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Game Plans for Karateka: Heian Nidan

GAME PLANS FOR KARATEKA: Heian Nidan/Pinan Shodan


Last spring, I posted an article on how to use game plans to manage cross-training (available here:  https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/game-plans-cross-training).  This article explores how the same concept can be applied to generate game plans out of a specific kata. 


In today's world, there is an overwhelming amount of martial arts information available online.  With just a few clicks, the aspiring student can find instructionals on topics ranging from flying armbars to striking combinations to advanced shoulder throws.  Wonderful as this is, it can cause many students to get lost in a sea of detail.

Game plans help us navigate this vast archive of information.  As I argued in my previous article, game plans are especially useful for anyone who cross-trains, because they guide you towards efficient training.  But game plans can also be helpful for pragmatic, bunkai-oriented karateka.  That's because a pragmatic karateka will be faced with a wide range of potential skillsets to explore and understand, and will always have to make decisions on how to prioritize training.  Do you focus on limb control?  Striking power?  Footwork?  Standing armbars?

In this article, I will build a simple game plan to answer those questions.  This game plan will be "inspired by"/consistent with bunkai for Heian Nidan.  Many karateka learn a variant of that kata early in their studies, so it's a good starting point.


Heian Nidan is Shotokan's version of Itosu's Pinan Shodan.  It's my understanding that some styles switch the order of these two kata, so if you're uncertain, I'm talking about this one: (https://youtu.be/nSUMlMwnPG8?t=76).  Heian Nidan's bunkai features an unorthodox method of striking and limb control.  It teaches you the principles of breaking an enemy's balance, applying pressure to joints, and breaking an enemy's grips on you.  It also emphasizes the proper angle for delivering effective strikes, and gives you an arsenal of hand strikes and low kicks to add to your toolbox.

Since this is a bunkai-oriented forum, I'm going to build this game plan using only freely available materials from Youtube and from other threads.  But always keep in mind that you can adjust or customize your game plan to suit different techniques or to fit in your preferred bunkai for a particular move.

Iain has a Youtube video that interprets the beginning of Heian Nidan and shows how it maps out different ways to strike the jaw.  Drawing on that Youtube video, I can sketch out the bare bones foundation of this game plan: 

1. Whenever the jaw is open, hit it.

2. If there's an arm in the way, control it.  Deliver strikes.

If you want to see the video, it's here:  https://youtu.be/ZNyZhpgaB1o?t=51.  This will also supply our preemptive strike:  just default to a closed fist strike to the jaw. 

In the previous article, I talked about how important it is to have a SHTF move.  In this case, the Heian Nidan SHTF move will be keyed to shuto-uke.  You cover up and move at an angle.  Once you feel impact on your arms, attack with the sword hand (as you would in shuto-uke).  When I say "cover up", I mean it in the most basic way possible.  Imagine that someone is hurling a handful of marbles at your face.  Whatever flinch response comes naturally is the one you want.  Sometimes that flinch response will look a bit like the chamber for your shuto-uke, and that's what I have in mind here.  But it doesn't have to be pretty.  (Iain illustrates this in an article on the website, here:  https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/pinan-heian-series-fighting-system-part-one.  A similar idea is shown here, ending at 1:40 on the clip:  https://youtu.be/9BtSObpHua4?t=66)   

Building from Here

As you practice, the game plan will grow.  Here's how it might develop:

1:  Preemptive Strike:  hit the jaw with a closed fist.  Keep hitting until he is stunned or unconscious, then escape.  

2:  SHTF: Cover up, Move at an angle, If you feel impact, try shuto-uke

3:  Striking Plan:  if you get an opportunity to strike the jaw, take it.

4:  Limb Control:  if there's an arm in the way, control it.  Continue delivering strikes.

5:  Low Kick:  if you hit the enemy hard enough, he may stagger.  He might turn to the side and lift his hands up instinctively to protect his face.  When that happens, it will probably be harder to get the shot at his jaw, and you don't want to reach awkwardly to pull his arm.  So instead, just kick out his leg.  Use either a low side kick (Shotokan) or a low front kick.

6:  Lapel Grab:  If he grabs your lapel, counterattack with age uke (a similar idea is demonstrated here:  https://youtu.be/iZx9RJyX9f4

Note that there is a standing armbar located in Heian Nidan, but in my experience it's difficult for most people to catch this reliably against resisting opponents.  So I'd keep that as a "bonus" option and would not include it in a game plan at this level.  If you see the opportunity to armbar someone, take it, but don't hunt for it, plan for it, or spend much time drilling it.

At this point, you may be saying:  "This is really basic and simple."  Yes, that's exactly what I'm aiming for here.  This is a starting point of core survival skills that you can use if a confrontation requires physical intervention. 


This is confusing . . . what is the end product?  Where do I start?  Is there a shortcut?

Let me simplify the above list and put it into different terms.

1.  First, learn the kata.

2.  Second, learn the bunkai for the kata (available on the app, available on this forum, available on Youtube, and in many other sources).

3.  Begin to refine the kata. 

At this point, you're ready for the game plan.  Take the list above (one through six) and copy it over to a Word document.  Next, skim through this article until you reach the section on TRAINING THE GAME PLAN, below.  Start there.  As you train, revise and update the Word document on your computer.  Make it match your needs, your skills, and your school.  If you find it helpful, you can then refer back to this article for more details. 

What about the nukite?

Nukite offers a perfect example of why game plans are valuable.  There are many different ways to apply the nukite strike.  For example, maybe you use nukite as a palm strike to the opponent's head (as seen in some versions of Pinan Shodan).  That's relatively simple and you could add that to your game plan early on.

But what if you use nukite as a way to unbalance the opponent and set up a throw?  In my opinion, this sort of application is more advanced and would be best delayed until the student reaches intermediate level.

What if my school uses nukite as a spear hand to the solar plexus? 

You don't want this in your game plan.  Instead, change that to a closed fist strike to the body.  (To give you a very rough idea, think of replacing it with something like this body shot:  https://youtu.be/AWfEX9zz5nM?t=150).  Over time, you'll want to work that body shot into striking combinations.  (In the linked fight video, the only reason that was so effective was because his opponent was tired and had been softened up with some brutal strikes earlier.  In most other circumstances, you'll want to set up the body shot with at least one other strike.  You could try to throw it as a counter-punch, but then we're starting to veer closer to sport fighting/sparring and away from self-protection.  Still worth studying, though.)       

Does it matter if my game plan is historically accurate?  

No, not at all.  Function is all that matters.  The kata can be an excellent starting point (since it's a core part of the karate curriculum), but it should never limit your development.

It seems like a lot of things in this game plan deviate from the kata.

Yes, that's by design.  For example, Heian Nidan doesn't record a preemptive strike to the enemy's jaw.  This is an inference from the kata.  But it is a crucial "gap-filler" that expands upon the kata and brings it to life as an effective fighting system. 

Should I worry about hook punches?

There is no classic "hook punch" in Heian Nidan.  If your school teaches them well, then by all means, absolutely incorporate the hook punch.  But otherwise, I would say that it's OK to delay the hook for now.  At some point, you'll need it (or at least an equivalent weapon, like a circular elbow strike), but the hook takes time to develop. 

Can I use this game plan for MMA?

No.  This particular game plan would not work well in MMA.  As Iain has explained in several different articles and podcasts, kata methods aren't designed for sport fighting against trained opponents.  In most cases, you'll need a separate game plan for whatever sparring format you prefer (i.e. an MMA game plan, a point sparring game plan, whatever you're in to).  But you should try to link up your game plans whenever possible (as I explained in my previous post).           

How should I approach stances?

A lot of karate instructors will use Heian Nidan as an opportunity to introduce and emphasize kokutsu-dachi.  Even though this is an important part of karate, I wouldn't place too much emphasis on it straightaway.  After all, in Karate-Do Nyumon, Funakoshi warns that kokutsu-dachi is a very hard stance to master.  It will take time.  Instead, I would focus on how much power you can put into a strike.  How does it feel when I sink a punch into the bag (or pad or makiwara or whatever)?  What if I change my stance?  What if I lift the heel of the foot?  And so forth.  Let empirical testing be your benchmark for power and for what stance works best.  Don't feel compelled to root yourself in a particular karate stance.  They are always transitional.

In fact, at the risk of going too far, I would give further advice.  When you are doing the kata, focus on refining the stance properly.  But when you are doing bunkai, padwork, or bagwork, I would encourage you to use whatever stance allows you to perform best.  Many times, that will be the same stance as the kata, but not always.  Here are some "starting points":

Krav Maga Basic Stance:  https://youtu.be/naWEqaGRWQA

A similar approach:  https://youtu.be/ApRBjb93FJ4  

A different style (Boxing):  https://youtu.be/AHaSHHk9Y4M?t=226 

Other options:  https://youtu.be/lqXrLb5to68 

In my humble experience ("IMHE"), even if you usually train in one of the more "sporting stances" shown above, you will often find yourself momentarily adopting something like a "karate stance" when you actually go to apply a technique to someone.  And remember to train techniques from a neutral, natural stance as well (for self-protection purposes).

There is a lot missing from this. 

Yes, that's true.  To begin with, this game plan does not cover takedown defense, groundfighting, basic wrestling, or many other areas.  This is geared at students early in their studies.  Those other aspects can be delayed until slightly later in the curriculum.

And of course, this game plan doesn't address any of the crucial soft skills (like verbal de-escalation, awareness, escape, etc.).  But neither does the kata--those aspects can be handled by in other parts of your curriculum. 


Remember that the game plan is a way to structure training.  I am not suggesting that you try to "think through" any of this in an actual physical confrontation.  You use the game plan to structure training until these methods become instinctual. 

If you're someone who is new to this kind of training:  Start by developing your strikes on the pads.  As soon as you can, get used to striking while moving.  Over time, start adding in footwork drills.  Eventually, you'll reach a point where your impact is good and the footwork feels natural.  That's when you would start working through the rest of the game plan (i.e. limb control, kicking, breaking grips, etc.). 


At this stage, I would not worry about mastering any of these techniques.  In particular, I wouldn't worry too much about learning limb control, as you'll have time later in the curriculum to refine that skillset.  Instead, I would have reasonable expectations and just use this as a tool for gradually building my comfort levels. 

IMHE, it can be demoralizing when you first start training limb control against a resisting opponent.  It is hard to keep and maintain a grip on an opponent who is fighting back.  So don't be upset if you find that this is a tough road.  Maybe you'll try to pull an arm to your hip (applying the concept of hikite), only to have your opponent jerk it back forcefully.  That's normal.  It's not going to look pretty.  The key is to learn to use limb control to create split-second openings that you can (later in your studies) capitalize on.


Whenever you're dealing with a kata created by Ankoh Itosu, keep in mind that Itosu was strong.  In Karate-Do Nyumon, Funakoshi tells a story about Master Itosu's incredible grip strength.  He tells about two separate occasions on which Itosu defeated opponents simply by grabbing their wrists in a vise-like grip.  Funakoshi describes Itosu's grip as literally "bone-crushing."  Itosu had strong arms to go with his grip and apparently used to beat Master Azato in matches of Okinawan arm wrestling.

There's some exaggeration going on in those stories, but the message is clear.  If you want to bring Itosu's fighting style back to life, it will help if you have a strong grip.  One simple, super-cheap thing you can do to start building your grip is the "farmer's walk."  This is just walking with weights held in each hand.  You can do these with dumbbells/weight plates/barbells/kettlebells/DIY sandbags/old suitcases with books inside/extra value boxes of cat litter/whatever.  It's probably best to add them at the end of your workout on days when you still feel energetic.

This does not mean that you have to be strong to use these techniques.  You don't.  But it helps.


What would a game plan for Heian Shodan look like?  After thinking this through for a while, I've come to the conclusion that the basic principles of Heian Shodan are identical to those in Heian Nidan.  The kata are just different ways of recording the same fundamentals.  For that reason, a game plan based on Heian Shodan would look a lot like the one I sketched out above.  The only difference is that you might add something like:

7.  If the enemy is ever doubled over at the waist, I will hammerfist him on the back of the head (drawing on the Shotokan version of this kata). 

If you wanted to take it one step further, you could dip your toe into an extremely basic groundfighting game plan.

8.  If I end up on the ground, I'll look to use hammerfists to stun my opponent whenever I can.  I will keep an aggressive, fighting mindset and I'll try to get on top as soon as I can.  As soon as I've stunned him, I'll get away.  (Here is a glimpse of how a skilled fighter can use those hammerfists to overwhelm an opponent:  https://youtu.be/wGjLBC9xZDk?t=57

(Again, I am gearing this game plan towards beginner students.  Any groundfighting discussion should really just be seen as a placeholder.  Students can be introduced to those details later on in their studies.)


As per usual, let me emphasize that I am not an instructor and I am not trying to present myself as an expert or authority on this material.  (Even though I have a karate background, I dedicate most of my training time these days to grappling, and my striking training takes a bit of a back seat.  When I do strike, I rarely use karate-style limb control, instead relying on armdrags and other tools from my grappling skillset.  I am applying the principles I have learned from my studies to the task of building a game plan with other techniques.)  

Nevertheless, I hope that this article may be of some interest to the people on this forum.  Think of this as another student in class sharing his notes with you to compare ideas.  I've had these ideas sketched out for personal use for a little while now, and I finally decided that I might as well share them for others.  Maybe this will fuel your creativity and give you a starting point.  Take what you like and discard the rest.

Most importantly, if you keep something from this article, test it yourself to make certain it will work for you.  Game plans are useless until you bring them to life.  


This article offers a game plan that is inspired by Heian Nidan.  It is designed to help pragmatic, bunkai-oriented karateka structure and prioritize their training.  It will be most useful to karateka who are fairly early in their studies of bunkai.  For a broader discussion of game plans, please check my previous article:  https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/game-plans-cross-training

In the future, I may edit this article.  There's a lot of resources on this forum that I haven't had time to watch or read, so if I run across new (or better) ideas, I might come back and update this resource.

Thanks everyone.

deltabluesman's picture

Apologies for the small text size.  There may be a way to fix that, but I'm not sure.  If you have trouble reading it, you can sometimes increase text size by holding down the CTRL button on your keyboard and scrolling the mousewheel. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Thanks for adding the article. I’ve not had the change to read it yet, but look forward to doing so.

deltabluesman wrote:
Apologies for the small text size.  There may be a way to fix that, but I'm not sure.

Text size is determined by each individual’s browser settings. If anyone is finding the text too small or too large, they can normally adjust by holding the "Ctrl" key and pressing the "+" key to increase text size, and pressing "-" to decrease text size. It can also be done by clicking “view” and then “zoom in” or “increase text size” depending on which browser you are using.  

All the best,


deltabluesman's picture

Thanks Iain, much appreciated!  I'm glad it's just on my end.

All best,


Pieter-Jan Vdb
Pieter-Jan Vdb's picture

Great material! I read the first half and will come back to your post. What is nice about a post like this, is that it is not just a video or technique, but it gives an inside to your way of thinking about kata and where you get your sources and inspiration from. Thank you for sharing!

I can also really relate to this quote of yours:

Note that there is a standing armbar located in Heian Nidan, but in my experience it's difficult for most people to catch this reliably against resisting opponents.  So I'd keep that as a "bonus" option and would not include it in a game plan at this level.  If you see the opportunity to armbar someone, take it, but don't hunt for it, plan for it, or spend much time drilling it.

Standing armbars seem to be all over the place in kata, aren't they? But it is indeed hard to pull of in sparring. At least if you are of a similar size/strenth. So I had a very complicated relationship with these standing armbars. I now like to look at it more as a way to hold a limp down and know where the head is (yes, learned this from Iain :) ) To me this works much better. I particularilly like the '2 on 1' hold.I saw you referenced to it in your other gameplan article about pinan sandan as well.

Thanks for sharing!


deltabluesman's picture

Much appreciated!  Yes, I did have that exact experience with standing armbars.  I actually ended up dropping them from my practice entirely for a while.  But as you say, Iain's perspective on using them as a bridge to get to the head led me to reconsider them.  Also, once I started focusing on the support skills (the positioning/set ups for the technique), I started to see a lot more value in those kata that have them.

Admittedly, standing armbars are still only a very small part of my practice these days.  One of my current instructors uses them a lot in his classes, so I will sometimes work them with him, but otherwise I see them very much as a limited-use support tool.  Of course, that's just my personal preference, no disrespect is intended to those who use them heavily.

Josh Pittman
Josh Pittman's picture

I agree that armbars are very difficult to achieve, but I have found that the same motion on my end (the transition to "cup-and-saucer") is much more reliable when it's on the inside of the opponent's arm (about 4:39 in this video: https://youtu.be/L78fdfGa9D8?t=279). I think this is because the opponent's elbow doesn't have to be at a particular angle for the technique to work and because you don't have to use your fine motor skills to control the opponent's wrist as much.

deltabluesman's picture

Yes, I definitely agree with that (using the kata motion on the inside to collapse the arm).  I was introduced to that at one of Iain's seminars and I felt like it was a strong application.  I associate that particular motion with the beginning of Heian Godan but I believe you could also connect it with the Heian Nidan skill set as well.