Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chon-Ji Addendum: More on Basic Blocks

Edit Dec. 4th 2016: This post keeps expanding as I find more material on basic blocks. I'm going to keep doing so because having information about basic blocks in a single place is a good idea.

I felt that applications for basic blocks warranted more of a discussion. In my last post I referred to the application for inner-forearm block as a “biphasic block”. A better term might be “parry-pass” or “clearing the limb”. Arguable other blocks can be used for this as well. If your blocking hand is above your parrying hand, for instance, the low block can used to clear the opponent’s arm instead of the inner-forearm block. This is similar to the Shotokan karate chamber for low block.
Shotokan karate low block. Imagine parrying
a punch or front kick with the left arm then
sweeping away the limb with the right arm.

The taekwondo chamber can be used for this, albeit differently. Remember that the first motion of the blocking arm is just a front block; after using this to push the attack inward, the same arm can be used to circle the limb away. According to Noah Legel of Karate Obsession, this front block followed by low block combination appears in some karate kata.

Using the taekwondo low block trajectory to clear a limb

The karate rising block can also be used to clear a limb, pushing an arm upward after parrying with the blocking hand underneath, similar to the inner-forearm block. Although the taekwondo version of the chamber doesn't reflect this (1), the inner-forearm block can easily turn into a rising block, just by twisting the forearm and raising it upwards.

I didn't discuss striking applications for the inner-forearm block, outside of the Ryan Parker video I linked to. The usual suggestion is either a forearm strike to the neck or a rolling backfist to the face. The latter I like, but it requires altering the block to make it more linear. I'm less excited about applying it as a forearm strike to the neck, because why not do a side backfist or some other strike instead? The movement works well as a parry-pass block and in Chon-Ji it's used in back stance, which suggests a defensive application. There are some other offensive applications the block has, however.

Other blocks

The front block (Ap Makgi) is rarely used in taekwondo forms, presumably because the application as a block is already covered by the chambers of other techniques. It does have a couple alternative applications, however. The setup hand for it can be used to reach and grab an opponent’s arm, and then the block proper can be used as an armbar. (Aside: it's often said the low block can serve as an arm bar, but I find this is both awkward and ineffective. An in-to-out motion doesn't properly maintain pressure on the back of the opponent's elbow). Another application is simply a hammerfist strike to the opponent's head.
Front block as an arm bar

The karate and taekwondo versions of the knifehand guarding block chamber both have the same function: guarding against a round punch/haymaker. The karate version uses the straight arm to push down the opponent's arm, while the hand comes up to protect the face from the curved trajectory of the opponent's fist.

Application of the chamber for shuto uke (karate's guarding block).
You can find more about this application for shuto uke here.

The taekwondo version, at least the one in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do, defends by stepping inward and using both arms as a supported block to prevent the opponent's haymaker from circling around you. You then follow up with the guarding block itself: wrapping your back arm around your opponent's arm while using your front forearm to push the opponent away from you. Although I couldn't find a good picture of the simultaneous motion, we tested it during practice and it works very well as a neutralization tool; pushing your opponent with your forearm prevents them from reaching you with their other arm, and you may apply a number of follow-ups.

Application for knifehand guarding block. The chamber uses both arms to
defend against a round punch. The block proper may then used as a simultaneous
forearm strike to the neck and arm trap. Pictures taken from this video.

Finally, the chamber for some of the twin blocks -- such as the wedging block in Do-San -- has an old Okinawan application against a double grab. Use it to strike the radial nerves of both the opponent's arms simultaneously.

 Wedging block chamber

Parry-pass-strike or parry-pass-block?

I mentioned that the wrist-to-wrist chamber is not original to taekwondo, but is used by some karate schools. I recently found some evidence of that here.

The reasons we may use the wrist-to-wrist chamber so much is that there is a wide number of follow-ups one can do from this position. I mentioned three in my previous post: low strike to the groin, knifehand strike to the neck, and backfist to the face. But you can also create an arm bar, kick or knee strike your opponent, or use front stance middle punch to the ribs.

Karate master Roy Suenaka demonstrating application for the
wrist-to-wrist chamber and the front stance punch
The parry-pass can be used to deflect a straight punch inward or outward. Angelo Baldissone, a Panantukan (filipino boxing) practitioner, dedicated a whole video to the motion for the knifehand outer-forearm block. 

The parry-pass can be used to deflect inward or outward
However, when drilling with my students, one of them pointed out that the outward version seemed less safe, since the opponent's other hand was still free to hit. Which got me thinking: maybe the rising block and outer-forearm block are parry-pass-block motions, not parry-pass-strike.

Not only is this safer, it puts you in a good position to follow up with a strike anyway. If you trap the opponent's arm, and then use rising block to push up their other arm (at the elbow or higher; don't block forearm-to-forearm), then not only have you nullified both arms but you have your opponent caught in an awkward position, where one arm is being pulled up and the other is being raised upwards. It's very easy to do a follow-up strike or takedown from this position.

Karateka using rising block setup to trap before using the block proper to deflect opponent's second arm.
He follows up with an elbow strike.
In the Encyclopedia, all three outer-forearm blocks (low, middle, rising) set up at chest level. I've noticed that several ITF taekwondo schools modify this, setting up the low block at the ear and the high block down at the hip, for example. However, canonically the three blocks have the same chamber. Besides the parry-pass application, one other reason for the chest level chamber may be economy of movement. It's similar to how Krav Maga does its "360 defense".

Finally, one last application for the rising block I want to mention is using your elbow/upper arm to block a hook punch. Boxers fight from short guard (because the large gloves provide surface area for protection), and so block hook punches by putting their hand on their neck and raising their elbow up vertically. But in traditional martial arts and bareknuckle boxing we fight from long guard, where it is more economical to raise up the elbow without bringing the hand behind our head. This may be why in some karate schools the rising block is performed so close to the head.

The rising block (left), using the elbow to defend,
similar to the winged hook (right) from old English boxing
Basic exercises as a vocabulary

While I do believe that basic blocks can work as blocks, there are nonetheless other uses for the motions. Inner-forearm block to break a grab, low block as a pull/throw, etc. I've read that low block followed by front stance middle punch (first two moves of Chon-Ji and Heian Shodan) has 30+ applications. The strikes we practice in basics, such as front stance punch and knifehand strike, also have applications beyond their primary use.

While teaching that a block is a block and a strike is a strike is good introductory tool, at a higher level I think it's more accurate to say we are practicing motions or templates rather than blocks and strikes. We are building a kinesthetic vocabulary that can be applied in a number of ways. And if basic exercises are the vocabulary, then the forms are the sentences: examples of how you would string the exercises together into something practical.

Application for Dan-Gun 4-5: high punch followed by turning 90-degrees into low block
Basic exercises then, while admittedly repetitive and sometimes overemphasized, do serve as a way to "sharpen the toolset", developing fast-twitch muscles and full range of motion for various applications.


1) For what it's worth, at least one karate school, Hayashi Ha Shito Ryu, also sets up the rising block with the blocking arm on the inside. Supposedly Teruo Hayashi (the school's founder) felt that this version was better for "capturing the wrist", meaning that he had a trapping application in mind. My only source is this discussion, which also notes that the inside setup version is better for striking. Different karate schools may practice different chambers for the same techniques to emphasis different applications, and we can actually learn about the applications by studying the different chambers.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Chon-Ji: Using chambers to parry attacks

One reason there's such a disconnect between forms and sparring, I think, is the problem of chambers. Karate and taekwondo blocks are performed in two motions. First we chamber, then we block, pulling the back hand into our hip. In taekwondo we also turn our torso to add hip strength. This results in blocks that are very powerful, but far too slow to be usable.

 When I began studying why we chamber, here were the first explanations I came across:

Why do we chamber? To practice the full range of motion
Why do we turn our body? To increase the power of the block by adding in hip motion
Why do we pull the back hand to our hip? To add reaction force, which also increases the power of the block.

I found these explanations unsatisfying, and it appears I'm not alone. Extra power doesn't do you a lot of good if you're too slow to block the attack. The problem is that what we call blocks were not originally blocks. They can be used as blocks, but the motions can also be used as deflections, strikes, pulls, locks, or escapes. So the reason for the two motions is that the chamber is the "block"-- or more accurately the reception -- and the block proper is the response.

This led to debates among karateka about whether "blocks" could even be used as blocks at all. One camp suggested that all blocks/uke were actually strikes in disguise. E.g. a "low block" is actually a hammerfist strike to an opponent's groin. However, this view drew some backlash, because some of the movements don't work well as strikes.

Another view is that the blocks are biphasic. The chamber motion is a block (more accurately a parry), but so is the block proper. One movement this works well for is the inner-forearm block (chudan uchi uke in karate). Although performing two blocks against the same attack might seem daft, there is a logic to it: if you step forward into the block (as we almost always do in the forms), then the second block rides further up the opponent's arm, at the elbow or higher. This pushes the opponent's arm into their body, putting you off the line of fire and preventing them from turning to punch with their other hand. 
The biphasic inner-forearm block,  using 
the chamber motion as a parry.

In fact, this use of inner-forearm block sets up a three-beat defense, a very common defense in traditional martial arts. The purpose of a three-beat defense is to "tie up" an opponent in some way before counterattacking. This is in contrast to two-beat defenses (parry then strike) or one-beat defenses (counterpunch). Three-beat defenses are a self-defense strategy: tying up your opponent makes counter-strikes safer and may also give you a window of opportunity to escape.

The Low Block

This brings me to the taekwondo version of the low block (najunde makgi). We chamber wrist-to-wrist around chest level: blocking palm faces inward and reaction palm faces outward. We also use this wrist-to-wrist setup for outer-forearm block, high block, knifehand strike, and backfist.

The low block chamber, as shown in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do
According to Iain Abernethy, this chamber appears in some karate schools as well, so presumably there is an application for it. We want an application that uses the whole motion: (1) the movement of the front hand into chamber, (2) the movement of the back hand into chamber, (3) the turning of the body, (4) the block proper, and (5) the pull of the back hand into the hip.

Impossible? Take a look at the gifs below.

The low block chamber in action, used by a Silat (top),
Tai-Chi (middle), and Karate (bottom) instructor.

Motion 1 is a front block (called a "side parry" in boxing), pushing the attack inward

Motion 2 is a secondary outer-forearm block which can be used to grab your opponent
Motion 3 is part of the parry, pushing the attack away
Motion 4 is not a block, but a low strike to the opponent's groin or floating rib
Motion 5 is pulling your opponent in towards your hip, increasing the power of your strike.

So the wrist-to-wrist chamber is itself a biphasic or "parry-pass" motion. That last gif is performed as an application for the karate version of low block (gedan barai), believe it or not, meaning that the two versions of the low block may not be so different after all. The only change I would make is that motions 1 and 2 should be performed more rapidly. This defense is sometimes called "brush, grab, strike", because of how you follow the parry with a grab before striking.

This also explains why the side parry -- an essential self-defense tool -- seems missing in our forms. In fact it's not missing, it's just been incorporated into the way we chamber. It's also clear why this chamber is used for some of our strikes: it's easy to conceive using a knifehand strike to the neck or a backfist to the face instead of a hammerfist to the ribs from this position.

When you put the two parry-pass applications together, you get a coherent strategy for Chon-Ji: parrying an attack inward so that you are outside your opponent's line of fire. The low block is appropriate to use if you are parrying inward while stepping out, and the inner-forearm block is appropriate to use if you are parrying inward while stepping in. 

Other Blocks

Although this post is about Chon-Ji, we can naturally ask if chambers for other blocks have applications. In Karate bunkai, the high block (also called "rising block") is sometimes used as a forearm strike to an opponent's jaw. The karate chamber for high block can be used to push down an opponent who has grabbed us, before then using the high block as a strike. ITF practitioners will be reminded of the low block - high block combination in Dan-Gun.

Karate rising block as a strike.
Taken from this article. 
But the chamber for high block in taekwondo is similar to (and in my club, exactly the same as) our low block chamber. Does that mean the chamber is useless now? No, it just means the application has changed. Remember that the back arm of the wrist-to-wrist chamber is an outer-forearm block, which by itself can be used to deflect a punch outward. This puts you in an inside fighting position, and the high block can be used as a strike to the jaw just like in karate bunkai, this time in response to a punch rather than a grab. A similar application can be used for outer-forearm block.

Using outer-forearm block as a strike after blocking with the chamber.
Against a lower punch, the high block could be used to counter-attack instead.
Chambers can also represent opening up from a short guard. When an attacker begins throwing punches, the human instinct is to bring up your hands to protect your face. Motions like the twin outer-forearm block and wedging block can represent "opening up" after blocking a punch with the chamber.

There are other techniques, however, where I don't think the setup has much relevance. The spearfinger thrusts, for example, do not have a well-defined chamber. In fact, when you get past the basic blocks, the chambers for the vast majority of hand techniques don't really matter. It's also worth noting that in practice, you will not use the full motion all the time. Low block without the chamber is just a low block; useful in its own right. The biphasic inner-forearm block works perfectly well without needing to pull anything into your hip. Also, in later forms and more advanced applications, the exact way you chamber becomes less and less relevant.


Returning to the three questions from the beginning, we have explored new answers to them:

Why do we chamber? The chamber motion parries the attack
Why do we turn our body? To push away the attack
Why do we pull the back hand to our hip? If we grab the opponent's arm during the chamber, we can pull them in to increase the force of the strike.

These aren't the only answers we could give, but they are certainly more practical than the "more power" explanations usually given.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Kick catching in Joong-Gun, Part 1

So I have a schema for Joong-Gun, and I think it works pretty well: Joong-Gun is a form about kick catching. There are eight "scenarios" Joong-Gun is built around: four when you have caught your opponent's leg, and four counters for when your leg has been caught. The form is organized in a logical way: first it gives you two options you can use after catching a front kick, then the counters for those respective takedowns, then a takedown you can perform after catching a roundhouse kick, a counter for that, ditto for a side kick. These applications follow the form very closely, explaining the odd stances (cat stance, low stance, etc.) and even the ready position.

I believe that the five forms preceding Joong-Gun -- Chon-Ji through Yul-Gok -- form a basic toolset for striking defense. Joong-Gun, however, is the first form not based on any of the Heian/Pinan kata, and thus may be the first truly original taekwondo form in the ITF set. Constructing a form based around kick catching -- and placing it relatively early in the ITF set -- makes sense given taekwondo's emphasis on kicking.

In this post I've going to detail three of the eight scenarios in Joong-Gun, covering both the beginning and end of the form.

Application 1: Front kick catch and takedown

It's important to the take the opponent's likely reaction into account when discovering applications. This not only makes the form more usable, but it also reveals interesting things about the form, as many movements are designed to be "contingencies" in case your opponent counters you.

If you catch a front kick, your opponent will almost always retract to escape the grab. One thing you might do is go with their momentum and push their knee up and into their chest, forcing them off-balance and allowing you to perform a takedown.

  1. Assume you have caught your opponent’s front kick with an overhook (ready position)
  2. As the opponent retracts, use the side block (inner-forearm block) to lift their knee up and inwards into their chest. Your hand is open because you are lifting the opponent's leg with it. This pushes the opponent off-balance.
  3. Kick the opponent's groin or inner-thigh with the front leg front kick.
  4. Use your back leg to trip/sweep the opponent's standing leg (cat stance) while lifting their heel (upward palm block), forcing them to fall over.
Application for Joong-Gun 1-3

Cat stance as a leg sweep
Although cat stance is usually seen as merely a close range stance, it has application as both a sweep (when moving forward) and as a leg hook (when moving backwards). Though in practice, it may function more like a trip (see left gif).

What makes this a good application is that it explains all parts of the form: the open hand for the side block, the fact that you keep your hand positions the same while you do the front kick, and the use of cat stance. The heel lift is a much more satisfying application to the upward palm block than the ones usually offered:
  • Punch defense: doesn’t work; raising the punch doesn’t deflect it
  • Arm break: doesn't work; the motion just isn't strong enough.
  • Strike: I can't think of a valid striking target for this movement
Furthermore, none of those three applications explain either the cat stance or the circular trajectory for the upward palm block. As shown in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-do, the hand travels out before going down and then up. You can use this motion to scoop under your opponent’s heel. (fnt. 1) There's also evidence of the move's use as a heel lift in Choi's 1965 book Taekwon-Do: The Art of Self-Defense.

Use of upward block as a heel lift (left) and
cat stance as a trip (right) in Choi's books
An alternate use of the opening move is to use it as a push rather than a lift. As you turn 90-degrees use your forearm to push the opponent's leg outward, possibly dropping them. In this case the hand is open to increase the surface are of your forearm. Dan Djurdjevic demonstrates this application in the linked video.

Application 2: Side kick catch and takedown

The side kick catch-takedown also requires a retraction to work. It uses moves 29-31 of the form, although move 29 (the palm pressing block) is being co-opted as it was also the end of the previous set.

1. Dodge the kick toe-side, allowing the kick to penetrate
2. Catch the kick, with one hand coming up on the ankle and the other down on the knee (palm pressing block).
3. As the opponent retracts their leg, bending their knee, pull the back of their knee in towards your hip and their ankle upward as you step in and turn 90-degrees towards them. This places you in the closed stance angle punch position, with your upper hand (the “punch”) grabbing their ankle. This forces the opponent’s body to turn over.
4. Use your lower hand to wheel the top of their knee upwards and your upper hand to pull their ankle downwards as you step towards them, as if you are trying to fold their leg into their body. This forces them to the ground, and you end in the U-shaped block position.
Application for moves 29-31
The low stance for the palm pressing block is not relevant for here (although it is for the previous set). Step 3 might be enough to take the opponent to the ground, but the U-shaped block may be used to finish the job. The arc hands are not used to catch a stick -- as is commonly taught -- but rather are used to grasp your opponent’s leg.

The kick catches in Joong-Gun all seem to assume the kick has been caught from the inside. If the kick is caught from the outside (e.g. catching a side kick ankle-side), variations of these takedowns may be usable, but there are other options which might work better (e.g. back leg sweep).
Another example of the leg twist application,
from One Minute Bunkai

Application 3: Side kick catch counter

At the beginning at this post I stated that each takedown had a counter in this form. But there is only one move left in Joong-Gun: another U-shaped block, which might as well be practicing the motion on the other side. This bugged me for a long time: each of the other three kick catches had counters which worked well, so why was this last takedown missing a counter? Is the form incomplete?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think the counter utilizes two moves: the second U-shaped block and the return to ready position. I know that the “official” view is that the ready positions are just symbolic and don’t have any applications, but I often find that this isn’t the case. So let’s analyze how you might counter this takedown.

As I stated above, if your side kick is caught, is it in your best interest to retract your leg so that you can grab or strike your opponent. One good option is to twist your leg in such a way that you end up in a front kick catch position -- which is the opposite direction that the opponent will want to twist your leg. This is still bad, but not quite as bad as being turned over, in which case the only real way to escape is to cartwheel away.

However, the form also gives you another solution, which is to place one hand on your opponent’s elbow and another on the side of their head. You can see a Muay Thai fighter use this defense to set up a sacrificial takedown against a roundhouse kick catch. From the perspective of Joong-Gun, however, it prevents the opponent from turning us over.
The U-shaped block as part of a
kick catch counter

The sacrificial takedown, while it might work on the mat, is not ideal since we want a way to escape the catch while staying standing if possible.
The other three counters in the form share two qualities

  1. They counter your opponent’s motions.
  2. They all end with getting on top of your opponent’s head in some way.

The second U-shaped works fine for countering the leg turn. What’s left then is that you can wrap your top arm around the opponent’s head as you return to ready position, putting them in a front headlock so that you can strangle them until they let go of you. I’ll spare you the poorly-drawn stick figures and include a picture of the front headlock instead. If you want to follow the form by the letter, you will be using a cup-and-saucer (fist in palm) grip, but you could in theory use other grips.
Application for Move 32 and return to ready position

Hopefully this has got you thinking about the movements in forms a little differently. In future posts I'll cover the remainder of Joong-Gun.

Read part 2 here

  1. Russ Martin also has a good application where he uses the upwards palm block as an overhook (whizzer), trying to lift his opponent. I would argue that this application doesn’t fit the context of the form, however.