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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Principles of movement in Karate

In addition to Karate, I have also studied Wing Chun and Bujinkan Ninpo Taijutsu (Ninjutsu).  When learning Wing Chun, one can easily observe that Wing Chun is a "principles based system."  That is, Wing Chun has a list of methods of gaurding, moving, striking, and thinking, around which its techniques are entirely oriented.  These principles include, protecting your center line, facing your block, maintaining constant forward pressure, watching your opponents elbow/when touching one elbow being sure to look at the other, etc.  My instructor in Ninjutsu also always emphasises certain principles.  Ninjutsu principles include ways of using spine twisting, shoulder turning, and weight sinking.  

For multiple reasons, there is enormous variation in the types of Karate practiced between schools.  For instance, the Karate that I've spent most of my life practicing often looks considerably different from the types of techniques that Mr. Abernethy demonstrates through his use of bunkai.  Moreover, the karate I have practiced looks surprisingly different from competitive karate.  My question is this:  Do you believe it is possible to identify certain principles of movement and body mechanics within the karate you have studied that can help you to orient and guide your training?  In my experience, these principles could include moving from your hara, using a whip-like snapping motion in your hips and wrists and dropping your weight to generate power.  What do others think about this question?  

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Drew Loto wrote:
Do you believe it is possible to identify certain principles of movement and body mechanics within the karate you have studied that can help you to orient and guide your training?

Good question and I’d say it’s not only possible but vital. Without an understanding of the underlying concepts everything will be fragmented and rigid. Fragmented because there will be nothing to unify all motions. Rigid because without an understanding of core principles one can’t adapt in line with those principles. Techniques are specific to circumstance where are principles are unlimited.

There are strategic and tactical principles and well as technical ones. All those principles need to be internalised so the practitioner understands them on an intuitive and instinctive level and hence will always act in accordance with them. Intellectual understanding is one thing, but it is this intuitive and instinctive understanding that we ultimately need.

Personally I view all techniques and drills to be a means to impart principle. It’s the principle we truly need to learn. We are given the “what” so we can learn the “why”.

I do have an issue with people making a very similar argument to the one I have just made, but twisting it to justify ineffective training methods i.e. “we know the methods demonstrated in this drill are ineffective, but it’s the ‘principle’ that the drill is really all about”. Where this twisted “logic” falls over is that by definition it is only effective methods that are can be manifestations of effective principles. If a drill or methods is ineffective, then it is based on ineffective principles. You simply can’t have an ineffective drill or ineffective technique that is based on effective principles. That is illogical and impossible so we need to be wary of “principles” being used in this way and confusing the issue.

As regards the specifics of movement there are certainly core principles that should always be adhered to i.e. the bodyweight must moved into the strike, torque must be generated from the hips, strikes must be “overlapped” to ensure flow, a high hit rate and maximum impact, etc, etc.

We practise the technique to gain a living insight into principle, and then we ensure that all motions and techniques are in accordance with those principles. The principles become “habit” and that is how we achieve versatility and true efficiency in my view.

All the best,


Andrew Carr-Locke
Andrew Carr-Locke's picture

In my experience when people use the term principle to describe the teching behind the technique  what they are referring to is physics. It is the anatomy, the pressure, the mechanics of the body structure as it reacts or is manipulated. They are looking at the science of what works. If they really do mean something else, then it is most likely one of those descriptions Iain spoke about above "yeah, the technique doesn't accually work, but it the principle man, the principle...". Just fluff and woo-woo. 

You can look at many cultures around the world, that have had no contact with each other. Take small indiginous village arts and folk wrestling as example. All of these cultures have a variation of a hip toss. The mechanics are always the same. It doesn't matter if its a wrestling move, a judo throw, a place-your-favorite-description-here takedown, etc. They are all the same because they are based on science, anatomy, and mechanics. There is a best way to do things based on human anatomy and structure- and in any functional and effective art or fighting system, this will be the same. But only- always.

So, yes- I think that it is possible and necessary to ideantify the principle in your art, but only if 'principle' = science. It will be testable and the results measureable. As long as you don't fall for the "its the principle man, the principle" type of fluff, then I believe this introspection into what you do will help cut the fluff and woo-woo out of what you do. And if you need help, look to any other effective system or art or fighting style, which for the most part are all the combat sports, and study the principle there. why do they use their hips like that, why do the move the way they do. The nice thing about the sports is that they have put a lot of study into the mechanics of anatomy to help generate the best performance from a body. Apply those principles based on sound science into what you do as a guide through your training. 

good luck, hope my thoughts here helped. 

shoshinkanuk's picture

Im not sure all arts do aim for the 'best' principles - either through ignorance, the aim of the art or indeed a different core strategy.

The situational context is of course very significant as well.

Granted there's more the same, than different - or at least there should be.

DaveB's picture

Iain's point about the three types of principles is spot on! These three sets of principles are interdependant and are what define a given style of martial arts.

Similar to Shoshin's point, I don't agree that there is one set of good principles. Nothing involving humans is so clear cut and no one yet has managed to definitively prove that any one method is distinctly better than the others.

For example, I punch with a full twist of the arm resulting in a horizontal fist when striking. Other propose that punching with a verticle fist and no twist is superior. My Karate training taught me to use my hips to translate power into my striking, but my kung fu training kept the hips locked square and used the waist to strike. The strategy of the kung fu style made waist rotation more suitable (or so they believed) than hip rotation, the resulting stance and posture in turn informed the strategy and tactics.

If one method is more powerful or more efficient than the other the years we spend training in our chosen method reduces them and ingrains tactics that support what we know. All that time devoted to conditioning ourselves to a specific way makes switching to another method pointless (unless there is desire to change or learn a new strategy).

Within the karate (non traditional Shotokan) that I have learned there was one style, one set of mechanical principles laid down by Nakayama, and from what I gather, tweeked by various masters after him. However I now look at my karate as a collection of fighting styles and as I look at each (kata) in more and more depth a unique variation of the traditionally taught mechanical principles starts to emerge. I think it will take a good few decades to draw out all of them fully.

miket's picture

I think its an excellent question, Drew, and yes its entirely possible to identify 'principles' of karate, provided one is clear about what one means at the outset.

To me, anyway, just like the words "kata" and "karate" embody WIDELY duifferent practices to many people, so too does the word "principles" come laden with a lot of personal connotations and assumptions that need to be spelled out.  I am not suggesting that any one adopt the following, this is just how I have started to settle out on the subject...

Personally, the way I define them, and the longer I train, I think that there are only truly a very few key "principles" that underly most martial arts (control the initiative, create pain, Marc McYoung's concept of 'fence' (as in the roots of the words 'defense' and 'offense' and not to be confused with Geoff Thompson's)), et. all.  But that is because personally, I am defining "principles" as someting "immutable" that is true in 'almost any case', the way some people might use the  word "laws".  And to me, predominantly, "principles" mostly have to do with the application of physics to fighting, or with "actions" like "stealing center" or "off balancing" where something entirely ubiquitous "contributes" to the success of "technique" a great percentage of time (e.g nearly 100%).  So for instance, "gravity" would be a "principle" to me:  i.e. understanding 'gravity' (the use of the sudden drop of your body to create / add to pressure or impact); understanding that a higher lift on that throw will mean more impact damage to your opponent upon reentry precisely because of gravity, etc.  McCarthy's conepts of the application of basic machine's (screw, wedge, pulley, etc.) to karate offers another good example.

My definitions are kind of fluid, even for myself at this point, but working up from the idea of an individual 'technique' I would say:

TECHNIQUE is a [body] MECHANIC with a specific purpose.

A MECHANIC is simply a 'way of moving your body', devoid of specific purpose.  The difference from technique is only the iunderstanding that the 'same' mechanic can typically be used to do 'many' things, whereas a technique has a SPECIFIC purpose, target, line of action, anticipated outcome, etc.  So moving the arm 'just so' to block a punch is a 'high block' (technique).  Moving it 'just thus' to strike the neck is a 'carotid stun', also a technique.  But the underlying motion action of the arm, shoulder and hips that they share in common is a 'mechanic' to me.  A big thing for karate people to decide (by my way of thinking) for instance, is therefore whether they believe their katas are illustrations of techniques or mechanics, or both, and in what order or proportion.  I have heard both from different instructors.

A CONCEPT is any commonly recurring action or device that facilitates 'many' but NOT 'all' or 'most' techniques.  For example, off balancing in a PARTICULAR way underlies many but not all judo throws.  SO if you identify something 'recurring' but not 'universal', to me, you have a 'concept, not a principle.

PRINCIPLES are as defined above.  One thing I have not yet concluded is whether I really want to draw a line and say that principles are truly, 'only' immutable-- i.e. valid 100% of the time.  In that case, I have thought about applying the term "rules of thumb" as a substitute to parse out those actions which are true 'most, but not all' of the time.  And to my thinkng, doing so really does reduce the notion of 'principles' then mostly to the 'pure' application of physics to fighting, as there is really very little that is 'universally true' in combatives.  Or I could go the other route... laws are immutable, and 'principles' are the 'mostly true', like i said, I haven't decided.

Then finally, ATTRIBUTES are anything (physical, mental, intellectual or spititual) that a practitioner can develop or improve upon.  So, things that you frequently see described as 'principles' (i.e. 'speed', 'reaction time', etc.) fit here.  The reason that these are not [immutable] 'principles' to me is precisely because they CAN be developed and refined whereas a 'principle' like gravity just 'is'-- there is no way to 'improve' gravity, just one's own ability to understand and harness it.  So personally, I draw a distinction there.

Further, I also believe that one can apply this or a similar line of thinking to what I believe Iain correctly describes above as both 'strategic' and 'tactical' ideas.  Or maybe (for me) 'strategies' is  another classification unto itself, along with what I typicaly call "paradigms", i.e. the base assumptions that are inherent to any 'style' of combatives training or instructor-practitioner persepctive.