Why block with the forearm (rather than the palm)?

Introduction

One of the most common queries I've had over the years from combat sports practitioners and eclectic martial artists is why traditional martial arts use the forearm as a blocking/deflecting surface. Why not use the palm?

Indeed the palm is a useful tool in "blocking" (ie. deflection/parrying and sometimes even actual blocking/stopping). However what is inherent in the question is the assumption that the palm is fundamentally more useful than the forearm. The forearm is often seen as "brutish" or inelegant compared with the sensitivity afforded by the palm.

Yet the traditional martial arts are full of forearm blocks. They are common throughout the Asian martial systems. They are even a well-established part of Western boxing traditions, going back as far as Ancient Greece right up to the more modern bareknuckle boxing era. [Consider the adjacent image as one of many examples one can find. As a side note, take a look at hip chamber being used!]

So what's going on here? Why do the older, more traditional martial arts make use of the forearm where its use is almost completely ignored in modern combat sports? The answer lies, to a large degree, in considering the purpose/goal of traditional martial arts as civilian defence systems - especially the range in which techniques are going to be typically employed.

Step 1: understanding the range for which "blocks" are designed

Forearms blocks are designed to be applied in the melee range - ie. the range where most civilian defence encounters play out. This is the "toe to toe" range that combat sports practitioners enter for brief, furious, exchanges. In this range a punch from either side can land. Half a step in gives you elbow and standing grappling range while half a step out gives you full kicking range. It is within this volatile and dangerous range that forearms come into their own as defensive tools.

Step 2: understanding the bareknuckle guard

To understand why this is so, the first thing one needs to consider is the position in which hands are likely to be held in the melee range - which is the bareknuckle guard.

This is typically held further out from the face than in combat sports. Why? For 2 reasons:
  1. Like a goal keeper in soccer facing a lone, breakaway striker racing in towards you, the last thing you want to do in the melee range is wait for the attack. You want to go out and meet the attack as soon as possible. A guard kept at the face in the melee range means that your arms are not extended; you can't dominate or control by trapping, grappling and striking. Any block you effect will be "last second", picking the attack away just before it lands on your face. You really need to be intercepting attacks early - which means you want your guard further from your face.
  2. Unlike combat sports, civilian defence encounters don't feature gloves. The last thing you want is to have your own fists driven into your face. This can be almost as bad as being punched full in the face.



I discuss the use of forearms, as opposed to palms, for blocking

Step 3: understanding reaction time

Having established that you are likely to be in the melee range with your guard away from your face, the next thing to look at is reaction time. It takes most young adults at least 0.2 second to react to an attack. In fact, if you look at the video above at around 0:53, you'll note my student Yi throwing a punch at me without me expecting it. I've slowed it down by the millisecond and noted when I start to flinch. My flinch reaction starts at exactly 0.17 sec after the attack begins. In the adjacent image you will note that at 0.2 sec the movement of my head in the flinch reaction is just noticeable.

In that 0.2 sec my student's fist has travelled quite a long way towards my head - over 3/4 of the way. And here's the crunch:
    When your guard is up in the bareknuckle way, your attacker's fist will be well past your own hands by the time you react.
What this means is that you simply don't have time to pull your hand back and use it to deflect or parry the punch down.

Your forearm is, however, ideally placed to deflect the attack, as you will see from the adjacent images. Contrary to some views expressed on the internet, you don't need to be The Flash to use a forearm or other deflection. You forearm only needs to move a matter of an inch or so to deflect a punch. Given that you have only a fraction of a second to react, this is a good thing.

Greater surface area: an added bonus

The added bonus of using a forearm for deflection is that you have a greater deflection surface. The palm is relatively small and it is easy to miss a punch, particularly if you're trying to pick the attack off at the last moment by targeting the fist. The forearm is, by contrast, a large and forgiving surface that operates by deflecting your attacker's equally large and accommodating forearm.

Stronger structure: another added bonus

Another benefit in using the forearm as opposed to the palm is that of structural strength. By this I am not referring to the potential to "break something" when blocking. Rather, I am talking about the ability of a particular body part to act as a strong and stable fulcrum for deflecting attacks.

It is a biomechanical fact that the closer you come to your body's core, the stronger the structure. So a forearm will necessarily provide a more stable fulcrum for deflecting attacks than a palm which is at the extremity of your body. A door serves as a good analogy here: if you want to open a door it is very much harder to do so by pushing at the hinge than it is pushing at the handle. Similarly, your palm/hand can be moved very easily by a strong force, where your forearm will be far less resistant to that force.

Soft distance sparring and false feedback

So what accounts for the popularity of palm deflections over forearm ones? I think "soft" distance sparring bears a lot of responsibility. When you're bouncing up and down, darting in with shallow penetration "tag" punches, forearm blocks become a non issue. At that range they are, quite simply, impossible. Any attempt to use the forearm invariably results in catching attacks at the fist or wrist - not in the "Goldilocks zone" which is mid-forearm.

By contrast, palm deflections remain viable in such distance sparring, hence their ascendancy.

However you need to be aware that what works in a light-contact distance sparring environment will not always work against committed, melee range blows with full penetration. I have personally reverted to forearm blocks when attempts at palm blocks have resulted in me being pummelled. You need to put the feedback of light sparring in perspective, otherwise it can be quite misleading.


A video showing the sport karate reverse punch. Note the distance from the target and the shallow penetration of the punch - both quite unlike real confrontations in the melee. The shallow depth of the punch means the demonstrator doesn't even have to form a proper fist. Forearm blocks have no real application to sport karate of this kind (where they have application in karate as a civilian defence art).

Conclusion

I don't want to give the impression that palm/hand deflections are not useful. They are, and I use them all the time. They are particularly useful at a greater range or when you are using them to trap and control. In the latter case you need the finesse and fine motor skills your palms afford. However forearm deflections are supremely useful too - especially in the tight melee range of civilian defence encounters. It is there, when your guard is passed, that you will find the need to use your forearms to intercept and deflect incoming attacks.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Comments

  1. Having read a good many of your articles, I would like to say that the depth and clarity of your writing is extremely helpful, and I thank you fervently.

    I study martial arts as a hobby, and so get very little practice and guidance, and your in-depth descriptions and explanations help me a great deal.

    Your "Back to Basics" articles are great. I was corkscrewing punches far to early, and was wondering why my punches felt so ineffecient, and your recent punching article explained perfectly how to do a clean punch.

    And so I thank you again Dan Djurdjevic, and I hope to see more.

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  2. Thank you so much for that feedback. I was hoping to write some articles of interest and use to those who are newer to the martial arts than I. I am so very glad that I have achieved this at least in part. Thanks again!

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  3. What interests me also is why different karate schools have such different views on blocking.

    When i was younger, i studied kyokushinkai karate and we were always taugh to block with the forearm, rotate it etc etc to avoid damaging youself...

    Now i am older and bruise more easily and the shotokan school that i found in the city where i currently live, teaches me for example to use soto uke and block with the wrist, against the opponents wrist. Needless to say after practice my wrists hurt and i have a lot of sore spots...

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  4. I can tell you now that blocking with the wrist is a definite no-no.

    I'll cover this in a later article, but there is a "sweet spot" in the middle of your forearm where you should deflect and be deflected. I call this the "Goldilocks zone" (ie. "not too hot, not too cold" etc.).

    If you block with your wrist against your opponent's wrist you are catching the attack too late to effect a useful deflection. This usually means that you are out of range to begin with. If you look at my images embedded in this article, you'll see that it is virtually impossible to block someone who is within the melle range and do it using your wrist against his/her wrist. The attack has passed your wrist by the time you even react! The mid-forearm can, however, be used to deflect (it isn't too late for using that part of your arm).

    As I have appended to my article, there is also the issue that the closer you get to your core, the stronger the structure. A forearm is easily moved at the wrist. Half way up the forearm? Not so easy. It's a bit like pushing a door at the hinge or in the middle, vs. pushing it at the handle. For reasons I'll get into in my later article, you don't want to effect a forearm block so that contact is made near your elbow, but mid-forearm is fine.

    Disregarding all of the abov, the fact that the wrist on wrist blocking is hurting you should tell you something!

    Why is there such disparity between schools? Lack of realistic range (melee range) practice is the obvious culprit. Sport karate has forced karateka to stand at distances for which blocks were never designed. Belated attempts at applying them in ippon kumite sit uncomfortably with what happens with the average dojo sparring which occurs at a distance with the only "blocks" being hand slaps.

    I'd hazard a guess that your kyokushinkai school had more melee range experience due to their full contact contests, prompting them to value mid-forearm blocks.

    By contrast, your present shotokan school has almost certainly been influenced by distance fighting of the sport karate kind. They are now trying to marry blocking with this extended range, resulting in an uncomfortable compromise of wrist on wrist blocking (which really doesn't work and isn't how traditional blocks were designed to work).

    My advice? Don't block that way Evie!!!

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  5. You guessed right :-), sports karate. I had already read your hilarious article about the "bouncing" karate, guess what i saw there...

    Sigh, i guess i'll have to look for a new school...

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  6. Another great article. I really enjoy the sport vs. self-defense explained in clear, concise language. It is great seeing the explanations given and "why" each does their thing differently than just saying it is different.

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  7. Thanks very much mate - glad you enjoyed it!

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  8. Just thought I'd mention something that I haven't read here about.

    The radial nerve wraps and goes through the forearm from the elbow and shoulder.

    That means blocking with the radial nerve, means you are doing damage to yourself. And on the wrist, the place where people like to slice themselves, is full of capilaries, veins, and arteries. Getting hit there isn't as bad as a full out exsanguination bleed out, but it's not good either on blood flow and nerve impulses.

    A strike on the radial nerve deadens it and makes the person lose dexterity in his hands and arm. A massive power strike on the radial nerve with the full body will absolutely crush the nerve, rendering that entire arm inoperative for X amount of seconds.

    The outer blade edge of the forearm, opposite the side pointing to your chest, has the strongest structure and protects the veins and radial nerve.

    From self examination and experience, the radial nerve juts out the furthest to the surface skin near where the triceps meet the elbow. On the inner side of the elbow right up against the elbow joint.

    I believe the "sweet spot" Dan mentioned is between the blade line of the forearm, the area where the radial nerve isn't at.

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  9. Hello Dan, i recently had brief discussion on forearmsblocks were i exercise karate and there palmed deflections are of ten promoted. An argument that came up that i'am wonder about your oppion on is this:
    If you use the extended kamae used for forearm blocks, are you opening yourself up to being grabbed? I feel that i was mostly being denounced with such an argument with my interest in forearms over palms not taking the argument very serously.

    have the best! Martin

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  10. Hi Martin.

    Sounds like someone is grabbing at straws rather than your extended kamae!

    Do you open yourself to being grabbed? I suppose so - in the same way as you leave an opening when you strike, compromise balance by standing on one leg whenever you kick, etc.

    Do I care particularly if I get grabbed? No. Traditional martial arts has 1000001 defences from forearm grabs. The downside to having your arms close to your face (late interception of attack, your own fists rammed into your face, etc.) are far greater. I use my attacker's attempts to grab me to my complete advantage. See my latest video by way of example.

    What amuses me with this argument, is that those who say "you'll get your arms grabbed" are often the first to say "no one grabs wrists/forearms in real life". They can't have it both ways!

    Thanks for reading and for your comments!

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  11. Hello Dan!

    Great post as always. One thing struck me as odd, however. You claim that forearm blocks wont work in a long range, I don't see why. Can't you just wait until the attack is close enough so that the contact is in the exact same spot as in the melee range?

    Cheers

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  12. You're right, of course. What I mean is that if your opponent never enters the melee range (eg. in much of non-contact distance sparring, where every technique thrown is actually slightly out of range) you will never use be able to use or practice blocks. And if only enter the melee for brief skirmishes (spending most of your sparring "circling") then again, your opportunities for practising and applying blocks is going to be very limited. Thanks for reading and your comments!

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