Why blocks comprise only one movement

The issue

Last time I promised to explain exactly why "blocks" comprise just one movement and not two.

But before I do that, I must first set out what is meant by "one movement" and "two movements" in this context.

First, I want to make it clear that I'm not talking about two different arms moving (which I covered in my article "Two for the price of one: more about karate blocks").  Rather, I'm talking about two movements off one arm, intended to deflect or otherwise stop an incoming attack.

In a previous article I related this anecdote:
I recall as a young martial arts teacher being confronted with this issue when a rank beginner asked me: "What stops me from just hitting you as your arm goes to the side?"
The beginner in this instance was talking about the chudan uke or "chest level block" but he might as well have been talking about many of the others.  I recall he smirked as he demonstrated how the chest level block comprised two separate movements:
  1. a swing to the side;
  2. a swing back to "smash the attack out of the way".
Indeed, the same is often said for downward blocks: there appears to be a swing up to the ear, and only then a downward swing to "smash the attack (eg. a kick) out of the way".

I must confess that I was left gobsmacked by this question.  It was right at the end of the lesson.  I had never even considered this "analysis" before so it was hard for me to find a response.  It simply wasn't on my radar.  I knew that what he said was fundamentally wrong but I couldn't, for the life of me, say why at that moment in time. 

The beginner left with a smirk, probably destined never to revisit a traditional martial arts school again.

The answer: no block requires you to "swing away first"!

Of course, the answer came to me when I got home (by which time it was far too late): the analysis was hopelessly misconceived precisely because it bore no actual resemblance to what I'd been showing the beginner

In other words, it was nothing more than a particularly weak "straw man".

No block - I repeat no block - requires you to "swing away" first, then swing back to "block" or "smash". 

Rather, in every case - and I mean every case - the so-called "block" moves directly to intercept the attack, either so as:
  • to redirect it; or
  • less commonly, to jam it at its source (strikes tend to be used more for this purpose than traditional "blocks").
This is what is meant by "uke" (ie. what we call "block" but which comes from the Japanese verb "ukeru" meaning "to receive" - a rather more apt term I should think!).

In other words, there simply is no "technique" of the kind described by that beginner.  "Blocks" don't involve swinging away from the attack, nor do they envisage some sort of "sideways smash" (like a car reversing first, then accelerating out of a side street so as to "T-bone" yours).  

Such an approach would be manifestly absurd.   No martial art has ever featured such tactics, so pulling them apart hardly evidences the shortcomings of traditional "blocks".

Consider the above gif and you'll see what I mean about the chudan uke (the very same one I was showing the beginner that night 28 years ago). 

You'll see immediately that my chudan uke moves out towards the punch so as to intercept it and deflect it sideways.  To do so, it has to reach the punch at an angle.  But this doesn't mean it has to "swing sideways".  The line to the attacker's forearm is straight.  It is the shortest distance between two points. 

And no "swing to the side" is required of the arm so as to "create momentum" for a "smash":  You will note from the gif that the block doesn't have to be "hard".  In fact, a block works best when it is barely noticed by the attacker.  The less biofeedback your opponent has while he or she is being redirected, the more he or she will not be able to recover from the failure of that attack (at least, in time to offer an effective resistance to your counter).  (I cover this and other deficiencies of "hard blocks" in this article.)

So what is it that makes people think that there is a "sideways movement" to blocks like chudan uke?  Probably the fact that the outward movement of your forearm is angled as you effect your interception. 

"Aha - isn't this a 'sideways' movement?"

No.  It isn't.  It is just the necessary angle of attack - the angle that allows you to redirect the punch optimally (ie. with the greatest efficiency) rather than meet force with force (ie. "head on").  After all, you don't exactly want to end up fist to fist.  That might be an even "straighter" line to your attacker, but it is scarcely productive of a good outcome (at least, for the average person).

But that's not how I do my blocks...

The inevitable response is this: "But I don't do my blocks like that.  For example, I have a very different chudan uke.  We do swing to the side first!"

Hmm.  I see.  When I think about it, even I "swing my hand up to my ear" for basic downward blocks... 

Oh dear - there goes my whole thesis that blocks work!  I suppose I'd better pack up now and call it a day!

Or not.

I feel like facepalming when I hear this sort of argument because it contains an assumption that is so manifestly false that I scarcely feel I need to point it out.  Let me put it this way:

Who says any swing to the side / up to the ear, etc. is part of your "block"? 

It isn't.  It is nothing more than a repositioning of your arms in basics practice in order to permit consecutive repetition of blocks.  It is a convention adopted during formal exercises in class - not a literal application of the block.

Rather, in application against a resistant opponent, you block from wherever your hands happen to be.  You shouldn't "swing your arm" anywhere.  You make do with whatever position you have.  If your block can only avail itself of a small range of motion, so be it.  Thankfully, most traditional blocks don't require much range - precisely because they don't need force; they are "soft"!1

But what if your range and/or positioning are simply inappropriate for the block?  Well, you don't get to use it in that circumstance!2  It's that simple. 

If you think the latter is an issue, just remember: the fact that your arm is unavailable for, say, punching (eg. because it has just punched outward or is being held in a lock, etc.) doesn't invalidate the very concept of a "punch".  You can only use a technique if it is available.  If it isn't - tough.  Find something else.3

A video in which I discuss the how blocks use one movement, not two

So why practise the "basic version" of a block?  For this simple reason: it is a platform that enables beginners to exercise the full range of the technique in a repetitive format

It's true that you can practise punches solely as "three inch jabs" from your guard  (ie. using very little range).  On the other hand you can also throw a full power punch (using a full range).  While there is some scope for "short techniques" for developing specific skills, which one do you think is going to be more imporant to a beginner?  And which one are you going to use (most of the time, anyway) against a bag/shield/makiwara? 

Answer: the full-range punch.  Why?  Because it permits you to throw full-force punches.  To some extent it also covers the shorter ranges (eg. the short inverted punch to the ribs as well as a jab with the last few inches of your punch).  In other words, it is a more complete movement

Sure, you can exercise the smaller movement from time to time.  But, particularly when you are learning as a beginner, the more complete movement gives you a much better idea of what it is that  you should be doing - if for no other reason than the technique is "amplified" when it uses its full range: small angles, subtle planes of movement and other significant, if tiny, details can be more easily noted, understood and assimilated.

Blocks have different "starting positions" or "chambers" to permit full-range movement

If you're going to exercise a full range of motion with a technique, you need to be aware of the different "starting positions" to permit that full range of motion.

In the case of a basic chudan uke of the kind I demonstrate in the gif at the start of this article, this typically involves moving from the chamber at your hip (in much the same way that a basic punch exercises a full motion by proceeding from such a chambered position). 

In the case of what I call the "shorin" version of chudan uke, the full range is exercised by moving from an extended arm starting position - which in basics terms means that you will probably be extending it out from the hip before you can execute the block. 

This "shorin chudan uke" uses a rotation of the forearm to deflect attacks.  It is for this reason that the forearm must be extended - either across your body or directly in front of you. 

As I discuss in the above video, the "shorin chudan uke" is particularly useful after you've punched.  In the adjacent series of pictures I depict a rather more "stylised" postion after a punch, but my video shows more realistic variations. 

The same principle is illustrated in the video below, in which Jeff and I demonstrate a drill which employs "forearm rotation" chudan uke after a punch:

 Jeff and I demonstrate a drill which uses consecutive "forearm rotation" chudan uke of the "shorin" kind.  Note: there is nary a "sideswing" in sight, even in what is a patently artificial drill.

You'll note that with your arm extended, you don't have the luxury of throwing your arm out to meet the attack - because it is already "out"

Instead you must rely on the rotation of the forearm to redirect an oncoming attack, either to the side (as per naihanchi, for example) or side and back (as per sanchin kata after the punch4 - see the adjacent gif) or side and forward (as per many wing chun blocks). 
  
Yes, when practising this as a basic, you might position your arms in a kind of "chamber" necessary to explore a full range of motion in repetitive practice.  But you certainly aren't "swinging" the arm anywhere so as to "smash things aside".

Similarly, for the downward block (gedan uke), the "starting position" or "chamber" is high - ie. near the ear.  Again, this is so as to permit a full-range motion  

As with the "shorin chudan uke", the "reset" movement (in this case the movement from your hip chamber to your ear) is not part of the block.  It is just a basic practice convention, permitting you to keep repeating basic, full-range, downward blocks one after the other.

Yes, you can interpret this "reset" movement as something - especially in the context of a kata where it exists dynamically  (rather than as an isolated basic). 

But if you look closely, this is quite rare, especially amongst the higher kata.  Any "chambers" on the low block are usually done mid-turn, mid-step or in some other dynamic context.  It is rarely "imposed" as an "additional move" which requires you to "lift your arm to the ear" while the attacker waits...

Conclusion

Accordingly I think it is simply incorrect to say that some practitioners have a "different way of blocking" - one that actually uses two movements.  They don't. 

To be remotely credible techniques, blocks must all follow the same basic principles, one of which is that they must go directly to the attack to intercept it so that it can be either deflected or jammed.  Blocks simply cannot take a circuitous route to their destination.

Yes, it's true that we traditional martial artists often exercise basic movements that require us to "reset" our arms between repetitions.  But this is so as to enable us to practise full-range techniques consecutively.  This reset essentially involves moving from the finishing position to an ideal, full-range "start position" or "block-specific chamber".  The reset is usually not part of the block itself.  Rather is inevitably just an artifact of basics practice.

I know the above will be hard for many to accept - particularly those who have been "raised" on a plethora of "alternative" interpretations of blocks (some of them plausible, some not) that are said to deliver the "true" meaning of these traditional movements.5 

I've had quite a few comments already on this issue (largely in response to my previous article).  A common theme to these comments has been the sentiment: "I believe that blocks are both blocks and other things". 

To a large extent I agree.  But I am also sensing a latent fear among some of these commentators that if they accept a "blocking" explanation it might somehow necessitate abandoning other applications.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many "strike applications" for blocks are not only plausible, but arguably preferable.  This is the case with many "low blocks" - especially those that finish with a "tetsui" (hammer fist), eg. in gekisai kata.  I think that in such cases we have a strong indication the the designer intended a strike - as an equal or perhaps even primary application.

In other cases, even if the application is a bit of a "stretch" it is still consistent with the biomechanics of the movement and a good extrapolation.  I have myself played with numerous locks and holds that are consistent with basic blocking movements - some of which were probably never intened by the designer.  (For the sake of these applications I will sometimes even treat the "block" as if it comprised two moves!)

There is nothing wrong with this.  We need to use our kata for inspiration, as well as understanding the more general principles of the movement (which can translate to multiple scenarios).

At the same time, I see many "alternative" applications that are decidely inconsistent with the biomechanical principles of the relevant traditional block.  Often they use diametrically opposed angles, planes, timing, contact surface - you name it.  All to avoid the obvious, namely that (to paraphrase Freud): 
"Sometimes a block is just a block." 
A classic example is attempting to use the chudan uke (whichever version you like!) as a kind of "uraken" (backfist) - which it can never be!  I propose to examine such a case another time.

In the end, if you are of the "there are no blocks" conviction I hope this article leaves you with some greater awareness of the issues. 

Presumably you've reached your conviction on the back of the assumption that "blocks require two movements".  As you can see, this assumption is manifestly false. 

And if you have labored under it, I think it is fair to say that you still have a lot to learn about "blocks".  How can you say otherwise?  After all, you've built an entire art avoiding these marvellous tools all because of a false assumption! 

If this is the case, isn't it time you had another look at the "humble block"?  I assure you that there is much more to this art and science than shield-like guards and palm slaps!

Footnotes:
  1. I suspect that many people who employ "power adding" measures to their blocks (eg. the "double hip") have an insufficient understanding of "blocks".  In particular, they don't seem to understand that they work best as "soft" redirections.  This is true from the perspectives of efficiency, effectiveness and simple availability. In terms of the latter, you hardly ever have a full range of motion at your disposal to effect a "hard" block using a "wind up" swing.
  2. In this context it should come as no suprise that many "power adding" advocates are also at the "cutting edge" of "there are no blocks" revisionism.  After all, if you interpeted each "block" as requiring two movements (the first being a kind of "momentum wind up", the second being a technique that relied entirely upon that wind up) you'd quickly realise that these techniques were hardly ever available for defence.  So they'd have to be attacks - right?  
  3. Curiously, the corresponding lack of availability for "wind up" attacks never bothers "power adding" advocates.  They'll happily point out that a block comprises "two moves" and accordingly "cannot work" but they ignore the fact that a "double hip" also involves "two moves"...
  4. The forearm rotation block in sanchin kata is one I call "mae ude hineri uke". I hope to cover it in detail in a future article.
  5. When we spend a long time thinking one way, it can be very challenging indeed to change our minds.  The name for this tendency is "cognitive dissonance".
Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic