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Tau's picture
Orientation of fist in the elbow strike

I was asked this by one of my students last night.... and I didn't know the answer which is highly unusual for me. So I've set the student the task of looking into this and I thought I'd ask the experts of this fine forum.

Consider the elbow strike of pinan yondan, tekki shodan, kushanku and others. For the sake of this example so as you can picture what I'm asking it's a right-arm elbow strike. I reach or control the enemy's head with my left hand and strike my left palm with my right elbow. What orientation is my right fist in? And, does it matter?

I always perform it with my fist verticle so as the back of my right hand meets my left forearm. Another option would be to have the right hammerfist meet the left forearm. 

Rotation of the fist will cause pronation or supination of the foream and so different aspects of the right foream will meet the left. But I can't see that it makes any difference to the striking point, which is the proximal ulna / olecranon. 

Your thoughts are welcomed.

PASmith's picture

A couple of thoughts... Just standing with my elbow roughly up in position palm down feels the most relaxed and the least effort to do. Supinating or pronating takes muscular contraction to 'form' (you can see the bicep working as you rotate the fist either way). As such I think trying to rotate the fist in or out too much could (for beginners at least) be a potential point for tension and stiffness?

I think the hardest thing for people to grasp when elbowing is being able to whip it in as a proper strike rather than pushing it out as a sort of forearm push. Anything that increase relaxation and speed is to be encouraged I think so palm facing down seems the best choice for that. I also throw my elbows with the hand relaxed as the Thai's generally do, rather than in a fist, for the same reason. Although i will clench the fist in more traditional execution in linework and patterns/kata. Also I find when starting to learn elbows many people lead with the wrong part of the arm (especially when elbowing lower that shoulder/head level). They can sometimes partly impact with top of the meaty forearm, with the hand lower than the elbow, rather than the boney part. Making sure the palm is facing down and leading with the little finger edge helps counteract this tendency I think and encourages proper alignment of the arm and shoulder.

And finally...So long as good impact is being made with a hard part of the elbow/ulna/forearm then i'd they can probably hold their fist as feels comfortable for them. Much like palm in, down or out when throwing hooks the final barometer should be impact and results rather than insisting on one "right" way to do it.

Chris R
Chris R's picture
I agree with PASmith, and outside of kata performance I don't strike the way it is done in the kata. However, elbows in kata can have multiple interpretations, some of which don't involve striking. For example, palm facing you is a suitable position if you interpret this as a wrist lock (e.g. Iain's bassai dai application). So I think the kata shows a standardised version, but in application you could use what is most suitable for you depending on what you're doing.
Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

My personal preference – which is also the way I have been taught and teach the kata – is to have the thumb side of the fist toward the body and the back of the hand uppermost. I feel this promotes the highest degree of relaxation (bicep not engaged in the rotation of the forearm) and hence the most explosive strike. It also means we hit with the “sharp” side of the arm and not the meaty “cushioned” bit. One additional benefit of doing it that way is that the palm is down and that can help clear the path for the strike i.e. hook the enemy’s arm out of the way and downward with the palm, and then whip the elbow of the same arm over the top.

I think this would ultimately be a preference thing though and I’d not see a “vertical fist” as being “wrong” or “worse”. As has been said, it can be likened to a hook. As regards the hook, I tell my students that if they hit hard and it didn’t hurt their wrist, then whatever alignment they used was right. I think a similar thing applies.

All the best,


Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

I don't like this guys introduction, where he chokes someone out, so don't take this link as an endorsement! Anyway, I think this visually demonstrates what I do - and I think it is what you are all describing as the way you execute the technique:

Mark Powell
Mark Powell's picture

I also throw the elbow palm down thumb towards the body and never close my fist so the shuto edge of my hand meets my left forearm.

In my youth one of my Muay Thai coaches used to emphasise that you should not look for heavy impact but rather try to rip across the brow area with the very tip of the elbow in the hope of opening up cuts. Of course I realise throwing the elbow in that way is a consensual duelling application rather than a self protection one.


Marc's picture

Like others have already stated: If it delivers impact it's alright.

For me, twisting the forearm so that the thumb points to my body seems to add a considerable amount of striking power to the forward elbow strike. It also feels like it is adding a kind of "snappiness" to the technique that I don't get if I have the thumb pointing up. When I try to hit with the thumb pointing up it feels more like generating power from my shoulder than from my whole body.

Nakayama's book "Dynamic Karate" is always a good source when it comes to "correct" technique. His explanations are very precise. On pages 124ff he describes the different elbow techniques (front, back, side, round, up, down).

First of all, he says that the elbow techniques are not really strikes but "smashing techniques" ("ate-waza"), a category that would also include knee techniques.

Second, he lists some "important considerations" that apply to all elbow smashes (all directions). Two of them are relevant to our discussion:

- "Rotate the forearm anywhere from 90 to 180 degrees to gain greater striking power. Place the forearm initially in such a position that this rotation is possible."

- "Relax the shoulders. To increase the impact, bend the elbow fully and tense the arm muscles just before striking the target."

Then, describing the different elbow techniques (directions), he goes into detail on the forward elbow smash, which is the one used in Heian-Yondan, Kanku-Dai and the like. Here are the relevant quotes:

- "thrust the right hip forward, and drive the right elbow in a half circle [*] toward the target. Rotate the right forearm 180 degrees counterclockwise as you drive the elbow forward." - [(*) This half circle describes the path the elbow moves along from the hikite position, i.e. pointing backwards, then brushing the side of the body moving forward/upwards into the final position pointing forward. It is different from a roundhouse elbow which is described as a separate technique. ]

- "At the conclusion of this movement the upper body faces forward and the top surface of the forearm is up. Be sure to twist the forearm inward as much as possible."

Finally, here's the picture of the final position seen from the side:

 The thumb points to the body in the final position of mae-empi.

When deliviering a roundhouse elbow strike he also twists the forearm so that the thumb points to the body in the final position.

Similarly, when deliviering an upward elbow strike he twists the forearm so that the thumb points down to the shoulder in the final position.

Take care everybody,


Finlay's picture

Neil Babbage wrote:
I don't like this guys introduction, where he chokes someone out, so don't take this link as an endorsement! Anyway, I think this visually demonstrates what I do - and I think it is what you are all describing as the way you execute the technique:

Wow, yes that is an 'interesting' introduction. I agree with the orientation of the hand in the video, for the reasons other have stated, relaxation and hitting with the hard bony part of the elbow. Most other things in the video I think I disagree with

shotokanman70's picture

In my organization we do it with the Palm facing down. I was never given an explanation for this but in terms of application I think this is the best option. Orienting your forearm so the Palm is down exposes the ulna bone to the Target. That way, whether you hit with your elbow or your form you're heading with bone. If you position your forearm so the thumb points up then you are going to be hitting with the fleshy part of your forearm which is obviously less effective for percussive impact. Hope this helps.


Andy Allen

Tau's picture

I have been playing with this a little. My observation after considering the responses here is that it depends on your intended striking surface. If you intend to hit with the forearm, as opposed to the point of the elbow, then rotation of the forearm will indeed alter whether you strike with bone or flesh. However if you're hitting with the point of the elbow that rotation of the forearm doesn't change what you hit with.

I also took a step back to critique my own technique. I found that when I perform kata (Heian Yondan, Kushankau) I perform it with fist vertical but in other kata (Tekki Shodan) I perform it  with the first horizontal. I suspect this is down to muscle memory, style (aethetics of the given school) and error on my part. When I hit focus mitts I hit with a horizontal fist. The next part is to play with both orientations on the focus mitts to see is there's any subjective power difference.

I concede that in the heat of real violence 100% accuracy (the point of the elbow) is less likely.