Locking your joints

Introduction

There is a tendency among beginners to think that karate and other traditional martial techniques involving a thrust or straight arm/leg involve pushing the joint to full “lock out”. This impression is exacerbated by the fact that they often hear a “crack” with the technique which they might assume is from the joint being taken to its fullest extreme.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

It is vitally important to remember that a straight arm/leg technique should never go to full “lock-out”. Rather a couple of centimeters (an inch or so) always remain after the movement finishes. What stops the technique is not your joint but your muscles.

Kime and stopping techniques at predetermined points

In my article “Kime: soul of the karate punch” I discuss how karateka will stop their punches using muscular power - and how this “focus” (known as “kime”) is part and parcel of the karate method. Indeed, it is part and parcel of almost all traditional far eastern martial arts.

Even if we discount any role for kime/focus in terms of assisting the efficient transfer of momentum, there is a high premium in civilian defence on not relying on your target to stop your technique, but rather having a pre-determined finish point regardless of whether you hit or not. I discuss this issue at length in my article “Stopping techniques at a predetermined point”.

Sound, appearance and false cues

The first thing beginners mistake for joint “lock-out” is the sound. Usually associated with karate, the sound can also be heard in the vigorous thrusts of the Chinese martial arts, both southern and northern. Yes, a nice “whipping” sound does accompany a technique that has properly executed “kime” or focus. But we need to be aware that a substantial portion of that sound comes from the stiff, starched uniforms (gi) that karateka in particular often wear. Even when a technique is executed without such a uniform, there can be a sound accompanying it. But that sound should never be the result of your joint reaching its full extension!

The next thing students mistake for joint “lock-out” is sight. Looks can be deceiving. What seems like a lock-out to a beginner student is often anything but. Consider the video below and note how the full thrust looks “straight” - and yet after the technique has been completed I still have a few centimeters to go! There is “straight” and then there is “too straight”…


I demonstrate punches and kicks, showing that there should be no “lock-out” of your joints

The problem with joint “lock-out”

There is a good reason for not letting your joints take the stress of stopping your punch; they will be strained and, ultimately, wear out. Your joints and associated ligaments are not built to withstand constant stress of this kind. In the short term you will develop repetitive strain. In the long term your joints will be continually inflamed. It is well known that joints which are continually inflamed start to degenerate.

One of the most frequent conditions arising from joint “lock-out” is what is known as “tennis elbow”. It comes, quite obviously, from tennis players who take their elbow joint to full extension during forehand and backhand shots.

I have personally suffered from tennis elbow resulting from punching. It isn’t pleasant. And it takes ages to heal. As a green or brown belt I realized what I was doing and stopped. I can honestly say it hasn’t been an issue since.

I know of some senior karateka who never made this adjustment and now spend part of the year (particularly the winter months) with their arms in perpetual pain, often up in slings. Heed my advice: don’t go down this path!

How to stop your techniques

So how should one stop one’s technique? By using one’s muscles of course! This means that a short muscular contraction will bring your punch to a stop at the point you’ve pre-determined.

Even this can lead to some types of repetitive strain injury: your muscles are attached to your bones by way of tendons. Tendons need to be conditioned. If a beginner starts punching full power and goes on all day and night, I can pretty much guarantee tendonitis. This is, in itself, an unpleasant injury to have.

Rather, if you are a beginner, or an experience martial artist who is “out of condition”, you need to gradually work your way into full power “air techniques”. This might not be very satisfying, particularly to those who mistake the “power feedback” they get during air techniques with the feedback when they have struck a target (see my article “Shaking, extraneous movement and efficient technique”) but it is nonetheless something you have to be prepared to do.

In any event, one should not put too much emphasis on “powerful air techniques”. Practising in the air is all well and fine, but sooner or later you have to start hitting some kind of target. That’s where your real “power” emphasis should be. And even there, it is wise to work slowly into it, never forgetting the lessons learned in air techniques. For example, I know of many karateka/other martial artists who have missed their target when it moved unexpectedly, and then found their elbow/knee hyper-extending, causing them an injury. It’s even happened to me on a couple of occasions.

It is worth remembering that any “full power” technique has its risks. A sprinter will tell you that even when fully conditioned and fully warmed/primed, there is always a risk of a fairly catastrophic injury on race day (torn Achilles, torn hamstring, etc.). Bursts of “everything you’ve got” don’t leave much “wriggle room”. And the older you get, the greater your chances of having such an injury.

Don’t lock-out your knees and other joints too!

Some martial artists are well aware of tennis elbow, but don’t seem to think that the same issue applies to the knee - or even other joints. And yet it does!

Front kicks, for example, should never be practised with a “lock-out”. Nor should side thrust kicks. The latter are especially prone to “lock-out” injury because you don’t use your big thigh muscles to stop the kick just before full extension. The knee might be able to take a bit more abuse than the elbow on this front, but sooner or later you’ll find it getting sore and swollen. Don’t do it!

Conclusion

It is an important part of traditional martial arts training to use “air techniques” - be they in kata/xing or as basics.

It is also part of the conservative ethos of civilian defence to stop your “air techniques” at a pre-determined point. Not only is this used as part of “kime” or focus (in much the same way as a sword cutter will focus on a very specific point just beyond the target, guaranteeing a maximally efficient approach speed) but it also ensures that you don’t hyperextend or otherwise get compromised (in balance or positioning) when you miss your target (which we will all inevitably do at some point or other).

So by all means, stop your techniques at pre-determined points. Just don’t do it using your joint. Use your muscles to do it. Don’t be confused by whip-cracking sounds of crisp, starched gis. Don’t be confused by the apparently “straight” arms of your seniors. These are illusions. The arm and leg are always bent - to a small degree - even at so-called “full extension”.

And don’t expect your body to be able to accommodate full-power “stops” from day one. Any movement that is that violent is something the body needs to be conditioned towards doing. Work up gradually, and you’ll see the benefits. Try to go too fast, too soon and you’ll see nothing but injury.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic