A pivotal question

When I first started the martial arts, I recall being chastised for pivoting on my heel occasionally, especially when turning in kata. Sempai Leon (my supervising senior during the first 2 months of my training) would say:

"Don't do that. Mobility requires you to pivot on the ball of the foot."

I recall Sempai Leon teaching us to stand with the weight slightly biased to the ball of the foot when we were in ready stance. This would, he explained, facilitate quick movement in response to an attack. "If you have your weight on your heels, you'll first have to rock forwards onto the balls of your feet before you can even start to move. Under the pressure of combat, this is time you won't have."

All this made perfect sense then and still does now. [It's strange how, long after Sempai Leon has disappeared into the dim recesses of my history (and long after he has almost certainly forgotten that I even exist), I still remember his lessons well and can quote them to you. This is the power of a good teacher.]

For many years I took Sempai Leon's words as a kind of "immutable rule"; if you're going to pivot, do it on the ball of the foot. Indeed, even after a few weeks of training, never mind months or years, brief experiments at pivoting on the heel confirmed my intuition about this "immutable rule"; shifting your weight to your heel not only leads to immobility (ie. you get caught "flat footed") but you also lose substantial balance. When you execute a roundhouse kick, for example, you don't want to be pivoting your supporting foot on the heel. If you doubt me, try it. Or, on second thoughts, don't – you might injure yourself ("don't try this at home, kids")!

Clearly, mobility and balance are key factors in martial arts. What more does one need to know?

Except I realised, after a couple of years, that every rule has an exception. In fact, the longer you train and the closer you look, the more you realise there are actually no rules at all - at least, no "immutable" ones. Instead all you have are principles; concepts that serve as some sort of guide through the chaos of fighting and human movement more generally.

So are there instances where you should pivot on the heel? Definitely. It all depends on what you're doing (your position relative to a movement you're starting or executing) and what you want to do from there. There is a time and place for everything.

I realised this in particular when I started studying the internal arts. In fact, it was at a seminar with the (sometimes controversial, never boring) late taijiquan and baguazhang teacher Erle Montaigue that this became clearer to me – even though my own teachers had already mentioned this many times. Sometimes it takes several people from different environments to reinforce the same thing before it sinks in. At least in my case it does!

Up until that training with Erle (in '88 or '89 – I don't remember exactly) I had always thought that pivoting on the heel was a bit silly. Yes, I conceded, in theory it might be used. But in real fighting – under pressure? Surely this "old people's dancing" wasn't going to cut it!

However, as Erle showed me, pivoting on the ball of the foot is all well and fine - if you want to move off line. This comes in handy when you are pivoting off line in order to evade and assist a deflection. Indeed, this is what a lot of karate and external Chinese martial arts seek to do; moving off line as part of an evasion with deflection.

A classic example (as noted by Erle) was the wing chun off line movement accompanied by a bong sau forearm deflection. If you pivot on the toes, your body shifts to the side, as clearly demonstrated in the adjacent images.

But what happens when you pivot on the heel? Simply this: Your body does not move offline. Why would you not want to move offline? Well moving off line is a kind of retreat. And you don't want to retreat unless you have to. In fact, in many cases (eg. when you are countering), you might well have to turn the body, necessitating a pivot – but you won't want to retreat as you do so since this will simply pull force away from your counter. In that case you might choose to pivot on the heel.

I've previously spoken of the science behind the internal arts – a science that manifests in subtle detail. And this is one of those details. The blunt assumption that I made as an inexperienced student that "pivoting should always take place on the ball of the foot" is one that is easily made. It is not until you examine this issue closely that you see the ramifications of such a sweeping "policy".

A good way of illustrating the issue of "pulling force away" is to stand in a forward stance (zenkutusu dachi or gong bu, "bow and arrow stance" or "warrior pose 2") and throw a reverse punch.

Now pivot on the heels to the opposite direction and throw another reverse punch.

After you get used to the (rather odd) sensation that you are pivoting on the heels (and once you work out the exact sequence of which foot pivots at which point), you'll quickly see that the weight of your entire body is being thrown behind the punches. The force (what people call "power") is quite considerable and is thrown rather effortlessly.

Now try the same thing, but pivot as people usually do – ie. on the balls of the feet. The first thing you'll note is that it feels far less "powerful". Why? It's very simple really: your punch is going one way, and your heels are being pulled back in the opposite direction – ie. away from the punch. This is clearly illustrated in the adjacent images: Note the centre line and the space I have moved (opening a gap between my back and the centre line) when pivoting on the heels in this exercise. Now note the lack of a gap between my back and the centre line when pivoting on the toes.

Some might argue that the ball of foot pivot "feels just as / even more powerful", but this is not true. If you're feeling more "power" in the ball of foot pivot, it's entirely because you don't know what to "feel"; there is a difference between feeling your force being thrown out and feeling your force being thrown in. As I have discussed in my article "Shaking, extraneous movement and inefficient technique" what many people feel as "power" in their techniques is just a reabsorption of their own force. That means you're "feeling the power" but your opponent won't. Force expended and force applied to a target are two different things. I'm confident that if you focus on how much of your bodyweight is being thrown into your opponent, you'll have no doubt that the heel pivot is far, far more productive in this exercise than a ball of foot pivot. There is really no comparison. Of course, the other thing you can do is actually use it to hit something! Provided you're doing the pivot correctly you'll quickly see what I mean.

So, in summary, pivoting on the heel can be used to increase applied force during a turn (by not having a pivot pull body weight away from the target). But are there any other reasons to pivot on the heel as opposed to the ball of the foot? What are the general principles by which I might go about sorting this issue out logically?

The answer is really quite simple: the first thing to work out is what you're doing as you're about to pivot. For most martial artists, pivoting doesn't occur from a stationary posture (as per my wing chun and forward stance examples). Instead, pivoting occurs during movement - eg. as you land in a step.

So let's assume you're stepping forward and, as you land, you want to pivot around. Perhaps you've made a step forward only to hear a suspicious noise that makes you want to wheel around to deal with a potential attacker. Which part of the foot will you pivot on?

Well the answer is surprisingly simple: it all depends where you're stepping. Once you work that out, simple physiology will make the issue cut and dried. Let's say you're stepping forward. In that case, you're going to be landing "heel, toe". Okay, you might not have an exaggerated heel landing – but it is generally always the heel that contacts first, with a rapid transfer to your toes as you step through.

This is the case with everyone except sprinters (who run high on their toes after their initial acceleration) and ballet dancers (who effect a "toe point" as they step for purely aesthetic reasons). Everyone else walks heel toe. If you doubt me, try it.

What does this mean? It means that if you are compelled to turn around just as you are in the process of stepping forwards, then you will be pivoting at the earliest point of contact between your foot and the ground – ie. on your heel. Indeed, if you leave it any later, too much weight will have transferred to your front foot, making it difficult to pivot at all (in order to pivot on a foot, you will preferably want some weight off it unless you're planning a pirouette!).

More importantly, pivoting on the heel is also much quicker in terms of turning you around; to pivot on the ball of the foot, you have to take time transferring your weight across that foot.

Last, you've still got the problem of your weight pulling away from your attacker (as per that forward stance example) and throwing yourself off line. So the answer is, when stepping forward and pivoting, you should be aware that in most instances the heel is the preferable pivot point.

For stepping backward things are reversed. As an experiment, try this: reach backward with your foot from a stationary posture. What do you find? Your toes make first contact – just as your heel naturally makes contact with a forward reach.

What about stepping directly to the side? You probably won't be surprised to find that this is directly in between: you reach, and land, with your flat foot (meaning you will choose heel or ball for any pivot in that instance based on other considerations, like what you're about to do, not what you've just done). This is why kata like naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki all step sideways with the flat of the foot.

Of course anywhere between the side and the front is shades of heel first, and anywhere between the side and back is toes first. This is simple biomechanical human movement.

Now once you understand this principle you begin to see it play out everywhere – even in instances where you were unaware of it previously. For example there is a move in a two person jo drill where you are stepping forward as your partner is whipping the jo around his/her head to strike you, forcing you to convert your forward step into a pivot sideways/backwards with a block. If you look at the adjacent images, you'll note that the front foot is pivoting on the heel, just as I predicted.

Indeed, the internal arts not only understand this principle, but they exploit it. In bagua, many of the steps are used in "kou bu" – a hooked step that pivots at moment you land (alternatively your foot is already crooked when you land – but this a matter of debate and depends on whether you do "mud stepping" which I'll leave for another time). Either way, if you're stepping naturally, there will be some small pivot and this will occur on the heel. Bagua then uses this "hook" in the kou bu to catch and trip the opponent's foot. This is, in turn, used for unbalancing and, more devastatingly, breaking joints like the knee using sideways torsion (with which the knee is not really adapted to cope particularly well).

The same sort of analysis regarding all of the above (though reversed again!) applies to a simple weight transfer (as opposed to full step). If you rock back so that your weight starts to come off your front foot, you'll be on the heel of that foot (unless you're drawing back into cat stance which is a different issue). Rocking forwards off your back foot means you'll be on the ball of that foot. So if you need to pivot in such circumstances, your pivot point is logically predetermined. Taijiquan examines this "pivoting after weight transfer" issue very closely.

So, in a nutshell, the part of the foot on which you choose to pivot depends entirely on your goal and your immediately preceding movement. If your goal is a large pivot on one leg (eg. for a roundhouse kick or some sort of pirouette, as actually occurs in the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan form) then you pivot on the ball of the foot. This is necessary for mobility and stability. In the case of the pirouette, this trumps even the fact that pivoting on the ball of the foot will throw you slightly off line with every rotation (cf. some breakdancing moves where you pivot on the heel to get minimal displacement of the central axis – but then again, no one is trying to knock your block off as you do so!).

If your pivot occurs as you step backwards (or rock forwards), then there is a good chance you'll be using the ball of the foot (as the first/remaining point of contact for the relevant foot).

If, on the other hand, your pivot is immediately preceded by a step forwards (or rock backwards), then you'll be pivoting on the heel.

A video in which I discuss pivoting

It is precisely because most steps occur moving forwards, and most weight transfers occur backwards during a flinch, that the internal arts feature so much heel pivoting. But often enough there is an element of both heel and ball of foot pivoting – particularly where the move is compound. With diagonal single whip, for example, you turn 270 degrees which involves reaching with the toes behind (ball of foot pivot), transitioning into a heel pivot as you turn your body around, transitioning into a ball of foot pivot on your back leg as you finalise the movement (in order to drive the last part of your momentum into the target).

Understanding how and when to pivot on the ball of the foot or heel is critical to the science of martial arts. Some folks try to brush aside with vague statements like: "We pivot on the middle of the foot". The latter is actually a misnomer; if you pick the centre of your foot as your fulcrum, you are in fact pivoting on both the ball of the foot and the heel (unless you have spectacularly flat feet, in which case you're pivoting on your whole foot!).

This tactic is suitable for high stability turns where you want maximum friction. But I only know one traditional form where this is deliberately (and reasonably) done. To make a whole martial art bend to some dogma about "pivoting with the middle of the foot" is to misconceive the issue; as long as people don't walk around totally flat footed, they will need to understand the science of correct pivoting - because they will be pivoting on either the heel or the ball of foot as they go about ordinary stepping.

For martial science the issue is, pardon the pun, pivotal.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic