by Richard Conceicao
This particular hand formation has become, in the western mind, as representative of all Asian martial arts in general; from the “judo chop” on. It is ubiquitous in all of our forms, and taught in all dojangs at some level. Obviously the founders regarded it as important. Yet, other than the forms, it is essentially absent from much of our practice, and when used, it is usually in very limited and elementary ways.
In the following discussion I would like to review some of the basics, some variations, and some common errors in the application of this technique. Some of you may feel that I am wasting your time with white belt stuff, others that I am being overly pedantic, or that I am saying my way is better. While there may be some truth to all of this, I ask that you bear with me. I have seen many injuries occur due to error, and am just expressing what has worked out best for me. Take whatever is useful.
Just in passing to mention the basics before skipping to the variants; the knuckles (pip joints) are extended backwards, distal tips (dip joints) are flexed inwards in order to properly tense the muscles of the hand. The base of the thumb is fully extended and back, the tip flexed inward.
Striking surface variations:
- By rotating the wrist to the thumb side (radial deviation) we expose a small bone at the base of the wrist—the pisiform. This striking surface is utilized for two basic reasons. First, it is relatively insensitive to pain. Even novices with no hand conditioning can strike a hard surface comfortably. Second, it concentrates the force in a relatively small area, making it an excellent choice for attacking acupuncture points and other vital targets. Some have argued that this curved hand forearm shape was the original Bubishi “sword hand” as it more closely resembles the shape of a samurai sword. The modern use was straightened for esthetic reasons. You can see remnants of this in the tegatana of aikido.
- Side of hand. This uses the fleshy musculature on the side of hand and represents the most common formation. Care must be taken because it does not use the exact side of the hand! The small bone that lies there is especially vulnerable to breakage when striking hard targets. It is the muscles that lie closer to the palm side that form the striking surface. As a result the hand must be oriented with around a 20 degree tilt off the vertical or horizontal axis to strike safely. Those of you who look like waiters carrying a pizza will regret it sooner or later. For a quick visualization of this—place the palm of your hand on the side of your partners jaw (fingers pointing to back of their head). When you remove your hand the orientation will be almost perfect for a horizontally directed strike.
While this may seem obvious—hit what you aim at, there is more to it. Most practitioners conceive of the motion as going from side to side in a largely horizontal (albeit slightly downward arc) or straight ahead. Unfortunately, because these angles use the smaller muscles of the shoulder they tend to be very weak, and, there is no really good way to add the body weight to the blow.
Much more preferable to me is to move the hands forward in a downward arc. This applies to attacks that are straight down, sideways, or even forward. This recruits the stronger latissimus dorsi (lats) of the shoulder and enables the body weight to be put behind it, provided of course, that you remember to drop your weight. Strangely enough, when this weight shift is done properly, it will feel as if your body is slightly rising as your arm presses down.
The one essential element: The elbow must always face down!!!! As soon as you raise your elbow you lose what will feel like more than half your power. One way of visualizing this is to imagine that your arm is a hollow trough filled with water. The water represents your energy. If you raise your elbow to the side the water spills out, and your energy is lost. This is almost a universal concept. It applies to punching, joint locks, and many throws. Always keep it in mind.
THE KNIFE HAND “BLOCK”
While this is an accurate rendering of the Korean, I prefer to keep in mind the Japanese word ‘uke”. This is usually translated the same in English as a block. A more accurate rendering would be “reception”. To receive an incoming attack does not denote how you will do it. You can deflect, parry, strike, press, trap, lock, or even throw. All of these are reflected in the motion of the knife hand block. I consider this multitude of applications one of the reasons it is found in so many of our forms.
The essential consideration: The chambering motion is the block; the forward motion is the attack.
This may seem strange to some, but think it through. We know from experience that in a fight there is no time to retract in order to go forward. You would end up blocking with your face. The upper hand moving from the opposite side of the body sweeps up and strikes with the knife hand by your ear. This motion both protects you from missing, and attacks the nerve points on the opponents arm or wrist. This can be areas such as Lung 6, 7 (pronated fist) or Lung 8, Pericardium 6 (vertical fist). All of these tend to numb and weaken the arm and open the hand. It also reverses the normal energy flow of the arm. At this point the hand moves forward to attack the opponent.
There are a number of stylistic variants of this, but they all retain this essential characteristic.
Variant 1. Single knife hand: the upper hand moves back over the outstretched lower arm, deflects and then moves forward again. In this case while the upper knife hand is doing this, the bottom is actually attacking the opponents’ body. As the lower arm recedes it pulls the opponent into the upper arms forward knife hand strike. More common in Japanese/Okinawan systems but still found in many traditional TKD schools.
Variant 2. Double knife hand, rear hand chambers at waist level. The upper arm function remains the same. In this case the lower arm is used to press, deflect, and lock up the opponents’ arm to allow the upper arm a clear path to the target. This can be done from the inside or outside. The lower arm can even be used to strike nerve points on the other arm to amplify the effect of the attack. Common to many WTF schools.
Variant 3. Both arms sweep back as a cross body deflection and unbalancing. This was discussed by me in a past issue (totally TKD #?). The forward motion can be used as a strike or throw or both. Common to ITF schools.
I am demonstrating some non blocking/striking uses for the motion of the knife hand block. As stated before there are many, and to attempt a comprehensive list would be far beyond the scope of this discussion. These are provided as a starting point to expand your thought process when practicing.
As your prior experience no doubt has shown you, the knife hand block motion is very difficult to manage effectively when directly on line with your opponent. They work optimally on a 45 degree angle. Keep that in mind as you attempt the examples below.
- Two middle knife hand blocks in succession. No, you are not blocking two retreating punches. As you step forward, your lead hand presses his arm downward and away. As you step forward again, maintaining the grip on his arm, raise your other arm above it (the second knife hand block) striking downward and pulling the trapped arm, throw him to the ground. The double sequence sets him up and throws him.
- Middle knife hand sweep down to lower knife hand block. As opponent throws outside haymaker, step in and strike arm targets (e.g. L5, PC 2, 3 etc) and neck. No chamber! Forward hand grabs arm, rear hand scoops back of neck. Move weight into back stance sweep arms around to turn him and cause him to fall. The discerning among you may have already recognized that puzzling sequence from Pyongwon.
- Arm bar. As punch comes in, pass it with forward hand, rear hand rolls over forearm, forward forearm presses down on elbow or upper arm (TW 11, 12). It may sound difficult but it is a simple rolling motion that is very quick. Remove the opponents arm and it looks for all the world like a double middle knife hand block!
I hope that this long presentation has something that is useful to you immediately, and that it further stimulates discussion, experimentation, and trial.