Monday, October 8, 2012

Blocking Techniques

What is a blocking technique? The Overlook Martial Arts Dictionary defines blocking techniques as 'any technique that hinders, checks, neutralises or nullifies an opponent's attack, using any part of the body'

That definition, it has to be said, is a very broad and vague definition of blocking techniques. It is broad and vague by necessity given certain ambiguity surrounding blocking techniques. An ambiguity that only comes to light when the various conceptualisations of blocking techniques that are espoused by different martial arts are studied.

Moclair, in Jujutsu: A Comprehensive Guide, defines blocking techniques in terms of the use of an arm or arms to stop an attacker from striking a person with a blow from their hands, fists, knees or other parts of their body. Moclair’s definition explicitly, and with clarity, refers to the common and traditional conception of blocking techniques as being techniques that are used to stop an attacker from hitting or kicking a person.

In The Textbook of Modern Karate, Okazaki and Stricevic provide the following definition of blocking techniques: 'A block is a karate technique directed at a certain target – the opponent's hand, foot, leg or arm – for the purpose of arresting or deflecting his attack.' Okazaki and Stricevic’s definition informs us that blocking techniques are directed at the opponent's body part that is attempting to hit or kick the blocker. It also provides a description of how blocking techniques stop the opponent from hitting or kicking the blocker: by arresting or deflecting the attacking body part.

It should be noted that some martial arts or martial artists distinguish between blocking techniques and deflection or parrying. In this case, blocking techniques are isolated to those techniques that arrest an attack to avoid being hit or kicked. Deflection or parrying serve the same purpose but by a different means.

Blocking and Evasion

In Mastering Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie and Danaher distinguish between evasion and blocking to avoid being hit or kicked. Evasion does not involve contact with the opponent's attacking body part. Evasion can be basically subdivided into two types: those that involve moving the feet and those that involve moving just the upper body or head. Japanese martial arts refer to the former as taisabaki (body movement). Boxing teaches both methods with the former referred to as footwork and the latter bobbing and weaving.

If a body movement of any description is used in conjunction with a blocking (or deflection) technique, there are two questions that should always be asked. Firstly, was the body movement not sufficient to qualify as an evasion. Secondly, if the answer to the first question is affirmative, what was the purpose of the blocking technique. After all, the evasion took care of the problem of getting hit or kicked.

Blocking Possibilities

Nakayama, in the karate classic Dynamic Karate, suggests that, while blocking, you must attempt to seize the initiate and turn the opponent's attack to your advantage. He provides six methods that he suggests illustrates the various possibilities in blocking:

1. Block the opponent's arm or leg with sufficient force to discourage further attack. In a sense, this kind of block can be called an attack.

Nakayama does not define block. If we assume it involves a technique that is designed to avoid being hit or kicked, then this type of block serves two purposes. Firstly, to avoid being hit or kicked, and secondly, to apply sufficient force to cause pain and/or injury. If the block is used in conjunction with an evasive movement then it only serves the latter purpose. This is a possible answer to the question posed above.

2. Block the opponent's attack with only enough force to parry or deflect it. This
would be termed a light block in #1.

A deflection or parry changes the direction of the attack. If an evasive movement is used to avoid being hit or kicked there is no need to change the direction of the attack. If the attack is deflected in these circumstances, the question has to be asked and answered, why?

A 'brushing block' refers to a technique where the attack is brushed past the defender with no change in direction of the attack. This implies an evasive movement was used to avoid being hit or kicked. The question has to be asked as to the purpose of the brushing block.

3. Block and attack. Block the opponent's attack and immediately counter-attack. It is also possible to block and counterattack at the same instant.

Nakayama's solitary example of blocking and counterattacking at the same instant is unconvincing. The pencak silat I studied contained wonderful examples of the use of this strategy. However, it also contained wonderful examples of the use of brushing blocks in conjunction with evasive movements. Each brushing block now bears investigation as to purpose.

4. Unbalance the opponent with your block.

Jan de Jong jujutsu makes extensive use of taisabaki to avoid being hit or kicked, as well as to reposition to attack. It also makes use of blocking techniques which is explained by their use to unbalance the opponent.

The unbalancing is physical and 'mental.' The physical unbalancing involves applying forces to cause the opponent's centre of gravity to be located outside of their base of support. The 'mental unbalancing' involves applying forces that do not physically unbalance an opponent but stuns, causes sudden loss of motion, or pain. In this way, they are similar to Nakayama's blocking possibility #1.

5. Block the opponent's attack as it is about to begin. To do this you must anticipate his attack.

6. Block and then retreat to a safe position until a chance to counter presents itself.

Blocking possibility #5 is the very definition of seizing the initiative, whereas blocking possibility #6 is not so much.

Direct and Indirect Blocks

In two books dedicated to the mechanics of martial arts, Starr distinguishes between direct and indirect blocks. Direct blocks are described as being applied directly against the force of the opponent's attack. Starr suggests that this form of blocking often requires the blocker to be physically stronger than the opponent, and the risk of injury to the blocking body part is high if the opponent's attack is very powerful. Indirect blocks are described as being sometimes referred to as deflections. Starr suggests that because indirect blocks do not directly oppose the opponent’s attacking force, they require very little strength to apply and the risk of injury is minimised. Starr is correct, in so far as it goes.

Starr's examples of indirect blocks includes the standard karate, high, middle and low blocks. These blocks do not involve applying force directly against the force of the opponent's attack. They do not involve applying force in the opposite direction to the force of the opponent's attack. You will find that the vast majority of karate's blocking techniques are designed to apply force to the opponent's attacking limb at an angle to the force of the opponent's attack. They apply a force to an attacking body part at an angle which results in a deflection rather than the attack being arrested.

This is a common misconception, that and traditional blocks are designed to oppose force directly, espoused by many who attempt to extol the virtues of their soft blocking methods over hard blocking methods.

Given that deflections generally require less force than techniques designed to arrest an attack, why then do karate practice applying a great deal of force in their blocking methods. The answer's may lay in Nakayama's blocking possibilities #1 and #4.

Absorption Blocks

Gracie and Danaher refer to blocks absorbing the forces of the attacker's attacking body part. This is typical boxing style blocks, and can be seen in shin blocks etc. In this case, the blocking techniques are not so much designed to avoid getting hit or kicked as they are to manage what body parts are hit or kicked.

Karate style blocking techniques do not tend to absorb the force of the attacker's attacking body part as they are designed to apply forces to an opponent's attacking body part.


Forces cause all bodies and objects to change direction or shape. Forces applied in different ways result in different outcomes. Even when the points of contact between two bodies (defender and attacker) are similar, the direction and magnitude of the force can produce a different outcome. It is important for the martial artists to understand specifically what they are trying to achieve, and why they are trying to achieve that, in order to better understand how the forces are to be applied to achieve that outcome.


PS: Dear Reader

Okazaki and Stricevic make the following statement when discussing the forces involved in blocking techniques: 'The amount of force necessary to deflect an object is generally less than the force needed to initiate its motion.'

I am having some difficulty in supporting or correcting that statement in mechanical/physics terms. If any reader has mechanical or physics background and can help out in this regard, I'd be very grateful.

Thank you.


  1. This is a great overview of Blocking, Mr. Coles. However you overlook the most important part of 'blocking', that being that the Japanese term for the technique that we call a block is Uke, which has a meaning closer to 'reception' rather than 'arresting'. As such uke-waza should be more broadly interpreted as how you receive an attack rather than how you stop it. The english term 'block' immediately brings to mind an obstacle to a target, whereas the best techniques of 'uke' control the attacking weapon (fist, foot, knife), and prevent a second attack.

  2. Thank you Kamil for your comment and your addition to the blocking technique discussion. I agree that the Japanese martial arts refer to uke waza in reference to blocking techniques, and that the term denotes reception rather than arresting. However, I would suggest that philisophical conseptualisation tends to be operationalised more in aikido than karate. This is supported by the explanation of blocking techniques/uke waza in the karate classics, Dynamic Karate and The Textbook of Modern Karate. But it is another, different conceptualisation of blocking techniques that further expands the concept.

  3. Hi John, great article. It's interesting that the concept of 'blocking' can be interpreted in so many ways. I agree with Kamil that, in karate, the idea of 'blocking' is to 'receive' the attack and seize control of the opponent - by whatever means appropriate to the type of attack - unbalancing, striking, restraining, taking down etc. One can receive the attack by any of the means you mention - deflection, evasion, 'block and counter' etc. I think it is a very useful concept to think of receiving an attack rather than 'blocking' it. This is why in karate the person receiving the attack is called 'ukete' and the attacker is called semete.

    1. Thanks Sue. Your and KD's conseptualisation of uke waza/blocking technique is yet another conseptualisation. It adds to the many different conseputalisations. Upon reflection, the idea of 'control' of the attacking weapon reflects a philisophical rather than a practical view point. Deflection blocks do not physically control the opponent in any way, other than philisophically. The purpose of my work is to move beyond, but to understand, philisophical conceptualisation of tactics and techniques. Blocking techniques/uke waza includes controlling and non-controlling methods, and in karate. Nobody could ever refute the authority of Nakayama as being a source of karate theory. His is the authority that I rely upon when including karate concepts. However, I also acknowledge that karate is a generic term and some will differ, although whether they understand that karate is a generic term is another matter.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.