Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Low Block: Re-examined

In 2001 I was working with Christopher Caille of Fighting to prepare an article on uses of the Low Block. At the same time publication was announced for a book examining 50 uses for the low block.

Because of technical considerations the article was never published. Finding this in my archives I wish to present it on my blog and I’ve included photographs that were taken in 2001 for the article. Those photographed are the late John Dinger, Claudette Macomber, Dennis Driscoll, Tom Chan and myself. Our loss of John Dinger is still felt and I wish to dedicate this article to him.

At this date some of the background commentary I used I would no longer make as I' ve learnt much more since then and understand less. As a record of my past studies I’m letting this stand on it’s own at this time. I also must thank Christopher Caille for the editing suggestions he made for this article back then.

Do you know your basics? Is that low block you have been practicing for years just that, a block, or can it be something much more?

One of the exciting developments in karate (and to a lesser extent taikwondo and kung fu) today is the re-examination of basic techniques. Students of karate, for example, have studied in or traveled back to Okinawa or Japan for research, analyzed their kata, examined old texts and conducted their own research. What they have found is intriguing, although interpretations often differ. What is generally agreed upon, however, is that obvious applications are just a first step. Unseen to most is a whole universe of other applications that are both versatile and effective.

What twenty years ago was a basic block, many now practice as a strike or other application. What changed, the technique? No, not exactly. Instead another sort of explanation arose, and the thinking of many followed a different template.

Is this thinking new, or the original intent of karate? And is there a link to older traditions, or to the defensive or offensive needs of those who first developed karate? Sadly there are few answers.

Even the exact derivation and history of karate is unclear. Practiced in secret, karate's history was unwritten, and only comparably recently (1800's plus) is there much of any record. Of course, most students know that karate was originally an Okinawan creation -- the term itself (karate) referring to a mix of similar fighting traditions that are part Chinese kung fu mixed in different proportions with native techniques (te). The resulting different styles were exported to Japan in the early 1900's and were further transformed with the additions of philosophy, uniforms, grades, class structure and competition.

Thus karate has undergone many changes from its first inception in old Okinawa -- a path from Okinawa to Japan (and back) and from generations of instructor to students, from the students to their students, and so forth. How much was hidden or lost can't be fully known. But today, many students are looking for new answers and interpretations to the basic template underlying movement. Included are vast changes on execution, and on the tenor of one's karate.

Anatomy of a Low Block

Let us take one of the more basic techniques, the Low Block, a very frequent place where beginners commence their training, and see what we can find.
Of course with so many different systems and instructors of karate, the low block can be found in differing guises.

Low block "number one," begins with the blocking hand alongside the opposite side of the defender's head (blocking palm towards the head), the blocking arm descends, and rotates at the end of the blocking technique to strike with the side of the fist, wrist and forearm (one bone block). In my opinion, the most important aspect of this form of block is that the hand and arm rotate immediately before striking the target, so the rotation diminishes the force against the ulna rotating into the strike (while the radius rotates away). This rotation would diminish the pain of the ulna being struck without such rotation.

the Turning Low Block

Low block two, begins with the blocking hand alongside of the opposite side of the defenders head (blocking palm towards the head), the blocking arm descends and does not rotate at the end of the blocking technique to strike with the back of the two lead knuckles, back of the fist, back of the wrist and back of the forearm (two bone block). [It is felt that low block two allows the arm to take greater punishment with both the radius and the ulna working directly together in the block, but I am of the opinion both forms of blocking are more than adequate.]

the Isshinryu Low Block

The difference between using the technique (the low block) as a block instead of a strike is often one of how much time allowed for a response.

My research leads me to believe on Okinawa blocks were practiced just as that, blocks.

If karate is thought of as a fully defensive art, one would shape the training, to respond in the act of surprise. Antidotal evidence leads me to believe that is the aspect in which Okinawan karate was taught. Repetition after repetition of the low block as a block, to prepare an automatic response when if one was attacked, the blocking arm would sweep the attack away.

Now there is much more going on during the blocking process than just swinging the arm down, another aspect is the correct body shifting involved to remove one from the plane of the attack and to create an opening, a path to the attackers vital areas. In such cases the block itself then prepares the way for the counter-attack, to stop the attacker. Other aspects of the blocking motion can view it as a block and a strike in one movement or even a strike itself.

Claudette Macomber and John Dinger

I’m sure there are a wide variety of contemporary practices in a blocks utilization. But there is some tantalizing information about the potential of older practice in karate. In 1933 Mutsu Misuho published ‘Toudi Kempo’ (also known as Karate Kempo). The book was a very comprehensive presentation of the Okinawan art for its time. Most germane to this discussion was 1/3 of the text was devoted to Kumite, or pictures and text showing how karate could be applied against a wide series of attacks.

As there is no English translation of this text, I’m presenting my analysis solely from the diagrams. I find it interesting that unlike today’s presentations, Misuho began with description of simply dodging techniques and then an extensive use of dodging (punch slipping) and counter attacks. When the middle block is presented, it is always accompanied with the hand turning and grabbing the opponent during the counter-attack. Finally deep into this section the first recognizable low strike is presented, and it is a strike into a kicking leg.

A similar drawing to the Mutsu drawings

Eventually there are other examples, first against a strike but apparently involving considerable body shifting to set that up, and the right low block against a punch is followed with the right hand striking into the head area, or even the solar plexus (a case where the momentum of the block is reversed into a strike..

Another example against a strike begins with both parties delivering side strikes to each others arms, then following with low strikes into the same arm, and a counter reverse punch into the attackers body.

John Dinger and Tom Chan

When the blocks are delivered into the leg, with attendant body shifting the arm then either continues to press and spin the attacker away, or the arm slides under the leg to trap it for a counter-attack.

I do not believe this text is more than one series of examples how karate technique can be utilized, but it does seem to indicate the simple blocks practiced were not in that manner chosen for demonstration.

If I follow the line of reasoning much of contemporary practice grew out of the development of ‘School’ karate, the simpler blocking drills could be a result of those practices, de-emphasizing the combat potential of these techniques.

Now I don’t construe this logic that we should discontinue basic blocking drills, effectively throwing the dishes out with the dishwater. Its obvious MASTERY of basic blocking technique is a precursor for all application. Of course mastery of the appropriate entry into an attack is just as vital.

Application Potential of the Low Block

I truly don’t know what came first, somebody surviving an attack and systematizing the response to train others, or somebody logically deriving techniques of self defense, developing the training system and then keeping what worked in reality.

When I began training, as incredible as it may seem to some today, nobody discussed application of karate technique, or what is referred to today as Bunkai. Bunkai (from the Japanese or perhaps more correctly in Okinawan Hogan ‘ti chi ki’) is the application potential of a karate movement.

These may be direct (as is most often practiced), or indirect involving a great deal of body shifting to make the correct entry, or may even be obscure, by breaking a technique down into smaller and smaller components and learning how to apply each of them. Application potential might emphasize the striking potential of the technique, or the locking potential of the technique or the downing potential of the technique. It might involve striking very specific targets, or instead delivery of shocking power to impart into the attacker.

Except when there is direct line of translation from instructor to student, or some texts as the aforementioned “Toudi Kempo”, the rest involves the analysis and work of the artist martial.

What I will now discuss involves a range of study that I’m sure no one tradition (unless you consider my own perhaps) necessarily encompasses. But they are indicative of what the potential of the low block could be.

  1. The Low Block as a Deflection Against a Punch or Leg

Now some come from traditions where the low block is only practiced against a kick, but it is a very effective counter to strikes into the body too. Where Mutsu Mishuo seems to show this with a great deal of body shifting, it can also be practiced directly into the opponent. When I trained with Tris Sutrisno, his family Shotkan tradition incorporated a complex two person drilling series, and although I only learned a small fraction of this, among the beginning techniques, the use of the low block against the punch was utilized.

I do not believe the basic practice of the low block will develop this, and two person sets are required to develop the timing.

Without a great deal of description the low block affected against the leg to deflect a kick is a standard reply. As this can be practiced head on, or shifting off the line of attack, to accomplish the same result with less power, both need to be considered.

In all cases shifting off the line of attack before delivering the low block seems to be a desired study.

  1. The Low Block as Strike

Defensively instead of blocking the leg, but using the same technique to strike into the leg (with a hammerfist) and destroy the inner stability of that leg to continue attack has merit. Likewise, still being defensive with correct shifting as the attacker begins to move, you can deliver the low strike into their groin, or other exposed target. Finally, it is possible to use the same technique to block and strike (a 2 in 1 combination) such as a low block to the opponents arm completing a low strike into their body.

Offensively (a term which seems to be an anthemia to traditional karateka), especially when using a technique to strike from surprise, there are many targets of opportunity for the low block/strike.

Frankly, while contrary to the Okinawan concept of ‘there is NO first strike in karate’ it does seem if there is any merit to the striking times (Sichen) shown in the Okinawan Bubishi, a case can be made that these targets and time make most sense offensively. In that vein, the low block as strike has a great deal of potential.

  1. The Low Block for its Double Striking Potential

This becomes an example outside of the normal ‘old’ standard of what a technique can be used for. Instead of blocks alone, the technique is broken into pieces and the striking potential of those pieces is pursued.

Your opponent drives towards you with a lunging right punch. You respond with an interior line of defense using your right foot to step forward, the act of your right hand chambering alongside your head now becomes a strike into the opponents arm, creating the opening for the same right hand striking into their side. For even greater effect you might use the downward low block as a slicing technique across the side of your opponents ribs.

You might even shift off the line of attack, step across with your right leg so it locks behind the opponents right leg as you strike into their arm and then continue to strike into their kidneys. This can be a clear opening into a takedown.

The same concept works for the exterior line of defense. The opponent grabs to you with their left hand as they step forward. You respond by stepping outside of their attack with your right foot, the act of your right hand chambers alongside your head is used to strike into the triceps of the attackers arm. You then continue with your low strike which becomes a slicing attack of your hammerfist across the attackers ribs.

Dennis Driscoll and John Dinger

  1. Blocks as Strikes with Follow-up techniques.

Using kata examples, consider how the block as strike opens a path to the opponent.

The opponent attacks with a kick to the groin. You respond with a low strike, to shock the leg and take advantage of that shock to counter punch against the initial strike. The opponent attacks with a punch, you use a low strike to move it off of your centerline, and with appropriate body shifting use this opening to strike into their kidneys.

Other examples are:

Chambering Hand strikes into opponents arm, grabs their wrist and then pulls them down

Chambering Hand strikes into opponents arm breaking their arm

Chambering Hand strikes into opponents arm and then strikes down into their body.

Chambering Hand strikes into opponents arm while other hand strikes down into opponents body. This is followed the completion of the low strike hammerfist as a slice across the opponents ribs.

  1. Kakushite Hidden Hand

On Okinawa, there was a long tradition of ‘secret additional techniques’ being added by an instructor into the kata. This was practiced in Okinawan (and elsewhere) to hide the application from un-friendly eyes watching the practice. These techniques were only taught and practiced in secret, never to be done openly.

Never is the operant word. In all senses there are no secrets, except what you don’t expect. But if the practioner can add practiced ‘secrets’ to their technique, others might not expect them.

There’s a long tradition of people being surprised. Trevor Leggett in his book “Zen and the Ways” gives a great example how seniors in a certain Jujutsu school were destroyed because they made bad assumptions about what was happening during an attack. Their training had devolved to looking at which way the thumb grabbed the handle of the knife in its scabard, and beginning their defense before the knife was drawn. Their opponents recognizing this reversed the scabbard and handle, the defenders worked off of the thumb deflection and instead were finished with the knife in the wrong hand.

There are many more tales, and this can work for or against a martial artist, of course depending on the actual circumstance.

Interestingly, this tradition does not appear in many Chinese Systems, especially the Northern ones. In those cases, they have so many forms, two person sets, etc. the student is only taught one application per technique. But they have so many techniques, eventually they arrive at a point to have a vast vocabulary of technique to utilize.

Kakushite would appear to be a method to take a system of fewer obvious techniques and vastly increase the number of responses.

Although this seems to be a secret transmission from Senior to Junior when the circumstances warrant, and only if they warrant, I believe I can show some possible examples how this could be done.

Hidden Hand 1

From one tradition I’ve studied they have an interesting ‘hidden’ technique. That of doubling up the blocks.

Concentrating only on the low block, Take a simple form such as Takiokyu Shodan, and instead of turning left into left front stance and execute a left low block, they turn left into left front stance and execute a left low block immediately followed by a right low block.

The initial low block deflects the strike, where the second low block is a strike into the arm itself.

If you take a beginning kata, such as Takyokiu Shodan, you can simply double up the blocks in the kata as a training device.

Hidden Hand 2

Another concept involves adding different additional technique to a kata. Rather than a secret, if we go to Nakasone Genwa’s text “Karatedo Taiken published in 1938, we will find this in the Kihon Kata developed by the Okinawan Prefecture of Karate Do Preservation Society Instrutors Division. This group developed 10 basic forms, which build upon themselves. I personally consider this might be the source for training described by C.W. Nicole in his text “Moving Zen”, where he described his first class after attaining ShoDan. He was made to perform Takiokyu Shodan multiple times with additional kicks thrown between each technique.

One of the forms begins turn left, left low block, followed by left middle block. This parallels other instruction I’ve had doing the same. Consider Takyokyu Shodan as follows.

1. Turn to the left and deliver a left low strike

2. Then execute a left middle strike

3. Follow with a right lead punch as you step forward with the right foot.

1) low block followed by 2) middle block/strike into the body

John Dinger and Tom Chan

Among the possibilities you could strike into the opponents leg, and then strike into their body with the left hand.

  1. Chinese Jing Do

Similar to the last technique, is the equivalent technique taught by Ernest Rothrock, or Jing Do “Chinese Short Range Striking”.

While looking like a low block followed by a middle block, in Jing Do the low strike circles out and down striking into a leg at its bottom, but then continuing the circle to return up and strike into the abdomen with the returning strike.

When done like this, it becomes a continuously flowing circle and the circle is used for the two strikes.

John Dinger and Victor Smith


I have tried to show the low block has a greater range of possibilities than is often discussed. This is not an exclusive listing, but rather another opening movement in a vaster group of possibilities.

For a closing thought on the concept of blocking I’d like to quote Hank Prohm from Lebanon Oregon. Hank is a Shito Ryu stylist under John Sells Sihan. He offers us the following Principles of Blocking/Parrying.

1. Blocks should be extensions and refinements of natural, reflexive movements

2. NEVER meet force with force

3. Any defensive action should finish with you in a superior position

4. Good blocking works even when your technique doesn't

5. Try to move the target out of the line of fire

6. Heaven is being 90 degrees on the outside of your attacker

7. Hell is being on the killing ground, face to face, toe to toe both fighters open to attack, at the mercy of luck and reflexes.

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