Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Taekwondo "Blocks"

This will be a post that focuses on the application(s) of Taekwondo "Makki-techniques". Makki is a
Korean word that is usually translated into "block" in English. Makki being "block" is a valid translation so I will not say that it is a mistaken translation, but it is a simplified one. If you look closer on the Korean word you will get more translations, and you can look at an older blog post of mine where I did examine the word Makki and its root word Makda. In my view Makki should be translated into "defensive technique" instead of simply "block". Being defensive does not mean that you are simply lifting your arm into position to create an obstacle between you and the attacking limb (this is what you might picture in your head when reading the word "block"). Neither does "defensive technique" stop at merely swapping the attacking limb away as in a "parry". Defensive technique in this case relates to something you do to your opponent so that you receive, redirect or in any other way hinder an attack while gaining an advantageous position. This can be, but is not limited to: parries, blocks, checks, locks, pre-emptive strikes, various limb control techniques etc. This view is supported by the applications to "makki-techniques" in the Kukkiwon textbook where on at least two different occasions "blocks" are applied as joint locks!

With the rise of "forms applications" the techniques labelled "Blocks" has been ridiculed or reintepret as anything but a defensive technique. I have another early post on this blog (one of the first ones I ever published in fact) where I jumped on this badwagon and wrote: "Taekwondo blocks are never a block!" which was (and still is) a popular viewpoint in the forms applications group(s). The thing is that we need defensive techniques. If all we have is offense, then we are severly lacking in our toolboxes. What do you do against a punch or any other attack? If you cant counterstrike them or get out of the way by bobbing and weaving then what? When the pioneers of Taekwondo and the root arts of Taekwondo said that everything you needed to know about self defense and fighting is within the forms you would expect there to be defensive techniques in them as well as offensive techniques would you not? Reinterpreting low blocks as only a straight arm bar and nothing else, a high block as a forearm strike and nothing else, a knife hand block as a knife hand strike to the neck and nothing else leaves you with a great offense, but no defense. How do you receive an attack? How do you put yourself into an advantageous position from where to launch your counter-attack? Where in Poomsae would you look for these techniques? I think that a great part of the answer if not the whole answer is to look to the Poomsae`s "Makki-techniques".

Traditional interpretations/applications

With traditional applications I am referring to the textbook, mainstream application where you are using the "primary movement" as a block or parry. For instance a "low block" or Arae Makki/ Naryo Makki consists of a chamber, and one arm being pulled to the hip while the other is moved down into the finishing position. It is the latter (the arm being moved to the finishing position) that is being used in the traditional application. The chamber is dropped in sparring and you parry from wherever your hand is located and you do not pull the other hand back to the hip in application. You do pull it back (and chamber) in the textbook applications though. The reason for the inconsistency from what is termed basic technique (as you would do it in the Poomsae) and the application can be explained by the form exploring a full range of motion. This is put forward by noted martial arts blogger Dan Djurdjevic (I hope I spelled his last name correctly), and it is a sound theory. For beginners learning the optimal  path for a parry simply by parrying (where the actual movement might be as small as a few centimeters or an inch or two for those who do not follow the metric system) can be a challenge. Chamber the technique so that you go through a full range of movement however and you get an easy study guide to tell you the optimal path which you then can shorten down into a useable tool. Shortening a technique coupled with correct evasion will make most "traditional" applications of basic blocks useable in my opinion.

Texbook/Traditional application of  Arae Makki

The reason I am not 100% behind this theory however is threefold: 1: this theory does not take the pulling hand into any consideration and only the primary movement is of any use. 2: When looking at more "esoteric" blocks such as double low spreading block, mountain block and so on, just shortening the technique does not make much sense of the original movement anymore. 3: The discrephansy between the basic technique and the application of said technique is too great. You are essentually drilling two very different skills doubling your efforts instead of learning how to use one movement.

I recognize that we need defensive techniques, but locking ourselves into the traditional applications box will not help. It will produce limited results and it will leave people puzzled as to what some movements of the forms they practise actually are. They will also produce a disconnect between traditional basic techniques and the application of said techniques, thereby promoting the practise of ditching the traditional aspects of Taekwondo in favour of sport sparring and poomsae as solo performance art sport instead of taekwondo as a holistic martial art where Poomsae serves a logical role within the system.

It should be remembered that this incarnation of Taekwondo coupled with Ho Sin Sul (selfdefense) skills such as locks, throws, sweeps etc proved itself in the Korean war (precursor of Taekwondo) and in the vietnamese war (early Taekwondo). This means that good results can come from this approach eventhough I personally do not think it is an ideal approach.

It should be noted that "traditional" application here refers to what you will see in textbooks written from the Kwan era (1940s-1970s) until today. In older times "blocks" or "makki techniques" were likely used in different ways than in "traditional" applications. One way to differentiate between these usages might be to adopt the term "classical" to refer to pre kwan era applications and "traditional" to refer to the Kwan era until today. I use "traditional" here because these are the primary applications that has been handed down from the 1940s onward and therefore can be said to be traditional.

A block is never a block approach

This is what I was talking about in the introduction. If you limit your interpretations to purely offensive techniques then you will be very limited. I am all for "alternative applications", and my blog is one of extremly few places where you can go online and watch practical applications to Taekwondo poomsae for free. There are some similar blogs that explore the Chang Hon forms, but as far as I know the sites where you can view practical applications to Poomsae are few indeed. The "fault" with many modern interpretations to the makki techniques are that they are pure offense and has no defense in them. High block is a forarm strike to the neck, low block is a hammer fist strike to the groin, inward block is a hammerfist strike to the jaw, knifehand block is a knifehand strike to the neck etc. Often the interpretations have part of the answer correct. They therefore use more of the basic techniue than the traditional applications and so there is more of an overlap between the basic technique and the application of the basic technique than in the "traditional applications" of the traditional basic techniques.

Where this approach fails however is that the chamber is often overlooked, as well as in many basic makki techniques within the Kukkiwon standard the "blocking hand" is chambered on the outside of the pulling hand. This means that the modern interpretations (blocks as strikes) will either be invalid or you need to change up the basic technique so it fits with the interpretation. The last solution is not that unorthodox, because most techniques that we today chamber on the outside were in fact chambered on the inside in the older Kwan (early Taekwondo or just prior to the development of Taekwondo). The knifehand guarding block is another example of this since the Kukkiwon standard has a radically different way of chambering this block when compared to the way say a modern Shotokan practisioner would chamber it.

The smaller disconnect but still disconnect between traditional technique and application often makes people who do not understand the kukkiwon standard of basic technique question and or ridicule the pioneers of  Kukki taekwondo. They blame the transmission of knowledge from the root arts to the modern day, they blame the introduction of the martial arts into schools, they say the Korean pioneers only learned childrens martial arts and that they did not even understand that and so on. While the transmission of knowledge from the old days until today has undoubtfulle had its issues, I firmly believe that the founders and orignators of our Poomsae knew enough to make them functional. They might not be as deep as certain Karate Kata which was developed over centuries, but they do possess more than enough material to work from.

Makki techniques as a defensive technique approach

This is where I am today. I believe that Makki techniques are used for a wide variety of situations that frequently appear in combat, but they are at least in part defensive. Do not get me wrong more often than not the "defense" lies within the chamber, and what people often think of as the actual "block" is the offense. One example that I frequently have shared on this blog is the knife hand guarding block of Taekwondo. In Karate there is a different chamber today, and so many believe that the "taekwondo way" is simply a bastardisation of the "original" karate technique. If you look at the development of Karate however you will come to realize that the "Taekwondo way" is actually an old Karate way of doing the technique. Older Shotokan and Ji Do Kwan had both techniques in their curriculum. Sihak Henry Cho demonstrates both chambers of the technique in his 1968 book on sparring. Over time Taekwondo favoured one chamber over the other, and likewise Shotokan standarised their block with the other chamber (but you can see remnants of it in their forms such as the ending of Bassai Kata).

In the Taekwondo way we lift both hands and move them behind us. This is very similar to a Tai Chi Chuan technique were we receive a round attack, absorb it and redirect it past us and then flow into a knife hand strike to the neck. The same technique can be used to clear limbs out of the way for the follow up knife hand strike. So you can see that while it is a defensive technique, we instantly flow into offense right away. This is very much inline with what Gichin Funakoshi wrote in his earlier works, and it also fits in with the oriental philosophy of opposites/dualism. There is offense in defense and defense in offense. It also fits in with what other pioneers of Karate and Taekwondo says about the makki techniques.

As you can see this application uses the whole movement and not just a part of it. The chamber fullfills an important part of the application, and while you do get on the offense very fast it starts out as a defense. Therefore labelling it a "makki-technique" is correct in my disturbed mind. For those who have seen the application for low block where I use it as a release for a same side wrist hold (or a cross side wrist hold into an armbar) you will note that eventhough it is a release technique (or an armbar) it is still a "defense" against a hold. Therefore labelling it a Makki technique as in a defensive technique makes sense. I mentioned the Kukkiwon Textbook has a makki technique as a joint lock. In Pyungwon Poomsae you have an outward W-block (or outward mountain block/ Hecho Santeul Makki) which the textbook demonstrates as a defense against someone holding around your mid section. You use the movement to put pressure on both of their elbows, lifting them upward. While I do not agree with that tactic/ application it does demonstrate that "defensive technique" is a far better translation than merely "block".

The Parry-pass method is what I usually see today when looking at most of the basic techniques labelled "Makki". This method is great when you are having trouble reading your opponent because it covers most of the body as well as it has a built in redundancy that makes recovering easier if you missread or were to slow so that the opponent can get another shot off before you close him off. In this article I will demonstrate a low parry-pass, a middle parry-pass and a high-parry pass. The different Poomsae will demonstrate different follow ups and finishing techniques which you can then play around with.

Parry-Pass Method:

The parry pass method works as I have said against low, mid or high level attacks, it also works as a defense against grabs, or simply getting control while jockeying for position in the clinch. I will show examples here, but this is just barely scratching the surface. I hope to do a dedicated article on this concept because it is a very profound part of how most makki-techniques works in "my taekwondo". While these examples are from contact points or single attacks, it will also shut down most combinations as well (a jap-cross for instance).

Low Parry-Pass:

You start in a neutral position. Chumbi means ready position and signifies that it has potential for all techniques.

 You then shift to the left with the angle in the form telling you to reorientate yourself to the side of the attacker who is in front. One hand is lifted up, the other hand sweeps forward inwards because of your turn. In the "low parry pass" this is the actual "block" or defense.

 You then withdraw your hand to your hip as the other hand sweeps down into finishing position. In application this will shut down attack number two if it is a combination attack, and or it will close the attacker off. It also serves as a crude but effective limb control as you will now have total control of where the opponents arm is and this in turn will make it easier to grab it.

You then withdraw the hand to your hip and punch. This will be a punch with the pulling arm in use.
 I am sorry but this is mirror image to the "forms example" above, but it is the application of the same sequence. If you think of the example of the form above as move 1 and 2 of taegeuk il jang the applicaiton will be move 3 and 4 from taegeuk il jang. Here we see how you shift to the outside of the attack, the lower arm parries the attack inward while the other hand protects your head.

 The upper arm then secures the attack by sweeping it out of the way (the actual block)
 You grab the attacking arm.
And punch. If you have seen my articles on the application of taegeuk il jang you will note that this is the same position you find yourself in when applying the first move (low block) as a wrist grab release and so the application that follows is a natural follow up (the arm bar and finishing strike).

The example is against a low line attack, but it will work from any contact point where the arm that gets in contact wiht the opponent is low, and it will also work from jockeying for position in a clinch making this a very versitile movement. The follow ups that are possible are many indeed. One way of looking at the opening of Taegeuk 1, 2 and 3 is 3 different follow ups to the same opening defensive technique. The above example is from Taegeuk 1 Jang, the opening moves of taegeuk 2 jang would be a slightly downwards head punch where you really utilized your body weight to transmit power into the target and follow through. Taegeuk 3 would be the same as above but with a kick and two punches as follow ups instead of just the one in taegeuk 1,

Middle Parry-Pass:

The middle parry pass method first shows up in Taegeuk 3 jang in the mid portion of the form (outward knife hand block in back stance followed by a transfer into long front stance and mid section punch).

Here we have the chamber. The angle in the solo performance of the form (turn 90 degrees to the side) tells us to move to the side of the attack. Personally I favour the outside. Here you have a shortened inward block and cover.

 Here we have the "block" iteself.
 Flow into a punch in this case as this sequence is from Taegeuk Sam Jang.
 Inward parry and cover which is what many consider to be the chamber of the block in solo performance of Poomsae.
 Here we have the "block itself". Like in the previous example this is also a crude but effective method of basic limb control, making grabbing easier.
Grab and punch, the shifting in the stance makes transmission of body weight into the target easier.

This is demonstrated against a linear mid level attack, but again it can be done from any number of straight or straightish attacks and even combinations, and it could also be used from any number of contact points such as if the opponent blocked your strike inward, flowing into this technique would be you working to an advantageous position and clearing limbs for your counter attack. It is in other words a very versitile movement, and it can be followed up with any number of follow ups. In Pyungwon you follow up with an upward elbow strike which if done from the same position would damage or hyper extend the opponents elbow joint.

High Parry-Pass:

High section parry pass is popular in Kukki Taekwondo Poomsae. Everytime you do a high section basic block (Eulgeul Makki) you practise this method. It is extremly useful if you are close to your opponent (we are talking almost chest to chest distance), and it is very "safe" as it automatically covers your head. That is the reason why I think the low parry pass and the high parry pass is introduced and drilled in Taegeuk 1 and 2 before introducing the mid section in Taegeuk 3. If you have trouble reading your opponent is somewhat safer to do the high parry pass than the other ones as well because as I said it protects your head more. As we have allready used an example of Taegeuk 1, I would like to use one from Taegeuk Oh (5) Jang this time to illustrate the high parry pass:

 "Chamber of the high block" here used as a shortened inward parry and cover.
 Step into the attack and pass to the other hand redirecting the attack upwards. Try hitting just behind the opponents elbow to turn him away from you, or go even deeper and do it just before the armpit to turn him away and push him out of balance at the same time.
 In Taegeuk Oh Jang we follow up with a knee strike to the opponents leg, and a distracting strike to the head which could be a bear claw strike. This will clear a path for the rest of the form. This is the chamber of the side kick and hammer fist strike combo from the solo performance of the form.
 Here we kick the opponents leg and deliver a hammer fist strike to the opponents face turning him the other way and taking out his balance.

From here we deliver the finishing elbow strike. As the head is brought down from the previous kick the elbow is delivered in mid section in solo performance of the form. Here I did not follow through with the kick as I am just demonstrating so the elbow is in high section.

Do not get to hung up on what comes after the "high" block in the previous example, because the point I am trying to make is that there can be a great many different follow ups and that the theme of these core defensive techniques are explored thouroughly in the Taegeuk Poomsae overall, and expanded even further in the black belt Poomsae.

Perhaps the main thing I am trying to get accross in this post that most overlook when it comes to application  of the kukki poomsae is this: have you ever looked closer at how you transition into the different basic blocks? They might look a little different but the chamber for low block, outward block and high section block are essentually the same!

Cover the body, but this "chamber" is slightly linear (Low block chamber)

Cover the body, this one is slightly rounder (outward block chamber)

Cover the body, essentually same as outward block chamber but this is 
high section block. Sorry I could not find a picture of me doing the solo
performance chamber.

If you study the Kukki Taekwondo Poomsae and you think that you have too many defenses and blocks, you can remember that if you use the chamber of the techniques as defenses you have a very versitile defense that you can flow into any number of things. You flinch into this cover and get a low contact point flow into low block, middle contact point flow up or to the outside, and same for high contact point, flow into high or outward pass. The follow up from there you can pick and chose yourself, but the Poomsae have demonstrated many for you allready.


  1. Good article! Do you happen to have a source on your statement that karateka used to practice both versions of the knifehand guarding block? I'm writing a post about the block myself and it would be helpful.

    1. 5 years one kata by Bill Burgar for written reference but if you find old (black and white from the 1930s) videos of Shotokan performing kata you'll notice both chambers being used.

    2. It's also a remnant left if you look at bassai kata. The last knife hand block.