“Leading” momentum – how realistic is it?


There are a great many “projections” or throws in the traditional martial arts (particularly in aikido) that focus on “leading” the momentum of the opponent – that is to say, continuing and redirecting the momentum of your opponent rather than opposing it.

I have a great admiration for this concept both philosophically and technically. But just how “practical” is it? In other words, what are your chances of “leading” the momentum of an opponent in a real civilian defence scenario?

Before I attempt to answer this question, let me first attempt to explain and describe the art and science of “leading” momentum.

Tai no henko – “body blending” as the essence of leading momentum

The concept behind “leading” is to use your opponent’s momentum against him or her: the harder your opponent tries to attack, the more this is redirected back to him or her.

I love this concept, both philosophically and pragmatically. I have previously discussed my inclination towards Daoist philosophy, in particular the concept of wu-wei (“going with the flow”). Indeed, it is the title of this blog. I firmly believe that optimal conflict management lies in following the lines of least resistance – whether that conflict is physical or just verbal.

A basic exercise used in aikido to introduce a student to the lines of least resistance is the exercise known as “tai no henko” or “body blending”. I illustrate the exercise below:

Tai no henko or “hiraki ashi” – a basic exercise to introduce students to “going with the flow”

You will note from the above video that the central concept behind tai no henko is the footwork known as “hiraki ashi”. This footwork involves 2 distinct actions:
(1) a step towards your opponent (irimi); then
(2) a turning action (tenkan).

Irimi – the necessity of entering

The initial step in towards your opponent is crucial to “leading” his or her momentum because it permits you to intercept the attack in its outward phase. This step towards your opponent is called “irimi” (entering) in Japanese.

Why is irimi so important? Quite simply, you need to catch your opponent mid-stride. If you catch him or her too early (ie. before your opponent builds up sufficient momentum) you might end up pulling rather than “leading” or “redirecting”. If you catch your opponent too late, the forward momentum will have been exhausted. Once again, you will end up pulling your opponent rather than “leading” him or her. The goal is to catch your opponent at the “sweet spot”.

Tenkan – the redirection

Once you have stepped in towards your opponent and intercepted his or her attack, you must then redirect it. This can be achieved through turning around while pivoting on the foot that stepped forwards. To quote the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba:1

“In this sense, there is no opponent in aikido. Even if you have an opponent, he becomes a part of you, a partner you control only.”

I have often heard that in executing the tenkan, the aikidoka is metaphorically turning around to “see the world from the attacker’s perspective”.

But it is important to remember that "tai no henko" is, in itself, not a technique; it is an exercise that teaches you the important principles of irimi and tenkan. How are those principles are applied in particular techniques? Let me focus on one example - the aikido projection known as "irimi nage":

“Leading” momentum and irimi nage

I think the best example of leading momentum is to be found in aikido's irimi nage (entering throw). I have cropped the adjacent gif from a video that is on Youtube, but there are literally thousands of good examples.

You will note that the attacker steps forward with an attack. Rather than step away from the attack, the defender steps in towards it, intercepting it at an early stage (irimi). The defender then continues the forward (and downward) momentum, redirecting it with a circular turn of the body (tenkan). But this is just the first phase of the classical irimi nage demonstrated here:

As the redirection in the first phase is exhausted, the attacker starts to recover his balance, only to find that this act of recovery (in this case standing up and resisting the forward momentum) is itself redirected with the powerful forearm/body projection - a projection I consider the defining element of the irimi nage.

Many people mistakenly think this second phase is equivalent to "clotheslining" your opponent. However the use of the arm in this phase (also found in "tenchi nage" or "heaven and earth throw") relies on correct application of a sophisticated projection - not just a crude ramming home of the forearm across the neck.

Indeed it is possible by-pass the first phase and go straight to the second. Consider the adjacent gif of me performing our school's version of "irimi nage":

You will note that there is no initial "leading" of the opponent's forward momentum. Instead, I focus on the fact that after my initial entry, the attacker is likely to start reversing his momentum (the second phase) so I cut straight to the second phase projection, using the irimi nage to lead his reversed momentum.

Is this better - or just different? It is noteworthy that in all my hard and fast sparring, I have only ever applied our "shortened" variant of irimi nage: I have never managed to apply the first phase of the classical aikido version, namely leading the opponent's forward momentum with a tenkan movement. But then again, one might validly point out that we are talking about sparring - not real fighting. Is there a role for the tenkan in leading the initial forward momentum in a civilian defence scenario? My answer to that is definitely yes - but with some important qualifications:

Tenkan and its application to committed attacks

A tenkan can indeed be applied to continue an attacker's inital forward movement. In the adjacent gif I demonstrate the tenkan when applied in isolation (ie. not as part of some other throw).2 You will notice that I enter and turn, catching my attacker's forward motion as our respective central axes cross.

However it is my view that the instances in which tenkan nage can be applied are very limited.

First, it is my experience that tenkan only works against a very committed, charging attack. In traditional Okinawan and Japanese arts we are accustomed to seeing such attacks used as a platform for practice of techniques. I will save to another time a discussion of the merits and limitations of such a platform since this is a topic onto itself. Suffice it to say, arts such as karate and aikido are traditionally applied in practice against single attacks launched from a committed step (ippon kumite). The attacker is initially out of range, but closes the gap with his or her step.

Second, the tenkan is only possible if you enter closely to your opponent and, essentially, meet him/her body to body. To redirect an oncoming force you need to work like a spinning top, moving into the centre - where the speed is slow enough to give you the opportunity of catching the momentum and "going with it".

By contrast, attempting to catch and continue/redirect the extremity of a limb (eg. a hand or foot) is, in my experience, practically impossible given the usual speed at which an attacking limb is travelling at the point of interception, the speed of typical human reaction and the fact that you are not entering into, and utilising, the centre of his/her "circle".3

With these provisos, I think it is quite possible to enter and redirect a committed attack. However given that such attacks are rarely used in sparring (whether one spars in a modern combat sports fashion, using the sport karate/taekwondo method or our randori method) it is unsurprising that tenkan is also rarely applied in sparring.

At this point I will observe that the applicability of the tenkan doesn't rely solely on a stepping attack (of the kind seen in ippon kumite). Rather, tenkan will work against any sufficiently committed attack. For example a powerful cross punch (with a follow through) is capable of being countered with a tenkan - with or without a step. Consider the video below from 1:00 onwards:

In this video I demonstrate the "tenkan nage" against a right cross or haymaker from about 1:00 onwards

In sparring your partner is unlikely to be trying to hit you with a full power cross or haymaker. So again, it is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to apply a tenkan.

However the fact remains: tenkan is unlikely to work against anything except fully committed punches launched out of range. Even in the above video my partner is throwing the right cross from a distance. It is my experience that when punches are thrown within the melee range you simply don't have the time to catch the outward momentum and continue it. You are limited by the simple logistics of your reaction speed and the shorter time interval in question.

"Leading" reversed momentum

Accordingly it is my view that in respect of most attacks, you will only have the opportunity to intercept the attack - not continue its forward momentum. This interception will usually take the form of a block or deflection. Having made limb to limb contact with the deflection, your opponent will generally cease his or her forward momentum. And as discussed, the time intervals and reaction speeds in the melee range are such that it is near-on impossible to catch your opponent's forward momentum before this happens. What this means is that you are then limited to "leading" the reversed momentum. Like a wave, your opponent with crash and immediately draw back. In the spirit of "wu-wei" or "aiki" you should "go with the flow" and use the inevitable "withdrawal" against your opponent.

A good example of this is to be found in my variant on irimi nage above (in which I make no attempt to continue my attacker's forward momentum, but simply "enhance" his retreat).

In my experience, if you are able to catch part of an attacker's forward momentum, it will most likely only be enough to briefly destablise him or her, before the "reversal": the forward momentum will be insufficient to permit a full "tenkan" throw.

Accordingly the adjacent gif constitutes another variant on the traditional aikido "irimi nage" that I have, from time to time, managed to apply in sparring. You will note that I step into the attack and redirect it. However my attacker quickly realises he has been wrongfooted and starts to resist the redirection, whereupon I "lead" his reversed momentum.

This is quite similar in concept to the irimi nage depicted at the beginning of this article, however it is no where near as "grand" in scope. The control and redirection of the forward momentum is only partial, hence the throw is really quite "abbreviated" as compared to the classical irimi nage. You will also note that I don't have the time to apply the standard forearm projection of the irimi nage (the "clothesline"): I lead my attacker's reversed momentum with as little movement on my part as possible, so as not to lose control of that momentum.


Accordingly I think it is possible to "lead" an attacker's momentum in a civilian defence scenario - maybe not in the way the classical aikido throws are practised, but with the same principles in mind.

Leading the forward momentum of your attacker is possible, but problematic. The circumstances in which this will be possible are, I think, limited to very committed attacks that start out of range and have some element of "follow through".

Leading the reverse momentum is however an entirely different kettle of fish. The initial contact you establish when your defence "meets" an attack will give you the kinaesthetic awareness needed to deal with any reversal of momentum. It is important to note that by "reversal" I don't mean to imply a complete withdrawal or the exact opposite movement to the inital attack - merely a cessation of the momentum of the initial attack and the commencement of some other movement. This might comprise a withdrawal or retraction, or it might involve momentum along some other vector. Either way, the initial momentum is no longer pursued.

I think that leading such a "reversed" momentum is not only possible - it is quite intuitive and effective. Accordingly I make this the primary focus of my own projections - and I leave leading the forward momentum to the occasional instance. I feel this approach has the potential to turn the beautiful philosophy/theory of aikido into a hard-nosed, pragmatic fighting system.


1. See this article or this article.
2. I call this throw "tenkan nage" to distinguish it from irimi nage etc.
3. A good example of the pitfalls of attempting to catch, and continue the momentum of, a hand/fist is to be found in the projection known as "kote gaeshi" or "wrist out-turn throw" - which I plan to analyse in detail in a separate article.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. To misquote Arthur C. Clarke, "a sufficiently committed attack is indistinguishable from melodrama."

  2. Excellent article. I'm a huge principle guy--that's why I like traditional martial arts so much, because they are so rich in them. I think even martial arts that are considered less practical in real life combat, such as Aikido, still contain important information, movements, and principles we can learn from.

    I've actually used Shiho-nage in sparring and I think in certain contexts it can be practical--just not necessarily as aikdido teaches it.

  3. It is noteworthy that in all my hard and fast sparring, I have only ever applied our "shortened" variant of irimi nage: I have never managed to apply the first phase of the classical aikido version,

    Fantastic level of dialog from a karate instructor! I have also used similar 'shortened' versions of irimi or kokyunage against sparring opponents. Maybe this is how it should be applied on fast unarmed opponents? It might be different if your opponent was slowed down whilst attacking you with a thrusting or lunging weapon?

  4. "Maybe this is how it should be applied on fast unarmed opponents? It might be different if your opponent was slowed down whilst attacking you with a thrusting or lunging weapon?

    Definitely. With any sufficiently committed thrust or swing (which people can do when they are armed), leading forward momentum becomes possible.

    Thanks for reading and for the kind words Colin!

  5. As an aikidoka, I completely agree with your analysis. The difficulty in leading the forward momentum of an attacker is well known not only in Aikido, but also in its parent art of Daito Ryu. Thus, there are many techniques that rely on invoking a response, for example attempting a lead in one when motion in the opposite direction is desired. A wrist grab technique in Daito Ryu for doing this is called "in'yo no den". You can read about this in the book "The Hidden Roots of Aikido". This is also used extensively in Tomiki Aikido's Goshin Ho No Waza. The Goshin Ho No Waza implementation of Irimi Nage is also quite abbreviated. I've blogged about some issues related to leading in my very recent Physics of Aiki post "Aikido and Trapping", echoing some of your thoughts.

  6. Thanks Mark.

    I forgot to add that I don't think the "fuller" versions of aikido throws should be abandoned: just because they are less likely to be applied doesn't mean that they don't serve an important training function.

    I think they are very important for learning the fundamental principles of the art.

  7. Great post. I just discovered your blog through Mark McCormick's blog.

    Your post is quite extensive. I have found that learning certain techniques in their more traditional sense can give us a good grounding for a more modified, street effective technique. The style I study is heavily influenced by small circle Jiu Jitsu and with that comes a desire to cut down on movement and shorten technique to their most street worthy application. These modified techniques are often the most realistic applications of larger principles of movement and technique.

    I enjoyed your post and your videos.

  8. Thanks Journeyman. I agree completely. As I've said elsewhere, I don't want to be seen to disparage the "fuller" traditional throws/projections: I think they teach important principles that can then be distilled into fighting techniques.

    Thanks for reading.

  9. Great post Dan! I like your last example of irimi nage,I tend to take a longer step back while on the return rotation making the opponent slam down face first :-) seems more bagua to me but it works great! :-)

  10. I see what you mean Jo - a longer step back can put the opponent down face first.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  11. Wonderful article!
    I couldn't agree more on leading forward to have a possible momentum.

  12. How about keeping some things secret ,like the teachers of the past have done for 100's if not 1000's of years. Or,show over the internet, those techniques to anyone, students, non students, terr or ists,. In other words , people who have not earned or have the skills to learn those techniques. You article is very good, just please think before you put stuff out there.Would you show this technique to a white belt? Wewll, that is what you are doing by showing it here, except to millions of white belts.

  13. Wow, Anonymous - that's the first time anyone has ever criticized me for being open!

    What technique(s) or knowledge in particular are you concerned that I should keep secret?

    It seems to me pretty much everything is already out there. We are in the information age. My voice is just one, muted by a billion shouting at once. That you feel mine will be heard above the others sufficiently to make a difference is flattering, but ultimately unrealistic.

    Second, I don't know that anything I've said is unsuitable for white belts. I provide a commentary and analysis of technical, philosophical and historical martial issues. To the extent that it covers techniques, I would hope that white belts will learn something useful, not detrimental to their progress.

    As for hoodlums or "terrorists" (God forbid) - everything I cover takes a VERY long time to learn properly. A hoodlum would not have the patience to learn what I teach, while a terrorist wouldn't bother to read the page. He'd go to the sites that show how to shoot guns, build bombs or fly planes.

    Thanks for your concern, but I can't see that I'm endangering or compromising anyone.

  14. Dear Dan

    I have been reading a few of your articles and have enjoyed them tremendously.

    You asked whether the approach was better, or different? My answer is that maybe its both.

    In Yoshinkan Aikido which I practice, we actually practice both forms of irimi nage. Your first example, with the leading is what we call shomen irimi nage 2 (ni)

    Your favoured approach, which I prefer myself, is called shomen iriminage 1 (ichi)

    Videos of technique 1 and 2 are shown here:


    From what I understand so far in my practice, the ichi movements are in general used for pull attacks, and the ni movements for push, hence the two movements to suit the attack (in essence, to go with the flow).

    So, in essence, 'different' because Yoshinkan Aikido recognises the two as distinct techniques. 'Better' because I agree with you the direct approach would be more practical or applicable.


  15. Thanks for your comment Imran and for the link. I shall have a good look at that.

  16. Hi Dan

    very interesting post in so many ways. I might need to write a thorough answer because this point is crucial.

    A first element of answer is that the tai no henka you describe is a modern and degraded version of the true thing. No blame here: most aikidokas are not aware of that very fact either.

    On the other hand your conclusions based on experience and sparing are tremendously interesting.

    I started a whole series of articles on TNH starting here: http://shoshin.over-blog.com/article-tai-no-henka-english-58424778.html

    I was looking for a starting point on irimi nage, here we go ! More to follow soon.

    Best regards

  17. Thanks Leon. I look forward with interest to reading your link and hearing more from you.

  18. Hi Dan

    There you go:

    I hope you like it.

    For further info please contact me via email.


  19. Thanks Leon - I'll check that out!

  20. Interesting blog post Leon. You are to be commended on a very thorough and intelligent analysis.

    I must make some clarifications on my own approach:

    (1) I know very well that the 180 degree turn in tai no henko could be any degree (between one and 180!). We call this "step and turn" and usually apply it with less than 30 degrees of turning. That said, a big move is useful in training because it helps you to understand smaller moves. Not everything should be "abbreviated" to "real" world conditions in the dojo. Sometimes enlarging a movement can help you understand the correct plane, body shifting etc., particularly when you are a beginner.

    (2) I do not practice aikido (although I did study it, under my teacher and occasionally under Ken Cottier, back in the 80s). So my own understanding of aikido is necessarily limited. It certainly doesn't comprise my own practice. When I say that I've never applied certain "leading" techniques in sparring (eg. the "leading momentum" irimi nage) this is not a reflection on the fact that I am failing to apply my own techniques, but rather that I've attempted to apply someone else's. With this caveat in mind, it is important to note that I can't claim that my experimentation is "authoritative proof" on the failure of this approach: Perhaps someone with a better understanding of such techniques can and will apply it! You appear to think that they could not, and I'm happy to hear that your conclusions match my own. But I'm not nearly as fixed in my view as the article suggests. I wrote it hoping to generate discussion, as it clearly has. I was rather hoping someone would point to examples of "leading momentum" that are applied successfully.

    (3) I must make it clear that as a karateka and internal artist, I am in favour of intercepting techniques. I personally don't believe "cancelling" (as desirable as it is) is any kind of panacea. I think it presupposes a level of pre-emption or seizing initiative that is unlikely in the "real world". Unavoidably, in civilian defence we will often have to play "catch up"; we can't always "seize initiative". I feel very strongly about this and channel a lot of my energy into dealing with such "recovery". This is also consistent with my sparring experiments. "Cancelling" by pre-emption or seizing intiative is a great goal, but it often isn't available as an option. Try to seize initiative in a situation where you realise someone is punching you to the face just as you turn around! You might (and I emphasise might) just have enough time to intercept and deflect the attack. You won't have time to cancel it. Instead you must convert it. In short, some sort of "opposition" is usually unavoidable. The goal of doing what is "most effective" is, in my experience, not readily achievable and it is wise to train with that in mind.

    (4) I'm not sure what technique you're referring to when you say:

    "Dan blows irimi nage but executes a form of kokyu nage (throw with the breathing).

    (... even if he, respectfully, he goes into great danger as he offers his side (stomach or liver) to his opponent's hand which here behaves nicely but could pierce or strike…)."

    I would be good to understand your criticism so that I can see where I've left an opening. Accordingly I'd be obliged if you'd point to which technique you mean. I thought you meant the final gif in your blog article (the "shortened" irimi nage), but I can't see how I'm going into danger since I'm moving on his outside...

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking analysis!

  21. Hi Dan,
    back after a few days on the beach...;-)

    Good comments, as expected.

    1. There is a slight misunderstanding about tai no henka. I agree with your comments on the range of motion. What may be still unclear is that tai no henka should not be made this way ie enter and then turn - especially not with the hips "traveling". More explanations in private conversations if you wish.

    2. Then we agree. Where your experiments are fascinating is that they also match the best tradition (Saito Hikitsuchi, Shioda etc) as it explains the inner dynamics and logics of tai no henka (and aikido after that).

    3. We agree again and maybe I wasn't thorough enough. "Canceling" does not necessarily mean taking the initiative or maybe just in its "yangest" expression. It just mean blending with one's energy without waiting. In that respect, interception is valid but it comes in the very moment of irimi. It becomes difficult to explain more without feeling it. Let's just say that the weapons training is fundamental here.

    4. Kokyu nage is an aikido concept and once again feeling it is better than being explained.

    Juts one example:


    He first explains the structure and logic of the movement then at 0'40 he changes uke and demonstrates the kokyu throw of the same movement.

    I was referring to the 4th visual on the post (tenkan nage).
    For training I assume that both hands can hold a weapon (a bit like in capoeira) which forces us to be without any opening. Maybe it is a bit excessive but it implies that no counter technique can be applied. In that example your partner's hand lies on your side and a screwdriver could do damage. Now maybe you're just in demo mode there. It's minor but the devil lives in details.

    I like your last post about the flinch reflex. I may let a short (ER) comment there.
    Always ready for a good exchange.

    Good Keiko

  22. Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking discussion Leon.

    Yes, that last gif was very much "demo mode" - illustrating kokyu as a principle rather than a technique. That said I can't see that the hand would have been able to do any real damage - screwdriver included. Timing often means that you can overcome such a counter. In this case uke's whole body is overwhelmed with the task of regaining posture in time and space. It is one thing to watch a gif and see where the hands are positioned, and another to be in that position and realise that the moment you could have "stabbed with a screwdriver" passes in an instant while you're preoccupied with the fact that you're being unbalanced. My fellow internal arts practitioner and long time full contact practitioner, Tim Cartmell uses this throw very productively. Yes, it might not be in "real fighting" but he does serve as some sort of evidence (although not proof) that the timing of the technique offsets the danger of hand placement.

  23. Hey Dan,
    Maybe you are right, maybe I'm just too paranoid. You know all the kaeshi waza I m sure.
    I re wrote the post in a more readable and shorter way.

    I'll send you a mail for the irimi nage form as performed by Saito sensei (his son on the pictures), I'm sure it will tell you something... ;-)


  24. Thanks Leon. I look forward to reading/watching with interest.

  25. Thanks Leon - I've read your comments and watched Saito's footage as well as the still photos you sent. Very interesting indeed. I'm glad that my conclusions are supported by actual aikido practice. Saito's movement (particularly his tai no henko) is clearly in line with my conclusions based on experience.

    I fear that what has happened in many aikido dojos is that a particular exercise used in exploring the principles of aikido (by using a larger movement) has been confused with actual application. Saito's movements are certainly indicative of this.


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