Gyaku zuki and the heel of the rear foot 逆突きと後ろ足の踵の関係
I am sure you agree that gyaku zuki is one of the most popular punching techniques in karate and I do not need to explain how it is done. This technique is also the most effective one to get a waza ari in a kumite tournament.
Whether this technique is indeed an effective technique from a bujutsu perspective is another story but we are not focusing on this point in this article. The subject or the key point I want to bring to your attention is the heel of the rear foot. Look at the photo on the right. It shows a practitioner (left) giving a gyaku zuki counter simultaneously blocking a mawashi geri. It is a nicely taken photo but you also noticed that that person’s rear heel (right foot) is off the floor. In fact, his total right foot is off the floor. So the question is “Is this a good gyaku zuki?” or “Is it an imperfect gyaku zuki?” Honestly, I have received this same question from many practitioners (including some senior ones) in the past, “Should the heel be on the ground while we do gyaku zuki?” Why do they ask this question? It is because in some cases it is almost impossible to keep the heel down but we were consistently taught to keep the heel down while doing gyaku zuki. We have never given an explanation that it is ok (or better) to lift the rear heel up in some cases. This subject is not a very difficult one if you understand the kinesiology behind the technique. Unfortunately, many instructors are unable to do so because they did not learn it from their senseis and most of them have not questioned about this. I will present the explanation so that this subject will be no longer a mystery.
A disparity starts from the textbooks. One example, Nakayama’s Dynamic Karate shows a photo of Nakayama himself doing gyaku zuki in zenkutsu position. This photo (left) is an excellent one as it shows 4 clips merged together to illustrate how it should be done from the yoi (ready) position to the final execution of gyaku zuki. As you can see the heel of the rear foot (right leg) is firmly on the floor. The other instructional photos such as the one one the right, world famous Kanazawa Senior shows the same. In other words, the heel of the rear foot is solidly planted on the ground. Interestingly, the textbook of Mas Oyama’s style kyokushinkai, full contact karate shows the same posture for gyaku zuki (below). I practiced kyokushin for a year and watched many of their tournaments but interestingly I have never seen any knock down from receiving a gyaku zuki especially with a form shown by Mas Oyama demonstrated below. OK so it is commonly agreed that both of our feet must be solidly on the ground when a gyaku zuki is executed from a stationary stance.
When we went through kihon doing gyaku zuki, did your sensei tell you to keep the heel down? I suspect if your heel was up your sensei might have come behind you and tapped the heel with his shinai (banboo sword) or stepped on your ankle to force it down. If this is the case, we have been ingrained to the notion through the repeated kihon exercises that the correct gyaku zuki must have the rear foot flat on the floor. By the way, I am not disputing this point. I fully agree that the correct gyaku zuki in a stance where the body weight is equally or more than 50% distributed to the rear leg must be done this way. However, the proper explanation about this has not been provided to many practitioners. Anyway, let me continue with the discussion. The frustration begins as soon as you practice gyaku zuki kihon as you step forward. You do not encounter this problem when you do this punch in a stable zenkutsu. However, I suspect that you have experienced a problem when you did it in a quick step forward combination. Your heel “had” to come up. You probably said to yourself, “Hey my ankle is not flexible like Kanazawa so I cannot help it.” or just gave up. You do not need to blame your flexibility (or lack of it) or give up. You will see why as I will explain this further.
After kihon you normally practice kumite. When you are a beginner student you start from either gohon or sanbon kumite. The defender will step back 3 or 5 times in those yakusoku kumite (pre-arranged or agreed sparring) and he does age uke then use gyaku zuki as a counter (photo right). Most of the time you do well with this uke and gyaku zuki combination as long as you do not lean forward to punch. If your distance is correct you can do a good gyaku zuki counter with your heel firmly planted on the floor. If it happens to be up, your sensei will come again and tap your heel or press it down with his foot. Sensei will explain to you that a big and strong hip rotation is important to generate the power. In order to do this the rear foot must be flat on the floor to give a strong support to the jiku ashi (supporting leg). You have no issue with this and you practice this way for hundreds of times. It works in ippon kumite and most of the time in jiyu ippon kumite (semi free sparring) if the exercise is a basic jiyu ippon and not a complex one like nihon gaeshi (the attacker counters the defender’s counter attack).
Then you will come to a total frustration when you get involved in jiyu kumite (free sparring) and kumite shiai. Two photos below show the typical technique to get a point. It is estimated more than 60% of the kumite scores are won by gyaku zuki technique. So what is the problem here?
In jiyu kumite and shiai kumite you find that it is almost impossible to keep the rear heel down. Why? It is because you are most likely moving forward as you execute this technique. This means your front leg becomes the jiku ashi (supporting leg) and less weight is distributed to the rear leg. If fact, you will be punching mostly on one leg (supporting one).
In the 60s and 70’s your gyaku zuki would not receive a waza ari if your heel was up. That would be considered as a poor technique. That also happened in the US in the early days. Sensei Johnson of Sierra Shotokan Dojo shared his experience. Here is his recollection; “Nishiyama would continually state the power came from the heel as it met the floor. Even in advanced training he would stress the point that one could not score without the foot firmly planted. He would state that the technique was not deserving of a point unless grounded.”
The above photo (left) is Ochi on the right giving gyaku zuki to Obata with Nakayama performing as chief judge at 1967 All Japan Championship. I wonder if Nakayama gave him a waza ari to Ochi here. It would be interesting if any of the German readers would bother to ask if Ochi sensei remembers about this.
The rules changed since JKA joined WUKO in 1981 and a quick reverse punch can earn a score (waza ari) nowadays even if your rear heel is off the floor. If the timing is perfect then you may even get an ippon. Whether the heel is on the ground or not has become a non-issue in a tournament. I agree that it is not a mistake or an error if your rear heel gets off the floor in a particular situation which I explain later. I am aware that many practitioners and the senseis would still consider this a flaw, however. You may ask if this (delivering from one leg supported stance) would reduce the power as it is not leveraging from the solid stance based on both feet. Surprisingly it would not, if your body is moving forward. The lost power from not having a stable stance is more than compensated by the energy of the body moving forward. In addition your stance gets longer than a standard zenkutsu as you can see the above photos and this makes it more natural to support the rear leg by the ball of the foot rather than trying to keep the entire foot on the floor. So in a quick action especially when you are shifting forward it is ok and better to shift your weight to your frotn leg and deliver the gyaku zuki with your forward moving momentum. At that time, your back heel will not be on the floor and that is not a problem.
Then is it wrong if your rear foot is firmly grounded on the floor in kumite? No, that is the way it should be when you are stepping back. When you step back, naturally the body weight is going back and more weight is distributed to the rear leg so it is much easier to keep the rear foot down and deliver the power from the rear leg which happens to be the jiku ashi. The same mechanism can be experienced when you do a mae ashi mae geri and use it as a counter. It can be a very powerful kick though you may be stepping back.
For a sen no sen application, your gravity will be moving forward and most of the body weight will be shifted to your front leg. In this case, your rear foot will be lifted as you execute a gyaku zuki. This is a very natural thing and it is not a problem.
On the other hand, in a go-no-sen situation you will most likely use the rear leg as the supporting leg thus it is better to have the entire foot firmly placed on the floor. This application, from a mechanical perspective, will take more time to deliver a gyaku zuki thus it will require a lot of timing practice to overcome this “slowness”. Also one must learn how to capture the moment in order to reverse the mechanical disadvantage of go no sen.
The conclusion is that both delivery methods are correct. Hopefully this article can put your mind at ease and you will not longer worry much about your rear heel while practcing gyaku zuki.