Karate is often described as being a linear art, especially when looking at modern karate, but it is actually more circular than it gets credit for. Both linear movements, and circular movements, work together in karate to function as compound movements. These compound movements allow us to do more than we might otherwise, because they exert force in unusual ways and travel along unusual paths. Beginners often use such movements by accident, catching even trained people by surprise and making them dangerous and unpredictable. These accidental compound movements are generally sloppy and inefficient, but the concept can be refined and be made very useful.
Consider a relatively simple standing armbar, like the ones found in the Naihanchi kata, which you can see in the animated GIF, above. At first glance, it may appear that my Sensei is simply pushing my elbow forward. Looking a bit closer, one can see that the wrist is also being pulled back, making the technique a compound linear movement. That isn’t the end of it, though, because you can see that I am forced to both move forward and bend down, rather than simply move forward. This means that the force of the armbar is both pushing and rolling to turn my arm, making it a compound linear/circular movement. Beyond that, there are also strikes and structural disruption with the legs, making it a compound technique. These subtleties are what make old-style karate so sophisticated and effective, but also so difficult to understand, as I mentioned recently in my article about hidden techniques.
Compound movements show up a great deal in trapping, locking, and throwing techniques, but they also exist in striking. Generally, when karateka learn to punch, they learn to punch in straight lines, but even then, they usually learn to twist the arm as it moves, which is a circular motion. When you learn how to do shuto-uchi, the arms move in a circular motion, but the hands move in separate circular motions. This hineru (twisting) is added to many strikes and uke-waza in order to add another axis of movement and create a whip-like effect, adding to the impact of the strike. Most karateka will be familiar with this concept, but it has a fairly isolated effect, because the compound movement only occurs at the very end of the technique. By expanding on this concept, we can also apply it in a more advanced way.
In order to resist a movement which travels in just one direction, you only need to resist in one direction. This is something that is relatively easy to do, if you have the reaction time and strength to do it. Consider the act of blocking a haymaker-style punch. The punch is traveling in a circular motion, but it’s really traveling along one pre-determined path. To block it, you need only exert an equal or greater force along an opposing path–a forearm blocking against the punching forearm will do. You can see this in the block-scoop-check drill shown in the video, above. This works perfectly fine, but by itself, it is a purely defensive action.
One of the hallmarks of Ti is kobo ittai (attack and defense as one), meaning that one technique should encompass both a defense against your opponent’s attack, and a counter-attack of your own, at the same time. Famed karate master and fighter, Motobu Choki, described something similar when he said “the blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant.” Compound techniques, and compound movements, are what allow us to do this. This article will focus on the use of compound movements in striking, using the concept of “cutting the line” of your opponent’s attack or defense. You can actually see Motobu demonstrating this in the right frame of the image, above.
One example of cutting the line can be found in the backfist (or uppercut, depending on your point of view) sequence of Naihanchi, an example of which can be seen in the animated GIF, above. Different systems do it slightly differently, and even watching the video, it is difficult to tell whether it is a backfist or an uppercut. This is because it is traveling along multiple axes at once–it is moving toward the inside of the body, while also twisting, and at the same time extending. This compound movement, if applied against an attacking punch, or an arm held in a guard position, can cut inward into the line that your opponent’s attack is traveling along, or into the barrier of their defense, while also striking your attacker.
Another approach to this concept is to cut downward into the line of your opponent’s attack or defense, rather than inward. This can be seen in the circling punching motions found Tawada Passai and Kusanku Sho. You can see the Kusanku Sho example in the animated GIF, above. While these can be used as punches, they do not travel in simple straight lines. Instead, they circle out, around, and down as they extend. This applies the concept of osae (pressing) that Chibana Chosin was so fond of, and causes your punch to be very heavy, allowing it to push your opponent’s arm out of the way to clear a path for your strike.
Itosu Passai also contains a method of cutting the line, but in an upward manner, which can be seen in the yama-tsuki (mountain thrust) motions toward the end. Both hands are used thrust outward, like punches, but the top one twists and rolls up as it extends. This can be used to come up from underneath your opponent’s attack or defense, and push it out of the way as you strike. The same thing can be done with jodan-uke movements, such as those found in Pinan Shodan.
While these techniques are applicable in self defense situations, they also work very well in sport fighting. You can see in the image, above, an illustration from the book, Championship Fighting, which was written by the famed Jack Dempsey. In this illustration, you see that one boxer is throwing a jab, which is being blocked by a punch from the other boxer. In the book, Dempsey calls this a “glance-off,” and specifically states that you are supposed to block and counter simultaneously with this technique, so it is most certainly the same concept. In the photograph next to the illustration, you can see Dempsey using this technique in a real fight against Jess Willard in 1919. Clearly, this concept works very well against an opponent who is punching. They can also be applied against blocks and guard positions, meaning that you can maintain an offensive while also nullifying your opponent’s attacks before they occur. Of course, no technique works 100% of the time, and these can be defended against, but they are more difficult to deal with than simple, non-compound-movement approaches.