Thursday, April 18, 2013

Small Surface Strikes & Structural Support

General Information On Small Surface Strikes
knowledge often lacking in modern karate-do but commonplace in "old style" karate

Small surface area strikes were very common in “old style” karate. In modern karate-do, the existence of these strikes is generally remembered, but they are rarely practiced. Even when they are practiced, the structural strength of the hand formation is almost never tested through hard impact against suitable surfaces. This has resulted in a degradation of information about these techniques. With generation after generation rarely practicing these techniques and never testing their strength, some of the important keys to hitting with these strikes were largely forgotten or at least not emphasized.

Pick up any “comprehensive” text on modern karate-do and you will see most of these techniques in pictures. If you look closely at the pictures you can tell that the person in the photographs has never hit anything with them with any real force, and that if he attempts to do so, the structure would most likely collapse due to joint buckling. However, with a little guidance it is easy to learn how to form these weapons in a way that will not collapse (at least not until *much* higher levels of force are applied). 

So, here are few tips from “old style” karate on how to brace the joints which are likely to buckle and how to create structural support which is aligned with thedirection the force travels. These tips are all pretty simple affairs but in most cases will at least double or triple the amount of force which can be successfully applied. In some case it is even higher.

I apologize for the fact that the wrist angle is wrong is many of these photographs. I was taking pictures of my own hand which was usually placed against a wall right in front of me. This resulted in awkward wrist angles but since this article is about hand formations this defect doesn't impact the value of the photographs.

I should clarify that my use of the word "useless" doesn't mean there will be zero effect. Generally you can get some effect from those hand-forms. However, the hand form itself offers little support to the structure of the striking weapon and it is likely to buckle in some way when significant force is applied. At minimum it will not be nearly as effective and useful as the methods I call "effective" and "optimal".

Ipponken (Keikoken, Shoken etc)

Notice how the above fist form has nothing *behind* the  index finger. It is impossible to do foreknuckle push-ups on this structure. It makes a very poor striking weapon because it obviously has very poor structural support and joint bracing.

The above hand-form has good structural support and joint bracing and it would be possible to do push-ups on this fist. However, it can only penetrate as deep as the tip of the thumb making it just slightly less than optimal.

The above hand-form has good structural support and joint bracing and it would be possible to do push-ups on this fist. It can penetrate as deep as the knuckle of the thumb (slightly deeper than the one above it)  making it the optimal Ipponken.

Nakadakaken (Nakadaka-Ipponken)

Notice how the above fist form has nothing *behind* the middle finger. It is impossible to do push-ups on this structure. It makes a very poor striking weapon because it obviously has extremely poor structural support and joint bracing.

Because of the straightened index finger, the above hand-form has good structural support and joint bracing and it would be possible to do push-ups on this fist. It is the optimal way to strike with Nakadakaken

Remember that these foreknuckle fist formations are not only useful for striking they also can be used to exert rubbing and grinding pressure to sensitive areas. These include the intercostal spaces, behind the jaw under the lower earlobe, the phitrum, and in the hollow directly under the zygomatic bone.

Nihonzuki (Nihon-Nukite, Secret Sword, Two Finger Strike)

Neither the thumb nor the two bent fingers offer any stabilization or structural support. This hand form somehow crept into Chinese martial arts from Chinese folk magic and folk medicine where it is very common. Those two endeavors require no strength in the structure so joint bracing is a moot point. Martial applications on the other hand do require structural strength.

The thumb and bent ring finger offer some stability and structural support and it is easy to put rigid strength into the hand and fingers in this position (unlike the ritual mudra above it). This makes it effective for striking soft areas of the body.

The thumb and bent fingers offer a stability and structural support and it is easy to put rigid strength into the hand and fingers in this position. Notice how the middle finger is pressing again the back of the index finger (and reciprocally the opposite) creating decent joint bracing in a way the hand-form above it does not. This makes it the optimal position for the two finger thrust.

A side view allows a better look at how the thumb provides structural support. You also get a different view of how pressing the index finger into the middle finger (and reciprocally the opposite) creates some additional joint bracing.

Ipponzuki (Ippon-Nukite, Single Blade of Grass)

There is no structural support for the index finger whatsoever in the above hand form

The thumb and bent fingers press very firm against the index finger creating good joint bracing from two directions up to the second knuckle of the index finger. There is also a general firming of the fingers and hand proving a little additional stability and support. Although this is the optimal hand form, it is still a weak structure and is only useful against very soft targets. However, if it is used against the right areas it can still produce devastating effect.

Nukite (spear hand)

Because the middle and ring fingers are bent and merely stacked on each other, this structure will easily collapse if significant force is exerted as a finger tip strike. It also makes a very poor thumb strike (and will likely result in self-injury if used in that way).

Nukite side view (thumb and finger impact look identical from the side)
Notice how the back of the index finger presses against the front of the middle finger (and reciprocally the opposite) and how the back of the pinky presses against the front of the ring finger (and reciprocally the opposite) creating as much support and joint bracing as is possible for a "spear hand" finger tip strike. Notice how the thumb is in good alignment to strike as well.
Nukite - fingertip impact (viewed from above)
Seen from above, this is the optimal position for a finger tip strike.
Nukite - thumb-tip impact (viewed from above)
Notice how the thumb separates from the index finger up to (but not beyond) the first knuckle of the thumb. This is the optimal position for the "tip of the thumb strike" application of nukite

Boshiken (Thumb Strike)
Notice how the thumb knuckle is bent making joint collapse much more likely. It is impossible to do push-ups on this fist form (thumb push-ups)

Notice how the thumb knuckle is straight making joint collapse much less likely. It is definitely possible to do thumb push-ups on this structure.

The superiority of this structure is easily felt/tested on a Machiwara

Rarer Information About Small Surface Strikes

I actually feel a reluctance to share this information despite my general dislike of secrecy.

Anyone who has been around the Okinawan martial traditions for a while will notice that some Okinawan teachers can use a few techniques with dramatically more effect than any of their Western students (and often their Okinawan students as well). We'll call these the "specialty techniques". In most cases students just say "wow, sensei can really put the hurt on with that" (or something similar) and never stop to ask WHY they are not able to do the technique to the same effect. Even those who do ask this question often only get part of the answer right. For instance, they will conclude their teacher has a lot of power and has developed very strong fingers through years of Hojo-undo. Generally this will be true, but as with most things in life, there is usually a bit more to the story. Not only can these teachers hit with more force, but they are usually doing their "specialty techniques" in a way that is ever-so-slightly different from their students. There are only two ways to learn these differences. The first is to become somebody the teacher is very fond of. The other way is to first become aware that a difference even exists, then to repeatedly *feel* and keenly observe the teacher doing his "specialty techniques" (if possible in close up frame-by-frame slow motion).

I don't know the secret to many such "specialty techniques"...  but I do know the keys to a few. This was hard won knowledge, and I have to admit I have loved having these as my own "specialty techniques." It is quite cool to be able to do a few techniques in a way which produces dramatically better results than 99% of karateka. If looking cool and cultivating an impression of a very high level of skill were my main goals, then I would not share these. I would greedily hoard them for myself. However, as a friend recently said: the real secret of karate is that everything you share you will still have, and you will be given even more in return.

My goal is to learn and preserve "old style" karate as best as I possibly can (not look cool). Preservation means sharing. So, despite feeling a bit of loss at no longer having these "specialty techniques" for myself, I want to share what I can of the few I know (these are just the "specialty techniques" which relate to the structure of small surface strikes).

Shi-zuki (Washide-uchi, Beak Strike, Gojushiho strike)

Poorly supported in that the force isn't focused on a single well supported structure. It is too blunt to make a good strike behind the collar bone or to the Brachial plexus, Scalene muscles, or Omohyoid muscles.

The above uses a single well supported structure (the index finger) and the force is concentrated into a very small area and this is easy to slide behind the collar bone. It is also great to attack the Brachial plexus, Scalene muscles, or Omohyoid muscles. I'm told this technique is still remembered in several kung fu systems (which is second hand info since I've studied no Chinese martial arts) 

The above hand form (like the one above it) uses a single well supported structure (the thumb) and the force is concentrated into a very small area. It is easy to access the area behind the collar bone with this hand form.  Like the previous technique it is also great to attack the Brachial plexus, Scalene muscles, or Omohyoid muscles. The reason it is considered optimal is that the thumb is an inherently stronger structure and can deliver considerably more force than the index finger. Otherwise the "effective" and "optimal" are very similar.

To form the optimal structure, press the index and middle finger against the pad of the thumb with the tip of the thumb protruding. Then brace the side of the thumb with the remaining two fingers (ring finger and pinky).

How to test the difference for yourself

Compare the "useless" and "optimal" versions of Shi-zuki by lightly striking the area shown above at an inward and downward angle. The "useless" version will likely only cause a wince reaction from pain. The optimal version will likely drop your partner to the floor with even relatively light force. Despite looking essentially identical, the two methods produce dramatically different results. So there you are, now you have Shi-zuki as your own "specialty technique". 

Hidden Foreknuckle Punch
Maximum Force Foreknuckle Strike (Seiken type hand formation)
This is the most powerful but least well known of the foreknuckle strikes. The hand is in the normal fist formation but the hand/wrist is angled so that the foreknuckle of the index finger makes initial contact. This is the only foreknuckle strike which can be executed with the same force as a person's normal punch. It is not suitable for striking most parts of the head but is a devastating way to punch the torso. It is called a "hidden" strike because when executed at normal speed it is indistinguishable from seiken-zuki. Even at very slow speed it usually will be mistaken for seiken-zuki (and thus makes you look really good if you don't tell people what you are doing) ;-)

Iron Bone Hand (thumb knuckle striking)
The following set of pictures illustrate a series of thumb strikes that are all done with the same hand formation. This hand formation is only briefly mentioned in the bubishi and is rarely seen in modern karate-do. Karate-do generally mistakes the first technique with a spear hand (or, depending on the wrist angle, sometimes even a palm strike). The subsequent three techniques are usually mistakenly regarded as "ridge hand strikes". If you were taught how to practice these techniques you most likely study a lineage with a fairly intact connection to the "old ways" IMHO.

Iron Bone Hand (thumb striking): Neutral Position

Strike is applied with the force moving forward and slightly down and is done in the "Neutral Position". It relies on directing the force in alignment with the proximal phalanx. To strike with force it is very important to firmly press the thumb into the hand in order to create structural stability. This is often used to attack the carotid artery (especially at the bifurcation).

Immediately after the strike the fingers grip the sternocleidomastoid muscle from the outside and the thumb (now inserted deep into the neck just inside the sternocleidomastoid) grips the muscle from the inside. After the grip is secure a very powerful jerking pull is applied as if trying to tear the muscle free from the neck. This is not something to do to friends.

Notice how the Nigiri-game grip uses the same thumb knuckle in the same way as the muscle ripping grip discussed above. Likewise the finger tips grip into the lip of the jar in the same way they are used to dig into the neck. These same features are found in many of the nasty gripping techniques in karate. This is why Nigiri-game training was always regarded as essential in "old style" karate.

Starting from the "Neutral Position" this strike rotates as it moves and slight unlar deviation is applied as contact is made (see picture above). The force is concentrated on the knuckle of the thumb closest to the nail. Because the thumb is braced against the hand a very large amount of force can be delivered with this innocuous looking strike.

Starting from the "Neutral Position" this strike rotates as it moves and strong unlar deviation is applied as contact is made (see picture above). The force is concentrated on the second knuckle of the thumb (the distal end of the 1st metacarpal). Because the thumb is braced against the hand a very large amount of force can be delivered with this innocuous looking strike.

Same basic method with force distributed along the length of the proximal phalanx of the thumb.

Design of the lightweight Machiwara can be found here:
Moveable Indoor Makiwara: Dimensions & Design

Below is an amazing video from Paul Enfield shinshii 
(of the Goju Karate Center

It shows  a "variety of push-ups for karate hand positions with a view to developing wrist, forearm and finger strength." This is a fanatic video as it shows to systematically and progressively build strength in these hand forms. It includes a section on one-fore-knuckle push-up. I often wonder if Enfield shinshii's students know how fortunate they really are. A summary of the fore-knuckle training shown:

1) Put some padding down for your hands and start by attempting "girl push-ups" (knees down push-ups). Provided the padding is OK, this should prove reasonably unproblematic.

2) Work on "knees down" push ups with no padding.

3) Once you are good at those, start trying to lift the knees and do push ups with one hand in the fore-knuckle-fist, and the other in "finger-tip push-up" position.

4)Finally work on doing push ups with the knees up and both hands in ipponken position.

Personally I recommend adding the additional step between 3 and 4 where one works on doing push ups with the knees up and both hands in ipponken position but with some padding under the knuckles.

Here are some videos of small surface area strike training.


  1. I've been forming keiko-ken and nakadaka ippon-ken almost exactly the way you show as "optimal", and have had no problems. Interestingly, Doug Perry also braces the tip of his thumb inside his curled middle finger when he does keiko-ken, and that seems to work quite well for him. I've been experimenting with some of the others to try to find some better hand formations for them, and I came up with a very similar nukite formation, but have been pretty stuck with washide. My system doesn't really make use of the other strikes, so I've never played with them, but now I will have to. Thank you for this post, Ryan!

  2. hello
    thank you so much for this post. i have only seen this correctly shown by very few instructors, mostly in chinese internal arts. i had modified my karate moves with them in mind. so nice to see it here. please keep more info coming.
    thanks again

  3. Sorry for the late post, but I think it should not be underestimated the wealth of information in this post. The pictures alone are worthy of publication. This could well be expanded into a chapter as commentary for the bubishi.

  4. This is really great stuff Ryan! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Excellent explanations!
    Anyone that knows good old Uechi-ryu won't be surprised at all since it's some of it's basic technical training (and old school Goju-ryu).
    If I may contribute, for a healthy hand, I would advise pinching the lips of two 45lbs workout plates in each hand, thumb on the inside, and walk around or doing sanchin no kata foot work until exhaustion, then reversing the plates and holding them with fingers on the inside and doing the same walk. (this is inspired from the Uechi-ryu stones). A good hot/cold hand soaking afterwards is very beneficial!
    Thank you for for your post! All my respect to you and your sensei!


  6. Excellent article, thank you for sharing.

  7. This is very interesting. I haven't tried many of these yet. I've only worked with keiko-ken and nakadaka-ken. For keiko-ken I stumbled onto the same form you recommend. For nakadaka-ken I was going in a different direction. The only place I can find it in Goju-Ryu kata is in Seipai kata and there it's used with a grab. I had assumed that the handful of gi was meant to be the support. Does anyone know any kata that use it just as a strike? I can't imagine it ever being better than keiko-ken for regular punching, but if you were going to use it that way your optimal form does make a lot of sense.

  8. I came here from the Ryukyu Martial Arts Research facebook group. As a Shotokan(JKA) student I really enjoy the widening scope of application for all the rudimentary techniques that I have learned that you have provided in this post and others that I see in the group. Thank you for your contribution.

  9. That's because you're using the ox jaw hand and Bird's beak wrong! You're supposed to strike with the ridge of the hand, not the finger tips. The bird's beak strikes with the knuckles, but is to be saved for a knockout strike.

    1. Although, the fingertips of the bird's beak do make great for pecking the enemy's eye(s) out. And I do argee that, yes, if it is used when the opponent is not stunned, the hand can break in bird's beak or ox jaw hand position.

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  11. Sir, wake up, there are no useless or useful forms of depends on how you trained it...karate is the old and nice martial art and do not mess around it.

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