The Case for Kihon

The Case for Kihon

In this article we will be discussing kihon training. For practitioners of non-Japanese systems, ‘kihon’ generally refers to the practice of techniques without a partner or equipment. Typically it’s done in lines where the karateka goes up and down the room.

Such training really came into its own when the popularity of karate grew when it reached the shores of mainland Japan. While the drilling of singular techniques will always have been part of practise, groups drilling them in lines, in an almost militaristic fashion, to the command of the instructor is a relatively recent addition to karate.

Whether drilled in lines or in a more informal manner, for the purposes of this article the term “kihon” – and the observations applied to it – covers the solo execution of techniques and combinations without a partner or equipment.

While kihon practise forms a significant part of modern karate training, it would be fair to say that many now question its value and, on my travels, I even see some abandoning the practise all together.

To lay my cards on the table early on in this article, I’d like to say that I think totally abandoning kihon practise is a mistake that will ultimately be detrimental to the skill of the karateka. However, I also think that they way kihon is generally practised is inefficient and often problematic.

In short, it is my view that kihon is a vital part of the mix, but it needs to be the right kind of kihon and be part of a holistic training matrix.

I’d therefore like to explain the role I think Kihon training should have, and then elaborate to explain how it can be most efficiently and effectively practised.

In general terms, for a technique to have the optimum effect in combat it needs to be delivered in accordance with three key factors. We can express these three factors as either the 3Ts or the 3Ws.

The 3Ts and 3Ws are ways I use to explain exactly the same idea; which model I use will depend upon my audience and which model they find easiest to relate to.

The 3Ws relate to What, When and Why

The What is the technique itself. The physical movement we make. The higher the quality of the movement, the more effective it will be. However, technique alone is not enough, we need to consider the other 2Ws.

The 2nd W is When. This relates to the timing of the technique. We not only have to execute a good quality technique, we need to execute it at the right time. A moment too early or late and the effectiveness of the technique can be greatly reduced.

I have known a good number of people with close to flawless technique, who were less effective that their colleagues due to the fact they lacked good timing. Their strike, throw or lock was always applied just before or just after the optimum moment. Those with lower quality technique, which was delivered at the right moment, generally got better results.

So for maximum effect we need good technique to be delivered at the right time, but there is also the 3rd W to consider. The 3rd W stands for Why.

We need to be clear as to the objective in the given moment, and chose to apply methods that help us achieve that objective. In other words, we need to know WHY we are applying the methods we are applying.

A good technique, with good timing, that achieves a result not in-keeping with our objective – i.e. the Why has been overlooked – is obviously not going to achieve the optimum effect.

So that’s the 3Ws, and as you may have worked out the 3Ts are as follows:

Technique: The what we do
Timing: The when we do it
Tactics: The why we do it

As I said, you can use either model as the both explain the same idea. In my experience, the less experienced people tend to prefer the 3Ws. It’s simple and uses everyday language. More experienced martial artists, who are more familiar with exactly what is meant by “timing” and “tactics” generally like the 3Ts.

Having used the Ws to explain the Ts, I think I can safely run with the 3Ts for the remainder of this article. It may help to give examples were each of the elements discussed is lacking.

Example 1: A person is being threatened and they are sure that a physical attack is imminent. They deliver a preemptive strike in order to facilitate escape at a moment where the assailant does not expect it. However, the technique is incredibly poor, it has no power, it connects with a strong area and does not cause any disorientation.  

In this example, the timing is good, the tactics are good, but poor quality technique results in zero effect.

Example 2: A person is clinched with an assailant. They are unable to break free at that moment and therfore decide to unbalance & throw the enemy to put them down and hence escape. The person delivers a technically sound outer-reaping-throw, but they do it as the assailant pushes forward. The result is that the direction of moment is wrong and the person’s shift to one leg results in them being dumped to the floor.

In this example, the technique and the tactic are fine, but the poor timing results in an ineffective execution.

Example 3: A person is facing assault by multiple enemies. One of them gets close and the person immediately snaps the enemy’s head down into a super tight guillotine choke. The fact the person has tied both hands up with one person, and the fact they are latched onto that person, means that the other enemies have a largely static target who is unable to protect themselves from those attacks. The person is quickly rendered unconscious and suffers a severe beatdown as a result.

In this example, the technique is solid, as is the timing. However, it was delivered without any consideration of the objective or the tactics needed to achieve that objective.

As we can see, we need all 3Ts or 3Ws to be in place if effectiveness is to be achieved.

This is an article on kihon and we may return to the 3Ws and 3Ts to discuss them in more depth in future articles. However, to understand the important role that Kihon can play, we need understand how that kind of training fits into those models.

For ease of getting the idea across, it may help if we give each of the 3Ts a numeric value. Let’s go with 1 to 10 for each one.

Technique: 1 = Very poor technique. 10 = Perfect technique.
Timing: 1 = Mistimed. 10 = Perfect Timing
Tactics: 1 = Misaligned with the Objective. 10 = Totally inline with the objective.

So when a technique is applied we have a maximum score of 30. That would represent a perfect technique, at just the right time, and that is perfectly in line with our objective. Of course, things don’t need to be prefect to work, but they do need all three elements to be addressed.

So, for our arbitrary scale let’s say that an effective technique will need a minimum score of 5 in each category. Our range of effectiveness therefore runs from 15 to 30.

Obviously, the higher up the scale we are, the more effective the technique we will be. So let’s say that:

Below 15 = Ineffective
15 to 19 = Lower level function
20 to 24 = Mid level function
25 to 30 = Higher level function

It’s obviously the higher levels of function that we want, and we need to ensure our training can facilitate that. Back to kihon training.

As should be obvious, kihon training has no ability to improve timing or tactics. Only live practise can do that. Now there are some who suggest that all training should be live. The trouble with that is that technique never gets isolated. It is always part of the mix with timing and tactics. This means that higher level function may not be reached because timing and tactics can mask average technique. While live training is an absolute must, there is also a place isolating technique in order to improve it.

So in our quest for higher levels of function, kihon training can only help move us up the Technique Scale. There are other ways to train technique of course.

If we intend to apply technique on another human being, then we obviously need to practise them on another human being. However, there are faults inherent in most partner training that people are frequently blind to.

During your typical martial arts class people spend ninety minutes or so practicing hurting each other, and yet no one gets hurt. Safety considerations mean that every technique is done wrong. We wear protective equipment, control strikes, stay away from vulnerable areas, throw so people can land safety, apply locks and chokes slowly and with care so people can tap, etc. It’s unavoidable, but it inescapably means that everything is done wrong. We practising hurting others; but we never hurt anyone.

To help “correct” this there should be a part of training where we can “take the safety off” and apply the technique with full intent. You can’t do this with a human being, but you can do it on your own. That mix of motion, intent and visualisation can help plug the gap that partner training inescapably has. Kihon training has an important role to play in this regard. However, it also has an important role to play in developing body awareness.

The greatest fault of kihon training is the lack of a partner. Its greatest strength is the lack of a partner. We have no other consideration but our own motion and mechanics. This 100% focus on our own motion can help develop greater levels of body awareness such that higher levels of function becomes possible.

The very minor corrections made by a good instructor during kihon training are primarily to do with developing this awareness of the body. Moving the hikite (hand on the hip) half an inch, tuning the foot in or out a few degrees, etc and then asking for a repeat performance of the motion to such a high degree of precision demonstrates that the mind-body link is strong. Without such an awareness of your own body, you will never be fully in control of you own body and hence the quality of your technique will be limited by that; and hence higher level function will be forever out of your reach.

Back to our 3Ts and the associated scale. Without high levels of body awareness, an individual’s techniques will be capped at, let’s say, 5. We can still have the effective application of that technique due to the consideration of Timing and Tactics, but it is likely to fall in to the lower or middle levels of function. Higher level function is effectively forever denied to us too because to reach the required scores we would need almost perfect timing and tactics. That’s a big ask.

However, it we can get our technique up to the levels of 7 or 8 (using kihon training as part of the mix to help achieve that) then we introduce some “slack” into the system. Middle level function is more likely to be the norm and higher level function is achievable.

Of course, as the 3T model shows, good technique alone is not enough. Nor is Kihon training alone the optimum way to improve technique. Kihon training does however have an important role to play as part of the overall mix; especially if higher level function is a goal.

Karate works best when it is the result of sound body mechanics combined with combative function. Lose the combative function and we have nothing but pretty looking motions (much of modern karate is like this). Lose the body mechanics and we have motions that are largely impotent when they could be devastating (a worrying modern trend amongst those who throw the baby out with the bathwater when seeking practicality … and failing to find it as a result).

Kihon in lines is found boring by many. Endlessly correcting minor motions in kata is likewise thought to be boring. When isolated from a wider training methodology, they are of little value and hence I can see why people mistakenly dump these things. However, when done as part of a wider training methods, with the aim being true combative function, I feel kihon training has a vital role to play.

I was once part of a conversation between myself, Dave Hazard and Peter Consterdine. Dave likened kihon (and good solo-kata) to the foundations of a building. If you don’t have a strong foundation, you can’t build upward.

Dave also stressed that the foundations of a building, although vital to the heath and stability of that building, are not the directly usable bit. We don’t live in the foundations. We use the bits built on the foundations. I’ve never seen the foundations of my home. I’ve never been in them. At the moment I am writing this in a room built on those foundations. While I don’t “use” the foundations directly, the usable bit depends upon them.

Some modern karateka ignore the foundations and try to build up immediately. The result is a system that becomes unstable at higher levels of function (due to the complete lack of sound body mechanics). Other modern karateka (most of them) spend all their time building strong foundations, but never put the usable bit on the top of that. To quote Dave Hazard again, “We should be building skyscrapers on those foundations … but most don’t even build bungalows”.

While “forever building foundations” is a common fault for karateka, the other extreme of ignoring the importance of foundations, nuanced body awareness and highly refined technique, is also prevalent in the practise of modern martial arts; particularly the reality based fraternity. People want function and they want it quickly. The ideal of spending time endlessly repeating and analysing motions with finite detail is written off as unnecessary … which it is if you want lower level function because reasonable technique combined with reasonable timing and tactics will work. The issue though, as already discussed, is that higher level function becomes inaccessible. You can be effective in a fashion, but you’ll never be highly effective.

All the leading reality based people I know understand the importance of body awareness and good body mechanics. Sadly, the importance of this does not always filter through to the rank and file.

Before any karateka reading this get smug about their “highly refined technique”, it’s important to remember that kihon alone won’t automatically develop such technique “objectively”. If you judge the quality of your kihon by some arbitrary dictate, then you can say your kihon is “good” because you have a self-supporting definition of “good”. Such kihon is only good “subjectively”.

However, if you measure by effect – as pragmatic karateka always will – then the technique will be objectively good. And to ensure that, you need testing against both live partners and impact equipment. Only through such feedback can it be determined that a technique is objectively good. To have highly refined technique, then you need kihon, impact work and live application all mutually supporting each other.

Ignoring impact equipment and live practise in favour of practising solo techniques exclusively will only make you good at kihon by kihon’s standards. Sadly we see a lot of that in modern karate were people train in kihon solely to get good at kihon.

We should be using kihon training in order to make us more effective by strengthening of the mind-body link through getting us to focus inward (not outward to a pad or partner; although that’s obviously also important). From there, we are in a position to utilise that strengthened link and the resulting body control to develop highly refined technique and highly efficient body mechanics.

Sound body mechanics are a must, but they must also be applicable to real world scenarios. A formal lunging punch with good mechanics is practically useless unless it is understood how the motion is to be applied i.e. hiki-te  controlling the enemy’s limb, “stance” moving bodyweight forward, angle in kata showing the line of entry / tactical positioning, etc.

If that punch is delivered in accordance with the kata’s methodology, then it will be highly effective. If the same punch is delivered independent of the kata’s methodology (i.e. I just lunge in at my enemy, with my hand on my hip for no reason, and then “freeze” and the end of the motion: as we frequently see in one-steps etc) then the motion will be highly dangerous and ineffective.

It is the combination of efficient body mechanics being applied in a sound combative way that makes it all work; one without the other is useless.

I am a great believer in Kihon and it worries me that some people are abandoning the practise. A lack of good kihon, and the associated practise, results in a failure to develop the high level of body awareness that high level function requires.

That said, and this is very important, the kihon we do practise should be directly applicable, and we should not overdo it such that Kihon practise is given disproportionate practise time. Thirty minutes of a ninety session devoted to inapplicable sequences is not good!

It all comes down to what we define as Kihon, and how we practise it. It can be invaluable or pointless depending upon those two factors.

Taking individual techniques and sequences from the kata in order to refine them and work on pure awareness of one’s own body and body mechanics can be a very useful practise. However, that should be part of a wider training regimen that has the same sequences practised with a partner and a resisting opponent.

All other sequences utilised in Kihon (i.e. not individual motions or kata sequences) should not be random exercises, but motions that have an “as is” application.

Much of modern karate fails in this regard and as a result that kind of kihon training has very little value.

As an example, from my training in Wado I inherited set sequences such as:

Zenshinshite-jodan – Renzuki-chudan – Maegeri-chudan – Mawashigeri-chudan – Ushirogeri-chudan –Uraken-uchi-jodan

This is very common combination in Wado line work. For those not familiar with the Japanese, it is essentially:

Step through head punch – middle level reverse punch – front kick off the back leg – roundhouse kick off the back leg – put the foot down in front, turn and deliver back kick with the other leg – spin and deliver a back fist to the head.

The huge problem is that there is no way that combination is applicable! There is no conceivable way you could ever use that “as is” against an opponent.

We see the same in other styles too where we have sequences like, Shuto-uke, lead leg front kick, rear hand nukite, etc.

You could make the case that these inapplicable combinations are not meant to be applicable, but instead are exercises in motion and body awareness. Indeed people do make that argument, but to me it is an argument that does not hold water. Surely it makes much more scene to use directly applicable combative motions to learn body motion and awareness. That way you are not practising something you will never use!

In my case, we drill singular techniques in kihon practise. This will include lunging punches, reverse-punches, age-uke, gedan barai, shuto-uke, etc … and jabs, crosses, hooks, palm-heels, knees, etc.

When in comes to combinations in kihon I have long since dumped the ones I acquired from Wado and replaced them with combinations that are directly applicable. For example:

Jab – cross – step reverse punch – step reverse punch– neck grab & rear knee – drop back, double rear round elbow strike

Headbutt – knee – push, groin kick – rear palm-heel – arching slap – dropping hammer fist

The result is that we gain the benefits of line work and kihon training, but what we are training has a functional use.

Here is some video of one of the second combination mentioned being applied with a partner on the pads.

There are loads of those combinations, which we do as both kihon, partner drills and pad drills. Together they combine to give “an education in movement” such that higher grades no longer practise specific set pieces, but also any combinations I deem fit to give them.

There is an important role for kihon training, but it needs to be the right kind of kihon that is being trained.

Kihon should also not be overemphasised to the detriment of other training methods. Spending the bulk of training time going up and down the room takes time away from other training methods that will improve timing and tactics; as well as the other methods of developing technique which are also very important i.e. partner work and impact work.

As is always the case, for a training method to maximise its value, it needs to be part of a wider training program. Bag-work is good; but its not good if that’s all you do because it’s devoid of aliveness. Sparring is good, but it’s not good if that’s all you do because safety considerations will be ever present and you will have a limited technical knowledge (i.e. you also need to be educated as to What to do in that sparring), and so on.

As soon as you isolate anything from the wider training program, or over emphasise it to the detriment of other parts of that program, then you are going to have issues.

Within modern karate, we often see kihon being overemphasised like this. In my own dojo I would say we spend around 10% of the time on kihon. We find that for us, utilising kihon, as we do, as part of a wider training regimen, this percentage is about right. Kihon is a very important part of the mix, and we neither ignore the vital role it plays, not do we overemphasise it.

Some may be thinking that our level of technique must be low if we only spend such a small amount of time on line work, but you’d be very wrong to think that. If that thought did cross your mind, what you are failing to appreciate is that we have many other ways to develop technique!

Our people look very sharp when they do their kihon training despite the relatively small amount of time on it. The reason for that is that kihon is not overemphasised to the point where the law of diminishing returns comes into play. Kihon training is an important part of developing good technique, but it is not the only way. Overemphasising kihon results in these other methods being underplayed and it is that which can diminish the overall quality of the technique.

Kihon training is an important part of the mix because it forces the practitioner to focus on pure motion and body mechanics. The resulting body awareness can open up the higher levels of function that would be forever inaccessible if that level of body awareness was not achieved.

Whilst isolating technique thorough kihon practise is important, it must be understood that technique is just one part of that makes a method effective and that timing and tactics also have a vital role to play. Kihon does absolutely nothing to enhance timing or tactics; which again emphasises the need for kihon to be integrated with other supporting training methods. We need live, holistic, non-complaint training methods too.

It’s not an either / or choice. We need both live practise and solo technique insulation as part of the mix.                         

Kihon has the advantage of 100% focus on motion and body-awareness, because there is no “distraction” from external factors such as a partner or equipment. It also allows us to practise with full intent with the “mental safety” off. Kihon also allows practise at the times were there is no training partner.

However, the lack of a body or equipment means there is no immediate feedback and such errors can creep in. We therefore also need to practise methods with feedback and empirical testing.

Partner training, equipment training and kihon should be three mutually supporting ways of developing technique. They support one another, inform one another, and fill the inherent gaps of each individual method.

I hope this article has helped explain why kihon is important, has value, and why it needs to be part of the mix if higher level function is to be achievable. I also hope it has put forward how kihon should be practised as part of a wider training program, and how a failure to do that can see kihon training lead to ineffective training.

I think we could summarise the key messages of this article in these four points:

1 – Kihon is vitally important if high level function is to be achieved

2 – The type of kihon practised must have direct combative function and must not be a random combinations of un-linked motions.

3 – To maximise value, kihon should not be overly emphasised to the detriment of other forms for practise.

4 – Kihon needs to be a working part of a wider training program and not an end in itself (i.e. many karateka just do kihon to get good at kihon and as pragmatists that’s obviously not our goal).

When these four key points are understood and adhered to Kihon training is very useful.

You can think of Kihon like fat in your diet. A diet devoid of fat is not healthy. Your body needs fat. However, too much fat is also unhealthy. When you get the balance right it’s when you’ll be at your most healthy. Likewise, your karate will be at its most healthy when you get the balance right of all its component parts too.