The karate "kamae" or guard

In my considered view the best guard posture (kamae) for karate is one where you hold one hand in the same position as the lead hand in chudan uke (the standard karate chest level block), but at face height. The other hand is about in line with the elbow. There are variations on the heights of the arms, but not in the distance from the body. The fists should be turned - not fully over (palms up) but slightly angled in.

The first thing you’ll notice about this guard is that it is substantially the same as the guard adopted by bare-knuckle boxers of old. If there is any difference in my particular version, it is that my shoulders are more rounded (this being an influence from my study of the internal arts). The standard karate kamae is otherwise more or less identical to the old bare-knuckle guard and nothing like the boxing, kickboxing, MMA guards or Muay Thai guards.

Why is this?

In short, karate is a bare-knuckle discipline where the others I have referred to are either gloved sports or derived from gloved sports. Accordingly different biomechanical factors apply and hence different tactics/strategies are required in each discipline.

For a start, take a look at the boxing type guard shown to the left: The closed fists are held close to – sometimes even touching – the face. This is fine with gloved sports because your padded gloves provide an effective shield. The same cannot be said about bare-knuckle fighting. If you keep your fists near your face you risk getting your own knuckles rammed into it. And this hurts at least 90% as much as getting hit full in the face without any shielding. It can be 99% if your fist is actually resting on your face before you get hit. Bare-fisted "shielding" doesn't work. I know from experience.

The Muay Thai variant often assumes a slightly different approach where your fists are actively turned so that the palm side faces your opponent. Now there are good reasons why you might raise your open hands this way at the commencement of a conflict; open palms held up are a “non-aggressive” gesture and can help diffuse a situation rather than escalate it (a danger if you raise your fists). But to persist in this guard posture once a fight has commenced again defies bare-knuckle logic. You don’t want the “soft underbelly” of your forearm exposed to being hit by your opponent’s sharp knuckles. It is painful to be hit there and a hard blow can hamper the effective use of your arm or arms. The upper side of your forearm is, by contrast, more conditioned and resistant to blows. Furthermore, the old bare-knuckle posture is angled so that blows are deflected down the arm.

Now I’ve often been told the following: “The palms facing-me stance leaves me with the backfist (and maybe a rising elbow) as an attacking option, but forces me to re-align for any other attack. Palms-facing-him gives me deflection, control and striking options.”

I don't agree with this statement at all. You can perform a normal punch (or any variation) from a “palms facing me position”. In fact you can avail yourself of the corkscrew, which in itsef is also a "wedging" deflection. I use this move to deflect and attack in one movement (ie. my punch is deflecting an attack). In other words, the "re-alignment" is part of our attack and defence strategy. It doesn't slow you down any more than normal corkscrewing does.

However remember that when we say "palms up" I don’t mean twisting your arms right over so that the palms are perfectly up. As noted previously, both palms are angled slightly inwards so that the position still feels natural. Turning the palms right over, either face up or down, so that there is undue tension in the muscle is not a good idea.

But by far the most important reason why karate favours the old bare-knuckle kamae is that it enables the utilisation of karate’s blocks/deflections/parries. In this respect, the hand positioning is nothing short of essential for karate to be used effectively. For more on this topic see my articles “Why blocks DO work” and “Evasion vs. blocking with evasion”. Your standard basic "blocks" groove you through various kamae postures. They keep your hands in the same "square". In basic kumite you keep your arms in these standard postures, but this is to remember to keep your guard up in an accessible position for deflections/counters etc.

If you use anything other than a mid to slightly extended guard (akin to the "square" your arms inhabit while blocking) you're kidding yourself that you'll be able to intercept incoming blows with your deflections. If your hands are too extended they will not have enough "load" to deflect. And neither can your hands be next to your face: this is fine if you're resigned to using evasion only, but this is not karate. Your hands need to intercept the attack early and if you've left them by your face you have no choice but to swat the attacks "like flies" as “blocking naysayers” are often fond of saying (ie. you'll have left deflection to the last minute when the attack is travelling at its fastest speed - again, see my articles on blocking above). In that case you're better off doing boxing, Muay Thai, MMA etc. (there might be nothing wrong with that, especially in a sports ring/arena, however this is not karate and requires very different training in very different skills and tactics).

I assume the karate kamae as I enter the “melee” range (again, see my articles “The ‘melee’: karate’s fighting range” and “Staying in the melee”). The karate kamae controls your opponent and keeps him or her in the melee until you're ready to close (if you so wish) or back off if you need to. In other words, you're keeping your opponent at 'blocking' or 'deflecting' range. Half a step back and you're in 'kick blocking range'. Half a step in and you're in elbow/knee range and grappling a bit in from that.

As I make this comment I am fully aware that, like stances, the position of your hands in combat changes from moment to moment. When you are in the melee this is a given (you should be flowing from one attack to another). The only time you resort to a static formal kamae is in the (unusual) event that you disengage and circle each other at range – ie. you exit the melee (I've yet to see that on surveillance video of real fights - discounting delinquent juveniles or adult idiots who film themselves for Youtube etc.). Regardless of the fact that fights occur in a continuum, having an idea of the correct “static” guard or kamae is still important and should underpin one’s defensive strategy, in much the same way as one learns basic stances for stability, posture and power maximisation. Keeping your guard up is always going to be an important part of self-defence.

But there is yet more to the science of the old bare-knuckle guard – science that firmly supports its use in bare-knuckle self defence. It involves the application of simple physics, yet it is virtually unknown in modern fighting disciplines. It is so little known that it might as well be a secret. For what it’s worth, I’ll let you in on it now. It is what I call the "Clayton’s gap":

The bare-knuckle guard’s approximation to the “chudan uke” (chest level block) is more than accidental. It is a simple matter of applying the angles of deflection against the angles of attack. Since basic physics is in issue, it should come as no surprise that the karate guard and the old bare-knuckle boxing guards look the same despite the completely separate evolution of those disciplines.

You’ll all be familiar with the concept that an angle, though small, produces an increasing gap between its axes as distance from the point of origin increases. In the case of the karate kame / bare-knuckle guard, if you adopt a southpaw stance (which you might choose to do from time to time) you can create the appearance of a gap on the leading side, permitting the easy application of a jab. Yet the gap is non-existent. Your opponent’s jab will appear to be well on its way to landing, even as it brushes past your leading guard hand. However by the time your opponent’s jab should be in your face, the tiny angle of deflection created in the interception by your guard will translate into a complete miss. Many’s the time I’ve used this to my advantage; fighters inexperienced in this art won’t even realise that they’ve been duped. Consider the video below:

On the other hand, as I've said in my article about "Secret techniques", I'm sure many out there will simply dismiss this. More power to us karateka.

[For more on the topic of the "Clayton's gap" and how the karate kamae is applied in a dynamic environment, see "More about the "Clayton's gap"".]

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic