Elements of Defence – An Iconoclast’s Guide to Avoiding Attacks

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

by Michael Zimmer – Vorticity Martial Arts

Photos by Peter Fencott

Last Updated January 2, 2004

I have been a martial artist for 30 years now, and am still amazed at the intensity of debate and the failure to come to agreement on just about anything in the martial arts. One area that perplexes me is the inability to reach a common understanding of one fundamental issue, how best to avoid being hit. You would think that by now, given the amount of communication that goes on through personal exchanges, videos, seminars, books and magazines, that there would be some agreement as to the best techniques. Not so!

Having read countless magazine article over the years, I have seen a fairly confusing picture presented of something which is conceptually quite simple, how to block. One master will claim that there is no first strike, which is why the forms always start with a block. Another will claim that these blocks are really strikes, and are designed to break the attacking limb. Another master states that the apparent blocks in the forms are really disguised pressure point strikes and grappling techniques. Another has stated that each apparent cocking motion in a block is really an individual block or strike on its own. One famous first generation kick boxer claims that stylized blocks are completely ineffectual, that natural blocking motions work best. This fellow also feels that blocking is so natural no special training is required to do it. Can these disparate views be reconciled? Are they all intelligible even?

Perhaps what we need is science, which means that methods of defence must be validated empirically. I think that many real-world experiments have been carried out, in the ring and in the street. I believe that they all lead to the following conclusions: the formal techniques of blocking found in many systems are a slow way to learn, though they can lead to effective skills for the most dedicated and talented of martial artists. Moreover, these techniques are seldom used by their advocates without substantial modification. This creates inefficiencies in the learning process. I will demonstrate this with several lines of argument.

Young babies have a rudimentary ability to ward-off unwanted contact. Try to wash an unwilling infant’s face and you will see blocking and ducking both. We have characteristic blow avoidance responses that may be innate. The natural blocking response for a threat to the head from a blow or a falling object is to place the arms over the head and to cower, the approved airplane crash survival posture. Essentially what people do is to put the hands in the way of a threat.

When you learn formal stylized blocking motions, you are generally told that your cocking motion will be followed by a bone-breaking block. I know of this damage occurring in one unusual and contrived situation, but I have yet to see anybody block like that in a free- style situation. What works for pre-arranged routines is not as applicable to free situations. Blocking is frequently trained in one way, but used in another. Normally, a fully cocked block is not used for combat. Also, broken limbs are a rarity in fighting situations, and seldom result from a massively powerful block.

In far too many cases, in the training hall or the ring, fighters with boxing training have demonstrated better attack avoidance skills than very seasoned classical martial artists. This is very compelling evidence for the efficiency of boxing’s defensive techniques, as far as I can see. Of course, this is sport, and rules do apply, but I have seen nothing to convince me that the tables would be turned in a non-sporting situation. The anecdotal evidence indicates that far too often, on the street, the classical responses are not adequate. This is particularly so for attacks with a weapon.

So much training for blocking seems to me to be too stylized, rigid, and inflexible. Real attacks come at all angles; you are seldom in a classic position when defending. Also, the formal blocks are preceded by a wind-up, and the trajectories for the blocks are long and indirect. This takes more time.

I believe that the skills of ducking, bobbing and weaving, along with naturalistic blocking, patterns give boxers a tremendous edge. They are efficient at blocking and evasion against punches, and with minimal training learn to deal with kicks as well. On the other hand, boxing has no defence against bladed weapons attacks. It should be noted that boxers usually defend with a very compressed posture.

The Thai boxers have a different approach to blow avoidance, but again, it is very naturalistic, and effective. Thai boxing in itself lacks techniques for dealing with bladed weapons, although the Thais have developed Krabi Krabong, an indigenous weapons art. It is of interest that Thai boxers usually defend with a more extended posture than western boxers.

Another art with naturalistic blocking and evasive manoeuvres is Filipino Eskrima. This is often mistakenly thought to be only a stick fighting art but in fact all stick techniques translate directly to unarmed combat. It uses direct blocking motions with no wind-up, and ducking and dodging are central to the art.

By this time, I may have alienated some of my readers. That is not my intention, for I have a great respect for all of the martial arts and for dedicated martial artists. Many have been my friends, colleagues, or teachers and a large number of these will not agree with me.

There are classical masters from many styles who astound me with their skills. I am well aware that the martial arts serve ends beyond self-defence, such as sport, or character development or physical fitness. All styles will work in some situations, and all will fail in others. Always keep in mind that the skill of the individual counts at least as much as the art, and spirit may account for more.

I do have a technical case to make. It is that if you wish to become proficient in warding off attacks, some arts give much more efficient results than others. In our day and age, few are able to devote the many hours a day needed for the mastery of classical arts. This fact is especially important for those teaching short self-defence courses.

I am basing most of my views on broader issues than what I can and can’t do personally. I am looking at what I have observed, what I have read, what I have been taught, and the experiences of those whom I have taught. You might find that with dedicated effort you eventually develop superb defences by training with stylized blocking techniques. However, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, if a technique takes a master to make it work, or very long periods of practice, is it right for most of us?

I think that there are a number of factors which determine the utility of a defence system. These include the ease of learning the techniques initially; the ease of maintaining the techniques once learned; the degree of skill required in order to make the technique work reliably in a real context; and the level of talent required to exhibit high levels of competence. You want to have efficient techniques which are effective in a broad variety of situations. They should be fast and economical. They should allow you to deal with grapplers, trappers and other in-fighters. They should give you a significant probability of success

I think that in order to provide these attributes, a defence system should work with the natural patterns of instinct. Babies can defend at slow speed, children can ward off touches, and this doesn’t result from stylized training. A good blocking system should take these raw responses and shape them for consistency and maximal effectiveness. In order to do that, you should practice as you expect to perform.

It should go without saying that the most effective method of threat avoidance is to stay away from situations which might result in confrontation, and to defuse crisis situations. True self- defence should start there. However, that becomes a recipe for life, and I am more concerned with technical issues at present.

I think that there are three crucial dimensions to avoidance of an attack; evading, blocking, and hitting. All are of importance, depending upon the circumstances, and almost all three come into play together.

Hitting involves moving a limb quickly to strike a vulnerable part of your opponent’s anatomy. If you don’t want to get hit, you can hit first. Either you totally pre-empt the strike, or you move just a little faster, as in Bruce Lee’s “intercepting fist” strategy. Again, conceptually this is simple, and there are many ways to do it.

Evasion involves moving away from an attack. An attack has a trajectory that leads to a target. If you don’t want to get hit, move that target away from the trajectory. Simple isn’t it? There are several ways to do this.

Blocking involves putting an obstacle in the way of the attack. Determine the trajectory, and put an arm or a leg on that path. Again, this is quite simple. Again, there are several ways to do this. What is crucial, absolutely vital, is that you put a limb in the way of the blow, and move the target.

So, why have I given this seemingly simplistic account of defence? The reason is that it is not a simplistic account, just an explanation of how easy an art can be at the core. In fact, if you want to defend, put a limb on the trajectory of the blow and move the target. If you can do this quickly and reliably, you will never get hit.

There is another set of principles which are useful for understanding attack avoidance. They help you refine your instinctual response to a higher level, without introducing extra freight. I shall refer to them as the Categories. There are 4 of these.

A 1st Category defence involves blocking with one hand, in any fashion, touching or holding the limb with the other hand, and then hitting with your original blocking hand. There is never any wind- up. This touch prevents repeated blows with the same hand. Michael Zimmer (striped shirt), and Jim Cole (sweatshirt) demonstrate this in figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1 – 1st Category block

Figure 2 – 1st Category check and hit

A 2nd Category defence involves blocking with one hand, in any fashion, and then immediately striking with that same blocking hand. There is never any cocking motion. This results in a very fast block and counter that is deceptive and hard to deal with. This is essentially Category 1 with the intermediate touch omitted.

A 3rd Category defence consists of blocking with one hand and striking with the other. It is best if this is done simultaneously. Again, there must be absolutely no preparatory motion, and your blocking trajectory must be very straight and direct. An example of this can be seen in figure 3.

Figure 3 – 3rd Category

A 4th Category defence dispenses with the block entirely. You just evade and hit. You may put the blocking hand up to cover the target area just in case, but primarily you are relying on moving out of the way to avoid the blow. This type of response is shown in figure 4.

Figure 4 – 4th Category

Let me give you a framework for understanding hitting. Blows can come at you from many different angles. The trajectory can be looping or straight. The strike might be moving in a forehand or a backhand fashion; in an overhand or underhand fashion; or straight out. The target might be high, in the middle or low. If you train initially using the following principles of evasion and interception, the angles won’t matter much.

Next, let me give you a framework for thinking about evasion. You can lean your head and shift your hips faster than you can step. So, in order to get the fastest evasive motions, move the head and the hips first. This may mean leaning away from the vertical axis. This does not create a problem with stability as long as you know how to regain your balance by moving the feet when necessary. What is does is to get your head away from the trajectory in the most efficient possible manner. As you are evading, keep one key idea in mind, hide behind your block as though you had put up a shield.

I like to explain evasion as taking place along he arms of a “Y”. Assume that you are standing at the centre, and your attacker at the top. You can move outwards along one arm of the “Y”, backwards along the stem, inwards along the third arm. You can also drop straight down in the centre. If you require a step for positioning or balance, take a step. If you want to twist to face your opponent, then twist. If you want to turn away from your opponent, then do so. The most crucial point is to move, so that the target is no longer on the trajectory. These basic evasive motions are illustrated in figures 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Figure 5 – Fold to Evade

Figure 6 – Drop to Evade

Figure 7 – Twist and fold to Evade

Figure 8 – Twist to Evade

Figure 9 – Sway Out to Evade

Finally, let me give you a framework for thinking about blocking. I shall use 5 Categories to classify this: trajectory for interception; level of the block, orientation; degree of extension of the block; and surface of the limb used to block. Now initially, this discussion probably seems to be cumbersome and sterile. Bear with me as I explain each concept.

The intercept trajectory is really the key here. You block by bringing your limb from its current position to intercept the block. This should be as direct a motion as possible. In fact, this block might be moving in a forehand or a backhand fashion; in an overhand or underhand fashion; or straight out and straight back. For the most effective blocking, let the block move along the most direct possible trajectory required make that interception. Here is a crucial rule: minimize the lateral component of the block. This is very different than most other blocking methods.

The block must be performed at a level appropriate to the attack. If you want to meet attacks which come in high, to the middle or low, you must adjust your block to meet them. One way to adjust your block is to adjust your own height, by crouching down to the level of the blow.

A blocking arm is going to have an orientation that varies from straight up to straight down. I will use straight up, horizontal, and straight down as my 3 key points of reference. In all cases you may block with the inner surface of the arm or the outer surface. This really gives 6 key blocks to be understood as representative of all. You can block with both arms at once of course, by combining the 6 key blocks. Representative blocks are shown in figures 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Figure 10 – Arm Up, Outer Surface

Figure 11 – Arm Up, Outer Surface

Figure 12 – Arm Horizontal, Outer Surface

Figure 13 – Arm Horizontal, Inner Surface

Figure 14 – Arm Down, Outer Surface

Figure 15 – Arm Down, Inner Surface

A blocking leg has fewer degrees of freedom. The primary consideration will be whether the block is done with the inside of the leg or the outside, a cross-kick position or a side-kick position.

Blocks may be thrust outwards, or brought close to cover the body. I will use the terms extension and compression respectively. This may be seen in figures 16 and 17 respectively.

Figure 16 – Extended Block

Figure 17 – Compressed Block

Depending on the above factors, when you make contact you may touch with the back of your hand or outer-forearm, or the palm of your hand or inner-forearm. Obviously, for many of the blocks, you might rotate the arm and make contact with either surface.

The 1st Category defences discussed above involve a sort of two stage block. The second motion is called a check. In fact, if the second motion checks 2 arms at once, it is called a trap. Checking and trapping are done in order to impede subsequent blocking and striking motions by your opponent. In figure 18, trapping is demonstrated.

Figure 18 – Trapping Both Arms

There are some other aspects of blocking: focusing, deflecting, flowing, and sticking. I will explain these concepts.

Usually a block meets the blow and stops it dead. If the blow is powerful, you might want to ride with it a bit to dissipate the force more gradually. At other times, you may wish to follow the blow and check it from behind instead of blocking. This is useful in some contexts.

Some very hard styles put the whole body into a state of extreme tension when meeting the attack. This is described as focusing the bodies energy. The practical effect from all of this tension is to make it difficult to switch to the next move quickly. Although a block should not be spongy and soft, it is not necessary to make every muscle rigid in order to focus. In fact, that is counter- productive; it slows you down. What you should do is focus to the extent that you need to, and deflect by giving way if the force is too great. This works well.

If you make contact, you may wish to maintain that contact for a bit longer in order to impede subsequent blocks or attacks. We call this prolonged contact sticking. It may be done with the blocking hand or the checking hand.

One you have made blocking contact, you may wish to change immediately into another block or an attack. This technique is called flowing. It is important to be able to flow from block to block, from block to attack, from attack to block without interruption.

All of this theory has probably resulted in a structure which difficult to understand. Well, take heart, it is not necessary to understand the abstract explanation in order to do the techniques. For that you don’t really need many words of explanation, you just need a teacher to lead you through some of the proper drills. These would include shadow boxing, the Sinawali of Modern Arnis, the Hubad Lubod of Eskrima, and drills based on the Categories. These will be discussed in subsequent articles.

I have successfully taught raw beginners to block using these principles and techniques, without ever giving them an inkling that a classical knife-hand block, downwards block or rising block ever existed. I believe that they learned to block more quickly than did other students whom I trained with stylized blocking, and their levels of achievement seemed to be better. I also think that these differences held true over time, as they advanced in skill.