine what happens if you do “put on the brakes”: your attack will be evaded/deflected (as we have just discussed). And you will (pointlessly) bring your body to a grinding, shuddering halt soon afterwards. You will stop moving. But your opponent won’t: he or she will surface from the evasion/deflection to find you stationary – “flat footed” if you will – while he or she is still moving, continuing the momentum of the preceding evasion/deflection.

In order to deal with your opponent’s inevitable counter, you will have to get your body moving again. Only you have to do so from a “standing start”. Accelerating from zero takes time; just ask any motoring enthusiast.5 Moreover it is wasteful of the resource you already had – your original momentum.

So what should you do when your committed attack is evaded or deflected? You certainly don’t want to try to “stop” – even if you find yourself falling unexpectedly into a counter punch. The principle of preservation of momentum would instead dictate that you go with the forward momentum and use that until it is exhausted. This might involve smothering the blow into which you are flying, perhaps by adding even more speed to your forward movement (ie. increasing your commitment). In reality, you don’t have many options in the scenario I’ve painted. Because if you’re about to fall into a punch, trying to backpedal is guaranteed to fail. Even if you somehow manage to backpedal enough so as to take some of the edge off the blow, you will inevitably be set up for successive attacks. In that circumstance, pressing your forward momentum and “converting” your attack into an aggressive defence is your only logical option.


A video where I teach how to convert “failed attacks” into positive defences and counters (while maintaining your momentum flow). Note how the opening kick is deflected and you find yourself falling into a punch. It would be a mistake to try to “stop” your forward momentum. Instead you should use that momentum to aid your defence.

What’s good for attack is good for defence

The same logic applies when you’re evading/deflecting an attack: in defence you need to keep the momentum flowing, so that your response to the attack and the subsequent counter comprise one synergistic movement. If you block, then counter in 2 separate, disjointed movements (ie. if there is an interruption to the flow of your momentum), you will find 2 things happen:
  1. your window of opportunity to counter will be lost; and
  2. more worryingly, you will most likely be staring down the barrel of another attack
While I have long maintained that “blocking and countering” necessarily occur one after the other in a logical, sequential sense, I am quite passionate about keeping the time between those events to an absolute minimum. You can do this by making sure your momentum flow is constant. If you stop yourself, you have to restart. This is usually fatal to your defence.

How the internal arts keep momentum flowing

As I have hinted previously, each of the internal arts uses a separate, unique method to maintain and harness your natural momentum. This might be easy to do when you are mid movement (all you have to do is “not stop”!) however it is problematic when you have reached the point of furthest extension/expansion or furthest retraction/contraction along a particular plane of movement. In that circumstance (when options for movement along the same plane are limited) you need something that will sustain your momentum. For this reason:
  1. taijiquan uses “continuing momentum” – converting your expanded movement into a retraction, or converting your retracted movement into an expansion, much like a trampoline uses its spring;
  2. baguazhang uses “spiralling momentum” – redirecting your expanded or contracted movement into a spiral or coil;
  3. xingyiquan uses “falling momentum” – using gravity to refuel your expanded or retracted movement.
I shall expand on each of these methods of “preserving momentum” in another article titled "Preservation of momentum: the key to internal arts effectiveness". For the time being it is sufficient to note that each of these methods works at keeping your momentum flowing. That is the modus operandi of the internal arts.

Moreover, as I shall explain in my later article, each of the internal arts also works at harnessing your opponent's momentum - using it against him or her. This means preserving your own momentum in an optimal way relative to your opponent's flow of momentum.3


The second section of the Chen Pan Ling "99" taijiquan form

The opposite of internal arts: wasting or interrupting your own momentum with non-contextual movement

The very opposite of the internal arts is where you are caught “flat footed” or “bouncing up and down” on the same spot (which is another way of being “flat footed”). These approaches might work to some extent in a competition6, but only because there is a lengthy “pre-engagement” phase before you move into the melee range. By contrast, civilian defence scenarios are defined (as I have frequently argued) by the melee range. And in the melee range, movement is always constant.

By “civilian defence scenario” I’m not talking about the “push and shove” of pre-conflict theatrics (something Rory Miller calls the “monkey dance”). As interesting and pertinent as it is to study this aspect of human dynamics, it is not really the concern of civilian defence arts (like the internal arts or karate etc.). Rather these deal with the point at which your attacker throws his or her first punch/kick/strike, and onwards.7 And this all happens in the melee range.

In the melee range there is a huge premium on keeping your momentum flowing constantly. Why? Because, chances are, it will anyway!

Any attempt to halt your momentum artificially in a melee exchange is nothing short of pure insanity. As punches are flying at you, you simply don’t have even the slightest chance (or reason) to assume an even-weighted “preparatory” stance – or worse, start bouncing up and down. If you tried to do so, it would just give your opponent open slather to knock your head off.

Back to the “hip wobble” – again...

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the main reasons I disagree with the “hip wobbling” engaged in certain schools for “power generation”. It is in direct conflict with the internal arts principle of preservation of momentum. Rather than preserve, and utilise efficiently, your natural flow of momentum in the melee environment, it attempts to “stop” that momentum and replace it with extraneous, non-contextual movement.

As I’ve explained in my article “What I mean by ‘contextual hip loading’”, when I refer to “context” I’m not referring to what your opponent might or might not be doing. I’m talking about the context ofyour own movement.

So if your hips are moving clockwise at a particular time, then for heaven’s sake use that clockwise turn! Don’t try to halt that movement, throw your hips into reverse (an anti-clockwise turn), then go back to the clockwise movement again, all for the sake of “extra power”. Even if you’re as fast as Peter Consterdine or any other good exponent of the “double hip”8 method, you won’t make up for the fact that you’ve “taken time out” of your natural momentum flow. In that time you will have “stopped” your natural momentum. In less correct terminology, you will be “double-weighted”. This is not only inconsistent with taijiquan principles, but with melee range dynamics and... well... common sense! Because any time that you stop, your opponent won’t. He (or she) will continue to try to punch, kick, strike etc. without any regard for your “power strategy”.

Conclusion

So “double weighting” in the sense of having your weight evenly distributed over both feet is a reality. It occurs in every movement. The internal arts are not defined by an absence of such "double weighting" any more than they are defined by an absence of horse stances or any other posture. Rather, what defines the internal arts is what I call the principle of preservation of momentum – ie. the fact that the natural flow of your momentum is never halted or stifled. Put another way, there is never a point where you are not in the process of moving from one "single-weighted" position to another.


The third section of the Chen Pan Ling "99" taijiquan form

Morever, the internal arts are designed to harness your momentum flow at any particular point so that it can be used to your advantage – whether it be moving forwards, backwards, sideways, up or down. The arts are built around this principle in both attack and defence strategies.

And it is important to note that the internal arts do more than keep your own momentum flowing: they are proactive in setting up ideal momentum flow situations from your perspective (in the sense of being in the right place, and moving in the right direction, at the right time).

Last, they also work to harness your opponent's momentum against your opponent.3 In other words, they are carefully designed to absorb and/or redirect momentum back onto your opponent. In doing so, the internal arts maximise your own applied force while simultaneously shutting off possible counters and escapes to your own offensive. They act like a sticky web, pulling the opponent in to a situation from where there is no escape; his momentum is exhausted or being redirected to his detriment; yours is falling directly onto him, adding to the total momentum "pool" and increasing the force applied to him.

In my next article "Preservation of momentum: the key to internal arts effectiveness" I shall expand on the mechanics behind this process, giving examples from each of the internal arts.

To my mind this is far more interesting than some dogmatic (and patently absurd) rule about never being in a stance where your weight is evenly distributed over both feet.

Footnotes

1. The Chen Pan Ling “50/50” stance is a close cousin of what I call the “battle stance” (zhan bu or the stance adopted in the “san ti” posture of xingyi, which is slightly rear-weighted). The weight is evenly distributed typically as you intercept an attack, the even weighting giving you extra stability. The weight is immediately transferred to the back leg after interception. As I have said, the stance is not “held”; it is merely acknowledged as a critical point in time during the (uninterrupted) transfer of your weight to your back leg.

2.The “mabu” or horse stance doesn’t feature in the Chen Pan Ling 5 elements, but it does feature in lian huan quan (the 5 elements linking form) and in some of the 12 animal forms.

3. Tim Cartmell offers a slightly different explanation of the "rule against double weighting" (which ultimately accords with mine, as I will explain). He says:
    "Although there is some logic behind the definition of Double Weighting as standing with the weight evenly distributed between both feet, and this is the 'party line' explanation, it is not accurate. When you read the Tai Ji Quan Classics in the original Chinese, the definition and explanation of double weighting is clear and unambiguous. Double weighting refers to using force directly against the force of another. The use of my force (weight) against your force (weight) creates two 'weights' (centers). When two separate centers of gravity are contending, the stronger always wins. This state occurs naturally when the untrained fight and is not martial art. The underlying principle of Tai Ji Quan application is to join centers with your opponent (one weight) from a dominant position so that you may 'borrow the opponent's force' and lead him into your technique. It is interesting to note in the Tai Ji Quan Classics that Double Weighting is considered an "illness," and the reason practitioners are not successful even after years of training. The key is to join centers with the opponent and move him as a part of yourself.
I think this is the flip side to my argument - the benefit of proper preservation of momentum.

It is one thing to say that the internal arts will enable you to "join centers" etc. - but how do they achieve this? I believe that if your momentum is flowing efficiently/optimally, this should enable you to harness your opponent's momentum against him or her. The exact method by which you achieve this depends on the interplay of his/her momentum and your own, and each of the internal arts adopts a slightly different approach to obtain similar outcomes. I propose to deal with the exact science of this process in my article "Preservation of momentum: the key to internal arts effectiveness".

4. This is in accordance with the Daoist/Taoist principle of "wu-wei" which means "no unnecessary/unnatural action". This is not an instruction, but rather a description of an ideal state of affairs - where you do nothing, yet everything is accomplished. Another way of describing wu-wei is as "the way of least resistance" (ie. the title of this blog).

5. Most manufacturers of sports cars will boast about the time it takes for their vehicle to go from 0 to 100 km/h. Why? A top speed, however impressive, would not be terribly interesting to a sports car enthusiasts if it were reached over a period of, say, an hour. For performance you need good acceleration. Similarly, acceleration is the key to good martial skill. Regardless, you should avoid having to accelerate from a standing start except where necessary (ie. against the first attack).

6. I personally don’t think bouncing confers any advantage in the “pre-engagement” phase. Rather, I think it is a daft idea, as I discuss in my article “Faux boxing”. But I mention it here because some folks do nonetheless “make it work” well enough in pre-engagement. I think any success is achieved despite the bouncing, but that is another thing. Certainly, whichever way you cut it, there is simply no way you can bounce when you are engaged with your opponent in the melee range.

7. If you think about it, no form/kata of any traditional eastern art features any movements that pertain to the “monkey dance” – the pre-fighting “theatrics”. When have you seen a traditional form that teaches you to deal with this aspect of civilian defence? The answer is: never.

Now I agree that there are many useful tactics for diffusing a potential conflict without compromising your safety. These range from the appropriate awareness when you are walking along a street at night to reading the body language and other cues of someone who is a potential attacker. It includes the commonly taught “disguised guards” – eg. the “open hand” posture (as if to say “hold on my friend!”) or that taught by the late Erle Montaigue (and more recently shown to me by Richard Norton) where you cross your arms and put one thumb up to your chin (as if you are contemplating what your opponent is saying).

These sorts of measures will help prepare you for any forthcoming attack. But, rightly or wrongly, they are not part of any traditional civilian defence art. Rather, the latter all assume that the first punch has been, or is being, thrown.

8. Be aware that we’re not really talking about a “double hip” here. This is a misnomer. Taking the example I gave, we’re really talking about a “triple hip” movement:
  1. your initial hip movement in a clockwise direction (hip move No. 1);
  2. your reversal of that movement (ie. an anti-clockwise turn) to “load the hip up for power” (hip move No. 2);
  3. your return to the to the clockwise movement again (hip movement No. 3)!
Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why blocks are not “strikes in disguise”

Introduction

There is a sentiment that I’ve often come across in the martial arts to the effect that “all blocks are actually strikes”. If they aren’t strikes, then they are “locks, holds, throws” – in fact anything other than “blocks”.

To my mind this is a modern slant brought about by a misunderstanding of how “blocks” actually work. In this article I propose to explain exactly why traditional blocks are actually (mostly) deflections. To the extent that they can be used for other purposes (in particular, strikes), these are secondary, and to interpret them otherwise is to miss out on a vast and important part of the traditional fighting arts arsenal.

Blocks can be strikes – but that doesn’t mean they always are

First, I need to get this out of the way. Yes, you can employ blocks as strikes. There are many situations where I would do so, and I support the general notion of “inclusive” bunkai (kata application) analysis.

But there is a modern trend that goes much further than this. It not only suggests that blocks can be used as strikes occasionally. It suggests that this is their “true” meaning.

In my recent article “Low blocks against kicks - are they ridiculous?” I highlight one such opinion. If you recall, the particular gentleman in question lampooned the idea that a low block could be used to deflect a kick. Instead, he suggested an absurd application involving a multiple “softening” strikes followed by an ungainly throw using a pull at the neck. All this to avoid what I think is manifestly obvious; that low “blocks” are principally used as deflections (yes – even against kicks).

The gentleman in question reaches his conclusion based on flawed premises, in particular by not considering more than one type of kick (he only considers a roundhouse kick) and more than one angle of interception (he only considers 90 degrees). He also bases his conclusion on erroneous distancing. Each of these factors alone would be sufficient to invalidate his argument. Together, they paint a completely skewed, nonsensical picture.

Blocks DO work… as blocks!

I have previously argued (in quite some detail) that traditional blocks can and do work very well as defensive tools (see my article “Why blocks DO work”). In particular they work as deflections or parries rather than actual “stops” (ie. true “blocks”).

I have previously highlighted some of the salient features of the art of traditional deflection, in particular the need to use them in conjunction with tenshin (body evasion) or taisabaki (general body movement). These decrease the workload taken up by the deflection and the evasion individually and give greater security in achieving a successful defence against a particular attack. (See my article “Evasion vs. blocking with evasion”)

I have also explained why traditional blocks use the forearm, namely that this often gives you your best option of deflecting a surprise attack. It does so principally by working with your natural flinch reaction to deflect attacks that have passed your guard by the time you have a chance to react.

The physics of deflection vs. the physics of striking: 2 subtly, but significantly, different things

I also recently showed why “hard blocking” is a flawed concept in as much as it attempts to marry the science of deflection with the physics of striking. The 2 are subtly, but significantly, different in the following respects:
  1. forearm rotation; and
  2. angle of outward movement.
Forearm rotation

The way in which you rotate your forearm is necessarily different for strikes and blocks. The best way to illustrate this is with an example of a technique that can be used for either. Take the hammer fist:

As either strike or deflection, the hammer fist requires you to rotate your forearm. Why? A “stiff arm” movement is very weak and inefficient; you have the chance, and every reason, to use the rotation at the crucial stage at which it is required. And that “crucial stage” differs as between the strike and deflection.


A more general discussion of the use of forearm rotation (torque) in deflection, starting with xingyi

The hammer fist as a strike

As a strike, the hammer fist requires you to finish your forearm rotation at the moment of impact. Why?

The last moment rotation gives you most of your force in what is a fairly short movement. The rotation only adds force to the blow if it is actually part of the blow. If the rotation occurs too early, then it will be irrelevant; you’ll be left with nothing more than a stiff arm strike.

Nor should the rotation occur after you strike. That too is not helpful in terms of adding force. The impact has been and gone. Turning your forearm after impact is like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

If you want the physics of it consider this:

If you only start rotating your forearm at impact, you get a "grinding" action. That is because the longer contact time means your momentum is transferred over a longer period. In other words your impulse (momentum transferred) is the same, but the time is longer. F = impulse/time. Therefore the longer the contact time (ie. the "grinding" turn of the forearm against your opponent's face/body), the less the force. Think of it as the difference between grinding with a mortar and pestle or using the pestle to pound and smash things in mortar.

So in order to minimize the contact time and to increase force, you need to time the rotation to finish as you impact - not to prolong the contact with a grinding action.1


I consider the hammer fist more specifically in relation to the issue of "torque"

The hammer fist as a deflection

As a deflection the hammer fist works quite differently:

The first thing to note is that your point of contact isn’t with your hammer fist – it is with your forearm.

You don’t want to intercept the attack using your weak single bone – in this case your ulna; rather you want to impact using the top, flat, part of your forearm – ie. using both the radius and ulna.

A strike using the top, flat part of your forearm is practically devoid of any force at all – you really do rely upon the rotation to give you enough force to use it offensively.2 Thankfully, a hammer fist used as a deflection does not try, or need, to impact hard.

Indeed, it actually seeks to diffuse the impact even further. It does so by commencing a rotation of the forearm at the moment of impact. As I discuss in my article “Hard blocks”, the rotation is used to redirect the attack away from you. It does so rather than "grind" the point of contact, which the rotation could achieve if you chose the wrong angle of interception and an incorrect "striking" emphasis.

Angle of outward movement

The next thing to consider is the outward angle of movement. Once again this is necessarily different for strikes and blocks. And again, the best way to illustrate this is with an example of a technique that can be used for either. Take the jodan/age uke (rising block) or the Naha te chudan uke (chest level block as used in arts like goju ryu and ryuei ryu):

One block, 2 movements

Both of these deflections utilize 2 movements:
  1. a “primary arm” (a large movement which I interpret as the principal deflection); and
  2. a “secondary arm” (a smaller movement that acts as a backup deflection and which is sometimes called the “crossing arm”).
Many martial artists today utilize the secondary/crossing arm as their main (sometimes only) deflection. In practice what this means is that they are using what I call a “soto uke” – a block using the outside edge of the forearm (as it is when your arms are relaxed at your sides), but moving inside across your body.


I discuss the 2 movements used in the basic karate age uke (rising block)

Why everyone uses the soto uke as the main (sometimes only) block

The preference for using soto uke is unsurprising. In any basic, 2-part block, the crossing arm is the first part that can be brought to intercept the attack. So when looking at the basic block from a purely sequential perspective, it is not hard to see how it might come to be seen as the main (sometimes only) deflection. After all, if you manage to deflect the attack using the soto uke, what do you need the larger movement for? It must be an attack – right? We’ll see about that one…

Then there is the fact that soto uke is arguably the easiest forearm deflection to understand on an intuitive level. In its simplest form it simply involves dropping your forearm! I think this is a big part of why I tend to see it used more than any other deflection in sparring, particularly between people who are not properly trained in the art of “soft blocking”; it doesn’t require much training, especially when it is used in a “hard” way (as a “soft” block, soto uke is, surprisingly, a very different beast, requiring far more dedicated study).

Jodan/age uke – karate’s uppercut?!

Given the above factors I am not at all surprised to hear comments such as that of my friend Marcel to the effect that “the jodan uke is karate’s uppercut”.

When I first read this, I thought he might be kidding. I couldn’t reconcile the shape of the age uke, as illustrated in the adjacent images, with some kind of uppercut punch.

Then it occurred to me that he wasn’t talking about the finishing position of the primary arm – he was talking about the its start. In other words, instead of being used to deflect, the primary arm is used as a strike – specifically an uppercut. And in its initial phase (ie. the first part of the primary movement) it does indeed start out in an inverted “uppercut-like” position.

The same is true of the Naha te chudan uke; both it and the jodan/age uke start out in the same identical “uppercut-like” position.

In saying “uppercut” it is apposite to note that we’re not talking about a classical boxing-style “curved” uppercut, but rather the age ura zuki – an inverted rising punch from karate and which I’ve previously covered in a separate article.

The age ura zuki is indeed a very effective strike. So what’s wrong with seeing the “primary arm” from jodan/age uke and Naha te chudan uke as just an age ura zuki? Well, a number of things really. I’ll start with the most obvious – the angle. It’s all wrong!

The angle of the primary arm vs. the angle of an age ura zuki

The first you’ll notice about the age ura zuki is that, like any other punch, it is angled straight out to your opponent.

On the other hand, the first thing you’ll note about anyone’s jodan/age uke or Naha te chudan uke is that the “uppercut-like” movement starts out at an angle of as much as 45 degrees to the front. Why? Because that’s precisely the angle it needs to intercept an attack and deflect it.

The initial phase of the deflection is critical: it must cut an angle that “wedges” into the attack. We assume the attack is on the center-line, so your deflection cuts diagonally across that line.

In the case of the jodan/age uke, it intercepts with the flat, top part of the forearm, then rotates around deflecting the attack over the top of you as it wedges into it.

In the case of the Naha te chudan uke, it has a more or less identical interception, only instead of rotating and carrying the attack over your head, the forearm inscribes an arc at an angle of about 45 degrees to your chest, deflecting the attack to the side.3

In both cases, your “uppercut” would require substantial modification in angle to be a strike.

But that’s the angle we do our blocks at anyway!

I anticipate that there will be many who will insist that they do their “jodan uke” with a straight punching action, negating this concern. But if that is the case, I can’t help but make these observations:
  1. First, your jodan uke will follow a very strange path indeed – starting out as an uppercut and then morphing into a largely ineffective, elbow-flaring “hook punch finish” at forehead level.
  2. Second, it’s no use saying that this finish is still capable of being applied as a head-level deflection. For a start, your angle of interception will be woefully inadequate to the task; your fist will stay (at best) on the center-line, leaving one side of your body totally unprotected. While this sort of block might still work on the inside, it is far from ideal even for this purpose because you really want to be raising your elbow – and hence cutting a diagonal line rather than a direct line – a bit sooner.

    In any event, let’s face it – we all know that it is far, far better to be on the outside of a punch. And on the outside this strange hybrid uppercut/block is totally ineffective, as I demonstrate in the video below.
In other words, a straight line punch just won’t do if you’re using your jodan/age uke as a deflection.


I demonstrate how the angle of the primary arm in jodan/age uke is different from the age ura zuki

“So what if we modify the jodan uke in application – isn’t that what bunkai is all about?”

This is another comment I anticipate. The problem here is that we aren’t talking about some sort of arcane, multi-faceted movement like goju’s mawashi uke (roundhouse block). We’re talking a garden-variety rising block, that is being “reinvented” as we speak (see my article “Reinventing the wheel: back to the rising block”). It works. It doesn’t need to be “reinterpreted” as an uppercut punch, a lock or a hold or anything else. It is supremely useful as a deflection.


I demonstrate the traditional mawashi uke – which is open to a number of applications that aren’t immediately obvious. It’s hard to see why a much simpler technique requires this sort of analysis.

And apart from anything else, karate already has a perfectly serviceable age ura zuki in many kata (seiunchin and naifunchin/naihanchi are just 2 such kata). There simply is no need to “see” it in one or more blocking techniques.

If the old karate masters had really wanted to put uppercuts into particular kata movements instead of rising blocks, don’t you think they would have done so more clearly? I simply don’t adhere to the concept that they were “hiding” the true techniques – at least not to this extent. Because if they were, they would have had to manipulate a perfectly good uppercut into a fairly average block or vice versa, just to carry out this “subterfuge”.

“But,” I hear you say, “I can still clearly see how an upper block can become an uppercut and vice versa – so what’s the problem?” Indeed. There is no problem with this. But we’re not where we started. Now we’re talking about something completely different: conversion from one technique to another.

What’s really happening: conversion of blocks to strikes

If you ask me, what’s really going on here is a process of “conversion”. Yes, it is possible to convert one technique into another. You can do so at any time, but it is particularly easy to do at the start of a basic technique.

So, a bit like a human embryo goes through phases where it looks like anything from a amoeba to a fish to a lizard to a dog to a human, so a basic block will, in its “embryonic” phase, be capable of looking like (and in this case converting into) something very different.

Clearly, at the pullback anything is possible. You can turn it into any karate technique that is chambered at the hip. As you start to punch out it can become an inverted punch, a rising inverted punch (age ura zuki), a normal straight punch, a chudan uke, a jodan/age uke – you name it.

As you progress further along a particular path the options decrease. So if you’ve cut an angle to achieve a deflection, the technique can still morph or “blend” into either a chudan uke or a jodan uke – or even an open hand hiki/kake uke (which you can achieve by turning the hand over). I cover this in my article “Blending blocks”. But it can no longer convert to a straight punch, for example – the chance for that to happen has passed.

And so it is my central thesis that when you look at the essential design of a jodan/age uke or Naha te chudan uke, you simply can’t get an uppercut punch. The angle of the initial part of the movement is fundamentally inconsistent with any such punch (unless your opponent is standing diagonally across from you and you punch at an angle across your body rather than turn to face him – an absurd notion, particularly since you’ll want to turn your body for the sake of adding momentum, if nothing else).

Other options: jodan/age uke as a forearm smash/slam or even a hammer fist

I’ve also heard it said that jodan/age uke is still very useful as a forearm smash to the face. And yes, it can be so used. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, this inevitably means either:
  1. striking with the fairly powerless top, flat part of your forearm, or
  2. striking with more force by utilizing the forearm rotation – in which case you have to strike with the weak single bone (the ulna).
Either option is fine, if you have no choice. But honestly, I can think of a thousand things I’d rather do than smack someone in the face with my forearm - like use a hammer fist or elbow strike. I discuss this in the "Age uke (secondary movement)" video embedded earlier in this article, particularly from 2:11 onwards.

Yes, there are times when your forearm is in the right place and that “seems to be the right thing to do”. But this hardly changes the character of the technique from primarily a “block” to a “strike”. Just because you can cut steak with scissors (and that you might have to on, say, a camping trip when you’ve forgotten to bring a knife), this doesn’t mean the scissors “are a steak knife in disguise”.4

As to the hammer fist "interpretation" of jodan/age uke, it is worth remembering that there simply is no hammer fist strike in jodan age uke (unless you change the nature and angle of the movement substantially to a make a hammer fist, in which case we’re alternately back to “arcane hidden meanings” or, more simply, conversion).

Conclusion

A technique like the jodan/age uke is manifestly not a strike, and any attempt to render it into one either:
  1. makes for an ineffective strike since it uses the wrong rotation of the forearm and the wrong angle of outward movement; or
  2. changes the nature of the jodan/age uke so that it no longer bears any resemblance to the blocking movement
There is nothing wrong with the latter – this is simply a process of “conversion” – something fighters face every day in the heat of combat. Basics are, after all, just formal embodiments of essential concepts. These concepts can be blended or totally substituted as the circumstances require. But the essential concept of a basic karate block is that of a deflection – not a strike. There simply is no reason to “reinvent” it as something else, especially when the concept (deflection) works as well as it does.

As I’ve often paraphrased Freud: “Sometimes a block is just a block.”

Footnotes

1. It is worth noting that the rotation of the forearm suitable for a hammer fist strike (ie. turning upon impact) also puts the ulna in position (ie. the hammer fist alignment is the same as the ulna alignment).

2. As a matter of interest, taijiquan uses the top, flat part of your forearm offensively, but does so with an augmenting hand, some wrist involvement and body momentum. It is a bumping strike more than a disabling one. This is found in peng and ji.

3. The Naha te hiki/kake uke works identically to the chudan uke, with the exception that your hands are open and turned over. In both cases, you are inscribing an arc at 45 degrees to your chest – as if polishing a platter that is held with its base against your solar plexus and its top angled away from you at eye level. This is the correct angle for the “wax on, wax off” motion seen in the Karate Kid movie!

The ulna is the weaker of your 2 forearm bones and is quite unsuitable for striking. This isn’t an issue when it comes to the hammer fist strike because your are striking with the padded end of your clenched fist, not your forearm.

However it does illustrate that a “hard block” (ie. one that is geared as a strike) is fundamentally misconceived: It means you are deliberately impacting with your weak ulna.

This compares with the rotation of the forearm suitable for blocking where you impact on the forearm using the flat “top” – ie. using both radius and ulna.

4. For crying out loud, I once removed a cork from a wine bottle using a fork (one of my prouder achievements in life). That doesn’t mean forks are “corkscrews in disguise”!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, July 18, 2011

What I mean by “contextual hip loading”

Introduction

I have written a number of articles concerning what I call “non-contextual” hip loading or pre-loading (starting with "Whole lotta shakin': pre-loading the hips"), however it occurs to me that people might not realize what I mean by this.

When I refer to loading the hips “contextually” I am not referring to “loading them against an opponent”. I mean loading up naturally and appropriately in the circumstances, rather than artificially.

Artificial hip loading in hip isolation exercises

So what is “artificial hip loading”? Artificial loading of the hips is something one would, and should, do in hip isolation exercises. A good example of such an exercise is where you are punching a makiwara or other striking surface.

In this case, you can load up as much as you like and take all the time you want, because the makiwara “sure ain’t going nowhere”. It is clearly “artificial” loading because a resistant opponent would not give you such an opportunity. But in the case of makiwara punching, “artificiality” is irrelevant. You are engaged in an isolation exercise, the whole point of which is to load the hips as much as possible. After all, there must be some point in practice where you get to exercise a full, ideal movement.

Nor is it necessary to have a makiwara or other striking surface. You can do hip isolation exercises in the air. I certainly do this, and I find it very useful (in fact, necessary) for beginners who are learning the basics of good hip technique (ie. correct, efficient hip use with no extraneous movement etc.). Consider the video below of my brother Nenad executing the basic gyaku zuki (reverse punch).


My brother demonstrates the basic reverse punch, which features artificial loading

This is an exercise we teach beginners. Note how Nenad’s hips are isolated: the rest of his body movement is kept to a minimum so as to learn efficiency. His hips are, however, loading to their fullest extent. The next step is to start striking something – eg. a makiwara.

Hip loading is necessary – but not if it is always artificial

So I have nothing against hip loading. It is manifestly necessary in martial technique. In basic, hip isolation exercise it can be done artificially.

I even understand why some folks choose to dedicate a particular kata to this task; while I have previously written about my preferences regarding naihanchi/naifunchin kata, I certainly respect my friend and senior James Sumarac’s use of that form as a hip isolation training platform.

James’ excellent (and varied) hip use is testament to many hours of isolation practice. Good hip training (of the kind James does) teaches you that there is much, much more to hip use than the simple lateral/horizontal hip torque so commonly seen in schools that focus on “koshi”. There are multiple angles and planes of hip use and a martial artist needs to be aware of each of them. Consider the video below where I demonstrate the 45 degree forward and upward hip use at 0:18 seconds:


I demonstrate a variety of hip uses – note in particular my use of the 45 degree forward and upward hip use at 0:18

It is where artificial hip loading intrudes into all kata and basic technique that I have an issue. It is particularly worrying when it replaces natural hip loading that is already present.

Consider the solo part of this sequence:


A video in which I demonstrate contextual hip loading for combination strikes

It comprises 3 air punches, each with its own hip movement. Each of these hip movements: powers its punch; and simultaneously loads the hip contextually for the next.

In other words, one strike with hip positively powered/turned (jun kaiten), one strike with hip negatively powered/turned (gyaku kaiten).

Now imagine if I inserted an extra hip reversal and return into each movement to create a "wobble" before each punch. That would be non-contextual. It would fail to capitalise on the natural hip loading that the sequence contains. And it would do so for no benefit. In fact it would deprive me of the natural momentum arising from the sequence by interrupting the flow of one technique to another.

Double or triple?

Some folks call their artificial hip loading the “double hip”. But this is a misnomer. In fact, it is typically a “triple hip”. Why do I say this?
  1. Your hips will naturally be turning into the strike (hip movement No. 1).
  2. You then have to stop that movement and reverse the hip to load it artificially to its maximum extent (hip movement No. 2).
  3. You then finally turn your hip back into the strike again (hip movement No. 3).
Some practitioners of this “triple hip” do all of this remarkably quickly – so quickly that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was fast enough to allay my concerns about the “dual evils” of (a) the extra time it takes; and (b) the telegraphing of your intention. But it just isn’t quick enough. Nothing changes the fact that you are replacing one hip movement with 3. It might take you only 0.2 seconds longer. But that is an extra 0.2 seconds you really can’t spare.

What’s it all for?

And what is it all for? The answer “triple hip” practitioners give is “extra “power” (ie. force). But there is much more to martial arts than force gained by loading the hip. A well-rounded martial artist will appreciate the fact that a substantial amount of the force behind a punch is gained from your whole body movement (eg. a lunge). Keeping a natural flow of movement enhances this application of force, as I argue in my article “Internal arts fact and fallacy: double weighting”. And extra force from hip loading matters little if you don’t land your punch – and get hit instead!

Hip loading occurs naturally – you don’t have to force it, but you do need to train for it

In the adjacent picture of me doing a gedan uke, you see my hip loading for a counter. But that hip load is powering my gedan uke as well as setting me up for the counter. There is one hip movement for each technique and it is the one arising naturally out of the context of the sequence.

This sort of hip loading occurs all the time in sparring and other martial practice. It should occur in any civilian defence encounter if you are properly trained.

And here’s the rub; to maximize your hip use, you need to train to exploit situations where it occurs naturally. If you replace all the natural hip loads with artificial “triple hip” movements, you will rob yourself of the opportunity to identify and harness realistic opportunities for hip use in a dynamic, resistant environment.

Conclusion

So artificial loading (non-contextual) hip loading is fine when you are practicing isolation exercises – be it in the “air” or against a makiwara. But there is simply no reason to insert such artificial hip loading into every single kata or other practice technique. To do so supplants hip loading that occurs naturally in a dynamic context. A martial artist needs to be aware of, and harness, these contextual hip load opportunities. You can’t do so if you are constantly inserting artificial hip loads all in the name of “extra force”.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Internal arts fact and fallacy: raising the shoulder girdle in the rising block

Introduction

One of the most commonly heard criticisms of karate that I hear among internal martial artists relates to the humble rising block.

You’d think that such a common, garden-variety technique that is so demonstrably effective would be common to all traditional martial arts. And to some extent it is. However there is a school of thought in some internal arts schools that would suggest otherwise. It is an approach that seems, at first glance, to be highly persuasive. But despite its kernel of truth, I believe the criticism ultimately comprises flawed dogma. Let us examine the criticism in detail:

Criticisms of the karate rising block

In karate the basic age/jodan uke is performed by facing your attack “head-on”. My emphasis on “basic” is important – I shall explain why later. The second thing to note about the karate rising block is that the forearm rises first,followed by the shoulder girdle (I discuss the basic karate technique in this article).

It is this second point that attracts the criticism from certain internal arts schools. These schools insist that one should never raise the shoulder girdle. “It raises your qi” some of its practitioners say. What rubbish! What it raises is your shoulder girdle – nothing more and nothing less. And indeed, raising the shoulder girdle can create issues. Accordingly I will say at the outset that the criticism raises a valid point which needs to be addressed.

Raising your shoulder girdle while you are still facing your opponent head-on is problematic. Why? For a number of reasons:
  1. First, the deflection should already have been effected by the time you start to raise your shoulder girdle. In fact, the deflection occurs during the “steeple” phase (ie. when your arm is cutting a sharp angle upwards like a church steeple). Accordingly the shoulder girdle raise typically happens after the “steeple” has intercepted and deflected the attack, so one could validly ask why it is necessary. Consider the video below where I discuss using the “steeple” deflection only (ie. without any shoulder girdle raise):


    A video in which I discuss the “steeple block”

  2. Second, raising the shoulder girdle is relatively slow and weak. If you are relying upon this shoulder raise to effect your deflection, you are sadly misguided.
  3. Last, raising your shoulder girdle exposes your sensitive under arm to attack. It also enables your raised elbow to be manipulated into an unbalancing projection.
If you combine these drawbacks, raising the shoulder girdle with your rising block appears to be a recipe for disaster. Yet this is precisely what the karate basic seems to suggest.

A little knowledge = a dogmatic thing

So far you’d be excused for wondering whether there can be any logic at all to the basic karate rising block. However one needs to be careful about making rash conclusions from the preceding description. I have only given you part of the information you need to ascertain the application of the rising block in a dynamic environment.

For example, I had one chap watching my taiji class one day. After the class he approached me with a sad, weary shake of the head and announced that old chestnut: “Your taiji knowledge is very shallow. I know this because you raise your shoulder girdle in the rising block.” I didn’t bother to argue with this fellow. Sadly, the internal arts are full of such “theorists” (this is no slight on my many worthy internal arts colleagues – we all know the type). I don’t want a student who has such a “full cup” and so little time to spare for a teacher who has been studying for more than 30 years (compared to his 2 or 4 years). His first mistake was to assume that I hadn’t encountered this issue before. His second mistake was to assume that his objections weren’t conclusively addressed by the context in which the technique was being applied.

What this fellow didn’t know is that in Chen Pan Ling taijiquan, baguazhang , xingyiquan and shaolin quan the shoulder girdle is raised – but only as the body turns into the attack. In this context the dangers to which you might have been exposed evaporate; the body is turned by the time the shoulder girdle raises, putting your counter into prominence and your "raised" shoulder out of harm's reach.

So, for example, the photo at the start of the article shows Chen Yun Chow, Chen Yun Ching and James Sumarac executing "pao quan", the "exploding fist" of xingyi. In it the same issues arise - ie. the shoulder girdle is indeed raised, but only as the body turns into the attack. This is true of pao quan even though it is a reverse technique; the body is still turning into the attack as your deflecting arm contacts.

But why raise the shoulder girdle at all?

But the question remains: what do you get in return for this raised shoulder girdle? Why would you do it at all?

The answer lies in effecting a natural, whole body movement that adds stacks of essential momentum to your counter strike. The force you can generate as a result is really quite staggering.

The simple truth is that when you raise your arm to block, your shoulder girdle will inevitably start to raise as you turn your body and counterstrike. Letting it do so is simply letting your body do what it naturally does – expand as you turn into the attack. And natural movement will always produce a more efficient, synergistic body use. In this case the shoulder girdle raise corresponds with the “equal and opposite reaction” to the counterstrike, comprising a high pullback which balances your strike – much as a runner’s arm swings counterbalance the body for a more efficient running gait.

I demonstrate these points in the video below:


I demonstrate how the "raised shoulder girdle issue" evaporates when the rising block is correctly applied

And just because you've raised your shoulder girdle as part of an "expansion" powering your counter, doesn't mean you have to leave it there. On the contrary, since no position is "held" in any martial art, the shoulder girdle quickly drops down as soon as the "expansion" is finished. In fact the "steeple" interception, the rise/expansion and the subsequent drop are all part of a single flow of movement.

Now compare this with keeping your shoulder girdle rigidly down – even when it is highly artificial to do so. I call this a triumph of dogma over common sense. This is really no different to a runner keeping his or her arms strapped to the sides to “stop them swinging”.

So what about the karate version?

Coming back to karate, its basic rising block is indeed performed with a raised shoulder girdle while facing “head-on”. But it one should never lose sight of the fact that it is a basic. All karate basics are practised “head on”. They are never applied this way, particularly when it comes to deflections. All karate deflections rely upon body movement or evasion (taisabaki or tenshin).

Blocking and evasion in karate go hand in hand. On the other hand, karate basics are designed to teach beginners how to move their arms correctly – not how to apply the technique in a fighting context. That comes later. When karate basics are applied, the body is generally angled into the attack leading to the same result as in the Chen Pan Ling internal arts. So in this respect, internal and external roads lead to precisely the same destination. [As a matter of interest, the applied upper block is sometimes called “haiwan nagashi uke” to distinguish it from the basic, “head-on” rising block.]

In short, the karate basic isolates the arms so that beginners can focus on getting that part right. It is not designed as a “fighting technique”.

Conclusion

It is undoubtedly true that a rising block/deflection has principally achieved its task well before the shoulder girdle is raised. But it is a mistake to assume that the story ends there. Upward momentum is not so easily halted. Nor do you want to. In fact you want to conserve and harness this momentum as much as possible. How do you do this? By converting the upward movement into an “up and sideways” movement with a body twist. The natural “expansion” of your upper body after the interception/deflection enables you to throw your whole bodyweight behind the counter, while simultaneously moving your unprotected underarm and elbow out of the way.

On the other hand you have the poor unfortunates who have keep their shoulders rigidly held down as if they were stapled in place or hiding sweat stains. All because somebody said told them that raising their shoulder girdle “raises your qi”. Hmm.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

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