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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Hands. Where do they go?

I actually found it difficult determining exactly where I should post this, because I think their are several different approaches to this question and even as I write this text now, I am not entirely sure what I intend to say

Put simply, my question is about where a person should hold his hands in his "fighting stance".  Before people reply with certain answers that skirt the issue, I realize that stances are best thought as transient positions.  Most likely if you are in a social situation and someone starts something, you do not go into an impressive, though rigid, front stance and wait for the first attack.  I know that its often helpful to practice from a natural stance to get use to reacting from a position you'll likely be in.  However, I don't think the question of fighting stance is, therefore, irrelevent.  There may very well come a time when the situation does require or results in you assuming a more blatant fighting position.  Surely, when you conduct sparring in class, students do use certain positions clearly intended for fighting.

I'd like to expound on my question by explaining the real point of contention in my mind.  The instructors of my karate club were never dogmatic when it came to good form.  They prefer to allow us to explore and play and figure out on our own how to best utilize our own bodies to be effective tools of self defense.  It goes without saying, they never bothered to provide any clear instruction on what a proper "kumite stance" looks like.  This lack of information has made us into creative and critically thinking martial artists.  From watching videos and attending other classes though, I believe that there exist many other schools who, aesthetically speaking, look better when performing kata than we do.  (This is not a point of insecurity, because I believe there is only so much value in looking at "proper" form).  One such school, a Shotokan club I attended for a single session, provided very clear instruction on what the proper kumite stance is.  All karateka among us know this stance.  Its a front stance with the hands protecting the midsection.  One hand is forward, one hand is back.  One may be slightly higher than the other, but they are generally protecting the area between the solar plexus and the zyphoid process.  The contention arises when I think to other arts I have studied.  Wing Chun usually has the front hand bent at a forty-five degree angle with the thumb even with your own nose and the back level with the elbow of the front arm.  The logic for this position is fairly simple, primarily having to do with the concept of protecting the center line--an idea fundamental to everything in Wing Chun.  What really inspired this question was thinking to my limited experience in Krav Maga and MMA.  In both of those systems, the hands are held at the same level, hands on either side of your eyes, elbows pointing down.  I tend to like this posture, and its equivalent kamae in Ninjutsu, known as Hoko no Kamae, because it resembles a position one might assume when simply trying to pacify someone.  The "please-don't-hurt-me" stance, as I call it.  Additionally, holding the hands up by the head better protects your skull, and reduces risk of being knocked unconcious.

I have spoken to people who have participated extensively in Full Contact Karate (usually mingled with other styles, most commonly Muy Thai) and other such modern adaptations of karate.  They also tend to use the please-don't-hurt-me stance   Regardless, the "kumite stance" seems strongly associated with most styles of traditional karate.  I vaguely remember seeing old videos and photographs of famous masters who assumed the kumite stance.  Should I start my own club some day, I can't say I'd choose to encourage the kumite stance over the please-don't-hurt-me stance.  But the kumite stance seems to have tradition attached to it.

Does anyone know where the kumite stance comes from?  Is it simply another product of the movement of karate from self defense to school yards and tournaments?  Does it go deeper than that?  I am vexed.   

Jr cook
Jr cook's picture

It is my understanding that a lot of the common sparring positions are derived from a sporting background. In a previous style we sparred for competition where thhe winner was determined by a points system. A well executed strike to the body was a point. Head strikes were either not allowed for safety reasons or were pulled short of being "dangerous". This rule structure means that everyone with any experience adopts a similar guard position where the hands aree held low to protect the body but pointed forward to be used offensively. I have never seen this guard position when wearing boxing gloves and punching to the head is allowed.  I try to have students use a non-violent posture as much as possible when beginning drills. Anytime the question "Where do I keep my hands?" comes up I try to use this position. (see The Fence position, Geoff Thompson) I also tell them that this is a walking position...not a fighting position. Though this is focusing on self protection, it is not a bad defensive posture for sport fighting depending on the rules and the range. I imagine it is similar or identical to your "please don't hurt me" stance.  As for traditional guards,I'm pretty sure Iain has a bit of info on that here http://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/two-hands-principle-video To me, the tradition is all about making something work the best you can for the situation you will be using it in. If this is the case then the traditional guard has been evolving along with martial arts, or I should say with the martial artists.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Drew,

An interesting question and here are some brief thoughts on some of the points raised from my perspective.

Drew Loto wrote:
Does anyone know where the kumite stance comes from?  Is it simply another product of the movement of karate from self defense to school yards and tournaments?  Does it go deeper than that?  I am vexed.

It’s an ideal arm position when fighting other karateka within the confines of karate tournaments. The back hand is primed and ready to fire that all important reverse punch to the body; and the lead hand is ideally placed to stop that all important reverse punch to the body. It’s a very effective and ideal position to hold the hands when you know ahead of time that the most common thing you face will be straight punches to the body from a distance. It works and is exactly what should be used in that context.

If you were to look at boxing – where kicking is banned, the range is closer, arching punches are common and relatively large gloves are worn – the hand position chances to suite the environment. Go to MMA where gloves are far smaller and kicking and grappling are permitted and things change again (e.g. stances tend to be a little deeper and more stable, hands not held so close to the face, etc). Go to Olympic TKD – where it’s primarily all about kicking – and we see the arms hanging by the side and the body turned sideways. When it comes to self-defence then we would employ some kind of fence in the pre-physical stages, and when it has gone physical both arms will be busy so there will be no “guard”. And so on.

There is no right or wrong; what we have is right for a given context and wrong for a given context. A given group or individual should use any or all positions such as are relevant to their training goals. The common or garden “karate guard” is perfect for fighting other karateka in points competition or a manner similar to points competition (i.e. how most “traditional” groups spar). It should not be thought of as also being perfect for different contexts though. Context dictates all. Personally, we make absolutely no use of the “traditional karate guard” because we don’t fight in that way. It’s not “wrong”, just wrong / irrelevant for what we do.

I hope those thoughts are of some use. I also wrote an article on this subject 7 years ago which may also be of interest: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/use-karate-guard-kata-and-combat

All the best,


The use of the karate guard in kata and combat wrote:
The term 'guard' refers to the position in which the hands are held when fighting. There are many differing opinions on which is the 'correct' or 'best' guard position. So where should we hold our hands in order to effectively fight and defend ourselves? Should the hands be held high, as in boxing? Or should they be held lower, as in modern karate? Why all the variations? In this article I'd like to explore these questions, and in particular look at the use and evolution of the guard in karate.

In most modern karate dojos, the hands are held fairly low. One hand is typically positioned across the chest, with the lead hand being extended away from the body level with the chin. This common guard position is often criticised for its failure to offer the head sufficient protection. It is argued that the 'karate guard' position is not suitable for use in real situations and the 'boxing-style' guard position is often cited as a more practical alternative … click HERE to read more.

The video mentioned in Jr Cook's post above may also help:

chrishanson68's picture

My answer to this is quite simple...."it depends".

Where your hands will be depends on context: dojo, bar, wilderness, washroom, club, ring, sport stadium...etc.  It also depends on his range and intensity level too.  Distance does create opportunity, so if you're further away, your hands can afford to be away from centerline in order to have the freedom to rest, strategize, and plan your next move.  If you're closer...your hands should be more closer to centerline....however, "it depends"....you could be jammed into a situation, where your hands are down, and then you have to rely on other tactile sensitive skills. Great post. 

Have a great day!

Chris Hanson.

Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture

Thank you everyone for your helpful responses.  In part, I expected some of your answers.  As with most every subject of technique discussed on this forum, the answer is context specific.  I by no means disagree with this.  How could any sensible person?  The real meat of my question concerned the history of the kumite guard in karate which you all readily addressed.  I remember seeing a documentary once, it may have been the Kung Fu episode of "Human Weapon" on History Channel,  In it, they examined the guard of a certain style, which closely resembled the kumite guard.  Instead of justifying the use of that guard on the grounds that it will score points, the justification was that they had to protect their ribs because their style and other styles practiced in the area emphasize the development of extremely powerful kicking techniques.  Don't worry, I realize this is yet another example of context determining technique, yet it did make me wonder whether their are significant cultural differences between street violence among different peoples and societies--enough difference to encourage people to train little nuances like their guards differently....

chrishanson68 wrote:
It also depends on his range and intensity level too.

I'm just wondering what you mean by "intensity" and if you have an example of how that changes where your hands are.