Hard blocks


I have made my views very clear on this blog that I believe "blocks" (better termed "deflections") work.

However, now comes the hard question: How should "blocks" be performed?

Many karateka and other martial artists (in fact, some of my most esteemed friends and colleagues) believe that the "hard" block is the "mainstay" of their art. I find this view particularly common in the various shorin ryu karate schools.

However I disagree. I adhere to the view that the majority of blocks - whether from karate or the Chinese arts or whatever - should be "soft". In fact, I believe that "hard" blocks are rarely useful - so rarely useful that this is part of what accounts for the fact that blocks are very seldom even contemplated in combat sports. Yet I see no reason why they should not be used in that arena.

It seems to me that relatively few martial artists today practice "soft" blocks; the majority adhere to the "hard" methodology. So, inevitably, the very few who might have tried to use "blocks" in sports like MMA have almost certainly relied on "hard" blocks - I'm guessing, with poor results.1 No small wonder that MMA practitioners have disregarded the entire concept of "blocking" as "unrealistic", "unworkable" or even "fanciful". That's their loss.2

Because traditional "blocks" do work. But they work principally as deflections of attacks - not literal "blocks" that "stop an attack dead".

Efficient deflections are, by my definition "soft". Inefficient deflections, and most "dead stop" blocks, are "hard". I shall explain and evidence what I mean a bit later. It really does come down to some simple physics.

"Soft blocking" is a very specific skill that is in some ways the very opposite of "hard blocking" and requires years of dedicated practice to understand fully. I believe (controversially, it seems) that the emphasis on "hard blocking" in many (if not most) traditional schools detracts from the understanding of the art and science of deflection.

And so, I propose to detail my position here - to explain how one should execute "soft" blocks, how they differ from "hard" blocks, why they are effective and why "hard" blocks are not.

Almost all blocks are "deflections by another name"!

Most traditional “blocks” as we know them are deflections more than anything else. That is to say, they don’t act to stop a force “head on”. They act to shift a force off its line of attack.

Don’t believe me?

Consider that a jodan/age uke (rising block) does not act to stop an attack “dead” unless that attack is:
  1. a downward chop (a foolish attack and an even more foolish defence!); or
  2. a wild circular swing (another foolish attack, which is better dealt with by punching your opponent as he starts telegraphing his swing).
Ditto chudan uke, etc. All of them are principally used to approach the attack from the side, not meet the attack “head on”. This is true whatever your style of karate or other traditional martial art.

The primary aim of deflections: to protect YOU

Now that this is out of the way, consider this: For my part, the primary aim of deflections is obvious: they are to stop you getting hit. After all, talk of counters etc. is quite redundant if you’re flat on the floor, the world spinning around you. That’s something that seems easily forgotten in the chase for a strong, disabling counter attack. Even “simultaneous” responses come to nothing if your block fails.

And remember that a a strong fulcrum for deflection doesn’t necessitate a hard impact. Put another way, the impact of your forearm against the attack is not a measure of the stability of your blocking platform. What is? The ability to displace the attack and “occupy the center line” (as they say in wing chun). This can be done in 2 different ways:
  1. either the blocking forearm inscribes an arc (ie. a "curved" path) and uses the power of the circle to deflect a linear attack, much as a spinning top can deflect a marble that rolls into it; or
  2. the blocking forearm rotates on its axis in a "spiral" (ie. it is "torqued"), using that circle to deflect the attack.
Sometimes, as I discuss in my article "Chudan uke: to spiral or not to spiral", you can use both.

I discuss 2 ways of executing a chest level deflection - one with the forearm inscribing an arc, the other with the forearm spiralling or being "torqued".

Either way, a circle is being used to deflect a linear attack. And most punches, even cross punches, have an element of "straightness" that permits them to be deflected along that line - particularly if you examine the technique from the perspective of multiple planes - ie. more than 2 dimensions. For the purposes of this article, it is worth noting that "hard" blocks generally don't utilise the former type of block, namely the forearm inscribing an arc. Rather they get their force from the "torque" or spiral of the forearm. So let us examine this in closer detail.

The importance of applying the "torque" correctly

We've noted above that blocks function to occupy the centre line - not to smash an attack out of the way. This is what enables a block to deflect the attack. Occupying the center line doesn’t require an impact, as I demonstrate in the previous video. No "torqued" wing chun block requires that kind of impact: Yes, they are “torqued”; but they are nonetheless “soft” under my definition of using only the amount of impact necessary to occupy the center line.

In other words, they are not designed to “punish” your opponent’s limbs. They are designed to occupy the center line as efficiently as possible. Coming back to karate, I see no difference between wing chun and similar karate deflections (ie. those using the forearm spiral/torque). Exactly the same principles of physics apply. So I prefer to put 100% of my deflecting energy (be it in the form of a forearm torque/spiral or a circular arc of deflection) into the task of deflection. The “softer” (ie. the less impact) I can do the block while succeeding in occupying the centre line, the more efficient I’ve been. The more efficient I am in deflection, the less my chances of being hit.

To understand the reasons why this is so, we need to examine more closely exactly how the "torque" or spiral of your forearm is applied when used in hard blocks, vs. how it is applied in soft blocks.

The difference between torquing for strikes vs. torquing for "soft" blocks

Here's the thing about torquing/spiralling: it is used subtly, but significantly, differently when used to power a strike as opposed to a deflection.

With strikes, the spiral completes just as contact is made. This adds the momentum to the strike at the moment it lands. With soft blocks, the spiral only starts when contact is made. The spiral completes as the deflection is finalised. So in that case the spiral helps absorb the impact and its momentum is used to redirect the attack - not inflict a blow. I discuss this the video below:

A discussion on how to "torque" deflections

In summary:
  1. strikes - torque used to add force;
  2. soft blocks - torque used to deflect.
How soft blocks utilise the power of the circle

It's all very well to say that "soft blocks use torque to deflect". But what do I mean? To answer this we need to consider 2 elements: angle of interception and your movement along the attacking limb. Unless your block intersects the attack at 90 degrees, then any arc inscribed by, or spiral in, your forearm that happens after impact will necessarily cause your blocking arm to move either up or down the attacker's limb.

I say "necessarily" because:
  1. the arc or spiral increases contact time with the attack; and
  2. if you have more than momentary contact time, I can't see any way of effecting a non-perpendicular strike without movement up or down the attacking arm, given the vectors of the respective moments.
Soft blocks intersect the attack at an optimum angle for deflection (which is obviously less or greater than 90 degrees). Without more, this angle might be sufficient to drive a "wedge" into the attack, thereby deflecting it (as I discuss a bit later).

However soft blocks, as I have discussed, go further; they employ an arc or spiral which starts immediately after impact and coincides with a slide up or down the attacker's forearm. This helps redirect the attacking force. How?

Well, it is important to note that this circle doesn't "push" the attack away. Rather, a small circle at the axis of interception is amplified by leverage so as to increase deviation at the extremity of your opponent's attack.3 Accordingly it does not comprise a "push", but rather an "interception and redirection" - a bit like gears meshing.4, 5

In a manual gearbox this can be done "hard" (for example when you don't use your clutch correctly) or smoothly (when you do use your gearbox correctly). Part of the reason you get that horrible "crunch" when you don't time your clutch use properly is that some of the energy that would have aided the smooth interchange has been used up as "impact".

By contrast, when you execute a hard block, you typically finish a spiral of the forearm at the exact moment of impact. That rotation gives you the momentum to "bump" the attack away. This minimises contact time which in turn negates any noticable slide up or down the arm.

"Hard blocks" resulting from poor timing

It is my view that a substantial number of what people think of as "hard" blocks are only "hard" because they are performed poorly.

In other words, the student sets out to perform a block that utilises an arc or spiral - but still ends up connecting "hard". This can occur even if the student is consciously aware of the need for the arc or spiral and is intent of activating that after impact. So what's going on here? Why is the impact not transferring seamlessly into the circle and being absorbed/redirected by it? The answer is simple: the student has cut the wrong angle or has poor timing or both. It is really no different to a "clunky" gear change. If the angle and timing are correct, then there should be little impact. The attack should "slip" off and past your blocking forearm and be redirected harmlessly from its intended target.

It is important to note that I do not see such techniques as deliberate "hard" blocks. Rather, they are simply "soft blocks performed poorly". Any arc or spiral in the forearm started after impact should create a soft block or deflection. So when, through errors in timing or angle, your block results in a hard impact, you aren't choosing to do a "hard block". The hard impact you feel is the attacker's punch hitting your forearm, not the reverse.

This is another way of saying that your arm got punched/struck. Instead of efficiently redirecting the attack, part of your blocking arm "just got in the way". On the other hand, if you deliberately finish your rotation on impact so as to use your block to strike your opponent's attacking limb, you are indeed executing a "hard block". Let us examine these true "hard blocks" and the issues confronting them:

Problems with hard blocks: reliance on brute force and exact angles

The first and most obvious drawback of the hard block should now be obvious: it does not use the power of the circle to deflect. Instead the hard block relies on the application of simple (brute) force, driven at the correct angle into the attack. A portion of that force comes from the outward movement of your arm. As I have discussed, many hard blocks use the rotation of the arm to add extra force at the moment of impact. Others add more force by increasing contact time - ie. they effect a push.

It is important to note that soft blocks do not utilise a push.4 Either way, when using a hard block:
  1. you need a fair amount of force (be it by impact or pushing); and
  2. your angles need a fair degree of precision.
As I argue a bit later, you can't rely upon the power of the circle to "forgive" any miscalculation in your angle of interception.

Problems with hard blocks: "single bone" impact

I mentioned previously that it is possible to deflect an attack by driving a linear "wedge" into it. Indeed, this is exactly how most hard blocks work (a notable exception being most palm deflections).5

Unfortunately when a hard block does so, the point of impact is usually the thin edge of your forearm (ie. a "single bone", namely either the radius or ulna but not both) - particularly if you time the spiral to finish at the moment of impact.

This contrasts with the soft block where you always impact with the "flat" edge of your forearm (ie. both bones) then rotate through to the thin, "single bone" edge. This issue has major ramifications for injury (and the prevention or cause thereof); your forearms are simply not adapted to take impact on the thin edge / "single bone". Any impact there is concentrated on a smaller, weaker surface area, increasing risk of injury and breakage.

I remember sometime in 1989 training with the late (controversial) taijiquan and baguazhang instructor Erle Montaigue. He was an interesting fellow and provided many important insights. He also had his own fair share of misconceptions, meaning that you had to take what he said with an occasional pinch of salt.

One of his "pet peeves" about karate concerned the age/jodan uke (rising block): It was, he said, ineffective because it contacted with the outer edge of the forearm, presenting a thin, "single bone". As he explained, this is manifestly weak.

I knew then, as I'd known for years, that this is totally incorrect (at least as we do jodan/age uke in the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts). What he was seeing was the finishing position of the block. The reality is that the block should intercept the attack with the top, flat part of your forearm - ie. it should impact with 2 bones (the radius and ulna) - then rotate through to the "single bone" as part of the torque action. I demonstrate this misconception at 1:06 in the video below:

I demonstrate the rising block and discuss both the primary use of the arms. Note my discussion of the rotation of the primary arm at 1:06.

Unfortunately Erle's criticism was spot-on with hard blocks. At the time I was largely unaware of just how widespread this practice had become, so I dismissed it as one of his misconceptions. As it turns out, he was right in respect of many karate schools. It might not be how the jodan/age uke should be done, but it certainly is how it is often actually done.

Now it is true that strikes like the hammer fist require you to finish the rotation in your forearm at the moment of impact. At impact, your hammer fist is thus oriented so as to line up with a "single bone" of your forearm. Luckily in that case you aren't hitting with the "single bone" - you're hitting with the hammer fist! The fact that your forearm is not ideally lined up for a strike is irrelevant; it simply isn't the striking surface. This is a major reason that I don't agree that "forearm blocks are really strikes in disguise".

What is appropriate striking alignment for a clenched fist or sword hand is not appropriate alignment for forearm contact. It is only works if the block momentarily precedes the strike, contacting with the flat part of the forearm. The strike then follows later as the forearm rotates to finish the deflection. In other words, you can combine a block and strike into one continuous action, but it is not "simultaneous"; there are 2 distinct, consecutive movements, each with separate functions and requirements.

So do hard blocks work?

In a word, yes. How do they work? Mostly they deflect by driving a wedge into an oncoming attack. This is a "linear wedge" because it does not utilise the power of the circle in the deflection. Now I know that it can use a circle; however when it does so, it doesn't use the circle to power the deflection. Rather, the circle is used solely for impact.

That impact does indeed lead to the deflection, but only indirectly. Instead of working "inside" the deflection, it just serves to add brute force at the point of interception. As I've said, if there is no rotation in the forearm, then the necessary force to displace the attack is derived from a longer contact time (ie. a push). However when the force is generated faster, there is less contact time on the attacking limb (ie. a strike).

Accordingly, hard "impact" blocks do not have to drive as far into the attack to "wedge" it successfully.

To summarise, if a hard block drives a wedge at the correct angle, it will either "bounce" or push the attack thereby deflecting it. Whichever way you do it, the hard block works. However, because it fails to utilise the power of the circle, a "linear wedge" is, in my view, manifestly inefficient in terms of energy use. Moreover it is also risky. I discuss these points below:

"But it takes minimal energy to deflect an attack and deflection is about angle of interception not so much energy applied!"

This argument was put to me by my friend Marcel. It might be true, but under the pressure of a real attack you don't want to waste a single bit of that energy. You want to be 100% sure that punch isn't coming through.

Remember that in the context of an adrenaline-fueled surprise attack, things never go to plan. If you plan on 100% efficiency you might get 50%. And as for angle, the correct application of a circular deflection (ie. starting to turn as you contact) is very forgiving. Is it possible to slide a straight, non-spiralled/torqued wedge into an attack? Yes. Would I like to try that when facing a committed, full power right cross with an element of surprise? Not a chance!

Again, if you plan on attacking the angle at 12.5 degrees, under the stress of real combat I suspect you'll be lucky to attack it at something as close as 15 degrees. Luckily the arc/spiral of your forearm gives you latitude to adjust that angle, especially because you establish kinaesthetic feedback with the initial contact. The feedback is increased by the greater contact time given by curving/rolling across your attacker's forearm. In turn, this feedback allows you to adjust your angle by increasing/changing the pressure, amount of roll/curve, etc. You simply can't do this if you've attacked the "wedge" with a linear movement and already used up your spiral/torque in creating a (fairly pointless) impact on your opponent's forearm.

So it's not just a philosophical debate about "energy consumption". It is played out as a very real, tactile issue adversely affecting your chances of a successful deflection.

"But beginners find it much easier to use hard blocks!"

I've heard this argument from a variety of instructors. But this is not my experience. I find beginners intuitively understand circular deflection much better than they do "hard blocks".

Over 25 years of teaching I can say that the standard "gedan uke" (low block), which features a fairly linear movement with relatively little forearm rotation, has consistently been the hardest block to teach beginners. It is also the last block I've seen them apply successfully against attacks in a free-form environment.

Left to their own (untrained) devices, beginners default to palm pushing deflections. They don't default to hard blocks. And while they don't naturally default to circular deflections either, these are readily assimilated (unlike hard blocks). It makes sense after all: don't meet the force head on. Rather, intercept it and use a circle to redirect it. It might sound difficult to those who haven't used it before, but beginners pick it up - and start applying it in a free-form environment - surprisingly quickly; much more quickly than any "hard block" I've ever taught (and I've taught it all in my time - we all learn and develop).

So, I don't agree that hard blocks are some sort of "necessary step" or "precursor" to soft blocks. Rather, I think they are a blind alley. They teach bad habits that take a lot of "unlearning" (specifically the too-early torque or spiral). I'd rather start teaching beginners efficient technique, than teach them something that is manifestly inefficient. Anything you can learn from hard blocks can be learned from strikes, which use the same principles (eg. spiral of forearm finishing on impact). And because of the pressing need to ensure that your blocks work "first time - every time" you need to start inculcating the most efficient and effective movements from day one.

There simply is no reason to teach less efficient methodologies first. What I think the statement in the heading is really expressing is that beginners have a tendency to mistime their blocks or cut the wrong angle. If so, this should not be encouraged. It should be corrected. There should be no tacit approval of mistakes by labeling them as "different techniques". A block either utilises a circle to deflect or it doesn't. If it does, but doesn't do so efficiently, then it should be identified as something on which the student needs to work.

"But I use hard blocks to attack my opponent's limbs!"

Here is an argument posed by my friend Sanko. My answer to this argument is this: I don't believe in attacking people's limbs, unless you're talking an elbow break or something catastrophic like that (xingyi can use pi quan to dislocate the shoulder and I can show you some neat elbow smashes from Hong Yi Xiang's tang shao dao system!).

Otherwise, in my experience people high on adrenaline don't really notice pain in the forearms. Many's the time I've come out from an adrenaline-fueled bout only to realise that my arms are bruised and starting to swell like dead fish. I didn't notice anything at the time. I've even copped some awful shin smashes without feeling it fully - until after the fight. In the dojo you can sometimes feel even the smallest knock - but then again, you have no adrenaline etc. to distract you.6 So I think it is far more prudent to use force in blocks to do what they are designed to do - deflect attacks. You really need to use all of the force of the deflection as carefully as possible to guarantee your successful defence. The more efficient you are, the less the chances the attack will come through.

And if you're going to hit someone, I would hit a vital region; I simply don't adhere to a "war of attrition" theory, where you wear down your opponent with painful, non-disabling strikes.

Blogger Ymar Sakar has posted a couple of thousand words in commentary on my blogs in recent days on this topic alone. Even if I disagree with him about some matters, I agree in this respect: if you're going to strike, make it count. While I'm on the topic of "making it count", Ymar argues (I think somewhat curiously, given his credo of "disabling attacks") that:
    ... most of the targets those TMA systems are hitting isn’t the arm. It’s the radial nerve in the arm... A proper strike against that nerve deadens the nerve and causes temporary nerve damage, preventing a person from sending reliable signals to his hands and fingers. They also lose a lot of strength there, although adrenaline can make up for some of that with pure willpower. Adrenaline can ignore pain. It cannot ignore damage to the nervous system in terms of controlling organs or muscles."
I know the radial nerve only too well. I know exactly where to hit and how bad it can be - if you get it just right. You don't go 30 years in a "school of hard knocks" and not find out - the hard way. Practically any good, old-fashioned karateka knows all about this nerve and the main "weak spots" on your forearm.

But, with all my experience of copping "dead arms" and causing "dead arms", how do I rate the chances of me hitting, or getting hit in, an optimal spot on the radial nerve? Not highly. The body has a uncanny way of protecting its weaker points and making them less accessible. Regardless, even some of the nastier blows to my forearms haven't disabled me. It's caused me a nuisance, no more and no less. It certainly hasn't cause a disabling blow by any stretch. Optimal or not, radial nerve strikes just don't disable sufficiently.

Apart from the fact that this is my direct experience, I would have also thought it was obvious. So would I bank on a radial nerve strike? Not on your life. In striking it is imperative, as my friend Zach says, "go for the light switch" - ie. targets that shut your opponent down, not ones that make one part of one limb a bit numb. And by using blocks to strike the latter (relatively inconsequential) targets you also risk forgetting what the block is meant to do - stop you from getting your head knocked off!

Theory about radial nerves is all well and fine. My experience tells me emphatically that this theory is just that; fighters cop blows on the forearm every single day. I have yet to hear of a fight where the turning point was occasioned by a blow to the forearm. And I doubt I ever will.

"But I use hard blocks to break my opponent's structure!"

Yes, it might be advantageous to have your opponent unbalanced by a hard “block” that leaves your opponent staggering. But I question whether this is really likely to happen by blocking his or her arm. As I discuss in the video above, I train my students to move in a fluid, relaxed fashion. If an arm encounters resistance, it softens and yields. So if a person had to block my arm "hard", it might will affect my arm but not the rest of my body. I tell my students to think of the arm going floppy at this point. Only if the arm and body are stiffened into one rigid structure, can a hard block break that structure.

But perhaps this is not what the proponents of this theory mean. I suspect they are thinking of a block that doesn't just strike the arm - it pushes through the arm to strike/push the body. If you're doing that, then you're really pressing an attack after your block; in other words, you are executing a "simultaneous" block and strike with the same arm.

As I have discussed previously, the whole issue of "simultaneous" defences is an entirely different one and I don't propose to go over it again. Suffice it to say, with any "simultaneous" technique of this kind, you still have to cross the first, most obvious, hurdle before you can effect any sort of counter: you have to make sure your defence has been effective! And as I discuss above, this means ensuring that your block provides a sufficiently "bullet proof" defence, not one that is compromised by mixed/conflated objectives.

In other words, the torque or spiral of your forearm needs to be applied first to the task of deflection, then to the task of striking which occurs after the deflection has succeeded. Indeed, if the torque or spiral is timed to coincide with the block landing, none of the torque remains to power the strike when it lands on your opponent's head or body - all you have left is a "stiff arm" strike.

Conversely, if you time your forearm spiral so that it is happening as you deflect the strike, the finish might just coincide with your strike landing on your opponent's head or body.

Once again, the "soft" version wins, hands down!

Consider, for example, the hammer fist strike from karate can be applied as a strike (as I demonstrate at 4:43 in the above video) or as a deflection (see 4:53 in the video). If you want to deflect the attack and continue to strike the forehead, you will note that the deflection necessarily occurs before the final strike.

It is for this reason that I say it is not truly a "simultaneous" block and counter. Because the deflection occurs first, you will want to adopt the spiral or torque method I use for deflections so as to time the finish to coincide with the strike to the forehead. In other words, only the "soft" method enables you to use your torque as part of the final strike. If you do a hard block, you use up the torque on the attacker's forearm and you have none left for the strike to the head (see 5:01)!

To summarise, if you want your blocking arm to carry on and be used offensively, you have every reason to make the "blocking" part "soft" - not only to ensure an effective deflection, but also to ensure maximum force on your counter strike.

Deflection with minimal displacement works in your favour!

Regardless, let us assume that you want your block to unbalance your opponent by pushing into him. This is a laudable objective, to be sure. But it is arguably more advantageous to have your opponent fall into your counter punch after you've deftly caused his attack to slip away harmlessly. Using his forward momentum against him means that you are maximising the force being applied by your counter. If he is still flying forward after having been deflected, and you are punching him at the same time, the momentum of your punch is being added to the momentum of his body.

It's like 2 moving cars colliding head-on, rather than one crashing into a stationary vehicle or sideswiping a vehicle moving in the same direction. The head-on collision is clearly far more forceful than the others.

This is only possible where your deflection is unnoticed by your opponent until it is too late.7 In other words, deflecting a punch with minimal displacement (ie. the displacement needed to avoid you being hit and no more) is likely to be superior in terms of the total force being applied by your counter.

How deflection uses your flow to add speed and force

Last, hard blocks are all well and fine for countering - if you can execute them with a "simultaneous" counter (ie. either with the same arm, as discussed above, or 2 arms moving out together). But I hold it to be self-evident that you will more than likely face at least your initial attack under surprise, meaning that you are left with late initiative.

With late initiative, soft blocking at least allows you to connect the block and counter into one flowing movement. That flow even allows you to use the opponent’s force against him, by feeding the momentum of the circular deflection on one arm back into the striking arm.

This enables me to use my body as a synergistic whole, as I demonstrate in the adjacent gif. (I'm using the Naha te chudan uke - but he same principle applies with the naihanchi chudan uke.) In other words, it simultaneously:
  1. minimizes the delay between block and counter by connecting them into one flowing sequence; and
  2. uses the flow to add more force to your counter.
[For more on this topic, see my article "The importance of flow".] By contrast, when you apply a deflection with an impact, it does more than “stop” your opponent:
    It also stops your blocking arm - in fact it stops your feet, your whole body!
In any combination you then divorce your block from anything that follows - meaning less use of “whole body momentum” (to add force) and the dreaded separate “block + counter” which my friend Zach so (rightly) dislikes and which Choki Motobu rightly said “isn’t bujutusu”. It isn’t just slower and less powerful: such disconnected techniques don’t work at all!

Conversely, synergistic whole body movements manifestly work, even when they involve multiple connected movements. Just ask a boxer who weaves under a punch and then throws a knockout cross as he exits the weave. This might be late initiative comprising multiple movments - but they are connected so that they are part of the same continuous loop. And even if, like me, you don't favour boxing as a method, you can't deny that it works! The flow or connectivity underpinning this synergistic use of the body is stifled with hard, “stopping” blocks. So in my view hard blocks don't comprise a good policy - unless of course:
  1. you’re fortunate enough to have succeeded in executing a simultaneous counter; and
  2. that counter is conclusive.
I for one wouldn’t be putting all my eggs into that one basket. As I’ve frequently argued (and demonstrated by real life examples), you’re more likely than not to be left with late initiative. And soft deflection is the king of late initiative. The rest? That’s attack. Really, we all know attack (even if some peddlers of various "reality-based" programs insultingly insist that we don't). Now what about focusing on defence for a change?

"But it's all about an attacking mentality!"

This argument has been put to me by any number of "attack-centric" martial artists, ranging from my friend Marcel to blogger Ymar Sakar. Marcel notes:
    "Shorin ryu is about attack. Uke waza is about receiving an opponent's technique with an attack of your own. Hard blocking is about an attacking mentality."
But what are you trying to do with your "hard block"? Put aside general, theoretical mindsets for a moment and come back to specifics. Consider an actual "blocking" technique. How will it be used/applied? How does this "mentality" translate to actual fighting method? I ask these questions because, whatever your "mentality preference", attack and defence are not the same.

Yes, attack is often a good defence, but only because you are either "beating your opponent to the punch" (ie. disabling your attacker before his strikes have landed or even been launched) or overwhelming an attack so pathetically weak that it did not warrant any defence.

Otherwise, attack and defence function differently. And in order to so function, they have different technical requirements. I have shown some of these differences in this article: in particular you will note that the spiral or rotation of the forearm, and the alignment of the forearm at impact, are subtly, but significantly different as between strikes and blocks. Ignoring those differences doesn't make them go away. So what is it you're trying to do when you use your blocks "as an attack of your own"? It can only mean one of 3 things:
  1. you don't bother blocking attacks because your own attacks will land before his will; or
  2. you use your hard blocks to strike his limbs - necessarily meaning that you've adopted a manifestly less efficient defense technique that doesn't use the power of the circle (and hence requires more force) and that presents a weak "single bone" as the contact surface - all in the name of a "mentality"; or
  3. you use soft blocks, but you do so assertively, feeding into a counter either simultaneously or as soon as possible.
The first rationalisation is clearly illogical. It ignores the need for defensive technique, all in the name of "my attack skills are too good". What nonsense!

The second rationalisation is confused. Just because you want to be assertive and proactive in your approach doesn't mean you should use less efficient technique! To do so is to let blinkered dogma triumph over logic. The third rationalisation is just common sense and is totally consistent with my argument. As I said at the outset, presenting a strong fulcrum for deflection and "hard blocking" are 2 different things. To be effective, all blocks need to be done assertively and with a sufficiently strong platform. This is what underlies the need to drive into the attack in order to wedge it successfully. But it is important to note that this is not "attack". It is "assertive defence".

Yes, counters should generally be launched as soon as possible - if not simultaneously. But when have I ever advocated otherwise? Acknowledging the necessary technical differences between attack and defence are not the same as saying that you can or should "dispense with attack". On the contrary I am all in favour of an assertive, aggressive mindset when facing an attack. I am not ignoring any variable. It is those who wish to conflate attack and defence who are ignoring variables - in particular the need to understand that the necessary platform for good defensive technique (ie. evasion and deflection) is not the same as the necessary platform for good offensive technique (ie. punching, kicking and other striking).


Most "blocks" in the traditional martial arts act as deflections - not literal blocks. Unless you're meeting fist to fist, that is almost always the case against any punch. The primary task of these blocks is to occupy the centre line, displacing the attack. Beginners will clearly have less efficiency in blocking and as a consquence they will experience more impact due to timing and angle errors. However these are not "hard" blocks. They are inexperienced blocks. "Hard" blocks are the result of a deliberate strategy of using blocks in the same manner as strikes. This is often done in the name of "attack is the best form defence".

However this is where the tail starts to wag the dog. Because the methodology for striking and the methodology of deflection are 2 different things. Using the methodology of attack in a defensive technique can work, but it is manifestly less efficient and, I believe, less effective. In particular an attack methodology produces a spiral or torque, and alignment of the forearm at impact, that is fundamentally at odds with the principle of deflection.

And hard blocks also interrupt the natural flow of your techniques by effecting a focused blow during a transitional phase, ie. the set-up phase preceding your counter, when the need for mobility and fluidity is never higher. It is my view that the arguments in favour of hard blocks are based on flawed premises, principally a failure to consider the physics of deflection. They also ignore (or at least sidestep) the issue of how to build a good defence, preferring to focus on the principle of "attack, attack, attack!" As I've frequently argued, attack skills are definitely necessary. But so are defence skills. Ignoring the issue won't make it go away.

Accordingly it is my strong advice that those who practice hard blocks should consider the Chinese counterpart arts, particularly those that use spiral or torque actions in deflections (eg. wing chun). They could take "leaves out of their books" with nothing to lose and everything to gain. After all, the kata moves would be identical. Even the bunkai (analysis) of the kata might be the same. All that might change is a few less bruises on the forearms. And some more efficiently executed deflections.


1. For that matter, I can't remember the last time I saw a block (other than a rather primitive "slapping" parry) in karate kumite and taekwondo competitions. They certainly don't bother with them in most dojo sparring I've seen. So I wonder why the proponents of hard blocks are so vehemently supportive of them. They never use them! By "use", I don't include their use in the rather artificial "ippon kumite" (one step sparring), where your attacker conveniently freezes after attacking so as to let you complete your counters!

2. As I argue in my article "Enter the front snap kick", I suspect that blocks will, one day, make their way into the MMA arsenal, just as front snap kicks have done. It will take more time for a such a subtle defensive technique to be adopted (attacks are easier to understand) but with so much on the line, I think fighters will, sooner or later, give blocks (or rather, deflections) the examination they deserve.

3. Consider the debate at this forum where "Bossman" says:
    "I've taught in the security industry for over 30 years and if I took only a handful of my students, their fight record would be in the thousands - and no one has ever broken an arm with a block or heard of someone doing so. All the experienced guys work on sensitising and using curves spirals and circles on touch... There is always a curve on any movement and you simply match it, then there is no forceful collision. Original Kyokushin worked on this premise, as did the late Ashihara who broke away from Kyokushin. Thigh kicks are usually met with a circular motion of the leg disrupting the kickers balance and then destroying the kickers knee with the same or other leg."
4. Without a forearm rotation you simply have too little impact force to "bump" your attack. So if you don't use the rotation, you must allow for greater contact time, resulting in a push (see my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy"). In this respect, pushing deflections are a lot like soft deflections in as much as they move along the attacking limb. But, as we shall see, pushing deflections are a lot more like hard blocks in every other respect. A pushing "wedge" (ie. using nothing more than a sufficient angle to drive into, and deflect, the attack) is such a "push", except it is a forward push - into the attack. Any impact felt in the block is typically generated by your opponent's attack striking you - not the reverse - and is a by-product of you choosing a less than ideal angle of interception.

5. A palm deflection is an example of a hard "pushing block" if it doesn't feature rotation of the palm (cf. deflections like jut sau in wing chun or what I call "sokumen te awase" which do involve a rotation of the palm). Straight palm depressions or presses typically intersect at 90 degrees to the attack, comprising downward or sideways pushes. The most obvious examples are the downwards palm press (known as "te osae uke" in Japanese) or the straight sideways palm push (known as "te nagashi uke" in Japanese and featuring in the Seikichi Toguchi 2 person versions of gekisai kata). Sometimes these are performed with a bit of wrist-generated slap, using that force instead of the pushing action. Either way, they are "hard" blocks under my definition.

6. Again, consider "Bossman's" comments from the previously mentioned forum where he says:
    "In the Dojo students might stop when their arms are hurt, when the adrenalins up for real and if they're on drugs or alcohol they won't even feel it."
7. From that same forum, consider "JohnL's" comment:
    "When someone attacks me, I consider a good block as one that redirects the attack so that it isn't going to hit me done softly enough so that my opponent doesn't realize it's been redirected until it's too late."
Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Great article Dan! I find as you point out that the mechanics of soft blocking techniques as used in wing chun/JKD can indeed be used effectively with traditional karate blocks. What most people don't realize is that to make use of karate blocks within the framework of wing chun or similar CMA is the concept of reference, where technique use is dependent upon our own body's reference to the attacker's centerline, our own centerline and the incoming attack. In wing chun for example a pak sao focuses past the centerline in forms practice, but aims to the centerline along with a stance pivot during actual use. The rotation of the arm as it contacts the attacker's arm is helped along with the stance turn, moving the defender's centerline away from a strike. Pak sao is a "hard" block in wing chun, whereas bong sao is a soft block, using spiraling motion to deflect a punch out of its incoming attack line. Chudan uke as used in Isshin ryu works well with a stance turn motion akin to pak sao in close quarters, rather than the more traditional step in or out of seisan to accomplish the block. Cheers mate, glad to see you're back in stride!

  2. Thanks Jo!

    Pak sao might be a "hard" block in wing chun, but it still redirects an attack off its axis; it doesn't oppose it "head-on" so as to "stop it dead".

    I think you'll find the chudan uke in isshin ryu is also capable of utilising either the rotation of the forearm or the arc of the forearm (depending on the kata from which chudan uke comes) to deflect rather than "smash" - even if it is a "harder" motion than other blocks.

    Some hard "jams" or stops are necessary, but I've emphasised the "soft" versions here because they are, in my view, far more likely to be needed or used. This article also serves to "stir the pot" a little and provoke debate.

    Thanks again for your insight!

  3. Nice one Dan.
    I never bought the 'hard' block line, and I think it is the principal reason that nobody gives the traditional techniques any credence. On the the other hand, its is nearly intuitive that some form of interception must be possible. The soft performance of those same blocks makes perfect sense and I have no problem with dismissing the hard style as a mis-interpretation compounded over time.

  4. Thanks mate. I couldn't agree more.

  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UsKP_2pp7k

    I consider rotation applications more in this fashion shown in the vid.

    It's not the torque of the forearm rotating, but the body's torso rotating, the largest source of power in the body.

    In terms of hard blocks, I see it more as a misinterpretation. That kind of movement would better serve as the opening strike in an offensive gambit. If the target is a nerve in the arm, then striking the arm is the entire objective, and the true simultaneous subordinate effect would be the deflection of the incoming arm strike. Alternatively, if the strike is the body, then the secondary problem is getting rid of the opponent's arms which are sticking out and acting as a barrier between you and the target. If you get hit by the arm, you will push the enemy away, and thus soften the power of any blows even if they hit their target with 100% accuracy. Thus the defense component is made subordinate to the offensive component. Deflection of the arm then becomes part of an offensive attack, and a person's training is done with that as his sole objective in mind and intent. This is very different for those training with seeing it as a defensive method first and then a strike. Which one comes first (in priority) has a disproportionate effect on human mental priorities.

    When instructors say "the block always precedes the strike", people get the idea that their first priority is the block. They don't think of it as something they need to setup in order to get the strike they wanted to get in the first place. This difference in intent produces very different training results. To the degree that after numerous generations, people started calling strikes "hard blocks". They thought an attack was now supposed to be a defensive move because "block precedes strike". This also has the result of basically rendering most of the strikes done in TMA ineffective. They hit people and it can hurt or momentarily stun, but they don't get results in terms of injury. No injury, no success. They lack the intent. It's like doing a job without focusing on results.

    I see the whole two arm issue as being either a back up or as a multi strike. A strike that hits two targets by dividing one's force between the left and the right.

    I don't actually agree that people, in general or in specific, know what attack is all about. Evidenced by the number of blows it actually takes them to get any results and the horrible accuracy of their strikes to begin with. If people knew what attacks were all about, they wouldn't confuse a strike with a hard block.

    Ideal attack methodology is the same as sniper training. One hit, one kill. One shot, one kill. One strike, one kill.

    In civilian untrained land, it's called the "one hit punch leading to manslaughter" thing. In trained areas, it's just called accuracy.

  6. Because rotation is a principle, there are numerous different applications. Some more worthy of note than others.

    On that same theme, striking can also be seen in terms of principle.

    In order to obtain the strike on the vital target, the opponent's arm must be out of the way. Thus it is not done with the intent of defending against the opponent's strike. It is done with the intent of "this guy's body part is in the way so I'm going to find a way to get past it without wasting time, while powering up at the same time for what I really want to do". That's prioritizing offense over defense, by focusing on what the purpose is. If the purpose is defense, then after the defense method is done and over, then the human mind has to leap to "offense" mode, which is like a gear shift. It takes time. Without wasting time, a person should simply stay in one mode. And the attack mode is the better one of the two for the purposes of achieving victory.

    Joint breaks are strikes, simply targeted at joints. Throws are basically striking a person's head or body into the planet or vice a versa.

    Specifically, joint breaking takes rotation and penetration inside the joint itself. Throws take penetration and rotation of one's center of gravity vs the other's.

    I can't consider someone knowing all about attacks, if they don't see the underlying principle connecting all attacks. Knowledge requires a conceptual framework. In my view, few if anyone understands the concept of attacking conceptually. Most people still think "striking" is just punching and kicking.

    That's still at basics if you want my interpretation of the scale of difficulty.

  7. Ymar, when I say that "all martial artists know attack" I don't mean to include the heavily diluted McDojo/dojang or sport karate/taekwondo, gymnastic or artistic martial arts, health-focused arts, etc.

    I'm referring to all martial artists who know their salt when it comes to fighting. There are many, many of these. They range from the traditional (eg. Morio Higaonna, or more currently, Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder), to the pragmatic eclectic artists (try Richard Norton, Benny Urquidez, Jeff Speakman) to the reality-based non-sports/non-traditional (like Marc Macyoung and Rory Miller).

    I don't particularly care about the diluted karate/taekwondo/kung fu kids' class at the nearby mall, or any other school teaching something that you or I do not think is effective. There are enough effective strikers out there and it is to these that I refer.

    And when I say that these good martial artists know attack, I mean they really do know good attack. They don't need me or you or anyone else telling them how to suck eggs, as it were. They know disabling, they know accuracy. They know aggression. I got a taste of just how effective Richard Norton was last week.

    So, with respect, "attack" is not an unknown. Good attack skills (including strikes to vital regions) are part and parcel of traditional martial arts as well as many others. The fact that there are many schools (traditional or otherwise) that have lost this knowledge is not my concern. There are still more schools teaching good attack skills than you can "poke a stick at". TFT is just one of these schools. Yes, it has packaged such knowledge in a pragmatic, accessible fashion. But it has not invented nor rediscovered anything about attacking.

    This blog post (and my previous blog post) relate to the deficiencies of attack-centred systems. The other half of the equation, if you will. As I've noted elsewhere, this is what interests me. I don't particularly care that someone else out there has no idea that good attack skills are necessary. I know this already, as do most of the martial artists with whom I study and associate.

  8. I see Ymar Sakar's observation on how the body's rotating torso generates the most power for techniques; this coupled with the aforementioned concept of reference is what I find useful in making karate's harder blocks softer (by your definition). Like your mention of pak sao, it is a hard block (especially as practiced in forms) but becomes more of a deflection when the stance is turned and the intercept line is moved from reference point of our own centerline (which as done in the form goes past our own line) to the opponent's (moving our centerline away from his strike and allowing the short forearm rotation distance needed to effectively push/stick to attacker's limbs).
    Isshin ryu's use of jodan age uke followed by uraken (one of its 15 upper body exercises) seems ludicrous and the block unduly hard if practiced against its more commonly practiced attack, jodan tsuki; not that it can't be used, but it seems IMO as a flinch response to a sudden attack. But I have used it successfully in kumite when moving about 15 degrees to the outside; the age uke easily moves very strong strikes by using both stance turning and forearm rotation for the deflection, while placing one close enough for the uraken to be unloaded with force by correct use of hip turning and forearm turning. I am getting older, and don't particularly enjoy the aches and pains of absorbing another's force directly, so your approach to softer blocking is one I like very much :-) Getting soft in my old age...

  9. Ymar, you said:

    "When instructors say "the block always precedes the strike", people get the idea that their first priority is the block. They don't think of it as something they need to setup in order to get the strike they wanted to get in the first place. This difference in intent produces very different training results. To the degree that after numerous generations, people started calling strikes "hard blocks". They thought an attack was now supposed to be a defensive move because "block precedes strike". This also has the result of basically rendering most of the strikes done in TMA ineffective. They hit people and it can hurt or momentarily stun, but they don't get results in terms of injury. No injury, no success. They lack the intent. It's like doing a job without focusing on results."

    I couldn't disagree more. Again, I don't know which traditional martial arts you are referencing. As I've said, I don't care that some individuals lack important knowledge from the traditional realm. The knowledge is there and it is not lacking as you imply.

    You appear to suggest that originally the "hard blocks" were all strikes, and that some sort of "defensive mindset" has rendered these strikes into blocks. Nothing in my historical research indicates any such thing. Rather, blocks are defensive moves that are also capable of being converted into or applied as offensive ones.

    In TMA a defensive move precedes the strike in acknowledgment of this simple fact: "late initiative" is a reality. You can't always be aware of your attacker. In fact, people who attack you are inclined to want to stack things in their favour. They won't yell "en garde!" or otherwise give away their intention. If they do, fine. You can hit them first in a disabling fashion. If someone grabbed me and raised his arm to punch, this is precisely what I'd do. Good karateka know that the block can and should be dispensed with if it isn't required. Or its movement can be adapted to a strike in itself (I don't favour this approach, but others do).

    However if the block is required for defence then it's primary purpose is to stop you getting your head knocked off. That it can and should be used to "setup in order to strike" is fine - but that comes second. First, you want to stop the attack from succeeding.

    In any event, I'm sure you'd have a very different view if you trained with some of my colleagues who interpret kata blocks as strikes: I might not agree with them about the primary purpose of these techniques, but I can't fault my colleagues' effectiveness. Their strikes (whatever their "origin") go straight to vital regions. There is nothing "ineffective" about them.

  10. I agree Jo that body movement is a big part of making deflections work.

    In fact, body movement and evasion is essential - whether we're talking the wing chun bong sau or the age/jodan uke from karate. In each case, shifting the body (whether the whole body or just a torso adjustment or leg bend) is critical in shaping the angle of deflection.

    This is particularly true in the case of defences against kicks.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  11. Dan, another "meaty" article; with, as usual, much to contemplate.

    Two things, from an ITF Taekwon-Do perspective, that jumped out for me were (1) the general distinction you made between hard and soft blocks regarding when the torque starts (before impact or during impact) and (2) the idea that hard blocks are used to “break [the] opponent's structure.”

    1. ITF TKD proposes both “hard blocks” and “soft blocks,” with the hard blocks indeed purposed to hurt the opponents attacking limb. Interestingly, I've been taught to do the hard block with the torque occurring on the attacker's limb. In other words, doing the torque during the impact as you explain it to be the case for soft blocks in your system. In the ITF TKD paradigm this indeed helps with deflection, but this is not the usual reasoning my instructors have given me. Instead, “rolling” the block on the attacker's attacking tool spreads out the impact over more of your own forearm, lessening the force on your own arm because of the increased surface area. Simultaneously one is to keep this rotation on one general spot (small surface area) on the opponent's limb. In theory, the focus on a small surface area on the opponent's limb causes pain and friction on his limb, while the spreading out the forces over a larger surface area on your own limb reduces the trauma on your own arm. When done properly in the “lab” of prearranged sparring drills this tactic seems to work, as the one being blocked is usually experiencing much more pain than the one performing the block.

    (Such "rolling" doesn't apply to knife-hand [hard] blocks, which are used in more of a chopping fashion.)

    As for the actual general effectiveness of hard blocks in “real life,” I think you and others have touched adequately on that already.

    2. You also mention that some adherents of hard blocks propose to use it to break the structure (i.e. posture, balance, etc.) of their opponent. This, as far as I understand it, is not the purpose of hard blocks in ITF TKD at all. The main purpose of hard blocks is to “attack” the attacking limb. Breaking someone's structure in ITF TKD is achieved either through actual attacks or, indeed, with soft blocks. For that matter, a significant percentage of soft blocks in ITF TKD seems to be preoccupied with breaking the opponent's structure. For this reason soft blocks are often (not always) employed higher up the opponent's limb (i.e. above the knee or elbow) or aimed at the shoulders or hips. Thinking about it now, there seems to be two types of soft blocks in ITF TKD, those concerned primarily with parrying or deflecting an attack and those set out to unbalance the opponent by means of “pressing,” “pushing” and “luring” or “pulling” (these are actual terms used in relation to blocks in ITF TKD).

    Your post is definitely causing me to think deeper about the different applications of the different types of defensive techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do , particularly the soft blocks.

    Thanks and best wishes,

  12. Thanks for your comments.

    While I respect your "lab testing" I'm afraid I don't understand how spreading the force through rolling could do anything but reduce the impact force to the attacking limb. This is because the rolling action not only spreads the force on your limb - it spreads the force on your attacker's limb. Are you sure you aren't rolling just as the impact happens? That would make much more sense to me. Perhaps it has to do with the angle at which you impact the attacking limb.

    Suffice it to say, my own "lab testing" over 30 years in a variety of Chinese, Japanese and other arts has found that, using an optimum angle for deflection, torquing shortly after impact is made helps you effect a deflection - including (especially!) with a knife hand or hammer fist technique. And that deflection is effected with minimal impact.

    Either way, I don't believe in attacking people's limbs, unless you're talking an elbow break or something catastrophic like that (xingyi can use pi quan to dislocate the shoulder and I can show you some neat elbow smashes from Hong Yi Xiang's tang shao dao system)!

    Otherwise, in my experience people high on adrenaline don't really notice pain in the forearms. Many's the time I've come out from an adrenaline-fueled bout only to realise that my arms are bruised and starting to swell like dead fish. I didn't notice anything at the time. I've even copped some awful shin smashes without feeling it fully - until after the fight. In the dojo you can sometimes feel even the smallest knock - but then again, you have no adrenaline etc. to distract you.

    So I think it is far more prudent to use force in blocks to do what they are designed to do - deflect attacks. You really need to use all of the force of the deflection as carefully as possible to guarantee your successful defence. The more efficient you are, the less the chances the attack will come through.

    And if you're going to hit someone, I would hit a vital region; I simply don't adhere to a "war of attrition" theory, where you wear down your opponent with painful, non-disabling strikes. Ymar Sakar has posted a couple of thousand words in commentary on my blogs in recent days on this topic alone. Even if I disagree with him about some matters, I agree in this respect.

    I have found that most "hard" blocks can be done in a way that is "soft" - ie. that minimises impact during the deflection. I have found that this also correlates directly with the efficiency, and hence reliability, of your deflection. The more impact you hear and feel, the less efficient your deflection has been.

    Thanks for your thoughts and even if we disagree, I respect your position.


  13. Sanko, it just occurred to me that if you're attacking the limb at 90 degrees, any roll might indeed spread the pain but not reduce your opponent's (because you're striking to one spot and one spot only). My strong view would be against this "force on force" method. It seems to me that this is not a deflection, which wedges into the attack at an angle and deflects it off its axis. Rather, it is a literal "block" or head on "stop".

    I don't believe literal blocks are advisable - and I speak from experience. Force on force is always a risky proposition. You need to redirect force as much as possible. But then again, the title of my blog is "The Way of Least Resistance" so you have some idea of my personal (Daoist/Taoist) leanings!

    All the best!

  14. It got too long to be broken up in 2 or less comments.


  15. Dear Dan,

    Our disagreement is only one of degree, both technically (in the differences in our respective systems) and personally (in the way we understand and personally apply our systems).

    Hard blocks is only one of the four defensive techniques employed in ITF Taekwon-Do and not the one I by default prefer. The others are soft blocks, guards and body shifting—e.g. dodging. My personal leaning is towards a combination of the other three: having a good guard, augmenting it with the most economical deflections, and moving off the line of attack.

    In my comments I try to give a standard ITF TKD view as I think it might be interesting to you to see areas of overlap and divergence in the different styles, which is something I quite enjoy to discover and learn from myself. Since I've started to write regularly for Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, I've started to realise that my idea of “standard” ITF TKD is not necessarily someone else's idea of “standard” ITF TKD, based on some of the commentary I've received. While we all work with the same sets of principles (e.g. ITF TKD's “Theory of Power,” “Training Secrets,” etc.), there are different interpretations as to how those principles translate into actual techniques. Such interpretations are often highly influenced by the lineage and tradition of one's school.

    I agree with your point on adrenaline that numbs one's sense of pain and also that if you are going to attack something, attacking vital targets are much more sensible. In another of my posts on blocking I also advised against “head on” and perfectly perpendicular blocks, because the hard-on-hard method is potentially dangerous to oneself and quite difficult to apply. The “remedies” I imagine ITF TKD would propose is to do blocking tool conditioning and to master ones positioning (angle and direction of your techniques) in relation to the incoming attacks.

    Your blog title reveals a certain personal preference—i.e. least resistance; similarly my blog is titled “Soo Shim Kwan.” One translation for “Soo Shim” 水心 is “to be like water”—revealing my personal preference. As I said, our disagreement is only one of degree. ;-)



  16. A couple of people I know on the net took Rory Miller's seminar training. It's got an interesting flavor, from their reports and from Miller's website. I also came into contact with Marc MacYoung's website from a recommendation to read Miller's book concerning violence and police tactics/psychology.


    Person in question and my comments, for those interested in the subject.

  17. Ymar, if I can distill your post down it might be to something like this:

    "Yes, defence precedes offence in a physical timeline. But you need to have a mental timeline that is the reverse [if that is possible - I suspect you mean a mental framework that is "attack-centric" - ie. one that ignores defence]. If you don't train with that mental attituded [ie. "attack, attack, attack"] you will not [for some reason that you expand upon in terms of OODA cycles and so on] be effective. And traditional martial arts are manifestly ineffective for this reason."

    I can't say it any simpler that this: you can bury the need for defence in thousands of words. You can keep insisting "look here, look here" while pointing to attack strategies and noting how effective they are. And, as I've acknowledged, good attack is indeed a vital skill. But the reality of the need for defence doesn't go away.

    Let me put it to you this way: you simply don't have an "mental timeline" when you turn around to see a punch heading for your face. All you have is your flinch reflex. And if you haven't trained to have a productive flinch reflex, in that scenario you will be flat on your back in seconds. In that scenario, and given the realities of reaction times (as I discuss in my article "Why block with the forearm (rather than the palm)), your only hope lies in defensive skill - specifically an evasion with a deflection. This is what your body will naturally do as part of the flinch reflex. But the "natural" flinch is not good enough - otherwise we would not need to train. We need to modify the flinch so that it deals with human attack (rather than some generic hazard to which the flinch reflex is programmed to respond).

    TMA spends a lot of time teaching you how to deal with this one moment of surprise. Does it equip you to be a law enforcement officer, soldier or cage fighter? No. Maybe that is why you disparage traditional martial artists. But I don't for a moment doubt the skill of my teachers, seniors and colleagues in the arena of civilian defence.

    So I am not persuaded by your arguments as to "mental timelines", nor do I accept your sweeping generalisations about the effectiveness of traditional martial arts. What I am persuaded of is that "attack-centric" methodologies will give you a much quicker set of "fighting skills" than defensive ones. Will they help you in that "surprise" scenario I just mentioned? Only if you aren't overwhelmed by the first (and subsequent) attacks.

    Thanks for your comments.

  18. You are absolutely correct Sanko. It is only a matter of degree. I post quite a firm view on this blog because it reflects my personal preference and also because it stimulates debate.

    "Since I've started to write regularly for Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, I've started to realise that my idea of “standard” ITF TKD is not necessarily someone else's idea of “standard” ITF TKD, based on some of the commentary I've received."

    Now that's something I relate to as well! My "standard" ideas of karate, xingyi, bagua, taiji, arnis etc. all seem to be widely different to others! It's all part of the fun! ;)

  19. "When instructors say "the block always precedes the strike", people get the idea that their first priority is the block."

    Btw, Dan, if you don't believe this is true or disagree with it, you can test it out yourself and see for yourself one way or another.

    Get a bunch of your students who are ready, but new, to the whole blocking thing you just showed on the video, explain it as "block first, then attack second", and then ask them later, after they have practiced, what is actually going on in their minds when they are combining thought with action. Are they thinking about the block more than the counter-attack? How much of their mental cycles, generally, are distributed between concentrating on the block vs the attack?

    Grab their responses and then write them down on your blog.

    Then setup a different group, a control group, of more experienced students, and use the same methodology on them.

    Then correlate between whether a student is having more or less trouble getting it and learning, vs how much priority they have put into focusing on prioritizing defense vs the attack that comes after the block.

    It will be interesting to see what the responses are. And the responses have to be either random sample or from all of them. Volunteers tend to be statistically different than the rest of the group.

    My hypothesis and contention is that students who train with the concept of "block first, counter-attack second" will focus first on the block and treat the counter-attack as something to support the block, rather than the deflection supporting the attack. So they will stall if the block doesn't work exactly right, and won't focus on attacking, but then on going back and trying to block the block they didn't get right the first time.

    This comes down to two typical mental viewpoints.

    1. I have to block first and do it exactly right, or else I won't attack because the block is more important than the attack.

    2. I am attacking, his arm is in the way and I will get rid of that arm and continue with my attack.

    I believe the second (2) is actually a much more efficient mental perspective to learn martial arts with than (1).

  20. "Let me put it to you this way: you simply don't have an "mental timeline" when you turn around to see a punch heading for your face. "

    All the deflections you have shown, the punch is far away enough that it isn't in the target area. Not within half or a foot at least. It is more than enough to see the punch coming. If a person acts (including react), he has finished an OODA loop. Look it up if you don't know what I mean by it.

    But that is besides the point. In order for the punch to do any good, the counter-punch of the guy who didn't see the initial ambush strike, the defender, must adopt an attack posture and step into range of his opponent.

    A defensive posture and mental viewpoint has the person stepping away from the attack. Having a person stepping towards the attack, in fact closing the gap not increasing it, is an offensive setup. It is not a defensive one, and if the person tries to use a defensive move with an aggressive mindset, he will fail more times than not. And if the person tries to use an offensive setup, like the deflection-counterpunch shown in the video, and he is in defense mental mode, he will more likely than not fail to penetrate fully into range and thus be in trouble. He'll deflect the first hit. Then what. His attack only works if his mind is in attack mode and has correctly stepped into range.

    This is basically the importance of mind and mental training, over whatever it is people observe happening in phys. reality that comes afterwards. The external viewpoint focuses on what is external, what is obvious, like direct punching, direct application of strength, and direct chain linking of speed. The internal viewpoint focuses on what is invisible to the naked eye. What's in the body. How blood and oxygen is flowing in breath and arteries. How bones are aligned. How limbs are rotating around the core. What is going on in the heart. In the mind. In the core. All that which is invisible to the naked eye, is that which is internal to the self.

    I never trained in a formal external style, thus my viewpoint is not an emphasis on external applications or observations. I note them, but I don't place an overt amount of importance on them compared to more internal aspects of H2H.

    "No. Maybe that is why you disparage traditional martial artists."

    I didn't disparage a single traditional martial art or artist. In fact, I treated all martial artists equally, including Chinese Martial Artists, Traditional Martial Artists, sport karate and TKD, or any other field of martial arts out there. I may not assume they are all equally skilled in training students or having an equal set of techniques, applications, and principles, but I don't believe automatically that their martial art is somehow fake because it is not traditional or not chinese or not X, whatever X is.

    Why do you start believing that I am disparaging traditional martial artists, when my viewpoint is from internal martial arts, and plenty of your internal martial artist teachers have spoken about how internal martial arts are the true path and external arts, like karate, are something you might want to think about giving up? Have I told anyone to give up TKD or karate because it's not a real martial art? Did you tell the Masters you trained with in Taiwan to stop disparaging karate when they asked when you were going to give up karate and go along the True Route?

    Internal martial arts are traditional, as far as I consider it. So are external. There might be a philosophical difference between external and internal, but a lot of things have philosophical differences.

  21. I treat every martial art the same. If there is a flaw with their methodology, I'll point it out. I make no exceptions on this point. I speak primarily of external martial arts here, because that is the material you present the most for argument.

    I really don't see why you become upset, Dan, at my treating all martial arts equally. When you speak of all martial artists, I assumed it included most everyone in the field, good and bad, new and old. Do you resent being grouped with people who you don't consider real martial artists? If that's the case, you'll have to enlighten me on what you mean when you say I disparage traditional martial artists.

  22. I am debating forcefully, but I am by no means upset.

    My "take" traditonal martial arts is that they feature a lot of defensive movements like deflection. I do not agree for one moment that they are "attack-centric" along TFT's lines. Far from it. You would have gleaned my viewpoint from my countless blogs dealing with civilian defence, "blocking", etc.

    Accordingly when I say you "disparage TMA" I mean that you regard what I consider to be TMA as ineffective. This is a statement of fact from my perspective, not an accusation nor a criticism.

    As to your comments generally about mindset/OODA etc. I disagree, at least to this extent:

    To me it is self-evident that when you are truly surprised you will have no mental process of the kind you describe. You will flinch, as simple as that. That's all the time you have. If you don't you'll just get hit. If you are surprised you won't be thinking of attack. The thought won't even cross your mind. There won't be time for any such thoughts.

    Instead your brain will do 2 things: (a) cause your body to withdraw; and (b) cause your hands to go out in a defensive movement. You can and should adapt this reflex to deflect the attack successfully.

    In this regard it is important to note that all the punches I deflect start well within the melee range - none are outside it. By the time I react to the punch it is very close to my face. Yet I can deflect it. Take a look at the stills on this article and you'll see what I mean. This is a major reason why virtually every single traditional far eastern unarmed martial art - from taiji to karate - uses forearm blocks: they deflect surprise attacks within the melee range when all else is impossible.

    There's no point talking about adapting the flinch reflex into an offensive response in this situation. In that timeframe, and with the attack that close to your face/body, you don't have time for any "offensive options". You do have time to intercept and deflect the attack (which is centimeters from your face). But your attacker's vital regions are, relatively speaking, too far away for you to "hit him" instead of moving your forearm the 20 cm or so required to deflect the attack.

    I reitierate: no amount of ignoring this issue will make it go away. In civilian defence you will face the scenario I just painted. As a prosecutor I saw umpteen such surprise assaults in the courts.

    I can't say the same thing any more ways than I have. If you disagree, then please agree to disagree.

    You assumed I was upset. I am not. But what I am is busy. I don't wish to continue debating in circles. This is a blog and these are comments on the blog. It isn't a forum. If you wish to enter into lengthy debates, do so on a forum where the issue can be fully discussed. Otherwise, a blog has an inherent limit on commentary. I believe we have long since passed that limit. I only respond because I have undertaken to post, and reply to (in a considered way), all those who are kind enough to read my blogs and make comments in relation to them. I appreciate your interest, but I can't have the situation where replying to comments starts to take up so much of my day.

    Thanks for your patronage, and please trust that my manner, while formal, is not intended to come off as angry or upset. It takes a lot more than that to raise my ire.

  23. "Did you tell the Masters you trained with in Taiwan to stop disparaging karate when they asked when you were going to give up karate and go along the True Route?

    It is worth noting that my teachers have all been both external and internal martial artists. My first primary teacher, Bob Davies, studied karate as well as aikido, wing chun and Filipino arts. Then he studied Chinese external and internal arts with Hong Yi Xiang of Taibei. Bob taught all his arts. Hong also taught all his arts, both external and internal.

    My current teacher, Chen Yun Ching, teaches external and internal arts. As a matter of fact, in January he taught me an external tiger/crane form. He never speaks of "True Way". To him all martial arts, external or internal, are part of the same family. He has asked me on a number of occasions to demonstrate a karate form and politely clapped and said "Very good!" He has no difficulty in me (or his adopted brother, my senior James Sumarac - also a senior karate instructor) studying karate or any other art with any other person.

    I don't see this debate being about "internal vs. external". I see it as being "attack-centric" vs. "attack and defence - centric".

    I agree with your comments about attack skills being vital. You disagree with mine about defence skills being vital - and the extent to which they are part of the internal martial arts.

  24. Thank you. As a kyu grade student of many years we have always been told to put our faith in the process and that one day it will become clearer. Articles such as this start to open the door a little for me - I always wondered how we could use the chudan uchiuke in real life but Dan has shown that it is the evasion, then movement and the mechanics that are important along with setting up for the counter. Please have more of these topics for us beginners.

  25. An excellent summary.

    Thanks - from one life-long learner to another.

  26. Dan,

    I was thinking about your comment about us (ITF Taekwon-Do) probably having to block perpendicularly to the limb in order to “rotate” on one spot. Actually, very few hard blocks in ITF TKD reach the target limb perpendicularly. I can think of a few, but they are actually seldom used relative to the other blocks. Most hard blocks reach the target limb at an acute angle, usually at 45 degrees or less. I discussed this a bit on an earlier post here: http://sooshimkwan.blogspot.com/2011/03/some-thoughts-on-double-forearm-block.html

    After watching your video again, I came to realise that how we (or probably I) used the terms “torque” and “rolling” isn't exact and that I should probably not have used the word “rolling” to describe what we do in ITF TKD.

    You picked up on the rolling as “sliding” and included it in your post later:

    It is possible, as I've discovered thanks to my friend Sanko, to effect a hard block "hybrid" where you start the spiral on impact so as to diffuse the force on your own forearm. However for the block to remain "hard", the spiral on your opponent's forearm must not be spread as well. In other words, your block must not "slide" down your opponent's arm, otherwise you lose the "hardness".

    Such sliding down is thus what you are doing, as I observed again when I re-watched the video you posted. This makes complete sense within the soft block paradigm.

    So the question is, how do we in ITF TKD torque our arms, but without sliding for hard blocks? Your suggestion was a 90 degree angle interception. This, as I have pointed out, is seldom the way blocks are performed in ITF TKD. Here's the thing: hard blocks in ITF TKD do not “slide down [the] opponent's arm.” The blocking arm rotates, but it does not “roll”, which would suggest covering a distance over the arm. Rather the blocking arm rotates or “spins”, without rolling, and thus without sliding. Looking at your video, your blocks do not merely roll on the opponent's arm, they also seem to push forward. The forward motion of your block continues after impact. I don't think this is necessarily the case for hard blocks in ITF TKD. However, soft blocks in ITF TKD often have a “pushing” function and this is how I understand your blocking approach too. You are redirecting the attacks through a type of “push” against the attacking limb at an accute angle. Hard blocks in ITF TKD don't “push”; instead they “bump” against the attacking limb. Because there isn't a push, the blocking arm doesn't “roll” against the attacking arm; rather, it “spins” against the attacking arm at the moment of impact; i.e. at the moment the “bump” occurs.

    One can therefore probably summarise the difference between (your) soft blocks and (ITF TKD's) hard blocks as “pushing” (for soft blocks) and “bumping” (for hard blocks), at an acute angle.

    Again, in this response I'm not trying to argue the merits of hard blocks over soft blocks (or vice versa); I'm merely pointing out the difference in approach and how I understand the torque idea being used in hard blocks in ITF TKD.

    Finally, sorry for the long reply. I could probably have written it all more succinctly, but I was figuring it all out through the process of writing—using this reply as my “drawing board.”


  27. Hi Sanko, thanks for your comment.

    "Hard blocks in ITF TKD don't “push”; instead they “bump” against the attacking limb. Because there isn't a push, the blocking arm doesn't “roll” against the attacking arm; rather, it “spins” against the attacking arm at the moment of impact; i.e. at the moment the “bump” occurs."

    I agree with your remarks and think they are consistent with my original analysis that you are, in TKD, effecting a standard "hard block" with the rotation occurring at the moment of impact.

    Your comments have caused me to rewrite parts of the article to address pushing deflections and other issues. I invite you to read them.

    Thanks for stimulating an interesting discussion!


  28. The idea of simultaneous attack with defense, by placing attack in front of defense, makes it almost irrelevant what it is called. The key point is that by combining them together, the OODA loop is made unified rather than separated than one loop for defense, another for attack.

    This is the same effect where karate forms done by internally aggregating and discarding inefficiencies, allows a few steps to be removed without expense in power generation. When a karateka loads the hips and has to sequentially do so, before taking a step or after taking a step, that's going to take a lot longer than an internally adapted movement of the same form. By eliminating steps, physical speed is increased. By eliminating mental steps, mental speed is increased. It's not that complicated a concept.

    Nor is it all that controversial. But it seems that when things go into the internal philosophies and arts, where things are not easily seen from the outside, what should be obvious and of obvious truth, is now something that is controversial or something that is required to make assumptions about the threat scenario.

    No internal philosophical viewpoint needs to make such assumptions when it is a true principle that removing inefficiencies and unnecessary steps in a process speeds that process up.

    This is not magic nor Asian mysticism. One step is faster than two steps. There's no assumption made about the context. One thought is faster than two thoughts that must be thought in sequence.

    When applied to late initiative ambushes of the defender, the only thing the defender needs to consider is whether they believe they want to spend more time on a two step defense or on a one step defense that is just as, if not more effective, than the two steps required in the other option.

  29. I’d like to give a short comment on your opinion that we may see blocking becoming more frequent in martial sport competitions. Judging by the content of the text I suppose you’re talking about intercepting blocks.

    As a referee for jujutsu sport competitions I have to express my doubts about blocks ever playing a role in that type of activity. Blocking is by all means an indispensable element in competitions but it appears more in the form of covering head and torso than as a skilled, hard or soft, interception of opponent’s incoming limbs. The main issue is that blocking brings you no points, which is the prime objective in sport fights. In jujutsu, for example, blocking (whether strikes or throws) is considered as "passive attitude" and if not followed by an immediate counterattack may end in receiving negative points. Preemptive blocking like grabbing opponent’s hand and moving it away for the sake of striking is completely forbidden. Also if you happen to grab the kick, you can’t simply pull that leg up to unbalance or take the other competitor down as one would do in a real fight. That explains why snap kicks have the future in competitions while blocks, I believe, do not.

    Best regards

  30. Thank you for those very astute observations Referee.

    I suspect you're right. I was thinking more that fighters would become conservative about being hit, but the rules are something that I hadn't factored into the equation.

  31. What I disagree first is that a surprise attack comes from the front and thus you can even see anything to block it with the flinch.

    A surprise attack is something a person doesn't even notice, until the damage has long since been done. Assuming any surprise attack is from the front or can be seen before it deals its damage, that is what I disagree with.

    What I'm claiming is not that defense centric is wrong or unworkable, but rather that the foundations, premises, and assumptions you have made on some issues with what you have said, is untrue. And thus if that is untrue, then the defense centric response from the flinch, is not something that can be used if the base is false.

    If the ambush doesn't come from the front and if it isn't seen at all, not just in time but not seen at all, then what?

    When you say TFt assumes nobody would ever act under late initiative in the attack, that isn't so. The attack is expressly important for those with late initiative issues. The fact that they got damaged before they even realized they were stabbed or shot. It is for those people.

    This is a late response because I was considering what the fundamental difference was. You don't have to reply with a long answer if your time is limited. The issue is finding the fundamental keystone. What we differ on isn't about anything like late initiative or attack/defense centered. That would be incorrect and would go off in some tangent longer than the Rosetta stone.

    The keystone difference is that TFT, if you are looking for a systemic review point of origin, focuses on training people to respond after they have already been attacked, at worst, or after they have already been shot or stabbed. There is no "struggle" because that's beside the point.

    What you have chosen to focus on and are talking about, is what comes before that. The defending. The deflecting. The "seeing" the attack to "flinch". That's not the same thing.

  32. Hello Dan,

    As always I love reading your blog, and as usual I feel that the time I'm investing in karate would be better invested in Australia with you.

    I come not only with praise, however, I actually have a question.

    In shotokan most (at least the basic) "blocks" are along a very linear path. Correct? That means that to make it an efficient soft block I have to apply torque on contact. But my sensei tells me that we don't torque when we block, we have the one-bone part of our forearm turned towards the attack at all times.

    So, knowing that you have some background with Shotokan i ask you: are the blocks supposed to be circular or torqued, or are there simply not soft blocks in Shotokan?

  33. Hi, and thanks for reading and for your query. My firm view is that shorin-based karate uses a higher percentage of torqued blocks and a lower percentage of circular blocks (there are some, but not as many as in the Naha te systems) . Shotokan is derived from shorin ryu. I think it follows that any linear blocks in shotokan should (and were originally designed) to be torqued. That is how I was taught them.


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