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By Richard Amos
Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue #83

There are basically only two types of hitting technique with feet and hands. For one the power comes from a thrust and the other from a snap. Whether using arms or legs the principles that govern these movements remain the same.

Above all other considerations the crucial distinction is the way in which we use the elbow/knee. In the case of a thrust either the elbow or the knee pushes from behind the fist or foot and (equally importantly) pulls it back again. In contrast a snap sees the elbow/knee point towards the target in advance of the foot or hand: this joint, in its role as a pivot, then remains in place while the foot or hand releases sharply and returns with equal sharpness.

We have to also appreciate that the difference between these two types of technique is not that one is done more quickly than the other and not that a thrust is held out while a snap is pulled back immediately.

Naturally, because of the lightness that is inherent in snapping techniques they may well be quicker than thrusting ones but that should not influence the intent. Every technique in karate should be intended to be as fast as possible.

The big culprit that confuses often is tsuki. During kihon it’s possible to hold a punch in place in absolutely the correct position for a very long time but that doesn’t mean a punch SHOULD be held in place a very long time. On the contrary (although it is valid keeping it there in kihon and kata - if only to experience the completed form of the movement), the practice of bringing it back immediately must be stressed as well.

The trouble is when we’re told, for example, to bring a gyaku-zuki back instantly we’re told to snap it back. So, in effect we’re asked to snap a thrusting technique. This seeming paradox however is only a question of semantics, because limitations in language offer us no other reasonable choice. Saying to snap a thrust back, however, DOES infer well the immediacy with which one must return the weapon but it shouldn’t affect the fundamental course of the thrust in question.

Our PhD. guys will be able to explain it better than I, but what is important to remember is that a thrusting technique like tsuki (literally tsuki means thrust in Japanese, which is why if you get a standard translation of a Japanese karate text by a layman they’ll say step forward and make a thrust when they’re talking about oi-zuki) or yoko-geri kekomi should have the upper limb pushing behind the point of impact.

For an ideal and perfect thrust, the elbow is behind the fist during choku-zuki and the knee is behind the sword-foot/heel for yoko-geri kekomi for as much of the movement as possible.

On the other hand, for a snapping technique, the pivotal joint (be it elbow or knee) PRECEDES the hitting weapon. That is, the hand during uraken follows the course set by the elbow and the foot follows the knee for yoko-geri keage.

Regardless of whether it’s a thrust or strike, for any striking blow with foot or hand to be truly efficient the return course must also be the same. In other words when we send tsuki with the elbow behind the fist we must take care that the elbow returns first with the fist following. This sounds obvious but is so frequently not done.

I can’t count the number of times during repetitive tsuki practice seeing someone bringing the fist back first when making hikite and the elbow has sort of lazily followed. It’s even better to find the occasional example of someone who has a small cut on their thumb leaving dozens of spots of blood in the middle of their chest; caused by brushing the chest with the hikite hand when it should be returning directly to the side of the waist after following the course of the elbow.

If done properly it should be impossible to withdraw the left punching hand and touch the chest incorrectly with it – let alone the right side of the chest! This error, however, is not uncommon even among very high grades.

There are some extremely talented karate-ka who can seemingly throw out some of these principles and still excel but the majority of us are stuck with hard slog that needs clear reference points. This latter group, of which I’m a member, should not have to struggle along without clearly defined methods that will improve their karate and continue to improve it indefinitely. Understanding principles is much more important in the long run than copying those more talented than us.

For example, one of the greatest competitors of the ‘70’s and 80’s, synonymous with phenomenal form during kata, cannot be copied for his basic tsuki. His allows the fist to remain at his waist while the elbow commences its forward path. The fist may whip into position for a perfect photo-finish but the missing moments when the fist was static are absolutely crucial to the success of the technique in reality.

We ought to be inspired by the physical achievements of the greats to train and analyse, developing realistic goals and deeper understanding for ourselves, instead we tend to copy superficialities which is a shortcut that always fails us.

Several of the famous sensei in Japan are blessed with a number of tremendous qualities, among them enviable flexibility coupled with powerful limbs. One in particular can hold his leg out in yoko-geri kekomi leaving no doubt as to its extended form and power.

However, trying to copy his kekomi doesn’t allow for anyone lacking in his attributes to achieve because it defies certain laws. This particular instructor is so strong he can get away with it (perhaps because of the disproportionate size of his thighs, calves and ankles he achieves what should be impossible) but on observation we can see his kekomi returns with neither the equal and opposite form nor the immediacy necessary for the kick to be the example we should follow.

His keage on the other hand is truly magnificent because the leg’s return is both immediate and the same as its outward course.

This is one of the keys: if the kick/strike/punch starts out as a thrust it must return as one. Likewise, if a technique starts life as a snap it must return along the same path. A punch should not thrust out and return looking like an uraken. Yoko-geri kekomi should not thrust out and return a la keage or, equally commonly, looking like a mawashi-geri.

I remember being told in my early days of training to lock out my thrusting leg or arm – very harmful advice as the technique becomes unnaturally “stopped”. A properly executed technique (snap or thrust) only appears to stop at its furthest extension but really it’s already on its way back. In other words, the reason it’s not going any further is because it’s returning. This makes it possible to have a relatively effective hit along the entire course of the technique and not just at the end.

Snapping techniques such as mae-geri or uraken do not generally suffer the same counter-intuitive barrier that can be seen with the thrusts but still are less distinct than they might be. As much as possible the pivot joint (i.e. the elbow or knee), while fully bending in preparation, aggressively points to the target and remains where it is when the foot/hand is snapped back.

By fixing this point towards the target we can create the sharpness necessary in a snapping technique to offset its lack of weight. We can also avoid leading with the hand or foot resulting in a swing that has no focal point and may be dangerous for the practitioner by over extending. If one of these snapping techniques is acknowledged to be generally lighter than a thrusting one it must have sharpness too otherwise it won’t be much good. A stable pivotal joint will assist in that sharpness in the same way that the fixed pivotal point of a pair a scissors ensures the blades will cut.

Those of us training hard and studying Shotokan karate will know that the trunk/hips are invariably involved somewhere. And the way we use our body offers another distinction on this theme that helps clarify things even more.

For the lighter, sharper power of the snapping technique, it is the pivot JOINT that is sent by the body’s force. The armpit or inner thigh is opened by a hip twist or pelvic tilt (with some techniques the back or even shoulder is used) throwing either the elbow or knee towards the target and away from the body. From there the weapon whips out very quickly.

For the more robust power of the two principles, i.e. the thrust, the WEAPON itself is sent by the body. Keeping the armpit (for tsuki) or inner thighs (for yoko-geri kekomi or ushiro-geri) closed longer ensures that the arm or leg remains connected to the body and benefits from its solidity.

In either case the knee or elbow must be fully bent at both the preparation and the return, freeing the limb for a full and supple motion.

On top of all this we must recognize what kind of technique works when. The light, sharp ones should be aimed at bony and weak targets, which is why we aim our uraken at the cheek, nose or jaw and our shuto-uchi at the neck or temple, etc. The heavier ones are well suited for the torso: for example, tsuki to the ribs or solar plexus, likewise ushiro-geri.

In conclusion, I believe that by studying and understanding the logic, principles and the identity of the movements of Shotokan karate, other than by simply trying harder, there becomes no need to force techniques which, based on misunderstandings, is counter-productive.