7 basic rules for pivoting

Introduction

Readers might recall that last year I wrote a piece titled "A pivotal question" - an essay where I analysed where and when one should pivot on the ball of foot versus the heel.

In that essay I noted that most of the time we martial artists pivot on the ball of the foot.  Why?  Principally for two reasons: balance and "power".  This sentiment is echoed by Lucio Maurino sensei in the video below (one that is embedded in Jesse Enkamp's recent article covering this issue):



But really, judging by the comments on Jesse-san's article I really don't get any sense that people are aware of where and when it might be appropriate to pivot on the heel - which is something I've previously covered.  Some insist that it is never appropriate, while others insist on defending their own particular tradition.  But relatively few seem to accept that both ball of foot and heel are appropriate pivot points depending on one's objective.

Indeed it never ceases to amaze me how my analysis of instances where one might appropriately/optimally choose to pivot on the heel has managed to confound people.  I'd say that at least 70% of the responses to my article have been: "I find what you say interesting, but I disagree..."

I have never had a satisfactory account of why these people disagree with me on this issue.  The closest I get is a discussion about how pivoting on the toes "adds force in every instance", rather than "drawing it away" in the one example that I gave (ie. of pivoting on the balls of both feet simultaneously when turning more or less from one side to another).

The problem is this folks: that was just one example (a rather artificial one!) that I chose simply to show that pivoting on the heels could produce more power than the ball of foot in some cases.  It wasn't a definitive "guide to pivoting".  (If you note, the video that accompanied that article was just taken from random footage in class: it was never intended as some sort of "be-all and end-all" accounting for every instance of pivoting.)

Lately it has dawned on me that unless I wrote something that was "exhaustive" (read "suitable as a spoon feeding exercise"), I would never really communicate what is, frankly, common sense!  Really folks, it isn't all that hard!  Most of the time we martial artists are going to pivot on the balls of our feet.  But like it or not, there are times when we can - indeed should - pivot on our heels.

So here are my own "7 easy steps" to understanding this subject.  The video below is a summary if you couldn't be bothered reading further:



# 1: Pivot on the ball of your rear foot to drive a punch forwards

This seems to be that scenario that concerns most folks: they take a jiyu dachi (free stance - what kenpo call a "neutral bow stance") and then convert it into a zenkutsu dachi (forward/bow stance) and they want to know "how to do the pivoting part".

Most of the time the answer is simple: pivot your rear foot on the ball - not the heel.  Why?  Your weight is moving towards the front.  This means your weight is being driven off the back of your foot and onto your toes - particularly in the case of your rear foot.

Like a sprinter on a starting block, you use your ball of foot (or your toes) to help accelerate your movement by pushing off.  You push with your toes, not your heel.

It's a bit of a "duh" really.

#2: Pivot on the heel of the front foot to turn

Okay, suppose you are now taking your weight the other way - ie. you're retreating off your front foot and onto your back.  Suppose you're doing that so as to turn around.

In that case, you'll be pivoting on the heel of your front foot.

Why?

Because as your weight comes off your front foot your toes will lift, putting your weight on your heel. In fact, what happens is the exact opposite of when you push weight forward onto your toes.  So that means your heel will be in contact with the ground.  Accordingly that is the surface on which you're going to be pivoting.

What about balance?

Well, your weight is on your back foot - and that is where your balance is.  Balance just isn't an issue as regards your front foot, because you don't have sufficient weight on it.

Okay, what about if you assume a cat stance?  Well what of it?  If you draw into cat stance and have to pivot on the front foot, you'll be pivoting on your toes.  But I'm assuming that you're withdrawing to turn - not responding to an attacker from the front (which is what cat stance is good for).

Okay, what if you're walking forwards and want to pivot just as you step?  Again, you pivot on the heel!
Why?

It's no big surprise folks: we all walk "heel/toe".  Only sprinters and ballet dancers have any reason to move on their "tippy toes".

"Heel/toe" is your natural gait.  This is why armed forces personnel talk about "turning on your heel" in their marching: they're talking about a pivot on the heel because it is this that permits the fastest, most efficient turn-around!

So really, this is another "duh" if you care to think about it.  We all pivot on the heel every single day of our lives - even if we aren't aware of it.

#3: Pivot using a combination of 1 and 2 

I won't go into it, but with a lot of turns (simple and complex) we basically do a combination of both #1 and #2 above.   In other words, we rock back on the heel to pivot and turn, then we pivot on the balls of the feet to drive a technique in the opposite direction.

An example of the above is the sequence in taijiquan known as "diagonal single whip".  I won't go into detail here - you can watch it on my video.

#4: Pivot on balls of both feet simultaneously for balance and to move off line

As I illustrate in my video, if you choose to pivot on both feet simultaneously, you really have no choice but to pivot on the balls of the feet (ie. your "toes").  Why?  Because you lose all balance otherwise!  It's a no-brainer!  While we might choose to pivot on the heel of a foot which is carrying little to no weight, we would certainly never pivot on both heels.  This would simply result in us having absolutely no stability at all.

A good test of this is to try to walk around the dojo on tip-toe for 3 minutes.  Easy enough, right?  Now try to walk around the dojo on your heels for 30 seconds!  You won't last - trust me.  It's near-enough impossible.  Why is it so hard?  Because your body is screaming at you: "What the f*** have you done to your balance - I'm having to fire the supporting muscles to their max just to keep you upright, you idiot!"

The advantage of pivoting on the balls of both feet is also that this takes you off line, as you'll see when executing bong sau in wing chun (see the adjacent pictures).  If anyone tells you that this should be done on the heels, they have obviously never encountered real pressure before.  Because the slightest "charge" and you will get knocked onto your ass.


Eli Montaigue teaches his father's "Small San Sau" form using his late father Erle's "double heel pivot" (set to start at the right point). 

For example consider the "Small San Sau" form in the above video: I was shown this by Erle Montaigue way back in the late 80s.  The idea that you would be able to withstand any sort of real force from the front while balancing on both heels is something I feel is self-evidently non-viable.

The central problem is that the counterstrike won't have enough support/stability to arrest the oncoming momentum of even a moderately committed opponent because there is no ability to use the "spring" in the knees, ankles and toes to redirect the force into the ground (ie. what I have previously described as "grounding" or "rooting"). (Note that the average "feet side by side" zhan zhuang posture has you standing with weight biased to the balls of your feet!)

In fact, the foundation offered by the heels in the above instance is even too weak to cause any real damage: the force of your blow (such as it is) is more likely to push you backwards than be directed into your opponent in any meaningful way.

#5: Pivot on both heels SEQUENTIALLY for power when turning

This seems to have been the biggest sticking point in relation to my previous article.  Many people seem to think I was saying that if you pivot on your balls of your feet, you're "always moving off line" and you're "not getting power": that the only remedy to this is to "pivot on both heels".

Well first, this is nothing like what I was saying.

The example I chose was a direct parallel to the "bong sau" example above - intended to show that pivoting on the heels can actually add power in some (very specific) circumstances (principally by not moving you off line - as Erle Montaigue pointed out to me all those years ago).  This is one: if you want to turn from one side to the other, pivoting on the balls of your feet can actually reduce power, where pivoting and turning in this way on your heels can add it.

But...

First, note that I was talking about: "pivoting and turning".  You'll rarely want/need to do this exact sort of turn.  What was an exercise to show that "heel turning isn't always less powerful" has been interpreted as some sort of "immutable rule".  I'm suggesting no such thing.

Second, (as I observe above under the video above) if you choose to pivot on both heels to do your punch, you'll rapidly find yourself losing balance.  For what?  A bit more momentum in your punch (if it lands)?

So if you ever want to use the "power heel turn" principle, please note that you're best off avoiding the simultaneous pivot on both heels.
You might however pivot them in sequence.
Or, as with tip #3 you might combine an initial heel pivot turn with a ball of foot pivot punch.  It's your choice.  Just make them sequential will you?  If you choose to pivot on both feet, you're stuck with balls of feet I'm afraid.  Maurino sensei was right in this respect!

[The above video of Erle's son Eli demonstrating the "Small San Sau" form (featuring a pivot on both heels) is a recipe for being knocked over with great ease.  If you doubt me, get someone to wear a whole lot of padding (Michelin Man style - so that you can hit them hard), get them to punch you with committed momentum and try to resist the attack with a counter strike, using the double heel pivot method shown...]

#6: Pivot on the ball of the foot when you are balancing on one leg

So what's the other scenario where balance is at a premium, forcing you to pivot on the ball of your foot?  The obvious answer is this:
When one leg is off the ground!  
Try doing a mawashi geri (roundhouse kick) while balancing on the heel of your supporting foot and you'll see how daft it feels!

And ditto every time you do any sort of pirouette or turn.  Big turns = lots of balance needed.

There are some exceptions I've encountered in the internal arts, but the circumstances are so complex and specific I dare not go into them here for messing up what has (hopefully) been a fairly simple guide!

#7: Pivot on the ball of the rear foot to turn

Last, but not least, there is the exact opposite of tip #2: if you want to pivot on your back foot - particularly as you step backwards - what do you think your first contact point is going to be?  Your toes of course!  If you're in a hurry, you're going to pivot on the toes/ball of the foot - you're not going to wait until your heel is firmly planted, now are you!

When it comes to stepping anywhere in-between it becomes a "shade of grey": step 45 degrees forward and you're pivoting on the heel. Step 45 degrees back and you're reaching with your toes.  Step straight to the side and it's "take your pick" - it will depend on where you want to pivot - and why.

Conclusion

It really isn't that hard: common sense and logic - as well as a rudimentary knowledge of human biomechanics - is all you need to decide how you should be pivoting in a particular situation.

So next time you're wondering whether what you've been taught in this regard makes any sense in a particular kata move, use the above as a guide.  Are you being asked to do something nonsensical/dogmatic?  Or is it just less than ideal?

As a "bonus" I examine a movement from the kata "gekisai dai ichi" at the very end of my video: the point where you go from the gedan barai up into the chudan uke.

One chap wrote on Jesse's blog:
"As mention in previous posts, at least in goju-ryu (Meibukan being my branch of choice), its always the ball of the foot. The one exception I can think of is the seventh? movement in gekisai-ichi/ni, stepping up from the gedan barai into the chudan uchi uke."
The answer is, you can indeed pivot on the heel to straighten your support leg before you move into chudan uke.  But why wouldn't you pivot on the ball of the foot as you finish your moving into the chudan uke?  If you did this, you'd be having to use the ball of foot.  And this would add some forwards momentum/push to your chudan uke giving it more force.  You can do it the "other way" if you like - but you'll just be losing the extra force you could add.  Why would you want to?  In my experience, every little bit of extra force counts!

As I said in my previous essay, this really is a "pivotal issue".  But it isn't one that is all that hard to fathom.

[PS. Please, oh please, don't come back to me with the old "I pivot on the middle of the foot" chestnut!

I can tell you right now that 99% of the time I hear that it is a grand "bet-hedging" gesture: it advances the debate not one iota.

Yes, there are times when you pivot on both ball of foot and heel (using what is effectively a flat foot), but I only practise one form where this is required - and the reasons are palpable (in that case, greater friction is required to increase resistance at a particular point in a movement).  More often than not, however, it is a device for people to employ when they haven't yet "figured it out".

Remember: a "middle of the road" response to pivoting is no less dogmatic than one focused on the heel or the ball of foot - it just seeks to avoid the issue via compromise.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic