This is the second installment of “Game Plans for Karateka.”
My previous articles cover Game Plans for Cross-Training and game plans inspired by Heian Shodan & Heian Nidan. You don’t have to read those articles to use this one.
This is not intended to be read in a single sitting. Instead, I want to give you a carefully curated reference tool to list various resources that I have found useful/interesting/informative. Along the way, I’ll throw in some of my thoughts and suggestions (as a fellow student, not as an instructor or expert). I’ll share some suggestions on how to set goals for your training, how to integrate these methods with other skills, and how to incorporate the lessons of modern combat sports.
For example, here are three ways that you might use this article:
• If you are a karate instructor preparing to teach bunkai for Heian Sandan, you might skim this article to get ideas while preparing your lesson. Even if you disagree with me, perhaps you can find ways to improve this material enough to make it worthwhile for your class.
• If you are running a practical karate study group, you can mine this article for drills and exercises.
• If you are a student who is particularly drawn to Heian Sandan, you can use this article to take your performance of the bunkai to a higher level.
Heian Sandan builds upon the lessons of Heian Shodan and Heian Nidan by teaching the student a basic set of close-range fighting skills. Iain discovered that these skills are designed for use in a clinching/stand-up grappling/wrestling scenario, culminating with two big throws that we see at the end of the kata.
Let’s start with a list of our ingredients:
• The beginning of the kata maps out a joint attack. (I believe this would fall into the category of karate’s kansetsu-waza, though please correct me if the term is inaccurate.)
• We have morote-uke, which I’ll discuss more later.
• We have nukite.
• We have an armbar defense that leads into a spinning hammerfist.
• We then have a kata sequence that maps out two different throws.
This article assumes an understanding of Iain’s bunkai for the kata. Iain has already gone through all of the hard work of (a) rediscovering these techniques for us and (b) providing detailed bunkai lessons on Youtube, on the app, and on the DvDs. If you have questions about the bunkai, please go to those resources. (In particular, I strongly recommend downloading the app, because new information is being added all the time.)
The core message of my game plan series is this:
Choose a handful of high-percentage techniques that (a) you like, (b) fit your body type and skill set, and (c) can be trained/drilled regularly in your school.
Make a conscious effort to hone that skill set through dedicated, frequent practice.
Map your goals onto that small skill set.
For bunkai-oriented karateka, the kata is your curriculum. So I recommend that you pick your favorite kata and use it as a starting point for your game plan.
Beginning with Kansetsu Waza
On Youtube, Iain has made this available this fantastic bunkai drill for the beginning of Heian Sandan: https://youtu.be/CclFjEtJP1w. If you have not already seen this material, please refer to it quickly so we are all on the same page.
I would like to give you some additional resources you can use to complement that drill. First, you must understand that kata techniques can be applied in many different contexts (as Iain has explained in other videos). I think it is valuable to explore different ways of expressing the same core principle.
In my humble opinion (“IMHO”), much of a kata’s value lies in "support skills." These are skills that are implied by/suggested by the kata, but not directly shown. In this case, the “support skills” for this kansetsu-waza involve (1) getting around to the side of your opponent and (2) attacking one of his arms with two of yours.
What has been helpful for me is to compare this position (off to the side of your opponent + controlling his arm with both of your hands) to the grappling position called the “Russian Tie” or “2 on 1.” If you aren’t familiar with this position, here is a video that illustrates the concept (no need to watch the full video, just take a quick glance to see the positioning I’m talking about): https://youtu.be/zHnCbsD5_E4.
This video that I have shared is exploring the use of the Russian 2-on-1 in grappling/BJJ. The goals and objectives are entirely different from the civilian self-protection mindset of the kata. But I would encourage you to play around with this positioning and see some of the different ways that you can control your opponent. Consider these ideas:
• moving behind the opponent to take the back
• using your skull to pressure your opponent and increase control
• using your body to control his arm
• using your control of his arm to stop strikes
• not letting your enemy guillotine/front headlock you
A few comments on controlling the wrist:
• Notice that the typical Russian Tie has a different way of holding the wrist.
• Here’s an example of how you might transition to that grip: https://youtu.be/s_-YrNG94t4?t=151. This can be helpful if you are just looking to move around behind your opponent.
• In a context where striking is allowed, I would encourage you to experiment with whichever grip works best for you.
•Obviously, if you want to use Heian Sandan's joint attack, you'll need to be pushing down on his wrist while driving up at the elbow.
• With some grips, it will be easier for him to pull his wrist & arm away. But as soon as he does that, he’s given you an opening to launch strikes.
• Even if you like one way of gripping, mix it up and practice others. You never know where you are going to end up in the chaos of a fight.
These ideas aren’t expressed in the formal kata, but I think they are very powerful “support skills” that you can develop to take your performance to the next level. By spending some time drilling this position against various degrees of resistance, you can place a “mental bookmark” in your nervous system. Every time you get into this position (or something like it), your body will instinctively recognize it and you will be better at moving immediately into whatever technique you want to do.
Start a wrestling match from the Russian 2-on-1 position. One partner’s goal is to escape, the other partner’s goal is to maintain control for as long as possible. Try both arms.
Dan Severn teaches simple entry to Russian Tie from double wrist grab: https://youtu.be/k7JM0jSGCP8
Drill to train Russian Tie & to improve conditioning: https://youtu.be/wBtM_rx8kHk
Analysis of Russian Tie from World-Class Grappler (more advanced material): https://youtu.be/pTbiUDyFDQE?t=132
Some ideas to spice up your striking (I just discovered this one recently, haven’t tried it yet): https://youtu.be/paR16gJpzjs?t=23
Instructional video on importance of wrist control: https://youtu.be/2REG3-Wb5gM
Use the kata’s kansetsu-waza as an opportunity to explore not only the principle of locking joints, but also the underlying footwork and position
Explore the Russian 2-on-1 as an alternative method of limb control.
As you gain more skill in this position, you will get better at setting up and timing the joint attack
If the kata technique (attacking the elbow joint) fails for some reason, you’ll instinctively be able to switch off to “Plan B” (taking the back or launching strikes off the Russian 2-on-1).
Let’s now go back to Heian Nidan’s beginning technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNyZhpgaB1o&t=73s. Work these strikes into some of the above drills and see what emerges from your practice. Start off with very low resistance from your partner (basically letting you work with and around the limb as you see fit). Then turn up the heat. Look into different ways of setting up the kansetsu-waza with the strikes shown at the beginning of Heian Nidan. (For example, get control of the wrist, launch a couple of uppercuts to surprise and stun him, then adjust slightly and attack with the joint lock from the beginning of Heian Sandan.)
Morote Uke and Nukite
The next ingredients are the morote-uke and the nukite.
I will not spend time on morote-uke here (although I may revisit it in a future article on Heian Yondan).
The nukite strike was already discussed in the previous article on Heian Nidan, but note that it has a different purpose in this bunkai sequence (as shown here: https://youtu.be/CclFjEtJP1w?t=29).
Overhooks and Underhooks
As you study the bunkai for the nukite-as-throw-setup, you will notice that it starts with an overhook on the enemy’s arm. Most of you are probably familiar with the idea of an overhook (or its counterpart, the underhook). An overhook is just the concept of wrapping up your opponent’s arm so you can have more control over it. (You will sometimes see the term “whizzer.” People use this term in different ways, but a whizzer is basically just an overhook where you apply a lot of pressure down on the opponent’s shoulder. Sometimes it’s enough to even put him on the floor.)
Practicing the overhook position is valuable on its own. Here is a video demonstrating striking ideas from the overhook: https://youtu.be/LkTAPFZQfOU. I like this video because you can see a clear similarity between the techniques demonstrated and some of the motions of Heian Sandan.
Since we’re looking at overhooks, we should also look at the underhook position as well. Here is a video of Dan Henderson breaking down the fundamentals of the underhook: https://youtu.be/Uty6fbSGBOw?t=13.
Encourage students to spend time with different tie-up positions and see what feels most comfortable/natural to them. You want the student to recognize quickly when he has an overhook (or could take an overhook). The student should also be able to recognize when he has an underhook (or could take an underhook). Clinching can quickly get too complicated for writing, but this will at least give you two landmarks that you can try to look for in the chaos of a fight.
Once the absolute basics are understood, students can then start to test each position. Look at questions like:
Can he knee me in this position?
Is my face open to strikes?
If he can strike me, will it have much power?
Can I interrupt his striking by pushing or pulling him?
Does it help me to come up onto my toes and push into him?
Could he bite me?
And so on . . .
All positions have weaknesses. Remember that in actual application (whether in sport or in self-protection), the speed and aggression will be turned to maximum. The position will be moving. So yes, maybe there are some positions where he could hit you in the face. But that won’t matter much if you’re only there for a split second and if you are aggressively trying to impose your will on him (either by overwhelming him with strikes or throwing him).
Heian Sandan includes a spinning hammerfist, which many interpret as a counter to an opponent’s (standing) armbar. My amateur guess is that Itosu imported this technique from the kata Ji’in (correct me if I’m wrong). Regardless of it’s origins, I don’t believe it’s necessary to spend much time drilling or practicing this technique, so I won’t spend any more time on it in this article.
Heian Sandan ends by mapping out two powerful hip throws. I personally don’t use these throws much in my own training, so I’ll keep my advice to the bare minimum here. Instead, I will point you to other resources available on the website:
Iain’s Article on the Cross-Buttocks Throw: https://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/cross-buttocks-throw-forgotten-throw-karate-boxing-taekwondo
Iain’s Article on Heian Sandan (mapping out the hip throws): https://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/pinan-heian-series-fighting-system-part-three
Forum member Les Bubka's video on the hip throw: https://youtu.be/hSISPcrfaLI
After the Hip Throw
One of karate’s great strengths is that many of its high-level practitioners are excellent at throwing someone and then immediately launching a powerful strike on the downed opponent. This is a great skill to have and I strongly encourage you to make it reflexive. Every time you practice a throw, immediately follow up with a practiced strike to the downed opponent. Get that into your nervous system and make it instinctive.
Iain has shared a free video on how to incorporate padwork into Heian Sandan throwing: https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/pinan-heian-sandan-throw-pad-drill.
TYING IT TOGETHER
Lastly, we return to the idea of the game plan. Remember that the core Heian “trilogy” is meant to be used together. (Some kata are designed to be stand-alone fighting systems, but that does not apply to Heian/Pinan.) The clinching and throwing methods of Sandan complement the striking and limb control methods of Heian Shodan and Heian Nidan.
If self-protection turns physical, you need to escape. Your #1 physical tool for stunning opponents and getting away is to get the knock out from a strike (ikken hissatsu). Limb control, clinching, and throwing only come into the picture when something gets in the way of your KO strike. With that in mind, let me sketch out a game plan for Heian Sandan.
HEIAN SANDAN GAME PLAN
For structuring lesson plans/training:
1 - SHTF: flinch & clinch
2 - The #1 goal is to knock him out.
3 - If his arm is in the way, use your limb control training. Keep trying to knock him out.
4 - If you end up in a clinch in the chaos of fighting, look for body shot + hip throw. Immediately follow up that throw with a strike to the downed opponent.
Still very simple. In fact, this is even simpler than the one sketched out for Heian Shodan/Heian Nidan. Again, the idea is that you would make the game plan the central focus of your physical self-protection training—these are the “priorities.” This would be a good fit for an early intermediate-level student.
Remember that the game plan is intended to cut through the overwhelming amount of detail and information that’s available online these days. It gives you an anchor for your training and refocuses students on the most important details—the 20% of your skillset that gives you 80% of the results.
Let me go a bit further and share some suggestions on curriculum design. Since this falls in the category of “free internet advice from a stranger,” please take this with a massive pinch of salt. (Even if you disagree with my advice, maybe it will help you clarify your own thinking on the matter.) Here’s one way you might approach the study of the Heian kata.
1 - Teach the first two Heian kata in whichever order you prefer. Focus on the techniques outlined in the previous game plan article (available here: https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/game-plans-karateka-heian-nidan).
2 - Do not let students progress beyond those first two kata until they have acceptable striking skills. Acceptable will vary according to the standards of your school, but at the very least, I’d hope they are able to deliver strikes (at least the jab and cross) with a respectable degree of power while moving.
3 - Once they’re ready, introduce Heian Sandan. Teach as much of the bunkai as you are comfortable with (some troubleshooting tips are below). Pause here and keep refining the kata, the bunkai, and all of the supporting skills for Heian Shodan, Nidan, & Sandan.
4 - Once they’re performing at an acceptable level (according to your standards), move them on to a new kata. But instead of going straight to Heian Yondan, I would suggest making a detour to Tekki Shodan. I know it’s well above my paygrade to question the senior masters, but in my opinion, Tekki Shodan is massively more valuable (from an applied karate perspective) than Heian Yondan or Heian Godan.
5 - Refine the student’s performance of the bunkai and support skills for the first three Heian kata, plus Tekki Shodan. In particular, focus on the student’s lead hand hook punch. Integrate that into striking combinations with a strong focus on proper hip movement.
This combination of the first three Heian kata, plus Tekki Shodan, gives you a full arsenal of tools. Pairing a careful, patient study of basic striking skills (jab/cross/hook, emphasis on footwork and hip movement) with the bunkai of those kata has the potential to create a very versatile and effective stand-up fighter. After that, consider teaching the sprawl as a way to round out your skill set and improve your takedown defense.
Once the student plateaus on this curriculum, you could then introduce them to Heian Yondan to continue progression.
Here are some issues that might arise during an in-depth study of Heian Sandan and its supporting skills.
What about the backfist strike?
I personally wouldn’t put it on the game plan or spend much time worrying about it. IMHO, traditional martial artists tend to overuse the backfist. Consider spending more time on the jab. (If you must work the backfist into your regular training, you might be able to use it as a failsafe if your cross-buttocks throw doesn’t work. So for example, you try to wrap up his head and he slips his head out. Pop him with the backfist to distract him momentarily and then immediately switch to powerful, fight-finishing blows.)
What if I get double overhooks?
Pummel for an underhook. (There are some advanced throwing methods you can do from the double overhooks position, but they’re outside the scope of this article.) Here's a drill to practice that skill: https://youtu.be/GZUxrQY3X74
What if I get double underhooks?
Sometimes you will hear MMA types or wrestlers talk about the overwhelming dominance of having double underhooks. Let me add a gloss to that statement. “Getting double underhooks puts you in an overwhelmingly dominant position against your opponent, if you are the type of fighter who regularly trains hard to dominate opponents from the double underhooks position.” Again, a full discussion of this is beyond the scope of the article, but if you want to look further into this, here are two instructional videos to consider. These are primarily for sport/sparring:
Takedown from Double Underhooks (with step-by-step guide to pummeling from over-under clinch): https://youtu.be/21hSLLKz3ys
Further Instruction: https://youtu.be/P6osFyv_pgs
I don’t feel comfortable teaching hip throws in my school.
I would guess that there are a fair number of karate dojos that lack the mat space to practice hip throws seriously against resistance. Even if you do have the mats, you may not necessarily have the skill set to teach it confidently. In my opinion, this is not a problem. I don’t think hip throws are an essential part of a fighter’s arsenal. Physically, I’d say that they exist on the border of self-protection and sport fighting, because I don’t view them as a primary tool to use in self-protection scenarios. So if you aren’t comfortable teaching them, I would encourage you not to worry about it. Teach students where they are in the kata and explain the principles behind them. Maybe demonstrate the technique right up until the actual throw (that is, loading the uke onto your hips but then pausing before tossing him). But then, feel free to skip training them hard against resistance and instead just move to other topics you are more comfortable with.
I don’t feel comfortable teaching close-range fighting in my school.
Unlike hip throws, I think it is absolutely essential to understand the basics of close-range fighting if you are trying to teach a pragmatic, self-protection oriented form of karate. You don't want to be left defenseless if someone bridges the gap and gets inside the range of your strikes.
What if I want to learn more about throwing?
I strongly recommend Iain’s app. It’s got a ton of excellent information and you can take it with you to the dojo. Plus, you’ll get access to all of his material on the Heian/Pinan kata series (essential for karateka embarking on a serious, in-depth study of Heian). Seriously, I cannot recommend the app highly enough.
I love throwing/takedowns and I want one or two more throws/takedowns to add to my karate training.
Again, get the app. But, here’s an older thread where different forum members share their thoughts on the matter: https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/throws-karate. But remember, it is much, much better to have one or two throws that you go to all the time, instead of 8 or 9 throws that you kind of understand but don’t practice much.
Students keep catching their toes in the mats.
Some types of mat are really bad about catching toes. This problem will only get worse if you start drilling lots of stand-up grappling. If you have a problem with toes getting caught/broken/dislocated in the mats, and you have some extra money, you might buy some wrestling shoes/mat shoes.
How do I teach smaller students to grapple with larger students?
It really is best to pair students up by weight, at least at the beginning. It’s safer that way. For more information, check out this thread: https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/clinch-fighting-training-women.
One of my students fights way too hard.
Watch out for this and be careful when pairing off for wrestling or sparring. Even if it’s not that big a deal when you’re point sparring, it will become a big deal when you move to more hands-on formats. Do not pair them with a new student or with someone much smaller, because that’s a recipe for serious injury. If it’s bad enough, you may have to have a talk with the student or even ask them to leave the school.
I teach mostly older students. Does this affect things?
Yes. You’ll want to be very careful introducing these students to aggressive drilling and sparring. Give them time to acclimate and don’t turn up the heat until you’re confident in their abilities. But in truth, I’d recommend the same cautious approach for most students. Even a 20-year old in good health can still be a significant injury risk during the first few months of stand-up grappling.
How should I think about gripping? OK to grab the gi?
This article is geared at students who have studied Heian Shodan, Heian Nidan, and Heian Sandan. So I’m thinking of a late beginner/early intermediate student. At this stage, I would focus heavily on grips that do not rely on the gi. This will give you the most bang for your buck. (That’s why I included the section above on overhooks and underhooks.)
What about strength and conditioning?
Check out my previous article for a few suggestions on this (link here: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/game-plans-cross-training). One thing I will note is that when you start to do more live drills with wrestling and clinchwork, it can be tempting to think, “It will be so much easier for me if I am stronger/heavier/have more muscle mass.” And that is true, to some extent. So you might be tempted to jump into an intense, high-volume strength training program.
But if you are doing a lot of hard training (especially throwing), I would encourage you to focus first and foremost on mobility and prehabilitation, including plenty of rest and recovery time. Much better to have a healthy, resilient body at your current level of strength, than a super-strong body that is unbalanced and prone to injury.
I am frustrated with my younger/stronger/bigger opponents.
This is very common when you first start grappling (whether on your feet or on the ground). You need to be prepared to calibrate your expectations. If this is bothering you, check out this excellent video by Ryron and Rener Gracie on the “Boyd Belts.” The basic principle holds true in a lot of different contexts: https://youtu.be/FGk_urw1_hA?t=43.
Do I need to learn groundfighting?
You will eventually need to understand the basics of groundwork, but I don’t think it’s necessary to do it yet. So let’s say you are a student who has learned Heian Shodan, Heian Nidan, and Heian Sandan. Focus on those skill sets first. Grappling can come later. If you do end up going to the ground, try to overwhelm the enemy with hammerfists and elbows and then escape. (I discussed this previously in the article on Heian Nidan. Link here: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/game-plans-karateka-heian-nidan (scroll down to Heian Shodan section at the bottom).)
Do I need to work hip throws into sparring?
It depends on your goals. I do want to emphasize one thing: throwing another martial artist in sparring is a totally different matter than throwing an untrained attacker in the street. Even a semi-skilled grappler will usually be able to make it challenging for you to hit a hip throw. So you might find yourself playing the game of disguising the hip throw with different set-ups or working on sophisticated takedown chains/flows. This falls into the category of “live training against resistance”, but you’re developing a totally different skill set than the one recorded in the kata. To practice Heian Sandan’s hip throw in the proper context, you’re going to keep it rooted in self-protection scenarios, not a skilled Judo-style randori.
Several members of this forum have posted very helpful instructional videos on pummeling. I want to make sure you’re aware of their work on this and can refer to it for more detail.
Les Bubka's Pummeling for Karate: https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/pummeling
And here is a variation from Wastelander: https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/bicep-pummelling-platform-drill
The Bubishi and Heian Sandan
In my copy of the Bubishi, Article 16 provides guidance on grappling and escapes. Some of these are worth keeping in mind when practicing Heian Sandan:
“2. By taking away your adversary’s balance, you will have greater opportunities for victory. Awareness and perception are strong weapons.” In the grappling context, think of awareness and perception as being able to sense your enemy’s motions through your grips. Always look to upset or disrupt your enemy’s balance, especially before a throw (e.g. applying nukite as kuzushi).
“12. If you want to attack the east, first move west . . . ” Excellent advice for wrestling. This also is repeated in Karate-Do Nyumon.
“16. Never execute a technique when off balance, as a skillful fighter will most certainly take advantage of the situation.”
“20. Maintain your balance while and after throwing the adversary as it is critically important to follow up with the finishing blow.”
“29. If you want to take down an adversary, keep moving, and before initiating the throw, feint . . .”
This article offers a list of resources to help with in-depth study of Heian Sandan, its bunkai, and its supporting skills. Thank you to all of the people who provided the videos, articles, and forum threads that I've linked to here. (I've limited this to freely available materials, but if anyone would like for me to take down a link, just let me know and I'll be happy to do so. I may update this from time to time if I discover appropriate new material in the future.)
I created this article because I've been keeping these notes for my own use for quite a while now. I wanted to make them available to others not because they are the best way or the only way, but so you could build off them to further your own studies and build your own insights.
If you'd like to contribute any other resources you think are helpful, please feel free to do so in the comments. Thank you again,