In this article we will be covering the basic principles of power generation and the use of impact equipment. In order to fight effectively it is vital that you can deliver powerful strikes. The ability to hit hard is by far the most important skill when it comes to the physical side of self-protection.
Many self-protection situations will be preceded by an exchange of dialogue which will typically take place at “punching distance”. With correct training we will be able to actively take control of a situation, in the dialogue stage, with the use of a pre-emptive strike. If we can effectively deliver a powerful pre-emptive strike, we have the ability to end physical situations very quickly.
In the book Karate-Do Kyohan, Gichin Funakoshi – the founder of Shotokan Karate – wrote, “When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one's whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help.” This is very sound advice for self-protection. Hit hard when the enemy does not expect it and then get out of there! The key physical skill in all of this is of course the ability to hit hard. Even if the situation should develop into a “fight”, you need to be able to deliver powerful strikes in order to bring the fight to a quick conclusion.
Karate is an art based upon the “one-blow, one kill” concept – i.e. every single blow, no matter how many we actually throw, is capable of being a fight finisher – and hence one would expect that powerful strikes are something that all moderately experienced karateka would possess. However, the modern practises of too much “air punching”, not enough impact training, and the influence of point sparring have produced karateka who are unable to strike with real power.
It is the transfer of bodyweight that makes a strike powerful. When a strike hits the target, the entire bodyweight of the striker must be behind that strike if it is to have fight-stopping power. An arm accounts for around 6% of the average person's bodyweight. Striking with the arm alone will result in a very weak punch.
One of the main reasons why karateka may deliver “arm only punches” is that modern point sparring inadvertently encourages moving the striking hand as quickly as possible in order to “get the point”. Because the speed of the hand and arm are overemphasised, the body motion is frequently curtailed and this results in an “arm only” punch.
Of course, most karateka are encouraged to twist their hips into the punch when sparring. However, this twist is normally done in a way that gives extra reach to the punch – in order to bridge the gap between the combatants – as opposed rotating the hips in a way that effectively transfers bodyweight. Extra reach is something that is not required in the close-range combat associated with live situations. This “twist for reach” doesn't add much power to the punch. The resulting impact, what little of it there is, is again predominately down to arm movement alone.
In much of modern karate training, due to the emphasis on point scoring, the hand is often the first thing to move when a punch is thrown. Alternatively, it is also very common to see the hand and hip move at the same time. Both ways are ineffective if the aim is to generate real power. A powerful punch needs bodyweight behind it. Because the hand can move faster than the mass of the body, the body needs to move first so that when the hand impacts when body motion is at its peak. The most effective way to generate power is therefore to move the hand last.
To generate fight-stopping power we should move the feet first (if appropriate), then the hips, and finally the hand. The body moves and then the hand transfers the resulting movement of the bodyweight into the opponent. If the hand either moves first, or at the same time as the hip, the bodyweight has either not moved, or has only moved a small amount at the time the hand makes “impact”. There is therefore no significant amount of bodyweight to transfer and the impact will be chiefly down to the arm motion alone. The resulting punch will be very weak.
Another common error when delivering punches is to twist from the centre of the body so that one side of the hip travels forward whilst the other side is going backward. When pivoting from the centre – even if the timing is correct and the arm is the last thing to move – the nature of the hip movement means that a significant amount of bodyweight is travelling in the opposite direction to the punch. This is not really of any great concern if the aim is simply to get the hand to the target. However, to punch with power at close-range, you should pivot from the side of your hip so that the whole of the body is travelling in the direction of the punch.
We have already established that in much of modern training the movement of bodyweight is not emphasised anywhere near as much as the speed at which the karateka can get their hand to the target. The result of this practise is punches that lack power. In the past, when karate was practised solely as an effective combat system, one would expect the body mechanics to be geared towards developing maximum impact. If we are looking for real power, we should ignore the mechanics used for modern karateka vs. karateka sparring and instead analyse the mechanics of the traditional punches found in the kata.
One of the first karate techniques I was ever taught was the “Junzuki” or “Oi-Zuki”. This punch is found throughout the kata and is frequently the first basic punch taught in most karate dojos. As a slight aside, the way in which the majority of karateka are taught to apply Junzuki is far from practical. However, this not a fault of the punch itself; the problem is a widespread misunderstanding of how the punch should be applied. It's not the purpose of this particular article to look at the application of the punch itself (see my Applied Karate or Bunkai-Jutsu DVDs). What I want to examine in this article is the body mechanics of the technique.
Junzuki was taught to me as a fluid motion where the feet move first, then the hips (pivoting from the side of the hip), and then finally the hand moves to deliver the punch (there are some great diagrams and text that explain this technique in detail in Shingo Ohgami's “ Introduction to Karate ”). The fundamental concepts introduced by this technique, and other traditional punches, should always be adhered to. We should always move the feet in the direction of the punch, either by stepping or hitching (if we have room to do so) and then pivot from the side of the hip. Now that the body is in motion, we move the arm to transfer the generated energy into the opponent. The motion of the hip, and the delay of the hand, means that a torque is momentarily generated in the torso and hence the hand will be dynamically whipped forward.
It's also important to note that the impact is made as we are moving. Therefore any stance should be considered the end of the technique: not the start. We don't assume a stance to throw a technique. We assume a stance as we are throwing a technique. The stance is where the weight ends up after it has been driven through the target.
I must emphasise again that in order to effectively transfer this movement of bodyweight into the target, the hand (or whatever striking surface is being used) should move last. When emphasising that the hand should always move last, some people worry that the technique will be “too slow”. You should understand that the hand is only “delayed” for a fraction of a second before being dynamically driven forward at high speed due to the torque in the body. And if you don't “delay” the hand in an attempt to get the hand to the target as quickly as possible, it will do nothing to the opponent when it does get to the target! To strike with real power, you need to stick to the principles demonstrated by kata.
At this point I'd like to quickly mention that in many dojos the “power mechanics” of the traditional punches have been contaminated by the “speed and reach mechanics” of modern sparring. This means that not all karateka will teach and practise the traditional punches in the way outlined above. However, the majority of the high ranking karateka that I've trained with do teach punching in this way.
For karate to be practised as a practical combat system, we need to adhere to the power principles of correctly taught kata, regardless of whether the punch in question is a traditional punch or a modern variation. In future articles we may return to look at the specific foot and hip movements to get power into straight punches, hook punches, rising punches, close-range strikes and kicks. For now it is enough to understand the broad principles of body mechanics outlined in this article.
When practising your strikes be sure to move in a way that gets your bodyweight behind them. By sticking to the kata based principles of power generation you will be able to strike with real power and ensure that you practice karate as a practical fighting system.
In addition to understanding the basic body mechanics of power generation, we also need to ensure that we put our knowledge into practise against impact equipment. In the past, all karateka made use of makiwara and other such impact equipment. However, in many modern dojos the only thing that is ever struck is the air. I'd now like to move on and look at the various types of impact equipment available and how we can make use of them to increase the power of our strikes.
Before we move on to look at these pieces of equipment in turn, I feel a word of caution is in order. The incorrect delivery of techniques against a striking surface can result in severe injury. Please ensure that you receive tuition from a qualified and experienced instructor before undergoing this type of training.
Although there are numerous types of makiwara, the main ones are the standing type and the hanging type. The standing makiwara is predominately used to develop hand and arm techniques. Through the repeated striking of the makiwara, the hands become conditioned, technique is improved and the karateka's ability to deliver effective strikes is vastly increased. The standing makiwara is a great training tool, but its main drawback is its lack of versatility. The target is always at the same height and distance, hence accuracy is not developed and the practice of combinations is severely limited. I'm not saying that you should not use the standing makiwara – because as I said, it's a great piece of equipment – but it should be used in conjunction with the other items discussed in this article.
The hanging makiwara is less common than its standing counterpart, but it is still a good piece of equipment. The hanging makiwara was predominately used to practice kicks, but it was also used in order to develop thrusting punches.
The focus-mitts – also referred to as ‘Hook & Jab Pads' – are a great and versatile tool to aid in the development of your striking skills. When used correctly they will improve your power, accuracy, versatility and your stamina (if used for long enough). There are no doubt some who will say that the focus-mitts are not a “traditional” piece of equipment and hence they don't belong in the traditional karate dojo. Whilst it is true that the formulators and developers of karate didn't use focus-mitts in their training, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't! Whilst it was relatively easy for the karateka of the past to get some rope, straw and a wooden post to make a makiwara, it would be impossible for them to get the modern materials needed to make a pair of focus-mitts. If the masters of the past had been able to access focus-mitts, I feel confident that they would have embraced them as a way to enhance their striking skills.
The main advantage of the focus-mitts over other pieces of equipment is their versatility. The person wearing the mitts can position them so that practically every striking technique and combination can be practised. The focus-mitts are a great piece of equipment that can help to develop impact, footwork and accuracy.
The focus-mitts are my favourite piece of impact equipment. However, they do have their limitations; particularly when it comes to kicking. Focus mitts are OK for practising roundhouse and groin kicks, but they cannot be used effectively for side and front kicks.
The punch-bag is arguably the number one piece of equipment for the development of power. The mass of the bag means that it can be used to practise practically all of the techniques found within the traditional kata. This includes hand strikes, punches, elbows, knees, head-butts and kicking techniques. The bag is great for developing impact, footwork, combinations and stamina. However, the punch-bag is not that useful for developing accuracy due to its size.
For the karateka, a fairly long bag is best (about five or six feet in length). A standard boxing-style bag will be too short. Although boxers never hit below the waist, a great many karate techniques do. In particular, it should be remembered that in live situations kicking techniques should be delivered below waist height (although there are benefits to the practice of high kicking in training); hence we need a bag that is long enough to allow us to practice combinations that include both high and low strikes. The bag is a great piece of kit that is a real confidence builder. It is one thing to perform a movement against the air, but it's something else entirely to actually hit the bag with it and feel its effects. Through bag-work you will be able to ensure that your techniques are effective and can develop large amounts of impact when required.
As its name suggests, the kick-shield is predominately used for the development of kicking techniques. However, it is possible to use the kick-shield to develop elbows, knees, punches etc. One of the advantages of this piece of equipment is that the person holding the kick-shield can move around and this makes the actual placing of the strikes more realistic. Because kicks are so powerful, it is vital that the person on the receiving end holds the shield correctly.
Another advantage that the kick-shield has over other pieces of equipment is that you get a much better appreciation of the true effect of the blow because you can observe the effects upon the person holding the shield. If you deliver an elbow strike to the shield that knocks your partner off their feet, it's a pretty safe assumption that if your partner had not been holding the shield, and if they hadn't braced themselves, then that the elbow would have proved to be a stopping blow.
It is vital that you make use of this equipment in order to develop powerful and effective strikes. It may sound obvious (because it is!) but if you want to be able to hit hard, you need to practise hitting things hard. Practising against the air can be a useful way to refine basic technique, but it will not develop power. Being able to hit hard is the number one physical skill when it comes to self-protection. Be sure to regularly train with impact equipment in order to develop that vitally important skill.