While karate strikes primarily target the head and body, it also includes strikes to limbs. In my recent article about cutting lines, I mentioned that those methods involve striking the limb as you attack. That is a byproduct of cutting the opponent’s line of attack or defense, but damaging the limb isn’t usually the intent. In this article, we will be discussing striking techniques that karate uses specifically for the purpose of damaging limbs, in order to hamper the opponent’s ability to fight. Some of these techniques are truly strikes to vulnerable points (atemi-waza), while others could also be classified as tuidi-waza (seizing hand techniques) that are applied by striking.
There is a common saying in the karate world, which states that “all blocks are strikes.” Of course, they can be used as (or incorporate) strikes to the head and body, but they can also be used as strikes to the limbs. Consider shuto-uke (sword hand receiver), for example. This is a very versatile technique, with a great many applications, but one simple application is a force-on-force block. Often, this is shown against the wrist in the typical, formal fashion, but a more realistic application is to use it against a haymaker. Against that attack, our shuto-uke can be used as a force-on-force block to the middle of the attacker’s bicep. This serves not only the purpose of stopping the punch, but also causes trauma to the muscle that is responsible for bending the arm. In addition, the pain of such a strike, if it is not overridden by adrenaline or ingested substances, can be a distraction that allows you to continue your counter-attack.
If we dig a little deeper into our uke-waza, we can see how often they cross the arms as they are executed. These crossing movements can be considered kakushi-waza (hidden techniques), and they can be used to attack the limbs. The most obvious example of this can be found in the opening sequence of Pinan Shodan–you can see Funakoshi demonstrating the specific movement at the top of this article–because the crossing action is emphasized. Other uke-waza, such as jodan-uke (high level receiver) and uchi-ude-uke (inside arm receiver), also feature this type of crossing action. These can be used much like the gunting (scissors) techniques of kali, as seen in the video, above. They can also be used to quickly wrench the elbow, rather and simply strike, or strike at the bones of the forearm while the opponent is held in a wrist lock.
Another approach to striking the limbs can be seen in the circular “punches” of Passai and Kusanku, or in the tetsui-uchi (hammerfist strike) of Pinan Nidan. These movements can be very simply applied as strikes to the arms–particularly the forearms. The hammerfists can, fairly obviously, be used to strike pressure points in the forearm quite heavily. The circular “punches,” on the other hand, were described by Chibana Chosin as “kokento.” This word refers to strikes done with the first knuckles of the fingers, such as ipponken (single point fist) strikes would use. With that in mind, we can see how the circular movements in the kata can be used to “knock” on the opponent’s limbs, striking at nerves with small surfaces. Both approaches can be quite painful and distracting, and they can make the arms cramp.
The legs can also be attacked in a variety of ways, many of which will be quite familiar to most karateka. The most obvious, particularly for those who watch MMA, Muay Thai, or knockdown karate competition, may be the mawashi-geri (turning kick) to the leg–usually the inner or outer thigh, but sometimes the calf is also targeted. The inside of the thigh is full of nerves, and generally the skin is very sensitive, so a hard kick there can be very painful. The outside of the thigh, on the other hand, is home to a lot of muscle that can absorb impact, but running down its entire length is a band of fascia called the iliotibial band (IT band). This structure connects the knee to the hip, supports a number of muscles in the thigh, and contributes to knee stabilization. Strong strikes to the IT band can cause a great deal of pain, as well as muscle spasms that can significantly hamper a person’s ability to walk, let alone fight.
A more classical approach to striking the legs is to use low-line kicks, which tend to take linear, or nearly-linear paths to targets below the waist. Many karateka will be familiar with the kansetsu-geri (joint kick) that appears in Seisan, among other kata. This kick is usually described as a kick to the knee, and works quite well for that purpose, but it can also come down on the thigh, or into the calf muscle, or the shin. Obviously, driving your heel or the edge of your foot into muscles or a tender shin will be quite painful. As a strike to the knee joint, it can be debilitating. Suki-geri (shovel kicks), hiza-geri (knee kicks), and mae-geri (front kicks) can be used in similar fashions. Tsumasaki-geri (toe-tip kicks) can also be used to great affect against the soft targets in the legs.
A less popular approach to striking the legs is to use the arms to do so. As a general rule, legs should deal with legs, and arms should deal with arms. There are exceptions to every rule, however. For example, if the opponent tries to kick or knee strike you, then they may bring their leg into a position where it can be grabbed or struck–particularly if they are untrained, and don’t know how to properly set up or retract a kick. You can see an example of just such a situation in the image, above, of a Muay Boran technique. According to George Kerr, Okinawan fighting arts were strongly influenced by the arts of Indochina, including the Kingdom of Siam, which is now known as Thailand. For that reason, it would not be surprising to find that karate contains some of the same methods found in Muay Boran. Many of our kata contain uraken-uchi (backfist strikes) and chudan-uke (middle level receivers) that drop the elbow–Naihanchi, Kusanku, and Gojushiho, for example–and that motion could potentially be used for such a strike to the leg. You can also, of course, use a variety of other strikes from kata against a caught kick, if you consider that possibility in your analysis.
You may notice that most of these examples are painful, and may affect nerves or muscles, but would not end a fight in and of themselves. Even the strikes to joints may not end a fight. For this reason, these methods are best used as distractions, or supplementary strikes to use in conjunction with more reliably fight-ending techniques. They can also be used quite effectively in sport fighting, as part of a strategy of attrition, because you have the time and to wear down your opponent and create weaknesses and openings. In either case, these can be very valuable tools, and should not be neglected.