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HEEL OR BALL?
By Richard Amos

Using the foot as a pivot may seem pretty simple until one breaks it down to consider when and why we should pivot on either the heel or the ball of the foot or even, as suggested by some important instructors, somewhere in between.

As the body’s weight is ideally spread over the entire foot this last idea may, on the surface, appear sound. However, when simply advancing or retreating, the weight naturally shifts to either the front or the rear. A walk in the sand will reveal exactly this. A perfect footprint (assuming you don’t have flat–feet) in the sand will show the greatest impression being shared at the heel and large, inner part of the ball with a lesser imprint on the foot’s outer edge and the toes whilst we stand still. Upon even slightly moving forward, however, immediately the ball digs into the sand and when moving back of course the heel digs in. This simple image may be referred to when breaking movements down to extremes as required during kihon/kata practice.

For the moment let’s focus on the simple movements appropriate for kihon and kata which ought not to leave too much room for grey areas; whether from the perspective of instruction or self-correction. The ramifications of using either ball or heel when stepping/turning, for me at any rate, go further than simply acknowledging that the weight shifts to the front when moving forward and vice-versa when moving back.

In strict basics, previous discussions (SKM #80) have spoken about not lifting the heel when moving, but later that too much emphasis on keeping the heel down may potentially hinder freedom of movement in the long run. Let me, if I may, come back to that point in a while and for now just reiterate that some of the fixedness apparent in kihon and kata is designed to teach the body how to move in the (initially at least) non-intuitive way necessary for mastery in the long term.

What the stepping/turning principle is teaching one, as far as heel or toe goes, is that while shifting the body’s weight we must be aware that there is always a compressive force involved which explosiveness necessitates. Any compression by definition happens between at least two things: as we’re stepping/turning here we can focus just on the legs, plural. They squeeze towards each other. One just happens to be the anchor and/or pivot while the other is the moving leg; but they are both working during the step.

In a simple step forward (oi-zuki, for example), it ought to be considered unforgivable, during fundamental kihon practice, to turn the toes outwards (thereby pivoting on the front foot heel) at the beginning of the movement. This is because we are not getting an instant squeeze/compression of the rear (moving) leg towards the front (pulling) leg. Not only that, if we turn the toes out at the beginning of the move we’re not actually moving forward which defeats the purpose and, therefore, disqualifies the possibility of mastering the mechanics of a simple forward step. In a backward step the heel must not lift (it always does at first because it’s so difficult to time the weight shift with the compression of the rear leg AND get the sense that the heel is anchored and, consequently, able to have a pulling effect) for the same reasons. If you lift the heel when stepping back, your rear leg is actually going forward first. Illogical.

This argument doesn’t appear to be obviously applicable in jiyu-kumite as there are so many mitigating circumstances but, by the time we reach a high enough level for proper jiyu-kumite we should already through diligent practice have developed the physical emphasis (and muscles) described in this article.

Not only that, there are of course exceptions to every rule and the myriad of variations presented to us within just our regular training would make this article impossibly broad. Discussion of these exceptions is, however, highly interesting even though it opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of examples which may only really be satisfied through animated discussion and physical demonstration. So, rather than attempt to dissect them all I’ll use one; a favourite technique of mine, ushiro-geri. Here is a case where, although we are indeed turning, we are not changing direction. The commitment must be directing the weight straight towards the target for maximum power. Balanced control is paramount so turning on the heel (albeit being a “back rotation”) is self-defeating. We want power here to go massively to the target and the ratio of a “tight” spin to covering ground is large enough to justify the use of the ball. But, and also, as we are kicking with what could be called a sutemi-waza (i.e. a sacrificial technique), the body must lean considerably (relatively speaking) in order to extend the leg. Doing this puts the hips in a position not at all the same as a turn when we must keep our posture and potentially survey our options. This, of course, opens up other streams of thought that only a book and/or video could come close to doing justice to.

Therefore, back to the subject matter of which I aspire here to offer merely direction into the basic idea, that is, stepping up and down in simple kihon and turning in Heian Shodan – an excellent model for many examples.

Generally we can say there are hardly any backward steps in kata (the last Shuto from the sequence of four in Bassai Dai is one of very few) which is kind of interesting, but there are many backward turns. The conclusion that may be drawn from this is that if we can manage to build enough strength in the leg muscles for a turn then it’ll be that much easier to step in a straight line forwards or backwards. The means (training in kata) justifying the end (strengthening less obvious areas to achieve mastery).

If we use Heian Shodan, we can see how hugely influential doing it properly can be to our kihon practice and, later, our kumite. All the turns are done on the heel as all the turns in this kata are, in principle, backward ones. Even the first move from shizen-tai should be considered a backward movement turning on the right heel. The third move of course is a huge backward turn.

What makes it difficult during these kinds of movements to turn on the heel is threefold: i) lack of correct commitment to weight shift; ii) lack of connexion between the toe and the center of the body or, at the very least, the upper thighs; and, very importantly iii) lack of conscious effort to involve the pivoting foot/leg from the onset of the move.

Whoever said that it’s better to put the foot in place and then turn must have been talking specifically about a possible interpretation of one idea of an application. This example might be plausible if citing the throw tai-otoshi (perhaps after the first ki-ai, but, even here, ippon-seoi-nage is more appropriate and then feet will come close together anyway) or it doesn’t make sense at all. To talk about “winding up” by stretching the foot behind one and then whipping the body around afterwards to create a tremendous force in the direction of the block is a thoughtless statement that can easily be contradicted. It may be very strong at the end but what about the beginning? Surely the essence of any technique should readiness and the ability to adapt and apply it spontaneously. The whipping round should be done FIRST: squeezing the body into a tight package with centripetal force. If done properly (let’s stay with the start of the gedan-barai after that first ki-ai) the toes of the right foot start squeezing anti-clockwise (pivoting on the heel of course) as soon as the movement is commenced. If we pivot here incorrectly on the ball, the moving leg is essentially chasing the pivot leg, which is contrary to the compact readiness we are trying to achieve. After this compression, the release results in an explosive gedan-barai, expanding torso, stance and block in unison towards our imagined opponent. Also, because we’ve prepared the gedan-barai infinitely better (this is the embodiment of kamae) we have, very importantly, taught the body the movements and emphasis necessary to being able to adjust one’s timing and distance with spontaneity : the two essentials of kumite.

Here is a crucial link.

Kihon/kata done properly is without question conducive to better kumite. It may not be apparent at first, especially as effective kumite guys are very often either young and athletic (and consequently can get away with a great deal) or have a good sense for fighting – acquired or natural. This is all very well but do they not want to achieve their potential? And what about the lot who are neither of the above?

One of the reasons oi-zuki (our most powerful punch) rarely gets used effectively in jiyu-kumite is that its all important instantaneousness hasn’t been developed properly as a direct result of not emphasizing the heel/toe roles and the feeling of connexion. Opening up at the beginning of oi-zuki may give the illusion of a big powerful technique but hardly of any use if there’s someone there to intercept you. Isaka sensei based a massive amount of his training on oi-zuki and swore that oi-zuki was a virtual metaphor for Shotokan karate itself. Even at fifty he was scoring ippon with this technique against opponents half his age.

Not only that, compression leading to explosion signifies a release of power and not the application of more effort at the end of the technique. The end of the technique is where we want finesse and composure. From these we can achieve perfect timing, accuracy and control.

The concepts of Ki and the importance of seishi over teishi and rigid tension are also outside the scope of this article but must be studied. Ki adepts use the phrase “ki o dasu”, which literally means to “let/put/release ki out” and often translated as extending ki – impossible unless one has composure and readiness.

As we free up our karate, most likely we’ll lean towards utilizing more the ball of the foot, sacrificing degrees of tightness as we turn for control. This is normal as the ball of the foot is where the toes are and it is here that we gain stability. Nonetheless, we have to have gone through the mill first.

Always bear in mind that once the physical body has grasped deeply the essence of a principle (potentially requiring 1,000’s of hrs) and we have gained “muscle memory” in it, we must not remain chained to the idea of textbook technique “above all” otherwise progress will be halted and our karate will stagnate. It is very difficult to recognize, however, the moment to unshackle oneself and I have seen many very good and highly experienced karate-ka disqualifying their further progress by appearing to cling to their form, obsessed with avoiding any departure from the textbook by so much as a millimeter. If one has been training diligently for a few decades surely one’s Heian kata will not degenerate into haphazardness by allowing a natural quality; if it does we obviously have to put in another few thousand hours. The point is that this time for freedom must come and we shouldn’t miss it before it’s too late and we’re too old and stubborn (and afraid?) to change anyway.

It is at this high level that we may find a certain ideal of perhaps pivoting somewhere in between the ball and heel but I think this to be a very advanced concept indeed. And, in a way it ought to be perpetually and tantalizingly just out of reach. We all need something to aim for.

  1. Twisting into hanmi can be the initiator of any one of the basic uke or kizami-zuki/ uraken etc. In kihon this is especially obvious when we release from an extreme shomen or even gyaku-hanmi. When moving about freely this effect is lessened and must be accompanied or even replaced by shifting the body.

  2. As a partial evasion of an attack directed at oneself. In the practice of tai-sabaki the body is required to rotate either hanmi or gyaku-hanmi. One or other of the legs may follow accommodating the movements of the hips/torso but also acting as brakes often leading to a coil upon completion.

  3. Beginning with hanmi as a coiled spring in preparation for another immediate technique. This is the source of power for an explosive counter attack with minimum effort and can be shocking for the opponent with its vicious ability to cause a sudden and rapid change of direction. It requires the same three principles highlighted previously on the shape of zenkutsu-dachi: front & rear leg/foot angles and hip/buttock placement.

Even with these benefits in mind the position of hanmi appears to be lost on many. It’s often referred to as having the hips at 45 degrees - a number which seems arbitrary to me. This sort of convenient phrase results in many practitioners turning the hips roughly into a position instead of feeling the effect and gauging its efficacy. We must have the hips coil back as far as possible while the thigh and foot of the rear leg remain pointing forward at the same angle they would be in shomen. This creates the torsion that we should be seeking in order that the return off hanmi feels much like the release of an arrow from a bow or (more correctly) a Jack shooting out of a Box. It should be impossible to relax from hanmi and not have anything happen.

It is crucial that the rear leg flex during this movement – very often some of us go through great stresses to avoid compressing (dare I say bending?) the rear leg and all that happens is that we either stick our backsides out to the rear (losing one of the three principle positions) or raise the hip joint that should be squeezing back and down (I say down as this is the feeling necessary to counter a tilt upwards) towards the heel. The knee must not bend outward but must stay pointing in the direction of the toes which should not drift outward either.

In continuous drilling of techniques on the spot in zenkutsu-dachi when twisting the hips we must absolutely understand and remain diligent about what can and cannot move. The possibility of creating a spring will be greatly diminished if any of the anchor-points shift about. Apart from the role of the rear leg, it should be clear that the front knee does not move at all and the hip joint (to which the front leg is attached) is a pivotal hinge.

The uses of shomen, on the other hand, are not so decisively manifold. From zenkutsu-dachi, moving forward whilst maintaining shomen does not make much sense to the beginner. The natural tendency is to twist to the side during oi-zuki and the benefit of shomen can often only be appreciated on completion of gyaku-zuki for example. We must not forget however that kihon and kata practice are ostensibly to train the body to do well what is not initially natural. It seems counter-intuitive for the beginner to step forward for oi-zuki and not twist to the side.

The reason for this is not because it is natural to reach with the moving leg (walking does not involve reaching – we propel ourselves) but because it’s simply odd stepping with both our left leg and left hand. This un-naturalness causes the body to become confused allowing the punching arm to play a far greater role than it ought, letting it dominate the whole movement. What doing oi-zuki in shomen does is redress the balance by forcing the arm to be subordinate to the correct drive of the legs. This takes a great deal of time to grasp (if ever) but is really important if we are able to do ‘proper’ kumite in the dojo, by which I mean to do kumite using combinations that flow from defense and attack and back again without degenerating into a swinging scrap.

In maintaining either complete hanmi or shomen there is a large amount of effort involved. Because of this neither one should be considered to last for more than mere moments. On the contrary, our karate should evolve to be (and appear to be) effortless. The body should swiftly return to somewhere in between and a "natural" kamae must be the preferred feeling of semi-permanence punctuated by the necessity of defensive and attacking techniques. Shomen and hanmi are interim positions before resuming the equilibrium that allows us to begin any one of a vast array of techniques. This equilibrium is the embodiment of kamae.