Why blocks are not “strikes in disguise”

Introduction

There is a sentiment that I’ve often come across in the martial arts to the effect that “all blocks are actually strikes”. If they aren’t strikes, then they are “locks, holds, throws” – in fact anything other than “blocks”.

To my mind this is a modern slant brought about by a misunderstanding of how “blocks” actually work. In this article I propose to explain exactly why traditional blocks are actually (mostly) deflections. To the extent that they can be used for other purposes (in particular, strikes), these are secondary, and to interpret them otherwise is to miss out on a vast and important part of the traditional fighting arts arsenal.

Blocks can be strikes – but that doesn’t mean they always are

First, I need to get this out of the way. Yes, you can employ blocks as strikes. There are many situations where I would do so, and I support the general notion of “inclusive” bunkai (kata application) analysis.

But there is a modern trend that goes much further than this. It not only suggests that blocks can be used as strikes occasionally. It suggests that this is their “true” meaning.

In my recent article “Low blocks against kicks - are they ridiculous?” I highlight one such opinion. If you recall, the particular gentleman in question lampooned the idea that a low block could be used to deflect a kick. Instead, he suggested an absurd application involving a multiple “softening” strikes followed by an ungainly throw using a pull at the neck. All this to avoid what I think is manifestly obvious; that low “blocks” are principally used as deflections (yes – even against kicks).

The gentleman in question reaches his conclusion based on flawed premises, in particular by not considering more than one type of kick (he only considers a roundhouse kick) and more than one angle of interception (he only considers 90 degrees). He also bases his conclusion on erroneous distancing. Each of these factors alone would be sufficient to invalidate his argument. Together, they paint a completely skewed, nonsensical picture.

Blocks DO work… as blocks!

I have previously argued (in quite some detail) that traditional blocks can and do work very well as defensive tools (see my article “Why blocks DO work”). In particular they work as deflections or parries rather than actual “stops” (ie. true “blocks”).

I have previously highlighted some of the salient features of the art of traditional deflection, in particular the need to use them in conjunction with tenshin (body evasion) or taisabaki (general body movement). These decrease the workload taken up by the deflection and the evasion individually and give greater security in achieving a successful defence against a particular attack. (See my article “Evasion vs. blocking with evasion”)

I have also explained why traditional blocks use the forearm, namely that this often gives you your best option of deflecting a surprise attack. It does so principally by working with your natural flinch reaction to deflect attacks that have passed your guard by the time you have a chance to react.

The physics of deflection vs. the physics of striking: 2 subtly, but significantly, different things

I also recently showed why “hard blocking” is a flawed concept in as much as it attempts to marry the science of deflection with the physics of striking. The 2 are subtly, but significantly, different in the following respects:
  1. forearm rotation; and
  2. angle of outward movement.
Forearm rotation

The way in which you rotate your forearm is necessarily different for strikes and blocks. The best way to illustrate this is with an example of a technique that can be used for either. Take the hammer fist:

As either strike or deflection, the hammer fist requires you to rotate your forearm. Why? A “stiff arm” movement is very weak and inefficient; you have the chance, and every reason, to use the rotation at the crucial stage at which it is required. And that “crucial stage” differs as between the strike and deflection.


A more general discussion of the use of forearm rotation (torque) in deflection, starting with xingyi

The hammer fist as a strike

As a strike, the hammer fist requires you to finish your forearm rotation at the moment of impact. Why?

The last moment rotation gives you most of your force in what is a fairly short movement. The rotation only adds force to the blow if it is actually part of the blow. If the rotation occurs too early, then it will be irrelevant; you’ll be left with nothing more than a stiff arm strike.

Nor should the rotation occur after you strike. That too is not helpful in terms of adding force. The impact has been and gone. Turning your forearm after impact is like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

If you want the physics of it consider this:

If you only start rotating your forearm at impact, you get a "grinding" action. That is because the longer contact time means your momentum is transferred over a longer period. In other words your impulse (momentum transferred) is the same, but the time is longer. F = impulse/time. Therefore the longer the contact time (ie. the "grinding" turn of the forearm against your opponent's face/body), the less the force. Think of it as the difference between grinding with a mortar and pestle or using the pestle to pound and smash things in mortar.

So in order to minimize the contact time and to increase force, you need to time the rotation to finish as you impact - not to prolong the contact with a grinding action.1


I consider the hammer fist more specifically in relation to the issue of "torque"

The hammer fist as a deflection

As a deflection the hammer fist works quite differently:

The first thing to note is that your point of contact isn’t with your hammer fist – it is with your forearm.

You don’t want to intercept the attack using your weak single bone – in this case your ulna; rather you want to impact using the top, flat, part of your forearm – ie. using both the radius and ulna.

A strike using the top, flat part of your forearm is practically devoid of any force at all – you really do rely upon the rotation to give you enough force to use it offensively.2 Thankfully, a hammer fist used as a deflection does not try, or need, to impact hard.

Indeed, it actually seeks to diffuse the impact even further. It does so by commencing a rotation of the forearm at the moment of impact. As I discuss in my article “Hard blocks”, the rotation is used to redirect the attack away from you. It does so rather than "grind" the point of contact, which the rotation could achieve if you chose the wrong angle of interception and an incorrect "striking" emphasis.

Angle of outward movement

The next thing to consider is the outward angle of movement. Once again this is necessarily different for strikes and blocks. And again, the best way to illustrate this is with an example of a technique that can be used for either. Take the jodan/age uke (rising block) or the Naha te chudan uke (chest level block as used in arts like goju ryu and ryuei ryu):

One block, 2 movements

Both of these deflections utilize 2 movements:
  1. a “primary arm” (a large movement which I interpret as the principal deflection); and
  2. a “secondary arm” (a smaller movement that acts as a backup deflection and which is sometimes called the “crossing arm”).
Many martial artists today utilize the secondary/crossing arm as their main (sometimes only) deflection. In practice what this means is that they are using what I call a “soto uke” – a block using the outside edge of the forearm (as it is when your arms are relaxed at your sides), but moving inside across your body.


I discuss the 2 movements used in the basic karate age uke (rising block)

Why everyone uses the soto uke as the main (sometimes only) block

The preference for using soto uke is unsurprising. In any basic, 2-part block, the crossing arm is the first part that can be brought to intercept the attack. So when looking at the basic block from a purely sequential perspective, it is not hard to see how it might come to be seen as the main (sometimes only) deflection. After all, if you manage to deflect the attack using the soto uke, what do you need the larger movement for? It must be an attack – right? We’ll see about that one…

Then there is the fact that soto uke is arguably the easiest forearm deflection to understand on an intuitive level. In its simplest form it simply involves dropping your forearm! I think this is a big part of why I tend to see it used more than any other deflection in sparring, particularly between people who are not properly trained in the art of “soft blocking”; it doesn’t require much training, especially when it is used in a “hard” way (as a “soft” block, soto uke is, surprisingly, a very different beast, requiring far more dedicated study).

Jodan/age uke – karate’s uppercut?!

Given the above factors I am not at all surprised to hear comments such as that of my friend Marcel to the effect that “the jodan uke is karate’s uppercut”.

When I first read this, I thought he might be kidding. I couldn’t reconcile the shape of the age uke, as illustrated in the adjacent images, with some kind of uppercut punch.

Then it occurred to me that he wasn’t talking about the finishing position of the primary arm – he was talking about the its start. In other words, instead of being used to deflect, the primary arm is used as a strike – specifically an uppercut. And in its initial phase (ie. the first part of the primary movement) it does indeed start out in an inverted “uppercut-like” position.

The same is true of the Naha te chudan uke; both it and the jodan/age uke start out in the same identical “uppercut-like” position.

In saying “uppercut” it is apposite to note that we’re not talking about a classical boxing-style “curved” uppercut, but rather the age ura zuki – an inverted rising punch from karate and which I’ve previously covered in a separate article.

The age ura zuki is indeed a very effective strike. So what’s wrong with seeing the “primary arm” from jodan/age uke and Naha te chudan uke as just an age ura zuki? Well, a number of things really. I’ll start with the most obvious – the angle. It’s all wrong!

The angle of the primary arm vs. the angle of an age ura zuki

The first you’ll notice about the age ura zuki is that, like any other punch, it is angled straight out to your opponent.

On the other hand, the first thing you’ll note about anyone’s jodan/age uke or Naha te chudan uke is that the “uppercut-like” movement starts out at an angle of as much as 45 degrees to the front. Why? Because that’s precisely the angle it needs to intercept an attack and deflect it.

The initial phase of the deflection is critical: it must cut an angle that “wedges” into the attack. We assume the attack is on the center-line, so your deflection cuts diagonally across that line.

In the case of the jodan/age uke, it intercepts with the flat, top part of the forearm, then rotates around deflecting the attack over the top of you as it wedges into it.

In the case of the Naha te chudan uke, it has a more or less identical interception, only instead of rotating and carrying the attack over your head, the forearm inscribes an arc at an angle of about 45 degrees to your chest, deflecting the attack to the side.3

In both cases, your “uppercut” would require substantial modification in angle to be a strike.

But that’s the angle we do our blocks at anyway!

I anticipate that there will be many who will insist that they do their “jodan uke” with a straight punching action, negating this concern. But if that is the case, I can’t help but make these observations:
  1. First, your jodan uke will follow a very strange path indeed – starting out as an uppercut and then morphing into a largely ineffective, elbow-flaring “hook punch finish” at forehead level.
  2. Second, it’s no use saying that this finish is still capable of being applied as a head-level deflection. For a start, your angle of interception will be woefully inadequate to the task; your fist will stay (at best) on the center-line, leaving one side of your body totally unprotected. While this sort of block might still work on the inside, it is far from ideal even for this purpose because you really want to be raising your elbow – and hence cutting a diagonal line rather than a direct line – a bit sooner.

    In any event, let’s face it – we all know that it is far, far better to be on the outside of a punch. And on the outside this strange hybrid uppercut/block is totally ineffective, as I demonstrate in the video below.
In other words, a straight line punch just won’t do if you’re using your jodan/age uke as a deflection.


I demonstrate how the angle of the primary arm in jodan/age uke is different from the age ura zuki

“So what if we modify the jodan uke in application – isn’t that what bunkai is all about?”

This is another comment I anticipate. The problem here is that we aren’t talking about some sort of arcane, multi-faceted movement like goju’s mawashi uke (roundhouse block). We’re talking a garden-variety rising block, that is being “reinvented” as we speak (see my article “Reinventing the wheel: back to the rising block”). It works. It doesn’t need to be “reinterpreted” as an uppercut punch, a lock or a hold or anything else. It is supremely useful as a deflection.


I demonstrate the traditional mawashi uke – which is open to a number of applications that aren’t immediately obvious. It’s hard to see why a much simpler technique requires this sort of analysis.

And apart from anything else, karate already has a perfectly serviceable age ura zuki in many kata (seiunchin and naifunchin/naihanchi are just 2 such kata). There simply is no need to “see” it in one or more blocking techniques.

If the old karate masters had really wanted to put uppercuts into particular kata movements instead of rising blocks, don’t you think they would have done so more clearly? I simply don’t adhere to the concept that they were “hiding” the true techniques – at least not to this extent. Because if they were, they would have had to manipulate a perfectly good uppercut into a fairly average block or vice versa, just to carry out this “subterfuge”.

“But,” I hear you say, “I can still clearly see how an upper block can become an uppercut and vice versa – so what’s the problem?” Indeed. There is no problem with this. But we’re not where we started. Now we’re talking about something completely different: conversion from one technique to another.

What’s really happening: conversion of blocks to strikes

If you ask me, what’s really going on here is a process of “conversion”. Yes, it is possible to convert one technique into another. You can do so at any time, but it is particularly easy to do at the start of a basic technique.

So, a bit like a human embryo goes through phases where it looks like anything from a amoeba to a fish to a lizard to a dog to a human, so a basic block will, in its “embryonic” phase, be capable of looking like (and in this case converting into) something very different.

Clearly, at the pullback anything is possible. You can turn it into any karate technique that is chambered at the hip. As you start to punch out it can become an inverted punch, a rising inverted punch (age ura zuki), a normal straight punch, a chudan uke, a jodan/age uke – you name it.

As you progress further along a particular path the options decrease. So if you’ve cut an angle to achieve a deflection, the technique can still morph or “blend” into either a chudan uke or a jodan uke – or even an open hand hiki/kake uke (which you can achieve by turning the hand over). I cover this in my article “Blending blocks”. But it can no longer convert to a straight punch, for example – the chance for that to happen has passed.

And so it is my central thesis that when you look at the essential design of a jodan/age uke or Naha te chudan uke, you simply can’t get an uppercut punch. The angle of the initial part of the movement is fundamentally inconsistent with any such punch (unless your opponent is standing diagonally across from you and you punch at an angle across your body rather than turn to face him – an absurd notion, particularly since you’ll want to turn your body for the sake of adding momentum, if nothing else).

Other options: jodan/age uke as a forearm smash/slam or even a hammer fist

I’ve also heard it said that jodan/age uke is still very useful as a forearm smash to the face. And yes, it can be so used. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, this inevitably means either:
  1. striking with the fairly powerless top, flat part of your forearm, or
  2. striking with more force by utilizing the forearm rotation – in which case you have to strike with the weak single bone (the ulna).
Either option is fine, if you have no choice. But honestly, I can think of a thousand things I’d rather do than smack someone in the face with my forearm - like use a hammer fist or elbow strike. I discuss this in the "Age uke (secondary movement)" video embedded earlier in this article, particularly from 2:11 onwards.

Yes, there are times when your forearm is in the right place and that “seems to be the right thing to do”. But this hardly changes the character of the technique from primarily a “block” to a “strike”. Just because you can cut steak with scissors (and that you might have to on, say, a camping trip when you’ve forgotten to bring a knife), this doesn’t mean the scissors “are a steak knife in disguise”.4

As to the hammer fist "interpretation" of jodan/age uke, it is worth remembering that there simply is no hammer fist strike in jodan age uke (unless you change the nature and angle of the movement substantially to a make a hammer fist, in which case we’re alternately back to “arcane hidden meanings” or, more simply, conversion).

Conclusion

A technique like the jodan/age uke is manifestly not a strike, and any attempt to render it into one either:
  1. makes for an ineffective strike since it uses the wrong rotation of the forearm and the wrong angle of outward movement; or
  2. changes the nature of the jodan/age uke so that it no longer bears any resemblance to the blocking movement
There is nothing wrong with the latter – this is simply a process of “conversion” – something fighters face every day in the heat of combat. Basics are, after all, just formal embodiments of essential concepts. These concepts can be blended or totally substituted as the circumstances require. But the essential concept of a basic karate block is that of a deflection – not a strike. There simply is no reason to “reinvent” it as something else, especially when the concept (deflection) works as well as it does.

As I’ve often paraphrased Freud: “Sometimes a block is just a block.”

Footnotes

1. It is worth noting that the rotation of the forearm suitable for a hammer fist strike (ie. turning upon impact) also puts the ulna in position (ie. the hammer fist alignment is the same as the ulna alignment).

2. As a matter of interest, taijiquan uses the top, flat part of your forearm offensively, but does so with an augmenting hand, some wrist involvement and body momentum. It is a bumping strike more than a disabling one. This is found in peng and ji.

3. The Naha te hiki/kake uke works identically to the chudan uke, with the exception that your hands are open and turned over. In both cases, you are inscribing an arc at 45 degrees to your chest – as if polishing a platter that is held with its base against your solar plexus and its top angled away from you at eye level. This is the correct angle for the “wax on, wax off” motion seen in the Karate Kid movie!

The ulna is the weaker of your 2 forearm bones and is quite unsuitable for striking. This isn’t an issue when it comes to the hammer fist strike because your are striking with the padded end of your clenched fist, not your forearm.

However it does illustrate that a “hard block” (ie. one that is geared as a strike) is fundamentally misconceived: It means you are deliberately impacting with your weak ulna.

This compares with the rotation of the forearm suitable for blocking where you impact on the forearm using the flat “top” – ie. using both radius and ulna.

4. For crying out loud, I once removed a cork from a wine bottle using a fork (one of my prouder achievements in life). That doesn’t mean forks are “corkscrews in disguise”!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic