Kime: the soul of the karate punch


In previous articles I have alluded to the very different dynamics of punches from karate (and many other traditional striking arts) as opposed to, say, boxing. Importantly, I’ve said that in karate a premium is placed on not pushing your opponent away, but rather causing maximum damage without shifting him/her much, if at all. In other words, the energy in your punch should not be converted into kinetic (moving) energy, but rather be utilised in a destructive effect. [For more on this topic see my articles “Visible force vs. applied force” and “Hitting harder: physics made easy”].

Hydrostatic shock

The mechanics of that effect are best described as a hydrostatic shock. Your body is mostly water (about 70%), and when you punch with focus a shockwave is created in that medium (think of punching a balloon filled with water). The shock then impacts on the nervous system.

Consider a punch to the solar plexus: The "winded" feeling results from the punch targeting the nerves in that area, not from "driving the wind out of your lungs" as many believe. My instructor was able to wind me practically no matter where he hit me on the torso. His blows targeted my nervous system.

How? The answer is in “kime” or focus.


What is this “kime”? Simply put, it comes down to a combination of:
    (a) minimising deceleration before impact;
    (b) correct distancing / optimum depth penetration.
Minimising deceleration before impact

A focused blow does not decelerate slowly. It stops suddenly, transferring as much of its momentum (and hence energy) into the opponent as possible.

As you will gather from my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy”, stopping your blows as suddenly as possible is CRUCIAL to the equation "p = m x v" or "f = m x a". If you decelerate before you hit, your blow will land at a slower velocity. Needless to say, it won’t be accelerating.

For this reason karateka and other traditional striking artists will practise straight thrusts. The punch should not vary whether it is practised in the air or whether it is used against an object such as the traditional striking post, the makiwara; move the post away and the punch looks the same. By contrast, move a bag away from a boxer and he or she will very likely overbalance. This is because the boxer partly uses the bag to stop the blow. The karateka works on stopping his or her own blow at a predetermined, focussed point.

In this respect the karateka is much like a Japanese sword practitioner (kendoka) who practises 1000 “air” cuts every morning; the kendoka is “grooving” focus. He or she then uses the exact same cut to slice (very effectively) right through a thick bundle of rice stalks matched to the human body. While some might query the purpose in doing the “air” cuts, the kendoka knows they are necessary; a beginner or other non-swordsman can use as much strength as he or she likes, but will very likely get only half-way through the bundle of rice stalks (and perhaps bend a very expensive sword). The “secret” lies in developing focus – not in strength or “just cutting harder and faster”. You can be as big and strong as you like, and unless you have correct focus it will not make one iota of difference to your ability to cut through something.

Karateka and kendoka even share some specific training methods; here is a picture of my brother training in 1987 using a staff in a "sword-like" motion, trying to stop it suddenly just above an obstacle (in this case a pile of sand). The purpose was, of course, to develop "kime" through using the amplified effect of the long staff (the longer your staff, the harder it is to stop suddenly and the more noticeable is your deceleration).

What focus looks and sounds like

When you stop your punch suddenly it will have particular features. These are instantly identifiable as hallmarks of a karate punch. Because they are not shared by modern combat sport punches, they are often dismissed as irrelevant or ineffective. Yet if you look closely the efficiency and force is clearly evident. Much like a good sword cut, a good karate punch will be seen to stop abruptly and create a “whip” like sound during its movement. Consider the whiplike crack of Tsuguo Sakumoto:

Tsuguo Sakamoto demonstrates phenomenal "kime" in an 1986 performance of the kata "Anan"

Here is another example of good kime in kata. Note the opening thrusts.

A performance of shisochin kata showing impressive kime

Many have argued that the sound is simply a function of clothing. Yes, it’s true that stiffer clothing can accentuate/exaggerate the sound, but it does not affect the whip-like quality that I look for as just one indicator of focus (clearly it is not a determinative test). My challenge to those people who think it is "just clothing" is to video themselves and try to reproduce this quality – wearing whatever they like. Here is a video of my older brother taken recently. He is demonstrating an isolated reverse punch wearing our thin, non-starched uniforms. Note his ability to "stop his punch dead". Note the “whip-like” sound.

Nenad demonstrates kime in a reverse punch

I consider sound to be a reference point since we karateka get used to hearing some sort of "whoosh" with our clothing. A focused punch makes a "crack" and not a "whoosh". One can tell instantly whether a sound is focussed or not (especially when you've seen the good ones applied to hitting objects). The later you stop your punch (late decleration) the more "whip-like" it becomes, the more "crack" your clothes make (as some of the energy used in the movement is transferred to creating a sound wave).

Here is another kata done by one of my seniors Gordon Foulis in 1985. He is wearing his provincial team uniform which is very lightweight (and has been rolled up at the sleeves). Have a close listen to his focus. He was (and is) amazing in his skill level (both in kata and in practical application). Having sparred with him I can attest to this personally.

Gordon Foulis performs his benchmark Kururunfa in 1985

After all these years I still use this as a benchmark for kata performance (and I still can't match it).

But bear in mind that you could turn the sound off and I'd still be able to tell by other points of reference. Turn off the sound and try it yourself on the above videos.

However sudden stopping is, in itself, only half the picture. Your distance from the target is equally important in generating the “hydrostatic shock” to which I referred in the opening paragraphs.

Distancing and depth penetration

When you hit something the simple formula p = m x v dictates that your fist must be moving as fast as possible.

It appears that a well-thrown fist reaches its maximum velocity when the arm is about 80% extended. Thus if your punch covers say 60cm, from a fully chambered position to full extension, then your maximum velocity is reached at 48cm.

In this context it is important to focus your punch 12 centimetres (4-5 inches) or so into the body and no more so as to allow your punch to reach its maximum velocity. Any closer and your impact speed will be lower. Any further and you will not only be past your maximum velocity (and your punch will be decelerating), but you will also have too little penetration.

Most people hit a heavy bag with a slower, but more penetrative punch (with a longer contact time) but throw more mass behind it - ie. p = Mv (big M, small v). This makes bag punches more "push-like" than faster, lighter punches - ie. p = mV (small m, big V). The reason is obvious: most people want to see a result in their punching - and unless the heavy bag moves, little “effect” is seen (again, see my article “Visible force vs. applied force”). Ultimately, the choice is yours as to how you punch and depends on the target and desired result. However it seems quite clear that if you train principally with a heavy bag you will be not be developing a karate type focus or “kime”.

Makiwara vs. heavy bag

In karate punches are typically practised on a makiwara or striking post, not a heavy bag, so as to develop focus and discourage “pushing”. The video below at about 6:21 shows Master Morio Higaonna demonstrating makiwara punching.

Morio Higaonna demonstrates his impressive makiwara technique at 6:21 of this video

Because makiwara absorbs energy like a spring it is suitable for the training of focus or kime. My instructor went as far as forbidding students from using the heavy bag for the first few years so that they would learn focus and not develop "pushing" habits on the heavy bag. He would expect some significant progress on the makiwara before letting them go to the bags.

Again, sound is a good indicator: a well focused, hard punch to a makiwara will result in a resounding "thwack". This indicates an effective transfer of kinetic energy to destructive energy. A "pushing" punch (of the kind you hit a heavy bag with) only produces a muffled "pffft" as the arm pushes into the makiwara, bending it without effectively transfering destructive energy.

I think a good compromise is to use strike shields for beginners (and anyone else) as they seem to be fairly effective at developing focus and are dynamically very different from heavy bags.

Don't get me wrong, I don't disparage use of heavy bags. However focus (kime) is the key to a good karate punch. Joe Lewis, in my view, did not understand this when he famously declared "karate techniques from the waist up are a phoney". He was approaching punching from the perspective of gloved fighting (which never uses this concept). It is almost impossible to focus (in a karate sense) through a glove. The padding produces slower deceleration no matter what you do.

Next time: Karate punches vs. boxing punches

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic