Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The 5 elements and martial arts

When I first began studying xingyiquan it seemed somewhat strange to me that it should have 5 core defence/counter movements and that these should be described (albeit metaphorically) by reference to the traditional 5 element theory, namely:*
    Wood (Crushing) 崩 Bēng
    Fire (Pounding) 炮 Pào
    Earth (Crossing) 橫 Héng
    Metal (Splitting) 劈 Pī
    Water (Drilling) 鑽 Zuān

Even more perplexing was the description of these elements as functioning in 2 different cycles, a constructive cycle (生 or shēng) and a destructive cylce (克/剋 or kè).

The constructive cycle can be described as follows:*

    * Wood feeds Fire;
    * Fire creates Earth (ash);
    * Earth bears Metal;
    * Metal carries Water (as in a bucket or tap);
    * Water nourishes Wood.

On the other hand the destructive cycle can be described in this way:*

    * Wood parts Earth;
    * Earth absorbs Water;
    * Water quenches Fire;
    * Fire melts Metal;
    * Metal chops Wood.

I remember coming back to Perth after a visit to my internal arts teacher Chen Yun Ching and going over my notes. I suddenly had a blinding flash of realisation about the 5 element theory with its constructive and destructive cycles:

If you examine any "circular" 2 person form such as an shen pao in xingyi or the 16 count jo drill or many arnis drills for example, you'll note that the form is capable of single and 2 person practise. With a 2 person performance, both sides do the same form; it's just that one side starts in the middle of the sequence.

I believe that the 5 element theory is actually partly descriptive of this; a series of 5 "elements" each comprising a defence and a counter. The "constructive cycle" can be seen as the sequence of the single person performance while the "destructive cycle" can be seen as the sequence followed in the 2 person form (what you do, what I do, what you do, what I do - etc.).

Note however that the arrows in the destructive cycle are reversed.

This corresponds with any arnis drills that comprise 3 "defend/attack elements" (the simplest example).

Consider "de cadena" - an arnis hand trapping drill:

De cadena - a hand trapping drill from arnis

It can be depicted in the following way using the same xingyi "element" diagram (note that there are only 3 points to the "star").

Ditto with the "13 count" jo form (which has 7 points to its star) - note the video below.

Juroku jo kata - a form that doubles as a 2 person drill

I have used this analysis and gone back to xingyi's 5 elements - with surprising results; you guessed it, a very effective 2 person fighting drill that logically drops into place just by going through the elements (and yet very different from the 2 person 5 element forms you see around - including the effective Wang Shujin version demonstrated below by my friend James Sumarac and senior martial arts teacher Andy Chung - which do not follow the strict order of the elements in the destructive cycle).

A 5 element "destructive cycle" form as demonstrated by James Sumarac and Andy Chung

When I get the chance I'll make a video of my 2 person xingyi form and post it up!

I must thank Jim Prouty whose post on the Traditonal Fighting Arts Forum I used at the indicated places in this blog entry, and acknowledge Wikipedia for some of the source material.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, November 17, 2008

A new forum

After one hectic weekend I have managed to create my own forum - the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum.

I have done so because of my own desire to be part of a community of sincere, enthusiastic and friendly martial artists who want to exchange ideas, information, anecodotes and humour - and occasionally engage in some constructive debate!

To all my friends, students, martial arts colleagues and readers I extend a warm invitation to join me there. I can promise you that I will do all in my power to ensure that the forum runs efficiently and that the appropriate standards of courtesy and honour are maintained.

Remember - this forum is for any and all who are practising or interested in traditional martial arts from around the world. I hope to learn from the varying perspectives!

I apologise to readers in advance if this month is short on articles; I had planned to add to my goju history series among other things, but I might not get to it!

Keep well.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The main purpose of kata

The other day I received an email query about the nature and purpose of kata. As it raises some very pertinent issues I thought I would share it with you and also my response.
    "I was reading your blog and the information on the page for the traditional school of martial arts. I was just wondering your thoughts on the internal art of Tai Chi and the application of solo forms of that as well as katas of karate. The application part is what is all kind of new to me and where I am having trouble understanding. With the repetitive nature of these forms and styles, in real world setting,(not at competitions to gain points)is the aim for it to be second nature and to "re-act" rather than square up and have a formal fight?"
This query made me made me realise that I have never really addressed the issue of what I consider to be its main purpose. [Readers of my blog will be aware that I have previously discussed purposes of kata in the articles such as: “Kata - art or science”, “Kata - as a vital training tool”, “Kata as a conditioning tool”, “Changing kata” and “Straw men 2: kata and pretend fighting”]

People often speak of kata being an encyclopaedic repository of knowledge. But (as has been pointed out to me recently) if this was its principal purpose why wouldn’t we, in this modern day and age, simply abandon it in favour of books or other information storage media?

My answer to the correspondent was as follows:

The aims of forms are myriad, but principally they groove certain movements so that your body has a kinaesthetic awareness of its positioning, of the appropriate angles of evasion and interception, and ability to generate momentum by using the whole of the body as one unit (through what I call "staged activation" of body parts). In so doing, kata/xing/patterns/forms are simply providing a necessary foundation or precondition for utilising the techniques that make up the relevant art. You can acquire the kinaesthetic awareness taught by kata but in itself this is not fighting. To unlock the next door (the door to actually developing self-defence skills) you need a particular key; and that is understanding how the tactics of your traditional martial art UTILISE this kinaesthetic awareness.

In many schools this information is lost, resulting in healthy recreation but little else.

The principles taught in forms are necessary for traditional fighting tactics, but they are, in essence, conditioning drills; conditioning in the sense of teaching your body to move in a particular way as well as equipping you with the relevant muscular strength and endurance to do so. In respect of the latter this principally means having strength in the core muscles which can enable you to move efficiently and generate momentum from a strong, stable base.

Kata or forms all contain applications; the building blocks usually a composite of techniques along on the same theme - summarised into a single series of movements that can apply to all those techniques. The deeper your understanding of the principle, the wider your range of applying those techniques in practise.

You should apply all of the techniques in limited/restricted (single attack) type drills first, then semi-free style (short sequences), and 2 person forms (what we like to call “embu”). Only after you have sufficiently inculcated the techniques can you expect to apply them in a dynamic, unpredictable environment. In other words, you will be able to use those techniques in free sparring only when the responses that make up the techniques of the kata are grooved into your subconscious so that they are reflexive.

Even then it is important to note that you will rarely, if ever, perform the technique with the technique with the exact “xing” (Chinese for “shape” or “form”) as you have in practise. Rather, if you truly understand the principle or concept of the technique (what the Chinese call the “yi”) you will adapt it unconsciously to any changes that occur in a dynamic environment.

It is precisely because of these variations that kata will typically require the practitioner to perform a “fuller” movement, ie. a movement that utilises the “ideal” or “full range” of the technique (eg. a full load or chamber on a punch rather than an abbreviated “less than ideal” load one might see in combat). Another way of looking at this is that kata techniques explore every aspect of a movement so that you might apply one, or even part of one, aspect of that movement.

Furthermore, the deeper you understand all the techniques the more you will understand their inter-relation so that you can morph one movement into another when the need arises. The more you do the relevant forms of your system the more you should recognise the "change over" from technique to technique - ie. how they can "morph" depending on the movement of your attacker.

The principles of these "changes" can be plotted by complex mathematical algorithms. It is interesting to note that these bear some connection to the setup of Chinese classics such as the Yi Qing (the Book of Changes). The latter underpins bagua theory (and to some extent xingyi and some karate and other arts that have been influenced by similar thought either preceding bagua or stemming directly from it).

Yes, you could write down all this information in a book. But it is only by putting your body through the series of movements that make up a good kata that you will really come to understand the deeper essence of its teaching (ie. it’s “yi”). This is an essence that is felt as much as it is cognitively understood (especially when you manage to apply the “yi” in a dynamic environment). In the end there are some concepts you can’t convey in writing - just as it is impossible to explain the taste of a strawberry to someone who hasn’t tasted one...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sparring from day one?

Free sparring in karate is a fairly modern innovation, developed post World War II as part of the drive to popularise karate and turn it into a sport. From there sport-based "distance" sparring ("shiai kumite" or "ippon shobu") spread rapidly throughout the karate world. However as I have discussed previously this type of sparring bears little resemblance to actual fighting and, very importantly, bears little resemblance to how karate was designed to be used. This is especially so when you consider that most karate techniques such as deflections/blocks and tenshin/taisabaki are only really applicable in what I have called the "melee range" - ie. the "toe-to-toe" range where blows are furiously exchanged, not the range where sports opponents circle each other looking for an opening.

Parallel to the sport sparring, some Okinawan karate schools developed a form of free sparring that was continuous and free-flowing, based in the melee range and intended as a platform for the application of karate techniques. In goju ryu schools this kind of sparring is variously called "iri kumi" (IOGKF), "jiyu kumite" (goju kai) or "randori" (our name).

A sample of our randori

The concept of this sparring is that you go from soft and slow (where you get a chance to actually implement the karate techniques you’ve learned) to hard and fast and ultimately to a substantial degree of controlled contact (which is more of a test or experience for “liveness” - not really illustrated in the video above).

However this kind of free sparring is not entered into by students from day one. In our school you have to be at the end of white belt in order to start free sparring. This could take one year or more. In other schools the standard time is approximately 2 years. This can be very hard for modern combat sports practitioners to understand. For example a correspondent on a forum recently asked me the following question:
    "I just don't understand why someone needs to spend two years before they can test what they have learned. I have yet to hear what I would consider a valid reason for this."
Well firstly, they should "test" themselves in more limited sparring from day one. More on that in a moment.

As to free sparring, the reason for the delay is because you are actually being taught to fight in a very particular way and to use very particular techniques. Granted, in many schools they never progress past the basics and only do "faux boxing" which are unconnected to their basics. However we try to develop the use of particular techniques in free sparring, such as deflections/blocks. If you just go straight into free sparring you end up doing "your own thing" which doesn't use any of the karate techniques. From a karate perspective you groove habits which are opposite to the ones we are trying to teach (deflect with tenshin/evasion - don't just duck, etc.).

If you look at the sparring video above, regardless of what you think of it, you'll agree that we have a particular way of moving and deflecting/dealing with blows. It takes a long time to learn and develop. Because we spend our sparring in the "hot seat" of the melee range beginners get injured - and cause injuries to others too. So there is a safety aspect to not unleashing them into completely "unrestricted" sparring. We don't use gloves a great deal because we work intensively on the deflection aspect which isn't easy when gloves get in the way. In terms of controlled contact we also try to develop focus or "kime" which means deliberately focussing on a particular point rather than "missing" or "pulling" your punch (a very different concept that I shall discuss in a future article).

Lastly free sparring is not real fighting, no matter how close you feel it might be - it is a kind of "dance" irrespective of the level of controlled contact. You know when it starts and you know when it going to finish. Karate is not concerned with protracted pre-arranged fights but deals with civilian defence scenarios like the single punch thrown at you in the car park etc. Our beginners are taught to groove responses to such an attack via limited stimulus-response drills. I've had many a beginner student come to me over the years and tell me how, after the first few lessons, someone threw a punch at them in an unprovoked environment. The student has blocked, countered and the "fight" was over. Stimulus-response training has served its purpose - and usually with the type of personality that wouldn't last a week in a boxing/MMA gym because the training doesn't appeal to them.

Ring fighting produces very good fighters, but the shorter stimulus response drill is, in my view, not to be discounted as a means of teaching the "ordinary Joe/Josephine" something that will serve him/her well.

For those who disagree I can say this: in all my years as a prosecutor I saw many surveillance videos of assaults; the majority related to just one or 2 blows (certainly the first one dictated the rest of the following events).

The video below provides an example of how many confrontations are principally about a single blow. In this particular case the aggressor does not actually throw an attack: but then again his motives are clear and the threat is real. The defender (a karate instructor) responds to the aggressive invasion of his personal space with what I consider is an appropriate response; he hits the aggressor with a seiyruto (ox jaw strike) to the carotid sinus pre-empting an inevitable attack. This is a knockout blow that we drill in many of our stimulus-response drills.

A surveillance video showing the use of a standard karate technique, the seiyruto (ox jaw) delivered in the melee range. Note the duration of the confrontation.

By contrast, I have rarely seen any surveillance video that approximates a boxing/MMA match (with opponents circling each other, looking for openings, etc.). True, Youtube and other online video sharing sites are brimming with "MMA style" backyard brawl footage, but this is largely consensual (ie. 2 people who have agreed to fight each other); it is not representative of an ordinary civilian facing an unexpected and/or unprovoked assault (which is what civilian defence is geared towards dealing with). If you get yourself involved in contest-style street match you usually have only yourself to blame.

Again, none of the above should be read to suggest that combat sports skills are not useful (if not supremely effective) in self defence; in arguing that karate and similar arts have a workable method of self-defence I am not simultaneously seeking to denigrate the former. However the flip side to this is that the effectiveness of ring fighters generally does not necessarily invalidate the civilian defence strategies employed by karate and similar traditional martial arts.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Karate punches vs. boxing punches


In my article “Kime: the soul of the karate punch” I described the essential feature of the karate punch as being “focus” – ie. a combination of minimal deceleration before impact and optimum distancing – usually performed in karate with a straight thrust.

Many have, and will continue to, argue that this straight thrust is less powerful than a boxer’s follow-through punches. This is true. But to understand why this does not necessarily mean that the former is less effective we’ll have to examine punching methods – what someone I know calls “delivery systems” – in greater detail. To the extent that karate punching is “less powerful”, I will then go on to examine why this is a tactical choice rather than a necessary failing.

Categorising punches

In a very general sense karate punches can be divided into 2 kinds: straight line and curved. In boxing, punches can be divided into 2 different categories that overlap with the karate ones, namely:
    1. jabs (ie. punches which retract); and

    2. follow-through punches (which don’t – I’ll broadly use the latter to include hooks and uppercuts).
Is it possible to analyse karate punches in the context of the boxing paradigm? I’m going to try.


Jabs are principally straight line techniques; their only real distinction from a basic karate punch is the point of origin (in karate this is at the hip, while in boxing this is from a guard position). However as any senior karateka will tell you, the karate hip chamber is just a basic or “ideal” posture that allows a punch to be “fully loaded” for practise. It is not how the technique will necessarily look in combat. Karate basics serve quite a different function for their practitioners than the boxing equivalents. They are basics as well as isolation drills.

In fact, karate punches can (and should) be performed from any position (for more on this topic see my article “Chambering punches”). They are not limited to the basic “drill” posture that we all see in line practise or kata etc.

For example, when karate punches are performed from a guard they are called “kizami zuki” – a term often meaning “leading punch” but often translated as “jab”. What people seem to regard as the main distinction between the boxing jab and the kizami zuki is that the former is usually performed with a retraction or snap-back, where the latter is not.

As I discuss in the article “Retracting punches vs. leaving the hand in”, this distinction is in fact a red herring: For a start, the retraction of your arm is largely irrelevant to the nature and effect of a punch. A snap-back in no way boosts outward speed.

In any event, non-retracting thrusts are principally used in karate as a training tool for developing and perfecting focus. In higher kata there are many snap punches. Consider for example the video below of me doing snap punches in seisan kata in 1993.

Me doing snap punches in seisan in 1993

Accordingly there is no reason for karateka not to practise and use snapping punches (ie. jabs) other than a rigid adherence to basic form. Far more importantly, combination techniques render the whole "snap back" issue irrelevant: just as in boxing, karate uses a kizami zuki as a "set up" to other techniques, meaning that as soon as it is "thrown" the punch is being retratcted so as to give momentum to a technique with the other arm (eg. a reverse punch or "gyaku zuki"). In this respect karate and boxing "jabs" are really indistinguishable, even though karate basics are often isolated for (kime) practice.

Now while jabs have been known to produce the occasional knockout they are not generally regarded as “power” blows. The reason is simple; they don’t have much space within which to accelerate, resulting in a lower velocity at the point of impact. Using the simple equation p = m x v this means the amount of momentum generated will be less, hence the amount of momentum transferred (the impulse) is going to be smaller and so is the amount of force applied to the target. (For more on the physics, see my article: “Hitting harder: physics made easy”.)

Given that the principal karate punch is a straight thrust and that it corresponds with the boxer’s jab, it is little wonder then that karate punches are seen as “less powerful” than the rest of the boxer’s arsenal – the “follow-through punches”.

Follow-through punches

With the exception of jabs, boxers don’t attempt to stop their punches at a predetermined point. Instead they adopt a “follow-through” to their punches. This is less evident with uppercuts (“ura zuki” and “tate zuki”) than, say, hooks or crosses. However the karate variants all involve a distinct “stop” executed by the performer. The boxing versions either swing past or, in the case of the uppercut, continue until they have exhausted their velocity at the end of their vertical flight path.

The powerhouse of follow-through punches is, of course the right cross (or just “cross”). Those who have read my article “Chambering punches” will be aware that there is an equivalent in karate which I have called the “kosa zuki”. In both cases it involves a punch loaded just above waist level with the elbow away from the body. Then the fist is raised and the punch is executed so that it passes through the hypotenuse of the triangle formed by you, your opponent and your (right) hand. In other words it “crosses” your (and your opponent’s) centreline.

This hypotenuse provides a longer path, hence more time to accelerate, hence a better chance of reaching a higher maximum velocity. If the full range of movement is used, and the body parts act in a staged way to transfer momentum in a whip-like sequence from larger to smaller body parts, then the fist will be accelerated to the fastest possible speed. A reverse punch is biomechanically better suited to transfer momentum in this way than a leading arm punch. And the cross / kosa zuki is, of course, a reverse punch.

An analysis of the kosa zuki or cross punch

As you can tell from the description and the picture above, the punch ideally follows a straight line in order to prevent interception or evasion; after all, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. It is for this reason that even in boxing the cross is sometimes called a “straight cross”.

However in most boxing contests the cross invariably follows a curve to some extent as you will note from the video below. This is partly because, unlike karateka, boxers don’t attempt to stop their own punches at a predetermined point except, as noted above, when they are jabbing. In the absence of a deliberate “stop” by the performer, a punch executed on a horizontal plane will always tend towards a curving follow-through given the biomechanical structure of the human body (ie. in particular the positioning of the elbow to the side when an arm is naturally extended outwards).

A boxing knockout showing a distinct “curve” to the path of the punch

When a cross / kosa zuki follows a curve it obviously travels an even longer distance than a “pure” straight cross. The further the punch travels from the chambered position to the target, the more time it has to accelerate and the faster its maximum velocity will be (at 80% extension – see my article “Kime: the soul of the karate punch”). This is why the cross carries more momentum than any other punch.

How gloves affect dynamics

Now it is important to note that fighting with gloves creates its own unique requirements: The padding of the gloves spreads the pressure over a wider area, diffusing the force. By contrast, a bare knuckle punch exerts pressure to a smaller area and causes more localised damage with the same force. This can be understood by comparing a flick with a towel to a strike with a pillow: assuming the same mass and velocity at impact, the towel flick will cause more damage.

Accordingly a boxer in a ring must prioritise force at all costs: where a simple jab might be determinative in an ungloved situation (eg. a finger in the eye), a gloved jab of the same force might be no more than a minor inconvenience. In other words, in order to be effective, a gloved punch must transfer more force than its bare knuckle equivalent.

Maximum force: the need to increase both speed and contact time

As I discuss in my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy" maximising transferred force can be undertood by reference to the following equation:

Force = impulse (transferred momentum) / time.

Using this equation, you can see that a boxer first needs to maximise the velocity of the punch. As I have just noted, the boxer can do this by adopting throwing a cross punch from a higher chamber (to line the arm up with the hypoteneus of the triangle) and very likely with some element of curve (because of the natural follow-through).

Second, the boxer needs to maximise the time during which the punch is in contact with the opponent (in order to transfer as much of that momentum as possible). Happily for the boxer, this is another direct consequence of using a follow-through punch: in much the same way as a golf drive uses a follow-through to drive the ball as far as possible, the follow-through punch ensures both maximum velocity and maximum contact time with the target.

Follow-through vs. "kime"

The need to maximise force at all costs in a gloved contest has a profound effect on tactics and training methods for boxers vs. karateka. For example, a large part of a boxer’s training is necessarily devoted to “power” training; heavy bags are hit with deep penetration or with blows that are seen to displace1.

By contrast, a large part of a karateka’s training is, just like a sword practitioner’s, necessarily devoted to honing maximally efficient “kime” or focus via an endless repetition of “cut-like” blows that should minimise displacement while causing sharp, localised damage with straight bare knuckle thrusts.2

“Kime” or focus is designed to make such thrusts more efficient. On the other hand, such punches are of limited effect in a gloved context.2 Moreover, focused thrusts are inherently conservative (for example, see my article "Stopping techniques at a pre-determined point"), making them less useful in a contest where your goal is to defeat your opponent (as opposed to a civilian defence goal of "not being defeated"). Last, it takes a long time to develop good “kime” or focus to a point where it is likely to be applicable under stress.

For these reasons, karate is not readily adopted as a “delivery system” for sports combat. It is profoundly unsuited to glove dynamics2 and developing it is, in any event, a long-term proposition.

So why bother with karate punches?

All of this poses the inevitable question, why don’t karateka simply adopt boxer’s tactics? As I have foreshadowed, this is largely answered by examining goals/motivations.

As I stated in my article “Civilian defence systems”, arts like karate aren’t designed to "beat" an opponent or score a point. Your principal goal isn't to "land a knockout blow". Rather, you are trying to defend yourself. Yes, this might involve a "knockout blow" - but it might not. In the course of this defence, your counters will tend to be conservative precisely because you aren't focused on "winning" – you are focused on not being hurt. Yes, the former and latter might end up being the same thing, but to suggest that they always will is a gross oversimplification of civilian defence needs and responsibilities under the law.

Since any attack/counterattack leaves an opening, civilian defence counters have to be conservative – they aim to minimise that opening. As I noted above, in order to make boxing blows more forceful you have to have some follow-through, meaning some element of curve. This increases momentum, and contact time, significantly. But it also increases the overall “flight time” of your blow, hence making it easier to intercept or evade. It also leaves a larger opening.

Hitting someone with a less than optimally powerful blow in boxing is problematic; you’ve wasted an opportunity to land a knockout and your gloved fists will ensure that its effect is reduced even more.

On the flip side, hitting someone with a less than optimally powerful blow in self-defence might be all that is needed. A poke in the eye does not require a great deal of force. Nor does a stop to the shoulder. In the end you might daze your attacker or do something else that is sufficient to enable escape or thwart further attacks. The latter is something that Marc “Animal” MacYoung calls “cutting the supply lines” (see his article "Generating Power"). As he puts it, you don’t necessarily have to “crush your enemy” in order to defend yourself. It can be sufficient if his “army” is unable to fight.

In other words, your goals have a fundamental impact on your tactics – and hence on your chosen “delivery system”.

Which is "better"?

In my view if you were to compare the results between identical twins, one training in boxing punches and one training in karate punches, then after one or 2 years the boxer would probably generate both more visible force and more applied force. However this is not to say that the karateka would be willing to swap “delivery systems”.

Certainly if I were scheduled to climb into a boxing ring in a month’s time, I’d be hurriedly brushing up on my boxing punching – not attempting to apply the karate “delivery system”.

But on the other hand, I believe karate is much better suited to my own goals of civilian defence.


Many people are inclined to dispute my assertion that combat sports are different from civilian defence arts. They maintain that “fighting is just fighting”. While it is true that boxers are phenomenally good fighters all round (ditto MMA, Muay Thai, etc.) their disciplines are intended first and foremost for competition in a ring. This doesn’t mean that they are inapplicable in a street confrontation. Far from it. However by the same token, just because civilian defence systems like karate are not suitable for use in a combat sports ring does not mean they are not fit for their purpose.

I’ve written this article largely to address the misunderstanding in the broader community as to why arts like karate have such different “delivery systems” from systems like boxing. Because Eastern civilian defence systems are much harder to understand intuitively (given that they take many more years to perfect) they have become an easy target for dismissive assertions that they “don’t work”. In my personal experience, they work very well for the purpose for which they were designed.


1. The more follow-through / contact time, the more you will “shift” or “displace” your opponent and the more forceful your punch will be - and be seen to be (see my article “Visible force vs. applied force”)! Having said all this, the displacement from a very forceful gloved punch (as opposed to a mere push) is still going to be relatively small; you’ll notice that while the knockout blow in the above video did move the opponent a little, it was still not so great as to knock him across the ring.

2. It is important to note that the padding of a glove makes it very difficult indeed to focus any punch in the karate sense of that word. Clearly all effective punches are focussed; if a boxer’s punches weren’t focussed they would be aimless and ineffective. All effective blows are, to some extent, focussed on a target. And just as with the differences in displacement generated by the different “delivery systems” can be slight, the differences in levels of focus are actually quite slight too. However it is those last few increments that are the hardest to achieve. The karate concept of “kime” is modelled on a bare-knuckle delivery system that focuses destructive force on a small area. The very purpose of a boxing glove is to distribute force over a wider area. And this runs directly counter to the concept of "kime".

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kime: the soul of the karate punch


In previous articles I have alluded to the very different dynamics of punches from karate (and many other traditional striking arts) as opposed to, say, boxing. Importantly, I’ve said that in karate a premium is placed on not pushing your opponent away, but rather causing maximum damage without shifting him/her much, if at all. In other words, the energy in your punch should not be converted into kinetic (moving) energy, but rather be utilised in a destructive effect. [For more on this topic see my articles “Visible force vs. applied force” and “Hitting harder: physics made easy”].

Hydrostatic shock

The mechanics of that effect are best described as a hydrostatic shock. Your body is mostly water (about 70%), and when you punch with focus a shockwave is created in that medium (think of punching a balloon filled with water). The shock then impacts on the nervous system.

Consider a punch to the solar plexus: The "winded" feeling results from the punch targeting the nerves in that area, not from "driving the wind out of your lungs" as many believe. My instructor was able to wind me practically no matter where he hit me on the torso. His blows targeted my nervous system.

How? The answer is in “kime” or focus.


What is this “kime”? Simply put, it comes down to a combination of:
    (a) minimising deceleration before impact;
    (b) correct distancing / optimum depth penetration.
Minimising deceleration before impact

A focused blow does not decelerate slowly. It stops suddenly, transferring as much of its momentum (and hence energy) into the opponent as possible.

As you will gather from my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy”, stopping your blows as suddenly as possible is CRUCIAL to the equation "p = m x v" or "f = m x a". If you decelerate before you hit, your blow will land at a slower velocity. Needless to say, it won’t be accelerating.

For this reason karateka and other traditional striking artists will practise straight thrusts. The punch should not vary whether it is practised in the air or whether it is used against an object such as the traditional striking post, the makiwara; move the post away and the punch looks the same. By contrast, move a bag away from a boxer and he or she will very likely overbalance. This is because the boxer partly uses the bag to stop the blow. The karateka works on stopping his or her own blow at a predetermined, focussed point.

In this respect the karateka is much like a Japanese sword practitioner (kendoka) who practises 1000 “air” cuts every morning; the kendoka is “grooving” focus. He or she then uses the exact same cut to slice (very effectively) right through a thick bundle of rice stalks matched to the human body. While some might query the purpose in doing the “air” cuts, the kendoka knows they are necessary; a beginner or other non-swordsman can use as much strength as he or she likes, but will very likely get only half-way through the bundle of rice stalks (and perhaps bend a very expensive sword). The “secret” lies in developing focus – not in strength or “just cutting harder and faster”. You can be as big and strong as you like, and unless you have correct focus it will not make one iota of difference to your ability to cut through something.

Karateka and kendoka even share some specific training methods; here is a picture of my brother training in 1987 using a staff in a "sword-like" motion, trying to stop it suddenly just above an obstacle (in this case a pile of sand). The purpose was, of course, to develop "kime" through using the amplified effect of the long staff (the longer your staff, the harder it is to stop suddenly and the more noticeable is your deceleration).

What focus looks and sounds like

When you stop your punch suddenly it will have particular features. These are instantly identifiable as hallmarks of a karate punch. Because they are not shared by modern combat sport punches, they are often dismissed as irrelevant or ineffective. Yet if you look closely the efficiency and force is clearly evident. Much like a good sword cut, a good karate punch will be seen to stop abruptly and create a “whip” like sound during its movement. Consider the whiplike crack of Tsuguo Sakumoto:

Tsuguo Sakamoto demonstrates phenomenal "kime" in an 1986 performance of the kata "Anan"

Here is another example of good kime in kata. Note the opening thrusts.

A performance of shisochin kata showing impressive kime

Many have argued that the sound is simply a function of clothing. Yes, it’s true that stiffer clothing can accentuate/exaggerate the sound, but it does not affect the whip-like quality that I look for as just one indicator of focus (clearly it is not a determinative test). My challenge to those people who think it is "just clothing" is to video themselves and try to reproduce this quality – wearing whatever they like. Here is a video of my older brother taken recently. He is demonstrating an isolated reverse punch wearing our thin, non-starched uniforms. Note his ability to "stop his punch dead". Note the “whip-like” sound.

Nenad demonstrates kime in a reverse punch

I consider sound to be a reference point since we karateka get used to hearing some sort of "whoosh" with our clothing. A focused punch makes a "crack" and not a "whoosh". One can tell instantly whether a sound is focussed or not (especially when you've seen the good ones applied to hitting objects). The later you stop your punch (late decleration) the more "whip-like" it becomes, the more "crack" your clothes make (as some of the energy used in the movement is transferred to creating a sound wave).

Here is another kata done by one of my seniors Gordon Foulis in 1985. He is wearing his provincial team uniform which is very lightweight (and has been rolled up at the sleeves). Have a close listen to his focus. He was (and is) amazing in his skill level (both in kata and in practical application). Having sparred with him I can attest to this personally.

Gordon Foulis performs his benchmark Kururunfa in 1985

After all these years I still use this as a benchmark for kata performance (and I still can't match it).

But bear in mind that you could turn the sound off and I'd still be able to tell by other points of reference. Turn off the sound and try it yourself on the above videos.

However sudden stopping is, in itself, only half the picture. Your distance from the target is equally important in generating the “hydrostatic shock” to which I referred in the opening paragraphs.

Distancing and depth penetration

When you hit something the simple formula p = m x v dictates that your fist must be moving as fast as possible.

It appears that a well-thrown fist reaches its maximum velocity when the arm is about 80% extended. Thus if your punch covers say 60cm, from a fully chambered position to full extension, then your maximum velocity is reached at 48cm.

In this context it is important to focus your punch 12 centimetres (4-5 inches) or so into the body and no more so as to allow your punch to reach its maximum velocity. Any closer and your impact speed will be lower. Any further and you will not only be past your maximum velocity (and your punch will be decelerating), but you will also have too little penetration.

Most people hit a heavy bag with a slower, but more penetrative punch (with a longer contact time) but throw more mass behind it - ie. p = Mv (big M, small v). This makes bag punches more "push-like" than faster, lighter punches - ie. p = mV (small m, big V). The reason is obvious: most people want to see a result in their punching - and unless the heavy bag moves, little “effect” is seen (again, see my article “Visible force vs. applied force”). Ultimately, the choice is yours as to how you punch and depends on the target and desired result. However it seems quite clear that if you train principally with a heavy bag you will be not be developing a karate type focus or “kime”.

Makiwara vs. heavy bag

In karate punches are typically practised on a makiwara or striking post, not a heavy bag, so as to develop focus and discourage “pushing”. The video below at about 6:21 shows Master Morio Higaonna demonstrating makiwara punching.

Morio Higaonna demonstrates his impressive makiwara technique at 6:21 of this video

Because makiwara absorbs energy like a spring it is suitable for the training of focus or kime. My instructor went as far as forbidding students from using the heavy bag for the first few years so that they would learn focus and not develop "pushing" habits on the heavy bag. He would expect some significant progress on the makiwara before letting them go to the bags.

Again, sound is a good indicator: a well focused, hard punch to a makiwara will result in a resounding "thwack". This indicates an effective transfer of kinetic energy to destructive energy. A "pushing" punch (of the kind you hit a heavy bag with) only produces a muffled "pffft" as the arm pushes into the makiwara, bending it without effectively transfering destructive energy.

I think a good compromise is to use strike shields for beginners (and anyone else) as they seem to be fairly effective at developing focus and are dynamically very different from heavy bags.

Don't get me wrong, I don't disparage use of heavy bags. However focus (kime) is the key to a good karate punch. Joe Lewis, in my view, did not understand this when he famously declared "karate techniques from the waist up are a phoney". He was approaching punching from the perspective of gloved fighting (which never uses this concept). It is almost impossible to focus (in a karate sense) through a glove. The padding produces slower deceleration no matter what you do.

Next time: Karate punches vs. boxing punches

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic