Karate is not a single, homogeneous practice, but rather is made up of a wide variety of styles, all of which are eclectic blends of native Okinawan arts, Japanese arts, Chinese arts, Indochinese arts, and more. While the human body only functions in so many ways, there are actually quite a number of approaches to doing most things, including generating power, so it should be no surprise that karate is not an art with one singular, standardized approach to doing so. Indeed, even across the wider martial arts spectrum, there are many ways of achieving power. There is bound to be a good deal of cross-over, of course, and underlying principles that can be universally applied, but it can still be beneficial to explore the wider array of methods available to you, as one may fit your body or approach better than another. Most karateka are familiar with koshi no hineru/kaiten (twisting/rotating of the hips) to generate power, of course, and the simplest approach to this is fairly commonly taught. Stepping in various directions is also a built-in power generation method that can be found in kata, although not always explored as such. Sinking and rising are less commonly seen in modern karate, as the desire for a level plane of movement has become a popular aesthetic in kata, but can be very effective at adding force to a technique. Twisting the body without the use of the hips is a method of generating power that many karateka feel is simply not correct, and yet it can be found in old Uchina-Di (Okinawa-Te), as well as some other martial systems around the world. These approaches can be blended, and worked with various timings, in order to find the most efficient and effective methods for generating power in differing circumstances. It is my belief that restricting oneself to a single power generation method is unnecessarily limiting, and by exploring other methods, one can find power that fits different movements and body types, which they otherwise may never have had available to them.
It is common knowledge that power comes from the ground up, and this is certainly true of torquing the hips to generate power. When it comes down to it, the hips do not move independently of the rest of the body–the legs are what move the hips–so when your hips twist, it is indicative of your legs transferring power up through your hips and into your upper body, when done correctly. A popular drill for learning to do this is to stand in a 45 degree shiko-dachi (Sumo stance), then drive with your back leg to shift into a zenkutsu-dachi (bend forward stance) as you execute a technique. Usually, this is done with a gyaku-tsuki (reverse thrust), but it can be applied to various other strikes, and even uke-waza (receiving techniques). Additionally, this can be done in different ways to emphasize different components of a technique (which you can see here: LINK). At it’s most basic level, this can simply be a back-and-forth twisting used to drive either side of the body forward by rotating around the center, as if a line was drawn vertically through the center of the body to act as an axis. This action means that one side moves back as the other side moves forward, but one can also move that vertical axis to the otherwise rear-moving hip, so that it stays in place and more body weight is moved forward. In both cases, it is common to see people cock the hip back before twisting it forward, in order to set themselves up for more power. It is important to remember that the cocking action can be used to generate power for a technique, as well, so that the setup for your more powerful strike isn’t simply dead time. Additionally, these twists do not need to necessarily move in a strictly horizontal, back-and-forth manner. By incorporating pelvic tilt, which is a key component of gamaku (which Ryan Parker Sensei wrote about, here: LINK), you can not only create a more direct link between the upper and lower body for the transmission of kinetic energy, but also alter the path that the hips move through in the process of generating power. Typically, when moving the hips back-and-forth, they stop moving before changing direction to generate power on the other side of the body. When incorporating arcs (part of the kuruma (wheel) concept I have previously discussed, here: LINK), it is possible to keep the hips moving as you change their direction, giving you a smoother transition. Additionally, the core compression involved in gamaku can provide downward and upward power, by either dropping the upper body’s weight into the hips, or whipping it up from the hips.
The simple act of stepping forward, backward, or side-to-side is a controlled loss of balance, during which your entire body weight is moving. That, in itself, adds your weight to your technique, plus however much force you use to drive yourself in that direction with the muscles of your legs. This is a very natural way to generate power with the human body, and is present in every kata that I am aware of. Outside of martial arts, humans use this all the time doing things from pulling open a heavy door to pushing a broken down car. Stepping can add a good deal of power to your techniques–in addition to accomplishing sabaki (movement), tenshin (shifting), irimi (entering), or hikkomi (retreat), and acting as an opportunity to kick or knee strike the opponent. The problem that it runs into is that it is relatively slow. Of course, one can train to move quickly, but stepping requires you to move your entire body, and is naturally a slower action than moving just an arm, for example. For some techniques, this is not much of a concern, but for those where speed is necessary, you can still incorporate power generation through stepping by experimenting with timing.
Sinking and rising are two sides of the same coin, from a directional perspective, but work in very different ways. Sinking, of course, lowers your body weight through the utilization of gravity, while rising moves your body weight through the muscular engagement of the legs driving upward, against gravity. The use of gravity is a relatively easy way to get power, as it doesn’t require much energy to do, up until you have to arrest your descent. This can be used for everything from strikes, to throws, to joint locks, and is a natural way for the human body to exert downward force. Rising, while taking more effort, becomes very important when you have to transition from a low position to a higher one, or when one must strike or otherwise apply pressure in an upward direction. This is really where hojo undo (supplemental training) with barbells, particularly squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts, will benefit a karateka, by building explosive power. Both components can be applied in very subtle ways, with just slight shifts in height, or in drastic ways, such as jumping or dropping to the floor. Like stepping, these are also power generation methods that are built into most kata. Unlike stepping, however, these have been lost in many styles over the course of their development, due to the aesthetic preference for maintaining a level head height throughout kata. If one looks at older examples of kata, you can often find instances of sinking and rising in the transitions between lower stances and higher ones. For example, in the beginning of Pinan Nidan, one has thrown a punch to the side in shizentai-dachi/han-zenkutsu-dachi (natural body stance/half bend forward stance), then turns to the front and executes gedan-barai (low sweep) in zenkutsu-dachi, before stepping forward into shizentai-dachi/han-zenkutsu-dachi to execute a jodan-uke (high level receiver). Because zenkutsu-dachi is naturally a lower position than shizentai-dachi/han-zenkutsu-dachi, there must be a change in elevation, and this can be used to generate power. My Sensei, Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan), explains this briefly in the video, above.
Twisting to generate power in karate is often rigidly associated with the twisting of the hips, but simply twisting at the waist, using your core muscles, can be an effective method of generating force. Motobu Choki–the late Okinawan karate master famed for testing his skills in street fights–once said: “In the Naihanchi kata, twisting to either the right or the left is a stance that can be used in actual confrontation. Thinking of twisting to either the right or left in the Naihanchi kata, one can start to understand one by one the meaning of the movements contained therein.” If one looks at Tachimura no Naihanchi, which is practiced in the KishimotoDi system (which I have previously written about here: LINK 1, LINK 2, LINK 3), this twisting action is very evident. Additionally, unlike most extant variants of Naihanchi, it does not use the hips to drive the twist of the upper body. This type of power generation can be especially helpful when applying techniques where your stance is being utilized to directly attack your opponent’s structure. If you have stepped behind your opponent’s legs, for example, and are using the stance to compromise their balance, it can be difficult to move your hips because their legs are restricting yours, and moving your legs too much could disengage your stance from theirs. Twisting at the waist in this manner is fairly difficult, at first, as it requires explosive contractions of the abdominal, oblique, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae muscles in cooperation with each other, but does become easier with practice. It should also be noted that this approach still generates power from the ground up, in a way. Instead of driving with the legs to generate power, the legs must be used as a stable base on which to twist. If the stance is not structurally sound, then twisting the body can shift the legs and dissipate the power one is attempting to generate.
With any of these methods, transmission of power through the body is vital to being able to actually deliver the power to the target, and part of that transmission is the use of relaxation and tension. As a general rule, most karateka are familiar with the idea of staying relaxed until impact, at which point they tense all of their muscles. This tension at the end is typically called “kime,” the shortened form of the word “kimeru,” which can mean many things, including “to decide/resolve,” or “to carry out successfully.” The human body cannot be completely relaxed and in use at the same time–we would simply collapse without some degree of tension to keep our skeletons upright. Thankfully, muscles are not binary devices, consisting of only “tense” and “relaxed” states, but cover many degrees of those states. Additionally, the human body is not an “all or none” system, so different muscles can be tensed or relaxed to varying degrees independently, although some muscles obviously must work in conjunction with each other. This can make for some very complex sequences of muscular engagement, but that also allows us to fine-tune our body mechanics. To do this, it is important to evaluate which muscles are tensing at what times, because tension in some muscles will slow a movement, while tension in others will speed it up, and speed is going to generate more power. Additionally, chinkuchi (muscle, tendon, bone) is important to successfully transferring your power into your strikes, locks, and throws. Chinkuchi is a structural concept, which focuses on using angles and planes of movement that are as structurally sound as possible, so that your body doesn’t collapse or give way when it should be strong, and reduces the amount of muscular tension needed to maintain the structure of your technique. Returning to the idea of kime, it should be noted that kime and chinkuchi are not the same, although they can appear that way when a karateka locks their body into a chinkuchi position. Additionally, kime is intended for stopping a strike, so it will actually slow the technique down, and should really only be used when performing kata and techniques in the air, or when you are holding back from striking your partner. If you intend to actually strike something, some tension is obviously required, but locking down your body in this manner can actually reduce the power of your strike.
These methods can also be augmented by timing, which can be used in different ways to balance out power and speed. Many karateka are taught to settle into their stance before executing a technique. The idea behind this is that, because you generate power from the ground up, you must have rooted your stance before throwing a technique in order to generate the maximum amount of force, but as this article has discussed, that is not true, because movement adds to your power, rather than subtracting from it. Additionally, this is a slower method of reaching your target if you are striking, as the feet and body move more slowly than the hands, and those must be moved before the hands when using this method. That said, it can be useful for techniques where you must fit your body into a position before executing the technique, such as some throws and joint locks. Another way to approach timing is to use the hands, body, and feet at the same time–in KishimotoDi, this is called taigi ichi (body and technique as one), and is one of the style’s three guiding principles. This approach is a good balance of power generation and speed for arriving at the target, although it isn’t always easy to accomplish. In historical European martial arts (HEMA), there is a concept called “true time,” which describes the idea of moving the hands before the feet. The idea behind this approach to timing is that because the hands can be moved more quickly than the feet, the strike can travel to the target much more quickly, albeit with less power. Of course, when using a weapon–particularly a bladed one, as is often the case in HEMA–a good amount of damage can be done with a smaller amount of force than with an unarmed attack, because weapons are a force multiplier. This can be applied to unarmed methods, however, especially in the case of joint locks. If one intends to strike as a method of distraction or shock, this timing also works well, as it can be done very quickly, and then a more powerful strike can be delivered afterward. As with tension and relaxation, timing is something of a gradient, and can be adjusted in minute increments to find the most efficient approach for a given person or technique. Timing can also be addressed in a more granular manner, by adjusting which muscles and joints move at what time during the execution of a technique.
The human body is built generally the same way across the world, and so we tend to find the same collections of power generation methods in every system, but they are often implemented in different ways. This can be for purely stylistic or cultural reasons, but often they have stemmed from the personal preferences of instructors over time. People’s skeletal structures can be different depending on the region they come from, genetic traits, and congenital “deformities” that differ from what is considered “normal” in a given population (which is shown quite well in this article on why different people will perform squats differently: LINK). Additionally, people have different heights, weights, body compositions, and muscular types. All of these mean that, although we all have the same pool of methods to choose from, they may not all work as well for us as they do for someone else. It is important to explore all of these methods, and experiment with them to find which ones fit you the best, and what situations they are most suited for. In the end, you will likely find yourself using a blend of all of these power generation methods, to varying degrees. That is part of what makes karate an “art,” as it must be experimented with, and made to fit and express the karateka on an individual level.