the attacking zenkutsu knee

the most basic stance of karate, the front stance, is such a fundamental part of training that it is surprising how little explanation and attention it is given in most clubs. the usual points that are covered are the correct positioning of the knee, as well the distribution of weight and the relative dimensions in each direction. a more complete discussion of the front stance, and specifically movement in front stance, can be found in a series of articles by amos sensei, at the shotokan way website. with the utmost respect to amos sensei, with whom i have had the good fortune to train a few times, i should like to add something to the discussion on front stance in light of something that has occurred to me recently.

by far the most common explanation of the unnatural length and depth front stance is that it 'helps to build strength in the legs'. i have heard this in almost every club i have trained at, and i have indeed perpetuated the idea when teaching myself. and common sense tells me this is true; standing in front stance is tiring, and moving in front stance while attempting to retain the correct height and posture is hard work. i have absolutely no doubt that training in front stance does, indeed, build strength in the legs; a strength that translates directly to speed and power in the more natural fighting stances of competition and/or self-defence situations.

but that can't be the whole story. surely not; it wouldn't fit with my impression of the rest of my training. everything you do in karate has an application, absolutely everything. right? the fact is that we have no way of ever knowing whether applications we come up with for things we do in karate were ever thought of or intended by the original practitioners and developers, and thus as a result anything that we do come up with can only be judged on whether it is useful or not. are we discovering hidden deadly secrets of shotokan, or are we simply reverse-engineering body shapes we've copied in order to answer that oft-asked and ever-infuriating challenge from non-karateka: 'yes, but what use are these funny-looking stances?'

while not a personal fan of bunkai or oyo, i am convinced of their importance in karate training. it has been my experience over the years, inside the dojo and out, that people perform much better when they understand why they are doing a certain thing, and that if one explains the goal as the focus rather than the method, there is more scope for improvement and creativity. what follows is what i consider to be a rather good example of this; it arose out of lesson doing some heian kata bunkai, and it is the use of the front knee as a deliberate, conscious attack when stepping in zenkutsu-dachi.

the geometry of front stance

if you consider the basic front stance as practised in shotokan, and even if due care is given to the requirement for the front knee to be bending directly forwards, there is a slight lateral angulation of the thigh inwards towards the hip, ie the centre of the body (figure 1), as well as an upwards slope. this inward angle is the key to a very useful and perhaps surprising aspect of front stance, and one that supplies a new layer to gohon kumite and the heian kata in particular.

in gohon kumite, the attacker is instructed to step to the inside of the foot, rather than the outside. this leads to a conservation of the attacker's stance, rather than stepping too wide and sacrificing the efficacy of the attack, and builds on (or perhaps introduces) the concept of full commitment to the technique. consistently stepping to the inside over five techniques does not give a cumulative widening effect of the defender's stance, since the defender is always free to place their retreating foot where they please, but if the knee is used to attack at each step, the principle of consistently stepping inside the defender's stance can be used to give a total loss of balance in the defender following quick, successive stepping.

the bulldozer effect

if you consider the angluation of the leg shown in figure 1, placement of the attacker's front foot directly to the inside of the defender's front foot leads to contact of the attacking knee (red circle) to just above the defender's knee (blue circle), where the leg is angulated towards the hip (figure 2). this position on the leg is the perfect spot to attack the position of the front leg: the point on the leg that is furthest from the line that connects the hip and the foot. the direction that the attacking knee is moving (red arrow) in is the perfect direction to exert the most leverage on the leg: perpendicular to the plane of the hip, knee, and foot (blue arrow).

i have no idea if this is a coincidence or not, but really it makes no difference. deliberately attacking with the knee, ideally in concert with a hand or arm technique, can only add to the efficacy of the attack. two such attacks in quick succession can easily overbalance an opponent without the use of hand strikes, where for example the arms are occupied in disabling the opponent's arms, the depth and length of the stance conferring an advantage. the first step through disrupts the balance of the opponent's front leg, and an immediate second step through 'bulldozes' an already unbalanced opponent since recovering the front leg following the attack is difficult.

application in kata

attacking with the knee in zenkutsu-dachi applies generally to any technique with that stance. a simple example is the first two moves of heian shodan; the usual interpretation of block into mae-geri, counter with oi-tsuki makes much more sense as a simple bulldozing escape, where the emphasis is on the stances, and the reason why you might be moving into the opponent rather than away (see figure 3). here, the step into the attack can be interpreted as cutting down the range to the attacker, either to trap a weapon (or limb) before it gains momentum, or to step inside the critical distance of a weapon or limb already moving (fig 3a). this move into the attack disrupts the attacker's front leg, and the full step forward in front stance attacks the back leg of the attacker to fully destabilise the opponent (fig 3b).

a slightly more complex case is in heian shodan, again, but in the three age-ukes moving forwards; it is hard to envisage these as successive blocks forward (what would be the corresponding attacks?), and so using them as an attacking sequence that destroys balance makes sense. this is one possibility:

the first block is exactly that; stepping forward with fumi komi age-uke might suggest stepping inside the range of a weilded long weapon (club/staff, fig 4a). this from a more 'natural' stance, there is no attack to the knee. the successive moves, however, are both in strong, low stances, and use the knees to attack and upset the oponent's balance. the second age-uke is a forearm attack to the neck, with the weapon being controlled at the wrist and being drawn to the body. the knee attacks the opponent's balance (fig 4b). the third age-uke, again a long stance, takes the defender right through the opponent's body, attacking the other leg and removing balance altogether. the neck attack, as it withdraws (hikite), forms a headlock, and the weapon hand is now controlled up behind the opponent (fig 4c). both of these arm movements only work if the step through is long and committed, in order to put the body in the right place. the opponent is now under control, and the extension of the turn to be a throw (or something more brutal), as you strip the weapon, is obvious.

for the very devious

an extension can be made to this idea, whereby if the attack goes right through the leg at the attacking point, rather than just nudging it, it is possible to place the attacking foot in a very advantageous position (arrow on figure 5). from here, the opponent's foot is essentially stopped from moving. i haven't tried this; i think it might be quite difficult, but it seems a natural progression to be made if the goal is take away balance.

this is a very minor technical idea

and will by no means revolutionise your karate practice, but i think that there is merit in considering the use of the knee in front stance as a deliberate attack that can augment a hand/arm strike, and it might be foolish to overlook the utility of zenkutsu-dachi's low centre of gravity and 'unnatural' dimensions, for the occasional (and perhaps very rare) situations when it confers an admittedly small, but nonetheless real advantage. there doesn't seem to be a downside that i can see, and being conscious of the attacking knee in gohon kumite does make quite a difference to the attacks. try it and you'll see. and if anything, attempting to use the knee in this way will force you into deeper and more solid stances, and i've been told that that builds up strength in the legs...

-neil jerome, 2011

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