Monday, December 8, 2008

The Most Overrated Martial Arts Technique

By Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved

When it comes to martial art techniques one stands out as the quintessential martial arts technique, and that is the roundhouse kick. Now, some may say that the quintessential technique is a spin kick or some fancy jump kick (when I was a kid I thought it was flipping someone over your back) but go to any dojo or gym and watch people work out, see any movie, or watch any quasi martial arts competition and you'll see that for every fancy spin or jump kick you'll probably see 5 or 10 roundhouse kicks.

In fact, the roundhouse kick has become nearly mythical in some senses, it seems to be to "go to" martial arts/self-defense for people, women especially. I know several women who learned to throw a roundhouse kick and now they think that they're totally prepared as far as self-defense is concerned. I've seen women working out on the heavy bag in the gym and as soon as they see people watching them or they see someone that they want to impress or intimidate they go right into slapping the bag with a few roundhouse kicks. In competitions from point fighting to the UFC, roundhouse kicks are by far the most commonly used kicking techniques.

Roundhouse kicks are certainly one of the most commonly used kicks, but they are, in my opinion, one of the most overrated. I want to be clear, roundhouse kicks do have their uses and used right can be effective but in the manner in which they are commonly used today makes them pointless and very dangerous to the person doing them. Here I will describe my problems with the roundhouse kicks and some finer points of utilizing martial arts techniques in general.

Problem #1: Lack of penetration

The way that people throw roundhouse kicks today is utterly laughable and truthfully I find it hard to determine what they're trying to accomplish with them. The thing is, in order to understand something you have to put everything into proper context, after all, yes, the sky is blue but only in one context; taking context into consideration they sky can be any color you want it to be.

Why would you throw a punch or kick at someone to begin with? The simple answer is that you're trying to break or destroy something. The martial arts have a very simple context: someone is trying to seriously injure or kill you and you're attempting to protect yourself by seriously injuring or killing them first. For most people the martial arts are a sport but turing the martial arts into a sport is like using a loaded gun to level out a table. When I punch somebody my goal is injure him; to break, rupture, or in some way make non-functional some part of body that will cause him to be unable to pose a threat to me. When I punch someone I'm not punching their skin, or their muscle, or their bone, I'm punching something inside their body, for example, their liver. I'm attempting to put as much force as I can into their liver because I know that a traumatized liver will start to shut down the body and that's what I want; I couldn't care less whether my punch "hurt" or not because causing my attacker pain is not something that will stop him, but a traumatized or ruptured liver will (at least for a period of time that will enable me to flee or cause another injury).

The point I'm driving at is that when we strike an opponent we're not striking at their surface, rather we're attempting to get inside them and cause injury to their internal organs, arteries, air passages, nerves, bones, or the connective tissue in their joints. All the good stuff is deep inside them so if we are not penetrating with our blows we're not really doing much of anything at all. When most people throw a punch or kick they stop their blow at their opponent's surface. If the average martial artist was told to punch an attacker in the liver they would throw a punch and basically just slap them...that is it would hit their skin, push into their muscle, and then stop. Yes, the punch would probably hurt quite a bit but so what. If I punch someone in the liver I want, as a minimum, the knuckles of my fist to touch the back of the liver. Preferably the knuckles of my fist would pass through the liver and come out their back. If I want to cause an injury that will stop someone who is threatening my life I want that much penetration because that will insure that that I've gotten the force where I want it.

Let's talk about force for a second, if I swing my fist towards a target my fist, by virtue of it having mass and accelerating, will generate force and when it collides with another object it will transfer a portion of that force into it. People seem to think that all of the force of a strike goes into a target and that just isn't the case. There's a lot of "micky mouse" science around about the forces that occur while punching or kicking but luckily there is an entire discipline of science, called "impact science”, which studies what happens to force when objects collide and every martial artist should have a fundamental knowledge of this science.

If people want to determine how much force occurs in a punch or kick generally what they do go and get various force gauges and put them on a heavy bag, then they have someone hit them and they watch the readout on the monitor. The problem is that the results have no functional meaning! Let's say that I take the pressure plate and put it on the bag and then hit it and the readout tells me that I hit with 1000 lbs of force; all that means is that 1000 lbs of force existed at that point in space, but again, I don't care about that point in space because I'm not hitting the surface of my target, I want to drive my force into the target! In other words, I only care about what happens deep inside the target, not on it's surface. Now if I put a pressure plate on a punching bag and then I put two or three focus pads on top of it and then hit it, and despite the padding it still reads 1000 lbs of pressure then I'm happy.

One of the basic things that people need to understand about force is that force can be directed in a certain direction but still what it does is radiate out in waves just like dropping a stone in a pond and watching the ripples emerge in all directions from the center. Let's say that I punch someone in the chest and at the point of impact 1000 lbs of force is present, what happens next is that force radiates out in all directions. Some of that force will be transferred into sound, some will be transferred into heat, some will come back towards me, some will go off into the air, and a portion will go into my opponent. Of the force that goes into my opponent, some will be absorbed or dissipated by clothing, some will be absorbed or dissipated by the skin, some will be absorbed or dissipated by fatty tissue and other soft tissue, some will be absorbed or dissipated by muscle tissue, some will be absorbed or dissipated by bone, and what's left MIGHT go into an organ. Out of my 1000 lbs of force that appeared on impact only 5 or 10 lbs of force may reach the interior of my opponent which is where it's important.

At this point the question is how do you get more force into the body and how do you put it where you want it? The answer to this question has three parts: 1.) Force vector, 2.) length of contact during impact, 3.) follow through and penetration to "guide" the force.

Force vector is just a fancy term for the direction that the force is traveling and the exact path it is traveling on. If you want to send force into the liver then you need to make sure that the force vector intersects the liver. You need to make sure that you're actually hitting the liver instead of just a random place on the body; if you punch someone in the center of the chest then a meaningful amount of force simply won't find it's way to the liver. On impact force does radiate out in all directions but it still wants to travel in a straight line. When you throw a punch the force wants to leave your fist and continue straight forwards on the path you set it on, so the straighter the path your first takes from your body to the liver the more force will end up in the liver. If you want to make sure that as much force gets to the liver as possible you want to make sure that your fist travels directly from your body to the liver in the straightest path possible.

Next you have to take into consideration the length of time that your fist is in contact with the target. This is one of the areas where the martial arts really fail, in that martial artists often act on tradition rather than science. In the martial arts people are taught to throw their punch out and then pull it back in a rapid manner, which leaves the fist in contact with the target for a second or less. The reason that they do this is because they want to retract it quickly so they can throw another technique and so that their opponent can't use their arm to deliver a counter attack. In doing this, however, they are drastically taking force away from their strike.

Simply put, the longer your fist is in contact with your target the more force is transferred from your fist to your target. You can see this yourself by slapping your arm. Take the palm of one hand and quickly slap the back of your other forearm and then rapidly pull it off, so that your palm only rests on your arm for a fraction of a second. You'll notice a sting. Next, repeat this but when you slap your forearm leave your palm there. You'll notice that this hurts not just a little bit more but a LOT more. You'll also notice that when you leave your hand there the force radiates through your arm and you may even feel your arm tingle on the opposite side. When your hand moves it generates force and when it collides with your arm it transfers some of that force into your arm; if your palm and arm are only in contact for a fraction of a second then only a small fraction of the force will transfer. Since we want to get as much force as possible to transfer from our fist to the liver we want to make sure that they're in contact for as long as possible. When you drive your fist into the liver don't hit and then jerk it off quickly, rather hit, leave it there, and then let the liver go away from your fist instead of the other way around.

This one little thing will drastically increase the amount of force that you transfer into your target. After all, the only force that matters is the force that you actually transfer into your target. There are a lot of people out there with big muscles that can throw a hell of a punch, but that doesn't impress me. They can generate a lot of force but because their technique sucks (a lot of people have their elbow sticking out during a punch, their shoulders raised, or their heels off the ground) they are only capable of transferring a small amount of force into the target.

Now that you have sent your force in a straight line from your body to the target and you are leaving your fist on the target and letting your target move away from your fist instead of the other way around, you need to add "follow through" to guide your force to where you want it. If all you do it hit and leave your fist there then you will transfer more force into your target but the force will want to still spread out in all directions. If you hit, don't retract your fist, and then push until your arm is nearly fully extended you will direct that force straight forwards.

Most people hit their target and at the time of impact their arm is nearly straight, but if you do this you'll get minimal penetration and you won't have very much say in where the force goes once it leaves your fist. If, however, you step in and get closer and when you hit your target your arm still has 5 or 6 inches left to straighten, then you can push through your target by straightening your arm and rotating your body into the strike. Once you hit your target you want to be able to push through about 6-12 inches. If you can do that you will transfer nearly all of your force into your target and your follow through will direct it to wherever you want it to go.

So you need lots of penetration, lots of follow through, and to keep your fist on your target after you hit it; this is true in any strike including the roundhouse kick. In terms of the roundhouse kick, what determines the amount of penetration and force transfer can be seen in the alignment of the kick. There are four main points in the kick, 1.) the hip, 2.) the knee, 3) the foot, and 4.) the target. To illustrate that let's look at a few illustrations to better describe how to properly use that technique.

In illustration #1 you see how most people use the technique. They throw the kick out and the leg comes to full extension even before their foot hits their target. Usually their kick comes to completion and it's just one of the knuckles of their foot that makes contact. Nearly every single roundhouse kick I've ever seen, including hitting pads during karate classes, point fighting sessions, full-contact karate matches, and mma matches, ends with the leg straightening before the target is reached and only a small part of the foot hitting. Here there is no penetration, extremely brief contact, and no follow through.

In illustration #2 you see an example of "good" roundhouse kicks. When I say "good" I mean that when someone happens to, almost always by accident, throw a roundhouse kick gets a reaction from the target this is what they do. Here their kick comes to full extension as their foot hits the target leading to a greater force transfer. This is better than the kick demonstrated in the first illustration but it is still far from perfect. Basically the result is a very firm "slap" more than anything else.

In illustration #3 you see the kick the way is should be done, with maximum penetration. In illustration #1, the hip, knee, and foot come to a straight line a distance away from the target; in illustration #2 the hip, knee, and foot come to a straight line at the target; but in illustration #3 the hip, knee, and foot come to a straight line on the other side of the target. If I'm going to kick somebody in the left ribs with a right roundhouse kick, when I throw the kick I want to follow all the way through so that my right hip is pointed at the other side of his body. Just like they say that if you want to punch someone in the face you should aim for the back of their head, if you are going to roundhouse kick someone you want to follow through with your hip to the other side of their body. Do this and when you kick someone they won't say "Oww", instead they'll make a "thud" when they hit the ground.

A question always come us about how you follow through like that because a lot of people have difficulty. Almost always the difficulty that they're having is with their base foot. If the toes of your base foot are pointed at your target then your body won't be able to rotate fully through the target and if you try to could injure your ACL or other ligament in your base knee. You want to turn your base foot out around 90 degrees from your target so you can bring your body all the way around.

Another thing that I like to do with a roundhouse kick is to step into it. If I'm going to throw a left roundhouse kick I'll step out with my right foot toward the target in about a 45 degree angle, turning my right foot out about 90 degrees. Then, while I throw the left kick I follow through with my hip and bring my body over my right foot which brings an enormous amount of my bodyweight into the kick. Done this way you have little problem knocking someone out of their shoes.

Problem #2: Hitting with the instep

There are two ways you can hit with the roundhouse kick, with the instep or with the ball of the foot. Nowadays almost no one hits with the ball of the foot because when you hit with the ball of your foot it is kind of hard not to break what you're hitting. Hitting with the ball of your foot concentrates your force and its like hitting with a ball-peen hammer, it's incredibly effective and potentially lethal.

The reason people hit with the instep is because today martial arts are just sports; no one really wants to take the techniques seriously or really even think about the possibility of injuring someone. People today just want to dick around with the martial arts and they are surprised as hell when they hurt someone. Hitting with the instep in "safe" because it's very ineffective and if someone gets hurt 9 times out of 10 its the person that threw the kick.

Firstly, the instep is a broad flat area and when you hit the impact is spread out and the result is more of a slap than anything else. Hitting with the instep is the "safe" way to hit so why would you want to hit that way?

Secondly, the instep is a horrible impact point because the bones of the instep are easily broken. You can drop a can of soup on your foot and break one of those bones so why would you kick with those?

Thirdly, hitting with the instep is asking to sprain or break your ankle. Let's think about this for a minute: the way to break a joint is to first take the joint through it's range of motion until it reaches it pathological limit, and then aggressively force it past to tear the ligaments. If you point your foot in the manner that you do when you throw a roundhouse kick you just put your ankle at it's pathological now you're going to hit it? I've seen more than one person hit a heavy bag with a roundhouse kick and then wind up with a broken ankle.

One of my instructors told me a story about one of his students who got into a big bar fight one day. It was huge fight and lots of people were going at it, and this guy came at him so he punched him in the face and knocked him back and then he kicked him in the back of his left knee with a right roundhouse kick. He kicked him and followed all the way through so he lifted the guy's leg up and dumped him on the back of his head. Then he saw another guy coming at him so he put his foot down...and then fell on his ass. His ankle was sprained and couldn't take his weight. He had to get on his three good limbs and crawl out of there before he got seriously hurt. I don't know about you but I don't want to risk spraining or breaking my ankle in a situation like that.

Problem #3: People target the leg

Probably the number one thing people do with the roundhouse kick is they kick to the outside of the upper leg. There is a nerve there, the common peroneal nerve, and if you hit that nerve you make the leg go numb. The problem with this is that it is a fairly ineffective technique.

Firstly, again you have to follow through all the way with your hip to get the proper amount of penetration. When you're jumping around in your little fighting stance, which most people do, chances are because of all that movement you won't follow through enough and you'll end up just slapping them.

Secondly, kicking someone in the leg and "killing it" works very well if they're just standing there because their leg is straight and their upper leg muscles are not flexed. When you get in a fighting stance your upper leg muscles are more flexed and in doing so they protect the nerves so you have to hit the leg a little harder. Also, when someone gets into a fighting stance they bend their knees and their femur is at an angle that will deflect your blow.

Think of the high block. You put your arm up above your head to protect from an overhead attack and you don't keep your arm level, you angle your arm so that when someone hits your arm their force will be deflected and their arm will skid off your arm. It is essentially the same thing with kicking someone in the leg while they are in a fighting stance. If their leg is bent then your force will be dissipated and your kick will skid off. If you want to get the ideal reaction of totally killing the leg you have to have your opponent standing naturally and you have to follow through all the way with your hip. If you have someone move around in a fighting stance and you throw roundhouse kicks at their leg I can virtually guarantee you that all you'll do is bruise their leg, expose your balance, and piss them off. Sure, if you kick the same spot 5 or 6 times then they'll start to favor the leg and maybe limp a little, but who the hell cares? Violence is about injuring people, not trying to bruise their leg so you can set them up for something else.

Problem #4: Exposing your balance

The roundhouse kick is not a direct technique, meaning that it comes around your body in an arc instead of moving in a straight line. Since it moves in a large arc it seriously exposes your balance and leaves you very vulnerable.

All you have to do to neutralize a roundhouse kick is to just step in. Just like you watch someone's shoulders to see when they'll throw a punch, you watch someone's hips to see when they'll throw a kick. If you see someone's hips swing around to throw a roundhouse kick all you need to do it to take a big step in and get inside them and you'll knock them on their ass. Even better, take a big step in and throw an open handed strike to their throat.

In my opinion exposing your balance like that is just too risky. The only time I'd consider throwing a big technique like a roundhouse kick would be if my attacker is already injured. If I stepped in and slammed my forearm into the side their neck and knocked them backwards and started the process of them going unconscious, then and only then, with them in that state of helplessness, would I do something that exposes my balance so severely.

Done in the manner in which I have described here the roundhouse kick can be done very effectively and be used to cause serious injury to the human body. Executed in the manner that most people do today the roundhouse kick is just a sporting tool to be used for entertainment purposes and if used in any other manner it will often injure the person that threw it. Done correctly the roundhouse kick can be a very effective tool for engaging in combat, done incorrectly it is greatly overrated and arguably useless.

No comments: