A mystery of the elbow position in choku zuki  謎・直突きと肘の関係 (Part 1)

Kanazawa choku zukiWhen you execute choku zuki (straight punch), do you pay attention to your elbow? I expect most the shotokan practitioners do not.  Your sensei may tell you to have a strong stance, keep your shoulder down and possibly check your fist. If your sensei tells you to bring your shoulder down and tense the arm pit, then he or she is giving you an excellent suggestion. It is even better if he/she gives you the relationship of the tension of the shoulder, arm pit and upper back (the area of the shoulder blade). I am sure many of the senior shotokan instructors can and in fact do teach these points. However, I am afraid not too many can go further into the explanation of how to use the muscle groups in the forearm.

I remember one day in the early 1980’s, Sugano sensei (at far right in the photo below. Young author is at far left) and a few of the assistant instructors were in his bar. Sugano sensei is my first seBar with Sugano senseinsei in Kobe Japan and he had his own small shop where only a dozen or fewer people could fit . This bar is where Sugano sensei would talk about karate techniques. The customs in Japan are quite different from what the readers are used to. The Japanese sensei typically do not talk about the karate history, philosophy and the in depth concept of karate techniques in a dojo. Yes, if you are doing your techniques incorrectly he will correct you. He will not correct you with the kind words but either by hitting the arm, legs or hips with his shinai or tap the area either with his fist or foot. The Japanese sensei who lived outside Japan would not do this and even the visiting instructors these days. They learned that the culture is different outside of Japan. Anyway, his bar was one of the few places where he relaxed and shared his thoughts and knowledge. It was an honor to be invited by Sugano sensei after a regular training. We loved to tag along and most of the instructors wanted to drink whereas I had a different objective. I could ask him some questions about the karate techniques. Believe it or not, we could not ask any questions in a dojo. In fact, we were not supposed to talk at all, period. The only word we could say was “Oss” regardless of the questions or the commands by the instructor.

So that evening, Sugano sensei rolled up his sleeves and said “Look!”. He showed us his extended arm in a choku zuki form.  He was built like a bear and his arms were like  thick logs. He was probably 175cm tall and was over 100kg.  Then he asked “What do you think?” We were not sure what he was asking. It was impressive and almost scary to look at his big fist so we said something like “Your choku zuki looks strong”. He said, “Fool! What do you see in my arm?” I was not sure what he was getting at but I noticed that his arm was bent slightly downward. So I said, “Ah, your arm is bent.” He said, “No, it is not bent. When you really hit someone in front of you, you need to tighen your arm this way.” It was more than 30 years ago so I do not quite remember all the explanation he gave but I only remember that he used the word of “shime 締め”(but not “kime”). Shime means tighten, contract or squeeze. It’s  similar to “kime” but a little different and it is difficult to explain the fine nuance between these two words.  I remember that he showed us the position of his elbow and stressed the importance of having the elbow at the right place. His elbow was pointing stright downward and it looked funny. I tried to imitate his elbow position and could not do it at that time. He laughed and said “This is how you punch in a street fight.” I thought my punching was good enough for a street fight so I was a little perplexed and frankly felt upset a little. He saw the expression on my face so followed up with a statement that if I had punched a makiwara many times in that arm form it would harm my shoulder and especially elbow. I did not understand it then what he meant and why he said it at that time, but now I do. I wish to share this with the readers in case they are not paying much attention to their elbow when they punch choku zuki.

tournament 4If I tell you that there are two basic kinds of kicks; ke-age and ke-komi, I am sure you comply with my statement. How about if I tell you there are also two striking methods? Some will quickly think of a uraken with a snap back and also a thrust (uchi komi). I am glad that you understand that mechanism. Then, how about in choku zuki? Most of you will say, “No, there is only one way.” You are partially correct that there is no snap back in choku zuki. However, there is another method called tsuki hanashi just as we have one more kicking method, keri hanashi or ke-banashi. It is a method of letting your foot or fist go without a snap back or tension (kime). In mae geri case, for example, it is more effective if you can “ride” on your kick and kick it through if it is a real fight. However, in a tournament, you cannot do this as you will injur your opponent and most likely you will not get a point. What you need to do is to have a quick snap back to earn a point. The same mechanism can be applied to choku zuki (both oi zuki and gyaku zuki). So, a fast choku zuki in a tournament is, most of the time, tsuki hanashi without shime. Why do they do tsuki hanashi? 

First, you have a longTournamenter distance which you need in a tournament situation (two competitors are typically more than a meter apart). Second, a punch can be faster with less tension. As our tournament is sun dome (寸止め non contact) you cannot punch through so what do they do? They quickly pull their fist back to their hip.  I am sure you have seen this action. Just like a snap back of mae geri and mawashi geri, this pull back of a punch is required to get a point in many cases. If one punches through and if he knocks the opponent out, though it would be a win in a street fight, he or she will receive a hansoku (反則 penalty). In the photo shown here (left), the competitor on the left had a good punch that was connected to the opponent jodan and if he had extended his arm he could have knocked the opponent down. But I suspect that he probably did not get a point as it would be considered too close as his arm was not fully extended. On the other hand, the competitor on the right, we can see on the photo, missed the target. However, he extended his arm and if the judges failed to catch that he missed the target, this competitor might have gotten a waza ari.Mas Oyama

Let’s look at another punching method called choku zuki with shime. See the photo of Mas Oyama of Kyokushinkai punching in the kangeiko (winter training, right). You can see his elbow is pointing downward here. He is putting chinkuchi to his upper back and his arm. This tightens his armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi & teres major) as well as the upper arm (triceps brachii). You may not see this type of arm formation in Shotokan karate training any more. However, if you punch a makiwara, you will understand that bringing the elbow down is better. You will have a much better reception of the impact not only at the shoulder but mainly at the elbow.  

See thNishiyama makiwarae photos below left and right. One on the left is young Nishiyama and one on the right is young Oyama punching a makiwara and notice the arm and elbow position of these two sensei. When you punch a makiwara you cannot punch with tsuki hanashi. You will damage, your shoulder, the elbow and possibly your wrist. You must have a good shime (contraction) to absorb the impact. If this (meaning punching seiken with the elbow pointing downward) is difficult to do, I suggest that you  punch a makiwara with ura zuki (inverted fist). You may have never punched a makiwara with ura zuki and might have felt uncomfortable. In order to hit a makiwara square to your fist, you either have to bend your wrist backward a little (not more than 10 or 15 degrees to avoid an injury at the wrist) or approach and get closer to the makiwara so you can punch at a lower level or at your hip level. You may still feel uneasy punching this way as it is new to you, but I am sure you found that your elbow was Oyama makiwara 2pointing downward. You will not experience any elbow problem with this punching. However, you may say, “the distance is too close. I want to hit a makiwara at a further distance.” In this case, punch with tate ken (vertical fist). With this fist, you can punch almost as far as seiken zuki and you will find you can keep your elbow downward too.  I almost recommend all who want to train in a makiwara to always use tate ken to prevent the elbow injury. This is a very safe way to punch even at the full extension. Maybe the Chinese martial art experts in the ancient time knew from the experience that tate ken is the safest, some of the kung fu styles (i.e.  Tai chi, illustration below left) use only tate ken in their training.

You may say, two Tai chipunching techniques; ura zuki and tate zuki employ only the arm stretching movement and does not have the rotation of the forearm that is supposed to be increasing the punching power. The movement is called cork screw and even a famous boxer like Muhammad Ali used this punching method. It is true that the final turning of the forearm will give the extra power and what the Okinawan (probably the kung fu styles as well) masters improvised the special way of punching by keeping the elbow down but enabling the forearm to rotate at the end of seiken zuki or choku zuki.

 

 

Here is how you train your arm to do seiken zuki without rotating the elbow.

Photo 1:IMG_3424

Starting point from the hip just as you do your chokuzuki.

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Photo 2:

IMG_3425

The right arm starting to extend, be sure to keep the elbow pointing downward and close to the side of your body.

The right shoulder should be pulled down and not much tension in your right arm as you push your right fist forward.

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Photo 3:

The arm is further extended keeping the elbow down. Now it should look like one is doing ura zuki.

In other words, up to this point think of doing ura zuki with your punching arm.IMG_3426

Again, the right shoulder must not be raised and continue to keep the right elbow pointing downward.

Only the minimum tension should be applied to the right arm at this moment.

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Photo 3B:IMG_3415

In this photo the sleeves are rolled up to show the elbow position better.

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Photo 4:IMG_3427

As you extend your arm you will begin to rotate the forearm but it is critically important that

you will keep the elbow downward. You will rotate ONLY the fist.

Now it looks like one is doing tate ken. If you believe that you are doing tate ken then you can keep your elbow downward easily. 

Up to now, the process should not be too difficult. The next step (Photo 5) is the challenging one.

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Photo 4B:IMG_3417

The sleeves are rolled up again to show the elbow position.

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Photo 5:IMG_3428

Your arm is now 90% extended and only your fist is turning (without turning the elbow).

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Photo 6:IMG_3432

Choku zuki is now completed. The arm looks like it is bent at the elbow but it is not bent. The shoulder is pulled down and pushed forward.

This is because I put chinkuchi at the arm pit and the upper back. It resulted in “pulling” the arm down while keeping the elbow down.

If you force your elbow to extend further, you will find it is almost impossible and you can feel the hyper extension which is,

of course not good for your elbow.

Here is a photo of a Goju ryu westerner (below) practitioner punching with chinkuchi so you can see the slight bent at the elbow as he is tightening his arm pit and keeping his shoulder down with the elbow pointing downward.Goju westerner

Even if you do not believe that this punching method has been practiced by the shotokan karateka in the past, it is worth trying this on your makiwara training. I am sure you will feel the difference when you punch this way, which is hopefully a good difference.

What I am presenting here is that there are two types of choku zuki; tsuki with shime and tsuki hanashi.  They are used in different situations and for different purposes. On the surface, there seems to be no better or worse between these two methods. Because of the popularity of tournament kumite and also lack of makiwara training these days, tsuki hanashi, the long distance punching technique is trained by most of the practitioners these days. Consequently, few instructors would teach or train tsuki with shime, the close distance punching technique.

OK so a sports karate practitioner may ask, “I am only interested in tournament kumite. If the long distance (extended) punch is a better fit for a tournament kumite, then why do I have to care about the other punching method?” If you are not having a problem with your elbow (commonly called tennis elbow) then you may not care about the other punching method. The extended punching method with the elbow pointing outward and thrusting your forearm without any brake can possibly result in the tennis elbow syndrome for some practitioners. If you are an instructor, wouldn’t you like to find out how to avoid or avert this problem for your students, even if it is not for yourself? I strongly recommend that you will read Part 2 of this article.

I am very pleased to announce that I am co-authoring this article with a medical expert, Dr. Ashraf Ragab, Faculty of Pharmacy Cairo University Egypt. Dr. Ragab is an expert in this subject and will share the details of the “tennis elbow” problem andRagab portrait will explain how a karate practitioner can develop this problem. In addition, he will share his recommendation on how to prevent such an injury. Dr Ragab is not only an expert in bio mechanics and sports science but also a long time karate practitioner who started his karate training in 1969. He notably trained under Sensei Hide Okamoto between 1973 and 1982. He is now a Karate Examiner of Egyptian Karate Federation and his karate rank is 6th dan. Now, hopefully, you are convinced that it is worth your time to read the Part 2 of this article which will be posted in a few days.

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