Friday, January 13, 2012

Block this!

Effective blocking feels wrong.  What?

Blocking itself is a bit of a misnomer.  I don’t believe that blocking is an isolated incident.  It doesn’t exist on its own; it’s weaved into a larger tapestry of technique (where’d that come from?)

In Kempo/Kenpo and in several other arts, I’ve heard the following:

“Every strike is a block, and every block is a strike”

I like that.  I think it helps in understanding that there’s more to blocking than meets the eye.   A good block can be quite jarring and can cause damage or stun your opponent.  A good block is actually the initial set up or entry into the next technique.  More accurately, it can be thought of as being part of the technique itself, whatever that may be.

Too often martial artists only practice blocking from rigid stances, and the blocks themselves are exaggerated with a clear starting and stopping point. 

Most times, an effective block does just enough to move the incoming strike off its target or line.  But that’s not normally how we practice them.  We concentrate on completely moving the incoming limb off to the side, or up or down.  This is unrealistic and opens your body up to further attack. 

A good block, especially for in-close systems like Jiu Jitsu, only needs to redirect the incoming force slightly.  Quite often, we don’t meet the attack with any force whatsoever, we just re-direct or guide it off to the side or past us as we shift out of the path, using your opponent’s strength and momentum against them.

For those times that you do meet the force somewhat, proper blocking can feel unnatural.  For instance, if your opponent throws a straight punch at your chest (like that would ever really happen), you don’t need to do an exaggerated block which moves the arm way off to the side.  You only need to block enough that the arm slides off its trajectory to escape the impact.  Realistically, it will still glace off your chest, but at such an angle that it causes no real damage.  This puts you in the ideal position to counter strike as your opponent actually moves into your attack.  

A big block moves your opponent too far off to the side which either opens up your body's vulnerable areas or makes you play catch up to close the distance to effectively land a counter-strike.

Big, exaggerated blocks put you at an additional disadvantage if you miss with the block.  Big blocks throw your arm way off your center line, opening your body or head.  It also increases the time needed to bring your arm back to fend off the next blow.

Consider practicing blocks with less range of movement or that travel less distance.  For middle blocks, stop just past your center line. Try shortening the entire plane of movement and experiment in half or partial blocks, without a ‘proper’ set up and chamber.

We tend to extend our blocks during solo practice, as if the end of the block is the end of the entire process.  We need to turn our minds to thinking of it as a set up or a strike to our opponent and our next action.

When doing blocking drills with a partner, concentrate on blocking ‘just enough’.  At the start of this article, I said effective blocking feels wrong.  In partner drills, you’ll sometimes still be getting hit, but the blow will have lost most of its power and, if done properly, will only be a glancing blow.  This is why it’ll feel wrong at first. (this doesn't apply to punches aimed at your face...)

We program ourselves to think that any contact from our attacker is somehow a failure on our part to block correctly.  The idea is to avoid injury and to improve our position.  So the next time you practice and block ‘just enough’, take a look at how many options are available to you.  Better yet, only think of your ‘just enough block’ as one part of a larger fluid attack plan.  Do your best not to separate the block from the rest.  You may find you can just slip past the incoming strike.  Don’t finish the block and then start the counter.  This stop/start form of practice is a dangerous trap to fall into and is all too prevalent in the martial arts. 

Ultimately, everything you do in the martial arts should reduce/protect you from injury, put you in a better position, or put your opponent in a worse one.  Ideally, you’ll do all three at the same time.  Effective blocking is one tool in achieving these goals.

Block well.

Welcome Rick.


  1. Great post! In karate the names of blocks are suffixed with the word uke (age uke, uchi uke, soto uke etc). As you know the word uke means to receive so in karate blocks are considered to be 'receiving techniques' i.e. ways of receiving the attack in a way that enables you to seize control of your opponent, which may mean a simultaneous block and strike or it may be a soft parry or deflection. This is why in karate the correct term for the 'defender' is uke (or uke-te, receiving hand) - the opposite to jujitsu. Interesting eh?

  2. improving your position... well summed up...

  3. Thanks Sue,

    There is a subtle but important difference between just blocking an attack and receiving a technique, as you mentioned. The important part, as you've summed up nicely, is understanding that blocks are a means to an end, not the end itself.

    J.C, Thanks.

  4. Very interesting. It opens the way for a discussion concerning the role of blocks in defensive tactics. SueC - I did not know that. That is really quite interesting. I'm now considering, what does the different use of the term suggest about the viewpoint of the different martial arts? I don't know, but you've got me thinking. By the way, see my next blog on that explores the issue.

  5. Hi John. Great point about different systems using different terms. An offensive based system may say there are no blocks at all, just deflecting strikes whereas a purely defensive style may call them something completely different, even though technically the physical movement may be nearly identical. Thanks.